Saturday, June 4, 2016

Subjective Well-Being

When I was in high school, on a visit to my uncle's, I came across a book called Tennis Confidential which he had borrowed from a library. It had a passage which I found interesting enough to copy down in my notebook:
Chris Evert was dubbed "The Ice Maiden" for her stoical on-court demeanor, but behind that facade swirled powerful emotions. On Evonne Goolagong, her immensely popular 1970s rival, Evert once revealed: "I never resented the fact that the crowds were for Evonne. But I was envious and wanted to shout, 'Don't you know I'm feeling something inside?'"
Presumably Goolagong reacted more vehemently than Evert did when she missed a volley. But perhaps Goolagong really did feel the disappointment more keenly – who can say?

Psychologists confront this problem in trying to measure subjective well-being. Most measurement methods rely on self-reporting, but as the OECD Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-Being put it:
[t]he nature of subjective measures means that we can never really know whether one respondent's 8 out of 10 corresponds to the exact same mental state as another respondent's 8 out of 10.
But not all questionnaires involve numbered scales. Goodwin Watson's 1930 study asked respondents to choose the best-fitting description from a series of options. My favourite among these is, "Life often seems so worthless that there is little to keep one going. Nothing matters very much, there has been so much of hurt that laughter would be empty mockery."

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Seeing and Forgetting

I was just reading a book by the sociologist Howard Becker where, in a passage about the problem of categorisation, I came across the following quote:
Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing we are looking at.
The origin of the saying is not clear. Becker attributes it to Robert Morris, while other sources cite Paul Valéry. Be that as it may, I like it a lot. (This is one of the things I like about being in academics: I seem to encounter at least one brilliant idea every week – or maybe I'm just easily impressed.)

It seems to me that the insight can also apply in reverse. Ten years ago, in Bombay, a friend and I went to Marine Drive, my favourite place in the city. Neither of us had been there before. My friend saw the piles of tetrapods on the waterfront and said, "Wow, what are those?"

"Tetrapods," I said. (I knew about them from Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.)

"I see." His curiosity seemingly satisfied, he turned his attention elsewhere. He still did not know what they were for or why they were so oddly-shaped. He had received literally no additional information than he had before the conversation, other than what they are called.*

It seemed that knowing the name of the thing we were looking at had stopped him from seeing.

*OK, if you want to be pedantic, now he also knew that I knew what they are called.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Shulbrede Priory

On a country walk this week in the woods of Surrey, I passed Shulbrede Priory (pictured below).

What Wikipedia currently does not say – but my guidebook did – is that the priory was dissolved in 1536, with the King's Commissioner alleging that 26 whores were found living there.

I did not actually see a sign saying Shulbrede Priory, but it was so marked on the map and I assumed that was right. This was an a priory assumption.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016


If I want to attend an event which is publicised on Facebook, I sometimes mark myself "Interested" so that I get a reminder notification on the day of the event. At least that's what I like to think, though the conversation below illustrates that I'm perhaps sensitive to the accusation that I do it partly to show off.

A conversation I had with Aditi this week:

Aditi: I saw you posted on Facebook that you're going to a talk about death.
me: Oh. Yeah. It was just to remind myself.
Aditi: Of death?

Facebook sometimes sends me "positive" messages like Thanks for being here, or Enjoy Facebook today! I wonder if someday I might get a notification saying, Remember: our time here is limited. Given that the first reaction of most users, on seeing such a message, will be to log the hell out of Facebook, I think the likelihood is remote.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Shunbun no Hi: Traffic signs

My Shunbun no Hi post for this year celebrates nature and living things – not in the wild, but on traffic signage.

Earlier this month, we moved back to London from the village of Histon and Impington in Cambridgeshire. Here are two examples of signs the likes of which you don't often see in London. The first one, which Anasua pointed out to me when we were out cycling, is a Pegasus crossing; the second, displayed near the village green, is road traffic diagram 551.2 (wild fowl likely to be in road ahead).