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There is a question that floats around out there, it goes something like this: “If everything in the universe can be described by physical laws and mathematical equations, how is the universe any different than a computer program or a simulation/computer game?”  The answer is that it is not. But there are subtleties and nuances in there and reactions are varied.

One reaction that I have heard from physicists is “why is that an interesting question?” The physicist is trying to understand the laws and equations, and those goals are independent of discovering whose computer our universe is running upon, a more philosophical and perhaps unanswerable question, for you would have to look outside of our universe for that answer. You immediately bump right up into religious notions. For instance, what would be the difference if we were a simulation, simply an advanced program (maybe not so advanced), running on some alien teenager’s bedroom computer and god? From our perspective, there would not be any, for that alien teenager would have all of the capabilities of a god. (Alt-Ctrl-Delete).

Another reaction is that what we are doing when we humans are programming is trying to mimic (not necessarily intentionally and of course in a very limited fashion so far), rules that govern our universe, or at least our corner of the universe. And in that we have no choice, since those are the laws. So, it is not that we are a simulation, but rather that we (and our math, our physical limitations and by extension our programs/simulations), are governed by the same laws that govern all things in the universe. 1+1 must always equal 2. The initial question then is in essence somewhat backwards. It is not that we are the same as a program, a simulation, it is that our programs need to abide by the laws and properties that govern all things.

There are a number of physical constants (e.g. the speed of light) with somewhat arbitrary values that define how our universe operates, and if some of them were different we would not be here to have this discussion, for it would have been impossible for stars to coalesce, for life to emerge. This state of affairs gives rise to what is called the Anthropic Principle, which says that the fact of our existence, beings that can measure these physical constants, requires those constants to be such that beings like us can exist. In other words, we perceive reality, because we are here to measure it. There could have been or there could be right now an infinite number of universes, with different physical constants, and life would emerge only in certain universes and only under certain conditions. We drew the lucky straw. So, a third reaction is to respond with a “why does this matter”? A variation on the first reaction above. We have to live in our world, our universe as defined, so let’s get on with it. It’s properties, rules and laws are what they are. We are not capable of looking outside the box, so live with it, and get on with it. Reality is reality.

Reality is reality. Simple phrase but our human perception of reality is subject to constant manipulation by others, to innate biases, driven by evolution and by learned response, to limited sensors, like our eyes, ears, our sense of touch, smell and proprioception and of course to our very limited and flawed processing center, our brain. Human perceptions of reality are very different than the measured physical realities that shape our universe. Maybe that is pointing out a flaw in the English language, with the word reality itself. Maybe it is too simplistic of a concept, given the challenges of determining the reality that humans have. Your perception of reality, my perception of reality is very often different from another’s perceptions of reality, and all three are very likely different from actual reality. And each of us, of course, assumes that our perception of reality is the correct one. The first step towards perceiving reality more accurately is to be aware of our shared human short-comings and foibles.

I assume that at least some of you have seen the monkey business illusion. If not, you can watch it here It nicely illustrates how easy it is for each of us to miss what is right there staring at us, to misinterpret reality.

In order to make good decisions and come to correct conclusions, humans must be able to overcome their inherent processing deficits, not giving into innate or shaped biases, and not being persuaded by the latest PT Barnum that comes onto the scene, simply saying what you want to hear rather than what is real. Decisions need to be based on data, on scientifically derived facts and on sound judgments.

When it comes to intuition’s role, or gut instinct on sound judgments, Herb Simon, the economist, studied and defined intuition as coming from the repetition associated with practice. Meaning that intuition is actually recognition of a situation that the decision-maker has experienced before. There is no such thing as simply having good instincts. Good instincts are borne out of training and experience.

Meanwhile, Phil Tetlock and his Good Judgement project have developed techniques that have been repeatedly shown to lead to more accurate predictions and better decision-making. Among the techniques is the ability and willingness to continuous take in new information and to use that new information to modify your predictions and decisions.

Other research has repeatedly shown what is all too obvious today. People tend to seek out and absorb only information that supports their existing points of view and to reject as “false” any information that does not support their preconceived notions. Simply put, this tendency flies in the face of everything we know about how to make good decisions and has people believing realities that are based on missing or skewed information.

Bottom-line? People can improve their ability to perceive what is real and what is false and by extension their decision-making. Among the techniques that can help are basing decisions on data and science, practicing decision-making techniques, being open to new concepts and ideas, and a willingness to recognize human’s inherent short-comings when it comes to perceiving reality.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

June 28, 2017 at 12:15 pm

Beyond the Pale

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If I used my life savings and opened a pizza parlor, and I wanted it to be successful, who would I hire to run that pizza parlor for me? Would I hire someone who really knew how to make great pizza or would I hire someone who had never made a pizza before? Maybe someone who thought that ketchup was the same thing as tomato sauce (or gravy)? Would the person I hire need to know how to treat my customers, how to hire and motivate a staff, how to run a cash register and all the other things required to run a successful small business?  Or could they just learn it over time? Could they learn it before they ran my pizza parlor into the ground, forcing me into bankruptcy? Am I willing to take that risk?

But here we are. We have a president and his appointees who are learning how to ruin, sorry I meant run, run a country with on-the-job training being done every day. The person in charge of tackling global warming, despite overwhelming scientific evidence, doesn’t believe it is real, the person in charge of the improving our public schools doesn’t believe in public education, the person in HHS in charge of contraception doesn’t believe contraception works, the person in charge of providing public housing to the poor believes that public housing coddles them, the person in charge of the DOE did not realize that one of its tasks was to protect the nation’s nuclear arsenal (oops), the person who regulates what can go into kids school lunches rolled back regulations which attempted to ensure that kids had healthier lunches, the first person who was National Security Advisor had to resign because of ties to Russia, the latest pick to run the Army had to withdraw because of discriminatory comments made about LGBTQ folks, the person in charge of regulatory reform is an activist investor who buys interests in companies and then squeezes the life out of them to turn a profit, the list of misfits to positions goes on and on. These are not the kind of people you would appoint to run your pizza parlor if you wanted it to be successful, maybe turn it into a chain. These are the kind of people you would appoint if you were purposefully looking to shut down your pizza parlor because you did not want it to work, to be successful. (Why would someone do that after investing their life savings to open the pizza parlor in the first place? Our founding fathers invested a hell of a lot more than their life saving to create this country.)  These are the kind of people you would put into place to “starve the beast” which is a Republican tactic for shrinking government.

There is a mistake that many managers in business make. They create rules and regulations for the 5%. Most people, the vast majority of people, want to come to work, want to do a good job, want the organization to succeed and want to have success along with the organization. The evidence for that is abundant and abundantly clear. Yet many managers in companies simply can’t bring themselves to believe that or don’t know it, and so they create rules to manage the population as though they were all looking to “get away” with things. They put into place onerous rules on the 95% rather the managing the misbehavior or issues of the 5%. The result of that can be stifling to the 95% who are really interested in doing good work.  In my company, yes, it is small, our vacation policy is “Take some, make sure your work is covered”. Our HR Policy is summed us as “Use your common sense, violators will be persecuted”.  We are open 24/7/365. You pick your holidays and manage your schedule. In other words, we try to manage for the 95%. The 5% who are not able to work that way? We deal with them individually. People new to the organization often take some time to adjust to being treated this way. Some have a harder time than others adjusting to the freedom after a lifetime of rules being imposed.

I recently marched in a demonstration to support my immigrant neighbors, yes in some sense that is all of us, because unless you are a Native American, you too are an immigrant. But this march was to support more recent immigrants who feel threatened by this administration. The rules being imposed today do not treat the immigrants as the 95% who contribute, pay taxes and are real contributors to our society. The rules are written for the 5% or less, just like many businesspeople do as they write rules for their organizations. Yes, within the 5% there could be criminals or worse, but you treat them as individual criminals and you do not blanket a whole population because of the actions of a few. (Under the Geneva convention, if you punish an entire population for the actions of a few, and you did that during a war, you would be committing a war crime).  By stifling the 95% because we are trying to control the 5% we are losing all sorts of potential as a country. The data shows that immigrants, regardless of what the administration says, commit fewer crimes than native born Americans, are more likely to become scientists, doctors, engineers etc. Are you over 40 and still alive? You likely have science and an immigrant to thank. Immigrants start businesses, pay taxes, participate in community events and become leaders. They came here for the same reason our grandparents came, to find a better life for themselves and their children. You should not be surprised by this statement.

My grandparents came to this country to escape the Pale of Settlement. It was an area within Russia which was the only area in which Jews could live. There were some few exceptions made. Conditions within the Pale for the Jews were extremely harsh. The word Pale is a derivative of the Latin word for stake – meaning stakes in the ground, a figurative wall in this case, beyond which Jews could not live. The term “Beyond the Pale”, came from the notion that living outside of the Pale was unacceptable for Jews. Today, if something is “Beyond the Pale” it means it is outside the bounds of acceptable behavior. The actions of this administration towards science, environmental regulations, healthcare, housing, women, minorities, immigrants, other vulnerable populations, as well as on a host of other issues is Beyond the Pale.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

May 7, 2017 at 10:07 pm

Posted in Ethics, Human Behavior

No Fear

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Humans are fearful creatures. We can’t help it, we evolved that way to help us survive. When a pre-technological human was kneeling by a stream to get a drink of water and there was rustling in the nearby trees, the human assumed that the unexpected noise was a potential threat and immediately took up a series of defensive moves. The assumption of threat is called the intentional stance, and is the idea that until proven otherwise, the human assumes that the noise was not the mere rustling of the wind, but rather that the noise was created by some creature or agent, potentially a creature or agent with intent, perhaps with the intent to eat you or cause harm. Even today, we very often assume intelligent or purposeful intent to what are random or statistically meaningless events. The assumption of intelligent intent means that a random or statistically meaningless event is assumed to be done with some deliberate or intelligent purpose, by some kind of agent. The makers of horror movies know this reflex very well and use it over and over to achieve their desired reactions among the audience. They will often substitute ominous sounding music for the rustling of the wind in the climatic build-up to a fear-inducing scene. You just know something awful will happen when you hear that music.

The intentional stance and intelligent intent plays out over and over in organizational life. Here is one example. When an organization reorganizes itself, merges with another, or goes through some other kind of significant change, one assumption often made by the troops in the trenches is that the future of each and every person is known by those in charge. And what is on the mind of the staff? They want to know how the changes going on will affect them personally. For the intelligent intent instinct that we all have means that someone must surely know. And by-and-large, if communications around the changes are less than complete or misleading, people will instinctively fill-in the picture for themselves. Most of the time with a version of reality that is much worse than the actual reality.

The origins of superstitious behavior lie here as well. And none of us are immune. For instance, over the last few months I have coincidentally worn the same suit during a number of successful sales visits to potential clients. The pull to wear that same suit on the next sales visit I do is very strong, even though intellectually, (assuming I look equally decrepit in each of my suits), I am aware that which particular suit I am wearing has no impact. I am willing to somehow give the suit agency in being able to have an impact on the sales visit outcome rather than looking at it as simply pieces of cloth. But of course, if I get over the need to wear this particular suit I always have my lucky socks to fall back upon.

In terms of people’s reactions to a perceived threat the standard flight or fight response that we all grew up learning is actually a little more nuanced. Recent research has shown that there are at least four separate reactionary stages that occur when animals, including humans, are threatened. The freeze response comes first which is characterized as a state of hypervigilance. Research has shown that the initial freeze response is “stop, look and listen”, the immediate response associated with a fearful situation. Once this first phase has run its course the next one is an attempt to flee the situation, to remove oneself from the threat. The third phase is then to fight, to resist the threat. Once the fighting is over or is deemed as not immediately advantageous, a type of paralysis can set in called tonic immobility or more commonly, fright, which can result in extreme passivity, possibly in the hope that the attacker or threat may loosen some vigilance, relaxing its guard and allowing the victim to escape. So, the more accurate and updated description of flight or fight is freeze, flight, fight, and then fright.

There is a great debate going on among scientists today. Generally, an apolitical bunch, who prefer to let their research and publications do the talking for them, assuming that others will act rationally in the face of evidence and facts, they are debating how forcefully to speak out as science comes under increasing threat by current political powers and scientific nay-sayers in a manner (forgive the hyperbole) not seen since Copernicus’s time, when he proposed that the earth was not actually at the center of the universe. This notion of a heliocentric model, with the sun at the center of things, caused a great deal of fear among the powers that be at the time as it threatened their belief system and their hold on power over the masses. (For a really good description of this read Zero, The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charges Seife.) And in case you forget that time period in Europe when Copernicus lived is now called the DARK AGES. The arguments against facts and scientific notions which led Europe into the dark ages is eerily similar to some arguments against science being made today.

Attacks on science and facts in the face of fear did not start with the dark ages, it seems to be somewhat cyclical. Remember Pythagoras? The Greek who knew all the angles? His worldview of math and hence his worldview of the world was based on rational numbers. In fact, the whole Greek understanding of mathematics was geometrically based and restricted to rational numbers. When a student of Pythagoras violated their vow of secrecy (power structures often depend on secrecy rather than transparency to solidify their hold on power and disseminate only their approved worldview), and told the world about irrational numbers, that student (gets a little murky here) was either murdered or exiled by Pythagoras and his other students.  Pythagoras may have been willing to commit murder to prevent truth from reaching the world. But over the long-term truth and science won out.

The American Psychological Association (APA), a group to which I belong, has taken a position that political advocacy is important and has come out in support of an upcoming scientist march on April 22, in support of facts and science.  SIOP, the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, to which I also belong, has joined in with its support as well.

Immigrants have always been a cornerstone in the formula of what has made the USA successful. And despite all that evidence that exist to that effect, there has been much discussion, based on fear, about limiting immigration or deporting undocumented immigrants. I was at a recent scientific event and there were many immigrants or first-generation Americans in the crowd. And this was a crowd that has made tremendous contributions to America, our innovativeness, our businesses, and our culture. Should we limit which immigrants can come to America we run a substantial risk of losing our leading position in many fields including medicine, technology, computer science, finance as well as many others. What is my point of view? Well, since you asked…

We are a nation the likes of which the world has never seen. Yes, there are things that we have done and things that we continue to do that we should not be proud of, but we are a nation that follows the long arc of justice towards the right policies over the long-term as Martin Luther King would say, or as in Winston Churchill’s sentiments, we are a nation that eventually does the right thing, after we have tried everything else.  We are a nation where people should know no fear. No fear of going to bed hungry at night. No fear of being forced to live in the streets. No fear of not being able to see a doctor and get treatment when sick. No fear of being relegated to a status somehow “less” than others because of the color or your skin, your religion, your sexual orientation, your age, your occupation or your income level. We as a nation should be investing in education, in infrastructure, in innovation, so that we live in no fear of losing our technological leadership and competitive status. We should live in no fear of change, knowing that we bring our citizens along, helping them to adapt, rather than leaving them as carcasses in the road. We should have no fear of bullies, either in the school yard or at the state actor level. And no fear of those who attracted by the light of the torch shining in the New York harbor, come to our shores to continue to help us fulfill the promise of this great nation. Our current political situation relies heavily on our natural human tendencies and peddles in fear to achieve their objectives. A great nation does not wall itself off from the rest of the world, in fear, if it hopes to maintain its position of greatness. A great nation embraces the world and becomes a shining example of morality and justice for all, and for all to follow. I have no interest in giving in to ancestral fear and making decisions based on primal instinct. I will make my decisions based on my hopes and dreams for my nation, and upon science and facts. And I will know no fear.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

March 16, 2017 at 12:51 pm

Posted in Human Behavior


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Can you remember when you were young, on a long hot summer day, school was out, and a sibling or friend would ask, “whatcha doing?” Your response of “nothing” could only mean that there must have been something good going on and that the sibling or friend was being left out.  Humans have a very hard time thinking that nothing is really just that, nothing, and the implications are somewhat staggering.

Let’s start with the esoteric. Michael Shermer, writing in Scientific American (February 2017, pp. 73), starts off by asking “Imagine nothing. Go ahead. What do you see?” In this case he is really asking you to imagine nothing, no galaxies, no stars, no planets, no energy, no space, no time, not even darkness. Nothing. Go ahead, give it a try. People can’t do it. If everything started with nothing, we would not be here, for what can arise from truly nothing? He goes on to argue that nothing is not stable, and not the natural state of things, citing findings in classical and quantum physics.

Fast forwarding a bit from the origins of the universe, as humans developed counting systems, nothing was again a difficult concept to grasp.  John Matson writing in Scientific American on the origins of zero (August 21, 2009), describes its origins as somewhat murky. But here is something you can try. Try writing zero in Roman numerals. Can’t be done. Zero is nothing, the absence of a quantity, formally depicted by the Arabic numeral 0. (Each Arabic number was represented by the number of angles in the number so the representation of the number 1, had one angle hence its value. Zero was depicted as 0, a symbol that had no angles.) The concept of zero arrived in the west by way of North Africa approximately in the year 1200 CE, when a mathematician named Fibonacci figured out how to incorporate it into his work.  In addition to the later Arabic refinement of zero, earlier work on the concept happened in both India (circa 500 CE) and among the Mayans (circa 100-200 CE). But the point is that the notion of zero did not always exist, for nothing was a difficult concept for humans to grasp and the Romans built a whole mathematical system that excluded it. We are simply not built to think of nothing very well.

Janis Joplin in the lyrics to her song, Me &Bobby McGee, states that “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose”. So if you truly have nothing, you have freedom (according to Janis), but the reality is that as long as we are clinging to even a shred of hope or a shred of life we all have something and humans with their natural tendency to resiliency tend to have hope of one sort or another, especially if they are given some assistance in generating that hope. (Ok, I am pushing it here a bit). But the song struck a chord and was very powerful in its time of turmoil and protest, and has been used by people willing to stand up and fight for what they believe, for when everything has been taken away, well, what do you have to lose?

In this last election there were many people who felt that prosperity had slipped past them and they had nothing to lose, so they were free to take a risk. Trump himself in trying to promote that idea and get votes in the black community said, “What have you got to lose?” He was attempting to make them feel like they had nothing.

There is tremendous strength in a community that can band together to solve problems. The notion is that you are not alone, with nothing, with no one to help, but that there is hope, there is help, and there are options. And with the generation of hope, resiliency springs forth and all things suddenly become possible. The tendency to band together for mutual benefit was stated eloquently by Martin Luther King Jr. as “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

Anyway, the point is that humans grapple with the concept of nothing and don’t always do it very well. How does our inability to deal with nothing play out in organizations?

It is quite clear that when there is a lack of information or opaqueness on a topic, say a change in leadership, a reorganization, an acquisition or a downsizing, etc. that people will fill in the missing information for themselves. And in the absence of actual information, people are quite willing to just make things up. In fact they can’t help it, we are programmed to fill in the blanks, not to leave things at zero or at nothing. And what they make up is generally more negative, often much more negative than reality.

As you can imagined, and as we have all recently experienced, people are more than willing to use this human foible to achieve their own ends. When James Comey of the FBI publically announced that a new email investigation was underway on Hillary Clinton, and then provided no details, people, especially swing voters began to fill in the missing details for themselves. And just like in other organizations the stuff they made up was much worse than reality. It is human nature. You would expect that someone in Mr. Comey’s position would know that would happen.

Are we all really that different? A friend of mine in India, Shuba, sent me a link to an advertisement on Danish TV.  The ad showed a large group of people who are segregated into separate boxes drawn out on a large floor. They were placed into these different boxes by certain characteristics. The educated go into a certain box. People struggling to get by went into another box. Wealthy people into another box. People with somewhat scary characteristics went into another and so on. They all stood there in their separate boxes looking at each other somewhat distrustfully. Then the moderator enters and said he was going to ask them some questions. Some of which may be somewhat personal, but he would appreciate it if they answered honestly, and if the question applied to you, to walk together into the middle of the room.  The first question, “Who in this room was the class clown?” The second question, “Who in this room are stepparents?” As people from all the different and separate boxes come together they realize that they have more in common than they thought. What is the underlying commonality here? Their humanity and the normal things that happen in each and every one of our lives that make us all human. It was a very powerful message and can be seen here:

You see, here is the bottom line, if we want to search for differences those differences can be found. If we want to look for the things that we all have in common, we will find that as well. The choice is ours. If we approach life as a win/loss equation, that in order for one person to win, somewhat else has to lose we will constantly be at each other’s throats. If we approach life as a win/win, all parties can find mutual benefit.  Will we let people drive us apart? Using the fears that we all harbor to achieve power and position for themselves? Or will we celebrate what we all have in common together? Our Humanity. Celebrating our humanity together is a path to common prosperity. From nothing we can create something, together.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 6, 2017 at 9:31 pm

Patience vs. Perseverance

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Is patience the same as perseverance? In the world of business, perseverance, the ability to stick to something, to see it through is often viewed as a positive personality characteristic. How many times have you heard that innovators, or inventors, or entrepreneurs will fail many times before finally succeeding? And that those who finally succeed are the ones who persevered? In order to persevere must you have patience?

Aspects of patience feel different than perseverance. It feels more like the guru sitting crossed-legged on a mountain-top waiting for that mountain to wear down or for enlightenment to strike. Gurus, for some reason are never depicted in images as young people (or as female), but rather as old men with beards. That somehow wisdom comes with age and with patience (and apparently maleness). But of course the world is full of many patient people who never achieve wisdom or enlightenment.

While the stone of the mountain seems strong, we all learned that water and wind (even human footsteps), given enough time, will eventually wear away those steps or that mountain, changing the landscape and the environment as it slowly does its work. All you have to do is be patient. Just look at what water was able to do in carving the Grand Canyon and other western landscapes.

Perseverance somehow carries a connotation of activity, whereas patience feels more passive. You can persevere at learning and education, but as you look around the world and see the conditions of many of the humans living upon it, the notion of “patience, all good things come to those who wait”, rings rather hollow, doesn’t it.  You must go out and make things happen for positive change to occur.

Perseverance is closely tied to resiliency. Humans, both young and old, tend towards resiliency. One overarching review of resiliency in humans came to the conclusion that the most surprising thing and defining thing about resiliency is how common-place it really is. We seem to be very good, when faced with adversity to “keeping at it” or when overcome by adversity, to recover and trying again. Resiliency is a key characteristic of organizational vitality, for we know that every organization, no matter the type, profit, non-profit, political or even religious will face challenges and being resilient will be a key marker of those who will overcome those challenges and survive.

So perseverance seems to be generally positive in tone whereas patience has both a positive and negative connotation. And that is where generational issues comes in.

When a characteristic can have both positive and negative attributes, through the eyes of different people the same attribute can be viewed either positively or negatively depending on the point someone is trying to make. It is like making folk wisdom fit whatever situation you happen to find yourself in to explain, rationalize or justify.

“Get off my lawn!” The grouchy old man, (very rare to see grouchy old women depicted – rather the stereotype is that they are nurturing), seeing the kids playing on his lawn, sees damage to the grass that he so carefully tends and enjoys and the kids see a beautiful lawn that is just perfect for a game of tag. Same environment, two viewpoints. But the world is also full of old men who would love to see kids playing on their lawn and kids who would never dream of trespassing without permission.

Individual differences and characteristics are key. Young people can certainly be patient. They can certainly persevere. They can also be impatient and eager to get ahead quickly, and be seen as wanting rewards without paying their “dues” by others. But there are older generational people who would also fit those characteristics to a tee as well.

As a CEO, I can tell you, I have to remind myself to have patience. Everyday. CEO’s in general have a proclivity towards action and towards getting things done quickly. Time is the enemy. When a project takes more time, it is less profitable. When a support task takes more time, it costs the company more in both dollars and resources. When a new product roll out takes longer, you run the risk of a competitor beating you to market and grabbing market share, damaging your company. Or an environmental change which makes your investment in the new product meaningless. As a CEO you want things done and you want them done quickly. On the flip side, as a CEO you want the company’s reputation to be sterling. Things done quickly run the risk of being haphazard or of poor quality. That can damage the organization. So each and every day a balance must be achieved, between speed and quality. The trick is to figure out how to do things quickly and with high quality (at the lowest cost possible).

Surrogate measures are when we use a characteristic or measurement of a person or environment to infer something about that environment. A column of mercury rising in a thermometer is a surrogate measure for temperature. We make the assumption, based on science (yes it is a scientific principle), that as the atoms in the mercury become more energetic due to the rising temperature, they expand as they bounce around more, causing the visual appearance of the mercury to more fully fill the tube it’s in. We are not measuring temperature directly, we are using an outcome (the energy of the atoms and the visual appearance of the mercury) as a surrogate measure to infer the temperature.

Some people use surrogate measures, such as patience, to infer personal characteristics of someone else and to further infer whether they will succeed or fail in various situations. Young people look at old people (like me) and could see patience as a negative. But they are using a surrogate measure. The real question is whether in the unique situation we find ourselves, in order to succeed, do we need to be in a hurry to get things done or is patience the best path towards success. And many if not most people can adapt themselves to the situation.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

January 20, 2017 at 7:00 am

Posted in Human Behavior

Dear Hillary:

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Dear Hillary:

I feel the need to write this open letter to express my thoughts given the current situation in our country. I am not a political person. That does not mean I don’t have strong political opinions, it means that I don’t get involved in politics and don’t enjoy the machinations necessary to succeed in politics. Up until last weekend, the only protest march I have ever been in was against the Vietnam War, a march that my older sisters took me to since I must have been only 7 or 8 years old. I wonder if they remember. Last weekend I marched from Queens to Manhattan, along with about 1000 others, to protest the positions that Mr. Trump has taken and the values he appears to hold. The people of Queens, where I was born, wanted to make a statement that while Mr. Trump may also have been from Queens, where he was born, he is not of Queens anymore and doesn’t represent the values they hold. As I am sure you know, Queens is likely the most diverse place in the country with something like 169 languages being spoken and every culture you can imagine, and some that you can’t, being represented there. It is a wonderful place, a place where people roll up their sleeves and get it done. Melting pot doesn’t really describe what it is like there, it is more like an enjoyable cacophony.

Now, I am not one who likes to paint swaths of people with a broad brush as that is never accurate, but broadly the supporters of Mr. Trump have me very worried about the future of this country that I so love. I spent a good deal of my childhood in upstate New York, the Southern Tier as it is called, a piece of New York that shoots out west along the Pennsylvania border. For virtually as far back as I can remember it has been an economic basket case. Endicott Johnson, which was the shoemaker to the world, and shod nearly every WWII solider, is a distant memory. It was a company whose workforce was largely powered by immigrants and there are local stories told that when an immigrant from certain parts of Europe got off the boat in New York, the only English they knew was “Which way EJ?” Singer Link, which started by making sewing machines and rose to become a technology powerhouse, was destroyed by corporate raider Paul Bilzerian, who bought up the company and then sold it piecemeal to make a profit. (He later served prison time for fraud). IBM, whose hometown is Endicott, and which seemed to have whole neighborhoods of employees at one point, is now and has been for a long time nothing more than a ghostly presence. Other companies, such as Corning, Lockheed and BAE still form valuable economic anchors in the region as do several major Universities. I remember as a kid riding my bike down the main street, past empty factory building after empty building, buildings which used to house economic powerhouses for the region and storefront after boarded-up storefront. I understand in my core what economic uncertainty looks like, I grew up with it, and I have seen its effects on an entire region. While it was deeply frustrating to me, and I recognize has shaped me to some degree,  I don’t hate immigrants or minorities, I don’t hate government, I don’t hate businesspeople, I don’t hate because of it.

It is of course impossible to completely walk in someone else’s shoes. John Rawls, the noted philosopher on Justice described his veil of ignorance, a method to help put you into someone else’s shoes, but thought experiments only go so far. The coal miners in Appalachia? I think I get it. The factory workers in Michigan, Ohio and Illinois? I am pretty sure I understand. Family farms displaced by factory farms in Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas and Indiana? Yes, I understand the pain. It is painful not only for those directly affected, but also for the entire communities those jobs and people supported. The shops and restaurants, the dentists, doctors, school teachers and other professionals who see their neighbors, customers, clients and patients at first suffering, then disappearing. Towns become places where there are only old people left with few children and young families. Once thriving communities are filled with empty homes.

Today Trump supporters are using this tale, which is the tale of late 20th century middle America, to point fingers at the “other”, whether the other are immigrants, minorities, government, cheap labor or weak environmental and other regulations abroad, or Wall Street to say they are the source of our problems. They are saying, if only we didn’t have these immigrants, regulation, or vocal minorities, if only we could go back to the way it was, when times were “good”, they would be “good” again.

There is an old Russian saying, “You cannot cross the same river twice”. Things change, whether it is technology, the economy, the workforce, or the water flowing in a river, things change. Going back to the good-old-days is a fantasy, for the good-old-days never really did exist for many. Those coal miners? They had good paying jobs, but they also had high death rates on dangerous jobs and ended up with diseases like black lung and cancer. After relatively short careers in physically demanding jobs they retired, and then struggled to get by, supported by various government programs. Generation after generation felt that they had no choice other than to work the mines. People felt trapped. The technology of strip mining, which required many fewer workers, accounted for the majority of the lost jobs, not the often cited regulation or labor costs. The factory workers? Automation and efficiency gains did away with many of their jobs. America today manufactures something like 3x what we did in 1985, but we do it with 1/3 fewer workers. This is not to say that the workers of today should not be fully employed with livable wage jobs. It is to say that specifically what those jobs are will change, hopefully for the better, and the workforce needs to adapt and be ready if they want to hold those jobs. As a society we need to help people adapt, not hold out false promises that things can return to a time that never was. This is a lesson that we might have to learn the hard way at this point.

A good portion of the Republican animus towards President Obama is pure racism, recognized or not, and we are still a long ways away from minorities being protected as they should be and having the rights that everyone deserves. Black Live do Matter, not because other lives don’t matter, but because for so long, and today still, the day-to-day treatment of blacks indicates that many don’t feel that they do. And in terms of walking in someone else’s shoes, it is impossible for those flying the Confederate flag on their cars, in their homes or over their state houses to know the pain that the flag causes those whose ancestors were enslaved or whose civil rights were abused under that very flag. Just as Trump’s white supremacist supporters may not know the significance of, or the pain caused by the Nazi salute they give in their meetings. Yet again, they might.

Everyone needs to be given the opportunity to fulfill their humanity, to have a dignified existence with a level playing field, let’s call that pro-lifespan. Any babies being born into this world, regardless of their skin color, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orietation must be given the life-long tools that they need to prosper. Benjamin Franklin knew for instance that education for all was a key for having a successful democracy and he knew that the availability of high quality public education was an absolute requirement. That now seems to be in jeopardy. School vouchers which promote private and religious schools in the place of public education will be a significant step backwards. And going backwards to a time of Jim Crowe or when LGBTQI folks needed to hide is an abhorrent thought, but one that we may now face or have to face down. Just the other day on CNN one Trump supporter wondered out loud, on the air, if Jews were people, or perhaps they were simply soulless golems. A golem being a fairy tale creature whose existence rose out of some of the darkest moments for Jews in eastern European history as a protector of children, now cast by a neo-Nazi on CNN as a Jewish source of evil. Why is this person on CNN? The American public was fed a continuous stream of false news, surrounded and amplified by false hopes, false promises and outright lies by the Republican candidate. Mr. Trump knew that people are rarely searching for the truth, but rather they are searching for information that supports their existing point of view. Whether it is truthful or not matters less.

Mr. Trump’s personal issues also seem to mean nothing to the electorate, whether those issues are ethical, behavioral or mental. Not being a clinical psychologist I will let others speak to his mental state, but from what I can see I am truly alarmed.

As an organizational psychologist, it is quite clear to me that resorting to blaming the “other”, people who are somehow “different” from us, a group either internal or external to “us”, or tribalism has been a method that has been repeatedly employed through millennium for certain people to seize or retain power and control.  Putin of course is a regular user of blaming the “other” and so were figures like Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, al-Assad, Pol Pot, and Osama bin Laden. The fighting between the Shia and Sunni at its core is about power, and each blames the other as being “other”. The Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades were powered by the same principles. The list is endless and now we can add Donald Trump and his supporters to that list. His whole campaign was based on playing to people’s fears about the “others” and then denying his statements through the use of slight nuance. A pattern is evident at the beginning of in-human times, excuses are made, appeasement attempted Chamberlin-like, apologist spokespeople appear explaining how we misunderstand them, denials are made, but then the full-throated horror becomes evident, usually too late to stop without great cost.

Humanity survived into a more civilized state after the atrocities of WWII only because the United States, as imperfect as she is, was there as a bulwark. What if that bulwark is now the one threatened by this tribalism? Who will return us and the world to the realm of sanity? I made a promise that I would do my part. I may not be able to affect the whole world, but I will do my best to positively affect the pieces that I touch.

It is no surprise that former white nationalist and former Trump supporter, Derek Black, who had an opinion piece in the New York Times this morning, described how he moved away from white nationalism by being welcomed by, and seeing how “others” were not the demon-like characters as they are portrayed and that he is now a graduate student majoring in history. To understand where we are going you first have to understand where we have been. We can only hope that this episode in our nation’s history is akin to umweg behavior, a concept out of Gestalt psychology which means detour, that in order to achieve a goal you sometimes must first move away from it.

Warmest Regards,

Jeffrey Saltzman

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 27, 2016 at 1:48 pm

Can it happen here?

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“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Martin Luther King

Implied in Dr. King’s quote is the notion that we, as a society, will occasionally take a step backward in terms of societal justice, but that over the long-term justice will prevail.  The question is, whose justice? If those in society who want freedom from oppression and persecution, equal rights for all, respect and dignity for all, equal opportunity for all, if we are complacent, then the people deciding what is just, might not be the ones that we hope for and we would have no one to blame for that outcome other than ourselves.  You can’t pray your way to justice, taking it on faith that morality will triumph, action is required. Dr. King knew that. Nelson Mandela knew that. Mahatma Gandhi knew that. This is nothing new. More than 2000 years ago Hillel, a Jewish philosopher and rabbi suggested not only the need to stand up for others, but also of the need for expediency when he wrote in Ethics of the Fathers, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”

In an effort to explain how people, no matter their point of view, can think that they are in the right, that their point of view is just and justified because of support from a higher power, Nobel prize-winning poet and song writer Bob Dylan, wrote “With God on our Side”. Here are the words to the first stanza:

“Oh my name it ain’t nothin’
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I was taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that land that I live in
Has God on its side”

In this song Dylan goes on to say that the horrific actions taken against the Indians, which can only be described as genocidal, and subsequently those that were taken as the USA was in its formative years and participated in wars, were justified by many with the notion that we were on the side of right, for after all God was on our side. Globally, this concept was and is often repeated as a justification for various actions, often by leaders who know better but realize these kinds of statements are a way to sway and justify actions to the masses (oftentimes as they seek to consolidate their own power).

When has there been a party to a conflict that does not feel that they are on the side of right? The Sunnis and Shias who are at each other’s throats? Each knows they are following the true path. The Israelis and Palestinians? Each can cite endless grievances against each other to justify their actions, and each believes that they represent morality. The Russians/Syrians vs. the rebels? Each can explain why their actions are morally justifiable, even as the Russians are a party to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of millions. How many children’s lives will be cut short or how much potential will be unfulfilled due to years wasted as refugees? One is too many. The story seems to repeat itself endlessly.

I am not willing to cede that each side of a conflict is equivalent, just because the people on both sides of a conflict can justify their actions. There is right and wrong, moral and immoral, and while it may not be clear in all conflicts, many times it is.

I am Jewish and even though I was born in and am a citizen of the United States, for my entire life I have heard over and over that you can’t take living in a safe environment for granted. While the United States has been the beacon of light and hope for many, that beacon is not guaranteed, unless you are willing to work for it speaking out and taking action as necessary. Can that beacon go out and be replaced by an authoritarian rule? Clearly it can. Stanley Milgram, a psychologist who studied adherence of ordinary folk to authoritarian instructions after WWII, would also say yes. So would Phillip Zimbardo, a social psychologist, whose famous prison experiment had to be curtailed early as people learned a bit too easily how to play the roles of oppressor and oppressed.

As a successful, wealthy society we can become complacent and take our safety for granted, but just below the surface a miasma can fester. It is too easy to brush off the African American who is killed at a routine traffic stop, or those who are harassed for walking down the street, or the doctor on a plane who efforts to assist an ill passenger are rejected by the crew, as an anomaly. But we all know that they are not an anomaly. They are symptoms of a greater underlying problem.

Can it happen here? That is a question that has been repeatedly asked of me and by me throughout my life. In my immediate context it is aimed at the rise of a government that would hold positions similar to Nazi Germany. While it is easy to say no, that we live in a different time and a different place, I am truly not so sure that it is all that different. Remember Hitler was elected to power due to a suffering middle class, and a liberal class that was ineffectual in developing an opposition. The persecution of the Jews in Germany and Europe were a method of blaming society’s problems on a group, on the “others”, that only if we did away with them everything would be great. And Hitler? He was the only one who could make it happen. Today we see a lot of blame being heaped on the “others”.

The whole things leaves me greatly conflicted, depressed and wishing I was doing more to improve our society. Who are we to live comfortable, safe lives when there is a single person out there whose life is imperiled or who suffers abuse, not because of any crime they committed, but simply because of who they are?

Donald Trump in his battle to brush away the claims of his sexual assaults on women, after calling them liars and ugly, mentioned, not for the first time, that there is an international cabal of bankers who are controlling things and bringing Hillary to power. This is an old meme, written about in the Protocol of the Elders of Zion, a Russian fabricated document, used by the Nazi’s which described how Jews were planning to take over the world and install a world government. Trump is one desperate speech away from saying that directly. He still has about 40% of the vote. Can it happen here? Yes, unless we prevent it.



Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 15, 2016 at 9:57 am

Posted in Human Behavior

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