Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Meditation Exercise

Here is a simple exercise I made up to strengthen your awareness and control of your mind and emotions.

Find a song you like and set it to repeat play that song on low to medium volume for 1 hour.

Step 1: Focus
Find an important and challenging task to work on while the song is playing. Try to enter a zone of focus on your work task such that eventually you are no longer aware of the song playing. You may fall out of focus occasionally. When this happens, try to re-group and get back into the zone. See if you reach points where you do not hear the song, similar to the way that you might not hear the air conditioner humming or traffic going by while you are asleep.

Step 2: Awareness
Try to achieve the same level of effort and focus, but this time your mind is consistently aware, at a minimal level, of the song playing. You may find yourself becoming annoyed by the song repeating. If so, try to embrace what it is about this that you find annoying and turn it into a positive. Think about how you like the song, and about the good progress you are making on your project.

Note: This activity is not recommended if you have an office-mate or room-mate during the exercise.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Physics Quiz

See if you can match my score:

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Politics at the Breakfast Bar

Back in the summer 2004, I was staying at the Holiday Inn Select in Bensalem, PA with the family. I remember seeing a bus in the parking lot the night before, wondering what group might be staying at the hotel.

I got my answer the next morning. We were having breakfast, and I saw a number of people with hats, buttons, etc. supporting John Kerry. I saw one of them up at the breakfast bar, and we had the following conversation:

Me: "Hello. Are you folks doing some canvassing for Mr. Kerry this morning?"
Kerry supporter: "Yes"
Me: "Where are you from?"
Kerry supporter: "Most of us are from Connecticut and Massachusetts"
Me: "What is your message this morning?"
Kerry supporter: "We're fighting a war for oil waged by the United States of Halliburton while the top 1% of wealthy americans are giving themselves tax cuts while this evil President just wants to send the gays down to Mexico."
Me: "Ok then. Good luck with that. If I could give you a small bit of advice, you might want to tone down the rhetoric just a bit. This could give you a better chance of having undecided voters consider your message."

I don't know if this was one nutjob, or a symptom of a greater democratic problem. I worry about the latter, since I often get e-mail from my Aunt of a similar nature. It is a bit sad, because the democrats have many ideas thaht I agree with, but apparently haven't figured out an effective way to deliver them.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Republican Spin Machine

I saw a funny thing yesterday which I think gives some insight into why the jerky Republicans seem to keep beating the Democrats, despite their bungled war, budget deficits, wretched policies, etc.

It was one of those fake press conferences on C-SPAN. A Republican and democrat were at a podium speaking to a group of reporters during a break in the debate on Iraq.

First the Democrat talked for about 5 minutes. Something thoughtful about how we need to get out of Iraq, in a careful way, not immediately, but soon, etc.

Then the Republican stepped up to the podium.

Reporter: How would you characterize today’s debate?
Republican: Well, there are three proposals by the Democrats. So far we discussed “cut and run”. Next we’ll talk about “dartboard date”, and then we’ll hear about “cut and jog”.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Good News / Bad News

Over the course of your lifetime, about once a month or so someone will say to you:

"I have good news and bad news. Which do you want first?"

It is safe to say that most people cavalierly answer this question by selecting one or the other - perhaps randomly, or perhaps hoping for one choice or the other to clearly take precedence. These people clearly are not thinking about the crucial elements of maximizing happiness, working the inflection point, or mollifying the asker.

Maximizing Happiness

Let's assume we want to maximize our happiness during the timeframe that we are receiving the two pending news items. Assuming the good news and bad news are of equal impact, our happiness while hearing the news could be illustrated by the charts below:

Good news first:

Bad news first:

(The above examples assume that the news has an exponential impact, but the same conclusions would be reached with a linear function.)

Let's assume graph 1 is expressed as y = 1 - x^2. Integrating over the region and dividing by the width gives us an average happiness level of 2/3.

Let's assume graph 2 is expressed as y = x^2 - 1. Integrating over the region and dividing by the width gives us an average happiness level of -2/3.

So clearly we reach the intuitive result that we should ask for the good news first in order to maximize our short-term happiness.

Another scenario is that the person could drop dead after giving you the good news and before giving you the bad news. This is a winning situation, as you got all of the good and none of the bad. Also, the dead person can take some solace in the fact that they never had to deliver the bad news. This may even increase their chances of getting into heaven.

So good news first is the best choice if you are the hedonist type and your motto is: "seize the day", "no time like the present", or "live each day like it could be your last".

Working the Inflection Point

Both of the images above feature an inflection point where happiness turns to sadness or vice versa. So if you want to end on the strongest note, you would be best served to get the bad news first. My personal experience has been that most people opt for this choice. This tells you a lot about human nature.

Non sequitur: A similar phenomenon I have observed is that when people are walking from one place to another, they will usually not take a direct route. If you draw an imaginary rectangle which has the direct route as a diagonal, people will generally walk approximately along the perimeter of the rectangle. Even more interesting, people will normally walk the smaller of the two lengths first, followed by the longer.

So bad news first is the best choice if you often find yourself saying: "all's well thaht ends well", "save it for a rainy day", or "let's get this over with".

Mollifying the Asker

A final option that I doubt people consider is which option the asker would like you to choose. Some people have a habit of using this whole premise as a trick question. There really is no bad news, because the good news actually mitigates the bad news completely. If you are dealing with a shallow person that tends for this approach, act accordingly and take the bad news first. This makes their little game work, and then everyone is happy. But there are other people who are the depressed type. They always see a cloud in every silver lining. These people want you to get the good news first, then they want to trample your spirit with the bad news. Select accordingly - you end up on a bad note, but they are happy that you let them play their self-deprecation game.

So you can see that you need to consider who is asking the question as well as the mathematical items discussed earlier.

Try establishing a bias toward good news first, and thinking about the asker's motivation. This will help you increase the total happiness in the world, even if just a little bit.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Can You Hear This?

Click here to play a high-pitched mp3. I heard a story about this on NPR. A guy in Endland played this outside of his store to get rid of teenagers. Young people can hear an annoying high-pitched sound, but older people can't hear it. For this same reason, kids are using this now as a ringtone in class for text messages. It is less detectable to the teacher than if they have their phone set to vibrate.

Roughly, if you can hear the sound you are less than 35. If you can't, you are old. I can actually still hear it. Maybe next year will be a different story.

Lack of Knowledge

If you ever want to be humbled by the sheer volume of stuff you don't know, go to Wikipedia and click the Random Article link a few times (should be in the upper left area). Sometimes I need to click 10, 20, or more times before I hit a topic about which I even know one thing.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Last Conversations

Today I had lunch with an old friend and former colleague who is moving to take a job in Florida. We discussed various opportunities we may have to see each other in the future, but also realized that there is some chance that we may never see each other again. This was a bit of a sad moment, as we have had hundreds, maybe thousands, of conversations together and this may have been the last. It was hard to come up with anything meaningful to say that was fulfulling, beyond talking about the ordinary things we always liked to talk about. I got to thinking that there are probably dozens, or hundreds, of people out there with whom I have already had this last conversation. You almost never know it is going to be the last conversation while your having it. So many people from high school, college, and former jobs (co-workers and customers) that I will just never have the opportunity to see again. I try to think of certain people and remember what was the last conversation we had, and it is almost always impossible to remember. One of the most final things about death is that it automatically sets the last conversation you had with everyone to be the last ever. I guess in a sense, you die a little bit every day when you have conversations with people you will never see again. It's the cases like the one today, where you realize it while it's happening, that can be especially poignant.

Addendum (7/31/06):
Found the picture below today on Postsecret

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

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Thursday, June 08, 2006

Thoughts on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Christy and I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind a few weeks ago.

-- warning: spoilers below --

The first thing I liked about the movie was that it focused on Psychology and did not introduce religion. The original quote from the poem by Alexander Pope is “How happy is the blameless vestal's lot! The world forgetting, by the world forgot. Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd”. After I realized what the movie was about, I worried that they would work up to equating the concept of eliminated memories with the Christian concept of automatic prayer/forgiveness. But they primarily stuck to the simpler metaphor of murder/suicide. (Under the premise that all you have of past life is your memories).

A question I think about sometimes is whether we would be better off if we could eliminate all negative experiences. In religion, they often explain bad things by saying that it makes you appreciate the good things more. Our society is also big into the idea of “that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”. I, for one, don’t think you need black to appreciate white. Look at children, for example, who often experience pure joy. They are not comparing this to anguish. So I do think life would be better if it were all positive. I also think that it is easy to eliminate most or all negative experiences on a daily basis, but most people do not do this. There is usually a way to interpret a negative, and put a positive spin on it. I find that some people just aren’t happy unless there are some negatives to talk about. Think about how often you hear people say things like “if such-and-such happens, I’m going to be really upset.” Or when you ask them how an event was, they just tell you about all the negative things that happened. But with children, they always seem to think the opposite, “I hope this happens, because that would be great”.

This movie demonstrates how much fun you can have with your mind. I have often enjoyed thinking about something that could never happen, but then imagined it happening and enjoyed the knowledge that it does exist. Who is to say that something existing only inside someone’s mind is any less valuable than it having actually occurred? In fact, I would argue that having an event transpire in my mind can be even more of a powerful existence than had it instead occurred in the real world but then gone unremembered.

This movie of course touches on the classic theme of whether people have “soul-mates” with whom they are pre-destined to become romantically involved. Initially, it seemed to be pushing the magical soul-mate theory, although by the end it almost seemed to go the other way, since we learn that the two protagonists did not really meet the second time by chance after all. I guess ultimately they leave it up to the viewer, which I think is fine. In America, certainly there seems to be myriad evidence against the classical concept of soul-mates.

The next item is the most unique and interesting theme of the movie, which is: What would you have done if you knew in the past what you know now? Specifically, would you go through with a relationship if you knew that it was going to have much joy and even more pain. Tennyson said ‘tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. But what if you could have loved another during that same timeframe? That would change the equation. Of course the ultimate drama is when the main character begins to realize the true value of the happy memories after he has already agreed to delete them.

Here are some other movies that this movie reminded me of:

The Truman Show – one of my top 5 all time favorite movies. The similar concept here is the God-like character that oversees the action of the protagonist. Ed Harris got an oscar nomination for Truman Show. Tom Wilkinson was not as good, and his character had the silly plot twist at the end with Kirsten Dunst.

Mulholland Drive – Very similar how the action being viewed was really inside someone’s mind, with radical shifts in perspective as time shifts from one mental place to another.

Being John Malkovich – This is the obvious one, with both movies written by Charlie Kaufman and being nearly identical in many ways.

I ♥ Huckabees – The shared concept here was that knowledge of one small item can change the course of one’s life forever. The twist here was that the item came directly from the characters themselves (in the past) as opposed to from an acquaintance.

A book I am reading by Robert Pirsig makes the argument (I think) that if you were born deprived of all of your 5 senses, then you would technically not be alive. A similar argument would seem to be that if you do not have any memory with regard to any events then there is essentially no basis for your present life. It would be interesting to see a story about someone who has lost all of their memory, and whether they could give any rational statements that would make them seem to be living in any traditional sense. I recall that in the final stages of Alzheimers, when she could not remember hardly anything, it was hard to justify any reason for my grandmother Freda to remain alive any longer.

The final thought I had about this film was whether it might be better not to know about certain things. I have always been of the (minority) opinion that all knowledge is good, especially for well-adjusted people who can deal with all variety of difficult subjects. This film certainly makes a compelling argument that there are some things that you are better off not knowing. But not decisively, as in the end they leave it open to some consideration by the viewer.