I Wish I Could Share the Happiness of Being Alone with Someone Else



This page written circa 12 August, 2012.

I recently read Dan Gilbert's book Stumbling on Happiness. In a nutshell, and yet filling a whole book, it is the story of how humans are bad at anticipating what will make them happy; this phenomenon is the psychological equivalent of optical illusions, erroneous perceptions that persist no matter how thoroughly you understand how they work and that they are deceptive. The phenomenon of "Motion-Induced Blindness" is another "illusion" that shows how the mind can be deceived. It is something between an optical illusion and a happiness illusion. The demonstration at http://www.msf-usa.org/motion.html is quite uncanny. Though brilliant, Profesor Gilbert's TED talk does not do justice to the depth of the happiness illusion.

The NZ budget delivered a slight decrease in funding for tertiary education, down from $4 billion last year to $3.9 billion this year. Treasury forecasts that funding will continue to remain below 2009 levels ($4.5 billion) through until at least 2016, while student numbers will continue to remain higher than 2009 levels. A strange way to run a business, instead of telling the customer what will be the cost and asking how many units they care to buy we are told what there is to spend and how many units are required. A little arithmetic tells you what will be the inevitable impact on quality if the efficiency of education does not increase drastically.

The only prospect for an increase in the efficiency of education is the recent trend towards "massive [open] online classes", or MOOCs as they are called in the ed biz. Not a new idea, but one that has just in the last year seen advances that might make it a reality. TED talks by Daphne Koller and Peter Norvig hint at the revolution. Places such as Harvard, Stanford and MIT are the seeding grounds, because they can afford to drop a few $100k on speculative attempts to make it take off big time, something distance learning has conspicuously failed to do despite decades of push. Though better suited to disciplines with less need for hands-on experience with hardware, it evidently works for parts of engineering. The only problem is that it requires an up-front investment to put the more efficient tactics in place, in effect venture capital, something NZ does not embrace.

Apparently on a different planet, I digitised the last of my mother's old photographs. The exercise yielded this photograph at left, my class photo from circa 1967. I do not remember myself enjoying school very much at that age, yet I remembered all but a couple of the faces in the ancient image, and my friend Nick added all but a couple of my unknowns. Each of us rembered about 90% of the names. The web gave us some more, unsolicited, within a few months of this posting. (For the record, and the search engines, the people were:
Back Row: David Oates, Demetrious Kominos, Mark Berriman.
3rd Row: Carl Kevin, Craig Crozier, Tony Kemeny, Ricky Grossman, Simon Bass, Peter Krantz, Lee Freedman, Peter Stephens, Laurie Scandrett.
2nd Row: John Dunbar, [??], Philip Jeffries, Angus Malcolm, Greg[?] Folkart, Rob Leonard, Philip Crowe, Randall Greenberg.
1st Row: NDR, John Andrews, Colin Cornick, [Bryan Bertinshaw], Mr Spiers, John Bubb, Peter Peacock, Ian Muston, Jonathan Scott.
Seated on floor: Alistair Firkin, Tony See, David Howden, Roger Beck.)

I would not expect the education funding situation to spell happiness for academics, but then I do not remember myself being happy at school in 1967, yet I remember more than a couple of the kids in the photograph with fondness. You would not expect war to be fun, but my mother assured me that the "best time of her life" had been during the blitz in London, when you really knew you were alive (if you were still alive).

I muse upon these issues because we feel it is time for us to move on from Bywater Grange. To where should we go to maximise happiness, that is the question, into Hamilton, to a large city, back to Sydney, back to California? Mister Gilbert's best advice, Bernoulli's equation notwithstanding, is to ask people who already are where you might be, how happy they are. The most sincere opinions are proffered by actions rather than words. Stewart Brand tells us that over 100,000 people per day move from country to city, and this has been the case for decade after decade. That is a lot of people voting with their feet. It seems to me that being in a city again might be more appealing than being in the country. Mister Gilbert's other advice is to imagine your possible futures as vividly and in as much detail as you can. Time to do some serious daydreaming.

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