Thoughts and Opinions

Digesting Reality

After I gave a short talk on We May Be Wrong, one man who heard me suggested I might want to read “Seeing Like a State,” by James C. Scott.  Along with Scott’s more recent book, “Against the Grain,” it has had a profound effect on my thinking.

Scott is a Professor of Political Science and Anthropology at Yale.  His subtitle, “How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed,” gives a clue to his thinking.

Seeing Like a State begins with a description of forestry practices in late eighteenth century Prussia and Saxony.  The forest, Scott reminds us, was a complicated, diverse ecosystem, consisting not just of varieties of trees, but of bushes and smaller plants, of foliage that was useful for fodder and thatch, of twigs and branches from which bedding was made, of bark and roots for the making of medicines, of sap for making resins, of fruits and nuts available for consumption, of grasses, flowers, lichens, mosses, and vines – not to mention being a habitat for fauna from insects and frogs to birds and foxes and deer, and a place human beings used for hunting, gathering, trapping, magic, worship, refuge, poetry and (he didn’t mention it, but I will –) love.

But the German state was focused on a single aspect of the forest – the commercial value of its timber.  In a series of steps recounted by Scott, the German state essentially redesigned its forests in order to maximize timber production and increase the wealth of the German state.  The consequences ultimately proved disastrous – for the state, its citizens, and the forest itself.

From this and a variety of other examples, Scott generalizes:  “Certain forms of knowledge and control require a narrowing of vision.” State action has frequently failed, says Scott, not because the particular state is politically leftist or rightist, wise or inept, forward or backward-thinking, but because its focus is the sort of abstract overview a state must adopt in order to manage a complex system based on whatever fundamental principles it chiefly values.  The connection to WeMayBeWrong  is suggested most strongly when Scott writes, “If the utilitarian state could not see the real, existing forest for the (commercial) trees, if its view of the forests was abstract and partial, it was hardly unique in this respect.  Some level of abstraction is necessary for virtually all forms of analysis (my emphasis).

If Scott’s next book is called “Thinking Like a Human Being,” I suspect I’ll like it, too.  For isn’t some level of abstraction necessary, not just for all forms of state action, and all forms of analysis, but  for all forms of communication?  For all forms of thought?  Isn’t it true that to make sense of things, we have to select certain attributes to focus on, to the exclusion of others?  Aren’t we compelled to categorize?  To deal in types rather than specifics?  To oversimplify?  Surely we can’t possibly think in terms of every dachshund on every street in every town in every country of the world, not to mention all the individual dogs of every other breed – especially if we’re going to start comparing them to cats and birds and lizards and apes.  We can only get our mind around such large numbers of unique animals by lumping all those breeds and individuals together, ignoring all their differences,  and speaking of “dogs.”  How could it be otherwise?

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes, “The often-used phrase ‘pay attention’ is apt: you dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you try to go beyond your budget, you will fail.”  Or, as Daniel Gilbert writes in Stumbling on Happiness, “It is difficult to escape the focus of our own attention – difficult to consider what it is we may not be considering.”

We aggregate.  We categorize.  We stereotype.  We oversimplify.  As I see it, group unique things together based on certain similarities – despite other differences – is fundamental to the very way we think.

The lead story on the front page of last Sunday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch was about a twenty-six year old man named Ted.  According to the article, Ted had gotten into hard drugs including opiates, cocaine, and heroin.  He’d been fired from his job and had stolen from his girlfriend.  He’d spent time in jail periodically for assault, grand larceny, and violating probation.  A few days after release from jail, he entered a “sober house” for addicts seeking to beat their addictions.  He signed a contract with the facility that laid out the rules, including curfews, twelve-step meetings, and a specific provision that use of drugs was grounds for immediate expulsion from the house.

As one official was quoted as saying, “These sober homes are not locked down jail cells.  The kids come and go.”  When Ted showed up at his sober house a week later acting suspiciously, a required drug test was positive for cocaine and morphine.  When asked to submit to a drug search, Ted refused.  In accordance with the contract he’d signed, he was told he had to leave the house.  Together with another resident, he did.  That was late on a Friday night.

On Saturday, Ted and the other man did some work for a landscaper.  Saturday night, Ted was exchanging text messages with a girlfriend in Florida and with the landscaper, who was asking about Ted’s plans for Sunday.  But on Sunday, Ted’s body was found on the side of a country road not far from where we live.  He had died of an overdose of fentanyl, cocaine and heroin, presumably consumed later that Saturday night.

Alright – it’s a tragic story, but what does it have to do with Seeing Like a State?  Or with WeMayBeWrong?

Ted’s picture was printed, rather large, on the front page of the paper, along with a headline that read, “The System that Was Trying to Help Him Crumbled.”  The article’s subtitle was “Death in Chesterfield Highlights Gaps in Care for Addicts Living in Sober Homes.”  According to the article, Ted’s grieving mother was “strongly critical” of the sober house’s conduct in telling him he had to leave, rather than releasing him to someone who could give him “proper care.”  What that might have entailed and how it might have worked is far from clear to me.  Apparently, calling a probation officer late on a Friday night is problematic.  Even had he been reached, would Ted’s probation officer have been able to locate Ted, or do anything that would have led to saving Ted from his final overdose?

But what I find interesting is the acclaim of “experts” calling for a standardized fix to the system. Interviewed for the article, the head of an unrelated recovery program said “operators of recovery homes need to have policies for making sure residents get the care they need when they test positive for drugs.”  The grieving mother posted a letter on another website to the effect that recovery facilities “MUST have a protocol, a plan of action” in such cases.  When interviewed for the article, the President of the National Alliance for Recovery Residences said that all fifty states should have laws requiring all sober houses to be certified – by them (state affiliates of the N.A.R.R), or by organizations like them.  Such certifications, he said, would be based on “clear policies,” “trained staff” and “approved standards.”   The grieving mother’s complaints that the “system” had “crumbled” became the headline the Times-Dispatch gave to its coverage.  That newspaper’s attention had caused the Virginia Association of Recovery Residences (V.A.R.R.) to schedule a vote, this coming month, “to create a uniform policy for what operators of sober homes should do when someone relapses.”

No less so than central governments, private organizations like the N.A.R.R. and V.A.R.R. meet, and analyze, and sometimes vote (depending on how democratic they are) to determine the best method of dealing with categories of problems.  Once these entities identify “best methods,” they seek to encourage or require others to adhere to them.  Hence the call for uniform policies, approved standards and “certifications” by these organizations.  But in Ted’s case, amidst all the calls for uniformity, written policies, standards and certifications, I fail to see the connection between such proposals and the conduct of this particular house, and this particular drug addict.  And I wonder whether all the sober houses of the world should be treating all the drug addicts of the world in a “uniform” manner when they relapse, as if all members of the category ought to be treated the same.

Understandably, the grief-stricken mother believes that releasing her son to “proper care” would have made a difference.  Understandably, she believes that the “system crumbled.”  It’s harder for me to understand why a newspaper headlines its story about Ted with that same diagnosis – that  the lack of – or deficiency in – a “system”  was the cause of the tragic event two days later.  And I wonder why organizations like the Virginia and National A.R.R.’s see written policies, uniform standards and certificates of compliance as the answer to problems like Ted’s – until I remember that those same organizations would be the ones setting the standards and issuing the certificates – in other words, “thinking like states.”

But I don’t think it’s just states.   Gilbert, again: “[M]uch of our behavior from infancy onward is simply an expression of [our] penchant for control.  Before our butts hit the very first diaper, we already have a throbbing desire to suck, sleep, poop and make things happen… Toddlers squeal with delight when they knock over a stack of blocks, push a ball, or squash a cupcake on their forehead.  Why?… The fact is that human beings come into the world with a passion for control…”

The questions raised by Ted’s tragic death and by Professor Scott’s books include whether uniform standards and systems imposed by any central authorities, public entities or large private corporations or associations,  are capable of fully addressing the complexities and fluidity of the world.   Large organizations, says Scott, can only operate based on uniform standards applied to categories shaped along lines that are capable of centralized, standardized administration.  By their nature, standards are uniform across whol categories. They are also meant to be relatively permanent in the face of constant change – permanent in the sense of controlling things until some newer, wiser “standard” is discovered and deemed worthy of taking its place.   But if the lack of uniform standards is the answer to Ted’s problems and the rest of the world’s problems, what do we make of the German approach to forestry?  Of the widespread use of DDT?  Of the failure of the Soviet Union?  Of the unbridled use of petrochemicals by private industry?  Of the increasing tendency for “superior” (but genetically uniform) corn to be planted all across America?

These days, science has become acutely aware of the dangers of monoculture when it comes to crops, wildflowers, bees, viruses, and all species of living things.  It was standardization that killed the forests of Saxony.  Diversity in the gene pool of flora and fauna is recognized as the best long term protection against an ever larger list of catastrophes – both the few that we’re aware of and the many we’re not.   The Supreme Court has before it a case in which Harvard University stresses the importance of diversity in its admissions practices, and most of the universities in the country support Harvard as to that importance.  . More and more, I hear scientists and psychologists speak of the impossibility of predicting the future, so that any scheme designed to protect us from the most visible threats may well subject us to others not yet perceived.  Yet in the face of growing concerns about monoculture and the importance of diversity, cries for standardization and uniform solutions continue from people convinced they know what’s best for us all.

According to Scott, the tendency of authorities who’ve decided they “know what’s best” to impose those ideas uniformly, in a “one-size fits all” manner, is a serious problem, and whether those authorities are private or public, totalitarian or democratic, they do so only after over-simplifying the world.   They design their systems like monocultures, giving precedence to a few priorities in an extremely complex and inter-dependent world that is, in the end, a forest (of one sort of another).   “Certain forms of knowledge and control require a narrowing of vision.” “Some level of abstraction is necessary for virtually all forms of analysis.”

Or, to borrow a thought from Jean Paul Sartre, quoted by Scott: “Ideas cannot digest reality.”

Perhaps, yet another reason that we may be wrong.

– Joe

Please follow, share and like us:
Follow by Email

Loaded Words

My starting place today is the word “ostensible.”

I came across it recently in a newspaper article here in Richmond – not an Op-Ed piece, but a “straight news” report about current events.  The article was about a public meeting.  In inviting the public to attend, the meeting’s sponsor had stated its purpose.  I count myself among the strong critics of the outcome of the meeting..  But to my way of thinking, while the outcome deserved criticism, the announced purpose of the meeting had been bona fide.  To my knowledge, there was no reason to question the honesty of the announced purpose, and the article itself certainly offered none.  Yet the news report had referred to the “ostensible” purpose of the meeting, as if to suggest the negative outcome had been the sponsor’s intent.

“Ostensible” is one of those words lawyers use when writing legal briefs,  which are intended to be the most one-sided (i.e., biased) types of writing known to man.  In their legal briefs, lawyers intentionally use words with multiple shades of meaning, some neutral and some “loaded.”   Dictionary definitions of “ostensible” include words like “apparent,” “surface,” “seeming,” and “pretended” – but there’s a difference between “apparent” and “pretended.”  If a lawyer writes that the weather was apparently pleasant the day an accident occurred, there’s no reason to think the word means anything but “apparent.”   But if she writes that the plaintiff’s injuries were “ostensibly” caused by the accident (though they were only noticed after the visit to her lawyer), well, everyone knows that “ostensible” means “pretended.”  Faked.  Using a word that could simply mean “apparent” becomes a subtle way of calling the plaintiff a good-for-nothing, bold-faced liar and all-around scoundrel.

Closing statements to a jury, like advocacy in legal writing, are full of such loaded words – words the lawyer who uses them can defend as objectively accurate on the basis of the facts proven at trial, but which, tucked into their underbellies, carry belittlement, accusation, or condemnation.  (If the reference is to one’s own client or witness, of course, the words are loaded with suggestions of reliability, honesty and wholesome character.)

When commercial advertisements boast about revolutionary new products that will make you feel young again and are “free” for the first hundred callers, most people recognize the hype for what it is.  But lawyers addressing judges and juries have to persuade their target audiences more subtly, which is to say, while seeming to be neutral.  Words like “ostensible” fit their needs well.   And that, I believe, is where they have a great deal in common with news reporters.

The field in which I spent most of my life was labor and employment law, a field which is practically all about bias.  Decades in that field convinced me that the vast majority of bias in the world – I mean well upwards of 95% – is unconscious.  Hardly anyone thinks they are biased.  A person who acknowledges, say, being anti-Semitic, doesn’t think he’s biased – he thinks Jews deserve his scorn.  Members of the KKK generally think blacks, Jews and Catholics are lesser beings, or dangerous, or whatever – their own thinking on the matter is clear-headed and objective – anything but biased.  And obviously, liberals don’t think they’re biased against conservatives, nor do Republicans think they’re biased against Democrats.

I defended hundreds of people during my legal career who were accused of bias of some sort, and every one of them expressed sincere outrage that anyone could accuse them of being biased.  I see precisely the same reaction when members of the news media get attacked for their perceived bias.    Indignation!  Sincere outrage!  Journalists pride themselves on not being biased, period.

So in considering media bias, I don’t think in terms of rooting out the journalistic equivalents of Klaus Barbie or Adolf Eichmann.   Sure, there are a few hack journalists who purposefully express outrageous opinions in order to appeal to only one side of the political spectrum while inflaming the passions of the other.  But there’s far more unconscious bias in the media.  It appears on all sides of the various political spectra.  Indeed, I’d like to know how it could be any other way, bias being a natural product of culture.  (Talk about loaded words  – “culture” is a good thing, “worldview” neutral, and “bias” bad.  But for our purposes, what’s the difference?)

Even in the face of Herculean efforts to escape its influence, I doubt it’s ever possible to be bias-free, to escape the influence of one’s culture, or to have no world-view at all.  I’m waiting for some reporter to answer an accusation of bias with, “You’re right, of course, but I’m trying really hard to change.”  (Now that would earn my respect for objective reporting.)

Where am I headed with all this?  I have a proposal.  In this day of fake news and counter-accusations of same, we now have a plethora of “fact-checking” sites.  Snopes.  Politi-Fact.  Etc.  My excitement for them quickly wore off when, time and again, the analyses supplied by the fact checkers struck me as containing the same sort of unconscious bias I see in the media.  A politician claims that “taxes have been rising lately.”  Is it true?  The “fact-checkers” interpret the meaning of “taxes” to mean federal income taxes, interpret “lately” to mean the past five years, decide to look at grosses, or averages, or families or individuals, and based on all those interpretations and assumptions, declares that the politician’s assertion that “taxes have been rising lately” is “true” or “false” as if they’re God handing tablets to Moses.  Personally, I don’t mind when a politician phrases things to support his or her position – as I see it, they’re supposed to advocate for what they believe.  But when self-appointed guardians of objective truth betray their biases, my blood pressure starts to rise.

After avoiding the news for ten years, I decided some months back to pay regular attention again.  I subscribed to the newspaper and I decided to record the evening news on my DVR.  I tried BBC, Fox, the three major networks, and others.  It was no surprise to me that Fox was different from CNN – even with my head in the sand all those years, I’d heard about their reputations – but of greater surprise to me was the difference between the evening news on ABC and CBS.  I didn’t compare them long enough to notice a single instance in which either “choice of story” or “facts reported” caused me to conclude that one was more accurate or objective than the other.  (As far as I know, Polit-Fact would have concluded that everything both networks said was true.)  But I noticed a marked difference in the use of “loaded” words, even down to the subtlety of calling a three-day-old story “breaking news.”  I wish I’d kept a notepad at hand to record examples, but night after night, story after story, I found one network using language I’d have been proud to use as a lawyer advocating a particular point of view, trying to arouse emotions through word choices, while the other did not.

So, can anything be done about media bias?   Back when I was practicing law, I aimed for enough ostensible accuracy to come across as objective while intentionally loading my arguments with as much advocacy (bias) as I could muster.  I exploited language to support my cause.  My sense is that news reporters do very much the same thing as lawyers, albeit (in most cases) unintentionally.  And my question is this: Can we not investigate this phenomenon more scientifically?

I’ve always thought that the way we speak is one of the most reliable windows into how we think.   As I understand it, part of textual criticism is a sub-discipline of linguistics that analyzes the subtleties of word usage and style in order to do things like identify authors – to show, for example, that the Book of Genesis was written by multiple people with different writing styles.  Hollywood, at least, depicts experts who analyze ransom notes and diaries to generate profiles of serial killers, based on patterns of word usage.   I propose that in some school of journalism, linguistics or political science, there are scholars who might explore the feasibility of doing the same sort of textual criticism of news coverage.  Not to pronounce whether a particular story was accurate or not, but to come up with a way of assessing the frequency of “loaded” words or phrases, or other subtleties of language  — patterns or other characteristics of speech which  suggest a tendency to “color” stories.

A panel of philologists might create a list of a thousand words like “ostensible” which have a neutral meaning but are loaded with pejorative connotations.  They might create another list of words with both neutral and positive connotations.  A third list might contain words with no “load” at all.  With modern technology, it ought to be easy to scan every news report written in the New York Times for the past year, or to transcribe every report on Fox or BBC World News Tonight, getting a huge sampling of word usage, and a resulting take on how much the reporter, or network, or other news source, injects positive or negative connotation into their stories.

Or, say, scan a thousand articles from Newspaper X dealing with indicted or scandalized politicians.  Group them according to the political affiliation of the accused.  Then count how frequently the political affiliation is mentioned.  If scandalized Democrats are identified as Democrats three times in every five hundred words, while scandalized Republicans are identified as Republicans only once, that might be pretty good evidence the newspaper has a Republican slant.

I’d find it very telling to see that one ostensibly objective news source used “loaded” words three times as often as another.  Or that words like “ostensible” are used to describe politicians in one party more than those in another.  I feel sure that my examples suffer from the fact that I’m not a professional linguist, but I feel sure we have the technology and scholarship to engage in a more scientific study of bias in news reporting.  I’d find it a far more objective method of assessing media bias than any I’ve heard about elsewhere.

— Joe

Please follow, share and like us:
Follow by Email

Is it Still the 4th of July?

I thought I’d update my post of July 4th on the subject of immigration — where I pointed out I had no strong views on the subject, decried the media’s exclusive focus on pure emotion to fuel an already acrimonious debate, and described the beginnings of my request for data.

As I said then, I found that the United States has below-average population density compared to the rest of the countries in the world.

Since then, I’ve looked at the U.S. population as a percent of estimated world population, over time.  In 1776, the thirteen colonies accounted for about one quarter of one percent (.25%) of the world’s population.  By 1800, it was over a half a percent; by 1850, nearly two percent; and by 1900, it had reached 4.61%., as the vast open country experienced westward expansion.

For most of the twentieth century (1910 to 1980) U.S. population remained between 5.09% and 5.92% of world population.  Then, in 1990, it dropped to 4.7%.  In 2000, to 4.6%.  In 2010, to 4.5%, and in 2016, to 4.4%.  The population of the world has been growing, it seems, but for the past half a century, the U.S. has accounted for an ever smaller part of the whole.

I subjectively selected thirty-seven countries to look at, from the CIA’s World Factbook,  comparing their immigration rates for the five year period from 2007 through 2012. In choosing my subjective sample, I tried to include a variety of rich and poor, high-density and low-density counmtries, etc.  I included both Switzerland and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, both Hong Kong and Greenland.  But I intentionally over-included the countries of North and Central America, and the more industrialized countries of the world.

Of these countries, the U.S. immigration rate was somewhere in the middle – gaining 15 immigrants for each thousand people during 2007-2012.  That was a lot more immigration than countries like Honduras, Ireland and Spain (which lost 10, 30, and 12 people per thousand, respectively) but a lot lower than countries like Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Australia and Lebanon (which gained 74, 28, 33, 45, and 253 people per thousand, respectively.)  Hmnnn…

Yesterday morning, a good friend forwarded a link to an animated graphic on the subject of U.S. immigration since 1820.   I wasn’t sure what to make of it, at first.  The graphic made clear that immigration numbers have grown a great deal between the 1820’s and the decade from 2000 to 2010 – from a total of 128 thousand immigrants in that early decade to a total of over ten million in the most recent one.  Does that enormous increase in numbers mean that immigration to the U.S. has skyrocketed?

It seems not.  Compared to the size of our population, the immigration rate is within historical norms.  Between 1830 and 1900, average annual immigration ranged from a low of 4.2 people per thousand in the 1830’s to a high of 10.5 in the 1880’s.  The rate peaked during the 1900-1910 decade at a rate of 10.8 per year, then dropped significantly to 6.9 during the 1910’s and 4.1 during the 1920’s.   During the 30’s and 40’s when Depression and World War reigned, it dropped to a very low 0.6 immigrants per thousand, but in the 50’s and 60’s it rose to 1.8, and by the 1980’s it had risen to 2.8.  It then reached another peak, in the 1990’s, of 3.9.  In the first decade of this century, it dropped to 3.7, and between 2010 and 2013, it fell again to 3.3.  Hmnnn…

This morning, with all these numbers swirling in my head, I finally located the CIA’s data on Gross Domestic Product per capita – one simple indication of wealth – and added this data to my tables.  The comparison bore out the assumption that immigration rates are higher in wealthier countries.  The “wealthiest” ten of my thirty-seven countries had an average immigration rate of nearly 25%, while the poorest ten had an average immigration rate of negative 7 percent.  As expected, people apparently leave poor countries to go to wealthier ones.  Imagine that.

I was particularly interested to see how the U.S. immigration rate compares to the other “wealthy” countries I included in my sample.  Here’s what I got about the wealthiest dozen of those countries:

Country Pop density/ sq. km. GDP per capita Net Immigration rate per thousand over 5 yr period 2007-2012
Singapore 8,188        90,500 74.91
Ireland 71        72,600 -30.52
Switzerland 199        61,400 47.8
Hong Kong 6,490        61,000 20.97
U.S. 33        59,500 15.94
Saudi Arabia 13        55,300 28.82
Iceland 3        52,100 1.18
Sweden 22        51,300 28.64
Germany 225        50,200 15.54
Australia 3        49,900 45.01
Canada 3        48,100 33.84
U. K. 265        43,600 14.13

I have no idea why people are leaving wealthy Ireland.   Having spent a few hours in Iceland, I can guess why people aren’t flocking in droves to get there.  But of the rest of these dozen wealthy countries, the U.S., the U.K. and Germany have the lowest immigration rates.  The U.S. ranks eighth of twelve.  And our population density is far lower than the U.K.’s or Germany’s.

Maybe the data don’t provide clear and compelling answers about immigration policy, but the data I’ve been looking at make more sense to me than only thinking about grieving mothers and crying babies.   The population of the world is increasing faster than the population of the U.S.  There are more people wanting to enter the U.S. than the U.S. currently allows – or has allowed, for quite some time.  We are not alone in this, among wealthy countries.  Whether due to population densities, economic opportunities, cultural attractiveness or dangers at home, people want to move to wealthier countries.  I feel lucky that I live in one.

But I’m starting to feel I now have enough data to start thinking about the answers to questions that I think should guide immigration policy.

1) Should U.S. policy be driven by what’s best for Americans, or best for the world?

2) U.S. population growth resulting from birth rates and death rates has been declining of late.  Might higher rates of immigration in some sense replace a desirable growth rate resulting from native births?

3) Should we, rather, be trying to limit immigration, as well as the domestic birth rate, with an eye toward creating an enclave of stable low population in a world destined for over-population calamity?

4) The figures above relate only to legal immigration.  Estimates of illegal immigration raise different questions. Is there an analogy to Prohibition here?  That is, does the U.S. have a high rate of illegal immigration because we have a relatively low rate (compared to other wealthy countries) of legal immigration?

5) Is it time to bar entry to criminals and terrorists, and otherwise open our borders?  What would happen if we did?

6) Is it time to create a two-tiered America, a citizen class and a non-citizen class, with a managed means for earning passage from one to the other over time?

I’d welcome thoughts from any quarter about such questions.  Meanwhile, I have to close by thanking my daughter for the quotation from Epictetus that I added to the WeMayBeWrong website yesterday: “It is impossible for a man to begin to learn that which he thinks he already knows.”

— Joe

Please follow, share and like us:
Follow by Email

Feeling Blessed on Independence Day

On the fourth day of July, I tend to reflect on how lucky I am.  Having been born in America, I enjoy  prosperity, security and opportunity to a degree that surpasses the vast majority of other people, whether born in past centuries or the present one.  Tears have come to my eyes upon hearing a band play the Star Spangled Banner, or upon reading the words of the Declaration of Independence: that “all men are created equal;” that “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” entitle all people to “equal station;” that our common Creator has endowed all of us  with certain inalienable rights, which include “the Pursuit of Happiness.”  Feeling much the same way I do, we Americans will celebrate our love for our country today with hot dogs, beers and fireworks, not to mention speeches and tributes paid to the land we’re so blessed to call our own.

This year, as I count my blessings once again, immigration policy is much in the news.  I find myself reflecting on the accident of birth that puts me in this privileged place.

The concept of citizenship began in the ancient world as a set of rights and responsibilities attaching to those born in places like Athens or Rome where democracy was born.  Later, there came a time when a non-citizen could gain the privilege of citizenship by serving in the army.   It has always made sense to me that a person willing to put his or her life on the line for a country should earn the benefits of citizenship in it.  If veterans feel a degree of pride in their country, I get that.  They defended it; they deserve to be proud; it’s easy to agree they deserve to benefit from membership in that society.

But I am not one of them.  As I approached the age of military service in 1970, a new system was instituted in which conscription depended on the accident of one’s birth.  I was lucky again.  My birthday was so far down on the list, I knew right away I’d never be drafted to fight in Viet Nam.  I could have volunteered,  but I chose instead to finish school, get a job, and start a family – reaping the benefits of the prosperity, security and opportunity my country offered me.  It’s easy to thank those who’ve fought for this country; but it’s hard for me to conclude that I, who did not serve,  deserve to be here.  I mean, some of my ancestors fought for this country.  They arguably earned their citizenship.  Did they earn mine, too?  Or was mine simply an accident of my birth, like my lottery number?

We’ve been hearing two types of news stories on immigration policy these days.  From one side, we get Donald Trump meeting with the mother of a youth murdered by an illegal alien; behind her are crowds waving banners, demonstrating  for “zero tolerance,” anxious to build walls on our borders.  Some of us wonder if our President believes that people born in other countries are mostly criminals, anxious to steal our jobs and our welfare money, if not our wallets outright.  From the other side, we get photographs of crying babies separated from their parents; behind them are politicians proclaiming that children belong with their families, and protesters waving banners, pointing fingers at the statue of liberty and wanting to abolish I.C.E.  Some of us wonder if they believe everyone in the world should be eligible for American food stamps, health care, and taxpayer-funded schools.

There aren’t too many issues about which I have no opinion, but I can genuinely say that immigration policy has long been one of them. Frankly, I’ve never thought about it much, until recently.  But seeing the photos of crying babies and grieving moms, I questioned whether I could form an opinion about our immigration policy on the basis of the news our media outlets share.  For me, the answer was a resounding no.  I mean, a lot more Americans get murdered by American citizens than by illegal aliens.  And we separate children from their parents all the time, through mandatory education, custody hearings, foster care, imprisonment of criminals, and (at times) military conscription.  How could I decide my position on our immigration policies based on a barrage of soundbites of crying children and grieving mothers?

After reflection, I decided I was wrong.  Emotional appeals do have a place in the debate.  But surely not the only place.  If I’m going to form an opinion,  I want to have data.  Even to have a civil, intelligent conversation  about immigration, I feel a need for data.  How much immigration do we currently allow?  How much immigration do other countries allow?  How does the rate of immigration to the U.S. compare to U.S. population growth stemming from the accident of birth in this country?  Genuinely lacking any opinion on the immigration debate, I want answers to such questions.  I  value them at least as much as the emotional soundbites the news media showers me with.    But no one in the media, and no one on either side of the debate, seems interested in giving me that sort of information.  So finally, last night, I started to do, for myself, what I think more responsible news media should be helping me with.    I decided to look for a few basic facts.

The first things I Googled on were population density and population growth.  Oddly enough, in both cases, Google took me to information maintained by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.  (Hmnnn.  Think about that for a while.  Then check out the CIA’s “World Factbook,” at and  Should a country’s immigration policy have anything to do with population density or current population growth?  I had a gut feeling it might, or I wouldn’t have Googled on population density in the first place.  But if population density is relevant, why?  How ought it affect my thinking? I didn’t know why,  but  my taste for data about populations led me to the CIA.

I haven’t finished my search for data by any means, and I still haven’t taken sides about immigration policy, but here’s what I’ve found so far:

The planet has a land mass of 129,721,455 square kilometers and a population of 7.6 billion people. Global population density is therefore, on average, 58 people per square kilometer.

The United States has a land mass of 9,158,160 square kilometers and a population of 325,700,000 people. U.S. population density is therefore, on average, 33 people per square kilometer.  In other words, America is only a little more than half as densely populated as the world as a whole. “Is this relevant?” I ask myself.

The world’s highest population densities are in countries like mostly urban Singapore, with its tiny land mass and a population density of 8,188 people/  The lowest densities are in mostly uninhabited countries like Greenland, which has only .03 people /  Does the fact that Greenland is a vast, sparsely populated area mean that Greenland ought to be able to accommodate more future population growth than urban Singapore?

Despite the enormous existing difference between Greenland and Singapore, the population of already-crowded Singapore is growing by 1.82 percent every year – while the population of Greenland is growing by only 0.03% every year.  Hmnnn…   Is it because urban Singapore has greater natural resources and so can support more people?  Is it because more people want to live in Singapore?  Should the answer to either question have a bearing on Singapore’s immigration policies?  Or on ours?  (Come to think of it, should all countries base their immigration policies on the same set of values and goals?)

Obviously, there are differences of climate, topography, and natural resources between all countries. Should such differences be considered in comparing the capacity (or obligations?) of countries to grow their populations? If a country has more natural resources and more habitable land than its neighbors, should it absorb a greater share of the world’s population, or should its current citizens do what they can to keep those resources and that land for themselves?

With such questions in the back of my mind, I decided to do some more comparisons, using the CIA data on population density and annual growth rates for about 235 countries around the world.  (Notably, the CIA data combines net population changes from immigration and emigration with changes from births and deaths, to come up with a single figure for population growth rate.   I’d be interested in breaking the total growth rates into separate components, but haven’t yet found a source for that sort of breakdown.)  In the meantime, with the data already found, I began by comparing the United States to the world as a whole:

Country Square km of land Population Density/km Annual % Population Growth


58 1.06
Average country (of 235 total)




United States

    9,158,960 33


Does this bare-bones data bear on what U.S. immigration policy ought to be?  Does it suggest additional inquiries that ought to be made?

I then compared the United States to the other major economic powers that comprise the G7.  In descending order of population density, they are:

Country Square km of land Population Density/km Annual % Population Growth
Japan 366,700 334 0.21
United Kingdom 241,930 265 0.52
Germany 349,130 225 0.16
Italy 294,110 206 0.19
France 547,566 104 0.39
United States 9,158,960 33 0.81
Canada 9,093,510 3 0.73

Compared to the other G7 countries, the United States and Canada have by far the lowest population densities; they also have the highest rates of population growth.  What factors contribute to this?  Why is the U.S. growing so much faster than Germany, Italy, and Japan?

I then compared the United States to other countries arguably in the same league as the U.S. in size, modernity, culture or prosperity.  This one, too, is in order of population density:

Country Square km of land Population Density/km Annual % Population Growth
South Korea 96,460 513 0.48
Israel 21,649 399 1.51
India 2,973,190 389 1.17
China 9,388,250 143 0.41
Spain 500,210 96 0.78
Ireland 68,890 71 1.15
United States 9,158,960 33 0.81
Brazil 8,358,140 24 0.73
Sweden 410,340 22 0.81
Argentina 2,736,690 16 0.91
Saudi Arabia 2,149,690 13 1.45
Russia 16,389,950 8 0.08
Australia 7,682,300 3 1.03

Countries like Israel, Ireland, and India are already far more densely populated than the U.S., yet are growing far faster.  Russia is far less densely populated than the U.S., and it is hardly growing at all.  What is driving these differences?

Finally, because so much of the current attention is on immigration through Mexico  from Central America,  I decided to compare the U.S. to those countries:

Country Square km of land Population Density/km Annual % Population Growth
El Salvador 20,850 293 0.25
Guatemala 107,160 141 1.75
Costa Rica 51,060 96 1.16
Honduras 111,890 80 1.60
Mexico 1,943,950 63 1.12
Panama 74,340 49 1.27
Nicaragua 120,340 46 0.98
United States 9,158,960 33 0.81
Belize 22,810 15 1.80

With the exception of Belize – which is less than half as densely populated as the U.S., but growing more than twice as fast – all the countries in this table have significantly higher population densities than the U.S., and all but one are growing substantially faster.

There’s a lot more data I’d like to have.  GDP and per capita income comparisons might be relevant. (I have a pretty good idea that the U.S. would be at the top, but how strong a correlation exists between a country’s prosperity and its population growth, more generally?)  I’d also like to break population growth into separate numbers for birth rates, death rates, and immigration.  (Is all that growth in Guatemala coming from babies, or are people immigrating there?)

You may question why I started with population density, and population growth, at all.  Should immigration policy be driven by entirely different considerations?  Maybe so.  But in the mean time, the data I’ve collected has already started influencing my thinking more than media sound bites.  More than 75% of the countries in the world are already more densely populated than the U.S.   Meanwhile, the populations of more than half the countries in the world are currently growing faster than ours.  It doesn’t seem to me we can base immigration restrictions on an argument that we’re overcrowded, or already growing too fast, compared to other countries. Or is there some reason we still could?

Without any data comparison at all, my gut tells me that among the nations of the earth, our climate is among the most habitable, our land among the most fertile, and our economy among the most robust.  In fact, along with the ideals on which our country was founded, those blessings have a lot to do with my tears on the Fourth of July.    I’m therefore ready to ask whether the right immigration policy – whatever it might be – should be judged on what most benefits the people lucky enough to be born in this country, or the policy that we’d counsel other countries to adopt if we made a swap — if they had our land, population  and natural resources, and we had theirs.   Our Declaration of Independence declared that all men share the same inalienable rights.   Is it fair to ask whether we’ve become like passengers on a crowded lifeboat, deciding who most deserves a seat?  Would an argument that immigration policy should be designed to benefit only those already here boil down to anything more than lunch counter’s policy of “First come, first served”?

Since the news media has no desire to give me anything but tears and protest signs, crying children and grieving mothers, I’d be interested in hearing reasoned opinions about stricter or more lenient immigration policy.  But meaning no offense to the individuals in media soundbites, and (I hope) no lack of sympathy for their personal trials, I believe the media has shared enough of the partisans’ appeals to passion and emotion.    I want more data!  And along with it, I want more civil discussion about what the goals of any immigration policy ought to be — ours included.

Meanwhile, I’m still feeling blessed to be able to call myself an  American, still feeling lucky to have been born here.

To all (whether lucky or not) I wish a blessed Fourth of July.

— Joe

Please follow, share and like us:
Follow by Email

There’s Nothing Like a Really Good Shower

Like many of you, I do some of my best thinking in the shower.  Have you ever wondered why?

Last night, my attention turned to the simplicity around me.  I was standing in a tub, with three walls and a shower curtain bounding my world.  Before me, four items of chrome: the shower head, a control plate, a faucet, and a drain.  At my side, a soap dish, a bar of soap, and a bottle of shampoo.  Once I’d turned the water off, there was nothing more.

When I opened the curtain, there was plenty more to see: a vanity, a mirror, a toilet, a pair of towel racks hung with towels, a bathrobe hanging from a hook on the door.  But as I inventoried this expanded-but-still-small world, I realized there was no end to the counting: three pictures on the walls, light fixtures, a light switch, a door knob, brass hinges, a toilet tissue dispenser, baseboards,  two floor mats, a patterned linoleum floor, and no fewer than twenty-six items on the vanity, from deodorant and toothpaste to a tub of raw African shea butter.  Two of the twenty-six items were ceramic jars, filled with scissors, tweezers, nail clippers, cotton swabs, and  other modern necessities.  Most of the items were labeled, little sheets of paper glued on them, each little sheet bearing product names, ingredients, and warnings in tiny fonts and a wide array of colors.

Early in fifth grade, Paul Czaja had our class use a sheet of paper, telescoped into a tube, to survey our surroundings.  The idea seemed too simple – easy to dismiss because we already “knew” the result.  But actually trying it proved us wrong.  Paul insisted that, one eye shut, we keep the other at one end of the scope for five minutes; he wouldn’t let us stop or look away.  Forced to view our classroom from these new perspectives, we were amazed at how different it became.  Desks, windows, blackboards and classmates disappeared, replaced by a tiny spider web  that trapped an even tinier bug in a corner; the pattern in the grain of a piece of wood; a piece of lint trembling in an unseen movement of air like a piece of desert tumbleweed.

As I toweled dry after my shower, the world of things too small to notice most of the time came into sharper focus.  My attention turned to things I go through life ignoring.  From the confines of my bathroom, I took stock of the unseen.

The room, I supposed, and no doubt my own body, were covered with bacteria.  (I might have found that thought abhorrent once, but today, nourished by probiotics and kombucha tea, I find it comforting.)   In the empty space between me and the mirror, I imagined all the even smaller things I couldn’t see, the atoms of nitrogen and oxygen, the muons and the quarks, the billions of things that swirl around me, unseen, though I breath them in and out, and though they sustain me.

I thought of things in the bedroom and the hall, and the things out in the yard, and things so far away that I couldn’t see them, even in the vast night sky beyond the bathroom’s walls because I don’t have X-ray vision and can’t see things more than a few million miles away.

But it wasn’t a matter of distance, size and walls alone that limited my sight.  I thought of all the colors I’d never be able to see, because the cones in my eyes don’t react to all the wavelengths of light that exist.  And  moving past the limitations of sight, I thought how oblivious I am to odors;  that every one of those ingredient labels lists chemicals and molecules  easily distinguishable by dogs, probably despite their containers, but all those stray molecules float into my nose unnoticed.

I hear but little of what there is to hear.  Some sounds are simply too quiet.  Others are loud enough to make dogs and teenagers come to attention,but too high pitched for my adult ears  to discern.  Others are at frequencies too low. And even dogs and teenagers hear but a tiny fraction of the oscillations that twitter, snap and buzz in the world around us.

Taste?  Surely, the world has more complexity to taste than five types of gustatory cells whose highest achievement lies in their ability – acting as a team –to distinguish  between  sweet, sour,  bitter, salt and savory.

And what about the things we call “forces”?  How often are we conscious of gravity?  If I focus on it, I can imagine that I feel the gravitational pull of the earth, but have I ever felt the pull of the moon?  And have I ever once thought about the gravitational pull of the vanity, the toilet, and the doorknob?  How often do I focus on the domino effect of the electrons hopping and pushing, connecting the light switch to the fixture?  And do I ever think of the magnetic fields surrounding them?  Unless I’m shocked by the sudden release of static electricity, I go through life completely oblivious to its existence .

Perhaps most of all, I’m unconscious of myself – the flow of hormones  that affect my mood; the constant traffic in my nervous system that never reaches my brain, much less my conscious thought; the processes of liver,  kidney and thalamus that keep me going.

In short, the world I experience, through my senses, is but a tiny fraction of the real world in which I live.

Yet that’s not all.  I haven’t even begun to count the ways my brain deceives me.  In fact, it wouldn’t be doing its job if it didn’t distort reality. The tricks my brain plays on me take the already small portion of reality I’m able to sense, and make it appear to be something other than it is.

My eyes see two different views of the world, but – as if it’s afraid I couldn’t handle multiple points of view – my brain tricks me into thinking I see only one.

When I turned off the shower, my world was completely silent – or so it seemed.  I’d heard the cessation of the water coming down.  It being late at night, there were no voices from downstairs, no television blaring, so my brain told me – convincingly – that the bathroom was silent.  Only when I closed my ear canals by pressing flaps of flesh to cover them did I realize that the hum of ambient background noise was now gone.  That noise had been so normal, so much a part of the ordinary, that my brain had convinced me it wasn’t there.  (My highly evolved brain still wants to know: What’s the use of  listening to background noise?)

Early on, my brain tricked me into thinking that some things are up and others are down, and that up and down are the same everywhere.  (I spent a lot of time as a child worrying about the people in China.)  And it was so intent on perpetuating this deception that when my retinas saw everything in the world “upside down,” my brain flipped the world around to be sure I saw everything “right side up.”

One of the brain’s most convincing tricks is what it does with my sense of touch.  It has convinced me  I’m doomed to a life in touch with the ground;  I’ve often regretted my inability to fly.  But in fact, I’m told, the stuff of which I’m made has never  come in contact with the ground, or with any other stuff at all  – if it had, I’d have exploded long ago.  The sense of touch might better be called the pressure of proximity.  All that time I dreamed of  flying, I was floating all the while!

How about my  sense of who I am?  I wonder if that’s not the biggest trick of all.  When my body changes with every bite of food, every slough of skin, every  breath of air I take, no present cell or atom there on the day I was born, is my very sense of self an illusion, created by my brain “for my own good”?

And so I surveyed the bathroom.  Having first considered  the things too small to notice,  or too quiet, or too far away, or at not the perfect frequency, and having then considered ways my brain tricks me, I next encountered a whole new category of deception.  As my eyes fell on various objects, I noticed something else my brain was doing.  For example: on the toilet tank was a vase full of flowers, but not real ones— pieces of plastic, molded and colored to look like real ones.  Another example: one of the pictures on the wall was of a swan and her cygnets – not a real swan, but a mixture of acrylics applied to a canvas, a two-dimensional image designed to give the illusion of life in a three dimensional pond.  The painting was designed to make me think of something not there, and it did. I didn’t think “acrylics,” I thought “swan.”   And as soon as it had done that, my brain had me thinking of the artist – my wife, Karen – and of her skill with a brush,  and of her sense of color, and of some of the many ways in which she’s blessed me through the years.  And I realized that all these mental associations, these illusions, these memories, form an extremely important part of the reality in which I live, despite the fact that they don’t reside in the  space between me and the mirror (at least not literally).  The flowers in the vase are just molecules of colored plastic, but  my brain gives them a fictional existence – a story of smells and bees and fresh air and blue sky, and all the associations that “flowers” evoke in my brain.  The swan and her cygnets remind me not only of a wife who paints, but of our children, and of times we walked  together, along water banks, watching swans and cygnets swim by. My mind, I realize, is a factory, churning out a never-ending assembly line of associations, all of which are things that “aren’t really there.”

And so, I conclude, I’ve spent a lifetime in a shower of a different sort –bombarded by  atoms, muons, quarks and dark matter, things so small I call them emptiness,  all the while pulling associations, memories, and narratives into my world that aren’t really there.

When I say they aren’t really there, I don’t mean to deny that Karen, and swans, and flowers, are real – but that memory itself is reconstructive.   My memories are hardly exact replicas of things I’ve experienced;  they’re present creations, constructed on the spot in a crude effort to resemble prior experience.  The result is affected by my mood, and by error, and by all sorts of intervening experiences.

And so, I  live in a world that isn’t the real world, but one extremely limited by my meager human  senses; one corrupted by a brain that’s determined to distort things, for my own good; one filled with the products of my own defective memory and my own boundless tendency to imagine things that aren’t there.  Somehow, I’m able to deal with the shower of inputs so created, over-simplified, distorted and augmented as it may be – in fact, I’m pretty well convinced that I can deal with it a lot easier than I could deal with the vast complexity of the “real thing.”

I woke up this morning hoping that I never lose sight of the difference between the two.

— Joe

Please follow, share and like us:
Follow by Email

The Last Word

With much sadness, I have just now changed this website’s description of one of We May Be Wrong’s founding members – from the present tense, to the past.

In 1960, a 24 year old Dr. Paul Clement Czaja (January 9, 1936 – May 8, 2018) had just earned his Ph.D. in philosophy when he persuaded Nancy Rambush (then headmaster of the Whitby School and founder of the American Montessori Association) to let him teach existential philosophy to children.  She was impressed with his enthusiasm and his willingness to work for practically nothing, but since she thought parents might not understand the importance of teaching philosophy to children, she asked if he wouldn’t mind teaching other things as well.  So Paul “officially” taught creative writing, Latin and various other subjects not often taught to ten year olds.  But philosophy was his first love, and it found its way into everything.

Only fourteen years older than me, Paul was more an older brother than a teacher.  He showed me how to love the world around me; introduced me to the joy of learning everything I could about it.  The way a magnifying glass could make fire; the way Latin could turn language on its head yet still come out as modern English; the thrill of catching butterflies in nets; the way the Greek Alphabet could be painted with Japanese brushes and jet-black ink; the vital inner parts of dissected foetal pigs; the wonders of the Trachtenberg system of mathematical calculation; the wiggling of microscopic paramecia in pond water; the thrill of catching people and their stories with a 35 millimeter still camera, that of making our own stories with  a 16 millimeter movie camera, and then, the even weirder thrill of telling stories with frame-by-frame, stop-motion photography; the writings of Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, and James Baldwin; the power of telling stories of our own  with just pen and ink.  We spliced and edited rolls of movie film we’d made and, somehow, we even enjoyed diagramming sentences, rummaging through grammar the way we searched for the Indo-European roots of words. Though I was not yet a teenager, Paul introduced me to Ingmar Bergman movies, to Van Gogh’s Starry Night, to Rodin’s The Thinker, and to Edward Steichen’s photographic exhibition,  The Family of Man.

To say the least, it was not your typical middle-school education.

They say that when a butterfly flaps its wings, it can have profound effects on the other side of the world – a concept I first heard from Paul, I’m sure.  If I hadn’t met him, he wouldn’t have written the recommendation that got me into Phillips Exeter, and I wouldn’t have… well, if a single butterfly flapping its wings can have a profound impact, having Paul as a teacher every day (winter and summer) for four impressionable years was like being borne to Mexico by millions of Monarchs.  We stayed in touch during my later school years, and then persisted in friendship as the difference in our ages seemed to vanish with the passage of time.  And so, I was pleased that he joined We May Be Wrong in 2016 as one of our founding members.

But now, it’s time for a confession.  As we tried to get our new website off the ground, Paul proposed that WMBW publish a poem he had written.  Being a man of great faith, Paul wrote a lot about God – prayers, poems, meditations.  When he proposed that WMBW publish his poem, I disagreed on the ground that I didn’t want the brand new website to come across as “pro” or “anti” anything controversial.  I didn’t want to risk alienating potential followers, be they liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, believers or non-believers, by implying some sort of hidden agenda.  (The ONLY agenda was to be the benefit of listening to others with an open mind.)  Holding the keys to the publishing platform, I declined to publish his poem lest it be misunderstood to evangelize about God, rather than fallibility.  But even then, I told him, once the website has been up for a while, we might be able to publish that sort of thing.

Well, the time has come.  I wish I’d published it before he left the earth he loved for the better one he yearned for.  For Paul,  I can only say a prayer of thanks for all he did for me, and for so many other children, and now, share his wonderful poem.  (It seems only right that he should have the last word.)

Fire in the Soup: A Creation Story

It happened


this earth

had just cooled down


being molten magna

to being


and steaming




the vaporous skies

had emptied

eons of towering cumulus

clouds of rain

making oceans


were so great


the whole sphere


much more a watery world,


the rocky land


but one large

continental island


in the middle

of a now

beautiful blue planet.


And then

when the heavens

were no longer


by that thick


of sulphurous cloud cover,


the earth’s atmosphere


pure and clear



the stars of the universe

to shine

so brightly


the night sky

seemed to be


with black peppery dots,



that a flame

came streaking

through the sky


to earth


the warm soup

of the sea





that chemical mineral ooze


the very first


that ever was

on this

so singular planet.



when that protozoa

eventually became





the idea


that perhaps

that life causing



once upon a time


the oceanic soup

could be

the pure energy

that is




that were



all life


ever evolved


that first protozoa

would be




of the eternal God —







God is love.

Such a thought

seems to be

a happy,

hope filled,


kind of


–Paul Clement Czaja


Please follow, share and like us:
Follow by Email

Love and Long Life

I just got back from a foray into the unfamiliar.  The unfamiliar nearly always gets me thinking (which is why I love it so).  And sometimes, you get another WMBW post as a result.

In this case, the experience wasn’t entirely unfamiliar.  It was my fiftieth high school reunion.  But as familiar as some of the attendees were, I encountered people different than the ones I had known fifty years before. Older, of course.  And wiser, I should hope.

There was a meeting of former classmates, a discussion session, planned as an exchange of ideas.  I was scheduled to speak briefly on the subject of We May Be Wrong.  The moderator who kicked off the session – now a well-known author and psychiatrist – began with the assertion that it is Love – along with the treasured relationships that bind us together on account of Love – that is the single best predictor of having a long life.  In study after study, said the moderator, the correlation between a long life and a life that includes friendships and social relationships with loved ones and friends is strong – stronger, in fact, than with any other predictor.  By returning to campus because of our bonding, we had self-identified as people who, on average, would lead a long life.

I do not doubt such research results.  I instinctively feel that the proposition is true.  It resonates with my WMBW perspective.  I immediately bonded with the speaker, sensing we had much in common.  And as I waited for my turn at the podium, I hoped my message would be well received.  I looked forward, in other words, to increasing the bond between my audience and myself.  I wanted to feel more of that love, even if it didn’t add a few more hours to my life.

But then, the assertion was made that one reason we classmates had so bonded as to travel from across the country, and even from some other countries, to reassemble fifty years later, was that our common enemies had created an especially strong bond among us.  The school’s Dean during our years in school was identified as one of them; when a class member suggested we take time to share stories about the man, there was no shortage of volunteers.  (Needless to say, all the stories were about how inhuman and unfeeling he was, and every one was welcomed with nods, and laughter, and more love.) President Lyndon Johnson was another target, and the Vietnam war: both were identified as things we all opposed, things that brought us together in love and portended well for our future longevity.

The moderator then said we ought to be proud, describing us children of the sixties as the generation that had changed the course of America by championing love, peace, and understanding.

In fact, between 1964 and 1968, I and a few other nerds had been members of the Young Americans for Freedom.  If you’re too young to remember it, the YAF was a student group that supported the war in Vietnam and other conservative political positions.  What’s more, I’d never had a run-in with our dean.  While in school, I had had a problem identifying with all the “bonding love” my classmates felt; during my years there, I’d felt shunned and ridiculed by them on account of my minority beliefs.  The ridicule led me, in those vulnerable years, to withdraw from my politically-charged peers.  To keep my political views to myself.

As I recalled these teenage experiences, I found myself contemplating something that had been said at breakfast that morning by a different attendee.  She had cited recent scientific research to the effect that the electro-chemical activity in the brain that occurs when we are with loved ones, feeling the bonds of strong community, is precisely the same as the activity occurring when we come together and hate (or at least disapprove of) those not within our group.

This, too, struck me as all but self-evident.  After all, why is it that having a common enemy causes us to unite, to feel comfort,  security, and all the ties that bind?

A few minutes later, when I got up to speak about We May Be Wrong, I found that some things hadn’t changed from fifty years earlier.  I still hoped my thoughts would be well received.  I still wanted to feel some of that love.  To belong to the tribe.

The world is a lonely place, from the outside, looking in.

– Joe

Please follow, share and like us:
Follow by Email


In 1595, the early English explorer and colonist, John Davys, wrote in The Worlde’s Hydrographical Discription, Thomas Dawson, London,

“There is no doubt that we of England are this saved people, by the eternal and infallible presence of the Lord predestined to be sent into these Gentiles in the sea, to those Isles and famous Kingdoms, there to preach the peace of the Lord; for are not we only set on Mount Zion to give light to all the rest of the world? *** By whom then shall the truth be preached, but by them unto whom the truth shall be revealed?”

In the 1850’s, the Reverend Augustus Longstreet – president of a leading American University and minister of the Lord – wrote to his son-n-law regarding the unreasonable behavior of his slaves:

“The creatures persistently refuse to live together as man and wife, even after I have mated them with all the wisdom I possess, and built them such desirable homes.”

About the same time, the famous case of the slave, Dred Scot, wound its way up to the Supreme Court of the United States.  On its way, the Supreme Court of the state of Missouri found that one of the key issues before it was whether African slavery really did exist for the benefit of the slaves.

Of course, we’ve come a long way since then.  In 1997, Robert Hendrickson wrote, in The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Checkmark Books :

“cretin.  Our pejorative cretin, for “an idiot,” began as a kindly word.  In the Middle Ages many deformed people with a low mentality lived in the Alpine regions, their condition resulting from a thyroid condition now known as myxedema, which was possibly caused by a deficiency of iodine in their drinking water.  These unfortunates were called Chrétiens, “Christians,” by the Swiss, because the word distinguished human beings like these people from brutes, and they believed these childlike innocents were incapable of actual sin.  But the kindly word went into French as cretin, meaning “idiot,” and retained the same meaning when it passed into English.”

It leaves me wondering: if our best navigators, University presidents, and supreme courts can be such cretins, where does that leave the rest of us?

Honk if you love word origins.

– Joe

Please follow, share and like us:
Follow by Email

Zooming In

Neil Gaiman tells the story of a Chinese emperor who became obsessed by his desire for the perfect map of the land that he ruled. He had all of China recreated on a little island, in miniature, every real mountain represented by a little molehill, every river represented by a miniature trickle of water.  The island world he created was enormously expensive and time-consuming to maintain, but with all the manpower and wealth of the realm at his disposal, he was somehow able to pull it off.  If the wind or birds damaged some part of the miniature island in the night, he’d have a team of men go out the next morning to repair it.  And if an earthquake or volcano in the real world changed the shape of a mountain or the course of a river, he’d have his repair crew go out the next day and make a corresponding change to his replica.

The emperor was so pleased with his miniature realm that he dreamed of having an even more detailed representation, one which included not only every mountain and river, but every house, every tree, every person, every bird, all in miniature, one one-hundredth of its actual size.

When told of the Emperor’s ambition, his advisor cautioned him about the expense of such a plan.  He even suggested it was impossible.  But not to be deterred, the emperor announced that this was only the beginning – that even as construction was underway on this newer, larger replica, he would be planning his real masterpiece – one in which every house would be represented by a full-sized house, ever tree by a full-sized tree, every man by an identical full-sized man.  There would be the real China, and there would be his perfect, full-sized replica.

All that would be left to do would be to figure out where to put it…


Imagine yourself standing in the middle of a railroad bed, looking down the tracks, seeing the two rails converge in the distance, becoming one.  You know the rails are parallel, you know they never meet, yet your eyes see them converge.  In other words, your eyes refuse to see what you know is real.

If you’re curious why it is that your mind refuses to see what’s real in this case, try to imagine what it would be like if this weren’t so.  Try to imagine having an improved set of eyes, so sharp they could see that the rails never converge.  In fact, imagine having eyes so sharp that just as you’re now able to see every piece of gravel in the five foot span between the rails at your feet, you could also see the individual pieces of gravel between the rails five hundred miles away, just as sharply as those beneath your feet.  In fact, imagine being able to see all the pieces of gravel, and all the ants crawling across them, in your entire field of vision, at a distance of five hundred miles away.  Or ten thousand miles away.  What would it be like to see such an image?


How good are you at estimating angles?  As I look down those railroad tracks, the two rails appear straight.  Seeing them converge, I sense that a very acute angle forms – in my brain, at least, if not in reality.  The angle I’m imagining isn’t 90 degrees, or 45 degrees; nor is it 30, or even 20.  I suppose that angle to be about a single degree. But is it really?  Why do I estimate that angle as a single degree?  Why not two degrees, or a half a degree?  Can I even tell the difference between a single degree, and a half of a degree, the way I can tell the difference between a 90 and a 45?  Remember, one angle is twice as large as the other.  I can easily see the difference between a man six feet tall and one who’s half his size, so why not the difference between a single degree and a half a degree?  What if our eyes – or perhaps I should be asking about our brains – were so sharp as to be able to see the difference between an angle of .59 degrees and one of .61 degrees with the same ease and confidence we can distinguish between two men standing next to each other, one who’s five foot nine and the other six foot one?


Yesterday, I was preparing digital scans of my grandfather’s Christmas cards for printing in the form of a book.  His Christmas cards are hand drawn cartoons, caricatures of famous personalities of his day.  Each is clearly recognizable, from Franklin Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler to Mae West and Mickey Mouse.  Some of the images were scanned at 300 pixels per inch, some at 600 etc.  Reflecting on pixel counts and resolutions so that my printed book would not appear blurry, I was testing the limits of my ability to distinguish different resolutions.   Of course, one neat thing about a computer is how it lets us zoom in.  As long as I zoomed in close enough, I could see huge differences between two versions of the same picture.  Every pixel was a distinct color, every image (of precisely the same part of the caricature) a very different pattern of colors  – indeed, a very different image.  Up close, the two scans of the cartoon of Mae West’s left eye looked nothing alike – but from that close up, I really had no idea what I was looking at – it could have been Mae West’s left eye, or Adolf Hitler’s rear end, for all I knew.  In any case, I knew, from my close-up examination, how very different the two scanned images of Mae West actually were.  Yet, only when I was far enough away was I able to identify either image as being a caricature of Mae West, rather than of Hitler, and at about that distance, the two images of Mae West looked (to my eye) exactly the same.


How long is the coastline of Ireland?

If I took a yardstick and walked the perimeter, I could lay my yardstick end to end the whole way around, count the number of lengths, and conclude that the coastline of Ireland was a certain number of feet long.  But if I used a twelve inch ruler instead, following the ins and outs of the jagged coast a little more precisely, the result would be a larger number of feet than if I had used the yardstick, because the yardstick was assuming straightness every time I laid it down, when it in fact the coastline is never perfectly straight.  My twelve inch ruler could more  closely follow the actual irregularity of the coastline, and the result I obtained would be a longer coastline.  Then, if I measured again, using a ruler that was only a centimeter long, I’d get a longer length still.  By the time my ruler was small enough to follow the curves within every molecule, or to measure the curvature around every nucleus of every atom, I’m pretty sure I’d have to conclude that the coastline of Ireland is infinitely long – putting it on a par, say, with the coastline of Asia.


How many rods and cones would my eyes have to contain, for me to be able to distinguish every ant and piece of gravel in every railroad bed, wheatfield and mountainside within my field of vision, at a distance of five hundred miles away?  How much larger would my brain have to be, to make sense of such a high-resolution image?  I suspect it wouldn’t fit inside my skull.


Why did we, so recently, believe that an atom was indivisible? Why did it take us so long to identify protons, neutrons, and electrons as the really smallest things?  What did it take us until 2012 to decide that that, too, was wrong, that not only were there quarks and leptons, that the smallest thing was the Higgs boson?  And not until 2014 that particles existed even smaller than that?


Given how long it took us to realize that our solar system was just one of billions in our galaxy, and how much longer to realize that our galaxy was just one of billions of galaxies, why are we now so confident of our scientists’ estimates of the size of the Universe – especially when told that the “dark matter” and “dark energy” they say accounts for most of it are just names given to variables necessary to make their equations come out right?  That, apart from their usefulness in making these equations come out right, the scientists have never seen this stuff and have no idea what it is?  Is it really so hard for us to say, “We simply have no idea”?


A human baby can distinguish between the faces of hundreds, even thousands, of human faces.  But to a human baby, all chimpanzees look alike. And to most of us Westerners, all Asians look alike.  Why do babies treat Asians and Chimpanzees like the rails of railroad tracks, converging them into “identical” images even when we know they are different?  Did our brains  evolve not to maximize perception and understanding, but to make them most efficient?  In other words, are we designed to have limited perception for good, sound reasons, reasons that are important to our very survival?


Why do we think, and talk, and act, as if our brains are capable of comprehending reality, in all its vast complexity?  Is it more efficient to feed and maintain fewer rods and cones, than it would take for us to feed and maintain enough of them to see the difference between quarks and Higgs bosons, or the individual pieces of gravel between the railroad tracks on all the planets of  Andromeda?


Mirror, mirror, on the wall: tell me, can I really achieve, within my brain, a true comprehension of the Universe? Or am I just like the Emperor of China?

– Joe

Please follow, share and like us:
Follow by Email

Have an Argument Today…

Ever try to change someone else’s mind?

Consider the option of having an argument with them.  Arguments can be very convincing.  In fact,  in scientific study after scientific study, it’s been demonstrated that in 99.7% of all arguments, each participant has convinced himself that he’s right.

– Joe




🙂   🙂   🙂

Please follow, share and like us:
Follow by Email