When I was in my early 20′s a Sufi wise man from Turkey, in a teachable moment, instructed me to “provide shelter for people.” Twenty years later I finally screwed up the courage and gathered sufficient support around me to take on all the responsibilities involved in designing and building a house to sell on speculation – a typical American capitalist way of “providing shelter.” As such, I followed the Golden Rule of American Capitalism: buy low. Which I thought I did. I went out and bought the cheapest infill building lot available in Palo Alto, California at the time – a 5000 square foot plot ten blocks away from Matadero Creek. I paid $180,000 cash for it. University Bank, where I got the construction loan, estimated that the house I planned to design and build would sell for between $750,000-$800,000. More than an adequate cushion to earn myself a handsome Capitalist profit. Except for one thing. No – actually three things.
Cross Your I’s and Dot Your T’s
First was, my realtor. Even though I found the lot on my own, I specifically hired him to represent my interests. Yet, somehow he neglected to inform me that my super-cheap building lot was located in a Flood Zone until weeks after I signed the deal and delivered my money. Since I’d already built a house on contract closer than ten blocks to Matadero Creek that wasn’t in a flood zone, it never occurred to my brain that this lot would be. Discovering this unfortunate fact after the purchase added another $70,000 to the design and construction costs. And if I really wanted to add further to my costs, me and my brain could have hired a lawyer to sue the seller and the two realtors. I took a pass on that invitation.
The next thing that caught me and my brain by surprise is that local buying activity – even in tony Palo Alto – turns out to be significantly affected by national mortgage rates. Who knew? Carpenters have little need to be interest-rate savvy. When I bought the building lot, rates were about 9 percent. When I completed construction, national rates had ballooned to 19%! (By contrast, my current hard-won mortgage is 3.6%). A mortgage rate of 19% significantly reduces the pool of prospective home buyers, even in wealthy, real estate-crazy Silicon Valley. Interest rates at 19% can seriously take the fun out of spec-building for body and brain. (I wish that Sufi wise man had instructed: “Provide low interest-rate shelter for people, like Habitat for Humanity does”).
The third element that ended up contributing to me and my brain building a Don’t-Wanter of a spec house completely blew my mind. Prospective buyers repeatedly decided against the purchase because … they were frightened of the people who lived across the street. While my crew and I were building that house, the people across the street would often show up on hot afternoons with lemonade or iced tea. They regularly volunteered to straighten up the building site, and returned expensive tools we often left on the job after a hot, tiring day. As far as we were concerned, they were the nicest people on the block. Except for one thing.
They were black.
It took nearly 30 months for me to sell that house at nearly a quarter million dollar loss. So much for capitalism and its Golden Rules.
Muddling Towards Nirvana
But the point here isn’t that there is racism in the world still, or that commission-driven realtors can’t be trusted, or that interest rates are unpredictable and can adversely affect builders. The point is that a brain is a kludgy evolving, complex organism, and at every moment every one of us is doing the absolute best we can with the operating system we have and the surrounding world we operate in. At any point in time our connection grid may or may not be up to interacting effectively with that world, which is huge and complex beyond what few of us can accurately imagine with the brains we have. There’s a joke neuroscientists think is pretty funny: “If the brain were so simple that we could understand it, then we’d be so simple that we couldn’t.”
How disadvantaged are we? Here’s what Johns Hopkins neuroscientist David Linden has to say about it:
All the information in your brain, from the sensation of smelling a rose, to the commands moving your arm to shoot pool, to that dream about going to school naked, are encoded by spike-firing in the sea of brain neurons, densely interconnected by synapses. Now that we have gained an overall understanding of electrical signaling in the brain, let’s consider the challenges the brain must confront as it tries to create mental function using a collection of less-than-optimal parts.
The first challenge is the limitation of the rate of spike-firing caused by the time it takes for voltage-sensitive sodium and potassium ions to open and close. As a result, individual neurons are typically limited to a maximal firing rate of about 200 spikes/ second (compared with 10 billion operations/ second for a modern desktop computer).
The second challenge is that axons are slow, leaky electrical conductors that typically propagate spikes at a relatively sedate 100 miles per hour (compared with electrical signals in a man-made electronic device moving at around 669 million miles per hour).
The third challenge is that once spikes have made it to the synaptic terminal, there is a high probability (about 70% on average) that the whole trip will have been in vain, and no neurotransmitters will be released. What a bum deal! These constraints may have been tolerable for the simple problems solved by the nervous system of a worm or a jellyfish, but for the human brain, the constraints imposed by (ancient) neuronal electrical function are considerable. The Accidental Mind, pps. 47-48
It’s this kludgy collection of parts thrown together in massive numbers through evolution that ends up with each of us doing the absolute very best that our neurobiology will allow at every moment in our lives. Unfortunately, the chaos and complexity of the world is often greater than our ability to deal; and all we can realistically do is lovably muddle. And there’s really no person, place or thing to blame. Only our brain.