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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.

Sunday
Jul082018

Talk at UQAM in Montreal -- July 3, 2018

The University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM) had a summer Institute on the “Other Minds” problem. This classic issue focuses on the question of which species have minds, and if they do, how would we know?

I was invited to present my new theory on the origins of consciousness and be part of a panel that tossed around a host of ideas about how, when, why, and under what conditions minds first appeared, when subjectivity or, if you wish, “sentience” made its entry onto the stage of life here on our planet. 

My model, dubbed the “Cellular Basis of Consciousness,” argues that minds emerged with life, that even the most primitive of species (the prokaryotes) have subjectivity, consciouness — though, of course, their minds are very tiny and don’t do all that much. In short and in the language of philosophers of mind, “there is something it is like to be a bacterium.”

Here’s the YouTube of the presentation

The book developing the theory in detail titled “The First Minds: Caterpillars, ‘Karyotes, and Consciousness” will be out in a couple of months (Oxford University Press).

If the link fails, cut and paste the url:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQy92VjtwZ8

I’d love feedback — of course. 

Friday
Apr132018

How We Got Here

I’ve been away for some time. Sorry if anyone’s looked to see what pearls (or swine) I’ve posted. Part of the problem has been Facebook. I kinda got hooked on exchanges there with friends (and, of course, the not-so-friendly). In the course of an extended online give-and-take with folks it hit me that while we’re all (well, most of us) tearing our hair out over the pathological president and his unending chaotic administration, we’ve not taken a close look at how we got here, what the GOP has done over recent decades to create the climate that gave us Trump. I’ve touched on this topic before. This is an update. 

The GOP was once a viable, reasonable alternative to the left-leaning Democrats. We often forget that the most progressive president in the 20th century was a Republican (Teddy Roosevelt); we forget how sensible Eisenhower was; we neglect the impact that the “Rockefeller Republicans” had. Alas, it all “went south” in a dramatic slide. It began with Reagan — “Saint Ronnie” in the twisted history of the Grand Old Party.

The first step was the “southern strategy” aimed at taking the south by appealing to white voters there. Reagan mixed this tainted move with four other positions that hit a chord with enough voters to pull the party rightward, away from its Eisenhower base:

a) subliminal evocations of racism 
b) the “government is the problem” nonsense 
c) the embracing of the wacko Laffer “trickle down” economics
d) the assault on unions

And these started the slide.

The next step down the road to our current hell was embracing the unethical tactics of Lee Atwater and his “students” Karl Rove and, amusingly (I guess it’s funny, though it looks like it’ll end up as a tragedy) Paul Manafort offering ridiculous, anti-tax idiots like Grover Norquist a seat at the table. Atwater was the master of the dirty political trick. He was a character. He admitted that he became a Republican simply because, being in South Carolina, he knew he’d never have any power as a Democrat. He had zero political convictions and no political philosophy other than winning. 

This now-compelling shift rightward was bolstered by elevating the Newtster to the speaker’s role in the ‘90’s. Gingrich’s tenure ended bipartinism, compromise, and respect for any other’s vision. It wasn’t a change in overall political philosophy, it was a move away from the kinds of political deal-making that a representative democracy requires. Gingrich wasn’t any further right than others in the party. It was his take-no-prisoners style that was so destructive. And, of course, it opened the party up for the debacle of Bush II and the pure-evil Cheney.

Then, when The Black Dude was elected it ‘08, it was like a mouse trap set on a hair trigger snapped — and ‘10 saw the virulent, racist, anti-government Tea Baggers enter, stage-right, with marching bands, tar and feathers and (luckily only) metaphoric ropes. The Tea Bag cohort also brought along the Evangelical cohort that had been growing but remained relatively quiet till the Bush-Cheney era. 

And so we ended up where we are … with the Frankenstein monster in the Oval Office. They created this POS. They’ve inflicted him upon us all … and none of the motherfuckers (except for a few who are retiring) will denounce him or acknowledge how their party paved the road for him.

There’s a delicious irony lurking just off-stage — and many of the current crop in the GOP have suddenly recognized it. For thirty-five years now their policies forced the party inexorably to its current crazy right-wing Trumpist framework. But when you dance with the devil, when you make your Faustian bargain, the day always comes when you have to pay up.

They’re now caught in a deadly dilemma. If they openly embrace the Orange Menace they lose the sane voters. If they attack him they lose his (“deplorable”) base. Either way they are truly fucked. They know this. They may be venal pricks but they are not stupid. Those who know they’re doomed (like Ryan and an astonishing number of others) are not running for re-election. The others are mostly staying silent and hoping things like “name recognition” (or gerrymandered districts) will get them re-elected. November is gonna be something different — different from most other midterm Novembers.

And I hate this, all of it. I want to be clear. I’ve been around for a while — I’m closing in on eight decades on this cinder-speck of a planet we’re all obliged to occupy. I’ve always been solidly leftist, democratic socialist. That’s how I was raised, how my parents and their friends saw the world. But … there’s always a critical “but” in any interesting discussion … I don’t really trust them (my people) to run things. I don’t trust anyone who has absolute power, total control over things. I am a passionate defender of differences, of varying perspectives, of lively debate. Today the GOP is so tainted that no debate is possible. It’s all become the never-Trumpers against the Trump loyalists.

The moral death of the GOP bothers me because its slide into unethical, political degeneracy removes it from its proper position: a viable alternative to my democratic socialism.

I need to have my perspective balanced by thinking folks with alternate points of view. I really miss them.

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.