Sunday, January 22, 2012

I Have Tried to Write

by Richard Crews
Several times recently I have tried to write about a particular subject, but it always seems to require so much preliminary explanation that my essays have wound up being on other topics--they have fallen short. "Consciousness vs. Reality" was one of those essays. So was "The Idea of Cause," and "The Genetics and Evolution of Brain Development," and "The Miraculous Powers of the Human Brain."

The question I want to understand and to answer is, If--as seems clear to me, though I resist accepting the notion--if my mind can really have causative effects on the physical world around me--if I truly commit myself to believing that crazy idea, what . . . what . . . what am I going to do about it?

But first a couple of vignettes. (Yes, here I go again beating around the bush.) In December of 1963 I was living with my first wife, Michael, in a little broken-down house in San Francisco. Every day I would get home from work about 5:00 (I was in my medical internship at San Francisco General Hospital), and I would wait an hour or more--up to four hours--for Michael to get home. I would sit and read about the religions of the world and about mystical experiences, or listen to music or study medicine, and I would wait . . . and wait.

One day I sat reading and listening to music for a while, then I turned off the music and sat in the silence, in the darkness, thinking. I pondered deeply the question, If I really believe all this stuff I have been reading from mystical religions and spiritual teachers, I should be able to "know" when Michael will get home. Her time of return was very variable, and it was completely unpredictable--as I've said, somewhere between 5:00 and 9:00 PM.

I sat there for over an hour; 6:00 PM became 7:00; and I tried to know--and to feel very sure that I knew--exactly when Michael would get home.

Suddenly it came to me: "She's coming--she's almost here." I got up from my chair and walked across the living room and out the front door, and across the porch and down the long flight of steps leading to the street. We lived on one of those San Francisco hills (if you have been to San Francisco, you know what I mean about the hills). In fact, our house was at the very end of Divisadero Street after it becomes Castro--Castro actually ended by becoming our short driveway.

When, after a minute or so hiking down there, I got to the street level, I walked over and heaved open the heavy, up-swinging garage door. And just as I did, her car came into view in the distance, cresting the last hill a block away. Just as I finished opening the door and getting out of the way, she drove up and she drove into the garage without pausing.

As we walked up to the house together, she asked me, perplexed, "Thanks--I really appreciate it--but why on earth were you standing out in the rain waiting for me?"

I didn't answer. I couldn't have explained it to her. I hardly believe it myself.

Through the years I have had other similar experiences of "just knowing" something without any possible way that I could know it. And I have had comparable baffling experiences in long-distance, thought healing, etc.

Which leads me to the present question, if that stuff is really true as it convincingly seems to be, what on earth am I going to do about it? What, specifically, should I be doing and thinking differently in my life?

But once again I have used up my allowable essay length and only introduced, not grappled with--surely not answered--the question. Perhaps the next essay....

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Miraculous Powers of the Human Brain

by Richard Crews
There is no doubt that the human brain has an amazing ability to deceive itself. This is evident not only in the powerful healing of the placebo effect but also in mistakes by eye witnesses, distortions of statistical expectations (the "lottery effect"), misremembered personal history, and other phenomena.

Of even more interest are the possible causative effects that the human brain can have on the physical world--yes, CAUSATIVE effects. This is manifest most curiously in quantum physics where, for example, a ray of light does not "decide" whether it is an energy wave or a particle (a photon) until it is observed; once it is observed (that is measured, studied), it even seems to go back and revise its history--once it is called upon to show itself as a wave, it also reveals that it always was a wave; once, a particle . . . well . . . it always was a particle. And the wave and particle forms each carry information that the other form cannot have carried.

This causative or creative power of the human brain may also be manifest in cosmic physics and astronomy. As one looks back 13.7 billion years to the moment of creation of the Universe (the Big Bang), there appears to have been a remarkable (nigh, impossible) series of coincidences. There were, for example, a dozen parameters that were built into the original Universe which are so finely tuned, that if any of them had been even a tiny fraction of a percent different, that would have precluded the evolution of human beings.

When cosmologists and theoretical physicists first confronted this observation, some postulated the Anthropic Principle: that the Universe was designed from the get-go with the eventual creation of human beings in mind. Because this seemed too theological (scientists are trained to be allergic to religion), some of them postulated the "Weak" form of the Anthropic Principle: that the Universe is the way it is--impossible as it seems--simply because if it were any other way, we wouldn't be here looking back and wondering about it.

But the Weak Anthropic Principle seems statistically daunting: What are the odds that an indifferent physical universe would get everything just right? So a further theory of Multiverses was coined: that there are in fact lots and lots (and lots) of different universes--although we can't see them--and ours just happens to be the one that turned out just right to produce humans.

That is certainly, from a scientific standpoint, more satisfyingly non-religious; at least it pushes the questions of First Cause ("Where did it all come from in the first place anyway?") and the related question, "Why is there SOMETHING rather than NOTHING?" further away a bit from scientific considerations into philosophical musings.

Moreover, mathematical manipulations of observations from tiny physics seem to imply that there may be more than four dimensions (many more--at least eleven, to be precise), and that perhaps there may be more than the observed set of elementary particles (there may be the heavy, sister particles of Supersymetry). And it seems damn hard to make gravity get along theoretically with the other three fundamental physical forces (electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces). So it seems that cosmologists and theoretical physicists still have a lot of head-scratching to do before they have to bite the bullet and own up to some sort of offensively religious perspective.

What about possible CAUSATIVE effects of human brain power in our daily lives? Not just the hyper-suggestibility of hypnotism, the manipulation of crowds by demagogues, and the healing of the Placebo Effect, but also the convincing appeal to intelligent people of astrology, homeopathy, and faith healing. If one has had convincing personal experiences of these (as I do NOT of astrology, though I DO of homeopathy and faith healing), they are impossible to dismiss as imaginary distortions of perception and cognition.

Even in our daily lives--as well in the abstruse observations of cosmology, nuclear physics, psychology, and sociology--the human brain clearly has powers to manipulate the physical world.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Genetics and Evolution of Brain Development

by Richard Crews
The human brain has evolved long and arduously over several million years through billions and billions of trial-and-error "experiments." These occur because of chance variations in the genetic blueprints for building some particular child's brain, variations due to mutations or incorporation of bits of DNA from viruses and other organisms. Such variations occur very infrequently in the development of children; if, overall, they were not quite rare--if the development of a new human brain in a growing fetus did not usually proceed flawlessly--the race would die out. This is because most of the experiments fail, in other words, they are lethal to the individual in whom they occur.

Even on the rare occasion when a genetic variation occurs and it is not lethal, it is usually pointless--it has no effective function in the organism. In that case it may fade away into the waste-bin of genetic history as "junk DNA." In fact, most of the DNA carried along on our chromosomes from generation to generation is "junk" which has no effective function in forming or running the organism; working genes lie amid long chains of worthless, meaningless DNA (although one must be cautious about dismissing this "junk" out of hand--there are often, tucked away amid the junk, secretive, subtle, or intermittent effectors).

If, on the rare occasion when one of these variations is not lethal and is not pointless, it brings about a change in the structure or function of the organism; then some potential bit of evolution has occurred. If, further, on the even rarer occasion when some particular variation turns out to be useful to or favorable for the individual, then--depending on the individual's success in reproducing and sending forward that variation to future generations--effective, positive, adaptive evolution may occur.

The growth and development of an individual person--and of that person's individual brain--from the genetic blueprint passed to the individual as genes in the sperm and egg of the parents is a very complicated and therefore rather chancy process. There are a lot of ways it can go wrong. In fact, most fertile eggs that arise from the almost miraculously unlikely joining of an egg and sperm do not produce a baby. Most abort as embryos or else later on some time during fetal development. A woman, in her lifetime, may produce several hundred eggs; a man, several million sperm. Of these, at most a couple of dozen succeed in getting together to form a fertilized ovum which can develop into an embryo, then into a fetus, and so on. And most of the fetuses that are formed abort spontaneously, that is, they fail to develop successfully into a baby. Out of the millions and millions of genetic "starts" a normal couple has, the number of children that a married couple raise in their lifetimes is, on average, between two and three.

Most of these kids grow into normal--regular--average people. Less than one in a million of the adult human beings (who have survived the genetic, fetal, infancy, and childhood lotteries) carries some useful variation that might advance the development of the human species.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Idea of Cause

by Richard Crews
Two events or observations are commonly thought to have a cause-and-effect relationship if they have two characteristics: (1) if they have temporal and spacial proximity and (2) if there is a logical expectation of the dependent exchange of physical energy between them. In other words, one event is thought to have caused another if they are near to one another (in space and time) and it seems reasonable to believe that changes in one of them brought about changes in the other.

There are four possible explanations for an apparent cause-and-effect relationship.

One is the PHYSICS explanation--that the cause-and-effect relationship can be explained according to generally accepted physics principles such as gravity, electromagnetism, momentum, entropy, etc. This is commonly considered the strongest kind of explanation; for some people it is the only "real" or acceptable explanation, the only allowable exception being that we do not have enough information to understand the physics explanation.

Another is the MAGIC explanation (also called miraculous, mystical, or metaphysical). In this case the requirement for temporal and spacial proximity and exchange of physical energy may be suspended, but there must be a strong symbolic or ideological connection between the two events or observations.

A third is the PSYCHOLOGY explanation. Essentially, at its core, this claims the events or observations seem related in a cause-and-effect way because of misperception or miscognition.

And finally there is the ANTHROPOMORPHISM explanation, that there is a pre-eminence or dominance of consciousness over the physical realm. This is the "mind over matter" perspective in our day-to-day world, and the Anthropic Principle in cosmology.

It would be comfortable and convenient if everything had a PHYSICS explanation. Unfortunately this is not the case.

The most reputable examples of events or observations that defy a PHYSICS explanation are found in the world of quantum mechanics. Tiny subatomic particles have been studied carefully and been found to have numerous characteristics and behaviors which they simply "cannot" have according to well understood principles of physics. For example, a particle can be in two different places at the same time; it can move from one place to another without going through the intervening space; it can affect another distant particle without any connection or communication between them; etc. Such events or observations are generally written off as obeying laws of physics that we do not (yet) understand, and that, in any case, apply only on very small scales of size.

Perhaps the most incredible observation in the quantum mechanical world is that some entities or their various properties do not appear--that is, they do not exist--until they are observed. Thus a ray of light may have been emitted billions of years ago, but it manifests itself either as a particle or a wave depending on how it is observed--and each of these kinds of manifestations has properties that are incompatible with the other. Moreover, whichever manifestation we choose to look for and therefore to find, the other can never reappear. The verbal formulation for this phenomenon is that the entity initially exists only as a probability wave and that this probability collapses into one manifestation or the other.

In addition to quantum mechanics, in cosmology there are also strange occurrences that defy logical, PHYSICS explanations. For example, there are a dozen or more physics constants such as the speed of light, the strength of gravity, and the fine structure constant for which there seems to be no reasonable explanation as to why they are exactly the strengths or values that they are, but if they were even a tiny fraction of a percent different, reality as we know it (including the existence of atoms and planets and life and thinking) would not exist. The Universe is some 13.7 billion years old, and these physics straight-jackets seem to have been built into the Universe from the beginning so that now, 13.7 billion years later, human beings are able to exist and to wonder about them.

When these incredible coincidences were first considered seriously by the theoretical physics community, the phrase "Anthropic Principle" was coined to deal with them. The Anthropic Principle has two forms, the "strong" Anthropic Principle which postulates that in some way the future existence of human beings was planned for in the earliest thin slivers of a second after the Big Bang, the instant in which the Universe was created. Because this seemed too theological for the science of physics to swallow, another form of the Anthropic Principle, the "weak" form, was coined. The Weak Anthropic Principle postulates that we see these impossibly focused and refined physics constants the way that they are simply because if they were any other way, we would not be here observing and wondering about them. This is a statistical explanation rather than a metaphysical one.

However, possibilities that are very unlikely--that is, that are statistical rarities--only occur in very large samples. Hence a theory of "multiverses," that there are many--perhaps essentially an infinite number--of universes; ours is one which happened to come out just right to generate life.

By the way, such "theories" as these of Anthropic Principles or Multiverses are not truly scientific theories because they cannot be tested experimentally. Rigorous scientific thinking demands that for a theory to be considered truly scientific, it must be (among other requirements) falsifiable, that is, there must be ways of testing it or experimenting to find out if it is really true. For ideas such as the Anthropic Principles or Multiverses, there are none--at least no one can think of any.

MAGICAL or miraculous explanations are considered all to easy--fanciful and imaginary--by serious thinkers. They are always available--they can be coined and modified as needed. They serve no useful purpose except to ease ones mind--which, in a painful and worrisome world may not be trivial, but it is not useful for advancing ones understanding and adaptive skills.

PSYCHOLOGICAL explanations, that is ones that depend on misperception and miscognition, are also all too easy to postulate. However, unlike MAGICAL explanations, some PSYCHOLOGICAL explanations can be studied and tested experimentally. Thus, for example, the hypothesis that certain people are likely to be biased against certain racial or ethnic groups and to suspect individuals of those groups of malevolence or criminal intent, can be tested via questionnaires or experiments in a behavioral laboratory.

However, PSYCHOLOGICAL explanations are often used as a wastebasket for findings that defy PHYSICS explanations. Thus, for example, the apparent healing effects of homeopathy are often dismissed as psychological bias (or "placebo effects") because the findings of homeopathy run counter to--in fact, contradict--known, established principles in physics, chemistry, and physiology. On the other hand, people--like myself--who have extensive, personal, empirical experience with the healing effects of homeopathy are confronted with a paradox: homeopathy cannot be explained according to the known, established laws of physics--in fact, it violates and contradicts them--and the effects are not due to PSYCHOLOGICAL misperceptions or miscognitions--yet they truly occur.

Ideas about cause (and effect) are a slippery and foggy set of concepts. Our effective manipulation of reality often hides among them.

Harry & Bess

Harry Truman was a different kind of President. He probably made as many, or more important decisions regarding our nation's history as any of the other 42 Presidents preceding him. However, a measure of his greatness may rest on what he did after he left the White House.

The only asset he had when he died was the house he lived in, which was in Independence Missouri . His wife had inherited the house from her mother and father and other than their years in the White House, they lived their entire lives there.

When he retired from office in 1952 his income was a U.S. Army pension reported to have been $13,507.72 a year. Congress, noting that he was paying for his stamps and personally licking them, granted him an 'allowance' and, later, a retroactive pension of $25,000 per year.

After President Eisenhower was inaugurated, Harry and Bess drove home to Missouri by themselves. There was no Secret Service following them.

When offered corporate positions at large salaries, he declined, stating, "You don't want me. You want the office of the President, and that doesn't belong to me. It belongs to the American people and it's not for sale."

Even later, on May 6, 1971, when Congress was preparing to award him the Medal of Honor on his 87th birthday, he refused to accept it, writing, "I don't consider that I have done anything which should be the reason for any award, Congressional or otherwise."

As president he paid for all of his own travel expenses and food.

Modern politicians have found a new level of success in cashing in on the Presidency, resulting in untold wealth. Today, many in Congress also have found a way to become quite wealthy while enjoying the fruits of their offices. Political offices are now for sale (cf. Illinois).

Good old Harry Truman was correct when he observed, "My choices in life were either to be a piano player in a whore house or a politician. And to tell the truth, there's hardly any difference!

I say dig him up and clone him!

This I Believe

by Richard Crews
Humans evolved (in the Darwinian sense) to get better and better at finding food and shelter, and avoiding and overcoming predators and environmental dangers. To solve these problems, we developed brains that have some particular kinds of strengths and some unavoidable weaknesses.

We are very good, for example, at using problem-solving strategies that involve imagining three-dimensional space, a steady progression of time, and cause-and-effect relationships. (This is best recognized in oneself by trying to imagine alternatives like four- or five-dimensional space--which we simply cannot do; or non-linear, discontinuous, cyclic time, or time with no beginning--also impossible for us; or factors that are close together temporally and spacially but are not causally related.)

So there are some mental skills we are good at. On the other hand, we are not good at recognizing our cognitive and perceptual limitations or our intrinsic philosophical biases. (We have all had the experience, for example, of seeing someone solve a problem we could not solve, or notice some things we had not perceived. And we have all heard people who seem sensible and reasonable espouse absurd beliefs--and we know that some of our beliefs seem absurd to others.)

An important part of our mental limitations is our blindness to our cultural biases and to semantic distortions. Part of our cultural heritage (built into each culture's child-rearing practices) is inculcation of the perspective that THIS (our culture's way of doing things) is the way things should be done and that other ways of doing things are wrong--bad, even evil. And the structure of a culture's languages tend to reinforce (and to hide) these biases.

One significant result of our particular, evolved mental equipment (and its limitations) is that life often is ("seems") frightening and painful. It is easy, on reflection, to see that these two attributes, fearfulness and painfulness, are useful (even life-saving) approaches to problem-solving.

Another result is humor (the juxtaposition of incompatible alternatives) and paradoxes (unanswerable questions). For example, the question of First Cause that has plagued religions from time immemorial ("If God made everything, where did God come from?") and the existential question, "Why does the Universe exist? Why is there something rather than nothing?" are unanswerable pseudo-questions that arise because of mistaken overreach of our cause-and-effect paradigm thinking. Cause-and-effect thinking evolved because it is a useful and powerful approach for solving certain problems; but it inclines us to ask certain pseudo-questions that do not represent solvable problems.

Yet another result of our brains' functioning is that mental rest, sleep, and meditative practices (including prayer) are calming and clarifying. Another is that moral tenets (such as "Thou shalt not kill" and "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you") serve to simplify complex situations.

Finally, because of our evolutionary environment and evolved brain functions, people need people. Life is safer and more comfortable when we coordinate our activities with others. Organized religions, for example, typically teach and encourage valuable meditative practices and moral tenets. True, these often go along with rituals that seem silly to outsiders but which, in fact, serve to strengthen a community's internal bonds. And since "Who are we?" so easily becomes "Not them," organized religions all too often become purveyors of bigotry. Finally, because the balance is hard to maintain between ritual and creativity and between identification with a group and exclusion of outsiders, organized religions often generate splinter extremism.

Monday, January 16, 2012

What the Right Gets Right

What the Right Gets Right
(New York Times, January 15, 2012, 9:00 pm)

With the competitors for the Republican presidential nomination engaged in an intriguing and unexpected debate over the dangers of capitalism’s “creative destruction,” this is the appropriate moment to explore the question: What does the right get right?

What insights, principles, and analyses does this movement have to offer that liberals and Democrats might want to take into account?

I recently posed a question to conservative think tanks: If given a free hand, how would conservatives deal with the unemployed, those dependent on government benefits (food stamps, Medicaid), and, more generally, those who are losers in the new economy — those hurt by corporate restructuring, globalization and declining manufacturing employment?

The Heritage Foundation, rather than answer the question, sent me links to the following papers: “Extended Unemployment Insurance Payments Do Not Benefit the Economy,” “A Free Enterprise Prescription: Unleashing Entrepreneurs to Create Jobs,” “Confronting the Unsustainable Growth of Welfare Entitlements: Principles of Reform and the Next Steps,” and “An Effective Washington Jobs Program: Do Less Harm.”

A conservative policy intellectual from a different think tank sent me an email suggesting that I read Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, “The Path to Prosperity: Restoring America’s Promise.”

All the answers evaded the question posed and, in my view, amounted to ideological pap.

I decided it might be better to ask liberals what they liked about conservatism. I submitted a new question to a small group of academics and activists on the left: what does the right get right?

The answers they gave describing the strengths the right has were illuminating and help to explain why the Republican Party has won seven of the last eleven presidential elections; controlled the Senate from 1981 to 1987 and from 1995 to 2007; and controlled the House from 1996 to 2006 and 2011 to 2013.

Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union (one of our era’s few highly successful labor organizations) and now a senior fellow at Columbia University’s Richman Center, made five points about conservatives in an email to me:

“They appreciate more instinctively the need for fiscal balance.”

“They understand people’s more innate belief in hard work and individual responsibility and see government as too often lacking that understanding.”

“They are more suspicious from a philosophical point of view of big government as an answer to many issues and are suspicious of Wall Street institutionally and not just their high salaries, and bad practices.”

“They respect the need for private sector economic growth (although their prescription is lacking).”

“They are more pro-small business.”

Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, is the author of “A Divider, Not a Uniter,” a harsh critique of the presidency of George W. Bush, whom Jacobson treats as a conservative apostate. Genuine conservatism, in Jacobson’s view, has a number of strengths:

It recognizes “the importance of material incentives in shaping behavior, and the difficulty in keeping bureaucracies under control and responsive to citizens.”

It is skeptical of “the application of social science theories to real world problems” and cognizant of “human fallibility/corruptibility.”

It places a high value on “liberty/autonomy.”

It places a similarly high value on “good parenting.”

It acknowledges “the superiority of market systems for encouraging efficient use of resources.”

Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, is a liberal Democrat who has spent much of the past decade exploring the competitive strengths of conservatism. In his new book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” which will be published in March, Haidt makes several points. Conservatives, he argues, “are closer to traditional ideas of liberty” like “the right to be left alone, and they often resent liberal programs that use government to infringe on their liberties in order to protect the groups that liberals care most about.”

“Everyone gets angry when people take more than they deserve. But conservatives care more,” Haidt writes. And social conservatives favor a vision of society “in which the basic social unit is the family, rather than the individual, and in which order, hierarchy, and tradition are highly valued.”

What’s more, conservatives

detect threats to moral capital that liberals cannot perceive. They do not oppose change of all kinds (such as the Internet), but they fight back ferociously when they believe that change will damage the institutions and traditions that provide our moral exoskeletons (such as the family). Preserving those institutions and traditions is their most sacred value.

Haidt is sharply critical of some aspects of liberalism. Liberals’ determination to help victims often leads them “to push for changes that weaken groups, traditions, institutions, and moral capital.” For example, “the urge to help the inner-city poor led to welfare programs in the 1960s that reduced the value of marriage, increased out-of-wedlock births, and weakened African American families,” he suggests. “It’s as though liberals are trying to help a subset of bees (which really does need help) even if doing so damages the hive.”

Haidt, Jacobson and Stern described the positive or “flattering” view of conservatism; they were not asked about their opinions of conservatism’s shortcomings.

Much of the 2012 general election campaign will be taken up by the struggle between Obama and Romney — and, more broadly, between Democrats and Republicans — to define conservatism and the Republican Party in either favorable or hostile terms.

Two scholars, Philip E. Tetlock, professor of management and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and Gregory Mitchell, a professor of law at the University of Virginia, have done provocative and useful work analyzing the pluses and minuses of liberalism and conservatism.

In “Liberal and Conservative Approaches to Justice: Conflicting Psychological Portraits,” Tetlock and Mitchell argue that the liabilities of conservatism include the following:

“Conservatives are too prone to engage in zero-sum thinking (either I keep my money or the government takes it). They fail to appreciate the possibility of positive sum solutions to social conflicts.”

Conservatives hold “the laissez-faire ‘minimal-state’ view that, although we have a moral obligation to refrain from hurting others, we have no obligation to help others. Conservatives cling to the comforting moral illusion that there is a sharp distinction between allowing people to suffer and making people suffer.”

“Conservatives fail to recognize that even if each transaction in a free market meets their standards of fairness (exchanges between competent adults who have not been coerced or tricked into contracts), the cumulative results could be colossally unfair.”

“Conservatives do not understand how prevalent situational constraints on achievement are and thus commit the fundamental attribution error when they hold the poor responsible for poverty.”

“Conservatives overgeneralize: From a few cases of poor persons who exploit the system, they draw sweeping conclusions about all poor persons.”

“Chance happenings play a much greater role in success or failure than conservatives realize. People often do not control their own destinies.”

The tensions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ conservatism have already surfaced in the controversy over the corporate acquisition practices of Bain Capital when Mitt Romney was C.E.O. Both Romney and the firm are proponents of capitalism’s “gale of creative destruction.” The question is, has Bain produced enough creation to justify the destruction?

The ideological war has begun in earnest, even a little early. It pits the right, seeking to depict a conservatism that is essentially good and a liberalism that is essentially bad, against a left attempting just the opposite. Looked at another way, the two sides are fighting over what the role of government in redistributing resources from the affluent to the needy should and shouldn’t be.

While neither Romney nor Obama fits comfortably into the role of doctrinaire standard bearer, they have both been shaped by political and economic pressures that have forced them into philosophical confrontation. Political campaigns, especially re-election campaigns, are highly ideological, and this one will be no exception as the nominees try to determine the direction the country will take over the next decade.
_ _ _ _ _

Thomas B. Edsall, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author of the book “The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics,” which was published earlier this month.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Self-Contained Communities

by Richard Crews
Can a community be self-contained? In other words, if a "town" were built deep in a subterranean bunker, or on a large ship that stayed at sea indefinitely, or on an isolated island, or on a space station, or in a super-dome on the Moon, to what extent could it be truly self-sufficient? Or would such a "town" always be dependent in some ways on interaction and interchange with a broader environment or world community?

Let us say first that we are talking about a time frame of a few years up to a few decades.

And let us consider several different parameters and the self-containment problems they pose. Specifically, first let us consider the community's needs for such basic "commodities" as (1) energy,
(2) water, and
(3) food;
then its more subtle--even abstract--needs for
(4) cultural stimulation (and cultural diversity),
(5) biological diversity (from genetic to ecological), and
(6) technological support (including innovation).

(1) The problem of energy self-containment is a crucial one. The community needs energy at least for heat (and/or cooling), protection from the elements, and processing of food, water, and nutrients. But it also needs energy for transportation, communication, entertainment, and a parade of labor-saving devices--in fact, having adequate energy is directly related to the overall quality of life--the extent to which life is harsh and tedious or comfortable and varied.

The problem of energy self-containment is crucial to the lifestyle, even to the survival, of the community, but it is not a difficult one to solve. In some settings sunlight, wind, waves, falling water, or underlying environmental heat (such as geothermal or ocean-thermal energy) can provide adequate energy for the community. Although these are not technically intrinsic to or self-contained within the community, let us consider them allowable to solve our energy needs when they are available. And when they are not available, a small-to-medium-size nuclear power source using Thorium or other radioactive fuel can be safe and non-contaminating, and provide boundless energy over a period of several years or a few decades. And although it may be expensive to set up, it requires no ongoing maintenance.

(2) The problem of water depends on two factors: recycling and purification. If one assumes that no water is added to the system (for example, from rain), then one must collect and reuse all water used for drinking, cooking, cleaning, irrigation, etc. This requires some effort and ingenuity. It also requires adequate energy for purifying and transporting the water. But it is entirely feasible.

(3) Providing good nutrition for the people and animals in the community is a complicated and difficult problem. Our nutritional needs are generally considered under two categories, MACROnutrients and MICROnutrients. Macro-(or "large")-nutrients are chemicals that are consumed by the body--they are destroyed or used up in biological processes, and are therefore needed in quantity ranges of tens-of-grams (several ounces) each day.

The three categories of macronutrients are carbohydrates (sugars and starches), lipids (fats and oils), and proteins (composed of amino acids). These have a variety of crucial metabolic functions; to some extent they can substitute for one another (for example, many forms of sugars are interconvertible in the body, and although fats, and after them, carbohydrates, normally provide the main sources of body fuel, any of the three can be "burned" for metabolic energy if necessary). But some are termed "essential": they cannot be synthesized in the body or converted from other nutrients, and the body cannot survive for long without them.

Another substance which is technically a macronutrient but is often overlooked or ignored is the indigestible bulk or fiber needed to carry foods through the digestive track and make our bowels run smoothly. Oxygen and water are also technically macronutrients since we need them in relatively large quantities and "use them up" in the functioning of our metabolic chemical processes.

Micro-(or "small")-nutrients are chemicals that are not consumed or used up in body processes (although tiny traces may be lost through excretion or inadvertently destroyed). They are catalysts that make certain chemical reactions go smoothly. They are needed in tiny, replacement quantities of a few milligrams (pin-head-size amounts) each day.

Micronutrients fall into two categories: vitamins and minerals. There are dozens of essential micronutrients; their chemical reactions and physiological functions in the body are numerous and complex. However, they are generally available in adequate amounts in a varied, natural diet, so if our community has enough varied, natural food to eat, we do not need to worry about providing micronutrients.

On the other hand, our community must grow enough foods to provide macronutrients--especially carbohydrates or lipids (for providing energy), and proteins (for building and repairing body tissues, and to make a million varied enzymes needed for functions throughout the body). Good sources of protein are cattle and poultry (including milk and eggs), fish, and certain vegetables such as nuts and beans. Good sources of carbohydrates are fruits and grains. Lipids are found here and there throughout both animal and plant food sources.

Although it can require complicated calculations to assure adequate nutrition for the community, suffice it to say--as a broad generalization--that a half acre of land under intense cultivation (or several square meters of hydroponics beds), and a few farm animals or chickens or a fish pond (or several cubic meters of fish tanks) per person, with careful planning and maintenance, will suffice.

In addition to the community's needs for energy, water, and food which can be met in reasonable, sustainable, more or less self-contained ways, there are other requirements, perhaps more subtle and even abstract, which cannot.

(4) Cultural stimulation and cultural diversity simply require more than a handful or a few dozen dedicated--but isolated--individuals. The community can have books, videos, performers, and teachers, but over a period of several years or more, the hunger for contact with a broader human community is likely to become intractable.

(5) Similarly, biological diversity (from genetic to ecological) is a deep, persistent requirement for human health and life.

(6) And technological support including innovation is an inescapable hallmark of civilization. We cannot improve or even repair for long the parade of gadgetry that is is essential to our communications, entertainment, transportation, and other mental stimulation without access to and interaction with a broad civilization.

Summary: A community of a few dozen or even a few score individuals, with careful and sophisticated planning and diligent implementation, can sustain itself in isolation for many years in terms of energy needs, water, and nutrition. But in terms of cultural stimulation, biological diversity, and technological support, it cannot.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Game Theory

by Richard Crews
The serious study of games has invaded the daily news and, in fact, many aspects of our daily lives. The field of Game Theory is defined as the study of conflict and cooperation between decision makers. It involves not just Scrabble and Monopoly and not just how to win at poker and at the race track , but maneuvers in wartime (and in peacetime negotiations), and in high-stakes business deals and political campaign strategies as well.

Let us consider the simplest kind of game: two people flip a coin; if it comes up heads then one wins, if tails, the other. Is this entirely a game of chance, or is there a strategy that can give one player a winning edge in the long run? Surprisingly, there is a winning strategy, even if it is a fair flip each time (that is, even if there really is a random, equal chance the coin will come up heads or tails on each flip) because human beings cannot choose randomly. There are inevitable biases that creep, consciously or unconsciously, into a person's call for heads or tails on the next flip. For example, if a coin toss has come up heads five times in a row, there is a powerful psychological inclination to expect that it will come up tails next time. But in fact the odds are still 50:50. So the winning strategy is: Let the other person make the call.

Some games are far more complex than this. But anyone who has played a lot of "serious" Monopoly knows that a strategy of buying as many properties as one can early in a game, and loading them up with houses and hotels as quickly as possible, will usually produce a win. Similarly in Scrabble, thinking up high word values and blocking an opponent from using the double- and triple-score spaces is usually a winning strategy.

Some terms from Game Theory have crept into everyday discourse; we hear them regularly on the evening news. For example, the distinction is made between a "zero-sum game" in which if one side wins, then the other side loses, and a "win-win game" in which both sides can come out ahead. If two players each bet $5 and then cut a deck of cards with the agreement that the one who gets the higher card wins the $10 and the other gets nothing, that is a zero-sum game. On the other hand, if they agree that the one who gets the higher card gets the $10 and the other gets to keep the deck of cards (also worth more than $5, but provided by some outside source), that would be a win-win game.

The principle of the game of Russian Roulette is well known: players alternately take a chance at suffering a big loss, such as taking turns firing a pistol that has one bullet in a six-chambered gun at ones own head. Situations in which any participants risk serious loss is often referred to as a game of Russian roulette.

One also hears business or political strategies likened to a game of Rope-a-Dope, a term borrowed from boxing in which one boxer protects his face and head with his arms and leans against the rope, letting his opponent reign blows on him. His hope is that his opponent will tire himself out or get careless, and the fighter employing the Rope-a-Dope strategy can take advantage of that and win in the end.

Another more complicated game-theory situation is called a Prisoner's Dilemma. To understand this, imagine that two men are arrested for a crime, but the police do not have enough evidence for a conviction. The police, secretly, offer both the same deal—
(1) if one testifies against his partner and the other remains silent, the betrayer goes free and the silent one receives the full one-year sentence.
(2) If both remain silent, both are sentenced to only one month in jail for a minor charge.
(3) If each snitches on the other, each receives a three-month sentence.
Each prisoner must choose either to betray or remain silent; if he snitches on his partner, the most he can get is a three-month jail sentence and he might go free; if he remains silent, he is sure to spend at least one month in jail and, depending on what his partner does, he might have to serve a full year.

The term Prisoner's Dilemma is commonly used to refer to a simpler scenario in which two negotiators will both benefit if they cooperate, but either one will lose heavily if he expresses a willingness to negotiate and the other backs out.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Consciousness vs. Reality

by Richard Crews
It seems that without a real, physical world--what we call "reality"--there would be no consciousness. Consciousness--that is, an individual's awareness of oneself as a discrete and functioning entity within, and distinct from, an environment--seems to depend on a functioning brain--a physical entity. And without conscious awareness of it, whether or not there is any such thing as "reality" becomes moot.

Consciousness demands the existence of a real physical world. And reality, the existence of a real physical world, demands--rises or disappears depending on--conscious awareness of it.

There are three different ways that this dependence of consciousness and reality on one another can be interpreted.

One is the psychological way. If you imagine several different people standing at a bus stop, you can easily imagine that they live in very different worlds. One is an escaped prisoner, hawkishly alert and observing sharply the people and the circumstances around him; his world is filled with danger--every nod and blink and wisp of wind in the trees could be a harbinger of fear and distress. A second person at the bus stop is tired and hung-over from the revelries of the previous night; he wishes he were back home in bed--he is barely aware of the people and events around him. Another is a young lady absorbed in a mental exercise--she is desperately trying to recall and remember the names and faces of her co-workers at the new job she started yesterday. Yet another is richly enjoying the clouds, the breeze, the fragrances of spring in the air. Another is in physical pain--she is dying of cancer. And so on. Each of the people has a very different experience of reality at that moment. This is the psychological way that reality and consciousness are dependent on one another.

Then there is the quantum physics way. It has been demonstrated by repeated, rigorous experiments that physical reality does not exist until it is observed. Photons and sub-atomic particles are probability patterns which only collapse into real physical entities when they are observed, that is, when an attempt is made to measure them. You may not like this view of reality, but it is beyond refute. J. B. S. Haldane, the eminent British biologist and philosopher of science, said, "The Universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we CAN imagine."

And finally there is the metaphysical way that reality and consciousness depend on one another. Sages of every culture and in every age have advised us that we each create our own reality. This, they say, is a deep and powerful truth that can be known only through long, patient, inner contemplation. It is a truth that is available for anyone to see, anyone to know, but it requires terrifying confrontations with "ifs" and "whys" that most people, frankly, are unwilling or unable to undertake.

My Prescription for Medicare

by Richard Crews
(1) Don't provide Medicare for people who don't need it. Anyone who makes more than $100,000 a year and has a net worth over $2 million can afford to pay for their own medical expenses. Dropping their coverage would save Medicare several tens of billions of dollars a year.

(2) Contract with VISA, MasterCard, and American Express to root out and prevent fraud and abuse. The major credit card companies run claims-transaction systems that are very similar to that of Medicare, but they do it with less than 1/100 of the rate of losses from fraud and abuse (fraud and abuse cost Medicare over 10% of its expenses; the credit card companies run at about 0.1%). This would save Medicare several tens of billions of dollars a year.

(3) Allow Medicare to negotiate with drug companies and foreign drug sources for the best possible drug prices. The Veterans Administration and many private health insurance companies already do this with no loss in quality or value to patients. This would save Medicare several tens of billions of dollars a year.

(4) Cap malpractice awards at $1 million. An episode of medical malpractice that causes disability, disfigurement, or death is a terrible, terrible thing. Careless perpetrators should be punished; victims should be compensated. But there is no difference between a one-million-dollar error and a ten- or twenty-million-dollar error. The only difference is the malpractice insurance premiums paid by doctors, which they must pass along to their patients in increased fees. So the cost of such large awards is not paid by the doctors or hospitals--it is paid by the patients and, therefore, by Medicare and other health insurance companies. Moreover, much of an award is not paid to the victim--lawyers routinely charge 30% or 40% of the award amount. Capping malpractice awards would save Medicare several tens of billions of dollars a year.

(5) There are several other money-saving fixes that could be made, but these four alone would move Medicare securely from red to black ink for many decades to come.

Wolves and Huns at the Gates

by Richard Crews
It seems that there have always been wolves and Huns at the gates throughout history. One can see this from reading history and from reading between the lines of history.

Closer at hand--from my father and from an elderly neighbor I knew in the 1970s when he was in his 70s--I heard that the time of the First World War, 1914 to 1918, was a terrible time. People were scared--the world was in serious jeopardy.

Then, when at last the War was over, came the worldwide 1918 influenza pandemic. It has been called "the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history." One fifth of the world's population was infected; more people died in the flu epidemic than had been killed in the First World War. At the time it surely seemed that the end of civilization had come.

The Roaring Twenties was a "good" time--at least for some people. It was "good," except for the rampant criminality associated with Prohibition in the U.S., the rise of Fascism related to the post-war devastation in Europe, Communism developing in Russia, the ongoing rape of indigenous peoples in North and South America and Africa, etc. In other words, if you were one of the "One Percent," life was good. But only until, even for the One Percent, the stock market bubble burst in 1929.

Then came the Great Depression--unemployment in the U.S. was up to 25%, world trade down 50%--plus the evolving Dust Bowl, severe drought and soil exhaustion that wracked the American and Canadian prairie lands through the 1930s. Then the Second World War, 1939 to 1945--savagery and bloodshed again raged across Europe, North Africa, and Southeast Asia--the entire world watched in terror.

I was born in 1937. We begin to get into my own first-hand recollections now.

As I was coming to consciousness, the world lived in terror on the brink of destruction. My mother was afraid to tell people in Scarsdale, New York, that she was Jewish, but far worse than that was the terrible news she was getting from and about her friends and family in Europe. My father was the air raid warden for our upper-middle class, suburban neighborhood--he walked the streets at night, knocking on doors to tell people if their house lights were leaking from around the dark curtains in their kitchen windows (which was the only room we could light at all at night). There were no street lights or traffic lights--we wanted to give the German bombers that were expected overhead any night as little help as possible finding their way to New York City (there was no GPS--far from it). German submarines were sighted off the shore of Long Island where we used to go swimming.

I remember clearly how surprised I was when the war ended in 1945 to realize that my parents had been scared as long as I had known them. I had thought that the ongoing atmosphere of anxiety I grew up finding in the world around me was just the way life always was.

More first hand: There were strange and frightening times as I was growing up--the scorge of McCarthyism ostensibly fighting the scorge of Communism in the U.S.; the savagery and public outrage over the war in Viet Nam; the rampant breakdown of society represented by the Sexual Revolution, hippies, and recreational drugs (epitomized by LSD)--the world was in jeopardy and falling apart every direction one looked.

But far, FAR and away dwarfing all of this was the terror of the Cold War. You may be old enough to recall the Blockade of Berlin in 1948 to 1949 when the Soviet Union tried to starve the city of Berlin into submission and the U.S., French, and British undertook to run the blockade--and the world stood on the brink of nuclear war; the Doomsday Clock which moved, over the ensuing decades, as close as two minutes to midnight; the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 in which atomic weapons were aimed at the U.S. from just offshore, and were poised, ready to fire; and more. The Cold War, 1946 to 1991, was a terrifying time. Year after year, decade after decade, the world hovered a few seconds from Apocalyptic disaster. Dozens of madmen (politicians, military leaders, and dictators) held their fingers poised over a Red Button ready to fire nukes at the "enemy." (In Cuba, at the time of the Russian Missile Crisis, commanders at the COMPANY level had discretionary use of "tactical" nuclear weapons--THE COMPANY LEVEL!--that's captains--scores of young men in their twenties.)

I personally made a life decision in the 1960s not to have any children because it was so clear that they would not have a chance to live out anything approaching a normal life cycle. (Andy, my son born in 1970, may not.)

But the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 ushered in a new age of worldwide peace and security. Nobody but Al Gore had even heard of Global Warming, not to mention nano-sludge which could destroy the world by unleashing tiny, self-reproducing, micro-machines; genome manipulation which might inadvertantly pollute and destroy our very DNA; and diabolically creative chemistry and materials sciences pouring into the environment, year after year, millions of tons of highly varied, highly toxic chemicals. And certainly not to mention--oh, I could go on and on, but you hear about all these dangers to the planet and to the very survival of humanity daily on the news.

The point is that wolves and Huns have always been at the gates. Always. And they are at the gates now--worse, perhaps, than ever--but they have always been "worse than ever," in each iteration, for each generation.

We do not know what the future holds. Surely--as the advent of the Internet, the iPhone, social media, the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement, worldwide microsecond billion-dollar financial transactions, etc. tell us--it will be very, VERY rapidly evolving--tumultuous--frightening--yes, perhaps devastating.

The only good thing that we (with the limited minds that we have) can say about it is that we (civilization) have been here before. In fact, we have always been here.

Well, actually there is a second "good thing" to say; that is that our (we seniors') tour of duty is almost done. Most of the power to run the world--or ruin it--and to try to survive--has passed into younger hands than ours.

Do we leave the world far worse than we found it? Perhaps so--perhaps not. Perhaps about the same--tragically, perilously at a cliff's edge.

Pretty much the same--though much different--though the same--though different....

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Consciousness Fills In the Blanks

by Richard Crews
One of the most remarkable attributes of consciousness is our ability and inclination to complete, through imagination, the scene around us. Think about it: At any particular moment, even with our eyes open and looking around attentively, we can actually see--that is, record on our retinas--only a small fraction of what is around us and what is changing in it. But our experience is that we are aware of all of it. If we see someone walking toward us and then look away, when we look back we expect the person to be appropriately closer. Even if the person has stopped or turned while we were not looking, our consciousness immediately reinterprets their position as reasonable and even expected, just as if we had been looking at the moment they made the change.

Hearing is even less complete than seeing, and contributions by our sense of smell, for humans--unlike dogs--is close to zero. The tactile senses, unless our skin is burned or cut, and also the kinesthetic senses (that send feedback to the brain about the positions of our muscles and joints) pretty much always operate under the radar. Their readings on our environment are very sparse and incomplete and contribute almost nothing to consciousness filling in the blanks.

Self-awareness is another remarkable attribute of consciousness, and it depends heavily on the brain creating an environmental context. Self-awareness means experiencing ourselves as a discrete entity, different from and separate from others, and separate from the world around us--the world maintained in our imaginations by consciousness filling in the blanks in our perceptions.

Human consciousness eminently qualifies for the "Aunt Tilly Principle," that is, consciousness, like Aunt Tilly, is easy to recognize but hard to define or explain. Attributes such as the various forms of memory and different kinds of cognition and problem-solving are facile parts of our learned repertoire of mental activities, but their explanation and precise quantification is very difficult to accomplish. The ability of our consciousness to fill in the blanks and create a sense of completeness in the world around us is similarly facile and important, but elusive.


by Richard Crews
Fracking is a process used in retrieving natural gas from sites where it is locked up in rock formations so that it does not flow out easily. In fracking, millions of gallons of waste-water laced with special chemicals are pumped into the reluctant wells under high pressure. This causes cracks or "fractures" in the rock formations; these spread and extend, allowing the gas to flow out more freely.

There are two problems with fracking. First, many of the chemicals added to the waste-water are toxic--hundreds of them are known to be carcinogens or otherwise potentially dangerous or damaging to life, including to human life. Some of these chemicals are added by the ton to the water pumped into the well (up to 2% of the fluid volume consists of added chemicals), and they sometimes seep out and contaminate wells and groundwater used for irrigation of crops.

As a result, fracking has been outlawed in several countries.

The second reason is that fracking can apparently cause earthquakes. Several sites in the U.S. have reported significant increases in earthquake activity, from a few per year, all small, up to thousands per year with magnitudes up to 4.0. Although earthquakes of this size rarely cause any damage, even people who do not live in California or Japan worry about having the ground tremble under them a lot.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Can Nuclear Power Be Safe?

by Richard Crews
Apparently, yes, it can.

In the middle of the last century when engineers and scientists were developing a plan for generating electricity from nuclear reactions, they had a couple of dozen good possibilities to choose among, and not much predictive information to go on. They chose one--fission of Uranium.

Since then trillions of dollars have been spent researching and developing practical generation of electricity from Uranium fission. There are, at present, nearly 500 Uranium nuclear power reactors in operation in the world; they produce about 14% of the world's electricity.

But four important problems have arisen that were not anticipated by the original pioneers. First and foremost, Uranium nuclear generators are intrinsically unsafe: they are complex pieces of machinery that present the unavoidable possibility of dangerous failure because of natural disasters or human errors.

Second, they produce dangerous radioactive wastes, and--amid a firestorm of public worry--there has proved to be no politically acceptable way to decontaminate or dispose of these wastes. In fact, these wastes are accumulating by the ton year after year around the world.

Third, the worldwide supply of usable Uranium ore is running out. By some reckoning, it may last 100 years, but it is not unlimited.

And fourth, the handling of refined Uranium for power generation may present a terrorist threat, either from a rogue atomic bomb that could kill hundreds of thousands of people, or from a so-called "dirty bomb" in which radioactive contamination could be spread over a populated area by exploding a conventional bomb with radioactive material attached.

The world has pretty much concluded that generating electrical power from Uranium fission is too dangerous to pursue. Reactors are being shut down or decommissioned around the world.

What about another of those dozens of possibilities for generating power from nuclear reactions--those possibilities that scientists and engineers set aside many decades ago? In fact, there are several good, safe candidates.

For example, using radioactive Thorium in molten-salt solution. This method was proven effective in U.S. government tests in 1964 to 1969. It is currently under commercial development in India, China, and Russia (the thorny political and regulatory landscape makes it impossible to develop it in the U.S.).

Such Thorium reactors do not present any of the drawbacks associated with Uranium fission. (1) They cannot explode or melt down. (2) They do not produce long-lived toxic bi-products. (3) The supply of minable Thorium fuel is essentially unlimited. And (4) they and their products cannot be used for terrorist threats.

The world was once promised electricity from nuclear reactors that would be "so cheap it [would] not be worth metering." Thorium still holds this promise; Uranium does not.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

What about the Nukes?

by Richard Crews
The U.S. and Russia combined have about 20,000 nuclear bombs. (Seven other countries have less than 300 each.)

Exploding 0.5% of these (100) would cause nuclear winter with worldwide temperature drops exceeding the last ice age 18,000 years ago, causing substantially complete loss of agricultural production throughout the world for years.

In 2008 the U.S. spent more than $52 billion maintaining its nuclear arsenal. (These are open-source costs and therefore do not include nuclear costs related to air defense, anti-submarine programs, classified programs, etc.--in other words, this figure does not include most nuclear-related expenses.)

It is illegal by international treaty to explode nuclear weapons.

Dismantling the U.S.'s nuclear arsenal would cost about $31 billion. (In addition, nuclear waste management and environmental remediation would cost more than $350 billion--this is regardless of whether we dismantle the U.S. nuclear arsenal or not.)

So let's dismantle them--well, OK, for the hawk purists, "almost all" of them--leave just enough to kill off civilization if we "need" to. Purely from a financial standpoint, it will save money in both the sort- and long-term. And surely it is a humanitarian "good thing."