Friday, November 21, 2014

Film: Happy (2011)

Happy (2011) is a nice little documentary about happiness. It doesn't dig particularly deep but is broad reaching and uplifting in its simplicity.

A few points jotted down whilst watching:

- Profile of a poor rickshaw driver in India: He works in all conditions under the hot sun, and if it rains he gets wet. His house is a spare structure, with plastic tarp on one side, and the rain blows in during the monsoon. Sometimes he only has rice and salt to eat. He is poor but he is happy. In fact, he is as happy as the average American. He looks forward to seeing his children when he gets home, and his neighbours are good people. The people make him happy.
- Modern science suggests about 50% of our happiness is genetic and we deviate around a set range. Only about 10% of our happiness comes from differences in circumstances (e.g. money, property, popularity, etc). The other 40% comes from intentional behaviour such as expressing gratitude, doing something kind, getting into a flow activity, playing and connecting with the community.
- Vary what you do, maybe with a lot of change or just a bit. Variety is the spice of life.
- Having close supportive friends and family is important.
- People overestimate and underestimate the impact of +/-ve events. In general people do really well when things go bad (reversion to the baseline to a large extent).
- We are wealthier than we were fifty years ago (more cars, larger houses) but we do not appear to be happier. We adapt to our level of material goods. The hedonic treadmill is one of the enemies of happiness. Going from living under a bridge to a house is a big change (poverty to basic living), but going from from £50k to £100k has a lesser impact on happiness.
- Dopamine is the neurotransmitter for happiness. As you age, you are losing dopamine synapses. We get the best dopamine releases during physical activity (sports, bring in nature). Also get from being in the zone (aka 'flow'), when you are lost in an activity and have left yourself behind.
- The three main examples of extrinsic goals are money, image and status (external to you). In contrast, we also have intrinsic goals, which are inherently satisfying in and of themselves and relate to internal needs e.g. personal growth, relationships, desire to help and cooperate (these also release dopamine in the right circumstances).
- The internal and external goals can be in opposition to each other.
- Happiness can help you achieve your other goals and you are also nicer to be around.
- Bushmen of the Kalahari - "it doesn't matter what we're doing. Just being together makes us happy."
- Dalia Lama - says compassion is in our blood, from the beginning and across our whole life.
- We can generate love, compassion, care and kindness with meditation and practice. Caring about something bigger than yourself - transcending your own life, can improves happiness e.g. acts of kindness, reducing the burden of others.
- The formula is not the same for everyone. The building blocks of happiness: play, new experiences, friends and family, connectedness doing things that are meaningful, appreciating what we have - these can all be free.

Stephen Fry - Humanism talks (happiness, death and science)

Here are three three-minute talks from the Humanist Association, in which the sage Stephen Fry discusses happiness, death and science, from a humanist perspective. I particularly like how the science lecture animation finishes up, with reason, evidence and experimentation on one side, and ghosts and goblins on the other.

Film: Birdman

This is one I'm looking forward to:

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Books: A Tale of Tub by Jonathan Swift, and Urne Burial by Sir Thomas Browne


Both of these books belong to the Penguin Great Ideas collection - judged by the powers at Penguin as books that have changed the world, shaping who we are as a civilisation - so I thought they might make for gripping reading. As it turned out, they books had me confounded and baffled in equal measure and they were rejected after the first sorties. Sometimes this is just how it is.

Urne burial (1658) is described as a 'profund consideration of the inevitability of death...the most fascinating and poignant of all reflections upon the vanity of mankind's lust for immortality.' This sounded like it could be fascinating but with typical paragraphs like the one that follows, I had to throw in the towel pretty sharpish:

"Civilians make sepulture but of the Law of Nations, others doe naturally found it and discover it also in animals. They that are so thick skinned as still to credit the story of the Phœnix, may say something for animall burning; More serious conjectures finde some examples of sepulture in Elephants, Cranes, the Sepulchrall Cells of Pismires and practice of Bees; which civill society carrieth out their dead, and hath exequies, if not interrments."

I seem almost alone in my lowly rating of Urne Burial. The Goodreads website gives it over four stars, with many praising the literary genius of Browne. I say almost alone because there is one reviewer who writes, 'weird, why did I read this?'. I'm on your page dude, I'm on your page.

I really wanted to enjoy A Tale of Tub by Jonathan Swift. As a fan of satires such as Candide by Voltaire, I though A Tale of Tub would be right up my street. Alas, it was not to be and the text proved overly ponderous and challenging, and the main story, about three characters representing three divides in Christianity, held little interest for this reader.

On the upside, I loved this entertaining quote: '...whereas wisdom is a fox, who after long hunting, will at last cost you the pains to dig out. It is a cheese which, by how much the richer, has the thicker, the homelier, and the coarser coat, and whereof to a judicious palate the maggots are the best. It is a sack-posset, wherein the deeper you go you will find it the sweeter. Wisdom is a hen whose cackling we must value and consider, because it is attended with an egg. But then, lastly, it is a nut, which, unless you choose with judgment, may cost you a tooth, and pay you with nothing but a worm.'

Also: 'But, finding the state has no farther occasion for me and my ink, I retire willingly to draw it out into speculations more becoming a philosopher; having, to my unspeakable comfort, passed a long life with a conscience void of offence.'

"It is a fatal miscarriage so ill to order affair as to pass for a fool in one company when in another your might be treated as a philosopher.''

Book: Expensive Habits by Peter Mayle

Expensive Habits by Peter Mayle could have made for good reading, if only the author had adopted a more humble, observational perspective. focusing on luxury products and services with interesting histories e.g. tailoring, cigars, shoes (£750 for a pair of the finest), and malts. Alas, Mayle devotes chapters to limousines, private flights, second homes abroad, lawyers, and the luxury item that is the mistress! Pretty vile stuff, especially as you can't tell when he is joking or being serious. At least it was a quick read.

On a related note: After reading this book, I read a piece by John Kay which reminds us of the upward drift in living standards over time and makes the point that even though Nathan Rothschild was the richest man in the world in 1836, he died of an illness which could have been cured by 'an antibiotic costing a few pence' today. The economist Tim Harford also noted recently that while much fuss has been made of inequality within countries, whether you are rich or poor on the global scale depends very much on which country you happen to be born in. Both observations are good checks to any feeling of envy one may have over their direct neighbour.

These articles remind us to take the longer and wider perspective when looking at relative properity.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Book: The Greek Myths by Robin Waterfield and Kethryn Waterfield

I haven't lost myself in a book in a while, but it happened with Greek Myths by Robin and Katheryn Waterfield. At less than 300 pages long, the Waterfields have done well to cram in so many of the Greek myths while keeping the tales grippingly entertaining. The first third of the book proved a bit of a slog , which is probably my fault for trying to read the book just before going to the sleep - it's hard to keep track of who's who when the brain is on the verge of dozing off! As things progressed (and as I added some day-time reading sessions) the stories became much more involved, with a rich interplay between gods and humans. I haven't finished the book yet but had to blog about it as it has just moved in to five star territory. A more detailed post will follow once the book is complete.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Poem: Do Not Stand at my Grave and Weep by Mary Elizabeth Frye

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.

I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Poem: The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Poem: This Is Just To Say by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox
and which
you were probably
for breakfast
Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Poem: Swineherd by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

When all this is over, said the swineherd,
I mean to retire, where
Nobody will have heard about my special skills
And conversation is mainly about the weather.
I intend to learn how to make coffee, as least as well
As the Portuguese lay-sister in the kitchen
And polish the brass fenders every day.
 I want to lie awake at night
Listening to cream crawling to the top of the jug
And the water lying soft in the cistern.
I want to see an orchard where the trees grow in straight lines
And the yellow fox finds shelter between the navy-blue trunks,
Where it gets dark early in summer
And the apple-blossom is allowed to wither on the bough.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Poem: Leisure by William Henry Davies

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Poem: First Fig By Edna St. Vincent Millay

My candle burns at both ends;
   It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
   It gives a lovely light!

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Poem: Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening By Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.  
His house is in the village though;  
He will not see me stopping here  
To watch his woods fill up with snow.  

My little horse must think it queer  
To stop without a farmhouse near  
Between the woods and frozen lake  
The darkest evening of the year.  

He gives his harness bells a shake  
To ask if there is some mistake.  
The only other sound’s the sweep  
Of easy wind and downy flake.  

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,  
But I have promises to keep,  
And miles to go before I sleep,  
And miles to go before I sleep.

Book: Poetry Please - The Nation's Best-Loved Poems (BBC Radio 4)

Poetry Please is based on a BBC Radio 4 programme that has been on the airwaves since 1979. The book contains 350 poems arranged by theme, and makes for relaxed browsing on a lazy weekend.

As a poetry Philistine, I can at least say I have tried and given poetry a chance, even if the turn out was that I marked a mere ten poems as worth keeping for future reference. The famous poets such as Tennyson, Coleridge, Bronte and Keats, with all their 'whilts', 'thou's', 'thences', and 'o'ers', all failed me (yes, they failed me, not the other way around!). I do like Ozymandias by Shelly, which does take some contextual understanding, but it is short and powerful, and gets extra points for featuring in Breaking Bad.

In coming blog posts, I will publish my favourite poems from the book. Brace yourselves.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Should we Seek Material Security?

In the Weekend FT, "The Shrink & The Sage" ask, "Should we seek material security?".  I particularly like the Shrink's response:

"It may be easy to agree that an acquisitive approach to life is not likely to be good for our mental health. But surely a certain amount of material security is a prerequisite for wellbeing? After all, safety sits squarely near the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, among those that should be satisfied first in order for us to move on to higher ones such as achievement and creativity.

And yet there are many examples of people who deprive themselves of common necessities for the sake of something they see as more valuable...

The traditions that encourage us to toss away what most of us crave also point to the fact that these things can only give us an illusion of safety. Ultimate security is not an achievable aim. Instead of chasing chimeras, we should learn to come to terms with life’s fundamental insecurity.

The idea of giving up all the common human ambitions – not only material security but also love, belonging, recognition – may be daunting for most of us. Not many people would want to forego these most natural of goals, which on average tend to make people’s lives better. But in a world where the satisfaction of evolved needs is often portrayed as a necessary condition of wellbeing, it’s good to entertain the possibility that these desires don’t have to be pandered to unreflectively.

Only some of us will choose the ascetic path of renunciation. But all of us can learn the lesson that if these goods are not indispensable to some, they need not be everything to the rest of us. It’s sensible to plan for our pension but we should do it without excessive fear and anxiety."

For more good stuff, see the Shrink and Sage blog here.

Buddhism quote from the Dalai Lama

"If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview."
I like the basic principles of Buddhism and believe the Dalai Lama is a highly pragmatic and effective teacher. I am also impressed with the idea of Buddhism, particularly with how aspects of the practice fit so well with the scientific process, and also the idea of viewing it as a rebellion against nature (as taught in an excellent Coursera course by Professor Robert Wright).

However, while above quote indicates a level of openness to rational and scientific thought that some other belief systems (or at least some specific believers) do not share, note how the Dalai Lama's message is highly qualified. By saying that it's up to science to prove something wrong in order for Buddhism to change is one step in the right direction. However, science cannot disprove reincarnation, karma, or heaven or hell, or ghosts, or fairies. You've got as much of a rational basis to belief in any of these as you have to believe that the centre of the earth of made of cheese, or that when we die our spirits all go to another planet, or that we aren't alive at all, but are just advanced computer simulations living a completely artificial existence - we just think we're "real". That we might believe these types of things as individuals or in large groups doesn't make them more or less true. I'm not knocking these constructs from a social value perspective, not at all, but you can't ask science to disprove any them...THAT IS NOT HOW SCIENCE WORKS. Whilst you have a think about this, I'll be off playing hop-scotch with some goblins and a pygmy dragon that lives in my garage.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Audi 80 - goodbye to a good ten years

I scrapped my much loved Audi 80 (1994) a few months ago. Its MOT was coming up and while the old horse was still trotting along really well, the tyres all needed replacing, the brakes were on their way out, and some other bits and pieces also needed looking at. Combined with the paltry fuel consumption, this made it too costly to maintain, even though a lot of the spend would have been on standard wear and tear.

Looking back at the original receipt, I bought the car in June 2004 so it did last me a good ten years with appreciation of a mere £170 a year and absolutely minimal upkeep costs. Alas, Audi we knew each other well. All I have left of you is memories, a few photos, and the Audi logo which I prized off the glove box ; )

Being a little desperate to replace the car, I decided to go for a 2002 Golf GT TDI. In haste, I bought the car from a dealership who had just got the car in on a part exchange deal. I really should have spent more time kicking the tyres, because after I bought the car I realised the suspension was shot to pieces. The windscreen was also cracked and needed to be replaced for £150. At the very least, I could have bargained a few hundred quid off the price. Nevertheless, I figured it was a solid car, with a good service history, a decent set of tyres, and excellent fuel efficiency. Over the coming weeks, I picked up on a few more faults, such as dodgy electrics and a broken electric window, which surprisingly turned out to be typical of these cars (one reviewer describes the window mechanism as being made out of chocolate). Also, despite having various mod cons such as climate control, leather seats with heating built in, and a twin electric sunroof, the interior feels much cheaper than the Audi 80, a car that was eight years its senior!

Due to the dodgy electrics the headlight buzzer doesn't work and I've had to call the RAC out twice to jump start the car because I left the lights on - just today I had to replace the battery, which was drained to death. Oh the car also keeps locking itself, which means I could easily find myself locked out of my car if I leave the keys inside. As I don't have a spare key made up yet, this could be an expensive mistake.

On the upside, the suspension fix can wait, the cambelt has already been replaced, and the diesel engine is a rock solid  lump. Visually, the car looks okay (it's just lacking soul and character), and the fuel efficiency is outstanding at over 53 mpg! The savings on fuel and road tax mean that I could happily spend about £600 a year on this car in repairs and it wouldn't hurt my wallet any more than if I kept the Audi running. Also, there is an important mental effect of having minimal fuel costs, which is that you don't feel that you are killing your wallet every time you take a drive!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Buddhism overview

The School of Life has just printed a perfect short summary of Buddhism.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Will Ebola make the US turn to science....from The New Yorker

NEW YORK (The Borowitz Report)—There is a deep-seated fear among some Americans that an Ebola outbreak could make the country turn to science.

In interviews conducted across the nation, leading anti-science activists expressed their concern that the American people, wracked with anxiety over the possible spread of the virus, might desperately look to science to save the day.

“It’s a very human reaction,” said Harland Dorrinson, a prominent anti-science activist from Springfield, Missouri. “If you put them under enough stress, perfectly rational people will panic and start believing in science.”

Additionally, he worries about a “slippery slope” situation, “in which a belief in science leads to a belief in math, which in turn fosters a dangerous dependence on facts.”

At the end of the day, though, Dorrinson hopes that such a doomsday scenario will not come to pass. “Time and time again through history, Americans have been exposed to science and refused to accept it,” he said. “I pray that this time will be no different.”