Thursday, December 20, 2007

Happy Holidays

I will probably not be blogging again until the new year, so I wish you a Joyous Winter Whatever and leave you with the image of this most excellent holiday card that Robert's female cousin sent us. Even without adhering to the sure-fire Animal + Snow secular card formula, it is quite brilliant:

Oh, I dare say they are giving each other identical fur hats but lack the proper heads to wear them

(10 bonus points to those of you who recognized the work of Edward Gorey.)

Luscious Lasagna

Joy to the world, the lasagna's done
I was so very pleased with how the lasagna I cooked this morning turned out that I decided not to wait until dinner to eat some - it was a fantastic lunch. It made 8 large servings at about 550 calories each - not diet food, certainly, but nothing like the sort of mega-calorie-and-fat lasagna monstrosity that you would get at a restaurant. I also thought it was yummier and appreciated not feeling ill or waddling to the sofa and falling down on it in a heap afterwards.

I used 1 pound of ground beef, a bunch of crimini* mushrooms Robert bought at the farmers market, and a homemade pesto using the last of my thyme and oregano mixed in with basil from the farmers market (my basil has already died and I know the other herbs will not survive my leaving them for over a week; Leo took one for the team and vacuumed up in a couple of minutes the two handfuls of mint I culled from the plant this afternoon - such a sacrifice). It was supposed to have spinach also, but it had gone sort of funky-smelling so I threw it away.

* Robert just saw this and said, They're crimini, not baby bella? I did an image search and found a picture of crimini mushrooms and indeed, they looked like ours. A further search indicated that baby bella and crimini mushrooms are the same thing.

By the way, seeing the nutritional analysis on those restaurant items, I feel even more smug and self-satisfied by always getting the Simple Salmon with Asparagus at Macaroni Grill (590 calories) than before. I usually eat about half of it, and take the rest home. Of course, I also generally eat about an entire Peasant Bread loaf, coming in at 520 calories, by myself also. Oh, with about a tablespoon of olive oil altogether. Still, I think any absolutely indulgent meal eaten at an Italian restaurant that comes in under 1,000 calories is near-miraculous. It's just a good thing I don't do it very often.

Jane Austen Screw Up

I recently read two Jane Austen novels and got them confused in my mind.

Northanger Abbey was a delight.

Mansfield Park was a moralizing dud.

Perhaps more on this later.

The Domain and Christmas Cards

Last night, RB finally convinced me to go to his current favorite restaurant at the Domain shopping center that Livingdeb has blogged about before. I had the sashimi, which was very good, and from the "mini" dessert menu, the "seasonal fruit buckle," which was a real disappointment (though it was appropriately small - a circular cylinder about 2.5" in diameter and less than 2" tall). It was pear and apple - I am not a big fan of pear - in a dense, heavy, dry cake with a sickeningly oversweetened pear syrup on it and no streusel topping, which is just wrong. The vanilla ice cream was quite bland; I am a huge fan of vanilla ice cream in general, but this tasted like somebody ran to a low-end grocery store and bought the store brand Xtra Kreamy vanilla ice cream in a box (which is to say, not up to the standards of Supr-Cheep-n-Flayvrfull brand). I admit that I have been spoiled by the wonders of Amy's Mexican vanilla ice cream, but this stuff was just not good. Next time, I will try the "butterfinger creme brulee" made with "homemade" butterfinger. The iced tea had a faint lavender flavor, which was delicious, and was quite caffeinated.

The Domain is indeed quite a nice place for walking around, if one is prepared to withstand the merciless onslaught of yuppie conspicuous consumption. I mean, next time I'm in the market for an ostentatious handbag or $300 pair of jeans, this will be an excellent place to shop. It was like a little piece of Dallas right here in Austin. (I admit, I did get to enjoy that feeling of superiority that comes with reverse snobbishness.) It was, as you might expect, whiter than the First Lutheran Church of Duluth, Minnesota's lutefisk dinner; of all the many shoppers I saw as we took a long postprandial stroll, I did eventually see two black women. This bears no resemblance whatsoever to the east or south Austin experience. (Perhaps Amy's Mexican vanilla ice cream would not feel comfortable in such an environment of white privilege or would strike customers as ethnic-in-a-bad-way.)

RB surprised me by saying that he had trouble finding Christmas cards recently that did not feature obvious markers of Christianity such as mangers, angels, Santa Clauses, and so forth. Although cards like that are very popular, almost every card I have purchased or received in recent years has been animal themed - birds on a snowy tree, a white bunny covered with snow on the snowy ground (my favorite that I have sent), a cat's profile visible in the window of a country house surrounded by snow, penguins sliding down a snowy hill, polar bears curled up on each other, and such. Snow + Animals = Christmas Card. It's really that simple.

The best RB could do was a card with a Christmas tree on it, which prompted me to remark that I thought the Christmas tree was one of Martin Luther's doings, though I admitted that having been raised as a Protestant, I kind of assume Martin Luther did everything. RB said, but the Christmas tree was originally pagan. I said, OK, yes, let me restate that I think the Christmas tree was popularized as an actual element of Christmas by Martin Luther. Online, I found various sources that say the Christmas tree was a European pagan thing made popular in Germany around the time of Luther, and that Luther has a famous Christmas tree (which is what I have heard before), while others say that it's not European in origin, but Middle Eastern, and the Luther legend is a myth.

But if you look around online, you can find purveyors of Winter Solstice cards (I liked some of these, for instance) to celebrate the season with zero Jesus element.

E.g. Happy Winter Solstice from the Moose:


I wish I had such nice eyelashes
Speaking of old-school, traditional holidays, I enjoyed the vintage Festivus cards available here.

Happy Festivus from a Sly and Stylish Cat:

You can imagine her under the mistletoe

I admit that I'm having trouble getting into the Christmas/Winter Solstice/Festivus spirit today in part because it is currently 77 degrees in my apartment. Even though a white Christmas is quite unnecessary, I hope that Oklahoma can at least offer me an opportunity to wear a jacket this coming week.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Crack Cocaine of Internet Games?

This one is definitely a contender for Most Addictive Timewaster Game. I am extremely glad I didn't come across it during finals. I can already see that for the near future it's going to be my go-to every time I have 15 minutes to 15 hours of time clear for goofing off.

(Via Megan McArdle)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Michael Hurley/Lounge Lizards Concert

Robert and I met RB and Livingdeb to see this concert at the Cactus Cafe on Saturday night. (She writes about it here.) RB camped out at the door to ensure that we got prime seats on the front row.

Some of you may know Michael Hurley from the Have Moicy! album - he wrote "Slurf Song," "Fooey Fooey," "Sweet Lucy," and "Driving Wheel" (according to some website I accidentally lost track of). It was interesting to watch him perform up close. There is an oddness to the lyrics and music - in some way, they don't match, but work together surprisingly well. I don't play guitar, so it is hard for me to judge, but there appeared to me to be an intricacy, and occasionally strange stop-go element, to his playing, which balanced out the roaming quality of the lyrics. My favorites of the songs he performed were his classic "O My Stars" and "Knockando" (which is a scotch whisky that I have never had, but that he pronounces to sing: I have a glass of "no can do"). Youtube has a clip of him performing "Knockando" about a month ago that gives a good feel for this.

The Lizards played two sets, which was one set too many in my opinion. (By the end, I was like, will you goddamn play "Anahuac" already so we can get out of here? "Anahuac" is their signature song. It was nearing midnight by the time they wrapped up. I was quite happy that Robert managed to get a parking spot about 1 block away because I was tired and it was fairly cold.) I did enjoy the first set a lot, though, with its usual silliness and fun. Perhaps the one I liked best was "Hey Little Minivan." The unexpected, um, treat? was the German rap number performed by the young fiddler/mandolin player; I had an amusing progression of recognizing words, grammatical structures, phrases, and finally a few sentences to realize that he was actually rapping in German, and not faking it. I looked him up later and discovered he has a degree in German, lived there for a while, and put together an entire CD of German rap songs.

I thought some of the more recent Lizards songs sounded rather formulaic (I mean, even by their standards) and that someone had used too heavy a hand in adding political content, but apparently, some activist group had commissioned these songs. However, even though I thought the song about immigration was mostly a stupid waste of time, I did like the closing comment about building the wall - that they would have to hire a bunch of Mexicans to build it. Overall, I was pleased with the banjo and fiddle content of the evening, though.

Oh, I also wanted to add: It seemed to me that the number of under-40's in the audience (even including the few children there accompanying adults) was less than the number of over-65's. Of course, Hurley and the Lizards players, with the exception of the one "new" guy who has "only" been with them for four years, all appeared to be older than my parents. I loved this one old woman (75 if she was a day) wearing an Austin Lounge Lizards t-shirt underneath her actually quite nice black blazer.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Charitable Contributions: Lagomorph Edition

Since 'tis the season, etc., I thought I would pass on the information about a program I have been supporting since the summer. Goodsearch is a search engine based on Yahoo!'s search program that donates a penny to the charity of your choice for every search you do.

Even if you are a hard-core Google fan, there are a lot of searches you do for which the most sophisticated algorithms are not necessary. I have used Goodsearch a lot, for example, when looking up universities (which I do a fair amount, of course), specific web sites (in fact, after looking up wunderground, my old standby weather site, I followed a paid search link to Accuweather.com and discovered that I actually prefer it), specific businesses, and wikipedia listings (e.g. "Cherokee nation wikipedia"). I also use the Goodsearch site to "look up" links that I check out fairly often.

Goodsearch also has a shopping site; if you navigate to one of the store sites from Goodsearch, a portion of your sale will be donated.

My charity of choice is "House Rabbit Resource Network (Austin, TX)" - the awesome group from whom we adopted the delightful Kate & Leopold, who continue to provide good information and support, and who are fighting the good fight for abandoned bunnies. But there are a lot of organizations you can choose from.

If you're shopping Amazon and do not already have an organization you are supporting through their associates program, accessing Amazon through this link, by clicking on any of the listed books, will give the House Rabbit group a percentage of your sale no matter what product you buy.

You can also become a "Bunny Benefactor" by donating money to support a foster bunny and they will name their next rabbit after the human/animal of your choice. A gift for the person or pet who has everything ... except a bunny named in their honor... or a tribute to a departed friend, furry or otherwise.

Current shelter bunnies say: Thank you!

Two of the sweet bunnies kept alive through the generosity of House Rabbit Resource Network volunteers and benefactors

Friday, December 14, 2007

Infinite Pet

Since Leo got sick about a week ago (parasitical infection that he probably picked up at the bunny sitter - which has the same kind of health risks as sending your child to live in close quarters with others at boarding school or something), there has been a tremendous change I would not have thought possible: he will not eat carrot. Smart money is on the hypothesis that he associates carrots with feeling sick and so is avoiding them. (I didn't eat olives for a year after having the flu one time, so it seems plausible to me.) So he has been eating hay and greens and food pellets instead. We tempted his appetite when he got home from the vet with golden raisins, which he went crazy for, but he is off the raisins now.

But he has become, if anything, even more desirous/demanding of long petting sessions. Robert sometimes disappears in Leo's room for 20 minutes or more of full-time petting. Leo loves Robert's attention because Robert has perfected an ear-scratching technique that affects Leo like a Jedi mind trick and because he is willing to let Leo be the unstoppable force of nudging. (By contrast, Leo encounters an immovable object when he tries to nudge me around.)

Leo being willingly manipulated into a trance:

You are feeling very sleepy...

Leo demonstrates his agency by pushing the boy human around:

I am the all-powerful Rex!

(I don't know what the song "The Infinite Pet" by Austin-band Spoon is actually about, of course; my first two guesses are "a girl" or "a drug habit" but that's just applying the probabilities of rock music. I love the sound of it, though - it has a kind of "gumshoe music" feel about it. Ever since I've been thinking of Leo's pursuit of an Infinite Pet, though, it's totally been stuck in my head. Here, you can get it a taste of the song - click "preview all.")

Semester 1 Postmordem

I am feeling quite celebratory today that the semester is over. (This happened Tuesday afternoon, but Wed & Thurs were hectic enough that I did not have time to fully appreciate the sense of relief and closure.)

The breakdown:

Marketing - course grade = 98%. The final indeed did turn out to be much easier than the other tests and I got a 100% on it. I studied for the final more than was strictly necessary to receive a 100%, let alone a grade sufficient to secure an A in the course, but I have the material from the book down pretty much cold at this point. (My fundamental position on my classes this semester was that the opportunity costs of additional study are minimal, so I might as well do enough to achieve complete mastery of the material and not merely an A in the course, and that I should get in the habit of putting a lot of time and effort into school so later, when the demands get greater, I do not have to experience as drastic a ratcheting-up.)

I really noticed how much I had learned yesterday when I was reading the book Consumer Psychology for Marketing and had immediate intimate familiarity with the marketing concepts, models, and terms in the book. I had started reading this book before taking the marketing class but I wasn't getting very much out of it at that time. (This is one of the books I checked out from the UT library quite a while back.)

Calculus 2 - I am confident that my final exam score is going to be 100 minus any stupid calculation errors. One of the series questions was sort of baffling for a while, but after attempting multiple lines of attack, I realized that I could apply the "partial fractions" technique we learned in integration to rewrite the nth term (a-sub-n); kind of sneaky. So my course grade should be in the neighborhood of 100% (so I get to feel all cheated about the lack of A+'s).

Psychology (Attitude change) - I just checked and I got a 100% for my course grade. On Tuesday, I did my performance of the Cherokee nutrition presentation I have been putting together (and dreading) and I have to admit, I basically enjoyed it. I hated it at various stages, and was pulling my hair out about it and put in a ton of work into it, but ultimately, I thought it was actually pretty decent even by "real project" (as opposed to academic exercise) standards. My professor said she was "seriously very impressed" by it, and I was particularly gratified when she asked me where I found the children's Rabbit story that I told and I got to say, "Oh, I wrote it." (An additional reason for wanting to excel spectacularly in this class is that I am planning on having the professor write me a recommendation.)

Writing the Rabbit story was the most fun element of the whole project (and even though it took me only an hour to do it, I had been thinking from the conception of the project that I wanted to find a way to sneak Rabbit - the Cherokee trickster hero who in the traditional stories is frequently taught lessons after making mistakes - into it; in the end, I transformed him slightly into a Rabbit-as-Kid character who was tricked by a witch) and it was an effective form of self-persuasion, since I have several times since then thought twice about a food choice after realizing that this was the kind of behavior that screwed Rabbit up. Despite this being what theory and past research would suggest, I was still surprised that preparing and presenting this information actually worked in changing my attitude and behavior.

The psychology class was tremendously valuable to me, not only as good preparation for marketing grad school, but in terms of the applicability of the ideas and techniques to life in general. Is there any aspect of life in which being more effective in persuading other people (or oneself, really) is not useful?

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the teaching in my classes and the thought that the professors put into setting up the course assignments, grading, and other such elements. One of the benefits of attending a teaching-oriented, rather than research-oriented, university is that the professors do view teaching as their primary job. Of course, I may have just gotten lucky this semester (and I am sure this is the case where my math professor is concerned - he is truly outstanding in a way that I cannot hope will be matched by others in his department) and will have a lot more to grumble about next semester.

One example of thoughtful design: my psychology course had a lot of reading (par for the course for graduate psych classes) that we needed to do prior to the class meeting or the discussion would be terrible. (It was a seminar format and had four students). To ensure that we actually did the reading at a sufficiently attentive level, the professor assigned "short papers" to be due on every set of readings, which included summarization of key points, our evaluation/criticisms, and further research we would like to see. Although writing these papers was a time-consuming pain in the ass, it made me read and evaluate them more thoroughly, prepared me for the class discussions, and served as a good starting point for studying for the exams.

And for those keeping score at home, our continually late marketing professor did indeed show up for the final at 8:10 rather than 8:00. There was much grumbling notice of this fact amongst the throng of students assembled outside the locked classroom door. A girl said to me, "You'd think he could be on time for the final exam at least," and I responded, "Well, he is demonstrating consistency, for whatever that's worth." Another girl tried to find a way to excuse him for his tardiness - "Well, maybe driving all the way from Austin is tough." Someone else said, "Half this class drove in from Austin this morning and we all managed to be here on time." The guy had zero credibility on the "professional behavior" front by the end, which was unfortunate, because his basic message about the importance of it was sound and quite valuable for people approaching the transition point from student to working adult. I do give him credit for his sustained attempts to emphasize to us how vital things like knowing our strengths and weaknesses, trying to improve those weaknesses, having a plan, behaving professionally, and so forth are in getting a good job and having a successful career, even if he did sort of undermine his own message with some of his behavior. (Perhaps this was a subtle attempt to demonstrate what not to do? Ahem.)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Fuzzy Vest Convert

Stylin'Last Christmas (prior to Operation Cheap Ass), I went shopping with my mom and could not resist purchasing this fuzzy vest, even though it seemed an impractical choice for Austin. (Am I wearing a vest with a nightgown in this photo? Why yes, I am.) Wearing it last winter, and part of this one, I have found it sort of surprising, actually, how warm you can be just by keeping your trunk covered up. (I guess 4.8 million Coloradans can't be wrong on this.)

It's an amazingly useful thing to wear for staying warm (indoors) while not adding more bulky sleeves. Favorite situations to date for the fuzzy vest: eating, cooking, typing, playing cards. It does not seem like a promising garment for sleeping, however.

Mine has a smooth exterior and a fuzzy lining. Fleece vests are also incredibly popular and easily available (and do not have to suck if you can get fleece that is pet-fur resistant).

So if you have a tendency to get chilled, but have doubted the warming power of a cover-up that doesn't even have sleeves, I recommend you give a zip-up vest another look. But please note that I cannot condone wearing an argyle sweater vest under the vast majority of cases. Exception: you are playing golf at St Andrews and are also wearing knickers and argyle knee socks.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

State of Emergency

My parents are among the 75% of Tulsa area residents to be without power following the ice storm that has resulted in Bush declaring a state of emergency for the state of Oklahoma today. Across the state, over 600,000 homes and businesses have no electricity. My parents' neighbor managed to talk to an actual human being at the electric company, who said that their neighborhood will have their power back on, "by latest Tuesday, December 18."

Fortunately, my grandmother has an old-fashioned gas oven that she can turn on for heat, so my parents are staying with her.

My mom called me yesterday from my parents' house, where they went back to check on the cat (who was totally freaked out - the neighbor reported that ice-covered branches kept crashing down loudly throughout the night) and they found that the maple tree in the front yard had lost all of its branches across the driveway, totally blocking them both by car and by foot. My dad's car (his new Civic), which had been parked outside, had a thick layer of ice such that there was no way to get into it; it had also narrowly escaped being smashed by the fallen tree branches. Our conversation was cut short when my dad reported that it was starting to rain again in the below freezing conditions and they needed to get back to my grandmother's house while the roads were still reasonably safe.

Today, I missed my mom's call from the brief visit to check the cat because I was at my last final at school, but she left a message that my grandmother is now without telephone service due to a fallen tree taking out the line and that she will not be available by cell as the companies are requesting they be used for emergencies only. So we're on a no-news-is-good-news policy right now. I hope the primary problem over the next week is one of absolute tedium as they wait this thing out. (Being stuck in one's mother-in-law's house without even the diversions afforded by daytime TV has to suck. And by diversions, I mean diverting the attention of my grandmother who will, in the absence of compelling distraction, talk to you forever no matter how obviously you are trying to read your book. This presents a problem for a fundamentally polite person like my mother.)

It feels very strange to be cut off from contact in this way, to have received this message and have no way of responding.

From what she said on Monday, the casino where my dad works was open (I believe they have their own back-up generators). They tend to get a lot of customers when the weather is bad, even when the majority of people and businesses in the area aren't without electricity. No word yet on whether my dad has made it into the office or how absolutely swamped they must be with otherwise bored, cold people looking for something to do and someplace heated to do it in. (There is only so much sex a person can have, after all, and it's not so fun to take your clothes off when the temperatures is in the 40s in your house.)

The Tulsa World has a slide show here; I recommend it with the captions on.

Here are some good shots of icy trees from the Norman (near Oklahoma City) area.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Sound of Many Hands Clapping


Congratulations to my mom for receiving an Applause Award from the library where she is currently working part-time, officially as one of the world's most over-qualified bookshelvers, but in truth as an all-around kick-ass answer to the local librarian's prayers. Way to go!

My Superpower

Your Superpower Should Be Manipulating Electricity

You're highly reactive, energetic, and super charged.
If the occasion calls for it, you can go from 0 to 60 in a split second.
But you don't harness your energy unless you truly need to.
And because of this, people are often surprised by what you are capable of.

Why you would be a good superhero: You have the stamina to fight enemies for days

Your biggest problem as a superhero: As with your normal life, people would continue to underestimate you


Amusingly, I actually do have some weird abilities where electricity is concerned. The best quote came from a 17 year old, future-engineer friend who protested, "But that's not even scientifically possible!" Yeah, tell me about it.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Growth Mind-Set

Check out this interesting article, "The Secret to Raising Smart Kids," from Scientific American (via the Marginal Revolution blog). The author is well-known psychologist (now at Stanford) Carol Dweck, who has written a lot on topics related to self-conceptions and their effects on motivation and behavior.

One question this raises for me: Is it ever too late to start cultivating a growth mind-set?

The study with managers she mentions suggests that it is possible for people to change their implict person theory regarding personal attributes from one that assumes that traits are innate and fixed to one that believes that the attributes can be changed and that this can have behavioral consequences. (In this case, managers who believed that personality and ability could be changed were more likely to coach their employees.) That study used a workshop focusing on self-persuasion techniques ("parallel counter-attitudinal idea generation, counter-attitudinal reflection, counter-attitudinal advocacy, and dissonance induction components") to increase the belief that people can change.

There's one hell of a self-help book/workshop series to be gotten from all of this.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Idiotic Marketing Book Figures

I'm reviewing for my marketing exam tomorrow morning at 8:00 and once again came across this particularly useless and aesthetically displeasing figure in the book. (I apologize for the bad photo; my scanner isn't set up so I had to take a snapshot and had trouble keeping my hands steady enough for the print to be readable.) I have complained before about how I spent the first 75% or so of the course basically ignoring most of the drawings, graphs, and figures in the margins of the book, and this figure is a good illustration of why.

Opposite of an optical illusion

The text right above this figure reads: "As suggested by Figure 16-4, a supply chain manager's key task is to balance these four customer service factors [just given in previous sentence] against total logistics cost factors [described a couple paragraphs above]." It is hard to see what this figure adds to anyone's understanding of this process; it is just a rather mind-bogglingly literal representation of the text with extremely poor execution. It does not even qualify as "cartoon-like" despite the fantasy physics that underlies the universe of this figure, and it is almost unbelievably ugly. It's like somebody has taken a pyramid drawing featured in a children's comic book version of the Time Life Books "Mysteries of the Unknown" series and slapped it into a bad 3-D graph produced in 10 year out-of-date software using the default settings.

It's amusing that the two sides do not, actually, appear to be in balance in this drawing anyway. And they have rendered the various factors so that they give the mistaken impression of being completely independent, while the book has already told us that "many of these costs are interrelated so that changes in one will impact the others."

Overall, this figure is so bad, it's kind of impressive.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Christmas Party Garb

I'm too sexy for this sweater...so sexy and better

I went to the Ralph Lauren website to find out how much this red sweater, featured on youlookfab, cost, and the hideousness of it crashed my browser. So FYI, for $225 plus shipping, this sweater can be yours. It will definitely draw attention at your next Christmas bash and perhaps draw a comparison to Colin Firth's famous sweater in Bridget Jones's Diary. And what man would not like to be favorably compared to romantic lead Colin Firth?

Drinking away all knowledge of this sweater

One thing you are buying for your $225 is a design that draws the eye up to your pecs instead of focusing all attention on your pot belly. (If you do not already have a pot belly, the reindeer sweater generously gives you the illusion of having one.)

It is a bit difficult for me to understand how one can interpret the statement that the model "gets away" with the look other than to acknowledge that on a being as superhumanly concurrently broad and narrow as a Ralph Lauren model, nothing can make you forget you are viewing an amazing specimen. I agree with the commenter's husband who observed that getting a normal man to wear that outfit "would be like trying to put a sweater on a cat."

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Marketing Exam #4

Yesterday after my test, I flipped through the book again to identify questions I missed and I only found one that I knew to have wrong (and it was one that had caused me a great deal of deliberation during the exam), and one that I could still not tell whether I got wrong or not.

I just checked the class website and I got a 98! I now have a 94, 92, and 98 as my 3 highest grades going into the final exam next week. Oh, but actually, that 92 is a 94. I stopped by the professor's office to review exam #1 and exam #3 on Monday (I had been able to determine the 5 questions I had gotten wrong on exam #2) and discovered an error in the grading key that the professor confirmed. So once the grades are corrected, I will have 94, 94, and 98.

Assuming I don't totally screw up the final next Wednesday, I should have my A.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Jonathan Creek

Jonathan Creek is a quirky, amusing British mystery series featuring a curly-haired geek who lives in a windmill, creates clever illusions for a famous magician (who happens to be played by the delicious actor who is Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and who gets to have a lot of fun in the first episode of JC), and is unwillingly roped into solving crimes by an irrepressible female investigative journalist named Maddy (who at least once endangers one of his inventions with her weight). The crimes are kind of incredible, but the characters are fun - especially Jonathan (at least, in the two episodes I have watched so far).

Of course, my entire experience of this show has been influenced by my immediate feeling that in some slightly different universe, Jonathan Creek is Tam's boyfriend.

Let's go to the clips to see what I mean. (I apologize for not embedding the clips, but I couldn't get it to work. But really, opening another window to see them is worth it!)

In the first episode, Jonathan and Maddy bumped into each other kind of literally at a party and later, when Maddy has found out what a smarty-pants Jonathan is and that he could be a big help to her in solving a locked-room style mystery, she invites him for lunch.

Watch segment 8:35 - 9:50 (If you're not used to YouTube, you can move the little scrolling button on the bottom of the display until it shows close to the right time.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_GP1dx3kwc

Later, Jonathan goes to visit Maddy at her place, but sees her on the stoop with her boyfriend acting flirtatious, and he gets jealous. Maddy calls him to talk about the mystery, but he has something else on his mind.

Watch segment 1:55-3:55

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39Wq-8R0zNk

In the second episode, Jonathan is talking to the widow of a murdered vaudevillian comedian whom Jonathan cannot stand and takes an interest in an idiosyncratic way.

Watch segment 0:00-0:55

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qrNeXpRwGZQ

I cannot get over how funny the "scientific precision" line is.

The series is available on Netflix.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Congratulations, Austin

We managed to beat out past champ Houston on the Forbes list, coming in at #18; Houston somehow managed to not make the top 20. San Antonio did an impressive turn, ranking #3 in the nation.

Too bad the competition was for most obese high-population city in the US. (Initially, I wrote "most obese large city" but that seemed ambiguous.)

Forbes describes their methodology: "To determine which cities were the most obese, we looked at 2006 data on body mass index, or BMI, collected by the Centers for Disease Control's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which conducts phone interviews with residents of metropolitan areas about health issues, including obesity, diabetes and exercise... Though data is collected for roughly 145 metropolitan statistical areas, we looked only at the country's 50 most populated cities and ranked the top 20."

Forbes reports: "Austin wouldn't have entered our list based on 2005 figures, when only 17.2% of its residents were obese. But in 2006, that number shot up to 24.9%, which was enough to surpass neighboring Houston, an erstwhile "fattest" city. The noticeable shift may shock residents who think of their hometown as healthy and active."

Shout out to Okie readers: Oklahoma City makes the list (#8) but Tulsa does not. Since Forbes did not include the list of 50 largest cities that they used to select the top 20, it is unclear whether Tulsa was a contender for the list. This site and this site include Tulsa among the 50 most populous cities, so perhaps Tulsa just didn't manage to make the cut. Better luck next time!

I was pretty surprised to see two California cities on the list, including San Diego. San Diego?! I guess my experience with the place is terribly out of date (15 years), and was limited to the rich Anglo part of town in any case, but I would not have predicted this at all.

One thing that the Forbes article does not discuss is the ethnic composition of the "winning" cities on this list. My very rough-and-dirty calculation comparing percent-Anglo (from US Census data) and percent-obese for the 20 cities on the list shows a correlation of -0.46, which would be considered a moderate correlation between ethnicity and obesity, with a higher percentage of the population non-Anglo (i.e. non-Hispanic white) being associated with higher obesity.

Also, Robert pointed out that the biggest US cities are not represented on the list. Not only Houston (#3 in population), but also NY, LA, Chicago, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Dallas, and San Jose; the only two cities of the top 10 most populated which show up are San Antonio and San Diego. I'm not sure whether this means much of anything, but it is odd. It's hard to credit an explanation like "large cities have better public transportation, which encourages physical activity more than driving does," given the car culture of Houston and Dallas. It may point to something screwy in the disproportionate sampling frame they used for getting representative statewide data when applied to city-level data.

I found the article from this post on Marginal Revolution. Check out comment #6 for some of my thoughts on the methodology and the never-ending "BMI doesn't measure fat" fantasy.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Economic Thinking and a Much Stupider Kind of Stephen Hawking

I liked Jen's closing line from her comment on organic foods - it illustrates an economic point:

"So I take the opposite stance and favor organic. I would love to see the prices come more in line, but since I do believe in the health impact (and also in whacky stuff like yoga and meditation), I consider the extra cost an investment in my body -- which is the most important thing I have."

Since Jen is a semi-professional dancer, it makes sense that she would place a premium on things, like organic foods, that either boost her physical performance or at least help prevent deterioration of it. (Or that provide peace of mind about something that she values highly.) Since my physical skills are so minimal (and any advantage being limited perhaps to projectile skills, which I rarely use), losing physical ability short of death, while certainly very undesirable, would have less impact on me. I could maintain my career as a knowledge worker from a wheelchair, for example.

Having a higher income also makes the decision to purchase organic, on speculation that it is beneficial, easier; many of us could buy only organic food and still not spend any great proportion of our income on food - especially if we stopped eating at restaurants. According to this National Restaurant Association data, Americans spend 47.9% of their food budget eating out. That suggests to me that people are throwing away plenty of money on food that is generally relatively unhealthy and fattening. Maybe people will start (continue?) going to all-organic restaurants and really start to eat into that food budget.

My beef (OK, that's a poor word choice) with vegetarianism and organic foods is not that I think people shouldn't eat that way if they want to do so and for whatever reasons they may have. My primary concerns regarding the organic movement are with activists who want to get rid of conventionally grown options and who like to portray conventionally grown food as functionally poisonous, even to lower income, less educated people who need to be eating and serving their children vegetables and cannot actually afford to eat 100% organic; and it is unclear that wide-scale organic farming would be productive enough to feed the growing population of the planet. (To those who propose that there are "too many people" in the world, I say it's time to "think globally and act locally" and "take one for the team.")

On a personal level, I also find the moral superiority and social posturing that sometimes, but certainly not always, accompanies the pro-organic lifestyle distasteful and annoying. And I'm easily frustrated by the many people who do not base their beliefs in the environmental arena in any kind of grounded, scientific truth but fall back on how something is "obviously" healthier or "clearly" dangerous or different. Although there are a lot of people who favor particular environmental activities or choices because in their estimation, the evidence backs them up, many others make unfounded assertions and take a basically faith-based approach to the whole thing. Many times, the argument appears to boil down to "natural is obviously better," which is less convincing than the "God is obviously the creator of the universe" argument, because we have abundant evidence that many natural foods will kill you if you eat them and that biologists can muck about with plants to a great extent with no harm done to the person eating them. (How many common modern agricultural products would Adam and Eve recognize? Do people believe that all the changes in food over time have been accidental?)

All this being said, remember to eat your veggies! Organic, conventionally grown, raw, cooked, from frozen, from a can, from a farmer's market, from your garden, whatever. Veggies are good. With Thanksgiving coming up in a couple of days, I wonder, is pumpkin pie a vegetable? I'm thinking it's vegetable enough.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Unkindness of Silk

I was surprised to read in this description of silk farming in Cambodia that the silkworms are killed in the process - "You have to kill the silkworms before they hatch; otherwise, they'll bust the single continuous fiber, many meters long, that makes one strand of silk. So you boil them alive, or dry them on a hot metal sheet in the sun. Then you carefully unwind that single strand, and bundle it together with 40-50 other strands to make a single silk thread." It's not so much that I would have assumed that silk farming would be any kind of humane industry, especially in a phenomenally poor country, but I had never considered what was involved in making silk.

Considering that silk is much more expensive and less strong/durable than manmade fiber substitutes, I have not purchased silk clothing for myself. Reading about the cruelty aspect of silk production now gives me the opportunity to define my no-silk lifestyle as an act of moral rectitude rather than cheap-ass-hood. Of course, given that I have nearly zero credibility in the anti-animal-cruelty arena (aside from ridiculously catering to my own pet bunny's comfort, which doesn't really count), I cannot quite manage to view my pragmatic decision in that way. However, the killing silkworm angle does give yet another reason to avoid silk when cruelty-free alternatives are so easily available.

I am sufficiently concerned about animal cruelty that I wish I had the wherewithal to be a vegetarian. I'm not saying that it would be impossible for me, if I valued it more highly, but given my current state of concern about cruelty vs. the cost, inconvenience, and day-to-day health requirements, I have not done so. I don't mean that vegetarianism is unhealthy, though I think it can be harder to maintain a healthy vegetarian diet than one in which lean meat is used as a primary protein source; I just have not personally had good luck blending vegetarianism with eating adequate protein to keep my blood sugar steady. I have managed to go about two days on a vegetarian diet before crashing, and eating enough plant-based protein to keep that from happening requires a caloric intake level that guarantees weight gain, which I definitely do not need. (According to nutritiondata.com, the calories per g of protein for some common foods are: chicken breast - 5.2; tofu - 7.5; egg - 10.0; black beans - 18.5; peanut butter - 23.6.)

The issue of cost is more relevant for buying cruelty-free meat and to date, I have not made it a financial priority to do that. (Though I admit that Buddy's chicken, for example, tastes really good.) One problem for me as a consumer is that meat that is sold as cruelty-free is also touted as "natural" since it is produced without antibiotics and hormones or the use of genetically modified foods (which I either do not care about or view as sort of actively silly to be concerned about), making the product much more expensive; this means that I have to pay a premium for something I don't value. (This article, example, states that the cost of organic cattle feed is up to 30% more than genetically modified feed.)

Also, though I recognize that the costs of keeping animals in more comfortable environments than your typical factory situation are legitimately higher, I suspect that the final product sells at a price that more than offsets the true costs. It is known that "fair trade" coffee, for example, is purchased from producers by a few extra cents and then sold to consumers at much more inflated prices because buying fair trade coffee sends "two messages" to the retailer (in the words of economist Tim Harford from his book The Undercover Economist): "One message interested them very little - 'I think fair trade coffee is a product that should be supported.' The second message is the one that they were straining to hear - 'I don't really mind paying a bit extra.'" This is called "third degree price discimination" in economic jargon - finding a way to segment your customers on the basis of their willingness to pay and extracting more money from those who are willing to pay more. But I am not willing to pay more. I do not want to give away any of my consumer surplus. So unless/until I know that the people selling "natural" meat are not laughing their way to the bank at my expense, I am leery of forking over the extra money.

I am very familiar with (and never tire of marveling at) the practice of people purchasing natural, organic, etc., foods and other products as a way of telegraphing to others that they have so much money that they can easily afford to spend more on these products, although the ostensible concern is for health and the environment.

The commonly given argument that organic foods are healthier does not appear to bear up well to scientific scrutiny (e.g., a review of 400 scientific papers concludes that "While there is no doubt that organic food is more “natural” than conventional food, “natural” on the other hand does not mean benign" and "There is currently no evidence to support or refute claims that organic food is safer and thus, healthier, than conventional food, or vice versa"; see Organic Food: Buying More Safety or Just Peace of Mind? A Critical Review of the Literature. By: Magkos, Faidon; Arvaniti, Fotini; Zampelas, Antonis. Critical Reviews in Food Science & Nutrition, Jan/Feb2006, Vol. 46 Issue 1, p23-56). The environmental value of organic farming has also been called into question (see this interesting article from Australian science magazine COSMOS for a review).

I wonder how many fervent organic shoppers are simply misguided about the relative risks and benefits of conventional versus organic food and would, if the empirical evidence demonstrated conclusively that the supposed health benefits were pretty much nothing, switch back to regular groceries, and how many would continue to purchase organic for the psychological and social intangibles of status and "feeling good."

(A really fascinating example of environmentalism as status symbol is the failure of the Honda Civic hybrid vehicle to compete against the Prius, which has been shown from market research to stem from the huge problem that the Honda Civic hybrid looked too much like a normal car to exude the image of "cool" and "environmentally hip" that the Prius does. This 2004 article in the Washington Post is a must-read on the topic, though it made me very nostalgic for $2/gallon gasoline.)

Basically, I am really looking forward to a time when synthetic meat is commonly commercially available. While this may be the utter opposite of what the "natural foods" movement stands for (if some people are already living in terror of genetically modified corn and rice, lab-grown meat is likely to be especially scary, and we can count on the activist population to stir up fear, especially among the scientifically illiterate who are less capable of assessing the risks and benefits in a more-or-less rational fashion) and I don't know how relatively palatable synthetic meat would be, it would certainly simplify the moral dilemma of eating.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Nasty Example of Personal Selling

Today in marketing, we were covering a chapter on "personal selling" and the professor asked if anyone had ever worked as a telemarketer, which I and two other people had. The first guy said he only did it for two weeks. I said, "Well, I did it for three days but on the third day, I couldn't take it anymore and walked out in the middle of my shift." The other guy had also quit during his third day on the job (and made an eloquent gun-to-head gesture to put across how he felt about it).

I did not mention that right after I left, several other people - I believe the majority of those who started the job the same day I did - walked out also. We all commiserated with each other on the absolute suckitude of the job and how we were desperate in varying degrees, but not quite that desperate, for money. (I was in college and living with my parents, so the least desperate of the group, but even the single moms and such had other options they felt were preferable.) As I recall, I followed up this abortive telemarketing gig with renewed employment at Sonic Drive-In, where my sales requirements were limited to pushing the 44 oz. cherry limeade or onion rings or whatever to people who deep down really did want it and who did not, in any event, call me names when they did not.

So the professor asked me what I didn't like about it and it was surprisingly difficult to answer the question. Not that I do not remember the horrible feeling of doing something intolerable, but it was hard to break that feeling down into what were the particular aspects of the job that I disliked. So I said something like, "I hated trying to convince people who had no interest in the product that they should buy it and talking to old people who were so lonely that they asked me a hundred questions about road-side service even though they did not drive and generally feeling like I was supposed to be manipulating people into doing something they didn't want to do, and I just hated the whole dynamic. It was gruesome." Basically, I felt alternatively like an asshole or an exploiter, neither of which is a role I enjoy.

Another thing I did not say, because I didn't think of it until later, was that one reason that I hated it was that I was so bad at it. Perhaps if I had been more capable of getting that person who said that she was already up to her ears in credit card debt to accept the credit card I was pushing, it would not have felt so awful or so slimy. But maybe one has to be sort of slimy to excel in this kind of sales work. I actually think that a good bit of the sales work being done is valuable and honorable, but telemarketing is a pretty seedy enterprise. I can only imagine that the high performers in the company were not burdened with much in the way of social conscience or sensitivity to being rejected.

Which reminds me... when Robert was out of town a few weeks ago and I was more bored than usual, and Tam had been talking about Facebook and finding some of our old college friends there, I decided to google some random people I knew in high school. There was one particular guy JD (with whom I went to the prom my junior year, for those of you who know these players), who I have always been curious about but had never been able to find anything online. (Everyone who has interacted with JD knows that he is a cocky son-of-a-bitch with zero sensitivity to rejection, a Machiavellian personality, and a potentially adaptable moral compass.) I had heard through other people that he was in law enforcement in some capacity, and thought that might explain why he wanted to keep a low profile. So with low expectations, I looked him up and got a bunch of hits for a criminal lawyer in the right geographical area. For a laugh, I clicked on one of the links. Holy shit, I thought, that picture could be him if he had gained a lot of weight. College details - correct. Law enforcement background - correct. I finally found mention of a journal article he co-published with his best friend from high school which cinched the deal. So if I get stopped for a DUI over Christmas and need a sleazy lawyer to get me off, I know who to call, I guess.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Lolbun

Robert had shown me the basic photo on the Cute Overload site, but Tam sent me a lolbun made from it that is priceless.



Monday, November 12, 2007

Things I Believe In

In response to Tam's post on belief systems, I offer these fundamental beliefs that I cannot claim to be rational all the way down:

Some form of free will

Induction

I am not a brain in a vat

Friday, November 9, 2007

Surprisingly Excellent Customer Service

As a part of my plan this afternoon to finally do some things that I have been putting off for too long (taking advantage of the fact that I had scheduled myself until 5:00 this afternoon for my psychology exam and finished early), I went to the Bank of America web site to redeem the World Points on my credit card for the first time and discovered that I could get $120 in cash for them. But I could not figure out how to actually accomplish this - I kept being shuttled between two different pages, neither of which had any obvious place to request my money. Additionally, I discovered that an ancient credit card I had not used since 2001 was appearing on my account and I wanted to close that sucker, but again, could not figure out how to do this online. (However, I was able to make my payment for my current credit card online for the first time since my account was purchased by BOA; there was some kind of screw up in the system that meant we ex-MBNA people were unable to have full functionality for a while, as I understand it.)

So I called the 800 number and settled in for a long wait, but within two minutes, I had a human being on the phone who took care of both pieces of business in just over three minutes. Customer satisfaction is generally viewed as the result of a gap analysis of customer expectations versus experience; in this case, low expectations combined with a truly excellent experience combined to make me actually mean it when I responded with "You too" to her suggestion that I have an "exceptional weekend."

Now if only their web team could get their shit together, I'd be thrilled.

Painful Acronyms

I just finished my psychology take-home essay test (a critique of two health intervention campaigns of my choice - totalling 12 pages) and while it was perhaps not up to my highest standards, I think it was fine. My favorite part was this:

The messages were developed and final versions selected by a panel of experts. However, without input from members of the target audience, it is difficult to ensure that the content and presentation of the ideas came across as relevant, understandable, worth paying attention to, and not just the same old thing experts always say and people rarely act upon with any consistency. All twelve emails came with the same subject line – “HEALTH: Healthy Eating and Active Living Together For Health” – which is lengthy, boring, redundant, and contrived to yield a cumbersome governmental-sounding acronym that borders on self-parody; this is unlikely to grab people’s attention in their inbox as promising anything interesting, novel, or valuable that they should take the time to read.

This reminded me of how the first time I saw a US PIRG bumper sticker (I refuse to link to the idiots) on a sidewalk at Rice, I didn't know what it referred to and with Tam, created a variety of possible interpretations. The one I came up with that I still remember and enjoy was "Under stress, practice invoking relevant gods."

Last night, while lying in bed before falling asleep, I decided that the OK Department of Wildlife Conservation needs to put together a program called OUTDOORS: Outdoorspeople United Together to Develop Oklahomans' Outdoor Recreation Skills. Perhaps I should not give them any ideas.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Visuwords

Via Marginal Revolution, a fun site to get a visual representation of a dictionary word.

Sally generated bubbles based on "sortie, sally: a military action in which besieged troops burst forth from their position," "sally: a venture off the beaten path," and "wisecrack, crack, sally, quip: witty remark."

I did not realize that "empirical" was related in any way to "quackery" (in the medical sense).

"Psychology" yielded a very pretty flower-like shape, though the words shown were a kind of odd mix.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

A Half-Assed Comparison of Target and Wal-Mart Grocery Prices

The Super Target has finally opened in the greatly expanded shopping center across the highway from our apartment. (How I still wish they had gone with the obvious and ironic name Le Grande Target.) Because Robert and I had a short grocery shopping list for the week, we decided last night it was a good time to check out the Target.

Leaving out the 4 items from our receipt that I could not identify looking at it today (with 2 helpfully listed as "Kraft"), here is what we purchased, comparing prices to Wal-Mart (taken from receipts during the past month) where possible.

Leaf lettuce - $1.99 - 38% higher than WM
Asparagus - $3.49/lb - 19% higher than WM
Oroweat whole grain oatnut bread - $3.39 - 12% higher than WM
Kleenex 3 pack - $4.19 - 11% higher than WM
Brummel & Brown - $1.72 - same as WM
Aunt Jemima wheat pancake mix - $1.92 - same as WM

Dr Pepper 12 pack - $3.33 - buying 2 is 11% higher than WM's 24 pack

Italian parsley - $0.79 - 72% higher than WM's cilantro (which is generally about the same as the parsley)

Archer Farms frozen peaches - $2.79 - 45% higher than WM's store brand
Archer Farms deli turkey - $6.85/lb - 34% higher than WM (national brand, do not recall it) [I had a sandwich for lunch today and can attest that the two kinds taste very similar, but that I think I prefer the one from WM]
Archer Farms bag of salad - $2.79 - 4% higher than WM (national brand, do not recall it)

Eggs, one dozen - $1.32 - 11% lower than WM

Target had a total of two options for cayenne pepper: available in a small quantity along with a couple of other compatible spices for $5 and a normal (small-ish) jar of organic cayenne pepper for $9. This was so crazy expensive we didn't buy any.

Target also did not carry the Sun Maid golden raisins that I prefer ($2.22 for the large box at WM) so I got a bag of their Archer Farms "premium" dried cherries and golden raisins for $2.79 (for a smaller quantity). They are quite good, but not worth the extra expense.

Target and Wal-Mart both suck in their selection of peanut oil. Robert did not buy any at WM the last time because they only had a large bottle; however, Target sells a small bottle for about the same price ($7.54), which we did buy.

Target did come through on a couple of things that are not stocked at the Wal-Mart: Morningstar Farms mini corn dogs (which WM used to sell but not anymore) - $2.99, Buitoni whole wheat tortellini - $2.99, and a box of oat bran (carried only very briefly by WM and that we have been buying at HEB for $2.49) - $2.64.

Wal-Mart prices were not available for: Morningstar Farms breakfast sausage ($2.99), Campbell's Healthy Request Cream of Celery soup ($0.92 on sale), Smuckers jelly ($2.49), Polaner sugar free preserves ($2.99).

Overall, the store appears to be geared toward people who want fast, semi-upscale-seeming meals and snacks, while the selection of "ingredient" type foods for putting meals together is limited compared to Wal-Mart. (For instance, Robert pointed out the laughably small canned vegetable and fruit section.) However, they have a number of quite tasty-looking (but not particularly healthy) prepared foods that would be easy to take home in lieu of stopping at a restaurant or fast food joint.

The Archer Farms house brand was absolutely everywhere. They offer an impressive array of frozen foods, snacks, dessert mixes, etc., for somewhat more money than the more prosaic versions at Wal-Mart (I didn't compare any of the Archer Farms with the national brands stocked by Target, though this side-by-side would be easy enough to do on many of the items). Robert thought that the Target's produce looked fresher than we typically see at Wal-Mart, but because shopping on a Monday night is such a rarity, it's hard to know whether this is a function of the timing since restocking. Target's produce definitely comes at a premium. In general, prices were higher, except for a few national brand items, where they matched Wal-Mart precisely.

In the check out line, we were behind a couple purchasing two frozen pizzas and a baking mix (for making brownies or some kind of sweet), which seems like a very 'typical' consumer, based on the kinds of products that are available.

They are sort of evil with their endcaps, promoting their house brand chocolates and other high calorie treats (that no doubt have nice, high markups). We heard one girl calling to her mom, who was looking at items in the aisle, "Mommy, look what I found" over and over; she had found a bunch of candy positioned at kiddy eye level at the end of the aisle.

The woman at the deli who sliced our turkey took forever to do the job; she was slow to come to the counter to help us and then it was almost impossible to believe that a person could work so slowly in doing the slicing. (At one point, Robert whispered, "Look, we're up to 0.65 pounds!" and I was sort of relieved.) I can only hope that it was her first day on the job.

We are not going to be replacing Wal-Mart with Target as our primary grocery store, for a combination of primarily price and secondarily selection, though it will be a good place to pick up items that aren't available at Wal-Mart and for the occasional something different. (Or as Robert put it, "This won't be our fast ball, but it will make for a change up.")

The Barking Dog Test For Divergence

Let me out of this damn box, you jerk!
Several people in my calculus class continue to have difficulty understanding the implications of the Nth Term Test, which states that if the limit as n approaches infinity of the nth term of the series does not = 0, the series diverges. Again and again, people interpret this to mean that if the limit is 0, that the series converges. (They do seem to understand why having a limit of 0 is a necessary condition for the series to converge.) However, a limit that = 0 tells you nothing about the convergence or divergence of the series.

Fundamentally, people are confusedly thinking that to fail to disprove something is the same as to confirm it. This is a not uncommon logic problem.

During class, I thought of an analogy to the Nth Term Test that I will call the Barking Dog Test.

A storage container/enclosed box has either a cat or dog in it, and it is your job to identify whether it is a cat or dog, and if it is a cat, what specific kind (so that, say, the boxes of various types of cats can be placed in the correct location in your storage facility and the boxes of dogs can be sent to another facility that deals in dogs).

There are many different, sometimes complex ways to determine if the animal is a cat, and what kind of cat, but one easy way to see if the animal is definitely a dog, not a cat. We will use the fact that no cat will ever respond with a bark when offered the opportunity to go on a walk; a cat will always remain silent (Bark = 0).

If you say to the animal in the box, “Do you want to go on a walk? Huh? Huh?” and the animal responds with a bark (Bark does not = 0), then the animal is a dog, not any kind of cat, and no further testing needs to be done.

However, if the animal responds with silence (Bark = 0), it is still unknown whether it is a cat or a dog. It could be some sort of cat but could also be a dog who is deaf, mute, asleep, or just uninterested in walks. To distinguish between these possibilities, you will need to apply your other methods. All the Barking Dog Test tells you is that if the animal barks (Bark not = 0), it is definitely a dog.

Similarly, if the limit of the nth term does not = 0, the series is definitely divergent. Otherwise, you need to check for convergence using other tests.

(Please note, the Barking Dog Test is not to be confused with either the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time Test or the Shroedinger’s Cat Test, neither of which are applicable to the cat/dog sorting job you have been hired to do. You can muck around with mystery novels and quantum physics on your own damn time.)

This Blog's Reading Level

Are we surprised?


You can check your blog's reading level at http://www.criticsrant.com/bb/reading_level.aspx

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Open Letter: Economics Version

Tam linked to an open letter written by a linguistics professor bemoaning the misconceptions and ignorance of the general populace who yet believe that they are qualified to make statements about language (or psychology or whatever). Robert helped me write a version of this letter including some commonly held and expressed beliefs about economics which, incidentally, the average linguistics professor is perhaps even more likely to endorse and pontificate on at length to like-minded friends at dinner parties or in restaurants than the typical American (who, frankly, would rather talk about why their favored football team was screwed this weekend).

What is worse: the average person who thinks they know something about economics or the average professor, who spent a multitude of years learning the nuances of a field and currently engages in high level research in this field and is sensitive to the fact that the common person is unlikely to have the background to even grasp the basics, but thinks that everything that needs to be known about economics can be expressed in a politician's talking points? I don't mean to pick on the writer of the original letter - for all I know, he is properly circumspect about the fact that he knows jack-all about economics, or perhaps he actually knows something about the field starting with which is the demand curve and which is the supply curve and what is the definition of economic efficiency - but reading his comments really reminded me of how many highly educated people seem to treat economics as something dirty that others use to get rich and exploit the masses rather than a legitimate field of inquiry.

Of course, economics is a weird topic in that it is so high profile in politics and hence viewed as a matter of what "should" be true rather than what is. People do not welcome the harsh message that having people with the right letter after their name on the ballot elected is not sufficient to overcome economic reality.

And given the strange way that various political beliefs cluster together, people often accept a whole package of beliefs together without bothering to be informed beyond absorbing and parrotting what other people like themselves say. Many things that superficially make sense are not actually true. (For instance, if people did not know differently from experience, might they not agree that it would "make sense" for water to be more expensive than diamonds, because water is so critical to human life and diamonds aren't of much use?) And since human beings are basically brilliant at making things make sense, while also being frequently intellectually lazy or influenced to believe things through non-rational means without realizing it, it's easy for politicians, ideologues, activists, and self-interested assholes of various stripes to sell people on ideas that have a surface plausibility about them.

So on to the letter:

Dear [□ Sir / □ Madam / □ Representative / □ Journalist / □ Linguistics Professor],

I know you believe you know a great deal about economics simply because you have a job and buy stuff or because you've read a newspaper article about outsourcing.

But please understand that the issues in this field are far more complicated than you realize. For instance, the field isn't all about the power of the haves over the have nots. Those of us practicing in the field spend much of our time reading articles, synthesizing facts, and seeking a deeper understanding of market forces.

I'm not saying that you can't have an opinion until you've memorized An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations —in fact, most of the people in our field have never done that. But we'd appreciate it if you either consult an expert, or educate yourself a little more by taking a course or two so that you have a basic understanding of what's going on in the field*, before you confidently proclaim that foreigners are stealing American jobs, the trade deficit is one of our greatest problems, Wal-Mart is one of our greatest problems, 0% unemployment should be our goal, cheap imports are destroying American industry, increasing teachers' salaries will solve America's education problem, or Europe has everything figured out so we should do what they do.

Thank you for your time.

Yours,[□ __________(your name here)__________]

*Note: To my mind, it is an open question whether taking a typical principles of economics course in a university actually increases economic literacy and if so, to what extent. I think it's possible that there is too much focus on doing the math and not enough time spent on the fundamental concepts for most people to actually get a lot out of it. I feel fairly confident that (non-AP) high school economics classes are mostly useless - too much "5 page paper on the economy of Paraguay, including primary industries and most common exports and imports" or Junior Achievement stuff.

Marketing Exam #3

I actually cheered out loud when I saw my grade on the web site just now - I pulled off a 92.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

My Image - Halloween Edition

Following Tam's lead, I searched on my first name in Google Images and the first one was this fan drawing of Sally from the beloved Nightmare Before Christmas movie:

A billion years ago, Robert and I went on a date to see that film in the theater and ever since, I have kept the obvious Jack and Sally Halloween costume idea in my head for when we really need a good one in a situation that merits putting some effort into the thing.


Others: a very young Sally Field, a boat, mandolin sheet music for "Sally Goodin," and the character Sally from the movie Cars (which I have not seen, but which sort of surprises me is a Porsche and not a Mustang).


Less thrillingly, my full name returns the photo and promotional page of an ex-model turned TV commercial actress that no one will mistake for me.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Past-Their-Prime Transvestite Prostitutes

I have to admit that reading that line from Jen's comment two posts ago made me laugh until I teared up. As I attempt to apply the "What would Vorenus do?" protocol to the situation, I realize that in Ancient Rome, they must have been fairly common.

Googling around, I came across this amusing site with various types of Ancient Roman prostitutes. My favorite is:

"Famosae -- Soiled doves from respectable families."

Leopold Rex (or is it Wrecks?) and Marketing Tests

(Pun courtesy of Robert, who said last night that he didn't realize that the rabbit's name Leopold Rex was actually a complete sentence.)

Last night, because Leo had been acting very "I'm not getting enough attention around here lately with all this idiotic school business," I decided to do some of the studying for my marketing exam in his room. I sat on the futon with my book and papers and told Leo, "If you come up onto the futon, I will pet you." Leo, despite having no apparent grasp of English in any circumstance, did jump up on the futon, bite the corner of my book (which was on my lap), and attempt to fling it out of the way. When I pulled it away from him, he got into my lap and reared up in a way that I have never seen him do before to tell me "Put that stupid thing away and pet me now!" Of course, I had no alternative put to comply, for a time, and then I gathered my things and studied in the living room. My book has scars now to attest to the encounter. Maybe it will end up on the shelf next to my social psychology textbook that has a corner totally chewed off from a previous confrontation.

My test this morning was okay, but not great, and unlike the other two tests, I don't have a good sense of how I did. 10 of the 50 problems did not have immediately obvious answers to me the first time through, which is not encouraging, but looking through the book when I got home, I found that I had selected the correct answer for many of those. (One of these was the ABCD or All of the above type, and I knew that D was correct and that A-C were possible, but would be stupid. It's encouraging that when reviewing the book, I find no evidence for the stupid options A-C.) Others, I still am not sure what he was looking for.

And the one that took me forever to decide on an answer, and in which my first instinct was correct but I think I eventually talked myself out of it, was a straightforward economics question. I had told Robert that I knew I would get an economics question wrong and last night had basically decided that the question would involve the competitive market types of monopoly, oligopoly, monopolistic competition, and pure competition. Indeed, I waffled on the issue of whether the packaged cereal industry is an oligopoly or monopolistic competition. I hope I was smart enough to go with oligopoly, which is increasingly obvious in retrospect. (And my thoughts about why the answer might be monopolistic competition seem lamer and lamer as I try to remember them.)

Getting this wrong is sort of embarrassing because I know that my professor already thinks I am an economics major (in context of my various contributions in class one particular day about elasticity of demand and other micro-economic topics, he asked me if I was an accounting major and I said "economics major"), but it would be worse if he knew that I actually already have a degree in economics.

Of course, I have never admitted to having worked in the marketing field for the last 9 years either.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Post That Makes It Out of My Head, For Once

Sorry for the silence this past week. I have kept thinking of things to write while walking to class or driving home, but nothing has made it this far. I've been sort of preoccupied by illness, preparing for a presentation, and spending my few spare moments playing Fate again. So to compensate for this lack of material, and to scare you with the content of my brain, I present the following recounting of Today, Thursday, 25 October, 2007, in the Life of Sally. (Unlike Samuel Pepys' diary, high on personal revelation and low on Great Events.)

I felt dissatisfied with the light dozing of the hour or so before my alarm went off at 6 o'clock until I actually woke up and realized how good I'd had it up to then. My banana-oat bran muffins were an odd texture, even by my super-health-muffin standard, and I felt strangely overwhelmingly full after eating them.

My car continues to be recalcitrant about moving from Park to Drive in the mornings. (Well, aren't we all.) It took several minutes for me to get it to behave this morning and I am half-dreading, half-looking forward to my 7 A.M. (!) appointment at the dealership tomorrow to have this checked out and, ludicrously, my 60,000 mile check-up done. (Yes, my car is almost 11 years old.) About halfway to school, running late already, I realized that my gas gauge had done a sudden drop from about 1/6 full to almost empty. I did not actually pray, but I hoped really hard that I would make it to the school parking lot, and I did.

I was sort of nervous about my (8 a.m.) math class this morning because I wanted to talk to the TA after class about the grading of the last quiz and basically scrounge for points without seeming like the kind of person who just always scrounges for points. The fact that I actually did want to find out whether my argument for my answer was sound and convincing gave me the confidence that I could talk to him without sounding like a dick and I think I was successful in this (and I did get my points). I also had a very enjoyable conversation with the guy in the process, on topics math related (including my inconsistent ability to remember the rules of exponents) and not (including his years as an undergrad at South Dakota State University, which will be amusingly apropos to those of you who know about my Top Secret Terminal Masters Plan I am not willing to write about much out of paranoia). The professor showed us both a nifty trick about how the digits of various fractions based on 7 repeat (try it on your calculator: 1/7, 2/7, 3/7, ...) that he likes to exploit in class, he says, while pretending that he is doing the calculation in his head. This struck me incredibly like something my dad would do. I assured the professor that the TA and I would "back his play," which momentarily made me feel like some other person, probably a character from Achewood, had suddenly taken over my brain and used this strange terminology. However, I did not subsequently light up a big joint and invite people over to my house for a bathroom party, so I guess I was okay.

I prepped in the library for my presentation for psychology at 12:30, on the topic of workplace nutrition and physical activity programs, which was perhaps infinitely more interesting than you may be thinking at this moment. My research was solid, I had at least one set of researchers to mock for their ridiculously out-of-touch with the reality of the average sedentary office worker hypothesis, I was fairly ebullient with commentary, I made fun of my own unwillingness to unsubscribe from a bunch of health-related e-newsletters I get but delete without reading as though just having this information in my inbox for a limited period of time means I am "doing something" about my health, and I was pleased with being able to incorporate some favorite old anecdotes in ways that made sense in context and seemed to be appreciated. I believe I may have actually mimed doing step aerobics at one point. (Um, I started to type 'paradigmed doing step aerobics' which is a very different thing altogether, best left to tenured professors who are beyond being damaged for life.) I had been longing for the moment this presentation was done because it represented the start of my weekend.

Walking back to my car, I was quite happy to see yet another benefit of our recent cold snap. The unexpectedly sensible students seemed, for the most part, to recognize that when it is cool enough to pull out the jacket or hoodie from the depths of the closet, it is time to put away the flip flops. The girls were wearing a quite nice array of cute shoes; along with the running shoes were ballet flats/skimmers, Chuck Taylors, Vans, the Rocket Dogs that I favor, and quite surprising to me, old-school deck shoes. Once I saw the first pair of Top Siders on someone, they seemed to be everywhere, on men and women. It really is the 80s revisited. And I have to go on record as being proud of my fellow Bobcats for almost universally avoiding the horror that is the Croc [link omitted to save your sanity; the Croc is like the Cthulhu of shoes]. One girl in a pink pair was all I saw all day long.

Today they were also doing early voting on campus and there was a guy, maybe 40 years old, standing outside the student center attempting to persuade people to vote. His method was to drone, in a voice eerily reminiscent of the science teacher on "Wonder Years" that I do not rule out as an intentional mimicry, things like (and I quote): "Today is the last day for early voting. Vote today. It will make you smarter. You will get better grades. Guaranteed." Given that the majority of students were probably in diapers when Ben Stein was doing this shtick on TV, I may have been one of a thousand listeners to get this vibe.

Earlier in the day I had noticed that people on campus never approach me with flyers, requests to sign petitions or vote for them or buy raffle tickets, and all that crap. It must be my naturally opening, welcoming bearing. How can you too reliably convince potentially annoying others that talking to you is more than their life is worth? Robert can always fall back on his ability to remove his glasses and give the full out sunken, dark-circled eye "my middle name is Wayne" possible serial killer glare, but not everyone has the face for this. For those of you needing to purposely cultivate a formidable demeanor, I recommend the following role models:

If you are interested in a kind of contemptuous disapproval that does not entirely undermine your adorable qualities that the person considering greeting you will acknowledge as existent but not at all intended for them, study of the Disapproving Rabbits on this web site will give you a good range of expressions to practice. (Even if you don't usually follow the links, this one is too important to miss.) Cinnamon (brown) often appears to almost feel sorry for what a moron you are to even be considering an approach, Hazel (black) has a grumpy old person quality any sane individual would make effort to avoid, while Latte (white) has more of the "you will die" look which, holy shit, is no doubt effected at least in part by the dark circles around the eyes.

To take this to an entirely more hard-core level, can you really do better than First Spear Centurion Lucius Vorenus from the excellent HBO series "Rome" that you should be watching on DVD anyway because it just generally rocks? (There aren't a ton of episodes and knowledge of Roman history is not necessary. The first episode is a little bit like, "Wait, who's the short one again? Some famous person" but all becomes clear enough, soon enough. Really. Try it.) I mean, the guy's disapproval exudes a promise of entirely professional violence in all situations and he makes clear that he is not a man whose attention you want to draw. In the photo I linked to, Vorenus has been told by the barista at Starbucks that they are temporarily out of espresso macchiato and wearying as it all is, honor requires that he kill her on the spot. He doesn't necessarily like this, because Vorenus dislikes pretty much everything, but this is not relevant and any attempt to persuade him to take another action will only slightly prolong the time she has to endure the fierce face of escalating disapproval before her death.

Anyway.

After school, embarking on the start of my weekend, my car made it without difficulty to the gas station and as I was feeling extremely celebratory about the small victories of my day (including feeling thankful that I can afford to fill up my tank), KSAL radio served up a new song, starting with lyrics that pretty well summed it up:

I feel so extraordinary
Something's got a hold on me
I get this feeling I'm in motion
A sudden sense of liberty

Of course, being not entirely trusting of the universe's good intentions (* see below), I had this momentary feeling as I walked in my door that I would be greeted with a dead rabbit or some other monstrously awful thing. But Leo is in fine form. I call Robert at work, half expecting some bad news from him, but he has nothing to report. Very soon after this, the phone rings and though it says my dad's name, it is a phone number that I do not recognize until I realize it's my mom's cell phone, which she never uses to call me; I'm worried about what terrible thing she has to tell me but no, she is calling from the library, where she is helping them get ready for a book sale, and because she is a nicer person than I probably even deserve to know, she is curious whether I am interested in a couple of books she has found, and I am.

I have not entirely ruled out the possibility that I will choke to death eating my turkey and wild rice soup (which is actually totally delicious, by the way, if you can withstand the taste of tarragon) for dinner tonight, but otherwise, it was a good day.

* It is no accident that I fell so hard for Stephen Crane's poetry in high school, including the one that reads in its entirety:

A man said to the universe:
"Sir I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."

Of course, I'm a sucker for short poems of all kinds. (Well, I should qualify that as "good" poems of all kinds.) The brief, poignant poems of W. S. Merwin always get to me too. Perhaps it is the koan quality that makes them so powerful. Or maybe I just have a short attention span. I hope you don't, or you won't make it this far through my "I Sing the Body Electric" length blog post.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Certain Self Referential Quality

For my presentation in psychology yesterday (which had been consuming my life and is the primary reason for my not posting anything for a week), I had thought of using my favorite Garfield cartoon as an example of learning that is not based on conscious remembering, but when I googled a relevant phrase to determine whether there was a copy of the cartoon on the web, the number 6 hit was my own previous blog post about it. Oops. Even though it's unlikely that a classmate would decide to look up this cartoon that I described in class, the probability was not close enough to zero for me to take the chance that my semi-anonymous blog would be read by a fellow student or instructor. It's not that I think there is any content here that would horribly undermine or embarrass me, but the idea of some acquaintance knowing this much about me is off-putting.

In other exciting news, I just happened to check the schedule of classes for spring and they have just gone up, with registration starting next Monday. It looks like I am going to really luck out with a schedule like this:

Consumer Behavior T/Th 11:00 - 12:15
Linear Algebra T/Th 12:30 - 1:45
Statistics T/Th 2:00 - 3:15

Two days a week, classes back to back. Yes, those are sort of long days, but I prefer that to having to drive in an extra two days a week. I'm not thrilled by the lunch-over thing, but I'll figure out a way to eat in there somewhere. If the trash can in the psychology building classroom where my current psych class starts at 12:30 is any indication, people definitely do eat stuff during class. I had previously thought that eating in class was totally verboten, but that appears to only be the case in certain places, like the new business school building.

Tomorrow I will get my paperwork signed by the relevant professors and turned in to the graduate college, so with luck, I will be able to sign up for classes right away next week. Being a grad student means that I have open enrollment from the moment registration starts, which is an extremely nice benefit of being at TSU rather than UT.

Math in the Dark

Half an hour into my 8:00 calculus test yesterday, we had a campus-wide blackout that lasted until about 10:30. When the electricity went out, the TA said, "Whoever prayed for this to happen, don't tell us who you are." For about 10 minutes, we continued to work on the test in the cracks of light from some windows (on the opposite side of the room from me) and then Dr P told us that we could finish the exams Wednesday. And since there was no way to keep some people from working on the problems, he specifically told us that we should look at any problems we had not gotten to and could feel free to work on them in preparation for the continuation of the exam. We finished the exam today and I think I did quite well (even without having memorized the specific problems for extra study).

I talked to a girl in my marketing class today who told me that when she showed up for her 9:30 class, in the middle of the blackout, the professor made them do their scheduled exam even though there were no lights; he told them to use their cell phone lights to see what they were doing. The girl was pretty pissed and when she told him that she was having trouble seeing the paper, the professor and many of the other students just laughed. Given that they hadn't started the exam yet, I don't understand why he didn't just delay it until the next class session. I'm glad Dr P did not take that kind of approach.