Thursday, December 15, 2011

Sucking at Life

Yesterday, I did a load of dishes. And it's important that we're really clear about what happened here, so let me elaborate.

Ed and I collectively have quite a few dishes, and a large number of them were dirty. I was picking up these dirty dishes, one by one, and placing them on the dishwasher racks. Once I was done, I would I put a little square of soap into the dishwasher, close it, move a small lever to lock the door, and slightly rotate a dial. A couple of hours later, there would be clean dishes.

This is not at all difficult or taxing, and yet we are a couple of days behind on dishes. As usual. Whence the following conversation as I was loading:

Me: We suck at life.
Ed: Oh, I know.
Me: How could anyone have this easy of a life...
Ed: And suck at it this much?
Me: Yeah.
Ed: I don't know, but we do.
Ed: We can't solve any real problems, that's why we solve made-up problems.
Me: Right! So that's why we're in math?
Ed: Yep.
Me: So we can be like, "Oh, what if we had this type of thing, and we called it a blah de blah, then what else could we say about it?" and just give ourselves easier problems to work on?
Ed: Yep.
Me: My god, I think you're right.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Once upon a time, Sally and I used to talk about something we called "being demonstrative," by which we meant not excessive displays of affection, but rather statements like, "Oh, isn't Paris lovely this time of year?" or the way that someone we knew once took out chopsticks to eat a burrito, claiming that the year she had just spent in Japan had made it difficult for her to eat with a fork. In other words, we were talking about statements calculated to demonstrate something - a practice akin to name-dropping.

I've recently been thinking about another type of obnoxious behavior. It's one in which many people sometimes engage, and I find myself tempted by it often. It's also something I have learned to recognize as an immediate warning sign about a person's personality. It is an almost universally obnoxious trait: self-description.

Some (hypothetical) examples:
  • I'm not the kind of person who watches TV.
  • I guess I'm just more cynical than that.
  • I'm just a big ole country girl.
  • Most people either love me or hate me.
  • I'm one of those people who can't stand pedantry.
It's interesting - it's hard to write examples of this, because some of it comes down to intent. If your intent is (honestly) humble or self-denigrating ("I'm kind of an asshole before I have my coffee"), then that's not what I'm takling about. Likewise if you're being ironic. But often these types of statements come from a demonstrative type of intent - a strong desire to demonstrate your characteristics to others, especially people you have just met. And in that context it somehow becomes really obnoxious. It is like you have this obsession to present yourself. I guess an obsession with oneself is never attractive in a social context.

A few months ago, a friend and I had a conversation via IM. Afterwards, I thought, jesus, we just had a fight - I hope she didn't notice. I could feel myself being obnoxious during it and I thought she was a little obnoxious too. Later she texted me to apologize for being that way, and I apologized too.

I'm pasting in the transcript of this because the whole thing drips with self-description of exactly the kind I'm talking about...on both sides:

: Hmm. That [story about cheating] does sound bad. I don't know.
It just makes me so upset that cheating is a thing here... cheating wasn't an issue where I went to high school or where I went to college and I hate that it's prevalent in this environment.
me: I know what you mean. I think it's pretty common here.
Friend: I just don't think I'll ever be able to teach somewhere like that ultimately, I think it would bother me too much.
me: I am cynical so it doesn't bother me, I guess. So far anyway.
Friend: I'm cynical about some things, but education isn't one of them, probably because of where I went to school.
me: I don't think that's really why. I mean, I have a lot of similar school experiences to yours.
Friend: maybe i'm just an idealist then
me: I mean, I want cheaters nailed to the wall, but it doesn't bother me that they exist, if that makes sense.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Time Capsule from 2005

In May of 2004, I had some blood tests done by my doctor. My cholesterol was a bit high, so she recommended that I cut back on saturated fat. I ended up making a lot of changes to my diet then - cut saturated fat significantly (I was logging everything back then, so this was easy to say), cut back on fast food, and ate a lot more whole grains and vegetables at home.

I remembered today that I had a c-reactive protein test back then, and I thought I might have emailed Sally about it at the time, so I searched my Gmail for "CRP" and turned up an email I wrote a year later when I had more tests done. I'm interested in CRP because it is a marker of inflammation, which may be one of the causes of leptin resistance, which may be a major cause of obesity.

Anyway, I now present, for your reading pleasure, this email from 2005.

Last May, when I got my high cholesterol numbers (from tests taken
in April), I radically changed my diet. Remember? Sure you do.

I have pretty much kept with those changes, and I have also lost 29
pounds since then.

Well, I just got my blood test results back. Here is a comparison:

total cholesterol: 211 (should be < 200)
hdl ("good"): 43 (should be > 40)
ldl ("bad"): 151 (should be < 130)
triglycerides: 85 (should be < 150)

Now (February)
total cholesterol: 219 (should be < 200)
hdl ("good"): 38 (should be > 40)
ldl ("bad"): 166 (should be < 130)
triglycerides: 112 (should be < 150)

So basically, all of my numbers have gotten WORSE rather than better,
despite my having lost a substantial amount of weight (13% of the
weight I had in April, in fact) and changed my diet in all the
recommended ways (if not to all of the recommended extents).

In addition, this time I had that Cardio CRP test. I got a 10.7.
Here is what the reference numbers are:

< 1.0 Low Risk
1.0 - 3.0 Average Risk
3.1 - 10.0 High Risk
> 10.0 Persistent elevations may represent non-cardiovascular inflammation

Yuck. My doctor wants to have all of this retested in November, and
meantime recommends continued weight loss, exercise, and avoiding
animal fats. (What animal fats? I hardly eat any fucking animal fats
anymore anyway.)

This is kind of freaking me out.
Notice that eating less animal fat, cutting saturated fat from my diet resulted in HIGHER triglycerides (very bad) and slightly worse cholesterol numbers (probably bad), despite the fact that I lost 29 lbs over that time, which would be expected to improve things.

This proves nothing, of course, but unlike most anecdotes, this one at least applies to me specifically.

Friday, October 21, 2011

My Current Beliefs about Diet and Obesity

I thought it would be good to set out my current beliefs about diet, nutrition, the causes of obesity, and so on. They are what guide my (perhaps wacky-seeming) current dietary guidelines. I'd also like to distinguish them from other beliefs with which they might be confused.

Food Reward Hypothesis

I think the food reward hypothesis is the best-supported current idea about why so many of us are overweight and obese these days. The basic idea of this is that we now have the ability to make (in many cases manufacture) foods that are both hyper-palatable (really delicious) and high reward (very tempting/craveable/"addictive" in a loose sense), and that eating such foods causes our bodies to try to keep us at a higher weight than is healthy.

This shouldn't be confused with the "thrifty gene hypothesis," which is the common-sense idea that we evolved to live under the threat of starvation and are going nuts now that food is so plentiful. According to the food reward hypothesis, if our food were still the sort of plain, comparatively unvaried food eaten by our ancestors, abundance itself wouldn't cause overeating.

Stephan Guyenet has a great series on the food reward hypothesis here: Part I, Part II. He talks about the thrifty gene hypothesis as well.

(Note: I will be linking Guyenet a lot in this post. He is not my only source of information here, but he has informed a lot of my thinking, and seems to have done his homework. In many cases he's the best concise link I can give.)

Conclusion: I should eat simple foods prepared at home.

The Role of Carbs

Books like Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes make convincing arguments that overconsumption of carbohydrates, particularly sugar and refined flour, are responsible for the obesity epidemic. Certainly, obesity travels together with insulin resistance (a problem that is all about carbs, and is the fundamental cause of Type II diabetes), and insulin resistance is a big part of what causes heart disease in general.

Guyenet, the same guy as above, has a long critical post about the idea that carbs (or insulin resistance) cause obesity. He doesn't buy it at all.

I honestly don't know what to think about this topic. But what everyone (at least, everyone I'm currently reading) seems to agree on is that if you are insulin resistant, eating a ton of carbs is a bad idea. This is contrary to the official recommendations for diabetes patients (which stress a high-carb, low-fat diet), but I've read enough to convince me that that is bunk; I'll write more below about why.

I've been testing my blood sugar lately, and my fasting morning glucose levels are slightly elevated - not in the diabetic range, not quite in the "pre-diabetic" range, but not where they should be or where they have been in the past either. I have a strong family history of diabetes and I have other signs (like PCOS) of having trouble with insulin resistance.

Insulin resistance definitely leads to heart problems and a lot of other issues. Exercise and reduced carb intake definitely combat insulin resistance.

Conclusion: I should take care not to eat too many carbs.

Dietary Fat

The dominant hypothesis of the last half-century or so of medical advice has been that overconsumption of fat is what causes obesity and (separately) heart disease. This is why diabetics and overweight people (and, really, everyone) is encouraged to eat a low-fat diet.

It is a fact that you cannot eat a low-fat diet without eating a high-carb diet. Humans can't eat the bulk of their calories as protein (you will get sick if you try, but you'll also find it very hard to try, because you will start very very badly not wanting to eat any more lean meat).

The evidence that high fat intake causes obesity is based partly on common sense (fat has more calories per gram than carbs or protein) and partly on the observation that Americans got fatter and started (perhaps) having more heart trouble around the early part of the 20th century, when (it is believed) we may have started eating more fat.

We also started eating way more sugar and refined flour and packaged products and that sort of thing at the same time, so it's very hard to tease out the effects of fat vs. carbs vs. high-reward foods (vs. unknown other factors, of course). There seems to be very little evidence that eating a high fat diet causes weight gain. Many traditional cultures (Inuit, Masai) eat very high fat diets and are very lean (despite not facing any regular food shortages).

Conclusion: It's OK to eat a high-fat diet.

What about Saturated Fat?

As someone who has lived in our culture, it is very difficult not to believe that saturated fats, especially from meat and animal products, are dangerous. I feel as though I know in my very bones that these types of fats are unhealthy and cause heart disease. This is one of the very strongest messages about food from the medical establishment.

From what I can tell from my reading, it's just not true, or at least, many very large, long-lasting studies designed specifically to support this hypothesis have completely failed to. Now, my reading isn't (can't be) exhaustive and it's possible my sources are looking at the data in a really biased way, but it doesn't seem so to me.

Here's Guyenet on saturated fat and cholesterol, the diet heart hypothesis, coronary heart disease, and on findings about full-fat dairy. I also found Good Calories, Bad Calories pretty convincing on these topics. And, of course, when you look at recent studies comparing low-carb to low-fat plans for weight loss, everyone gets healthier on both sides.

An additional bit of common-sense thinking: for a very long time before agriculture, our human ancestors got most of their fat from animals. Either they ate a very high-carb diet (and probably some did), or they ate a lot of animal fats (definitely some did). It's likely we evolved to be able to handle eating these fats.

Conclusion: It is truly safe and healthy to eat saturated fats, including from animals.

Pre-Western Cultures

The fundamental idea of the paleo and primal advocates is that we should eat the way that our hunter-gatherer ancestors did, rather than the way that our immediate agricultural ancestors did. In other words, rather than relying heavily on grains, legumes, and dairy for our food, we should eat more meat, vegetables, perhaps occasional tubers, berries, nuts, and things like that. We certainly spent a lot more time evolving to eat a hunter-gatherer diet than we have spent evolving to eat grains.

The only populations on the planet today who don't suffer from a lot of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer, and other "diseases of civilization" (periodontal disease, appendicitis, gall bladder disease, etc.) are the ones people used to call uncivilized - small pockets of people living a traditional culture. It is true that they largely lack these health problems even when you adjust for age.

These groups are very different from each other. The Masai have a diet made up almost exclusively of milk, cow blood, and meat. Traditional-living Inuit have a diet that is something like 90% animal fat. On the other side, there are traditional cultures who live very healthy long lives (when they don't die in infancy) on diets composed almost exclusively of yams or sweet potatoes, and others who eat more balanced diets. But in general, my point is that there are very healthy cultures living on high-fat and on high-carb diets. It appears that healthy diets can have a wide range of macronutrient ratios.

What these cultures have in common is that they eat very little refined sugar, very little refined grains, and they don't eat "food that comes in boxes" - highly processed food manufactured to be as delicious and tempting as possible. They eat diets of mostly plain foods, with not a lot of variety by our standards.

It's hard to tease out what aspects of the western diet and/or lifestyle cause all of our problems. Is it the sugar? (There is some evidence that high-fructose foods like table sugar and corn syrup may have especially bad effects.) The comparatively recent introduction of grains to our diets? The refining of those grains and sugars? The even more recently introduced cottonseed, canola, corn, etc. oils (polyunsaturated fats)? Or the excessive variety and deliciousness of the manufactured food products that surround us?

At any rate, if the problem is dietary (as seems likely), then, while we can't say exactly what the problem is, we do know that simple diets of plain, pre-agricultural foods are healthy. (Of course, no food that I eat is actually pre-agricultural. I don't hunt or gather anything myself. But I think we can all agree that grass-fed beef or an apple is more "paleo" than a Big Mac.)

Conclusion: It may help to avoid modern agricultural products like sugar, refined grains (or any grains in large quantities), and seed oils.


Exercise decreases insulin resistance and has many other beneficial effects, but I seem currently incapable of incorporating much into my life. If I explained why, I would just be making excuses, so I'll just say it's not a big focus for me right now.

Based on what I've read lately, I do think that high-intensity interval training is way more effective than regular steady moderate-intensity cardio. If I were designing an ideal exercise program, I think I'd go with something like Mark Sisson's recommendations in The Primal Blueprint, which means a good base of low-intensity exercise (walking, slow swimming, jogging if you're much more fit than I am), small amounts of interval training (two or three times a week for 5 or 10 minutes), and regular natural, whole-body strength training (two or three times a week for 30 minutes or so).

Conclusion: I should exercise, but I don't.

I hope this helps to make sense of why I'm doing what I'm doing, or was at least interesting on its own.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Current Diet Protocols

These are the dietary rules under which I currently (try to) live.

Don't Eat
Seed oils (corn, cottonseed, soybean, canola, etc.)
Restaurant meals & fast food

Eat freely
Meat (any non-processed kind)
Non-starchy vegetables
Non-starchy fruits (berries, apples, etc.)
Full-fat solid dairy products (cheese, butter, yogurt, etc.)
Coconut oil, olive oil, animal fats

Eat in moderation
Very dark chocolate
Starchy vegetables (potatoes, etc.)
Starchy fruits (bananas, etc.)
Whole milk

I am OK with eating some of the "don't eat" items a couple of times a week in order to eat at restaurants with friends. Other than that, I am trying to make my food at home and keep it relatively simple.

Sunday, October 09, 2011


This morning I hit a new low weight. Overall I've lost 22 pounds since early May, which is pretty awesome. And today is my 7th day of largely eschewing grains and legumes and of keeping my carbohydrate intake between 50 and 100 grams per day.

So what am I eating?

Yesterday I had a fajita chicken salad (w/ cheese, sour cream, and guac) for breakfast, eggs with turnip greens and cheese for lunch, and chicken tikka masala at a restaurant for dinner. I was trepidatious about eating chicken tikka masala without rice or naan. Frankly, it seems a little insane. But I managed it and it was still extremely delicious (though I did crave the naan and rice that were on the table, so that was a little uncomfortable).

Today I got up early, worked for three hours, and then made myself a breakfast of scrambled eggs mixed with tri-color peppers (from frozen), a big chicken sausage link (cut up), and cheese. I cooked this in ghee (clarified butter) and it was extremely delicious.

It's no longer the case that I don't get hungry. I do get hungry. But the hunger is like the hunger of my childhood - it doesn't really interfere with activities. You think "Where's dinner?" but then you can happily go run around some more in the meantime. It's not urgent. (More precisely, it feels urgent, but only intermittently.) I really like this change.

There has been one more change. Before I started losing weight in May, I was taking 150mg of ranitidine for heartburn twice a day - so, 300mg per day total. Eating smaller meals to reduce calories let me drop that to 1 pill per day, so in half. Then I bought some smaller ranitidine pills (75mg each) and was taking two of those a day. Now I am taking at most one of those per day, and some days I don't need any at all. I would love (so much) to stop using heartburn medication, and it seems within reach. Yesterday I didn't take any, not even a single Tums, which is amazing considering all of the spicy, fatty things I ate, which are usually exactly the things to cause heartburn.

Other than the changes to hunger and acid reflux, and the accelerated weight loss, I haven't noticed any changes. I feel good, happy, etc. Most of my meals are very satisfying due to the high fat content. It is sometimes tricky to figure out what to eat, but I've always tended to obsess over what I was eating next anyway, so this has just channeled that into a different direction.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011


Last week's no-wheat experiment went pretty well. It wasn't too hard not to eat wheat (I ended up eating a fair bit of corn tortillas and tortilla chips) and it seemed to cut my hunger a bit. I lost a pound a day for about 4 days in a row and then gained one or two back after that, so that was kind of exciting.

This week I've been reading The Primal Blueprint, and I'm experimenting with completely not eating grains or legumes and keeping my carbohydrate amount between 50 and 100 grams a day, which is the level at which the author of that book claims effortless weight loss will occur.

I'm still eating dark chocolate, having coffee if I want to, and I'm not avoiding things like soybean oil, largely because it's much easier for me to have salad at the school cafeteria if I can have ranch dressing rather than the nutritionally superior olive oil and vinegar type of thing. So I'm still basically eating sugar (which is a grain) and some legumes. Other than that, I haven't (to my knowledge) had anything - no wheat, no rice, no oats, no beans, etc.

It's a sort of radical thing to do, obviously. But it wasn't a huge transition since I'd already been eating no wheat and keeping my carbs low for a week. I haven't noticed any untoward effects this week, while last week I did have some serious crankiness and headaches.

What I have noticed is that I have absolutely no perceptible blood sugar changes. I sort of still get hungry - at least, there is a kind of feeling that grows over time that tells me I should eat something. It's kind of a gaunt or empty feeling. But it no longer seems to carry with it much urgency. (For instance, I had no breakfast today, a small lunch at 10:15, and I was fine not having dinner until 6:30.) And I never have blood sugar crashes, which I frequently did before. That's kind of a big deal.

My weight has been dropping pretty seriously - like about 2.5 pounds since Monday. I'm not recording these new weights yet, since they may settle back down. I'm still tracking everything I eat, and I'm pretty easily creating calorie deficits of 700-900 calories a day basically without trying. (I'm not really trying to limit my food intake.) So that's kind of amazing.

It could be that some of the "this is so easy!" aspects of doing this are basically just me being excited about doing something new. I could get really tired of this and find it just as hard as anything else. It's certainly extreme to not be able to eat virtually anything that normal people eat (sandwiches, pizza, tacos, muffins, fried rice,...). But I'm finding I can eat something at most places I ever go, and that's working for me just fine for now.

If this does prove to be a way to maintain a much lower weight without the extreme effort of resisting eating all the time, I think I would have to choose many extra years of healthy life over the ability to eat these common and delicious foods. So basically if this keeps up, I'd like to keep doing it. We'll see, of course, whether I feel that way in a week or a month or whatever.

It's probable that the weight loss comes more from the effects of low-carb than from avoiding grains and legumes per se. When you don't eat carbs you don't set up part of the insulin cycle that makes you hungry again a few hours later, which is a particular issue for people who are blood-sugar-challenged, like me.

But the advantage of eschewing grains and legumes while doing low-carb is that you don't end up prioritizing a muffin over the day's vegetables. I'm eating tons of vegetables most days, and some fruit as well, plus dark chocolate, plain yogurt, nuts, and other carb-bearing foods. If I were just trying to keep carbs down I think I'd trade some of that for, say, white rice, and that would be less healthy, in general.

Anyway, I'm kind of excited, and I hope this keeps up.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Wheat Experiment

Starting yesterday between breakfast and lunch, I am experimenting with not eating wheat for the next week. I'm also trying to go (moderately) low carb in general, but I'm much more dedicated to the no-wheat aspect than to the low-carb one.

I read the book "Wheat Belly" by William Davis. Davis argues that grains in general are not great for us, and that wheat is the worst. He thinks that genetic changes to wheat over the past 50 years (through modern but not genetic-engineering-based methods) have made it particularly dangerous to humans and responsible for a host of different medical problems. Celiac disease is an obvious thing that is indeed (indisputably as far as I know) due to wheat; the rest is more speculative, I think.

He has a lot of references in the book, which is good, but the way he argues leaves holes you could drive a truck through. It's not the worst pseudoscientific bullshit I've ever read - even the term "pseudoscientific bullshit" might be an exaggeration - but it's not fully convincing either.

Still, it's hard for me to resist the pull of sense-making conspiracy theories about food. I do think that the overconsumptions of carbs, especially from grains, is a big part of the obesity problem for some people (including me), and not just because it's easy to eat a lot of carbs. I think they actually encourage overeating beyond just being tasty, readily available, and cheap, by changing your body chemistry such that you have more blood sugar fluctuations (which cause eating) and possibly by encouraging your body to store fat (through insulin-related stuff).

With my family history of diabetes and my PCOS, it seems pretty clear that I will (do) struggle with insulin resistance. My odds of avoiding diabetes feel pretty low at times (assuming I'm not already diabetic, which I haven't been so far when tested, but which of course could happen anytime).

I think that if I can eat less carbs over my lifetime, I'll be doing myself a huge favor. Aside from non-starchy vegetables and a moderate intake of fruit, I don't think there's any biological reason that humans need to eat carbohydrates at all. I think grains are completely unnecessary to a human diet. (They're practically necessary as there is no other way to feed the number of humans on this planet, but that's a different issue.)

So, Dr. Davis claims that when his patients stop eating wheat (without making any other changes, but in the context of generally trying to have a healthy lifestyle), they magically lose tons of weight and all of their mysterious ailments (IBS, chronic fatigue, acne, arthritis, asthma, acid reflux, etc.) miraculously disappear. This is pretty clearly not a clinical finding that would hold up.

Nevertheless, if giving up wheat did make it a lot easier for me to lose weight, I feel like it would be worth it, and if I gained more energy or a better overall life feeling in the process, that would be even more awesome. It seems worth a try given that I think it's basically a healthy choice anyway.

Hence my exploratory week of non-wheat-eating.

So far I've been having meats, salads, vegetables, eggs, and today I had about 1/2 cup of a straight-up starch (rice or potatoes) at my meals. I also ate some extremely dark chocolate today, plus raw walnuts and almonds. It seemed like a very healthy day of eating overall.

I've also been feeling like shit, which was true other times that I tried to dramatically cut carbs as well. (Carbs made up 25% of my diet today, so I haven't cut them to a really extreme extent. It's usually more like 50%, though.) I've often felt a bit hungry yet nauseated at the thought of eating, and I've been a little headachy and extremely irritable. I think these aren't just nocebo effects, but of course they could be, and I have no way of distinguishing them. I expect them to get worse but I hope they subside before the week is up (and before I give in and eat 15 pieces of naan) so I can see what life is like afterwards.

Friday, September 16, 2011


I've had a few strange ones lately.

Dream 1

Apparently in this dream, Sammy (my cat) was my romantic partner. In the manner of all dreams, this was not strange. He was standing on an ironing board talking to me about how dissatisfied he was recently, and how sad, because I was not spending enough time with him, or giving him enough attention. I felt very sad too. I was petting him while he spoke, though it occurred to me that this was disrespectful because I knew he didn't want to be petted - he was unhappy with me. But of course I always pet him when he is nearby because I like to.

Then I (very insensitively) asked him how he'd feel about us getting a new kitten, because I thought that would be fun. I knew it was insensitive when I asked it. It also felt a bit novel to me - just asking the current cat whether to get a new kitten or not. I wondered why I hadn't thought to ask in the past.

Dream 2

This dream took place in an enormous old house that apparently all of the grad students in my program used for parties. Our director of grad students was there. Sally was also visiting. There were a ton of rooms, all with different things going on. The decor sort of looked like the Old Spaghetti Factory, if you've ever been to one of those (or in other words like an old or possibly haunted house).

For a long time I was trying to track Sally down, but couldn't because she was planning some sort of big surprise or show or experience for the rest of us. In the meantime, I talked to the DGS. He was funny as always. I asked him whether this house had always been owned by the department, or was loaned to us by some kind of alumn, or how it had come to be used for parties this way? (In the dream, I don't think anyone lived in the house full time.) He told me that, no, actually, it belonged to [something like] an aunt or uncle of Lee Ann (who has only been in our program a short time). I was telling him how I could now understand the appeal of being in a fraternity or sorority, just so you'd have that big house for parties.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Midnight Conundrum

Here you are, it's midnight on a Saturday night. You feel tired, you could definitely go to sleep, but you also feel able to continue working. You have two big assignments due on Tuesday and have put a few hours into one of them already today, and you're primed to continue. But if you stay up late doing this, you'll sleep late tomorrow, and then getting up Monday will be even harder than usual.

Go to bed or keep working?

For me, the answer usually has to be "keep working." This is because I really cannot (or, at any rate, do not, ever) get up in the morning and get right to work. So if I go to bed, I may never recover the momentum that I feel right now, or at best I may recover it hours after getting up on Sunday. For the most part, I get stronger and find it easier to work more and more as the day goes on, at least when I'm vaguely able to structure my time that way.

I made the choice to continue working and I got some really excellent work done despite also feeling tired. Now it's 3:15 and I'm really quite tired and ready for bed, but I have big tasks completed. I also happened to stop at a "downhill" point, which is good. (By "downhill" I mean a point from which it is easy to continue. It's like riding on hills with your bike - if you need to stop, it's better to stop on a downward slant so that you can easily start up again.)

Basically when I feel "tempted" to work I have to make use of that temptation unless there are truly compelling reasons not to. As long as I get overall something like enough sleep, getting my work done is more important than sleeping at any particular time.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Grad School vs. Working

Back when I was thinking about going to grad school, I had one hope that I was almost afraid to confess. I hoped, despite how hard grad school was reputed to be, and how many hours it was said that I would have to work (i.e., way more than 40 per week), that it would take me away from the horrible feeling associated with having a regular job.

I don't know exactly how to describe the feeling, and I feel like a spoiled brat or a wimp for even having it, but I'm basically talking about that kind of bored feeling of waiting for the day to be over, killing time, trying to think of a good reason to leave work early, etc. I mean the basic feeling of just not wanting to be at work.

It turns out to be true that grad school, for me, totally does not have this feeling. I had it over the summer when I worked in the math lab (a worse job than any I've had in many years, though still not bad in the overall scheme of possible jobs), but I don't have it during the regular semesters at all.

It's interesting. I spend more hours at school now than I ever have at a job, and (more or less completely independently) more hours working than when I had a job. But I simply do not have that feeling of being required to be in a place for 8-9 hours every day. Aside from my office hours (4 per week), I am always either doing a specific thing (teaching or attending class or a seminar) or I am free to go if I want to. Everything now is about accomplishing specific tasks on time rather than spending a particular amount of time appearing to work.

Consequently, my office, and the building where I work, doesn't feel like a workplace to me. It feels a lot like my dorm felt when I was originally in undergrad, actually - like a cool place to hang out, the place where I do most of my work, and the place where, at all hours of the day and night, some of my friends and acquaintances are around.

I was able to confirm this when I was working in the math lab. I left there one day during my shift to go to the restroom, and when I walked out into the hall, past the offices of my friends, I had a feeling like, "Oh, I am trapped in the math lab, and all these people out here get to have their regular lives."

That dreadful feeling of being trapped at work was a really large feature of my previous life, and it's pretty fantastic for me that I don't have it anymore. It's like, as I wrote once before, my work life and life life have all become the same thing. Some people hate that aspect of grad school but I think, for the most part, I really like it.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Difference a Year Makes

Last week, I started my second year of graduate school. It feels so very different from my first year - really almost astonishingly so.

I spent the entire summer studying for my qualifying exam in real analysis. I wrote over 300 pages of notes, by hand, working through proofs and ideas, some over and over again. I worked about 2-4 hours pretty much every single weekday, and many weekend days, for all but about 2 weeks of the summer. (I also tutored students in the math lab.)

Even though that may not seem like a huge amount of time to spend (because it wasn't), it was huge for me. I've historically been terrible at making myself work to a far-off deadline, and this work was both hard and sort of ambiguous. How much would be enough? Was it even possible for me to pass (like, ever)? Had others passed these exams in the past only because they were smarter than I am, or had better memories? I struggled with these thoughts a lot, but I kept working.

The qual was an 8-hour exam. It took me 6 hours and 40 minutes, which is somewhere in the typical range. And I passed. I passed it. Amazing.

Now that I've passed it, the material doesn't actually seem like it was that big of a deal. Now that I know the proofs, they don't seem to have all that much to them. Ha.

I also, of course, made it through my first year of classes last year. I struggled with the material a lot at times, but I did well in terms of grades. I didn't seriously screw anything up. I was never one of the worst students. Occasionally I was mildly praised.

Last year, when I started grad school, I was extremely enthusiastic, and then when it got hard, I was really scared a lot. Especially that first semester I had really dramatic mood swings. I sometimes fantasized about leaving, going back to my old job, resuming a better life with more money and things and free time and less failure and stress.

This year, honestly, I wasn't that enthusiastic at the start of school. When I went to the mandatory all-TA/TF meeting, I remembered how exciting it had been the previous year, but I was pretty meh about it. I was mildly interested in meeting the new first-years, but that was about it. I was still recovering from the qual.

But...I'm not scared anymore, either. I still don't know if I can actually do research, but I now know I can pass classes and quals. (I need to pass one more qual, and I have four tries.) I now know I am not borderline for the program, barely clinging to life.

Last year, I remember the first homework that I got with a problem I couldn't easily figure out. It really freaked me out. I'm pretty sure I cried. I calculated what percentage of my grade this one problem would be and thought about the fact that I was already losing that much so early in the term. I wondered whether I belonged here. I did eventually solve the problem, but man, the stress.

Last week, my topology homework had a problem I couldn't figure out. I worked on it on a few different days, but never with any real feeling of stress. I figured out all of the other problems. This one remaining one wasn't a big deal. Turning it in unfinished would not harm my grade or standing or anything like that. I wanted to get it but there was no fear there. It certainly did not drive me to tears.

And that, my friends, is the difference that a year makes.

Hated Professors

Back in 2007, I took "Introduction to Proofs," the class at my alma mater that was designed to transition you from the computational type of math with which most people are familiar to proofs-based theoretical math. It is kind of a grab-bag course at that school, dabbling in proposition logic, (abstract) algebra, analysis, discrete math, etc.

I hated my professor, Dr. J.

Hated him.

He would talk to the class in this sort of angry way all the time. He barely graded our homework. One time he gave us a quiz and then, when he returned it, and someone asked him how to do one of the problems, he couldn't do it on the board. One time he mistakenly declared that "Fish only bite when the moon is full" would translate to "The moon is full implies that the fish are biting" instead of the converse.

Ugh. I hated that guy. He was ugly too.

I did hear from someone else that their proofs class had covered way fewer chapters than ours. So we covered a lot of material, and at the end had to write a paper (ugh!). I wrote about taxicab geometry, which was very interesting for me when I did it. (The taxicab metric has appeared in so many courses since then it's not even funny - including this year in topology.)

Over the years, my hatred of Dr. J faded. I'd see him in the halls or elevator and he was always friendly to me. I guess he remembered me, probably as a good student. He was happy that I was going to grad school. For all I know he was a nice guy after all.

And in the meantime, time after time, these weird "obscure" (to me at that time) topics that we covered in that class came up. When I took my second non-Euclidean geometry course in undergrad, the abstract algebra we'd done in Proofs was really useful. Having covered (very well) the definitions of sets, relations, functions, etc., made them so much easier to understand in future classes. Cardinal numbers didn't show up again until my second semester of grad school, so it's great that I learned about them in there. The Peano axioms showed up in the first semester of grad school and nowhere inbetween.

Did I mention I really did not know the first thing about writing math (as opposed to logic) proofs when I started that class, but totally learned how?

Man, that class was awesome. It was easily one of the most useful classes I ever took. From an outcomes perspective, Dr. J was brilliant. I bet he was one of the best Proofs professors at my school. I bet he still is.

All of this is to say that my feelings about a professor can have very little relationship to how much I am learning or how useful the course is. This is not the only example of me hating someone and then thinking later that they were pretty great, or that I learned a ton. What it tells me is that I should put a lot less stock in my own feelings in situations like this.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Qual Cloud

I took my real analysis qual yesterday, which I hope to write more about later. This morning I wrote Sally another long email about it. Reading it over after I sent it, the language itself seemed obsessive. Perhaps this tag cloud will give you some sense.

(P.S. Try saying "qual cloud" five times fast.)

Thursday, August 04, 2011

That Which Doesn't Kill You

In mathematics, a statement and its contrapositive are equivalent. So, for example,

If I bake bread, then the house smells nice.

is equivalent to

If the house doesn't smell nice, then I didn't bake bread.

The contrapositive of the saying from the title of this post is, "That which doesn't make you stronger kills you." When this first occurred to me, I saw it as a funny way to disprove that that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

But there is a way in which it's actually true, and almost more motivational than the original. Think about it. What doesn't make you stronger? TV? Donuts? It could be argued that those things do kill you.

If you radically limited your intake and activities to things that at least arguably make you stronger (taking a broad view of "stronger"), you'd probably be pretty bad-ass.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Tricking My Brain

Disclaimer/spoiler alert: The following insights are brought to you by the miracle of introspection, and should not be confused with factual statements about the human brain.

Sitting down to do work for a few hours at a time is very hard for me. Hell, sometimes even sitting for half an hour to do math (which I like better than most kinds of work) is hard for me. I sometimes think that I have ADD, though I can certainly read a novel for hours.

It feels like there is a part of my brain that is fundamentally discontent to sit and work. It feels like a relatively animal part of my brain - not a conscious, smart part. And it is somewhat easily tricked.

I usually listen to music while I work. I can work to a variety of music, but I find that dance music (the kind you'd hear in a club - any kind of dance club) is one of the most effective kinds. It seems to trick my brain into thinking I am having fun and moving around rather than sitting and working. It's like a part of my mind is actually moving and doing something with a rhythm, and gets soothed/tricked into letting me get some work done.

Today, Pandora on my phone was acting up and sounding shitty as it sometimes does, so I switched to Simply Noise, which I haven't tried to work to before. I have an app for it on my phone.

Of the different noises, I like the brown noise the best, and I like to make it oscillate. It sounds like ocean waves to me.Very soothing.

After listening to this for a while and working, I realized it was extremely soothing indeed. It feels very much like it makes that part of my brain think I am actually asleep. That part doesn't seem to mind sleeping - in fact, it's pretty much content to let me sleep forever. It was really an amazing feeling. I think I may try this more often in the future.

"How Can We Memorize All That??"

Memory is a funny thing.

I've spent vast hours this summer (enough time to have produced 174 handwritten pages of work and notes) studying for my real analysis qualifying exam, which I'll take three weeks from tomorrow. I have to take and pass two of these exams to be a PhD candidate. Of all of the exams available (real analysis, complex analysis, algebra, topology, and prob/stats), the word on the street is that the real analysis is the easiest (ha!) and the most memorization-heavy. Many of the other exams rely more on fundamental concepts that you have to cleverly apply to solve the problems (or so I'm led to believe).

I have a stack of the old exams going back to the 1980's. There are a lot of repeat questions, so I've been studying from the list I put together, which has the most often repeated questions of about the past ten years on top, followed by others that have appeared. These are hard questions. Many of the proofs take me 2 to 3 pages to write out, and I'll have to do 8 of them in 8 hours.

Studying for the exam has been difficult but also one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. I mean that very sincerely. It's been amazing.

One of the amazing aspects, and this always amazes me, is that you can actually learn and remember things. I'm sure if you've taken classes this has happened to you - you had to apparently memorize some amount of material, and it seemed impossible. For instance, if you take calculus, you have to know all of these different derivatives (polynomials, trig functions, natural log, inverse trig functions, etc.) plus things like trig identities, if you didn't already memorize them in a previous class. It seems (to many people, at least) crazy, like a totally unrealistic expectation.

And yet I myself know large chunks of those things, and it doesn't even feel like something I have memorized so much as something that I just know. So I know that it's completely possible to learn that information and internalize it usefully.

The amount of stuff I have to memorize for this qual seems outrageous, but there are a lot of things that, during this past school year when I took the class this qual is based on, I knew I would never be able to remember, but that I now simply know - for instance, Hölder's inequality. When I first saw it, it was totally random garbage. Now, it's something that I know, and that I know some contexts in which it can be used, and so it is just part of my mind.

If you think about all of the things you know, it's actually an amazingly gigantic amount of crap. (Do you know drink recipes? Mathematical formulae? State capitols? Song lyrics? Phone numbers? Email and web addressses? Passwords for various web sites? Avogadro's number? The chemical formula for salt? The plot of "Anna Karenina"? The name of that one British actor who was in that recent "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" movie? The details of your sister's divorce? It just goes on and on.) Even though new things sometimes seem random at first, and thus difficult to memorize, it actually seems virtually limitless, our ability to remember things.

The only thing more amazing than how much crap I can actually learn and remember is how easily I forget this, and thus how much despair I feel when faced with new piles of crap to know.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Surely You Jest: Universe Edition

So, 10 or 20 billion years ago, mass, energy, time, and everything we know about emerged in the Big Bang. What was before or outside of that? The question is meaningless because time was part of what was created, and so was space - there is no "before" or "outside" as far as we are concerned.

Stuff expanded, and after a while, through processes that are not too mysterious, our sun and planet came onto the scene. At some point(s), matter on our planet, which of course was busy colliding and interacting and doing all of the things matter does when you shine the sun at it, happened to fall into a shape that was self-replicating. Naturally, once you start self-replicating, it's hard to stop, and stuff that is better at self-replicating will manage to incorporate more matter into itself than stuff that is less good at it.

Over time, these self-replicating bits got better and better at it through the addition of defensive barriers, the incorporation of other, smaller self-replicating bits, and so on, and after a very long while indeed, many of them were conglomerating together to build absolutely enormous machines to carry them around and help them replicate. (No, no, I don't mean hippie vans. That came later still.)

Some of those replicating machines are us, humans. And because I am one of the humans I can testify that, somewhere along the line, some of the matter started to have subjective experiences. Now, if you think about it, that is just fucking weird. It's hard to even think how to describe subjective experience. If some cosmic overlord machine came along and demanded to know what the hell you were talking about, you'd have trouble being convincing. You start with, "You know how you, like, feel stuff inside? Like you can really tell you're there and stuff? Yeah, me too." If the machine didn't have that experience it wouldn't get it.

So, here I am, a gene vehicle, on this little piece of space dust. In 100 years, I'll be at best an old photo in someone's family photo album. In 1000 years, nobody will remember a damn thing about me. In 100,000,000 years it's extremely unlikely anyone will remember my species. And sometime after that, there won't be any life on this planet, and sometime after that, there won't be any planet earth, and not only will nobody remember us (not even our best art and most fantastic thoughts and culture), nobody will even know that we were forgotten. And eventually, one way or another, the universe will devolve or crunch up to the point that there will not even be anyone of any kind left to know or not know anything whatsoever.

There could be other parallel universes, whatever that means.

These questions and the answers given by science don't really make sense to me. But then, why would they? My brain is evolved for life on this planet. There's no reason I would have the mechanisms needed to understand the nature of reality itself. Nevertheless, I do find the whole thing implausible.

One could embrace a religious view instead. The ones I'm most familiar with replace the grand mysteries of the material universe with a single mystery - some god or gods. We have no evidence for these deities, but a big controller entity is in some sense more workable for my socially evolved brain than a bunch of causeless, purposeless, endless, meaningless universe. I can grapple with an entity. I am one myself. I get that.

It'd be really nice to wake up from this weird-ass life at some point and get some answers. I guess if that's what happens at death, I'll find that out at some point. If, as I suspect, nothing happens at death, then I just won't ever know it (or anything else, ever again).

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Stand By Me

There is a movie theater here in town where they have a "retro movie" (projected from a blu-ray or dvd) every Saturday night at midnight. It's a tradition that a bunch of us go see this movie every week for $5. (Nobody goes every single week, I guess, but we all go as we see fit.)

Last night's offering was "Stand By Me." I thought I had never seen it before, though I remember when it came out, which I think was middle school for me. I remember the song being really big on the radio around then, I think. There was also a scene in the movie that was completely familiar - the one with the leeches. Maybe I saw part of the movie on TV one time or something.

I was very surprised to see a pre-pubescent Wil Wheaton as the main character. He was pretty good.

There was also this blond boy in the movie, who was the best friend. Even though he was pretty rough-looking in the movie, he was so beautiful that I couldn't keep my eyes off him whenever he was on screen. I was really eager to see the credits to find out his name, whether he acted when he grew up, whether he was as attractive as an adult, etc.

Then the credits: River Phoenix.


See, when I was but a young lass, a freshman in high school, so about 14 years old, my best friend Susan had a poster of River Phoenix on one wall of her bedroom, and one of Johnny Depp on the other. I remember sleeping over at her house, lying on sleeping bags on the floor, and talking about fine they were, and which one we liked better. We both liked River Phoenix better. He was pretty much the finest guy I could imagine. (Ultimately, I said she could have River Phoenix and I would take Johnny Depp, since they were her posters, after all.)

Sally and I were talking lately about the fact that I don't really have an anti-type (vs. Sally, who for instance doesn't like men who look have that Jesus look with long hair and sandals), and Drew has been wondering what my type is, which I agree is hard to pin down. But I'll tell you that when I was in high school, River Phoenix was my type. (When Cary Elwes came along, he was right up there as well. Dreamy.)

River Phoenix died the year after I graduated from high school. I wonder if he would have stayed crazy hot or gone more of a Leonardo DiCaprio route. This picture is chosen to best reflect what I think I would have found hottest as a youth, although to be honest this still makes me catch my breath a little:

Bonus Cary Elwes:

Weight Watchers vs. MyFitnessPal

I've been doing Weight Watchers lately. I haven't told most (hardly any, actually) of my local friends about this, because I always feel private about trying to lose weight. It's also ridiculously boring for other people to hear about, I think, and sort of tedious and typical.

I told one local friend other than Ed - the one I'm closest to. I told her I wasn't going to tell anyone else, not because it was a secret (I didn't want her to feel obligated to keep it as a secret, because that's always a burden and this isn't very important), but just because I didn't want to talk about it with anyone else. But it's good to have a couple of friends for support.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah. Websites.

Weight Watchers is pretty cool these days. I just do it online. They still have a program based on "points" which are calculated for a food based on its protein, fiber, carb, and fat content. In reality, it works out to about 1 point per 40 calories, though WW doesn't want you to think that way. Non-starchy vegetables cost no points and, even more astonishingly, neither do any fruits (except avocados).

You get a daily points allowance, and then you also get this weekly pool of points that you can use for extras. You can have a few of these every day or you can have them all at once if you want to.

I really like the program. They reduced the points totals to allow for what they think will be typical fruit/veg consumption, and the free fruits really encourage you to snack on fruit, vs. forcing you to choose between a banana and a 100-calorie snack pack of mini-oreos, where most people will choose the oreos, which is clearly not the way to go for overall health and well-being (or, most likely, satiety). And I like the pool of weekly points - it really helps me manage social occasions and things like that.

Recently, the site myfitnesspal was recommended to me. It is a dieting site based purely on calorie-counting (or you can track whatever nutrients you want). Unlike Weight Watchers, it's free (ad-supported). For about the past week I have been logging my food intake in both places.

The calorie budget that myfitnesspal gives me based on my various statistics and desire to lose 1 lb per week basically comes out to be the same as what WW gives me if you include the weekly points. (WW "requires" you to eat all of your daily points, but you can forgo the weekly ones if you wish.) Of course, WW lets me eat fruit on top of that allowance, and myfitnesspal does not. Myfitnesspal doesn't have any software-supported way for me to bank calories to eat on other days, either, or anything like that.

However, myfitnesspal does have a truly excellent food database, the easiest one to use that I've encountered since the tragic demise of BalanceLog. In addition to their database, users can enter foods for anyone to use, and other members can verify that the nutrition is correct. If 43 people agree that this entry for McDonald's fries is right, you can pretty much trust it.

In addition to these aspects, myfitnesspal has a community aspect. There are message boards, but, more importantly, it has the whole "friends" thing from Facebook. That part of the site is almost a direct clone of Facebook - you get a news feed of your friends' updates, which (depending on their preferences) will include posts when they log their food for the day, update their weight, etc. So if you have friends on the site, you can get a ton of social support. Also, if your friends' food diaries aren't set to private, you can go see what they ate every day, which is fun if you like that sort of thing.

I'm considering abandoning WW (esp. since it costs money) and just using myfitnesspal. I want to continue enjoying the social aspects of myfitnesspal in any case, and it would be nicer to only be using one site rather than two.

What's a little sad for me is that I really do like and prefer the WW program itself. I like the points and the weekly extra points and the free fruit and all of that. It sort of turns the whole thing into a game rather than being more of a dreary regime. It takes things slightly out of the realm of reality.
But I feel like I can only really enter into the playful fantasy world of WW if I don't at the same time do actual calories. They don't layer well for me.

To be clear, I think these systems are pretty much equivalent in terms of the bottom line of encouraging the energy deficit that leads to weight loss - it's just a matter of what works better psychologically. And of course, one doesn't need to decide once for all time. But those are the issues I'm pondering right now.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Motivational Techniques

One of the hardest things I've had to do recently was study for my real analysis final exam. It was hard because I had a lot of things going on that week, and I was tired, and I did not want to do it, and it felt futile because I knew I could not master the material in the time available, even in a best-case scenario. That last thing made it especially hard.

Yet somehow I did study, at least enough that I got an A in the class.

I wrote a while back about negative motivation. It used to be that threatening myself ("if you don't study you're going to fail this class") was the only type of self-motivation I knew how to deliver, and of course that type of motivation is not really very helpful. Eventually you become immune to your own threats, and the truth is that even many important things don't come with immediate terrifying consequences (e.g., it is not true that if I eat this particular donut I will die of diabetes at a young age).

Ever since realizing that I always resorted to negative motivation, I've been trying to cease making threats to myself. Instead, I've been trying to remind myself of positive reasons to do what I should do ("I'll feel good when I get this homework done"). And that has been moderately successful.

But neither type of motivation was enough to get me to study for my analysis final. Instead, what I did was pretty continually push myself simultaneously with various different motivations, of all types. Among them (and yes, I talk to myself in the second person)
  • If you study enough that you can get 3/4 or more of the exam done, you'll feel pretty good about it afterwards (as has happened on the other analysis exams you've successfully studied for).
  • It's going to really suck to sit in the exam and not be able to write much for many of the questions. You'll feel really stressed and doomed in that situation.
  • If you get through this semester with good grades, you're going to feel really great about your chances in the program.
  • You have some good friends here - you don't want to let them down by failing classes or dropping out. To continue this happy lifestyle you need to be like them and actually do well.
  • If you finish strong, you can send an email to Dr. P (undergrad analysis prof who wrote me LOR's for grad school) and tell him you finished your first year including this analysis core sequence! (You'll feel sad if you can't send that email or if you can't report passing this class.)
  • You're really just pre-preparing for the analysis qual in August. You'll feel good studying for that if you already have this head start.
So, basically, thinking of a lot of creative good reasons to want to study or to want to avoid not studying really helped. I mean, it helped just enough. It was barely enough to get me to actually do the stuff I needed to do, and I needed to apply it pretty constantly over the days I was struggling.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Screw Index Cards

In my last post, I mentioned using index cards to write down the past qualifying exam questions. And I did indeed write about 50 of them before saying, you know what, screw this.

I'm now putting them into Access. You can't easily represent formulas in Access, so what I've done is set it up so that I put in TeX code for the problem statements, and then I wrote some code in Access so that it will spit out a TeX file with my problems (in a variety of orders).

I feel pretty awesome about that, and I've now entered about as many problems as I had written on index cards. The process is much faster and the results are way better.

Go me!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Moving Right Along

This week I had three final exams and a project due, but everything was done by Tuesday afternoon. Wednesday, I flew somewhere to do a little bit of work for my old company, for a client I hadn't met before but who turned out to be someone who immediately strikes one as crazy and/or full of shit. I now have more work to do for this guy. I sort of wish I hadn't gotten involved at all, but I guess making some extra money is a good idea.

This summer I am also lined up to make about $3000 doing (paid by the hour) math lab and grading work. I think that comes out to about 140 hours (based on my guess of what the hourly rate is). I hope that instead of interfering with my summer plans, this work will help keep more organized and moving along. (Have you noticed that it is easy for a day with no fixed plans to glide competely by with nothing to show for itself?)

My main goal this summer is to pass my real analysis qualifying exam in August. It's an 8 hour long, written exam. I think there are typically 12 questions, of which you choose 8 to complete. They are typically rather meaty questions, though not usually very novel. (An example might be, "State and prove [famous theorem].") My understanding is that you need to get 6 completely right in order to pass.

I'm worried about whether I can pass this exam, even under ideal conditions and having studied a somewhat large amount, but I need to, as they say, give it the old college try. I have a stack of the old exams (going back so far that the earliest ones are handwritten). The first thing I intend to do is write questions on index cards. I want to determine what types of questions are asked, which questions are asked most often, and so on. If I can at least have answers to the most commonly asked questions down cold, it should help, and of course there is a lot of overlap of material and technique between different ones, so it's helpful in general.

In undergrad, I had a professor who would always point out, when we were starting a project, that you always wish, at the end, that you had an extra day or so, and so you ought to make very good use of the first few days (the ones you might otherwise kind of blow off, feeling that you have plenty of time). I have thirteen weeks before this exam, so I'd best get started.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Why We Get Fat

A few months ago, I read Gary Taubes's Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It. I've been wanting to comment about it ever since. I found parts of the book very convincing and others less so.

Taubes is a low-carb (practically no-carb) advocate, which is always suspect. The book presents a pretty strong argument against the view that people are getting fat because they eat too much and exercise too little.

I was amazed and convinced by the way that Taubes argues agains the "calories in, calories out" way of thinking about weight change. It's not that he disagrees that you gain weight by taking in more calories than you expend; it's just not a useful way of looking at it, because it doesn't answer the question of why that is happening.

By way of analogy, if you were in some particular room in a museum and after a while you noticed that the room was becoming very crowded, you might ask your companion, "Why is this room getting so crowded all of a sudden?" It would be true but not at all helpful for your companion to answer, "More people are coming in than are leaving." That's how Taubes views the calorie situation.

He points out that, for instance, children gain quite a bit of weight as they mature, yet this is not because they take in more calories than they expend. Obviously they do, but the causality goes the other way - they take in more calories than they expend because they are driven to grow. Similarly, adolescent girls develop fat deposits on their chests and hips, and this is not because they are eating more than they need; they eat more because biology pushes them to in order for them to develop secondary sexual characteristics.

He also points out that something like a 35-calorie-a-day difference (a bite of a brownie, basically) adds up over a 30-lb weight gain (or loss) in 10 years. Given that math, how is it possible that so many people do maintain a consistent weight?

Obviously there are processes in our bodies that balance our food intake and energy expenditure. Experiments with rats show that at least some types of rats can stay fat or thin (according to genetic predispositions) on various amounts of food by modulating their energy expenditures. This is presumably not because the skinny rats read Vogue and the fat rats watch too much television.

Taubes then presents his case that the reason people are getting so fat now is that we're eating so many carbs. His line of reasoning involves insulin regulation. If I remember correctly (which I may not), the basic idea is that eating more carbs causes our bodies to produce more insulin, and insulin promotes fat storage, which is to say it causes (basically) our fat cells to become hungry and thus prompt us to eat more so that they can grow.

I find that argument reasonably convincing. What I found less convincing is Taubes's line of reasoning that goes something like, "Everyone in the past knew that you lose weight by cutting down on starches, before all this low-fat bullshit came along." I agree that the low-fat craze of the 80's/90's was mostly b.s., but I don't find it that meaningful that people have historically known to cut back on starches. It's pretty obvious if you consider what people usually eat (even in the past) that we're much more likely to overeat bread, rice, potatoes, pasta, desserts, etc., than we are to gorge on meats. And of course it's almost impossible to overindulge in veggies. (Most people historically probably couldn't even afford to overeat meat. Also, it's much more fun to overeat starches, IMO.) Of course, that's on top of the general thing that citing the wisdom of the past is always selective.

Taubes's ultimate recommendation is the standard Atkins type of diet, with extremely restricted carb intake. He justifies this partly in the common paleo way - apparently our caveman ancestors mostly ate corn-fed beef from the Safeway, and we should too.

I find the general recommendation to cut back on starches pretty convincing, but I don't find that cutting all of them from my diet is any easier or more possible than keeping myself on a general starvation regimen that makes it impossible to gain weight anyway (even as one of the fat rats). A mostly-meat diet is expensive and, after a while, sort of disgusting, and it's obviously not at all environmentally sustainable.

I also, of course, know plenty of skinny vegetarians and vegans, who are clearly eating very high carb diets, suggesting that there are various types of diets on which one can maintain a healthy weight (even effortlessly, if you're lucky in that way). So...yeah.

But the book is probably worth reading if you're into this type of stuff.

Friday, May 06, 2011

The Problem with Moving

I've been thinking lately about the downsides of moving to a new place (whether it's a new state or a new country or whatever). Everyone is aware of the struggles around not knowing the conventions or how to accomplish things in the new place (which can range from how to get a license plate in Nebraska to the need to give bribes to bureaucratic functionaries in some countries or whatever), but I think there's another negative thing that isn't as obvious: the loss of features.

Every place has certain features that are positive. Texas has, for instance, Blue Bell ice cream, which is pretty great for a non-premium brand, and Tex-Mex, and South by Southwest. New Orleans has Mardi Gras. Colorado has skiing.

But often the best "special" features of a place are not very accessible. Sometimes a new resident wouldn't know that the feature exists (like you might not notice Blue Bell ice cream and think to try it). Sometimes the feature is an acquired taste (as Tex-Mex might be). And sometimes the feature is something that can be enjoyed much more thoroughly (or at all) if you grew up with it, like Mardi Gras. (As a kid, we were thrilled to get beads and doubly-thrilled by doubloons. Mardi Gras was a whole season with parades all the time, not just one day in the city but on weekends in the suburbs as well. I knew a kid who moved to New Orleans and thought the whole thing was stupid - little cheap aluminum coins? Who needs it?)

So when you move, basically you lose all of the special features of your old place, yet can't fully appreciate the special features of the new place.

The grocery store is kind of a microcosm of this experience, and it's kind of what brought it to my attention when I moved back to Texas. If you're just moving within the U.S., then your old store will have had major national brands of everything, plus better local brands of some things. The new place won't have the old better local brands, and its own local brands won't look familiar or inviting, so you'll only have the least common denominator of big national brands to choose from.

Groceries are even worse if you move internationally, of course. I read a blog post sometime about living as an American in China. Apparently breakfast cereal is really expensive there, so that would be diminishment of your quality of life. I guess it's not what Chinese people traditionally eat for breakfast, though, so it's not that they suffer under the yoke of expensive Cheerios so much as that Cheerios is a weird foreign luxury item. So basically if you want to live cheaply and comfortably in a foreign country you have to either try new, weirder things or else stick to very basic things that are available everywhere (produce, meats, etc.)

I think we've all known people who have moved to wherever we live and then proceeded to hate it for not having the right features (like Sally's college roommate who lamented the lack of real bagels down here). I was like that when I moved to Houston from New Orleans as a kid, and I wish someone had encouraged me to have a different attitude about it. I think if you can be a little bit adventurous and non-judging, you can probably have a better time in a new place. And if you're flexible enough to live like the locals, you might have a very good time indeed.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011


There is an older grad student in my department who I am pretty well convinced by now is a jerk. I've heard of various jerky behaviors, but the most egregious (to me) is that he's made a friend of mine, who is a fairly gentle person, upset on several occasions, always by criticizing and/or yelling at her about ways that he thinks she has slighted him or not treated him with proper consideration. None of his complaints have seemed valid to me in the slightest. (For instance, on one occasion my friend canceled a weekly get-together with him because she had out-of-town guests.)

I've expressed my opinion that he is just a jackass, and she basically agrees. "But," she told me, "I really don't think he knows that he is being a jerk."

The idea of this as an excuse sort of fills me with rage. Most people, after all, have no problem justifying their behaviors to themselves. Most people do not set out deliberately to cross boundaries or be jackasses. So it is practically the definition of being a jerk to not know, or not be aware, when you are doing something wrong/mean/rude/whatever. One of the jobs of a human being is to actively prevent oneself from being a jerk, which often involves being aware of other people's feelings and perspectives, actively curbing one's natural self-centeredness and inclinations, and so on.

I mean, you know, I'm glad he isn't intentionally evil. But that's not really saying much.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Lifestyle, Redux

I posted a long time ago about Brooks Brothers ads. Lately, this one has been catching my eye:

All I can say is wow.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Potluck Success

I normally don't enjoy potlucks very much. I'd rather eat out than eat a bunch of random food prepared by other people, and I'd rather pay for a restaurant meal than have to make something (which often ends up costing me as much as a restaurant meal anyway). I also hate the hassle of how it's impossible for everything to be served warm/cold/whatever. I am just a grump about them.

However, I was invited to a Passover seder last Sunday. The host made a fine brisket as well as matzo ball soup, and we were asked to bring a side item, dessert, or drink, etc., made without leavened flour and without pork or shellfish or both meat and cheese, etc. So it was kind of a semi-potluck, but a great opportunity to participate in a seder, so that was all right.

I decided to roast some brussels sprouts. I'd never tried this before, but it seemed like it ought to work, and the Internet seemed to agree. At the store, there were boxes of fresh sprouts that were not as fresh as I would have liked, and then there were these enormous stems of sprouts which were much fresher (presumably because the stem sustains them).

This thing was amazing - huge and bulky, like a big club made of brussels sprouts. And it had way plenty of sprouts on it for roasting. Cutting them off wasn't much extra work since you normally have to trim the flat end anyway.

It was $4.49.

So I cut the sprouts off, tossed them in olive oil and salt, and roasted them at 400 degrees for about 40 minutes (whole). Cutting them in half would probably have been more delicious, but I was actually running out of time.

I don't have two ovens and I wanted a warm dish to transport these in (I was afraid a cold vessel would coldify them right away), so when they were getting done, I poured boiling water into a lidded casserole dish. When the sprouts were done, I poured the water out, dried the dish thoroughly, and put the sprouts in. I carried the casserole dish to the seder wrapped in a towel, and I got the hosts to put their oven on warm as I drove over, so I could pop it right in the oven when I got there.

The ritual part of the seder went on for a while, so by the time we ate, my sprouts had been kept warm in the oven for perhaps 45 minutes. This is not an ideal situation for maintaining any kind of roasted quality, but when we ate them, they were still delicious - not totally toasty but still considerably different from boiled or steamed sprouts. I got a ton of compliments both from people who like brussels sprouts and from people (well, one person) who had previously regarded them with fear.

I felt pretty kick-ass at bringing a healthy, well-liked dish that cost me under $5 to make.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Non-Zero Probability

It now appears that there is a non-zero probability that I will finish the semester. For the first time, I can actually see the end from here. We have two more weeks of classes, and then finals, but I had a big exam today and really couldn't see past it until it was over.

In some ways, the class I had the exam in was my most important one (real analysis, which I'm taking a qual in this summer), and of my four classes, it has gone the worst. There is a lot of material I really struggle to understand, and what I do understand, I have trouble holding on to from moment to moment. Studying for the exam did greatly increase my knowledge, but there were topics I couldn't study because I just couldn't face them. And yet...the qual.

I'm feeling better now, but the past couple of days I have felt pretty down on school. As happened during the stressful part of last semester, I found myself fantasizing a lot about quitting and going back to my old job (I think they would hire me back, but I could probably get a similar job in any case) and having an easier life with more money and not as much math. I think that terrible negativity might be passing now, which would be nice. Most of the time, I prefer my life here to my old life by a moderately large margin.

I actually probably did all right on the exam. Last semester, I got a 55% on the midterm and ended up (somehow) with an A in the class. I estimate that I got about a 70% on this one. If I do a good job on the final, I should be able to at least pass with a B, I think. (If I fail the class, all hope is not lost, but passing would be better, of course.)

I posted a while back about my doom-laden decision to take four courses this semester. I'm happy to report that that decision, at least, was not in fact a mistake. Reports of my impending doom turned out to have been exaggerated. The logic class has been very interesting and our professor dramatically decreased the workload relative to the first half, and the topology class has been as vital as I'd thought it might be, and I'm really glad that I had the opportunity to take it.

So, that's my life these days, anyway.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Do Not Want

It seems to be the case that after a serious relationship ends, I discover that certain aspects of it are things I do not want in any future relationships. Some of these are senseless allergies (omg no more Alex Chilton fans!!!*) but others, I think, are legitimate discoveries. It's hard to know how living with someone who does x or y or believes z will turn out. Sometimes I was blind to signs that I can now recognize, and others times, it just requires playing the experience out all the way to find out how it goes.

One thing I learned from my relationship with Ed that I don't want anymore is a little bit subtle, but important. One of the very noticeable features of Ed early on was that he was very emotionally literate (which I really appreciated, and continue to think is cool) and wanted to understand in minute detail what I was thinking and feeling about various aspects of the relationship. He didn't feel safe if he didn't understand my exact feelings.

This went both ways. If Ed found a feeling in himself that he thought might be a deal-breaker or bad news for me, he always told me about it. He was very open with me (which is a good thing, in general) and scrupulously honest, to the best of his ability.

All of this is why "radical honesty" was a tenet of our relationship.

I'm not against radical honesty. I think as an experiment it's fun. In fact, as long as you remember that it's called "radical" for a reason, it's all good.

But I don't want to be in another relationship with someone for whom that is of prime importance. I want my future partners to trust me to manage my own thoughts and feelings. I want them to trust that I'll tell them what's important, but be content with my being somewhat of a black box. I want to be with someone who doesn't worry about it that much, and/or who just figures me out as we go along. And I want to be with someone who manages his or her own inner thoughts and emotions as well, sharing as appropriate or desired but sometimes holding things back that are counterproductive to share.

(* not actually on my list)

Monday, April 04, 2011

Strange Advertisement

A few blocks down from my apartment is a big complex that is mostly inhabited by students at my school. Out front is a sign that caught my eye a few weeks ago because of its nonsensical slogan:

Live like you "Mean" it!

It's a weird slogan to begin with (don't I really mean it? how am I living now? what does it mean to mean living, anyway?), and not improved by the scare quotes.

Then I started looking at the picture more closely:

Now, here we have these students, I guess. But this picture is so weird. Notice the following:

  • At least three, possibly all four, are wearing oversized sunglasses.
  • Both of the boys are carrying helmets.
  • Three of them are wearing large headphones of the kind people use almost exclusively at home.
  • All humans come in couples.
  • The way a couple walks is that the boy puts his arm around the girl and then she reaches up near where her neck and his arm meet.
  • The boy on the left is wearing a sleeveless hoodie and a very slender bracelet.
  • The boy on the right appears to also be wearing at least one, and possibly two, bracelets.
  • 75% of the people pictured are wearing hats. (Note that both boys are wearing hats in addition to carrying helmets.)
  • At least one girl has rollerblades; both boys seem to have skateboards attached to their backs.
  • The girl on the right is disturbingly narrow from the waist down, and has the hips of an 11-year-old boy.
Who are these people? Why are they all dressed/accessorized so similarly? Are they living like they "mean" it?

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Wikipedia and Math

I am a relatively big fan of Wikipedia. It tends to be my go-to source for things I want to know that are of a general nature - for instance, when I finished Bleak House the other day, I read/skimmed the Wikipedia articles on Charles Dickens, Bleak House, and the Chancery court that is such a big feature of that book.

But for professors in many disciplines, Wikipedia is a kind of sore spot, because students will often try to cite it. Not only is it generally inappropriate to cite an encyclopedia in a college class, Wikipedia is extra-suspect since anyone can edit it, and so it may or may not be rife with errors. (Everything in life is full of errors, really, but at least published encyclopedias have editors.)

But in math, people seem to like Wikipedia a lot. Several of my professors have referred to looking up things in Wikipedia themselves before presenting them in class, or to using it in general.

In fact, a few weeks ago, we had a visitor from the NSA who came to talk about careers there. It came up that of course (for security reasons) they don't have Internet access at their workstations there. I asked the woman how they did math without Wikipedia, and she immediately replied, "Oh, we have our own copy of Wikipedia." She didn't seem to find the question bizarre (like if I'd asked, "Oh, how do you do math without Facebook?")

I think there are some legitimate reasons why Wikipedia is different for math than for other subjects.

First of all, I imagine that when, say, history professors read Wikipedia, they find errors that irritate them. (This is probably true of many encyclopedias as well, but I doubt it comes up much that professors read encyclopedias.) You can make a lot of factual errors in history, or you can simply write an article that is unbalanced - that goes into a lot of detail on one small point and completely fails to include other major points. This is especially likely if the topic is controversial.

In math, on the other hand, there are not so many facts. When you look up a math topic in Wikipedia, you want to answer questions like
  • How is this thing defined?
  • What areas is it used in?
  • What are some theorems about it?
  • What are the different notations or ways that it is conceptualized?
You might think of definitions as being akin to facts, but actually they're quite flexible. It's true that some things are simply NOT the definition of an algebraic group, for instance, but there are several different definitions to choose from, and you can do math from a lot of different standpoints or bases.

I commented to Ed the other day that, unlike in other fields, in math it's the facts (definitions and axioms) that are matters of taste or opinion, and the conclusions drawn from those facts (theorems, etc.) that are either right or wrong.

The second reason I think Wikipedia is different for math is that, honestly, it's difficult to abuse it. You can't read and understand a Wikipedia math article unless you actually know enough math that any errors are probably not going to be dangerous to you. Is there a proof that is erroneous? You should be able to tell. (Nobody sophisticated enough to read proofs in Wikipedia should be foolish enough to treat any proof as authoritative.)

So if you were going to write a paper about Hausdorff spaces and you looked up the Wikipedia article and started there, it wouldn't really hurt you any. Either the definition in the article would work for you as a starting point in your research or it wouldn't. Once you know generally what's being discussed, you can make up your own definition if you want (though of course if it's not roughly equivalent to a commonly-used one, you'll only confuse your audience by calling it "Hausdorff"). You don't need a source for a mathematical definition, so you're not likely to mistakenly cite Wikipedia.

So, math Wikipedia - all upside, no drawbacks (if you can read it at all).

As a side note, my ability to read Wikipedia articles in math has absolutely skyrocketed since I started grad school. I'm actually starting to get enough background in the various general areas of mathematics for these things to make sense.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Spring Break 2011

My Spring Break is next week - yippee!

I don't have any particular plans, and so there's a danger the week will go by in a kind of haze of boredom and too many "Without a Trace" reruns and vague intentions of doing some kind of academic work.

I don't know all of what I'll have due when I get back. Guesses:

Logic: We're getting 6 homeworks total and have finished 3. I'm guessing no homework over the break.

Analysis: We usually have an assignment every week, so I think this one will be no different. We should have a midterm at some point, so that could be the week after break instead. I am a bit behind on my notes/studying for this course anyway.

Stats: I imagine we'll have a normal homework assignment like every week.

Topology: I have an assignment due the Friday after break.

So I've written up a schedule (complete with checkboxes next to every item) for how I want to spend by Spring Break. It reads as follows:

  • Groceries
  • Launder towels
  • Clean master bathroom
  • Dishes

  • Have fun

  • 2 hours analysis
  • 2 hours topology
  • Dishes

  • Podiatrist appointment
  • 2 hours analysis
  • 2 hours statistics

  • 2 hours analysis
  • 1 hour statistics
  • 1 hour topology
  • Dishes

  • 2 hours analysis
  • 2 hours topology

  • 2 hours analysis
  • 1 hour statistics
  • 1 hour topology
  • Dishes

  • Finish statistics assignment
  • 2 hours analysis
  • Groceries

  • Have fun
  • Dishes
I'm hoping this schedule will overall maximize my fun and relaxation over the week, since I'll know what I want to accomplish each day, and trying to get it done will allow me to really enjoy the rest of the time. By my calculations, after sleeping, eating, grooming, and everything on this list, I'll have about 70 hours left over for pure fun and doing whatever the hell I want. (Of course, "whatever I want" may well include additional academic work, and that's fine.)