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.