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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.

Tuesday
Oct032017

Thoughts on Thoughts on the Vegas Massacre

 

Everybody has thoughts on what happened over the weekend in Las Vegas where a previously under-the-radar guy named Stephen Paddock shot and killed at least 59 concert-goers and wounded another 530 or so. Here are my thoughts on those others:

Thoughts and Prayers: This tag line has become a totally empty expression with the meaning of “bless you” after someone sneezes. No one’s death has ever been softened by it. No one’s thought has ever helped. And no prayer has ever been responded to any useful way. If prayers had any effective role in life then shit like this wouldn’t happen. So please, stop saying it. Instead go give blood.

This is Not the Time Talk About Guns: Actually, it is. It is precisely the time to talk about guns. The idiots like Sean Hannity, that piece of dog crap that’s stuck to your shoe and will not be scraped off, proclaimed loudly that it is “despicable” to do so. Bull. When we have a train wreck, we talk about rail safety. Hurricane Harvey hits Houston and we talk about doing something about the flood plain that development has created there. A mine shaft collapses and we talk about improving safety and working conditions in mines. And I don’t want to the hear the crap that those other things were different because they weren’t the direct action of some nut. Remember the “Tylenol murders?” Someone put poison in bottles of Tylenol and put them back on the shelf. Seven people died and a series of copy-cat poisonings soon followed. Thirty-five years later the original culprit has still not be caught. But we talked about the crime. And we did something. Drug safety codes were enacted. Seals on all pharmaceuticals were mandated and, guess what, nothing like this has happened since.

Don’t Trample of our Constitutional Rights: No one, and I mean no one, is talking about taking away anyone’s guns. But some things need to be clear about the Constitution. Those rights outlined in the Bill Thereof are not unbounded rights. There are restrictions. Yes, the 1st Amendment gives Americans freedom of speech and the press but you cannot say anything you wish. A specific, open call to induce violence against others is forbidden. If you think you have total freedom of speech trying calling openly for the murder of a president or a supreme court justice and see how fast your right is ended. The same amendment has the so-called “Establishment Clause” providing for freedom of religion but there are laws restricting how you can practice your freely chosen faith. You cannot have human sacrifices, you cannot have multiple spouses, you cannot refuse to have medical science save the life of your infant, you cannot discriminate against anyone on racial grounds — no matter what your religion preaches. Ditto for guns. There are lots of restrictions on who can own and use various firearms. It’s time to put more in place.

Don’t Politicize Guns: More bull crap. Guns are political. They’ve been so since the 2nd Amendment was added to the Constitution. If you don’t think they’ve always been politicized why do you think that in most states there are few regulations in place governing the purchase and use of guns? We require anyone who wants to drive a car pass a test and be legally licensed. Want to drive a truck? More tests and a different license. Teach school? Ditto. Practice medicine, dentistry? Become an electrician? Plumber? Hell, we license beauty salon workers, people who do your nails, pick up your garbage. You can’t even flip burgers without passing food safety tests. We even have licenses and regulatory codes in place for things that don’t even work like homeopathy. You don’t think these are “political?” They are. Every one of these (and thousands of other) regulations got put in place over the objections of some individuals, some groups, some cluster of lobbyists. They were passed by state and local legislatures or by Congress or crafted by regulatory bodies that exist only in virtue of their creation by elected officials. It’s all political. Which, of course, is why the NRA shovels so much money into public relations and bankrolls the campaigns of those running for Congress (virtually all of whom are Republicans). And, of course, it is why an astonishing number of elected officials are totally unthinking, knee-jerk pro-gun representatives — wholly bought and owned by the arms industry.

It’s Un-American to Talk About Gun Control: Well, it may be in the minds of some but it’s also Un-American to sit idly by while over 33,000 of us die from gun violence every year. Every damned year! We kill each other (and ourselves) at rates that are unheard of in other developed countries. It’s bloody Un-American to refuse to deal with this issue when there have already been 270 “mass-murder” (four or more deaths) so far this year in the US and we still have three months to go. By comparison, there have zero mass murders using a firearm in the UK. In fact, the last one there was in 2010. The sobering statistics of the killing fields that the US has become can be found here. Every industrialized nation on the planet has figured out how to regulate guns but us. Are we that stupid? I’m beginning to conclude that we are.

 

Thursday
Aug312017

How to Screw up Scholarship -- The Predatory Journals

Most folks not involved in either doing research, which was what I did for over fifty years or paying attention to the progress others are making, which is what I’m reduced to since closing my lab back in ‘05, have probably never heard of “predatory journals.” Well, they’re screwing with science and other fields of scholarship so, a short essay on them:

Predatory journals are fake journals. They tend to be in fields of science but others exist in other academic disciplines. They are scams designed with one purpose, to make money for the people who claim to be the “editors.” The game goes like this:

a. The “journal” gets the emails of a large number of people in various field of scholarship. This is easy to do. They can be members of scientific organizations, students or faculty at colleges and universities, researchers in applied fields, corporations that have R & D programs, whatever, anywhere. It doesn’t matter.

b. They send batch emails announcing the “new cutting edge” journal with a name that sounds legit, like “Journal of Bio-medical Archeology.” The announcement invariably notes that this is an open-access, online journal. I get three or four of these in a typical month.

c. Announce that the new journal is seeking papers and that they are inviting you, because of your background, to submit. Of course, if it’s not your field you just hit “delete,” but anyone working in the area of the journal might be interested.

d. Couch the announcement in wording that makes it seem like the journal is edited and that all articles will only be accepted after peer-review. Legitimate scholarly journals only publish articles after review by experts.

If you bite, here are the next steps:

i. Suppose you have a paper you’ve been working on but are unsure which journal to send it to. Previous experiences have made clear how tough it is to get published in the existing main-stream outlets. So off it goes to this “new” journal.

ii. A note comes back, usually within a day or two, sometimes within 24 hours, saying “congratulations” your article has been accepted.

iii. A form is attached asking you to cover costs of publication and to fill out and sign a contract. The “cost” can be anywhere from $50 to $300 (and sometimes more).

iv. As soon as your check clears or your credit card payment goes through you get another email giving you the url where you paper can now be found.

So what’s wrong with this you might ask? Several things:

1. You don’t know if anyone at the journal has any background in your field or whether they read your paper, reviewed it, or did routine editing. Several investigative journalists have tested this by sending in mocked-up, deliberate junk and had it immediately accepted! 

2. Your paper is now available to anyone. It may or may not be a serious piece of research — and there’s no way for anyone who runs across it to know. But, any search engine that tags key words you used will find it.

3. There’s a distinct possibility that the paper contains all manner of errors. But again, the casual reader who chances across it won’t know that.

4. As the word gets out that researchers can get the number of publications on their vitae boosted easily, they start sending in papers based on weak, poorly done research — or worse, joksters start sending in deliberate nonsense just for the fun of it.

5. Others cite these papers and their findings without realizing they getting bamboozled by worthless, junk science and the misinformation cycle spins on.

6. The scam works most effectively with young researchers who need to “pad their resumés,” researchers in poor and underdeveloped countries who don’t have access to the standard publishing outlets, students looking to make their achievements while still training look impressive, busy folks who don’t want (or lack the time) to do the work of getting their findings or theories in the legitimate journals or ones tired of having their papers rejected — doing real scholarship is tough and things can get competitive.

And, because this scam is so easy to pull off, so cheap to run, and makes so much money doing basically nothing, it’s spread like wildfire — and grown. There are now conferences run on topics by people who have virtually no experience in either the field and, in some cases, actually running a conference. Again, all papers are “accepted” and all must pay for the privilege of presenting their work. Other outfits offer positions as “editors” or “reviewers” — again, you must pay to be listed on the journals masthead. Still others have gone big-time and set up entire publishing houses with dozens of these predatory journals.

Lately legitimate scientists and scholarly organizations have begun fighting back. The best resource is “Beall’s List” which is here. It lists over a thousand(!) suspect outfits that are engaged in this game and virtually all of them publish multiple journals.

The fight is particularly difficult because there are real, serious open-access journals that use the standard, peer-review model. I’ve recently published in one of these which is edited by a respected scientist and has an editorial board well-known researchers. There are ways an interested scholar can determine if a site is legit or not. The usual give-aways are how fast your article was accepted and whether there’s a publishing fee. 

There’s an even larger issue lurking behind this one: the pros and cons, the give-and-take nature of an open, free Internet. We’ll get back to this one in the future. It’s vitally important because politicians are looking to screw with “net neutrality.”

Saturday
Jun172017

Rural v. Urban America: It's Mainly Cultural

There was a most interesting article today in the Washington Post. It reported on a recent poll taken by WaPo and the Kaiser Family Foundation. The poll interviewed 1700 adults living in rural, suburban and urban settings and focused on a host of what are easiest to call “cultural” differences. In particular, they looked at attitudes toward immigrants, beliefs about welfare programs and who benefits from them, opinions about income levels and unemployment, growth or lack thereof in the economy, and, of course, support for one or another presidential candidate. The main focus was exploration of the divide between rural and urban America. They found some things that go against common wisdom. There’s a lot in the study and much of it is covered in the WaPo article which can be found here:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/national/rural-america/?hpid=hp_hp-top-table-main_ruralpoll-1102am%3Ahomepage%2Fstory&utm_term=.8833feb47f16

But we can distill the data down to several essential features. The main one that jumps off the page is the disconnect between belief and reality. Those who live in rural settings believe that unemployment in their areas is higher than in the cities — it is, but only by a tiny amount, less than 1%. They think that poverty levels are higher — they’re not, they are virtually identical. The believe that government support programs favor groups that they feel are unworthy including racial and ethnic minorities and, of course, immigrant groups — the data show otherwise. When asked about overall income levels rural groups think they are worse off than city-dwellers — the numbers belie them. They also reveal more racist beliefs and anti-immigrant opinions especially about jobs, who takes them and taxes, who pays them.

The authors don’t touch on why these differences are there. I think one of the wedges that drives the divide is that rural folks are more likely to watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh. The demographics of Fox News watchers reveals a higher proportion of those who live in rural counties. Several studies have shown that those who get their news from Fox are significantly less well informed than virtually everyone else — including those who don’t watch the news on a regular basis. 

Rural communities also tend to be more homogenous so residents are less likely to encounter minorities and immigrants leaving them open to cultural memes about them. The lack of exposure means that they are less likely to have the first-hand experience of most suburban and city-dwellers. They also tend to have higher levels of religiosity, particularly Evangelical Christian which, again, tends to keep them within communities of the like-minded which fosters prejudice and dispenses misinformation.

But, interestingly, what also came from the study was that many of the factors that most pundits and political analysts thought were the keys to whether particular areas supported Trump or Clinton didn’t show up. Rural communities voted overwhelmingly for Trump but the income distributions of the two didn’t differ. Similarly, city-dwellers voted strongly for Clinton and, again, independent of family income. Poor rural areas voted for Trump; poor urban areas for Clinton. Well-off rural areas went for Trump; well-off suburban and urban ones backed Clinton.

What we’re seeing develop in America is a cultural divide that’s based largely on myth. Rural people believe they’re being screwed by the government, the cities, the coastal elitists — but they’re not. They think people of color or who worship differently are being granted special considerations — but they’re not. It’s not a pretty picture and it doesn’t auger well for the future.

I’d be curious to see the outcome of a similar study done in Canada. The original immigrants in America and Canada came from the same European stock. In the centuries since then both countries expanded their policies and in similar ways. The overall ethnic and economic demographics are pretty much the same with regard to urban versus rural populations. Both countries also dealt with their indigenous peoples rather poorly.

Canada didn’t have slavery — our original sin. They are more likely to embrace communitarian ideals and more comfortable with multi-culturalism. Importantly, several decades ago Canada embarked on a shift in educational programs incorporating civic lessons that emphasized tolerance and acceptance. The government also moved toward mitigating some of the socio-cultural damage that still lingers from the abusive treatment of the Aboriginal tribes. And they don’t have Fox News or Rush Limbaugh or any Canadian equivalents — and those who live close enough to the border to pick them up typically don’t bother.

I’d expect the rural-urban divide in cultural beliefs to be much weaker there — if exhibited at all. If so, there are lessons to be learned.

Wednesday
May172017

Trump's Successful Assaults on the Pillars of Democracy

Beginning back in the early days of Trump’s campaign he hit on a strategy that, frankly, I don’t think anyone anticipated and if anyone did they likely would have thought it a dead-end. Attack the media. I don’t think it was a conscious decision on Trump’s part — just a spontaneous reaction against some bad press and, when his fans responded lustily, it became a central theme of his rallies and marches. Generally, politicians want to have good relations with the press, nurture contacts with influential reporters — after all, they’re the ones who get messages out. Trump, of course, also found another way to get his messages out: Twitter. A couple of tweet-storms and who needs CBS?
                                 
The ensuing war on the media has been surprisingly successful. Despite the rocky first few months of his presidency, his supporters still approve of the job he’s doing. In fact, a recent poll found that fully 85% of Trump voters give him top grades and approve wholeheartedly of his actions. The way they’re handling the tsunami of bad news is by concluding that much of it is fake news, that what is true is trivial and overblown by a biased press, and that if it weren’t for the lies and distortions of the hated media (read WaPo, NYT, HuffPo) his presidency would be flying along doing great things. Those supporters who do acknowledge that things have been a bit dicey say that’s just fine. He said he was going to upset Washington and do things differently and he is.

In the first few months in office Trump also ran into conflicts with other elements of government and, in a very Trumpish fashion, he employed the same tactic, attack. First we went after the various intelligence agencies and, as with the anti-media assault, the parallel smearing of the US intelligence agencies has had a similar impact. The narrative from the pro-Trump right is that the rank and file in the FBI and the CIA hate the president and are constantly undermining him and leaking untruths designed to compromise his efforts. The drumbeat is they should be investigating Hillary’s emails and tracking down who in the government is leaking information rather than chasing after Flynn or pursuing Trump’s links with the Russians. Comey has become their new bête noir who deserved to be sacked. The veracity of those “memos” that Comey has are doubted because he wrote them and he is just a bitter and disloyal man. The leak of top-secret intel to the Russians is viewed as a “ho-hummer” that has only been made to look serious because the biased press and untrustworthy intelligence agencies are making a mountain out of a molehill.

The third line of attack has been on the courts and seems to have stemmed from the same impulsiveness of Trump and, perhaps no longer surprisingly, has had a similar impact. His supporters no longer trust the courts and see the Federal judiciary as just another arm of the liberal hegemony that is as biased in their views of Trump as the media and the CIA. The several injunctions issued against Trump’s Executive Orders are critiqued as the actions of left-wing activist judges not as serious deliberations by an unbiased judiciary. They also view Nunes’ and Session’s recusals as the result of media pressure, not because of anything they did wrong.

The end product is predictable. Trump’s base now views everyone not with them as against them. And not simply against in some principled manner but viciously against as part of a wide-spread, leftist, coastal, pseudo-intellectual plot to undermine the person they see as the only one who can, indeed, make American great again.

This stance, once taken, is remarkably resistant to argument. Any effort to set the record straight or to persuade supporters that something is amiss in the White House is treated as just more more fake-news, more displays of Trump-hatred and continued anger and frustration over having lost the election.

To see this in all its glory wander around sites like Drudge, Breitbart, Fox News, or Infowars — or, as I’ve discovered to my surprise and dismay, post some anti-Trump material on Facebook and watch what comes back.
Saturday
May132017

Trump's Narcissim Revisited

There’s been a resurgence of psychiatric “diagnoses” of Trump, most of them focusing on his obvious narcissism. A question that’s been bouncing around is how, if it’s so bloody obvious that he suffers from an easily diagnosed clinical syndrome, can he have been so successful? He is, after all, a very wealthy man and … last time I checked was the POTUS and the single most influential, powerful person on the freakin’ planet.

The answer is simple. Narcissists function extremely well if they are smart and in a supportive environment. And, yes, despite all the weirdness, he is smart . He’s ignorant and astonishingly uncurious but those traits are orthogonal to intelligence. In his private life, before he ventured down this crumbling highway to the presidency he was in a completely supportive setting. He had his company, his very famous name, a staff of loyal people, strong legal supports and critically, an unflinching loyalty from family and a very few friends.

When a narcissist is immersed in this kind of a world they can do great things. In fact, an awful lot of very successful people were/are profoundly narcissistic (think Steve Jobs for one). But in the political arena, as a president surrounded by hostile forces, competing visions, a strong opposition party, organizations that do not bend to his will, narcissism reveals its pathology. In the normal course of events, when a narcissist is merely a boss or a spouse or a friend, things may get testy from time to time but the daily struggles work themselves out. But if you are the freaking president of the freaking United States of freaking America all hell is bound to break loose.

Most narcissists run things on a “hang with me or else” strategy where “or else” is simply, go away, get off my planet or “you’re fired.” They will not only cut you off, they will devalue you in their minds so that your opinions no longer have any impact. It’s a very effective strategy. It protects them and diminishes the role of those who do not pledge and display loyalty. We saw this with his asking Comey to promise to be loyal. Comey said “no” and he was gone.

Trump is smart. Don’t let his tangled syntax or frequent 180’s fool you. You don’t run a company the size of his without a lot of IQ points. You don’t graduate from Penn’s Wharton School without them (FWIW, my BA is from Penn). He is ignorant and astonishingly uncurious but these traits have nothing to do with being smart.

A lot of the weirdness we’re seeing comes from him being challenged by forces he cannot control, ones where he cannot devalue them or tell them to “get off my planet.” It is a profoundly distressing situation for a narcissist which is why he sometimes gives off that “I really don’t want this job” aura.

And friends … we now are where we are and we will be where we will be which is almost certainly at a swearing ceremony for President Pence. And if you think that makes me happy … well, it doesn’t.