Sunday, August 30, 2015

Civilization and Its Stressors

I was at my motorcycle dealership in San Francisco recently, getting a new set of tires for R1200R.1 While I was waiting in the showroom, looking over the new BMW bikes and high-end gear, a man came in, sat down in one of the chairs facing a salesman’s desk, put his head back, and passed out. The man seemed to be relatively clean but bearded, barefoot, and wearing only shorts, tee shirt, and a hooded sweatshirt—whose string had become tied up under his nose. Perhaps the string was smothering or choking him.

The sales staff and the store manager tried to revive the man, but he was unresponsive. When they tried to rouse him and lift him out of the chair, he sagged, slumped to the floor, and rolled onto his back. He lay there, visibly breathing, eyes open, but still unresponsive. The staff tried to ask him how he was—who he was—and got nothing. Finally, the store manager called 911 for an ambulance. The medical technician on the phone asked the manager about the patient’s age, and out loud he hazarded mid-thirties at a guess. To this, the man lying on the floor bellowed, “I’m forty-three!”—as if that made a difference. Then he rolled over, put his head on his arms, and seemed to fall asleep.

In a few minutes, the paramedics showed up, put the man on a gurney with an oxygen tube, and took him away.

I asked the store manager later how often this sort of thing happened, and he said he had experienced it several times. One of the sales staff offered as an explanation simply that the dealership was in the South of Market neighborhood. While the area is now becoming gentrified, especially with the new downtown ballpark and Mission Bay hospital complexes, it is still a favorite haunt of the homeless and the drug addled. Since the man on the floor had been relatively clean, though shoeless, he had either just gotten a shower at the homeless shelter in the next block, or his problem was not being homeless per se, but he was wandering through a fantasy world of drugs and alcohol.

Homelessness is a big problem in San Francisco, where the weather is warm and the social services are plentiful. People in most Bay Area communities are also relatively tolerant. If you doubt this, consider that the store manager called for an ambulance—which will end up costing somebody, possibly him, between $1,200 and $2,000—instead of having his three strong young salesmen just pick the man up and dump him in the gutter. However, recent news articles are beginning to complain of foul smells in this beautiful city, which relies on tourists for much of its economic health. When people relieve themselves in alleyways and public parks, and a four-year drought has cut down on the rain to wash it all away, people’s tempers and tolerance begin to wear thin.

I understand from my volunteer work with the East Bay chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness2 that most people are not voluntarily homeless. A large percentage have severe mental health conditions that should be treated in a supervised, residential care facility. It was a combination of good legal intentions, including the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act of 1967 in California and others like it around the country, coupled with failed economics, including lack of funding for the Community Mental Health Act of 1963, that has left hundreds of thousands of patients without adequate care after their deinstitutionalization unless they have adequate family resources.

I also understand that alcoholism and drug dependence are fierce beasts. They can rob anyone of his or her job, position in society, family support, self-respect, and ultimately of housing and a stable living situation. One can too easily go from sipping vintage wines and single-malt scotch to panhandling for the cash to buy anything with a screw cap and a bit of alcoholic content.3 Having beaten a couple of addictions myself—although never having sunk to the level of panhandling in the street4—I know that the old adage is true: “First the man takes a drink. Then the drink takes a drink. Then the drink takes the man.” The addiction robs you of the mental focus and will power needed to mount a defense against it. The path always leads downward, and the opportunities to reverse course become fewer and require more energy and resolve at each step. Beating an addiction takes huge effort plus a great deal of patience, perseverance, and luck.

Finally, I understand that some people are homeless simply through bad luck and misplaced circumstances. They lose their job, lose their home, and can’t find a suitable replacement in the market where they happen to end up. It’s not that houses and apartments are ever in short supply, because housing stock is always available at some price. But the price mismatch between what’s available and what the average person in reduced circumstances can afford may deal anyone out of a permanent fixed address. Buying a house or condominium represents a significant investment, usually the biggest purchase anyone will make in a lifetime, and that comes with a large down payment. But even renting demands up-front resources in terms of demonstrating economic dependability and being able to pay a security deposit, first and last month’s rent, utilities, moving costs, and so on.

Each of us—or at least I hope most of the people reading this—was taught from childhood to strive and “make something of ourselves.” Get a good education. Land a good job with the potential to become a career. Save and invest for a rainy day. Find a mate and start a family. Buy a house in a good neighborhood with good schools. Earn the respect of your friends, neighbors, customers, and coworkers. Build a place for yourself in the community. Create a nest egg for retirement and as a shield against adversity. We are supposed to be a nation of strivers, of self-reliant adults, of mostly rugged individuals.

That’s a lot of responsibility. And modern civilization subjects a person and a family to more stressors than at any time in human history. Consider that our nervous system developed in an evolutionary process that subjected us to limited amounts of stimuli. A member of a hunter-gatherer culture might meet, know, and have to deal with at most a few hundred people in a lifetime, counting close family, extended family of uncles, aunts, and cousins, then the tribal community, the band of potential enemies and possible mates living in the next valley, and finally anyone who wanders into your valley or whom you meet while going off to find new game, a new berry patch, or a stretch of river not already stirred up by somebody else’s muddy feet. In this environment, you quickly run out of stimulating conversation or assaults on the senses—which is a good thing, because you need to keep your eyes open and your mind clear. You need all your senses so you can sniff the breeze to know when the berries are ripe and watch the bushes so the leopard doesn’t sneak up on you.

When humanity settled down to do farming—usually by joining one of those hydraulic empires where some king or pharaoh and his gang of busy ministers controlled the irrigation rights—the average person’s acquaintance increased by maybe tenfold. Suddenly, a person’s rules to live by expanded from “Be nice to me or I’ll kill you with a sharp rock” to encompass elaborate courtesies owed to the sovereign and his minions; customs for trading in the marketplace, drinking from the well, and meeting strangers on the path; and obligations to the local landlord, the district ward boss, the guild of butchers, bakers, grocers, and midwives, and the shamans union. If your king and his army were successful enough, you might end up crowded in a city of a fifty or a hundred thousand, or even a million people—the population of Rome at its height in the second century AD. The Romans were the first civilization to invent tenement dwelling, packing citizens, freedmen, slaves, and foreigners into multistory buildings called “insulae.” And Rome was the first city to deal with all the modern problems of urban living, such as piping in fresh water, managing the food supply through international trade, and carrying away raw sewage—everything but wiring the town for telecommunications and an energy grid.

Population pressure does all sorts of crazy things to most animals. Put too many rats into an enclosed space, and even if each individual rat has adequate food and water, shelter from the weather, and protection from predators—the basics of living, everything except elbowroom—they will turn aggressive, violent, socially and sexually deviant, and morally estranged. Rats packed into a dense environment are unable to survive. This was the finding of researcher John B. Calhoun in experiments starting in 1947 and inspired by tales of urban tensions, aggressions, and dysfunctions from the early 20th century. But more recent research has suggested that people are not rats,5 and not all rats were so affected in Calhoun’s experiments. It was not lack of space that led to chaos in the rat pen, but too much social interaction and lack of privacy. People become inundated when they have to deal with too many other people and don’t have time for themselves.6

I recently posted that we seem to be inundated with movies and books celebrating fantasies of the apocalypse.7 Western civilization has become so personally burdensome, so full of obligations and etiquette, social interactions, government regulations, posted rules, written codes, unwritten laws, and daily calls upon our acquaintance and our attention spans, that many of us—maybe most of us—secretly wish it were all blown away by nuclear war, climate collapse, or the zombie plague. Then we could go back to a time when all you had to do was find the berries, hunt the deer, keep an eye on your neighbor, and hang onto that sharp rock.

Most of us, however, are still coping. We manage to find a job, hold the family together, educate ourselves and our children, and pay off the mortgage. We try to remain interested in current events, church functions, and social media. We make time for volunteer activities. Now and then we can lose ourselves in a really good book or movie, or we pause to enjoy a new ice-cream flavor—all products of civilization.

But then a man walks barefoot into the motorcycle shop, sits down, puts his head back, and mentally checks out. When they finally manage to get him out of the chair, he slumps to the floor and just lies there. Maybe he’s high on drugs or cheap wine. Maybe he’s schizophrenic and gone off his meds. Or maybe he’s met just one too many rats in the urban maze and has run out of coping skills.

I try to think of a life where this shutdown behavior looks like any kind of solution to life’s problems, and the prospect frightens me.

1. This happens more often than you would think or I would like. While car tires are now averaging a lifetime of 40,000 miles, motorcycle tires are much shorter-lived. I routinely get 12,000 miles on a good set, regardless of the vehicle’s weight and engine size. But then, I am cautious on the throttle, light on the brakes, routinely use engine compression to slow down at speed, and never spin my wheels to burn rubber. Younger or newer riders usually get about 8,000 miles on their tires. And this is expensive rubber, costing about $230 per tire. For more about my current motorcycles, see in the sidebar at The Iron Stable.

2. See the sidebar at NAMI East Bay.

3. Speaking of panhandling, a persistent myth says this is actually a good way to earn a living. A Sherlock Holmes story, “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” suggests as much. I know from my own experience at the freeway exit nearest my home, which piles up quite a line of cars at the stoplight, even at midday and non-rush hours, that one or two shaggy people are always waiting at the corner with those cardboard signs saying, “Homeless/Hungry/Disabled Vet/God Bless.” About half the time when I use this exit, someone stopped in line ahead or driving through hands over some money. And from the way it’s passed, these are bills, not loose change. I once calculated that if a panhandler receives just $1 every five minutes or so—and people in the Bay Area are usually rich enough to give out more than just a dollar each time—the recipient would be making $12 an hour. So that’s better wages than you can make flipping burgers at McDonald’s. But still, standing in the sun trying to look deserving every minute and smiling all the time is hard work, and the hours are brutal.

4. See Your Buddha Nature from August 2, 2015.

5. See Carla Garnett, “Medical Historian Examines NIMH Experiments in Crowding,” The NIH Record, July 25, 2008.

6. Consider what this does mentally to the average customer-facing worker in a relatively low-wage job—salesperson, register clerk, bank teller, flight attendant, toll taker—who must interact however briefly with hundreds of strangers each day and perhaps thousands during the week. The psychic battering and loss of any sense of privacy—“Smile!” “Be polite!” “Let the anger and insults roll off!” “The customer is always right!”—must be truly damaging in the end.

7. See Fantasies of the Apocalypse from August 9, 2015.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Perception vs. Reality

I have noticed that sometimes, if I glance at a spinning car wheel—particularly if it has sharply defined spokes—the wheel will appear to freeze or stop for just an instant. Somehow my retinas, my optic nerves, my brain’s visual cortex, my sensory processing center, or everything all together is able to extract the spoke pattern from the spinning blur and visualize it. Similarly, in a crowded restaurant, I will sometimes suddenly hear a distinct word or phrase pop out of the babble of many voices.

More often, I think, the reverse is true. We see a shadow move in our peripheral vision and interpret it as the threat from an animal, a stalker—or a ghost. Or we glimpse in the dappled shade of a streetlight through tree leaves an upright form that is just out of focus—a Post Office box perhaps, or a phone junction cabinet—and we interpret the shape as a human being waiting to meet or ambush us. Or we hear the wind in the trees, or the rush of hot air from a furnace register, and interpret it as a voice trying to tell us something meaningful.1

Perception is a funny thing. We are forced to trust our senses in order to navigate through life, and yet we must be continually on guard to interpret correctly what we see, feel, touch, and smell. Otherwise we might drive off the road at every shifting shadow, scudding piece of paper, or flashing light. Anyone who has worked with a skittish horse knows that it can be incredibly shy of the slightest peripheral movement that might be hostile. In an animal that is vulnerable and virtually defenseless against its predators, and whose main safety lies in evasion and speed—a category which includes unarmed, naked humans as well as horses—this dive away from the unknown is a pure survival trait.2

So we need to be on guard lest we appear defensive and foolish in polite company. The trouble is, our sensory perceptions are too closely linked to the cortical functions of analysis and interpretation. We don’t have a standard reference with which to compare what we see, hear, and feel. And we don’t have much of a pause function between perception and interpretation which would allow us to gather more data, examine possible causes, and reach a leisurely conclusion.

We also need to be aware of differences in perception between people. So a room that feels hot to some may be cold to others. And color perception is notoriously tricky. For example, I have satisfactory color vision and can tell a ripe from an unripe tomato by its color, or the difference between a red light and a green one. But as a teenager I was tested for color blindness using the Ishihara plates—those circles with a pebbled pattern, out of which a number only appears if you are seeing the colors correctly. I miss about half of them, resulting in an early diagnosis of “confusion with tints.” And I can verify this in everyday life. Sometimes a color that other people call “maroon” I will see as “brown.” Sometimes what everyone calls a brown sweater will look green to me. I don’t consider this a disability—but please don’t ask me to dress myself in subtle colors or send me out to buy wall paint.

This is why, in order to progress in science, we had to invent instruments that have no perceptual or interpretive function. A microscope might let you see something incredibly small, but it still won’t keep you from confusing, say, diseased and healthy cells, or differentiating among the various types of bacteria, at least without special training and reference materials. That’s why most modern instruments like temperature sensors, weigh scales, spectrophotometers, and the like include a reference standard, a calibration step, or a diagnostic procedure. We know the job the machine was designed to do, but we also need to know if it is functioning normally and accurately.

And yet, when you aggregate the results of many such machines generating thousands or millions of data points, you can still make mistakes. We can’t always trust the results of those supposedly impartial instruments. For example, the recent pause in measured global warming since 1998—which none of the current climate change models either predicted or can explain—is now attributed to our misreading of surface temperature data.3 And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has routinely been making adjustments to the raw temperature data in the continental U.S. for the period preceding this supposed hiatus.4

Questions of interpretive bias, sloppy science, and cheating aside, can we—even with the best will in the world and the highest commitment to accuracy—truly know what’s going on in the world around us?

I believe we can know—but only in the long run and after much discussion, consideration, and reinterpretation. In the short term, however, our approach must still be “trust, but verify.” For science, like every other human activity, is run by fallible individuals. They can make mistakes, see what they want to believe, and let good intentions get in the way of hard data. And if you put your faith in committees, associations, and government bureaucracies to level the playing field and leaven the results, remember that most of these groups are either democratized to represent and respond to all voices, or they tend to fall under the sway of a powerful, prestigious, and authoritarian leader. If the group is democratized, think of how purely logical and abstractly accurate the pronouncements of such organizations usually are. If authoritarian, remember that one man or woman, regardless of intellect or knowledge, can still make mistakes.5

In all of this, we might hope for a significant advancement in accuracy with the development of artificial intelligence. But will that really help? Will a machine intelligence be cool, calculating, and free of bias? Certainly a modern computer has those characteristics—except that every computer made today was programmed by a human being, either at the level of data interpretation and system modeling, or in the application design, or down at the operating system level. And for good reason the mantra of every computer programmer is “Garbage in, garbage out.”

But what about a machine that programs itself? Well, such a machine is not going to be simple. It will not develop its programming in isolation and focus its intelligence on a single problem solution or data set. A machine that programs the development of its own knowledge and capability is going to be like a human being who learns from what he or she reads and experiences, governed by subtle adjustments in his or her previous experiences, attitudes, likes and dislikes, and—yes—assumptions and prejudices. A machine that approximated human-scale intelligence would of necessity be formed from wide experience that incorporated many examples which might be either compatible or conflicting, involved comparisons drawn from both accurate and skewed data sets—here, think “apples and oranges”—and included many unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions. The more powerful such a machine intelligence became, the more imaginative, associational, probabilistic, and provisional—here, think “inclined to guess”—it would become. If you doubt this, consider the IBM computer “Watson,” which beat its human competitors on Jeopardy! but could still make some egregious errors.6

If anything, perceptual errors and errors of analysis and interpretation are simply part of the human condition—no matter whether that condition reflects human or machine evolution and thinking. We all surf an erratic wave of slippery data, and the best we can do is continually check ourselves and try to hold on to our common sense.

1. Other senses can be unreliable, too. The olfactory nerves can go haywire just before a seizure, subjecting the patient to familiar smells—sometimes pleasant, sometimes not, but never actually related to the current environment. Seizure auras can also be visual and auditory. Similarly, our sense of balance—the inner ear’s appreciation of the pull of gravity—can be fuddled by changes in blood pressure, infections, certain medications, or a head injury.

2. As a motorcyclist, I must be constantly aware of surrounding traffic. One of the greatest dangers is drivers in the next lane moving sideways into my space, either through a conscious lane change or unconscious drift. My sense of this is so finely attuned that I tend to react to any object which my peripheral vision perceives as headed on a course that intersects with mine. Since people in other lanes may only be moving safely into the lane beside me, I must consciously monitor this reaction and not take violent evasive action when a car or truck two lanes away starts crossing my perceived path.

3. See Thomas R. Karl et al.,Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global surface warming hiatus,” Science, June 26, 2015.

4. See the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s page Monitoring Global and U.S. Temperatures at NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information for a discussion of adjustments to the U.S. surface temperature record.

5. A meme going the rounds on Facebook quotes Richard Feynman: “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.” To which I reply: Yes, but be sure to check the design and execution of that experiment. Some experiments designed to test one thing end up actually testing and trying to prove something else.

6. See “Watson Wasn’t Perfect: IBM Explains the ‘Jeopardy!’ Errors,” Daily Finance, February 17, 2011.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Markets ’R’ Us

Free and open markets present a problem for people who vote on the left side of the aisle and follow progressive tendencies. And it’s not hard to see why. Markets do not respect individuals, do not guarantee any particular result, and often create personal disappointment and unhappiness. In a world that should be nice, with the best possible outcome for the greatest number of people, markets would seem to be cruel, unforgiving, and unfair.

In this way, the operation of a free market and unfettered economic choices most closely resembles the mechanism of chance and fitness for purpose that drives evolution. Evolution operates in the aggregate, on the species level, and cares nothing about the individual members of that species except when they survive and contributes their genetic makeup to a new generation. Genetic mutations are the mindless engine of variability that permits new generations to adapt to changing conditions—or not. If a bad mutation snuffs out an innocent life or dooms it to a permanently marginalized condition, evolution cares not. And if the mechanism of evolution operates too slowly and erratically to permit a promising species to survive rapid change in the environment—think of the dinosaurs at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary, or any other species in a period of mass extinction—evolution sheds not a tear. The planet is always changing, and the biome always has more raw material, other developing species, waiting in the wings to exploit the new ecological balance.

Markets as an expression of economics operate in the aggregate, too. Individuals have meaning only as long as their behavior conforms with one or another force in the marketplace: producer or consumer, seller or buyer, investor or borrower. An exceptionally smart or skilled individual can try to stay on the right side of the market’s movements: being in a position to sell when the price is high, or buy when the price is low, or have cash to loan out when the economy is heating up, or hold reserves to draw upon when the economy is slowing. But no one’s insight is perfect, and everyone gets caught out of step occasionally. Every player eventually ends up holding an unsalable supply of product, or needing a scarce commodity, or having too much cash or not enough when the tide turns.

In this manner, like the impersonal forces of evolution, the market is an equal opportunity creator and destroyer. Nobody has a favored position. Nobody gets a free pass for life. Risk, reward, and retribution are distributed impartially—although, of course, that doesn’t keep people from trying to game the system.

Think of the U.S. Federal Reserve in today’s economy. For the past thirty years or so—approximately since the United States abandoned hard currency and the Bretton Woods agreement, adopting instead a fiat currency based on nothing more than our own productivity and international trade—the Fed has tried to manage the business cycle by manipulating the money supply and the cost of borrowing for banks, businesses, and individuals. In that time, we’ve seen successive economic bubbles—first in tax shelters, then in computer technology, next in internet schemes, and finally in housing stocks—each one followed by a bust in the market. The Fed keeps trying to suppress the waves and tame the business cycle, and each time it works for a while, and then the pricing system stagnates, then inflates, and then explodes. The Fed’s efforts are like trying to suppress the ocean’s waves and their effect upon the shore, turning the ocean into a safe millpond. In the end, you risk creating a tsunami.

People are just so pesky! In a time of easy money, they won’t be happy with their lot in life and live quietly while the nation slowly and gracefully booms without disruption. Instead, they borrow to the maximum allowed and put that excess cash into technology stocks, internet startups, rental housing … just as once the Dutch invested in coffee futures and tulip bulbs—whatever promises a higher return on their investment.

Think of the financial wizards at Long-Term Capital Management back in the ’90s. They tried to keep their market plays afloat indefinitely by hedging every downside with an upside—and vice versa—and then borrowing to leverage their positions. They had elaborate economic models to show how they could contain and overcome the risks inherent in the marketplace. As one observer noted, after their scheme had gone bust, instead of containing the risk and rolling with it when they lost ground—as every other investor must do—LTCM’s managers created “moving vans of risk” that swelled until those vehicles exploded and buried them alive.

In laymen’s terms, you can toss heads fifty times with a penny and count yourself lucky. You are playing as an amused spectator, and the most you risk is coming up tails on the fifty-first toss. But don’t try to iron out the natural rhythms of probability—or of commerce at an industrial or national scale—in order to avoid all risk of your occasionally buying a goat. That way lies a whole flock of goats.

Think of the Hunt family and their Arabs partners in the late ’70s. To shield themselves from the inflation created by the federal government’s printing of dollars, they tried to “corner the market” in precious metals, particularly silver. As they acquired more and more, limiting the supply of a metal that also has important industrial uses, the price per ounce went up. But a funny thing happens when you try to become the only supplier and at the same time the only buyer of a commodity: the price becomes irrelevant. People stop playing when there’s no action. They find alternatives to that commodity, and the market moves elsewhere.

In laymen’s terms, you can run a casino and attract gamblers only so long as they think they have a chance of winning. Yes, the house makes its two percent—or whatever the margin is on average over the variety of games the casino offers—but the individual gambler still sees the possibility of a jackpot, of coming out ahead. But if the house rigs all the games so that it never loses and ends up keeping all the chips, then the betting is over. Everyone goes home.

Markets are simply the expression of popular will when it is aggregated, averaged, and accounts for all the outliers. The activity in any market and in the economy as a whole represents what “the people”—in their purest form, the ultimate composite—desire, decide, and do. If you dislike the action of free and open markets, then you reveal yourself as distrusting the instincts and desires of people as a whole. In their place, you want to create an artificial set of winners and losers in order to promote some notion of market safety, or fairness, or everlasting upsides and bright skies.

Governments do this all the time. The Department of Agriculture—with everyone’s tacit blessing—attempts to manipulate crop yields and limit supplies brought to market in order to keep commodity prices high in times of bounty and keep supplies available in times of drought. As a society, we all agree to pay a little bit more for sugar beets or corn syrup in order to keep the farmers solvent through the lean years, and the farmers agree not to try making a killing on a bumper crop in the fat years. I’m not a purist about economics, and I see nothing terrible about all this. But it’s essential that we all understand as a society what’s going on and are able to judge when the manipulation becomes too steep and hurtful.

We have the recent example of the Chinese stock markets to show when that point is reached. This past June and July the Chinese government tried to maintain the value of stocks on the Shanghai and Shenzhen exchanges through easy money at a time when people’s instincts said prices were too high and it was time to get out of their individual positions. Locking investors into a set of trades they don’t want is a sure way to destroy the market. And enticing them to buy even more heavily with excess money does nothing to allay their fear of holding an overvalued position.

And finally, we have the current desire in this country to create a “living wage” by setting a fixed, entry-level price for all workers despite their individual knowledge, experience, and skills. Like propping up the stock market with easy money, it will work for a while. But eventually the manipulation is doomed to failure. For one thing, it simply ratchets up the entire wage scale over time. Consider the store manager who is making $15 an hour in a fast-food restaurant where the register clerk or fry cook makes the current minimum of $7.15. With a federally mandated jump to $15, the manager is no longer happy doing the extra work and taking on the extra responsibility of his or her position while being paid no more than entry-level subordinates. So the wage scale goes up. The price of hamburgers and other goods goes up. And the economy simply settles in a higher groove where $15 an hour is now considered poverty wages. Declare a minimum wage of $100 an hour, and that will be the new poverty level in a vastly inflated economy.

Advocates of the living wage counter by declaring that the store owner or franchising corporation is rich enough to pay the higher wages without raising prices. But those pesky people just won’t stand still while you try to do the economic equivalent of nailing their feet to the floor. Yes, the owners and investors will pay the higher wage and hold the line on prices for a while in the interests of selling burgers, but eventually they will stop building new stores under the changed conditions or they will invest instead in robot systems to cook the burgers and take the customer’s money without human intervention.

The more strictures, regulations, and controls the government puts on the marketplace to resist these natural tendencies, the more the effort resembles trying to flatten the ocean or corner the market in wages. It will work for a time, then kablooey.

Now I am not such a Pollyanna about economics that I don’t see flaws in the system of open markets. My faith in the direction and corrective action of the marketplace is not absolute. One of the biggest problems with an open economic system is the issue of transparency and market intelligence. The seller may know things about his products that the buyer does not and cannot perceive—that, for instance, this Gucci handbag is actually a knockoff, or that lot of grain is contaminated, or this computer was assembled with bootleg chips that failed during quality control testing—and so the flow of energy in the market turns out not to be fair and impartial. Similarly, the buyer may know things about the transaction of which the seller is unaware—that the government is shortly going to ban the product, or that flooding in the next state will likely destroy half the crop, or that the company is about to report high earnings and the stock take off—and so the individual with inside knowledge will profit unfairly. Governments need to set rules and regulate products and transactions in order to prevent unfair advantage on both sides of the deal.

But a government that attempts to manipulate prices and supplies in order to favor some group or achieve some vision of utopia is simply subverting the largest expression of popular will, cheating and fooling people, and creating conditions the individual participants ultimately do not want. And that’s no more honest than the butcher putting his thumb on the scale or the baker using flour after the weevils have gotten to it.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Fantasies of the Apocalypse

Judging from the crop of action movies that make it into release every summer, and the television series that emulate and support them, humanity—or at least the American variety—hungers for the apocalypse. We routinely celebrate stories about the end of the world as we know it, perhaps just the collapse of western civilization, but better the near-extinction of the human race—although not total extinction, because the story line will always need a handful of human survivors with whom the audience can identify.

This has been going on for as long as I can remember. As a child I saw the Gregory Peck-Ava Gardner movie On the Beach, about a huge atomic cloud, aftermath of nuclear war, that was slowly enveloping the Earth. The death cloud wiped out life everywhere it touched, until only a handful of human beings remained alive in Australia. The story was about how they each had to make their peace with death. For me, that movie gave “Waltzing Matilda” an eternally eerie and sad ring. And then as a young adult I finally read the Nevil Shute novel from which the movie was made—same story, only worse.

You can almost chart the 20th century by its public attitudes towards war. Before World War I, the Europeans were almost eager for the war to start and practiced their belligerence in international politics. The meat grinder of trench warfare on the Western Front sobered everybody, but they took away a bright thought: war and its machinery had become so terrible that humankind was done with it; this was “the war to end all wars.” But then reparations and hurt feelings, a sense of national exuberance, and the strangulation of Depression combined to give us World War II. People endured it as a terrible ordeal—in fact, that was the title of another Nevil Shute book, about a family driven from their home in southern England during the Battle of Britain and who took refuge on their sailboat. People endured great personal hardship during the war, but they were sure it would eventually end, good times return, and life go on.

The atomic bomb erased all that, both intellectually and emotionally. War on a global scale—not the brushfire, third-party wars we’ve been having in Southeast Asia and the Middle East—is now destined to become the final act of humankind, with mutually assured destruction and a descending cloud of radiation. We’ve played that story over and over again. Causes and details of the catastrophe change the story line from decade to decade: we’ve progressed from nuclear war to human-caused global climate change, in both New Ice Age and Searing Desert themes, to the eventual alien invasion, to a viral plague, usually as the result of a bio-warfare accident, which either kills everyone except a genetically resistant handful of survivors, or changes everyone except those survivors into flesh-eating zombies.

Personally, I blame the apocalyptic movie phenomenon on a generation or more of book editors and movie producers, who have responded to pitches for manuscripts and new projects with: “Yeah, but what are the stakes? Why should the reader or audience care about this story?” And on a generation of novelists and screenwriters, pushed to the limit, who responded: “It’s the end of the world, man! The end of life as we know it!”1

That explains why the stories get written and the films made—but what explains the audience response of buying the book or the movie ticket, sitting down, and actually engaging with the story over and over again? Shouldn’t we all be tired of global catastrophe by now?

I think the attraction is that we all—or at least those of us who are inheritors of western civilization, the fruits of the scientific method and modern technology, and the bounties of free-market capitalism—live fairly boring and dependable lives. Most of us have jobs that are safe, unexciting, and predictable. Most of us get three meals a day and as many snack opportunities as we desire. Most of us enjoy the benefits of security systems, surveillance cameras, and the cop on the corner or in the patrol car. Most of us in the rich, capitalistic, democratic, egalitarian West have never been in serious danger, never been mugged or beaten, never gone hungry for longer than an afternoon, and never had to search for potable water or even a clean restroom.2

When life is predictable, safe, and tame, you can afford to dream a little bit about living on the wild side, with no boundaries, no limits, and no rules you need to respect. The lure of these apocalyptic fantasies—of whatever stripe: war aftermath, environmental accident, zombie plague—is that the daily routine becomes irrelevant both for the characters and for the audience identifying with them.

Suddenly, the group of human survivors must put off the social distance that always separates civilized, urban-dwelling men and women from the strangers they encounter every day on the street. The catastrophe pulls together disparate people and forces them to bond as a team and work for each other’s survival. If you doubt me, think of that Hitchcock classic, Lifeboat.

The catastrophe blows away the mind-fuzz that floats through modern life. The survivors no longer must remember to pay the mortgage or the rent on the first of each month. They don’t have to figure out how to work all the buttons on the new phone, coffeemaker, microwave, car dashboard, ATM machine, or the other near- but not-near-enough-intelligent devices of the modern world—although they do have to learn how to operate their cache of modern weapons. And they no longer must play the subtle and sophisticated political games, with kabuki email exchanges and endlessly polite meetings, that exist in every overstaffed but underachieving work environment. None of these mundane tasks, worries, or obligations is life threatening or even daunting, but they do drain you.

The catastrophe also blows away the sedimentary weight of modern law, too. We all carry at the back of our minds the thought that the Code of Federal Regulations, last reported at some 42,000 pages long, is growing every year. And IRS regulations add some 9,000 pages to that. Somewhere in all that miasmic verbiage is a felony waiting to catch each one of us. And the notion has occurred to everyone that—while we can all go free for now, because of the benign neglect of federal, state, and local governments—computer systems and electronic recordkeeping are becoming more sophisticated all the time. One day soon enough, the Feds, the IRS, and the cop on the corner will be able to access and track what you eat for breakfast and what you’ve got in your pockets. And not long after that … house arrest, ankle bracelet, and gulag!

The catastrophe blows away social conventions, too. Even if our modern law did not prescribe a dozen definitions and degrees of homicide, and hundreds or thousands more liabilities that can get you jailed, bankrupted, and stripped of your possessions, we all know that certain things are just not right. For example, shooting someone without fair warning or explanation. Or commandeering a parked car, an empty house, or an unwatched Hostess Ding Dong®. But when the world is coming to an end, Ferraris are just lying around waiting to be gassed up with a siphon hose and driven to destruction, with no thought of eventually finding the right tires for it or paying the mechanic’s bills. Mansions wait for you to move in, with no thought about whether the taps run with hot and cold water, the toilet flushes, and the light switches work. And if anyone bothers you—or shows the marks of the zombie plague—you are free to blast them with the available shotgun or assault rifle, for which you can always find the right ammo.

Apocalyptic movies are about life in the raw, about adventure and danger, about a future time when men will be free to become savage again, and women will be compliant—unless they’re armed-to-the-teeth Amazon queens—but still scantily dressed and with access to all the modern cosmetics. Apocalyptic movies are fantasies of a world where modern rules, modern comforts, and modern frustrations fade away, and the happy survivors can live as noble savages—which means fighting for their lives in desperate circumstances.

I should despise such stories—and yet they give me a kind of comfort and hope. For as long as people respond to them, we know that life in a society that spawns such books and movies is still pretty good. The fear factor is way below the historic human average. People are mostly eating regularly and able to ruin their appetites with popcorn and candy. The quotients of personal safety and comfort are high. And the future holds no real or imminent terrors. Long may civilization reign!

1. This has always seemed to me like the desperation of a small imagination. A skilled writer can make you adopt the viewpoint of, sense the drama in, and respond to even the most mundane characters in the smallest conflicts in the least contentious parts of the world. The trick is to make your characters believable, their situations familiar and absorbing, and the stakes important—to them. “The end of the world as we know it” is a theme too large and complex for anyone to consider seriously without inviting brain freeze and emotional meltdown. Some of the best stories are small and intimate.

2. We all know about exceptions, of course. Soldiers on deployment, wives experiencing domestic violence, children in broken and violent homes, and people in marginalized communities all know fear and danger, occasional hunger, and eternal, gnawing desperation. And that experience, even if it only occurs once or it happened long ago, has a tendency to mark a person and change his or her attitudes about life. But, again, these are exceptions to what the majority of the modern, western-oriented population experiences. Not so long ago—perhaps half a millennium or less—violence, hunger, and imminent death were the common lot of the average human being.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Your Buddha Nature

Recently I wrote about the concept of a person’s “Buddha nature.”1 I defined this as “the core person, the undefiled person, the being that lives deep in our consciousness, beneath our changing opinions, random ideas, and restless seeking after advantage. This deep being is naturally attuned to the universe and its ways. It is receptive to ideas of reciprocity, balance, acceptance, peace, loving kindness, and other elements of ‘the good.’ This is the person we were meant to be before we became enmeshed in the chaotic disturbances and passions of life and went off to pursue vain and fanciful things. Buddha nature allows any human being to reach enlightenment.”

But now, given what I wrote more recently about personal honesty,2 I wonder if it’s even possible for any human being to find, let alone acknowledge and identify with, this deeper nature.

It would be nice if, buried deep within our minds, our brain’s circuitry, and our everyday interactions, each of us were to harbor an innocent soul. This would be a child of unblinking objectivity, looking out on the world without favor or fear, living in undaunted expectation of balance and harmony, ready to take things and people as they come, having no preconceptions, and passing no judgments. This child would be practically selfless in its approach to the world, giving and taking easily and effortlessly, and not bothering to count its change.

But what am I saying? That’s not a child! As anyone knows who has raised a baby, socialized a toddler, or attempted to correct a teenager, the child is all about itself. The fresh-born human is at the focus of its own universe. Its hungers and needs are paramount. Its disappointments are earth-shattering. Its likes and dislikes are finite and final. Yes, the baby can be distracted long enough to smile at a rainbow or a butterfly—once it has learned to focus its eyes, of course, and to recognize anything beyond its mother’s face—but as soon as the baby’s stomach rumbles or its diaper becomes wet, the center of attention returns to the child’s own life and needs.

Babies and small children have no “Buddha nature” in the sense of being ready to receive enlightenment. If by “enlightenment” we mean gaining a profound sense of the interrelationship of every object in the universe of things and of every perception and intention in the sphere of conscious beings, if we mean seeing past the illusions and misconceptions of the mind and finding peace, harmony, and reciprocity, then the childlike state is the polar opposite of enlightenment. It takes a dozen years filled with either gentle or harsh parental correction, followed by many bruising playground collisions, jarring disappointments, and unanswered cries for attention before a child learns that he or she is not the center of the universe. It takes a dozen more years of braggadocio and ridicule, blunders and embarrassment, unrequited loves and jealousies, and similar social abrasions before the teenager learns that his or her enthusiasms and opinions are not shared by the entire world—sometimes not even by one’s closest friends—and that the way things were done by his family, in her school and church, and in his hometown or state are not the standard of reason, comportment, and commerce for the rest of humanity. And some people, despite all the knocking about they get, never learn this.

Perhaps we have no “Buddha nature” at all. Perhaps the naked human has no enlightenable “deep core” being. I’m reminded of a cartoon I saw while working at the engineering firm, where the deadlines came quick and fast, orders and opinions often clashed, and crisis was always imminent. The cartoon depicted a man in profile with a frenzied look on his face. The side of his skull had been cut away, showing his brain and the rest of his head held down by coil springs that were near the breaking point. And the caption read: “Don’t be silly! Tension is the only thing holding me together!”

Perhaps the only forces driving some people are their passions and fancies. Or their seeking after personal, social, political, or economic advantage. Or their sense of duty, instilled in them by a demanding parent, an impressive teacher, or an intimidating drill sergeant. Or they are impelled by their fears and angers. Or their sense of moral or ethnic superiority. Perhaps we are all just surface, and what we are thinking, feeling, wanting, and imagining right now is all that is real or meaningful in our world.

As a sidelight … I have done battle with two great addictions in my life: one to tobacco, the other to alcohol.3 I was finally able to kick both habits—although some dozen years apart, and after many false starts in either case—and in the process I learned a powerful lesson. Until the drug of choice had fully left my system and I had developed other habits that did not depend upon its consolations, I would find myself making random, offhand propositions to myself in order to get the smoke or booze back into my mouth. Out of the blue, perhaps from the subconscious, maybe from the limbic system—the brain’s seat of emotions, motivations, and behaviors—would come a preverbal suggestion. “You’ve had a rough day. You deserve a drink to make you feel better!” Or, “You’ve had a great day. You deserve a drink to celebrate!” Or, “You’re stressed out now. You need a smoke to relax!” Or, “You’ve got some time on your hands. Wouldn’t a smoke taste wonderful now?”

What finally occurred to me—and so saved my resolve—was that, no matter the situation, consuming the drug of choice always appeared to be the right answer. Luckily, I had enough logic and sense of proportion left in my mind to realize that these random notions—“You need a drink!” “You need a smoke!”—were foreign and inimical to my decision not to drink and smoke. From this reasoning, I understood a basic truth: the mind is a monkey when the body wants its candy.

We have long been taught that logic, reason, and our perceptions of the truth are things external to human ideas and emotions. We believe these patterns stand alone and represent something solid and reliable as an expression of some kind of absolute reality. But I learned in fighting my addictions that it is the body itself and its hungers which represent the deeper truth. The baby still lurks down there, wanting its candy and awaiting the execution of its imperious will. And logic and truth are simply a form of camouflage, sand to dash in your mind’s eye, shiny objects to distract your intelligence and determination, while the hand reaches for the pipe and tobacco pouch—I was a pipe rather than cigarette smoker—or for the corkscrew and wine glass. The mind is a monkey when the baby is not getting what it wants.4

If we have a “Buddha nature,” then it is not some integral part of the human body, or the central nervous system, or the natural, undeveloped mind. It does not exist from before we were born, representing some undiluted or pure state of being. It is not a sweet child waiting deep in our minds, wanting to look out on the world with charity and compassion. Instead, Buddha nature is a mental construct. Like most good habits and desirable states of mind, it must be perceived, nurtured, and adopted through careful practice.

Like everything else that is aspirational in the human condition, “Buddha nature” is a conscious desire and a learned response.

1. See A God I Can Believe In from October 19, 2014.

2. See The Truth About Personal Honesty from July 5, 2015.

3. Which leaves Snickers® bars and caffeine as the fights of my old age. Eventually, I will probably give up the candy—but the coffee, never!

4. Conversely, one might argue that the resolve not to give in to addiction was an aspect of my “Buddha nature.” If so, it was a part of me that had to be manufactured decision by decision, in real time, and with constant vigilance. This resolve was an act of conscious will and not something natural to any deeper being.