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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
Dec012016

Harold's Ten Thousand Hours -- Some Thoughts on Education

For today, some thoughts on education and life stimulated by Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and frequent booster of the nation’s collective understanding of the human condition (go here if anyone doubts this).

In a recent essay in The New Yorker Gopnik described an afternoon with her four-year-old grandson, Augie. She was doing her very best grandmotherly thing, giving Augie insights into the world about them as they watched a bee working over a lavender patch. “Bees make honey, you know,” she said in her best raise-my-grandson’s-knowledge-of-life tone, thinking that that was the end of that. Augie would now know something he didn’t know before and think wonderful things about gramma.

Nope.

Short pause and Augie, smarter than the average bear, looks at her and says, “How do they make honey?”

And Gopnik is stuck for, as she readily admits (she a scientist, we’re all used to not knowing things) that, in fact, she does not know.

“Well,” chimes in Augie, “don’t you have your phone?”

And of course, she does and the two of them proceed to pull up dozens of videos and web pages on just exactly how bees make honey.  

But that’s not the point of this little essay. The point is that Augie isn’t Harold. You won’t understand that unless I tell you Harold was/is.

Some forty plus years ago the City University of New York (CUNY) began a magnificent but only partly successful experiment called “open admissions.” Any student who graduated from high school would be admitted into one of the many campuses of CUNY (the largest public urban university in the world). It quickly became apparent that, noble as this move was, it created some very difficult problems. The one that was most problematical was that tens of thousands of poorly prepared students were suddenly thrust into rather high-level, intellectually challenging courses where they were competing (in a sense) with other students who had better academic records and better academic backgrounds. And the worst part of this division was that the better prepared students were mostly White and the poorly prepared were mostly Black and Hispanic.

One effort to accommodate the divisions was the creation of a program called SEEK which stood for Search for Excellence, Elevation and Knowledge with classes limited to SEEK students drawn from that pool of students with inadequate academic backgrounds. Being the kind of guy I am, I volunteered to teach a SEEK class of Intro Psych — and this is where Harold comes in.

Harold was a twenty-something Black man who never missed a class. Not only was he always there, he was attentive, focused and routinely asked trenchant and probing questions. He flunked the first exam. I couldn’t grasp how this could be because he seemed to have a sharp mind and an active curiosity.

Two weeks later he flunked the second exam.

I couldn’t handle this so I asked to join me for lunch because I really wanted to talk to him. I wanted to know what the hell was going on. You just couldn’t ask the kinds of questions he was asking and not “get” the material in the course.

Lunch was a revelation — for me, maybe for him too. I don’t know. The more we talked the more I realized that he just didn’t know “stuff.” He didn’t seem know standard things, he lacked knowledge about the world, how it worked, how societies functioned, how educational programs operated, how economic programs worked (or didn’t), how political decisions were made, how power was distributed in the culture, how bees made honey, etc. etc. etc….

He was smart and had sometime remarkable insights into material but he suffered from a poor vocabulary, poor grasp of grammar, a lack of understanding about basic things like probabilities and statistical inference — all the things that are needed in an Intro Psych course. He was married, out of work, had two kids and worried about where or how he would end up. The SEEK program was his life line but he was having trouble grasping the rope.

Finally, I had that revelatory moment. I asked Harold to try to recreate a typical week in his life while growing up. I wanted to see how much time, loosely calculated, he spent in matters that could be called “intellectual” or “stimulating” or “educational” while growing up.  I was willing to count almost anything just so long as it occurred outside of a formal school setting. Helping an uncle garden counted. Spending time with his mom while she cooked counted — so long as she gave even rudimentary instructions about cooking, about what she was doing. Sitting at home while his mom or dad read to him from a book. Reading a book himself that was not a school assignment. Watching a TV show that was on science or history or a documentary — anything that could be tucked under an umbrella marked “educational” counted. Learning a musical instrument. Going fishing with his dad was okay — provided they had some discussions about how to fish and why one way worked but another didn’t. I included playing games with family and friends, sports with other kids and/or coaches. I was casting the widest possible net.

Then we started counting hours, hours that were spent in ways that would contribute to the great network of knowledge and understanding that makes us all effective humans. I wanted the number of hours that were spent this way up to age 18, the point where the typical kid goes to college.

We got 4,000, which I thought was pretty good.

It wasn’t. I went home and carried out the same rough calculations for my kids. I got 15,000! And it hit me. They stole over 10,000 hours of education from Harold. Robbed the poor bastard of the equivalent of five years of full-time work on his brain, his mind, his knowledge base, his exposure to the real world into which he’d been hurled.

He didn’t have Alison Gopnik as his grandmother who casually starts up a conversation about bees. He didn’t have me as his dad who sat up nights reading the Narnia series, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, a mom who visited museums, brought home puzzles and games and bought a computer the day the first home PC’s were available.

There are a lot of reasons why the kids of successful parents have a better life ahead of them compared with kids from poor families. It’s tough to give a kid back the ten thousand hours that were snatched away.

I spent the next day making sure Harold had a tutor (SEEK provided them when needed). He passed. He’s gone on, I know not where but he left behind a mark in me that won’t ever be erased. He also left me ever-concerned about the gaps between groups in our society. Maybe he’ll stumble across this and get in touch. That would be nice. I’ll pay for lunch again.

There’s an awful lot of talent out there. I can imagine a dozen different wildly successful lives for the millions of Harolds in the land. I worry about this issue all the time — go here for more.

Wednesday
Nov232016

Pork Shoulder Chili

I love a good chili. I’ve got a bunch of different recipes, one of which began with a pork-based chili I found in Clyde Casey’s book “Red or Green: New Mexican Cuisine.” This book BTW, is a gem, filled with excellent recipes and lots of insights into Mexican cooking and the variations Southwest chefs have developed.

If you want Casey’s original, it’s on page 139 of his book. But I found it bland and lacking punch. So, after several attempts, I’ve managed to turn it into a serious chili, one you could bring to a chili contest. This recipe serves 6.

Ingredients:

1 T olive oil

2 lb pork shoulder, cut into 1/2 inch cubes

2 red peppers, rough chop

2 white onions, rough chop

2, 4 oz cans of New Mexican green chilies

2 jalapeno chilies, rough chop (more or less depending on your preferences for “heat”)

1/2 c white wine

chicken stock (amount based on how the dish is cooking, probably around a cup)

1 16 oz jar of “picanté” sauce — either red or green

3 T flour

2 t Mexican chili powder

2 t ground cumin

2, 15 oz cans of pinto beans

salt and pepper to taste

various garnishes (see below)

Directions:

In large pot heat olive oil and brown the pork (about 10 minutes).

Add all veggies, cook for 10 minutes or so — keep stirring.

Deglaze with white wine and scrape pot to get up the fond

Add cumin, chili powder and salt and pepper.

Add enough chick stock to cover and simmer for 1 hour (or more) — add stock if needed.

Mix 3 T of flour with 3 T of chicken stock, stir and add (one T at a time) to the pot to thicken.

Simmer for another hour (or more) — add stock if needed.

Serve over rice with various garnishes and warmed tortillas:

Garnishes

guacamole*

sour cream

chopped cilantro

Tex-Mex cheeses

lime slices

*guacamole recipe (this isn’t the usual — trust me, it’s better than “the usual”):

1 scallion, fine chop

1 oz tomato, fine chop

1 garlic clove, smashed, chopped

1 T cilantro, chopped

1 t jalapeno, fine chop (more or else based on “heat”)

a squeeze of lime juice

1 avocado

salt to taste

combine everything

Monday
Nov212016

Richard Rorty's Prescient Vision

The late philosopher Richard Rorty wrote a book back in 1998 (Achieving our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America). It contained some truly prescient paragraphs where he predicted a day where “old industrialized democracies” would find themselves heading toward a time “in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments.” Mike Walsh has a nice, in depth look at what Rorty wrote and how uncannily it fits with what we are witnessing in Trump.

I’ve been thinking a bit more about this, especially after reading several pieces on voters who should have backed Clinton but either wrote in someone else (usually Bernie) or just didn’t bother to vote. In interviews, these folks complained about being left behind, ignored by those in power (like Rorty predicted) and feeling like their concerns were not even on the table for discussion. Interestingly, many Blacks said they felt disappointed in Obama. Having a Black president made them feel better about racial identity but made little difference in their quality of life.

I understand but I wonder if these folks realize that their problems, stark as they are, are shared with most of the middle and working classes around the country. The recovery from the ‘08 financial meltdown has been the slowest recovery from a recession ever. The main reason, as economists like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz have been saying over and over, is that the 2009 stimulus package was too small and distributed in non-optimal ways. It stopped the bleeding but it wasn’t effective in turning the economy around. The result was a turgid, molasses-like recovery accompanied by anger that none of the miscreants who brought it about suffered for their actions.

Then in 2010 the GOP took over the House and in 2014 the Senate. They insisted on austerity budgets and they got them. The result was there wasn’t enough growth. Businesses didn’t open or expand at expected rates. New jobs were added regularly but they tended to be low-paying, service-oriented.

Money stayed in the banks or went into the stock market which soared. The wealthy got wealthier and everybody else got hosed. And those that got hosed are feeling hosed and roiling with the resentment that comes from it. As any social psychologist worth their salt can tell you, wealth inequality has profound effects both physical and emotional.

Alas, the angry and the frustrated took their feelings out at the ballot box but backed the wrong horse either directly or indirectly. It’s gonna get worse because it cannot get better with the kinds of programs Trump’s hinted he wants to put in place. Go here to see Paul Krugman’s analysis of the debacle that may be upon us in the next couple of years. If Krugman’s vision is correct we’re in for a whole mess ‘o shit because the GOP’s got Congress all locked up and the term “privitization” is going to get one heck of a workout. Either we take the final step into becoming a true oligarchy or we’ll see endless filibustering and continued deadlock. The latter is much preferred.

It is, from this classic twenty-twenty hindsight pinnacle, possible to think that Sanders might have been able to beat Trump. I, quite honestly, did not think he could because I was envisioning what the Republican slime-machine could do to him (“Socialist” “Communist”). What I missed, what almost all of us missed is that Bernie was tapping into the same vein of frustration and anger at the establishment that Trump was.

Friday
Nov182016

How Hillary Won in a Landslide and Lost 

There’s a lot of “buyer’s remorse” among many moderates these days — and their numbers grow as Trump’s team screws up the transition process and he begins naming some truly horrible people to key posts.

There is also a lot of agonized hypothesizing about what went wrong, what factors produced a Trump win when all the polls were pointing to a clear Clinton victory. Carrying out these postmortem-like analyses is becoming a cottage industry among members of the Democratic Party, pundits and bloggers. Heck, I even tossed in one of my own — just scroll down to see what I was thinking just last week. Predictably, they’ve come up with a variety of factors, each of which appears on the surface to have been critical. Among the many reasons I’ve seen are:

a. Comey’s letter reignited the email “scandal” turning voters away from Clinton (Hillary herself thinks this was the primary cause).

b. Hillary’s failure to make “contact” with the folks in the rust belt increased their anger and frustration at the “elites” who’ve neglected them for years.

c. Voter ID laws limited minority access to the polls.

d. The blizzard of fake news stories, many of which Trump joyfully re-Tweeted, gave undecided voters reasons for supporting him.

e. Sanders supporters, particularly those who believe the DNC rigged the primaries to deny him the nomination, refused to vote for Hillary.

f. Overconfidence in the DNC and Clinton’s campaign people.

g. A general feeling of unease over having a woman in the White House.

h. A failure for the DNC to have its usual “ground game” in place.

These are all correct — and this is the key to understanding what happened. Each factor contributed a bit to the outcome. None of them would have been sufficient without the others. It is false to say something like “Comey cost her the presidency.” Comey’s actions contributed but could not have been the cause without the others playing their roles.

Trump won because he carried the swing states — all of them and all by razor thin margins. Statistically speaking what happened was a very unlikely outcome that depended on the cluster of factors all playing a role in all the key states.

When the full country-wide vote is looked at, where each of these elements only played a tiny role, Clinton wins — and by a significant margin. Her overall lead now is approximately 1.2 million and will continue to climb as ballots are counted. Her popular vote lead is greater than Nixon’s was over Humphrey and Kennedy’s was over Nixon and is projected to reach 2 million. She lost to a candidate whose percent of the popular vote is less than that of Ford, Gore, Kerry and Romney — all of whom lost the presidency.

In short, the nationwide polls were correct. In any country other than the US which uses an Electoral College she wins the presidency, handily.
Thursday
Nov102016

Trump's Razor Thin Win: How it Came About

Protests against Trump’s victory are spreading. I am not a fan of this . It does not make me happy. He won the Electoral College vote. Yes, it’s a flawed system but it’s the one we’ve been living with for centuries. Accept it and deal with it and move on. There are reasons why he won and the ones I think are significant haven’t gotten much play in the media. Sure, he pandered to racists and xenophobes and nativists and misogynists. But others have done so and not gotten the traction with the larger electorate. No, folks, there are other elements operating here and they are important and they are critical to anyone who hopes to understand the febrile undercurrent of the American electorate. 

I, we, my friends, mostly educated, liberal, thoughtful are appalled at Trump’s language, his naked prejudice, his unthinking reactions. His special base, the one that pushed him over the top, is not. They do not care. We, we look on in horror and ask ourselves “how can anyone support this man?” They do, passionately. “But,” I, we repeat, “do you not see how crazy this is? do you not understand that we cannot have someone like this as commander-in-chief, with the nuclear codes, in negotiations with the Chinese?” They laugh and flash their T-shirts with “lock up the bitch” on them.

They hear the pundits, they see the newspaper columns but the sound that penetrates is that of intellectuals talking past them, the message that comes through is the opinion of another coastal elitist who’s been taking them for granted for decades. They hear Trump and there, they say, is a guy who just fucking gets it. His words resonate with them. He stands there, tall, wealthy, powerful, an authority figure who, they know, they know, understands them, will return their once useful lives to them.

And, you know, they’re right. The pundits have neglected them. The intellectuals look down their noses, walk past them on the street, drive through their decaying, rural towns looking for the Interstate and tsk, tsk about how America has declined. But I, we don’t stop. We go to our offices, homes, businesses and worry about what’s happening. We know that Clinton’s programs are the ones that would help these poor bastards, that the Democratic platform is geared to their pain, that the left’s economic policies are designed for boosting the working classes. But we didn’t stop. Trump did.

So we sit here at our desks, like I am at mine right now doing what I, we always do: think about the issues, analyze them and fall back into wonk mode. And the thought just won’t go away, “why didn’t they see that Trump’s policies will not bring back the jobs, that he’s a horrible human being.” But they weren’t thinking about whether his actual plans would work and they didn’t care about his personality just like I, we didn’t care about Crooked Hillary’s emails — which they thought utterly disqualified her from the presidency and made her a criminal who should be in prison.

How large is this cohort? Not that big, but it didn’t have to be. Where is this cohort? Well, all across the country but the ones that counted, the ones that ushered him into the Oval Office are in the rust belt. They’re the ones who lost their homes when the housing bubble burst, got laid off when the steel mill closed, lost their jobs when the local plant got automated. They used to be Democrats. They still should be. And if Hillary and the DNC had spoken to them instead of past them they might still be. Now they’re his and they gave him razor thin wins in Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Now I, we, all of us live with what we have and we wait to see. There is one thing we can be quite sure of. Trump’s plans will not help this cohort. How long before they turn on him?

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