Sunday, August 28, 2011

The End of Work

In 1995 economist, Jeremy Rifkin, wrote his book, “The End of Work” in which he predicted the global decline of the work force in the industrialized would. This happy occurrence, he predicted, would then result in people having more “leisure” time. New industries revolving around this new leisure market would then flourish. When I heard the initial buzz about this book the first thought that occurred to me was: Wouldn’t people working less hours therefore have less disposable income? Who is going to be able to afford all these “leisure” activities?

Fast-forward to the Recession of 2008. To a great extent Rifkin’s prospective has indeed come true. Rifkin had accurately had predicted the eventual demise of the middle class. Increased productivity, including “automation” (the old term) has indeed lessened the demand for labor. Even the “new” economies that are touted as the future economy do not necessarily require a lot of human labor.

The newer profitable companies with huge market capitalization, such as Google and Microsoft, don’t really employ a lot of bodies. The same is true for financial institutions; they too don’t require a lot of people to generate wealth. The hottest consumer items on the market today, mostly technological products like phones, touch-pad devices – None of them are manufactured in the USA. Even the Chinese are aggressively outpacing our “innovations” in solar and battery technology.

I think back to my first job out of college, working in a clerical unit in Greyhound Bus Lines. The manual sorting tasks required in my job back employed several dozen people to manually sort out paper ticketing trails. This kind of tedious work has been now wholly replaced by simple bar codes, scanners and computers. One can easily imagine how this simple technology across the board of bureaucratic functions alone has easily replaced millions of jobs that were once completed by humans.

Later after I landed a “real” job working in banking, I embarked on what I assumed would be a career. The assumption was that you worked your way up through the bank eventually becoming a loan officer. I am not sure how many of you have applied for a loan at your local bank recently, but if you have, you may have noticed a lot “empty space” where all those bank employee desks used to be. Today your application is faxed, or e-mailed up to a centralized loan approval center where a few designated “loan officers” actually make those decisions. Seriously, why would the bank want to staff all those highly compensated suit-and-tie bodies in the local branch bank when instead they need only lower-paid staffers to assemble and pass along your loan paperwork to the few main office employees empowered to make those decisions?

It is true that technology itself spun has off new career paths – and I followed one of them. When I later worked for the state Department of Human Services as a Welfare Caseworker, much of the paperwork was eventually shifted over to software running on networked personal computers. This productivity change opened up a new career path for me as a Computer Network Technician… and at a nicely increased salary. But even technology is subject to productivity enhancements. Eventually the work I did in the local offices was “centralized” elsewhere; less and less of the work I did as a technician in the field was deemed necessary. By the time I retired I felt like my job was little more than as a “PC mechanic”.

The national and global economies are still reeling from the aftermath the Debt Ceiling Circus. Economists are talking confidently of Double-Dip Recession and postulating on how long it will take for the economy to pick up again. Of course the two major political parties are even now strategizing on how the prolonged recession will play out to their respective advantages in the upcoming election of 2012.

My longer term prediction is much darker: It won’t matter which party prevails. The economy will never get better more than marginally or temporarily. To me, the fate of our standard of living on this planet boils down to a simple math problem:
  1. World population will soon hit 7,000,000,000.
  2. Increases in productivity in every sector (agriculture, technology, finance, etc. will continue to require fewer people to perform them. The living standard of middle class will continue to shrink and economies based on consumer spending will founder.
  3. Income disparity between the very rich and the middle and lower classes will increase.
  4. The last of the “easily obtainable” natural resources have (or will have) peaked during our lifetime.
  5. Food will become more expensive as bio-fuels consume more of the food producing land and resources needed to produce it.
  6. Global climate change will continue to have a negative impact on all of the above regardless of whether people “believe” its happening or agree on what the root cause is.
I have stated countless times that I believe that my generation, the Baby Boomers, has lived during the best times man ever has, and ever will have, on this planet. I feel sad for my kids and my grand kids; they're going to have a Brave New World to contend with.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Karl Friedrich Hieronymus Freiherr von Münchhausen (1720–1797) was a German nobleman known in his time as a weaver of tall tales and humorous anecdotes. Over the years many anonymous authors republished Münchausen’s stories; then in 1785 Rudolf Erich Raspe published “The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen”, an unflattering collection of Munchausen tales which forever labeled the German story teller as a liar.

Fast-forward to 1951; Dr. Richard Alan John Asher published a paper in the medical journal, "Lancet" describing a particular psychosis whereby patients were intentionally making themselves ill in order to gain attention and sympathy. Dr. Asher named the disorder: Munchausen’s syndrome after the old baron.

At the Skeptic’s Toolbox, forensic psychologist and clinical professor, Loren Pankratz, gave a talk about Dr. Asher and the ramifications of the discovery of this interesting psychosis. Munchausen’s syndrome, and in particular its derivation, Munchausen’s by Proxy (whereby parents cause their children to become ill in order to gain attention and sympathy) has become a controversial topic in recent years. As physicians and social workers became educated about this syndrome, it began popping up with increasing frequency in their practices. So much so that soon child protective services workers were removing children from their parents amid accusations of causing their children’s illnesses.

So were physicians and social workers truly witnessing a monumental increase in child abuse through Munchausen’s by Proxy? As a forensic psychologist, Loren Pankratz has been called as an expert witness in the defense of parents accused of causing their child’s illness. Over the years of treating patients for the Department of Veterans Affairs, Pankratz had encountered significant numbers of patients who lied about their own illnesses. During this time the VA was investing significant mental health resources in treating Vietnam War veterans who claimed they suffered from PTSD resulting from horrific war experiences – only to find, upon reviewing their service records, some had never even served overseas.

Pankratz found that medical professionals were now suddenly diagnosing Munchausen’s by Proxy precisely because they had become aware of it in lectures and journals. However the problem was that the physicians were not adequately trained to conclude such a diagnosis; it was not their field of expertise. The result was that mothers genuinely concerned about the health of their children, and often aggressively advocating for their child sometimes to the point of irritating the doctor, were having charges of Munchausen’s by Proxy leveled at them.

This is yet another way in which intelligent people can go wrong; assuming that if they are competent in their chosen field of study, they will be equally competent in another. It is not uncommon for even scientists to check their rationality at the door when venturing into fields where they lack expertise.

Occasionally possessing a little knowledge, incorrectly applied, can be outright dangerous. Or as the old saying goes: “Sometimes when one has a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail”.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Intuition - More Science from the Skeptic's Toolbox

From the TV sitcom Cheers:

Norm: Woody, do you believe in intuition?

Woody: No, though I have a strong feeling that someday I might.
Intuition is a very common decision making process, most of us at some time make use of our “gut instincts”. Often intuition is assumed to be the opposite of thoughtful rational thinking, and it is – however, sometimes our intuition serves us remarkably well.

Intuition is defined as “the direct perception of truth, fact, etc., independent of any reasoning process; immediate apprehension.” Where rational thinking can be slow, reflective and involve a lot of work, intuition can be applied quickly and with much less deliberation and cognitive investment. Intuition relies heavily upon perception; unfortunately our perceptions may often be false. Upon going with our gut, reasoning may then simply come into play in rationalizing our decisions. This causes us to use our cognition instead to support a bad decision based on the misperceived or incorrect observation.

However, studies of decision making based on intuition have shown that this rapid-fire and low cognitive cost thinking process can yield effective results. Over time much of our decision making is based on our previous experiences. For example, let’s say you need to determine how many gallons of paint will be required to paint your living room. Knowing the square footage each can of paint covers, you can measure the room and calculate the number of gallons required depending on the total surface area of wall to be painted. However, a professional painter may be able to more accurately predict the number of gallons required simply upon walking in and looking at the room. Here a low cognitive investment has yielded an accurate result.

The dangers with relying on intuition are obvious, however. Decisions can not only be rendered based on misperception, but also our cognitive bias’ can come into play as well. The implication is that intuition can be strongly influenced by wishful thinking; driving our decisions toward satisfying a possibly unconscious desire.

Here is where the importance of reasoning comes into play – humans are not well adapted to applying logic, probability, and decision theory without special training. More abstract problems are not easily linked to personal experience. It may also be subject to other outside influences such as peer pressure; the “Band Wagon” effect.

Consider, jury duty, for example. In a criminal trial the bar for rendering a guilty verdict is confidence “beyond a reasonable doubt”. I have served on juries where it was abundantly clear to me that some jurors took “reasonable doubt” to mean that they believed in their heart-and-soul that the accused was guilty. Yet when asked to justify their decision, they were unable to articulate any factual elements which supported their decision – they just “knew” the accused was guilty.

We all have been exposed to the differing responses expressed by different factions of public opinion from some of the more prominent criminal trials in recent history – from OJ Simpson to Casey Anthony, they illustrate the critical importance of distinguishing difference between intuition and rational thinking.
Intuition and Reasoning: A Dual-Process Perspective, Jonathan St B T Evans

Sunday, August 14, 2011

When Smart People Go Wrong

I attended the Skeptic’s Toolbox this year put on by the Center for Inquiry (CSI), an organization dedicated to promoting scientific inquiry and critical investigation of extraordinary claims.

The topic of focus this year was “How Smart People Go Wrong”. Society generally regards intelligence (IQ) as the measure of how “smart” people are. And yet, very intelligent people can often go very wrong in their thinking and behavior. One need only look at the supposedly smart investors who were suffered monumental financial losses by trusting their money to the likes of swindler, Bernie Madoff.

But history is replete with examples of smart people gone wrong. Take for example Sir Isaac Newton, who is credited with developing the most elemental foundation laws of physics, who essentially invented calculus and theorized (correctly) that light was composed of many different wavelengths (colors). And yet, this monumental genius devoted significant amounts of his time in the pursuit of Alchemy.

Then there is Alfred Russell Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin who worked with equally strong conviction to support the Theory of Evolution. Yet this brilliant scientist also working tirelessly, attending and recording his observances at séances to promote what he held strongly was the validity of the spirit world and a “fourth dimension”.

Few of us don’t know about the legendary forensic detective, Sherlock Holmes, created out of the imagination of Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle. The mind that conjured up the brilliant intellectual detective, who used observation and science to solve crimes, was also a believer in spirits and fairies. So much was Conan Doyle a believer that two school girls from Cottingley England fooled the author, and many prominent scientists of the day, with their pictures of actual fairies taken in their garden with their father’s camera. Most interesting, even after the girls confessed that the fairies were merely cardboard cutouts, Doyle and others continued to believe in fairies.

So what is going on here? If intelligence is a measure of “smarts”, how is it that intelligent people can be so easily fooled? The answer is both complicated and multi-faceted. As it turns out, IQ is not necessarily the best or only measure of “smartness”. It is possible for intelligent people to not properly apply Reasoning Ability. Or to put it another way; if Intelligence is the measure of mental “capacity”, Reasoning is the process of employing that capacity. And often times we don’t do a good job of that; often because we take shortcuts.

Consider the following problem – try to answer it before reading the solution:
Jack is looking at Anne, but Anne is looking at George. Jack is married but George is not. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?”

A) Yes ~ B) No ~ C) Cannot be determined?
As it turns out, more than 80% of people incorrectly answer the question “C”. The problem does not reveal if Anne is married or not, so people take the easiest inference without fully thinking through the problem; they are effectively being Cognitive Miser.

But if one applies reasoning the correct answer can be obtained: If Anne is married, then the correct answer is “A” – Anne is the married person looking at George who is unmarried. But if Anne is NOT married, the correct answer is still “A” – Jack who is married is looking at the unmarried Anne.

This type of thinking is called “Fully Disjunctive Reasoning" – it considers all the possibilities. Rather than accepting that we do not know Anne’s marital status, we instead consider the possibilities to determine the answer to the question. The suggestion that we do not have enough information causes us become Cognitive Misers, (Dysrationalia) and take the easy way out.

IQ tests are often employed as a measure of smartness, but to fully understand how smart someone is, tests measuring Dysrationalia provide a more widely encompassing measure.

Next: More from the Skeptic’s Toolbox and how Smart People Go Wrong.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Death of a Statesman

Oregon’s former Senator Mark O. Hatfield died yesterday at the age of 89. I recall voting for him back when I too was a Republican. He was a man of Conscience; a man of my father’s Republican Party… quite unlike the Borg Collective of today's GOP.

Hatfield was the sort of statesman that allowed for a Republican to hold the governorship and senatorial seats during both long term political careers in this quite Liberal state of Oregon. He is often most known for differing from his party in his opposition to the Vietnam War. A devout Christian, he did not fully support his party’s embrace of Christian Evangelicals who he believed represented intolerance and divisiveness.

There are any number of well-written and thoughtful obituaries and remembrances of Senator Hatfield that one can easily Google, so I won’t even attempt to do so here. I will just say that it was intelligent, moderate and caring men like Hatfield that made me feel good about my Republican Party back then. And it is the loss of statesmen such as Hatfield, the party today of John Boehner, the Tea Party and the vitriolic Fox News collective that have turned me away from my Republican roots.

Sadly there seems to no longer be room for statesmen like Senator Hatfield in today's GOP. This is a sad indictment for our country on so many levels.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

"Witch" Way to the Water?

The other day I was waiting for my gas tank to get filled (I live in Oregon where the citizens are not considered sufficient competent to pump their own gas), when I noticed a landscaping project being conducted at the church on the opposite corner. The grass had been sprayed out (dead), a couple of dump piles of topsoil here and there. But what caught my eye were the two guys wandering back and forth over the dead grass – They were “dowsing” presumably to locate the underground irrigation pipes.

One guy held two bent L-shaped metal rods, one in each hand; the other had a can of orange spray paint. The guy with the metal rods paced a few steps forward then backward. He would then direct the guy with the spray paint to mark the ground in front of his feet. These guys then wandered to another area of the dead grass and repeated the dousing – each time the dower was satisfied there was an irrigation pipe under his feet, the spray paint guy would mark it.

Had I the time I really would have loved to stop and talk with the guys and have them demonstrate for me their dowsing “skill”; unfortunately I had other time constraints. As I watching them dowsing and marking, the thought occurred to me that I would fully expect to find irrigation lines under a previously planted lawn. So what’s the surprise here?

Dowsing is among the more thoroughly debunked psychic phenomena. Most dowsers will provide enthusiastic confirmation that dowsing works. This is because they usually find water (or whatever they are dowsing for) where they expect to find it. This type of fallacious conclusions is called “post hoc” reasoning. Dowsers often will also misinterpret statistical results of their dowsing success. For example, a dowser may feel that if they successfully find water in 2 or 3 out of 10 tries, this is confirmation of their dowsing success. Of course such results are less than what one would expect from random chance.

Controlled scientific tests have been conducted on dowsers; not surprisingly, their success is never better random chance. Dowsers don’t just attempt to detect hidden water; dowsers claim they can find oil, gold or treasure or even detect illicit drugs. Modern dowsers have even tried to sell bogus dousing equipment to the US Military… to dowse for roadside bombs. Considering such dangers, unscientific bunk such as this tips the scale from the realm of silliness to being outright deadly.

I drove by the church landscaping project a few days later, there were holes dug up randomly all over the dead lawn. Perhaps they were just experiencing an invasion of over-sized gophers. Their psychic should have warned them about that.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Summertime Blues

Summer is my favorite season – always has been. And for most of my youth, my parents put great effort into trying to ruin my summers.... every year they always sent me to Summer School.

I recall when I was growing up people often telling me I was “smart”. That was nice to hear but I was never sure what they were talking about? School was difficult for me; math in particular was always problematic. English was strange as well; I couldn’t figure out why we needed to spend so much time “diagramming sentences”. Who cares what the difference is between an adjective and an adverb is if you can use them correctly. [Those of you among my followers, who are professional writers, please cut me some slack here.]

In either case, I was a mediocre student during most of my school career, grade school and middle school in particular. As a result of my poor grades, my parents figure the best remedy for my poor grades was that I simply I needed MORE school. So each year I was forced to attend Summer School.

I viewed Summer School as punishment by my parents for not doing well in regular school. Summer School was horrible. For one thing NONE of my friends ever had to go to Summer School. So while they were out having fun, I was stuck in “school”. Summer School only ran half-day, so we were out of there by noon. But by the time I got home my friends were long gone who-knows-where! I spent many of my afternoons alone.

My parents were easily swayed by the propaganda about how much “fun” Summer School was going to be. Pictures on the brochure showed kids at the swimming pool, kids jumping on the trampoline. Bulls#*t -- The trampoline was only brought out ONCE; by the time the my turn in line came around the period was over and it was time to head back to math class. I never did get my 2-minutes of trampoline time. Oh and the pool – it was drained every summer for maintenance.

But finally Summer School term would end and I would luxuriate in the brief period before the regular term started up again. Finally I could ride bikes and hang with my buddies. But soon the “Back to School” ads would air on TV reminding me of the impending return to regular school.

By the time I was in High School my parents had stopped sending me to Summer School – probably because it didn’t exist for high schoolers. Most of my friends by then had summer jobs, I had one as well; picking prunes in Northern California. We worked in the mornings, spent the heat of the day swimming in the Russian River, and then we worked again in the cool of the evening. I loved it.

My grades in high school were all over the chart. I got “A’s in Architecture and Physical Education. My PE grade was an enigma to me as I was always the smallest guy in class and sucked at performing any sport except track. I think they gave me “A's” either for my effort... or more likely everyone got an A. I flunked Algebra three times in a row. But I did great in the sciences, Biology in particular.

It was expected in my family that I would go to college. But my GPA was pretty weak. At that time the Vietnam War was ramping up and lots of young guys my age were going into the military. On my 18th birthday I was obligated to visit the US Post Office to register for the Selective Service. It became very clear that if I didn’t get into college, and pronto, I would likely be invited by Uncle Sam to take an all-expenses-paid visit to exotic Southeast Asia.

College took on a new meaning for me – it served as my primarily deferment from being drafted into the Army. My grades were still mediocre but good enough to keep me in school and out of the Army. During those college summers I worked a clerical job for Greyhound Bus Lines. As I would sit at a desk surrounded by inane clerical people for 8 hours a day, I would reminisce about how much I missed getting out at noon back when I was going to Summer School.

I was never drafted.