From the vantage of a Pennsylvania mountain cabin, creeping daylight incrementally restores from darkness the shades of grey, then the greens and browns, under a neutral overcast sky.

          The de-saturation is from dark to light. The eye’s satisfaction with the continuum between those extremes is the essence of an Ansell Adams photo. Psychologically, we crave a full tonal range; a photo with only mid-tones appears disturbing.

          The balanced image is a marvelous template for so many other things.

          In nature, the tendency to maintain (or return to) stasis may be observed in new growth after a forest fire; the stability of a food chain; or the process of natural selection. In a fulfilling relationship, we humans derive satisfaction from the counterbalance between separate activities and intense physical intimacy.

          Thus, the existence of end-points with all manner of gradations in between tends to define aspects of the natural world as well as human conduct.

          Here are more examples of each:

 

Nature

Summer & Winter; Flood & Drought; Feast & Famine

Increasing Entropy

Day & Night

Predator and Prey

Positive and Negative Valence (chemistry)

Temperature, Pressure and Volume (3 reference points)

Stalactites and Stalagmites

Quantum Mechanics and the Theory of Relativity

 

Human Experience

Love & Hate; Friend & Foe, War & Peace

Religious Belief & Non-belief

Morality and Immorality or Amorality

Democrat & Republican; Liberal & Conservative

Macro and Micro Economics

Feng Shui (3 reference points)

Nature & Nurture

Sharp & Flat; Soft & Loud (music)

Sweet & Sour (gastronomy)

Red & Green; Blue & Yellow; Dark & Light (visual arts)

Hunter & Gatherer (anthropology)

Intelligence & Ignorance; Intellect and Emotion

Rich & Poor

Young & Old; Slender and Obese; Healthy and Morbid

Black & White Thinking (including racism, bigotry, nationalism, and borderline personality disorder)

Yin and Yang

Conscious and Unconscious; Ego & Id

            “Chunking” is the process first defined by the great Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, to explain our creating mental clusters of similar items when we form short-term memories. We interpret sensory input by comparing it to our experience; but at the same time we can only make sense of what resembles something we already – at least partially – recognize. This helps explain why people collect things, engage in preferred activities, and form associations with others. It is why we love patterns, and often call ourselves “creatures of habit.”  We gather things that are familiar.
            But no matter how helpful habits can be in freeing up our attention for other activity, they sometimes prevent us from considering or testing better alternatives. 
            Let’s look at four examples:

Habit or Tradition

Adverse Consequences

Better Alternatives

I. Maintaining the highest percentage of prisoners of any Western country.

 

This mentality is characterized by the phrase “Lock them up and throw away the key.”

Unmanageable increases in our prisoner population, recidivism, and the need for more prisons.

 

The enormous expense of incarceration compared to the more cost-effective investment in drug detoxification programs, academic education, vocational training, and rehabilitation.

Reduced sentences;

More alternative dispositions for non-violent crimes, such as drug rehabilitation, and ankle bracelets in lieu of short-term incarceration.

Greater educational opportunities within prison walls; and more skilled and better-paid jobs for prisoners.

More jobs for the unemployed.

Legalize drugs for personal use, as Mexico did in the past few days.

Increase utilization of parole and probation.

Offer free artificial heroin pills to addicts.

II. Automobiles that are too big and fuel inefficient.

Fossil fuel becomes unaffordable.

 

We run out of fossil fuel.

 

The U.S. auto industry dies off, like the garment industry did in Britain.

Retrofit vehicle production lines.

Increase the motor fuel tax.

Increase the tax rate on luxury vehicles.

► Dramatically increase public transportation, especially high-speed rail.

 

III. U.S. Postal Service Deficits.

Constant rounds of price increases that bear little relation to improvement in the quality of service.

Introduce competition in letter-delivery just as it exists for package delivery, with Federal Express, DHL, etc.

Inaugurate distance-pricing (delivery to the other coast of the U.S. would cost more than delivery next door.)

Surcharge orphan routes, where operating costs vastly exceed revenue.

IV. Failing to reform our health care delivery system, that is more costly and less effective than in Canada or Great Britain.

 

(Vested interests abound:

Doctors, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, health insurance companies, AARP, Medicare recipients, employers, labor unions, and individual insureds intent on preserving their private option.)

Paying through higher taxes the much higher cost of emergency room medicine and specialty care for the uninsured or under-insured. (It would cost us less to address their medical conditions before they get bad, or to prevent them from occuring in the first place.)

 

Treating — at enormous expense — end-of-life situations like lung cancer that are caused by preventable behavior like smoking.

Financially incentivize people to exercise more, smoke less, eat a more balanced diet, and participate in preventive medicine.

 

Reduce medical errors.

 

Shift resources from extending end-of-life to improving the quality of life (for example, devoting more resources to hospices).

 

That is the view from Central Pennsylvania, where hills are emerging from morning fog.