Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tracking my happiness

I've been doing the Track Your Happiness project. This is actually a Harvard study you can sign up for, and as an incentive to participate you get to see your individual data. They send texts three times a day to your iPhone, and you report how happy you were just before the text and answer a few other questions. After you fill out enough, you get a summary report. You get six months off, and then you're "it" again.

The results are somewhat interesting. For example, there seems to be no relationship between my happiness level and the day of the week, my degree of focus (that's the chart you see here), or my sleep quality. I am happier when I am outside than inside, and when I am with others instead of alone - but I'm happiest with just one other person.

It is not surprising that I am happiest when I am doing things I want to but don't have to and less happy when doing things I don't want to and don't have to. (Note to self: Why was I doing them?) Nor is it surprising that I am happier with my friends than with acquaintances.

The amount of sleep I get seems to increase my happiness until I get to six hours, and then it drops off. I suspect this is because I only get a lot of sleep when my period is approaching and I have cramps, which obviously are not a thing that leads to happiness. I can't sleep that much if I try the rest of the time.

They also track your location and what you are doing in relation to happiness, but many of these happen infrequently enough that I can't conclude anything. Most of the activities are pretty bunched together, with the result that housework and eating have the same happiness score. Of frequent activities, working and exercise result in the highest happiness scores of anything that occurred many times.

One challenge I have found is that I am often out of cell phone range. For example, when my sister and I were in the Redwoods, I was out of range for three days. You're supposed to respond late rather than never, but after three days I had no idea how exactly I'd felt at, say, 11:39 a.m.! The only reason I am out of range for that long is because I am out somewhere in nature, so there's no measure of how happy I am when camping, for example.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Oryx and Crake

I recently finished Margaret Atwood's Oryx & Crake. I had found A Handmaid's Tale interesting but didn't care for Cat's Eye. However, I'd heard a lot of good things about O&C, and then I found it in hardback for 25¢ at a garage sale. Ultimately, I was disappointed.


The book centers around the friendship between the narrator and his friend Crake. Their friendship felt like a retread to me. Imagine, if you will, two boys growing up together. One, the narrator, is easily led by his friend. The friend is a genius, or at least has a strong sense of his own destiny. The narrator feels dumb by comparison, not only to his friend but to his privileged milieu, but he isn't stupid, and he is at least verbally skilled. (This makes it much easier for him to narrate cogently later on.) However, he's cast/casts himself in the sidekick role. They may compete for the love of a woman. Eventually, after the friend does great and/or terrible things and is dead, the narrator is left to carry on, bereft. Sound familiar? This territory was already explored brilliantly in A Prayer for Owen Meany - as well as a lot of other works. ("Burning Chrome" by William Gibson comes to mind, although it doesn't map across all the details.) There's nothing wrong with this trope, but it results in a lot less originality than I'd expected.

My other issue comes in at the very end, and this is where I have a real spoiler: The book has a non-ending. The narrator finds out other people are alive and could be a threat to the creations of Crake. As we leave him, he is trying to decide whether to kill them or what.

The first time I read that kind of ending, back in middle school, I thought it was pretty clever. By now, I've lost my tolerance. While a writer doesn't have to wrap everything up in a bow, this kind of ending suggests to me that the writer doesn't know how to end it - particularly if it comes after a traditional narrative structure. (If the author has been telling a story in a very different way from the get-go, like in Robert BolaƱo's 2666, you're not set up to expect a classic denouement.) I got to the end and thought, really? I would have bet you a pony halfway through through that the narrator would find other humans, so his discovery wasn't much of a surprise. And I don't even have a pony. For that matter, it was evident early on that Oryx, the narrator's lover, was a point of contention between the two men. This isn't a work of great subtlety.

I can't really recommend it, unless you're a big Atwood fan - but then you've already read it.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Boards of trust in the news

This article on the recent AGB survey about trustees makes some good points, but I can't agree with them all.

The first major point is that AGB did not survey trustees but instead senior administrators. There is nothing wrong, I think, with surveying those who work with trustees - I have been using data from a survey of fundraisers myself - but it should not be our only or even primary source of information about trustees. There are two reasons for this. First, there are facts we can only get at by surveying trustees themselves ("How much time did you spend last year in your role as a trustee?"). Second, there are questions of opinion and subjective questions that administrators and trustees might have very different outlooks on. These would include, "Is the president doing a good job?" and "How hard is it to recruit new board members?"

However, the author then objects to the finding that board members spend over half their time listening to staff. This strikes me as an inevitability. Board members must know what's going on at their institutions. As part-time volunteers, it's impossible for them to know as much as full-time employees (who, with the exception of the president, specialize in one particular aspect of the institution). If we want them to spend 40 or more hours a week in their trustee role, we have to pay them - at which point they are employees instead of trustees, and they are no longer on the same side of the agency problem. Now, perhaps trustees ought to be able to go to administrators and and ask questions rather than be served pre-digested information, but it's nearly impossible to eliminate their dependence of "information supplied by the institution." What other source is possible?

Next, the author chastises keeping boards in the dark. Fair point. Of course, board members themselves ought to share some responsibility for letting themselves be kept in the dark. If only 64% of private boards tell the full board (rather than, presumably, the compensation committee) the president's compensation, are the board members asking?

Finally, the last couple of paragraphs excoriate the state of American higher education in general. The implication is that nothing short of dramatically changing trusteeship will fix it, but since the charges include so many things and no specific solutions are suggested, I'll leave it alone.

But the last two sentences are worth noting: "The rising cost and declining quality that we see today in higher ed result, too often, from the belief that administrators are the real governance structure and that trustees exist to serve the institution first and the public interest second. It is time for trustees to wake up to this mindset and reassert their central governing role." I feel like something is missing as it is formulated - it's a simple fact that administrators ARE the real governance structure. What I think is being objected to is the notion that they OUGHT to be. As far as to what trustees serve, researchers, academics, and board members themselves have come to no agreement on that - on the rare occasions they think about it. And as far as I know, no one has done a survey of that yet.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Visiting Crater Lake

Crater Lake
Originally uploaded by TheTurducken
On my last day in Southern Oregon, we drove up to Crater Lake and around the Rim Drive. It was a beautiful day and less windy than usual up top. The only hitch was when we stopped for lunch and managed to find the only mosquitoes in the whole park. None of us had bugspray on, and even I was having my blood sucked away.

I had been there once before, not long after we moved to Oregon, which was more than half my life ago. I need to get back up there to do some hiking.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Boy Scout Tree Trail

Boy Scout Tree
Originally uploaded by TheTurducken
On our final day, we drove north to Jedediah Smith State Park and did a scenic drive-though and hike. Howland Hill Road is a gravel road but well worth doing to see some magnificent trees. While there, we hiked the 2.8-mile (one-way) Boy Scout Tree Trail hike. The photo is of me in front of said tree. The tree splits higher up, so it can be fancied to resemble the Boy Scout hand sign. The park is very beautiful, not only with redwoods but with the scenic Smith River.

While hiking, we narrowly missed seeing a bear. We were on our way out when we ran into two park employees who had been hiking faster than us, chatting with some German visitors who were coming from the other direction. They had come upon a black bear in the trail at the same time, who had then ambled off. The ranger said she had never seen a bear in the park before, although of course she know they are around.

Coast and Redwoods

Originally uploaded by TheTurducken
On the second day of our trip, we did a lot of things. We went briefly to Tolowa Dunes, toured the Battery Point lighthouse, and walked the Trillium Falls trail. This photo was taken at the aquarium, which we did not go into.

If you want to visit the Dunes, do NOT go unprepared. There is no information available at the park entrances. We showed up to trailheads to find no information as to how long trails were or where they went. The Lighthouse is well worth seeing, but it's only open during low tide, so plan ahead.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Del Norte coast

Coastal vegetation
Originally uploaded by TheTurducken
I'm currently in Oregon with the family for about a week. But the day after I arrived, my sister and I headed down to the redwoods and the coast of California. We spent three days and two nights in the area, staying at a very nice HI hostel in the park.

On the first day we went to Crescent Beach and tried to walk the northernmost portion of the Coastal Trail, but it didn't actually follow the coast and was rutted and grassy. Then we did the Coastal Drive, which probably has lovely ocean views when it isn't foggy. It was foggy, though. We finally ended up doing the one-mile Yurok Loop Trail, where this photo was taken. The vegetation was a solid wall of thickets, and I can't imagine how unfun it must have been to create the trail.

It felt wonderful to be hiking in the summer and not be sweltering; the high was in the low 60s. I then found out that the temperatures back in Nashville had dropped to an unseasonable low if 70-something. Naturally, the forecast calls for them to rise when I get back.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Smokies trip, part II

Natural wonders
Originally uploaded by TheTurducken
On the second day of our trip we dawdled over breakfast, trying to figure out what to do. I was advocating for something under 10 miles, but there was some enthusiasm for a harder hike, so we decided to hike up to Mount LeConte and back. We were going to head up the Boundary Trail and back down the Alum Cave trail, which meant setting up a car shuttle.

We didn't get started until practically lunchtime. The trail starts at Newfound Gap and follows the Appalachian Trail for a ways. Most of that is uphill. From there you get on the Boundary Trail, and my hiking book mentioned a short descent followed by a "gentle ascent."

The short descent lost us half of the elevation we'd gained, and the "gentle" ascent was not at all gentle. We were in a hurry, too, worried about getting done before dark. Finally we all got to the top, and I have to admit I was looking at the Lodge at the top with some degree of jealousy. Hot dinner, warm beds, and wine? Yes, thank you!

But we had to hike down. Uncle Minion and I ran ahead so we could get down and shuttle the cars back. This photo is taken near the beginning of the descent. The Alum Cave Trail is direct, with no up-and-down fooling around, although it does descent to a lower point. We did the 5 miles down in one hour and 50 minutes.

The final day of the trip we had planned to go tubing, although my car opted out and just drove back to Nashville.

Smokies trip, part I

Guess what, hills
Originally uploaded by TheTurducken
I apologize for being remiss in posting the last two weeks, but I've been in and out of town and in and out of internet contact. I first went out of town for a weekend trip to Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Most of us drove up Friday morning. After setting up camp at Elkmont, we hiked up to the Chimney Tops. It's a steep hike, but the real challenge comes at the end when you have to scramble up rocks to get to the peak. I thought that was the most fun part. The view from the top, shown here, was spectacular. We thought there would be nice sunsets from up the top, but no one wanted to climb down in the dark.

(There used to be an alternate route up, more of a real trail, but the Park has closed it off.)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Links for your reading pleasure

How language shapes the way we think.

The annual Bulwer-Lytton "worst opening sentence" results are in. My favorite: "Towards the dragon's lair the fellowship marched -- a noble human prince, a fair elf, a surly dwarf, and a disheveled copyright attorney who was frantically trying to find a way to differentiate this story from 'Lord of the Rings.'"

A study has found that "those with broad family ties to their alma mater tend to be the most generous to it." The authors of this study have done some good work mining a set of data from an unnamed elite university - this is just one of a series - but it's a sign of where the study of fundraising stands that a single-site quantitative study can get this much press. This isn't a slam on the authors at all; it was a big coup to get their hands on the data, and they do good analysis. It just goes to show how little really little solid work we have in this field, though, that it is newsworthy.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Frozen Head

Park road
Originally uploaded by TheTurducken
A few of us spent the weekend at Frozen Head State Park. We camped out in our favorite group site, hiked a little, and mostly relaxed. Actually, the only hiking we did was Saturday, when we hiked the moderate Old South Mac Trail to the top of Frozen Head. We might have hiked Sunday if it hadn't rained Saturday night. (Somehow, my $29 tent was the only one that didn't leak.)

It was a relaxing way to spend the weekend of the Fourth. We didn't see any fireworks, but apparently Nashville canceled its display anyway due to a rainstorm.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Golf gear

Stylish golf hat
Originally uploaded by TheTurducken
So, lately I've been taking golf lessons. (From the reactions I'm getting, you would think I'm taking classes in puppy kicking.) As a broke student, however, golf clubs are not in my budget. A friend of mine mentioned she had an old set moldering in her shed that she would gladly dump on me, and naturally I took her up on the offer.

The bag had an intractable odor, and the mint-green vinyl was cracked, so into the trash it went. Three old woods - actually made of wood - belonged in an antiqueshop. The other clubs I took in to the golf pro who is teaching us, and she said they would be usable for now; I just needed to buy a putter.

But the real prize was this snazzy hat I found in a pocket of the bag. With this, no one will have to wonder what sport I'm playing.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Odds and ends

Yesterday afternoon went up in smoke. I went out at lunchtime to do errands, and the guy at the Costco gas station pointed out I had a nail in a tire. Since my tires are from Costco, I pulled around to the tire shop, where they said I had nails in both of my rear tires. They fixed one for free, but Costco claims they can't get the rims off of my passenger-side tires (a legacy of the inept dealership back in Indy), so I had to head across town to the Kia dealership. They charged, but it was only $18 - the bigger problem was the time that evaporated out of my day.

In the evening I took a gamble and machine-washed my daypack. I still haven't bought a new one yet, due to lack of funds, and my old one smelled pretty funky. I figured that there wasn't much to ruin if it didn't work out. (Packs aren't supposed to be washed.) I stopped short of machine-drying it, though. It came out just fine - and it smells much better.

The good news is, I do have work lined up for July, so I'll be financially sound this summer.