Endless Curiosity

October 30, 2009

A Pilot and his Dog

Filed under: Uncategorized — Alec @ 7:50 am

Okay, a pilot and his/her dog, to be politically correct. Travel Insider has a lovely comment about the recent case of the two pilots overshooting their airport because they were, ahem, inattentive.

There is a probably fictitious account of certain airplane engineers who claim that all the cockpit crew needs to consist of is one pilot and a dog. The dog is there to bite the pilot if he touches anything and the pilot is there to feed the dog.

October 28, 2009

Half the population is below average intelligence

Filed under: Psychology, The Brain — Alec @ 10:32 pm

Whenever I come across some action or belief that seems really dumb, I console myself with the thought that half the population is below average* intelligence. Of course, it might be me that is being dumb by not recognizing the brilliance of that action or belief, but I prefer to think otherwise 🙂


October 27, 2009

Beliefs: The Halo Effect

Filed under: The Brain — Alec @ 7:50 am

We tend to ascribe good qualities to things we find attractive, and bad qualities to things we find unattractive. The former is the Halo Effect; the latter Gary Marcus terms the Pitchfork Effect. For example, we tend to think that good looking teachers are better teachers, we vote for people who look physically more competent, we buy things advertised by attractive people. And “study after study has shown that attractive people get better breaks in job interviews, promotions, admissions interviews, and so on.”


October 26, 2009

The Elderly are the Problem

Filed under: Economics, Politics — Alec @ 8:29 am

“We have met the enemy, and he is the future us.” –with apologies to Pogo

Yes, the elderly are the problem. Or at least one of the causes of the problems this country faces.


October 25, 2009

Beliefs: The Focusing Illusion

Filed under: The Brain — Alec @ 12:12 pm

As I said in yesterday’s post, I’ll give examples of the way our brains lead us astray with respect to our beliefs. Hopefully, dear reader, you will start to get an idea of how untrustworthy your beliefs are, and will be more able to question them. To get started, here’s an example of the Focusing Illusion, the way that we can make decisions based on information that is planted on us; i.e., an example of how easily we can be manipulated. Perhaps by politicians? This is from Kluge, page 44.


October 24, 2009


Filed under: The Brain — Alec @ 8:41 am

Belief is a fascinating thing. We believe things that to others are incomprehensible. We believe things with no evidence. We continue to believe things even when the facts say that we are wrong. The problem is that our brains have an old primitive part which works quickly and largely unconsciously, and a new, deliberative part that is slower and takes more effort to use.


October 20, 2009

Our Idiosyncratic Memories

Filed under: The Brain — Alec @ 8:02 am

Gary Marcus believes that our memory is the single factor most responsible for human cognitive idiosyncracy. And he gives plenty of examples. One interesting fact is that we are not very good at noticing even fairly large changes in the background of a photo we’ve seen. We apparently remember the gist of things, but not the details. Marcus refers to an amazing video called Person Swap that shows someone asking directions then swapping with someone else, and the person giving directions doesn’t even notice.

Memory and Context

Filed under: The Brain — Alec @ 7:48 am

The thing about context is that it is always with us – even when it’s not really relevant to what we are trying to remember. Carr’s experiments with rats, for instance, has a parallel with humans in a remarkable experiment with scuba divers. The divers were asked to memorize a list of words while underwater. Like the rats that needed electric light to perform well, the scuba divers were better at remembering the words they studied underwater when the were tested underwater (relative to being tested on land) – a fact that strikes this landlubber as truly amazing. Just about every time we remember anything, context looms in the background.

Kluge, page 24

Forget Afghanistan – let’s nation build in Mexico

Filed under: Politics — Alec @ 6:41 am

In the November issue of Harper’s Magazine, Andrew Bacevic has a fascinating article called The War We Can’t Win. In it he agrees with me! But seriously, he asks the question of why we care about Afghanistan, and wonders why there’s no debate on this question.


October 19, 2009

Our Imperfect Brains

Filed under: Psychology — Alec @ 8:12 am

The mind is inarguable impressive, a lot better than any available alternative. But it’s still flawed, often in ways we scarcely recognize. For the most part, we simply accept our faults – such as our emotional outbursts, our mediocre memories, and our vulnerability to prejudice – as standard equipment. Which is exactly why recognizing a kluge, and how it might be improved upon, sometimes requires thinking outside the box. The best science, like the best engineering, often comes from understanding not just how things are, but how else they could have been.

From Kluge, by Gary Marcus, page 4

Winning in Afghanistan

Filed under: Politics, Psychology, Republicans — Alec @ 8:06 am

Hawks believe we lost in Vietnam only because we didn’t commit enough troops; because the U.S. population chickened out. Hawks believe we can win in Iraq and Afghanistan if we just apply enough troops, and their big fear is that we will withdraw in unnecessary defeat.

The idea that we can create a new society if we only kill enough people has always been a siren song. But do we really want to rank ourselves with Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (killing one third of the population)? Or with Mao Tse Tung in China (who killed over 70 million people in the Cultural Revolution and The Great Leap Forward)? Or with Stalin in the Soviet Union (who killed over 50 million people in the purges and labor camps)?

I wonder if hawks ever stop to ponder how they and their fellow Americans would respond if the Chinese invaded us, hoping to impose the Chinese flavor of communism on us?

October 11, 2009

Updates to The Happiness Dance

Filed under: Psychology — Alec @ 2:53 pm

I’ve made a lot of changes to my book, The Happiness Dance, including many new pages. At some point I will hide the new pages so that they are only accessible from the main page, but for now they are accessible on the right, under The Happiness Dance. As always, I welcome feedback.

Our messy lives

Filed under: Life, Psychology, The Brain — Alec @ 6:45 am

There are only two things that can destroy a healthy man: love trouble, ambition, and financial catastrophe. And that’s already three things, and there are a lot more. — Peter Altenberg

I read that lovely quote in Clive James’ monumental Cultural Amnesia, and I liked it because it ties in so nicely with the paragraph from The Accidental Mind in my previous post, and it illustrates how messy life can be. After all, with a kludgy, cobbled-together brain, why would we think that life would be logical and easy? Anyone who has actually lived a life knows that it is messy and that we spend much of our time wading through the shades of gray, rarely finding clear answers and right ways to do things. Or, as Mencken said, “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem-neat, plausible, and wrong.

October 10, 2009

Overview of the Brain

Filed under: The Brain — Alec @ 7:46 am

This paragraph from page 3 of The Accidental Mind is a good overview of our brain and why it is so fascinating.

The brain is not elegantly designed by any means: it is a cobbled-together mess, which, amazingly, and in spite of its shortcomings, manages to perform a number of very impressive functions. But while its overall function is impressive, its design is not. More important, the quirky, inefficient, and bizarre plan of the brain and its constituent parts is fundamental to our human experience. The particular texture of our feelings, perceptions, and actions is derived, in large part, from the fact that the brain is not an optimized, generic problem-solving machine, but rather a weird agglomeration of ad hoc solutions that have accumulated throughout millions of years of evolutionary history.

About the Brain

Filed under: The Brain — Alec @ 7:38 am

Our brains fascinate me: the way they work, and the ways we use (and abuse) them and the ways they use us. So I’m going to post snippets about interesting (to me) aspects of the brain. When these snippets come from a book, I’ll give the book name and page number.

Backlash against inherited wealth

Filed under: Economics, Politics, Republicans — Alec @ 7:30 am

With unemployment so high and the dreams of many people crushed, I wonder if there will ever be a populist backlash against inherited wealth.


October 9, 2009

Why do Republicans diss our Military?

Filed under: Republicans — Alec @ 7:26 am

The mantra of the right is that government can do no right. Or, in the immortal words of Ronald Reagan, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”.

But I ask myself, what is the most respected institution in America? What institution do we believe is incomparably the best in the world? What institution do all politicians genuflect before?

The answer is the U.S. Military, a huge government run organization with layer upon layer of hierarchy, with massive potential for waste and fraud, and where people are rarely fired for incompetence.

So why do Republicans constantly talk about the inability of government to run programs well when they also believe our government-run Military is the finest in the world?

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