It’s not just the 1%. The upper middle class is oppressing everyone else, too.

“What’d I do, officer?” – Me. “Breathing while ‘well-to-do.’ ” – The Income Police.

Busted! Or at least strongly accused. Or possibly run off the road by vigilantes. Whatever the case, the headline grabbed my attention.

The title read, “It’s not just the 1%. The upper middle class is oppressing everyone else, too,” for an article by Jamie Peck in The Guardian. I am aware of the widening “income” gap between the upper middle class and the middle class and various rationales for why this has been happening. I just hadn’t come across any attempts to pin it on a broader swath than just the 1%, or the more generic “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” I took the bait. I clicked.

The first thing I learned is that this is a short opinion piece about a larger opinion piece, the book Dream Hoarders by Richard Reeves (which I haven’t read, relying here on my best secondary source, Jamie Peck).

Reeves defines the upper middle class as those earning $120,000 a year or more (whew, that leaves me out. Never made that cut once. But, I wonder, is that for individuals or couples?). According to Reeves, not only is this group widening the gap in income with those below them, but they are also hoarding opportunities in a way that makes it difficult for any outsiders (or below-ers, I guess) to climb into it. No argument on the first claim, but that second one needs some scrutiny.

It seems the argument originates from Reeves’ (and Peck’s) assumption, paralleling the majority of the media and politicians, that life and the American economy (or any economy for that matter) is purely a Zero-Sum game. That there are only so many good jobs, spots in elite colleges, and tony area codes to go around. If someone else gets one, then you don’t.

The identified flaw, apparently, is not that there is direct classism, but rather that the upper middle class use their privileged state to give their children a head start (nice choice of words, there, I think) and set them up to succeed from the beginning, from well funded schools through to nice internships, “because of who they know.” (Peck adds, “only the upper crust can afford to do unpaid internships,” apparently forgetting that many a successful corporate executive or CEO began in the mailroom, some only after arriving as an immigrant with only a few dollars in their pockets. I sense that the word “initiative” is not in either of their vocabularies.)

“By the time they enter the job market, they have considerable advantages over everyone else. And then they inherit vast sums of wealth. All the while, they use the myth of meritocracy to justify their position.”

Wow. I feel as if I have been slapped in the face with a dead fish (one that, apparently, also took the click bait). A couple of quick thoughts:

  • “…they have considerable advantages…” Highly likely to be true. However, most of these advantages consist of a series of sequential events:
    1. They had certain skills and talents;
    2. Someone recognized these and challenged them to develop them;
    3. They chose to respond to the challenge;
    4. They demonstrated these developing skills, and received feedback from superiors;
    5. They received recommendations from people with proven skills in recognizing credible talent (i.e., not family members);
    6. They then moved into a competitive environment where they not only had to continue to demonstrate these skills (i.e., produce); but
    7. Then had to demonstrate the ability to further develop and execute new skills, levels of proficiency and good decision-making (i.e., adapt and grow).

From my experience, this sequence is like a chain – break the chain at any link and you go back and either start over or start earlier. Or you give up and don’t. It’s called Performance Gravity.

Those “high incomes” referred to? They are primarily attained when one reaches the seventh step, not when one starts somewhere in the first four steps.

  • “…And then they inherit vast sums of wealth.”Not likely to be true at all (perhaps this is another form of emotional clickbait to induce one to read further). Not only is this not true of the upper 20%, it is not true of the 1%, and may only be true of the 0.1%, at best. I’ll return to this later. The remark seems to imply that we are now subject to class overlords similar to the landed aristocracy of earlier centuries in Britain (and elsewhere). There is ample discussion of the minimal influence of the idea of inherited wealth in America in Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
  • “… they use the myth of meritocracy to justify their position.”Yes, there is always some form of “old boy club” involved in climbing up the career ladder, only today we call it “networking” and develop software and get-togethers to make sure we are connected. But even the “networking” follows the seven steps above to a high degree. In retrospect, I can say that more than 80% of my career moves occurred through a relationship with someone I knew (“networked” with) professionally. However, in all of those cases their impression of me was due to validating me through the “sequence of events” mentioned above. And in the other 20% of career moves, I had to validate the sequence myself.

Moving on to the article’s next paragraph,

“On a micro level, these behaviors are understandable. What parent wouldn’t do everything in their power to ensure the best possible life for their children? But carried out on a mass level, they lead to what Reeves characterizes as a “less competitive economy, as well as a less open society”.

Hmmm. Another feint followed by a slap. If I understand this correctly, what is expressed is that for each of us, as parents with children, this behavior is acceptable, a form of Survival of the Fittest, or One against the World. But if a whole lot of people, acting as individuals who independently develop and practice the same skills and behaviors “on a mass level”, then it is more or less a conspiracy and intentional oppression of those who have not developed the behavior. Interesting. It’s as if when two or more people gather together with similar behaviors, they become Takers perpetrating a Negative Sum Game on the rest of the world. I suspect there is also something missing here, but I will return to this below.

“While it might feel good to hate these people and/or convince them to hate themselves for hoarding all those dreams, that’s not ultimately going to solve anything.”

Ok, so I think I’ve been whipsawed from “understandable” and commendable behaviors (“What parent wouldn’t …”), to the unintended consequences of these behaviors (“… they lead … to a less competitive economy…”), to outright accusation of intentional oppression (“… convince them to hate themselves for hoarding all those dreams …”).

Now I’m beginning to detect a fly in the ointment. To whit,

“Rampant inequality is not the fault of a class of people doing exactly what anyone would do in their position but a political and economic system that incentivizes and enables them to do so. (Don’t hate the player, hate the game.) It follows that the solution is not individual and moralistic, but collective and political.”

And there she is, still wiggling. Consider this,

  • “Rampant inequality is not the fault of a class of people doing exactly what anyone would do in their position, …” (Oh, thank heavens. I was really beginning to think …)  Yes, there is inequality, but data suggest it is not as wide a gap as in other countries nor is it as polarized as presented. And one traditionally designates a “class” by birth characteristics, not by chosen accomplishment or earned characteristics. To do so creates a wider chasm between “them” and “us” (whoever “them” is). But since this sentence has been crafted in an absolute form, let me counter with one crafted from the other side of the coin, one with more than a hint of validity but scrupulously avoided because it is not PC, “Rampant inequality is also contributed to by another class of people not doing exactly what anyone would do in their position …” More on this below.
  • “… but a political and economic system that incentivizes and enables them to do so. (Don’t hate the player, hate the game.)” (Gee, it’s nice now to clarify that one shouldn’t hate the player after such an excellent job of fixing the blame on him up to this parenthetical remark.)  Yes, there is a political and economic system, in fact, possibly two. One, which is generally passive, provides a framework of freedom and opportunity for an individual to develop and become the best that they can be (“develop” here directly implies motivation and the exertion of energy. Like most competitive games, it requires learning the rules and how to play by them well. And ethically.). The other system, layered on top of the first, is an active system that either provides various forms of “help” that very often incentivize and enable the recipients not to do exactly what any motivated person would do in their position, or imposes forms of “obstruction” or “punishment” for those who do what any motivated person would do in their position, and succeed at it.
  • “It follows that the solution is not individual and moralistic, but collective and political.”  And that, of course, is the next logical conclusion once one has first decided that the individual plays no role (except when they are successful) and second, that the current 2nd political and economic system has not sufficiently corrected the issue. This is right out of the playbook written by Daniel Moynihan, which appears in The Central Liberal Truth,

“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

This is a perfect example of Either/Or thinking. Actually, the greater truth is that both views are right to an extent, and both approaches are needed to change a culture, starting with the individual.

Closing thoughts and other comments pushed to “More on this below”

One basic question that came to mind early on was, “What income sources were included in the $125,000 income cutoff used to define the Upper Middle Class?” Is it only earned income (income from labor, working any job), or does it also include unearned income (income from investments and other capital, for example). The question is actually critical. I will presume the data arise from US Census and tax data, which would mean it includes both.

At the same time the same data would show that a preponderance of the capital that produces unearned income is concentrated in the upper 50% of the population. This raises the next basic question, “Why?”

First, data indicate that 80% of the English speaking world does not feel comfortable with math at all, especially in their finances. Further, 2/3rds of English speaking people cannot explain compound interest (the process by which deposited money grows with time because interest is reinvested – the Time Value of Money).1 As a consequence, the majority of the population is at odds not only with managing their monthly finances, but planning for the future as well.

Thinking a bit more broadly, I also suspect the following would be easily shown:

  • All people are born with certain gifts, skills and talents (potential);
  • Some people have these gifts recognized by family members or others, who then attempt to stimulate and develop them as needed life skills (capabilities);
  • Still fewer of these people are motivated (choose) to respond to the challenge of developing these skills and putting them to use (opportunities) with an eye to the future (success);
  • Others are not motivated (do not choose) to respond and develop them, and pass that attitude on (unintended consequence).

So, what might be a different factor in “income” and/or “wealth” inequality than is typically recognized?

How about: Choice. And in particular, either seeking and choosing to respond to opportunities, or choosing not to respond and leaving that as one’s legacy.

Supporting that idea is the article, America’s new tobacco crisis: The rich stopped smoking, the poor didn’t. Everyone has access to the same information on the link to cancer and health, so why would the poor, with limited income, spend $8 a pack on a dangerous habit? It’s not as if they haven’t been exposed to the information, the notification by the Surgeon General. So there must be a strong element of Choice, modified by a sense of belonging to a familiar group (a “poverty clan”) and needing to follow in the group’s behaviors, that is: Regression to the Cultural Mean.

Another distorted phenomenon is participation in state lotteries and dealing with winning. Research has shown that the majority of people who participate in state lotteries are those who can least afford it: a majority of players are below the average income. The chance to win big to close that money gap is far easier to comprehend (and choose) than understanding the risks and the near non-existent chance of winning. To top it off, even if someone wins, there’s a 70% chance they will burn through all of their winnings within 5 years, regardless of the amount (into millions). Lotteries do not buy happiness, nor financial savvy. This is so common that companies exist that will buy back a lottery annuity to bail people out of the deeper financial difficulty they put themselves into through not being able to manage their new found wealth.

How about this recent article, “Wealth managers are the driving force behind global inequality, according to a sociologist of the ultra-rich.” This deals more with those who are not playing the game by the rules, in this case ethically paying one’s fair share of taxes. Tax evasion was studied in 18 countries and the results indicated that there is a section of society that hoards and effectively oppresses the rest of the world by forcing them to carry more than their fair share of the tax burden. Graphically, these are the results from the article,

One needs to look carefully at the graph, particularly the horizontal x-axis: it is not linear. “P0-10” means “from 0% to 10%.” The segments to the left are in deciles, that is, lowest 10%, then the next 10%, etc., for the first 9 tick-marks up to the 90th percentile. Then the percentiles change: 90%-95%; then 95%-99%; then 99%-99.5%. What is important is that it is only those above the 99.95% percentile (the upper 0.05%) who evade taxes above the macro average of everybody else. It isn’t the 20%, or even the 1% who are hoarding! It’s the 0.05%!

Or, how about “14-year-old Warren Buffett’s first tax return shows he was making bank even as a teen.” He paid $7 in taxes on $592.50 of income in 1944. Included in that income was $228 in interest and dividend income – in other words, as a teenager, in the lower deciles of “income” and “wealth” (i.e., if considered a single wage earner he would be below the poverty level), he already knew about unearned income and chose to pursue it!

Buffett also declares in his interview and press release, that “My 2015 return shows adjusted gross income of $11,563, 931. My deductions totaled $5,477,694, of which allowable charitable contributions were $3,469,179.  … The total charitable contributions I made during the year were $2,858,057,970, of which $2.85 billion were not taken as deductions and never will be.”

One can play ethically by the rules, do very well, and put more back into aiding society and the poor than most government programs end up doing. This is more the rule than the exception, unbeknownst to most.

And speaking of government programs, consider, “Despite money and effort, homelessness in SF as bad as ever.” Despite all the money spent directly addressing homelessness ($275 million in 2016), the problem is as bad as ever in San Francisco. Too much of treating what others think the issue is.

And then there’s this, “Coins thrown into plane engine by elderly passenger for ‘luck’.” Clearly she wasn’t “poor” as she had enough coinage to throw away (for ‘luck’).

What one has to consider is that being “poor” covers more than just insufficient income or wealth (they’re different!). Being poor can also realistically concern physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual issues. After all, even though Jesus pilloried the Pharisees for failing to take care of the widows and the poor (and not just financially poor), he also said the poor would always be with us. Those unable to address their poverty should be taken care of. Those able to do something should be helped with actual needs, not wants.


In one sense I did enjoy the article and what parts of the book it used and referenced. It (and the must-read comments section) confirmed for me that much of what is already known, that poverty is not the result of rapacious financiers (or even a “class” of people) exploiting the poor,2 is inadequately understood or accepted. What we encounter is still built upon a foundation of Incomplete Information, that the thinking is too often Either/Or (combative, including incendiary journalism) rather than And/And (solution finding), that politics and society have superbly reinforced the General Negative Sum Attitude (“If I don’t have it, you must have taken it before I could, so I am entitled to get it back any way I can”), and that policies are too often based on Fixing the Blame. All the inevitable consequence of ignoring Gap Theory.

This must be the new American version of Saving Face.


1 The Ascent of Money, Niall Ferguson, p 12-13.
2 The Ascent of Money, Niall Ferguson, p 15.

Posted in 04: Games People Play, 06: Incomplete Information, 16: Culture, 17: Choice, Gap Theory | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Of Verbs, Circles, and the Cultural Mean

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!” – A child’s desperate retort.

Remember that refrain? Seems like a necessary staple that runs through every pre-adolescent’s life, reinforced by helpful friends and parents desperate to build up a tough skin.

Until one day the need for the refrain disappears, or seems to disappear.

The truth is, it doesn’t disappear. It just dips below the horizon, but words still exert their gravitational pull.

Julia Silge recently posted a follow-up piece about what verbs tend to occur after “he” or “she” in several novels. She looked at such cultural icons in 19th century English literature as six novels by Jane Austin, a few by George Elliot (another woman), and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. (I recall in high school I only had to read one of these, and it took me a long time. Silge, on the other hand, along with a few other bloggers who dove into this activity, resorted to coding a program to scan through a digitized literature database. They also kindly provided examples and links to their code so we, if so motivated, could engage in a similar exercise.)

Then, David Robinson, a coding colleague of Silge, followed up on this intriguing analysis and looked at Gender and Verbs across 100,000 stories.

What, might you ask, would we/could we learn from this fascinating exercise and treasure trove of information, information about gendered pronouns, verbs, coding, and digitized databases of hundred of thousands of stories of which we were no doubt completely unaware?

On the surface we would discover the following: the verbs (action words, remember, that express physical or mental action) that follow “he” and “she” tell us what behaviors the authors associate with their characters.

For Jane Austin’s novels, the “Verb” versus “Character Gender” table looks like this (from Silge’s post. As a note for clarity, these are the verbs skewed, or most predominantly following “she.” Thus, the verb “remembered” is associated with “she” 8 times more often than it is associated with “he.” And the verb “stopped” is associated with “she” 4 times less often (0.25x on the scale) than with “he” (in other words, 4 times more often with “he”). It took me a while to clear that up, being a scientist trained to always scrutinize any data plotted on a logarithmic scale.)

For Jane Austin and her 19th century reader’s culture, women’s actions appear to be more intrinsic (that is, internally experienced), while men’s seems to be more extrinsic (that is, externally expressed).

The results from Robinson’s analysis appear as follows (with a more understandable scale):

While the most prevalent verbs (physical or mental actions) change, the underlying apparent character attributes in this analysis are not too different (intrinsic versus extrinsic, except perhaps for the “stabs” action on behalf of women).

Fascinating! So from whence do these different (and supposed) gendered actions arise?

I propose that the answer is that we did it to ourselves. Those “words that will never hurt me,” the words that were contrary to how we wanted to see ourselves, became replaced by words that aligned with how we did see ourselves (for better or worse). While the “words that will never hurt me” disappeared below the horizon, the “words that define me” continued to circulate, repeated and reinforced by our culture: those around us, those in our closest circle or relational network, our Dunbar group.

In essence, it is the result of Regression (or Coercion) to the Cultural Mean, of being helped to conform to what our “culture” expects of us.

These quick exercises do seem rather broad, and Robinson suggested some valid questions for further study:

  • Is the shift (differing predominant verbs after “he” or “she”) stronger in some formats or genre than another? We could split the works into films, novels, and TV series, and ask whether these gender roles are equally strong in each.
  • Is the shift different between male- and female- created works?
  • Has the difference changed over time? Some examination indicates the vast majority of these plots come from stories written in the last century, and most of them from the last few decades (not surprising since many are movies or television episodes, and since Wikipedia users are more likely to describe contemporary work).

I, not surprisingly, came up with a couple of questions of my own:

  • Presuming that the digitized database is comprised of only English language stories (which seems to be the case), is there a shift in stories in other languages (which express “how people think” and is closely intertwined with a culture)?
  • Is there a shift associated within English speaking and writing subcultures?
  • Is there a shift detected generationally (i.e., the age when the authors wrote)?
  • And, to really nail down the current and active Regression to a Cultural Mean, is there a shift observed in current news and social media (which are already conveniently digitized).


Now, if you are beginning to think some people have too much time on their hands, the group is larger than you think.

The following exercise began with a simple request: Draw a circle. Go ahead. Take a pencil and piece of paper and quickly draw a circle. Don’t think too hard!

A post on Quartz by Thu-Huong Ha and Nikhil Sonnad followed up on this simple request. From their post,

Did you start at the top or bottom? Clockwise or counterclockwise?

In November, 2016, Google released an online game called Quick, Draw!, in which users have 20 seconds to draw prompts like “camel” and “washing machine.” While fun (Blog: for people who have too much time on their hands), its real intent is to use the sketches to teach computer algorithms how humans draw. By May of this year, the game had collected 50 million unique drawings.

Do you see the looming opportunity here? Time on one’s hands… 50 million drawings… Already digitized… And available on a public database… No time to lose.

And of great interest is what they found,

Our analysis suggests that the way you draw a simple circle is linked to geography and cultural upbringing, deep-rooted in hundreds of years of written language, and significant in developmental psychology and trends in education today.

The post is well worth the read, but some interesting facts are revealed in the data.

  • Americans tend (86%) to draw circles counterclockwise
  • Japanese tend (80%) to draw circles in the opposite direction (clockwise)
  • British, Czech, Australian, and Finnish circles were drawn like American ones, counterclockwise, with the same consistency (~86%)
  • Others are even more consistent: around 90% of French, German, and Filipino drawers submitted circles drawn counterclockwise
  • In Vietnam, a full 95% were drawn this way

Most of the world, it seems, draws circles counterclockwise, with just two exceptions: Taiwan and Japan.

A major aspect that sets cultures apart is language, especially in its writing, and the correlation seems to be fairly strong. From their data:


The authors looked at language attributes such as reading and writing from left to right or vice versa, and stoke sequence in writing. Their conclusion,

Together these studies show not only that culture and handwriting shape the way people draw abstract shapes; they also suggest our tendencies get stronger over time. The more we write, the more our habits become ingrained.

There are countless ways that we subtly, unconsciously carry our cultures with us: the way we draw, count on our fingers, and imitate real-world sounds, to name a few. That’s the delight at the heart of this massive dataset. To test our theories, we approached colleagues, friends, and family who write in Japanese, Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese, and, feeling a bit silly, asked them to draw circles. They gladly jumped in, wondering what their fingers would do, and eager to feel part of something larger.

What is revealing in these two, seemingly innocuous and frivolous studies is that with increased access to large datasets (of seemingly innocuous information), significant patterns can be identified and associated with cultural roots. Arnold Toynbee spent much of his life looking at volumes of written historical records in order to develop his magnificent A Study of History (previously covered beginning here). Thomas Piketty used not only historical records recently digitized, but computers to identify patterns and trends for his heftier Capital in the Twenty-First Century (something I am working on reading, patiently).

What is also revealed is, as indicated earlier, culture, which helps define how we think and who we are, has a more influential role in societies and nations that we have been willing to realize. But culture also defines who is not one of us, and that needs to be even more greatly taken into account as we continue to deal with a more globalized and ever shrinking world.

It doesn’t do any good to throw up barriers and bury our collective heads in the sand. We need to take the time to connect, listen, and understand each other, whether it’s individually, political parties, or nations.

Posted in 16: Culture, Lessons from History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Instant Inconsistencies

“Damn the torpedoes inconsistencies, full speed ahead!” – Just about Everybody.

Formula 1 has its Silly Season (rumors about which driver is moving to which team), but traditionally that happens only near the end of each year’s races.  It appears that the thrills of merely talking about F1 flip-flopping have mutated and spread into an actual world life-style: flipping year round while disregarding the flop (that is subtle.  I’ll wager you will have to research it. Don’t hesitate to ask.).

There is a lot going on in the entire world right now, and in case you are not up to speed on some of the more regionalized activities, I offer the following take from a good curating site I enjoy (Quartz; June 10th daily-brief newsletter):

Good morning, Quartz readers!

Voters—such fickle creatures. Just ask Theresa May. She campaigned against Brexit, then had to reinvent herself as a true believer in it when the British unexpectedly revolted against the EU and she was thrust into the prime ministership. Thinking she could solidify her majority, she held a snap election this week—but the public that had voted for Brexit turned on her and took away the Conservatives’ majority in Parliament.

Scotland, meanwhile, voted against independence from the UK in a referendum in 2014. The following year, in a general election, it gave the pro-independence Scottish National Party a landslide victory. Emboldened, the SNP campaigned for this week’s election on a promise to hold a second referendum. Result: It lost a third of its seats—most of which, adding insult to injury, went to May’s Conservatives.

Across the channel, meanwhile, consider Emmanuel Macron, who had never held elected office before winning the French presidency last month against established party grandees and the far-right’s Russian bot army. This Sunday, his brand new party looks set to sweep the first round of parliamentary elections, defying predictions that a centrist message wouldn’t resonate across hundreds of diverse local races.

It seems our desire for instant gratification has conquered politics. Voters are channel-hopping, snacking on ideologies and political styles, moving on as soon as they’re bored. In that light, Donald Trump is a political genius: His slippery, shifting positions on just about everything command attention and perfectly reflect the restless mood of the times. People are eager for something—anything—different, and damn any concerns about consistency.

There is something to admire in this increased ideological flexibility, given how quickly our world is changing and how stale many parties’ platforms have become. But gratification isn’t satisfaction, and entertaining politics isn’t good government.—Jason Karaian

Hmmm.  Sounds like the freedom to change ideologies has trumped the responsibility to understand them (and anticipate their unintended consequences).

So, here are Gap Theory and Fundamental Principles 6 (Missing Information) and 7 (Not ‘Getting’ Something) in action.  For the uninformed, unavoidable.

But is it possible that a consequence of simply overcoming Fundamental Principle 6 is also becoming clearer –

An overabundance of Information does not simply lead to an increase in Understanding.

And then there follows the next logical conclusion –

A brain fart does not equal Wisdom.




Posted in 06: Incomplete Information, 07: Getting It, 16: Culture, Gap Theory, Lessons from History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rendering Unto Caesar

“Size matters, apparently.” – Anonymous

Haven’t had time to post for two months, but I certainly haven’t been inactive.

These two months have seen the period leading up to April 18th, Tax Day, which most will still remember. No, I did not spend all that time trying to figure out what I had to render unto Caesar. I was working with a CPA in trying to figure out what Caesar was deciding others needed to render unto Caesar Himself. For a very large number of others.

I learned a LOT during this exercise.

One thing in particular is that there is not A W-2 form (the one you get from your employer). There are Many W-2s. At least 10 different ones by my last count. All with the important information somehow randomly distributed across the form, which for someone’s convenience may be formatted either as one per page, or two per page, or three per page, or four per page either 2 across and 2 down or 1 across and 4 down or, creatively, 1 above 3 below (??). Finding the right information (if a required box is actually there) resembles an Easter egg hunt wearing someone else’s glasses. But at least one thing is consistent: the little number in the corner that indicates the “form” is IRS approved is always the same: OMB No. 1545 0008.

And I concluded that it is no longer simply sufficient to render unto Caesar; it is time to render Caesar, or at least the IRS tax code. And by ‘render’ I mean the primary definition of the verb to render:

To render: To extract by melting, as in rendering lard. That is, to subject to heat so as to cause excess fat to be eliminated.

And then chucking the fat.

Another was more a reinforcement, a confirmation. Nations do indeed have cultures. And it is a strong element in US culture to complain about taxes, and/or try various ways to minimize or avoid them. This is in spite of the fact that the US is one of the lowest taxed developed nations in the world (here). It’s a game. Complaining about taxes is part and parcel of our culture.

There are other, subtle expressions of national culture, especially when comparing other nations. One very interesting expression appeared in the Washington Post on March 4th (at a time during which I could not post as I was very preoccupied in trying to fit various people’s “stuff” into a form(s?) that Caesar would be proud of or at least gloss over quickly).

The article was entitled, “These 5 architectural designs influence every legislature in the world – and tell you how each governs,” and is a review of the architect authors’ book, Parliament.

By studying each of the United Nations’ 193 member states legislatures and plenary halls for meetings, the authors hoped to understand how each political (i.e., national) culture is both shaped by and expressed through their chosen architecture.

Interesting. And thank heavens it was only 5 designs.

These 5 building designs have hardly changed since the 19th century, which could also say a lot about the resiliency of national political structures. And since there are only 5, we can have a quick overview here.

1) The Semicircle

This is the most common shape and dates back to classical antiquity (presumably with the Greeks). It made a comeback with the French Revolution, and became particularly common thereafter in Europe when nation-states were being formed.

The idea of the semicircle is to fuse the members into a single entity. While Greek semicircle assemblies were accessible to all in a direct democracy, in modern nation-states the semicircle is used to foster consensus among an elected group of representatives.

Both chambers of the US Congress, the House and Senate, convene in a semicircular setting.

2) Opposing Benches

A second form for representative governance is the combative British model of opposing benches that encourages two parties to see themselves in distinct opposition to one another and generally provokes a more heated debate. (Watching current news or historical British BBC dramas conveys this very well). The format dates back to the 13th century.

Because of historical ties, this format is common in many Commonwealth countries.

3) The Horseshoe

This is a hybrid of the Semicircle and Opposing Benches in which the opposing benches bend toward each other on one side of the room to form a horseshoe (Note: this is perhaps so that those members who lean more towards compromise and wish to avoid being hit by thrown objects and ridicule can sit safely in the middle bend).

This is found in many other Commonwealth countries.

4) The Circle

This is much more rare, with only 9 parliaments meeting in this setting. It was inspired by the 8th century Icelandic Althing.

It was introduced in the 1980s for the West German parliament in Bonn with the intention of representing democratic equality, but was hardly used after German reunification when the parliament moved to Berlin and returned to the semicircle.

It is, however, still used in some regional German parliaments.

5) The Classroom

“The fifth and final type is the classroom, where members of parliament sit in regimented rows focused on a single speaker in the hall. This typology is particularly common in countries with a low rank on the Economist’s Democracy Index. For instance, the parliaments of Russia, China and North Korea all meet in a classroom setting, where they can be lectured by the leader.”

That’s a direct and very informative quote. Note the prevalence of key words often used to describe their national cultures.

Other bonus material from the article further illuminates the concept of a national culture:

“A comparison of the size of assembly halls also reveals that – ironically – the scale of the assembly halls seems to be inversely proportional to the country’s rank on the Democracy Index. Parliaments in the least democratic countries convene in the largest halls.”

(Apparently, size matters.  Is it the leader’s need to intimidate, or the national psyche’s need to feel “great”?)

The article’s closing remarks are also perceptive:

“Once built, parliaments are locked in time. But political systems can and should adapt to what is changing in the world. Since architecture gives shape to ideas, it can be a powerful tool to rethink our models for collective decision-making. It can be one way to reshape our deliberative bodies and experiment with new models that are more attuned to contemporary life and to the challenges we are facing today.”

After reading the article (whilst still being steeped in forms), I realized there are some ‘oddities’ we somehow miss even today:

Congress, which meets in a “deliberative semicircle,” creates our laws (those high level things that define what we want to accomplish); the rules and regulations (such as the IRS Code) that we have to live by are actually created later in a “non-deliberative, lecture classroom.” Or possibly a cubicle farm. Where they create W-2 forms.

And, lest we forget, Town Hall meetings – those icons of democracy that are intended to be fully democratic with everyone invited to voice their opinions and debate – are typically held in lecture classroom format because they are meant to be informative, not deliberative. And that is because we also forget that we are a representative republic, not a direct democracy. For the latter we would need one heck of a huge assembly hall.

Probably with seating in a circle.

Posted in 16: Culture, Lessons from History | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Other Question Google Can’t Yet Answer

“Do intelligent beings inevitably develop an attitude problem?” – Steven Pinker

In an article at, “Google Just Found the One Question It Can’t Yet Answer,” Jeremy Kahn discussed a recently published blog post by DeepMind, the Google artificial intelligence (AI) unit, in which they presented the results of their investigations into the conditions under which “reward-optimizing beings,” that is, you, me, or a robot, would choose to cooperate, rather than compete.

A default and snarky response to this type of research is apparently the question, ”When our robot overlords arrive, will they decide to kill us or cooperate with us?” Snarky because besides the three obvious assumptions (that they are robots, that they are smarter than we are, and that they will arrive), there are also two hidden assumptions behind the question:

First, we will have no option in the outcome, and, secondly and more importantly,

We will have no ability in preventing it from occurring.

It is the latter two assumptions that I think are more intriguing.

But before we get to these, we will first have to chase down what the studies were (and their own assumptions) in order to address the two hidden assumptions behind the snarky question.

Kahn writes, “DeepMind’s paper describes how researchers used two different games to investigate how software agents learn to compete or cooperate.” Important here is that games were used, a topic we’ve touched upon earlier in how humans engage in interactions with one another.1 Because the agents in both games could interact with one another, the games were actually a progression of sequential social dilemmas.

In Gathering, the first DeepMind game, two “agents” had to maximize the number of apples they could gather while researchers could vary how frequently the apples would appear. The results showed that when apples were scarce, the agents quickly learned to attack one another – zapping, or tagging their opponent with a ray that temporarily immobilized them (i.e., prevented apple gathering). When apples were abundant, the agents preferred to co-exist more peacefully.

In a variation, when the same game was played but with more “intelligent” agents that draw on larger neural networks that mimic how certain parts of the human brain work, the agents would try to tag the other agent more frequently, i.e., behave less cooperatively, no matter how the supply of apples was varied. Interesting.

This sounds remarkably similar to how humans interact under the same or similar conditions for survival (or food foraging), which probably shouldn’t come as a surprise because DeepMind used humans to write the Artificial Intelligence (AI) code.

In a second game, Wolfpack, the AI agents were wolves that had to learn to capture “prey.” Success resulted in a reward not just for the wolf making the capture (like the apples in the first game above), but also for all wolves present within a certain distance from the capture. In addition, the more wolves present in this area, the more points all the wolves received. In this game, the agents generally learned to cooperate, and the more “cognitively advanced” the agent was (with greater capacity to implement complex strategies), the better it learned to cooperate. Also interesting.

(As the researchers note, their research builds upon the foundations of Game Theory. The article then goes on to describe how DeepMind speculates on what was happening. That I will leave to very brave readers to forage out for themselves on the DeepMind blog.)

What are more interesting to me are the subtle nuances of the games and behaviors described, which resonate with what has been presented here previously.

In the first game when the apples are more abundant, the agents’ behavior tracks very nicely with a Zero Sum Game2 (if someone wins, someone else loses). There is less fear of “losing out” on an apple since they are more abundant, so agents are more focused on easily meeting their needs in this period of abundance (the coexistence phase). However, when the apples become scarce (apparently due to programming by human “overlords”), their behavior changes and indicates a shift in the game to a more Negative Sum Game3 (lose, lose), where one agent takes steps to Tag and Take Apples before the other agent is able to, in order to remove some of the scarce resources from the field of play. These two games seem to correspond well with the most common games we humans play under similar circumstances.

In the second game, however, there are additional factors at play, factors that are not recognized in the article. The game has been shifted to a Positive Sum Game4 (win, win) in two ways.

First, the game became Positive by the fact that when a wolf captures a “prey,” it also creates Added Value for the community (those wolves within the “capture radius”) by rewarding them through its successful action.

Secondly, the game becomes even more Positive because the more wolves that are present in the capture radius, the more points all the wolves receive. Not only is there an Added Value determined by each capture, that Added Value apparently is increased by with each additional wolf in the capture area. Thus the game becomes geometrically more Positive by further rewarding the wolves for intentionally increasing the chances of a capture.

The DeepMind authors note that in this game, the greater capacity to implement complex strategies leads to more cooperation between agents, the opposite of the finding with Gathering. Even more interesting.

So, with these nuances in mind, let’s return to the hidden assumptions.

Will they kill us or cooperate with us?” The emphasis here is on “they,” which leaves us supposedly in a wait and see position, a crisis limbo so to speak. We’ve already seen in an earlier post that given a significant challenging situation or crisis, about 80% of people respond immediately and defensively with a “Who did this to me?” question followed by a Fix the Blame attitude. We would not be incorrect in recognizing that this attitude is one that leads to “non-cooperative” behavior. With that kind of behavior, who could blame a reward-seeking agent, human or properly coded robot, from reacting offensively? In this case we’re probably going to see the question self-fulfilled with the least desirable option.

But with the other 20% of mankind the deliberate response to a challenging situation or crisis is the question, “What can I make of this situation?” This response is probably less often observed because of two factors. First, it’s recessive because a survival response has been selected in us individually and reinforced over time (think Fight or Flight, two near instantaneous reactions. A time consuming third option isn’t going to have a high survival rate). Second, societal groups will have also enforced development of this response by Regression (or Coercion) to the Cultural Mean for the group’s own survival. This would result in a tendency to exclude those who demonstrated a keener interest in taking time to think through or out maneuver a situation. Think “Cooperation” within the social group being reinforced, while “cooperation” outside the group is not, or even punished.

The biggest differences between these two responses are that the first is a dominant part of our DNA, so it is more easily expressed and it can therefore be more easily directed or reinforced socially.

However, the second response, although no doubt recessive and which requires more time to bear fruit, can be identified and developed. To learn to first ask, “What can I make of this situation?” can be taught.

Now for the important question that we should be able to draw from the DeepMind paper and these subtle nuances, the other question Google can’t yet answer:

IF we are indeed able to program AI computers, which have a limited neural network capacity, to pick cooperation over competition in a complicated game, why can’t we as humans, with a much more extensive neural network, do the same thing in real life?

With even greater cognitive capacity to choose cooperation over competition, why do we default to competition 80% of the time? Why do we act reactively instead of proactively? If the other 80% made it a priority to choose to value and develop predominantly cooperative behavior under stress, we could establish a culture that is very much greater than the sum of its various parts. That could apply to marriage, family, clan, tribes, organizations, nations, as well as civilization.  And for a civilization, that might just possibly discourage anyone (or anything) from “arriving.”

The answer to the question posed above, I think, boils down to two strong human attributes that we ignore or disregard in spite of their constant presence.

The first is, simply, greed. It’s tough to detect greed when it underlies behavior designed to simply survive. We rationalize it away in the face of extreme duress, either our own or someone else’s. But in times of relative plenty, or at least when the opportunity presents itself to extend a bit of effort, i.e., work, to create or achieve something rather than take what someone else has created, greed is still there. While it becomes far more obvious and pervasive, it still easy for us to ignore. “We want it all and we want it now” (only in the US could a modern song with those lyrics be used in an advertisement to induce its audience to acquire more of something, here).

The second attribute is very different. It is something that we cherish, we defend, we fear losing, what we support others in reaching, and we relish in exercising everyday, but without recognizing that when mismanaged it can push us into dangerous territory.

That attribute is choice, our freedom to choose something, or not.

We can choose to deliberately take time to fill the information Gap by pursuing the better truth, or we can choose to react quickly and emotionally to the events or incomplete information we think we know.

We can choose to remain calm, or panic.

We can choose to confirm reports, or pass on “fake news.”

We can choose to dig deeper, or to assume.

We can choose to listen, or to confront.

But we are going to choose, one way or another.

Better to deliberately choose to choose, than to unknowingly choose not to choose and then deal with the unintended consequences.

Either way, it’s about Choice.

And not forgetting the Fundamental Principle that Attitudes become Behaviors by this same Choice.  Steven Pinker was right.


1 Games People Play – Introduction
2 Games People Play I – The Zero Sum Game
3 Games People Play II – The Negative Sum Game
4 Games People Play III – The Positive Sum Game

Posted in 04: Games People Play, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, 17: Choice, Gap Theory | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gap Theory 4 – And Another Stupid Thing We Do

“One of the poets, whose name I cannot recall, has a passage, which I am unable at the moment to remember, in one of his works, which for the time being has slipped my mind, which hits off admirably this age-old situation.” ― P. G. Wodehouse

It never fails to amaze me, though possibly it shouldn’t, that as soon as I post my thoughts, within days there appear multiple confirmations of the same phenomena. Here are at least two,

1      How To Get Smart is Jessica Hagy’s recent post on Forbes that beautifully paints a simple picture and strategy of pursuing this path to Wisdom, and

2      “Serial Killers Should Fear This Algorithm from BloombergBusinessweek. A perfect example of what happens when organizations stop pursuing process and practice and slide back into the Place of Little Effort. The overall picture of police departments landing there is not encouraging. It’s also probably not fair. Perhaps here we should call theirs the Place of Such Highly Focused Effort That We Reached the Point of Blindness (reading the article will help).

Nice to have the confirmations and additional instances that support believing we’re on the right track, but let’s press on.

So, What Other Stupid Stuff Do We Do?

Here’s the picture as we left it last post, call it our Wisdom Path,entry-113-data-7-wisdom-to-knowledge-to-data-crop

It appears fairly predictable that without continuing to pay attention in an area where we have reached some measure of Understanding and/or Wisdom, our detailed understanding will begin to fade bit by bit, like P. G. Wodehouse. This I called The Understanding Erosion, and by which we eventually can end up in the Place of Little Effort. Here we first begin to feel Comfortable, then Complacent, and then pretty soon Firmly Ensconced. We become Cognitive Couch Potatoes.

In organizations we would call these places Silos. We don’t think of them as Places of Little Effort because we’re very busy with well-developed skills and specific information, like police departments and “linkage blindness.” But this is still an Information Trap, because there can be insufficient interaction with other Departments that have the needed missing yet pertinent information.

While that sketch is a simplified slice through reality, it’s not quite the whole picture.

In a previous post I also addressed another aspect of this Ascent Towards Wisdom. It again involved Fundamental Principle 6, Missing or Incomplete Information, and was visually described as follows,Entry 85 - What zThe Missing Information Is - 3 Three Blobs

This is, so to speak, a conceptual snapshot in time where three individuals might have landed while on their ascents along a Wisdom Path. Not surprisingly, experience suggests that these Wisdom Paths (colored arrows below) can be quite different and might now resemble the following,

entry-114-wisdom-pathsPredictable differences include not only starting and ending points, but also length, direction, and steepness (which can’t be pictured here because we’re stuck in two dimensions), and the obvious one of height or altitude (the “peak” of Wisdom, so to speak. Sorry.).

I imagine these Wisdom Paths as more like climbs up and along a mountain crest, well above any valleys below. Thanks to the realities of too much information coming too fast and the way our minds process stuff into memory, the inevitable Understanding Erosion can be pictured as the result of mental gravity pulling us down towards or into a valley somewhere.

Thus we arrive at the Stupid Things about the Stupid Things we do: since we worked our way up along a Wisdom crest in one arena, we believe that we can simply redirect our attention and arrive (or have already arrived) at the same level of Wisdom in some other arena. (Partially true. It’s not an incorrect assumption, but it is an incomplete assumption: Stupid omission #1).

Now, since we don’t notice that we can be sliding down the slippery slope into the Place of Little Effort, we are also unaware of how much more effort it will take to ascend along another Wisdom Path in a different arena: Stupid omission #2. Somehow we think Scotty will beam us across.

In addition, the situation is worsened by believing that since we sufficiently mastered the process to get to Wisdom in one arena and since we continue to feel comfortable with the lower level of available information that “maintains” this Wisdom level (the Availability Heuristic and Confirmation Bias at work), we easily assume that the same process coupled with a similar but lower level of incoming but different information will get us to Wisdom in the next arena: Stupid omission #3 – not recognizing that the lower level of new information in the new arena by its nature must be incomplete (Fundamental Principle 6).

Thus we arrive at yet another Self-Fulfilling Fallacy: having processed our way to Wisdom in some arena, we lose this Wisdom by slipping back into the Place of Little Effort while simultaneously believing we still have it (Wisdom), and to top it off, we do not realize we’ve also lost the Other Wisdom that is the actual act of Processing Stuff To Get There.

In other words, Use it or Lose it. In this case it really is more about the Journey (Process), not the Destination (Wisdom).

As a result, what we as individuals typically observe in action is Fundamental Principle 5, the Three Types of People: those who climb rocks (they progress ascending up Wisdom Paths in multiple arenas); those who stumble over rocks (those who hit obstacles and struggle with the process along the path); and those who throw rocks (those who, unknowingly, have succumbed to The Understanding Erosion and end up in a valley, but still think they’re on a high crest, probably in more than one arena. They don’t “get” that they don’t “get” something, but think they do (Fundamental Principle 7)).

We come across people like this everyday in organizations and nations, especially in leadership. It was recognizing this that led me to decide to take with a grain of salt various highly publicized position statements (pontifications), for example, from a number of people in the entertainment industry.

Think of it this way, with few exceptions, why should we take seriously strong statements in a non-entertainment arena by someone who makes their living by pretending to be someone else in a fictitious story contrived to fit into a limited timeframe by a second party who condensed and significantly modified a fantasy story written by a third party? (Recall our earlier picture of information degradation by applying too many filters. Also consider here certain examples that are specifically called “Documentaries.”)

The few exceptions in any arena, I think, are those people who have demonstrated the effort to go through the process of working their way up another Wisdom Path and are openly transparent about it. Scrutiny, or peer review, can then be applied to any cross-discipline pursuits and competency seen in both process and the filtering of information.

First, The Problem

We have to recognize and accept that the above description of The Understanding Erosion is actually operating in us. We need to become more self-aware. If we can be transparent and honest with ourselves, this should be possible. At least to a degree. For most of us.

Then, The Solutions

There are options for dealing with it. Surprisingly, I think a number of these have been in existence for quite a while, just not adequately understood or applied (drat, another confirmation).

The first that I was exposed to and is still around but just not as “in” at the moment, arises from the work of Hersey and Blanchard. This is the concept of Situational Leadership, where the leader recognizes that different types of leading (Telling, Selling, Collaborating, or Delegating) depend upon what style is best for a person in whatever situation that person currently is. The breakthrough here is recognizing that different styles can be needed during the same day in different arenas of responsibility.

We can think of the primary objective of Situational Leadership, then, as employing differing styles of leadership in the process of developing the subordinate to reach and maintain a place of “Wisdom,” a place where they are both self-motivated and self-directed in an area of responsibility. But this does not seem to place enough or any emphasis on developing the subordinate’s understanding of the process by which he/she is being developed. The objective is still more on developing people to the point where they fit nicely into maintaining the organization’s goals and objectives (products and services). Perhaps that’s a Place of Adequate Effort. Nice additional consequences are the people who are self-starters and “get” the process. But people development is neither the main or supplemental objective. And many leaders are not gifted or equipped to increase their focus and time on this specific aspect of people development.

That’s where the concept of Mentoring comes in. This is the increasing organizational emphasis on finding and/or providing a mentor, an experienced person to guide a less-experienced one. Typically this is just for a short career related season.

I think, however, that Mentoring would have far greater impact if considered as a long-term relationship focused on life as well as career whose objective is developing the ultimate powerful but intangible Wisdom:

Learning to Understand and Practice the Process of reaching and maintaining Wisdom.

What we need, then, is a Sherpa or two to keep us up on the Wisdom crest. For the rest of life. That would be brilliant.

Posted in 05: People, 06: Incomplete Information, 07: Getting It, Career, Gap Theory | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Gap Theory 3 – This Is Why We Do Stupid Things

“A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says can never be accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.”
Bertrand Russell

The next obvious question from the last post about doing stupid things is, I think, ‘Why?’ Why do we continue to wound ourselves with stupid, self-inflicted behaviors?

Being one of those curious people, I prepared myself to go down the rabbit hole.

Then, in yet another early morning state of sleeplessness, there I was. Down the rabbit hole. Juggling various bright shiny things from my teaching and learning past, such as

“Raw Data must be filtered to become useable Information,” and

“Wisdom is Knowledge applied.”

As I was trying to fit these and other various shiny bon mots together, I began to recall such additional tidbits as the following:

Data, the fairly raw stuff we are inundated with, only become useful Information if we properly apply the right filter(s);

Filters, while designed to reduce unwanted noise, must also by their very nature reduce some useful content; and

Pure Information, on its own, is not very useful until it is organized.

Organized Information we can then call Knowledge.

I put them together in the following way,entry-113-data-1-data-to-knowledge-crop

Good so far, but it felt incomplete. I picked out the bright shiny thing of Knowledge and chased it around the rabbit’s hole further, figuring the path to wisdom certainly must be generally upward…entry-113-data-1-data-to-wisdom-cropped

Now it looked promising enough for a test or two. I first came up with the following,screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-9-29-31-pm

Well, that worked great didn’t it? And, of course, these Opinions are an exact representation of the Truth, aren’t they?

For those of us who know better than to stop there, we realize that these Opinions are Not Exactly True, because of two important things are invariably forgotten:

First, we can’t have access to all News Reports. The Availability Heuristic limits what is available for us to organize; and

Second, what we process is strongly directed by our Confirmation Bias. That is, we emphasize information that further adds validity to our preexisting values, beliefs, and hypotheses, our World View.

In other words, if your news filter is either Rush Limbaugh or Joe Scarborough you are going to land on two entirely different, yet incomplete, ‘truths.’

In seeking a simpler (and possibly more obscure) context to test this idea, the following came to mind as we had just relocated. In investigating a new grocery store we discover there is an overwhelming amount of stuff (data) in unknown places. We filter what we see to decide what’s available. We organize that and mentally compare it to what we need (The List), and process that, along with any substitutions, to conclude (understand) what we will purchase. Getting home, we (or actually, she) put the selections into action (practice, i.e., cook) and then we (or at least I) reach the ultimate wisdom, which is EATING!

I must admit, there also is a subtle visual joke that appeared in the sketches above. Unintentionally, I might add.

It is based on recognizing that every time you apply a filter you remove not only unwanted noise, but some desirable information as well. The filtered information becomes the data for the next filter, and so on. That sketch looks like this,entry-113-data-3-to-data-to-data-raw-cropped

While we believe we are improving the usability of the resulting information, we have to be careful. Every time we apply some sort of filter the quality of the information goes down, a bit or a lot. If we are applying our own filters (as above), we can usually judge when the information becomes less reliable, less useful.

However, if we are letting other people apply their own filters and we are at the end of the ‘filtering’ line, we cannot judge if the result is completely useful or not. We can end up with unmitigated garbage. This sketch then looks more like this,entry-113-data-5-data-to-opinion-crop1

Here, rather than Wisdom being reached with effort at the top of a hill, the quality decreases downhill and the result (“…..”) becomes nothing more than marginally informed OPINION! (Thus the visual joke above: Events spiraling “downwards” to OPINIONS). A Cognitive Death Spiral.

Bertrand Russell was right. This filtering inadvertently becomes the unconscious translation of what one hears into something one can understand.

Now that we’ve identified the ‘filtering’ minefield, can we carefully cross it?

Another scenario came to mind, one that addresses the aforementioned question of ‘Why?’ It is how we approach Education, the process whereby we are intentionally developed into thinking organisms, and its overall (and hopefully continuing) part in our lives.

Consider a slight modification to the second sketch above (Data >> Wisdom) and recognize that the filters along our path in education are teachers and textbooks (or teachers in absentia). The sketch now looks like this,entry-113-data-4-teachers-wisdom-crop

I think we could all agree that this sketch represents what we think the mission and goal of an education system is and an individual’s takeaway from it. An upward and continuous climb to reach Wisdom.

But it doesn’t work that way in reality for a number of reasons and actual practices that have a lot to do with the answer to our question of, ‘Why?’

I think there are two parts to this. The first is Getting to Knowledge, and the second is the effort in Getting to Wisdom.

Getting to Knowledge

Schooling, as we’ve all experienced it, exposes us to new Information (thanks to teachers who help filter out most of what’s not important), which we then wrestle with in learning how to organize it. Often the amount of information and the organization process is challenging enough that the way many of us respond is through memorization. Flash cards. Drills. Repeat.

Because there’s a test coming. While a test should be a means of getting useful feedback along the way to Knowledge and Wisdom, it often becomes the end goal of demonstrating what’s been successfully acquired.

Thus arises the problem of teaching to standardized tests. These tests, while nobly conceived, risk simply reinforcing playback as the proof of Knowledge (and progress), and thus significantly influence establishing Knowledge itself as the end goal.

While in the classroom (both learning and later teaching), I experienced a significant percentage of students whose concept of their ongoing education looked like this,entry-113-data-6-data-to-knowledge-wall-crop

Their perception of Knowledge (and by inference the Purpose of Education) was to identify what the teacher said was important, to memorize it, and then play back what the teacher wanted. And stop when they hit that wall, the Thick Red Line. They didn’t reach Understanding, and/or probably showed little sign of trying, and/or simply gave up. As a consequence, in trying to deliver what the teacher wanted, they often resorted to plagiarism from classmates, from published sources, or cut-and-paste from the Internet. The objective had simply slipped backwards to become the homework assignment turned in or the right Information delivered on the test.

Because of the way the human mind works, new Information doesn’t quickly move from short-term memory to long-term memory and can be quickly overwritten by later activity (or distractions, or, more often the case, by activities that are important to our World View).

I’d call this process Understanding Erosion, where one loses the skills to organize Information into Knowledge and simply relies on the available but incomplete Information as the Truth (Fundamental Principle 6). The ultimate destination is the Information Trap.

What is disturbing is that this acquired ignorance, this loss of skills, is so commonplace that it has skipped over simply being taken for granted, to becoming ignored. The ultimate self-fulfilling fallacy.

This Information Trap will return a bit later.

Side Bar: Moving On

One of the underlying issues is in the semantics of ‘Why Education?’

Granted, we claim education is required for everyone to reach his or her full potential, and an educated public is necessary for the proper if not best operation of a democracy.

But, if the truth were told, here it is:

While everyone is entitled to the best education they can obtain, not everyone is suited or well prepared for a college education.

Some are not gifted (that’s due to DNA, their nature);
Some are gifted (DNA) but not motivated (some DNA, but more family or cultural environment, their nurture);
Some are not gifted (DNA) but are motivated (DNA and environment); and
Some are both gifted and motivated.

As we will see in a later post, it is not Nature OR Nurture; it is actually Nature AND Nurture.

Bottom line is that everyone should have the opportunity to pursue a college education at the best institution suited to optimize his or her progress ascending up the education path (Malcolm Gladwell cites an excellent example of this in his book David and Goliath).

Now, moving on to better things takes getting past the Thick Red Line, past the Knowledge “Wall.”

Getting to Wisdom

There is an old story that demonstrates a key insight. A young girl is watching her mother preparing food for Thanksgiving dinner, and asks,

“Why are you cutting off the end of the ham?”

“Because I learned that from my mother, your grandmother, so we’ve always done it that way.”

“Why did she do that?”

“I don’t remember. We’ll have to ask her later today when we’re at her house.”

Later, at the meal, the little girl asks grandmother why she cuts off the end of the ham.

“I learned it from my mother, your great-grandmother.”

“Why did she do it?”

“I’ve forgotten. Maybe it is written on her recipe card.”

Great Grandmother locates the faded recipe card and, with the little girl, reads through it.

“Oh, look at this. In parenthesis she’s written,

(Cut off butt end of ham so it fits into pot.)’ “

This, humorously, illustrates a key characteristic of human behavior:

At some time, someone put Data and Information together to reach Knowledge, and an Understanding of ‘Why we should do Something,’ and then put it into Practice;

They instructed someone in the next generation, but Understanding Erosion began to occur, although they still understood ‘What to Practice;’

Eventually, after a number of generations, Understanding Erosion was complete and all that remained was the Knowledge of ‘What to Practice;’

And when asked, ‘Why Are You Doing That,’ the reply became simply,

‘Because We’ve Always Done It That Way.’

It’s easy to see this repeated in the rituals and liturgies that we practice as nations, organizations, religions (especially), families, and individuals.

A fresh but important insight about this ascent from Knowledge up to Wisdom is to realize that, due to human nature, it is not a hike uphill on solid ground. It’s more like climbing Up the Down Escalator.

As a consequence, man eventually took to writing down his Wisdom, hoping that it would not be lost. This, of course entailed discovering writing as well as paper to write stuff on. But that, in reality, did not eliminate Understanding Erosion, it just slowed it down.

We still lose stuff, especially Understanding and Wisdom. Or we forget where we put it. Or that it’s there. Or how to find it. Or fail to nurture it if we do know where it is.

It takes Continuous Learning, a conscious effort to ascend this descending escalator. Stop or relax, and you slowly move backwards, without knowing it. It is not for nothing that one of my favorite quotes is from George Santayana, “Those who are ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it.” A little heavy, but accurate.

Historians have long remarked that the arc of human civilization has been one of very slow developments over a long period, increasing more rapidly up to the Industrial Revolution, and then increasing very rapidly since then.

Another insight: moving up this Down Escalator isn’t a consistent climb. It is getting steeper with time. Not only is new stuff being developed faster, Information is available more quickly and it is it is getting more complex. Thus, it takes more effort to keep up and to maintain Wisdom, much less to make progress.

This is one of the reasons certain professions are required to undergo continuing education.

So, Why Do We Do Stupid Stuff?

Here’s the picture now,entry-113-data-7-wisdom-to-knowledge-to-data-crop

When we inadvertently or intentionally fail to put our Knowledge and Understanding into Practice, we succumb to Understanding Erosion and slide down to the Place of Little Effort where we only rely on what little and incomplete Information and Knowledge we have.

Earlier we referred to this as the Information Trap. Without due diligence, it will be occupied only with filtered, incomplete information (Fundamental Principle 6) obtained through the Availability Heuristic, and organized conveniently by our Confirmation Bias into a stronger World View, incomplete as it will be.

In the Place of Little Effort, we feel quite comfortable and justified in quickly and emotionally reacting to events and crises. To heck with the Gap between Something Happening and Mystery Solved. To heck with the effort to press through to better Understanding and Wisdom.

And then We Do Stupid Stuff.

The Final Insight

Back to one of our earlier sketches.

I think an issue that now becomes a bit clearer is that a self-reinforcing part of our very important educational approach has developed a historical focus much like the following,entry-113-data-8-education-inanimate-to-wisdom

It puts heavy emphasis on inanimate, inactive things such as Data, Information, and Knowledge, and less on achieving Understanding, and Wisdom.

What should receive heavier and earlier emphasis is openly developing more of the dynamic and active behaviors, that is, reliable Filters, Organizing skills, Processing, and Practice. These are the catalysts that move us Up the Down Escalator,entry-113-data-8-education-active-to-wisdom

If one can understand these as behaviors, the critical skills and objectives of an education, it becomes much easier to understand why a broad Liberal Arts curriculum is not only essential, it is foundational. History, Languages, Art, Music, Philosophy are all included and essential. Not just the study of What Happened; it is the study of Why Did It Happen, What Conditions and Forces Were Present, Why Did People Do What They Did, and What Do We Learn From This. It is the intentional study of their Filters, Organization, Processing, and Practices. And of their Outcomes, good or bad.

“Those who are ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana

Emphasis on developing these behaviors and skills is not just a responsibility of an education system, it should be an emphasis of every parent, family, clan, tribe, organization, and nation so that individuals can more readily reach their best potential, so that families, clans, tribes, organizations, and nations can also.

The Self-Fulfilling Fallacy

So, the answer to our question of ‘Why do we do stupid stuff?’ is, ironically, Education. Exactly what we decided we needed to prevent doing Stupid stuff. Yet another self-fulfilling fallacy.

Fortunately, I think there is a small core of people who, if they didn’t “get it” during high school or college, awoke a few years later and are trying, albeit quietly, to put things together later in life and continue to move up the down escalator. There’s just too few of us, and we are too quiet and not visible enough.

Enough said.

Posted in 06: Incomplete Information, 07: Getting It, 08: Observing, Listening, Learning, 09: Doing, 11: Growth, 14: Behavior, Gap Theory, Lessons from History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments