Milky Way at Mesa Verde

After clouds got in my way at Arches National Park, on each of our two nights at Mesa Verde National Park, I got up in the middle of the night to take pictures of the Milky Way.

Above, on our first night I photographed from the balcony of our south-facing room at the Far View Lodge. At 2:20 am, the Milky Way is more horizontal than vertical. With a 30-second exposure, the glow of distant lights is apparent.

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Justice Sonia Sotomayor at Stanford

This March Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke at Stanford University. Answering questions from the Law School Dean and students, Justice Sotomayor offered advice and told us about her life through her stories. While answering student questions, she wandered through the audience shaking hands and taking photos with the students without pausing. I came away thrilled by her accomplishments, lessons, wisdom and accessibility.

Continue reading Justice Sonia Sotomayor at Stanford

A Trip to Beautiful

This week we took a trip to San Francisco’s Orpheum Theater to see Beautiful, a musical about the life and works of song writer and singer Carole King. We enjoyed the show. Several friends had seen it and recommended it, and we were able to purchase great tickets for a weekday evening performance one day before.

Shown above, the Orpheum Theater is located on Market Street in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, known for street people. We were careful, and there were no problems.

Continue reading A Trip to Beautiful

Can Money Buy Happiness?

Simon and Garfunkel tell us about happiness and money in the song “Richard Cory” from their Sounds of Silence album, .

They say that Richard Cory owns one half of this whole town,
With political connections to spread his wealth around.
Born into society, a banker’s only child,
He had everything a man could want: power, grace, and style.

But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I’m living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.

He freely gave to charity, he had the common touch,
And they were grateful for his patronage and thanked him very much,
So my mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read:
“Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head.”

But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I’m living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.

Richard Cory didn’t have enough to be happy, but that doesn’t stop us from desiring the power, prestige, and money he enjoyed.

Happiness is one of those aspirational things where we all want more. Last year Stanford University held a roundtable on happiness. Can money buy happiness?

Researchers at Harvard and other universities write that “the relationship between money and happiness is surprisingly weak, which may stem in part from the way people spend it.” Can we can spend our money more wisely to increase our happiness? Their paper provides eight principles on how to spend your money and get more happiness, while citing studies to back up the principles. I’ll summarize the findings; see the paper for details and the studies.

  1. Buy more experiences and fewer material goods. “Asked which of the two
    purchases made them happier, fully 57% of respondents reported that they had derived greater happiness from their experiential purchase, while only 34% reported greater
    happiness from their material purchase.” A reason for this behavior is that we adapt to new purchases quickly, so the satisfaction of a material good fades faster than the feeling of seeing baby cheetahs at sunset on a safari.
  2. Use your money to benefit others rather than yourself. Man is the most social animal on the planet, with complex social networks including unrelated individuals. “The quality of our social relationships is a strong determinant of our happiness”. “Because of this, almost anything we do to improve our connections with others tends to improve our happiness as well— and that includes spending money.”
  3. Buy many small pleasures rather than fewer large ones. “One reason why small frequent pleasures beat infrequent large ones is that we are less likely to adapt to the former.”
  4. Eschew extended warranties and other forms of overpriced insurance. “With price tags reaching as high as 50% of a product’s original cost, extended warranties sold by retailers and manufacturers provide huge benefits to the seller and are widely acknowledged to be “bad bets” for the buyer.” “The prospect of loss is highly aversive to people, who expect the pain of losing $5 to exceed the pleasure of gaining $5 (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979). But research shows that this expectation is wrong.”
  5. Delay consumption. “The first and most obvious is that the “consume now and pay later” heuristic leads people to engage in shortsighted behavior—to rack up debts, to save little for retirement, etc. In the end, the piper must be paid, and when that happens, lives are often ruined. Vast literatures on delay of gratification, intertemporal choice, and delay discounting show that when people are impatient, they end up less well off.” “But there is a second reason why “consume now, pay later” is a bad idea: it eliminates anticipation, and anticipation is a source of “free” happiness.”
  6. Consider how peripheral features of your purchases may affect your day-to-day life. “In thinking about how to spend our money, it is worthwhile to consider how purchases will affect the ways in which we spend our time. For example, consider the choice between a small, well-kept cottage and a larger “fixer upper” that have similar prices. The bigger home may seem like a better deal, but if the fixer upper requires trading Saturday afternoons with friends for Saturday afternoons with plumbers, it may not be such a good deal after all.”
  7. Beware of comparison shopping. “Comparison shopping may distract consumers from attributes of a product that will be important for their happiness, focusing their attention instead on attributes that distinguish the available options.” For example, Harvard student are assigned to one of twelve houses after their first year. “When these students stood on the brink of entering the housing lottery and were asked to predict how happy they would be living in each of the 12 houses, their attention gravitated to the features that differed most between the houses; their predictions were driven largely by the physical characteristics of each house, which varied greatly between the 12 houses.” “When these students later settled into their houses as sophomores and juniors, their happiness was predicted by the quality of social features but not by the quality of physical features in the houses.”
  8. Pay close attention to the happiness of others.  “Research suggests that the best way to predict how much we will enjoy an experience is to see how much someone else enjoyed it.” “Other people can supply us with a valuable source of data not only by telling us what has made them happy, but also by providing information about what they think will make us happy.”

“When asked to take stock of their lives, people with more money report being a good deal more satisfied. But when asked how happy they are at the moment, people with more money are barely different than those with less (Diener, Ng, Harter, & Arora, 2010). This suggests that our money provides us with satisfaction when we think about it, but not when we use it.”


The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead

In The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead, author Charles Murray writes the advice he would give to himself if he were a twentysomething or near that, while recognizing that person vanished decades ago.

The Curmedgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead
The Curmedgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead

This advice is especially relevant to young people entering private industry, working for bosses who select people for employment, job assignments, and promotions. The bosses, usually older people, make judgements and use their judgements to make personnel decisions about young people.

We all make judgements about other people. Often it’s not considered polite or politically correct to voice these judgements, so we reserve these judgements for ourselves or others close to us. These judgements usually don’t affect those we judged, except in the private sector workplace. Murray recognizes that technology companies tend to have younger managers and executives.

I’ve viewed some these beliefs and judgements as unwritten rules that I sometimes violated, to my detriment. So writing these down is a boon to everyone, especially for women and minorities who might not share the same background and beliefs as their bosses.

Murray’s writing is spare and concise. I’ll quote liberally in this post because Murray’s writing is so clear. One section is devoted to writing, where Murray cites Strunk and White. Murray follows their advice on writing while expanding the book to cover “dos and don’ts of right behavior, tough thinking, clear writing, and living a good life”.

The Curmedgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead is a set of essays offering advice, organized by domain:

  • On the presentation of self in the workplace
  • On thinking and writing well
  • On the formation of who you are
  • On the pursuit of happiness

On the presentation of self in the workplace, manners at the office and in general discusses the sense of entitlement of the younger generation, as viewed by the older generation. The baby boomers started this fifty years ago, and we passed it on to our children. Murray offers “react according to how that situation is affecting others around you, and fight the temptation to think first about how things affect you.” He quotes C.S. Lewis: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less.”

What to do if you have a bad boss is important — you seldom get to choose your boss. If your boss asks you to do something unethical or immoral, consult someone you trust, and tell them your story. If that doesn’t work, and you don’t have a family to support, you might quit. If your boss is nice but incompetent, consider what are you trying to learn, and does the incompetence get in the way? Dealing with the boss who’s a jerk is more difficult — there are several kinds of jerks and approaches to deal with them.” “But in all cases when you have problems in your interactions with your boss, there’s one more question you have to ask yourself: To what extent is your boss at fault, and to what extent are you a neophyte about supervisor-subordinate relationships?” “So if you think you have a bad boss, first go to a quiet room, look deep into your soul, and determine whether you are a victim or a self-absorbed naïf.”

On the formation of who you are, confront your inner hothouse flower deals with resilience, especially for “those of you who have had parents and teachers who were too caring and wonderful for your own good”. Resilience is how far can you be pushed and still bounce back without breaking. Many young people have been protected from this experience and learning. As remedies, Murray suggests enlisting in the service or moving to a strange place for a few years. “Spend serious time coping with situations that stress you psychologically and with people from alien backgrounds who stretch your understanding of life”.

On the pursuit of happiness, Murray defines happiness as “lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole”. He argues there are only four sources of happiness: family, vocation (which includes passionately pursued avocations and causes), community, and faith. Not all are required to be happy, but it helps. Two pieces of advice from the happiness domain are:

One is to show up — give yourself the possibility of finding satisfaction in the four domains, not necessarily succeeding. “Not showing up for family means deciding not to marry, or deliberately choosing to get into extended relationships only with people who are unavailable for marriage, or fleeing whenever a relationship starts to become dangerously important, or marrying and then putting no effort into it.” To me, Murray’s show up means make a commitment to what’s important.

A second is to take clichés about marriage seriously:

  • Marry someone with similar tastes and preferences. Many differences, e.g., liking the same flavors of ice cream, don’t matter. But not liking each other’s friends, not getting the other’s humor, or differing ethical impulses are deal breakers.
  • What you see is what you’re going to get. Be prepared to live with whatever bothers you, or forget it.
  • It is absolutely crucial that you really, really like your spouse. “You hear it all the time from people who are in great marriages: I’m married to my best friend.”
  • A good marriage is the best thing that can ever happen to you. “Above all else, realize that this cliche is true.”

As a baby boomer, I found myself agreeing frequently while reading The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead. One might view all this as common sense. What’s uncommon, however, is that Murray wrote all this in one small, well-written volume. IMHO, a gem.

Black Mountain Trail

Last Monday I joined fellow members of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) to hike up Black Mountain, a ridge that separates the Santa Clara Valley from the San Andreas Fault. I had hiked the San Andreas Fault earlier, so this hike offered views and hiking with people who know about California native plants.

This map shows both hikes. The blue squares show the first part of the San Andreas Fault hike, from the Monte Bello trailhead to Stevens Canyon. The straight valley between those two points marks the San Andreas Fault, and the trail follows the fault.

Black Mountain Map
Black Mountain Map

Black Mountain is the ridge just north of the San Andreas Fault. Monday’s hike, shown with red balloons, started at the Rhus Ridge trailhead and proceeded to the Black Mountain summit. We took the Black Mountain Trail, hiking 5.1 miles each way, with a 2,400 foot elevation gain. The CNPS members knew all sorts of California native plants and happily shared their knowledge, so I learned a lot.

The initial 3.5 miles of the hike is through woodland. This ribes menziesii, canyon gooseberry, has thorns, fine hairs on the edges of its leaves, and small red flowers.

ribes menziesii
ribes menziesii

This pedicularis densiflora, indian warrior, has dark red flowers.

pedicularis densiflora
pedicularis densiflora

This trillium chloropetalum, common trillium, has a dark burgundy flower emerging from the middle of three broad leaves. A very striking combination!

trillium chloropetalum
trillium chloropetalum

This young rattlesnake, with only one rattle, was lying on a bank beside the trail. The rattlesnake kills by injecting venom from its fangs. It then swallows its prey whole.


This piperia elegans, elegant rein orchid, is growing on this dry hillside.

piperia elegans
piperia elegans

The last 1.5 miles in on a dirt road up a ridge line. This trail is steeper, sunny and hot. You just keep going, to get it over with.

We stopped for lunch on a limestone outcropping at the summit. Lupines grow at the summit, especially in the limestone rocks.

upine on limestone outcropping at Black Mt. summit
lupine on limestone outcropping at Black Mountain summit

This view west from Black Mountain has a hazy Pacific Ocean beyond the hills. In person, we were able to see the ocean through the gap in the hills, but this photo doesn’t have enough contrast. The San Andreas Fault is in the valley below Black Mountain.

view west from Black Mountain
view west from Black Mountain

Hiking down the ridge line from the summit, we’re rewarded with views of the San Francisco Bay. The aircraft hangers at Moffett Field show up as a large, light-colored object on this side of the bay, with the cities of Los Altos and Mountain View in between. When monitoring rainfall, I use records from Moffett Field.

hiking down the ridgeline from the summit
hiking down the ridge line from the summit

Black Mountain and this ridge form part of the headwaters of Permanente Creek. In the photo below, the barren mountaintop is the Lehigh Cement Plant. The limestone in these mountains contains calcium, the primary component of cement. Permanente Creek is in the canyon below this ridge. Permanente Creek flows to the right of the Lehigh plant and out to the bay.

headwaters of Permanente Creek
headwaters of Permanente Creek

This patch of toxicoscordion fremontii, Fremont’s star lily, grows on the south side of the road. I saw this lily last week at Rancho Canada del Oro in San Jose.

toxicoscordion fremontii
toxicoscordion fremontii

Back in the woodland we spotted this ring-necked snake on the trail, so we carefully placed it off the trail where it wouldn’t get stepped on. Notice the red belly and red ring around its neck.

ring-necked snake
ring-necked snake

The hike to Black Mountain offers bay and ocean views, California native plants, and wildlife — all at the edge of Silicon Valley. The 10-mile hike with a 2400-foot elevation gain took most of the day. Pack a lunch, and carry 2 liters of water. The parking lot at the trailhead is small, so start early. Hiking in a group is wonderful — you see and appreciate so much more because different people will spot something and point it out to the others. With the wildflowers, spring is a great time to go take a hike.