Monday, December 26, 2011

Vignettes of North Korea

by Richard Crews
If you live in North Korea, the chances are you are either in the military (42% of the population is active duty, paramilitary, or reserves), or hungry (callory intake average is less than half that in the "West"; 45% of the children are stunted by malnutrition).

If you are lucky enough to live in some sort of a house, there is no TV or Internet, but there is a radio speaker on the wall (that cannot legally be turned off) that wakes you up in the morning with political propaganda, and continues until your required bedtime at night.

You probably work in industry or agriculture--those are the two economic sectors that are created, run, and subsidized by the government. You probably also take part in the rich underground network of black market activities; otherwise you and your family could not survive.

You know that Kim Jong-il, officially called the "Great Leader," died December 17 and was succeeded by his 20-something-year-old son, Kim Jong-un, officially called the "Great Successor" or "Wise Leader."

You probably don't know that Kim Jong-il passed over his two other sons, Kim Jong-un's two older brothers, because they were simply too irresponsible to run the country. Or that their uncle, Jang Song-thaek, pretty much runs the country and probably assassinated Kim Jong-il (according to South Korean intelligence sources).

Two items of good news in this bleak landscape: One is that the southern half of the Korean peninsula, South Korea, is doing well economically and socially, and is ready and willing--at the drop of a coup d'├ętat--to run massive military forces north, with food supplies, etc. The other is that there is a Demilitarized Zone between the North and South, a corridor 2 1/2 miles wide and 160 miles long, that has been forbidden to human passage for several decades, and therefore has come to represent one of the most pristine and precious natural habitats on the planet.

Signing Statements

by Richard Crews
Isn't it wonderful the way Presidential Signing Statements--largely invented by Ronald Reagan but raised to an art form by G.W. Bush--have come back, in Obama's hands, to bite the Republicans in the ass?

Signing statements, written when a president signs a bill, indicate the president's objections--constitutional, political, or just rhetorical--to sections of the bill. It means that the Executive branch of the government--the only branch with any significant "just do it" ability--is not going to "do" much of anything about that particular wrinkle of the legislation.

As the New York Times said in March, 2009, "Mr. Bush ... broke all records, using signing statements to challenge about 1,200 sections of bills over his eight years in office, about twice the number challenged by all previous presidents combined...."

But Obama definitely got the message. He's issued quite a few signing statements: "Well now, let's see...I think that provision...and that provision...and that provision in this bill are unconstitutional, so I'll tell the Executive Branch to hold off on implementing them. Of course, if the Supreme Court decides (over the next several years) that any of those provisions ARE constitutional, I'll reconsider."

This is just another example of why we need a serious revamp of the federal government. For example, we should get rid of--
(1) lobby-driven legislation,
(2) the filibuster,
(3) the electoral college,
(4) campaign finance by corporations and the richest 1%,
(5) congressional graft (pork, insider trading, lobbying "retirement," etc.),
(6) convoluted revenue stream (the Income Tax Code represents "institutionalized corruption"),
(7) ad hoc accounting (for, example, during the G.W. Bush administration over a trillion dollars of spending--like two expensive wars--didn't make it onto the government's books)
(8) excessive government secrecy ("sunshine is the best disinfectant")
(9) legislated morality (including a "war" on drugs and mandatory minimum sentences--the U.S. locks up a higher percentage of its citizens than ANY OTHER COUNTRY IN THE WORLD, including Russia, China, and Iran)
(10) and--last, but not least--signing statements.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Obvious Solutions

by Richard Crews
Many of the problems vexing the U.S. and the world have obvious solutions, solutions that are not politically easy, but are clear and simple.

The graying of the population and the consequent disastrous rises in the costs of Medicare and Social Security (and of corresponding programs in other countries) present one such series of problems.

For Social Security, the retirement age should be raised. When the current age limits were set, the life expectancy of U.S. citizens was 20 years younger than it is today. The allowable retirement age should be raised by one year every three years for the next several decades. In addition, Social Security should not be paid to people who don't need it; no one with an income over $100,000 a year or a net worth over a million dollars should be eligible to receive Social Security. These two steps would render Social Security solvent indefinitely.

Similarly, disallowing the wealthy who can afford to pay their own medical expenses from eligibility for Medicare would save the U.S. government tens of billions of dollars a year. But a more important factor that would reduce Medicare costs is eliminating fraud and abuse which currently account for over 10% of Medicare expenses. This could be accomplished cheaply and simply by contracting with American Express, VISA, or MasterCard to police the Medicare program. These private organizations have fraud and abuse threats similar to those of Medicare, but have losses due to these factors of about 0.1 %.

Greed and payment bonanzas in the financial industry could be curtailed by beefing up and enforcing reasonable regulations. This approach plus raising taxes on the wealthy could also solve the wealth and income inequity problems in the U.S., and the consequent advance of poverty and stagnation of the middle class.

Looking beyond finances, the energy dilemma--in simplest terms, pollution versus industrial stagnation--could be solved by worldwide development of Thorium-molten-salt nuclear reactors. This is a safe, clean, sustainable, proven technology whose main limitation is the popular prejudice against anything called "nuclear power" because of Uranium fission disasters like Chernoble and Fukushima.

And with cheap, abundant power, the world's water shortages become solvable through desalination--removing the salt from ocean water. Then with modern agricultural technology and frugal, fair distribution, the world's food crisis would be manageable as well.

The solutions to these--and certain other--U.S. and world problems are clear and simple. Their implementation is only impeded by short-sighted politics.

But there is one series of problems for which there is no evident solution: the problems raised by the dramatic advances in technology. These are not just the plague-prone globalized community (plague-prone because new, deadly viruses and bacteria can be transported around the world in a few hours--far out-pacing medical constraints) and the hyperinflation of tech-driven healthcare costs. More significantly, there is a technological "singularity" only a few years in the future; there is a mist into which no prognosticators car peer. New technologies proliferate and spread so rapidly and cause such dramatic changes in our activities, lifestyles, and environments, that it is impossible to know what disasters (as well as delights) lie just ahead.

And you can't solve problems you can't see coming--especially when they are coming at a million miles an hour.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Entrepreneurial Versus State-Run Capitalism

by Richard Crews
There is a great social experiment afoot in the world today. On the one hand, entrepreneurial capitalism--throwing the bait in the middle of the pool, and letting the sharks fight for it--appears, by clear historical evidence, to be the greatest societal wealth-generation system the world has ever known. It clearly beats out, on the one hand, both feudalism and its various derivatives and, on the other hand, centralized, politically manipulated government control of industrial-age wealth generation (the fall of the U.S.S.R. punctuated the end of that sentence).

But entrepreneurial capitalism cannot function unfettered: adult supervision appears to be essential. From Teddy Roosevelt's anti-monopoly oversight of the Robber Barons (in the first decade of the 20th century), through the excessive exuberance over public ownership that led to the Great Depression (in the 1930s), to the secretive and inventive greed of financial institutions leading up to the Great Recession (in the first decade of the 21st century), it seems clear that a strictly "boys will be boys" approach to swimming in shark-infested financial waters leads to severe distortions and disruptions of the engines of societal wealth generation.

But a different experiment is now afoot, one that is based on the question, if entrepreneurs and boards of directors (with some adult, government supervision to assure equitable, social-democratic wealth distribution) is so good at generating post-industrial wealth--particularly as the corporate units get bigger and bigger--why not have one vast state-run "corporation"? This seems reasonable. And China is trying this out. Business strategies in China--from price gouging to various methods of undercutting competitors--are evaluated and implemented on a national level. For example, the Chinese government, through the use of hundreds of billions of dollars of government subsidies, successfully cornered the world mining and production of rare-earth minerals; China simply put the rest of the world out of business by undercutting prices. For another example, displacing 1.3 million people and destroying irreplaceable ecological and archaeological treasures to build the Three Gorges Dam required only board-room type decisions; it did not require dealing with legally and politically sensitive eminent-domain issues or with complex regulatory and licensure constraints. For a third example, development of safe, efficient, Thorium-molten-salt nuclear power reactors is proceeding apace in China (and in Russia and India) but not in the U.S. or in any Western country because of political pandering to irrational public worries in the West.

So far the Chinese experiment seems to be going well. For example, government intervention to protect the Chinese economy from the burst of the worldwide housing and credit bubble in 2008 was quick and massive--and, unlike in the U.S. and Europe, effective. For another example, China has enormously expanded a consumerism-dedicated middle class. Thirdly, last year China passed Japan to become the second largest national economy in the world--behind only the U.S. And many economists and political savants predict that within the next couple of decades China will pass the U.S. to become the largest national economy in the world. Meanwhile, China has amassed trillions of dollars in board-room war-chest funds. (It could bail out the Euro-zone sovereign debt crisis if it chose, but the international political implications are horrendous.)

What seems to attract little comment is one profound historical observation: boards of directors make mistakes. The Chinese model has inadequate internal (or external) correctives. Sooner or later the "board of directors" that is China's centralized political governing authority will make a colossal boo-boo--they will produce an Edsel, introduce alcohol prohibition , bankrupt Lehman Brothers, or otherwise have a Alan-Greenspan moment on an unimaginably vast scale. (Perhaps they already have--there may already be such a boo-boo percolating up through the system.) And the world will go back to muddling along as best it can with the evolving fits and starts--the successes-failures-corrections process--of Western, social-democratic-regulated entrepreneurial capitalism.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Education Reform

by Richard Crews
In an Op Ed in the N.Y. Times today (Dec. 6, 2011), the authors (Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford) write that there are four--and only four--areas of education in which the federal government can usefully intervene.

"First is encouraging transparency for school performance and spending.... States should be required to report school- and district-level spending; the resources students receive should be disclosed, not only their achievement."

"Second is ensuring that basic constitutional protections are illuminate how disadvantaged or vulnerable populations--like black and Hispanic students and children from poor families--are doing."

"Third is supporting basic research...[for example:] brain science, language acquisition, or the impact of computer-assisted tutoring."

"Finally [is providing] voluntary, competitive federal grants that support innovation while providing political cover for school boards, union leaders, and others to throw off anachronistic routines."

All else, Hess and Darling-Hammond claim, deteriorates to confusing, counter-productive micromanagement.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Higher Dimensions and Multiple Universes

by Richard Crews
Theoretical physics used to talk about sensible things like billiard balls knocking each other around on a billiards table and baseballs arcing through the air. Then along came the 20th century with Relativity for very big stuff and Quantum Physics for very small stuff. Things didn't seem quite so reasonable: time slowed or sped up depending on gravity, nothing could travel faster than the speed of light, infinitesimal particles harbored whopping big amounts of energy, something could be in two different places at the same time, and more.

We couldn't really imagine such things. Our brains, after all, grew up dealing with wolves and trees and edible berries, all of which live in the "sensible" middle world (the "reasonable" world of Goldilocks--neither too hot nor too cold, too big nor too small). But we came to accept them--unimaginable as they were--because of two things: for one thing, smart people talked about them all the time as if they were so, and for another, we could see their results from atom bombs to computers, from worldwide air travel to watches that were accurate to a few seconds a year and ran forever on light or invisibly tiny batteries.

Yes, the 20th century presented some severe challenges to straight, reasonable thinking. But hold on, here comes the 21st century and theoretical physics is making things even stranger. It seems that quarks (that make up neutrons and protons, which make up atoms and molecules, which make up all the things we see and touch in the world around us) are not the ultimate building blocks--they are composed of even smaller entities, vibrating strings. And--hold on even harder--these tiny strings vibrate not just in the four dimensions we know and love, but in eleven dimensions.

How on earth can there be eleven dimensions around us? How come we don't see and feel them? Here's an analogy: You are sitting in a movie theater watching a film of a car racing down a highway. Three dimensions (plus time), right? Nope, just two (plus time)--it's all on the two-dimensional surface of the movie screen. The third spatial dimension is an optical illusion.

Then the car crashes into another car, and thanks to slow motion the action seems to slow down. The parts of the two cars sail slowly and gracefully away through the air. There's a distortion of the orderly tick-tock progression of time. Although you are still watching this in "real time," the time dimension on the screen has slowed considerably. It could even stop--or reverse. Yes, distortions in space and time dimensions can be quite taken for granted.

A universe of eleven dimensions with seven of them hidden from view is hard to imagine--well, OK, impossible to imagine. But if you want to live in the 21st century, you have to learn to smile and nod wisely when people talk about them.

But that's not all--try to imagine this: huge, high-dimensional structures (called membranes or "branes") having, say, six or eight dimensions and drifting around in still higher dimensional space (with, say, eight or ten dimensions). Two of them bump into one another releasing a tremendous amount of energy in three or four of their mutual dimensions. There's a big bang--in fact, a "Big Bang"--a universe is born. And, with another collision, another universe is born--and another, and another.

As theoretical physicists have untangled the mathematical implications of string theory, they have been forced to admit that there may be many, many universes--perhaps, the mathematics says, ten-to-the-five-hundredth (that's a ten followed by 500 zeroes)--perhaps more--perhaps an infinite number. Most of them are quite different from our universe--they have different physical constants, different properties; many cannot form any atoms, any matter, any life. But some (well, perhaps many--perhaps even an infinite number) are very much like our universe.

Could there be intelligent creatures living in parallel universes a fraction of an inch away from us? Yup. Could we communicate with them? Probably not; nothing gets across. Well, maybe gravity waves do. But that's 22nd century stuff. I'll leave that for another essay a hundred years or so from now.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Breakup of the Eurozone

by Richard Crews
Twelve years ago 17 countries on the European continent embarked on a bold experiment. They agreed that, despite having different languages and cultures, despite having a history of centuries of wars among themselves, despite having emerged only a half-century earlier from World War II--the most devastating conflagration the world had ever known--despite all these things, they would abandon their separate rights to establish individual monetary systems and join together in a single currency, the Euro. The developing global marketplace seemed so vast and powerful that they thought it could heal their cultural rifts forever.

Since then they have discovered that their styles of governance and fiscal management differ significantly. Some (like Germany) have grown strong industrial and marketing economies and well adapted taxation and other government fiscal policies. On the other hand, some (like Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain) have continued to provide government services (from salaries and pensions to education, health, and safety measures) that they could not afford--they have maintained archaic and inadequate tax structures; and they have borrowed on international bond markets to make up the differences.

Over the past few years it has become clear that these disparities cannot persist--that the economically weaker countries can undermine the Eurozone enterprise as a whole. Specifically, if any of the weaker countries cannot pay back the money they have borrowed, the countries and the European banks that have lent them this money will be in trouble--they, in turn, may not be able to pay their obligations to their creditors, depositors, and other investors.

The first threatened default--Ireland--was handled successfully. The other Eurozone countries guaranteed the debt and Ireland tightened it fiscal belt.

But the next--Greece--was bigger and more complicated. A series of measures seem to be too little and too late.

Now Spain and Portugal seem in jeopardy. Even the huge economy of Italy--definitely too big to fail--seems threatened.

The entire Eurozone financial structure now seems on the brink of cascading into collapse.

What does this mean in terms of the European and world economies? Suppose the Euro is no longer issued or guaranteed by a consortium of countries? In that case each country on the European continent would revert to issuing its own currency--the Dutch guilder, the French franc, the German mark etc. And these currencies would, once again, trade against one another--the stronger ones would be preferred in contracts, business transactions, banking, etc. The weaker would sink in value--they would buy less in the market place. Both of these factors--both the fluctuations and the relative strengths (or weaknesses)--would be problems.

Suppose, for comparison, the U.S. government ceased to issue and guarantee dollars. Suppose your salary or pension began to be paid--if it was still paid at all--in California or New York "dollars" which fluctuated in value on a weekly or even daily basis--one day a head of lettuce cost a dollar and a week later it cost fifty cents or two dollars. Contracts (to roof your house or to buy a car) had to be carefully written to protect both parties--so carefully that they became impractical--in fact, impossible.

Even though this worst-case scenario is very unlikely, businesses, banks, and governments around the world have already begun to hedge against losses that would be incurred in any fiscally volatile times. They have begun to hold larger cash reserves (in stronger currencies such as U.S. bonds and precious metals), to lend more cautiously, and to favor short-term over long-term commitments.

The contraction of business and other fiscal activity around the world has already begun. We stand, with the Eurozone's economic fragility, on the brink of a severe worldwide depression.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Washington Gridlock--Lest We Forget

by Richard Crews
I was surprised when I looked in on the talking heads on TV this Sunday morning to hear Washington gridlock discussed as if the causes were complex or obscure.

That is ridiculous.

Washington gridlock, the refusal of Congress to do anything, is a calculated strategy of the Republican Party to regain political power.

In 2009 Obama inherited from the Bush administration (1) the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression; (2) two unwinable wars and a worldwide image of high-handed, U.S. Cowboy diplomacy; and (3) an evolving ecological disaster of epic proportions. Although the roots of these go back many years to the deregulation and anti-scientism of Ronald Reagan, they had degenerated to explosive levels under Bush's eight years of incompetence.

In 2009 Obama put a lot of his political weight behind developing some sort of universal health care for the U.S. (The U.S. is the only advanced nation in the world that does not provide its citizens with guaranteed, affordable health care.) In the summer of 2009 the members of Congress headed out to their constituencies to hold town meetings to discuss health-care proposals. The Republicans sent outside agitators to disrupt these meetings and shout down any reasonable discussions. The media delighted in the headlines about raucous town meetings all over the country.

One of the axioms of propaganda is that if you say something often enough and loud enough, it develops an aura of believability no matter how absurd it is.

Flushed with this success, the Republican Party developed a political strategy to regain power. They realized that by obstructing any legislation that might potentially ease the difficulties the nation faced, they could saddle Obama with being seen as a failure.

Let us not forget: The causes of the legislative gridlock we see in Washington are not complex or obscure.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Restoring the American Dream

by Richard Crews
The last three decades of the 19th century was our so-called "Gilded Age." U.S. prosperity blossomed. This period brought us not just the rise of the Robber Barons--the super-wealthy titans of finance and industry like Astor, Carnegie, Gould, Harriman, Hopkins, Mellon, Morgan, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt and their invention of multi-million dollar philanthropy--but the advancement in education, income, and social mobility of tens of millions of "ordinary" Americans: the rise and empowerment of the American Middle Class. As Horatio Alger represented in his many rags-to-riches novels, a kid from a poor family could rise through determination, hard work, courage, and honesty to a life of middle-class security and comfort.

The evolution of this dream continued in the 20th century, although it suffered some severe setbacks--the financial crash of 1897, the Great Depression of the 1930s, etc. But during the third quarter of the 20th century--thanks to FDR's New Deal of the late 1930s, the industrial boom of the Second World War, and a long arc of social legislation and progress--the American Dream came to be firmly embedded in the American psyche and way of life and, in fact, in the image of the U.S. throughout the world.

However, over the past 25 years the American Dream has faded. Wealth has become concentrated in an upper class, governmental power has been usurped by wealthy individuals and huge corporations, and lower- and middle-class upward mobility has been stifled.

This paper presents a set of concepts and programs designed to restore the American Dream. It addresses such problems as--
resolving the wealth disparity,
meeting employment and education needs,
reducing the undo influence of money and corporate power,
handling immigration, and
restoring civil liberties.

Resolving the wealth disparity--Over the past 25 years, a massive distortion of wealth and income has developed in the U.S. The richest few percent now own most of the privately held assets including stocks and bonds, and real estate. Moreover, their income during this period has soared while that of the middle and lower classes has stagnated. This has led to the development of a rich and powerful oligarchy; this represents a serious threat to our democracy and to the future of our country.

Therefore: The income tax code should be cleaned up and simplified; this should include eliminating a multiplicity of exemptions, loopholes, deductions, and subsidies (a system which has been called "institutionalized corruption"); and it should include incorporating a graduated scale from zero percent for those earning under $50,000 a year up to 40% for those earning over one million dollars a year. In addition, the maximum wage for requiring FICA contributions should be raised from the current $109K to at least $200K--in other words, high-income individuals should pay more toward medicare and social security, not less. And because an income tax is intrinsically cumbersome and expensive to administer, the government should add, for much of its income, a value-added tax (VAT), a tax levied at each stage of an industrial production and distribution chain. This is much fairer, easier, and cheaper federal revenue stream to administer than an income tax. The U.S. is the only advanced country in the world that does not have some form of VAT.

There should also be statutory limitations on compensation of corporate and financial executives, some of whom currently "earn" tens of millions of dollars a year in addition to having retirement contracts ("golden parachutes") that pay them additional tens of millions of dollars when they leave a job. Ultra-high income levels also extend to other fields such as sports and media celebrities who also "earn" millions or tens-of-millions of dollars a year. Such absurd incomes should be effectively capped or heavily taxed. Their existence without heartily contributing to the federal coffers is antithetical to the American Dream.

Meeting employment and education needs--For decades institutions of higher education in the U.S. were the envy of the world. All over the world political and business leaders got their educations at U.S. colleges and universities. For one example, in Greece in late 2011, both leaders of the two major, competing political parties had American educations, in fact, they were once roommates at Amherst College in Massachusetts. For another example, when technocrats were selected, in November, 2011 to rescue the foundering Greek and Italian economies, both had graduate degrees in economics they had earned at American institutions.

But this vaunted excellence of American education is no longer true--at least, much less so. Over the past few decades American education, from bottom to top, has declined. U.S. elementary and high school students do not measure up, academically, to their age peers in Japan and many other Asian and European countries. In kindergarten through high-school, teachers are often not trained, supervised, or paid adequately and the facilities in which they work are crowded and in poor repair. Moreover, in college and graduate schools many students drop out because of economic pressures. A student who stays in school typically has incurred tens of thousands of dollars in student loans before graduating into the workforce, and consequently spends years or decades in debt--with lifestyle choices and mobility curtailed--paying these loans off.

In addition much education is not well geared to 21st-century needs. Nowadays, every field--including music, art, philosophy, and literature--requires technological know-how: research, writing, and teaching in any field requires considerable computer literacy. And advanced technological skills are often required.

Moreover, manufacturing and services organizations become increasingly efficient and productive as they are upgraded by robotics, computerized data processing, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and the like. With these changes, workers lose their jobs; they must receive retraining to fit themselves back into the modern workforce.

These are not passing phases; they are trends that surely will become magnified in coming decades.

Therefore: The government should assure, by grants and regulations, that every child has access to high quality education from pre-kindergarten through graduate school. And this should be entirely free--based only on the individual child's desire and abilities, that is, on intellectual ability, and social and emotional skills needed to pursue an education. Moreover, re-education and retraining for advanced workforce placement in an increasingly technological civilization should be an expected and accepted part of living a full, productive life. It should be guaranteed by the government--assured by grants and regulations--although paid for largely by employers as they develop increasingly sophisticated workforce needs. The general principle is this: As a business or industry develops or incorporates technological advances to enhance its functioning, it should be required to fund or provide training for workers to manage that technology. This will not replace every job that is lost, but it will build a sophisticated workforce capable of the skills and mobility necessary in a modern economy. And it will help rebuild the image of social and vocational mobility which is an essential part of the American Dream.

Reducing the undo influence of money and corporate power--Lobbying in Washington is a multi-hundred-billion-dollar industry. No significant legislation in any field arises and develops in the halls of Congress without powerful pressure groups bringing their influence to bear. Whether one is talking about pharmaceuticals, mining, farm prices, medical or information services, space technologies, or any of hundreds of other "special interests," members of Congress are bombarded--even, inundated--with helpful guidance from experts in the field (experts who often include their former colleagues--the lobbying industry is a lucrative retirement club for former members of the House and Senate). It is true that this is where active members of Congress get a lot of their information about matters that are too complex and arcane to be easily understood. But this source of information is deeply biased by the goals and preferences of the private industries it represents--by those who pay its bills.

This advice also comes at a hefty price. The lobbying organizations that bombard Congress with biased expertise, are also heavy contributors to the law-makers' reelection campaigns. For a member of the Senate or House of Representatives, being responsive to the lobbyists' requests is essential to being reelected.

Therefore: The decades of campaign finance reform that were thrown out by the Supreme Court in "Citizens United" in 2010 should be reinstated. And much more needs to be done to regulate the lobbying industry, for example, former members of Congress should be prohibited from lobbying for five years after their departure from Congress; the law should require full disclosure of lobbying expenses and activities; and members of Congress should be prohibited from accepting donations from individuals and groups with whom they interact in the legislative process.

Handling immigration--We are a nation of immigrants. The diversity and vitality of the American way of life has been built up over many decades by welcoming foreigners to our shores and permitting them--or, even more, "encouraging" them--to pitch in and work toward the American Dream for themselves and for all of us.

Therefore: Our immigration laws and policies should encourage foreigners to come to the U.S. and make their homes here. No one who is discovered to be here illegally should be deported unless they have been convicted of a felony; they should be guided on paths to citizenship. And foreign students who come to our colleges and universities should not be forced to leave when they graduate (as they are now). They should automatically get "green cards" (which give them the right to work in the U.S.) and visa extensions; they should get every invitation and facilitation to add their contributions to building the American Dream for themselves and for all of us.

Restoring civil liberties--Warrantless wiretaps, secret renditions, torture of criminal suspects, incarceration of a higher proportion of our citizens than any country in the world (including Russia, China, or Iran)--even holding tens of thousands of prison inmates in solitary confinement (which has been defined as "torture" in may parts of the world) and holding them in solitary confinement for "administrative" reasons, not as punishment, so that they have no right to habeas corpus or the protection from "cruel and unusual punishment" guaranteed under the Constitution. And the routing out of peaceful demonstrators by militaristic tactics including the use of rubber bullets, pepper spray, and shock grenades. Where have our civil liberties gone? How have they been so severely eroded?

This represents a severe, insidious, and progressive erosion of the American Dream, not only as a way of life that is supposed to be available to U.S. citizens, but as a beacon--a symbol, even a template--to show the rest of the world the way: to stand as a golden image of what is possible in the evolution of humanitarian civilization. For how we treat one another and how we serve and protect the most disadvantaged and disenfranchised of our citizenry--and of the foreign-born as well--is an important part of the American Dream.

Therefore: The loss of civil liberties must be scrupulously investigated and courageously reversed in every walk--and in every nook and cranny--of American life.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Limitations of the Human Brain

by Richard Crews
The human brain evolved over the past couple of million years mainly to help our ancestors evade predators and find food and shelter (and, of course, sex mates). The brain's main function and the reason it got so complicated--so good at making certain kinds of observations, storing certain kinds of memories, puzzling out and solving certain kinds of problems--was that doing those particular things well provided a very powerful evolutionary advantage. Human beings have never been the strongest, fastest, or most durable species on the block, but we became the smartest at solving certain kinds of problems.

These are important problems, problems that are key to survival, but they are CERTAIN problems, not just any and all kinds of problems.

As to evolving adaptations to more modern ways, remember that our ancestors have only been herding and farming for a few thousand years--barely a drop in the evolutionary bucket (10,000 years is 1/2 of 1% of 2 million years). Even more recently, our fascination with and "belief" in mathematics and science only goes back a few hundred years (Archimedes, sometimes called the father of mathematics and science, lived less than 2,500 years ago).

It is interesting to realize that all the problems our brains grew up solving involve processing data in a sort of middle range--not too big and not too small, not too fast and not too slow. Our ancestors never had to worry about anything smaller than a grain of sand or larger than a mountain--or events on a time scale smaller than the blink of an eye or greater than a few years. When science and mathematics came along, they developed theories and equations to understand and explain observations in this middle time-space range. Since our brains had been working out problems in this time-space range for a couple of million years, it all made good sense. The science and mathematics developed by Isaac Newton was elegant and clear; in fact, in retrospect it all seemed obvious.

Then over the past one hundred years scientists have noticed that outside of this comfortable, middle time-space range things can get pretty weird. Sometimes things just don't follow Newtonian rules. Atomic-size particles can sometimes be in more than one place at the same time; sometimes they can jump from place to place without passing through the intervening space; sometimes they can communicate with or affect one another instantly even though they are millions and millions of miles apart; perhaps worst of all, sometimes they are created out of nothing and disappear into nothing. The very tiny world of quantum physics seems to have its own rules, very different from the ones our brains grew up dealing with.

There are also weirdnesses on the "up" side, the world of the very large or very fast. If a beam of light is traveling away from you in one direction and another beam is going away from you in the opposite direction, you can't just add their speeds together to find out how fast they are going away from each other. In fact, they are also going away from each other at the same speed that they are each going away from you (the speed of light). Weird. And what about time? Exactly what time it is and how fast time is plodding along depends on how fast you are going; the faster you travel, the more time slows down. This is Einstein's world of "relativity."

The reason that the quantum world and the relativity world seem weird to us is that our brains did not have to deal with them when we were evolving. Our brain computers developed capacities for understanding the world at the Newtonian level, but not at the quantum or relativity levels.

There is another realm our brains simply cannot handle, a realm suggested by the questions, "Where did it all come from?" "Why is there something rather than nothing?" and "What does 'God' mean?" The processes that our brains evolved in solving Newtonian-level problems lead us to stumble upon those questions, but they are not "real" or "answerable" questions in the sense that our brains are not equipped to handle them.

One does not attempt to write a letter on a banana, travel a thousand miles via a wheelchair, or access the Internet using only a pencil. Those are wonderful objects, but they were not designed with those problems in mind and cannot handle them. Similarly, there is no point in trying to get the human brain to "understand" problems or "answer" questions that it was not designed to handle. We can design tools like the microscope and the telescope to translate some very small or very large observations into our middle time-space range. (The "tools" we develop can also be concepts and equations.) But translations are always inaccurate and incomplete. They distort the source to fit our given concepts and perceptual capacities.

Similarly, our languages grew up to fit the middle time-space range. Not everything that is linguistically allowable is true or possible. Yogi Berra became famous for saying things like, "A great batter will beat a great pitcher every time, and vice versa" and "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." Statements like these are funny because they are linguistically allowable--in other words, at first blush they make sense--but on closer consideration, they are ridiculous. Noam Chomsky formed the sentence, "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" to illustrate that our brains allow grammatical constructions that are clearly meaningless.

The human brain is a marvelous device. It serves us well, but only within the realms it was designed to handle. When we ask it to extend its services beyond those realms, we must do so very carefully. Otherwise we can delude ourselves; in fact, things can get pretty ridiculous.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Memory in Old Age

by Richard Crews
Loss of memory abilities in old age seems inevitable, but there is actually a lot we can do about it.

Most of us never learn to use our memories well as we are going through our younger years. There are two reasons: One is that our society, our culture (that is, our friends, family, and colleagues) do not expect it of us. They merely observe--as we do--that our mental abilities are sufficient for the life path we have fallen into.

The other reason we do not learn, in the first few decades of life, to operate our memory skills well is that there is no regular training program built into our education systems. In fact, the whole problem stays pretty well below the radar. One picks up along the way that if it is important to remember something, one needs to try a little harder, go over it a few more times, be patient, be diligent. But one is never taught the importance of developing colorful associations, emotional charge, explicit patterns, and multi-modal links.

These are not vague principles; they are specific techniques.

Some people learn them inadvertently along the way. Generally when one does, it is partial and haphazard. Or, because of a head injury or a particularly memory-intensive life opportunity, one is "forced" to confront them directly.

After learning the techniques, one must practice them over and over again--minute by minute, day after day--until they become habitual and automatic (as habitual and automatic as the partial skills and patterns we learned by chance along the way). Then one can remember a name, a face, a telephone number (or an email address), an appointment, a book title (or a URL) as well at age 95 as one could at 25--perhaps better.

If you want to follow-up on this, get a copy of The Memory Book by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas (available, used, from for $4.50 plus shipping). This is a small book; it was first published in 1976. Although I don't think it does a good job presenting the theory and scientific evidence, it is inspiring with compelling and colorful anecdotes, and it presents good practice exercises--especially chapters 2-5.

Please let me know your thoughts about all this. And if you get a copy of The Memory Book and study it, and practice its techniques, please let me know--a few weeks or a couple of months from now--how that works out for you.

Solving Problems While Asleep

by Richard Crews
I first stumbled on this phenomenon about 25 years ago. Each week on Wednesday my son would bring home from high school a difficult math problem. He and I would work on it together--sometimes for hours. The answer, if we came up with one, would go into school with him Friday morning.

One Wednesday evening, working long into the night, we had one problem reduced to a complicated formula that had only about a dozen possible solutions--each solution took nearly an hour to test. We checked a couple of possible solutions. No dice. We went to bed. When I awoke the next morning, I kind of "knew" which solution to test next, and darned if that solution didn't work.

Ten years later I was trying to figure out an equation to determine how many perfect shuffles it took to return a deck of playing cards (of varying numbers of cards) to its original card order. Several times I lay down in near-sleep to think about the problem, and in this state I could keep the pieces straight and solve the problem, but when I awoke I could not remember the solution. I learned that when my mind was "asleep" and had solved the problem, I had to take careful note of the steps in the solution and of the final form of the equation in order to capture it again when I was fully conscious.

Nowadays I regularly solve math or other problems in this semi-sleep state. I get the parts of the puzzle straight in my mind, I lie down in bed, and I find I can generally sort my way into the puzzle and out the other end with the solution. Sometimes I drift in this semi-sleep state for a couple of hours. While I drift, I keep coming back, again and again, to the start of the problem, and--again and again--I mentally walk into it, carefully keeping all the pieces as straight as I can.

I believe this mental state is close to meditation, although when I meditate, I try to clear and calm my mind--I repeat a mantra, or focus on my breathing, or calmly put to rest the tensions that have built up since the last time I meditated. And when I meditate, I sit--back supported, head not supported--in a dark and quiet place. Each distraction that comes up, internal or external, I notice, accept, enjoy, and set aside.

On the other hand, to access this problem-solving state, I lie in bed, the room is dark and quiet, my head is on a pillow--everything is set to take a nap--and sometimes I do take a nap, but whether I fall asleep or not, the solution is generally in the front of my mind when I awake.

In recent years numerous scientific studies have validated these phenomena that I have observed.

I have also come to understand, through these experiences, how dreams are formed. I lie down to go to sleep. I sort through the memories of the day, or choose a fantasy to develop. And then I put myself into the scene again and again, varying the action and the outcome. The "dream," when I awake, is the result of exploring and testing dozens of different, minor changes in the fantasy, gradually settling on one that is the most satisfying.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

World's Financial Woes Made Simple

by Richard Crews
I heard an economist from China speaking on TV recently. It was remarkable to hear her talk: she made simple sense in a few sentences of the overwhelmingly complex topics she addressed.

(I say "an economist from China" but, although in a position of high authority in China, she was surely the product of a leading American university graduate school, not only because she spoke American English fluently but also because the U.S. still has international hegemony in business and economics post-graduate education. Anyone who speaks on such matters with clarity and authority anywhere in the world probably has U.S.-graduate-school credentials.)

As she took on each topic, she stripped it to the core. When she spoke of the U.S.'s financial woes, for example, she said there were three parts: the large national debt, the annual budget deficits, and unemployment. As to Europe's difficulties, she identified two key factors: the sovereign debt crises, and the lack of confidence in the Eurozone's political stability. On China, she named the population problem presented by the rural poor and the need to expand consumerism of a middle class.

When I first heard her speak, I thought, "My gosh, what clarity! What analytic acumen--coupled with such a heroic willingness to be simple and direct." I wanted to hear her again--to use her simple and direct analyses to focus my understanding. But as I got to thinking about her presentation, I realized that she had left out, glossed over, or generalized a lot of important factors.

In discussing the U.S., for example, she did not mention--much less work into the puzzle--the paralyzing political gridlock and the parts that new IT, media revolutions, and large, unregulated political donations make to that. Nor did she mention our crumbling and archaic infrastructure, the burgeoning green awareness of our dirty energy and patchy environmental protections, nor our Rube-Goldberg tax structure, and our upper-class-versus-others income and wealth disparity.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the simplicity or her analysis was, in fact, a fault, not a virtue. It is the kind of simplistic thinking that the media--and politicians--put forth, and that distorts and biases public understanding of important issues.

It behooves us all, if we do not understand an issue or do not have time to address it fully, to allude to its complexities and take a humble "pass" on espousing vehement opinions about it.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

World's Biggest Employers

by Richard Crews
The Economist magazine, Sept. 10-16, 2011, reported a survey by the IMF (International Monetary Fund): Who are the world's biggest employers?
#1. U.S. Department of Defense (3.2 million employees)
#2. Chinese Army (2.3 million)
#3. Walmart (2.1 million)
#4. McDonald's (1.7 million)
For reference purposes:
There are 15 states in the U.S. that have less than 2.0 million population.
There are 45 countries in the U.N. that have less than 2.0 million population.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Taxaholics in Washington

by Richard Crews
Warren Buffett paid over seven million dollars in income taxes last year; I paid zero.

In fact, the wealthiest 2% of Americans pay nearly 50% of the income taxes the federal government receives (and income taxes are the largest source of money the government runs on); 40% of the U.S. population pays no income taxes.

Does that seem fair? What on earth can those taxaholics in Washington be thinking of to want rich folks to pay an even greater part of the costs of running the government?

Let's look at this from another direction:
The average American household had--after taxes--about $100 per day to live on last year.
The wealthiest 2% had, on average--after taxes--about $1,000 per day.
Warren Buffett kept--after taxes--about $100,000 a day.

Get the picture?

Is Unemployment Cyclical or Structural?

by Richard Crews
Business cycles come and go. This was called "irrational exuberance" by Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank back in the days (or, rather, "the decades") when his ponderous, pedantic pronouncements were considered straight from Mt. Sinai--that was back before the Great Recession--before the collapse of housing markets and their equity derivatives and . . . and . . . pretty nearly the entire global financial system--before Alan Greenspan resigned and returned to the spotlight briefly to repudiate and apologize for a lifetime of flawed thinking.

"Business cycles come and go," the argument went. Whether it is bundling real estate for homes or commercial buildings; inventing electronic gadgetry for communications, factories, and space enterprises; funding high-speed mass-transit systems; developing off-shore tax dodges; out-sourcing clothing manufacturing, toxic recycling, and tech-support to the deprived masses of third-world countries; or any other business fad, a hands-off approach ("deregulation") was to be recommended. "Boys will be boys." If this or that corner of Wall Street makes obscene profits for a few years, never mind--the natural, healthy forces of a robust entrepreneurial capitalism will, pretty soon now, set things aright.

But that was back in "the good old days" when business and finance functioned in "the good old ways." When Darwinian "survival of the fittest" brought the best-managed and most attractive business ideas bubbling to the top; when investors studied the fundamental strengths and weaknesses of an industry; when it was government's job largely to stay out of the way.

Things have changed. Nowadays we have tens of millions of people out of work, and--thanks to automation, new technological demands, and new international market forces--many of their jobs are not coming back.

For sure, there are still cyclical elements--irrational exuberance--in the comings and goings of business ups and downs, but there are increasingly structural elements, too. There are traditional infrastructural needs--roads and bridges and tunnels to be repaired and maintained; pipelines and wires to be patched and mended; schools, hospitals, and fire houses to be fitted and retrofitted. But there are increasingly high-speed rail and mass transit systems to be constructed; fiber-optic cables and microwave towers to be installed; green energy sources and smart energy transmission grids to be designed and maintained. And these require different kinds or training and higher levels of skills. Millions--tens of millions--of the jobs that have been lost are not coming back. They have gone overseas or simply disappeared into the woodwork of the past.

Do not be deceived that the current recession is cyclical like the many that have preceded it. There are important structural changes afoot, and the government needs to fortify education (and retraining) and social safety nets (for the displaced, unemployed, infirm, and elderly), and government needs to keep a closer eye on the exuberances of Wall Street than it did in the past--in the days of Alan Greenspan--or the American Dream will fade into obsolescence.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Big-City Green

by Richard Crews
Greenifying ones domain is commonly thought of as the purlieu of well-healed suburbanites, but there are plenty of things that big cities and big-building owners can do too. The list at the bottom of this essay comes (modified) from Scientific American, August 25, 2011.

However, there are two remarkable possibilities that are not mentioned in the SciAm article: wind-generated electricity and rain catchment.

Imagine, if you will, a large city with a forest of windmills soaring above the parks and gardens of its high rooftops. The windmills would be silent, turning slowly; they would not interfere with bird migrations or helicopter surveillance or transportation. The electricity they generated would be used by the building that hosted them with the excess fed into the municipal power grid.

Windmills have significant advantages over solar panels: they are far less ecologically costly to produce and--in stark contrast to the few-years life expectancy of solar panels--they laugh at the passage of decades. A newly installed windmill can confidently be expected--with little or no maintenance--to be functioning efficiently 25 to 50 years later.

In addition, the rain that falls on the vast roof-top acreage of a big city is now channeled through run-off gutters and conduits into sewers for waste-water processing. It has two valuable attributes that are thus lost. First, rainwater (in contrast to ground water or well water) has no mineral contamination--no arsenic, lead, copper, manganese, sulfur, etc. Purifying it, even to the level of drinking and cooking purity, is cheap and simple--it involves course filtration (to remove leaves and debris) and minimal anti-bacterial and anti-viral oxidation (for example with ozone or ultra-violet light). Such purification can readily be done in small, roof-top appliances.

Second, when water lands on a roof, it has positional energy; in other words, it is high up. Most simply stated, it does not need to be pumped around for processing or delivery--properly channeled, it runs downhill to wherever it is wanted or needed. This can provide a significant energy savings.


There are other ideas around for greenifying big cities and big buildings. The following list, reorganized and summarized, is from the Scientific American article.

Green and White Roofs

Rooftop vegetation insulates buildings against heat and cold and absorbs storm water that might otherwise pollute waterways. Many cities are pursuing these roofs, and friendly competitions for the most square feet of green roofing have arisen among Chicago; New York; Washington, D.C.; and others. Enclosed rooftop farms above restaurants, schools, hospitals, or other institutions that serve many meals might be a coming urban trend.

Designs exist for entire high-rise, indoor, vertical farms. Growing food indoors can reduce fertilizer and freshwater use, shorten transportation routes for delivery, and recycle gray water otherwise dumped for processing by city water-treatment plants.

Rooftops painted white reflect heat, lowering a building's cooling cost and a city's heat buildup. U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu emphasized this technique in a speech he gave in 2009. He extolled white roofs as an inexpensive move that can be done quickly and provide immediate payoff.

Urban Solar Electricity and Hot Water

Extensive solar panels can generate electricity in lieu of power plants doing so, and also shade rooftops to lower a building's cooling needs. Together, the cities of Ontario and Redlands in California, working with the Southern California Edison utility, have erected seven "neighborhood power stations" on large industrial rooftops, totaling 306,500 square meters (more than 75 acres).

Photovoltaic sheets on south-facing building facades can generate significant electricity. One notable demonstration of this is in Berlin. Thin films typically are less efficient than solar panels, but they can be cheaper to make (per unit area) and are flexible, leading to novel architectural designs.

Water-filled tubes connected to tanks on roofs can be heated by the sun to provide domestic hot water instead of using gas or electric furnaces. All new buildings in the fast-growing city of Rizhao, China have rooftop systems that provide hot water for bathing. The systems cost around $200. In the U.S., hot water accounts for 17 percent of energy used by homes.

High-Rise Construction and Reconstruction

Super-insulated windows quadruple the thermal performance of double panes and can be made from the glass in existing windows. Serious Energy reused the glass in all 6,514 windows in the Empire State Building, New York City to make super-insulated windows that are four times more energy efficient. The retrofit took seven months and will be paid for in energy-cost savings in less than ten years.

Construction material made locally with carbon dioxide that is pumped out by city power plants could reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Calera Corp. is bubbling the gas from a power plant in Moss Landing, California through nearby seawater to make cement. The process also eliminates the roughly one ton of emissions that would normally be created in making a ton of cement the conventional way.

Urban Transportation

Commuter trains, subways, and even many primary roads in Portland, Oregon are located underground in massive tunnels, freeing the surface for easy, clean bike and pedestrian traffic. Many cities have miles of subterranean transportation but Portland is diverting such traffic as part of an integrated overall plan to encourage more walking and biking, and to provide for the redesign of public spaces.

Large portions of taxi fleets converted to hybrid vehicles reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in San Francisco and New York City. After New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had encouraged fleets to purchase hybrids (and many did), his administration tried to penalize owners who didn't switch, but courts struck down the policy. Nevertheless, about one third (4,300) of the city's yellow cabs are now hybrids.

Charging drivers higher rates to drive in congested neighborhoods (so called "congestion pricing") eases traffic. By the end of a six-month trial in Stockholm, traffic had dropped by 25 percent, emissions had decreased 14 percent, and 40,000 more people daily were taking public transit; moreover, buses were reaching their stops more quickly. The Stockholm Congestion Charging System is now permanently in place. Singapore has initiated similar efforts.

Subterranean garages near commuter destinations eliminate the need for cars to surface. Many cities have had enough foresight to build at least some underground parking but Paris stands out. Drivers are encouraged to use the lots with fees that are typically lower than for above-ground spots, and the lower levels are monitored by security cameras, so they are considered safer than city streets.

Ample bike lanes and bike racks encourage more people to ride instead of drive; they also promote health. These straightforward steps can make a huge difference. Despite its long, cold winters, Minneapolis has been ranked as the best cycling city in the country by Bicycling magazine, largely because such measures have encouraged many riders, even when the mercury dips low.

Wave and Tide Power

In Orkney, Scotland hinged cylinders anchored in the seafloor are pushed by waves, turning onshore turbines that create electricity. In New York City licensure is pending for installation of 30 turbines on the bottom of the East River along Manhattan. These could generate one megawatt of power (enough to satisfy the power needs of 200 to 250 homes).

Three-Bin Recycling

Requiring businesses and homes to separate refuse spares landfills. San Franciscans use three garbage bins: recyclables (papers, bottles, cans, and plastics), compost (food scraps, soiled paper), and trash (the rest). The city charges residents for collection based on the volume in the trash bin, not the others, which encourages compliance.

Satellite Irrigation

Satellite control of park and lawn irrigation systems cuts water consumption and pumping power. Municipalities such as Los Angeles subscribe to a service provided by companies (such as HydroPoint Data Systems) which forecast weather and soil moisture for each area and turn portions of the irrigation systems on or off accordingly, greatly reducing wasted watering and lowering water bills.

Low-Flow Appliances

In San Francisco; New York City; and Austin, Texas, water-saving toilets and showerheads installed in new and existing buildings save millions of gallons annually. Austin began a retrofit program years ago that has left most of the city with low-flow devices, reducing water usage by 19 million liters (5 million gallons) a day and wastewater flows by 680,000 liters (180,000 gallons) daily.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Negative Interest Rates

by Richard Crews
A couple of weeks ago an astonishing thing happened: the largest bank interest rates fell below zero. This is equivalent to depositors saying, "Please, please take my money--no interest payments needed. Oh, that's not good enough? OK, I'll pay you to take my money."

On August 4, 2011 the Bank of New York Mellon, the world's largest custodial bank, announced that they would charge 13 bps on deposits more than 110% of a client's monthly average (bps stands for "basis points"; each one bps equals 0.01% interest). That day the rate on short-term U.S. Treasury bills fell below zero percent.

As N. Gregory Mankiw, a professor of economics at Harvard, pointed out, "The problem with negative interest rates, however, is quickly apparent: nobody would lend on those terms. Rather than giving your money to a borrower who promises a negative return, it would be better to stick the cash in your mattress. Because holding money promises a return of exactly zero, lenders cannot offer less."

"Nobody would lend on those terms" unless one (or both) of two considerations prevail: First, no other investment looks safe. Even mattresses can burn up in a fire, and there is a financial "fire" burning in the Eurozone these days with Greece, Spain, Ireland, and now even Italy looking like they may not be able to pay their bills, that is, the governments may not make good on their bond debts. And a lot of big banks are holding those bonds. Some of the world's safest investments look shaky.

Second, inflation can eat away at your winnings. If you are pretty sure that $100 stuck away in a mattress today will only have $97 buying power a year from now, you might be willing to store that money someplace else where it would be sure to have $99 in buying power in a year.

Lending of money for (positive) interest has long been frowned on by major religions. Christians called it "usury." "Riba" is the word in Arabic, and "ribbit" in Hebrew. Philosophers dating back to Plato and Buddha opined against it.

But bankers and wealthy investors are a clever lot. They have always found ways to get around restrictions imposed by religious or legal authorities. In the Middle Ages Hebrew scholars decided that although, by Talmudic Law, Jews could not charge interest payments to other Jews, they could morally lend money to non-Jews for interest. And in the wake of the Great Recession, the Dodd-Frank Act of July, 2010 set up a panorama of consumer protection, banking, and Wall Street reforms, but it did not establish any federally mandated interest rate maximum--though many people thought it should.

We live in strange times--not just technologically, ecologically, and politically, which are obvious, but in terms of macroeconomics as well.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Recession Bottoms

by Richard Crews
Yogi Berra said, "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future."

But Lord knows lots of people try hard to make predictions about the economy in general and the markets in particular (like stock or commodity markets, real estate markets, import and export markets, etc.). There's a lot of money in it.

There are two general approaches to making such predictions. One is called "fundamental analysis"; the other is called "technical analysis."

Fundamental analysis depends on looking hard into the factors that cause the changes--unemployment, consumer confidence, the money supply, the credentials and track records of the people making key decisions, etc. This seems like a good approach. The trouble is that there are always a lot of factors and no one knows for sure which ones have the greatest weight. There are always enough reasons to explain anything. If the stock market goes up, fundamental analysts say that was because of reason A and reason B; if it goes down, that was because of reasons C and D; if it stays the same, or goes up and then down, or down and then up . . . there are always good reasons to fit the result.

Technical analysts say, never mind the reasons--there are always plenty of good reasons to go around--just look at the pattern of changes. They point out that certain patterns in the fluctuations of prices occur again and again--in different markets, for different reasons, but similar patterns. So they draw graphs ("charts") of prices vs. time, and talk about patterns like "head-and-shoulders," "flags," "support and resistance levels," and so on.

Fundamental analysis gets a lot of respect--after all, it makes so much sense, and the reasons it puts forward seem correct (in retrospect). Technical analysis, on the other hand, is too esoteric and complicated; it depends on studying and recognizing patterns that most people have no idea about. It doesn't make simple sense like fundamental analysis.

Perhaps that is why one hears a lot of "fundamental" reasons these days for the stock market's gyrations and the ups and downs of economic indicators, but one doesn't hear much that--"Say, folks, this is what a technical bottom looks like: lots of violent gyrations, no clear direction; these markets are just 'building a bottom.' The future is up."

Of course technical analysis is not always right. But there are some things that it is surer about than others. And this is one that looks very strong and clear. This turmoil we're seeing right now is to be expected as the recession bottoms.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Singularity at the Gates

by Richard Crews
There is a powerful concept that comes out of theoretical nuclear and astronomical physics; it is soul-wracking when one really looks at it closely. That is the concept of "singularity." In the depths of giant stars where gravity has sucked inward into itself so powerfully that nothing, not even light, can escape, all the laws of physics no longer apply. Time and space have no meaning; everything we understand--reason itself--has no meaning. This state is called a "black hole" or "singularity."

In all of nature from the smallest sub-atomic particles to the largest clusters of galaxies there are four fundamental forces: the strong and weak nuclear forces, electromagnetism, and gravity. Science has long chased the notion--theoretically and experimentally--of a "fifth force," but none has been found.

But in the depths of a black hole these forces are crushed together so inexorably that they cease to exist as separate entities. The irreducible components of matter--molecules; which are made up of atoms; which are made up of protons, electrons, neutrons, and their ilk; which are made up of quarks; which may even be made up of smaller tidbits called strings--all of these are crushed inward so formidably that they, also, cease to exist.

A singularity is truly a place--or a state--where neither mathematics nor even imagination can penetrate.

In recent decades this mind-numbing concept of "singularity" has been extended into the daily world, the world of newspapers and history books. There is what has been called a "technological singularity." The modern world is developing so rapidly and changing so dramatically from year to year, that even the most imaginative science fiction writer cannot pretend to see into the mist a few years ahead. It has been said that a science fiction writer, in order to paint a picture of what civilization might look like and what humanity might be up to a few decades from now, must postulate a historical discontinuity--that is, must insert a nuclear war or some other catastrophic Armageddon into the narrative--in order to set the world back enough to examine it. Otherwise it is simply unknowable, unimaginable.

Consider, for example, how much the world of computers ("information technology" or "IT") has changed our daily lives in the past couple of decades. From cell phones and social media, from automatic bank teller machines to billion-dollar financial transaction that flit around the globe in fractions of a second, from hundreds of TV channels and millions of Website that can spring before our eyes with a few flicks of a switch--we simply do not live in the same world we lived in twenty years ago.

There are computers now that can beat the world's best chess players, analyze data better than the world's best scientists, and provide information and entertainment far more facilely than the books, movies, and live performances that preceded them. In addition to this explosion in IT, the burgeoning worlds of nanotechnology, of synthetic biology, and of meta-materials all promise (or threaten) to make dramatic changes in the ways we live our lives.

Throughout history the unknown catastrophe has loomed, potentially, not far ahead. Sometimes when there were foreign armies besieging the city gates or a drought or plague was upon us, the terror of the future seemed to have a form, a direction, a known outcome, however terrible. Even in the good times, the memory of pain and deprivation and the expectation of disease and death were not far away.

But there has never been a time when--by the wizardry of our own minds and hands--a dark and unknown future loomed up just a few years ahead.

There is a singularity at the gates--a technological singularity--and we do not have the faintest idea what it will bring.


Note: Purists may ask, "What about Hawking radiation?" My answer: Hawking radiation is tweeny; it reduces the blackness of a black hole by less than 0.000001%. Call me careless, but any time I write something that is less than 0.000001% wrong, I am satisfied with it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

New Old Age

by Richard Crews
Over the past century the life expectancy for middle-class Americans has gone up by about 30 years.

We are the first generation in the history of humanity that, with average luck and self-care, has a good chance of living to be 90.

Of course, just like the genetic lottery that gave us good biological equipment and the lottery of history that put us down in this time and place, the daily lotteries of circumstance are always circling overhead.

Each day Death casts its dice--and all must play,
Though those in health and youthful vigor may
Not feel the chill or hear the distant cry
Of who may live today--and who must die.

But as we round 60, with honest self-contemplation, we suspect--
we will probably never have a more intense relationship than we have had
we will probably never feel more pain, physically or emotionally, than we have felt
we will probably never be smarter, richer, or more influential than we have been
we will probably never be stronger, more robust, or more durable than we have been
we will probably never climb a higher mountain, see a richer sunset, taste a better wine,
hear a more poignant melody, see a more touching drama....

Is this to be a time of depression and despair? Or a time of calmness and relief?

We have been given no road-map to navigate this land. It is a new land; humanity has never had this in its temporal landscape before.

We do know that maintaining a careful diet is no longer optional. Oh, remember those joyous days when nothing was too sweet or salty, too heavy with calories or cholesterol to keep us from giving it a try!

The same is true of exercise. We learn that our bodies do not serve us well if we do not stretch and tire them out a bit faithfully, day by day.

And relationships? They are important, too. But we come to realize that death is always and only a private experience--a solo flight; no one can truly share it with us.

Eric Erikson called the stage of psychosocial development of the grandparent years "generativity"--a time to give back; a time to establish and guide the next generation.

Most compellingly, it is a "new" time. Let us think about it and begin to chart it wisely for the generations who come after us.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Who Is a "Person"?--The Science, Law, and Prejudice of Personhood

by Richard Crews
Back in 1776, the United States' Founding Fathers didn't like the way things were going with England (mostly tax-wise). So they went to a lot of trouble to do something about it.

It was a dangerous game. They knew if they didn't stick together and the British cops got them, they would lose everything (as Benjamin Franklin said, "We must hang together, gentlemen...else, we shall most assuredly hang separately").

Their efforts seemed pretty ridiculous to most of the world--which meant to the British world: "Britannia rules the waves," "the sun never sets on the British Empire," and all that. How on earth did a few upstart woodsmen in a savage province think they could get away with thumbing their noses at one of the world's super powers? As Kenneth Roberts said, they were seen as "rabble in arms."

The "upstarts" wanted to give their rebellion stature in the eyes of the world--that is, of the scholarly and politically powerful world. So they set about answering the questions, "Who are we?" "What are we up to?" and "Why are we doing this?" in as resounding and philosophically compelling way as they could. Their educations were classical--from Socrates to Locke. So there, philosophically, is where they started.

Out of that humus and hubris came Thomas Jefferson's famous words, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." That, in a sense, is a carefully thought-out definition of "personhood." Jefferson was trying to answer the question, "When you strip it all down, what does it really take to be a full member of civilized humanity, and what do you get for that membership?"

First, the "who" was "men," by which he meant wealthy, adult, white, Christian men--certainly not women or children, certainly not blacks or Native Americans. And certainly not apes--even smart apes--or crows or whales or elephants just because they may know hundreds of words, make and use tools, call each other by personal names, organize social events, act altruistically, mourn their dead, and so on.

Second, as to what they get, they are "created equal," that is, they start out their sojourns in life on--somehow--an equal footing. And WHAT is it that is "equal"? Clearly not their abilities, their inheritances, or their potentials. No, only their "rights" are equal. And a pretty constricted set of rights at that: "life" (don't kill them--without a good reason), "liberty" (don't lock them up--without a good reason), and "pursuit of happiness" (let them do as they choose--as long as they don't interfere with any more powerful person's "pursuit").

In the 21st century there have been some broadened concepts of "personhood." For example, in addition to questions of human rights and animal rights, the Supreme Court recently ruled in a case called "Citizens United" that corporations have the Constitutional right to free speech which, through strange legal metamorphosis, becomes the right to secretly use massive amounts of money to influence elections. Mitt Romney, a Republican presidential hopeful, recently said, in response to a question about taxation of businesses, "Corporations are people."

And what "rights" are on the horizon for computers that are smarter than human beings--that can beat the best human chess players, find oil and ore deposits more efficiently, solve medical and engineering problems more effectively, and out-remember and out-calculate any human brain?

In our modern world we have made the concepts of personhood very complex, and they promise to get muddier still.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Truth about the Debt-Ceiling Compromise

by Richard Crews
In accordance with legislation just enacted, a powerful Super-Congressional Committee will be formed. They will either agree on enormous budget cuts by the end of the year--budget cuts that the Congress must then vote either up or down (not modify or filibuster). And if the Committee and Congress do not succeed in installing such cuts, then draconian reductions to the military (reductions which the Republicans staunchly oppose) and to Medicare (which Democrats staunchly oppose) will AUTOMATICALLY be enacted.

Sounds fierce and fair, right? Austere and inevitable?

In what world? That must be the world ruled by the Tooth Fairy and Santa Clause where all good Boy Scouts go to heaven. It sure isn't this world.

Congress has so many ways to modify, circumvent, delay, revise, ameliorate, or rescind any proposal of the Super-Congressional Committee--whether enacted or not, whether the draconian penalty is triggered or not--that the Compromise is, in fact, written in fairy dust on a cloudy sky.

And if you think that a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution (due for debate this fall) would be effective, consider that the federal budget is another study in fairy dust. Recall that Bush never put trillions of dollars of expenses for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into the budget--they were extra add-ons. And that in this age of enormous natural disasters, from hurricanes and tornadoes to heat waves and dust bowls, federal expenditures for these can be extended by hundreds of billions of dollars quite outside of budgetary constraints.

The debt-ceiling "crisis" was artificial. The U.S. and Denmark are the only two advanced countries that even have debt ceilings at all. The "crisis" was concocted by hyper-political Republican obstructionists in an effort to emasculate and discredit President Obama. But it got away from senior Republicans and was transformed by Tea-Party terrorists willing to hold the good faith and credit of the country hostage to get their misguided demands met.

There will be some high-level debt and deficit shenanigans in Washington over the next fifteen months. Even if the Republicans succeed in passing legislation to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy past the end of this year, President Obama will veto such legislation; that alone will produce $3.5 trillion in added federal revenue over the next ten years. A balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution may pass Congress and be sent to the states later this year; how much teeth that would have depends on the definition of "budget" written into the amendment, and Congress (politically cowardly as it is) is unlikely to write a strong definition.

But the real story about the U.S. long-term debt-deficit problems will be told at the presidential election in 2012. And the results of that election depend on three factors:

(1) The health of the U.S. economy; if the Republicans succeed in crippling the U.S. economy, President Obama will have an uphill battle to stay in the White House for another four years.

(2) The rapidly evolving use of information technology (IT) such as Twitter and YouTube. Twitter and the other social media are often wrong, often misinformed, often more histrionic entertainment than thoughtful wisdom, but they are powerful factors affecting the stormy flow of public opinion. The question is which of the political parties will be more adept at staying up to the minute in IT developments and in manipulating public opinion through them.

(3) Big bucks from secret corporate and private campaign donors--the result of the Supreme Court's decision in "Citizens United" which threw out decades of campaign finance reform. The question here is which of the political parties can summon more multi-million-dollar donations into their coffers.

Assuming the best--that the Republicans succeed in shooting themselves in the foot and President Obama is returned for a second term in office with strong Democratic support in both houses of Congress, we can expect the regenerated president--one of the most brilliant and charismatic men ever to hold the office--to come roaring out of the gates for his second term a new-made man. He will be armed with his original brilliance, humanitarian philosophy, and charisma, but now fortified with four years of horrendously difficult experience on the job. We can expect significant tax reform, entitlement reform, infrastructure refurbishing, and environment protection, and--most significantly--an education revolution, pre-school through graduate school, which can lead to a formidable partnership with China, India, Europe, Africa, and South America for a 21st century global civilization that is higher technologically and philosophically than the world has ever known.

Or . . . maybe not. There are a lot of places this idyllic resolution can go off the tracks.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

American Middle-Class Dream

by Richard Crews
Michael Moore paints a poignant picture "of a time [only a couple of decades ago] when working people could raise a family and send the kids to college on just one parent's income (and college in states like California and New York was almost free). Anyone who wanted a decent paying job could get one. People only worked five days a week, eight hours a day, got the whole weekend off, and had a paid vacation every summer. Many jobs were union jobs, from baggers at the grocery store to the guy painting your house, and this meant that no matter how 'lowly' your job was you had guarantees of a pension, occasional raises, health insurance, and someone to stick up for you if you were unfairly treated."

When you live in a dream like that, you take it for granted--you think it is "natural." Even though history tells us people didn't always live that way and the daily news shows us that many people don't. You would be tempted to say "still don't"--adding the "still" to convey that this is clearly the way of the future. Having found it, we are surely not going to let it get away from us.

But it has gotten away from us. Why? Where did it go? Can we ever get it back?

The American middle-class dream was a product of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" fortified by the enormous burst of economic productivity occasioned by World War II.

To quote from Wikipedia: "The New Deal was a series of economic programs implemented in the United States between 1933 and 1936. They were passed by the U.S. Congress during the first term of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The programs were responses to the Great Depression, and focused on what historians call the '3 Rs': Relief, Recovery, and Reform. That is, Relief for the unemployed and poor; Recovery of the economy to normal levels; and Reform of the financial system to prevent a repeat depression...."

"Historians distinguish a 'First New Deal' (1933) and a 'Second New Deal' (1934–36).... The 'First New Deal' (1933) dealt with diverse groups, from banking and railroads to industry and farming, all of which demanded help for economic recovery. The 'Second New Deal' in 1934-36 included the Wagner Act to promote labor unions, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) relief program, the Social Security Act, and new programs to aid tenant farmers and migrant workers. The final major items of New Deal legislation were the creation of the United States Housing Authority and Farm Security Administration, both in 1937, then the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which set maximum hours and minimum wages for most categories of workers, and the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938."

The New Deal was the source of the American middle-class dream. It was strengthened by the surge of industrial activity of the Second World War, and then after the end of the war by the G.I. Bill which provided college or vocational education for returning World War II veterans as well as one year of unemployment compensation. The G.I. Bill also provided loans for returning veterans to start businesses and to buy homes with low-interest, zero-down-payment home loans. This enabled millions of American families to move out of urban apartments and into suburban homes. Prior to the war the suburbs tended to be the homes of the wealthy.

These were the sources of the American middle-class dream. Where did it go?

For the past few decades, a distorted income tax system (described by one commentator as "14,000 pages of institutionalized corruption") coupled with heavy money influences through campaign donations and Washington lobbying have led to gross distortions of income and wealth distribution in the U.S. The wealthiest few percent of the U.S. population now own the vast majority of the wealth of the country; the CEOs of large corporations make hundreds of times the income of lowly "line workers" in their industries yet, as Warren Buffet has pointed out, pay much lower percentage taxes on their incomes than "ordinary" people.

Meanwhile the surging advances of information technology and the ecological demands for green energy have made a lot of 20th-century jobs obsolete. Losing ones job these days commonly means retraining for a different, more modern one.

Health-care costs have also contributed to the demise of the American middle-class dream. These costs have escalated because of the socio-cultural myth that everyone "deserves" million-dollar health care with the use of the latest expensive tests. And the use of these tests has multiplied through "defensive" medical practices as doctors try to assure they will not stumble into exorbitant "malpractice" liabilities; as a result doctors pay tens-of-thousands of dollars a year in malpractice insurance to avoid predatory lawsuits, costs which are, of course, passed on to their patients. The pharmaceutical industry and health-insurance companies have also contributed to exploding health-care costs.

The American Dream was built out of response to the Great Depression. But we have forgotten the lessons of history. The American Dream has been attacked and eroded in recent decades. In truth, as a result, it may be dead. We shall see.

Friday, August 5, 2011

My Punditry Merit Badge

by Richard Crews
So, President Obama didn't invoke the 14th Amendment of the Constitution to resolve the debt-ceiling crisis. Does that mean I don't get my Boy Scout Merit Badge in Punditry?

I'm not sure. I hate to be a sore loser (in fact, I hate to be any kind of a loser), but we'll have to wait and see if the Debt Commission turns out to be a good idea. It might be--or it might be a political and legislative disaster.

I still think (as I explained) Obama would have had a clear checkmate with the 14th-Amendment thing--let the Congress founder in vitriolic paralysis, and then ride in on his white horse to save the day. But maybe using the impending disaster to force some sort of bipartisan compromise my have been a good strategy, too. We'll see (toward the end of 2011).

We'll also see if the Federal Reserve still has enough ammunition in its quiver to stimulate the economy back into recovery mode despite Congress' budget cuts. The stock market doesn't seem to think so.

And then there is the how-vast-is the-ocean factor. Maybe the U.S. economy is just so damn big and has so much momentum on its own that it really doesn't matter what the federal government does. In addition, the economies of the rest of the world are so skittish these days (especially the Eurozone, Japan, and the Arab-Spring-lands), that the Big-Bully U.S economy, awful as it is, may just shine by comparison.

At any rate, we currently have the most politically sick Congress in U.S. history plus multiple impending catastrophic challenges (environment, war, civil liberties, infrastructure, education, worldwide drought-floods-famine, population explosion, water-table depletion, mineral resources exhaustion, and on and on and on). These make this an exciting time to have a front-row seat (which the Internet and TV provide).

Friday, July 29, 2011

Resolving the U.S. Debt and Deficit Difficulties

by Richard Crews
While waiting to earn my Boy Scout Merit Badge in Punditry (when, at the last minute, President Obama eloquently declares that the Congress is intransigent and he is "forced" to invoke the 14th Amendment to abolish the debt ceiling and save the nation), I have been contemplating just what steps the government should take to balance the federal budget and reduce the nation's debt.

The first few of these are short-term stimulus measures to reinvigorate the nation's recovery from the Great Recession. For example, the current payroll tax relief which is due to expire at the end of this year should be extended at least one year if not two. Programs to support state governments should be robustly fortified so that states do not lay off tens of thousands of workers--people such as teachers, police, and fire fighters as well as those in less politically hot-button clerical and administrative jobs. Programs are also important which invest in clean energy (solar, wind, and geothermal) and 21st century infrastructure (high-speed rail and mass transit rather than one-passenger superhighways, fiber-optics rather than wires, and a "smart grid" to distribute energy efficiently).

While these may seem like expensive government programs, they would, in fact, strengthen the economy which is the best source of deficit and debt reduction in the long run.

The feds should abandon the imaginary "War on Drugs" ("Prohibition" didn't work either) and release the 80% of the prison population who did not commit violent crimes--release them to programs for rehabilitation, job training, and social reintegration. (Note that the U.S. incarcerates a far greater percentage of its citizens than any other country in the world--ANY! including China, Russia, and Iran.) Along these lines, the U.S. should outlaw solitary confinement which is currently used for tens of thousands of prison inmates; solitary confinement has been ruled internationally a form of "torture" but it is invoked as an "administrative measure" so it is not unconstitutional as "cruel and unusual punishment." In addition to being barbaric, with regard to the topic of this essay, solitary confinement costs the government $40,000 to $50,000 a year per inmate, so eliminating it would save several billion dollars per year.

For savings that are more long-term, the government should reduce military expenditures by 50% ($350 billion a year) over ten years. This includes closing bases in such places as Germany, South Korea, and the Philippines where we haven't been fighting wars for years.

The Income Tax laws (14,000 pages of "institutionalized corruption") should be revised and simplified, eliminating special favors for tax havens and subsidies for ethanol, farm products, oil, etc. The Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy should be eliminated. A Value-Added Tax should be enacted; almost every advanced, post-industrial country other than the U.S. has a VAT.

The FIFA contribution income maximum should be raised from $109K to $180K.

The U.S. should establish universal medical care with competitive generic drug use, limited malpractice liability, and salaried (not fee-for-service) pay. The Social Security retirement age should be raised to 70--gradually, over 15 years; the population has aged considerably more than that years since the Soc Sec retirement age was installed.

The federal government should reinstall campaign-finance reform (thrown out last year by the Supreme Court in the "Citizens United" case). And it should strengthen lobbying supervision and reduce conflicts of interest. This would reduce wasteful pork-barrel spending.

In addition, the federal government should develop meaningful regulation of Wall Street (for example, regulating derivatives, eliminating obscene pay, and tying incentives to long-term performance--they're working on this, the so-called Dodd-Frank legislation, but it is not going well).

Finally, the federal government should divest itself of much of the U.S. land area that it owns (in some states the U.S. government owns MORE THAN HALF of the land area of the state), thereby recovering both equity and tax revenues. This is a complicated problem with many facets--commercial, environmental, political, etc. But it is worth a long, hard look.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


by Richard Crews
To review briefly, I have talked about the observations in astrophysics that the Universe is fine-tuned for human existence, and the ideas, called the Anthropic Principles, (1) that some creative force must have seen humans and their needs coming many billions of years before there were any humans around (that's called the STRONG Anthropic Principle) or (2) that there are many, many kinds of universes around and that the one we see is, of course, the one that would be just right to create us to see it (that's the WEAK Anthropic Principle).

And I have talked about the observations in quantum physics that consciousness is king over the physical world; that light, for example (or any other member of the sub-atomic world) can be either a wave or a particle depending on how it is observed. If a beam of light is studied as if it were an energy wave, it is found to have frequency and amplitude, to undergo diffraction and interference--attributes which it cannot possibly have as a particle. On the other hand, if it is studied as a particle, it is found to have discrete (quantum) values for such attributes as charge, spin, or mass--attributes which it cannot have as a wave. (It is a common misunderstanding when someone hears that light, or another subatomic entity, can be either a particle or a wave, to think--sure, sometimes it is one and sometimes the other. The excruciatingly unreasonable point is that whenever the entity is observed in one state--by preference of the observer--it shows attributes it cannot possibly ever have had, or carried with it, in the other state.)

I also spoke of the limitations of the human brain computer: it evolved by solving problems using temporal sequencing and causal relationships in three-dimensional space. It does not think outside those boxes.

Trying to think beyond those limitations and use the observations of quantum physics to resolved the paradoxes of astrophysics, here is an intriguing theory of creation--one that takes the absurdities of "luck" out of the picture: Perhaps the Universe as we experience it is created retrospectively by the imposition of human consciousness on a malleable cosmic screen. In other words, perhaps as we look "back" on the astrophysical scene, we shape it--in accordance with quantum physics theories and experiments.

Be that as it may, consciousness or mental intention is a powerful force. We are all familiar, in the healing arts, with--
(1) psychosomatic illness (and the "mind over matter" power of psychosomatic health),
(2) symptom substitution (for example, as the heartache gets less, the headaches get worse),
(3) the placebo effect (measurably responsible for about 35% of any medicine's effects),
(4) the widely reported efficacy of chiropractics, acupuncture, homeopathy, ayurveda, and forms of "spiritual" healing (despite their having no reasonable explanation in terms of Western anatomy or physiology).

I have personally done considerable research into alternative healing methods, and have come to the following conclusion: The ONLY common element among effective systems is the INTENTION OF THE HEALER. The patient does not need to believe in--or even know about--the therapeutic intervention. Moreover, there does not need to be any particular physical or psychological interaction at all. The only essential factor for healing to take place is a deep and powerful psychological intention on the part of the healer. This is impossible to explain and difficult to teach, but it is easy to experience.

Finally, in intellectual or physical "combat," it often appears that one side or one person is luckier than the other. But as Sun Tzu emphasized in his eternal epic "The Art of War," success depends on knowing the battlefield, knowing the enemy, studying the options, etc. In other words, success may seem to be a matter of luck, but it is determined by mental preparation.

So where are we with understanding luck? It has been said in financial maneuvers, in tactics of war, and in games of sport or chance that "chance favors the prepared mind." It is clear in astrophysics and quantum physics that the world of thought rules the physical world. And it is clear to me that in the healing arts the psychological intention of the healer is of paramount importance.

Perhaps that is what "luck" is all about: mental preparation and the power of thought, sometimes hidden, often complex--even conflicted--but subtly and pervasively ruling the roost.