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Arthur S. ReberI’ve spent over fifty years living two parallel lives. In one I am a semi-degenerate gambler, a poker junkie, horse player, and blackjack maven; in the other, a scientist specializing in cognitive psychology and related topics in the neurosciences, the origins of consciousness and the philosophy of mind. For the most part, I’ve kept these tracks separate mainly because my colleagues in each have little appreciation for the wonder, the complexities and the just full-bore fun in the other.

But over time these two avenues of my life have meshed. There’s a lot that we know about human psychology that can give us insight into gambling, especially poker and, of course, there’s a lot that poker can teach us about human psychology. It is quite astonishing how richly these topics interlock. I’ll also introduce you to some engaging characters I’ve known – bookies, con artists, hustlers, professional poker players and perhaps an occasional famous scientist.

This site will wander about in both worlds with new columns and articles along with links to scores of previously published ones. Now that I’ve retired I’ve become something of a political junkies and will go on rants on politics and economics,  When the mood strikes I’ll share views on food, restaurants and cooking. Any and all feedback is welcome.

Thursday
Sep152016

Trumpy Tribulations

I put an earlier version of this on Facebook. It’s today’s rumination about the miscreant who somehow garnered the Republican nomination for president and, even more “somehow” seems to have managed to get close to half the electorate to actually think he would make a good president.

It was provoked by Kurt Eichenwald’s Newsweek article that just came out painting an astonishing picture of Trump’s international dealings — ones so interlocking with politicians and businesses that they would seriously compromise his ability to function as president. If Eichenwald’s analysis is even moderately correct the entire Trump family would have to totally dissociate themselves from the existing business enterprise. Trump’s statement that he would absent himself from the operations and let his children run things is totally unworkable — and almost certainly not legal.

But even before these revelations about his complex international dealings, we knew more than a few things about him, enough to make apparent to any casual observer that he is the most unqualified person to ever even consider running for the highest office in the land. Below is a (somewhat abridged, there really are other things that could be added) list. All are true. All are easily verified. All are utterly damning.

With all the fuss being made about Hillary’s role as Secretary of State and her emails and the Clinton Foundation it is nothing short of astonishing that Trump has managed to create this laundry list of things beiieved, said, done and proposed with so little scrutiny from the press.

In no special order, Mr. Donald J. Trump:

*Bankrupted at least four major companies resulting in the loss of tens of thousands of jobs. 

*Failed in a series of minor business ventures from steaks to water to a so-called “university.”

*Been in court over 3500 times for illegal and/or unethical business practices for which he and/or his corporations have been fined over five million dollars.

*Engaged in fraudulent Trump Foundation business practices — for which the IRS fined him. 

*Made an illegal political contribution which may yet be determined to have been a bribe — and fined for it.

*Discriminated against black renters in his Brooklyn, NY properties — and fined by a Federal court.

*Is under indictment in Federal court for unethical business practices at Trump University (sic) and currently under investigation in New York State for similar practices. 

*Hired undocumented immigrant workers on NYC projects.

*Used foreign manufacturers for products bearing his name.

*Insulted virtually every racial and ethnic minority group and religion including war heroes, journalists, sitting senators and persons with disabilities.

*Proposed illegal restrictions on those who’ve applied for immigrant status. 

*Called for the return of and increased use of torture saying he doesn’t care about the Geneva Convention. 

*Called for the murder of civilian family members of suspected terrorists saying he doesn’t care that it’s a crime against humanity. 

*Encouraged violence at rallies — including offers to pay legal fees for those who get arrested.

*Stated that climate change is a hoax and supported more fossil fuel use.

*Is a serial adulterer and been suspected of sexual abuse and child molestation. 

*Stated that he thinks using nuclear weapons is appropriate or, as he put it, “why have them if you aren’t going to use them?”

*Praised America’s most dangerous adversaries like Putin and Kim Jong Un.

*Has lied consistently as several fact-checking sites have shown.

*Has changed his position on virtually every issue over the past decade or so. 

*Has run so bizarre a campaign that he’s now on his third manager in just the last few months.

*Has refused to dissociate himself from white supremacists. 

*Claimed that he doesn’t need advisers because he knows more about terrorism than our military and intelligence agencies. 

*Refused to release his tax returns. The audit claim is bogus — Nixon released his while under an audit.

*Refused to release his medical records (the one that surfaced was apparently written by his staff). 

*Has failed to put forward a single workable proposal for dealing with any of the problems facing the country. 

Now we get this incredible involvement in international dealings that would absolutely compromise his ability to function as president.

Yet nearly fifty percent of the electorate is ready to vote him into the Oval Office. It’s difficult to fathom. I note that recent polls show that roughly one-fifth of his backers think slavery should be made legal again and that the bulk of his support is coming from elderly, white, relatively uneducated males. I guess what this says is that between those who just don’t care about his unprecedented levels of incompetence, frightening  ignorance and utter lack of experience and those who embrace him for precisely these failings we find close to half of the American electorate.

Scary times.

Thursday
Aug252016

Clinton'ish Thoughts

I posted a short version of this on Facebook. It’s an effort to diagnose Hillary’s decades-long tendency to find a way to put herself in a bad public light. It’s happened over and over forfreakingever. A quick run-down of the non-scandals over the years: the Rose Law firm cock-up, Vince Foster’s death, Whitewater, Travelgate, Benghazi, the email server and now the Clinton Foundation.

In each of these so-called “scandals” we’ve witnessed the same extended dramaturgical sequence: questions get asked, hints of possible misconduct emerge, investigations are mounted, evidence is presented and scrutinized and, sometimes after years of detective work, the final decision is that nothing is amiss, It was all just (another) nothing-burger, a tempest in a teapot.

As many pundits and commentators have noted, a lot of this political frenzy is initiated and promoted by her enemies who are many. But a lot of it is of her own making simply because she does not handle these things well.

When you brush away the “Hillary derangement syndrome” elements that drive those on the political right, Clinton’s main problem isn’t what she’s actually done, it’s how she (and Bill and the rest of their operation) handle issues. And it goes like this:

An issue emerges and the press comes snooping around. She responds in her patented buttoned-down style, dismissive, unrevealing — which, of course, does nothing to deter the curious who start asking more focused questions. To these she typically pulls the tent-flap up a bit but denies that anything’s amiss — which, of course, makes everyone ever more curious. When they predictably push harder she acknowledges, usually in a vaguely obscure way, that perhaps there were some things done not according to “standard protocol.” To calm the criticism, she releases some of the information in the form of memos or emails which, quelle surprise, just tweaks the press and her critics who assume that since she only served up some of the material she must be hiding something.

Finally, often after some “official” investigation initiated by the GOP, she opens the books and/or releases the emails and we see that she was right all along, that nothing out of the ordinary was going on, nothing indictable, nothing illegal, nothing treasonable, just the usual mishmash of government and the occasional errors of judgment that any and every official makes. Interestingly, once this point is reached virtually everyone, including the FBI, the GOP and her enemies, grudgingly acknowledge her non-culpability (if not her actual innocence). Even Tray Gowdy whose entire political focus for several years now has been a laser-like effort to bring her down, has admitted that she’s done nothing improper.

But by the time we’ve reached this semi-denouement, it’s too late. Everybody (including those on the political left who should be her strongest supporters) can’t shake the feeling she’s still hiding something …. and the wolves start howling for her flesh yet again.

This pattern’s been going on for decades and why she hasn’t learned is a puzzle.

Friday
Aug052016

A Democracy? Not So Sure.

A thought about our representative democracy, stimulated by analyses by David Wasserman over at  Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight and some recent data from Cook’s Political Report:

Fewer than 10% of Congressional districts are competitive.

Only some 14% or 15% of the electorate vote in primaries. 

Roughly half of these are from each major party.

Hence, roughly 95% of the House of Representatives is determined by approximately 7% of the eligible voters.

This set of circumstances is due, in large part, to our polarized political world. In fact, this trend is now so strong that it swamps the impact of gerrymandering. I used to think that if we had more balanced districts laid out that Congress would naturally become a more representative body, simply by virture of the nature of the electorate. Now I’m not so sure.

The deep problem is that the Founders’ rationale for having the entire House come up for election every two years — which was to encourage turn-over — has backfired. Now it encourages retention. Off the top of my head, I can think of several factors that would drive this tendency like name recognition, a preference for continuity over change and a sense of comfort with the current office holder over a newcomer without a significant public record.

So, not surprisingly, the likelihood of re-election is now high, so high that the real election isn’t in November. It’s in the earlier primary. The way to knock someone out of their seat is to go after them in the primary — a tactic now so common that “to primary” has become a common verb.

This political gambit, of course, drives the parties to even greater polarization because it is typically the extreme wing that gets its knickers in a twist over the excessive moderation of the current congressperson and comes swooping in from the radical wing. We saw this in dramatic fashion when Eric Cantor, then the House Majority Leader, got tossed into the dumpster by an obscure economist named David Brat, whom no one had even heard of before and who, according to Cook’s analysis, is a virtual shoe-in for re-election. FWIW, Brat aligned himself with the extreme right-wing Freedom Caucus and has accomplished essentially nothing but be a reliable vote to block any legislation proposed by any Democrat.

This end-point seems to be an inevitable and troubling outcome of our form of government, one that the Parliamentary system avoids. The only solution I can see is for moderates to become so infuriated with the extremists that they primary them with more reasonable candidates. We’ll see if this strategy emerges in any meaningful way in the next couple of election cycles.
Thursday
Jul282016

Oh look, there's a gun! Where's my foot? Tales from my left flank.

This is the third in an uneven, unplanned series of essays on the lunacy of my people, my left-leaning, progressive, idealists with whom I usually share my hopes, visions and desires for our society, our cultures and our country.

Lunacy? Yes. For reasons unclear and often bewildering, those on the left fringe just seem to lose it. Reason gets pushed off-stage. Clarity of thought takes a hike. Coherency is on furlough and practical, pragmatic thinking is nowhere to be found. I’ve covered some of these issues here and here. Today I’ll take a gander at the Occupy movement, the Black Lives Matter organization and the Bernie or Busters.

Occupy: What a good idea! Occupy the domain of the target organization. It began with Occupy Wall Street and the protestors engaged in classic, peaceful and remarkably effective protest simply by showing up, sitting down and “occupying” Wall St. Then it morphed in Occupy ­­_____ where the blank could be filled in by whatever program, corporation, city, governmental agency needed to have its ugly underbelly exposed. It held the highest ideals, to decrease the income gap, lessen economic disparity, expose corruption and fraud, give more power and control to the people — the little people and do so without violence or aggressive action. A pretty good summary can be found here.

So what went wrong? Why has the movement lost purchase? Why is it now either fading from public consciousness or openly mocked? For the simplest of reasons: naiveté and a failure to recognize that movements need organizers, spokespersons, committees, fund raisers, hawkers, mailbox stuffers, leaders with dreams and an eye toward growth and a coherent vision of ultimate goals.

None of this happened. For reasons that just seem childish the Occupy movement never identified leaders, never found individuals who would speak for the group (each group, any group), who would appear on talk radio, on cable news, on MSNBC or CNN. In fact they refused to do such mundane things. They seemed to embrace some new-age notion that in some mysterian way the world would change just because they sat about, waved signs and chanted. It was reminiscent of when Sun Young Moon’s bizarre church would get large numbers of people to chant all together and assume the planet would tilt on its axis — or something.

Alas, the world does not work this way and the movement with it idealistic utopians and its utopian ideals is slowly fading from our consciousness, from the news programs from our sight. Sad.

Black Lives Matter: This one is tough for me to write because I’m a big fan of BLM — the original movement, the one that was spawned by the horrific deaths of Black Americans by white cops and deluded racists who took the “stand your ground” laws to their dreadful, predictable end point. What happened?

The first big stumble was failing to issue a series of public condemnations of the killing of police by black snipers. We do not know whether the actions and statements of BLM had any direct, causal role to play in these acts but the raw reality of black men murdering police simply because they were police had an eerie parallel with cops killing blacks simply because they were black. These acts produced a significant backlash that damaged the BLM movement and the organization did little to repair it. BLM was created to be a “pro-” movement. Their luke warm response here made it look like they’d become an “anti-” one. There’s no quicker way to lose respect and support.

Then they gave us an astonishing display of insensitivity and unthinking bias. They refused to partake in Pride parades if police also took part.

Think this one through. BLM agitates against police race-based brutality and insensitivity. This is a good position to take and by emphasizing it they snapped the country’s conscience awake. The police have responded by trying to do something about the issue — yes, they really are. Sure, there are racist cops. There are misogynist cops, anti-Semitic cops and anti-LGBT cops. But they’re a minority and police forces around the country are working to root them out, reform the training and recruitment programs and repair the damage. BLM’s proper response here should be to embrace these reforms, to work with police departments to improve sensitivity to race and racial issues, to encourage cooperation with local communities.

What good can possibly come of BLM refusing to be part of a Pride parade because cops are proudly marching alongside them? The police, not so long ago, used to beat the shit out of gays and lesbians simply for being who they are. Now they’ve joined with them in celebration of the diversity of life and proudly marching alongside them. And BLM refuses to join the festivities.

If you want to put a dent in your public image I can’t think of a better way. In one stupid move BLM alienated the LBGT community, confused the cops (not to mention progressives like me), and gave the right wingers more ammunition.

Bernie or Bust: Bernie did the country a big favor. By running as an outsider, a renegade candidate, he touched a nerve, one the insiders in the Democratic Party didn’t know was there — or if they did, had no clue as to how his message would resound. The result was to significantly shift the party, it’s stated ideals and goals far to the left forcing them, and Hillary, to embrace a forgotten progressivism.

The party had been pulled toward the center by Bill who judged, rightly or wrongly, that truly liberal positions would never be passed by a congress that had a significant, right-wing element. The result was not a happy one (DOMA, DADT, Glass-Steagall repealed, welfare “reform”).

Bernie lost the nomination but won the battle by focusing on the results of these (and Bush’s regressive actions). The Democratic platform is the most progressive in decades and Hillary has been clear that she is running on the principles outlined in it.

So all looks good, right? Nope. There’s an element among the more devoted Sanders supporters who say they cannot and will not vote for Clinton. And we have, again, lefties shooting themselves in some body part (the “foot” here seems too inconsequential; this one could be a shot in the heart!).

When pressed some “Busters” seem to suggest that if Bernie isn’t the nominee then there is no one worthy of their vote. Hints that every stay-homer is, in effect, a vote for Trump seem to have no impact. Others suggest that it really never was about Bernie, per se, but about his message. Queries about why they wouldn’t vote for Hillary given that she’s now running on “his message” are greeted with disdain — and equal lack of concern about the impact of not punching that chad for HRC. Even pointing out that Bernie himself has urged everyone to vote Clinton to stop Trump fall on deaf ears (perhaps the result of guns going off too close to their heads).

Note the pattern in all three. They start with high ideals and progressive vision and then, because of poor management skills, incoherent decision-making or simply losing touch with reality in a whirlwind of self-generated empty utopianism it starts falling apart.

I find myself, yet again, bewildered by this. Politics is all about compromise and pragmatics. You have your ideals and work toward them. It’s folly to toss any hope of genuine change on the slag heap of unworkable ideals.

Monday
Jul182016

One's Legacy Through Others

One my former students just had a birthday and used the occasion to announce the upcoming publication of his third (fourth? I’ve lost count) major book. It got me thinking about the many who passed through my lab over the years, where they went, what they ended up doing and how their careers reflected the years they spent studying with me.

I was, I guess I still am, a cognitive psychologist with a long-standing interest in human intuition, unconscious cognitive mechanisms, evolutionary biological models and the psychology and philosophy of mind. I’m still at it with a paper on the origins of consciousness just accepted by the journal Animal Sentience. It should be out in a month or so.

Update (8/29/16): It’s out and, if anyone cares, can be downloaded here.

One of the things we research-type academics do is train the new generations of scientists and the “standard approach” is to take them into your lab, school them as best as you can and try your damndest to give them (or allow them to find) the skills, confidence and wisdom to become great teachers, educators and scientists.

Typically, that “standard approach” means you end up with newly minted Ph.D.’s who go out and do research in the area of their training. Now, over a decade since I supervised my last Ph.D., I took a look back at what my students ended up doing and where they’re doing it. And I realized with a bit of surprise but a lot of warmth and good feelings that they are all doing “their own thing.” The “standard approach” obviously wasn’t operating in my lab which, FWIW, was named The Institute for Experimental Epistemology. I called it that because I thought it was an oxymoron. On my last visit to Brooklyn College I noted that the plaque was still affixed to the door (though someone else was occupying the rooms).

In no special order here’s a partial list of what my many students are now up to:

1. Professor and chair of the psychology department and a member of the Board of Governors of a Midwestern college. We still collaborate on research on sport psychology.

2. Clinical psychologist with a focus on sexuality and sexual disorders who has published a number of well-received books.

3. Researcher on the roots of autism and associate director of an autism center in the Southwest.

4. Professor and chair of the psychology department in a New York City liberal arts college and developer of a program for using Internet platforms for research.

5. Senior researcher specializing in outcomes assessment for the New York City board of education.

6. Senior researcher specializing in outcomes assessment for the New York City board of education (yes, two of them ended up in the same department).

7. Senior research fellow in an applied science firm in Israel.

8. Professor of psychology at a university in the Middle East who studies the links between creativity and bilingualism — also a published poet (and, of course, multilingual).

9. Director of clinical services at a community mental health center, now retired.

10. Professor of education at a university in the Pacific Northwest, retired. It’s amusing to realize you’ve been around so long your students have joined you in retirement. It’s like having your grandkids getting married — and that’s happening later this month.

11. Research fellow at a think tank in New York city.

12. Professor and chair of the social sciences department at one of the CUNY community colleges.

13. High school teacher (a job she had when she came into my lab) who continues to do scholarly work in collaboration with her psychologist husband.

14. Clinical psychologist in private practice with a specialty in sex therapy.

15. Distinguished professor of forensic psychology in a CUNY college and the CUNY Graduate Center.

16. Professor of psychology and ESL in a Japanese university. Now fluent in Japanese, he is the university’s liaison with English language institutions.

17. Researcher and clinician with a specialty in marriage and counseling.

18. Professor and chair of the psychology department in a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. Dozens of his undergrads have gone off to top-flight PhD programs.

19. Professor of clinical psychology at a New York university and a leading expert on family violence and adolescent suicide.

20. Distinguished professor at a Tier I university with a research program on computational models of human cognitive functions.

21. Chair of the psychology department of an elite liberal arts college in upstate New York and a leading authority on the psychology of education and the teaching of psychology.

22. Partner in a market research firm who also retooled and became a psychoanalyst.

23. Professor in a liberal arts college in Connecticut.

24. Researcher in information technology in his native Ontario, Canada.

The thing that just jumped out at me as I compiled this list this was that none of them followed up in research areas even remotely close to mine. This, I can tell you, is not typical. But, in retrospect, it’s not surprising but it is satisfying.

I always tried to nurture ideas, creativity and an expanding vision. I never wanted my students to parrot my ideas or mirror my interests. My favorite students were the ones who fought me at every turn. I never marched in lock-step with my professors and ended up the better for it. And that became my model.

I was startled to see how many of them ended up chairing their departments and heading up programs. I did three years as department chair and was awful at the job. You’d have thought they’d learned. Maybe they learned by watching my screw-ups and knew what not to do…

What’s also intriguing is how many moved into applied and clinically oriented lives. My approach was pure science but I was always ready to support any and all extensions of basic research into applied domains. I’d like to think that my broad vision here was part of what they ended up doing though I suspect that some of them came into my lab because they realized I’d give them a longer leash with more slack in it than others.

So it’s all cool and I think I did the right thing and the world is better for it. Barkeep, pour me another — make it a double.