Mental Health or Mental Wealth (and therefore longevity)

April 28, 2004

Do you want just to be sane or do you want to be happy? Martin Seligman is a clinical psychologist researching what it takes to be happy. He is interviewed here.

I’m not going to give away a placebo, but let me just say a couple of things about it. It turns out we’ve already found out that several of the things that have been proposed — from the Buddha to Tony Robbins — don’t work. We’ve got them up there on the website, people do them, and we find that there’s no lasting change in either lowering depression or raising the level of happiness. But they’re plausible; they’re things that you or I would think would work, but because some of your viewers are now going to jump to and get into the placebo I don’t want to give away what the placebos are. The interesting thing is that some of these things actually lastingly make people happier, and others don’t. The aim of science is to find out what the active ingredients are.

I spent the first 30 years of my career working on misery. The first thing I worked on was learned helplessness. I found helpless dogs, helpless rats, and helpless people, and I began to ask, almost 40 years ago now, how do you break it up? What’s the neuroscience of it? What drugs work? While working on helplessness there was a finding I was always brushing under the rug, which was that with people and with animals, when we gave them uncontrollable events, only five out of eight became helpless. About a third of them we couldn’t make helpless. And about a tenth of them were helpless to begin with and we didn’t have to do anything.

About 25 years ago I began to ask the question, who never gets helpless? That is, who resists collapsing? And the reverse question is, who becomes helpless at the drop of a hat? I got interested in optimism because I found out that the people who didn’t become helpless were people who when they encountered events in which nothing they did mattered, thought about those events as being temporary, controllable, local, and not their fault; whereas people who collapsed in a heap immediately upon becoming helpless were people who saw the bad event as being permanent, uncontrollable, pervasive, and their fault. 25 years ago I started working on optimism versus pessimism, and I found that optimistic people got depressed at half the rate of pessimistic people, that optimistic people succeeded better in all professions that we measured except one, that optimistic people had better, feistier, immune systems, and probably lived longer than pessimistic people. We also created interventions that reliably changed pessimists into optimists.


Organ Registry Financial incentives

April 28, 2004

Alex Tabbarok has a fascinating article on making organ donation more attractive.

More evidence of Al-Quada-Iraq WMD Cooperation

April 28, 2004

A plot by Al Quaeda to use chemical weapons from Syria in Jordan is foiled.

So, though the facts are murky and subject to change, what we tentatively have so far is (1) chemical weapons originating from Syria aimed at killing tens of thousands of people in the Jordanian capital (though the Jordanians haven’t said what kind of chemical weapaons they are); and (2) one of the top Al-Qaeda honchos setting up these terror operations in Iraq, after the Afghanistan war, but apparently before the Iraq war. Which further suggests that it was not the U.S. occupation of Iraq that inspired the Al Qaeda people to rush to Iraq to kill American GIs and insufficiently pious Moslems; Al Qaeda was already working on its devilish deeds in Iraq before we invaded. We thus tentatively have an Al Qaeda-Iraq connection, and a WMD-Iraq connection, constituting the very triangle of Iraq/WMDs/Al Qaeda which was our chief reason for toppling the Hussein regime.

From Lawrence Auster

Why do they hate us?

April 28, 2004

Lee Harris has a great article in Slate reviewing Arab anti-Americanism since the 1950’s.

Anti-Americanism is how Arab leaders play the Arab people and the United States against each other to preserve their own hides. There is no incentive to be anything but anti-American, and it is very dangerous not to follow the pack. In Iraq, Arabs who work with Americans to rebuild their country are targeted for death. Anti-Americanism is the coin of the realm and has been for many years now. It is not growing. When Americans talk about rising Arab anti-Americanism, we are saying we do not understand how Arab regimes work. In effect, we are collaborating with dictators who will not allow Arabs a voice in their own governance.
For instance, a Syrian friend CCs me on e-mails he writes to U.S. Embassies or to American officials here in the States. This came from him last week after Ted Kennedy compared Iraq to Vietnam:

Dear Senator Ted Kennedy,
I am … from Syria and I am 56 years old. I still remember when your brother was assassinated in 1963 and we all cried. He had a dream for the whole world not just for America. We suffered under totalitarian regimes in the Middle East for the whole of our lives. We look for America as our Savior. Please Mr. Kennedy you have to know that America has a burden in freeing the other peoples of the world from tyranny. I have no right to comment on internal U.S. issues but as a citizen of the world I have the right to ask the American legislators to help other peoples in the world because this is the principle that America stands for.

Arab anti-Americanism is easy to get used to—it’s been around for close to half a century. What’s hard is living up to the Arabs’ best expectations of America.

Policy/Science vs Politics/Religion

April 27, 2004

I had the following dialog (via email) recently with a very anti-Iraq-war friend with whom I’ve been debating for … years:

Him: no, i think you’re irretrievably blindsided on pretty much every political issue.

Me: It would help if you expressed some observable standard for judging ANY political issue aside from…faith.

Him: i give up. it’s not even worth it.

Me: Hmm. Thats an interesting way of putting it. What would make it worth it? What would you like to achieve?

Him: what would make it worth it? you shutting up about this. it’s a wasted effort to talk to you about this stuff. you’re so inherently wrong about so many of the issues that it is impossible. you want pointless, empty academic discourse? try [mutual friend]. i get mad.

Inherently wrong. I interpret him to mean that there is no possible way for my position to be correct on e.g. invading Iraq. That there is no fact, that, if proved true, would make my position correct. It sounds more like he is talking about
expressing religious faith than determining good policy.

I’ll fully admit that it is much more fulfilling to express heartfelt religious sentiment than it is to assess the relative merits of various policy choices. I’ll further admit that it is maddening when people say things that threaten such feelings of fulfillment. Although I tend to view policy through the lens of (social) science — where the goodness or badness of a policy is measured against an ability to achieve some goal, It is clear that many people are religiously attached to particular policy choices or the belief that all policy choices of some group are inherently right/wrong — where goodness or badness of a policy is measured against its acceptibilty to some social group.

The nice thing about the religious/political perspective is that it feels better and, in the end, one can hope that the has to arrive at a good policy (because it has to align with the actual interests of the group members). However, as Clay Shirky has brilliantly noted A Group is its Own Worst Enemy. Groups engage in behavior that preserves the integrity at a substantial cost to its members:

Bion was a psychologist who was doing group therapy with groups of neurotics. (Drawing parallels between that and the Internet is left as an exercise for the reader.) The thing that Bion discovered was that the neurotics in his care were, as a group, conspiring to defeat therapy.

There was no overt communication or coordination. But he could see that whenever he would try to do anything that was meant to have an effect, the group would somehow quash it. And he was driving himself crazy, in the colloquial sense of the term, trying to figure out whether or not he should be looking at the situation as: Are these individuals taking action on their own? Or is this a coordinated group?
Now, Bion decided that what he was watching with the neurotics was the group defending itself against his attempts to make the group do what they said they were supposed to do. The group was convened to get better, this group of people was in therapy to get better. But they were defeating that. And he said, there are some very specific patterns that they’re entering into to defeat the ostensible purpose of the group meeting together. And he detailed three patterns.

The first is sex talk, what he called, in his mid-century prose, “A group met for pairing off.” And what that means is, the group conceives of its purpose as the hosting of flirtatious or salacious talk or emotions passing between pairs of
The second basic pattern that Bion detailed: The identification and vilification of external enemies. [e.g. Bush is a dumb/evil liar conspiring to … etc..] So even if someone isn’t really your enemy, identifying them as an enemy can cause a pleasant sense of group cohesion. And groups often gravitate towards members who are the most paranoid and make them leaders, because those are the people who are best at identifying external enemies.
He said the group structure is necessary to defend the group from itself. Group structure exists to keep a group on target, on track, on message, on charter, whatever. To keep a group focused on its own sophisticated goals and to keep a group from sliding into these basic patterns. Group structure defends the group from the action of its own members.

The problem is that non-professional politicians lack any formal decision making structure to help them reach a good policy consensus. Instead they get hijaacked by the most motivated paranoid folks because they are the ones with the time to spare who make the group feel good. In 1970, Feminist activist Jo Freeman, wrote The Tyranny of Structurelessness, a brilliant article describing the impact of a lack of structure on the feminist movement.

Unstructured groups may be very effective in getting women to talk about their lives; they aren’t very good for getting things done. Unless their mode of operation changes, groups flounder at the point where people tire of ‘just talking’ and want to do something more. Because the larger movement in most cities is as unstructured as individual rap groups, it is not much more effective than the separate groups at specific tasks. The informal structure is rarely together enough or in touch enough with the people to be able to operate effectively. So the movement generates much emotion and few results. Unfortunately, the consequences of all this motion are not as innocuous as the results, and their victim is the movement itself.

If people were less enamoured of their group and more enamoured of either making policy judgements themselves or specfically deferring policy judgements to those whom they respect, they would be better off.

Note for those paying attention: Yes this contradicts my diatribe against the Enlightenment. There is probably a balance. I’m just not yet sure how to achieve it.

UN Money used to fund Iraqi WMD! Avoiding War with Syria.

April 27, 2004

So it turns our that UN Oil For Food Money was used to fund Iraq’s WMD program AND Al Queada AND to bribe UN officials and member states to do nothing about it. Could the anti-war folks have been more wrong? The only remaining argument is whether we would prefer to be dealing with an increasingly well-armed (with WMD) Saddam perhaps providing these weapons to terrorists and continuing to oppress/murder Iraqi civilians than the disorder we face in a few Iraqi cities today. Note: The main fighting is in Falujah which is a town created specifically to support Saddams illegal programs (see here).

  • “Reference strains” of a wide variety of biological-weapons agents were found beneath the sink in the home of a prominent Iraqi BW scientist. “We thought it was a big deal,” a senior administration official said. “But it has been written off [by the press] as a sort of ‘starter set.'”
  • A line of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, “not fully declared at an undeclared production facility and an admission that they had tested one of their declared UAVs out to a range of 500 kilometers [311 miles], 350 kilometers [217 miles] beyond the permissible limit.”
  • “Continuing covert capability to manufacture fuel propellant useful only for prohibited Scud-variant missiles, a capability that was maintained at least until the end of 2001 and that cooperating Iraqi scientists have said they were told to conceal from the U.N.”

    In taking apart Iraq’s clandestine procurement network, Duelfer said his investigators had discovered that “the primary source of illicit financing for this system was oil smuggling conducted through government-to-government protocols negotiated with neighboring countries [and] from kickback payments made on contracts set up through the U.N. oil-for-food program” [see “Documents Prove U.N. Oil Corruption,” April 27-May 10].
    Shoshana Bryen regularly escorts groups of retired U.S. military flag officers (admirals and generals) to Israel for meetings with senior Israeli political and military leaders, as well as intelligence officials. “We went to Israel just before the war and just after,” she tells Insight. “Both times, Israeli intelligence officials told us, yes, WMD were definitely in Iraq, and that they had been sent to Syria.” The Bush administration was trying to downplay these reports, she believes, “because if Iraqi weapons are in Syria, we’re going to have to do something about it, and they don’t want another war.”

  • From Insight Magazine. via PowerLine.

    Optimism or Pessimism

    April 23, 2004

    This article consists of an interview:

    Four young British Muslims in their twenties – a social worker, an IT specialist, a security guard and a financial adviser – occupy a table at a fast-food chicken restaurant in Luton. Perched on their plastic chairs, wolfing down their dinner, they seem just ordinary young men. Yet out of their mouths pour heated words of revolution.

    “As far as I’m concerned, when they bomb London, the bigger the better,” says Abdul Haq, the social worker. “I know it’s going to happen because Sheikh bin Laden said so. Like Bali, like Turkey, like Madrid – I pray for it, I look forward to the day.”

    On the one hand, this talk is scary because they appear to be normal well adjusted members of western society aligning themselves with the goals of the terrorists. On the other hand, they also appear to be talking out of their asses:

    “If we want to engage in terrorism, we would have to leave the country,” he says. “It is against Islam to do otherwise.” Such a course of action, he says, he is not prepared to undertake. This is why, Sayful claims, it is consistent, and not cowardly, for him to espouse the rhetoric of terrorism, the “martyrdom-operations”, while simultaneouslylimiting himself to nonviolentactions such as leafletting outside Luton town hall.

    Effectively they are fans or cheerleaders of a global baseball team called Islamism. They are not players. A generation ago, many westerners supported Communism in the same way and perhaps for the same reasons. Its just not clear what sort of substantive danger these people really pose.

    Update: The New York Times has a more threatening version of the above type of feature. The above article made if clear that these folks were not active because of the “covenant of security. According to the NYT, failure to acceed to Osama constitutes a breach of this covenant.

    On Thursday evening, at a tennis center community hall in Slough, west of London, their leader, Sheik Omar Bakri Mohammad, spoke of his adherence to Osama bin Laden. If Europe fails to heed Mr. bin Laden’s offer of a truce — provided that all foreign troops are withdrawn from Iraq in three months — Muslims will no longer be restrained from attacking the Western countries that play host to them, the sheik said.
    Even more worrying, said a senior counterterrorism official, is that the level of “chatter” — communications among people suspected of terrorism and their supporters — has markedly increased since Mr. bin Laden’s warning to Europe this month. The spike in chatter has given rise to acute worries that planning for another strike in Europe is advanced.

    And here it is clear that attempting to respond doesn’t necessarily help (its not like Saddam was a religious leader, right?)

    “Iraq dramatically strengthened their recruitment efforts,” one counterterrorism official said. He added that some mosques now display photos of American soldiers fighting in Iraq alongside bloody scenes of bombed out Iraqi neighborhoods. Detecting actual recruitments is almost impossible, he said, because it is typically done face to face.

    The question is whether the firebrands or the moderates have more influence:

    Mainstream Muslims are outraged by the situation, saying the actions of a few are causing their communities to be singled out for surveillance and making the larger population distrustful of them.

    Muhammad Sulaiman, a stalwart of the mainstream Central Mosque here, was penniless when he arrived from the Kashmiri frontier of Pakistan in 1956. He raised money to build the Central Mosque here and now leads a campaign to ban Al Muhajiroun radicals from the city’s 10 mosques.

    However I’m not optimistic. See my prior post on structurelessness. Here is where it gets most scary.

    “We may be caught up in the target as the people of Manhattan were,” he told them.

    And he warned Western leaders, “You may kill bin Laden, but the phenomenon, you cannot kill it — you cannot destroy it.”

    “Our Muslim brothers from abroad will come one day and conquer here and then we will live under Islam in dignity,” he said.