Sunday, January 31, 2010

Weight Watchers Ice Cream Sandwiches

Lately I have enjoyed many ice cream sandwiches. It started when I picked up a package of Blue Bunny ones with peppermint ice cream - yum! I find it easy to eat just one (vs. having just one serving of ice cream) and they satisfy the craving for something sweet.

Anyway, yesterday at Walmart I picked up some of the Weight Watchers ones. They have ~ 30 less calories than most regular ice cream sandwiches, and I thought it would be nice to give them a try. I've never had a bad ice cream sandwich, so I was sure they would be fine.

But, god, do they ever suck. They're not artificially sweetened or anything, but there is something dramatically wrong with the flavor profile, at least as far as I'm concerned. Once you get past the nice cold sweetness of the initial bite, there is just nothing there to enjoy at all, and they have a "wrong" taste I can't identify - something like the aftertaste of an artificial sweetener, but in a different area of the flavor. Like maybe secretly the wafer part is made of seaweed.

Anyway, I definitely cannot recommend these. Ordinary generic-brand ice cream sandwiches are almost the same calories, much cheaper, and far more delicious. I doubt I will eat the remainder of the box of WW ones.

Saturday, January 30, 2010


My abstract algebra class has a clump of students in it who were also in my linear algebra class, and I've noticed that the dislike I felt towards them in linear algebra has carried right over to the new class. I think I actually hold them in contempt, which is definitely uncharitable of me. But I've been thinking about why this is.

I initially thought it was because I view them as stupid. Viewing people as stupid because they are confused in a class, and then finding them contemptible for it, is definitely not an attractive trait. But I don't think it's actually that, because I certainly don't always dislike (much less feel contempt for) other students who seem to have trouble with the material. A lot of people in my advanced calculus class struggle, some noticeably more than I do, and I respect them.

I think there are two things these algebra kids do that I dislike. First of all, they talk to each other helplessly about their difficulties. In advanced calc, the conversations go something like

A: Man, this series stuff is hard.
B: I know, dude. Did you do the homework?
A: Some of it. Did you get #3?
B: Yeah. I talked to Dr. X about it and he said to use [xyz].
A: Oh, duh. That makes sense. I was totally stuck on that.

By contrast, these algebra kids have conversations more like

A: This class is impossible.
B: I know, right!
A: That homework didn't make any sense at all.
B: Totally. There was nothing like that in the notes.
A: I just don't get this kind of stuff.

The other thing they do that bugs me, and this was greatly on display in our last class together, is blame the professor when they are confused. This was the group of people who always got angry after the exams because they didn't feel like they were adequately warned of what kinds of questions would appear (despite our receiving several practice exams that were similar to the real one each time). They seem to view any expectations they can't meet as unfair and wrong.

Most of the time, it doesn't occur to me to blame a professor when I'm confused. I guess I could, if the material were completely out of line with reasonable expectations (like that one stats class Sally took years ago), but generally, I assume it's my own problem to solve. Since these students don't ever seem to mention anything they've tried (like studying, or working extra problems on their own), one gets the sense that they want absolutely everything spoon-fed to them.

I remember once in linear algebra, one of them asked our prof for a recommendation of some sample problems to try at home. She pointed out the relevant section of the textbook, but that wasn't enough - they really wanted to be told specific problems from the section that they should do. I don't really get that.

It's not that I'm such an awesome student, always studying and doing everything that I should in order to understand the material. I'm decent now, but I have really sucked in the past. But I've always known that my sucking was about me, and not about the unfairness of the universe.

I'm starting to feel that in general, the question, "What have you tried?" (or, to yourself, "What could I try?") should be asked more often. I definitely find it a helpful one when I start to feel helpless.

Monday, January 25, 2010

First Grad School Application Result

Today, I got an email from the Graduate Advisor of one of the math departments I applied to. He has emailed me before to say that my application was complete. Today he emailed me to say that he is requesting my unconditional admittance to the PhD program. He also said that the first round of teaching fellowship offers will go out in early March, and he's not sure how many positions they will have.

Needless to say, I was excited to get the email, which came earlier than I had anticipated anything. Afterwards, I went to the website where I can look at such things, and sure enough, my application status had changed from "Complete" to "Admitted." So I guess it's official that I'm in.

This isn't one of my more highly-rated schools - it's near the bottom of my list in terms of rankings. It is, however, one of the schools I have in common with Ed (assuming he hasn't changed his mind), and it's in a place I wouldn't mind living. So we'll see.

Class Report: Advanced Calc II

I wasn't going to blog about this class, but I actually had a reader request, if you can believe that.

At any rate, we are in a new classroom this semester, but otherwise the course is much the same as Advanced Calc I - same professor, a subset of the students from last semester, and a very similar syllabus. There are two new students, including Ed.

The one thing the prof changed on the syllabus is how he handles late work. Last semester he gave a 5% bonus to homework turned in on time, and hypothetically took 5% off for every day it was late (so you'd get full credit for turning it in one day late). But I don't think he ever actually gave a penalty, and he would accept things up to a week or two late, which resulted, naturally, in some people getting pretty far behind on homework. This semester the on-time bonus is only 2%, and he will not take homework more than 2 days late except by prior arrangement. In practice, I suspect this means he'll take late work anyway (which he seems to suspect as well). I only turned in one assignment late last semester (and it was only one day late, I think), so I don't think this policy change will affect me.

I enjoy the style of this class a lot. It's a straight-up lecture that is very well organized, and the professor has excellent handwriting and a great presentation style. Partly because this course is taken mainly by math majors who are not secondary math ed folks, it seems to be a sharper crowd than I've seen in some of my other courses.

We get weekly homework that consists of six problems to turn in and several more problems that we don't turn in. I did the "several more problems" on the first couple of homeworks last semester, and then stopped doing them. I typically find it hard enough to finish the six mandatory problems every week; the other time I put into the class is more profitably spent reviewing definitions and proofs.

So that's Advanced Calc II.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

New Comments Moderation

I'm tired of seeing spam comments here, so there is now moderation. Comment as usual, please, and I'll be happy to release you from the queue :-)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Class Report: Abstract Algebra

Tonight was the first meeting of my abstract algebra class. So far, I have very good feelings about the class. Some good things:
  1. The professor is very charming. (It may seem trivial but I really do appreciate this.)
  2. She is going to give a quiz every Thursday that is all definitions. I think it's really smart to emphasize definitions in a class like this. If you don't know the real math definition of something you can't do proofs, etc., with it.
  3. Expectations seem high so far. For instance, the material I was afraid would be reviewed in this class (some basic definitions I've had in a lot of math classes) is stuff we are to review on our own and be prepared to take a quiz on on Thursday.
She had us get into teams (not "groups" because that is an abstract algebra term) for about the second half of class and work on a set of exercises she gave us. That felt a little bit awkward for me because I had already seen (in two different past courses) the material in the first half of the exercise. Fortunately, the person in our team who volunteered to write up the answers was also the person with the most trouble, which meant that we took enough time for her to understand what we were doing. (I would rather write up the group answers myself so I can control their quality, but if the person having the most difficulty writes them up, the others are compelled to make sure that person understands the material at least well enough to write correct answers.)

The classroom for this class is sort of awful - comparatively long front-to-back and cramped side-to-side, with those desks I hate. It's also excessively warm and airless. But that's me being finicky about spaces.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Wii Fit Plus

Since Ed and I have a Wii, I finally went ahead and ordered Wii Fit Plus, which is a video game for the Wii that incorporates the use of a balance board (similar to a shallow step you'd use in a step class, except heavier and with electronics inside to report your actions to the game) and is intended as something like a personal trainer. I thought this would be something fun to do at home for fitness. When school is in session I really never make it to the gym at all, and then between semesters it's hard to bother starting.

The game (with balance board) is $99.

When you first register your character, using your little animated Wii representation (called a Mii), it weighs you and tests your balance. (If you're like me, after it weighs you and shows your BMI, a childlike voice says, "That's obese!" Thanks, Wii Fit. I had no idea.)

(This reminds me, actually. Someone was complaining online about the Wii Fit's use of BMI, given its limitations. They specifically mentioned that someone like a trim NFL player could be called obese despite actually just being very muscly. I couldn't help but think this common argument was really silly here - as though professional athletes are really a target audience for the Wii Fit. Hint to athletes: if you are training with the Fit, it's probably time to start asking yourself whether you're really into this whole sports career thing anymore.)

Anyway, once the Fit has finished insulting (or perhaps praising) you for your BMI, it has a variety of training exercises to choose from - perhaps about 100 in all. These fall into four categories: yoga, strength training, balance or rhythm games, and aerobic exercises. Each exercise uses some combination of the balance board and the two remotes that a Wii comes with. For example, the jog uses only the main Wii remote, which you put in your pocket to act as a kind of pedometer while you jog in place on the floor. (You're not supposed to jump on the board, and that probably includes jogging, since you raise both feet at the same time for that.)

I haven't gotten into a lot of the yoga poses, but they seem decent. The strength training exercises cover a nice range of difficulty, from very easy things like a tricep extension holding the remote, to things I can't do like pushups and side planks. So far I love some of the leg exercises (very hard, especially the balance aspect) and the plank (extremely difficult and I shake like crazy, which the onscreen trainer often comments on).

The aerobic/rhythm games are so far some of my favorite. I like the basic and advanced step classes, and I adore the rhythm kung-fu. I went on a jog tonight where I actually jogged in place for far longer than I would have thought possible. Every game or activity gives you a score at the end (which, for the strength and yoga ones, is generally based on your balance and steadiness), and there is a high score list for each one. As you get better at things, more levels are unlocked - for instance, my 30-second plank was steady enough tonight that I unlocked the 60-second version.

Overall, I find it fun and very motivational. A lot of people have complained that you have to keep selecting a new activity a lot (though you can set up a full routine of strength and yoga things to do all at once, or have the game do it for you if you tell it the time you want to spend), but I like that aspect - the fact that I get to continually choose what to do stops me from getting bored or feeling trapped doing something horrible forever.

I've done this for four days in a row now, and every day I am sore in all kinds of places both expected (thighs, shoulders) and not (hips, lower abdomen). I am winded and sweaty a lot as well. So it is fun and a good workout. I can't say for sure that it won't become the video game equivalent of a treadmill used as a clothing rack, but so far, it's working for me.

The Grad School Application Process

Am I an idiot, and/or going to be shot if I admit that I have, overall, found the process of applying to grad schools to be, well, fun?

I'll admit, the beginning was pretty bad. I had to figure out all of the schools to apply to (easier for me than for some since my interests are not narrow and well-defined and I was not aiming for the tippy-top schools), try to get a handle on their requirements, and write the dreaded Statements of Purpose. There was a lot of anxiety and uncertainty around that aspect of it. And then I had to recruit recommenders and get them the information about where to write to and all of that, and fret over whether they would come through. More stress.

But there have been a lot of fun aspects as well. I've applied to eight schools; that is eight new cities to think about living in, eight campuses, eight fantasy school situations. Thinking about being in graduate school is neat.

I did not (successfully) contact any faculty before applying anywhere, but for two of my schools, I've had several interactions with the directors of graduate studies, and their emails have been very individualized and friendly. For some reason, that's been very enjoyable.

I don't know if I'll get in anywhere. Sometimes I think my obvious flakiness (I have a lot of dropped classes on my transcripts, even in recent years, and I'm 35 and just now graduating from college) will make me a non-starter. Other times I think my intelligence, gender, and ability to speak English will at least get me a spot somewhere as cheap TA labor. But I feel an overall warm glow thinking about this whole process and the various small pleasures it has afforded me.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Two Acceptable Approaches

At work, I have noticed two approaches that people use when being shown how to do something new:
  1. They write it down, sometimes in great detail, so that they can refer to their notes in the future, or
  2. They do not write it down, and later they use a combination of memory, trying things, struggling, etc., to perform the action.
Now, either of these approaches is just fine. I tend to use Method 2 unless I'm doing something so complicated that I know I won't remember it, but I know people who almost always use Method 1, and it's a good plan.

What is not acceptable is doing neither. Specifically, it is not OK to ask me to show you how to do the same things over and over again, ten or more times each over a period of several months, while you
  • don't take notes
  • don't remember anything
  • are unwilling to struggle to figure something out on your own
  • refuse to consult outside reference materials, and
  • act helpless
That will really just piss me off, which I will then struggle (and probably fail) to hide in my tone of voice when you call me for the umpteenth time. And if you make more money and have a fancier title than I do while doing (or failing to do, as the case may be) the same kind of work, that goes double.

Conversation with a Baby Engineer

I'm working on a project for a boss, Saul. Saul sent me some forecast curves generated by one of our young, somewhat recent engineering hires, Ricky. (Names changed to protect, well, me.) When I looked at the curves, they were unfortunately printed in such a way that the parameters I needed were not printed on them. Once I realized this, I called Ricky.

Me: Hey, Ricky. Remember these curves you did for Project X?
Ricky: Oh yeah, sure.
Me: Unfortunately I can't get the Qi or the initial decline off them because, when you printed them, the walk point was way down the curve.
Ricky: Oh, that's too bad.
Me: Yeah. So, do you know what those are, or can you open them and look?
Ricky: Shit. I don't know if I saved those, or what project I did them in. Let me look and call you back.
Me: All right.

[Two minutes later]

Ricky: Hey, Tam. Yeah, I don't think I saved those. Do you need me to redo them?
Me: Yes, unless you have some magical engineer way to calculate the decline from the curve - I don't know how, but it seems like maybe you could. I can guess the Qi from the graph, but I don't know how to get the decline.
Ricky: You can do it with graph paper, but it's probably easier to just redo it.
Me: OK.
Ricky: So do you want me to do that?
Me: Whatever's easiest for you.
Ricky: OK, well, let me finish up what I'm doing and I'll do that next thing.
Me: OK.

I'm sorry to admit that my first impulse, before calling Ricky, was just to send an email back to Saul explaining why the document that Ricky sent was not useful. Then it occurred to me to maybe not throw my coworker under the bus. Heh.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Laughing at the Unexpected

On some blog or other, I came across this laughing baby:

In this clip, the baby's (I assume) father hands him a piece of newspaper, which he has started a tear in, and when the baby takes it, it tears into two pieces, causing the baby to crack the hell up. Over and over again. It's really very endearing.

And later I was thinking, why does this make the baby laugh? Is it social laughter because the father is laughing? And I remembered that one reason people laugh, perhaps, is that something unexpected has occurred.

So you're a baby, right? And you've probably just gotten this whole "handing" thing sort of down. People push an object towards you, and you reach for it, and then it's in your hand. Neat! Now the objects handled by babies are usually plastic, or cloth, or some kind of food. Newspaper isn't something a baby generally has much use for.

So here you are, and something is held out towards you, and you take it. And then what happens is that the object makes a noise, and somehow comes apart into pieces, and you and daddy both have one now.


Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Impending Semester

My schedule for next semester (starting Tuesday Jan 19) is as follows:

MW 7:00-8:15PM - Advanced Calc II
TR 5:30-6:45PM - Abstract Algebra I
F 10:00-10:50AM - Math Senior Seminar

It is going to suck a bit having to go to school every day of the week, and that Friday time is a killer as far as work goes. But at least my weeknight classes are 75 minutes instead of 110 like last semester; that should make those a lot easier as far as attendance goes.

I'm really looking forward to the second half of advanced calculus. I enjoyed the first half a lot, both the material and the professor, who is one of the best I've had. I'm looking forward to seeing all of the familiar people from last semester. Also, Ed is taking the class with me this time, so that will be fun too.

Abstract algebra is a great topic - I listed algebra as an interest in most of my grad school statements of purpose - but I'm a bit concerned that I already know so much of it from my other classes (especially Proofs and the geometry class I took a year ago). It's not always fun when a lot of a class is a review. But it should be proofs-intensive, and that is always exciting. I hope there is a lot of homework. (I always feel this way before and after the semester, but never during.) The professor scheduled to teach it has excellent reviews, so I have high hopes for her.

I'm not sure exactly what to expect from the Friday seminar. There are only six students enrolled, which is fun for any class, but especially good for a seminar, assuming the class actually has that type of format. I'm not sure how a seminar works in math, but that's probably just ignorance on my part. The topic is wavelets. We'll see.

Anyway, I'm pretty ready. I just need to clean my room (I try to do this between semesters so it's not chaotic for homework) and clean out my school binder.