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Monthly Archives: November 2005

links: nov 28th 2005

happiness and desire

In the first place, it seems clear that people’s self-report of how happy they are is a fairly valid measure of their happiness. It correlates highly with the perception of family and friends, with the incidence of pathologies and relevant behaviours – in short, people who think they are happy also look and act like happy people are supposed to. They tend to be extroverted, they have stable relationships, the live healthy and productive lives. So far so good.

Although, if i was an extrovert with stable relationships and a healthy and productive life, I think i’d be happy too! Any proof that this is causation not correlation?

But there might be some interesting downsides as well. For instance, one of the most widely accepted definitions of happiness is that it is a state in which one does not desire anything else. Happy people tend not to value material possessions highly, are less affected by advertising and propoganda, are not as drive by desire for power and achivement. Why would they? They are happy already, right? The prospect of a society of happy people should be enough to send shivers down the spine of our productive system, built on ever-escalating consumption, on never-satisfied desire.

Would like to see the references for this. Seems just a little too convenient for the liberal world-view to me. I bet happy people would value their material possessions highly if there was a threat that they would be taken away – likewise i’d be less happy and value material possessions more if i didn’t possses any. I don’t see why you can’t have a kind of happiness which is based on activity (including consumption), rather than on a lack-of-desires (contentment?)

Will academic psychology be of any help in providing answers to these impending choices?
…Among the the things we learned is that people who are engaged in challenging activities with clear goals tend to be happier than those who lead relaxing, pleasurable lives. The less one works just for oneself, the larger the scope of one’s relationships and commitments, the happier a person is likely to be.

This much, I think, is well supported by the evidence. But why can’t shopping be a challenging activity with clear goals. I think Csikszentmihalyi in this paragraph is contradicting his assertion in the one i’ve quoted here as proceeding it. True, relationships, commitments and a lack of selfishness suggest that shopping is probably not the best route to happiness, but happy people will still desire stuff, i’m sure.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2002). The Future of Happiness. In J. Brockman (Ed.), The next fifty years, pp. 85-92. New York: Vintage

‘to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’

I have no wish to soften the saying that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric; it expresses in negative form the impulse which inspires committed literature. The question asked by a character in Sartre’s play Morts Sans Supulture, ‘Is there any meaning in life when men exist who beat people until the bones break in their bodies?’, is also the question whether any art now has a right to exist; whether intellectual regression is not inherant in the concept of committed literture because of the regression of society. But Enzensberger’s retort also remains true, that literature must resist this verdict, in other words, be such that its mere existence after Auschwitz is not a surrender to cynicism. Its own situation is one of paradox, not merely the one of how to react to it…

…by turning suffering into images, harsh and uncompromising though they are, it wounds the shame we feel in the presence of the victims. For these victims are used to create something, works of art, that are thrown to the consumption of a world which destroyed them. The so-called artistic representation of the sheer physical pain of people beaten to the ground by rifle-butts contains, however remotely, the power to elicit enjoyment out of it. The moral of this art, not to forget for a single instant, slithers into the abyss of its opposite. The aesthetic principle of stylization, and even the solemn prayer of the chorus, make an unthinkable fate appear to have had some meaning; it is transfigured, something of its horror removed. This alone does an injustice to the victims; yet no art which tried to evade them could confront the claims of justice.

Theodor Adorno, ‘Commitment’

Adorno on politics and literature

If no word which enters a literary work ever wholly frees itself from its meaning in ordinary speech, so no literary work, not even the traditional novel, leaves these meanings unaltered, as they were outside it. Even an ordinary ‘was’, in a report of something that was not, acquires a new formal quality from the fact that it was not so. The same process occurs in the higher levels of meaning of a work, all the way up to what once used to be called its ‘Idea’

Theodor Adorno, ‘Commitment’


If you think about the distribution of events, some will have very low probabilities. So low, in fact, that on average they occur less than once. But of course events either happen or they don’t, so an average of less than once tends to get approximated to not-at-all if you think in probabilistic terms. But if you look at the class of all those things with average frequency less than one there’s a good chance of one, or some, of them happening. And when they do, they happen at a frequency far greater than the prediction of the average (by necessity, since the average is between zero and one if they occur it will be an integer value of minimum one).

I was thinking these thoughts while watching this demo of ‘The Galton Machine’ which illustrates the central limit theorum and, peripheraly, provides an example of a system which can be approximately described by one ‘rule’ (a Gaussian distribution) but follows quite different mechanistics rules (you see, it’s always about minds and brains round here). Look at the extremes of the distibution. Soon enough a single ball will fall somewhere there, and when it does it will far exceed the predicted (average) frequency of it occuring.

It occured to me that all this was analagous to an interesting piece in the Guardian, an extract from Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination, by Lee Clarke, published by the University of Chicago Press. Clarke says that thinking about probabilities lets you get away with thinking about was is most likely to happen, whereas thinking about possibilities lets you plan for rare events of serious magnitude.

The trouble is that when it comes to real worst cases – actual disasters – there are no “average events”. How could we talk about a normal distribution of extreme events? If we imagine the future in terms of probabilities, then risks look safe. That’s because almost any future big event is unlikely.

counterfactuals …help us see how power and interest mould what is considered legitimate to worry about. One lesson is that we cannot necessarily trust high-level decision-makers to learn from their mistakes. They could. But they often have an interest in not learning.

Our governments and institutions almost always have a vested interest in not engaging in possibilistic thinking, and in offering us instead the reassuring palliative of probabilistic scenarios.

I wonder if this is part of the story of why modern government seems to be about the management of existing trends rather than envisioning of future, alternative (possibly radically alternative), states that society could exist in.

links: still not tired of measuring and truth

ethical shoes

[local interest warning:]

I found a shop that sells ethical shoes. Vegan shoes, locally made shoes (for trainers this means inside europe), non-sweatshop shoes. They guy is just starting up, and I was surprised at the range that is available (there had to be at least 40 different types there). It’s in leeds and the address is

Out Of Step, 100 Merrion Centre. Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS2 8PJ
Tel: 0113 245 1730

Quote #114

All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out

I.F. Stone, In a Time of Torment: 1961-1967 (Nonconformist History of Our Times), p. 317 [thanks Will]

Reborn II

I’ve finally got MT working again. It might look the same to you, but it runs on a different server and it’s been a complete nightmare difficult to say the least to get it all working properly. Recommends: install phpmyadmin to manage the MySQL database and MT-Medic for Moveable Type debugging.

In other news, i’m just got back from SfN and i’ve signed up for Scype which is fantastic (and fantastically easy).

SfN 2005

The world’s biggest scientific meeting, the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting, happens next week in Washington DC. They’ll be over 30,000 researchers and clinicians there, as well as the Dalai Lama talking about neuronscience and meditation, 17,000 presentations and a variety of side scientific meetings and social events (i’m intrigued by the Hippocampus open mike event, an evening for researchers interested in the hippocampus organised around the format of a poetry slam).

Anyway, from tomorrow I’ll be in Washington – I’m going early for the computational cognitive neuroscience conference. I’ll be there until the 16th, so if anyone has any recommendations for things to do, or if any readers fancy meeting up (maybe we could go to the hippocampus social?), let me know. tom [at] idiolect [dot] org [dot] uk

Blind Institute to close

[Local News Warning]

Mappin Blind Institute is to close. This will be a disaster for anyone who is not a business wanting to run events in the center of Sheffield. There is nowhere comparable for location, size, versatility and affordability. Many community groups, cultural and other non-profit groups rely on the Blind Institute for events (and fund-raising). Yikes!

I’m sure someone knows more of the ins and outs of the bulldozing redevelopment of the building (please God let it not be for more luxery flats!), but its not me. So I wrote to the manager of the Blind Institute Steve Hambleton (address below, with my letter). If anyone knows any more, or has any suggestions for points of leverage to do something about the situation, please get in touch.

Steve Hambleton, General Manager
Sheffield Royal Society for the Blind
5 Mappin Street
Sheffield, S1 4DT

Dear Mr Hambleton,

I was disturbed to learn that the Mappin Street Blind Institute is to be redeveloped (a.k.a knocked down). I’m sure I don’t need to persuade you of the variety and vitality of the events that the Blind Institute hosts, but I did want to write and communicate my distress that this venue is to cease to exist.

There is no other venue that is so suitable for hosting community, fund-raising and musical events by non-profit groups. Nowhere else is as affordable, as central (and safe) nor as versatile as a venue. Just in the last year I’ve attended meals, dances, gigs and conferences in the Blind Institute by a range of non-profit community and cultural groups. The loss of the Blind Institute will be a disaster for non-commercial culture in Sheffield!

So, some questions:

What, if anything, can be done to stop the redevelopment of the building?
What can be done to ensure that the redevelopment plan includes provision for establishing alternative venues for all the facilities the Blind Institute currently provides?
In whose hands is the coordination of the redevelopment? What are their contact details?

You’ll have to excuse my ignorance of the plans, but I only just found out about them and wanted to write to you immediately to register my dismay. If you are able to answer any or all of these questions I would be most grateful. Email is just as good as post, if that is more convenient for you.

Many thanks,

Tom Stafford

update: Note corrected name, Steve Hambleton (not Mather)

Links 1st of November 2005


remembering cycling down the hill last night. Empty streets, it hadn?t rained yet and the distant street-lights across the city looked like cold lost jewels. Knowing this run, this curve, this curb which affords a jump and then the switch to the other side of the road to keep the racing line. Pushing the speed all the time, not racing anyone, not being timed, but always trying to accelerate, always peddling, even though it?s downhill. Braking at the corners, leaning into the turn, feeling the tug of the motion as you swerve out of it and lean the other way. Throwing weight and speed and will into this next jump, the wheels spin on air ? a moment of divine suspension ? and then touching down, feeling the bite of the ground and starting to pedal again at that absolutely right and correct instant. A singular object racing without thought over an urban playground. Knowing and feeling all the contours and lines of the ground moved over, responding to the opportunities it gives for your energy to hurtle over it, pitching forward to the next opportunity. Then -Red lights and the world forcing you to a stop, just so it can catch up. Breathing in, everything still buzzing, in alert repose waiting for the starting light?and?.go!