Tuesday, May 30, 2006


One of the ways I stay motivated (at least in theory) is with my exercise calendar. I keep this in the kitchen, and every time I exercise, I write down what I did and how much, and I give myself a star. At the end of the week, I write down how many total minutes of exercise I got, and if it's more than 180, I get a star for that too.

During this 15 week plan, I'm also writing down my weight every work day, and putting a box around the week's median weight at the end of the week. It's sort of fun, and I like seeing all the stars. It also lets me use sharpies from the big cup with dozens of colors of sharpies that we have.

Food Storage Technology

Yesterday, Mosch and I were at the house of one of his relatives, J. J and her roommate K were looking at a book of pictures from national parks of the world. K remarked that she had a friend (or someone she knew) who lived in Ghana, and told her it was wonderful there because all of the food was fresh - nothing canned, nothing boxed.

I found this a bit odd. After all, we have fresh food here, right? I could choose to totally eschew canned or packaged foods and have a complete diet with a ton of variety. To me, the availability of canned and packaged foods is an advantage of living here instead of Ghana. (Let me be clear. I can understand how if a westerner visited Ghana, they could find it refreshing to go to a market every day and purchase fresh foods for dinner, instead of the way we live here. I'm not arguing against the novel refreshment of a different lifestyle, just against the argument K seemed to be making that Ghana really is nicer in that way.)

So I commented in a pretty mild way that I appreciate the availability of canned foods, even though I have the option here of eating only fresh foods too. J said that she and K pretty much use fresh foods for their entire diet (which I think their giant full pantry argues against, but they do cook a ton of fresh foods, bake their own bread, etc.), and that this is why they plan to try canning this year.

J explained that canning your own food means having fresh food available year-round, as opposed to store-bought canned food, which is not the same, is full of preservatives, and sits on shelves for years.

I didn't argue with this (since I'm basically not a jerk, or at least not all the time), but it doesn't make much sense to me. Most canned goods of the type you could make at home are not, in fact, full of preservatives. If you look at almost any canned vegetable's ingredients, for instance, you'll see that it just contains that vegetable, water, and usually salt. Salt-free and organic varieties are usually available too. And there is a lot of turnover in these products, so I think it would be rare for a can to sit on a shelf for even three or four months, much less a year. (Exotic products may be different, but I doubt J & K are planning to can their own coconut milk or candied tamarind.)

Canning your own food sounds like it could be a fun activity or hobby - like making your own candles or brewing your own beer - but it's hard for me to see how it could be an improvement in either health or economy over buying pre-canned goods. And personally, I am really thankful for the modern technologies of food storage that mean I don't have to go to a market every day and buy fresh foods to make the evening's supper.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Spanking Kids

Salon has an interesting article about spanking kids today. (If you don't subscribe, you'll have to sit through an ad to read the article.)

I don't have kids, but I have spent time thinking about raising them when I do have them. The issue of whether it's ever OK or desirable to spank kids is a tricky one. Most of us were spanked as kids to some extent, and I think parents who spank but are responsible, kind, and attentive are better than non-spanking parents who aren't all there in other ways. In other words, I don't think spanking is always materially harmful or that it is the main difference between good parenting and bad.

Ultimately, I decided that spanking kids is not a good idea for me for a pretty simple reason: I do not have that much self-control. If I thought it was acceptable to hit my child, then when the kid really pissed me off (as they tend to), I would probably be abusive. I don't hit my coworkers, friends, or lovers because it's clear to me that it's really not OK to do that, at all. By having the same standards about children, I can rule out physically abusive behaviors. (Maybe I am wrong about myself, and I would never lose my temper enough to beat my child, but why risk it?)

I don't think I'm alone in this, and I think advocates of spanking are doing families a disservice for that reason. By giving parents permission to hit misbehaving children, they are increasing the likelihook of an abusive punishment. (This assumes that spanking is not always abusive, which is an arguable point.)

If you lose your cool and yell at your kid (especially if you refrain from saying anything really hateful), you can apologize later. If you issue disproportionate punishments ("you're grounded for a year!"), you can retract them later. But if you beat the crap out of your kid, there is no taking back your child's traumatic experience.

Recipes, Please

OK, kids. Everyone should put a recipe in the comments - something you like to make. (It doesn't have to be at all fancy.) I'll put something in there soon myself.

Enron Convictions

Lay and Skilling were convicted today. That's basically good news to me - you shouldn't be able to destroy billions of dollars of value through fraudulent accounting practices and just walk away. But I bet those guys are living in a state of disbelief that things you do at work, at a corporation, can put you in prison for decades. I know I would be.

I purposely do not mention the name of the company I work for on this blog, but I sometimes feel as though our president forgets that he does not actually own the company - that the company is owned by the investors who have bought our stock. I don't see any fraud going on or anything like that, and I know he's completely dedicated to making the company a success (not least because he owns a lot of stock himself, naturally), so I guess what I'm talking about is just an attitude.

Right now we are going through the process of becoming compliant with Sarbanes-Oxley. Sarbanes-Oxley, or SOX as it is commonly called, became law (or regulation, or whatever it is exactly) basically because of Enron and the other scandals. It's a very rigorous (read: costly and burdensome) set of rules that basically say that, for everything you do that affects accounting or financial reporting, you have to have defined procedures and very specific controls. This only applies to publically traded companies. But the penalties for falsely claiming to be SOX-compliant are severe. (If you are not SOX compliant within something like a year of being publically traded, you face penalties like being de-listed. But once you claim to be compliant, this is tested in your yearly audit, and if you are not following the procedures you claim to be following, very bad things happen.)

Many people here, including my immediate boss, have a bad attitude towards SOX, seeing it as a total waste of time and resources. It seems generally acknowledged that SOX is overly burdensome, but it's hard for me to be totally negative about something that should, in theory, make it harder for companies to have the kind of loose accounting standards that defraud investors. I also don't see how the bad attitude is helpful - we have to do it, so we might as well approach it as though it might be helpful. (But ask me again in six months.)

Week 3 Update

This is Week 3 of my 15-Week Plan. So far, I have remained on plan very well. I have ended each week within the week's calorie budget (last week I was under by some 350 calories, which is nearly unprecedented), and I have exercised for at least 30 minutes every single day except Mondays.

For me to do anything for three straight weeks is pretty awesome.

In addition to meeting with my trainer, I have gone to the rec center and done strength training by myself twice, and I plan to go again tonight. I'm getting the different weights to the correct levels, so that I almost can't do the planned number of reps. The whole routine takes me about 45 minutes, which includes the time I spend warming up by walking a few laps on the small track there, and time stretching at the end.

I gained 1 to 1-1/2 pounds between last week and this, for no good reason. I think it's because of the strength training - not because I've miraculously put on 2 pounds of muscle in a few sessions, but just because starting strength training makes your body retain more water. Actually, any unusual increase in activity seems to make my body grab some extra something. I think my body just wants to make sure it's ready for the next Stressful Episode.

Anyway, it is not my job to make the scale go down. My job is to follow the plan (and, occasionally, analyze the plan to see if it's working, of course). In any case, I have "officially" lost about 3 pounds at this point.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Calculus Progress

These days, I am sitting down most nights for about half an hour to work on my calculus project. By now I've sharpened up a lot of my algebra skills; I am sometimes surprised to have forgotten so much, and other times surprised that I remember so much and have so many skills left.

Chapter 3 of my book is all the differentiation stuff, and I have one section of that chapter left ("Related Rates"). The next chapter is about what you actually do with differentiation (stuff like determining the important points of curves so you know how to graph them) - I remember only a little bit of this, so it surprises me that a whole chapter can be about it, but since applying calculus is trickier than doing the math itself, and more important and useful if you are going to ever use calculus in other courses, I'll be very interested to relearn it.

Then on to integration! I'm not sure how many chapters the whole book has, but I think my progress is adequate to get me through what I want to get through this summer. I'm not determined to finish the whole book.

I was worried that I wouldn't be able to make myself do this over the summer, because I am not really a self-starter type of person, but I've been enjoying it enough that it's been pretty easy.

Those Humorless Germans

Language Log is just about my favorite blog. Today, Mark Liberman has a fun post about German and English humor.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


When I met with my personal trainer (Joyce), the first thing we did was to sit down and discuss my goals and needs. She asked me a few questions and then asked, "So what has been the obstacle to your losing weight?"

I explained that in fact I had lost about 55 pounds over the past three years, so I haven't faced an insurmountable obstacle.

She asked me about my diet, and I explained that, when I am on plan, my diet is very healthy - low-fat, lots of fruits and vegetables, plenty of fiber, etc. - but that I am sometimes not on plan and then I don't eat as well.

She said something like, "So you sabotage yourself?"

It seems likely that some people do sabotage their efforts in various areas, out of perhaps a feeling of not deserving success, or fear of reaching their goals, but in general, I think it's less widespread than people think. I really do not believe that I subconsciously sabotage my dieting efforts, and in general, I think the belief that losing weight would be easy if not for dsyfunctional psychological factors is wrong.

What I told Joyce is that I don't think I sabotage myself; I think I just prefer eating unhealthy things in large quantities to eating healthy things in small quantities. And I think this is basically natural.

From one perspective, it is well known that people discount the future in favor of the present. If you offer people a choice of fruit or potato chips today, they'll chooes the potato chips, though if you offer them the same choice for a week hence, they'll choose the fruit. People are generally just unwilling to take a loss today in order to have some gain in the uncertain future.

But specifically relating to food, I have a different perspective, which is that my body (including my brain) evolved to keep me alive and help me make babies. And in our evolutionary context, it would never have made sense to pass up available food, or exercise our bodies unnecessarily. Doing something like that is crazy, and if you take it into your head to do it anyway, you ought to have some very strong built-in mechanisms to keep you from succeeding.

It is definitely possible to outwit our internal mechanisms and succeed at losing weight, and I don't think it requires strong will-power (which I don't have, so I guess it's convenient that I think that), but it requires persistent attention. And I don't think the psychology that acts against it is intrinsically dysfunctional, unhealthy, or unusual.

Lileks' New Car

James Lileks just bought a new car - a Honda Element. I know this model is popular, and I do find it aesthetically attractive, but I think it's a pretty dumb car to buy, especially for a guy with a family. Here are some points against the Element:

Suicide Doors - The rear doors of the Element open backwards instead of forwards. They're called "suicide" doors because if a car strikes the door from behind (sideswipes you) when you're standing in the doorway, the door will crush you instead of just tearing off away from you.

Seatbelts - In order for the rear door to open, the front passenger has to open their door, which also means taking off their seatbelt, since the seatbelt is connected to the door. This strikes me as really dumb in general, but especially if you have a little kid who probably has to be dropped off a lot.

Seating - The Element only seats 4. The rear seats are individual buckets like the front, so you can never put a third person in the middle anywhere.

I don't know. I can see how it's a cute and functional car for young people, but it just doesn't make sense as a family vehicle to me. Maybe this is Lileks' fun car and they have a minivan too or something.

Monday, May 22, 2006


I find it difficult to bring lunches to work and even more difficult to eat them once I've brought them. I much prefer eating out. But since around January, when the coworker I was eating out with joined Weight Watchers with me, I've very consistently brought and eaten lunch four days a week. (We go out one day every week.)

I try to accomplish lunches as cheaply and easily as possible. Lately I've been bringing a main dish of around 300-350 calories and a side dish of around 150-200, so that the total is around 500 calories. Sometimes I bring cheap frozen meals for the main dish (I mean the kind that are $2 each or less), and other times I cook something myself. The side dish is always some kind of a vegetable - either frozen vegetables that I put some margarine or olive oil into, or frozen vegetables that come with some kind of a sauce. (Kroger has a line of vegetables with sauce that are about 150-200 calories per box; they are $1 on sale periodically and I stock up.)

This week I cooked a very simple main dish that was less than $5 for all four servings, and that I think will be pretty tasty. It's slightly more volumetric (fewer calories per ounce) than normal frozen dinners, and about equally healthy. And it was extremely simple to prepare.

I started by preparing a box of Pasta Roni (the parmesan flavor) according to its directions. Meanwhile, I cooked 2 cups of frozen peas in another pot. When the pasta roni was cooked, I stirred in the peas, plus a cup of frozen chopped onions (I usually chop my own, but I wanted tiny pieces for this), and let it sit for a few minutes as you are supposed to. I dished it up into four two-cup disposable tuppers.

Then I took about a pound of tilapia* fillets, which we get frozen at Walmart for $2/lb in the big box, and cooked them (still frozen) in a smidgeon of water in a pan with a lid, which is how I generally handle frozen fish. When those were cooked, I put them on top of the pasta.

And that will be lunch! I have those Kroger vegetables boxes for sides. Altogether, my lunches for the week are costing me less than $9, or $2.25 per lunch, which compares very favorably even to fast food.

(* Tilapia is a great fish. The Monterey Bay Acquarium's Seafood Watch Program, which ranks various fish based on how ecologically sound they are, has tilapia in their "best" category. They are cheap and plentiful, contain no mercury, and taste just like catfish - my favorite fish - but are not fatty like catfish.)

It's Not All About You

No, I don't mean you. Silly.

I tend to be completely self-centered (like most people, I suppose). The denial of my smallest whim looms larger to me than another person's legitimate suffering. And of course I am the center of the universe. The rest of you only exist when you're in the room with me (or commenting on my blog, I suppose).

But lately I've been using this phrase - "it's not all about you" - in various situations where I need an increase in virtue or humility. (Oddly, I always say it to myself that way, never, "It's not all about me.") It has a moral feeling to it that makes it more compelling than the details of the situation.

A few weeks ago, Mosch and I were going to someone's birthday party. Due to a mix up, I wasn't wearing the clothes I had intended to wear; I was a little bit underdressed. Because I'm not a very confident dresser anyway, I tend to feel very self-conscious and worried when I think I'm not dressed appropriately for an occasion. But what I've actually noticed is that, once you arrive somewhere, (a) you are rarely the worst-dressed person, and (b) nobody cares anyway. Why? Because the event is not all about you. Unless it's your party or your wedding, the event is, in fact, not about you at all, and most of the other people there will not care what you are wearing.

A few weeks ago, Mosch and I had tickets to a Saturday-night basketball game. Saturday night is usually when Mosch has his phone date with his girlfriend, who lives in another city and is disabled, so they moved their date to Friday night, which is usually the night that Mosch and I go out. (Did you follow all that?)

It was hard enough for me to give up part of my Friday night, but then, due to her disability, Mosch's girlfriend basically took up the whole evening, because she couldn't know in advance when she would be able to talk. I was really disappointed by not being able to have my Friday night with Mosch, but I was able to eventually convince myself that it was not all about me (life being the "it" in this case) and that the loss I was experiencing was extremely tiny in proportion to what was going on with Mosch's girlfriend. (Sometimes, it is hard to recognize one's own petulance as just "being a spoiled brat" - the mind is very clever at coming up with reasons why one really has some legitimate grievance.)

Oddly, this technique also works in situations you wouldn't expect. I can be tired of exercising and wanting to quit, and telling myself "it's not all about you" will work to make me carry on, despite the fact that my exercise is one of the few things in the world that really is all about me.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Calculus Problem #2: Chain Rule Confusion

Even though these problems use the chain rule, I think my real problem isn't the differentiation, but the math used to simplify the answers to what the book shows. It's very frustrating.

Here is the first problem. Differentiate:

y = (2x-5)^4 (8x^2-5)^-3

I get to here (though I may have erred):

y' = -48x(2x-5)^4(8x^2-5)^-4 + 8(8x^2-5)^-3(2x-5)^3

but I can't find my way to the book's answer:

y' = 8(2x-5)^3(8x^2-5)^-4(-4x^2 + 30x -5)

Good luck folks! I think my solution is equivalent to the correct answer (feel free to check this with a calculator) but I can't see how to convert one into the other.

I wouldn't be worried about this except that it's happened on about 5 problems in a row now...

Friday, May 19, 2006

Spring Semester Wrap-Up

Final grades from the spring semester were available by web today. I got an A in both classes that I took - an online geography class, which required a minimal amount of work, and Computer Science 3.

CS3 was the interesting one. It was a tough class that required a lot of work, and a lot of thinking. Writing complex programs (complex relative to one's skill level, that is) makes for tricky homework, because you really cannot put it off until the last minute. A project that takes 15 hours to complete may have to be done in 15 sessions of 1 hour each just so that your brain can spend time inbetween working on the problems that it has to solve.

For the first half of the class, we finished learning the remaining data structures. (Data structures are abstract models of holding and accessing data, and can be implemented in any language - most were invented decades ago - but this class used Java and C++. An example of a data structure is a queue, where the first item in is the first out.) There were four major programming projects - three in Java and one in C++. Every project involved writing not only the functional code, but also other code to extensively test that code. I got full credit on all of these assignments.

For the last few weeks of the class, we had a group project. Ours was to create a graphing calculator. (We chose this ourselves.) As with all such things, it soon devolved into the Project from Hell. The other people in my group seemed, variously, incompetent, lackadasical, disorganized, distracted, and unmotivated. (If you watch any reality TV at all, you learn that whenever you think your groupmates are all incompetent, it invariably means you are actually the problem person in the group. So, hmm...) But we did get some kind of a project sort of done. Scarily, I think our group might have done better than the other two groups.

Then there was the final, which was kind of a fiasco. Half was multiple choice, and it was straightforward. The other half was free response, mostly problems where you had to code something new. There was not nearly enough time to finish, and everyone basically bombed it. I probably got about 40% of it done - or, you know, 60% of it done, and 2/3 of what I did was actually right.

I went to talk to Dr. Paul afterwards about something else, and found a crowd of CS3 students outside his door (keep in mind only 9 of us even took the final) with pitchforks and torches. After they all left, he was somewhat distressed because, in his opinion, the test was something we should have been able to handle, and the fact that we weren't indicated that he had failed to teach the class properly. (Presumably this is worse than merely finding out that you wrote an unreasonably hard test.)

Anyway, prior to getting my grades today, I hadn't gotten any more information, like a grade on the project or the final. (I got a 92 on the midterm, which I failed to mention earlier. That was 25% of the grade, the final was 45%, and all the homeworks and projects were 30%.) I was pretty sure that if he applied a curve, I would get an A based on my percentile in the class. But I also thought a B would have been fair considering that there were areas where I could have put in more effort, and certainly my numerical average would not have been an A.

I just found out tonight that one of my teammates - the other one out of us four who actually did a substantial amount of work on the project - got a D. This means he'll have to retake the class, since only C's and up count toward your major. Bummer for him.

Cool Gym Machine: Assisted Pull-Up Thing

This picture is not the exact model from our gym, but it should give the general idea of what this machine is about, which is letting wimpy people do pull-ups and dips (where you lower yourself starting with your hands at your sides - the lower bars in this picture).

On this thing, the weights help you - they go up as you go down - so that you don't have to lift your whole weight. There are various places to grip it to work on different muscle groups. The machine at the rec center also has a way to remove the part you kneel on so that you can do regular pull-ups or dips too.

One consequence of this design is that you really must be able to pull yourself back up once you go down, because if you try to get off at the bottom, it's like jumping off a see-saw from the bottom - the weights will crash down and the thing you kneel on will fly up. So you want to err on the side of caution with this thing, but I had no problem doing about 20 pounds (it was too easy in fact), and I think I'll move it up from there pretty quickly.

What is really delightful about this thing, though, is just how smooth the action is. It just feels indescribably lovely to do it.

Cool Gym Machine: The Functional Trainer

One of the two coolest machines at our gym is a functional trainer. (The picture to the left is of the exact same model we have, though ours is not bracketed by freakishly fit people, thank goodness.) I think it's called a "functional" trainer (as opposed to some other, less functional kind) because the movements are more natural and less constrained.

There are a ton of things you can do with this machine, which has two positional adjustments. First, the arms can move up and down to change the height of the thing you pull on - like, do you pull up, down, or do you want it about level so you can move it sideways? And second, the arm apparatus rotates (like a book opening and closing) to change how far apart the arms are.

We only did bicep and tricep exercises with this last night, but there are all kinds of exercises with instructions posted on the front (as you might be able to see in the picture) including things for working the muscles for various tennis swings and stuff like that. I definitely want to play with it more.

Personal Trainer Review

I met my personal trainer last night.

When I had my fitness assessment, the woman who did it kind of rubbed me the wrong way. She was wearing makeup (which is just wrong to me, somehow, at the gym) and her hair was kind of fancy and she had a personality that resembled that of a apartment complex manager a bit too much - kind of fakey. She also took my blood pressure wrong. I was concerned that my personal trainer might be similar and that I wouldn't like her.

Instead, my personal trainer is...well, hard to describe, but let me start by saying she looks surprisingly like Leonard Nimoy. She is probably in her 40s, and has a short haircut that is just long enough to be slightly unkempt (think early Beetles but more angular). No makeup. Stern and frank features. That kind of butchiness really appeals to me in women, so I felt immediately that we would get along.

We talked about my goals in general, and I explained that mostly I want a strength training routine that I can follow. She asked if I like free weights or machines better, and I said basically, whatever is easier to set up, which usually seems to be free weights for arm things (because you can just pick up the correct size of hand weight and go to it), but not necessarily for leg things (where you have to move individual weights on and off of bars).

We went over a lot of the machines, and did some ab stuff (using one of those inflatable balls because it is "fool proof" - this was after she discovered that I strain my neck too much while doing regular sit-ups, though I have a theory about this), and stretched in various ways at the end. We have another appointment in two weeks. I am supposed to work on my own in the meantime, of course.

Some of the machines at the gym are extremely cool. I plan to post about them soon.

Cooking Tips: Pasta

Keeping in mind my general stance on cooking, here are a few assorted tips about making pasta. I have pasta (with tomato sauce) typically two or more times a week, and I've gotten pretty good at putting it together quickly, easily, healthily, and tastily.

1. If you have any desire to make pasta sauce from scratch, try it! It doesn't need to be cooked for hours or anything. In fact, straight-up tomato sauce from a can (the plain kind that is called "tomato sauce") is almost fine all by itself. If you have fresh basil available, add that, but if not, put in some italian seasoning and a bit of olive oil and let it simmer for a few minutes (10 or 15). If you're not too picky, this is a fine and extremely cheap sauce for pasta. (However, I usually do use sauce from a jar. If you're watching your weight, look for a sauce that is 70 calories or less per serving.)

2. You can reduce the calorie content (relative to volume) and make pasta more nutritious if you add vegetables. They provide a lot of volume and experience for not many calories. The ones I most like to add are onions, mushrooms, spinach, arugula, and zucchini. If you add a leafy vegetable like spinach or arugula, throw it in at the end so it doesn't get too cooked (unless you like it that way).

3. Garbanzo beans (also called chickpeas) are great in pasta sauce, especially instead of meat. Here in Denver, they're about 90c a can for organic, or 50c a can for regular, and a can is about 3 servings of 1/2 cup each, which is plenty for a serving of pasta. Beans are healthier, cheaper, and easier than meat - what's not to like? Some people like canneloni (white kidney beans) in pasta too.

4. Wal-Mart now sells whole wheat pasta in boxes for $1/lb, which is an excellent price. The product (I buy the whole wheat fusilli, which is the spiral one) is indistinguishable from the $3/lb boxes found at health food stores. If you eat a lot of pasta, it is worth visiting a Wal-Mart Supercenter occasionally for this alone (though they also have cheap canned beans, including organic, and all kinds of other cheap things).

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Personal Trainer Preview

Tonight is my first (only?) meeting with my personal trainer. Her name is Joyce, and we have not met, but I hear she is (has?) a black belt in karate, so perhaps I shouldn't piss her off.

Personal training at the rec center we go to is somewhat reasonably priced. For $50, you get your initial fitness evaluation plus an hour of personal training. I had the fitness evaluation two weekends ago. I was rated as "fair" on bicep strength, and "fit" on the number of curls (like sit-ups) I could do in a minute. On everything else, I apparently "need work". (Who knew?) "Everything else" includes waist-to-hip ratio, BMI, back flexibility, aerobic conditioning, and a few other things.

Anyway, tonight is the hour of personal training that I am owed. If I want more sessions after this, I can either pay $35 for one session, or $285 for 10 sessions. The 10 sessions never expire, so you could, in theory, have one a year for 10 years. $285 is a big commitment, but private personal trainers charge much more, maybe something like $45-60 per hour session.

What I want tonight is for my trainer to set up a regimen of strength and flexibility training things for me, that I can then follow on my own. I had this done for me at the YMCA before it closed, and it was very helpful until I just stopped doing it. But I think strength training is really lacking from my current exercise routines, and it needs to be there.

I will report on the results of this whole personal training thing tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Google Me

Tonight I discovered that if you google "Alethiography", you not only get links to this blog, but those are in fact the only links returned. Cool!

Calculus Problem #1: Limit Challenge

OK, my illustrious, math-proficient readers, here is your first challenge!

Before you learn how to do derivaties in the normal way, you calculate them using limits. The general formula looks like this:If you try this for, for instance, f(x) = x^2, you'll see you can pretty easily get to f'(x) = 2x. (The general trick, if this all looks completely unfamiliar, is to somehow massage the formula until it's solvable with h = 0.)

The one I couldn't solve was the one where f(x) = sqrt(1 + 2x). The formula for the limit looks like this:
I'm pretty sure I'll have to multiply by some kind of square root to get the thing solved, but so far no luck. (As a reminder, I do know the actual answer - this is an odd-numbered question, after all - so what I'm looking for is how to actually calculate this limit.)

Week 2 Update

So, this is week 2 of my 15-week weight loss & fitness plan.

Week 1 went really well - I stayed in my calorie budget for the week, ate more fruit than usual (thanks partly to the seasonal cheapness and availability of blackberries, blueberries, and seedless watermelon), and got a lot of exercise. As was my plan, I exercised every day except Monday, and ended up with a total of 320 minutes for the week, which is well above my general goal of 180 minutes, and is actually pretty good. (In an ideal world, I'd like to get an hour a day, but I'm not willing to adjust my life to make that happen right now.)

Mosch (my delightful roommate) and I played a lot of tennis - probably four hours over the course of the week. (The best thing was playing over 2 hours on Friday night, after dark, at a nearby park with brightly lit courts. I don't get tired when it's dark and cool, and I play excellent tennis.) In addition, I swam laps at our local rec center once or twice, and had a walk one night.

My weight went down 4.6 pounds between last Monday and this Monday, which is of course encouraging, but mostly results from my having been well off plan for a while, so that I had some easy water weight to lose. I'll be lucky to see a pound come off in any one week from this point on.

So far this week has gone well also. Mosch is out of town for 12 days, so tennis is out, though I do have a coworker signed up to play with me on Friday. Last night, having packed gym things in the morning, I was able to stop on the way home from work and walk 2 miles on the track inside the rec center, and today I have my swim things with me.

And tomorrow night I meet with my personal trainer for the first time!


My other project this summer, as I mentioned briefly before, is to re-learn Calculus 1 and 2 (as they are normally broken down into courses). So far I've spent about 8 hours on this, and I plan to keep going basically all summer.

I took Calculus 1 my senior year in high school (1991-1992), which I think was when I hit my mathematical peak. I took Calc 2 at Rice the next year. Needless to say, it's hard to remember much from 13 or 14 years ago.

A few years ago, when I was still in Houston (so this would be about 7 years ago), I re-took Calculus I at HCC because I was considering being a math major and realized I should probably actually know some math before trying to go learn some more math. What I found I had mostly forgotten was not calculus per se, but the algebra needed to do the calculus.

I need to know this calculus stuff because both of my fall courses rely on it - I'm taking Calculus 3 and a calculus-based Probability and Statistics class. So it seems pretty scary to show up with 7- and 14-year-old vaguely recalled math knowledge.

I bought a big calculus textbook and a graphing calculator (the TI-86 - sorry to all you HP fans) and some other paraphernalia, and these things live in a clear plastic box in the living room, so that when I sit down to do it, everything is in one place and it's very easy.

And once again I am finding that the calculus itself is not difficult, but what I'm having trouble with is algebraic techniques that I've forgotten or am very rusty at - things like factoring polynomials, rationalizing denominators, and converting trig functions into each other. I was proud of myself last night when, at the moment I needed it, I remembered that there was such a thing as the "quadratic formula" and was able to look it up in the reference part of the textbook and use it. But I know there are a ton of other techniques that I used to know and that I do not know now. Sometimes they show up in the examples in the text, and sometimes not.

Every time I sit down to do this, I read the relevant part of the book, and then do some of the exercises (the odd-numbered ones, so I can check my answers in the back). I've run into a few that I can't solve (due, I think, to lacking some technique or other). I expect to post them to Google Answers at some point to get some hints.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

More Debt Reduction Data

Debbie commented, on my last post,

Exactly, it's all about the psychology. It works even better when you just pay off your smallest debt first. You get that feeling of success early on that helps motivate you to continue. Some of us can get a lot of help from weird crutches like this.

and added that I must not need that myself.

The truth is, I am as irrational as the next person, and if I thought this method could help me for a small cost, I would use it. So I just ran the numbers again, this time using my actual debts. I have 5 creditors with a range of APRs - basically, two installment loans and three credit cards with balances. I used the actual total monthly payment that my budget says I can afford.

With the DOLP method (discussed below), the total amount needed to pay off all of my debts was $44,795 and it would take 32 months.

With my APR method, the total amount was $43,571 and it would take 31 months.

That's a difference of $1224, or over $38 per month for those 32 months. (Of course, I wouldn't actually pay an extra $38 every month - that's just an average to put it into perspective.) $38 a month seems like an awfully hefty premium to pay for a psychological trick.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Debt Reduction Methods

I have a lot of debt. My general approach is to make the minimum payment on everything except the debt with the highest interest rate, and then apply additional money to only that debt. (In other words, if my total minimum payments are $200 and I have $300 available, the extra $100 goes to the highest-interest debt.)

But occasionally I run into a different idea about this, which is that you should prioritize the debt with the highest ratio of minimum payment to total balance. Today, Get Rich Slowly has a link to this explanation of the DOLP method, which is basically that idea.

It's counterintuitive to me that paying off the highest-ratio-of-payment-to-balance debt would be faster and cheaper, overall, than paying off the debt with the highest interest rate. So I tested this in Excel.

I assumed that I had two debts of equal amount ($5000): a credit card at 15% APR with a minimum monthly payment of 2% of the balance, and an installment loan at 10% APR with a minimum monthly payment of a flat $300. This gave a large separation in that DOLP ratio and a reasonable APR separation. I applied $700 per month under each scenario.

Both scenarios got the debt paid off in the same month, but my highest-APR-first plan was cheaper by around $200!

So I thought, maybe a 5% difference in APR is too much, and I lowered the credit card to 12% APR. Now the difference shrank to $40, but it still came out in favor of my method.

Stupid DOLP. The only advantage I can see to it is that you do get your first debt paid off faster under it; under my plan you spend more time making payments to every debt (5 months more, in my simulation). I guess getting individual debts written off (and hopefully cancelling the cards or otherwise ensuring that you don't just charge them back up) is psychologically satisfying and might motivate someone better. And the cost difference was not extreme. But still, I think I'll stick with my method.


When I was younger and knew almost nothing about cooking (I once called my mother to ask how to boil potatoes), my friend Robin recommended that I get a copy of The Joy of Cooking. As others have noted, it's a book that comes in handy from time to time (like when you are asking yourself "what the hell do I do with this rutabaga?"), but for the most part, it wasn't for me.

In recent years, I realized why: I am not interested in cooking. I am only interested in preparing food to eat. Those of us who want to prepare food to eat because it is healthier and thriftier than buying prepared food are a different breed from those who want to know how to make puff pastries with a bechamel sauce and the like. We want to know simple things like, how do you prepare vegetables good enough to eat without spending much time on them? What can be done with a frozen chicken breast? Is it worth making pasta sauce from scratch? What are canned beans good for?

So in anything I write here about cooking, please keep that basic outlook in mind. Nothing I suggest will result in a food that will amaze and delight your friends - it's just not that kind of cooking. For one thing, it's very difficult to amaze and delight anyone with food that's healthy and cheap (if by "healthy" you mean, as I do, "healthy according to current medical research," and not something like, "healthy because this is wild Alaskan salmon and organic butter").

But if you are, like me, interested in preparing food to eat, and you like that food to be both healthy and on the cheap side, and preferably simple to prepare, I might have an occasional useful tip.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

National Weight Control Registry

The National Weight Control Registry is a research group you can sign up with if you've lost at least 30 pounds and maintained that loss for at least 1 year. There are over 5000 members. Their goal (generally speaking) is to study what characteristics successful weight loss maintainers have.

I signed up about 18 months ago, and just recently finished my 1st follow-up survey. Every year they send you this giant collection of surveys about, oh, everything you eat and how much and how often and how you feel about a million things. It basically takes a couple of hours to fill all of it out, and of course you end up feeling kind of bad because, really, how easy is it to estimate exactly how often and how much broccoli you eat? And then you remind yourself that they can't be basing their findings on perfect recall and reporting and you get over it and send in these forms for science.

Anyway, this year I received back a copy of an article they published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2005;82(suppl);222S-5S) about some of their findings so far. You can go look this up yourself if'n you want, but I'll summarize.

About 20% of people (Americans, presumably) have successfully lost weight, when the criteria of success are that you (a) intentionally lost 10% or more of your highest non-pregnant weight, and (b) kept it off for at least a year. This isn't a finding of the NWCR itself, of course, but an average from a few different studies that all got numbers around 20%.

The NWCR has been trying to determine, among other things, what factors make some people maintain a loss, while others gain the weight back. They've so far identified six things that they can recommend for maintaining a weight loss, as follows:

  1. engaging in high levels of physical activity (for their members, an average of about 1 hour of moderate intensity activity every day)
  2. eating a diet that is low in calories and fat
  3. eating breakfast
  4. self-monitoring weight on a regular basis (44% of their members weigh themselves every day, and another 31% at least once per week)
  5. maintaining a consistent eating pattern (i.e., not slackening up on weekends or holidays)
  6. catching "slips" before they turn into larger regains

Also associated with success, though not specifically recommendations, are low levels of depression and disinhibition (read: "bingeing"), and continued adherence to diet and exercise strategies. And people who started losing weight because of a medical event (broadly defined to include everything from your doctor telling you to lose weight to a family member having a heart attack) were also more successful than people who had another kind of trigger (like seeing themselves in a mirror) or no trigger.

The basic thing for me about weight loss and maintenance is that both of them take a lot of attention. If you have a weight problem, and you wish to lose weight and maintain that loss, there is no going back to just eating what you want when you want it, ever. So that's the choice.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Webster's dictionary defines "perfunctory" as...

Surely everyone who ever wrote an essay is familiar with this standard type of opening, though I have to admit, I have never used it myself. (I am more inclined to the "Throughout history, man has struggled with X" variety of bad stock openings.)

I was impressed today by Roger Ebert's clever reworking of the opening in his review of "Poseidon":

An odd and unexpected word kept nudging its way into my mind as I sat watching "Poseidon." That word was perfunctory. I hoped that other words would replace it. I knew I was not enjoying the movie, but I hoped it would improve or, lacking that, discover an interesting way to fail. But no. It was perfunctory, by which I mean, according to the dictionary that came with my computer: cursory, desultory, hurried, rapid, fleeting, token, casual, superficial, careless, halfhearted, sketchy, mechanical, automatic, routine, and offhand.

In general, Ebert's reviews of bad movies are always the best to me. For instance, his review of "Night Watch" starts like this

I confess to a flagging interest in the struggle between the forces of Light and Darkness. It's like Super Sunday in a sport I do not follow, like tetherball. We're told the future of the world hangs in the balance, and then everything comes down to a handful of hung-over and desperate characters surrounded by dubious special effects. I want to hear Gabriel blow that horn.

and just gets better from there.

Judging Faces

Can you get information about someone's personality from how they look? Obviously people try to do this all the time, but are they getting real information, and how can you tell?

One of my friends - Robin - has, at least in the past, been pretty sure that the answer is "yes", that for instance if someone is a jerk, it shows in their face. I tend to think not. I mean, clearly people use their faces to express themselves, and so there is some connection between expression and personality, but I think the judgments you make when you first meet someone, based on their appearance, only seem to be valid because the judgments themselves color how you see (metaphorically) the person from that point on. That is to say, if I meet a guy and judge by the set of his jaw that he is clever but pompous, I'll tend to keep thinking he's that way whether I have sufficient evidence or not.

When I used to do a lot of chatting with people online, sometimes guys online would ask me, "Are you cute IRL [in real life]?" I would answer honestly, "Not really." They would protest, "But you must be!" I would ask why, and they would say things like, "You sound cute." And I have experienced this myself - it's hard to imagine that an enjoyable online friend is not physically attractive. But there is no relationship between being friendly, or clever, or typing fast, or whatever comes across as "cute" online, and actually being cute to look at.

I realize that's not quite the same question as the face/personality one, but it supports my point (or so it seems to me) that people have confusion over this issue. No doubt it's evolutionarily advantageous to quickly size people up based on their appearances, to the extent possible, but it's also evolutionarily advantageous to appear to be better than you really are (or, in general, to have the most appealing possible appearance regardless of what other characteristics you have). Sounds like a good arms race situation to me.

Then we have this recent study (from UC Santa Barbara), in which women were able to tell, from still face shots of men, which ones liked children most, which ones were the most masculine, etc. The Economist had a pretty good article summarizing the research. I have my doubts about a study that gets so many findings from such a small sample size (something like 30 women and 40 men), but it may be that I'm simply wrong about this issue. It would kind of go along with the way I'm (probably) wrong about sex differences, which I tend not to believe in.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

15 Week Plan

This week is the first of 15 weeks in which I do not have school. Even though I still work full time, it feels like a vacation. I haven't taken the summer semester off in a few years, so it feels great. But I tend to also feel bored when I'm not in school.

Therefore, I present...the 15 Week Plan.

First, a little bit of background. I'm fat now, but a few years ago I was much fatter. I'm currently about 55 pounds below my highest weight. I started exercising sometime after my Wonderful Roommate moved in, and later, in March of 2003, I started actively trying to lose weight.

I lost nearly 70 pounds by eating less and exercising (sounds obvious, right?) but at the end of last year, I gained back about 20 of them. After that, I enlisted the help of the coworker I was eating out with every day (bad!) and we joined Weight Watchers together (good!) and since then I've lost about 5 pounds in four months. That's not great, but otherwise I likely would have gained weight over that period, so it's not terrible either.

Oh yeah, the plan. I'd like to lose 15 pounds in these 15 weeks and also get more in shape. (Note: 1 pound per week is slow for some people, but for me, it's about as fast as I've ever lost weight, not counting right at the beginning.) I already have an exercise goal of 180 minutes per week, which I make about 2/3 of the time, but I'm sharpening up that goal and my eating habits in a few ways.

Here is the basic eating part of the plan:

  • continue counting calories with BalanceLog
  • for snacks, eat only stuff that doesn't make me want more of it (i.e., no Doritos or chocolate chips)
  • continue eating lots of vegetables
  • try to eat more fruit

and the physical part:

  • get a personal trainer and meet with this person weekly or so at my local rec center (I have an appointment) so I can...
  • develop a strength-training regimen
  • take six weeks of tennis lessons (I signed up for these already)
  • exercise at least 30 minutes every single day (not on average, but actually every day) except Monday
Oh, and I'm also re-learning Calculus 1 and 2 this summer so I can take two calculus-based classes in the fall (Calculus 3 and Probability and Statistics). But that's for another post (maybe).

Better Comments

Now the blog allows anonymous comments. Sorry if you tried to leave a comment before and either went through the trouble of registering or quit in disgust.

Welcome to Alethiography

Everyone knows that a personal blog has to have a strange and pretentious title, right? I hope "Alethiography" satisfies. I should credit Phillip Pullman for the whole "alethio" prefix thing.

I've thought about having a blog for some time. Most of the blogs I read (all but one) are written by some species of professional writer - journalists like
Andrew Sullivan or academics like the folks at Language Log - and when you see private blogs, almost invariably they are, well, obviously not written by professionals. (This isn't fair, of course. If you turn out to be brilliant, eventually enough people will read your blog that you can be called a "professional writer." But most people are not that great, and I'm definitely in the majority on this one.)

I'm a great rambler in email, but I'll try to stay a bit un-rambly here. So far, it's hard to write anything at all - so much so that I played with the spellcheck button after my first paragraph. Oddly, it doesn't recognize the word "blog." Pity.

Anyway, if you keep coming back, I'll keep writing stuff. There could be links.