The Casual Blog

Tag: Jonathan Haidt

Wildflowers, bug bites, and why I’m getting behind Hillary

Wrightsville divingBug 1-2It’s been unpleasantly hot and humid this week. On Saturday I got out early to avoid some of the heat and visited the park at the art museum and hiked in Schenk Forest. I enjoyed seeing and photographing the wildflowers and butterflies.
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Taking this kind of pictures involves getting heading into the woods and pushing through the high grass. On Saturday I was still recovering from fifteen or so bug bites on my legs from an outing at Jordan Lake two weeks ago. These were no ordinary mosquito bites. They were much bigger, itchier, and longer lasting. Some of them were probably chiggers, but I have no idea what creatures did the others. I also had a couple of tick bites.

There is a real risk of Lyme disease and other insect-borne illnesses in these parts, and I’ve made up my mind to take more care. No more wearing shorts on these kinds of outings, and more systematic insecticiding. I tried out Avon Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard Plus, which includes SPF 30 sunscreen. I got no new bites, though of course it’s possible the biting bugs were busy elsewhere.
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There’s an interesting recent essay by Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, explaining the rising tide of anti-immigrant paranoia in terms of the psychology of authoritarianism. Authoritarians, defined according to child-rearing preferences like prioritizing obedience, are in Haidt’s view not naturally intolerant, but become more so when they perceive a threat to their values and culture.

For example, Muslims who insist on their own distinctive customs pose an implicit challenge to traditional mainstream customs and values, and the authoritarian personality reacts with alarm and anger. This alarm isn’t so much fear of mass killings as of dilution of the values that bind together families and communities. Liberals don’t understand or sympathize with those feelings, but right wing demagogues understand and exploit them.

It’s an interesting theory, and seems to explain some of the weirdness now in the air. Even if not completely right, it reminds us how complicated and varied humans are, and how little we really understand about the drivers of our behavior as either individuals or groups. More study is needed, as the scholars say.
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Anyhow, many Democrats, including me, can affirm that perceived threats can draw us together. So it was this week that many of us, disturbed and mildly traumatized by the anger and barely repressed violence of the Republican Convention, decided it was time to put aside our differences and pull for Hillary. Whatever else, she is the lessor of the evils, by at least an order of magnitude.

I truly respect and admire Hillary Clinton for her intelligence, strength, and discipline, and her long record of public service. At the same time, I worry that her natural instincts will dispose her to continue the status quo of wide income inequality and destructive militarism. But there’s a possibility she can change. And there is no imaginable scenario in which she is the author of the kind of disasters and self-inflicted wounds surely in store under President Trump. We need to work together for a massive Hillary victory that leaves no question that the great majority of us completely reject him and his ideas.
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No illusions, but not disillusioned

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At my post-surgery eye checkup on Thursday, after being scanned, poked and peered at, I was happy to hear Dr. Mruthyunjaya declare, “I like what I’m seeing.” My retina was back where it was supposed to be. This doesn’t mean everything will be just fine. Vision in my left eye is quite blurry now, and it will be some months before we’ll know how much there will finally be. The likeliest answer is substantially less than before. But as Dr. M’s fellow, Dr. Martell, pointed out, even if there’s a lot of blur, it could still help with peripheral vision, and serve as a backup in the event of a right eye catastrophe.

Anyhow, it is what it is. The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe died this week at age 82. I have not read his work, but the Times obit made me think I might like it. It quoted Nadine Gordimer as saying he was “a writer who has no illusions but is not disillusioned.” A good way to be.

I was also happy that Dr. M cleared me to resume exercising, though he suggested I wait another week before my next killer spin class. So early Friday morning, my usual spinning day, I happily did a functional fitness routine and a half hour on the escalator stairs. The stairs are a relatively new machine at O2 Fitness, and they are remarkably effective at pushing up your heart rate. As usual, while sweating away I listened to some opera (the incredible second act of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro) with my MP3 device and read on my tablet device.

I reread some on the ideas of Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics, whose name is pronounced “Hite,” as I learned this week when I heard him give a lecture at Duke. My earlier thoughts on Haidt’s theory are here, but I’m still processing his big ideas, which point dramatically away from traditional political theory and its reliance on rationality. His TED talk on the differences in ethical systems between liberals and conservatives is a nice introduction to his theory.

As Haidt observes in the TED talk, there are two types of people: those who like new ideas and experiences and those who prefer the safe and familiar. He notes that the latter are the people who like to eat at Applebee’s.

On Thursday Sally and I tried for the second time to eat at a new restaurant in our neighborhood, Dos Taquitos, and again failed. The place was cheerily hopping but the wait time was too long for us, so we went down Glenwood Avenue to the uncrowded Blue Mango for some Indian food. We had a delicious meal featuring masaledar allo gobhi (cauliflaur and potatos) and eggplant bhartha. We couldn’t finish it, and I asked for a take-home box, which I carefully prepared and then accidentally left on the table. Darn!

For more new musical ideas, I had a piano lesson with Olga on Saturday morning. It was invigorating! I played Liszt’s Liebestraum (Dream of Love) No. 3, a famously beautiful piece (here played wonderfully by Evgeny Kissin). She gave me a massive compliment, and I quote: “Wow!” She thought I’d vastly improved, and was getting a richer sound. But of course, it can always be better. We worked on getting a more stable connection between the body and the instrument, including not just the fingers, but also the back and the core. She showed me on a type of touch involving a very relaxed hand with mostly arm movement. She also gave me some new ideas on pedaling, including using a slow, slightly delayed release. As she noted, it makes magic.
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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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Sleepwalking and critical thinking

Some weeks ago I hurt myself sleepwalking when I wandered into the shower in the middle of the night. I remember not knowing where I was. I felt confused and frightened. Then I fell and hit my head on the tile, gashing my forehead, and woke up.

In the last couple of years, I’ve seen evidence a handful of times that I must have been sleepwalking in a fairly benign way, such as lights left on that I’d turned out the night before. On one occasion, I started to take off for a drive in the middle of the night and backed into a parked car. These incidents have been mildly or very unsettling. They make you wonder about what else is going on in your brain that you aren’t aware of.

Back in college, I enjoyed listening to a comedy album by Firesign Theatre titled Everything You Know Is Wrong. Earlier this week I checked out the first few minutes on in video form on YouTube, and verified that it still seems funny and disconcerting. The title has rattled around in my head for decades now ike a verbal Escher drawing, impossible either to forget or resolve. Lately it has seemed to me increasingly resonant as I’ve read more about neuroscience and consciousness. It’s inherently interesting, at least to me, and by moments I think it could lead toward a fuller, better understanding and a happier life. But if Everything I Know Is Wrong, this could also be wrong.

Speaking of sleepwalking, last month’s Scientific American had a somewhat sensationalistic but still interesting article on recent sleep research by James Vlahos titled The Case of the Sleeping Slayer. As you’d expect, it describes some violent and tragic cases, such as persons who commit murder while asleep, and also describes a new theory about the nature of sleep.

According to Vlahos, sleep is not a whole-brain phenomenon, but rather “a scattered, bottom-up process. ‘The new paradigm views sleep as an emergent property of the collective output of smaller functional units within the brain,” according to James Krueger of Washington State University. Krueger and other researchers think that individual parts of the brain “go to sleep at different times around the clock depending on how much they have been taxed recently.” What we think of as sleep (stillness, closed eyes, slackened muscles) happens when most of the neurons are in the sleep condition. Apparently parts of the brain may be snoozing without our looking like that.

There’s good evidence that other animals have modular sleeping habits. Vlahos’s article notes that dolphins sleep with half of heir brain at a time and keep an eye open for the non-sleep part. I’ve also read that birds also rest their brains in this modular way so they can always keep an eye out for predators. The theory seems promising. I occasionally note waking behaviours in myself, like forgetting where I parked, that could be explained by the partial wakefulness approach. It would explain not only sleepwalking, but other odd behavior, like people who sit on airplanes without reading anything.

When I get to thinking about thinking, I sometimes have flashbacks to the my days as a freshman at Oberlin College, where amidst the midwestern corn fields I got a hard blast of serious philosophy and critical thinking about social issues. It would be an understatement to say it was humbling. The air was dense with intense ideas. No matter how hard I worked, I usually had the feeling there was a lot I was missing, along with the feeling that some of my fellow students were getting a lot more. But by moments I felt real excitement as I wrestled with an idea and managed to pin it.

In retrospect, I think that learning the skill of wrestling with challenging ideas was more significant than any particular idea. A significant amount of what I learned was eventually superseded by new and better understandings. An example: we all took Freud seriously as a scientist, but now do not consider him as such.

But my teachers drilled into me the habit of testing an unfamiliar concept rather than simply swallowing it. It’s related to the scientific method in its insistence on evidence and logic, and its use of thought experiments. This habit of mind is sometimes called critical thinking. Once you start doing it, you tend to think it’s the best way to think.

My liberal arts education inspired me to be curious and to explore new ideas. But to some extent it may also have led me down the garden path. My recent reading in neuroscience and evolutionary biology has called into question some of my deeply held beliefs about the power of reason. It’s exciting, though: Its helping me understand various oddities about my own subjective experience and the observable lives of others.

If this sounds interesting, I recommend Jonathan Haidt’s recent book, The Righteous Mind, Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. You may recall that I wrote about this book some months back; I’ve been re-reading it and getting more out of it. Haidt, a professor at University of Virginia, (my law school alma mater) has a style that is accessible and friendly, but he challenges our usual was of thinking about thinking. The heart of his message is at odds with most of what I learned in my undergraduate years and have mostly assumed ever since.

There are a lot of big ideas in Haidt’s book, but probably the biggest is that the primary driver of our behavior is not rational conscious thought, but rather our unconscious system of feeling and emotion. It’s the system that tells us quickly what needs to be done. (Freud was right in guessing that there was subconscious, but he didn’t figure out much about what it did.) Haight compares our moral intuitions to an elephant, and the rational mind to the rider of the elephant. The rider developed to serve the elephant. The elephant usually goes where it wants to go, although the much-less-powerful rider can influence the elephant. This understanding of our nature leads Haidt to focus closely on the nature of our moral perceptions and beliefs.

Some of Haidt’s research relates to differences in moral systems among different communities. In one study, he used a questionnaire with narratives intended to invoke disgust (like incest and cruelty), but structured to defy an easy explanation for the disgust (no one was hurt). In the face of such dumbfounding problems, people came up with explanations for their feelings — but the explanations didn’t make much sense. This suggests that some of what our reasoning mind is doing is pretending to understand things it doesn’t, and making up post hoc rationalizations for feelings that start elsewhere.

Haidt contends that emotions are a kind of cognition — intuitive, rather than rational, but not inferior to reason. Intuitive processes are essential to our lives; we couldn’t possibly reason about the hundreds of decisions we make every day. We like or dislike things instantly and decisively, and adjust our behavior without noticing the process. Our conscious reasoning processes are along for the ride, and only get involved with explaining our behavior when there’s some anomaly or challenge.

Another theme of Haidt’s book relates to human cooperation. He observes that we are the best species in the animal kingdom at cooperating outside kinship groups. Haidt investigates this from an evolutionary perspective. In the days of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we had to form effective groups in order to defendant against predators and find food. This involved development of intuitive cognitive skills, including the ability to easily track the emotions of other human beings.

Haidt suggests thinking about the most successful human groups not just as collections of individuals, but as superorganisms. Humans have evolved the ability by moments to lose their individuality and merge with a group, whether it be hunters, warriors, or dancers. Some of our peak moments come when we lose ourselves in such groups.

Looking at ourselves as having two natures, individual and group members, explains some of our apparent contradictions, such as how we can be both deeply selfish and deeply altruistic. Looking at emotions as driving reasoning explains a lot of political behavior, not to mention personal decisions that are from a rational standpoint inexplicable. It might even help us avoid some bad decisions.

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.

Utah skiing, a relaxing massage, and The Righteous Mind

The view from room at Deer Valley, Utah

Last week I had some meetings in Deer Valley, Utah, and also managed to get in one last bout of skiing for the season. Deer Valley is famous for coddling a high-end clientele with personal service and carefully groomed slopes. This doesn’t sit well with my personal skiing value system, which is more about rugged natural beauty, self-reliance, adventure, and transcendence. But I have to say, particularly in variable spring conditions, Deer Valley was pretty sweet.

At my hotel, there was friendly, attentive service. A personable young people offered to help you get boots on and off (to which I said no thank you), and carried your skis on and off the slopes. I rented Volkyl Mantra skis, which Gabe had recommended last year. They turned out to be a good choice – a very versatile all mountain ski that performed well in powder, packed powder, crud, and mush, all of which I eventually experienced. It was reasonably quick edge to edge, stable when carving at higher speeds, and workable in bumps and trees.

My rented Volka Mantras (the red and white ones on the end)

It’s been a disappointing year for snow over most of the U.S. Could global warming be to blame? Utah had not had snow for some time, and the mountains looked much more brown than white on the drive from the SLC airport. I had my doubts as to whether skiing would be worth the pain, but in the end, it was.

On Wednesday I skied with business friends and did mostly blue cruisers, with a few bump runs. It was a beautiful, sunny day, with temperatures in the 40s. The snow got soft and mushy in the afternoon, but it was still skiable. Spring skiing, as they say.

Thursday I had work to do, but Friday I got over to Park City to do some skiing by myself. It snowed most of the day, but only lightly, and visibility was limited. The winds were so strong in the morning that only half the lifts were operating. The only double black terrain open in the morning was off the McConkey lift. There were swatches of powder, but much of the skiable area was hard, rutted ice, or worse, ice with a deceptive thin dusting of snow – ice that looked like powder. On one lift ride, I chatted with a couple who’d lived there ten years. They wanted to apologize to visitors for the conditions, which were the worst they’d ever seen. But it got better in the afternoon. The Jupiter lift opened after lunch, and I found some fun steeps that hadn’t been skiied. The bumps were crusty. There were some interesting looking gladed areas that were, unfortunately, closed for lack of snow.

On Saturday it was another chilly bluebird day, which I spent at Deer Valley. The packed powder stayed good until mid-afternoon. I spent most of the time working the Empire and Lady Morgan lifts, both high speed quads that I generally had to myself, and listened to Mahler symphonies on my iPod. I particularly liked the Lady Morgan bowl, where I saw only a handful of other skiers. The lower part of the run is gladed, and after following the tracks of others, I began composing my own routes. It went well, except for one collision between my left ski and a pine tree.

After lunch, I did some carving on the cruisers off the Northside and Silverstrike lifts. After watching one kid catch some good air on a small jump, I tried to follow suit, but figured out a beat too late that the jump was canted to one side. I came down hard on my right hip, lost the right ski, and sprained my left thumb. It hurt! I’ve hurt that thumb the same way before, and it took a long time to heal. But I regrouped and pressed on.

Late in the afternoon, I treated myself to a massage at the Remede spa. Although I’ve become a big fan of deep tissue massage as therapy, I’ve assume that spa massage was mostly about relaxing, which is something I tend to regard as time-wasting. A sad legacy of my Calvinist heritage, no doubt, and I’m working on it. Anyhow, the Swedish massage was wonderful. It was a bit rougher in places than I expected, but also more sweet and sensual. My masseuse put hot was bags on my feet, which made no logical sense yet somehow worked. Over the course of the hour, my little fears melted away. Afterwards, I soaked for a bit in the hot tub, cooled off in the shower, and then sweated for a few minutes in the steam room. I felt a bit limp, and thoroughly relaxed.

On the way home I finished reading The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. In this new book, Haidt, a psychology professor at University of Virginia, offers a theory of the origins of morality and an explanation of the divide between liberals and conservatives. It’s ambitious, and he’s not kidding. I found it easy to accept his view that most human activity is driven primarily by emotion and intuition rather than reason. He was also persuasive in arguing that moral philosophy is primarily instrumental – a tool in service of other social goals, rather than a disinterested search for truth. He sees it as a vital instrument for human communities, and therefore for progress.

I was less persuaded, but still intrigued, by his idea that conservatives had a richer array of moral values than liberals. He argues that liberals define morality primarily in terms of reducing harm and increasing fairness, whereas conservatives also place significant weight on values such as loyalty, authority, and sacredness. That seems possible, but it doesn’t seem to connect up to the truly goofy aspects of conservative ideology, like demonization of liberals and discounting of science. I’ll go along with his idea that we need to figure out how to engage with ideas we don’t necessarily agree with if we’re to overcome our dysfunctional politics. I found the book thought provoking, and especially considering the density and breadth of the ideas, a surprisingly lively read.