Pearly memories

What matters most when we remember our lives is what we’ve said about our experiences to other people.

Think about it:  aren’t your most vivid memories the stories you’ve told again and again? About how some random doctor on the wintry Trans-Siberian Railroad injected you with some unknown serum, or how your husband lit up the living room with every tea-light Waitrose had the night he proposed?

If you want to have lived a beautiful life, tell beautiful stories about it.

“How was your day?” is the most important question we get asked : an opportunity for you to shape your own history, several times a day.  So do you answer “Ugh, the train was so packed I couldn’t even open my newspaper?”  Or do you take a few seconds longer to seek a nicer memory, like how your colleague brought in chocolate from Italy?

The “peak-end rule” says you judge an experience as an average of the best (or worst) moment and the last moment.  So when you are asked “how was your day,” it’s natural to think of the last thing you did, like that horrible packed train.  If you then tell this to someone when you get home, it reinforces that memory. Since our journeys to and from work are often what we’ve done just before someone asks us “how are you?”, they take an out-sized place in our memories.

Solution?  Optimize your commute. Or talk about something else!

This link, between sharing your story and remembering it yourself, probably goes way back to cave man days. Surely those things you bother to tell others, like what plants are poisonous, are the most important things to remember?

Researchers have done some experiments exploring this link between speaking and memory. One study reasons that we don’t have early childhood memories, for instance, because we didn’t have the vocabulary to describe them at the time!(

I wonder if students would learn better if they spent a few minutes at the end of class telling their neighbor what they learned. And if the cliche question parents ask their kids, “what did you learn today in school?”, isn’t their most important contribution to their kids’ long term academic success?

Don’t believe me?  Try an experiment now on yourself :  when next forwarding an article (or Aabservation), don’t just copy the link. Write two sentences saying what you thought was interesting in it, and see what you still remember in a week.

Indeed, telling each other things about our lives is important, both for learning, and for having lived a beautiful life.  Our life is a sandy beach which we walk along, picking up grains to touch and admire as we go.  Each time we handle them, we have a choice:  to coat them with the black grime of criticism and kvetching, or to build them up as shiny pearls of delight and wonder.

Chose pearls. It’s a nice way to end a story.

On love

One of the best parts of being engaged is getting to gush about how in love you are. So with less than two weeks to go before we get married, I figured I’d share some of my favorite things about my relationship with my fiance Øyvind Henriksen.

(1) Saying thank you.

It’s probably the thing I like most : Øyvind and I say thank you all the time. Even for expected everyday things, like making breakfast, paying for dinner, taking out the trash, buying groceries, or washing the dishes, we both say (actually say) thank you.

Looking for opportunities to say thank you makes me notice more when he does something nice; it becomes clear just how many warm, generous things Øyvind does everyday. Saying thank you also feels good, like making a donation to a cause you believe in. And getting a thank you feels great, like your work is appreciated. Thanks Øyvind!

(2) Accepting offers.

In the theater art of Improvisation, there’s a concept of “accepting all offers” : if a fellow actor turns to you to say “Hello Doctor!” you should then step into the role of a doctor (e.g. “How’s your headache now?”) rather than blocking the offer (e.g. “No, I’m not a doctor”). Accepting an offer allows the scene to build on itself, and go to interesting places (“My head is terrible! I wish you would just cut it off!”… “Ok, let’s go to the guillotine!”). Blocking results in tension between the players, and a scene that’s dead in the water (“uh, sorry, uh.”).

Øyvind and I have had great adventures together these past three and half years thanks to his tremendous openness to new experiences and ideas. His willingness to “go with it” comes out in our conversations, leading to the creation of the famous “zeppapult” (a combination of zeppelin and catapult to solve urban transport problems, of course); in his incredible success in envisioning, launching and leading his mobile app tech startup Poq Studio; in his eagerness to try new restaurants, travel destinations, and fashions; and his genuine interest in people from all walks of life.

So when he offered his hand in marriage, it was easy to accept!

(3) Acting out of love, not rights or power.

In Negotiations class in business school, we learned that there are three levels of negotiations: those based on incentives, rights or power. Basing everyday interactions on incentives is the best, as it allows you to find the best outcome for all parties — I don’t have to lug the smelly trash down four flights of stairs, and Øyvind doesn’t have to wear rubber gloves and scrub frying pans.

But once you start going into the second level of “negotiations” — relying on the concept of rights — it quickly becomes messy. “Rights” based negotiations are those that focus on equity, laws, justice: “I did 10 minutes of housework there it’s only right that you do 10 minutes of housework”. Once there, you quickly break down further into power negotiations which are usually quite unhappy : “you can’t make me take out the trash!”.

Thanks to this framework, I no longer keep a tally of what I’ve contributed to our household or relationship and compare it what Øyvind has done : it just doesn’t matter. Instead, we both try to do what we can to make the other person happy. The result? We both do lots of things that make the other person happy.

(4) Having read Mens are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

Yes, I rolled my eyes too. But it opened my eyes to false assumptions I was making about the opposite sex. For instance :

  • Points: Men and women calculate “points” differently : men assume that if they do something really romantic they earn 50 points and then can take the next two weeks off; women give men 1 point for everything they do, regardless of how big or small, and want their man earning a point a day.
  • Cave time: Men need some cave time, alone (or with a PlayStation), regardless of how much they love their partner.
  • Probing: When women are sad or need help, they want someone to notice and start probing to find out what’s wrong. Men, however, want to retreat into their cave. They can see caring questions like “what’s wrong honey” as undermining their manly competence to deal with their own problems. When they want help, they’ll ask.
  • Will v Can: Men don’t like being asked “can you take out the trash” and prefer “will you take out the trash,” as it gives them the option to say no, and doesn’t challenge their competence. I had thought that “will” and “can” sounded the same, until the author pointed out that “will you marry me?” has a very different tone from “can you marry me?” 🙂

(5) Never taking anything too seriously.

My 99 year old aunt, when asked what contributed to her longevity, said : “never taking anything too seriously.” I love Øyvind’s playfulness, and often feel like I’m on a really great playdate from the happiest days of my childhood. His office (and our home) is decked with cute things, and he doesn’t shirk silliness — just ask his little nephews who love ‘Onkel Monster’ very much.

(6) Being really similar.

We like the same things : picnics in the park, exploring new places, drinking black Americanos, dancing, doing challenging but fascinating jobs, going out for dinners and date nights, and having friends over for dinner parties.

If you had told me that a girl from Manhattan would meet a guy from a 50,000-person town north of arctic circle, and that we’d be so similar, I’d never have believed you. And if you had told me that my next language after Chinese would be Norwegian — a language spoken by less than 5 million people who also speak excellent English — I’d have laughed. Jeg ler ikke nÃ¥.

So maybe I also should write to future Liz and Øyvind as well : may you continue to accept all offers, do things out of love rather than justice or power, share interests, and not take anything too seriously. And if this Aabservation proves helpful during the tough times of your marriage in the many years to come, you can thank me.

Happily yours

Blob people and Line people

It started, like this note, with a blob. A canary yellow smudge of paint in the middle of the white canvas pallet. A few more strokes of the instructor’s brush, and two circles emerged, one balancing precariously on top of the other… But what is it?, my 7 year old self wondered. After another few strokes, suddenly it was clear:  the yellow head and body of a baby chicken. When the instructor then drew a dark black line around the bird, my life was changed forever: until then, I never knew you could paint by filling in the middle before drawing the lines.

There are two types of people: blob people and line people.  Blob people explore life like the yellow canary painting: putting color down first, and seeing what emerges. They wander across the pages of their lives, and when they find something shiny, stop, and let the ink in their pen saturate that part of their story. You know them: the guys who picked their major in college based on what department they happened to have the most courses in.  Or that friend who moved to a foreign country because they were curious. If you ask them to identify a good investment, they’ll probably cock their heads to a side, remember a cool article and exhibit they saw about 3D printing, and suggest looking there.

Line people, by contrast, are the planners, who draw the black line first, and then fill the rest in according to their outline. They have their act together. Line people figure the exact combination of courses and hours they need to get into medical schools, or how to hit all of Rome’s best tourist spots in 12 hours. Ask them to identify a good investment, and they’ll structure you a spreadsheet of recommendations, with weightings for risk appetite and investment horizon. You know them too.

A mix of these personalities can achieve incredible (and fun) things. And indeed, many people that have defined history are blob people who figured out how to draw a line around what they were working on:  the men that drafted the sentiments of the rebellious colonies into the US Constitution; business leaders who took intuition about market trends built railroads; religious prophets that used memorable parables to define good and evil in ways that resonated across the world for centuries; scientists who captured observed curiosities in universe in simple equations; writers who defined the subtle sensations of the human experience in words that affect how we see the world ourselves.

To finish this Aabservation, I suppose I should draw a final clear black line around the idea that emerged over the past paragraphs.  Namely, this post postulated personalities of three types of people: (a) Blob people, (b) Line people, and (c) Blob people who draw lines.


Pigeons are stunning creatures.

Trust me. I also once thought pigeons were vermin: dirty, stupid rats with wings. No longer.

The turning point for me came at Everest Base Camp. I had schlepped there from Lhasa, Tibet: three days of off-road driving at increasing altitudes. When I arrived at the (bottom of the) top of the world, there they were. How could my city-slicker birds also survive in the Himalayan heights?

The more I looked into pigeons, the more incredible these birds became. Pigeons are a type of dove whose native home is a rocky cliff, which is why they feel so comfortable in Manhattan window sills.

They are by some accounts the smartest bird in the world, able to recognize themselves in the mirror and even recognize letters.

They are homing birds, instinctively able to return home from anywhere — and at up to 100 miles per hour for many hours on end. There’s a culture of racing these birds by putting them into an enclosed van, and releasing them hundreds of miles from their homes. Scientists suspect magnetic elements in their nose and their exceptional eye sight lets them find their way home, even over oceans. Their eye sight works better when their eyes are stationary which is why they try to hold their heads in the same place when they walk.

This homing ability earned them war medals. During World War I, there were thousands of pigeon handlers, who managed communications with the front lines by tying messages to pigeons’ feet and letting them fly home. Some pigeons heroically flew through mortar fire to get the message home and safe their human comrades.

This homing ability is probably why we see pigeons everywhere; mankind’s armies have been using pigeons as carrier birds for thousands of years, and so they have become as domesticated as dogs, horses and cats. They’ve adapted to eat our food, ignore our crowds and cars, and find homes in our buildings (and on our statutes).

And they even resemble us socially. Like humans, they tend to mate for life. That pigeon couple you pass on your way to Starbucks has likely been together for years, having made a home in a window near you.

Watch the younger ones in a park while listening to club music on your headsets, and you’ll see more social similarities: the males puff up and dance in circles while the lady in question will look demur and continue to peck at the ground. If a person throws out a handful of pizza crusts nearby, the guy will interrupt his wooing to get some grub. (Typical.)

Pigeons even kiss. The first time I saw it happen was, ironically, on the death wall of the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona. They smooched for a minute, he popped up on the back of her to do his thing, then jumped off just as fast, fluffed his feathers, and flew off.

And of course, pigeons also poo on things. So, the last few decades, we’ve come to think of them as stupid.

But watch them more closely, and admire them: their intimate human-like relationships, their intimate relations with humans, their incredible adaptability, and their strength, endurance, intelligence, and skill. Perhaps you’ll come to see, as I did in the thin air of Everest, how beautiful ordinary life becomes when you find pigeons beautiful.


If you want more pigeon info check out and Pigeons, by Andrew D. Blechman.

Yes, there’s a book about pigeons. And yes, it’s good. And, yes, of course I read it.

The Expression Revolution

So you are sitting there, with a cup of tea in hand looking out into the future nebulous dust clouds of human progress. With the warm waters of the 20th century receding from the shore, the novelty of electricity, automobiles, financial innovation, telecommunications and globalization are waning. What, you ponder as your cuppa cools, will be the big next thing?

And then you realize, maybe it’ll be the same thing that has driven human history since history began: new and better means of expressing ideas.

Take a look through the tunnel of human evolution to see what I mean. First, watch us humans grunt and point. Then speak. Then draw on cave walls. We developed writing. Craft. Jewelry. Theater, music and dance. The printing press, the personal computer and Word Processor, TV and recorded music. Photographs. YouTube. At each step, our ability to express ideas advanced, and so have we.

Web 1.0 and 2.0 connected us better to each other. I expect the next wave of technical innovations will allow us to express ourselves to those connections better.

Good expression does three things: it lets us develop our ideas (like using a pencil to solve a math problem), share those ideas, and develop ideas together.

The Expression Revolution will cover all three. For instance, imagine what the following ideas could do:

  • Stretchable Paper. Often you take notes or draw a picture and want to tuck in an extra item or bullet point. Imagine if you could just stretch the paper and create that space, like writing on pizza dough? Or if you run out of room at the bottom, just pull and there would be more writing surface. Limitless imagination!
  • Scrolls. Perhaps the quickest way to fix the problem of the constraints of the letter-size sheet is to go back to the original: a scroll. If we printed on scrolls, we would be unconstrained (in one dimension at least) without having to worry about pages breaking across tables for instance. The “story” aspect of our tales would be more intuitive and memorable. Scrolls have a natural flow to them that a stack of pages lacks.
  • Infinite Paper. The screen you are reading this email on is inherently limiting. How often have you had to artificially split up an Excel table or a PowerPoint slide or 360 view just to fit it on a page? Projection technologies will no doubt become more popular in the coming years, which allow us to fill whatever surface we have information.
  • Excel for Anyone. Dear Microsoft: Excel is a programming language, not a communication language. Trying to read someone else’s financial model in Excel (or anything actually) is like trying to surf the web by reading pages of HTML code. Think about it: how often have you received an email with an Excel attachment that you glanced, opened, and then shut quickly before actually looking through it? One reason I think Excel is so horribly unreadable is that each data point really should show 3 things: the name (e.g. Revenue in 2011), the value ($100), and how it was calculated (=5 items x $20/item). Instead it just shows one and asks you to perform small acrobatics of looking up cell B47 to figure out where it came from. Worse: if you copy and paste an Excel into a presentation or print it out, all you usually see is the value of a cell and maybe a row/column heading with a short name so it fits in the character-limited column width. The logic of the calculations is completely hidden. If you could design a display method that makes those calculations and the numbers they generate easy to read and understand, you could significantly increase the number of people who could catch problems, collaborate on developing hypotheses and inputs, and evaluate the results. Could a better Excel have prevented the financial crisis? I wonder…
  • Autofill Pictures. You want to draw something but your artistic skills are, er, limited. This technology would let you indicate what you want to draw and draw it better than you could, the way that architects or police investigation sketchers do.
  • Easy Animation. So much meaning is conveyed by the order in which ideas are expressed, as anyone who has played Pictionary knows. How much better to send a file that easily plays for you, for instance drawing a picture live, filling in an Excel sheet line by line, or adding text? Many have tried, but the winning solution still awaits (I’m looking at you, Adobe).
  • Danceable Music. We dance to music; what if it flipped, and music were created by how we danced, maybe via XBox Kinect? Dance Dance Revolution indeed.
  • Drawing Class. And while such assistive technologies are helpful, another way to improve expression is through skills: going to school. I wished they taught us how to draw in my MBA: how to sketch realistic-seeming objects, that made things clearly understood, and looking good… Being able to draw a powerful picture is worth a thousand words. And no, PowerPoint SmartArt isn’t drawing.
  • And many more…

Stanford just published an article about how the Humanities are reasserting themselves at a school known so much for tech startups. I wouldn’t worry so much, Stanford: humanities-based starts up will soon have their day too, as we look to get better at dancing, drawing, writing, translating, arguing, and acting out our ideas.

If this Aabservation didn’t strike a chord with you, I’m not concerned. In a few years, I’ll use these new tools to rewrite it as a song, and bet that’ll help you sing along.

Until then, all the best, via Arial 10 pt font,

The Myth of Value

One of the greatest misconceptions I had before my MBA was thinking that things had value.

I had this idea that a thing, whether it was a company, a product or a service, had a value, and that getting an MBA would teach me out how to calculate that value.

But what I’ve learned over the past two years is that things don’t have an intrinsic value based on just what they are, but also on the 5 other “Ws”: who, when, where, how and why they are being valued. If you want to find the “value” of something, you need to ask 6 questions:

– Who is doing the valuing? You might call this defining or segmenting the market. To increase the value of something, find the people who value it most — who really hate being cramped on flights and can pay for business class, or who love watching Olympic volleyball.

– When are they doing the valuing? In other words, what else has just happened to them? Maybe they are entrepreneurs who are about to go bust; they may value cash enough to give up more equity than they would otherwise. Or maybe they are on a first date, and happy to splurge on champagne. Or just lost their life savings in the financial crisis. Timing matters.

– Where are they when they are valuing it? You might pay $15 for a gin & tonic at a posh club, but would balk at paying that in a dive bar. “Where” is relevant to real estate, as anyone renting a flat in London knows all too well, and anything that relates to real estate. Which used to be almost everything, before the internet anyway. (And now with mobile browsing location detection, the “where” is making a comeback.)

– How are they valuing it? People value most things in reference to other things, so understanding what someone is using as a comparison matters: are they comparing the price of the Gucci wallet to cheaper wallets, or to other more expensive items at Gucci? Are they valuing a company based on its assets today, or on its potential future cash flows in 5 years?

– Why are they valuing it? Buying a white cake costs $20. Buying a white cake for a wedding costs $200. People will value the same thing in radically different ways depending on the reasons for valuing it. Valuation by brokers can be particularly tricky for this reason: are they pricing the house low to get it sold, or high to increase their commissions?

– What are they valuing? Oh yeah, the thing itself matters too. A little.

Well, Liz, you think, what an obvious Aabservation. Of course the value of something depends on who, when, where, how, and why as well. Of course it’s not just the “what.”

But I promise you’ll forget that complexity as soon as you see a statistic about the value of Greek debt (“the” value? really?), or observe price volatility in the stock markets (surprise!), or see a supply and demand curve showing a thing’s value at the intersection.

If you are interested this topic, I’m happy to chat further as we learned a number of techniques to get at the value for a specific transaction throughout our MBA — in marketing, financial modeling, negotiations, and organizational behavior classes.

But that would take longer to explain here, and your time, by any metric, is valuable.


Ode to an Onion

As part of my friend Silvia Chiang’s wedding last week, I was asked to prepare a short talk on the topic of “Humility.” Thought you might have fun with this. Congratulations to Silvia and Parker!

On humility
Ode to an Onion

Oh onion, humble onion —
How modest you are. You never seek attention, growing underground, dressed in brown.
Then, when peeled and brought to light, you hide in white.
So that you stay overlooked, when cooked, you turn clear:
You disappear.

But onion, humble onion —
It’s not this modest humility which awes.
It’s how humbly you serve, enhancing everything around you, adapting yourself in a thousand ways.
Diced or sliced, you turn bland salads into spicy fests of flavor.
Or sauteed with ginger chicken, you melt into caramel, sweet and tender.

For onion, humble onion —
What recipe do you not humbly grace?
Sauces, stews, salads, sandwiches, stir fry, shish kebab,
Meats, marinades, curries — cuisines of all types, from so many cultures.
You unite us all in flavor.

So onion, humble onion —
Though it’s not your nature, accept this song of praise.
And remind us, next time we see you, hidden on our plates, to be like you :
As humble as an onion.

– Liz Aab

Why Nerds Wear Glasses

Why, really, do nerds wear glasses?  As a nearsighted nerd myself, I’d often heard the usual reasoning: reading strains your eyes.  But surely non-nerds strain their eyes too, don’t they?  Like by looking at screens like this one?

I think the causality is wrong: it’s not nerdism that causes bad vision;  it’s bad vision that creates nerds.

I observed this phenomenon a year and half ago, at the start of my MBA at London Business School. I sat in the back of the U-shaped 80-person lecture theatre (yes, with an “re”).  When our first lecturer projected an Excel spreadsheet on the whiteboard, I had to move closer to the front — I couldn’t see the microscopic print from far away.  The past year and a half, I’ve asked to sit in the front 2 rows for all my classes, so that I don’t have a problem seeing the board clearly.

Now, what happens when you sit close to the front?  You speak more often and with less inhibition, because you literally don’t see the 70 other students behind you in the class.  You don’t have to shout across a long distance, so you see education more like a conversation more than a speech.  You can’t get distracted by your iPhone, because the professor will definitely catch you.  And so day after day, you are more engaged in the class than your peers in the back row, you pay more attention, you ask more questions… You are a nerd!

Remember back to where this all started, to when you got your very first pair of blue plastic glasses. Your vision had been squinty just before you saw the eye doctor, so your 10 year old self inched closer to the chalkboard.  Once there, the teacher called on you more, you asked more questions, you talked less with your neighbors, you doodled less with your crayons… You became a nerd!

By the time your vision was corrected (and it had to get corrected each year as your eyeballs grew, remember), your position at the front of the classroom, and in your class, was set. You would always be a nerd.

If you did a study comparing the distance students are from the whiteboard with their academic performance, I’d bet you’d get statistically significant correlations. And if you extended this study to see how people did in life after school, I suspect you’d get lasting effects.

If my theory is right, then it might be worth seeing what happens if schools have no “front” or “back” of the classroom.  If all 4 walls had chalkboards on them and our seats swiveled around, everyone would have some time when they were equally close to the board. Would everyone become a nerd, or no one at all?

It’s an interesting topic, and something I thought you might be interested in looking at closer.  Assuming, of course, you are a nerd.


Walk This Way

If you want to dictate someone’s character, buy their shoes.

No, this Aabservation isn’t about how shoes look — it’s about how shoes feel. Sure, a shoe’s appearance sends a message about the wearer’s social group and personality. But a deeper reason, I think, is that shoes physically affect how we walk. And how we walk affects our mood.

Two weeks ago (wearing slightly heeled boots), I power walked around New York City. I’d arrive each place somewhat breathless from walking briskly, my brain whirling with the increased blood flow. One such whirling thought was this: could the city’s energy stem from the fact that its residents literally have to run around it, and therefore end up at each meeting physically energized?

As I got my breath back, I watched closely how people walked. Amazingly, people’s shoes were completely affecting their gait. Next time you’re outside, try it yourself: watch people walking down the street, but don’t look at their shoes. Then, just by their gait, try to guess what shoes they are wearing — not just whether they are sneakers or how high the heel is, but how shiny they are, how new, how well they fit. Chances are you’ll be able to describe their shoes most of the time.

To see why shoes have such an impact on our mood, let’s take an easy example: the flip flop. You cannot run in a flip flop. You can’t even hustle down the street at a New York pace. Your toes are vulnerable to being trodden on, so you are less aggressive walking. To keep the flip flop on your foot, you have to tense up your toes and lunge forward more tentatively with each step. Dog poop is terrifying.

Now, wear a boot. The heel clicks like a metronome as you clatter across the concrete — you are on a mission. You could step on anything and squish it without a care. You feel in control, protected, powerful.

Unless it has high heels. Take the most driven, self-confident woman you know, put her in (or really on) a pair of high heels, and not only can she not rule the world, she can’t walk five blocks. Due to her shoes, she’s become vulnerable. She looks around, like a ballerina, for a prince in stable shoes to hold on to — which is probably why she chose to wear such silly things in the first place. (And why he decided to wear those power Oxfords — solid, stable, secure.)

Shorten her heel to something a bit more reasonable and voila, you get the power pump. She’s a bit more stable now, but taller than she’d be at home; in her power pump, she doesn’t have to look up at (or really to) as many people. The calf muscle is already engaged, ready to pounce.

Yet though this seems obvious, think of the last time you consciously thought about how a new pair of shoes would affect your gait. We try on shoes standing in front of the mirror, not parading around Parade of Shoes. There’s a gap there that the MBA student in me wants filled: for some shoe company to really study this relationship between shoes, gait and mood, and scientifically develop shoes that help us better become the person we want to be. Mood shoes.

If that’s too commercial a challenge, how about this one instead: isn’t it a peculiar coincidence that history is the story of men with boots conquering those with flip flops? Might Jared Diamond have got it wrong — that really it’s Guns, Germs and Boots? Apologies in advance, Dr Diamond: I didn’t mean to step on your toes.


Liz Aab

Water in the Air

Water in the air is a funny thing. Freeze it the right way, and it comes down in flakes so fluffy that snowboarding feels like flying. Freeze it the wrong way, and it shuts down London Heathrow airport for days when you are trying to get back to New York for Christmas.

With so many thousands of us stranded here in Europe, it’s easy to focus on the water in the air you see. But more intriguing still is the water in the air you don’t see — which once understood, helps explain everything from why we get sick in the winter to why global warming is dangerous.

I stumbled upon this little known fact last winter, watching my cheap Chinese humidifier spray a pathetic strand of fog into the dry Beijing air. Was this thing actually accomplishing anything?, I pondered. I mean, seriously, was that litre of water really going to make a difference? How much water is there in my room anyway — a mililiter? a hundred liters? I had not the foggiest idea.

Before I tell you the answer, take a guess. We don’t usually know this number because humidity gets quoted in relative terms (e.g. 70%), not absolute ones (i.e. grams per cubic meter). Which makes sense: how dry the air feels reflects how readily water evaporates off our skin (and from our sore winter throats). That in turn depends on how saturated the air is, not how much absolute water is in it.

Ok, here’s the answer: air at room temperature is saturated when it holds about 20 grams of water per cubic meter (20 teaspoons if you don’t do grams). So my 4m x 4m x 3m meter room could hold about 1,000 grams or 1 litre of water at saturation, so hmm… yep, pumping a quarter litre of fog into the air would raise relative humidity from a dry 25% to a comfortable 50%. Humidifiers work!

But promoting humidifiers wasn’t what inspired this Aabservation. (Though I am excited to now have an Amazon referrals sidebar on my blog, which you are welcome to play with…) What I also stumbled upon that dry Beijing morning was that 20 grams is only the quantity of water that saturates air at room temperature. Drop the temperature to 10 C (50 F), and air can only hold 9 grams of water — half as much as at 20 C.

Which is why winter air indoors is so dry. Think about it: even if snowing outside (100% humidity), at 0 C air contains less than 4 grams of water per cubic meter. Bring that same dry air inside, heat it up to room temperature (which you’ll remember can hold 20 grams of water), and 4 grams becomes just 1/5 of the total amount of water the air can hold — or an uncomfortable 20% humidity.

No wonder we get sick and our throats feel dry in the winter. Indeed, low absolute humidity is a good predictor of flu transmission, according to a recent study.*

Now think more macro, and you’ll understand how even a few degrees increase in global climate can have a powerful impact on storm intensity. Air at 30C (86F) can hold a whopping 30 grams of water, 32% more water than air just 5C (9F) cooler (see table). That’s 32% more actual water that can then be absorbed into storm clouds and dumped on your beach!

Of course, I am clearly not a meteorologist and this Aabservation doesn’t take into account factors like atmospheric pressure and cloud formation patterns. But hey — this water in air thing is a kind of intriguing, no?

To close, here’s a picture from the Australian government that explains the relationship between humidity and temperature beautifully:
Humidity and Temperature

That’s enough about water in the air for one night. Now back to contemplating water in the airport — you know, the stuff that froze Heathrow to a standstill and has pushed my December 21st flight to New York back to December 25th.

On the bright side, maybe I’ll bump into Santa in the air that day. Maybe he’s even bought me a humidifier.

Merry Christmas from London,

Continue reading

The Fastest Changing Day

Last week was Autumn Equinox, when day and night are twelve hours each.  Few people realize, though, it’s also the time when the day shortens most quickly.  Indeed, here in London, the day was a full 3 minutes and 54 seconds shorter on September 25st than it was the day before.  This change adds up: in the month around the equinox, our days will have shortened by almost two hours.  You can see this change here: 

 Length of Day (London, 2010)Daily Change in Day Length 

Even if we haven’t spent time on pondering the length of the day, subconsciously we all are aware that something has been going on recently.  Perhaps we have found ourselves thinking more urgently about all that lies before us.  During the lazy days around June’s summer solstice, when day length narrows by less than a second each day, time feels endless.  But now, when the sun creeps through our curtains a couple of minutes later each morning, we viscerally sense the passage of time.

It’s strange, isn’t it, that we always focus so much on the “equi” bit of the equinox, rather than on the more meaningful fact that the two equinoxes are the fastest changing days in the year.  It’s especially strange when we think how obsessed we are with rates of change in other arenas, like GDP growth, up-and-coming celebrities, and progress. 

Here we are, though, stuck on this spinning orb, each day tilting further away from the warming rays of the sun, further towards the cold dark emptiness at the end of solar system.  So we gather up a blanket against the coming chill, and ponder what it all means. 

 And just at that moment, a happy thought shines in:  from now on, at least, the days will no longer shorten as quickly. 

 – Liz

p.s.  Ok, I’m not an astronomer, and it be that the equinox is not actually the fastest-changing day, but a few days before/after it.

p.p.s. And for those of you in the Southern Hemisphere, enjoy the coming summer!