Saturday, November 29, 2008


Ed and I were at Wal-Mart recently looking at tools. I forget what he wanted to buy - a wrench, maybe. And I pointed out that they had a whole little toolkit for women - a bright pink toolbox filled with pink-handled tools. We both laughed at the ridiculous application of girly aesthetics.

"But, you know," I said, "we make fun of this, but what is the rest of this aisle?"

Everything was black. The men's toolkits were black with fake chrome. Some things were dark green and black. Everywhere, things had obviously been aesthetically augmented to be manly.

Many aisles of the store are the same way. Razors. Women's are pink, with names like Venus, and soft wavy lines. Men's are "Mach 3" and "Turbo" and everything else that suggests lean, hard-edged machines full of power.

The pink disposable razors are not different from the navy blue ones. I see the navy ones as neutral and the pink ones as girl-coded, but that's because that's how gender is arranged in our culture: male is the default, girl is "special." Plenty of women would buy and use blue or black or silver razors without thinking twice, but few men would want the pink ones, or the wavy-handled Venus ones.

Girl things are for girls only.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Software Operator

One of the main components of my job as an engineering & geological tech in oil & gas is knowing how to operate a lot of different software packages. Currently I'd say I'm proficient with Petra, Aries, ArcView, HPDI, IHS, and R2V. I can make my way around Grid. I have used Petrel, though not often or well. And of course, I'm excellent with MS Excel and Access. It's critical that I know how to do these things.

However, it is not enough.

If you don't have the domain knowledge, you're a bit screwed even though you may be able to operate the software. It's like knowing how to use a statistics software package; you can create meaningless analyses all day long. (I do not, incidentally, know any statistics software packages, unless you count Excel. Which I'm sure you shouldn't.)

I do have a lot of domain knowledge - I've worked in this industry for over 10 years - but not always exactly what is applicable to the task at hand. As an example, John (an engineer) asked me yesterday to print some logs for a particular well. Well logs look something like this:

The vertical scale is depth in the well. The squiggly lines represent the values of different things. The turqoise filled-in areas on the right were selected to be filled in based on some cutoff. (I just pulled this one off the web, so I'm not sure of the details.)

I did have some log data for the well John was interested in, and I have software to turn that (digital) log data into an actual log like you see above. However, I had no idea which curves he wanted to see, or how they are typically arranged or displayed. The software also gives you approximately one million options about how to arrange and display the logs - think something like making a chart in Excel, and then increase it by an order of magnitude in terms of options and things you can change.

Here is a screenshot showing many of my log choices (they are the things like CAL2, CAL2_1, CALI, etc., in the list on the lower right side):

I picked some of the ones that sounded familiar, like "Gamma Ray" and "Neut. Porosity" and (off screen) "SFL Resisitivity." And I put together some horrible log that probably wasn't at all standard. And then I called John in.

Now, John doesn't know in a formulaic way how a typical log should look, and he doesn't know how to operate Petra at all. But he was able to tell me, for instance, "OK, Gamma Ray and caliper should go on the same track" and "Put the porosities together and let's go from 0 to 80 but reverse it" and "The resistivity, let's use a log scale." So with him directing and me fiddling around with the software, we were able to put together a useful log for him. It ended up looking like this:

With this experience, hopefully the next time someone asks me to print the logs for a well, I'll be able to put something together that is at least reasonable - something that allows them to come back and give me some directions about what they want instead of just writing me off as obviously clueless.

But this is the kind of thing you get an education for. This is why college classes are not dense and efficient like the kind of professional classes you might take in, say, Petra. No matter how whiz-bang you are at running a program, you have to know what you want to get out of it.

Monday, November 24, 2008


I sometimes find it amusing how our minds readily supply "reasons" for our irrational feelings. I suppose I should pick on myself before others, so here is a good example from last night.

I went to the gym pretty late. I had done some laundry earlier, and had one load in the dryer (dry but growing wrinkly) and one in the washer. When I got home, Ed had taken the dry clothes and put them in a laundry basket in my closet, and had dried the wet clothes, because he'd needed to get his own load of whites done.

I was angry. The clothes in the basket in my closet would need to be put back into the dryer and fluffed prior to being put away, and he'd done the other load without a dryer sheet. My mind seized on reasons this was wrong.

Can't you let me just have the machines on the weekends [since you have so much more time during the week to do laundry]? I considered asking. But this is ridiculous and untrue.

Now my clothes are ruined and staticky. Also not true - I merely finished up their drying (they were still a bit damp anyway) with a dryer sheet, and they came out fine.

I never handle clothes if I don't handle them in the right order; the clothes in the basket in the closet are doomed now. Well, in fact, I did handle them, and it's not Ed's problem if I'm incapable of the normal process of life.

Finally, I settled on the truth: I am tired and finding my stuff not as I expected was hard on me, but it was totally reasonable to move my clothes around so that you could do laundry, and in fact having both loads dry is more helpful than not.

Fortunately, Ed just left me alone after my original outburst, so that I could go apologize a few minutes later without further incident. It's nice to be trusted to be reasonable even if you can't get there right away. ("I knew I hadn't done anything wrong," he said, "so I thought it was a good time to just chill out.")

So now can I pick on someone else?

The other day, Ed and I saw a DVD player in someone's minivan - the kind that is mounted on the ceiling for the benefit of the backseat passengers. And Ed told me that his dad hates those, and that he'd seen one when Ed was last visiting and said they were stupid because "children should entertain themselves."

"So I guess you weren't really allowed to watch TV as a kid?" I asked.

"What? No, we did," he said.

"Oh. But why didn't you just entertain yourselves instead?"


Yep, this is just me being snarky again. If kids don't need to "entertain themselves" at home (where there are a million things to do), why should they do so while strapped into a tiny space for possibly hours at a time? I also ascertained that Ed's dad watches television, quite often, so apparently he does not how to entertain himself either.

I would think if there was any time it would be all right to let your kids veg out with some mindless entertainment, it would be while traveling in a car. At least when I was a kid you could move around freely. Heck, we took a whole drive to Florida in my mom's station wagon with the back seats folded down so the whole back was a (blanketed, bepillowed) play area. But now that we have all of this safety-mindedness (which I support), car drives must be more boring than ever.

Anyway, I think this was an instance of Ed's dad rejecting something because it's new-fangled and frivolous (i.e., through an irrational prejudice), and then having his mind supply a convenient rationalization.

Good thing that never happens to me.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Lucky in Work

I have been lucky in a lot of ways in my life, but especially lucky in how my career has gone. Despite not having a degree, I make a good salary doing exactly the kind of work I am best suited to, and that I enjoy the most. ("The most" is a strong statement, but I think there are very few actually existing jobs that I would enjoy more.)

I got my first performance evaluation here yesterday afternoon. I've been working here since May, so I was curious (and anxious) to hear what they would say. I met with the President (and we're a small company - about 20 people - so that's not unusual or anything) and she gave me a page of feedback that included her thoughts and the thoughts of the other engineers & geologists who have worked with me.

Aside from a (legitimate) question about why my billable hours aren't better, I got only positive feedback. That is somewhat of an understatement. I don't want to be too specific here in case my coworkers might read this blog, but it seems that the people here have found me quick, smart, competent, and creative about finding ways to solve their problems. Under "weaknesses" my form says "none." (One person even described me as unflappable, which is untrue, but still nice.)

One of my coworkers told me once, at lunch, that she would like to be a dental hygienist. She'd get to interact with people all day long, and when the office wasn't busy, she could chat with the other employees. She would enjoy doing skilled work with her hands.

Now this person is pretty young, and I can't help but hope that she seriously considers pursuing that career. She doesn't really like what she does here. She doesn't feel very confident about it, and she doesn't really enjoy working with computers. The "format" of the job (working with computers all day by yourself) doesn't suit her very well.

It suits me perfectly.

Benford's Law

I'd never heard of Benford's Law before, but this is pretty cool:

For those who can't or don't watch the video, Benford's Law states that, for most natural data (e.g., population sizes, but not something like social security numbers), the most common first digit is 1, then 2, on down to 9, in a specific pattern.

I was curious if this law would apply to the data I worked with, and pretty sure that it would. I opened up the well production database for a random client I'm working on and put the monthly oil production values into a spreadsheet. There were over 16,000 non-zero values. I got the first digit and then did a scatterplot, shown below. The red curve is the values predicted by Benford's Law, and the blue curve is the values I actually obtained. Click for a larger image:

That's a pretty close fit, so I was pleased.

Benford's Law works because most real data is evenly distributed on a log scale, and the numbers on a log scale are farther apart the lower they are (i.e., 1 is further from 2 than 2 is from 3), so that more numbers fall into the lower end of any given order of magnitude, so that more of them will start with 1, and very few will start with 9. That's my understanding from Wikipedia, at least.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Iced Tea

Iced tea is by far my favorite beverage, especially at a restaurant. I like it plain, heavily iced, and not too strong, which is usually how it is served.

Today I ate lunch at Wahoo's Fish Tacos, and noticed something I've wondered at before. Next to the usual soft drink station, they have two iced tea machines. I believe the brand is Shangri-La. And these have writing on them that looks something like this:

100% Natural Iced Tea

Freshly Brewed * No Sugar * No Calories
No Preservatives * No Bitterness

When I first saw it, it gave me pause. Since you don't normally expect to find sugar or calories in iced tea, it took me a minute to confirm to my satisfaction that it wasn't artificially sweetened. No preservatives is fine, though, again, one doesn't normally find preservatives in freshly brewed iced tea, so it's not all that reassuring.

And what of "no bitterness"? That part is confusing to me. Iced tea is somewhat bitter - are they saying theirs is less bitter? Are they trying to reach people who may have disliked iced tea in the past on account of its bitterness, and convince them to try this less-bitter tea?

Having had the tea on many occasions, I can state firmly that it is no more or less bitter than other freshly brewed iced tea. And if you like iced tea, I imagine you either like the bitterness, or are happy to mitigate it with lemon and/or sugar. If anything, the "no bitterness" might make you wonder if this is some kind of modified tea, not like a regular tea.

I freely admit to knowing nothing about the marketing of iced tea in this type of environment, but this signage does not strike me as very useful. Had the tea been unadorned, I would have assumed that it is exactly what it is - very standard, good, freshly-brewed iced tea. The words only made me question these assumptions.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Manic Pixie Dream Girl

You've probably heard of this movie archetype - the manic pixie dream girl. She's that young (generally) woman with a whimsical view of life, a tendency to overshare, a lot of energy and light, and eccentric hobbies. In a movie she is typically drawn to a sullen, depressed, repressed, or otherwise drudge-like man. She rescues this man by awakening his interest in life. As with the magical negro, it's not always clear what the MPDG is actually getting out of the relationship. Garden State was a particularly egregious MPDG movie I saw recently.

I've been thinking about this character because Ed and I are in the middle of watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is an unusual MPDG movie in that it shows the consequences of actually having a long-term relationship with one of these women. You might eventually get tired of dealing with someone who is continually impulsive and has no purpose in life.

I have a few trains of thought about this archetype. First, I wonder if the MPDG is primarily a male or female fantasy. Is it that men dream of having some light-filled girl-creature enter and brighten their dull existences? Or is it that women dream that they can immediately let a man in on all of their eccentricities and, instead of being weirded out or disturbed, he'll find them adorable and entrancing? It seems to me that it could go either way. I don't think you often see a Manic Pixie Dream Man, though the love interest in The Family Stone comes close for me (and the woman is definitely a classic Drudge).

The second set of thoughts I've been having is a bit more serious. It strikes me that the MPDG and the Drudge that she rescues both have something in common - neither is applying energy to anything meaningful. The Drudge has a meaningless job (which can be high-powered or not) and basically no meaning in life, and he's generally low-energy. The MPDG has plenty of energy flying in all directions, but she's applying it only to meaningless things like her inevitable eccentric hobbies (making figurines out of potatoes, collecting kitschy trinkets, or whatever).

One vision of the "good life" would be applying energy and creativity to something that matters. I guess in movies, most of these characters are Crazed Artists; the guy in Pi comes to mind. Of course, in real life, such people exist and many are not crazed. In movies, you're either crazed, or you're famous and the movie is a biography. (Or both, of course.)

Ed reports that his high school girlfriend was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I had Mosch as my Magical Negro stand-in (I used to call him my "magical Jewish friend"). I don't think I fit any of these archetypes particularly well. I have some eccentric qualities and overshare, but overall I am a plodding rather than a flitting creature; my life has drudgelike aspects, but I also pursue meaning. Ed is clearly a Crazed Artist type.

Do you bear resemblance to a movie archetype? Are you someone's magical friend, manic pixie dream, drudge suitable for rescuing, or a crazed artist? Are there people in your life who fit these categories? (Do you wish there were?)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Academic Fields

The other night in Prob/Stats, before class, some of the students were discussing graduate school. Specifically, they were talking about whether master's programs in math and/or stats involve writing a thesis. I commented that some do and some do not, from what I've seen, and it partly depends on the purpose of the master's.

"Why would you ever write a thesis in math?" asked one woman. "That's weird."

It made me think about how math isn't what people think it is. When I repeated her question to Ed, he asked, "What, does she think math is a solved problem?" But I don't think it's so much that she thinks everything in math is already known as that her conception of math is probably that it is about learning how to solve different kinds of problems.

A lot of fields are not about what you naively think when you have barely any knowledge of them. Psychology is not, as Sally mentioned, all about why people are crazy (or, alternately, about how to make people like you and do what you want by understanding the inner workings of the mind). History is not about learning the timeline of events. English Lit is, for all I know, probably not about writing papers about how the three rooms in the house in a novel represent the holy trinity or whatever. Computer science is not about learning programming languages (much less, as a coworker once asked me, learning how to use Power Point). Even GIS, which was my major at one point, is not about using software to make maps.

However, I'm pretty sure anthropology is about squatting in the dirt with some unknown natives and keeping a diary about their ways, and paleontology is about carefully excavating big dinosaur fossiles, and archaeology is about looking for ancient cities like Troy. Must be.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Mad Greens

Today I ate lunch at Mad Greens, which is one of those new chains that mostly does giant salads. (They also have paninis, soups, chips, and the usual brownies & cookies if you want dessert.) I had never eaten at one of these before, so I wanted to check it out. Even though I don't usually prefer the Giant Salad Meal, it seemed like there might be some good quantity of vegetables involved. So I went.

You can order any salad you want from the ingredients they have, and they also have set combinations that you can order by name. All salads start with a base of either romaine, baby greens, or spinach. I ordered the "Ty Cobb Salad", which has (by default) romaine, tomatoes, bacon, avocado, red onions, and boiled egg. I asked for baby greens instead of the romaine (which looked a bit pallid) - substitutions are no problem. I chose not to pay extra to add a protein (they have a lot of options including tofu, salmon, chicken, and steak of various types), and I chose ranch as my dressing (the recommended one for my salad was spicy bleu cheese).

They make your salad in a giant metal bowl and, if you are eating in, serve it to you in a smaller metal bowl. The salads come in two sizes and I had ordered the larger size. It was pretty big - probably larger than you'd ever make a salad at home, even if you meant it to be your whole meal.

The ingredients in my salad were very good, especially the bacon, which was thick and very bacony. The avocados, bacon, and eggs came in somewhat smaller amounts than you might normally expect in a cobb salad of that size, I thought, but when I ate the salad there seemed to be plenty of all of them. The dressing was good and came in the right amount. (The guy who made it asked me if I wanted a small, medium, or large amount. I asked for medium and he mixed it all into the salad for me. I assume you could also get it on the side if you wished.)

The salad plus iced tea came to about $9. Had I added a protein it would have been $11-14 depending on which one I'd chosen. So those places are definitely not cheap.

Ultimately I did not feel very satisfied by my meal. It was a great salad, but I am not really used to having a giant salad as my whole meal, and either the fact that it wasn't hot food or the lack of protein made it not feel like I had really eaten. (I guess if you consider that salad greens have almost no calories - though they have lots of nice nutrients - my lunch really consisted of a medium-large quantity of ranch dressing and about 1/4 cup each of bacon, boiled egg, and avocado.)

If you like to eat a giant salad and paying $12 or so (which is, after all, what you'd pay for the same thing in a restaurant once you include tip) doesn't bother you, then I'd recommend Mad Greens. I enjoyed the quality and convenience of the food. I probably won't go back there myself, though.


Ed and I have new arrangement whereby we travel to our local 24 Hour Fitness three times a week. We spend about 25 minutes lifting weights (we are actually using the same chart, designed by me, though naturally we have our own copies and are using different amounts of weight), and then 20-25 minutes doing some kind of cardio.

It makes me so high.

I usually don't really want to go. "Those weights are heavy!" as Mosch used to say. And the 20 minutes on the treadmill afterwards is somewhat torturous. But when I'm finished, I am often filled with a really strong feeling of well-being, and I find that later the same day, or the next day even, I am extra in love with Ed too. We had this conversation a few days ago:

Me: I just realized why I'm so in love with you right now!

Him: You pumped iron.

Me: Yeah. Is that weird?

Him: Nope. I'm all hopped up on endorphins too.

I joked the other day that we don't need to have sex anymore now that we have this instead.

I've gone through periods of doing strength training before, and I remember that I've always really liked it, despite how easy it is to get out of the habit (and despite the ways that it sucks). But I really hope I can remember how directly good this makes me feel, independent of it being good for you or whatever. I swear I fell asleep last night with a smile on my face.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Ed and I watched Dogville recently. I'd seen (and enjoyed) the movie before, and was keen to have him see it. I remember Sally said something to me before the first time I saw it, which I'd never managed to reply to after I saw it (I think). Specifically, she wrote,
...the majority of reviews I read indicated that the reviewers did not understand what the movie was about even after having seen the whole thing...
and when I saw it, I totally agreed. The rest of this post will have Dogville spoilers, so if you haven't seen it and intend to and don't want it spoiled, please stop reading now.

So, the basic plot of the movie is that Kidman's character (Grace) shows up in this mountain town during the Great Depression; she's on the run from some gangsters. The townsfolk decide to let her stay for 2 weeks, and she sets out to prove herself useful by helping everyone. They resist at first, but come to appreciate her help, and all is well for a while.

At some point, though, things start to go bad. Wanted posters appear and the townsfolk use them as an excuse to demand more labor from Grace. She attempts to escape at one point but is thwarted, and after that is more literally enslaved, with a collar and chain connecting her to a bell (so she can be heard) and a giant wheel that she has to drag around. And she's raped by most of the men in the town. (This is a terrible plot summary, but hopefully you've already seen the movie and I'm just refreshing your memory.)

Eventually, her boyfriend in the town calls the number on the card one of the gangsters gave him in the very beginning, hoping that she'll be taken away because she represents a threat to his image of himself as a moral person. When the gangsters show up, we find out that the head gangster is her father. Grace and her dad have a long talk in the car. She starts out on the side of the townsfolk, despite how they've treated her, but after thinking on it some more, decides that the world would be better off without them, and has them all murdered (including their children) and the town burned down.

Now, this is what Roger Ebert (who gave the movie 2 stars out of 4) wrote:
In [director Lars von Trier's] town, which I fear works as a parable of America, the citizens are xenophobic, vindictive, jealous, suspicious and capable of rape and murder. His dislike of the United States (which he has never visited, since he is afraid of airplanes) is so palpable that it flies beyond criticism into the realm of derangement.
What von Trier is determined to show is that Americans are not friendly, we are suspicious of outsiders, we cave in to authority, we are inherently violent, etc. All of these things are true, and all of these things are untrue. It's a big country, and it has a lot of different kinds of people. Without stepping too far out on a limb, however, I doubt that we have any villages where the helpless visitor would eventually be chained to a bed and raped by every man in town.
You can also go see David Edelstein's review for Slate here.

Now I know nothing of von Trier, so for all I know this could have been his exact intention and maybe he really does hate Americans and think we're all assholes. But since I'm looking at the movie and not the director, I don't really care what his intention was; I feel free to judge the movie on its own terms.

Some review I read (which I can't easily locate now, years later) thought that the ending just showed the utter bleakness of human nature, as inevitable crime is inevitably followed by excessive retribution. And I didn't see it that way at all.

Grace offers herself up, Christlike, and she maintains that mien right through the conversation with her father. In that conversation, her father calls her arrogant for refusing to apply the same high standards to others that she does to herself. He calls that the ultimate arrogance. And she rejects this idea, but leaves the car to wander around the town.

The turning point in her thoughts (which the narrator helpfully illuminates for us), and the point that I found really thrilling, is when she shifts from the question "Wouldn't I do the same as them in their place?" to the question "If I acted as they have, would I have any defense for myself? Would I not deserve whatever came upon me?" (These are paraphrases.) It is after this realization that she orders the town destroyed and the occupants killed.

I don't, of course, condone the murder of whole families, whatever crimes the parents might have committed. And the ending is a bit too horrifying in execution to be satisfying, at least to me. But I actually do love the moral reasoning. It's not about whether you're really any better than others; there's an actual standard to which everyone should be held, whether you yourself meet it or not. (There's some Kant for you.) And I like the turning on its head of the Christ idea. It changes from "Forgive them, for they know not what they do" to "Ah shit, the world would just be better off without these assholes, and they deserve it." It's like Noah's flood without, well, Noah. (I guess the dog, the only member of the town who is spared, is Noah, but I don't want to take this analogy too far.)

Also, contrary to Ebert's assertion that hardly anyone will enjoy the movie once, and nobody twice, I did enjoy it thoroughly both times. I find it rather captivating.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Tests Update

I don't usually post test results, but since Sally did I thought I'd go along.

I got my prob/stats test back tonight, and I got a 94%. I thought I had missed up to two questions - one that I just didn't know how to do, and one that I knew how to do except that I got "infinity" as the answer (for an expected value) and that seemed wrong, so I worked on it some more and finally gave up. But infinity was the correct answer, and he gave me credit for it even though I never quite said it was the answer. (I wrote something like "I don't know how to solve this since ln(infinity) -> (infinity)".) The other one I did miss.

Also tonight, I took my test in Discrete. It was probability plus the binomial theorem, and I had all of the material down cold. But the prof put six multi-part questions on the test, many along the lines of, "Explain why xyz," so there was a lot of writing and drawing and solving. And there is one technique that I always, always have problems with (related to generating functions) so that I couldn't solve part of one problem within the time allotted, even though I knew the answer (and wrote it down).

However, only one person had finished on time (and he had finished way early, so perhaps bombed it), so our prof speculated that he had made the test too long and promised to grade the best 5 problems, so I went ahead and left. I didn't, however, have time to full check the rest of my work, and the one question I did check had an obvious error. (No, Tam, 2^4 is not 8. That's 2 times 4.) So I am not as confident as I'd like that my other problems will be all right.

It was kind of an amazing test - it seemed to me that he put together the hardest possible test over the given material. I will probably have an A (if the universe is just), but it was difficult.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Primarily Plants

I wrote earlier about Linda Bacon's book Health at Every Size. I've now finished most of the book. Along with some details and a fair bit of encouragement, Bacon has some pretty simple eating advice:
Enjoy a variety of real food, primarily plants.
Each word is important. She emphasizes enjoyment (taking time to savor your food and also learning to enjoy cooking as well as, e.g., shopping at the farmer's market), variety (not eating the same things over and over again), "realness" (staying away from processed foods), and a plant-based diet.

There is one recipe in the book, for beets, but she does give a little bit of advice, like that if you find vegetables too bitter, roasting them often brings out their sweetness. (Apparently sour tastes like lemon juice also decrease the perception of bitterness. I hate sour and don't seem to taste bitter very strongly, so I'm going to promptly ignore that advice.)

The book has a lot of encouragement that you can change your tastes, and I have found this to be true when I've tried it. If you lay off processed, overly salty and sweet foods for a while, you do learn to appreciate "normal" food more. It's a slightly difficult road to go down, though, at least for me, and the road in the other direction is quite easy. (Taco Bell might taste like crap the first couple of times but then it's delicious! And so easy! And cheap!)

Along with her emphasis that diets don't work ("even if you don't call it a diet!"), Bacon doesn't suggest that you forbid yourself any particular foods. For things that are comparatively energy dense or unhealthy, she suggests monitoring yourself for the point at which pleasure starts to drop off, and listening to that signal, and seeing if you've maybe had enough at that point. And I have found (independent of reading this book) that while I could eat several Twix bars or something, I can also keep a large bar of really good chocolate in my living room and eat very small amounts of it.

The book argues, as I've seen argued elsewhere, that Americans' obsession with protein is misplaced - that we all get plenty and most of us get far more than is necessary. A vegetarian diet is definitely not necessary for health, but a normal vegetarian diet with a variety of foods (not one dominated by sweets) provides plenty of protein.

Honestly, I can never figure out who is right on this protein issue, possibly because I haven't done any real research myself. According to the standard (government-sanctioned?) information about how much protein I should get, it's not automatic that I would get that much from a healthy diet. But that number may be something like enough protein for 98% of people my size (a population that includes men my size who have a lot more muscle), and I don't know what the curve looks like. For that matter, I have no idea how "how much protein X person needs" is calculated in the first place. What are the signs of protein deficiency/sufficiency?

Bacon advises getting some protein and some fat in every meal, for satiety and because (she claims) fat increases nutrient absorption. (She cites studies to this effect, I just haven't looked at them.) She generally advocates not being afraid of fat and not worrying too much about it, but substituting plant for animal fats where possible.

And as I mentioned above, she really does advocate enjoying eating. Her suggestions include not eating while distracted by other things (hard for me; I have a seriously ingrained habit of watching TV while I eat), eating family dinners together, and eating foods that you enjoy (while hopefully training yourself to enjoy more natural, home-cooked foods).

I think that's about as good a summary as I can give about this aspect of the book. I still recommend reading it; it's a pretty easy read in any case.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Stats Courses at Metro

For the benefit of anyone who might enjoy browsing course listings at various colleges and universities, I present the complete selection of statistics courses offered at my school, the Metropolitan State College of Denver:

MTH 1210-4 Introduction to Statistics (4 + 0)
Prerequisites: two years of high school algebra or equivalent and an appropriate score on the mathematics preassessment test
This course is an introduction to the principles and techniques of descriptive statistics, probability, regression analysis, and statistical inference (estimation and tests of hypotheses). Students will work with data on problems related to their own interest or field of study. Credit will not be given for both MTH 1210 and MTH 1230. (General Studies—Level I, Mathematics) (GT—MA1)

MTH 1230-2 Introduction to Probability and Descriptive Statistics (2 + 0)
This course introduces the principles and techniques of probability, descriptive statistics and probability distributions. Students will learn collecting, analyzing, and drawing conclusions from data in their chosen field and using statistical software. This course will not count toward graduation if MTH 1210 is also taken.

MTH 3210-4 Probability and Statistics (4 + 0)
Prerequisites: MTH 2410 with a grade of “C” or better, or permission of instructor
This is a course in the application and theory of the principles of probability and statistics in the sciences and engineering. It includes random variables, probability distributions, sampling, estimation, tests of hypotheses, and regression analysis.

MTH 3220-4 Design of Experiments (4 + 0)
Prerequisites: MTH 3210 and either MTH 2140 or MTH 3140, all with grades of “C” or better, or permission of instructor
This is a course in the application and theory of statistical methods in the sciences and engineering. It includes analysis of variance, factorial experiments, and regression analysis.

MTH 3240-4 Environmental Statistics(4 + 0)
Prerequisites: MTH 1110 and MTH 1210 with grades of “C” or better, or permission of instructor
This is a course in inferential statistics, sampling techniques, and quality control as they relate to environmental issues. Students will work with data and problems related to the environmental science field of study. This course does not count towards a major or minor in mathematics.

MTH 4210-4 Probability Theory (4 + 0)
Prerequisites: MTH 3210 with a grade of “C” or better and senior standing, or permission of instructor
This is a course in the theory of discrete and continuous probability with applications in the sciences and engineering. It includes sample spaces, combinatorial probability, random variables, sets of random variables and random sequences, conditional probability, expectation, and special distributions. It also includes beginning analysis of Markov chains. (Senior Experience)

MTH 4220-4 Stochastic Processes (4 + 0)
Prerequisites: MTH 4210 with a grade of “C” or better, or permission of instructor
This course is an introduction to random processes with applications in the sciences and engineering. It includes examples and properties of stochastic processes, specifically, it includes discrete and continuous Markov processes, the exponential distribution and Poisson process, and other processes including queuing theory.

MTH 4230-4 Applied and Computational Statistics (4 + 0)
Prerequisites: MTH 3220 with a grade of “C” or better, or permission of instructor
This course will cover advanced methods in statistics, including regression and multivariate analysis. Additional topics will be chosen from time series, survival analysis, sampling, bootstrap methods, Taguchi designs, or others chosen by the instructor. The students will use statistical computer packages.

MTH 4290-1 Senior Statistics Project (1 + 0)
Prerequisites: MTH 3210, MTH 3220, MTH 4210, and permission of instructor
In this course, students will apply the statistical techniques covered in previous course work to a real-world situation. The students will write a report containing a description of the problem, statistical tools used, design of experiments, analysis, and results of the study.
I am currently taking 3210, and I have also taken 1210 (required for my previous major). I would love to take Probability Theory (4210).

Strange Conclusion

Today, BPS Research Digest discusses a finding that people's happiness is more readily increased by small, repeated events like going to the gym than by large, one-time events like winning the lottery. I enjoyed the article, but it did end on an odd note:
So what are the policy implications for this new research. The researchers said single-shot events such as a tax cut will probably have little impact on people's happiness. By contrast, "policies that lead to small but repeated gains are likely to succeed."
Talk about shoehorning a study into liberal talking points! Unless we're talking about a tax rebate where the government sends you a big (or, generally, not so big) check, a tax cut is not a large, single-shot event. I mean, the news of a tax cut having been passed might be a single event, but actually keeping more money from each paycheck seems to be an exact example of a "small but repeated gain." No?


In the shower this morning, I was pondering names. I imagined naming a baby girl after one of Obama's daughters. And then I wondered if the name "Barack" will get popular now.

My mind wandered, and I thought about Abraham Lincoln, about how those old testment names like Abraham were popular back then. I wondered how his name affected the election, if at all. Did it sound totally everyday?

Then I thought, "Abraham Lincoln - how could you not elect someone named Abraham Lincoln??" feeling how presidential and good the name sounded.

Because of Abraham Lincoln, of course. Heh.

Thursday, November 06, 2008


One thing I've learned a lot about in my Discrete Math class, somewhat inadvertently, is how my fellow students learn and the ways they struggle. There are only twelve of us in the class, and our prof typically does only a little bit of lecturing before having us work on problems and lecture each other. Quite frequently we get sent to the board with markers to write out solutions and, more importantly and unusually, explain things to each other. He will often have several of us explain the same concept for the benefit of the class.

There is, of course, a range of ability within the class, and each person's ability also changes from task to task. Sometimes I have seen other people pick things up more quickly than I do, and at other times I've been stunned as the rest of the class has seemed to turn into morons.

One of the topics my class has really struggled with has been probability. I also had some probability this semester in my Prob & Stats class (as you'd expect), and people seemed to struggle with it there too, though it's not as obvious in a large and non-interactive classroom. But I've heard from some people that, when they took that class, they had no problem with the statistics part, but did badly with probability.

I am no expert at probability and I have learned new things in both of these classes, but probability has always come somewhat easily to me. There seem to be a very small number of principles, and then you just have to figure out how to apply them to the situations in the problems. The principles themselves seem to make logical sense. Because there is a not a lot of fiddly algebra and everything makes logical sense (rather than seeming arbitrary), I do very well with it.

I have guesses about why other people struggle with it. I think one problem is that all the problems are word problems. A couple of students in my prob & stats class were talking once about not being able to figure out what the questions were asking - questions like "What is the probability that no more than 4 valves fail?" And in Discrete, even my professor has struggled to understand the questions sometimes, though he's obviously quite smart.

I think the other problem in probability is that, because it's about applying a few rules to diverse situations, it's not a field of math where you are given extremely specific question types and shown how to solve them. In calculus, for instance, you typically have a section of very similar questions and you are shown methods that always yield the correct results. In probability you really have to analyze the situation and think of equivalences between disparate types of events.

These are just guesses. There have been times when I've really wanted to tear my hair out at the struggles my classmates were having with things that seemed very straightforward to me, and I've had to remind myself that they haven't seemed dumb or underprepared on all topics, but that there is apparently something specifically difficult about probability.

What have your experiences been like?