Contextualizing money

I'm bad with money.  And I don't want to think too hard about that, because it makes me feel sad and overwhelmed.  So I'm going to talk about food instead for a little bit, then circle back.

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This is a Ze Frank video, about cholesterol.  It's called Cholesterol.  In it, Ze talks about the impulse that persuades him to make bad food decisions, and has put him in a state of health that reduces his projected lifespan substantially.  He describes a voice inside his head, that decides what's going to happen ("He'll tell you not to have the sandwich.  And we've already established, that's happening." [emphasis mine]) even though it directly contradicts the advice on healthy eating he literally just got, in the building he was walking out of at that moment.

I used to have a problem with healthy eating.  I mean, I still do.  I ate an entire Ben & Jerry's ice cream today.  But I've got my problem in control to a level where I'm pretty healthy -- two years ago, my weight fluctuated between 240 and 260 pounds.  I'm 5'9", so that's not healthy.  And if you're thinking, "The BMI is total crap, it's possible to be healthy at that weight!" -- you're right.  But I'm not a weight lifter.  None of that extra weight was muscle.  I wasn't healthy.

But my mental block about dieting was so massive that I could barely even begin to do anything about my health.  The only times I ever lost any was when I got dumped, and I'd drop twenty or thirty pounds because I wasn't eating because I was sad.  Or, when I was working every day around the holiday season, and barely eating enough to keep myself from passing out at work, where I was standing up for eight hour shifts every day.

And I didn't decide to eat healthy.  That never happened.  What I decided was to switch my lifestyle around food.  I took up Weekday Vegetarianism. ([TED talk] [Vlogbrothers video])  That worked, for several reasons:

(1.) Meat is bad for you, and eating substantially less of it significantly improved the quality of my diet.

(2.) There are several reasons for doing Weeekday Veg, so it was easy for me to avoid annoying self-justification arguments about whether I should make that decision, both with myself, and with people whom I didn't want involved in my dietary choices.

(3.) It created a concrete, easy to follow commitment that allowed me to limit my consumption without thinking too hard about why I was doing it.

(4.) I was doing it for myself, on my own terms, so I didn't feel like I was doing it just because people expected it of me.

My weight dropped at a healthy, steady rate of about 2 pounds a week, until I leveled out at 195, which is where I've been for, so far, all of this year.  I'm still not skinny.  I'm not the embodiment of any ideal of beauty in Western culture.  But I'm not unhealthy, in the way I was before, and I feel ethically better about my eating decisions than I did before.

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Now, I said earlier in this post that I had a whole Ben & Jerry's ice cream.  Which is fine.  I do that sometimes, and I'm not worried about it, because it's not my whole diet and it's not every day.  Reasonably frequent bowls of ice cream have still been better for my health than reasonably frequent burgers, chicken and steak.[1. Especially considering that I didn't skip the ice cream when I was still eating meat every day.]

But I bought that ice cream.  And if you've been following my blog, you know I'm in quite a lot of debt.  But I had some money, so I ended up spending it.

I hate having money.  It makes me feel uncomfortable, unsafe and guilty.  Having money, and relying on money, always implies that I risk losing that money, or losing access to money.  I hate having bills, too, for the same reason.  I hate that money is a thing, though I recognize and acknowledge its utility.

I hate money like I love steak, and I don't know any easy way to control my spending.  If I could, I'd just give all my money away to charity, but while that solves the problem of having it, it doesn't solve any of the problems of not having it.  I haven't yet figured out any way that better spending can be a lifestyle choice, the way Weekday Veg is.  People's advice for lifestyle changes with money generally seem to be, "Be better with money."  It's not that easy, and that approach has never worked for me, with anything.

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Sometimes, I hear people talk about a "Welfare state," like it's some sort of evil system that only people who want to lay around all day and not do anything would want.  But when I think about my money problems, I tend to find myself fantasizing about exactly that kind of system.  I would happily work a full-time job, doing whatever the government decided I was needed for, as long as I didn't have to end up with money as a consequence.  I want a place to sleep, food to eat, the freedom to do and say what I want in my free time, to possibly earn enough admiration in an artistic field to shift into doing what I want to do for my living, and access to the resources like libraries and workshops in which I can do and say those things I want to.

don't want to have to be an accountant.  I don't want my success in the world to be contingent, not just upon my talents and dedication within whatever field in which I might excel, but also my talent at keeping track of finances and spotting good deals and financing plans.

When I think too much about money, I get wrapped up in that daydream, and anger at the unfairness that the system in which we live artificially enhances the success of people who are good at money over people who are good at anything else, like engineers and teachers and medical workers.[1. Until they're making enough to hire someone good at money.]  And that anger makes it difficult for me to accept the world I do live in, and makes it difficult for me to explore solutions to my financial problems that don't rely on the civilization I live in being fundamentally different.

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So, that's it.  That's my money problem, wrapped up in a neat little psychological, socialist-idealist bow.  I'm hoping that having this out of my system and up on the internet will free up the mental space necessary to work with the capitalist environment I've got [1. Which has loads of advantages, don't get me wrong, and I do see the practical and theoretical problems with my socialist fantasy too -- I'm talking about my fantasy here, not making a serious Utopian proposal.  Please don't jump down my throat about being a commie pinko fascist.] instead of getting angry, daydreaming, and stress-spending fifty bucks on scratch tickets and booze.

Complaining about Platonic Solids

  [warning]This post is totally just going to be me being cranky.[/warning]

(via theshoutinglegendoflife on tumblr)

I was checking my Tumblr when I came across this very pretty picture of some "Rose Quartz Sacred Geometry Healing Gemstone[s]."

I won't deny that these are very pretty.  But, sacred geometry?  Really?  According to the Etsy page:

Sacred Geometry is the blueprint of Creation and the birth of all form. There are five perfect 3-dimensional forms; the tetrahedron, the hexahedron, the octahedron, the dodecahedron, and the icosahedron. These pure shapes, known as The Platonic Solids are the building blocks of our Universe. Being and meditating with crystals in these shapes, allows us to access the energy vibrations and wisdom of our core-selves.

Nope.  Piles and piles of nope.

I don't know if I've mentioned before, but I'm pretty sure that Platonism is one of the major causes of everything that's wrong with society, and looking for a moment at these pictures makes it easy to see why.

The picture is beautiful.  But check out the Platonic Solids on their Wikipedia page:

Tetrahedron (four faces) Cube or hexahedron (six faces) Octahedron (eight faces) Dodecahedron (twelve faces) Icosahedron (twenty faces)
Tetrahedron.svg (Animation) Hexahedron.svg (Animation) Octahedron.svg (Animation) POV-Ray-Dodecahedron.svg (Animation) Icosahedron.svg (Animation)

They're kind of gross looking.  They look pretty unnatural -- what do you ever see in real life that looks anything like those?  To my mind, the reason the objects in the above picture are pretty is that you can see the patterns in the crystal -- the complex, irregular streaks and swirls of pink.  It doesn't hurt that they're on the even more irregular background of the ground and nearby plants.

Plato argued that everything in the universe, all the stuff we interact with, are imperfect manifestations of what he called "forms," which are sort of ethereal objects that totally literally exist, but not really in any sort of physical location, and which you could comprehend if you just spent enough time thinking about them.

I think this is bull████.  Worse, I think it's particularly toxic bull████, because Plato encourages people to believe that if they experience a sense of absolute truth, a sense of insight into the intuitive, obvious nature of the universe, they're probably right.

He encourages people to simplify, rather than looking for answers in complexity.  He encourages people to take unwavering faith in the belief that their intuitive understanding of the world is best, and that people who disagree with them are not just seeing things from a different angle, but have been corrupted by a veil of deception.  Platonic thinking is the kind of thinking that leads people to believe that just because their views are unpopular means they're probably right.

If you read a list of cognitive biases, you're getting a pretty clear breakdown of the basic assumptions of the Platonic worldview.  And that's the kind of worldview that gets you to believe that if you carve rocks up into special shapes, they'll work like magic to heal your core-self with vibrations from the universe.

Stupid smart people

(via Boing Boing) Jonah Lehrer, who I blogged about yesterday re: grit, wrote an article on Tuesday in the New Yorker called Why Smart People Are Stupid.

While philosophers, economists, and social scientists had assumed for centuries that human beings are rational agents—reason was our Promethean gift—Kahneman, the late Amos Tversky, and others, including Shane Frederick (who developed the bat-and-ball question), demonstrated that we’re not nearly as rational as we like to believe.

When people face an uncertain situation, they don’t carefully evaluate the information or look up relevant statistics. Instead, their decisions depend on a long list of mental shortcuts, which often lead them to make foolish decisions. These shortcuts aren’t a faster way of doing the math; they’re a way of skipping the math altogether.

This article is about the sort of thing I say all the time:  The human mind is bad at thinking.  We tend to assume that our brains do things mostly right.  In fact, our brains mostly do whatever it takes not to get killed, and to pass on our genes.  It turns out, that requires us to understand quite a lot of things very badly.

There were a few troubling points, that I wasn't previously aware of:

The results were quite disturbing. For one thing, self-awareness was not particularly useful: as the scientists note, “people who were aware of their own biases were not better able to overcome them.”

In fact, it seems that people who rank higher on scales of intelligence have bigger bias blind spots than everyone else.  (Although, they used SAT scores as a measure of intelligence, so that might not be incredibly informative.)

The bottom line, it seems, is that the difference between the way we perceive ourselves and the way we perceive other people is, so far, insurmountable.  What this says about philosophy, my major, I'm not sure.

Cognitive Bias Feature: the Availability Heuristic

Check out Wikipedia's List of cognitive biases -- it's awesome.  Long story short, human brains are basically designed to get things wrong.  We're built to survive, not to interpret, so there's a lot of ways humans think that help us consistently miss the point. One of the big ones is the Availability heuristic, which is our tendency to give priority to information that's easy to remember when evaluating how likely something is.  For example, if you've seen six major news stories about children being kidnapped in the past three months, you're going to think it's a lot more likely that your kids are going to be kidnapped.

In 1973, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman first studied this phenomenon [...]. The availability heuristic is an unconscious process that operates on the notion that "if you can think of it, it must be important.

This heuristic, and heuristics[1. A heuristic is a simplified method for solving a problem, which leaves out detail and accuracy for a gain in speed.  The alternative is an algorithm, a method for solving a problem which guarantees a correct outcome, but can take a lot longer and requires more energy.  People use heuristics because it's often less time-and-energy consuming to deal with the consequences of occasional failure than it is to spend the time getting it 100% right every time.  This can go wrong when misapplied, but isn't itself inherently wrong.] in general, make it easier for us to deal with day-to-day problem solving, but in organized society, especially one as information-dense as the one we live in, the availability heuristic turns up wrong answers more often than right ones.

Media coverage can help fuel a person's example bias with widespread and extensive coverage of unusual events, such as homicide or airline accidents, and less coverage of more routine, less sensational events, such as common diseases or car accidents.

It might even be the case that we as a society tend to see things as getting worse because they're getting better -- as it becomes more unusual, say, for someone to be mugged, cases of muggings are more shocking, more widely reported, and therefore more easily brought to mind.  As a consequence, people might think mugging rates have gone up.  (Charts and stuff below the fold.)

A 2007 Gallup poll shows trends that might be due in part to the availability heuristic.  This chart shows crime rates in the US between 1973 and 2007:

Here's 1989-2007, this time charting the perception of crime rate change:

Cognitive Bias Feature: The Just-world Hypothesis

My favorite page on WIkipedia is the List of cognitive biases, which I consider fundamental reading material for human life.  A lot of cognitive biases line up with popular historical/religious/philosophical worldviews, and of no bias is that more true than the Just-world hypothesis. It's the belief that there's some kind of cosmic or supernatural force that makes sure everything balances out for people.

The early research in the field was spearheaded by Doctor Michael J. Lerner.  The Wikipedia page for the just-world hypothesis explains his motives for research, and highlights some of the many problems that result from this kind of worldview:

Lerner's inquiry was influenced by repeatedly witnessing the tendency of observers to blame victims for their suffering. During his clinical training as a psychologist, he observed treatment of mentally ill persons by the health care practitioners with whom he worked. Though he knew them to be kindhearted, educated people, they blamed patients for their own suffering.

Lerner suggests that the just-world delusion might be a necessary method for coping with reality -- it's a way to feel as though you're capable of impacting the world in a reliable, predictable way.  He argues that there are both rational and irrational ways of coping with the falsehood of the just-world hypothesis:  accepting the existence of injustice, fighting it, accepting your own limitations; there are also irrational ways of handling it:  deciding that the victims of suffering deserve it, avoiding a full comprehension of the facts.

The just-world hypothesis leads, at least, to complacency about injustice, and more commonly, to victim blaming.  When you believe people deserve what they get, that leads you to believe that marginalized groups -- homosexuals, racial minorities, women -- deserve their circumstances.  A lot of the people who stand against progress believe that the world is already fair.

Cognitive Bias Feature: Dunning-Kruger effect

My favorite page on WIkipedia is the List of cognitive biases, which I consider fundamental reading material for human life. Cognitive biases are the ways in which humans systematically, reliably come to flawed conclusions about the world around them.  They're a lot like logical fallacies, but they have more to do with problems of perception and mental organization than flaws in logic or comprehension of causality, although sometimes the categories overlap. The Dunning-Kruger effect is one of my favorite biases, by which I mean it's among those I spend the most time thinking about and most consciously try to compensate for.

It refers to the tendency for people who are less skilled in a given field to overestimate their ability, while people who are more skilled in a given field tend to underestimate it.  This is because less skilled people don't have the experience and comprehension necessary to accurately gauge their own ability or compare it to others, and very skilled people are aware, to a much broader degree, of the range of abilities they lack -- or assume that because it's easy for them, it must be easy for other people, too.

It's not a universal phenomenon -- largely the opposite seems to occur in East Asian subjects, which suggests that the phenomenon is a symptom of American, or more generally Western, culture.  It also tends not to show up when people are estimating their capacity or odds in contexts that are perceived as much more difficult.  This is called the worse-than-average effect, and applies to things like juggling, riding a unicycle, or living past 100.