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.