Happiness, now and later

Daniel Kahneman gave a fascinating talk about two kinds of happiness: the happiness you experience in the moment, and the happiness you feel when remembering an event later.

This idea got inside my head and wouldn’t go away. Basically, studies have shown that people will report very different levels of pain or pleasure while they are having an experience, compared to what they report looking back on it later. I take this to mean that not only is happiness subjective (per person), but it is also a function of time. Or, another way to see it is to realize that the person you are changes over time. We may know this already, but it is inconvenient and disorienting and at odds with the illusion of a constant self, so we tend to forget it and move on with our lives.

Kahneman captured the difference in this thought experiment:

Imagine that for your next vacation, you know that at the end of the vacation all your pictures will be destroyed, and you’ll get an amnesic drug so that you won’t remember anything. Now, would you choose the same vacation?

Another observation he shared is that one’s later reflection on an experience is most influenced by how it ended. A positive or pleasant ending colors the entire experience, and the same is true if the end is painful or unpleasant. Remembered happiness is clearly *not* the integral of momentary happiness.

But if this is true, what does it mean for people who seek happiness? Which kind of happiness is the one you want to optimize? If you optimize happiness in the moment, arguably you are happier for more of the total time. But you might not *feel* that way, looking back later. If there were unpleasant bits near the end of an experience, they could dwarf all of the intermediate pleasure. But if you optimize retrospective happiness, this could come at the cost of a lot of momentary pain and unhappiness (which you later forget). Which self do you care more about? Since the remembering self is the one who lives on (the momentary self is arguably dead after the moment passes), maybe that self should win. What’s a person to do?

Kahneman did not answer this question. He also didn’t address the fact that the remembering self, each time it remembers, updates and reinforces and alters the memories slightly, so ultimately happiness is a fluid quantity that won’t sit still even if you were to stop having new experiences.

It’s possible that Kahneman has gotten me to way over-think this question. And yet I can’t quite let it go. The pursuit of happiness and a good life is the fundamental question of philosophy and living. With this idea, Kahneman has also pointed out that it is also inextricably tied to identity. Which self is *me*? Both. But I can only live one life. Hmmm!

The mysterious Goodyear blimp

On a recent drive across the desert from California to Arizona, I decided to stop and see the Blythe airport. I had flown over it, but never landed and visited. To my delight, as I rolled up in my car, I discovered that the Goodyear blimp had just landed!

I had never seen it that close before. This one is Wingfoot Two (I later discovered that there are three in the current fleet). I talked briefly with one of the ground support staff and learned that the blimp was stopping in Blythe overnight on its way to Vegas to attend (and record/broadcast) a golf match. In this picture, the blimp is attached to a mobile mast on the right, and a tiny wheel at its aft end is touching the ground as they maneuver the blimp to its desired position. (Click the image to enlarge)

Later when I was back at a computer, I wanted to find out more about these blimps and how they work. Apparently Goodyear got into the lighter-than-air business in 1898, and in 1925 they flew the first blimp that used helium. Mostly they seem to have been used for advertising, and not just for their own tires. Some blimps have lighted panels on their sides where they can spell words or scroll messages; in 1966 they added the “Skytacular” which was in 4 colors and had animations; now they have “Eaglevision” which uses high-res LEDs and can show video :). I’ve never seen one in operation scrolling messages!

In WWII, they were used for patrolling the ocean (escorting navy convoys). I don’t know if they had any weapons.

In 1955, the blimp became the “first aerial platform to provide a live TV picture”… for the Rose Parade! :)

The Goodyear blimps use helium, which has about the same lifting force as hydrogen, but with the added benefit of not being explosive. The infamous Hindenburg disaster occurred when the (German) Hindenburg, which was also designed for use with helium, was instead filled with hydrogen, apparently because the U.S. was monopolizing helium for its own use, and helium had become correspondingly expensive internationally. The Hindenburg had 97 people onboard when it ignited in 1937 (36 died).

We actually have stunning real footage of the Hindenburg coming in to land and blowing up (!).

What Goodyear flies now is not technically a blimp (!) (“blimp” = no rigid structure) but instead a “semi-rigid airship” or “zeppelin”. (The Hindenburg was a third type of airship: fully rigid). However, Goodyear still encourages the use of the term “blimp.” Its max speed is 73 mph (not bad!), and it seats up to 14 people. Today’s Goodyear blimps are 246 feet long, compared with 804 feet (!) for the Hindenburg.

On my way back to California a few days later, I saw the blimp AGAIN, this time cruising eastward and following Interstate 10. It was less than 1000′ above the ground, which seemed curious to me. Fare you well, semi-rigid airship! :)

How my car wipers work

Yesterday, it actually rained! So I got to use the long-neglected windshield wipers on my Chevy Volt. They have options that include OFF, INT (intermittent), LO, and HI:

“Intermittent” is the tricky one. There are five options shown by the horizontal white bars. Do they indicate how frequently the wipes happen? Or do they indicate the delay between wipes? Effectively, in which direction does the scale increase? I can never remember this, so every time I end up trying out different settings to re-learn how to use my wipers. In this case, a bigger white bar (bottom) means more frequent wipes, which is the reverse of the order implied by “HI” being on top.

And what’s up with the exponential growth implied by the white bars? Is that real?

As Francis Bacon might have said, “When in doubt, collect data.”

I timed the delay between wipes for each of the five settings. And here’s what I found:

If we invert this to report wiping frequency in number of wipes per minute:

So, nope, the labels on the control do not reflect actual frequency. I’ve been reading Edward Tufte’s book titled The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, and this would be a perfect example of what he calls graphics without integrity. One of his principles:

“The representation of numbers should be directly proportional to the numerical quantities represented.”

Boo, Chevrolet designers! And especially for inverting the order with respect to the “LO” and “HI” markings.

The American Civil War: Motivations, soldier parole, and the Supreme Court

I recently attended a lecture at the Huntington by Prof. Emeritus Gary Gallagher of the University of Virginia. He is visiting the Huntington and doing research for his next book. His lecture was on the Civil War, one of his personal areas of expertise. And let me tell you, it is so fun to listen to someone who sincerely *gushes* about their area of expertise. Prof. Gallagher has spent decades studying and sharing his analysis of the Civil War. He’s written eight books so far and is still going strong. Prof. Gallagher lectured without any visual aids, reading from sheets of notes – but the lecture was far from boring. It is clear that he *loves* talking about the Civil War! So passionate!

I took away several interesting thoughts from his lecture. First, he exhorted us not to refer to the “North” and the “South” but instead to “The United States” and “The Confederacy.” Think for a bit about what that means. :)

He also argued that the Civil War was primarily fought over the issue of Union, not Abolition (slavery), although over time historians have shifted to placing more weight on the latter. “Union” here refers to philosophy and politics. One might reasonably ask, if 10 or 11 states wanted to leave the Union, why not just let them? Why did the United States go to bloody war to fight to keep states that didn’t want to be there? Because, he argued, the United States’ “Great Experiment” was threatened. What is a democratic republic if members can simply opt out when they don’t like the outcome of an election? Wouldn’t that prove that our form of government was unworkable? People fought to keep the nation together, which on the face of it sounds a bit abusive. But then again, what war isn’t?

There was also an economic rationale. The Confederacy consisted of the richest states (in terms of per-capita white wealth). South Carolina and Mississippi between them controlled $3B of the economy, while northern industrial activity collectively spanned only $2B. Letting the Confederacy secede would be an economic blow.

Another fascinating topic covered in this lecture were the “parole” arrangements. Neither side wanted to take or be burdened with prisoners of war. So after each battle, they would tally up how many each side captured, and if the numbers were equal, they exchanged prisoners back; but if they were unequal, the extra prisoners would be returned as parolees. These men signed agreements that they would become non-combatants. They were kept in prison camps *on their own side*. They could be re-activated as combatants if their side captured more men from the other side (since then they could be “exchanged”). Imagine!

And finally, Prof. Gallagher noted in passing that President Abraham Lincoln appointed no less than *five* Supreme Court Justices during his presidency. The first was due to a vacancy when he assumed office. Then Justice McLean died and Justice Campbell resigned to join the Confederacy. In 1863, Congress apparently expanded the court to hold 10 Justices (!! The Constitution does not dictate the size of the Court) so he got to appoint another one. Then Justice Taney died, bringing the total Lincoln appointments to five. This is astonishing, and no doubt fueled the Confederacy’s ire. Consider the implications of such an occasion in the light of today’s politics.

Every little bit counts

Did you know that there’s a gigantic concentration of trash that’s swirling around between California and Hawaii? The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is a stunning conglomeration of trash that is now reputed to cover an area twice the size of Texas, or possibly three times the size of France. Appalling!


Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Fascinating video about how they measure the volume of trash:

I recently listened to another fascinating episode of the “Science Vs” podcast titled “Plastics: The Final Straw?”. The tale of where our plastics go and what havoc they wreak is not for the faint-hearted. The show also discusses a question that had puzzled me a bit – how could that much plastic possibly end up in the ocean? Apparently, much of it is trash that folks drop in a street gutter, and then washes into a storm drain, which may at times bypass wastewater treatment (or be in a community that lacks it) and get expelled directly into the ocean.

There are efforts underway to try to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, thankfully. But I couldn’t get the idea of that trash out of my mind. And so on my next evening walk, I took a leftover grocery bag and my grabber tool with me:


(This isn’t my exact tool but you get the idea.)

And as I walked, I used it to pick up any trash I found on the street and put it in my bag. In half an hour of walking, I filled the bag TWICE! (I was able to dump it halfway through in an actual garbage can.) Again, appalling!

It was also fascinating to see what kind of trash was on the street. Our streets are actually quite clean, with weekly street sweepers coming through. I found the densest concentration of trash when I passed near the middle school :( And by far, overall, the biggest trash constituent was plastics. I collected a paper plate, a crushed soda can, and some napkins, but the huge majority was plastic cups, lids, straws, chip bags, food wrappers, etc. (I also found part of a pair of novelty sunglasses (plastic) and a pencil (not plastic).) In many cases, the items were near to or partly sucked into a storm drain already. The whole time, all I could think of was that mountain of trash in the ocean, and how unnecessary and avoidable it is.

But now, at least, I can tidy up the streets on my way to tidy up the library shelves. :)

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