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Friday, May 28, 2010

Five Ancient Secrets to Modern Happiness!

The second talk I attended today, by Tamar Gendler, showed that most modern self-help books - and the famous Serenity Prayer - stem directly from Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Epictetus. I'm using these posts as a filing cabinet.

She talked about our "misattribution of preference" - we think we know why we like something, but actually we may not. For instance, boys at Cornell walking on a scary foot bridge across a chasm are more than twice as likely to call a girl who gives them her phone number as boys sitting safely on a bench. They attribute their heart-pounding excitement exclusively to the girl. This was also astounding to me:

Abstract from

Moniker Maladies: When Names Sabotage Success
by Leif Nelson and Joseph Simmons

In five studies, we [Nelson and Simmons] found that people like their names enough to unconsciously pursue consciously avoided outcomes that resemble their names.
  • Baseball players avoid strikeouts, but players whose names begin with the strikeout-signifying letter K strike out more than others (Study 1).
  • All students want As, but students whose names begin with letters associated with poorer performance (C and D) achieve lower grade point averages (GPAs) than do students whose names begin with A and B (Study 2), especially if they like their initials (Study 3).
  • Because lower GPAs lead to lesser graduate schools, students whose names begin with the letters C and D attend lower-ranked law schools than students whose names begin with A and B (Study 4).
  • Finally, in an experimental study, we manipulated congruence between participants’ initials and the labels of prizes and found that participants solve fewer anagrams when a consolation prize shares their first initial than when it does not (Study 5).
These findings provide striking evidence that unconsciously desiring negative name-resembling performance outcomes can insidiously undermine the more conscious pursuit of positive outcomes.

She also pointed us to this, saying that not only did the warm-coffee-cup holders experience others as being "warmer" people, but that they evaluated resumes positively twice as often!

Abstract from
Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth
by Lawrence E. Williams and John A. Bargh

"Warmth" is the most powerful personality trait in social judgment, and attachment theorists have stressed the importance of warm physical contact with caregivers during infancy for healthy relationships in adulthood. ... we hypothesized that experiences of physical warmth (or coldness) would increase feelings of interpersonal warmth (or coldness), without the person's awareness of this influence.

In study 1, participants who briefly held a cup of hot (versus iced) coffee judged a target person as having a "warmer" personality (generous, caring)

In study 2, participants holding a hot (versus cold) therapeutic pad were more likely to choose a gift for a friend instead of for themselves.

She mentioned the "cost of discord" - people struggling not to eat cookies put out on a plate in a room where they are asked to complete tasks give up much more quickly than those who are allowed to eat the cookies. Heh heh.

Getting into the prescriptive part of her talk, she brought up the idea my college boyfriend told me was Wittgenstein's: "We Are What We Pretend To Be." It really revolutionized my life. Here, from an earlier thinker...

Nichomachean Ethics
by Aristotle

Moral virtue comes about as a result of habit.

None of the moral virtues is engendered in us by nature...

The virtues we get by first exercising them. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.

It is a matter of no little importance what sort of habits we form from the earliest age -- it makes a vast difference, or rather all the difference in the world.

First we must consider this fact: that it is in the nature of moral qualities that they are destroyed by deficiency and excess.

It is by refraining from pleasures that we become temperate, and it is when we have become temperate that we are most able to refrain from pleasures. Similarly with courage; it is by habituating ourselves to make light of alarming situations and to face them that we become brave, and it is when we have become brave that we shall be most able to face an alarming situation.

For happiness, have good friends...

Marcus Tullius Cicero: Friendship improves happiness and abates misery, by the doubling of our joy and the dividing of our grief.

Finally - something I've been working on for few years, without having the fancy words for it, advice from Epictetus: for happiness, cultivate ataraxia (peace of mind) and apatheia (freedom from destructive passions.

Respectfully submitted,

Laurie Santos, "The Origins of Irrationality."

I'm at my 35th Yale Reunion where I just heard a great lecture by Laurie Santos of the Psychology Department - her work is described in a Smithsonian article, Thinking Like a Monkey. She studies "stupid cognition" to find out where it comes from.

The lecture blurb read:
People regularly make decisions that are blatantly irrational and that systematically lead to less money, worse outcomes, and reduced overall happiness... many classic human errors - our aversion to financial losses, our tendency to rationalize past decisions, and so on - are a lot older than we might expect.
Like 35 million years old, the approximate date when we may have split from the monkeys who share our biases.

She found it very easy to teach monkeys to use "money" - giving them wallets with twelve small metal washers they could exchange for food. Watching video of monkeys, with full wallets, excitedly waiting for the "market" (two lab guys in colored shirts with treats that they would exchange for washers) to open, what a riot.

She talked a mile a minute and some of the take-away points were:
  • We are fixated on our reference points - the status quo - and accustom ourselves very swiftly to improvements in our status quo but agonize over slight down-turns. New "stuff" quickly sets a new reference point. Her quote, from Edgar Watson Howe: "Nothing is wonderful once you get used to it." So you think new stuff will be wonderful, but it isn't wonderful for long - though you'll be annoyed if you subsequently lose it.

  • We are governed by loss aversion - we hate losing more than we like winning.

  • Something you own already seems more important/valuable to you than to other people. She called this the "Endowment Factor." People can't bear to part with their houses at the current market value, for instance, since only a few years ago they were seemingly worth more. However, people are often not willing to buy at the inflated value you put on your own possessions...

  • She thinks you'll be happier spending your money on experiences, which do not "re-set your reference points."

  • She recommends combining losses, since each one hurts so much (I certainly would rather write one big check than a lot of little ones), but splitting up your gains - don't do all your shopping on one day, you'll enjoy one purchase at a time much more.

  • Alpha male monkeys make riskier choices than other monkeys.

  • The monkey equivalent of a Ferrari is a fruit rollup with marshmallow fluff inside.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

For those who didn't believe me when I told them I had a donkey-grooming chicken.


Sunday, May 16, 2010

[Hannah]: More highlights of overpriced, overconceptualized wedding photography

"We are so happy that none of you showed up to our wedding. We got to eat all the food ourselves."

"I worked so, so, SO HARD to fit into this dress. As a matter of fact, I am still working on it ... if I let go of my flanks, they will explode out of the sides of the dress. This is in fact only a little bit painful."

"Everybody is wearing a bear mask with their wedding dress these days. Really. I saw it online."

Saturday, May 15, 2010

[Hannah]: Wedding Photography

Since $3,000 is about the typical rate for a wedding photography package these days, it is not surprising that brides feel they need to do things of extreme visual interest to make the expense worth while. I have helpfully provided captions for some of these brilliant concept photo shoots. Like this one, which I call:

"Wedding tragically ruined by terrifying invasion of bats."

oh god, look at those bats hovering above the white centerpieces in the last pic. vomit!

"Bride and groom spend hours hiding from marauding parents in ice cream parlor, accidentally get locked in and miss own wedding."

"Bride decides to blow off wedding, spend evening doing heroin alone in hotel room"

"Bride and groom decide to go ahead with wedding in spite of bride's tragic head growth"

I cannot even make fun of this picture because I do not understand how it relates to a wedding.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Pesticide-resistant crops vanquished by super-pests. Monsanto says problem is exaggerated

Even my cynical soul rebelled when I first read that Monsanto was doing genetic modification, not to make plants more resistant to pests, but to make them more resistant to pesticide.

Extracts from
U.S. Farmers Cope With Roundup-Resistant Weeds
by William Neuman and Andrew Pollack for the New York Times, May 3, 2010

Just as the heavy use of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms, American farmers’ near-ubiquitous use of the weedkiller Roundup has led to the rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds.

The superweeds could temper American agriculture’s enthusiasm for some genetically modified crops. Soybeans, corn and cotton that are engineered to survive spraying with Roundup have become standard in American fields. However, if Roundup doesn’t kill the weeds, farmers have little incentive to spend the extra money for the special seeds.

Sales took off in the late 1990s, after Monsanto created its brand of Roundup Ready crops that were genetically modified to tolerate the chemical, allowing farmers to spray their fields to kill the weeds while leaving the crop unharmed.

But farmers sprayed so much Roundup that weeds quickly evolved to survive it.

“The biotech industry is taking us into a more pesticide-dependent agriculture when they’ve always promised, and we need to be going in, the opposite direction,” said Bill Freese, a science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety in Washington.

Monsanto and other agricultural biotech companies are also developing genetically engineered crops resistant to other herbicides.

Georgia has been one of the states hit hardest by Roundup-resistant pigweed, and Mr. Perry said the pest could pose as big a threat to cotton farming in the South as the beetle that devastated the industry in the early 20th century.

“If we don’t whip this thing, it’s going to be like the boll weevil did to cotton,” said Mr. Perry, who is also chairman of the Georgia Cotton Commission. “It will take it away.”

Monday, May 03, 2010

Mark does Illustration Friday: "Cocoon."


Acrylic on canvas 8 x 12

color color color



Jethro the donkey wondering if it's worth getting up on the porch for Cocoa Krispies


Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Durham Chapel Hill Complaints Choir

What a day!! Four performances and then a recording session. Hot, too. I'm going to lie down now.

This is what I packed in the car today, starting at upper left corner:
Extension cord
Power strip
Easel (for the sign)
Tripod (for movie camera)
Extra batteries
Recording mics and their special clips
Amp (the actual one we used was much bigger and already packed in the trunk)
M-audio breakout box
Laptop and charger
2 copies of the song in notebooks
Video camera and charger
Extra string
Duct tape (no musician ever goes anywhere without duct tape)
Mic cables
Performance mics and clips

Inner circle:
Cough medicine for allergies
Music glasses
Music stand
Clothespins (to keep music on the stand)
XLR-to-quarter inch jack adapter


In which my Sarah Palin "Drill Baby Drill!" painting becomes famous!

I was amused to get an email from Ron Gompertz, creator of the Send Sarah Palin to the Louisiana wetlands to help clean-up the oil Facebook page, retroactively asking permission to use my painting on his site. He also said I should make a Drill Baby Drill Sarah Palin t-shirt. It's customizable (change colors, styles, sizes, add text of your choice) and you can actually stick the picture on any Zazzle product you like.

See Sarah and my other paintings at my Uncle Shlomo's Pushcart Zazzle Store.

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