Friday, January 30, 2009

Efficiencies of Scale and Scope

I guess the upside of having read 70 articles in the areas of childhood obesity and the use of nutrition information over the last couple weeks is that I am getting good at summarizing the findings fairly quickly. This is a helpful thing, since I am only about halfway through typing up my notes. Fortunately, having done all of the reading before the writing makes it a lot easier to know what parts are relevant, interesting, confirmatory, need explaining, and so forth, since I have this context to evaluate each paper in. I thought I would simply be writing notes, but I am actually drafting sentences and paragraphs for the actual document as I go, which is nice. (Of course, this is going to result in a gargantuan literature review, which will need to be edited for the paper itself, but I like having so much research to hand.)

It's already clear that for some topics, like the effects of TV viewing on obesity, I have an absolute glut of information, while I will need to do additional search for articles on other topics.

Although I don't always want to be doing this work, and it has its tedious aspects (like everything does), there is still a part of me that can't believe I'm being paid to do it as a job. I mean, seriously, I am getting paid, right? I have been reporting the hours, now show me the money. I could use some.

Really though, it has been, dare I say, basically fun? I feel that I am learning a lot about things that I find interesting and developing / honing skills that will prove useful to me for the next 2 - 50 years of my life (depending on how this whole grad school / academia thing works out). And it's keeping me from completely obsessing on the outcome of my current applications and sundry considerations and concerns about the PhD application process. A person might be willing to pay money for something that does that.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Filling a Hole in My Liberal Arts Education

One of the nice things about being on campus for such a long time twice a week is having the opportunity to futz about in the library. University libraries are wonderful things. I have (these 3 semesters I have been at Texas State) usually spent my library time on a combination of homework/textbook-reading/studying for exams for particular classes and independent reading on topics relevant to my grad school research interests. I have read about 15 books on things like consumer psychology, behavioral economics and social psychology, and have dipped generously into about another dozen or so. I feel that I have taken good advantage of my "free" on-campus time getting smarter about things that will matter for me as I continue my specialized education.

But this semester, I finally realized that the library also contains, you know, books a person just might want to read for the sheer fun of it. And when a person takes a special interest in reading the kinds of novels that English professors are likely to assign undergraduates in classes, all the better.

I have not always been a particular fan of Charles Dickens, nor have I read very many of his books; indeed, the only ones I can remember reading are Great Expectations, which I read in junior high, and A Christmas Carol, which I owned, read several times, and like a lot but which, I must admit, has sort of been overshadowed in my mind by the Disney cartoon version (with, for instance, the wonderful floppy duck feet scene that I can watch a dozen times in a row). And of course, I do have a sense of what Oliver Twist is about (due to that unfortunate musical). But having liked so many books written self-consciously in the style of Charles Dickens, it made sense to see how well I liked the real thing, encountering it for the first time as an adult and basically unmediated by exposure to movies based on the novels.

And since somehow, I managed to reach the age of 35 without having read David Copperfield or, more significantly, knowing very much about the story, and since I have enjoyed other coming-of-age stories of that period, I checked it out of the library last week. (Great thing about being technically a graduate student: every book I check out from the library I get to keep for the entire semester.) It's kind of making me crazy wanting to find out what is going to happen; it's useful to recall that before his books were called "classics" and brought out to bore 9th graders, they were stories normal people followed in their serial publication, like the "Lost" of the 19th century. I am reading it with this strangely nuanced perception that I am envious of the future self who will be able to read the book in a more leisurely state of mind because she will already know e.g. exactly what the disturbingly writhing Uriah Heep is up to and that the future self is envious of the fact that the whole story is so new and fresh to me right now.

Pretty Food of Quality

While, apparently, people can disagree as to whether quality food can be "ugly," in the present instance, I maintain that this dish Robert made for me this weekend (for me alone, because he doesn't like turmeric) is both nice to look at and yummy to eat and presents no awkwardness on the "what do we mean by quality" front and - in short, I am just a sucker for one-dish meals in general and I do like this one.

I would serve it on a purple plate if I weren't too lazy to move it from the ziploc box

One Dish Chicken and Kielbasa Rice
Cooking Light

2 ½ c. low sodium chicken broth
1/8 t. ground turmeric
1 c. long-grain white rice
7 oz turkey kielbasa, sliced into ½ inch pieces
8 oz skinless boneless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 chopped onion
1 chopped bell pepper
½ c. frozen peas
40 sliced manzanilla or green olives
1 T. bottled garlic

1. Cook rice with broth and turmeric according to package instructions.
2. Spray dutch oven with olive oil. Over high heat, add chicken; cook 2 minutes or until browned. Add onion and bell pepper; cook 4 minutes or until tender. Stir in peas, olives, and garlic; sauté 1 minute. Add rice and sausage; cook until thoroughly heated, stirring constantly.

Serves 4 at 367 calories per serving.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Davies on Giants

From an essay on opera singer Emma Calve:

"Speaking of herself and her colleagues at the Metropolitan, she said: 'We were a race of giants.' Quite true, and in case you don't know it, being a giant is a very expensive business. The cost of food and drink, not merely for oneself but for one's fellow-giants and one's scores of attendant gnomes, is a very considerable item. And the cost of jewels for a female giant is really fabulous."

Robertson Davies, 1942, in the collection The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies

An Acceptance Of Limited Usefulness

I got an email from Purdue this afternoon that the department is recommending me to the Graduate School for admission, but without funding. This makes it unlikely that I will end up there, unless I don't get funding anywhere, and even then, the middle-of-nowhere location makes it not a great place for Robert to find a job.

I have been reading various places online that this year funding is going to be tight, as universities have been adversely affected by the economic downturn. Some programs are even reducing the number of admits or, in some cases, declining to admit any students at all. (For instance, business departments that will only admit 2 - 3 people per year anyway may just forgo any admits. I have heard of this happening for a few programs, which are not refunding the money of those who applied, but adding them to the pool of applications for Fall 2010, which is not really a substitute.)

Since Purdue has a PhD program in addition to the masters program I applied for, I knew that my funding chances from the department weren't that great to begin with. Of course, it just occurs to me that I will still be in the running for school-wide fellowships sponsored by the Graduate School, but I don't put much hope in that (almost none, really), since many of those are "diversity" fellowships and other scholarships that have specific requirements I am unlikely or certain not to meet.

I am really surprised to be hearing anything from the programs so soon. I had resigned myself to silence on the grad school front until at least mid-February. Exciting.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Fortnight in Review

Events are occurring at a much faster pace than I have been able to keep up with on my blog. I hope to get into the details of these things later, but here is a quick recap:

Robert and I had a good birding trip to the Laredo area, and I picked up 3 new species, bringing my ABA life list to 455.

I decided to drop the late-afternoon T/Th econometrics class from my schedule because it was making the logistics of my life very, very difficult. (I am taking a stat class on M/W afternoons and continuing my job with the marketing professors.) At first, I was like, damn, I already purchased the book. But then I realized that I can learn some of this stuff from reading the book and also save about $800 on tuition. Cool.

My organic paper was accepted to the conference. I had initially received only one review, upon which they decided to accept the paper, because the second reviewer had not responded by the deadline. The first review was very supportive and offered some constructive criticism for improving a paper that they believed was decent as it stood. Then this afternoon, I received the second (belated) review, which was....pretty bad. The most positive part of it was the opening clause to the effect of, "While I commend the authors for trying to do X..." Actually, that was the only positive thing the reviewer had to say.

I was pretty much crushed by it at first (reacting at a purely emotional level) but after a good cry, and taking a nap, I came back to read it again. This time, it became apparent that the reviewer was from a very different subdiscipline, had his own ideas about what was and what was not interesting or valid to study, and ultimately did not believe that my approach (which is utterly standard) could "possibly" yield anything of value. The latter bit was actually a good thing to know, since it meant that the perceived flaw was not in my study, but in an entire methodology. He also obviously misunderstood several things that I think were very clear and obvious and then became sort of snarky and shitty about them, also perhaps confusing my own beliefs with the statements of my respondents. Robert summed it up best, saying: "He obviously thinks that if it's not Scottish, whatever his own definition of Scottish may be, it's crap."

I will need to revise my paper into a 12-page version for publication in the conference proceedings. I am meeting with my professor/co-author next week to discuss what I need to do now.

While I was telling Robert about this bad review, I opened my mail and found out that I have received my first admission to a graduate program, contingent on acceptance by the Graduate School itself (which is almost assuredly forthcoming, since the Graduate School usually wants to make sure you meet baseline criteria like minimum GPA and GRE scores). I will find out about funding in March. The letter went out on the application deadline, which suggests to me that they had already looked at my app and put it in the "No Brainer Admit" category. So: yay. (The program is not one of my top 2, but is a program I would be happy to attend and is in the Philadelphia area.)

In other news, my allergies have been super-bad the last week or so, and I am really freaking tired. So obviously, it's time to exercise. Blah.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Stupid-Ass Excel Error of the Week

Robert spent time on the phone today with people at one of the companies who have to report information to his organization, explaining the myriad errors they made in their spreadsheet.

The most idiotic one involved summing row 49 - 55 when they should have summed row 50 - 55. This meant that they were adding the date, stored in row 49, to the dollar data below it. Since the dollar data only added up to $21,000, and Excel stored the date as 40,000-something (the number of days since Jan 1, 1900 or whatever), the sum was clearly, utterly wrong. Robert reports that they "capitulated on that one almost immediately."

Unlike some other times Robert has found screwy stuff with companies' spreadsheets, this does not appear to be a "mistake" that they made on purpose.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Fattier Than You Think

As part of my lit review work today, I came across a reference to this 1997 report from the Center for Science and the Public Interest that has some interesting information about health claims on restaurant menus.

For me, this was the stand-out fact:

"Keep in mind that restaurant foods are probably fattier than you think: The nutrient content of restaurant meals is extremely difficult to assess. A survey conducted by CSPI and researchers at New York University found that trained dietitians underestimated the calorie content of five restaurant meals by an average of 37%. They underestimated fat content by 49%.

For example, the dietitians estimated, on average, that a tuna fish sandwich provided 374 calories and 18 grams of fat, while the sandwich actually contained about 720 calories and 43 grams of fat!

If well-educated nutrition professionals consistently and substantially underestimated the calorie and fat content of restaurant meals, it's clear that ordinary consumers also have trouble guessing what's in their meals."

Yikes. Of course, I guess this means I can feel a little bit less stupid (or at least, in better company) for having underestimated the extreme calorie content of that piece of chocolate cake.

Upside, Downside

I started my new job as a research assistant last week and have been working 6-8 hour days doing literature review (i.e. reading and synthesizing a huge amount of published research and eventually writing the opening lit review section of a journal article). This has given me a lot of interesting psychology / marketing / food & nutrition stuff to write about, but not much time to do any actual writing on this blog. All in due time, I suppose.

I will not be working such hours every day in the weeks to come (I am working 20 hours/week) but I am trying to get ahead because Robert & I are going on a long (Wed-Sun) MLK weekend to an area of South Texas somewhat west of our last trip with hopes of getting a few more Texas specialty birds on our lists. (Cactus wren, be ready.)

The upside of the job is that I work from home, so my hours are entirely flexible and I don't have to make the long drive to campus.

The downside of the job is that I work from home, where distractions are plentiful.

On this note, to work.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Bad Gifts

Reading this funny article (via Megan McArdle's blog) reminded me once again of the Worst Gift I got from my grandmother, I think when I was in junior high or high school:

She gave me a completely worn out grey fake-leather narrow belt a lot of sizes too large for me that she had added a few new holes to so that it could fit me, albeit with an extra foot or so of belt sticking out on the end.

It is almost impossible to fathom how this could have happened. Did she forget that it was my birthday to the point that she had to scavenge her own belongings to find something to give me? That's a pretty common scenario where she's concerned. But putting the new holes in it took time and effort and would not have been as easy as just giving me an extra can of peanuts that she had sitting in her kitchen...which was, by the way, her most common gift to my dad, when she wasn't giving him an open can of tennis balls, all of which were totally flat, that she clearly picked up from her own garage where they had been sitting for a decade, or a Christmas-themed plastic-fake-stained-glass suncatcher with the 25 cent price tag still on it. (This is bad enough in itself, but it was a birthday gift for an early January birthday, clearly purchased at a post-Christmas sale.) So I can only imagine that she for whatever reason was done with this belt herself but thought that I would somehow want it or use it. Was it too small for her, so she was handing it down? Any normal person would recognize that it should have been discarded about 5 years earlier, but she infamously keeps things forever, no matter how crappy they get, if it will save her a dime.

Of course, this is the same woman who once gave my mom an entirely ancient bathing suit one season when my mom didn't have one and then years later asked for it back. I should be happy that she didn't ask for the belt back, since I got rid of it right away.

What's the worst gift you ever received, that was given with full sincerity? What's the worst/best joke gift you have ever received?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Mom's Life List

Because Robert & I have been to South Texas a couple of times before, we knew that our ability to pick up new bird species would be limited. We have already seen the "easy" birds, and Robert did not plan the trip to maximize our chances at the hard birds we have yet to see.

But since it was my parents' first trip, they had a lot of new birds in store, including many that are common in the deep southern parts of the Rio Grande Valley but not seen elsewhere in the United States.

My mom just reported that she added 60 bird species to her life list, for a new total of 236 birds! Congratulations, Mom.

And as predicted, even my Dad, with his preference for big, easy-to-see birds, got tired of the ubiquitous, large, charismatic, completely-unphased-by-people Plain Chachalaca.

Big, loud, greedy at Bentsen State Park

(Photo courtesy of dencwheel's Flickr photostream, since I brought my camera but never used it on the trip.)

Trip reports plus photos by other people with a great deal of skill, patience, and expensive cameras with lenses longer than my forearm to come.

Back in Austin

I'm back from my greatly needed, hugely enjoyed birding vacation with Robert and my parents to the upper Texas coast and Rio Grande Valley (details to follow). Not only was it inherently fun, it served the important purpose of distracting me from thinking about the semester that starts Jan 20 and the rejections/acceptances that will be coming from grad schools and the conference to which I submitted my paper.

I got an email from my new boss that I will be spending most of my time this semester working on their "obesity" paper but also helping her out with grading, etc., for her course (which appears from the schedule to be a Promotion Strategy class). I'm supposed to meet with her this week to get my paperwork and schedule straightened out.

Robert took my car in and got a bunch of things fixed. I should now have functional brakes and shocks, among other things.

Almost immediately upon returning to Austin from South Texas, my allergies kicked into high gear. I only realized in retrospect how much better I had been feeling while away from home, despite the fact that I'd been spending a lot of time outdoors. (Of course, I had also been away from rabbit fur and hay, so perhaps that offset things a bit.) Robert briefly wondered if he had somehow contracted a cold before recognizing that he had simply reverted to his typical level of stuffiness and sinus pressure.

Although I have not applied to programs in the most non-allergenic parts of the country, basically anyplace I go will be better than Austin, Allergy Capital of the US per an article in my allergy medicine newsletter several years ago. Right? Oh crap. Greensboro, NC is the #2 Spring Allergy Capital, while Austin is #54. But Austin does continue to hold its own as the #1 Fall Allergy Capital, with Greensboro, NC as #37. OK, I'm hosed.

Leopold was pleased to be back from the rabbit-sitter, although of course he was treated well at her place. When Robert showed up to get him, he was sitting comfortably on a big stuffed chair with two cats. But the first morning he was home and let out of his cage, he ate a few bites of breakfast, ran around the room, binkied (the rabbit mid-air twisting dance of joy), ran some more, then flopped out in his favorite spot under the futon and fell asleep. In a few days, his course of antibiotics will be over and he'll be a very happy bunny indeed. I have already gotten some good pet therapy from him, so he's been back to work right away as my chief morale officer. Fortunately, during the trip, he had arranged for several eastern cotton-tail rabbits to make their appearance at strategic points, ensuring that my bunny withdrawal did not reach a critical level. That's good management.