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The power of the road

I recently took a trip that involved a lot of driving, going from San Diego to Portland and back. We took a leisurely pace, not driving for more than 5 hours or so in a day. But I found the whole experience quite calming. I’ve always found something almost hypnotic about long drives on the freeway.

So why is this? I think there’s something substantially different about your experience on the road as compared to day to day. What is your day to day existence? For most people, myself included, there’s a lot of repetition. I get up in the same bedroom, eat breakfast in the same kitchen. Go off to various coffeehouses or parks to work. I see a lot of the same stuff day in and day out. But when you are driving, the scenery—the visual input—is always changing. Your round a bend and here’s a lake you’ve never seen before. You take an off ramp and here’s a little town that’s totally new. You are bombarded with constant new stimulus. And for the most part, it’s quite nice—pleasant nature, small towns, etc.

My theory is that this gentle stimulus has a calming effect on your brain. And this is ultimately what we’re after when we travel, this combination of the new and the pleasant. Very few people take vacations to war torn countries after all.

I suppose this kind of stimulation could be a goal of VR technology. Strap on a headset and you could be in outer space, the medieval past, heaven or who knows where else.

The immigration question

So, not long ago I used the topic of immigration as an example of a political debate that was very hard to unravel. Is immigration (illegal or otherwise) good or bad for the U.S.? I read a bit on the topic (for about an hour) and discovered a dense mush of opinions. It was very difficult to get a straight answer.

Today I stumbled across an article that claims to have an answer. The author claims that immigration does hurt low income workers who compete with immigrants for jobs, but benefits employees who can press for lower wages.

Here’s a key paragraph.

The fiscal burden offsets the gain from the $50 billion immigration surplus, so it’s not too farfetched to conclude that immigration has barely affected the total wealth of natives at all. Instead, it has changed how the pie is split, with the losers—the workers who compete with immigrants, many of those being low-skilled Americans—sending a roughly $500 billion check annually to the winners. Those winners are primarily their employers. And the immigrants themselves come out ahead, too. Put bluntly, immigration turns out to be just another income redistribution program.

Do I buy it? It’s definitely the clearest documents I read on the subject. I suspect there’s more to the quagmire (and the author has a whole book on the topic) but maybe it just got a bit more transparent.

Thoughts that pop into our heads

Having finished Sam Harris’s tome on meditation, “Waking Up,” I’ve decided to re-read the first Ekhart Tolle book, “The Power of Now” which explores similar themes, albeit from a point of view Harris would probably criticize as unscientific (although Tolle largely avoids ethereal, new-agey content.)

Both Harris and Tolle would say, I think, that our “self”—the entity with particular likes/dislikes, political beliefs, favorites movies etc.—is nonexistent. And most of the dialogue running through our head is basically just noise caused by the mental tics of the brain. Both books are about getting that noise to silence and to experience a more pure form of consciousness.

Of course, that’s contrary to how most of us view ourselves, including me. I operate (most of the time) on the assumption that those voices in my head are me. But I had an experience while reading Tolle’s books that gave me another way of looking at things. I was reading a section where he was making a point about why we shouldn’t look to our past or our future (or possible future) to define ourselves. I put the book down and thought something like, “Got it. No more looking.” Into my head popped the words “I know that I’ve been tooken.” These are drawn from the Hank Williams song “Hey Good Looking” which has a verse that says:

No more lookin’
I know that I’ve been tooken

It’s one of my favorite lyrics and one I’m familiar with since I sing the song often.

The thing here is that I was aware that “I” wasn’t thinking the lyrics, they just kind of popped into my head (because I happened to think the first part of the lyric.) So maybe we need to make a distinction between thoughts that you feel that you are the author of and thoughts that just sort of appear there. We’re all familiar with this second kind of thought. For example, if I say, “The early bird…” you almost cannot avoid hearing “gets the worm” in your head. It just pops up.

I think Tolle and Harris’s argument is that most thought is of this variety. Your brain or mind is doing some processing and the words just pop up. You think you are the author of these thoughts (unless you are schizophrenic and feel disconnected from the voices in your head) but if fact, the entity saying these things is not you. Rather, you* are the person hearing them.

*To reinterate a point, both authors would ultimately say there is no “you.”

I also feel these “thoughts that pop into your head” instances aren’t that different from another common occurrence. Say someone walks up to you and says, “Can you show me how to get this printer working?” You launch into a spiel about how frustrating the printer is and how you have to set it into this mode before it will print in color, blah, blah. But you don’t really plan this spiel out, it just kind of pours out of you. You direct the larger themes and points, but it many ways it just seems like the words are being handed to you. Again, perhaps it’s not you doing the talking, but rather “you” doing the listening.

Has Adams lost it?

For about nine months or so I’ve been commenting on Scott Adams’s blog posts alleging that Donald Trump has achieved his political success by being a master persuader. By Adam’s descriptions, Trump has a learned or intuitive sense of exactly how to push people’s buttons and get their political support. The term hypnosis has occasionally been thrown around though not in the “woo-woo” carnival side-show sense.

To some degree, Adams must be on to something as Trump’s rise really was unanticipated by almost all of the “serious” political pundits. Adams’ writing on this topic has caused me to reflect on why I make the decisions I do and I’m starting to see how ethereal those reasons can be. I do think the subconscious can be prodded to lead the conscious mind to make decisions, sometimes stupid or bad ones.

That said, currently Trump really is looking weak as a presidential contender. Clinton has a healthy lead in the polls even with two third-party candidates – Jill Stein and Gary Johnson – taking some votes that would otherwise go to Clinton. (I’ve always presumed a Libertarian candidate like Johnson would take votes from the right, but I read something the other day that argued otherwise. Who really knows?)

Despite all that, Adams continues to insist that Trump will win in a landslide (though he has given the Clinton team credit for improving their persuasion skills, mainly by setting Trump up as a figure to be feared.) Here’s Adams today arguing in favor of Trump. (One of Adams’ most annoying predilections is his insistence that he supports Clinton when he clearly is in the Trump camp.)

To many people – if not most – Donald Trump looks like the type of candidate who would become a “strongman” president, ignoring the advice of experts and the opinion of the people. That’s the persuasion framework that Clinton has created in your mind, probably with the help of the Master Persuader I call Godzilla.

But does the evidence support that view? I see the opposite.

Months ago, when Trump stumbled on his answer about criminal penalties for women who seek illegal abortions, the public went nuts, and Trump immediately corrected his position. That’s direct democracy. Trump heard the opinion of the majority and instantly adopted it.

Consider Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslim immigration. The public felt his position was too extreme, and let him know. Eventually, Trump softened his stance to talk about countries of origin, not religion. The public still wasn’t pleased, so Trump softened again to his current position of “extreme vetting.” That evolution in policy looks like direct democracy to me. The public told Trump what it wanted, and Trump evolved to it.

Likewise, we found out this week that Trump’s plan to deport 11 million Mexicans living in the United States illegally has some wiggle room. Maybe there won’t be so much deporting after all. Because the public doesn’t want it.

Consider also Trump’s public persona. We witness that he is using the teleprompter (as advised) and crafting a friendlier version of himself, which is exactly what the public asked of him.

One interesting point: Adams alleges that the “Master Persuader” in Clinton’s camp is none other than Robert Cialdini who wrote the book “Influence” that I recently commented on.

So what to make of all? Certainly it seems like Trump is softening his positions, but months after he should have. Can he possibly pull out of the spiral he’s in?

My suspicion is no. But I’ve been wrong before. And Adams isn’t the only one on this page. Here’s a CNBC article I just stumbled across.

Donald Trump still has an uphill battle in this election. But when it comes to controlling the news cycle in this election, he’s running unopposed.

Consider the recent pivot in the Trump campaign. It began with a speech expressing his regrets for his past hurtful comments, followed by a visit to flood ravaged Louisiana. And it continued this weekend with a meeting with Latino supporters where he signaled a desire to temper his immigration policies and shift away from his previous support for mass deportations.

Trump’s recent pivots won’t convince any of his most ardent detractors and Clinton’s biggest fans to change their minds, but there are still a good number of undecided voters out there who might. And then there’s the traditional Republican voters who have been a little embarrassed by Trump, who will now be able to point to the plausible excuse of Trump’s “maturing process” to vote for and more publicly support him.

This article is basically saying that Trump is doing what Adams has been saying Trump will do—creating a “third act” in the story of Trump’s rise, an act characterized with deference and humility. Is it in time to win over voters?

It seems impossible, doesn’t it? And yet, a lot of people don’t like Hillary. If the third parties suck up enough of her votes and undecideds and “embarrassed” Republicans swing towards Trump, I suppose it could happen.

Taking seriously the possibility of multiple consciousnesses

Years ago I posted a blog posted asking whether we have multiple consciousnesses in our heads. I described the basic concept thusly:

A while back I was considering an idea for a fiction character. The conceit was that the character had multiple consciousnesses in their brain, but each consciousness generally arrived at the same decisions. So, if this person received an coffee from a waitress, one consciousness might think, “Wow, she sure brought the coffee fast, I better thank her,” while another consciousness might think, “Look at this whore. I bet she thinks by bringing me coffee quickly she’ll get a tip! Oh, well, I better thank her in the interests of conforming to society. Bleg.” In addition, neither consciousness was aware of the other.

I was, frankly, only half serious. But I’ve been reading Sam Harris’s recent book, “Waking Up,” and he takes the possibility seriously. Referring to the famous split brain experiments, he throws out the possibility of one consciousness in the right brain and one in the left. He even addresses an obvious problem: if we have multiple consciousness, how do they avoid conflict with each other (especially if they aren’t even aware of each other)? The answer is found in the theory of a philosopher quoted in the book.

The non-speaking hemisphere has know about the true state of affairs from a very tender age. It has known this because beginning at age two or three it heard speech emanating from the common body that, as language development on the left proceeded, became too complex grammatically and syntactically for it to believe it was generating… Being inured to this status of cerebral helot, it goes along. Thankless cooperation becomes a way of life.”

The idea is that you have this other consciousness sort of enslaved to “your” consciousness. It is so used to being powerless that it goes along with the dominant self.

Of course Freud’s theories were all about inner conflict. Perhaps that conflict is between these two consciousnesses.

And, I believe Harris leaves open the possibility of even more consciousnesses within one brain. What a trip that would be.

UPDATE: I feel I should clarify one thing here. In the case of the split brain patients, each hemisphere has been separated from the other and the patients seem to behave as if they are two selves in one body. Us normal folks have connections between the two hemispheres and most of us behave as one self. But Harris argues that the connecting tissue cant possibly pass all the information in one hemisphere to the other, so were are really more like two selves that have some limited communication with each other.

More thoughts on “Influence”

I recently finished the book “Influence” by Dr. Robert Cialdini. The book explores six tendencies of the human brain that can be exploited to trick us into making decisions we might not otherwise make. One tendency, for example, is the valuing of scarcity. We walk past a shoe store and see some nice shoes and are informed that only two pairs are left. We become agitated—if we don’t buy the shoes now we may never get another chance. So we buy the shoes, go home and realize that they really aren’t that great. We were tricked by our brain’s proclivity for lusting after scarce things.

In an earlier post I mentioned a con man who, years ago, knocked on my door, cooked me some food and then asked for money. He played on an tendency Cialdini refers to as reciprocity. Basically, when someone helps us or gives us something we feel we “owe” them. The example Cialdini gives in the book is Hare Krishnas approaching people in airports with the gift of a flower and then asking for a donation. These travellers are already flustered, looking for their gate, and they give up the cash just to move past the the situation. Of course they never asked for the flower and it’s worth only pennies. Why give money? They got taken.

Basically, by abusing these proclivities of the mind, con men and sales people can trick you into doing things against your best interests. And it happens to all of us, all the time. As I reflect on my experiences, I realize that the pull towards the unwise decisions is almost subconscious. There’s a sense of “why am I doing this?”

“What am I doing?”

My interest in the art of persuasion, as often described by Scott Adams, has led me to the book “Influence” which I am now reading. First published over 30 years ago, the book is an examination of the psychological ploys people like salesmen use to influence people’s decisions. The first chapter describes an obvious ploy called the reciprocity rule. Basically, if you want someone to do something for you, you do something for them first and then ask.

I have always been wary of unwanted gifts and favors for this very reason: I feel they involve some kind of obligation on my part. (Though in recent years I’ve taken up the habit of taking the gift and then refusing to do the favor asked.)

Part of what I like about “Influence” is that the author freely admits to being a patsy, the kind of guy salespeople and con-men can take advantage of. He often uses his own experiences to make a point.

Reading the book got me thinking of a few times I’ve been approached by a con artist. One stands out for the pure audacity of the con. At the time, I was living in an apartment in Sacramento. I saw, once or twice, a fellow around the complex and chatted with him enough to learn that he was the boyfriend of someone who lived in of the units. It was all friendly, meaningless chatter.

One day I got a knock on the door. It was this guy and he had a favor to ask. I was in the middle of cooking something, some kind of vegetable I think. Before he got to the favor he basically invited himself in and showed me his recipe for cooking this vegetable, grilling it in tons of butter.

The he asked his favor. (You’ll notice, of course, that he engaged the reciprocity rule by first grilling my food.) His girlfriend needed money for something, maybe some kind of doctor’s visit I can’t recall. Did I have 40 or so bucks I could loan her? (I remember the context of the loan was not to him, but to her.) She was off somewhere and he would get her the money. (It dawns on me that I don’t know if I ever saw this girlfriend—maybe she never existed.)

Now, of course I did not want to lend her the money. But I also didn’t want to appear to be a dick to this basically nice guy whom I’d had some chats with and had just cooked my food. So I said something like, “I’d like to, man, but I don’t have any cash on me.” (This was basically true.) But he countered with something like, “Can we go to your ATM?” At this point, I had trapped myself, hadn’t I? I hadn’t said, “I don’t WANT to give you the money,” merely that I didn’t have access to it. So, sure enough, we drove the ATM and I got him some cash*. Of course, I never saw him again.

*I was trapped because I needed to look consistent, a need discussed in the chapter of “Influence” I am reading now. I hadn’t refused to give the cash, I’d basically implied I would give it if I had it. And the con man pointed out that I easily could.

Now there’s one thing I haven’t pointed out and that is that this con artist was a black man. I think part of my deference to him goes back to another con experience I had years before that, in my late teens at a Greyhound bus station in Seattle. There, I was approached by a black man who described to me the predicament he was in. He was owed a certain amount by the government (for military service I think) but before they would give it to him he needed to pay some kind of payment for something. If I could loan him the money for the payment he could pay me back and more once he got paid.

Now, even at my relatively young age I recognized that as a con and declined. His faced turned down and he sadly said something like, “This is a black thing, isn’t it?” I was, at that point, basically a guilty, white liberal and was aghast at being thought a racist. I still declined to give him the money but basically pleaded with him not to interpret the events the way he was.

In hindsight, it’s pretty clear that the guy’s comment was just one in his playbook of con artists lines. But, I suspect it stayed with me, and years later when I met the other black con artist, I was sensitive to not appear racist and thus acceded to his demands.

I should note, I don’t fault either of these guys and have generally favorable feelings toward them—which is pretty odd when you think about it. But from what I’ve read, this is what good con artists do: make you like them.

In the book “Influence,” the author describes human behavior as a series of programs that can be triggered by outside stimulus. Good con men just know the right triggers with which to activate the behaviors they want. And that seems to be what happened to me in Sacramento. I even recall a sense, as I pulled the money from the ATM, of “what am I doing?”

Trump’s true nature?

For months now, I’ve been viewing Trump through the lens that Scott Adams has presented, one that views Trump as a master persuader who knows how to trigger behaviors in people (in the case of Trump’s supporters, the behavior of voting for him.) In lieu of Trump’s recent political disasters—his spat with the Kahn family and drop in polls—it’s hard to see this view as accurate. Trump seems too impulsive to really be a calculating genius.

Nonetheless, this New Yorker piece—essentially an interview with the man who co-wrote Trump’s successful tome “The Art of the Deal”—provides some insight into how Trump’s mind works. Consider this passage:

“He was playing people,” Schwartz recalls. On the phone with business associates, Trump would flatter, bully, and occasionally get mad, but always in a calculated way. Before the discussion ended, Trump would “share the news of his latest success,” Schwartz says. Instead of saying goodbye at the end of a call, Trump customarily signed off with “You’re the greatest!” There was not a single call that Trump deemed too private for Schwartz to hear. “He loved the attention,” Schwartz recalls. “If he could have had three hundred thousand people listening in, he would have been even happier.”

Note the phrase, “in a calculated way.” The sense I get from combining the New Yorker piece with Adam’s arguments is that Trump is probably a sociopath, someone unresponsive to the self-imposed limits one is supposed to observe as a member of decent society. Rather, Trump has learned all the secrets of manipulation and applies them with impunity. It’s an odd combination of genius and total lack of restraint.

I have a hard time envisioning how Trump can pull out of the spiral he’s in, but the guy is nothing if not full of surprises.

Explaining the appeal of Trump

I, like most people, never saw the rise of Donald Trump coming. I figured he would wipe out in the Republican nomination process the same way he did in 2012.

So what happened? Part of what I didn’t understand, I think, is that there was a real sense, especially on the part of people in the midwest, that they got screwed by trade deals like NAFTA, as well as the lack of policing against illegal immigration. Is this correct? I dunno… I talk a bit about it in my current acid logic article, but in the end it’s hard to really determine what the statistics on these topics tell us. Regardless, people feel it’s true, and Trump, and to some degree Sanders, have been talking about these issues a lot.

Yesterday I stumbled across this interview with the author of a new book called “Hillbilly Elegy.” He argues that the people of poor white America, particularly in the midwest and the south, are really struggling. Drug use is an epidemic and poverty is taking a disastrous toll. And I have to concede that this bleak picture is, again, news to me.

What many don’t understand is how truly desperate these places are, and we’re not talking about small enclaves or a few towns–we’re talking about multiple states where a significant chunk of the white working class struggles to get by.  Heroin addiction is rampant.  In my medium-sized Ohio county last year, deaths from drug addiction outnumbered deaths from natural causes.  The average kid will live in multiple homes over the course of her life, experience a constant cycle of growing close to a “stepdad” only to see him walk out on the family, know multiple drug users personally, maybe live in a foster home for a bit (or at least in the home of an unofficial foster like an aunt or grandparent), watch friends and family get arrested, and on and on.  And on top of that is the economic struggle, from the factories shuttering their doors to the Main Streets with nothing but cash-for-gold stores and pawn shops.

The two political parties have offered essentially nothing to these people for a few decades.  From the Left, they get some smug condescension, an exasperation that the white working class votes against their economic interests because of social issues, a la Thomas Frank (more on that below).  Maybe they get a few handouts, but many don’t want handouts to begin with.  

From the Right, they’ve gotten the basic Republican policy platform of tax cuts, free trade, deregulation, and paeans to the noble businessman and economic growth.  Whatever the merits of better tax policy and growth (and I believe there are many), the simple fact is that these policies have done little to address a very real social crisis.  More importantly, these policies are culturally tone deaf: nobody from southern Ohio wants to hear about the nobility of the factory owner who just fired their brother.

I think he touches on a point I’ve addressed in the past. The standard liberal nostrum for economic poverty is basically handouts. And many on the left feel exasperated that the very people they are trying to support are fans of Trump. What I think the left doesn’t get here is that people take their definition of self very seriously. They don’t want to think of themselves as peasants begging the system (who would?), they want to think of themselves as self-sustaining entities. Thus, when Hillary Clinton says something like she’s going to put a lot of coal miners out of work, coal miners get pissed—this is their livelihood she’s talking about. (It should be noted that Clinton’s comment was taken out of context.)

Now, I don’t think Trump really has any answers here. He has some vague talk about negotiating better trade deals and building a wall, but I doubt that will really do much (especially as I’m unconvinced whether bad trade deals or immigrants are the source of the problem.) But I can understand the appeal of Trump here, to these people.

Anyway, the whole article is worth a read.

Finding patterns in music

A while back, I linked to this page on, among other things, sound waves and how they relate to music. If you scroll down to the section titled “Musical Beats and Intervals” you see three diagrams showing three different pairs of overlaid wave forms. One is a very consonant octave set (something like a low C played over a high C), one is a relatively consonant 5th interval and the final one is a dissonant, ugly sounding interval. The point these diagrams make is that consonance and dissonance are not abstract properties of music, they are related to how two or more sound waves overlay on top of each other. Waves where the peaks and valleys generally line up sound good; waves where the peaks and valleys don’t consistently line up are weird.

The same is true with rhythms. If I take a drum groove played at 100 beats per minute and lay it on top of a drum groove at 200 beats per minute, everything should sound all right since the hits in the 100 beats per minute groove will correspond with every other hit in the 200 beats per minute groove. But if I overlay a groove at 157 beats per minute over a groove at 100, not much will line up and it will sound chaotic.

Now, this is no different in the first example using notes. Notes are really sound waves vibrating at certain frequencies. You could think of the peaks of sound waves as the “hits” in a drum rhythm. If you take two sound waves and the peaks line up most of the time you have something consonant. But the less they line up, the more dissonant they get.

So basically, when you hear consonant sound waves (or drum rhythms) your brain is comparing the peaks or hits and determining that they match and delivering a pleasant sound to your mind. But this comparison, this brain processing, is something we are unaware of. With two dissonant notes, we aren’t aware that the sound wave frequency rates are out of sync, we are just aware they sound bad.

And I suspect this is true with a lot of things. Our brain looks for patterns, for synchronicity. When it finds the pattern, it says, “yay, I like this.” When it doesn’t find the pattern it gets frustrated. But much of this processing goes on “under the hood;” we aren’t consciously aware we are doing it.