Monday, July 28, 2008

Commonly Confused Environmental Science Students

Tam shared with me this title from a report written by a fellow student in her environmental science class:

"Denver Traffic and it's affects on the Environment"

This is a pretty impressive one, worthy of my hometown newspaper. Of course, the author neglected to place a comma between "Traffic" and "and," but a solid effort nonetheless. (And extra points for the lower-case "affects.")

I am almost sad that my dad is no longer teaching middle school English and will not be able to present this brilliant example to his students.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Enough With Amnesiac Doctors

Why did it seem to me when I watched the movie Just Like Heaven a few months ago that I had seen so many times before in other movies scenes similar to the one in which the amnesiac person encounters someone having a medical emergency, immediately knows what procedures must be performed to save the person's life, and then is all "Oh wow, I guess I must be a doctor!" Is this actually a common thing in films or does it just feel terribly familiar? The whole "amnesiac is a doctor" thing feels like a cliche.

You know what I would love to see in a movie?

Our amnesiac protagonist is sitting on a park bench, depressed and confused and alone. (Alone, you know? Film amnesiacs seem to pick up a larger cadre of good friends in 10 minutes of screen time than the average normal person does in a year. If I were to meet a person claiming not to know who he was, etc., I would probably think he is a liar, a conman, or just crazy. At best I would help him get into a cab to a hospital. I don't think I'd be inviting him with me to dinner where he could conveniently be available to perform an emergency tracheoctomy on a fellow diner and thereby reveal himself to be a surgeon.)

Anyway, our amnesiac is alone and unhappy and feeling sort of hopeless. But then another person sits down on the other end of the park bench while talking desperately on their cell phone - "I can't figure this out. I've looked at it a dozen times and the balance continues to be off by $90. I'm at the end of my rope on this!" The person hangs up, and our protagonist cannot help but say:

"When you find your balance is off by an amount divisible by 9, it is almost always the result of transposing numbers. If you are off by $90, you should recheck your ledger for a place where you wrote down 540 instead of 450, or vice versa. It's always good to keep the 'Rule of Nine' in mind in these situations."

"Thanks, that's great advice! Are you an accountant?"

"Uh, I'm not sure actually. Let's see, what are the last four digits of your cell phone number?"

Cautiously, she responds "4562."

"4562, yeah, that's the number of the IRS Depreciation and Amortization form. It's a funny thing about depreciation, actually; people often confuse 5-year and 7-year property..."

The woman suddenly finds herself needing to be somewhere else in a hurry and takes off.

Our protagonist says to himself "I guess I really am an accountant."

Saturday, July 19, 2008

When Driving Slower Makes No Economic Sense

One thing I have noticed is that despite the increases in gasoline prices, people do not appear to be driving any slower (on I-35 between Austin and San Marcos) so as to increase their fuel efficiency. Of course, to a certain extent, one's choice of driving speed is limited: drive too quickly and you risk getting a ticket; drive too slowly and you risk becoming a sitting duck for the other, faster drivers. But it seems to me that many people could drive slower than they do and do not choose to do so, despite the cost savings. Sometimes I will get stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle in the right lane, and I realize how infrequently people drive below the speed limit. There are a lot of cars (like mine) traveling pretty much at 70 mph all the time.

However, once you start looking at the actual math, it becomes quickly obvious that people who drive at the speed limit of 70 mph are not going to slow down. Even if it didn't increase the perception that you may get into an accident (as the disparity between your own speed and the cars around you becomes greater) and decrease your fahrvergnugen, for most people, it doesn't make sense financially.

My commute on I-35 is a total of over 40 miles per day. I currently drive 70 mph. If I were to decrease my speed to 60 mph (which I believe is not so slow as to be very dangerous, at least driving in the right lane), I would increase my drive time by 8 minutes per day.

However, I read that reducing one's speed from 65/70 to 55 mph will increase fuel efficiency "up to" 21%. Let's be generous and say that going from 70 to 60 will increase my gas mileage by 21%. This means that my car would go from its typical 32 mpg to 38.7 mpg.

At $4 per gallon, this saves me $0.88 in gas for one round-trip, or $0.11 per minute.

This means that my break-even point occurs when I value my time at $6.60 per hour. If I value my time above $6.60 per hour, it makes no sense to drive 60 instead of 70.

It's often difficult to figure out how much we value our time at. Some people look at their hourly wage, but this is usually done by dividing a fixed salary by the time they work - it does not represent an amount of money that one could actually earn by working an extra hour. So just calculating that you make $X per hour at your job doesn't tell you anything about your opportunity costs.

But I am in a special situation: I do make a genuine hourly wage at my job, and I am allowed to work up to 40 hours per week (earned in 15 minute increments). Since I am currently working about 32 - 35 hours per week, I am actually forgoing earned money in order to consume leisure. So I can use my hourly wage to see that I appear to value my time at more than $6.60 per hour - my pre-tax wage is $10 per hour, and my post-26%-tax wage is $7.40.

Of course, it's possible that I am simply not willing to work more time at my job for the higher wage because I'm burned out, but would be willing to do a different job for $6.60 an hour. This may or may not be the case, but it is certainly not the case that I would be willing to take a job driving a car on I-35 for $6.60 an hour. Taking on that driving job would much less pleasant than extra time spent writing a book in InDesign, which I am currently forgoing.

The upshot for me is that I am continuing to drive 70 mph and have started working an extra 15 - 30 minute per day, on average. I am actually coming out ahead this way.

But what if a person has a car that gets lower gas mileage than mine? As the gas mileage decreases, the economic benefit of driving slower increases, and the break-even wage goes up. If you drive a car that gets 22 mpg, you wouldn't slow down if you value your time at more than $9.47 per hour. If you normally get 15 mpg (Hummer driver), you wouldn't slow to 60 if you value your time at more than $13.88 per hour.

Once you factor in the potential loss of "fun," autonomy, and feeling of safety that comes with slowing down and being trapped in the slow lane, with other cars coming up behind you in irritation and all that, it doesn't look like a very good deal. Given that so many people value their time/driving pleasure such that they drive faster than the speed limit and incur the added risk of a driving ticket (which costs money and slows you down), how many people will actually find the economic benefit of $6 - $14 an hour worth it?

(This is particularly relevant when you think about people driving on their commute. For many, the cost of gas is going to be another necessary expense - like buying suits and ties and briefcases and Starbucks at 7:45 a.m. - of having their job, and minimizing the time of the commute is going to be very important to them.)

And here I really do mean, how many people would find $6 - $14 worth it, even if they knew that this was the cost of driving 70 rather than 60? This article says that in 2004, the average car/truck on American roads gets 24.6 mpg, which works out to a break-even point of under $8.50 an hour. It seems to me that a good number of the people who would find $8.50 an hour worth it either cannot afford to have a car and rely on public transportation/bicycle/etc. or do not drive far enough on their daily commute for the actual (not hourly) money to be worth the downside of driving slow. One big downside is the risk of being late to work, and it seems likely to me that people in lower-paid hourly-wage jobs face greater punishment for being late than your typical salaried professional.

Using another set of assumptions and figures would create a different break-even point for driving slower, of course, but $6 - $14 per hour seems like a plausible range to me. And I think that people who don't like driving will not find this high enough, and people who do like driving will find crawling at 60 in the slow lane undesirable.

And honestly, when I think about people who place low value on their time, I come up with a stereotypical image of an old person who is already driving too slow on the highway.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Recommended: Bugs Bunny Collection

The disk (Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume 1) has many of the classic, timeless favorites:

- "The Rabbit of Seville" (funnier than the opera, and much shorter)
- "Bully for Bugs" ("quit steamin' up my tail")
- "Water Water Every Hare" (evil scientist, monster, crazy slo-mo scene)
- "Long-haired Hare" (the quivering glove)
- etc.

Plus a surprisingly amusing "My Bunny Lies over the Sea," in which Bugs somehow manages to play in quick succession, and with a slight variation of the same costume, an elderly Scotsman, an old woman, and a swami (I think).

An exchange from "Water Water Every Hare" that I loved:

Evil Scientist: "Now be a cooperative little bunny and let me have your brain."

Bugs Bunny: "Sorry, Doc, but I need what little I've got."

You just know I am going to be using the evil scientist's line on poor Leo. I mean, "Leopold!"

(It's crazy to think there was a time when a popular, mainstream cartoon would feature an [admittedly infamous] classical music conductor with the expectation that people would understand the joke. Robert and I had to google the guy.)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Notes of Congratulations

UPDATE: Jen has a birthday, with a cool new bicycle, and Rick makes celebratory crepes that pass that daunting French Guest Test. Do they deserve congratulations? Mais oui!

(1) Tam rocked the GRE this weekend. Tam rules the school!

While I am happy for her, I despair that even though we sound almost identical on the telephone, we do not look similar enough in person for me to send her to take the test for me.

Based on the practice test (non-adaptive, but under timed conditions and intended to be comparable score-wise to the real banana) I took yesterday, I believe that I am likely to get a quite credible score, but I would love to get an incredible score like Tam did. I found myself way running low on time in the quantitative section, so I rushed through a bit at the end, and I misjudged the verbal such that I ended up with 22 extra minutes at the end I could have put to good use examining some of the reading comprehension answers more carefully. (Note: the practice test is longer than the real one because it is non-adaptive and thus less efficient, requiring you to answer more questions.) I definitely could use additional practice under timed conditions to get a better feel for this. For instance, I know I spent way too much time on an early problem involving calculating three combinations and adding them up, which is silly; I just took and aced a probability and statistics class! But I didn't quite trust myself to get the right answer. There is not really time for this kind of doubt on the GRE.

I also hate the way the test forces a sort of unnatural linear thinking on the test-taker. I think part of the reason I killed the GRE back in 1997 was that I was able to skip around within the test rather than having to face each problem as do-or-die before moving to the next one. I always approach every exam by skipping over the problems I cannot immediately answer with confidence to deal with at the end. I feel all fucked up by the requirement that I proceed in a linear fashion through the material, but need to get over this. It's not 1997 anymore.

But this was my first attempt at a practice test under time pressure, so I should not be as depressed by my score as I was - especially given that 720 V, 700 Q is actually quite good. This is 99th percentile for verbal and 89th percentile for math. There is absolutely nothing about this kind of score that would send a red flag for any PhD program in psychology, let alone a masters program. And while a 700 Q isn't great, neither does it indicate that the person is a math moron.

(Regarding a certain friend's statement that anyone who doesn't get an 800 Q is an idiot, this is demonstrably untrue, but no doubt it is a self-serving belief that gives him a great deal of comfort when faced with his own inadequacies in other intellectual realms. (Heh. I interpret not reading my blog as license to be particularly snarky about your shortcomings, dear readers, and to make provocative, unjustified attributions about you. Be warned.) Clearly, anyone who doesn't get a 750 Q is an idiot. Wait, I don't even believe that. I only believe that if I don't get a 750 Q, I am an idiot. Because I am an arrogant snob with a deep-seated fear of math inadequacy.)

Oh, and I guess it may be relevant that I got a migraine halfway through the quantitative section (which I did second) and ended up in bed for several hours after finishing the exam. (I've been in an afternoon headache mode recently.) But it's not like my scores will get reported to the schools like this:

720 V, 700 Q*
* under migraine conditions

But enough whining - back to the congratulations!

(2) My mom totally rocked her performance review at the library. She and her boss are quite simpatico on many things, not the least of which is valuing organization, neatness, exemplary customer service, hard work, and overall excellence in all aspects of the job.

I loved the fact that he identified as her goals for the coming year that she should spend more time talking about books with patrons ("sharing her enthusiasm for books and reading") and should more often share with him her opinions about what they should be doing as a library. Yeah, that should easily be attainable.

(3) Today I congratulate myself for overcoming my recent reticence to do any work on my organic food paper by emailing my professor to set up a meeting. (A small step with large psychological significance.) What should we be congratulating you for? No victory is too slight!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Book List Meme

I saw this on Tam's blog and decided to play.

1) Look at the list and bold those you have read.
2) Italicize those you started but did not finish.
3) Highlight the books you love. (I'm following Tam's policy of highlighting books I did love, even if I don't love them anymore. I am highlighting because it's prettier... and because I don't know how to underline.)
4) Reprint this list in your own blog so we can try and track down these people who’ve read 6 or less and force books upon them.

I have read 56 of the books (or sets of books) listed. 2 of them I started to read but didn't finish. (At least 10 of the unread books I have seen in a movie version, which in many cases has made me much less likely to seek out the book.) How many have you read?

It is basically inconceivable to me that anyone who attended school in the United States could have read only 6 (or fewer) of these books. I read 21 of them as part of class assignments in junior high or high school (marked with *).

A few of these books I haven't even heard of (I marked these with a ?).

Would anyone like to make a case for any of the books I haven't read as ones that I should try?

I would like to suggest A Town Like Alice, which I just read a couple of months ago and enjoyed well beyond what I had expected. (Of course, I am now raising your expectations, thus dashing any hopes that you might be similarly surprised by this book.) It contains two love stories, a war, an interesting detailing of the efforts of a female entrepreneur, and a bit of a travelogue. Oh my word, it is a novel all right.

I'm not sure who compiled the list, or what criteria the person used, but I think it's safe to assume this is intended to be a list of "good" books that people "should" read. What in your opinion are the most egregiously absent books, given that premise?

I would nominate The Phanton Tollbooth for children's literature and The Stranger (by Albert Camus) and Gulliver's Travels for classic literature. The obvious pick for a modern literature selection is Robertson Davies' excellent Cornish Trilogy or Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco.

Here is the list:

1. The Time Traveller’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger ?
2. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
3. The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood
4. Lord of the Flies - William Golding *
5. Life of Pi - Yann Martel
6. The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
7. The Color Purple - Alice Walker
8. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
9. Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte *
10. To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee *
11. Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte *
12. Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell *
13. His Dark Materials (trilogy) - Philip Pullman
14. Great Expectations - Charles Dickens *
15. Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
16. The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien
17. Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger *
18. Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
19. Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky *
20. Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
21. Chronicles of Narnia - C.S. Lewis
22. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis
23. Winnie the Pooh - A.A. Milne
24. Animal Farm - George Orwell *
25. Brave New World - Aldous Huxley *
26. Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck *
27. On The Road - Jack Kerouac
28. Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
29. Charlotte’s Web - E.B. White
30. Hamlet - William Shakespeare *
31. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
32. Complete Works of Shakespeare [Is this a joke?]
33. Ulysses - James Joyce
34. Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad *
35. Les Miserables - Victor Hugo
36. Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen *
37. The Bible (most of it) *
38. The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald *
39. War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
40. Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
41. Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
42. The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
43. One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44. Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
45. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
46. Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
47. The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
48. A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
49. The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
50. Harry Potter series (6/7) - JK Rowling
51. Little Women - Louisa M. Alcott
52. Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy *
53. Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
54. Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks ?
55. Middlemarch - George Eliot
56. Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
57. Bleak House - Charles Dickens
58. The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
59. David Copperfield - Charles Dickens *
60. Emma - Jane Austen
61. Persuasion - Jane Austen
62. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
63. Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
64. The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
65. A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving
66. The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
67. Anne of Green Gables – L.M. Montgomery
68. Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
69. Atonement - Ian McEwan
70. Dune - Frank Herbert
71. Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
72. A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth ?
73. The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon ?
74. A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
75. Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
76. The Secret History - Donna Tartt
77. The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
78. Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
79. Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy *
80. Bridget Jones’ Diary - Helen Fielding
81. Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
82. Moby Dick - Herman Melville
83. Dracula - Bram Stoker
84. Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson ?
85. The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
86. Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome ?
87. Germinal - Emile Zola ?
88. Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
89. Possession - A.S. Byatt
90. A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens *
91. Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell ?
92. The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
93. Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
94. A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry ?
95. The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
96. The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton ?
97. The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks --- I cannot read horror, so NEVER
98. Watership Down – Richard Adams
99. A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
100. The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas *

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Week in July in Brief

Since it seems lame to let an entire week go by between posts for no good reason (does eye fatigue from 7 hours a day of detailed work in Adobe InDesign count?), here is a laundry list of events and observations for your perusal:

- I was very glad when my front driver's side tire shredded off on the highway that I was already in the right lane and that it occurred a full 15 seconds before I would have entered a construction zone that goes on for a while with no shoulder. The AAA guy showed up in less than 15 minutes to change the tire. I now have 4 brand new happy tires on my car, for under $270 total. Nice deal.

- This guy showed up at work this week to meet the curriculum development team and asked several smart questions, which just happened to reflect some of my own views. (You know, smart. It's like he could make an entire career out of intelligence if he wanted to.)

- I dreamed that my linear algebra professor M, who is in charge of the curriculum project, was in the mens singles finals at Wimbledon, playing against Roger Federer and losing desperately. But he seemed to enjoy discussing various aspects of the game with the officials. "I thought that was an excellent shot" he remarked to the chair umpire, after almost killing a ball boy.

- I happened to see the last play of the actual mens singles final at Wimbledon on the big screen in the bar of the restaurant as we were leaving the building. About 5 waitresses were standing around watching and basically attempting to not cover themselves in drool checking out the Thing of Hotness that is Rafael Nadal. Even Roger Federer could not resist feeling up his pecs given the opportunity. (I have since then put an ix-nay on the twice a week restaurant trips, so this may be my last exposure to professional sports for a while. I suspect Robert will be sufficiently motivated by the upcoming Olympics to get our TV reception back online.)

- M treated our group to lunch at the Cool Mint Cafe on Wednesday; the food was good (I had a turkey sandwich and salad) and the building (Arts and Crafts style) was quite lovely. There was a substantial amount of confusion over the iced tea, however. Many of us ordered iced tea when we arrived; then one person noticed "Cool Mint Iced Tea" on the menu. Someone asked the waiter if it was too late to get the cool mint iced tea, and he said, no, the cool mint iced tea is what we would all be getting. So someone asked about its mint content, because they weren't sure they wanted mint tea instead of regular tea, and he explained that it doesn't actually contain mint, but is merely named "Cool Mint Iced Tea" because of the name of the restaurant. It is not unusual for a restaurant to name an item on the menu the "Captain Jack's Fried Catfish Platter" or whatever, but there is not usually this level of ambiguity. (For instance, in this case, you can easily recognize that you will probably not actually be receiving a plate of food that belongs to a man named Captain Jack.) When the tea came, it was regular (good!) iced tea with a lemon slice and a sprig of mint on the edge of the glass.

- On Monday, it was raining so hard between San Marcos and Austin that the interstate was down to about 35 mph northbound. Today, it was full sun and 98 degrees - too damn hot. I even have a visible tan line on my foot from the strap of the mary jane shoes I wear about twice a week to work.

Friday, July 4, 2008

NYT Health Reporting Grab-Bag

Yet another reason to avoid flip flops: they can cause foot pain. And sorry to break this to you, but your toes are basically ugly.

People over-report their consumption of fruits and veg on a survey when they have previously received a letter in the mail extolling the benefits of such foods along with a set of 5-a-day schwag. Neither the blog post nor the article abstract clarify how a demonstration of researchers' use of unorthodox and obviously biasing survey methodology to influence respondents to over-report fruit and veg intake compared to a control group can support the claim: "But when it comes to fruits and vegetables, it appears people lie in the other direction — vowing that they consume far more than they really do." It is, as far as I know, a well-known and established fact that it is easy to manipulate respondents by using this kind of methodology, and various kinds of demand characteristics are regularly studied. The question is whether the bias extends to research using the standard, "neutral" methodology for food recall regularly used by health scientists.

And in shocking news, "Many normal weight teens feel fat." Also, rain is wet.

Math Teaching

Livingdeb recently threw down a gauntlet on how math textbooks and the pedagogical approach of discovery-based learning sort of suck. Despite my efforts to be brief, I basically wrote an entire blog post worth of response on her site. (But really, I did only say a fraction of what I could have said!) Check it out.

It's a hugely complicated issue, and there are valid arguments/criticisms on all sides of the debate. And the discussion is so dominated by anecdotal arguments that it can be difficult to have any sense of where the preponderance of the evidence lies. I can counter the experience using an exploratory-based math program of the novice (and short-timer) math teacher Livingdeb cites with a dozen teachers who have found such an approach very effective in their classrooms (and who have TAKS scores to help bolster the claims), but the teachers I know from the curriculum development project I am working on are likely to be unrepresentative of math teachers at large. They seem a strikingly intelligent, motivated, passionate group of people who have what it takes to lead kids successfully through a journey to mathematical enlightenment. (Sounds grandiose, doesn't it? But these people think big.) It's not clear whether this can be replicated with run-of-the-mill teachers.