Friday, October 21, 2005

Happiness and utility

"Happiness is not achieved by the conscious pursuit of happiness; it is
generally the by-product of other activities."

"The value of that which is sought to be maximised in any situation
involving a choice."

Happiness and utility go hand in hand, i.e.: the more utility you get out of something, the happier you become.

I disagree with Aldous Huxley’s comment that in a conscious pursuit of happiness, one cannot achieve it. This is because when one consciously increases their utility, they derive more pleasure from it and subsequently become happier. Why else, if not to have more because it pleases you (hence happier) would one pursue more activities (which increases their utility)?
The basic underlying assumption here is that we wouldn't mindlessly pursue activities that don't confer some sort of benefit (there may be exceptions).

I think that happiness is a complex emotion. It revolves around relative – not absolute – equilibria. The theory of relative wealth provides a good example. It suggests that we are all wealthy as long as we are on the same wealth level. The instance an individual/society is proved to be wealthier, then despite that fact that our own wealth remains unchanged, we feel poorer/worse off.

Similarly, happiness revolves along the same axis; we feel happy but when we discover others who appear to experience "higher levels" of happiness, we then subconsciously engage a "relative scale" in our brains and we immediately compute that we can be happier because we see others whom we deem to be happier. Conversely, when we see others who don't appear to be as happy as we are, we compute in our minds that we have arrived.
My opinion is that if you want to be happier, you have to do things that make you happy and that invariably involves increasing your utility. If eating crisps or drinking beer makes you happy, then you pursue this to the nth degree. But naturally (the law of diminishing marginal returns) the more you consume of a particular item, the less utility you derive from it. By the time you’ve had your 10th beer, you will not be enjoying it as much as your 9th beer or 8th, right down to your 1st. Another example is, most people find that listening to the same piece of music over and over again during a day implies that each additional hearing is less pleasant than the previous one, at least after the initial stage of gaining familiarity with the piece.
This then implies that you should be engaging in other parallel activities that provide utility over prolonged periods of time and hence provide pleasure, joy, and happiness over a longer period. Such a pursuit is continuous and once it stops, we feel less happy (e.g.: consider a time when you pause to remember the "happy" times or the "good old days").

I think that those in the rural parts of poor countries probably have the purest and longest lasting kind of happiness. Why? Because their "relative scale" doesn’t change much over time, hence they are happier over longer periods. This contrasts sharply with we fickle westerners and western-minded folk. One item is barely in fashion before it becomes unfashionable to own it and with the quick turnover of what is fashionable so comes multiple opportunities for our happiness to remain intact or diminish somewhat. Some people are affected more than others but in extreme cases, children try to emulate fashion models to the point of self destruction. Of course all this is subconscious and it takes a lot of effort to consciously manage one’s own relativite positioning and crucially, what it means to us.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The representative heuristic

The representative heuristic is what determines the reaction of people to others that are different from them. I.e.: after a report in the media that, for example, black people are x times more likely to commit gun crime (hypothetically), or that muslims are x times more likely to suicide bomb (hypothetically), the representative heuristic will have people generally expecting a random black person to shoot them (irrespective of the black person's context) or expect any random muslim to blow them up.

The representative heuristic is the essence of how society is institutionally prejudiced. It is formed from childhood when as children, we are taught to learn by association. For instance, we learn to associate dark clouds with storms so that we don't need a weather forecast to tell us what's coming when we see dark clouds. We are taught the predispositions and the prejudices of the grown ups. At that tender age, whilst still very impressionable, we absorb ideas like sponges. We hear the adults make comments about others, call names, make jokes, etc, that in our eyes seem acceptable as we grow up. As children, we don't know better.

A report by Jennifer Richeson of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire (USA) on cognitive neuroscience, reveals that brains are drained by hidden racial biases. The idea behind this theory of resource depletion is that the effort expended on suppressing prejudice depletes the ability to use cognitive control in subsequent tasks. To cite a few findings, the report states:

"In the study, 30 white students were given computer test asking them to classify names as those of black or white people, and words as being positive and negative concepts...When viewing photos of black individuals, all the students' brains lit up in the frontal lobe area - known to be involved in cognitive control, says Richeson. In sharp contrast, this area did not light up in any of the students viewing pictures of white individuals. "It's pretty amazing," she says."
"... level of brain activity correlated very closely with poor performance in a test of thinking ability given right after a face-to-face interview with a black person. The researchers believe this indicates that the subject's mental resources have been temporarily drained by their efforts to suppress their prejudices"
"People with implicit racial prejudices are left mentally exhausted after interacting with someone from a different race, perhaps because they are trying to quell their feelings."
What this experiment does not answer, of course, is whether the prejudiced participants were striving to overcome their prejudices, or merely to cover them up. Dr Richeson remarks of her results that, there's a subtle, but powerful, difference between trying not to do the wrong thing, and building positive habits through friendships and cultural exchange, so that doing the right thing becomes the automatic response, one that does not require active damage control. Read the entire article here: New scientist

It is my belief that many are hijacked by the "system" too often, which explains the high levels of "control" exhibited in the presence of blacks in the study above. I do believe that the representative heuristic is responsible for the prejudices exhibited in today's multicultural societies. With so much information about different groups at hand, I'm inclined to think that prejudice is due to some associations embedded in our brains from childhood that are difficult to unlearn.
I have two questions:
1. Has the media helped perpetuate or alleviate the negative effects of the representative heuristic approach to life? (see this article for an example)
2. How do you think the above research can affect an outcome at a job interview?

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Native Brits will be minority

In Laban Tall's Blog, the blogger (UK Commentators) interprets the findings on the BBC's site and decides to that his opening paragraph in his article titled "Our Future" should start:

"These figures don't alter the big picture (that Native Brits will be a minority by the end of the century) but they do illuminate it rather well."

Though this is likely to be true, I wonder if Laban has considered that native Americans (America Indians) were actually almost wiped out by emigrating Brits and are now (many years on) not even remembered by mainstream America.
However, in sharp contrast to the native American situation at the time of the Brit immigrant, today’s immigrants do not bring with them weaponry to defeat and overthrow the locals. So I think the native Brit is safe unless he/she decides to leave - for whatever reason. Don't you?

However Laban concludes:

"So we see that 66% of recently arrived Indians are employed, but only 40% of Bangladeshis and 12% of Somalis. We also see that settled Kenyans, Ugandans, Zambians, Zimbabweans, Malawians, Malaysians, Zambians, Sri Lankans, even French, make up a greater proportion of the high-paid than the Native Brits. Perhaps the culture of the communities from which people come is actually more important in determining success than the dreadful racism of the natives."

Hmm, definitely food for thought.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Economist magazine blunders?

Quickly loosing credibility in my eyes, publishing unworthy and thoughtless articles.

To cite a few:
1. Brain drain – America focus
This article actually states that:

"Well-educated people in America are the least likely in the world
to emigrate"

This to me is like stating that hungry people are the most likely to eat; stating the bleeding obvious. Why on earth would educated Americans emigrate? It is those from less developed economies that do economic migration. Surely this is economics 101 (basic economics for the non-economics mind).

2. Brain drain – Africa focus (click here for my reaction), (other reactions)

3. Investigating the police (click here for my reaction)

And the most recent:
4. Illegal immigration - Decapitating the snakeheads (06/10/2005)

I found the above article imprudent. Turning to page 18 to read the article on illegal immigration and I see this picture next to it.

Keeping in mind that pictures speak a thousand words, it then subsequently becomes irrelevant what else follows in the way of column inches. The message - intentionally or otherwise - has been understood or misunderstood (as the case may be). Before people see/read the rest of the article (if they even bother to), they are first confronted with the title "illegal immigration" then the image (above).

Ignorance is never a defence and can on occasion be enjoyed as bliss but to print an article about illegal immigration and place next to it a photograph comprising entirely of people from one specific racial group can be said to be – in the least – imprudent, at the worst anybody’s guess. One thing for certain is that it does not improve racial relations. It has about as much benefit on racial relations as having majority black traffic wardens. People are generally abusive when they get a traffic ticket, but to combine a "moment of madness" from the recipient of the ticket with a black face issuing it and one can imagine the first insult that pops into the brain. It starts with the letter N.

I remember a recent time in London when the topic of illegal immigration and asylum became very real and was in the news around the clock. It was around the same time when ethnic minorities were being looked upon as the "illegal immigrants". A few British born Asian friends of mine were called immigrants by a group of individuals who felt well informed and vindicated. Why did this happen? To answer the question, you have to ask yourself, what is wrong with the picture that follows the title?

It does not account for the diversity of illegal immigration. It therefore begs the question, what then is its purpose on print? >

The irony of the situation is that I have avoided all the reckless newspapers that spew out the editors' propaganda/predispositions under the guise of "information for the masses". I instead turn to well written, supposedly well thought out literature for my news consumption. I then blame the average Joe’s limited but voluntary exposure to "skewed" journals for his/her ignorant view on life. But it then turns out that I have found articles in the "better of the bunch" that perpetuate the average Joe's ignorance.

Newspapers, media, etc have a responsibility. How they exercise that responsibility is an entirely different story. The image that follows the text creates an impression on the brain that associates those within the photograph with the broad issue of illegal immigration. It is therefore irrelevant whether or not in this particular case those in the image are actual illegal immigrants. What is relevant is that in capturing the constructs of the "broader" issue, the photograph misleading. Hence, it follows to ask, why is the photo misleading? Is it there by accident or was it intended to provide a visual representation of the issue - which makes it misleading.

So when people of colour (black, Asian, etc) are randomly labelled as illegal immigrants in their local pub, getting upset at the perpetrators is getting upset with the symptom of the problem, not the cause. One can only suppress a symptom but it will remain a problem until the cause has been dealt with.

See article: Immigration once again.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

The end of poverty

Real player required, download here.

(Click here to view "The end of poverty")

Saturday, October 08, 2005

IQ or EI

This book sheds some much needed light on emotional intelligence (EI). There is a vast amount of literature that discusses the correlation between one's intelligence quotient (IQ) and earnings. The general consensus - it appears - is that the correlation is positive; as one's intelligence increases, ones earnings should increase as well (though I'm not sure about the proportionality of the increments in earnings. Does the learning curve apply?)

I put forward that emotional intelligence, that is, "the awareness of and ability to manage one's emotions in a healthy and productive manner" is far superior that booksmart IQ. The expression of EI indicates a broader intelligence or skill that involves the ability to perceive, assess and positively influence one's own and other people's emotions. I will go further to suggest that the correlation between EI and earnings should also be positive, over and above the established (though generalised) relationship between IQ and earnings.

Which is more important in life and business, how many academic theories one can regurgitate or one's ability to read between the lines (assuming at least average intelligence)? The former does not guarantee success, however, the second is in itself manifest success.

What do you think is more important EI or IQ?

Long live skype

Couldn't have caught on soon enough. Voice over Internet Protocol (also called VoIP) was a bit ill-timed when it first emerged, your average consumer was running a 56kb/s internet connection that took long enough to load up a single page. One couldn't even conceive the thought of doing anything else over the internet because even the computers were simply not up to the job.

What's different?

These days the off-the-shelf, bog-standard computer is "beasty" (more capacity than the consumer actually needs) and broadband connections are two-a-penny. As with the "excess capacity" computer deals at very affordable prices, the broadband too is excessive in bandwidth.

And, globalisation is the turbo charger that can potentially save consumers telephone costs in the billions of dollars. Outsourcing to developing countries, which, coincidentally are the most expensive to call will not only save on the cost of operations (back-office or whatever), but will save on expensive phone bills through skype calls. If mobile phones (implying a network) are seen in the remotest places in developing countries then surely broadband technology (probably via satellite) should unsurprisingly be relatively easy to install.

I think the days of monopolistic landline companies are seriously numbered. I for one are using and enjoying the skype liberation. Long live skype, hopefully ebay bundling should propel skype even further.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Smoking and social welfare

Should smoking be banned from public places?

I will start by taking the stance that we all have a right to do as we please with our lives. However, when our freedoms infringe on the freedoms of others then it becomes a fallacious argument to say that we have a right to do as we please.

Some economics - smoking and social welfare. Like the old adage "one man’s meat is another man’s poison", I will say, "one man’s utility is another man’s disutility". Social welfare is at its best when the allocation of the individual utilities within a particular society is Pareto optimal. That way, nobody is "living large" at someone else’s expense.

Smoking is a personal choice and is not illegal (well, smoking cigarettes isn’t). What surprises me is that the people who smoke actually put themselves through the rough and tough beginning, the initial stage when one’s body rejects the smoke. It is an unpleasant start at best, but for some, like me, it is enough of a deterrent to keep us away from cigarettes. People that smoke have actually put in the effort (in the beginning) to get used to smoking. It is their personal sacrifice, for whatever reason.

However, smoking in public places infringes on the rights of others not to smoke. Whilst the smoker wilfully ignores the health warning, "SMOKING KILLS" they impose the risks caused by secondary smoke on others, decreasing the social welfare of others around them. In fact, people that smoke in public consciously increase their welfare allocation at the expense of the welfare allocation of others. There is nothing polite or considerate about somebody walking in front of you (you can’t get passed them) smoking a cigarette, or worse still, a cigar. The smoke literally chokes you but the smoker wouldn’t care if you dropped dead. Is it selfish? Extremely.

I would like those that smoke in public to put up an argument that actually makes sense. Let them not say that it is their right because it is no longer a right when it infringes on the rights of others. Let them not say that it is their health because it damages the health of the non-smokers around. In fact, asthma sufferers are a case in point. They literally face immediate health risks in the presence of a smoker. All it takes for asthma sufferers is a whiff of smoke to trigger an asthma attack, not the whole pack of cigarettes.

How can a right to smoke override other people’s right and decision for better health? Surely, the smoker that complains about the restrictions to smoking in public places is complaining about a restriction to a fair share as opposed to a lion’s share of social welfare. Aren’t they? If I acquired a massive tree in my garden, at great personal cost, for my viewing pleasure, but my tree sheds ton loads of leaves into my neighbour’s garden (who has a paved backyard to avoid gardening), is my neighbour expected to live with the inconvenience?

We either all have rights or we all have none. The current situation is a manifest disequilibrium, but then again, society at large is a manifest disequilibrium.