Friday, July 31, 2009

Life Is...Hard?

I have to admit, I am kind of hating my life right now. I might even be a wee bit depressed.

If I tell you what is wrong, odds are that my life might end. Sally might actually fly up here just to kick my ass. (I'm sure she doesn't want to have to do that, but she would, and she'd enjoy it.)

But basically I am bored.

Without school and without having a roommate like Mosch who actually wants to do things (Ed basically keeps to himself most of the time), I don't have anything to structure my free time around. And just working full time, at a job 8 minutes from my apartment, is not enough to fill my time.

Of course, there are plenty of things I should be doing. I should clean the kitchen more. There are a ton of chores that need doing, actually. I should cook healthy meals. And I could study my textbooks for next semester, or go through the GRE Math Subject exam book that I have, or...well, there are so many things. But without a sense of urgency it is hard for me to do any of that stuff. And I just feel very blah.

I am kind of in that rut of feeling that I have nothing to do, yet being unwilling to do any of the things I could do. I am kind of just being a screw-up. And I don't want to develop any new hobbies, because school starts in two weeks (yay) and then I won't have time to do anything at all.

Is it a bad sign that I can't entertain myself for an entire summer? (I'm thinking yes.)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Goodbye Grainless

Well, my magical grainless diet worked...for a few weeks. Now I can't get myself to get back on it. And, what's more, I'm distinctly eating worse than before the grainless diet. I'm obsessing over food a lot (even though I'm eating plenty) and often eating completely unnecessarily, which I wasn't doing (much) before trying the grainless diet.

I feel like dieting is just a generally doomed enterprise, to the extent that we mean anything other than "trying to keep a general focus on eating in a healthy way."

Trying to force myself to eat a particular way or amount just seems to drive me bonkers and make me obsess about food continually.

Not trying to force myself to eat a particular way or amount seems to lead to weight gain.

Obviously I should change my environment. Unfortunately, I think moving to the 19th century would probably shorten my lifespan more than it would lengthen it.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


On Facebook I keep seeing ads for Bonsai, a company that apparently makes "high-quality" sheepskin-lined flip-flops, which they promise will "keep your feet warm in winter and cool in summer."

I don't know where these people are spending their winters, but I'm reasonably certain that merely standing on sheepskin is not enough to keep your feet anything like warm here in Colorado. Maybe on a nippy summer evening these would be nice, but that's about it.

I guess these sheepskin-lined monstrosities solve the problem that causes people to wear sandals with socks - wanting that little bit of extra warmth without having to go so far as wearing a real shoe. You can't wear socks with flip-flops, so you get sheepskin instead.

I am not a shoe snob like Sally and I don't mind seeing people's toes or anything, but I have to admit I am a little bit surprised how widespread flip-flops have become as all-occasion shoes. When I was a kid I think we only wore them to the pool or beach, and now you see them absolutely everywhere.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Slight Disadvantage of the Facebook Era

They're really going to have to stop using your mother's maiden name as a security measure for accounts.

Being Out of Debt

For something that has almost no impact on my everyday life, it's amazing how much effect being out of debt has on me. I finally, just last month, paid off the very last dribs of credit card debt (the last bit of which was left over from when I switched back to paying cash for everything rather than using a credit card and paying it off monthly), so I owe nothing to anyone.

On a very concrete level, this has no impact. I am able to buy almost exactly as much stuff as before - which is to say, not a house, but a car or anything else I decide to go into debt for. I am not suddenly spending the hundreds of dollars I was sending to debtors every month - it's mostly going into savings (which is a real thing, but doesn't "do" anything until I spend it someday).

But the psychological relief is amazing. I worked on this for so many years, very consistently even if not always very effectively. And now...I'm done. Instead of debt I have a few thousand dollars* in the bank.

Way to go, me.

(* This is actually a slight exaggeration, but not for long.)

Friday, July 24, 2009

How Is Kaiser Permanente Not Like Walmart?

Timothy Noah has an article in Slate today about health care reform, in which he laments the fact that, according to a recent poll, Americans are more afraid of the government having a larger role in determing what medical treatments people receive than they are of the role played by insurance companies. He writes:

The discouraging finding concerns a question that [the Kaiser Family Foundation] doesn't appear to have asked in previous polls. In his July 22 press conference on health reform, President Obama parried a question about the prospect that the government would ration health care by saying:

[T]he government already is making some of these decisions. More importantly, insurance companies right now are making those decisions. And part of what we want to do is to make sure that those decisions are being made by doctors and medical experts based on evidence, based on what works. Because that's not how it's working right now.

It's a powerful point: Wouldn't you rather decisions about your medical treatment were made by government-paid medical experts, focused on which treatment may help you get better, than by private insurance companies focused on maximizing corporate profits? Granted, once a treatment is approved, the government would probably pay less for it than a private insurer would. But, ultimately, government is answerable to the public. Insurance companies are answerable to their stockholders.

As often happens when I read Noah on health care reform, I was a bit boggled by this. Let's try a slight substitution:
Wouldn't you rather decisions about what types of cereal are available be made by government-paid consumer research experts, than by private retailers focused on maximizing corporate profits? ... Ultimately the government is answerable to the public. Retailers are answerable to their stockholders.
Now, it is somewhat clear (or so it seems to me) that medicine isn't really acting in the normal market way. This is probably because of the ways it's regulated already (e.g., the way we get insurance through our employers without paying taxes on it). So we can't really just choose a better insurer as freely as we can choose to stop in a different store. And, honestly, I don't want health care to just be a completely free market, because I think that would (overall) be worse instead of better. But it is certainly not obvious (and is quite possibly not true) that having the government decide what you can and can't have is going to be nicer than having a variety of private companies making those same decisions based on a contract between you and them.

Noah concludes with this even more bizarre assertion (emphasis added):
The larger point, though, is that evidence is growing that even the seemingly bumbling intervention by President George W. Bush's treasury secretary, Henry Paulson, helped the United States avert the onset of a second Great Depression. President Obama's maladroit stimulus probably helped, too. The same may be assumed of legislation that would increase government control over medical decisions. If it doesn't help, voters can make their legislators change it. What their legislators can't do is protect them from the rapacity of private health insurers should no health reform be enacted.
I guess we may assume, then, that any and all government intervention will "probably help," since growing evidence suggests that the bumbling and maladroit stimulus bills did. Perhaps the government really should step in and take care of that breakfast cereal issue. After all, if it doesn't help, we can make legislators change it, while what the legislators can't do is protect us from the rapacity of, well, Walmart.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Buying to Last?

Ellen Ruppel Shell has a small article in the Atlantic ("Buy to Last") arguing that, rather than buying cheaply-made products from Ikea (much less, one presumes, Walmart), we should be buying well-made items that we intend to keep. Some of her argument is about specific Ikea practices, which I won't address here (we don't even have a local Ikea), but I'm interested in the general idea of buying good things.

Let's talk about bookcases. I bought mine a few years ago, and they are pretty much the cheapest kind you can get - tall white particleboard ones that were, I think, something like $30 each. I like how they look, but they are definitely not made to last, and if I move often, eventually they will become casualties. (In the meantime, just sitting there, they seem to hold up fine. It's not as though bookcases see a lot of wear and tear in ordinary life. I don't even dust!)

I could have spent a few hundred dollars each and gotten bookcases made of solid wood, or I could spend even more and get glass or steel ones. Or I could do something like elfa shelving that I would install in the wall, with high-quality components that I could reuse wherever I went. I think metal or solid wood bookcases would be the most likely to last, and I could treat these as important pieces that I would keep forever.

But I'm just not sure this comes out as more environmentally sound. For one thing, particleboard is basically made of sawdust or something anyway. Perhaps it's environmentally horrible to produce - I don't know - but I don't think old growth forests are cut down to make it. And it seems to last an awfully long time despite being basically crappy. I'm not replacing my bookcases every five or even, I suspect, every ten years.

In the meantime, if I bought a nice solid wood bookcase, I might still need to replace or discard it (if I move overseas or it doesn't match my other tasteful pieces or I go completely electronic on books). Yes, in theory it lasts forever and someone else could have it and keep it, but I'm not going to spend thousands of dollars on something so nice that nobody would dare throw it away.

My general strategy for most household items is that I buy things that are pretty cheap (or use whatever I already have, like my mother's small teak dining table that she bought around 1988) and then just keep them anyway.

I guess I worry a bit that even if the "buy something nice to keep forever" idea is actually better for something like bookcases or bedsteads, it will kind of spread over my entire life to where it is just a waste of money. Corelle dishes are (reasonably) cheap, my silverware from Ikea was cheap, and towels from Walmart are cheap, and all of these things last about as long as more expensive things. (In fact I'm sure Corelle dishes outlast more expensive china since they don't break very easily.) And I don't imagine these things are more environmentally costful than their expensive counterparts, either.

I feel like the idea of buying something nice to last instead of "being part of our throw-away consumer culture" is sometimes just an excuse for spending a lot of money on something fancy or extra-tasteful. Outside of outright disposable items, are there items that need to be expensive, hand-crafted, or made of the best materials in order to last for a long time?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Madame Bovary vs. Anna Karenina - More Thoughts

I've now finished reading Madame Bovary. I enjoyed it reasonably well. I now can't remember the tone of Anna Karenina as well, so comparing the actual writing in the two books is difficult. There are obvious plot parallels between the books, at least if we only look at the stories of the title characters (AK has more different plot lines).

An obvious plot difference is that the people in AK are of a much higher social stratum. Both books deal with money issues, but very differently. People like the Bovaries are basically invisible in AK, which deals with aristocracy (close up) and peasants (as accessories).

But I guess the biggest difference, for me, is sort of like the difference between where I work now and my old job - the people in Anna Karenina are smart! Anna herself is actually an intelligent, strong woman. (She reminded me of Sally in some parts.) Emma Bovary is...well, not necessarily completely stupid, but definitely weak.

When you read Madame Bovary, it's a bit like watching a horror movie - you want to yell at the characters about the stupid things they are doing. And, of course, you are forced to listen to a lot of rather idiotic dialogue. (I could have done without Homais the Chemist entirely.)

The characters in Anna Karenina are mostly smart and strong, so the things they do fall more easily along a kind of intellectual or moral axis. You watch them make choices that are more moral in nature. And the non-plot conversations in the book are far, far more interesting. Tolstoy seems to actually respect most of the characters, where Flaubert was obviously making fun of many of his.

I wouldn't really tell someone to go read Madame Bovary for fun, though I didn't hate it or anything. I still recommend Anna Karenina to all but the most determined haters of the (broadly-defined) genre.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Stupid Consultant Tricks

A couple of weeks ago, I finished up the beta version of a data importer that a client (the representative of whom I'll call "Rick") had asked for. Specifically, he wanted a way to automate monthly well production and test data imports from their oilfield management software into their reserves database for Aries (the economics software we use). Rick asked "Jim" (one of the engineers I work for) if we could whip something like this up for them, and Jim asked me, because he knows I can do tricky technical/coding things.

It was a pretty fun project. They sent us sample data in Excel, and I learned enough VBA to write a nice little program in Access. Basically, you click a button to start the import, and it asks you where the Excel file is, sucks the data in, determines what data is duplicate and what data is new, asks you if you want to update existing records, then if you want to add new records, does all of those things, and outputs a form of log letting you know exactly what was done.

Unfortunately, after Rick (the client) had a chance to play with what we sent him, he sent Jim this email:
Looking back on our initial email, I thought we were looking at a loading process from our production database into the Aries database. Both are in Access so it would seem that there should be a way to link the tables with some type of load query. Your current load process is workable for other areas but it would be a huge benefit if the we could do this loading internally within Access.
Apparently what he had wanted was an import from one Access database to another, not from Excel into Access. Although this is not a gigantic change, and is in some ways easier to code, it wasn't what I thought we were doing.

And at first I felt quite annoyed with Rick. Why the hell would you send sample data in Excel if you weren't intending to import the data from Excel? I mean, I worked with what I was given. Stupid client!

But, no. This is actually my fault. I mean, I have most of an entire degree in software engineering. I know better than to just go off half-cocked and write a bunch of code without doing even a minimal amount of requirements engineering. (It's probably not appropriate to write up an entire set of requirements for this project, but a simple email to the client clarifying his needs would have been prudent.) It is not the client's job to know how to unambiguously ask for what he wants.

Stupid consultant! ;-)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


A stereogram is (roughly speaking) a pair of pictures (or sometimes just one picture) designed to create a 3D image, and I find I really enjoy just about every form of this art.

The humble View-Master is probably the most well-known type of stereogram. I sometimes had one of these as a kid, usually with reels of scenes from Disney movies or something, but the art form has been around a long time and you can find reels of wildlife, architecture, or even street shots of 1920's Germany. (I have reels like this at home in my small collection. If I could ever find a batch of like 1000 View-Master reels I would totally buy it up.)

Stereograms are also often used in remote sensing, with aerial photography. In this case, two photographs captured by an airplane in two different positions, with around 60% overlap, give you a 3D view of the ground, with significant vertical exaggeration (because the images were taken usually hundreds or thousands of feet apart, while your eyes are only a few centimeters apart). I have this book at home, with images like this:

These are typically viewed using a viewer that is basically just two (magnifying) lenses separated by some plastic, to help each eye look at the correct image. But if you are talented and practice, you can see these with the naked eye. (If you try this with the one above, try making it very level to your eyes and getting your face pretty close to the monitor - the image is a bit small for ideal viewing.)

The technique for viewing a stereogram without a viewer is to learn how to make yourself go "wall-eyed" (the opposite of cross-eyed) while maintaining your eyes' focus. In other words, you need to direct the angle of your eyes as though you are looking at something further away than the actual image, while maintaining the actual focus on the image. I am pretty good at it, and for me, the 3D usually comes before the focus, so I first diverge my eyes, then once the distance is right, I can focus.

Looking at a 2-image stereogram uses the same skill as looking at an autostereogram, which is what those "magic eye pictures" that used to be so popular in malls are. In an autostereogram, the pattern of dots or other elements is arranged such that your eyes can mistake two separate images for the same image, thus creating the illusion of 3D. I find most of the speckledy ones pretty boring, but some other ones are cool. From the Wikipedia article linked above, I especially liked this one of a chess board:

This one looks pretty much the same in 2D or 3D, though once you get the 3D, you will (through the confusion of your eyes) see more pieces. And of course it will appear to be 3D. This is a pretty easy autostereogram to practice on.

This one is much more difficult, but rather clever:

You can also get the stereo effect staring at something like bathroom tiles. Nothing will pop out, of course (though it would be great fun to tile a bathroom in such a way as to create a 3D image for discovery), but the tiles will shimmer a bit and appear to be at a different distance away than they actually are.

Some people, especially those with a lazy eye or who do not generally have depth perception, cannot make out stereograms. Ed, for instance, gets double images in a View-Master or at a 3D movie, so the odds that he can make out an autostereogram are especially low. For the rest of us it is just a learned skill.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Everything Old Is New Again

When the economy is up, there are always plenty of people out there proclaiming that it will go up forevermore because everything is different now and we'll have continuous growth.

When the economy is down, plenty of people likewise proclaim that it won't turn around because the world situation has structurally changed in ways that will prolong the recession indefinitely. Things will never be the way they used to be.

If you're going to use induction it really, really helps to look more than a few months back. Seriously.

Lunch Math

This morning, I heard a radio ad for Applebee's new "Pick 'N Pair" lunch combos. They said you could choose any two of their (delicious, etc.) soups, salads, sliders, pasta, or sandwiches, starting as low as $5.99. There were, they said, over 75 possible combinations.

Rather than thinking, "Hmm, that sounds good - maybe I should eat lunch at Applebee's," I, being a math geek, thought, "How many items must there be in order for it to be correctly and reasonably described as 'over 75' combinations?"

Starting with the idea that you could choose from the same pool twice, the number of combinations would seem to be some number squared. For instance, if you had 9 choices for the first item, and 9 for the second item, you might think you had 81 possible combinations. Except that order doesn't matter (choosing french onion soup + shrimp salad is the same as choosing shrimp salad + french onion soup). So 9 items would actually give us 45 choices using this model (assuming I'm calculating correctly). And 12 items would give us 78 choices. So perhaps there are 12 different items.

But this assumes you might order the same thing twice - say, two orders of BBQ Pulled Pork sliders. And that doesn't seem likely. If we instead have to choose two different items, again with order not mattering, then it becomes a combination. Here, 13 items would give us 78 choices, which you'd probably describe as "more than 75."

So, with my guess that the menu has 13 choices, I went to look at the actual menu:

It seems to me that there are in fact 14 different items, which means 91 combinations of 2. But you wouldn't describe 91 as "over 75" (although it is, of course).

Perhaps they are thinking that you would order any two items, but not two of the same item, and not two different sliders. In that case, you would take our 91 choices and subtract the 6 that involve two sliders, leaving 85 choices. If you further assume that ordering two soups would be strange, we could subtract those 6 combos as well, leaving 79 choices, which is a reasonable value for "more than 75."

Perhaps the Applebee's folks reasoned this all out. Or maybe the menu originally had 13 items (giving us the straightforward "13 choose 2" calculation of 78), and one was added at the last minute, after they had already designed the ad campaign.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Oh, Yeah. That.

I was sitting here at my desk feeling utterly crappy - tired, spiritless, bored, whiny. I haven't been tired all week, so even though I'm slightly underslept, there's no reason I should be that tired now. I was just kind of disgruntled all over.


Of course.

Our office building had a BBQ lunch for us, and I drank water with it. Not iced tea, like I have every day at lunch. When you're used to being caffeinated in the afternoon, skipping the lunch caffeine is a perfect way to become doldrumated.

I am now reviving myself with a glass of this Elixir of Life.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Grainlessness Update

So, I am still doing the grainless thing, though not with perfect adherence. I've decided to add whole wheat pasta (2 oz. at a time only) as well as brown rice (small quantities, like 3/4 cup) to my diet. And I've been exercising somewhat regularly, though not quite as much as I'd like.

According to the scale at the gym last night, I am down 10 pounds from where I started in early June. I was only wearing my bathing suit (and Crocs) when I weighed myself, which may be less than I generally wear, but I was dripping wet from my shower (I hadn't dried off at all since I was headed straight for the pool anyway), so that may have balanced it out.

Despite having lost 10 pounds, I feel unsure that this way of eating/living is actually going to result in a lot of weight loss. I don't know why that is, except that weight loss is generally slow if you're doing it the way I do, and so it's hard to be sure you're really seeing a trend and not random fluctuations.

But I'm feeling really, really good about it. For the first time pretty much ever, it's crystal clear to me that I feel better when eating this way than I do when I overeat (especially in an unplanned way). I feel kind of strong and good inside. I hope that it lasts. I am really trying to think of this as a lifestyle change and not a diet to lose weight, so...well, we'll see.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Oh, Pandora, You Kidder

Before the song even started, I saw in my Pandora window the following album cover.

Oh my goodness. Not a good sign, and yet it perfectly captures a certain aesthetic, doesn't it? Don't you just know what the music will sound like? It was "Heat of the Moment":

And we get even more dragons!

Economic Cycles

This series of charts in the New York Times was pretty interesting.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Tennis Lesson

Ed and I are currently taking tennis lessons through the City of Lakewood. Our class has been really small - the highest number of people was four, and that was on the first night; since then there have only been three of us.

Last Wednesday, Ed worked late, and I was the only one at class. So I basically got a private lesson for 50 minutes, which was awesome and also exhausting.

The tennis teacher kind of takes an iterative approach to improving us, which I really appreciate. As an example, this is how he improved my serve.

First, he had me do a few serves. Most of them went in, which is generally about the best thing you can say about my serve - it does go in. I stand sideways to the court (like you're supposed to) and start with my racquet over my shoulder and sideways to my back - like I'm scratching my back with it. (This eliminates having to do the back swing - you just come forward with the racket instead.) Then I toss the ball up and hit it (duh).

After he watched me serve 5 or 6 balls, he said, "Now I want you to toss the ball higher." So I tried that, and he kept pushing me on it, for perhaps 10 more serves.

"OK," he said. "Now I want you to follow through with the racquet to under your left arm." He demonstrated, and I tried to replicate the motion a few times without actually serving. Then I served balls that way, at first not getting them in (and thwacking myself once), but then learning to get them in with this new style. I did notice, once they started going in, that they were indeed better serves.

So after maybe 15 of these serves, he said, "All right. Now I want you to lean into the court when you do it."

I added that to my serve, hit about 10 more balls, and we were done with serving. I think my serve got much better over just this ~ 10 minutes (if that) of instruction, and without my having to be overwhelmed by 20 different new ideas all at once.

(In the picture above, you will note that Goofy has mastered a skill I have not - stepping with the correct foot for a volley.)

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Selling a Lifestyle

Brooks Brothers ads (which I see online often) really hit me with their lifestyle-selling - more so than other ads, although I realize many do this. Here is an example I got from the Washington Post website.

You are rich. You don't just live in a house, but rather you have a compound of buildings all in the classical style. Your yard is perfectly manicured, with a pool. Most of your days are spent taking your adorable, tow-headed children with you to pleasant garden parties and other outings. Perhaps croquet or badminton is to be played on the lawn.

One way you can tell the people are upper class (as though there weren't plenty) is that the men are wearing somewhat girlish colors (yellow, baby blue, lavender). This is a kind of upper crust privilege; regular men of the proletariat wear much more macho tones.

The pair on the left are clearly a couple. The woman on the left may be a bit more youthful and free-spirited than the one on the right; we can tell because she has gone out with her head uncovered. Is the woman on the right married to the slightly elderly gentleman? Perhaps she is a youthful grandmother to the two boys. Or perhaps she is the gentleman's daughter, and her husband is out practicing his remunerative but respectable profession.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Should I Be Worried?

This morning, when I woke up, Ed was right outside my bedroom door.

"I was just dreaming about you," I said.

"Me too!" he said.

In my dream, Ed and I were taking some kind of calculus class together. I didn't understand the material presented on the first day - I was missing some background - but I intended to research it once I got home. I knew that Ed would be happy to help me with it, but the thought was intolerable. As I was walking out of class, I was thinking about how he would say, "I can think of nothing I'd rather do than teach you this stuff," and it made me feel deeply annoyed.

In Ed's dream, he was trying to get ready for work, and before he got dressed, a girl from our tennis class came over, and she and I were conspiring to make him late for work. In fact, when he consulted his watch, it was 8:30!

I dream about annoying, unwanted help from Ed. He dreams about being thwarted and having his space invaded.