Sunday, May 31, 2009

Anna Karenina

TolstoyTwo or three weeks ago, I started reading (for the first time) Anna Karenina (on my Kindle), and during my just-finished vacation I spent many hours reading and was able to finish it. It feels in some sense hopeless, pointless to write about a classic novel, because there's just no way I could ever say anything about it that hasn't been said, or have any kind of original relationship to it whatsoever. But then that kind of thing has never stopped me before, right?

I've read a lot of novels in what I thought would be roughly the genre of AK. If you'll accept my abuse of the word "genre" I mean, basically, books written in the past that concern relationships between members of the nobility and/or fallen women. Madame Bovary. Edith Wharton. Dickens. So I expected it to fall somewhere into that very broad category.

Instead I was basically blown away by it.

It was, first of all, consistently interesting to read. I thought that it probably would be, because I do like those kinds of books (by which I mean my ill-defined "genre" above, nothing more broad), but it exceeded my expectations. But it was also amazing - philosophical, morally moving, and more psychologically astute than I would have dreamed possible.

People often accuse people of younger generations of believing that their generation invented sex, and I feel I could be accused of this about psychology relative to...well, Tolstoy. I wouldn't have thought the psychological insights of this book could possibly be available to a 19th century Russian. I just wouldn't have.

It's always kind of silly to read a recognized great work and be like, "Hey, actually that book is pretty good," but that's what I'm going to say about it. It fucking rocks. It may be the very best book I have ever read. There were so many times that Tolstoy took me places I had no idea he would go, and then blew my mind.

So, if you have never read Anna Karenina, or if you read it years ago in school and it didn't really do that much for you, and you're open at all to novels of that type (set in the past; having a lot to do with marriages and relationships between members of the nobility), I highly, highly recommend reading it.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

My Wisdom Teeth

I saw a dentist today for the first time in a few years. Aside from doing a more thorough cleaning (due to the "few years") part, I didn't need any work. But the dentist did strongly suggest that I have my wisdom teeth removed. With my current insurance, it would cost me about $100, which is certainly doable (especially since I would just use my HSA for it).

I told her I would look into it. The thing is, my wisdom teeth have all grown in - none are impacted or anything like that. They gave me trouble on and off for years, but they settled down 7 or 8 years ago and never give me any grief. I'm not sure why I should surgically remove perfectly healthy teeth from my mouth.

Her argument is that they are difficult to clean and thus may cause problems down the road, perhaps even affecting the adjacent teeth. And they will only become more difficult to remove as I become older (bones get firmer, surgery is more dangerous, etc.) But in my 34 years of life so far, I've had exactly one cavity, so I don't think my teeth are very decay-prone to begin with.

I did some research online, and from what I've read, the active question (that is, the dividing line) is whether impacted wisdom teeth that are not causing problems should be removed. This leads me to believe that settled opinion is not in favor of removing non-impacted teeth.

A dentist 10 years ago told me my wisdom teeth were fine and not to give into any baloney arguments about why they should come out. I have no reason, of course, to trust him over my current dentist. All the same, I think I am going to keep these perhaps-extraneous teeth.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Asking for Help

Ed keeps running into challenges at his new job (as one does) - things like needing to spend hours figuring out how to configure things to make them run properly. Such are the joys of a large software project, I suppose. And a question that comes up is, when do you ask for help?

Ed almost never asks for help. In fact, I've noticed that even in general life situations where contacting someone is obviously called for, he tends not to. (For instance, a while back, during his thesis work, he couldn't access the school server for a few days. "Have you asked anyone about this?" I asked. He had not.)

At my own job, I rarely ask other people for help with software. I did more often in the beginning, because it was the best way for me to learn about the programs I'd never used before. But these days, I know just about as much as the people around me, and I'd rather solve problems myself. (I guess in general, if I think someone else will just immediately know the answer, I'll ask, but if it's a matter of needing to sit down and figure it out, I'd rather do that myself than have help with it, for the most part.)

I have coworkers who ask me for help somewhat often. Over time I've become curious which way the arrow of causality points - do they ask for help often because it's hard for them to figure things out on their own, or is it hard for them to figure things out on their own because they're so willing to just ask for help rather than struggle? I've learned a lot over the years by struggling through things, and I've gotten better and better over time at the sort of debugging type of progress you go through to figure out why software isn't doing what you want. (I don't mean debugging code, but rather like figuring out why Excel isn't doing your chart right, etc. It is similar to debugging in terms of the general cognitive methods that you apply.)

The fact that struggling leads to learning and growth makes it extra-tricky to figure out when you should ask for help. It might save you time now, but make you less effective later. But on the other hand, you might learn something amazing now that you wouldn't figure out on your own, and thus avoid doing something in your own long and laborious way for years. And it depends on the people around you, too. If they know a ton of stuff you don't, or are smarter than you (in the relevant domain), then asking might make more sense.

How willing or reluctant are you to ask colleagues for help?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tonight's Dinner

Since I know you guys never get tired of reading about the boring meals we have around my house, here was tonight's dinner:

  • catfish, cooked on my grill pan with a bit of salt and lemon juice
  • asparagus, cut into bite-sized pieces and sauteed in a pan with a bit of oil, salt, and crushed red pepper
  • whole wheat macaroni & cheese from a box
  • a small french baguette for Ed

It was pretty tasty. The catfish is yummier (of course) when cooked in butter and olive oil. I didn't use any oils today and it was much plainer, but I enjoyed using my new grill pan.

A grill pan, if you don't know, is a kind of flat pan (mine is square) with raised ridges in the bottom. You use it over a burner in lieu of grilling. The ridges leave lines on your food and the sunken areas theoretically allow fat to drain way. I'm not all that hooked on having grill marks on my food, but the square flatness makes it a fun pan to cook with. I made burgers on it last week and that was neat too. I have this one.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Week's Menu

In keeping with my plan of cooking dinner five times a week, I planned some meals today, and stopped at King Soopers to buy ingredients. Here is what I bought (click for a larger version):

I'm pretty pleased with it. The total cost was $40.62, which, (incorrectly) assuming no leftovers, comes out to $4.06 per person per meal.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


I bought a Kindle a few months ago. (If you've forgotten, this is Amazon's e-book reader.) At first, I pre-ordered a second-generation Kindle, but after a few days, I decided to cancel that order and pick up a used first-generation Kindle, which was a bit cheaper.

It's a hard purchase to justify from an economic standpoint. For roughly $300, you can get books slightly cheaper than otherwise, and with less effort, and read them all on the same device. It would take forever for it to pay off monetarily, and even though reading a Kindle is a lot like reading a book - the print looks very good, it's not a computer-type screen, etc. - it's not quite as nice as actually having a book.

But I really like mine. It has led to me reading a lot more than before, because I always know exactly where the book I'm reading is, it keeps the page for me, and it's just a very consistent experience. I've bought a lot of really cheap books in the public domain (for around $1 each; you can get free editions but they tend to have more errors) that I wouldn't have bothered rooting around used bookstores for.

Also, I absolutely hate the way that books accumulate. I love books, love seeing them on my bookshelves, but hate moving them, running out of space for them, donating them to goodwill, etc. Even though I hate that all my books now look the same (like a Kindle!) and have no physicality, I also love that they are not physical objects taking up space in the environment.

Yesterday, Ed and I spent about 9 hours at his mom's house. Some of the time we spent moving furniture and equipment around, but most of it Ed spent rewiring a bunch of audio/video equipment, stringing wires through the crawlspace, etc. I spent hours and hours sitting around...with my Kindle. I finished one book and started another. And had I run out of books to read, or wanted a different book, I could have purchased one right off the Kindle at any moment.

I can't say whether the Kindle has been worth $300 or not (or whatever I paid for mine, maybe $250). But it's definitely improved my life and I've really enjoyed it. I would buy it again.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009


I made quesadillas tonight. I was at Whole Foods shopping for Larabars, and I had had the idea earlier in the day, so I went for it.

In the meat department, I bought chicken fajitas - a marinated mix of raw chicken, onions, and different colors of peppers. Red peppers were on sale anyway, so I bought an extra one as well. I also got cheese and whole wheat tortillas.

At home, I cooked the chicken and veggies in a bit of oil, assembled quesadillas, and cooked them in a hot very thinly oiled pan.

They came out pretty good. I didn't (apparently) use as much cheese as one uses for conventional quesadillas, and I had more fillings, so they were tall and (because I had to cook them a while and the heat I used was high) a bit crispier than you'd get at a restaurant. But very tasty and sort of chunky and substantial.

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

My Future

I'm finding lately that it is a little bit difficult to figure out how to plan my future. I have multiple conflicting goals, such as
  • keep dating (or marry) Ed
  • avoid a long-distance relationship
  • have (before I'm too old) or adopt (if single or too old) children
  • get a master's degree
  • continue to earn money
Ed's future most likely involves getting his PhD in some unpredictable location, and then seeking a tenure-track position at a different unpredictable location. In the ideal case, he might be settled in one spot in six years or so. It could take longer, or his life could go in some different direction entirely.

I'd love to stay in Denver and get a master's degree at CU-Denver, which I can probably get into, and which has a program that interests me. But going part-time would take me six years, which (a) keeps me in Denver for six years while Ed is elsewhere, and (b) takes me beyond the age at which I'm likely to be able to have biological children. And I can't really see working, getting a master's degree, and having a baby. And that goes double if the baby's father is in, I don't know, Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, if I instead blindly follow Ed to wherever he goes, then I would lose my job, which is lucrative and almost uniquely suited to my talents. There are jobs everywhere, of course, but this is a good one. And then I'd have to move again in another few years anyway.

I still have the dream of teaching.

This morning I was pondering all of this and I thought about resuming my previously abandoned plan of seeking alternative (secondary) teacher certification in Houston. The advantage of doing so in Houston vs. Denver is that Houston pays teachers much more than Denver does, has more openings, and is cheaper to live in. (Of course, you have to live in Houston. But since I haven't visited during the summer in a long time, I mostly long for its greenery and neighborhoods.)

It's kind of an interesting idea. I think I would get into the program (standards are not actually that high, and secondary math teachers are typically in somewhat short supply). The way I envision it is that, when Ed leaves for his PhD program, I would leave for Houston for this. We'd be apart, but that is likely to happen anyway unless I essentially prioritize "living in the same city with Ed" over everything else (i.e., job, master's degree,...), which seems foolish. (He's not prioritizing staying in the same city as me over his other goals, which I think is very smart. Why wouldn't I apply the same reasoning to myself?)

There are several advantages to this idea. First, teaching is something I've always wanted to try, and this would be a great opportunity for it. If the teaching doesn't work out, Houston is one of the cities I can most easily find employment in. If it does work out, I'd have teaching certification after a year-long program, and high school math teachers are employable pretty much anywhere, so that moving to be with Ed would be easy from an employment perspective. Teaching is also an ideal job for having/raising children, in terms of the hours that you work and the holidays/summers that you have off. Teaching is also reasonably compatible with getting a master's degree part-time, if I decided to go that route.

Finances-wise, the starting pay for teachers with no experience in Texas is around $41K. The program costs a few thousand dollars, which they deduct from your paychecks over the first year. The program starts in the summer, and you start teaching in the fall, so I'd have a summer of no income while I took classes (at St. Thomas), but I should easily be able to save up for that by then. And I'd have moving expenses, of course. But overall, in my current debt-free state, it seems very doable financially.

So this is something I'm strongly considering again.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Summertime, Summertime

This summer, for the first time in a few years, I won't be taking any classes, for the simple reason that there are no classes remaining for me to take that are taught in the summer. So, aside from work, I'll have the summer off.

"Aside from work" is a big exception, but when I am in the habit of being in school, not being in school does seem to give me oodles of spare time (with the attendant boredom, etc.) So I have two goals for the summer.

First, I'd like to cook more. I've been making dinner two or three times a week, and Ed has been enjoying and/or tolerating my food. I'd like to bump that up to five times a week, just for the summer, and see how it goes. I'd also like to plan ahead more - buy groceries only once or twice in the week. Overall, the idea of this plan is to practice cooking on a really regular basis, and I also think it will save me money and result in a healthier diet.

One challenge is that I don't currently make enough different meals for us to eat my cooking five times a week without dying of boredom. So I'll have to expand my repertoire a bit, but that's all to the good. There are certainly a lot of different meal ideas out there that meet my criteria (reasonably cheap, easy, healthy, and bountiful).

My second goal is to start exercising again. I haven't gotten any exercise to speak of since my semester heated up, and that's bad. Ed and I were going together before that. Whether he can resume joining me or not, I want to start working out in some fashion five times a week. I still have my 24 Hour Fitness membership, plus, of course, it's summer and thus wonderful and nice outside for all kinds of things, so it should be pretty easy.

I'll keep you posted on how these things go.

Friday, May 01, 2009

My Kind of Math

I really want The Princeton Companion to Mathematics. And, oddly, one of the reasons I want it is captured in one of its few negative reviews on Amazon. You can read the whole review, by Scott Guthery, here, but I'll excerpt it (emphasis mine):

On one side of the divide we have mathematicians playing a parlor game called Bourbaki with other mathematicians. The game goes like this. Think up definitions for a handful of cute nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs: oblate corkscrewed doubly-banded sub-farkleoid. Now write a stream of papers classifying the nouns with their adjectives and composing the verbs with their adverbs. Tenure is only another 10 turns of the crank away. This mathematics 100% content-free; synthetic problems worked in synthetic settings.

On the other side of the Great Divide we have mathematicians talking to students. Here we have politically correct (or at least not politically incorrect) problems cast in severely dumbed-down non-Bourbaki mathematics. Have the student push the numbers around for an hour or two and mix in a couple x's and y's until they start to feel really good about saving the world from something.


Except for Part VII, The Influence of Mathematics, the Companion is all on the Bourbaki side of the Great Divide. This is not to say that there aren't some execellent sections. When an author really knows the subject you become convinced as you read that you understand it too. Barry Mazur on Algebraic Numbers is a wonderful example as is Computational Complexity by Oded Goldreich and Avi Wigderson. And the biographies in Part VI are by and large written with a light yet informative and insightful touch.
"Playing Bourbaki" is exactly the kind of math I like.

When I was researching Laguerre planes for my paper, what I found is that they are this pretty little math object, and that was enough for me. I had a wonderful time through all of the hard work I put in. It was only later, when I started to think about my presentation, or about my friends reading [under duress] the paper, that I started to feel bad about not knowing what the point of Laguerre planes is.

Do they have a point? Possibly. They are related to other things in geometry, and some things in geometry do have a point. (No pun intended.) But damned if I can figure out enough of the literature to know what the point is. And I don't really care.

I may begin my presentation by openly acknowledging this - that as far as I am concerned, Laguerre planes are just a pretty little math object, and look, isn't it shiny?