Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for October 2nd, 2010

The evolutionary advantage of happiness

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Extremely intriguing article by Dan Jones in New Scientist:

Doom and gloom are the order of the day across most of the western world. Economies are faltering, the cost of living is going up and many people’s real income is falling. For some, unemployment is a reality now or in the near future. If the pursuit of happiness is supposed to be one of our goals, prospects appear bleak.

Take a closer look, and it isn’t that simple. In fact, economic hard times have little impact on how happy most people feel. Indeed, it would appear that we humans are built to experience happiness, and understanding why is helping us work out what enhances our feelings of well-being. It even points to ways we can adapt to cope with the hardships the recession may bring, and keep smiling whatever happens.

One thing that is clear is that once life’s basics are paid for, the power of money to bring happiness is limited. In fact, it can be positively harmful to our sense of well-being. Jordi Quoidbach of the University of Liège, Belgium, and colleagues recently asked a group of people to taste a piece of chocolate in their laboratory. They found that the wealthier members of the group spent less time savouring the experience, and reported enjoying the chocolate less than the subjects who weren’t so well off. The same was also true of one group in a separate experiment. This time, half the people had been primed with images of money before they tasted the chocolate. These participants enjoyed the tasting less than a group who had not seen the images, suggesting that just the thought of money is enough to stem our enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures (Psychological Science, vol 21, p 759).

So just what is it that makes us happy? Happiness can take the form of many different positive emotions (See “Happiness is…”), and some hints of what makes us happy may come from work that questions why these emotions first evolved. The answer isn’t as obvious as it is in the case of negative emotions. These are clearly beneficial in the rough and tumble of survival: anger readies us to fight an opponent, fear makes us run away from danger, and disgust steers us away from contaminated foods and other sources of infection. Although there is no shortage of evidence that feelings of pleasure – obtained by finding a tasty meal or a sexy mate, for example – are important in rewarding and consolidating beneficial behaviours, it is harder to explain how the more diffuse positive emotions such as awe, hope or gratitude evolved.

This troubled psychologist Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, so she started looking for evolutionary benefits that pleasure might confer. “I thought there must be more to it than this,” she recalls…

Continue reading, it’s just getting good. And, given the relatively large payoffs from experiencing happiness and other positive emotions, it makes sense to deliberately and systematically develop ways to provide the best chances for that happiness. The article includes a sidebar:

Mood boosters

  • Dispute negative thinking. This is a technique borrowed from cognitive behavioural therapy, in which you catch negative thoughts as they arise and ask: “Is there really reason to think like this? Can I reframe this in a more positive way?”
  • Meditate. Barbara Fredrickson and colleagues have shown that meditation can relax both your body and your mind, with many beneficial effects for well-being and happiness (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol 95, p 1045). It’s not easy, however, and you may need some training before you get going.
  • Nurture meaningful relationships with family and friends. More than simply improving your well-being, it might just save your life. “Social resources and ties to groups are one of the key buffers protecting us against unhappiness,” says Fredrickson. A recent meta-analysis of 148 studies on links between the quantity and quality of social relationships and mortality suggests that being socially isolated is about as bad for your health as smoking or drinking excessively, and worse than being obese (PLoS Medicine, vol 7, p e10000316).
  • Beware consumerism. Buying more possessions won’t make you as happy as spending money on social activities or new and exciting experiences (The Journal of Positive Psychology, vol 4, p 511).

    I wonder how many who read the above decide to give some of the above techniques a try to see what happens.

    Written by Leisureguy

    2 October 2010 at 6:14 pm

    Intriguing movie

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    I do love a good “talk” movie (e.g., My Dinner With Andre—come to think of it, about time to watch that again), and I’m watching an extremely interesting one: Waking Life. The Netflix blurb:

    Director Richard Linklater’s mesmerizing animated film follows a young man (Wiley Wiggins) as he floats in and out of philosophical discussions with a succession of eccentrics and passionate thinkers, all the while uncertain whether he’s conscious or dreaming. Thanks to each character’s oddball charm, the ethereal conversation is as dynamic as the animation, resulting in an innovative film that is by turns droll, disturbing, and provocative.

    UPDATE: Just finished it—loved it! And I particularly liked the music—I sat through the entire end credits just to listen to the music. What style would you call that?

    Written by Leisureguy

    2 October 2010 at 4:42 pm

    Posted in Daily life, Movies & TV

    Outing report, part deux: The Photos

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    First stop was a fabric store I had spotted on an earlier trip. I thought The Wife would be interested—and she was, since (she says) most fabric stores have sort of given up the game and sell only quilting fabric. This store, though, was a real fabric store and in looking at all the possibilities, I thought that everyone should learn to sew.

    This fabric, for example, would make a fine tie, a good blouse, etc. (For all photos, CTE.)

    And The Wife liked this one, except (she commented) the map is inaccurate, a comment that cracked me up.

    We saw some cool stuff in our walk along Pacific Garden Mall. This carved watermelon, for example, in front of a Thai restaurant that we’ll try on our next trip:

    Here are a couple of displays in the store Bead-It. (Bead stores, like hair salons, strive for puns in the name.) First, bead pies:

    Next, bead sushi:

    Very pleasant outing. And we went home as soon as we felt like it, always a big plus (and why we don’t like parties on boats).

    Written by Leisureguy

    2 October 2010 at 3:30 pm

    Posted in Daily life

    The Feather Premium

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    A very nice razor, and I do like this photo. CTE, as always:

    Written by Leisureguy

    2 October 2010 at 3:05 pm

    Posted in Shaving

    Outing report

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    Very nice outing. We had lunch at Gabriella’s, very tasty indeed. I had a green bean & shrimp salad with red onion, cucumbers, and a great dressing. The Wife had a very tasty green salad. Then I made the mistake of walking across the street to a local ice-cream parlor with their handmade ice cream. I tasted the Fig Leaf flavor and had one scoop. Oh, boy, what a mistake. I don’t think I can eat food that rich any more. Very uncomfortable and I think I’ll have a nice big glass of ice water for dinner.

    Then we wandered a bit down Pacific Garden Mall and went into The Vault, an upscale jewelry store that also has a nice selection of William Henry knives. I have a fairly large collection of WH knives that I accumulated when Matt had his workshop just down the street from where I worked in Santa Cruz. He’s since moved his operation to Oregon and gone pretty upscale, though his knives were always extremely good. And he now makes fountain pens, money clips, and other stuff. Take a look. He has worked steadily and it shows: the quality and ideas have improved significantly, and his quality was always excellent. The locking mechanism on the pocket knives is much improved.

    He seems to have observed that most of us open and close our knives and pens more than we use them—and opening and closing are significant actions since they are the first and final steps in using the tool. He has thus devoted considerable though, effort, and design to make the opening and closing superlative experiences, or so it seems to me: opening one of his knives are pens is a distinct and noticeable pleasure, and the same is true of the closing. The experience of the knife/pen is thus framed between two excellent experiences, which cannot help but improve the overall customer experience. Very impressive.

    While I knife-shopped, The Wife got acquainted with a very cute and tiny dog. Talking with the owner was illuminating. (We’re not dog people, so this knowledge was new.) First, if you convince your dog that you are the alpha member of the pack, you have few problems, but if you spoil the dog and the dog feels that it is the alpha dog, you have lots of problems—not only with behavior, but an alpha dog feels free to run away, while a beta dog sticks to home and his/her alpha master.

    Also, the very small dogs were bred to be companions, which the large dogs are bred to work. Thus large dogs get antsy if they don’t have work and start chewing things, etc. Small dogs are quite happy—so long as they have a companion. But if you leave the small dog alone, you get problems there, too: a companion dog wants/needs its companion.

    Written by Leisureguy

    2 October 2010 at 2:51 pm

    Posted in Daily life

    Compare and contrast

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    A stunning contrast:

    1. A well-educated, well-compensated professor at a major university

    2. A 48-year-old guy working as a dishwasher at a crab shack in Florida

    Brad DeLong’s response to 1 here and Michael O’Hare’s response here.

    There. That’ll keep you busy (and amazed).

    Written by Leisureguy

    2 October 2010 at 9:26 am

    Posted in Daily life

    This is your brain on war

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    Barry Eisler has a new post well worth reading—and while I’m at it, let me recommend his series of thrillers: top-notch. His post begins:

    Andrew Sullivan’s defense of President Obama’s claimed power to have American citizens assassinated nicely reveals much of the illogic behind, and many of the dangers inherent in, America’s Forever War. Let’s examine it point by point.

    1. Assassination of American citizens, even if arguably extreme, has only been ordered applied, so far as we know, to four individuals.

    When the government attempts to claim some controversial power, it tends to establish the alleged principle behind that power through the facts most convenient for its case. It’s no coincidence, therefore, that the government has used Anwar al-Awlaki, whose name and face are a perfect fit for the popular image of Scary Foreign Terrorist, to make its case for a presidential assassination power. From a public relations perspective, it would have been more difficult to establish the power through the announcement of the impending assassination of someone named, say, Mike Miller, a white Christian. For the same reason, Jose Padilla was a good choicefor the test case the Bush administration used to establish its power to arrest American citizens on American soil, hold them incommunicado in military facilities, and try them in military commissions. Similarly, the CIA was careful to introduce the news about its torture tapes with a low number — just two or three — and then, once the principle of the tapes had been established in the public mind, to mention the real (as far as we know) number, which was ninety-two.

    Imagine you’re a top West Wing spinmeister discussing how to recruit influence-makers into supporting the president’s power to assassinate American citizens. Would you claim the power as broadly as possible, right up front? Or would you soft-pedal it, by initially attaching the power to one man with a dark beard and a scary-sounding name? The answer is obvious. Then, later, once the principle has been established, you can use it more expansively, knowing the influence-makers will have a hard time reversing themselves because, after all, they’ve already supported the principle, and knowing that the public will go along because now it’s been properly inoculated against the shock of a full-blown admission.

    But even leaving all that aside, the "but it was done to only a few people" argument is pretty weak. The acceptability of government conduct ought to turn on its legality, not on how many people were subjected to it. Presumably Sullivan wouldn’t offer this defense of government conduct if the conduct in question had been torture, though of course this was a primary Bush administration defense of its torture regimen — that only three people were waterboarded.

    2. . . .

    Continue reading.

    Written by Leisureguy

    2 October 2010 at 9:15 am

    Right-wing militias

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    Joe Conason in

    When exploiting public fear of Islam, as so many Republicans have chosen to do in this election cycle, a favorite tactic is to treat "American Muslim" as a synonym for "homegrown terrorist." But the threat of jihadi attack is not the only form of violent extremism that worries law enforcement officials. According to an extensive investigation by Barton Gellman posted Thursday on the Time magazine website, they are deeply concerned about the growing prospect of violence from the far right.

    Last spring, conservatives angrily denounced a Department of Homeland Security study of the violent potential of the revived militia movement as a political abuse by the Obama administration — and forced DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano as well as the White House to back away from the report. But Gellman’s reporting shows that top officials at the FBI and other agencies are in fact deeply concerned over that possibility. While they don’t expect a mass militia assault on Washington or on federal officials in the countryside, they worry about what a deranged loner, armed and trained by a militia group, might do when he becomes impatient waiting for the right-wing revolution. As they listen to the furious rhetoric emanating from organizations such as the Ohio Defense Force, they search nervously for any sign of the next Timothy McVeigh.

    A former Washington Post reporter who twice won the Pulitzer Prize, Gellman is now a senior fellow at New York University’s Center for Law and Security, focusing on issues of domestic terrorism. His Time investigation reveals deeply troubling and previously unreported details of some recent incidents of right-wing terror, including neo-Nazi James von Brunn’s assault on the Smithsonian in Washington and an attempted "dirty bomb" plot that almost came to fruition.

    Gellman’s sources say that von Brunn, who murdered security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns on June 10, 2009, with a rifle shot, was actually planning to kill White House political advisor David Axelrod — a "seismic political event" that came close to occurring. Much as von Brunn hated the president, he viewed Axelrod, who is Jewish, as a symbol of the Jewish conspiracy he believed to be controlling Obama. Although federal officials never disclosed von Brunn’s real plans, they quickly arranged a Secret Service detail for Axelrod.

    Gellman also delves into the plot by a Maine-based neo-Nazi named James Cummings, who liked to dress up in a Gestapo trench coat, to detonate a device filled with deadly radioactive material using plastic explosive, in hopes of killing Obama before his inauguration. Unlike Jose Padilla, the Islamist and former Chicago gang member once accused of plotting to build a dirty bomb, Cummings actually had access to millions of dollars and significant amounts of thorium, cesium and uranium. He planned to bring a dirty bomb hidden in a motor home to Washington to kill Obama and perhaps hundreds of bystanders.

    Fortunately for the president and the country, if not for his wife, Cummings was a chronic domestic abuser as well as an insane traitor. Tired of being beaten and threatened by him, she shot Cummings dead on Dec. 9, 2008, before he could execute his scheme.

    Said a Maine police detective who investigated the shooting, and came to believe that Cummings could have mounted a major terrorist attack: "If she didn’t do what she did, maybe we would know Mr. Cummings a lot better than we do right now."

    Written by Leisureguy

    2 October 2010 at 9:07 am

    Posted in Daily life, GOP, Terrorism

    The FBI is getting out of control

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    Too many violations of the law within the FBI, and too much reluctance to curb their authoritarian impulses. Here’s a report from Dan Burns of the Minnesota Progressive Project:

    Last Friday morning, FBI agents raided the homes, and an office, of some Twin Cities peace activists.  Nobody was arrested, but grand jury subpoenas were issued.  Raids were also conducted, and/or subpoenas issued, in Chicago and elsewhere.

    First, if you haven’t already seen it, please review this diary, by regular MnPP contributor Curmudgeon.

    This post is primarily about informed speculation as to the real motives of law enforcement in this. It is possible that at least some of the people and organizations targeted really have seriously broken, or were planning to seriously break, the law.  But given that nobody was arrested, and nobody targeted seems to have a history as the type that could reasonably be regarded as posing a serious "terrorist threat," I think that those of us that suspect far less noble and worthwhile motives on the part of "The Bureau" are not lacking in justification. And that’s about as "fair and balanced" as I’m prepared to be.  If you don’t agree with me that this whole thing has all the trappings of an egregious, self-serving, vicious stunt (though of course it’s also deeply disturbing, in numerous ways), you may not wish to keep reading.

    So what do you suppose that the FBI and its associates are really up to?

    1. Nowadays, it apparently doesn’t take much to be considered a threat, according to our great nation’s highest court.  From the Minnesota Independent article linked at the top of this diary:

    Peter Erlinder, the controversial William Mitchell College of Law professor and a longtime Anti-War Committee member, told the media that the committee was being targeted under an expanded definition of what constitutes "material support for terrorism," upheld by a recent US Supreme Court decision. The Humanitarian Law Project v. Holder case, he said, confirmed that a US citizen could be prosecuted for even offering legal counsel to a member of a group labeled as a terrorist organization by the State Department. He suggested that the Anti-War Committee’s fact-finding meetings with Palestinian and Colombian dissidents may have opened themselves up to these raids under the loose guidelines.

    In other words, the grossly politicized farce that is the United States Supreme Court, strikes again.

    Harassment, intimidation, and far worse, for those who don’t care to toe the line, is a long and contemptible practice among twisted powermongers, throughout human history.  (If you read the linked post, be sure to get to the update, about CNN coverage. Though don’t neglect the part about the agents confiscating a photo of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

    3. Given that peace activist Coleen Rowley used to work for the FBI, I do believe that her commentary is highly relevant.  She covers a lot of ground, but I’d like to highlight this, as another motive:

    But perhaps what is more important here than a "let’s make work on a slow day" is the perverse career incentives that serve to pressure FBI counter-terrorism agents to produce "stats" (statistics). An agent gains "stats" for serving subpoenas, national security letters for records, executing search warrants, contacting confidential sources, etc., whether or not any relevant evidence is obtained via this "work" and whether or not it leads to prosecution or preventing a crime. It is a well known fact that nearly 1,000 people were rounded up and detained (mostly in New York City) immediately after 9-11. None of those detained were ever identified as "terrorists" but that’s when these career enhancing "stats" began to be awarded for each detention, arrest, subpoena, search warrant, etc.

    FBI Director Robert Mueller was nominated, in July 2001, by then-President George W. Bush. And confirmed by the Senate 98-0. He’s rarely been hesitant to "push the envelope."

    And, especially since 9/11, few elected officials have dared to stand up to apparent misbehavior, to say the least, on the part of those ostensibly charged with "protecting" us against the unholy forces of evil. Go back and look at the photo at the top of the Minnesota Independent post. No wonder the reactionaries are terrified, and anything goes. 

    Written by Leisureguy

    2 October 2010 at 8:36 am

    Frank brush, second use

    with 2 comments

    This time I used the Frank brush with Dovo shaving soap, a good latherer. But again, at the third pass, the lather in the brush was thin and sparse. Weird. It is a badger shaving brush and should work like one. I was sufficiently nonplussed to take my Rooney Style 2 Finest and try it. I easily got 4 passes of good lather and rinsed it out at that point.

    I don’t understand this. Maybe it’s me, but then I was able to get good, copious lather from the Rooney. I’ll have to mark this a shaving mystery and continue to use the Frank brush from time to time to see whether things improve. But I would now not recommend this as a beginner brush. The Omega 643167 (they really need a catchier name) remains my recommendation.

    Still, by returning to the soap, I had plenty of lather for all three passes. I decided to use the Gillette Toggle this morning after reading this post and learning that its blade adjustment is not like that of the Fat Boy. I loaded a new Schick Platinum Plus blade and after three passes enjoyed a perfect shave.

    A splash of Pashana and I’m ready for our outing: we’re going up to Santa Cruz today to poke around.

    Written by Leisureguy

    2 October 2010 at 8:07 am

    Posted in Shaving

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