Monday, July 30, 2007

Blink - Doctor Who and the Existentialists


Don't blink. Blink and you're dead. Don't turn your back. Don't look away. And don't blink. image

 The first time I watched this stand-out episode from the latest season of the British children's science fiction programme Doctor Who, I didn't think  too much about philosophy.  I was far too busy consoling my terrified children.  For some reason weeping angels who send you back in time, ageing or killing your present-day self, were much, much scarier than Daleks or Cybermen.

The second time I saw Blink I couldn't understand how I missed the existential theme the first time around.

The episode's title - BLINK - as in " blink and life will pass you by" - is the first hint.

Then there are the experiences of the characters. After a visitation by the time-stealing angels, all that remains of Sally's friend Kathy are her remains in a graveyard. Billy, a young and sassy policemen, fares little better. One moment he is chatting up  Sally Sparrow with the immortal line

 Life is short and you are hot.

The next time we see  Billy, he is an old man in hospital, on the point of death. As he catches sight of young Sally he laments

Look at my hands. They're old man's hands -- how did that happen?

We know that Billy and Kathy's fate await us all - weeping angels are but an exaggeration of the human condition.

Generally Doctor Who reminds us of the downside of the immortality.  The Doctor lives for hundreds of years and regenerates when his old body gets damaged beyond repair. The Doctor can help us be aware of problems with life going on too long - boredom, too much knowledge, too many memories and the loss of loved ones being some afflictions associated with extreme longevity.

BLINK firmly reminds us of the opposite reality. Life is short - and we have no idea just how short. Life is short -so we need to make the most of it. Life is short - so treasure every moment. 

And remember:

Carpe Diem.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.

And - whatever you do - don't blink.


Sunday, July 08, 2007

Happiness: The Science behind your smile Daniel Nettle


One of the best brief recent books on the burgeoning science of happiness. Daniel Nettle is a reader in Psychology, but he deals more ably than most psychologists with the philosophical aspects of happiness as well.





1. Comfort and Joy

2. Bread and circuses

3. Love and Work

4. Worriers and enthusiasts

5. Wanting and Liking

6. Panaceas and Placebos

7. A design for living

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Happiness: Lessons from a New Science by Richard Layard


Layard has for a long time been one of our leading economists - so long that we used one of his books as a text book all those years ago I studied A Level economics. This book is his effort "at a new evidence-based vision of how we can live better" (p. ix) The new science alluded to in the title is the science of happiness which Layard believes may now have found sufficient evidence to create a bit more happiness.

Layard states the central finding straight away - people in the West have got richer but not happier (p. 3) It follows that the emphasis given to raising GDP by politicians and economists is misplaced. If you asked people "What do you want? Happiness or Money?" most would reply "Happiness". They governments and individuals waste their energies on making more money instead of - instead of what? That is what Layard hopes the new science of happiness will tell us.

Chapter headings:

Part 1: The problem

1. What's the problem?

2. What is happiness?

3. Are we getting happier?

4. If you're so rich, why aren't you happy?

5. So what does make us happy?

6. What's going wrong?

7. Can we pursue a common good?

Part 2: What can be done?

8. The Greatest Happiness: Is that the goal?

9. Does economics have a clue?

10. How can we tame the rat race?

11. Can we afford to be secure?

12. Can mind control mood?

13. Do drugs help?

14. Conclusions for today's world

How to Fall out of Love by Debora Phillips

  You might say that this is something of a specialist interest - but how many people at some stage in their lives havent "fallen in love with someone they shouldnt have fallen in love with", in the wise words of The Buzzcocks. In anycase, this clearly written and practical book contains a lot of ideas - mainly founded in behavioural psychology and psychotherapy - that have all sorts of applications, even if you have no need to fall out of love.


Here is a summary of some of the key techniques (you have to read the book to get the full picture though)

1. Thought-Stopping

a) Make a list of the most positive scenes and pleasure that do not involve the person you are trying to fall out of love with

b) If you think of this person – shout STOP. Don’t let image form. Then think of a positive scene from your list. You are conditioning self to think of positive things from list, not this person. You are also not reinforcing pleasure from thinking of him or her. The pleasant thought that doesn’t involve them is reward for NOT thinking about them


c) Keep a record of how many times a day you think of him/her. You may be surprised at the high number to start with. Feel pleased as it declines.

Phillips cites the great philosopher in her cause: “An emotion can only be controlled or destroyed by another contrary and more powerful emotion” . You are substituting a positive emotion from the positive scenes.

It's crucial to keep at this for days, weeks, even months until the new habit forms. To begin with, it's recommended to do it proactively ie Go through A and B, and deliberately start to think of the person and then immediately replace the thought/image with a positive scene. Do this up to ten times a day

Thought-stopping is worth a book on its own. You might think that CBT is better (where you replace thought with a more realistic thought). For obsessive thinking, however, once the thought takes hold its very difficult for the realistic thought to overpower it (remember Spinoza) - so in this case it makes sense to focus your energy on nipping the thought in the bud and re-conditioning yourself.

2) Silent Ridicule

Laugh at yourself and your predicament. This reminds me of Viktor Frankl and dereflection - getting another perspective can make a huge positive difference.

You can also make the other person in an absurd context  - which reminds me of some Paul McKenna ideas. It stops putting the person on a pedestal. Phillips warns that you may have to search around for the right scene to place the person in. She suggests that it has something to do with a habit of theirs or their personality, rather than just a random absurdity.

Again, you can practice this proactively or replace the absurd situation with any positive image you have of them.

3) Positive Image Building and Congratulations

This is about improving your own self-esteem. A break-up, or being rejected, usually knocks down ones ego - what is up to you, though, is by how much and for how long.

Philllips recommends writing down 2 positive things about yourself every day. She also commends assertiveness as a means to getting what you want. You can also use your thought-stopping skills on any negative or self-critical thoughts, not just ones relating to the person you are getting over.

You should also congratulate yourself on your progress. For example, if the number of thoughts has reduced in the first week, reward yourself by giving yourself a pat on the back or treating yourself to something you'd really like. This will reinforce the thought-stopping. Set a goal for next week, and reward yourself again when you reach it.

Those are the basic building blocks. Other chapters include jealousy, repulsion and chapters on what to do when in love again.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Side Effects by Woody Allen

If not wise, then at least very funny.
You can read Allen's skit on Plato and Socrates in My Apology, which is available on line at
Here are some of the funniest bits from "My Apology"
Of all the famous men who ever lived, the one I would most like to have been was Socrates. Not just because he was a great thinker, because I have been known to have some reasonably profound insights myself, although mine invariably revolve around a Swedish airline stewardess and some handcuffs.
Agathon: Oh, I ran into Isosceles. He has a great idea for a new triangle.

Agathon: I'm afraid the word is bad. You have been condemned to death.

Socrates: Ah, it saddens me that I should cause debate in the senate.

Agathon: No debate. Unanimous.


Socrates: Then let it be! Let them take my life. Let it be recorded that I died rather than abandon the principles of truth and free inquiry. Weep not, Agathon.

Agathon: I'm not weeping. This is an allergy

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Monday, July 02, 2007

The Pursuit of Happyness

If Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People) had made a film, it would have been like this.
Judging by its IMDB rating and reviews and awards, many people really liked this homage to the American Dream.
Myself, I thought it rather one-dimensional. A bit like a very long episode of The Apprentice, but with the focus on just one competitor and knowing he was going to be the winner.
However, let's try to take some positives (as I am sure Chris Gardner, on whole life the film is based, would).
1) Don't despair - even the best of lives may have some very hard times
2) Work very hard at what you are good at and you will succeed
3) Take risks, follow your dreams
Of course Gardner succeeds not just because he has Carnegie like optimism and courage, but because he is actually very bright and talented. So I'd like to add another, rather important lesson
4) Know your own talents and strengths. Don't aim low just because that's what others expect, but don't aim for things that don't match your own character and potential.

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