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Redoubt Volcano, Alaska—January 2, 1990

Years ago, I submitted to a literary agent this prologue and three chapters of a biography of a friend of mine, called “Fire and Ice: Real-life Adventures of a Volcanologist”, who worked for the US Geological Survey and had pioneered predicting the eruptions of certain kinds of volcanoes. NOVA even did an episode on his work. The agent came on board but for various reasons the project fell apart. Still, I was always proud of the opening. This is a true story.

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This world…ever was, and is, and shall be, ever-living Fire,in measures being kindled and in measures going out.        Heraclitus On the Universe

***

“It’s going to blow, and it’s going to blow big. If they don’t evacuate that terminal soon, it’s going to be a disaster.”

Tom Miller, the Scientist in Charge at the Alaska Volcano Observatory, listened intently. He knew deep in his gut that this man, sitting thousands of miles away in an office of the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California—this man, whom he had known for only 19 days—was speaking the truth.

“Alright. I don’t have the authority to tell them to evacuate. But I’ll explain the data and give them our conclusions.”

“Let’s hope they listen.”

Tom hung up the phone and stared out his office window at the distant Chugach Mountains. It was only mid-afternoon in Anchorage, but in Alaska in January, mid-afternoon was getting close to twilight time. There was not much daylight left for an evacuation. Tom turned his gaze to that day’s RSAM data lying on his desk. That scientist in Menlo Park had opened his eyes to what this data indicated.

Redoubt was a cone-shaped, ice-mantled stratovolcano located on the west side of the Cook Inlet, 120 miles southwest of Anchorage, a radius that encompassed over half of Alaska’s population. Tom had studied Redoubt’s history. Rising over 10,000 feet in Lake Clark National Park, Redoubt had erupted six times since 1778 when Captain James Cook had observed it “emitting white smoke but no fire.” More smoking had occurred in 1819, 1902, and 1933. Then in 1966, Redoubt had a major eruption, though not a life-threatening one. During the last eruption in 1968, instruments had recorded several explosions of ash clouds that had lasted only minutes or even seconds. Then for the next 21 years Redoubt had slumbered quietly.

That had changed seven weeks earlier on November 20th. A pilot flying a private plane reported seeing wisps of steam emitting from the crater. On December 8th a steam plume, visible from Anchorage, poured out of the crater for almost six hours. But no seismic activity was detected, so the AVO team thought that the plume merely reflected a renewal of geothermal activity. Then five days later, on December 13th, the real show began. Redoubt began generating 23 straight hours of vigorous steaming and an intensifying seismic swarm.

The Alaska Volcano Observatory was a shoestring operation established by the USGS just over a year before. Until then, Tom was the only volcanologist in Alaska. When he was appointed Scientist in Charge of AVO, his team consisted of one assistant volcanologist in Anchorage, and a few seismologists and faculty members at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. Redoubt was one of over 40 active volcanoes forming the “Aleutian volcanic arc,” and with three to five of those volcanoes erupting every year, Tom and his team had plenty of activity to focus on. Nevertheless, Redoubt was an active volcano surrounded by populated areas, and it merited serious attention. Even though the AVO staff was small, they did manage to install a seismic net of five instruments on Redoubt the previous October. Fortunately.

The seismic swarm had begun at 10:30 that December morning. As the activity increased into the afternoon, Tom had realized that he had to give out some official notifications. He had called the Alaska Division of Emergency Services, the weather service, the local news media, and the FAA. Not knowing that he already had hard data demonstrating that an eruption was likely within 24 hours, Tom had simply explained that the seismic activity at Redoubt was intensifying in ways that could possibly and eventually result in an eruption.

Tom and his staff had stayed up all that night watching the increasing seismic activity. By 5:00 a.m., December 14th, the seismic swarm had coalesced into high-amplitude tremor. Then at 9:47 a.m., Redoubt erupted.

Within 30 minutes of the eruption, Tom received a call from the USGS in Menlo Park. A volcano seismologist named Bernard Chouet was on the phone introducing himself. Tom explained that he didn’t have much time to talk; he had an erupting volcano on his hands.

“Redoubt?” asked Bernard.

“That’s right.”

“Yeah, last night I could see that it was going to erupt.”

Tom paused. Whoa, he thought.  I’m the Scientist in Charge. Why isn’t this information getting back to me?

“Look, Bernard, I can’t talk to you now, but I do want to talk to you. Give me your phone number.”

Bernard gave him both work and home numbers. Tom didn’t realize then how this man would radically transform his ability to interpret apparently inconsequential data.

Redoubt began ejecting thousands of tons of tephra, volcanic particles ranging in size from extremely fine ash with the consistency of confectioner’s sugar, to large chunks several feet in diameter. On that first morning, the lava dome that had formed in the crater in 1968 exploded, sending a volcanic ash plume over 30,000 feet into the air. That evening, Tom’s staff measured strong volcanic tremor for over three hours. On the morning of the second day, December 15th, Redoubt erupted three times, at 1:52 a.m., 3:38 a.m., and 10:13 a.m.  It was that third eruption that had demonstrated Redoubt’s deadly potential.

That morning, a Boeing 747-400 jetliner from Amsterdam was flying at 28,000 feet inbound to Anchorage, following the path taken by another 747 only 20 minutes before. KLM flight 867 carried 231 passengers and a flight crew of 14. The pilots had been notified of Redoubt’s third eruption 90 minutes earlier, which had sent a volcanic ash plume over 35,000 feet into the air. The prevailing winds had carried the ash cloud over 180 miles northeast of Redoubt where it encountered the KLM jetliner.

Tom reflected on how often people thought that lava is the most dangerous part of a volcanic eruption, in part because of film and television. In reality, volcanic ash is far more dangerous. A volcanic ash cloud is often indistinguishable from ordinary clouds, both visually and on radar. But the KLM pilots recognized the brown ash cloud for what it was, and they received permission from Anchorage to begin climbing above the cloud. Unfortunately, not fully realizing the dangers involved, the pilots plotted their climb through the ash. Upon entering the cloud, the four turbojet engines began sucking in the fine particles, and the silicon in the ash began melting, forming a ceramic-like coating around the hot turbine components.

A modern turbojet engine has three parts: the compressor, the combustors, and the turbine. As air enters the front of the engine, the rotating series of compressor blades raise the incoming air to high pressures. The compressed air then enters the combustors, where it mixes with jet fuel, ignites, and is forced across the turbine blades. The turbine and compressor are connected, and both are forced to turn by the exhaust, thus maintaining airflow through the engine.

The melting ash began forming glassy deposits on the turbine blades, quickly choking the airflow and causing a buildup of pressure in the compressors. In seconds, the compressors in all four engines stalled and the engines functionally shut down.

Nobody on the jetliner understood exactly what had happened, though the pilots quickly realized they had made a wrong choice. As the engines failed, the jetliner began a steep glide down towards the Talkeetna Mountains. For eight harrowing minutes flight 867 fell, dropping over two miles and coming within 6000 feet of the Talkeetnas. The pilots repeatedly tried to restart the engines. Eventually their efforts had combined with the cold Alaskan air to partially break up the glass deposits. They managed to restart two engines, and five minutes after that, all four were back in operation. In 25 minutes the 747 landed safely in Anchorage. The estimated repairs: $80 million, which included replacing all four engines, the electrical and avionics systems, and a sandblasted cockpit windshield.

Within days of the initial eruption, Tom had called Bernard to find out how credibly he had predicted Redoubt’s eruption. Bernard explained his work in modeling LPs, long period events.  He walked Tom through the data and explained how on the afternoon before the eruption, some of his coworkers in Menlo Park, who knew little of Bernard’s work, had called him in to examine the data. Bernard took a methodical look and asked them if it had erupted yet. They were nonplussed and understandably skeptical.

It didn’t take Tom long to see that Bernard knew what he was talking about. He understood the caution that Bernard’s coworkers had exhibited. How could they know on such short notice that Bernard had a well-supported empirical model underlying his prediction? The next morning, Bernard had gone back to his coworkers and asked if Redoubt had erupted yet. Rather than calling Alaska themselves, they urged Bernard to call. After all, he was the one who was interpreting the data. Bernard called Alaska. By then of course, Redoubt had erupted.

Bernard had flown up to Anchorage that December and both he and Tom had spent time together circling Redoubt in a helicopter, observing the formation of a new lava dome. After Bernard had returned to Menlo Park, they stayed in occasional contact. By January 2nd, today, they had been speaking to each other several times a day. Tom had begun appreciating more fully what a volcano seismologist could do.

Tom enjoyed the fact that Bernard confidently interpreted data. He often mused at how difficult it seemed at times to get seismologists to give him interpretations, even when he assured them that he would take full responsibility for any final decisions. Bernard was different. He loved his work and passionately gave his opinions, and Tom respected him for that. They were like souls.

When they had flown around Redoubt, Bernard pointed out that the winter snowpack and glaciers around the volcano were likely to generate more lahars, highly dangerous and fast-moving slurries of water, mud, rock, and sand that result when hot volcanic debris melts snow and ice. It was a lahar that killed over 22,000 people in Armero, Colombia, in 1985 when Nevado del Ruiz erupted. Tom already understood the danger Redoubt posed because the first eruption had caused lahars to cover a portion of the upper Drift River valley that extended northeast of Redoubt. The new lava dome concerned them because it could plug the underlying magma and gases, begin pressurizing, and eventually explode catastrophically. Such an eruption would cause a huge lahar to inundate the lower Drift River valley, and more critically, the Drift River Oil Terminal at the mouth of the Drift River about 21 miles downstream. The oil terminal had already experienced a minor lahar during the initial eruptions.

The Drift River Oil Terminal was built in 1967 by the Cook Inlet Pipeline Company to collect and store oil from offshore platforms through a 40-mile-long pipeline. The oil was then pumped to tankers waiting at a loading platform. Over two dozen oil workers at any one time spent their days and nights at the facility on a rotating schedule.  The facility contained seven storage tanks that held almost as much oil as the Exxon Valdez, which had experienced its well-publicized disaster the previous March and was still very much on everyone’s mind. The terminal also had its own small airport and heliport. Cook Inlet executives had spent time flying around Redoubt, keeping tabs on its activity. Closing the terminal would be extremely costly, even for a few days, so they would only consider such a step when they had clear evidence of danger. They saw the lava dome forming, but they saw little activity otherwise and assumed the main activity had already passed.

But Tom and Bernard knew differently. Tom had flown over the lava dome every day for the last ten days. He observed the steady deformation and over-steepening of the north side of the dome. Instinctively, he knew it would fail catastrophically.

Seismic data began building up on December 30. The five Real-time Seismic Amplitude Monitors (RSAM) on Redoubt showed a series of LPs, a cyclic pattern of harmonic resonances caused by increasingly pressurized magmatic gases. On the morning of January 2nd, Tom, Bernard, and Dr. John Davies, a seismologist at the Geophysical Institute, all agreed that a moderate eruption was likely. AVO issued an eruption alert predicting a moderate eruption within 24 hours. But by that afternoon, the buildup of LPs had gone from linear to exponential. Tom had called Bernard and both had concluded that the LPs meant a much more spectacular eruption, one that would come sooner than later, resulting in potentially disastrous lahars. The Drift River Oil Terminal had to be evacuated.

Tom was 52 years old. He grew up collecting rocks along the shores of Lake Superior. He loved the outdoors, and his exposure to course work in college fueled his interest in every phase of geology. For over 30 years his paid work had also been his favorite hobby. His passion for science still, on occasion, kept him up nights thinking about a breakthrough he had made during the day on some volcanological problem.

Now he faced the mother of all volcanological problems: Convincing people that the time to get out was now.

Staring at the RSAM data on his desk, he picked up the phone and dialed the main office of the Cook Inlet Pipeline Company in Anchorage. The secretary connected him to an executive he had spoken to several times before.

“So what’s the word on our volcano?”

“Bad news. I told you this morning that our seismic data was building up. Well, today’s data shows it increasing exponentially. I’m about to call Emergency Services and the media, but I thought I better call you first in case you want to consider moving your people out of the Drift River Terminal.”

“Well, thanks for the heads up, Tom, but I gotta tell you, we flew over the crater today and we didn’t see any changes in the dome. There’s no fresh lava. It doesn’t look that bad.”

“That’s understandable. What we have here is data indicating that the dome is pressurizing. There’s gas pressure building up under that dome. I just got off the phone with my volcano seismologist in California. He’s looking at the same data and we both agree that Redoubt is going to go and go big. He says it will happen in hours.”

“This is really a huge decision, Tom. If we shut down that facility, think of the cost. The oil in the pipeline will freeze. Starting up again would take weeks. You would have to be absolutely right about this. You were calling for a moderate eruption this morning, one that wouldn’t affect us. Now you’re saying otherwise. How can you be so certain? How do you know?”

Tom tried not to let his frustration show. He couldn’t order an evacuation. How could he convince them? Just then his wife, Shirla, walked into his office. Tom had an idea.

“Tell you what. I’ll fax over this data so you can see for yourself. I don’t care if you understand what the units are, but you have to see the dramatic increase in the seismic parameter, and regardless of what it is, this is what we’re basing our interpretation on.”

Maybe that would get their attention. Tom handed the RSAM plot and the executive’s fax number to his wife and waited. Somehow seeing data with your own eyes carried greater impact. He didn’t have to wait long.

“Jesus.”

“Yeah. I hope it doesn’t take long to close up shop.”

“Yes . . . right. Well, I think we both have calls to make.”

Tom hung up and looked at the clock. It was 1:45 p.m.

By 3:50 p.m. the pumps were shut down, the facilities secured, and the last of the oil terminal employees evacuated by helicopter.

Two hours later at 5:48 p.m., Redoubt exploded. A pilot flying 35 miles south of the volcano reported seeing an orange flame shoot straight up from the summit like a cannon. At 7:27 p.m. a massive second explosion rocked the volcano, destroying 80 percent of the lava dome. A pyroclastic flow of hot ash and avalanches of hot lava blocks roared down the north flank, across the Drift Glacier and up the other side of the valley at almost 100 miles per hour. The hot volcanic ash and 25-foot blocks from the lava dome scoured the glacier, melting ice and snow, uprooting trees three feet in diameter, and creating a lahar that began to fill the Drift River Valley and flow down toward the east.

Picking up momentum and mass as it moved, this monstrous, mud-filled, debris-laden, 1.5-mile-wide wall of volcanic debris thundered down toward the Drift River Oil Terminal.

What Is Inflation, Really?

“All the perplexities, confusion and distress in America arise, not from the defects in their constitution or confederation, not from want of honor or virtue, so much as from downright ignorance of the nature of coin, credit, and circulation.”
John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson,
August 28, 1787

When everyone is honest, bankers, government workers, wealth creators, and taxpayers all benefit.

But what happens when people are less than honest?

Let’s follow the thinking of the goldsmith on Silver Island, who sees things just a little different from the goldsmith on Gold Island.

Like the goldsmith on Gold Island, the goldsmith on Silver Island creates paper notes (IOUs) to represent the actual money (gold and silver) that people deposit with him.

The amount of the notes exactly equals the amount of gold and silver coins he has on deposit. If there are 100,000 oz. of gold and silver on deposit, there are notes equaling 100,000 oz. of gold and silver in circulation.

How much money is there in total?

If you answered 200,000…
No! No! No!
The total is still only 100,000 in money.

Only the gold and silver coins on deposit are money. The paper notes are symbols of that money.

Paper notes are NOT money.
They are currency.

But the goldsmith on Silver Island notices that almost everyone who uses the paper notes thinks of them as money. Some people almost never come to redeem their notes for actual money.

They are happy to use the paper notes for trade and payment.

Workers begin asking employers to pay them in paper notes rather than gold and silver coins. The workers know they can trade them in at any time, but why bother?

Paper notes are so much more convenient to carry.

The Silver Island goldsmith then has a crafty idea.

What if he printed up extra notes?
And spent them?
Who would notice?

You can see how tempting it would be to the goldsmith who is normally honest, but who suddenly has a medical expense.

Remember, this is Silver Island. The people here are a mix of good and bad. Sometimes they know it, and sometimes they don’t.

On Silver Island, some otherwise good people can rationalize something bad as being good.

The goldsmith’s child needs help and he is short on money.

Why not just “borrow the money” now by printing up a few extra paper notes to pay the doctor?

Then just pay it back later by destroying the other paper notes when he collects his storage fees?

No one would know. And besides, it’s good for the child.

So the goldsmith does print up the extra notes. And nobody notices. And the child gets better. And the goldsmith pays back the “money.”

What he does is a good thing, right?

As time goes by, the goldsmith rationalizes other bad actions as being good.

Why not print extra paper notes to buy better food, pay someone to rebuild the fence, and get his wife a nice gift?

He figures that since nobody notices, why should he even pay it back?

He works hard for a living. So what if he has a few extra nice things. Nobody notices. Nobody cares.

Soon for every 100 oz. of gold stored, there are notes circulating for 110 oz. of gold.

And prices around town
begin to mysteriously rise.

What the goldsmith on Silver Island does not realize, and almost everyone else as well, is this:

When more paper notes are “spent” and put into circulation, merchants notice that more goods are in demand.

When demand rises, the value of what people buy rises, and therefore merchants naturally charge more.

More paper notes = Rising demand = Rising prices

Supply and demand. Cause and effect. Choice being exercised in a free society.

A year later, the goldsmith on Silver Island decides to support another islander for election to the local council.

Together they hatch a scheme to outspend their opponent. The goldsmith prints up a lot of extra paper notes and donates it to the candidate’s campaign.

Because, you know, his opponent has bad ideas, so the extra paper notes are really a good thing, you know, for the good of everybody.

More notes begin to circulate as the candidate spends the extra notes for political influence.

And prices mysteriously rise.

The candidate is elected and begins putting pressure on the goldsmith. Print up more notes so that the government can hire extra people. And spend money on community projects.

The goldsmith does.

And prices mysteriously continue to rise.

Who is to blame for the higher cost of living?

The politician blames the greedy merchants. And the merchants don’t know what to say. They do not understand the real cause of the rising prices.

But the merchants, and actual creators of wealth, continue to be called greedy and uncaring.

They do not realize that the rising prices are a natural result of the inflation.

What is meant by inflation?

You know what happens when you inflate a balloon. As more air is pushed into the balloon, the amount of air increases.

What increases when you have economic inflation?

The supply of paper notes (currency).

Government, and people who make a living off of debt, will tell you that inflation is rising prices, just a natural force of nature, without anyone causing it.

Right?

Wrong!

Inflation is NOT rising prices.
Inflation CAUSES prices to rise.

As the currency supply increases, prices are forced to rise.

If you think the definition of something makes no difference, then you are a good target for con artists.

What if I can plant the idea in your mind that inflation is merely the rising of prices?

I can keep you from seeing the cause-and-effect relationship between printing paper notes and rising prices.

And if I can plant the idea in your mind that government debt is a good idea, then government can continue creating money out of thin air.

To do what?

To finance projects, wars, entitlements, and many other government “goods.”

Who pays?

Workers who create wealth and become taxpayers are the ones who pay. Not the ones whose income is paid out of tax money.

The bankers and politicians on Silver Island soon tell the public that they have to withdraw gold and silver from circulation.

Why?

Because there’s not enough to go around, and besides, the paper notes work well as money.

And almost everyone believes them, except a few kooks who talk about some kind of conspiracy between bankers and politicians.

But nobody really believes them.


from Money and Wealth

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The Mozart Effect and Healing

In 1997 Don Campbell published a book called The Mozart Effect. When people hear this, they think Campbell claimed that children raised listening to Mozart help children become smarter. Campbell’s actual suggestions, based on anecdotal evidence, are more specific: that music of the Viennese Classical period can connect with those who are mentally isolated from people, such as those with autism, and can help infants react and think better.

He also claimed that the music of Mozart in particular contributes to improved working of the higher brain functions, especially logical and mathematical concepts.

Although Campbell’s work is not science, interesting anecdotal evidence does point to Mozart’s music contributing to increased mental health.

Pioneering French listening researcher Alfred Tomatis, author of The Conscious Ear, studied how erroneous hearing could be the root cause of a variety of ailments. He believed that speech problems are often related to personal family problems and the resulting oral communication issues that can arise. One of his most famous patients was the French actor Gerard Depardieu.

In the mid-1960s, Depardieu was a tongue-tied young man still struggling to become an actor. He came from a dysfunctional family, experienced educational failures, as well as several personal tragedies. He wanted to be an actor, but stammered when trying to express himself.

He came to the Tomatis Center and Dr. Tomatis determined that Depardieu’s voice and memory problems resulted from deep emotional problems.

Depardieu asked what could be done to help him, and the doctor’s reply amazed him:

“For the next several weeks, I want you to come here every day for two hours and listen to Mozart.”

Depardieu started the next day listening to Mozart on headphones. After only a few sessions, his appetite improved, he slept better, and he experienced more energy.

Soon he began speaking more clearly. Months later, he returned to acting school demonstrating a new confidence, grace, and bearing.

He is now highly regarded as one of the great actors of his generation.

“Before Tomatis,” Depardieu said, “I could not complete any of my sentences. He helped give continuity to my thoughts, and he gave me the power to synthesize and understand what I was thinking.”

From the book, Mozart and Great Music:

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Why Is Shakespeare Great?

“Shakespeare is like life. There are almost as many ways of taking him as there are ways of living… The lawyer believes he must have been a lawyer, the musician a musician, the Catholic a Catholic, the Protestant a Protestant. Never was there a more protean genius. Whether his dramas should be taken as plays or as literature has been disputed. But surely they should be taken as both. Acted, or seen on the stage, they disclose things hidden to the reader. Read, they reveal what no actor or theater can convey.” ~Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare

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Imagine that you have entered the small lecture hall of a crotchety, old, dinosaur professor at a major university. It’s near the end of class, so you find a seat in the back and look around.

The African-American professor stands behind a podium using lecture notes and does not look up when you enter. Fewer than half the seats are occupied. He wears a worn gray tweed jacket, faded blue shirt, and a thin, darker blue tie. His mottled speckled-gray hair is splayed out, part afro, part Einstein.

The students look like first-year university students¾bored, fidgety, a couple actually napping. In the middle of your aisle, you notice a young woman with short black hair, wearing a black dress and black lipstick. She has her hand raised, arm waving slightly, supporting it with her other hand, which suggests she’s been waiting quite a while.

“…presents the reader with many challenges, not the least of which is Elizabethan diction and Shakespeare’s poetic compression. But every reader willing to take the time will discover a bounty of humanistic treasures.” The professor stops and looks at her over his silver reading glasses.

“Yes?”

One word conveys his lack of good cheer. Questions are not encouraged.

“I’m sorry, professor, but I just don’t get it.” She exudes the sweet naivete of intellectual youth. “Shakespeare represents the view of the classic white-male Eurocentric patriarchy, in a dated vocabulary that’s hard to understand. What’s his relevance today? I mean, what could Shakespeare possibly have to say to me, a Chinese-Hispanic lesbian?”

As she speaks, the professor’s eyes glaze and his head lowers slowly until he is staring down at his podium. He gives every appearance of being an old man in constant mental and physical pain. A curmudgeon.

Several students murmur at least partial agreement. The professor stands silent for almost a minute before turning to the blackboard. He picks up the chalk with a trembling hand and writes two words on the board—chair and stool. He turns and stares at her.

He speaks softly.

“Would you say, Miss…..”

“Ms. Powers.”

“Would you say, Ms. Powers, that the words chair and stool distinguish two similar things?”

“Uh, I think… yes, of course.”

“And do you think, Ms. Powers, that these represent a distinction worth preserving? For example, if I were to ask you to bring me a chair and you brought me a stool, would we have reason to believe there existed between us some failure of communication?”

“Yes.” Her tone embodies confidence.

“What would be the nature of the failure?”

“Uhh… a chair normally has a back for support while a stool does not.”

“Good. So you concede, Ms. Powers, that vocabulary helps us more clearly distinguish the specific differences among like things?”

“Yes.”

“Is it a good thing to distinguish more clearly the specific differences between like things?”

“I suppose.”

“And that it would be better to possess a mind with a larger vocabulary than a mind with a smaller one?” Although he still speaks softly, the air begins to thicken.

“But just because someone has a better vocabulary doesn’t mean that they are a better person.” She speaks with less confidence now.

“Ms. Powers.” His voice is a bit louder. “If we are going to understand each other, it is best that you respond to what I actually say rather than what you think I am saying. I did not say anything about a better vocabulary or about being a better person.”

She stays silent.

“I asked if you thought it better to possess a mind with a larger vocabulary rather than a mind with a smaller vocabulary. Especially since you have already conceded that it is a good thing to more clearly distinguish the specific differences between like things. Or do you see another way of distinguishing specific differences in ways other than a versatile and specific vocabulary?”

“No.”

“Ms. Powers, suppose you and I walked into a garden, and while I was a novice in gardening, you were an expert gardener who had a command of the technical language and knowledge of botany and horticulture. Would our experience of a particular garden be any different?”

“Uh….” She senses a trap being set for her. She tries to avoid it. “Yes, a little. We would both see the same thing, but I would probably be more knowledgeable about it if you asked me questions.”

“No, Ms. Powers.” His face is reddening, his voice gets louder. “I’m afraid you are entirely mistaken. We would not be seeing the same garden at all. I would merely see pretty flowers, maybe some trees and grass. I may be able to tell the difference between a rose and a tulip, but that is all. I would see the mere surface of the garden. Its mere appearance. But you, Ms. Powers…”

She shifts with discomfort.

“You would see an entirely different garden. You would be able to penetrate its depths. You would be able to recognize not only the different flowers—the carnations and snap dragons and pansies and hyacinths and lilies—you would also recognize the relative health of each of those flowers. You would recognize any pests or diseased plants. You would be able to spot where each plant and flower was in its life cycle.”

More students perk up. They suspect something big is coming.

“By their arrangement and care, you would know their past. In some cases, whether or not they were recently planted. You would know how much the person who tends the garden knows about his or her occupation. You would also know the difference between annuals and perennials. And this knowledge would allow you to see not only the present garden, but the future of that garden. You could predict its course and suggest actions to alter that course.”

She stares back at him.

“No, Ms. Powers, you and I would not see the same garden at all. Because a true and rich vocabulary opens one to higher levels of perceptual and conceptual awareness. A specific vocabulary rewards you, not only with a greater awareness, but also the possibility of a deep causal awareness. The ability to distinguish true causes and their array of effects. And, were you so inclined, you would naturally begin seeing the world in terms of the garden. You would begin constructing analogies and similes, perhaps even metaphors, connecting life to that garden through an array of subtle similarities.”

He pauses and surveys the room. He is speaking to everyone, although he continues to use her name.

“Do you know the number of distinct words in the average person’s vocabulary, Ms. Powers? About three thousand words, assuming that all forms of a word—like run, ran, running—counted as one. Three thousand words, enough to get an average person through the day, and through their lifetime.

“Do you know how many distinct words are in the King James Version of the Bible? Around four thousand three hundred, not counting names. That means that all of the history and philosophy and meaning, all of the variety of ideas expressed in the Bible, can be transmitted in a vocabulary of forty-three hundred words. Enough to challenge the average reader.”

You suspect that there is a university committee somewhere that can’t wait for this professor to retire.

“Soon we will get to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. John Milton commanded an incredible vocabulary. He mastered several languages, including Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, and French. He wrote not only epic poetry but many rigorous political tracts. Some of his sentences are so powerful and complex in their vocabulary, grammar, and meaning that they contain several dozen clauses. John Milton was a genius who mastered and crafted meaning out of a vocabulary of almost eight thousand words, more than almost all living writers.”

He pauses, and looks out through slitted eyes.

“But Shakespeare.” He chuckles. “Shakespeare exists in his own genus. When a rhetorician reads Shakespeare, she points out that Shakespeare was a master rhetorician, who knew not only all the technical terms, ancient and modern, but was a master practitioner who applied that knowledge throughout his poems and plays, in ways that have stood as examples for generations to follow.

“When a gardener reads Shakespeare, she says that Shakespeare must have been a gardener, because he not only displays the technical terminology of botany and gardening and herbology, he demonstrates the kind of knowledge that comes from working in or studying closely a sophisticated English garden.

“When a lawyer reads Shakespeare, she tells us that Shakespeare must have had a legal education because he not only displays an astonishing range and accuracy with his use of legal terms, be he also commands an understanding of the history and philosophy of law. And you can point to other professions: actor, soldier, physician, courtier, historian, politician.”

He pauses, taking a breath, and when he begins again, his tempo and volume increases.

“But that’s not all. In his plays, he explores the range and depth of human emotions and experience. He explores love, but not just the young romantic love of Romeo and Juliet. He explores love between siblings, and parent and child, and comrades in arms¾young love, middle-aged love, old love. Love between the low and the low, the low and the high, the high and the high, false love, true love, jaded love, betrayed love, self-love, love of good and love of indulgence. Like turning a diamond in the light, he explores every facet of love and hate and envy and greed and lust and jealousy and innocence and sweetness and revenge, and a hundred subtle emotional and intellectual states of which you have yet to take conscious stock.”

“His capacious mind wandered everywhere, and in almost every way he has arrived there before you have, articulating it with a mastery that leaves later writers sick with wondering what territory of the human heart, human intellect, and human action is left to explore. He seems to have experienced the full range and depth of common human experience and encapsulated that experience more beautifully than any other.

“Shakespeare, Ms. Powers, displays a vocabulary of well over twenty-two thousand words, almost three times Milton’s vocabulary, and you wonder why you find reading him challenging, and you dare to wonder if Shakespeare has anything to teach you?”

She sits frozen. You suspect she is considering filing a grievance. In the spacious silence, the professor speaks softly again, with a sardonic smile.

“May I suggest to you, Ms. Powers, that you have a choice. You can continue to dwell on the surface of life, holding up external appearances as if they were everything, parroting the rhymes and rhythms of a social media consciousness, flaccid and without true self-animation, smug in the knowledge that you have comfortably given yourself over to a group numbness, submitting to mere external authority—or maybe, just maybe, with personal effort, a healthy skepticism, and a sense of individual exploration, you may become your own authority, by expanding your mind in a constant effort to comprehend Shakespeare’s. That you may go on to explore Shakespeare’s artistic depths, his innovative characters, his invention of the human, as one lover of his work has said¾his carving out new states of poetic, dramatic and human consciousness, in which we all can play, learn, and grow.

“May I suggest that until you are well along into that journey, your mind and emotions may remain susceptible to every sophistic thought that knocks on your door, seeking to enslave you with its mere appearance of originality. It’s time, Ms. Powers, that you begin feeding on Shakespeare rather than on that damned fast food.”

He pauses.

“That’s all for today.”

_____

Secrets of Better Decision Making

In 2004, Annie Duke won the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.

She did not start out as a poker player. In fact, she had been working towards a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology when, in 1991, a month before defending her dissertation, she got sick and moved back to her home in Montana.

Her brother was a poker player, and she soon found herself in a new kind of lab, studying how poker players learn and make decisions. She writes in her book Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts:

“Over time, those world-class poker players taught me to understand what a bet really is: a decision about an uncertain future. The implications of treating decisions as bets made it possible for me to find learning opportunities in uncertain environments. Treating decisions as bets, I discovered, helped me avoid common decision traps, learn from results in a more rational way, and keep emotions out of the process as much as possible.”

She illustrates what she means by “decision traps” by comparing success in life to success in chess and success in poker.

Success in chess is about making quality decisions.

Success in poker is about making quality decisions
 AND luck.

For Annie, Life is Poker, not Chess. And understanding that difference makes all the difference.

One decision trap is assuming that a bad outcome can always be traced back to a bad decision.

She gives an example of a controversial decision made at the end of Super Bowl XLIX in 2015 (the annual championship of the American National Football League).

The Seattle Seahawks trailed by four points and had 26 seconds to score a touchdown. Everyone expected the coach, Pete Carroll, to call for a running play.

Instead, the coach called for the quarterback to pass. The pass was intercepted and the New England Patriot’s won.

Next day, the media headlines called it “The Worst Play-Call in Super Bowl History” and “A Coach’s Terrible Super Bowl Mistake.”

There were a few dissenting voices, many of them pointing out the history of such interceptions in that situation was about 2%. But those voices were drowned out.

What did the coach get wrong? Simple. The play didn’t work.

Think about the headlines if that play did work.

“The Best Play-Call in Super Bowl History” and “A Coach’s Terrible Super Bowl Mistake” and “A Coach’s Incredible Super Bowl Win.”

As Annie Duke points out, “Pete Carroll was a victim of our tendency to equate the quality of a decision with the quality of its outcome.” (My italics.)

She explains that as she was learning how to play professional poker, other pro players would warn her to avoid the temptations of “resulting.” Resulting means changing your strategy just because a few hands didn’t turn out well in the short run.

And she points out that Pete Carroll understood this critical distinction when he said a few days later, “It was the worst result of a call ever… The call would have been a great one if we catch [sic] it. It would have been just fine, and nobody would have thought twice about it.”

The media critics treated football like checkers. All the pieces are on the board and it is about making quality decisions.

In checkers you have all the facts.

But not in football. Like poker, winning is about quality decisions, but it is also about luck. Sometimes it does not matter how good the decision is—sometimes luck works against good decisions.

In poker, as in football, and as in life,
you do not have all the facts.

In life, what makes a quality decision great has nothing to do with a great outcome. Sometimes great decisions still land us in not-so-great outcomes.

When creating your life, even when you are end-result oriented, beware of “resulting.” Good strategies can have short-term failures while keeping you on the path to long-term success.

Stick with a winning strategy
and stand resilient against the failures.

 

1. Creating Your Life thumb