Detroit decline

There was another story about the slow demise of Detroit, though this time it was in the context of how the Detroit Symphony Orchestra has fought back from the brink of disaster, with help from the suburbs.  Does the relative success of the DSO mean that Detroit city will also climb back to its former glory?

Sadly, no.  The story itself, reported incompletely as it was, touched upon the real reasons why Detroit will fail.  Not only Detroit, but many other older US cities that suffer the same structural defect.

As students of behavior, we must look upon the political entity we call City as a form of living thing.  And we must know how all cities are constructed, politically speaking.  The most successful cities, both here and abroad, are those that have become their own political kingdom.  Essentially, they are their own state.  Manhattan is one.  Columbus is another.  Shanghai, Paris, many others follow this formula.  In this way the city managers have greater resources to use for planning and execution of grand plans.

Not so for Detroit.  Poor Detroit, and many other US cities that were created in the 1800s, have many political entities to deal with.  Detroit is in serious problems because the “inner city” is desolate, without jobs or decent infrastructure.  The “suburbs” are in fact different political entities – they are not Detroit.  Yet, for you and me, when we look at the map, we are quite happy to call the entire thing Detroit.

And so should they.  The suburbs should be absorbed.  The larger metropolitan area should become its own county.  The suburbs have enjoyed the benefits of the city without having to shoulder their share of the burden, and now they are reaping the rewards of their neglect.

But will they?  This is the fun part of being an impartial student, a scientist.  Part of me wants them to succeed, and I know exactly how they should proceed to succeed.  Follow other successful examples.  But will they?  Can all those entrenched politicians and small suburbs commit political suicide for the greater good?

The bets are on!

 

et tu, Neal?

Cosmos 2.0 has begun, and like the Olympiad, it heralds a new dawn of entertainment.  Whether it also ushers in understanding is another question.  On this day that we celebrate and respect religious worship, does it seem odd that Neal deGrasse Tyson should appear just before the altar?

Now that 34 years have passed, Dr. Tyson is taking up the mantle of Carl Sagan and teaching us about the wonders of the cosmos.  In so doing, he’s touching upon some significant events in our intellectual history.

A tragic character chosen in Episode One is a priest named Giordano Bruno.  Now poor Mr. Bruno didn’t do well as a priest, ostensibly because he had a great revelation about the infinite cosmos.  He tried to tell others, but the Catholic church took offense.  Somewhat unwisely he returned to Rome where the church gave him a warm welcome – and goodbye.  They burned him at the stake.

It’s not quite true, unfortunately.  The stake part is, but let’s say that the show took poetic license in telling the story.  You can read the details here.

The details aren’t quite important for today’s post, because my question is this; why do you think the Church felt threatened by Bruno’s crazy ideas?  That they were crazy is beyond doubt, because any idea that isn’t shared by more than “a lot” of people has to be crazy.  That’s the whole definition of crazy.  The fact that he would eventually be proven right, centuries later, isn’t important.

There’s a good chance that you, too, have a deeply held model of the universe.  It might have a god, or a GOD, or a whole pantheon of gods.  For all I know it may center around a black hole.  However, I ask you, why is it that (for most people!) it’s such a sensitive topic?  If someone comes along and says “Your view is wrong!” what does it matter?  Why do you care?

Why DO you care?

 

 

Report your assumptions

Reporters have a tough job.  They are generally idealistic youngsters who place the public good ahead of their own accumulation of wealth and safety.  They are part of a new profession that changes rapidly, especially in our hyperfast information age.

Yet they make the job even tougher on themselves when they take a large amount of baggage with them in their travels.  It’s best to travel light so that you can move quickly, get all the angles, and then get out to report the story.

I’m not talking about baggage as in a change of clothes.  Goodness knows they probably can’t afford them.  I’m talking about assumptions.  Reporters, and their editorial teams, carry a lot of those around with them without even realizing it.  It may be the single greatest reason why some reporting networks attract highly specialized audiences – because of the unvoiced assumptions.

Here’s a case in point.  A story today on NPR talked about how great Finnish children did in school based on standardized tests, compared to other nations around the world.  As soon as the reporter opened her mouth, I knew that the story was already heavily biased because the statement was “Every child gets free preschool.”

Now, in all fairness to the report, this may be the magic answer to the unasked question, what can the USA do better?  However, it already biases the story.  There are so many other factors that go into school success that focusing on any one says all the other factors aren’t as important?

Not important?  What about parental expectations and assistance?  You know what I’m talking about, Tiger moms.  What about limiting other forms of child based advertising and entertainment?  What about the fact that the Finns have a very homogenous society.

I haven’t even gotten started on the statistics part of this, yet.  It’s one thing to say they score the best, ON AVERAGE.  What about the range of variation?  Is it possible that the best in the US easily reach or outdistance the Finns?  And what about components of education that can’t be measured by today’s standardized tests?  Creativity.  Ingenuity.  Resourcefulness.  Curiosity.

Reports are in our face, telling us stories.  To tell the whole story takes a bit more work, but we’re also going to get a more accurate picture of reality.  And in the end, isn’t that what we really want?

At least, that’s what I’m going to assume.

 

 

Show me the science

On the last two Funday Fridays I noted how science, the process of learning, could be fun by using thought experiments.  I declared that there are professional science fiction writers who regularly use this exercise to entertain us.  But exactly where in their science fiction is the ‘science’ part?

It’s in the stretch!  For instance, take a story that has humans floating around in outer space.  One of the things the writer has to account for is how the people will deal with vast distances – time and space itself.  Everything they do will take a long long time to execute, whether it’s going from point A to point B, or even painting a room.  How do these fundamental changes impact other ‘laws’ of behavior?  How does it impact relationships?

Or, taking the same scenario, what does the fact that everyone is going to be living in super-close proximity to each other mean to their mental health?  After all, they aren’t going to be building huge barns for every person.

Then again, if the story has them acting just as if they are still on Earth, then the fact that they are floating in space is irrelevant.  And it’s a poor writer who doesn’t take advantage of that fact.

What about robots and our bodies?  What happens when I take my brain and put it into a machine – a perfect, strong, large, machine?  Did I mention my machine is always connected to the internet?  And that it never sleeps, or needs to be plugged in?  What happens?  Will I become power-mad and try to take over the world?  Will I lose my capacity to love another human, forgetting my wife?  Or will I become a better lover, being able to wait patiently for eons to service her every whim, like a refrigerator?

And what happens when you bring dinosaurs to life, or introduce a space-based killer virus, or build a house that folds into multiple higher dimensions?  So many possibilities, and all of them really explore our behavior.  Not science as technology, not even science as knowledge, but science as a way to learn more about ourselves.

Science.  Fun.  Who knew?

 

Yoga is Behavior

What you choose to do is behavior.  Anything.  Go ahead and choose.  Right now.

There.  Whatever you did, even if it was nothing, was a choice.  And that expression of your choice is your behavior!  Not complicated.

One of the many things I love about yoga is that it represents very fundamental behaviors, with a twist.  These are behaviors that emphasize our bodies.  Yoga has been called slow dance, and it is.  But this is a dance I can do throughout the day, at any time.  Even now, writing and typing, I can roll my shoulder blades back or tuck my tailbone.  Remember to breathe!

As individuals, as a society, we choose how to live.  Those choices are shown through behavior.  When we settle into our easy chairs to watch the super bowl, do we think about our hips or back?  When we’re older and our hips hurt, do we think back on those easy chair days?  How many hip replacements and bad backs do you know?  And how many older cultures, without the luxury of easy chairs, have as many hip replacements and bad backs?

Yes, yoga is behavior.  And we’re going to start studying it in more detail.  As students of behavior, everything has to be on our plate.  Economics, politics, anthropology, to mention a few of the more acceptable disciplines.  But we should also study yoga, etiquette, and the arts.

There’s one more great reason why studying yoga has great benefits.  Long term thinking.  When you stand in mountain pose (tadasana) and turn your thoughts inward to your breath, your feet, knees, hips, and hands, you are also quieting your mind towards all the other influences in our lives that can cause stress.  At the very same time you are also reminding your body about the skills it’s going to need when you are 80, 90, or 100 years old.

Behaving in ways that keep us healthy till we’re 100.  That’s long term thinking.  That’s prevention, not prescription.  That’s saying no to surgery, and no to drugs.

Anyone, care to slow dance?

 

 

Dumbing of America – Drink me

Is it only me?  Or is our great nation, the greatest nation on Earth, getting dumber?

What do I mean, this time?

We like to drink our water in a variety of ways.  For thousands of years we were happy with exactly that, plain water.  Then we learned about flavoring the water with leaves, berries, and fruit.  Eventually we added sugar, gas, and started the fizzy-pop-soda industry.

In the few decades that I’ve been alive, I’ve seen the rise of a whole new industry, water.

I never thought it possible, After all, it took mankind thousands of years to figure out how to get a fresh water supply to all of us through a marvelous system of pipes, filters, and pumps.  Now, here we are at the pinnacle of progress, and what do we do?  We turn our noses up at “free” water coming from our taps, and prefer to spend billions on the same water that comes in individual containers.

So, here I am watching a great Korean drama, and what do I see?  An advertisement for drinking water.  Not just any water.  This is water that you flavor, YOURSELF!  Yes, not only are we buying individual bottles of water, but we are also now buying the flavors separately so that you can add them yourself!  It’s almost as if we have stepped back in time.  We are going out to gather our own water.  And then we go out to gather our berries to add for flavor.

What else is wrong with this picture?  You are not only paying for water that you can get from the tap, but you also have to buy the flavoring.  You could have bought some flavored drink earlier, but now you do it yourself.  There’s a good chance that what you are paying for the combined water and flavor is MORE THAN what you would have paid for the flavored drink in the first place.

So, if you know someone who’s paying twice for something they could have only bought once, help them out.  A mind is a terrible thing to waste, no matter what the taste.

Miles high club

Most people don’t think about flying as a behavior, yet it is all about behavior in it most advanced and blatant forms.

First, you walk onto a platform suspended above the ground.  You’ve been on bridges many times, perhaps so many times you’ve forgotten their inherent danger.  YOU ARE SUSPENDED with only tiny sticks holding you up!  True, those sticks may be I-beams, concrete pillars, but they hold you up!

After walking across that bridge, you enter a narrow aluminum can.  If you were the size of a gummy bear the average soda can would be the exact same analogy.  You’re in a can.  A can with wings.  And really strong engines.

You know all these things, yet you still walk into that can.  (Chances are…) You aren’t an engineer.  You aren’t a physicist.  Yet you trust the engines to roar.  You trust the moving air to lift the wings.  You trust the wings to stay attached to your tin can.  And you trust the pilot to take you up and down, safely.  It’s a bridge THAT MOVES!

All of this is behavior.  It took knowledge and lots of work to make those engines, those wings, those connections.  It took courage and confidence for the first aviators to look upward, saying goodbye to the ground.  And it takes your trust in fellow man (along with a dash of courage in yourself) to follow millions of fellow travelers into the air.

It’s also a behavior to allow yourself to be squeezed into 20 inches of knee room.  Or allowing a stranger to sneeze in your lap.  Or allowing the person in front of you to drop their seat into your lap without asking.

You can choose how you wish to behave.  Behavior is everything we do, everything every living thing can do.  But what makes behavior so fascinating is that all of it is under our influence.  You choose to fly.  Not because you have wings, but because you trust others who have made wings for you.

Have a great flight!  Behave yourself!

 

Invented Money

One of the many hurdles we have to overcome in understanding our own behavior is being able to recognize life-long assumptions about the world.

You, and I, grew up with money.  As children it was given to us as coins: playthings, distractions, allowance, objects of art.  It’s always been a part of our lives, as it was for our grandparents, and their grandparents before them.

It wasn’t always so.  Someone, a long long time ago, invented money.  Money is what psychologists call a secondary reinforcer.  It represents something else.  In our case, money may represent the work you do for your company.  You and the company agreed that for every hour you work, you receive some money.

In the olden times, you received this money in physical form.  Then we invented checks.  Then we invented electronic money.  This electronic money doesn’t even really exist.  We only know that it’s there because of the ones and zeroes a computer spits out when we ask it the question, “how much is in my account.”

As students of behavior we have to always remember that money isn’t real.  We have to understand that it was invented as a convenient mechanism to help relate “value.”  How does the value of my labor compare to the value of that kumquat you have found?  How does the value of my face relate to the value of a video advertisement that can make millions of people want to buy your lipstick?

Value is the real, underlying behavioral quality that money tries to deal with.  Value is what is truly important, and is what we should be discussing.  A life with value has no need of money.

And you can take that to the bank.

 

Reporting stereotypes

Last week noted how reporting is a relatively new profession within our society.  As a profession, they have come a long way.  Yet there is a long way to go.

When a reporter tells us a story that contains a couple of facts, they can save time by resorting to a stereotype.  The word stereotype comes from the early days of printing.  A metal plate had to be made up of all the letters to be printed on a page of blank paper.  That was the stereotype.  We started using the word later on to mean describing something in very general terms.  “All computers are useless” is a stereotype statement for an old crotchety person, even though the rest of us think that is incorrect.

Reporters like to use stereotypes when they can because it saves them a lot of time.  If they didn’t, the story would take longer, and their mean editor would make them take out something else – like a boring fact or two.

When a reporter describes a particular challenge that a dark-skinned person has encountered, they like to describe it as a problem of “race.”  In our society, we used to like to describe different ethnic groups as different “races.”  The Italian race, the Jewish race, or even as “Red” or “Yellow” depending on their backgrounds.

The deep problem here is that these divisions are wholly contrived, they don’t exist in reality.  We made them up for emotional reasons, and they persist because people like reporters continue to use them.  Biologists, geneticists, and anthropologists have proven over and over again that there is no such thing.  We are all so similar as people that we may as well divide ourselves based on “gap toothed” or “pigeon toed.”

So, if you’re a reporter, please stick to the facts – the real facts.  And if you’re a student of behavior, remember that we are all alike in very deep ways.  You may have even been the victim of prejudice because of your skin color, but take solace in the fact that it wasn’t because of your race.

 

Science IS fun

Last Funday I pointed out that science, the process of learning, could be fun.  Fisics is a good example of where some famous discoveries were made by thinking of scenarios that push the boundaries of our knowledge.  They address the question, “What if?”

And I asked you, Gentle Reader, what professional (they get paid!) does this today in the area of behavior?  Not an academic, mostly.  Not economists or social workers either.  No, they are writers!  Specifically writers of science fiction.

“Oh no,” you say.  Science fiction writers write about science!  They don’t write about behavior.  And I say, come and take a close look.

First and foremost, none of these writers could sell a book without including a character with human characteristics.  Maybe they are ‘aliens’ or ‘robots,’ but there will be a character.  And because all the known readers for this book ARE human (as far as we know) they must write so that the humans empathize and bond with this character.

The “science” is only a device that allows the writer to expand his universe, to warp and twist the known world into a new shape, hopefully making the characters interact in more interesting ways.  In this way future world can explore what happens when drugs are legal, or when everyone can have their genes altered making them super-powered.  Perhaps the writer will place humanity among the stars, or put our brains into robot bodies.  It doesn’t matter exactly what they do, but that they do it, and explore.

And that’s the most important part.  What does happen to a human when you put their brain into a robot?  What happens to their spouse, their family, and their society?  How do the laws of behavior react?  What interesting affects occur?  And here is the true science of science fiction.

Except that these writers, the academics, and all the other professionals don’t realize that it’s happening.  And that’s a subject for next week.