Monday, March 31, 2008

Happiness: Lessons from a New Science

I finished reading Richard Layard’s Happiness: Lessons from a New Science and wanted to post a few comments about it before loaning my copy of the book to a friend who wants to figure out where Layard “went wrong” in his conclusion that progressive income tax improves overall happiness by providing a disincentive for workers to continuously increase their income, which Layard amusingly categorizes as a form of pollution. My friend is a political conservative.

Initially, I checked the book out from the library, but liked it so well I bought my own copy (a nice Penguin trade paperback). I’m not sure what actually brought Layard’s book to my attention: whether I came across a reference to it in another book I was reading, or just came across it while roaming the public library. One project I have embarked on is to keep a closer eye on how books come into my life. I mean in a figurative sense. I’m quite familiar with how they get in the front door, as is my wife Elly, who balances our check book.

Layard, a London economist, notes that over the last 50 years income levels have increased significantly in America and the UK, but happiness has not increased. The fact that happiness can be effectively measured is something he treats early in his book, which includes extensive end notes and a long reading list. The book is a jumping off point for many interesting reading projects, one factor that caused me to add it to our home library. At any rate, after showing how happiness can be effectively measured, and providing examples of studies that have done so, he essentially asks the question "What’s wrong with the income/happiness picture.” If people are making more money, why are’t they happier.

The answers Layard provides, noting that many things contribute to happiness, take a more or less big picture view based in economics, which is not surprising given the author’s background. If this sounds like boring or difficult reading, let me assure you it is not. The text itself is just over 200 pages, pithy, with provocative insights and not a small amount of humor.

So how can more income be a form of pollution?? Layard points out that for much of the world’s population, more income is critical for happiness simply because many people don’t have enough income to provide basic necessities like food, clothing, and shelter. After a certain point, however, additional income has an increasingly smaller impact on happiness. In fact, some rather convincing studies have shown that relative income, that is how much one makes in comparison with his or her social group, is more important to happiness than the income level itself. People who earn less money than their friends are less happy, while people who make more money are happier. The catch, however, is making more money increases happiness less than the increase in unhappiness among those who fall behind. Thus, the rat race and Layard’s conclusion about the polluting effect of striving to maximize income.

If the consumers are to consume more, it is they who will have to produce it. If they work harder, they can indeed consume more but only at the sacrifice of something — their family life or their tennis or whatever. So it only makes sense for them to work harder if there is some overall net benefit. But as we have seen, people can have too great a work incentive, because one of their aims is to improve their relative income. Every time they raise their relative income (which they like), they lower the relative income of other people (which those people dislike). This is an “external disbenefit” imposed on others, a form of physical pollution. If people do not take this pollution into account when they decide how much to work...the result will be too much work and a distorted work-life balance.

Taxing Pollution

At least that would be true if there were no taxes. But taxes provide a standard cure for pollution. They make it possible to charge people for the damage which they do to others — and so force them to take this damage into account. People will thus take note of external costs which they would otherwise ignore, and if the level of tax is right, the polluting activity will be cut back to the most efficient level.

...In both situations the tax is not distorting (by discouraging something that is desirable) but corrective (by discouraging something that is undesirable.) This puts a completely new light on our existing taxes, because both economists and politicians have tended to look on taxes as distorting, even at very low levels of tax. But we have now seen that at least up to some point the taxes are performing a useful function that we were unaware of. They are helping to preserve our work-life balance.

This is just one aspect of a multi-faceted and fascinating book. Layard’s analysis of the impact of television on happiness (predictably, it decreases happiness) was another highlight for me.

I’m not sure reading this book will increase the happiness of my conservative friend, but it should at least generate some lively conversation.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Eggs Florentine

I mentioned this dish, which Elly has converted to be South Beach dietish while still retaining lots of flavor, to Judy H., a close friend of ours who works with Elly at the Nelson-Atkins Museum. She was interested enough to want to try it, and then liked it well enough to want the recipe so I decided to post it here. Hi, Judy! :-) Elly’s version is based on a recipe from The American Country Inn and Bed & Breakfast Cookbook (Volume II) by Kitty and Lucian Maynard.

  • 5 eggs & 1 cup EggBeaters

  • 2 cups 2% cottage cheese

  • 2 cups grated Jarlsburg cheese

  • 8 ounces crumbled goat's milk feta cheese

  • 4 tablespoons melted butter

  • 2 10oz packages chopped frozen spinach, thawed and drained

  • 1 tsp dill weed

  • 1/2 tsp powdered garlic

  • 1/4 tsp fresh ground pepper

Okay, no South Beach concessions were made on the Jarlsburg, feta, and butter. I’ve still lost plenty of weight eating this for breakfast, though...

I often make this Saturday evening so we can enjoy a light meal when Elly gets home from work around 10:00 pm. It is complemented nicely by an arugula salad with shaved Parmesan Reggiano, olive oil, fresh lemon juice, and freshly ground pepper.

Here is the sequence I follow. First, I turn the oven on Bake at 350 degrees so it can heat up. Then I thaw the spinach in our microwave with two rounds of 5-minutes at 70% power. While that is working, I mix the eggs, EggBeaters, cottage cheese, seasoning, Jarlsburg, and feta. I don’t mess with draining it, just squeeze the water out one handful at a time. You really want to get the water out before mixing it in with the eggs and cheese. I add the melted butter last and stir it in well.

I spray a 13x9-inch Pyrex baking dish with Pam cooking spray, pour the mixture in, and spread it around with a spatula. Then it goes in the oven for 50 minutes.

This is a fool-proof recipe that is both healthy and delicious.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Tile Project

One of my (many) New Year’s resolutions was to make progress on some remodeling projects for our house, and while I have not been posting about the work, which, in hindsight, I should have done, Elly and I have been busy. We decided to tackle our second floor laundry room and dayroom first, inspired by the ominous banging our 20-year-old dryer has been making for months.

We have had the washer and dryer in our basement since moving into the house, but when we hired a contractor to build a two-story addition for us in 2004, we decided a second-floor laundry would be much more the thing. We previously did all of our own remodeling work, but couldn’t handle such a large project on our own. We still planned to do much of the interior finish work ourselves, concentrating initially on the kitchen and first floor bathroom and leaving the second floor day and laundry room areas for later.

Our first job in the two rooms was to install a compound crown molding treatment we have used throughout the house. More on that in another post.

The biggest project was to lay a tile floor for the two rooms. We previously tiled our second floor bathroom, but it was a much smaller space. We chose a natural, travertine mosaic pattern. The individual tile pieces are mounted on a 30x30cm mesh backing which simplifies installation somewhat.

I hauled all the material into our house on an icy, snowy day. Between the tile (13 boxes), five bags of thinset, bags of grout, tile backer board, etc., the combined weight was something like 1/2 a ton or maybe a little more. Getting the stuff inside was only the first step. We had to haul all of it upstairs, too!

Here is a picture of Samba helping with the tile backer board.

This picture shows a midpoint in the project after we had installed all the tile-backer board.

Here is a picture of the tile set in place. The laundry room is out of sight on the right side of the day room. We started working on the tile February 22 and finished setting tile on March 18. We only work on remodeling projects on the weekend, so it takes longer but our sanity remains somewhat intact (if tenuous). In our younger years we would come home from work and demo rooms at night. But, with experience comes wisdom. Sort of.

More pictures of the project, and of Samba(!), accompanied by detailed step-by-step captions, can be viewed in my Laundry and Dayroom Picasa album.

Coraline and Others

I recently read Coraline by Neil Gaiman after coming across a post about the book on Eloise by the Book Piles (one of my very favorite reading blogs). It’s a whimsical, spooky tale written for “readers of all ages” as book blurb writers like to say. It’s also creepy and disturbing, with a dash of mordant humor thrown in for good measure. Okay, more than a dash. When she turns up after a long absence in a department store and her mother wants to know where she has been, Coraline has an answer ready: “I was kidnapped by aliens. They came down from outer space with ray guns, but I fooled them by wearing a wig and laughing in a foreign accent, and I escaped.” Her story is wasted on her preoccupied mother, however, as are her explanations to adults that her name is not Caroline.

Coraline’s parents have recently moved into a flat in an old house. In the drawing room is a locked door which opens on a brick wall. BUT, one day when Coraline opens the door she finds something different: “It opened on to a dark hallway. The bricks had gone as if they’d never been there. There was a cold, musty smell coming through the open doorway: it smelled like something very old and very slow.” Despite a warning from the musical mice owned by the crazy old man upstairs, Coraline goes through the door. On the other side she finds a flat nearly identical to her own. She also finds a woman who looks a little like her mother, only her skin is paper white, her fingers are too long, and her dark red fingernails are curved and sharp. Caroline’s other mother wants to keep her, and the young girl soon finds that getting back to her own world will require all of her cunning, courage, and help from those who have also been trapped by the other mother.

I have read four books along somewhat similar lines over the past six months. In addition to Coraline, these include The Book of Lost Things by Jonathan Connolly, The Thief of Always by Clive Barker, and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I reread this last book for the first time since my childhood after hearing that L’Engle had passed away last September.

Of these, Gaiman’s is perhaps the most effectively plotted maintaining a consistent tone from the start and ending on a fittingly clever and creepy note. Connolly’s story is seriously flawed, as I discuss in some detail in my post on his book. Barker stands out for characterization and style. He is in a different league from the rest of the group. His characters are well-dimensioned and compelling and his prose is no less than enchanting. I found his tale the most engaging, though diminished somewhat by an anticlimatic, pat conclusion.

L’Engle is arguably the least accomplished writer of the quartet. I had forgotten her story literally begins with the line “It was a dark and stormy night.” What a hoot! Despite the corn and camp, though, and there is plenty of that, her story struck me as more fun than all the rest combined. I read it as an adolescent, so nostalgia might account for part of that response. But it seems to me another factor is she did not try to write Wrinkle in Time for all ages. She wrote the story for kids and expends no energy working in bits that read differently for adults. In other words, she didn’t go out of her way to be sophisticated. It seems to me the honest homespun has worn quite well.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Spring Equinox

The 2008 Spring Equinox is today, March 20. I decided to sit out in the backyard with Samba on my lunchbreak so we both could enjoy the fresh air and sunshine (60 degrees!!). I noticed some crocus in full bloom in our neighbor’s backyard and took some pictures. Here are two of the images in honor of the equinox.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Message in a Bottle

— from How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch

Imagine you have gone down to the shore and there, amidst the other debris — the seaweed and rotten wood, the crushed cans and dead fish — you find an unlikely looking bottle from the past. You bring it home and discover a message inside. This letter, so strange and disturbing, seems to have been making its way toward someone for a long time, and now that someone turns out to be you. The great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, destroyed in a Stalinist camp, identified this experience. “Why should’t the poet turn to his friends, to those who are naturally close to him?” he asked in “On the Addressee.” But of course those friends aren’t necessarily the people around him in daily life. They may be the friends he only hopes exist, or will exist, the ones his words are seeking. Mandelstam wrote:

At a critical moment, a seafarer tosses a sealed bottle into the ocean waves, containing his name and a message detailing his fate. Wandering along the dunes many years later, I happen upon it in the sand. I read the message, note the date, the last will and testament of one who has passed on. I have the right to do so. I have not opened someone else’s mail. The message in the bottle was addressed to its finder. I found it. That means, I have become its secret addressee.

Thus it is for all of us who read poems, who become the secret addressees of literary texts. I am at home in the middle of the night and suddenly hear myself being called, as if by name. I go over and take down the book — the message in the bottle — because tonight I am its recipient, its posterity, its heartland.

Friday, March 14, 2008

White Grackles, Roasted Greenbeans, and Georgene Lockwood

I don’t generally go in for The Complete Idiot’s Guide series, but came across Georgene Lockwood’s TCIG Simple Living book at Half-Price last weekend and was so impressed with it (after a cursory examination) I decided to give it a try. Oh, along with five other books. I realize having tons of books is not necessarily the best approach to simple living, but according to Georgene Lockwood we each have to find our own way...

One exercise she recommends (lots of exercises) is to keep track, on a daily basis, of three things to be grateful for, which, she acknowledges, sounds kind of hokey. Why not? Here are my three things for yesterday.

1. On my lunch break (it was a work from home day), I saw this splendid albino grackle on our feeding tray. I have heard of these before, but have not seen one. It was a very striking bird.

Here is a normal grackle for comparison.

2. I decided to choose roasted green beans for my second item. It is amazing how delicious, healthy, and easy to prepare these are. Of course, you need fresh green beans. Cut off the ends with a paring knife, toss them with a bit of olive oil and kosher salt on a large baking sheet, and then roast them in the oven at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, turning them with a spatula at 10 minute intervals. Some beans cook faster, some slower, so you want to keep an eye on them until you have some experience with this. They taste better than french fries and are more healthy. We have gotten in the habit of roasting most vegetables. At least, it is a cooking technique we use for them about 75-80% if the time. They taste great and retain more vitamins and minerals (which aren’t leached away by cooking water, etc.).

3. Reading Georgene L’s book was my third grateful choice.

Part of the exercise is that you can't repeat items -- you have to think of new ones each day.

If I were going to pick a fourth item, it would be seeing a female cowbird in our backyard yesterday morning. We haven't seen one since last fall. She is probably hoping to find some early nest to lay an egg in. (Cowbirds don’t make their own nests. They lay eggs in the nests of other birds and let them do the hard work. I hope she chooses a starling's nest.)

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Stashing Books

I was inspired to post a few bookcase pictures after reading this post about treacherous book piles on Eliose by the Book Piles, one of my favorite reading blogs. Elly and I have been in our home for nearly 20 years. We have gutted the house and completely rehabbed it. Well, not quite completely. I figure we’ll have the job finished in maybe another 20 years...

Here are the first bookcases we built. Believe it or not, the previous owners ripped out the fireplace and everything else on this wall. (You have to wonder about previous owners, sometimes.) Fortunately, we were able to find a period fireplace mantle appropriate for our home. Comparing it with other fireplaces in the neighborhood, it is difficult to believe it isn’t original. Anyway, we built out the entire chimney wall and then added the built-in bookcases. This picture was taken last fall after Elly and her mom did fall theme arrangements for the living room. The illumination is very warm tungsten lighting, and I haven’t gone to great lengths to color correct it so the actual shade of yellow is a lot milder than how it appears here!

We worked a lot of books, including Sherlock Holmes, Jules Verne, etc. onto the dresser in our bedroom, which is more or less done in Empire style. We’re planning to add additional Sherlock Holmes touches to the room. The small set in front is a delightful edition of Washington Irving.

The rest of these are quick and dirty attic bookcase projects. Converting one of our rooms into an actual library is on the project list for this year, as soon as we finish our day room and laundry room (but that is another post).

We made these bookcases of MDF (Medium Density Fiber board) which is inexpensive and readily available from U.S. home improvement centers. One trick is to use sheet metal screws instead of wood screws to attach the shelves to the case sides. Wood screws taper and will split the MDF material. Sheet metal screws are cylindrical and don’t cause this problem. It is still a good idea to predrill though. I cut spacers out of scrap to set the height of each shelf from the next lower shelf, which made the job go very quickly.

I used 1/4-inch hardboard for the backs, and attached them with a bradnailer (which took about 60 seconds per unit). This is quite sturdy. Dados or any sort of shelf support are not necessary, but the cases must be narrow to prevent sagging. These are about 24-inches wide.

Here are several shelves thrown up with little ceremony over an attic work table. We used premade particle board (Low Density Fiber board) shelving and metal brackets. Because of the way the original stud wall was constructed, we couldn’t put a bracket in the middle, which causes the shelves to sag as you can see.

Here is the view down the attic staircase, one side of which is lined with book shelves built from the same premade particle board shelving, which comes in different widths. The shelves are quite long, maybe 8 or 10 feet. The shelf brackets are more appropriately spaced, so there is no sagging. The bookcases on the landing are made from birch plywood and were more complicated and deeper. Were we building them again, we would probably go the MDF route.

The MDF bookcases were built one weekend over two afternoons. The staircase shelves were installed in about two hours. An advantage of installing shelves in a little-used area is they don’t require elaborate finishing, which generally makes them quick and easy to install. Not to mention less expensive.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

An Open Letter to Richard Dawkins

After thinking this over for a while, I decided I did not want a letter to Richard Dawkins on my blog. Yuck!

Instead, I’m working on a longish rant about all the blunders Dawkins makes concerning Einstein’s ideas about religion. I plan to post it on my website, and will include a link to it from here. I’m still hacked about his rediculous claim to be a member of “Einstein’s camp” in his interview with Terry Gross, aired on NPR’s Fresh Air, March 8, 2008. Einstein vehemently denied being an atheist and noted that the intolerance of fanatical atheists is of the same kind as that of the religious fanatics. Another thing he got right!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Importance of Books

“...books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or exite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things that you don’t get in real life — wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.” (p. 15)

— Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Exquisite Spell

“‘Life is a spell so exquisite that everything conspires to break it,’ Emily Dickinson said. One reason I like staying up to read long after everyone else has gone to sleep is that in the middle of the night not much conspires to break that spell. I like the dark hour when the secular world recedes and consciousness is loosened for poetic reverie. I have called the poem a soul in action through words because I want to suggest that lyric poetry provides us with a particular means of spiritual transport.”

— Edward Hirsch, How to Read a Poem, p. 250.