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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.


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.


The First 100

Good day folks. I’ve been away… Sorry about that. Other things commandeering my time and it’s good news. Oxford University Press has agreed to publish my new book. The working title is “Caterpillars, Consciousness, and the Origins of Mind.” It’s based on a pretty radical notion: that consciousness begins with the first emergence of life, that it isn’t and shouldn’t be treated as something that only appeared in our species. If anyone’s curious, a preliminary overview of the model appeared here, in the new journal Animal Sentience.

But back to politics: Today is a “special” day, the 100th of the Trump presidency — the specialness is, of course, based on a arbitrary standard. We could make the 101th the cut-off (like with Dalmatians), or 76 (from 1776) or any other that might be cooked up.  The 100-day thing began, apparently, back in FDR’s day when things were rather bleak and everyone was looking, hoping and needing quick fixes to the vast array of critical issues that the Great Depression had brought on. And it stuck cause “100” is a nice, round number.

So, we hit the magic number today which is usually the honeymoon period where the newly elected POTUS gets to do, or at least present the framework for doing, the many things promised. In an article in The New Yorker, David Remnick presented his overview of this period. One of the things he noted was that normally the rest of us folks go about living our lives. We enjoy this period by not worrying about politics because the new administration is doing what it’s supposed to do. Alas, nothing is normal with Trump. As Remnick put it, this time we’re here:

“His Presidency has become the demoralizing daily obsession of anyone concerned with global security, the vitality of the natural world, the national health, constitutionalism, civil rights, criminal justice, a free press, science, public education, and the distinction between fact and its opposite.”

Why? Here’s why: The economy grew at a mere 0.7%, not the 4% growth Trump claimed he would bring (it’d been averaging some 2.2% under Obama). He’s refused to release his tax returns, divest from his business interests, is in violation of the Emoluments clause, has ignored standard protocol with regards to nepotism, handing over administrative and regulatory responsibilities to his daughter and son-in-law. He vacations constantly on the taxpayers’ dime (each weekend trip costs the taxpayers over $3 million) and plays more golf than any president in history.

As for all those campaign promises: Well, there’s not going be any funding for that ridculous border wall and Mexico won’t pay for it. All efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare have foundered. Two shots at his promised Muslim ban got slapped down by the courts which, just in passing, recently ruled that he cannot defund sanctuary cities. NAFTA will stay. The US will not pull out of NATO, which suddenly became a really important alliance. The Iran treaty will not be torn up. China is no longer a currency manipulator but an important ally and trading partner. The proposed budget framework is a, to use his favorite word, “disaster.” Just the first quick look makes clear that it favors the rich and big corporations, fucks over everyone else and will blow a Bush-sized hole in the economy — the initial analyses project the debt to rise by roughly $7 trillion if a full budget along these lines passes. It won’t.

Then there’s been a whole bunch of really bizarre blunders, ill-conceived phone calls to world leaders, paranoid-infused tweets, a brewing Russia-linked scandal, and the current insane bout of saber-rattling over North Korea. Much of these crazy and dangerous adventures of his are designed to deflect attention from the three investigations into the Russian tampering with the election and Trump’s role in it. That gambit has actually worked but it has also had another, far more serious impact. World leaders are freaking out. They don’t know what the US is up to, what our aims are, what the priorities are, who’s a friend this week, who’s on the Trump shit-list…. Even if they can settle on some apparently stable position, Trump has another tweet-storm and shifts gears. The “Trump Doctrine” seems to be “promote chaos.”

Amusingly, I’ve seen some of his truly desperate supporters claim that this is deliberate and he’s playing a crafty game of international politics where he’s always on top of the situation and manipulating all others. Yeah. Right. I’m a scientist. We all learned early on to cling to Occam’s Razor — do not invoke complicated explanations for situations that can be accounted for by simple ones. The simple one is simple: Trump is totally unqualified to be president.

At the heart of it is the obvious: Trump has no grasp of … well, virtually everything. He discovered that health care complicated (and seems to think no one ever realized this!); never even looked at the details of NAFTA or NATO before claiming he’d pull out of both; didn’t have a clue about the long and complex history of relations between China and the Korean peninsula; failed to recognize that China stopped manipulating its currency in 2014, that Erdogan is moving Turkey toward a dictatorship, that imposing border tariffs will drive up costs of goods, that … and that and … that..

He seems to think Frederick Douglas is still alive and doing great things for “the Blacks.” Then there’s the lies, the duplicity, the deception and those off-the-freaking-wall interviews that keep coming, each one hot on the heels of the previous. They are all done with friendly news outlets and reporters which has had an unintended outcome. Because they just let him ramble on he manages to drown himself in his own, truly blistering ignorance. The transcript of the one with the AP is here. Read it and cringe.

And the weirdest part of all, almost beyond grasping, is that he still has support among some 40% of the electorate and over 90% of those who voted for him. I guess they’re pleased about that new deregulation that allows the mentally ill to purchase guns and the thousands of families of long-term, law-abiding, tax-paying residents broken up.

I, frankly, can’t wait to see the train-wreck the next 100 days will bring, especially since now he’s finally discovered what we all knew from the beginning: he’s profoundly ill-equipped for this job and hasn’t a fucking clue what being president is all about. He never reads anything and that included the job description for the position. The only good thing that’s come out of these 100 days is the endless fodder for comedians.

Donald J. never wanted to be president. He wanted to be called president. No training, background or experience needed for that. It’s like having “TRUMP” on buildings someone else put up.


Trump/Bannon Immigration Policy: Tomorrow's Looming Disaster

A thought or three on the the immigration policy that Trump (and his Mephistophelian sidekick, Steve Bannon) are pushing. The first thing to grasp is that they are acting in what is easily seen as a classically childish fashion. Their vision is warped by narrow thinking and their decisions are driven by tiny, ego-centric, close-minded fears. There is, so far as I can tell, not a shred of interest in the long-range implications of their efforts, not a nod toward economic theory.

To see this we need to take a few simple principles of demographic analysis into account. These principles are, indeed, simple but they do call for a modicum of decency, a dollop of empathy and a willingness to acknowledge that cultures evolve and change over time. So:

I. When countries become economically stable the birth rate declines. None of the Western democracies are replacing the population through birth. This principle is as rock-solid as any. Children, in poor societies are more than objects to be cherished and nurtured, they are a source of economic growth. As a society become economically viable this benefit becomes a liabilitly and, consequently, the birth rate drops.

II. The elderly in a society are costly. Medical expenses, pensions, Social Security and a host of other support systems for the geriatric set need to be in place. Their costs are covered by the economic engines the younger generations provide. With declining birth rate that engine looses its steam. 

III. When birth rates drop, the well-being of the society is threatened by this economic disruption. The only place to find the younger “replacements” is through immigration — an obvious conclusion.

IV. Long-term demographic analyses project that the current rush of immigrants into Europe will provide strong positive economic gain in the decades to come — along with diversity in dress, food and the arts, further enriching the culture. How this plays out will be governed in large measure by the degree to which Europeans shed their fears and suspicion of cultural differences. If they marginalize the immigrants there will be fewer benefits of their presence.

V. These long-range projections also reveal which countries, based on current policy, are likely to blossom over the next several decades and which will not. Canada, for one, is projected to benefit significantly because of its relatively open immigration laws. Countries with xenophobic traditions and relatively closed doors will fare poorly. Amond developed countries, Japan has the worst economic prognosis because of their reluctance to absorb foreigners.

VI. Current analyses show that the US, because of policies in place before the Trump presidency, has a good, long-term economic picture. But if Trump/Bannon prevail, not so much.Their anti-immigration policies will have significant downward impact on the US economy. In addition to being a policy that is driven by fear, nurtures and encourages nativism and xenophobia, it is poor, long-term economic policy.

How much damage can the Trump administration do? This is far from clear. It will depend in large measure on how the courts treat things like the Muslim ban, the planned wall along the Mexican border and other proposed changes in immigration policy. So far the courts have not treated the Executive Orders banning Mulims kindly. It looks like Congress will balk at funding the wall and we have yet to see what specific changes in immigration policy will be proposed.

I’m hopeful…. Not something I often experience since the ugly people took over the government.


Is our POTUS a Traitor?

Okay, it’s crazy time. Actually, it’s been crazy time since Trump took over the Oval Office. But all this craziness has me thinking crazy thoughts. The little spasm of nuttiness that’s commandeered my brain, however, could very well turn out to be true.

Follow me on this here. I’m beginning to believe that our POTUS may be an agent of the Kremlin, a traitor. I’m trying very hard not to sound like some wack-job, an “Alex-Jones-nutball” swooping in from the left. But, here’s the story:

It begins with Rachel Maddow’s show Wednesday night. If you missed it, track down the video and watch. She’s knitting together a string of little tidbits, meetings, notes, hints, some of it fairly “hard” (i.e. we know this meeting took place) much of it “soft” (i.e., allegations still without independent verification).

The bottom line is just fucking off-the-wall-impossible, incomprehensible. The Russians have the goods on Trump. His organization and Russian intelligence were colluding throughout the campaign. But the real quid pro quo wasn’t just the Kremlin getting the guy they wanted in the White House, it was to control Trump and America’s positions on international affairs. In short, Trump just may be an agent of the Kremlin.

The evidence that she cites that’s so tantalizing is not just the usual stuff (Trump’s financial dealings with Russian oligarchs, his admiration for Putin’s “strongman” style) but deeper and far more malevolent — it’s what’s happened to the State Department since he took over.

Rather than being the instrument of US foreign policy, it has been neutered. Scores of life-long diplomats were either fired or resigned. They were not (and apparently will not be) replaced. Trump’s budget calls for an astonishing 37% reduction in funding of the State Department.

Secretary Tillerson, long a friend of Putin’s and recipient of Russia’s highest award for foreigners, has been reduced to a hand-shaking bag of wind who, when he says anything, just mutters empty slogans. There is no Undersecretary. All hints of how State will operate in the months and years to come show it leaning toward assisting Russia with sanctions, supporting inroads into Ukraine, backing its stance with regard to NATO, its interventions in the Middle East and its position vis a vis China.

And, curiously but tellingly, every day a new tidbit emerges from some source that confirms the allegations in that “dossier” that Chris Steele (who has emerged from hiding) put together. The main things missing right now are “hard” data on exactly who said/promised what in the meetings, Trump’s alleged sexual misconduct while in Moscow and, of course, those golden showers.

It’s also telling that when word of those meetings between Trump, his people and the Kremlin first leaked they were denied — passionately. Trump, Manafort and others are on record stating categorically that no one from the campaign ever met with anyone from the Kremlin. Well, there’s certainly been a course-correction on these as independent evidence comes out. I think we’re up to around six of his people having been confirmed as holding meetings with operatives from the Kremlin.

So here’s the teaser: it really is beginning to look like Putin has Trump by the short and curlies and it is just possible (I can’t believe I’m saying this — I really am sounding like a left-wing Alex Jones) that our POTUS is a traitor.

Trump and The Goldwater Rule

The standard ethical position in psychiatry and clinical psychology has long been that a diagnosis of an individual should not be made without a personal diagnostic work-up. It’s called the Goldwater Rule and was put in place after unprofessional and distinctly unflattering opinions were put forward by psychiatrists about Barry Goldwater’s mental health during the ‘64 presidential campaign. It was painfully clear that these “remote” diagnostic conclusions about his mental state were being driven, not by legitimate psychiatric considerations, but by politics. It’s worth noting that Goldwater sued the magazine that published the so-called diagnosis and won a substantial award.
Since then, mental health care professionals have adhered to the principle which is enshrined in the code of ethics of the American Psychiatric Association. Section 7.3 of the code states that ”… it is unethical for psychiatrists to give a professional opinion about public figures they have not examined in person, and obtained consent from, (or) to discuss their mental health in public statements.” The American Psychological Association has a similar clause in its ethical guidelines.
However, there is a movement afoot that is challenging this principle and, of course, it is being driven by concerns about the mental health of one Donald John Trump. An article outlining the issue and arguing in favor of a reconsideration of the Goldwater Rule was published recently by Rosemary Sword and Philip Zimbardo and can be found here.
Zimbardo, it’s worth noting, is one of the country’s most respected psychologists. He is a Past President of the American Psychological Association, winner of that organization’s Gold Medal for a lifetime of significant contributions to psychological science and, I’ll note in passing, a graduate of Brooklyn College where I was on the faculty for 35 years.
There are two key elements in this reconsideration of the ethical standards of mental health practitioners and they need to be taken very seriously.
(a) Ultimately it is what a person does and says that forms the foundation for a psychiatric diagnosis. While a full, in-person assessment under informed consent is needed for an “official” diagnosis, a consistent pattern of irrational public behaviors and statements is sufficient for a “remote” consideration that the individual does, in fact, fulfill the standard criteria for a mental disorder.
(b) While the Goldwater Rule was designed to protect an individual from unethical attacks, in the case of Trump the rule goes out the window. It is not the individual (Trump) who needs protection from an unethical psychiatrist, it is the rest of the country (indeed, the world) that needs protection from the damage that an unstable, irrational person with immense power can wreck.
In short, the ethical argument is being flipped and the flip is gaining momentum. As of this writing over 30,000 mental health therapists have agreed that Trump is mentally unfit to hold the position of president of the United States — this is a remarkable number given the long-standing, inflexible adherence to the Goldwater Rule.


It’s important to understand that in the health care professions there are circumstances where the ethical guidelines may be set aside. For example, the doctor-patient confidentiality clause can (in fact must) be abrogated in the physician is convinced the patient is about to commit a felony. A doctor who is certain a patient is going to murder someone has a moral obligation to step outside the confidentiality clause and notify authorities. 

In a sense, what Sword and Zimbardo (and many others) are arguing is that Trump poses a similar threat, one sufficiently severe that mental health practitioners are obligated to suspend the Goldwater Rule and make public their professional opinion that Trump suffers from a number of identifiable psychiatric disorders that threaten the country — a country that, ironically, recently elected him president.

Like almost everything else surrounding Trump since he announced his candidacy, we’ve not seen anything like this before.

Let me end with a warning. If this this shift in the position of the mental health professions reaches a genuine consensus among practitioners and the carrying out of this kind of “remote” diagnosis is accepted as legitimate by the electorate, care needs to be taken. It must not be seen as some sort of psychiatric precedent but as a procedure only to be used in extreme cases such as the one presented by Trump. It should not become a cudgel to wield against a political adversary simply because his/her positions and actions are ones a clinician does not agree with.