Being Happy

Are you happy?

How do you know?

Do you know what makes my children happy? Everything.

You can't see their faces, so trust me that this is joy.
You can’t see their faces, so trust me that this is joy.

I think about happiness a lot. Part of that is obvious: I’m a Happiness Engineer; a big part of my day revolves around generating or engineering happiness. I really love it, so I tend to dwell on my role. Part of it is maybe less obvious: I’m a pretty happy person. You may have to know me to understand that, or maybe it comes across ok.

But I’m not happy all the time. And sometimes, I’m both happy and not happy. And sometimes I’m unhappy. Happiness isn’t a finite thing, and it’s not a fixed state. It’s not part of a dichotomy where if you are happy you are not anything else, or if you’re something else, you can’t also be happy.

In the winter (it’s cold here and polar vortexing all over the place), I’m something not unlike unhappy. But I’m also really happy a lot of the time, too. Sometimes, the cold and the snow and the oppressiveness of the entire winter regime means I just have to lie in bed for awhile after I take the kids to daycare. I read a People or an Outside, something not about here or me or sometimes even now that is short and engaging. But typically, I then feel better. I know I’m lucky for this. Happiness is different to everyone, and I am generally pretty happy.

It’s not a decision, but for me it also is a decision.

I know that sometimes there is no way to be happy. Unhappiness can be so destructive and painful and all-consuming that you are powerless. And it is such a bastard, too, because it seeps like an oil spill into your being, so you might not notice it, or might not think it’s important. But your happiness is important (and if you are starting to feel like you haven’t been happy for a few weeks, and are feeling like a morning of reading People and watching Jimmy Fallon re-runs isn’t going to make you smile and hum, you may want to talk to someone about how you feel) and it matters to make it a priority. And ugh, the last thing you want to do when you’re pervasively unhappy (what you might, at this point, call depressed, as that is another name for this) is drag yourself out of the house or have something else on your to-do list or do anything at all. But do.*

Being happy is the best, and being a little happy some of the time is a huge improvement, and being actively not unhappy is a great goal to have. And that’s where I started.

It is easy to complain. It is so easy. I am aces at it. Like, super good. I used to remember all the crappy stuff that would happen on the way to work in the morning – file it away, in my brain. I would remember it and bring it all back up later, like the cat hacking up the head and a wing of a bird on the carpet. I’d remember it so I could tell Bob about it and we could then complain together. Then I’d remember the crappy stuff that happened during the day, and then on my drive home. Repeat. In retrospect, it’s psychotic to dwell so intently on these (often) minor things for no reason. It took me a long time to realize I just had to stop doing that. I wasn’t trying to make anything better, so it had to stop. I attribute a concept to my dad (which I have to point out, I don’t actually remember if he said, but it sounds like something he’d say, so…), which is, it is ok to complain if you can offer a better alternative.

So, for me, part of removing some unhappiness in my life was to stop looking for unhappiness and then dwelling on it for hours. I can’t imagine anything unhealthier, and I’m not really that healthy. I had to decide that if someone cut me off in traffic, it didn’t matter. Another thing I attribute to my dad (although it’s from Cannonball Run if I recall correctly – and I probably don’t) [edit: it was Gumball Rally, my thanks to @timwilsie] is “what’s behind you doesn’t matter” and here is a link for the car fellas out there. I’m sure if I thought about it for 10 minutes, I could tell you a bunch of things about my day that weren’t great. But I had a fun, exhilarating day, and I really don’t want to do that, so I won’t.

Sometimes you hear that you have to look for the positive stuff, like, self-help style. Find something nice and focus on that. I think that’s probably fine to do, but I think the best thing I ever did was to just re-train myself to not pay as much attention to the little negative things that can take a pretty good day to “kind of ok, I guess.” I’d rather have 10 pretty good days stacked up than 10 kind of ok days. Related reading here on marginal gains and why they matter (from James Clear).

So, happiness is different for everyone. I’m mostly happy. Most of the time, if someone asks me “are you happy?” I’m lucky enough to actually be happy. Happiness to me is like getting a glimpse of a favorite artists’ work and knowing there is so much to feel and know floating out in the world; it is a book I can’t put down (sometimes a real book, sometimes a euphemism for People); it is my beloved friends and my family, who let me be quiet or help me be loud; it is puns, which are the best kind of joke; it is sunlight; it is when someone who is good at something does that thing elegantly; it is perfection without the baggage of Perfection (see also: exquisite).

I take some cues from the kids. So much makes them happy, because they are unfettered and just delight in it. They make me happy, and I delight in them.

And how do I know? Because I want to know more about things, and I know that for me, when I stop wanting to learn, I am unhappy. When your side project is focusing on things that make you not happy – or worse, unhappy – stop doing that.

* Just to reiterate: stopping being depressed isn’t just a decision you make. I get that. Priming yourself to get depressed is something you have a bit more control about. Either way, it is normal and helpful to talk to someone when you feel abnormally unhappy.

Changes

November was a crazy month for us.

On November 1, the twins turned one! On November 14, we flew with the twins to California, and took them to Disneyland for the first time on November 17. Also on November 17, I quit my job and accepted an offer to go to work with the amazing people at Automattic.

Today was my first full day on the job, and I can tell you right now that this was the right decision.

I’m very, very lucky; I have had some good jobs in my life, and some great opportunities. I’ve been able to learn a lot from each job, even the one where I cut my finger to the bone slicing a bagel, and they wanted me to keep working (lesson: get them to sign all medical paperwork). I’ve also learned things like making the most of my time, self-scheduling, and pursing my own on-going training. Every job, every boss, every task has helped me in some way, shape, or form. I am truly grateful.

Looking forward, I’m thrilled to let you all know that now I’m a Happiness Engineer with Automattic! I am delighted to get to spend my days working with some of the smartest, funniest people I have had the honor of getting to know. And they are all ridiculously good looking. I am a perfect fit.

My job will be to help people who want to use Automattic products; specifically, WordPress.com. So if you have a WordPress.com blog that you need help with, don’t hesitate to let me know!

I also had a root canal in November, but who cares?

The day after Disneyland we flew to Hawaii for two weeks… more on that later.

Patience as instruction

Patience is one of those funny things that is always inversely affected by your own sense of urgency. The more urgent your task, the less patience you can generally muster.

But it’s also one of those things that can be cultivated. It’s hard, which is why people say that patience is a virtue. If it’s otherworldly, then there is less obligation to attempt to achieve it.

When I was in seventh grade, one of our teachers told us “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” I can’t remember why now, and it doesn’t matter. I do remember that it made me feel badly about myself, and a good, I suppose, outcome was that I took care to examine my participation in solution-making.

But looking back now, all I see is bullying. To essentially tell someone (or a class of students) that if they are not contributing in a manner of your choosing that they are a nuisance or a hazard is irresponsible and lazy. When I hear someone say that now, all I can really think is, “well, eff you too.” It’s the worst kind of bullying; it masquerades as an insight, as if it is helpful or instructive. It’s none of those things. It’s not even true.

Sometimes drawing out the best in someone, helping them become independent and actively willing to contribute to a particular goal or aspiration, is hard. It takes patience. And, taking the time to get to know someone’s strengths and weaknesses, so as to better understand if this goal or aspiration is best aligned with who they really are, is a long process. It’s an exercise in patience. The more help you need, the more care you must exercise in finding your contributors.

Patience, as a practice, can seem to be caught in a closed, frustrating loop. To practice patience you need patience. But practice you must.

Like creativity, practice is one of those things you have to develop. You may have an inborn ability to just be chill about stuff, but even so, genuine patience is not an exercise in not caring about things. It means caring about a situation and the outcome enough to control your actions – even when it feels like non-action.

In grad school, a professor was preparing us to teach our classes solo. He told us, “After you ask a question, wait at least 10 seconds in silence. It feels like a long time, but it take them at least that long to get the courage to start speaking up.” The first time, those ten seconds felt awkwardly long. I stood there staring at the students, and they avoided staring back. Then someone tendered an answer, phrased as a question (as freshmen so often do, so as to not be caught in the wrong too badly). And we were rolling. The next time, the students knew it was ok to answer, and I knew the ten seconds would pass. Now, I see a lot of value in just waiting other people out. There are times it can be very instructive to patiently wait. Silence can make people nervous, and they would rather fill the void. I have found that I can find out more about what someone is asking of me (particularly at work) if I just wait it out. They may use terminology that isn’t quite right, and seem to be asking one thing, but after a little bit of waiting, they say something that clarifies better than if I had asked questions myself – because I wouldn’t have known what their true intent was. It sounds vaguely nefarious, but it’s usually just a method of saving a few minutes or a few emails of talking in circles until someone manages to break through the clutter and get the heart of the matter. But that time adds up.

The twins benefit from my patience, too. Or, I benefit, which means they benefit. They are learning the world new. They don’t know the words for things yet. They point and they learn. They will be a year old next week, and they are signing pretty consistently, devouring new concepts and teaching us how they see the world by applying signs or trying a toy in a new way. When we are patient with them, letting them use a toy “wrong,” we see more about how else a toy can be played with and what other creative things can be done with it. Patience, in this case, fosters creativity. As I have noted elsewhere, Eleanor is not as patient as Henry, but she is just as creative, so I can see her working on being patient. She wants to play with a toy in a certain way, but she can’t figure it out. Sometimes she quits for a while and comes back, other times she tries harder for a few minutes. She sees patience modeled, and she practices it. She is also determined – when she has an idea she sees it through.

So.

 “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

This is aggressive and accusatory. I’m not sure I want to browbeat and shame people into doing what I think (ahem, POLITICS). In fact, I know I don’t. My dad has always sort of lived the idea that if you want to complain, you should have an idea for a solution to proffer in exchange. Complaining just for the sake of complaining generally isn’t helpful. Complaint as instruction is better; using dissatisfaction to find new solutions is better yet. Again, patience is paramount. It’s hard to hear complaints. It’s easier when you have your mind set to receive criticism as areas for improvement – concrete areas you can work on. Modeling your own complaints within that frame makes giving criticism easier and makes your criticism more valuable. Now, you may not know enough about the problem to offer a solution – and in fact that may often be the case – and that’s ok. Offering candid, reasoned feedback – even if it’s not complimentary – is actually very helpful. Sure, you’re not offering up a solution, but you’re still helping to shape the eventual solution. It takes patience to go from “I hate it! You suck!” to “This doesn’t work for me because I’m allergic to walnuts, so this is actually death pie, to me.” In fact, including a “because” in any complaint is probably a pretty good idea (if I do say so myself).

“If you’re not part of the solution, it’s because I’m not trying hard enough to understand you.”

Passion part three

Just today I came across this article in Fast Company by Cal Newport, excerpted from his book: http://www.fastcompany.com/3001441/do-steve-jobs-did-dont-follow-your-passion. The comments are especially interesting.

Part of the argument is that people think Steve Jobs told students to find and follow their passion, while his own history was more complex than that. He developed passion in his company over time. Read it, because I don’t want to re-create the entire article here. Again, take note of the comments.

Speaking of gaining or learning passion, when the babies were born, although I felt very attached to them and protective and deeply wanted them to be happy, I realized that I grew to truly love them as time went on and we spent more time together. I’m not saying I didn’t love them from day one, but it feels differently than other kinds of love, and it grows over time (like all love). Your children are the only people who you really actually love at first sight, but it is way different than the love you’re used to feeling, as a grown up. You kind of don’t understand it at first, and you’re way too tired to think about it. And maybe that tiny spark is something like when you finally find something to be passionate about, you could miss it, if you’re not paying close enough attention. But if you pay attention, you can do what needs be done to nurture it and make it grow.

Passion part 2

My sister and I were talking about the first Passion post (here) and she said some things that I thought were really interesting. First, you should know that she is a Major in the Army, she’s done two tours in war zones, and she is kind of* kick ass. Anyway, she’s currently doing some continuing education required by the Army for her current rank. That is oversimplifying it a little, but I think for our purposes, it is sufficient.

*Translate “kind of” into “totally.”

In one of her classes, the discussion turned to career soldiers. I’m paraphrasing, so I may edit this in the future if she lets me know that I’ve misrepresented things, which I hope is not the case. The discussion was about how some soldiers are professional soldiers. My sister is one such as these – her career is in the Army. Other soldiers join briefly, for a variety of reasons, and then leave the Army and have their actual career in a different field. Their discussion brought up the concept that these short-term soldiers are still highly trained, but at what point are they professional soldiers? They can be sent to a war zone and sustain a life-long injury or die, but that doesn’t necessarily make them a professional. It’s an interesting question. She noted that this strange grey area exists also for police and firefighters. They have dangerous, possibly life-threatening jobs, but that might not be what it is They Do with their lives.

I mentioned that if we had a thing (like, “the internet”) that showed all the possible jobs to people who were trying to find a path in life, maybe more people would figure out what they wanted to do earlier. I guess it works hypothetically (barely), but would be horrendously overwhelming in reality. Then I wondered if those among us who don’t fit molds and who re-make culture in their wake (could be people like Steve Jobs, but could be anyone who starts an enduring business in their home town) were confronted with such a list, would they say “no, I still don’t see anything that’s quite right – I’m going to do something else” or would they fall into the trap of “well, I assume I HAVE to choose one of these; this works well enough” and that’s that?

And after letting that stew in my brain for a few days, I am starting to think that having some kind of master list to present to people is a little too Ayn Rand-ish. NOW, the only thing by Rand that I’ve read is Anthem – admittedly, because it’s short and it sounded interesting – and I spent part of that wondering what would happen if I re-read Slaughterhouse Five instead.* So I’m not an expert.

*Nothing. Nothing would happen. It would be fine.

We almost need a system that can be abandoned, because it is not a true system but simply our natural tendency to go with the flow, so these rare individuals who change the culture aren’t inhibited. Granted, our current “go with the flow” style is very inhibiting for most of us. A lot of us are raised to prefer security and a 401(k) over a risky play, like starting a business. But we kind of need this Plinko-style passion hunt. The hunt is integral to the find. You try a little of this, you try a little of that, you consider this skill set, you volunteer here and there, and before you know it, you are uniquely you and you have found a role that best suits you. I’m not sure there will ever be a prescribed set of rules to get two different to the same result; at least partly because no two people are exactly the same in their contributions and fulfillment level. We wouldn’t want to get into a crazy alterna-situation where we’re churning out duplicates, because obviously no one is a duplicate of anyone else – ever. No one would ever be happy. We’d get to the opposite result than the one intended, which is happiness for everyone.

Passion

My husband made  a CD for a trip we were taking recently, and I stole it and put it in my car afterwards. This is the way of my people.

Anyway, I was listening to these songs, and I started to think about how, for me, musicians I like reach a sort of peak, and the music that follows will not ever be as good as at the peak. Usually, the apex of awesome is tied to some kind of life event or time period – for example, I’ve found that most of my favorite albums come from the time when you had to buy an album as a unit (in CD form, for me), rather than pick and choose songs from iTunes (or Napster, as we all started out). Or when videos were on MTV and there was only one MTV. So I think that I have an attachment to these CDs that I could listen to from end to end and get sort of lost in that particular language and mood. For example, Beck’s Sea Change is the best Beck album. I am already biased against future albums, even though I own several newer ones and they’re all fine – I like Odelay and I like Guero (to name one prior and one after), but neither captivates me like Sea Change. Is it his best work? I don’t know. I just like it the best. Same with Under the Table and Dreaming – for my money, it’s the best Dave Matthews Band album. Is Crash good? Yes. But UtTaD is better. To me.

But I digress. So, I think that there are definitive answers to the bestness of something, at least as far as these musicians are concerned. They have peaked for me. Weezer has peaked. I will always look at new releases from these bands that I care about with a bit of askance because I already have my mind made up, in a way. So this got me thinking about music reviewers. I don’t know how they can dispassionately review albums and music. Of course, part of the answer is that they are not indifferent – they are wildly passionate, and that’s what enables them to dissect and pass judgement. But I wouldn’t be able to do it because I’d always have my own internal rating. And I suppose some of these music journalists do as well, but they probably have the experience to turn that into a virtue, whereas for me it would be a hang-up.

But this all got me thinking – well this and something else completely unrelated – about how people who are the best at something are so because of their passion. I think caring for something counts a long way. I don’t think you get into music journalism (for example) by accident. You don’t end up a physicist for the cash flow. Obviously, to be successful you can’t just be interested, you have to be passionate – you must be dedicated, resolved and determined. We all of us are probably good at a bunch of stuff. I can cook well, but I wouldn’t make a good chef. I don’t like being near the oven because it gets scary hot, for one thing. I’m not willing to work to overcome this little hurdle – I know this about myself, and I have not to date pursued a career in the culinary arts. Also, when I was living in Ithaca between undergrad and grad school one of my jobs was working at Collegetown Bagels, and the volume of food materials was a little sickening to me. Plus, then I cut my finger tip open one morning making this guy’s bagel, and I can still feel the way the serrated blade scraped the bone. And now I don’t think I could ever work in food service again. It made my physically ill to pick up a knife for weeks. Anyway, chefs cut themselves and get burned and they just keep going, because they want to be there doing that, even if they get hurt or maimed sometimes. So anyway, we all have some skills that we enjoy but that we probably aren’t going to turn into our life’s work.

But what about the stuff that we are passionate about? Where in school are people helping us learn what that is, and getting ourselves started at it? Some of us had more sympathetic help than others, and some of us don’t know until we’re fully grown what we best love. One of my closest friends is a vet. She knew she wanted to be a vet from the time she was pretty young. I wanted to be a unicorn. And here we are. She is a vet and I am not a unicorn. I am ok with this, by the way. I wasn’t really passionate about it, I just dug unicorns. Still do.

It took me a long time to find something I was more than interested in. I’m very interested in a lot of things. I really like reading and writing. I like teaching pretty well. I love helping people, which teaching kind of falls under sometimes (I guess if you’re doing it right). I love painting. I love the twins and my husband and our life. I love puzzling over things and having a good think. I get to do bits of all this stuff most days, so I’m actually very lucky. But how do you practice for something like this in school? Who is your mentor for that? Is a better question why do we think one-size-fits-most school is a good solution to our varied and diverse populace? To back up, is it? Is it still a pretty good idea to get everyone a solid foundation in an array of subjects from a young age, then leave college up to them as far as interests go? I don’t know. I don’t know if we can get people to discover their passion in life by a certain deadline like graduation. I’m not sure why we’d want to. But I think we could do a better job of encouraging people to foster their interests early on so that they can start to figure out their passions earlier and spend more time happy. I make the corollary that if people are doing what they’re passionate about, they will be happier, by the way. And I think we could do a better job of helping people after they are done with school, if they are still searching.

To quote the inestimable Office Space, “We don’t have a lot of time on this earth! We weren’t meant to spend it this way.” Although the hunt is entertaining and edifying at times.

 

20/20

I made myself an eye appointment the other day, so I was thinking about 20/20 vision (which mine is decidedly not.)

20/20 means that someone who has ideal vision can see something clearly at 20 feet (in this case, the eye chart). The first 20 is the ideal, and the second 20 is that person’s actual performance. Twenty feet is apparently just the right distance to measure vision at because if you’re trying to focus on something at 20 feet, your eyes are focusing in the same manner as if they were trying to focus on something at any further distance. In other words, if they can’t do it at 20 feet, they’re not going to do it at all. Interesting side note: there is a metric equivalent, and it is 6/6 vision (“hindsight being six six” just doesn’t have the same ring to it, though).

You can visualize (see what I did there?) the way the measurement works by imagining that a person with perfect vision can see something clearly at 20 feet, and then the bottom number is how many feet they would stand away from the same thing they’re looking at to approximate your vision. So, if you have 20/15 vision, they can see it perfectly at 20 feet, but to see what you can see from 20 feet away, they have to move closer, to 15 feet away because you have sharper focus. That’s what it means to have better than 20/20 vision – your lenses can let you distinguish better from further away than is typical. In practical terms: you can see the smaller lines on the optical chart clearly (since we already found out that you don’t actually need to move yourself to test this, since the way your eye focuses at 20 feet (or 6 meters) is basically how it will focus for any further distance).

If you’re like me, on the other end of the spectrum, what I stand at 20 feet to see clearly, a person with perfect vision can see clearly from 425 feet. This is how we know that the model is not one that is regularly tested in the field with men in business suits and white lab coats making people stand at various distances and shout out what they spy. Because obviously I can see nothing clearly from 20 feet and my shouted answers would be along the lines of, “something blurry! Another blurry thing!” and so on. Another way to think of it is that I have to stand 425 feet closer to distinguish what someone with ideal vision sees clearly from 20 feet (which is why, if you are like me, your prescription is a negative number). I have bad eyesight. But what a terrific model, that it has that kind of inherent flexibility that is absurd on the surface of it, yet so effective at measuring.

My husband’s vision ranges from something like 20/15 to “I can’t find my keys, no I looked there already.” But I understand this to be fairly typical with significant others in any scenario.

Rain

We’ve been having a strange afternoon for rain. It’s been humid and hot for the past few days, and today the towering thunderheads rolled in. For about 15 minutes late this morning there was a brief shower with enormous raindrops. They were just huge. And widely spaced. And about two hours later the rain came down in earnest. Now we’re looking at a freshet because of all the runoff. Our storm drains can barely handle it. This rain was a mix of pelting rain with big drops and a finer rain that was actually more intense, followed by a brief respite. Which is when I dashed from the car.

According to Wikipedia, “Scientists traditionally thought that the variation in the size of raindrops was due to collisions on the way down to the ground. In 2009 French researchers succeeded in showing that the distribution of sizes is due to the drops’ interaction with air, which deforms larger drops and causes them to fragment into smaller drops, effectively limiting the largest raindrops to about 6 mm diameter.”

Another place in Wikipedia cites the largest raindrops to be about 9 mm diameter, with the largest ever at 10 mm in Brazil. So keep these figures loose in your mind until you can consult an expert.

So why are drops sometimes large and sometimes small? It depends on temperature, mostly. Clouds are water droplets that have sort of clumped together, but clouds don’t just rain all the time, so something is needed to make the water droplets get their act together and fall. When several clouds converge (or one cloud is experiencing turbulence, say from updrafts and downdrafts) the water droplets in the clouds, which want to not zip around too awful much, converge. The newly-created, larger drops are called “daughter droplets” – isn’t that just great? As these daughter droplets converge they drop in the cloud and continue to converge, eventually becoming heavy enough to drop as rain. It’s important to note here that rain falls because it is heavy, not because it is large. This process usually happens in warm weather, rather than freezing, and causes warm rain – a relative term, I suppose.

The warm rain doesn’t necessarily have large raindrops, though. Sometimes, larger drops occur when there is more moisture present in a smaller area (causing more convergence), which is more typical in “warm” clouds than in freezing ones, since in freezing clouds, the water droplets are little icicles and REALLY don’t want to move, decreasing just a little their likelihood of converging multiple times. Another time you’ll have larger raindrops is if there is something in the cloud for the raindrops to coalesce around, like smoke particles or (dare I say) pollution. Finally, the largest drops of all are associated with melting hail. Hail comes about when bits of ice shellac on to larger bits of ice as the air movement within the cloud forces warmer air upward to cooler reaches and then cycles back around again. This most often occurs in cumulus clouds. The hail falls to earth when it reaches sufficient weight – hail is varying sizes depending on how much weight any particular cloud can produce, since hail can form rapidly, and the more cloud resources that go into forming hail, there is less cloud to help suspend hailstones. But we’re talking about rain. The smaller hail that begins to fall into a very warm atmosphere will melt quickly, but will still be more or less congealed by the time it hits the ground. Larger droplets hit the ground faster than smaller droplets. A large drop can hit the ground at 20 miles per hour. A small drop at around 4 miles per hour.

Raindrops are not shaped like the classic teardrop shape, incidentally. They have nothing to hold them back in that manner (the teardrop leaves a little trail, giving it that shape, because of friction). The smallest drops are spherical. As they get gradually larger, the shape flattens on the bottom and finally becomes parachute-shaped, as the oncoming airflow forces a pocket of air against the flattened bottom, which eventually escapes around the sides. Very large drops may start out making the parachute shape, but the force of the air on the long descent causes them to break into smaller droplets.

Finally, Wikipedia leaves us with this: Euphemisms for a heavy or violent rain include gully washer, trash-mover and toad-strangler.

Numbers you push

I use the number pad on my keyboard to type numbers a lot of the time (when I’m not using the laptop, in which case I never enable it). I’ve also been on a lot of conference calls lately. I know – I’m extraordinarily lucky, but this is not intended to make you insanely jealous, so I’ll move on.

As many who have come before me have noticed, the number pad displays the numbers with zero at the bottom and 1, 2 and 3 in the next row closest to the bottom. Telephones display 1, 2 and 3 in the top row (and *, 0 and # in the bottom row). This is an annoying discrepancy when one such as I, lucky that I am, goes from typing a series of numbers into the number pad, for whatever reason, then must punch in a phone number, particularly when one such as I must read the number off the screen and is not looking at the phone. Oh! the numbers I try to dial.

So why is this? Here’s my best guess.

Calculators.

I’ll wait for you to put your socks back on (now that I’ve blown them off with this revelation). The push button telephone was developed in the early 40s and put into commercial circulation in the early 60s (thank you, Wikipedia). I don’t know what the delay was for, although Wikipedia notes that the boys at AT&T conducted studies in the 50s that found that push button was faster than rotary. I don’t think we needed a study to determine that, but it was an exciting, scary time so I’m sure hard data was reassuring to everyone involved. If you look at a telephone interface (buttonface?) and contemplate dialing, it makes sense to start at the top and work your way down. We (Westerners) read left-to-right and top-to-bottom. This set-up makes sense.

So calculators. Solid-state calculators were developed in the 60s. Before that there were all kinds of calculators and adding machines that were hand operated (or even electrical). But most of them evolved into a form that looks kind of like a typewriter. I don’t know when the buttons became standardized, but you and I can easily imagine that when you’re using an adding machine – those laborious creatures – on your desk day in and day out, it makes sense to start at the bottom and work your way up to the higher numbers, because that’s where your interaction begins from – the bottom. This is easiest to imagine, I think, if you picture one of those big old adding machines that bankers (and accountants, I suppose) sometimes still have on their desks. You have the beginning of the numbers close at hand, and they recede from you. The reverse would be rather like if the keypad were the preface to Star Wars, and you have to start reading at the top (tiny) row once the entire preface is on-screen, rather than reading from the bottom up, which we do since the words scroll – unless you come in late and then you’re stuck squinting. Or, when you’re driving, and there are helpful words printed on the roadway, like “STOP AHEAD” and “TURN ONLY.” Read top-to-bottom, these read “AHEAD STOP” and “ONLY TURN” – but we read them correctly because we read the words in the order we drive over them, not from top-to-bottom. But I digress.

So back on topic, both interfaces (telephone and calculator, which is the basis of the number pad on the keyboard) make sense for the user. It’s actually quite lovely to contemplate – something made for the best use of the user, and not based on similar-looking things.