Sunday, May 31, 2009

Predictions of future emotions

I recently read a book called Stumbling on Happiness by the psychologist Daniel Gilbert that analyzes the mistakes we make when we try to imagine our personal futures. He spends the whole book arguing that imagination is an unreliable predictive tool. Then, in summing up, he prescribes his improved method (abridged below):

In one chapter after another, I've described the ways in which imagination fails to provide us with accurate previews of out emotional futures. I've claimed that when we imagine our futures we tend to fill in, leave out, and take little account of how differently we will think about the future once we actually get there. I've claimed that neither personal experience nor cultural wisdom compensates for imagination's shortcomings.

Why do we rely on our imaginations in the first place? Imagination is the poor man's wormhole. We can't do what we'd really like to do -- namely, travel through time, pay a visit to our future selves, and see how happy those selves are -- and so we imagine the future instead of actually going there. But if we cannot travel in the dimension of time, we can travel in the dimensions of space, and the chances are pretty good that somewhere in those other three dimensions there is another human being who is actually experiencing the future event that we are merely thinking about. Surely we aren't the first people ever to consider a move to Cincinnati, a career in motel management, or another helping of rhubarb pie; and, for the most part, those who have already tried these things are more than willing to tell us about them. It is true that when people tell us about their past experiences, memory's peccadilloes may render their testimony unreliable. But it is also true that when people tell us about their current experiences, they are providing us with the kind of report about their subjective state that is considered the gold standard of happiness measures.

If you believe that people can generally say how they are feeling at the moment they are asked, then one way to make predictions about our own emotional futures is to find someone who is having the experience we are contemplating and ask them how they feel.

I have tried this and I think it works.

Many years ago, I interviewed with AMOCO (now part of British Petroleum) near Chicago for an engineering job. I told the interviewer that I might be interested in eventually pursuing a career in patent law. The interviewer perked up at hearing this and immediately hauled me up to the corporate penthouse suite and introduced me to the head patent attorney, a corpulent man in an expensive suit. After informing me at considerable length about his prestige in the world of corporate law, the attorney gave me a road map for my career. He told me that I would work half time as an engineer and attend the University of Chicago law school at night. Within four years I would graduate and make twice the salary of an engineer. He took me over to the window and pointed out a big Mercedes town car in the parking lot. "That's my car, kid," he said. "You can afford one of your own after you graduate and join us in the legal department."

Two days later AMOCO made me the offer for an engineering job, with the option of taking the patent law path if I wished. I turned down the engineering offer. In hindsight, this was probably a mistake. However, I have no regrets about not taking the path to a patent law position with AMOCO. The head patent attorney had seemed totally lacking in vitality and enthusiasm. I didn't want my future life to feel like that.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Art for the traveler

The concrete sound walls of the light rail stations are adorned with bas-relief sculptures of swallows and bison. My favorite is the soaring swallow above.

The panels are made by Scott System Inc., a Denver firm. The fabrication process was outlined in an article on

"Transforming plain concrete walls into original art is often a collaborative effort. The process begins with the design team agreeing on a vision for the project, and then artists are commissioned to create conceptual drawings. Once the design is approved, the artist produces a three-dimensional prototype (usually of modeling clay or polystyrene foam) from which a casting is made to produce a liner in the reverse image of the original work. The liners are attached to the inside of the wall forms into which the wet concrete is placed. When the forms are removed after the concrete sets, the transferred design is revealed."

The artists were Carolyn Braaksma and Barb McKee of Denver. Carolyn Braaksma's early biography showed the characteristic career twists and turns of the developing artist:

"Recognition of Carolyn Braaksma's artistic abilities date back to her childhood with early art lessons, awards, and art classes in high school. Following her magna cum laude Bachelor of Arts degree from Metropolitan State College, Carolyn took the bold step of learning to be an ironworker. During seven years of welding jobs in Louisiana and Colorado, she observed and participated in the process of erecting commercial buildings, while at the same time forming artistic ideas for enhancing the structures on which she was welding."

She went on to produce bas-relief designs for Scott System's concrete panels prior to starting her own company.

Giant Purple Bristle Heads

On today's walk to the library I passed by these poles at a shopping center. I suppose that these giant purple bristle heads are meant to be decorative. To me, they seemed vaguely ominous. I slipped into their midst, took a quick photograph, and then got away before they had a chance to react.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Enjoy it now

I met my sons' high school orchestra director and his wife at the local Whole Foods upscale grocery store. They greeted me with cheerful levity. After catching them up on both sons' current lives, I asked if the former orchestra director if he had any advice for my younger son as he was beginning his career as a musician.

He stopped smiling. "Enjoy it now," he said.

"While he's single," said his wife.

"While he has no responsibilities," he added somberly.

With this chilling note, the conversation suffered a decrescendo to pianissimo. I shook hands with them and wished them both a good day.

It seems to me that a career in the arts has its seasons. One needs to be watchful for the changing of the seasons and adjust one's career strategies accordingly.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The white pelican

During my walk along the nearby reservoir this morning, I chanced upon this male white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos). A willing photographer's model, he paddled close to the shore and offered me his profile. The growth on his upper bill indicates that breeding season is in full swing and he is ready for action. He is a marvelous creature - like an attack fowl designed to satisfy Defense Department specifications - with the body and neck of a swan and the beak of a pterodactyl.

Memories of music

Saturday I was setting out for my walk to the library when a women from the next townhouse building greeted me in the alley. She was a short, gray-haired matron in her sixties. She introduced herself as a retired art teacher and said that she had been hoping to meet me for some time. I asked why.

"You're the violinist, right?" she said.

"No, ma'am, I don't play the violin. But my sons are violinists," I replied. After a brief conversation I sorted the matter out. The lady had been talking with the Sharlene, the elderly widow in the corner townhouse, who described hearing beautiful violin music during the summer evenings. I had to regretfully explain that the music stopped seven years ago.

Back in 2002 my older son finished high school and was preparing to start college in the fall majoring in music with the specialty of violin performance. To keep up his technique during the summer, he practiced his violin in the evening, playing an hour of scales and exercises and an hour of Bach's unaccompanied sonatas and partitas. The well-lit area of the living room near the screen door served as his practice room.

As he played, the parallel townhouse buildings acted as a natural megaphone and channeled the sound down through the neighborhood. The music carried clear and strong down to Sharlene's townhouse, five doors down. Later, after my son had gone off to college, Sharlene confided that she and several other nearby widows had made it part of their evening routine to sit quietly before an open window and listen to my son during his hour devoted to Bach.

I also enjoyed listening. Even after seven years, I can still summon up a mental picture of my son playing the Siciliana movement of the G minor sonata. His back is towards me. I see him sway with the phrasing.

Memory is fastened in the mind via emotion. The vividness of my mental picture is surely due to my son's heartfelt approach to the movement. I had never heard the Siciliana express such a cry for consolation.

My son's senior year had been difficult for him. His playing revealed more than he ever told me during this period.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Spring is popping!

The tightly wound purple blossoms explode like popcorn. I imagine that many a moth has been shot sky high.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Enjoy the warthog

Monday after work I went to my local barbershop for a haircut. The owner, a bald-headed man in his sixties, motioned for me to sit in the center chair. I was happy to have the owner cut my hair. He's not the best barber in the shop but his haircuts are adequate and reliable. He has four assistants: two young Hispanic guys, a middle-aged Hispanic guy, and an obese blonde woman. The best barber, a true artist with a razor cut, is one of the young Hispanic guys. Unfortunately, the worst barber is the other young Hispanic guy, and I can't keep track of which is which. The middle-aged Hispanic guy does a good job but his scissors style is too jumpy for my peace of mind, and the blonde gives a mediocre haircut accompanied by non-stop chatter. All in all, the owner is the safest bet.

I had slogged through a long day at work and the cares of the world were weighing on me. As I stared at the mirror on the wall, my reflection stared back with dull eyes. I watched the owner buzz and clip my bushy hair into submission. When the owner finished, I paid the bill and added a two dollar tip. We parted on a cheerful note.

It was only later at the grocery store when I was flipping through a little book of daily quotations that I came to a disturbing realization. Never once during my haircut did I think to look at the most interesting sight in the barbershop: the mounted head of a warthog on the back wall. It is a fine warthog with a peaceful expression, the mark of a clear conscience. It was a warthog that must have enjoyed a reputation for probity in his warthog community. I had been so preoccupied and mind-deadened from work that I had forgotten to look at this excellent warthog.

Feeling uneasy, I consulted the chapter on contentment. Several quotations spoke to my condition.

"Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are." ~ Chinese Proverb

"What is important in life is life, and not the result of life." ~ Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749 - 1832)

"One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important." ~ Bertrand Russell (1872 - 1970)

To these, I add my own: "Take time to stop and enjoy the warthog."

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sneaking a peek at the lake

While taking a long Sunday walk, I saw a small lake on the other side of the street and went over to take a look. I found an official-looking sign on a brass pedestal that stated in bold print that the lake was for the exclusive use of the HighSnoot Condominium Association. The sign expatiated in smaller print: no pets allowed; no fishing allowed; no swimming or wading allowed; no approaching within ten feet of the water's edge; violators will be prosecuted.

I did not care for the sign's tone. Its arrogance put me in a flouting mood.

I sat down on a rock near the shoreline and rebelliously gazed at the water. Large rocks were visible in the shallows. Clearly, wading and swimming were out of the question. I saw no fish. I concluded that the lake's only use was scenic. It was simply a pretty thing to gaze upon. Therefore, the HighSnoot Condominium Association's exclusive use amounted to nothing more than exclusive gazing rights.

I continued flouting. I admired the white bridge over the spillway feeding the lake. I scrutinized the little whitewater rapids that cascaded down and spent itself in ripples across the surface of the water. I studied the reflection of sky and trees. I feasted my eyes on a family of ducks that were napping beneath a tree by the water's edge. Then, to complete my flouting, I snapped the photograph above. Now my blog readership can join me in a conspiracy to peek at the HighSnoot Condominium Association's private viewing lake.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Pei Wei and Go Away

I walked to a natural foods store today and bought bananas. The store is scrupulous about their environmental practices, so they don't provide plastic bags. You either bring your own bags or load your groceries in a cardboard box from the big bin at the front of the store. I stowed my bananas in a box and carried it outside. Across the parking lot a new restaurant called Pei Wei had just opened. I went over to check it out.

When I walked in, the lady at the cash register greeted me with a wary smile. Her caution was probably understandable. I was in full doofus mode with my old straw hat, my plaid lumberjack shirt, and my box of bananas. I asked how the restaurant's name was pronounced. "Pay Way," she said.

"Not Pee Wee?" I asked.

"No." Her smile looked strained around her cheekbones.

"What does the name mean?"

"Picking up food," she replied, making grasping motions with her hands. "It means that we put together various ingredients. There are menus over there," she said and turned away.

Fortified with this knowledge, I departed the Pei Wei restaurant. Perhaps I will return some day when I meet their sartorial standards.


I was killing time in my Los Angeles hotel room last week by scanning through the cable television channels and I happened upon a show concerning the science of human attraction in young adults. Despite my expectation that the program would probably be little more than an infomercial, I found my interest piqued by a segment about the effects of hormones. Hormonal development in the male creates changes in both his appearance, his voice, and his scent. The female responds, sometimes unconsciously, to all these sensory stimuli. Similarly, the program showed experiments measuring how physical changes arising from female hormonal development, overlaid with the fluctuations arising from the menstrual cycle, affects the male's perceptions of the female's desirability. Unfortunately, the program then tossed away all credibility with some poorly reasoned conjectures about Darwinian determinism. Nevertheless, the program's basic thesis seemed to be sound. There is a strong biochemical aspect to human attraction.

The program made me think about my nephew who is graduating from high school in another month. He is several years away from being physically mature and will appear to be a boy among men when he starts college in the fall. This will probably limit his dating opportunities for quite some time – no real problem unless discouragement mires him in "beta male" habits of reluctance and passivity.

I was a similar beardless youth when I started college a month shy of my eighteenth birthday. I didn't reach my full height until senior year. My dating was relatively sparse except as a pinch-hitter to fill out a double date. Therefore, my dating had more to do with public service than romance. I was the pick when a buddy needed someone moderately tall to escort his girlfriend's roommate. I remember meeting a pleasant giantess that played the upright bass in the university orchestra.

After college my hormones continued their tardy behavior. I didn't need to shave daily until I was about twenty-five. It was at this time that I began to receive a few glimmers of female attention. According to the television program's explanation, I must have begun broadcasting the right visual and chemical stimuli. During the next few years, I became aware that somehow, without any action on my part, I had been given a ticket to the great market of adulthood. With ticket in hand, I strode into the marketplace, so to speak, and WHOOSH! was soon married.

The day after I watched this television program on human attraction, I saw an evening news segment about a precocious young man who entered college at fourteen. He is completing his engineering bachelor's work now at eighteen and will start graduate school in the fall. Academically he is doing all right, but I suspect that he is so far out of sync with respect to typical physical maturity at college that he may have difficulties interacting with women for years to come. Life is more complicated than engineering studies.


99 billion served. But how many cases of indigestion and stomach gas afterwards? My guess is 45 billion. I am happy to say that I have been McDonalds free for many years.

The game is played away from the ball

I found a book called The Rules for Aging by Roger Rosenblatt that gives 58 cleverly written rules for successful aging. While I am not as impressed with Rosenblatt's little book as Tom Brokaw ("wise, funny, and insightful" coos Brokaw's blurb), I found Rule 57 interesting. Excerpt:

When Eddie Sutton was coaching Arkansas, he asked his players what they did during practice. They answered, "Dribble and shoot." Then he asked them how much time they thought that they dribbled and shot during a 40-minute game -- how many minutes they had their hands on the ball. The players guessed 12, 14, 15 minutes. Sutton told them that a more likely number was 2 to 3 minutes, and he also told them what that meant in terms of the nature of the game of basketball. "Most of the game is played away from the ball," he said, meaning defense and getting into position for a pass.

If you are a researcher, your time away from the ball is doing your lab work, learning new technology and where it is being developed, and getting to know colleagues in your field. If you are a musician, your time away from the ball is practicing, adding to your knowledge of music ideas, learning the financial side of the music business, and getting to know other working musicians.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Proposal Time

For the next ten days I am in Los Angeles as part of a proposal team. The company has us quarantined in a special building, away from all distractions. Gourmet lunches and dinners are catered for us. There are enough snacks on hand to stock a 7-Eleven. One of the technical managers bragged that he gained twenty pounds on the last proposal he worked. (Nerd machismo expresses itself in peculiar ways.) I have a high school reunion in a few months, so I'm trying to eat fruit instead of cookies, potato chips, and cupcakes.

I am presently revising some text that I threw together in a rush early last year. If I could spare the time, I would junk the whole business and start fresh. The writing vaguely resembles my usual style but is crude and lifeless. The transitions are awkward; there is no overall narrative thread connecting the paragraphs; and the handful of significant points are wrapped in plodding, repetitive prose. A rough draft that has been allowed to moulder for a year is an unlovely sight.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A spring walk through the woods

An hour's walk from my home takes me to a nature preserve near a reservoir. I can walk the trails and enjoy seeing nature in the wild. Seeing works fine, but hearing is a different story: the drone from the model airplane field and the sharp pops from the neighboring gun range are inescapable.

I brought my little camera along in hopes of photographing wildlife. As I walked and scouted out suitable subjects, the only creatures that I saw were birds. A gorgeous red-tailed hawk flew past me but was gone before I could unholster the camera. A soaring pelican was making lazy circles over the reservoir but was too far away to photograph. Two interesting birds were near at hand -- a tiny, blue-tinged wren and some kind of yellowish woodpecker -- but neither bird wanted to settle down and pose for me. Therefore, I gave up on the skittish birds and trained my camera on a more reliable subject: the nature trail. You can count on trees and grass to stay put.

Venue Vexations

Last week I attended my first opera downtown. The opera production, Cosi fan tutte, was interesting but the venue itself detracted from the experience.

Usually, the venue doesn't matter to me if I can see and hear the show. I have enjoyed a tango demonstration in a cramped library conference room, a chamber concert in the lobby of a municipal office building, my younger son's rock band performing to a packed crowd seated on the cold concrete floor of a room the size of an average kitchen, and so forth. Also, as I typically buy cheap seats to big concert productions, preferring to attend many acceptable concerts rather than a handful of optimal concerts, I am accustomed to taking venue limitations in stride. However, I wasn't prepared for the vexations produced last week by the opera house.

I knew that my cheap opera ticket would put me in the worst seating of the opera house. I had made my peace with that. But I had no idea that the seat itself would be a torment. Evidently the architect had been restricted to a relatively small footprint for the opera house and had to stack the four balconies at a precipitous incline and install special jacked-up stadium seats. The seats were high as bar stools. I hopped up and sat with my legs dangling. In place of a handy bar stool rail beneath, there was a thin brass railing bolted to the bottom of the row of seats ahead. The brass railing was nearly useless for those of us with large feet; it accommodated my big toes, nothing more. During the course of the three-hour opera, I lost my toehold several times. My foot would slip off the railing and poke the bottom of the seat in front of me, inadvertently goosing an elderly lady. This made her bitter and indignant. At length, I was forced to slide partway off my seat so that one foot made contact with the floor, and I finished watching the opera sitting at a slant.