Endless Curiosity

April 29, 2011

A God of Manageable Size

Filed under: God, Life, Psychology — Alec @ 3:06 pm

My philosophical novel, A God of Manageable Size, is now available on Amazon. It looks lovely.  I’ve priced the book such that I will  make $0.00 on each copy sold – but I hope to make up for that in volume 🙂 . Tell all your family and friends and co-workers. Then buy the book – you won’t be making me rich, just happy.

Also, that’s it, I’m done, finished – no more work on The Happiness Dance – unless I change my mind. Read it, enjoy it, share it – or not.

I started on the Happiness project when books on happiness were all the rage and I joined the herd. Not being a professor or researcher in the field I needed something to differentiate The Happiness Dance, so I decided to go with a graphic-based approach rather than straight text. It’s been fun, I’ve done a lot of reading, learned a lot, changed a little, but now, if I never read another blog about happiness or life hacking again, it will be too soon.

Reading about people’s search for happiness simply gets depressing. Enough already. Just get on with life. As Eric Hoffer says, “the search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness“.

Or, as Eric Weiner says is his fun book, The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World, “Money matters, but less than we think and not in the way that we think. Family is important. So are friends. Envy is toxic. So is excessive thinking. Beaches are optional. Trust is not. Neither is gratitude.

If you are not convinced and want to read more books, here are some I recommend. In the meantime, I’m done with this book. No, I’m not going to try and get it published – it needs a lot more work for that – and I want to move onto other things.

July 20, 2010

Pleasure and Happiness

Filed under: Life, Psychology — Alec @ 6:08 am

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to anyone to learn that pleasure and happiness are not synonymous. Certainly eating delicious food, having a relaxing massage, or sensual lovemaking can leave one happy, but it’s only temporary, and anyway, we get used to it, we habituate.


July 13, 2010

The Rich are Happier and More Content

Filed under: Economics, Politics, Psychology — Alec @ 6:07 am

I got this title from Jeffrey Goldberg’s posting, where he adds:

I, for one, am breathing a sigh of relief that the rich are happy. I imagine you feel the same way. How could you not?


June 18, 2010

We Talk, They Act

Filed under: Economics, Politics, Psychology, Republicans — Alec @ 5:48 pm

I’ve blogged before about the ability of people to vote against their own interests, and after reading George Montbiot’s great article in the Guardian, I decided to write about it again. Montbiot has some interesting perspectives that are worth spending a few brain cells pondering.

The simple idea is that the right wing persuades people to fight for things that either don’t affect them, or indeed, harm them. Sample quote:

[The new conservatism] blames the troubles of the poor not on economic forces – corporate and class power, wage cuts, tax cuts, outsourcing – but on cultural forces…The anger of the excluded is aimed instead at gay marriage, abortion, swearing on television and latte-drinking, French-speaking liberals. The working-class American right votes for candidates who rail against cultural degradation, but what it gets when they take power is a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.


June 2, 2010

Behead them all

Filed under: Politics, Psychology — Alec @ 12:21 pm

This is a follow-up to my previous post about wasting a good crisis. The Department of the Interior has been corrupted, and Minerals Management Service is perhaps the most corrupt.

You may have heard of Sun Tzu, a Chinese military strategist who lived around 500 BCE and who wrote the classic book, The Art of War. This book got the attention of King Ho Lu who asked Sun Tzu if he could form the king’s concubines into an army. Sun Tzu said he could, and divided the concubines into two armies, each headed by one of the king’s favorite concubines.

When Sun Tzu gave orders, the concubines simply giggled and did not do as instructed. After a couple of attempts, Sun Tzu had the two favorite concubines beheaded. After that, all orders were followed quickly and accurately.

Of course, we can’t behead the people who run MMS, but Obama should fire those in charge while corruption reigned. Obama needs to get the attention of the people who are responsible for running the government departments and show them that it is no longer business as usual. And he needs to get the attention of the American people and show them that his administration is fixing things.

May 23, 2010

Religion and Morality

Filed under: God, Life, Psychology — Alec @ 5:34 am

I was reading an article called The New War Between Science and Religion, which starts with:

There is a new war between science and religion, rising from the ashes of the old one, which ended with the defeat of the anti-evolution forces in the 2005 “intelligent design” trial. …. The new war pits those who argue that science and “moderate” forms of religion are compatible worldviews against those who think they are not.

The former group, known as accommodationists…. suggest that there are deeply mysterious, spiritual domains of human experience, such as morality, mind, and consciousness, for which only religion can provide deep insights.

I don’t want to address the domains of mind and consciousness because I think that science will eventually give us answers. Morality is much more interesting because there’s no agreement on what is moral and immoral, and certainly religion (at least the Bible) doesn’t seem to provide good answers.


May 9, 2010

More about Writing

Filed under: Life, Psychology — Alec @ 7:05 am

Following on from yesterday’s post, Out of Sheer Rage, the second thing I remember from the panel, Writing-The Process, was Michael Stoff talking about how he liked to have two books or articles to work on because then he could procrastinate on the “most important” one by working on the other one. A lovely trick to help him avoid total procrastination. Writing is hard, and it helps to have tricks.

That reminds me, there was a third thing that I remember from the panel. One of the panelists quoted Gene Fowler: “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” Ha!


May 3, 2010

The world’s first third world first world country

Filed under: Economics, Life, Politics, Psychology — Alec @ 8:52 pm

These days it seems that we are slowly on the way to becoming the world’s first third world first world country. As I drive I notice more and more potholes in the roads, signs of a slow slide into the third world.


December 16, 2009

Liberals and Conservatives: Relics of the Past

Filed under: Politics, Psychology — Alec @ 3:59 pm

The battle lines have long been drawn between liberals and conservatives – or so myth would have it.


November 20, 2009

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Filed under: Life, Psychology — Alec @ 7:23 am

I’ve recently be learning about the stories we tell ourselves, and how we can throw away the stories that don’t work and create new stories that serve us better. As Srikumar Rao says, “What you don’t realize is that the life you are living is a reality. The mistake you are making is that you think it is the reality.”

Here’s a story:


November 9, 2009

The Licensing Effect and Climate Change

Filed under: Climate Change, Psychology — Alec @ 6:49 am

Have you ever heard of the Licensing Affect? Probably not, but here’s how a newspaper article describes it:

Researchers have found that, after doing something ethically sound, people are more – not less – likely to do something immoral, or even illegal.

The article is based on a 2006 study which shows that:

Most choices in the real world follow other choices or judgments. The authors show that a prior choice, which activates and boosts a positive self-concept, subsequently licenses the choice of a more self-indulgent option.


November 4, 2009

Carnage Often Ensues

Filed under: Life, Psychology, The Brain — Alec @ 8:38 am

Have you ever been in a situation where you or someone else seems to behave completely irrationally, making mountains out of molehills, logic and facts thrown to the winds? Sorry, of course you would never behave like this, but perhaps someone you know? Or if not, you only have to look at the political scene to see lots of such behavior. Here’s Kluge, page 156.

What occasionally allows normal people to spiral out of control is a witch’s brew of cognitive kluges: (1) the clumsy apparatus of self-control (which in the heat of the moment all too often gives the upper hand to our reflexive system); (2) the lunacy of confirmation bial (which convinces us that we are always right, or nearly so); (3) its evil twin, motivated reasoning (which leads us to protect our beliefs, even those beliefs that are dubious); and (4) the contextually driven nature of memory (such that when we’re angry at someone, we tend to remember other things about them that have made us angry in the past). In short, this leaves “hot” systems dominating cool reason; carnage often ensues.

November 3, 2009

Fear of Death?

Filed under: Climate Change, Psychology — Alec @ 12:30 pm

Most people don’t want to die. Although they don’t mind so much if other people die, as long as they are “other“. We’ll spend trillions to prevent another terrorist attack, but have no problem killing the millions we have killed in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. And we don’t mind that we’ve needlessly sent many more of our youth to their death than were killed in the 9/11 attack, because they volunteered, so that’s okay.

But that’s not my point here.


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 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.

September 29, 2009

Playthings of the Gods

Filed under: God, Psychology — Alec @ 6:50 am

I read Bill Maher’s article about our inability to get anything done. Here’s a quote from it:

That’s the ultimate sign of our lethargy: millions thrown out of their homes, tossed out of work, lost their life savings, retirements postponed – and they just take it. 30% interest on credit cards? It’s a good thing the Supreme Court legalized sodomy a few years ago.


September 9, 2009

Blind Spots and Cassandra

Filed under: Climate Change, Economics, Politics, Psychology — Alec @ 6:35 am

I watched a great 2008 documentary on Labor Day called Blind Spot. It’s about the problems we face as the production of oil starts to run down. The fascinating thing is how much we as a race don’t want to think about these problems. We ignore the problem, or we tell ourselves that technology will solve it. As one of the interviewees said, we should go to church, mosque, or synagogue if we want to rely on miracles.


September 8, 2009

Stimulating environments

Filed under: Psychology — Alec @ 1:08 pm

I’ve been reading Proust was a Neuroscientist, by Jonah Lehrer, and at one point he writes

Other scientists have discovered that antidepressants work by stimulating neurgenesis (at least in rodents), implying that depression is ultimately caused by a decrease in the amount of new neurons, and not by a lack of serotonin. A new class of anti-depressants is being developed that targets the neurogenesis pathway. For some reason, newborn brain cells make us happy.

What an intriguing idea.


August 21, 2009

America always does the right thing…

Filed under: Politics, Psychology — Alec @ 6:54 am

“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else” – Winston Churchill

Who knows what will happen with health care reform – after all, it took 20 years for Medicare to become a reality. In 1945 Harry Truman asked Congress for legislation establishing a national health insurance plan. Two decades of debate followed, with opponents warning of the dangers of “socialized medicine.” Sound familiar? Finally Medicare was signed into in law in 1965 by Lyndon Johnson as part of his Great Society.

Now Medicare is one of our favorite programs. As we’ve heard recently, even people against health-care reform are saying things like:

“I don’t want government-run health care. I don’t want socialized medicine. And don’t touch my Medicare.”


“Keep your government hands off my Medicare.”

As always, Churchill has another appropriate quote: “The biggest argument against democracy is a five minute discussion with the average voter.”

Maybe in another 20 years we’ll get real health care reform.

August 17, 2009

Democracy in Afghanistan :-)

Filed under: Politics, Psychology — Alec @ 11:22 am

Call me stupid, but I really don’t understand why Obama insists on staying in Afghanistan, and not just staying, but increasing our troop levels. What do we hope to achieve?


August 14, 2009

Saying becomes believing

Filed under: Psychology — Alec @ 7:04 am

There are many things about “the way things are” that I’m not happy with. But what can I do?


August 13, 2009

How depressing

Filed under: Politics, Psychology — Alec @ 1:18 pm

I just read Gail Collins’ article about people carrying guns to protests and rancorous town-hall meetings. What a scary thought – that someone who disagrees with me at a meeting might be carrying a gun. Democracy involves people feeling free to put forward their opinions – that’s what the First Amendment is partly about. Guns, on the other hand, intimidate people from putting forward their opinion and even from attending meetings. Ask any dictator.  Sometimes what I read is so depressing that I wish I hadn’t bothered reading.

July 3, 2009

Astounding Belief

Filed under: Economics, Psychology — Alec @ 10:52 am

Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.”

I just came across this quote from John Maynard Keynes, the hot economist-du-jour. I loved it because it ties in so nicely – and thus validates 😀 – my February posting about the Market and Invisible Hand.

Why people believe that The Market will cure all ills and solve all problems is beyond me. On the other hand, perhaps no one really believes that. Perhaps Market Believers just believe that the Market will give results that are beneficial to them, the rest of society/the people/the world be damned.

June 9, 2009

Libertarians are Pussies

Filed under: Economics, Psychology — Alec @ 7:21 am

I’ve always thought of myself as a bleeding-heart liberal, but recently have changed my mind. Now I think that even Libertarians are wimps and pussies.

Why? Because they believe we have rights.


May 1, 2009

Vicarious Goal Fulfillment

Filed under: Psychology — Alec @ 1:00 pm

There’s some fascinating research about how we pick the worst food options when there is a good option available. It’s as though we satisfy our virtuous goals by simply having a virtuous option available, even though we don’t pick it! Then, having satisfied our virtuous goals, we indulge in the least healthy choice. What strange brains we have. Logical they most definitely aren’t.

Here’s a shorter article about the research, and here’s a longer version.

I’d love to see research on areas of life other than food, and to learn ways that we can use this weirdness of our brains to benefit us. Any ideas?

April 17, 2009

Surviving Uncertainty

Filed under: Psychology — Alec @ 7:12 am

There’s a wonderful free e-book (pdf format) available from the web site No Map. No Guide. No Limits.

The book is called Surviving Uncertainty: Taking a Hero’s Journey, and you can download it for free. If you want more information, this page describes the book and the motivation for creating it. It’s 102 pages long but is a much quicker read than this implies because the font is large and the lines are well-spaced. I copied the whole thing into a Word document with an 11 point Calibri font and it was 26 pages.

The only drawback to downloading the book is that for some reason you have to provide an email address. If you prefer not to give out your email address, you can read or download the book here.

April 16, 2009

Hit by a bus on Wall Street

Filed under: Economics, Psychology — Alec @ 4:23 pm

There’s a great article in The Atlantic Monthly about how the financial crisis has affected the writer. The thing that caught my eye was when he talked about how there seems to be an air of passivity and resignation among the public, one that I completely relate to.


March 2, 2009

What is truth said Pontius Pilate

Filed under: Psychology — Alec @ 6:05 am

What is truth said Pontius Pilate and would not wait for an answer.

Something about the concept of truth must be playing around in my mind. On Friday I saw the Clive Owen thriller, The International, and on Saturday I saw a play called The Visitor. Great play by the way, playing at the Miners Alley Playhouse in Golden, and well worth seeing.


February 9, 2009

Info Porn – Information as Entertainment

Filed under: Psychology — Alec @ 9:01 pm

If you are like me, you find all sorts of ways to waste time on the Internet. I usually throw my newspapers away unread, but can spend huge amounts of time online, reading news, and especially reading blogs. The trouble is that information isn’t knowledge, and it certainly isn’t wisdom. And when you spend lots of time on the Internet, it’s often information as entertainment. Or in my case, information as avoidance 🙂


For those days when life seems overwhelming

Filed under: Psychology — Alec @ 9:00 pm

If you’ve ever felt that you have it tough,  that life has dealt you a bad hand, watch this video. It’s absolutely incredible. Some of the kids in the audience had tears in their eyes – so did I.

February 6, 2009

More on children and marriage

Filed under: Psychology — Alec @ 6:37 am

It seems that research on how children affect marriages is all the rage these days. A previous post of mine talked about Children and Marital Satisfaction. Now there’s a new article in the NY Times about the happiness of the married couples. Money quote:

Couples need time alone to renew their relationship. They also need to sustain supportive networks of friends and family. Couples who don’t, investing too much in their children and not enough in their marriage, may find that when the demands of child-rearing cease to organize their lives, they cannot recover the relationship that made them want to have children together in the first place.

January 28, 2009

Children and Marital Satisfaction

Filed under: Psychology — Alec @ 7:30 am

I saw this great play, Rabbit Hole, at the Curious Theater in Denver. It’s about a couple who lost their 4-year-old son, and how they deal with his death. It’s moving, funny, and wonderfully acted, and is on until February 14th. See it.

As the program says, “While death is common to all life on Earth, experts on grieving agree the death of a child is the most wrenching and devastating event, and produces the most intense grief.” One fascinating thing about human psychology is how localized that feeling is. We feel intense grief if it’s our child who has died, but nothing close to that if it’s someone else’s child. So despite the fact that we are all very much alike and all parents feel the same over the loss of their children, we have no problem with children being killed in Iraq or Gaza or pretty much anywhere.

But all that is really just an introduction to what I really wanted to write about, which is all the research that shows the the happiness level of couples drops when they have their first child, and only returns to pre-child levels when all the children have left home.

“Indeed, one of the more uncomfortable findings of the scientific study of marriage is the negative effect children can have on previously happy relationships. Despite the popular notion that children bring couples closer, several studies have shown that marital satisfaction and happiness typically plummet with the arrival of the first baby.”

Of course, most couples don’t want to believe this, and often cite examples of transcendental moments with their children. What these memories of the great moments ignore is the times between those moments, when the couples were stressed, resentful, or angry with each other or the children. Here’s the article.

January 27, 2009

Good Enough is the new Perfect

Filed under: Psychology — Alec @ 6:39 am

As the saying goes, there are three types of people, those who can count, and those who can’t. Okay, that was a joke, because according to Barry Schwartz there are two types of people, satisficers and maximizers (although I prefer the term used by some people, sufficers, rather than the awkward satisficers). Schwartz is well known for his book, The Paradox of Choice, and here’s a video of him talking on this subject at TED (you can also download the video there). In an interview about his book, he responded to the question, “What can customers do to avoid the paradox of choice?” with the following answer:

Most importantly, learn that “good enough is good enough.” It’s what I call “satisficing” in the book. You don’t need the best; probably never do. On rare occasions it’s worth struggling to find the best. But generally it makes life simpler if you settle with “good enough.” You don’t have to make an exhaustive search – just until you find something that meets your standards, which could be high. But the only way to find the absolute best is to look at ALL the possibilities. And in that case you’ll either give up, or if you choose one, you’ll be nagged by the possibility that you may have found something better. We have evidence about this, by the way. People who are out to find the very best job (“maximizers”) feel worse than people who settle for good enough. We’ve tracked them through and after college. Maximizers did better financially – they found starting salaries that paid $7,000 more than satisficers’ starting salary. But by every other measure – depression, stress, anxiety, satisfaction with their job – maximizers felt worse.

January 26, 2009

How I deal with mental breakdowns

Filed under: Psychology — Alec @ 8:15 am

You’re concerned? Oh, I get it, you think this post is about me. Well, thank you for your concern, but while I share the human condition and have had my share of suffering, boredom, sadness, feeling overwhelmed, loneliness, depression, elation, happiness, joy, and everything in between, I’ve not yet had a mental breakdown.

No, this is a posting I came across purely by chance. Here are a couple of sentences from the introduction: “This blog entry from Rayne’s World, I think, is indisputably my favorite blog post of all times from any blog anywhere. It is certainly the most profoundly meaningful and memorable to me.”

When I read that I decided to link to the article – although I do wonder about that juxtaposition of “I think” and “is indisputably” 🙂

Update: after reading my last sentence, the author has slightly modified her article – see the comment!

January 25, 2009

What Do Women Want?

Filed under: Psychology — Alec @ 11:48 am

There’s a fascinating article in the NY Times called What Do Women Want?

It has no easy answers because there aren’t any, but one of the fascinating points (to me at least) was the idea that women’s sexual desire is driven by a sense of narcissism, by needing to be desired and to be the object of sexual craving. Here are some excerpts about this need.

The problem was how to augment desire, and despite prevailing wisdom, the answer, she told me, had “little to do with building better relationships,” with fostering communication between patients and their partners. She rolled her eyes at such niceties. She recalled a patient whose lover was thoroughly empathetic and asked frequently during lovemaking, “ ‘Is this O.K.?’ Which was very unarousing to her. It was loving, but there was no oomph” — no urgency emanating from the man, no sign that his craving of the patient was beyond control.

“Female desire,” Meana said, … “is not governed by the relational factors that, we like to think, rule women’s sexuality as opposed to men’s.” … Although bad relationships often kill desire, she argued, good ones don’t guarantee it.

The generally accepted therapeutic notion that, for women, incubating intimacy leads to better sex is, Meana told me, often misguided. “Really,” she said, “women’s desire is not relational, it’s narcissistic” — it is dominated by the yearnings of “self-love,” by the wish to be the object of erotic admiration and sexual need.

For evolutionary and cultural reasons, she said, women might set a high value on the closeness and longevity of relationships: “But it’s wrong to think that because relationships are what women choose they’re the primary source of women’s desire.”

And within a committed relationship, the crucial stimulus of being desired decreases considerably, not only because the woman’s partner loses a degree of interest but also, more important, because the woman feels that her partner is trapped, that a choice — the choosing of her — is no longer being carried out.

January 4, 2009

The insights of novelists

Filed under: Psychology — Alec @ 8:55 am

I sometimes think that novelists have a better grasp of politics and power than do politicians themselves. Here are a few paragraphs from Infinity Beach by Jack McDevitt. Just thought you might like to know. Note that the book was published in February 2001 and so these paragraphs are not a criticism of the Bush Administration, even though it might feel that way.

“Never look for complexity in diplomatic decisions. With very few exceptions, actions always devolve – and that’s the exact term – from someone’s self interest. Not the national self-interest, by the way. We are talking here about individual careers.”

“There is an inverse correlation between the amount of power a person has and the level at which his or her mind functions. A person of ordinary intelligence who acquires power, of whatever kind, tends to develop an exaggerated view of his own capabilities. Sycophants gather. There is little of no criticism of decisions. As his ability to disrupt the lives of others advances, these tendencies become stronger. Eventually you end with Louis the Fourteenth, who thinks he’s done a good job for France, although the country he left behind was ruined.”

“Shleyel had always maintained that few actions are driven by reason. People act out of emotion, perception, prejudice. They will believe what they’ve always believed, filtering out all evidence to the contrary. Until they go too far and run into the rocks of reality.”

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