Google Reader, RIP

Google just announced that Reader will be unavailable as of July 1. Damn!

This makes me think that I should never rely on Google products for anything important. Docs, calendar, etc. Time to start looking for alternatives to each.

Perfect health diet

For the last month I’ve been trying the Perfect Health Diet and I’m pleased. My weight has remained low where it had dropped when I was sick. My strength is mostly back to where it was before I fell ill. It feels like my energy level is improved and my attention span is perhaps better than it was.

At first the name of the diet seemed pretentious but I get that it’s a play on how the authors, a husband and wife team, both have PhDs. Their book is clearly written and presents a convincing case for the benefits of their diet plan. I came to it via the Paleo book by Rob Wolf, which also makes a good case but puts me off with its sophomoric writing.

Making better decisions

New Scientist mag has a May 2007 article on “Top 10 ways to make better decisions“. Here is what I got from it.

  1. Don’t fear the consequences

    Rather than looking inwards and imagining how a given outcome might make you feel, try to find someone who has made the same decision or choice, and see how they felt. Remember also that whatever the future holds, it will probably hurt or please you less than you imagine. Finally, don’t always play it safe. The worst might never happen – and if it does you have the psychological resilience to cope.

  2. Go with your gut instincts

    faced with a simple choice, subjects picked better cars if they could think things through. When confronted by a complex decision, however, they became bamboozled and actually made the best choices when they did not consciously analyse the options.

  3. Consider your emotions
    This is a difficult one. Experiments show that people disconnected from their emotions due to neural damage have trouble making even basic decisions. On the other hand, anger and disgust can affect choices where the situation is unrelated to what triggered the emotion.
  4. Play the devil’s advocate
    Work against the “confirmation bias”, our tendency to ignore evidence that goes against our opinions. Or at least recognize that the bias exists.
  5. Keep your eye on the ball

    Our decisions and judgements have a strange and disconcerting habit of becoming attached to arbitrary or irrelevant facts and figures.

    Buying something because of a discounted “sale price” is an example. Only the price should really matter, not how much it is supposedly discounted.

  6. Don’t cry over spilt milk
    This is about the sunk cost fallacy: “the more we invest in something, the more commitment we feel towards it.”.
  7. Look at it another way
    This concerns the framing effect: “the choices we make are irrationally coloured by the way the alternatives are presented. In particular, we have a strong bias towards options that seem to involve gains, and an aversion to ones that seem to involve losses.”
    This leads to taking more risks to avoid losses than to obtain gains. Reframing the problem to look at it from the other side of the gain/loss perspective might help. [Not sure I understand this.]
  8. Beware social pressure

    How can you avoid the malign influence of social pressure? First, if you suspect you are making a choice because you think it is what your boss would want, think again. If you are a member of a group or committee, never assume that the group knows best, and if you find everyone agreeing, play the contrarian. Finally, beware situations in which you feel you have little individual responsibility – that is when you are most likely to make irresponsible choices.

  9. Limit your options
    Trying to maximize the best outcome by deliberating over all possible options, as opposed to being satisfied with “good enough”, can lead to less satisfaction.
  10. Have someone else choose
    When there is little information to go on, or the decision is trivial or has only distasteful options, it can be more satisfying to let someone (or even something) else choose.

(Via a blog post by Kol Tregaskes.)

Predicting happiness when making choices

From “Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth” by Diener and Biswas-Diener, 2008:

There are several predictable thinking errors people commonly make that lead them to incorrectly predict their own future emotions in general, and future happiness in particular:

  1. Focusing on a single salient feature or period of time in a choice, rather than looking at the big picture.
  2. Overestimating the long-term impact of our choices.
  3. Forgetting that happiness is an ongoing process, not a destination
  4. Paying too much attention to external information while overlooking personal preferences and experience.
  5. Trying to maximize decisions rather than focusing on personal satisfaction.
  6. Confusing wanting something for liking it later, and forgetting to evaluate whether we will enjoy the choice once its novelty wears off.

The good news is that by identifying these errors and learning about why they occur, we can guard against them. We may never be able to overcome them entirely, but we certainly can reduce their impact on our lives. By considering a wide range of information, by remembering our ability to cope and adapt, by tapping personal experience, and by remembering that happiness is an ongoing process, you will be far more likely to make decisions that will make you optimally happy. To make good happiness forecasts, get some experience when you can, and check with others who have had similar experiences to the one you will have. Focus on the entire picture, not just on some salient aspect of it, and think what it will be like after a year, not just during the initial period when things may be either more stressful or more exciting. By becoming a good happiness forecaster, through practice and experience, you will substantially increase your psychological wealth.

Your brain is like a pile of sand

From Disorderly genius: How chaos drives the brain

your brain operates on the edge of chaos. Though much of the time it runs in an orderly and stable way, every now and again it suddenly and unpredictably lurches into a blizzard of noise.

systems on the edge of chaos are said to be in a state of “self-organised criticality“. These systems are right on the boundary between stable, orderly behaviour – such as a swinging pendulum – and the unpredictable world of chaos, as exemplified by turbulence.

experiments have confirmed that these models accurately describe what real brain tissue does. They build on the observation that when a single neuron fires, it can trigger its neighbours to fire too, causing a cascade or avalanche of activity that can propagate across small networks of brain cells. This results in alternating periods of quiescence and activity – remarkably like the build-up and collapse of a sand pile.

Work that can’t be done over the wire

From Heidegger and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

[According to Princeton economist Alan Blinder] the labor market of the next decades won’t necessarily be divided between the highly educated and the less-educated: “The critical divide in the future may instead be between those types of work that are easily deliverable through a wire (or via wireless connections) with little or no diminution in quality and those that are not.” Binder goes on to summarize his own take: “You can’t hammer a nail over the Internet.” Learning a trade is not limiting but, rather, liberating. If you are in possession of a skill that cannot be exported overseas, done with an algorithm, or downloaded, you will always stand a decent chance of finding work. Even rarer, you will probably be a master of your own domain, something the thousands of employed but bored people in the service industries can only dream of.

Working over the internet is freeing because you can do it from anywhere, but the flip-side is that you are then in competition with the entire world

Distraction and Attention

From In Defense of Distraction:

“Where you allow your attention to go ultimately says more about you as a human being than anything that you put in your mission statement,” [Merlin Mann] continues. “It’s an indisputable receipt for your existence. And if you allow that to be squandered by other people who are as bored as you are, it’s gonna say a lot about who you are as a person.”

Positive emotions make us more vulnerable

From What Makes Us Happy?:

… positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they’re future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs—protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections—but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.

Then there is this (emphasis mine):

When Vaillant told me he was going to speak to Seligman’s class, he said his message would be from William Blake: “Joy and woe are woven fine.” Earlier in his career, he would use such occasions to demonstrate, with stories and data, the bright side of pain—how adaptations can allow us to turn dross into gold. Now he articulates the dark side of pleasure and connection—or, at least, the way that our most profound yearnings can arise from our most basic fears.

Self-control via strategic allocation of attention

From Don’t in the New Yorker:

What, then, determined self-control? Mischel’s conclusion, based on hundreds of hours of observation, was that the crucial skill was the “strategic allocation of attention.” Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow—the “hot stimulus”—the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated—it was merely forgotten.

Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.

… this is how self-control “cashes out” in the real world: as an ability to direct the spotlight of attention so that our decisions aren’t determined by the wrong thoughts.