The Casual Blog

Tag: Daniel Kahneman

New resolutions and my latest green smoothie

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I have a soft spot for New Year’s resolutions. It’s generally a good thing from time to time to think about where we are versus where we want to go. Few, if any, of us that are fully optimized. At the same time, there’s never any shortage of small feasible steps we could take to make our lives better.

But personal self-improvement resolutions usually don’t get the job done. A prime example is our most visible, common, and serious public health problem: obesity. There’s no great mystery what needs to be done (eat less and exercise more), and most of us who aren’t naturally optimized for body mass know that much perfectly well. Nevertheless, each year the incidence of obesity is about the same or worse, and the over all trend in the last thirty years is worse and worse.

Plainly this is not a simple problem with an easy solution, or we would have solved it. But part of the reason we can’t successfully address obesity and other serious behavioral problems is our poor understanding about how our own minds work — that is, our own impulses and motivations. As regular readers know, I’ve been learning more about this in the last couple of years from reading Daniel Kahneman, Michael Gazziniga, Jonathan Haidt, John Brooks, and Edward O. Wilson, and I’m currently reading Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. In addition to being inherently fascinating, these books have provided insights into life’s persistent problems, like over eating.

One of my main takeaways from these psychologists, biologists, and critics is that our reasoning processes, which seem at times so powerful and impressive, will get us only so far, and if we want to change behavior and minimize bad decisions we need other tools and tricks. Charles Duhigg’s book on habits and how to change them, which I wrote about recently, is a good signpost on this. If we understand our behavior in terms of the interaction of our emotional needs and our environment, we can experiment with changes.

But we may as well admit that eating is especially complicated. I’ve long been convinced that what we eat is a major component of how healthy we are and can expect in future to be. I try to keep up with current thinking about nutrition. Over the course of several years, I’ve developed a repertoire of habits that help me avoid most unhealthy foods and consume mostly things that have nutritional value.

But even so, I managed to pick up five pounds over the holidays. How did this happen? It was little things. Christmas parties and more restaurant meals, colleagues bringing to work delicious cookies that had to be sampled, and old friends sending gift baskets of treats. The combination of sweet things and childhood Christmas memories overwhelms all the circuits, and extra food is inserted in mouth, chewed, and swallowed. Of course, it was momentarily delightful, but it is so much harder to take the lbs off than to put them on.

Each year around January 2 we leave the land of the sweets and other excesses and things return to normal. New resolutions are made. Regarding eating, I’m trying some new ingredients in my breakfast green smoothies (pictured here and previously described here), including in various blendings, along with greens and fruit, hemp protein powder, marine phytoplankton, cacao nibs, and goji berries. It’s fun to mix a superdrink (as in superhero), and rewarding to be able to do something fabulously good for the body. I try to make it a point each day to be grateful for such good fortune.
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Upfitting my new Android phone and thinking more about accelerating technological change

This week I got my new Android smartphone upfitted with my email accounts and a variety of apps. I’d been reluctant to give up my old smartphone partly because of the investment, both in money and effort, of apps, but on reflection I realized that a good many of the apps I’d previously downloaded were seldom or never used. The move to the Galaxy was sort of like moving to a new apartment — a good opportunity for some app house cleaning.

I easily and with little expense replaced those things that were useful, like internet searching, weather reports, navigation, travel support, news, and music. I got my most used apps organized in folders that I could quickly get to. I installed personalized wallpaper (our dog Stuart). Everything seems to work fine, with the exception of the voice activated search feature, which is not ready for prime time.

Through clumsiness, I dropped the device a couple of times in the first few days, fortunately without causing damage. This provided some proof of its durability and toughness, but also served as a reminder that devices are not immortal. I ordered a Seido case for protection, which fits well and looks good. It has a neat little kickstand on the back.

I’ve been reading The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future, by Martin Ford. Like Brynjolfsson and McAfee, Ford starts with the premise that technology is developing at an ever-accelerating rate, and examines the economic implications of that development. As our machines get smarter and smarter, they will replace people in more and more jobs. At some point, the kinds of jobs that most people do will be taken over by the machines. Those people who’ve become redundant will not be able to earn an income, and so will not be able to buy goods and services, and their numbers will continue to grow. Producers of goods and services will eventually have no markets. Then the economy collapses. Q.E.D.

Ford thinks there is a possibility of avoiding economic meltdown, but he thinks that will require dramatic shifts in the economic order. To continue production, we’ll have to find a way to sustain consumption. Ford’s solution involves taxation of producers to redistribute wealth to consumers. He suggests that we think about a system where supplemental incomes is distributed to sustain the cycle of production and consumption. In this vision, the individual’s primary contribution is as a consumer, rather than a producer. Production is done by the machines.

I came upon a lengthy essay by Marshall Brain on this same subject titled Robotic Nation, which is well worth reading. Like Ford, Brain accepts the premise that Moore’s law and its corollaries are leading inexorably towards computers so powerful that they will render a great many human workers redundant. To address the problem of economic meltdown, Brain has proposed a concrete solution: the government pays $25,000 to every citizen. He sets out a variety of ways this could be financed, from selling advertising to a smorgasbord of taxes.

Assuming Brain and Ford are correct and we manage to avoid economic collapse, the question I keep coming back to is what are humans going to do once they’re obsolete as economic producers? How are they going to find meaning and joy?

I’d like to think that when robots have taken over most of the world’s work, people who get Brain’s $25,000 payments would devote themselves to communities and caring for others, exploring the mysteries of the physical universe with science, creating aesthetic wonder with the fine arts, expressing their physical energy in competition and travel, appreciating the delights of the world of the senses, and otherwise expanding and expressing their creative powers. But I have some concern that they might just watch more TV and eat more junk food. Think of WALL-E, the touching and intelligent animated Pixar movie about the eponymous robot, and the degenerate blobby humans in his world.

To avoid massive blobbiness, we’ll need to revise and expand our value systems. Fortunately, that’s something that we can get started on without a major political reform or expenditure of funds. Even if the robot-driven future never arrives, it would be a worthwhile project, since there’s a certain amount of blobbiness already.

The place where I’d begin is with a deeper understanding of how our brains function, how human communities function, and how our systems of values and morality currently work. There’s a lot of exciting cross-disciplinary work being done, and I’ve written about some of it in the last few months (including on books by Jonathan Haidt,Michael Gazzaniga, Daniel Kahneman and E.O Wilson). I’m on the lookout for more.

Climate changing and improving decision-making

It was unseasonably warm this week in central North Carolina. Some daffodils and forsythia are starting to bloom. They’re beautiful, of course, but there’s something that doesn’t feel right. They’re not supposed to be here for another month or so. It’s hard not to think about climate change (a/k/a global warming) and be worried.

At least, hard for some of us. There’s a vocal minority of climate change-deniers that somehow keep grabbing the spotlight and the microphone. They create enough of a stir to prevent any serious political discourse on the most serious global environmental problem humankind has ever faced. It’s bizarre.

Yesterday’s NY Times reports that Tea Party activists are fighting local efforts to conserve energy on the grounds that such efforts are part of a United Nations-led conspiracy. Fox News is also involved in spreading of this lunacy. What is wrong with these people? There should be no debate about whether or not to pay attention to overwhelming body of scientific evidence establishing global warming and its potentially disastrous consequences — but there is.

Our species is headed towards the edge of a cliff. We should be focusing enormous resources on minimizing CO2 and other emissions. This should be our new Apollo program — to land our grandchildren on a planet that’s sustainable.

We’ve really got to get this effort started. I suggest as a first step we agree that the opinions of science-deniers be subjected to appropriate brief ridicule and then ignored. Yes, everyone’s entitled to their opinions, but not every opinion is entitled to be taken seriously. Whether the source is ignorance, greed, or mental illness, opinions that have no basis in factual reality are at best a waste of time. In this case, they’re also increasing the risk of mortal peril. Basta!

For step two, or maybe step one-and-a-half, we should read Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. I’m about two-thirds of the way through, and I’m confident it will be in my list of top thought-provoking books of 2012. Kahneman is a Nobel-prize-winning psychologist and founding father of behavioral economics. His most recent book summarizes the research he, Amos Tversky, and others have done in the last few decades into the psychology of decision-making.

Kahneman divides judgment into two main parts: intuitive processes (thinking fast) and rational ones (thinking slow). The fast part plays a much greater part in our decisions that we think. We all rely on heuristics and biases to simplify complex matters. This mode of thinking is important — without it we’d be paralyzed — but it also sometimes leads to very bad decisions. Understanding more about the points of failure of our ordinary thought processes may help us avoid some errors and make better decisions. I hope.