Saturday, July 31, 2010


What comes to mind when you think of the word "irrational"?  It has a very accusatory sound, and doesn't instantly appeal to most people the first time they hear it.  It only appealed to me after I was able to apply the notion to my own behavior, with positive results.  And it seems more precise than colloquial phrases like "human folly".  That said, the word "irrational" is still very vague, and the more often it becomes used by people and groups with different ideas of what constitutes irrational behavior, the less clear it becomes.  Just as one man's junk is another man's treasure, one person's definition of irrational behavior is not the same as another's.  So long as an explanation is given for why a particular thought, desire, or behavior is irrational I think these difficulties can be avoided and the reader can come to her own conclusions.  In my opinion, it is easier, and sometimes more immediately fruitful, to spot out instances of irrationality than examples of rationality, but both deserve equal attention.

There is an intersection with these ideas and the skeptical and atheist movement.  (Before going further I should re-emphasize that all these terms are equally vulnerable to misappropriation by groups with opposing ideological agendas.  Remember how "compassionate" used to be a good word? It still is, but not everyone means the same thing.)  It is wise to be skeptical of our motivations when they are likely to be irrational.  And the atheist movement is the result of putting religious claims under the critical lens of science, philosophy, and humanitarian concerns.  There are voices on the internet calling attention to these subjects.  Dan Ariely is a behavioral economist whose focus is irrational behavior, which is also the subject of his last two books.  A group of bloggers contribute to "Irrationality Itches", which appears to have been dormant for the last few months.  Another blog called "Human-stupidity" appears to come from the political right wing (or libertarianism, I haven't taken a close enough look) in his views of irrational behavior.  And I cannot mention irrational behavior without also talking about the psychologist Albert Ellis, who targeted irrational ideas as the focus of his therapeutic work.

So how exactly do people exhibit irrationality?  This could be the subject of a long series of posts, if they ever get written.  But to spend my time on that right now would be irrational for me to do, in light of other demands on my time and energy.  In the meantime I'd like to direct you to the other resources mentioned above, and welcome hearing any of your thoughts on this subject in the comments.  I should mention that I don't think irrationality, on the face of it, is bad, but when it goes unnoticed  masquerading as rational behavior it can have very serious and harmful consequences.

Monday, July 26, 2010

challenging assumptions

Is it possible to be as happy when in want as when without?  I've asked only one other person this question, and she gave me an enthusiastically affirmative response without hesitation.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Dawkins experience

I arrived at Davis Concert Hall with my dad a full 15 minutes early, but I already knew it was going to be packed.  Cars were streaming onto campus and lines of people were converging upon the concert hall.  When we arrived at the doors we heard someone announce that the Hall was full and no more people were allowed to enter, however it would be webcast live in Greuning room 208.  We debated for a minute the value of attending a webcast, and decided to go.  The room filled to overflowing within five minutes, a second room across the hallway was opened as well.  For almost half an hour after the lecture started the overflow audience sat in frustration as we could only see the video of the lecture - the audio wasn't working.  As our last hope that the audio would be fixed faded, we left and headed back to Davis Concert Hall.  After deciding it would be too long to wait around until the lecture and Q&A session afterward ended to get Dawkins signature on our book, we left.  Thankfully on our way out we were told the media lab downstairs in the library had working video and audio for the webcast.  Having missed at least the first half hour of the lecture, we greatly enjoyed watching the second half, webcast in full fidelity.  Lots of good content, with some good natured humor intermixed!  When I get the chance, I will have to download and view the first half hour of the lecture I missed.  The Q&A took up the full hour allocated and afterwards I went to the book signing.  The line snaked almost entirely around the perimeter of the large lobby area outside of the Concert Hall.  The attendance and overflow for this lecture was the greatest I have ever personally seen at UAF, and has to have been one of the most successful lectures ever on campus.  Dawkins waived all his fees, including travel, hotel, and meals.  He is a very impressive speaker and critical thinker, and a truly inspirational figure, whether in person or via live webcast.  On the heels of his appearance at the Amazing! Meeting 8, I hope his time here in Fairbanks was an enjoyable experience.  I also hope the showing at his lecture did something to dispel the poor reputation Alaskans have gained in the global community, thanks in no small part to some of the politicians we have elected.  When he signed the copy of The God Delusion I have been reading, I thanked him and asked him to send my regards to PZ, and was given a warm smile of recognition in return. 

Thursday, July 8, 2010

construction season

Soon I will begin to build a 12 x 16 foot shed using dimensional lumber.  The shed to our house will be like an expansion tank is to a water pump.  How's that for an analogy?  It will also help me clean up the landscape around the house.  It has been a long and complex vetting process to identify the best design based on a wide variety of factors.  Like natural selection, the process yielded conservative results.  Getting the shed up brings me one step closer to a few other things I've been looking forward to... a sauna and greenhouse.  And I think I found the perfect sauna for me.

With more freezing days than warm, a sauna is more valuable than a greenhouse.  I can have an 8 x 12 sauna transported wherever I may move.  A collapsible greenhouse can also be delivered wherever I want.  In my area where falling trees are an everyday reality, using sheet plastic to cover the greenhouse is a justifiably cautious approach.  Off the top of my head, the best greenhouse I ever stepped inside was my wife's grandmother's greenhouse in Japan - a plastic sheet covered metal pipe box barely five feet high.  It had some of those delicious Japanese grapes inside.  The second best was Rosie Creek Farm's big wood truss greenhouse.  A shed is really too big to move, it stays in place just as the house does.  The greenhouse and the sauna form the backbone of recreation during the summer and winter.  Each is a staycation in itself.  I can play in the snow and cold, and in the summer watch plants grow and mold.  And these are both very social activities, to be shared and enjoyed in the company of others. What a nice thought!  They are also outdoor oriented activities; I love spending my time outside. 

Another thought, the thought of moving somewhere else, somewhere near the ocean, comes up occasionally.  To me, a beach is a magic place, a spiritually expansive place, the edge of a vast empire.  Aside from the rhythm of the waves, the rocky shoreline, and the alien like life I can find there, I can also see for miles and miles, sometimes without limit.  I don't have that experience where I am at right now, but the good news is I think I can, if I build the sauna at the top of my hill and resting on an observation platform to get me an extra five to ten feet from the ground (not mobile) that is situated at the point where the slope changes the most.  The added height may minimize the risk from falling trees, and I'll have a view of the Alaska range and probably Denali if I am lucky.  Not to mention the aurora straight overhead.  The wind and the landscape from there will help me connect with that same feeling again.