When I Have Fears … *

Recently, a young man was disturbed enough by what he saw as illegal government surveillance that he risked his career, family, and even his life for the chance to warn the world. At roughly the same time, a young man published unspecified threats in Texas, threats that were read and reported to the police by a woman in Canada, resulting in his arrest. Finally, again about the same time, a young woman and her two friends were violently confronted by agents investigating drugs and alcohol abuse, and her reward for acting responsibly was jail time, an apology to them, and the privilege of not being prosecuted further. The agents have not been reprimanded as of this writing. [ 1, 2, 3 ]

How is it that these things happened in the land of liberty and freedom?

There is a growing feeling that the USA is becoming more like George Orwell’s 1984. There is increased security at all the airports and public events. A protective bubble has grown and hardened around our President and the District of Columbia. There is greater sensitivity to what happens near our schools. And there appears to be a tacit acceptance of constant government surveillance, increased budgets for surveillance, and almost anything being redacted in the name of national security. All in all, and by any measure, a general erosion of individual rights is taking place.

The superficial forces taking us ‘back’ to 1984’s dystopian terrain are the risks posed by terrorists, both at home and abroad. They are superficial because these are the reasons put forth by the politicians and bureaucrats. However, I prefer to look at the problem more deeply because I find the words of politicians and bureaucrats specious at best. I also believe that the highest priority of any politician is to first, and foremost, justify their own job. Certainly there must be more to our eroding rights than the simplistic reason of “we’re watching out for the bad guys.” For instance, why are the terrorists out to hurt us? What have we done to them that could cause such efforts on their part? If their job is to incite terror, have they won? And, for those of them that are the poorest and isolated, where do they receive their training and resources, and why don’t we go after those instead?

The truth of the matter is that we lack the ability and perhaps even the fortitude to answer these simple questions. Yes, simple. As questions regarding behavior, considering the immediate implication of the erosion of basic rights is something that is relatively easy to ponder. Yesterday I had this right, and today I don’t. This is rather straight-forward.

The more difficult questions are these: Is more security today better for tomorrow’s generations? Does our implicit policy of letting our agricultural and manufacturing sectors shrink increase our society’s risk of collapse? Does the increasing concentration of wealth and power also increase our chances of colonizing the moon? Does our fascination with wealth and entertainment over intellect and perseverance portend greater or lesser things to come?

It’s the big questions that I seek to answer. As scientists, we need to achieve a basic understanding of behavior so that we CAN know if these trends, both great and small, are good or bad. It’s one thing to feel that a trend is bad, but it’s another to be able to prove it logically using the tools of science. Until we reach such an understanding, we must advance our knowledge incrementally, in small steps. Therefore, my goal in this essay is to advance that understanding by focusing on that element of behavior that the first set of questions address.

Listening to the pundits and experts, it would seem that hate is the underlying feeling to all these stories. The NSA specialist hates his country and is accused of treason. The young Texan hates the world and plots mass murder in order to make his mark. And the young woman, mistaken as an drug-abusing criminal, must hate the agents who attacked her because she was charged with attacking them, and she admitted fault. Yet hate is not the answer, neither as an excuse for their behavior within society despite what the pundits would have us believe, and certainly not as a basis for a logical explanation. This is particularly true for the young woman who acted quite reasonably given the situation. She was attacked and tried to escape, calling the local police for assistance. The fact that the state was able to recast her in the wrong by charging her with attacking them is only a credit to their use of the law to protect their own.

Unfortunately for us, hate is the preferred explanation. Hate is used by many groups today, mostly political, as a way to influence their followers. For instance, who can’t hate a terrorist? Who doesn’t hate a tax-and-spend bleeding-heart liberal? Or a gun-toting bible-thumping creationist Christian?

And therein lies the problem. Any serious thought about hate soon becomes mired in conflicting emotions and outcomes that are biased by who is doing the hating, who is being hated, and who is doing the talking. We love to talk about trying to get the terrorist, or the terrible things they’ve done, but we spend no time on their motives, their resources, or trying to understand their lives.

In addition, there’s a shortage of serious thought related to hate, in and of itself. Even as loosely as the term is used in the media, it still gets little time. We have hate crimes, hate speech, and hate mongers, yet all of these are fairly meaningless. For the purpose of understanding behavior, we have to define it more rigorously.

When in doubt, start with the dictionary. [4] Hate is defined as feeling an extreme enmity towards something, or having a strong aversion. There is nothing about having to commit a crime or even show any outward signs. For further insight then into hate we can literally take a page from Darwin’s book, Expression, and further refine hate so that it refers to those feelings that we can measure. [5] In other words, you hate something when your strong feelings cause you to exhibit a facial expression commensurate with what our society knows as hate. Or, using today’s technology, we can also say you hate something when we can measure some physiological response that strongly correlates with increasing anxiety and the possibility of danger.

And where does this hate come from? Is it possible to say that hate arises from nothing? Or can we admit that hate comes from some underlying cause that gives rise to hate? I prefer to think that all things have a cause, until we reach back to the beginning of time. So, without going back too far, where does hate come from?

Fear. All hate must start with fear, somewhere. Perhaps the person who hates was not the original person to hold this fear, as many hatreds are passed from parent to child without reason. But somewhere in the dim mist of time there must have been a fear. In our dictionary, fear is an unpleasant, often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger. Fear may not be as easily observed as hate, and in many cases may only be inferred negatively; for instance, I never take a cruise because I fear large pale people getting sunburns. But now we have a hierarchy that makes sense. Hate can be arbitrary, being expressed in small ways as dislikes, or in violent ways as rage. But all hate must originate in fear, and fear is something that we can understand in all creatures, because all creatures know that there is danger in the world. Only the dysfunctional creature who knows no danger also knows no fear, but that creature is usually not long for this world.

And it is here, Gentle Reader, that I may cease to be. This has turned into a much too long essay that, if you have persevered, you realize comes to its conclusion all too suddenly. This is indeed a huge topic, but one that I have decided to tackle in book form. Fundamentally, fear is the driving force behind much of the social change we see. Hate is only an excuse our leaders have been using to manipulate us into following them without too many questions. Other leaders throughout history have done the same thing, and the outcomes are rarely positive. The situation is even more dire for those of us that wish to follow scientific methods; we can’t allow popular characterizations of any behavior, or any actor, color our observations and resultant conclusions.

With that, I thank you for your patience, and promise that the next entry will be far more entertaining, useful, and short!


* With all due respect to John Keats, this is from his sonnet, written shortly before his death:

     When I have fears that I may cease to be, Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain, Before high-piled books, in charactery, Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain; When I behold, upon the night’s starred face, Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance, And think that I may never live to trace Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance; And when I feel, fair creature of an hour, That I shall never look upon thee more, Never have relish in the faery power Of unreflecting love; then on the shore Of the wide world I stand alone, and think Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/28/opinion/global/the-service-of-snowden.html?_r=0 This is an opinion piece that does a decent job of giving an overview of the many perspectives on what Snowden has done. There are many other news articles about Snowden.

[2] http://www.khou.com/news/texas-news/Texas-teen-charged-with-making-terroristic-threat-after-online-joke-212931111.html

[3] http://www.wjla.com/articles/2013/06/uva-student-elizabeth-daly-cleared-of-charges-from-water-buying-incident–90722.html

[4] Langenscheidt’s Merriam-Webster Dictionary 1996 edition. Old but still good.

[5] Charles Darwin, Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, this edition published in 1979. Text based on the 1872 edition. In all fairness to Darwin, hate was barely mentioned in favor of rage. However, he also says, on page 239, that injury becomes dislike becomes hatred becomes rage, almost as if it’s a foregone conclusion. I taking the liberty to assume that he, as we all must, was making a generalization based on what he knew at the time. I’m also assuming that he realized that all these feelings were closely related and primarily differed on the basis of degree. Therefore, for the purposes of our discussion, rage and hate are considered interchangeable.


Uneasy Feelings

Think about the last time you bought something frivolous, for yourself and no one else. Or, how about your car? What did you go through in selecting that vehicle? Did you only care that it had 4 wheels and an engine? Or did you think about its color, inside and out? Did you imagine what your friends would see as you drove it to their house? Speaking of houses, there is generally no greater investment we can make. Do you know of anyone who would buy their house without having good ‘feelings’ about the purchase? Or would they remain totally rational and objective?

The answers are obvious to most people. Feelings, whether you are buying that special watch, a car, or your house, will probably be one of the biggest factors in your decision. Your feelings matter, in a very big way. And feelings come in many shapes and sizes.

For instance, there is one feeling that, among us humans, we call premonition. Something terrible is going to happen says the gnarly character as dark music swells. Sharp eyes pierce yours, and chills go up your spine. In the movies, something terrible does happen; that’s the controlled horror we pay for. In reality, we don’t have the ability to predict the future, yet many people abide their premonitions.

Ah, at this point, Gentle Reader, you may be thinking “Hold it right there.” You may even say out loud, “This site is about the scientific approach to studying behavior.” And you are quite correct.

However, science is not all black and white, it is not only yes or no. Science itself is a form of behavior, and as such it must obey whatever laws of behavior there may be. It helps me to think of science as another form of expression, much like painting with oils. There are aspects that are fixed, methods which must be followed so that the final outcome is called science. For everything else, the full range of creative expression and human interpretation is allowed. It is just these sorts of creative versus rigid aspect of science that recently deceased biologist Francois Jacob described as day science and night science. [1]

Jacob defined day science as a linear progression of observation and scientific design leading to a viola conclusion. Night science is how the discovery process really happens, a messy, intuitive, questioning progression where we construct and then demolish hopeful hypotheses, “fighting a lot with yourself.”

Which brings us to the point. Feelings are important to understanding our behavior. Yet, Western science denies the importance of feelings. Whether for good or bad isn’t relevant, feelings simply aren’t as important as other factors. In all the natural sciences, from math and physics to chemistry and biology, one can easily argue that there is absolutely no room for feelings. In the social sciences, the best incorporation of feelings comes from psychology, being directly dealt with by Freud, and economics, indirectly incorporated into the observations of Malthus. In each case, modern versions of psychology and economics try to deal with feelings as best they can; but their success is highly debatable. Psychology most often incorporates feelings into social psychological research, with highly dubious results. Economics, more to its credit, has constrained the use of feelings to ‘consumer confidence’ measures; but the contribution of this to understanding the economy is suspect.

Talking about feelings makes me feel uneasy, because feelings are not well defined. So let’s make a stab at a definition. My feelings are purely subjective states that influence my behavior. Your feelings do the same thing, but the only way I can ever know your feelings is to listen to you tell me about them (oh, please do!), or to infer them based on your observable behaviors.

Here’s what Darwin and Spencer said about feelings without referring to them as such. In his book, Expressions of Emotions in Man and Animals, [2] Darwin defines emotions negatively by drawing on Spencer’s definitions from 1863. Feelings come from two sources: Emotions or sensations. The difference between emotions and sensations are that sensations are generated in our corporeal framework. The implication is that emotions are all in the non-corporeal framework, or “in the mind.”

But as we know, studying what goes on in the mind, and knowing what our corporeal sensations are telling us can be very difficult. In fact, we may still not know the extent of our corporeal senses. A good and fairly recent example has to do with our sense of taste. It took a while, but besides sweet, salt, sour and bitter, we now have umami on our tongue. [3] Is that the final answer?

What about the major sense categories? These 5 are arbitrary in themselves, created by men to categorize the senses we can ‘see.’ For instance, what is the true difference between taste and smell? And what of the senses we can’t see? Birds can detect magnetic fields using slightly magnetized bacterial cells, thereby migrating thousands of kilometers annually. Sharks sense their mouthful of prey using electrical potentials. And there may be others for which we have no inkling.

What goes on in our minds? Even that is difficult enough for us to report on ourselves, let alone trying to discern what might be going on in someone else’s head. The upshot is this, instead of confronting this problem head on, modern science has decided to simply ignore feelings. Is this a bad thing?

It may be. Perhaps we’ve been ignoring feelings for so long that it’s backfiring. Our forward- thinking scientific society is creating a generation of science doubters. There does seem to be an increasing number of people who doubt science so much that they are fighting to go backwards. How many school boards try to incorporate creation as science?

More importantly, is it impossible for science to even study feelings? Is it possible that these subjective mental states are beyond our capacity to observe and study? Is it even possible that these things called feelings don’t even exist?


What doesn’t exist is our ability to properly handle the concept and treat it more objectively. But, as any night science must, we must continue this argument… with myself.

And part of this argument goes like this. There are strong feelings out there, in the wilds of society, that point to the direction our society is taking. I am only a single surveyor, but it appears to me that there are too many people feeling things aren’t right.

What people? Our people, friends and relative people. Passing acquaintances and chance stranger people. People on the far left and people on the far right. Even people in the center.

My Saturday breakfast buddies are a collection of old men gathering year round celebrating eggs and aging. The core of conversation is guns and cars (good) and women (generally bad), but the spice is invariably politics. And it’s here that they agree, as staunch conservatives, that things feel wrong – mismanaged – going the wrong way.

At the same time there are my liberal friends, not quite so organized as the SBB, also decrying the lack of progress, the rise of ultraconservatives, and general disappointment in leadership.

All these feelings may not be relevant, but they exist, and as astute observers of behavior we must at least acknowledge them.

They are feelings, and there may not be a rational model generating these moods, there may not even be words to express the fundamentals of their foreboding. Still they persist.

Taken all together, these feelings anticipate a darker future. We can only wait and see what the future holds, before we can ascribe anything to today’s feelings. I only hope that part of that future also contains a behavioral science that is able to handle all our feelings.



[1] Science magazine, published by AAAS. Issue of 24 May 2013, p 939.

[2] Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, by Charles E Darwin, originally published in 1872. The Spencer work is referenced on page 27 of the edition published in 1979 by Julian Friedmann, London.

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umami


Relationship Coding

Recently, a young woman wrote about being assaulted in her hotel room. [1] Her account appears truthful, rational and restrained despite her emotional turmoil. In all, an incredible feat, and one that could start a few mind-bending conversations.

What is the purpose of this article? Not to add another voice condemning violence, for that we have enough. Not to add another voice condemning predators resorting to violence, for that we also have enough. In case you’re doubting, however, Gentle Reader, I do wholeheartedly condemn physical violence and human-on-human predators. Castration is a good start, but only once we’re totally convinced of the crime using all means available. But enough of that. Let’s get back to the point.

The purpose of this article is to point to a much larger problem that all modern young women face; the changing nature of relationships. You may agree and say that these relationships started changing long ago, with women fighting for the vote in the early 1900s, or becoming ‘liberated’ during the 1960s. Perhaps the watershed moment was Title IX, or the fact that many more women became almost equivalent wage earners in the 1980s. All these things are true, and each has contributed to the advancement of women in our world. However, the true forces working towards equality are far deeper. Those two true forces are biology, and philosophy. Yes, these seem very different deep forces working upon us, but follow me for only a few more moments.

Biologically, we belong to an rather old family called primates. Of the primates, females are generally smaller than males. Fundamentally, we have to reproduce as a species, or the species will become extinct. Humans are slightly different, however, in that females are at least as intelligent as males, and that we are capable of copulating face-to-face. [2, 3]

Philosophically, we know that concepts such as ‘equal rights’ and ‘immutable soul’ were bantered about by eggheads for centuries. Some of these ideas go back thousands of years, but more importantly for us, the US was founded on some of these exact concepts back in the late 1700s. Our most important documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights acknowledge these concepts both explicitly, but also implicitly by what they don’t say.

Since then, relationships have been changing, but slowly enough such that our society could change its mores and laws to keep up. Suffragettes? Here’s a new constitutional amendment. Going to college and playing sports? Title IX.

Today we are seeing an acceleration of change. Women can easily compete in the technological world, if they wish. The digital revolution sweeping over us doesn’t care if a woman codes, or if a she uses an application. True work equivalence has appeared in more areas of our economy than ever before.

Here is where our true story begins. For even as the philosophical equality of women progresses, our biological nature remains relatively constant. Consider the pace of change, best measured in our technological world by ‘clock cycles’ alluding to the amount of time a central processing unit takes to complete one cycle of calculations. For the digital revolution, a clock cycle is generally considered to be 6 months. If you don’t have a upgrade to your software or invent a new piece of hardware in that time, then you are old news. For evolution, the clock cycle is a bit longer – about 25 years, the amount of time it takes to have children. And this is where the tectonic tension sets in. For we are all fighting against our biological roots in order to be part of modern society. Since modern agriculture developed in the Levant some 10,000 years ago, there have been only 400 generation cycles. Some evolution may have occurred, but how much is still up for debate, and is the subject of another article.

In the meantime, technological clock cycles may number in the thousands, if not more. Yes, a technological clock cycle back in the iron age meant discovering bronze, and the next cycle may have been a thousand years later. But today we are experiencing a technological cycle perhaps every year.

Given these strains, what is a young woman to do? Here is what our nascent understanding of behavior suggests.

First, always begin a relationship with the assumption that a young man is motivated by biological urges.

Second, always encounter him with the assumption that he is a dangerous predator.

Third, prepare conditions where you test that man’s motivations and propensity to prey. Instead of flailing for a weapon just out of reach, make sure it’s handy to begin with. Lock your valuables away when entertaining him in your room. Better yet, instead of letting him in your room, meet him elsewhere. As he passes each test, allow your defenses to drop one level at a time. But always prepare for surprises.

You may counter that these are not romantic in the least, and for the great majority of young men these are unnecessary assumptions. And you would be correct. But romance is a modern concept. And you should not live your life based on the vast majority of safe situations, but on the probability of encountering a life threatening situation. You wear seat belts, don’t you? Think of these assumptions as seat belts of new relationships.

You may also argue that these biological underpinnings are not relevant, we have evolved beyond them. And I would like very much to agree with you, but cannot. However, if I allow you that argument, then consider this.

Men and women have different operating systems. Not only that, but each man and woman has certain nuances within their OS that make each unique. It is the challenge of today’s lonely OS to find that person whose nuances are compatible with our own. It is the lifelong discovery of those nuances that give depth to the great loves of our time.

However, building an interface between your OS and his takes time. First of all, you can never code a perfect interface to begin with. We’ve been trying to do it with relatively static computers since ENIAC and still can’t get it right. On top of that, both your OS and his will change over time; we like to think of them as upgrades but they are just as likely to develop bugs over the years. Your interface will have to take account of those. Therefore, you must approach a relationship the same way you would code a totally new interface. Explore the target OS, understand your own, and slowly build connecting bridges along the way.

To the young woman assaulted in Krakow, kudos and good wishes. Don’t give up on the all the men of this world, but tread carefully. You are still living in a primitive world with respect to biology. But your use of technology to warn others, your courage, and your desire to make our world better are commended. I urge you to think about not only how you are changing society, but also why. Think through the implications of your actions, because you want the next clock cycle to take us forward, not back.

[1] http://georgiaweidman.com/wordpress/guess-you-thought-i-was-someone-to-mess-with/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex_differences_in_human_psychology

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ascent_of_Man (see episode 12 – or read the book, it’s fascinating)



Economombo emotion

As blogs go, you’re going to find this one pretty bereft of feeling. Certainly not my feelings – I’ve spend a life containing them. Of course they are there, we have no choice as humans. But the extent to which we allow them to be expressed, the extent to which we allow them to influence our strategic choices or the way we think, that is fully up to us. Many people don’t realize this, allowing feelings or emotions rule their lives. As higher beings we must accept the fact that all our choices, all of them, are up to us.

You say, it’s not possible? I answer, yes it is. You decide to brush your teeth in the morning, it’s not mandated by any law of nature. It is mandated by civilized society. You decide to eat in the morning, it’s not mandated by your stomach’s growling. Hunger, however, is a more natural inclination signaling you that your body needs nutrients. Still, you can fight nature with your higher reasoning. For example, you say to yourself, “I don’t need a second cream-filled donut, the first one has enough calories for breakfast and lunch!” And you put the donut down.

What does your reason say about water? You can also fight this, and turn down all water. In time, you will die – and that is your choice. By the way, I am not suggesting that you do these things. These are examples of what you can do.

Finally, what about your first behavior outside the womb? Your breathing. You can also fight this. Hold your breath, even for an instant. You have acted contrary to nature, and you have temporarily established that your ability to reason can act contrary to what nature demands.

I accept this reality at the deepest levels, and know that all our emotions can be understood and controlled, all of them. It doesn’t mean that they always will be under control, and it doesn’t mean that they they should be. But it does mean that they are always being observed, and can be controlled when necessary.

Which brings us back to feelings and this blog. Expression is tough, especially when dealing with tough subject matter, like economics. But express I must, for as humans, we live in an ocean of emotion. It is in fact something we crave. Therefore, in order to convey the points I’m trying to make most effectively, I’m going to have to inject a good dose of emotion along with them. Ready?

Economics is pretty much is as boring as you can get. Lots of numbers about concepts that are very far away, like world economies. But guess what, you are part of that economy. Those numbers are talking about you, your life, the lives of your friends, enemies, parents and children. Those numbers may in fact have something to say about your life today, tomorrow, and many years from now. Those numbers may even say something about how miserable your ‘retirement’ years are going to be, assuming that you’re even going to be able to retire in this economy.

So, you may be attracted to my blog because you think you’ll gain some insight into your lover, but guess what? In order to really understand your lover, you’re also going to get a grip on the world economy. If you think the two are unrelated, then you’re obviously independently wealthy and have no material attachments.

Here’s the real problem. Most economists are full of lots of bunk. The discipline in general has become a love-fest for these special kind of academics, pretty much shutting out every other discipline out of arrogance and irrelevance. I would at least like to say it follows good scientific methodology or even principles, but it doesn’t. One of the most basic tenets of science is prediction, and as far as I can tell, there are no accurate predictions among economics. That’s one of the things that this blog will try and track.

However, in this pig-pen of muck, there are some good aggregations of information that can be of some use to us. What I’ll do, in another post, is start talking about the aggregates that are most useful to me in my work. One at a time, so as not to overdo the ’emotion’ in the subject.

Gentle Reader, thanks for sticking with me. More to come, but it’ll probably be a few weeks. Business trip.