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April links

The Legend of Zelda: A Pain in my Ass (another brilliantly hilarious video by pyrotech_c3h8! My favorite link of the month, even though it's technically May):

Why the Gods are Not Winning:
"America's disbelievers atheists now number 30 million, most well educated and higher income, and they far outnumber American Jews, Muslims and Mormons combined. There are many more disbelievers than Southern Baptists, and the god skeptics are getting more recruits than the evangelicals."

Not for the faint of heart... (this is really hard to watch, so don't say I didn't warn you):

09 F9 11 02 9D 74 E3 5B D8 41 56 C5 63 56 88 C0

The myths surrounding mirror neurons:

Psychotherapist gets barred from US for writing about LSD experience:

Girls 'just felt right' murdering friend:
(an example of how not universal "moral instinct" is)

An incredibly cool contact juggling music video (via lars_larsen):

According to the Texas constitution, you may not hold office in Texas unless you "acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being" (as if it wasn't already hard enough to get a decent politician elected!):

An interesting talk on how people "manufacture" synthetic happiness in their brains (not sure I like the implications of this):
http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/97 (both this and the next link via mathemajician

A 2002 Richard Dawkins talk entitled "The Design of Life", recently put online:
"It may sound as though I'm about to preach atheism. And I want to reassure you that's not what I'm going to do. In an audience as sophisticated as this one, that would be preaching to the choir. Instead, what I want to urge upon you is militant atheism!"

Belief in reincarnation tied to memory errors:


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 4th, 2007 12:31 pm (UTC)
I wonder if anyone has ever challenged the constitutionality of the Texas religious test. It sounds, on the face of it, as if it's a blatent violation of the First Amendment. Of course, if no one has ever challenged it, it can stand indefinitely.

Anyone know of an atheist in Texas who wants to run for dogcatcher?
May. 5th, 2007 07:19 am (UTC)
It's not immediately obvious - there's no establishment of a state religion there, and no violation of freedom of religion (assuming that means freedom to practice any religion one wants, and not freedom to refrain from religion). Of course, I'm not a lawyer, so I can't say for sure.
May. 5th, 2007 09:10 am (UTC)
But what about religions that don't invent supreme beings? Taoism, for instance... and various sects of Buddhism.
May. 4th, 2007 01:36 pm (UTC)
Those Zelda videos are hilarious.

What implications of "synthetic happiness" do you not like?
May. 4th, 2007 06:11 pm (UTC)
Well, my initial reactions to listening to it are here:


I guess the part I don't like the most is the idea that people are happier with less freedom. I've always thought of freedom as a strictly increasing function of happiness... in other words, it would seem (naively) that you could prove that given any situation B where you have equal or more freedom than A, you have equal or more potential for happiness. But what this guy is saying is that having too much freedom can hinder ones ability to create synthetic hapiness.

The other thing that bugs me about it, although less so... is that I tend to rationalize a lot of my actions by saying "this is what makes me happy" or even "this is what will bring me happiness". It would seem like my efforts at improving myself or my life are somewhat "foolish" if my mind is automatically going to adjust to the same level regardless of whether you get yourself into a really bad situation or a really good situation. The only reason this doesn't bother me, is I'm so intent on improving myself, that I actually don't care whether it makes me happy... I'm going to do it anyway. The "it will make me happy" is probably just a rationalization.
May. 4th, 2007 06:14 pm (UTC)
The only reason this doesn't bother me
meant to type: the only reason this doesn't bother me as much. It does bother me some. I don't like it, but if the evidence is there then I'll believe it.
May. 5th, 2007 04:41 am (UTC)
It would seem like my efforts at improving myself or my life are somewhat "foolish" if my mind is automatically going to adjust to the same level regardless of whether you get yourself into a really bad situation or a really good situation.

I don't think the evidence suggests that you don't have any control. I learned a little about some of this research years ago in a psychology class, and I've spent a few hours today Googling things to remind myself about it. There is the idea of the hedonic treadmill, which suggests that people have a genetic set point that establishes an equilibrium level of happiness. (There have been twin studies, for instance, confirming that a significant fraction of the variation in overall happiness is genetic. So this part at least seems to be good science.) And it is true that people return to roughly this equilibrium level after dramatic events (lottery winning, traumatic accidents, etc.).

On the other hand, like essentially everything in psychology, genetics doesn't determine everything and people do have some control over their happiness. Studies have shown that people with good social relationships tend to be happier. (I guess one can debate the direction of causation.) Then there are claims that people are very happy when they are working on something and in a state of "flow". I'm not sure to what extent there's solid research supporting that, but it seems reasonable.

Google also turned up this FAQ from one researcher.

I get the impression that most of the research showing that people have an equilibrium level of happiness is really about a sort of long-term average sense of happiness. I would think "contentment" might be a better word. And it seems pretty clear that even if you can't influence your long-term overall level of contentment as strongly as you would like, you can influence how often you experience shorter but more intense feelings of happiness or joy by the choices you make.

In my own experience, I would say I'm roughly as content, on an average basis, now as I was four years ago. But I definitely had a more interesting social life and probably more concrete instances of feeling really happy then, when I lived in Chicago. So the sense I'm getting of what the research says seems to fit with my own experience.

Anyway, that's enough babbling for now.... I always find psychology really fascinating. I think if I had to choose a field other than physics, it would probably be at the top of the list.
May. 5th, 2007 07:01 am (UTC)
+6 informative!
Ok, this is great... not only does this all make more sense, but I didn't even have to do the hours of research to find these links :)

"The hedonic treadmill" sounds like an idea I used to think about, but forgot. That actually makes the most amount of sense. I used to have a theory that happiness is based on how good a job you're doing at improving the situation you're in, regardless of the absolute scale of how good your life is. I guess it's been a while since I've thought about this stuff, so I forgot some of the insights I've had in the past. Incidentally, "The Hedonic Treadmill" would make one of the best band names ever, if it's not taken!

I was reading a little of the FAQ you linked to (which I'll have to go back and read some more when I get a chance) and came across this paragraph which makes me realize how weird I am:

"In large surveys very few people say that they are extraordinarily happy - that they are mostly elated and exuberant. For instance, only a few percent of people in most surveys respond they are a 10 on a 1 to 10 happiness scale, and perhaps only 5 to 10 percent say they are a 10 on life satisfaction. We find that those few individuals who say they are extraordinarily happy are likely in a few years to be back down to a lower level."

If they had sent me a survey anywhere in 2005-2007, I would have to say 10. It's not that I'm at 10 all the time every day, it's that when I average out how things have been for the past few years, there's no comparison to anything I've ever experienced before--certainly in terms of satisfaction, but also in terms of concrete happiness. I keep thinking it's going to end, and this paradise I live in is going to disappear, and I'm going to fall back into unhappiness or mediocrity, but somehow... it just keeps on going (with occasional downturns that can last anywhere from a week to a few months).

Hmmm... so plotting out my life on a happiness scale from 1 to 10, here's what I would say:

ages :happiness range
1-10: 5
10-14: 4-6
15-18: 5-7
19-21: 5-8
22-23: 2-10
24-25: 3-8
27: 6-9
28-30: 8-10

The lower end of the range means "on a bad day" and the upper end means "on a good day". Around the time I was 22 or 23, I was going through some manic depressive phases and it varied wildly (hence the 2-10).

I always find psychology really fascinating. I think if I had to choose a field other than physics, it would probably be at the top of the list.

I wouldn't have guessed that. It is pretty interesting... especially when it crosses over into cognitive science and neuro-physiology. Wish I knew more about it.
May. 5th, 2007 07:31 am (UTC)
I can't remember if I've already discussed this with you, but I used to also think that freedom was always a good thing. However, even with completely rational and extensional behavior (i.e., values of payoffs don't change based on how you got there, as in this synthetic happiness) you can show that there are (multiplayer) situations in which it's good for an agent if she has less freedom.

The easiest example basically comes from the movie Dr. Strangelove. Consider two Doomsday machines that you might decide to have around during the Cold War, if you're the USSR. One of them automatically launches all your nuclear missiles to destroy the US if the US launches any nuclear missiles. The other does the same thing, but also has a safety switch at the back so that you can turn it off if you have a special key. The latter offers you more freedom (because you can choose to turn off the device or not) but the former is better to have. The reason is because if you have the former (and you make this common knowledge), then the US can't launch their weapons at you. If you have the latter, then the US can decide to launch a nuke at Novosibirsk while warning you - if you're rational, then as soon as you get the warning, you'll go turn off the machine, because you don't want to live with the nuclear winter caused by nuking the US into oblivion.

In more abstract terms, consider a two-player game, with all the options for all players common knowledge. Payoffs for the two players will be represented by an ordered pair of numbers. Player 1 can either choose for the two to get the payoffs (1,0) and end the game, or can choose to go to Player 2's turn. Player 2 can either choose (99,99) or (0,100), and in either case the game ends. In this game, with rational play, the players get stuck with (1,0). If player 2 was somehow able to remove her freedom to choose between the latter two, removing (0,100), then rational play would end up with payoff (99,99), so everyone would be much better off.

So freedom isn't always good.
May. 5th, 2007 09:28 am (UTC)
In both cases, it seems like the negative aspects of having more freedom come from the built-in requirement that other players know about it. That's not surprising to me, as others knowing you have the ability to hurt them can make them gang up on you.

But at its heart, this doesn't seem to really be about having more freedom, but about whether you should give others the appearence you have more freedom. For instance, in the case of the Doomsday machine, a bluff is clearly the best option of all. Tell everyone you have the kind of doomsday device that you can't shut off, but secretly build in a shutoff mechanism just in case. It seems to me that as a fairly general rule, it should be true in any game that the less options your opponent thinks you have, the better off you are. But the more options you actually have, the better off you are. So only in the case where all of your options have to be known by everyone or not there at all, can having extra options be bad (barring psychological effects like the synthetic happiness issue). Or is there more to it than that?
May. 5th, 2007 09:33 am (UTC)

It seems to me that as a fairly general rule, it should be true in any game that the less options your opponent thinks you have, the better off you are.

Actually, I can think of several counterexamples to this... so nevermind about this part. What your opponent thinks could affect you either way. But unless you're forced to always let your opponent know what options you have, it would seem that you're always better off having more options.
May. 5th, 2007 09:38 am (UTC)

I can't remember if I've already discussed this with you

oh, and the conversation we had that this is reminding me of, was about whether it's right to allow someone to sell themselves into slavery. Actually, it wasn't so much a conversation, as you bringing up that you thought it was good to pass laws against it. I remember not responding because I wasn't sure what I thought. I'm kind of on the fence on that one... in most cases like it, I would say it's important to give the person the right to enter into any contracts they wish, no matter how likely they are to regret it. But this is such an extreme case, I'm kind of on the fence about it and can see both sides. I guess I would lean towards agreeing with you to prohibit it.
May. 4th, 2007 06:30 pm (UTC)
Wikipedia contains claims that while most religion tests continue to survive in the constitutions of several states, nevertheless these clauses have been overturned or are not in effect. In practice, that may be entirely different. Given the personal scrutiny candidates have to withstand, and the fact that we live in a society that (at least outwardly) celebrates God-belief to such an extent, I doubt many Atheists have the stomach for running for office anyway. I'm always on the lookout though...

Something interesting: the Inglehart Values Map which is good at synthesizing belief systems worldwide. I figure it's time to move to Sweden, despite the fact that it seems to have problems of its own :-)
May. 4th, 2007 07:15 pm (UTC)
+5 informative
Thanks for the info, and neat graphs.

Yeah, Sweden would be awesome to move to. In about a year from now, I'll be applying for postdocs, many of which will be in Europe (I've decided that, all else equal, I'd prefer to move there for at least a while). My primary concern will be the type of research done at different universities, but if I end up having several choices that are roughly the same, these kinds of location issues might be the deciding factor.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )


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