Tuesday, September 29, 2009

School Stuff

I am quite happy to report that I am starting work on the experiment(s) that will be my first year project. I don't think it's a good idea to discuss the project in detail here, but I will say that it's in the area of persuasion, and that I have a two stage study - I will be bringing people into the lab for a persuasion paradigm, then bringing them back a week later to see if the persuasion stuck and whether I can persuade them again (in the opposite direction). I would be happy to talk about the project in excruciating detail with anyone who is really interested. Consider yourself warned.

Today I started programming the actual experiment in the psychology-experiment-specific software my advisor's lab uses, and it is proving to be easier than I expected. Like a lot of the questionnaire development software I've used in the past, very little genuine programming is needed; the built-in functionality is there for a wide range of experimental designs.

The director of grad studies for the department (who is one of the world's most extremely nice people) gave me a ride from the building to the parking lot this afternoon, and she asked how I was doing, mentioning that I seem...I can't remember the word, something to the effect of relaxed and on top of things. Oddly, I think that assessment is pretty accurate and that I'm not just doing a good job of faking it. I feel like I'm starting to get a decent handle on the workload, but I won't really know that for sure until after midterms; it's too soon to know whether the level of work / understanding I'm operating at is sufficient or not. I am loving the whole "having my own office" thing. When I can get and stay focused, my productivity is good.

I got back my reaction papers for my neuro class and the comments came out to around 5 "good point" or "very good point" (over 3 papers) and 0 "you are a moron." So either I'm being more smart than dumb with my observations or he is pulling his punches. I prefer to believe it's the former. Certainly there was no indication that my level of understanding was woefully insufficient or that I was completely missing the point, which is very good. (These are ungraded assignments, and we only have to do 5 total for the semester, but as I learned from the psych grad course I took a couple years ago, writing these reaction papers is probably the best way to ensure that I understand the material at all. I plan to do one for each week's set of articles.) I am almost entirely caught up with taking notes over the textbook chapters also, which is Step 3 in studying for the exam. (Step 1 is reading the material before class, and Step 2 is showing up to class and taking notes.)

I also got my required presentation of an empirical paper out of the way for social psychology class. It was one of the classics in the area of attitudes, and I think I did a reasonably good job of explaining it. Since the grad class class I took before (which only had 4 students) required me to do an entire lecture period on a topic, including explaining several empirical papers as well as the theoretical foundation, and lead a discussion session, discussing one paper (in my field no less) was neither intimidating nor difficult to prepare for.

Oh, and while my students were taking an exam today in lab, I started reading the journal article for tomorrow's neuro class, but found that I was not able to take the information in very easily since there was some distracting clicking calculator noise. I gave up at this sentence: "Low perceptual load in the relevant task, on the other hand, results in the processing of irrelevant as well as relevant information, and therefore requires some active means of rejecting distractors for maintaining appropriate control of behavior." I settled for desultory web surfing and looking around for roving eyes.

Leopold Update

Robert went to visit Leopold this past weekend and spent about 2 hours petting him. Here's the summary of the Leopold update:

* He really liked being petted and "presented" at Robert for more petting just as he used to do to Katy (for licking/grooming). This is new behavior (he used to not have the patience to sit still for two hours at a time unless he was basically asleep, and he would want to play at some point when humans were around).

* He's skinny but not getting skinner. He is still eating.

* He eats and drinks standing up, but that's about it. He mostly lies down. His hopping looks more like walking. He is generally looking "elderly and shaky."

* The sitter is considering diapering him because he's not using his litter box anymore (too hard to get in and out) so he gets pretty messy in the back. This would also allow them to put in a fleece floor cover in his cage, which is comfier for his feet.

* He does not seem to be in pain. The sitter does give him shots for inflammation which seem to be helping.

* His fur is still soft.

* They looked up his records and determined that he is 10 years old (life expectancy for a rabbit is 8-10 years).

* He started life with the name "Domino." No alternative name was listed for Katy.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Grocery Shopping

Ever since Tam published the photographs of her grocery shopping goodies, I have meant to do the same, and today, I even remembered before I put all the groceries away.

Here is the produce:


You may not be able to tell, but the square item on the right side is a mix of pre-cut melons, strawberries, grapes, and blueberries that is kind of expensive ($7.50) but is an indulgence I let myself get.

Here is the rest:

Yes I do like that yogurt

One thing I've noticed since moving to W-S, where grocery prices are higher than they were in Austin, is that I am more inclined to purchase the store brands and I am willing to consider them for a wider range of products. I surprised myself today by getting the store brand old-fashioned oats, since I've been loyal to Quaker for so many years, but the price differential was pretty large and I only use them for baking muffins (either whole or ground into flour).

I have a large box in which I keep my broken-down paperboard for recycling, which makes very clear what my commonly-purchased boxed foods are:

* Honey Nut Cheerios
* Quaker Instant Oatmeal
* Trisuits - Rosemary flavor
* Saltine crackers (Wal-Mart brand because they really are the best, though I am sure many of you will react to that as I react to the concept of a best English muffin: OK, it's a tastier flavorless lump of dough than the other brands)
* Morningstar Farms breakfast sausage patties

The Honey Nut Cheerios are conspicuous in their absence from today's shopping, but I had decided that I've come to rely too much on them for snacking purposes. (For a while, it was really bad because I'd discovered how delicious it is to eat dry HNC with walnut pieces. I had to stop buying walnuts a couple of weeks ago to put an end to that particular madness.) And there's this odd but kind of awesome thing: if I do not buy food, I do not eat it. So I bought more produce instead.

I sometimes have trouble remembering that I have bought produce, and I think it's largely a function of the out of sight, out of mind phenomenon that arises with putting items into the crisper drawers. Today, I reorganized my crispers so that the left contains stuff I bought for specific recipes and the right contains snackable stuff. (I also typically leave berries, baby carrots, and leafy greens on the shelves themselves.) I hate it when I'm cleaning out the drawer and find bell peppers that I've forgotten long enough that they've gone bad - roasted bell peppers are the bomb and I can eat them with pretty much any meal or as a snack.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Book/Life Congruence

Friday is my "light" day, on which I don't have any classes of my own to go to; I try to get a jump start on the crushing work for the next week, though, and this is easier when I get to school early and stay later, even though my only commitments are from 11-1. I have a pretty good handle at this point on what work I am more efficient with / find it easier to make myself to do when I'm at school and what kind of work I do well with from home.

I got to my office by about 8:30 and worked solidly until 11:00 on re-reading and takes notes on my computer from my neuro book, catching up to the chapter we just did this week! This was great, beyond my expectations and goals for the day, and I planned to do the readings for next week's neuro class when I got back at 1:00.

Today's undergrad research methods lecture was not particularly boring, but since I had (for the first time in a little while) an unsatisfactory quality of sleep last night, and I was suffering a bit from a low-pressure-system headache, I had the worst time just trying to stay awake. (Thankfully I sit in the very back row and thus do not set a bad example.) After class, I went back to my office to do the reading.

Still feeling almost overwhelmingly sleepy, I opened the book to the chapter, topic: attention, and tried really hard to focus on the material but not as successfully as I would have liked. I had to read the section on the reticular activating system and its role in arousal and alertness a couple of times since I kept half-dozing off while my eyes went through the motions of reading. The irony of the situation was not, however, lost on me. Eventually, I did become slightly more alert and I decided that it was an appropriate time to bust out one of the 45-calorie mini-packs of raisins I carry around for emergency situations (as Sun-Maid tells us, they're good for "quick energy," whereby energy = calories from sugar). Whether the infusion of sugar helped or it just had a placebo effect, I can't say, but I did manage to work my way through the material with a reasonable level of attention.

Then I came home and took a delicious, rather long nap, though I screwed up my eating schedule a bit and woke up with a stomach ache that didn't go away for some time after eating dinner.

Anyway, the odd congruence between my reading material and the immediate conditions of my life this afternoon reminds me of a story I don't think I've told on this blog:

Last year some time, during that period when I was going to the college library every morning and reading through books on psychology / economics / etc., I was in the library reading when I heard a girl scream from somewhere in the stacks behind me. The approximately 8 of us seated at tables in the immediate vicinity all looked up with surprise and then looked at each other with confusion. About 15 seconds later I'm guessing (though it felt like minutes), the girl came out from the stacks laughing really hard into her cell phone, and everyone realized, "OK, she was shrieking with laughter" and went back to their work.

At this point, I resumed my reading of what must be, at this point in my life, my dozenth description of the bystander effect, which refers to the tendency for people to be less likely to offer help in an emergency when there are other people present, and felt sort of dismayed that even being not only knowledgeable about this phenomenon but having this knowledge as the most salient thing in my brain at the time of this girl screaming, I still reacted this useless way. And I could definitely feel that it was not a diffusion of responsibility issue (I did not just assume that somebody else would help) but that I wasn't sure what the situation really was and so fell into the trap of social proof (since nobody else was doing anything, action mustn't be warranted). Ugh.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

What's with the Kink?

The last two British mystery programs I watched had kinky sex elements central to the plotline.

This included a Wire in the Blood episode in which a serial killer, who picks up submissive women online and then kidnaps/rapes/murders them, is revealed by his casual use of the term "vanilla." Ah yes, linking this stuff to psycho killers does great things for the public perception.

But it also included an episode of Midsomer Murders that ends with the policeman's very straight-laced wife commenting, as they are lying in bed and she is lowering her sleeping mask, apropos of the case that he just solved that involved three women who offered sex fantasies for sale, that though she has no interest in playing the "good wife" or the "damsel in distress," dishing out discipline she could do. The policeman, clearly surprised, says "Really?" and, smiling, enthusiastically snaps his book closed. Joyce and Tom Barnaby's marriage has hidden depths.

I also want to give a shout out to the British actor (Stuart Milligan, says IMDB) who played the American customer of the dominatrix on this show who also was the magician Jonathan Creek worked for in seasons 2 through whatever, not to be confused with the actor who played the magician during the first season of JC who was also Giles on Buffy.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Recreational Reading

I checked out Anna Karenina from the school library last week, finally succumbing to Tam's urging that I simply must read this book. Fortunately grad students get to keep library books for three months because I am making progress along the lines of a handful of pages per day and this is not a short book. (Note: this handful is a number that can be counted on hand, so 1-5.)

This week I watched the movie Scenes from a Marriage (by Ingmar Bergman) and strongly recommend it to Tam if she hasn't seen it already - it's a must for people interested in complex adult relationships.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Where Am I?

Walking down the hall today from my office to the bathroom, I was surprised and confused when I heard a bunch of students (undergrads) talking on the floor below, then I remembered, "Oh, right, this isn't merely my place of work; it's a building with rooms for students to come take classes in." (I take classes in the building, too, of course, but they feel enough like work meetings I have to prepare for that it trips me up.)

It's actually a pretty building. This is the atrium. My office is on the 4th floor (the lower of the two in this photo).

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Nice Mental Health Break Video

I enjoyed watching this video about Christian the lion. Maybe you will too. (Though in my opinion they do have much to answer for in the selection of the Aerosmith song.)

According to Snopes, this story is legitimate.

Another Long Day

UPDATE: This recipe for southwest pork chops & rice turned out well - easy and pretty tasty. I cut the meat off the bone (I had 3 large chops) and just mixed it together with the rest of the ingredients after cooking rather than serving the whole chop. I sprinkled the cheese on top after reheating a serving in the microwave tonight. I am a sucker for spicy, brown-rice-based one-dish-meals and am happy I now have lunches ready for M-W this week.

It's weird how moving to a different part of the country, you have to get accustomed to different local chains. While you can expect Wal-Mart, Target, McDonalds, Subway, etc., to be everywhere (and they are here in NC), I've been boggling a bit about things like grocery stores (Food Lion, Lowe's Foods) and fast food restaurants (Bojangles - fried chicken & biscuits, Jersey Mike's - sub sandwiches) that are totally unfamiliar.

Yesterday I woke up finally sick of my longer hair and decided to get it cut. I typically use Super (Cheap) Cuts, since my "style" is about as easy as it gets, but googling it for W-S, there wasn't one at all near me, and it appeared that there were only two for the entire city. But looking in the phone book, I discovered a bunch of entries for a chain called Great Clips and found that there were about 3 of them within ~3 miles of my apartment. It turned out that the easiest one to get to, navigation-wise, was also only about 1 block from the Wal-Mart I wanted to go to for decongestant and various supplies anyway.

There was only about a 5 minute wait for my haircut (which I got on the too-short side) but my luck ran out at Wal-Mart where (1) for the second week in a row they did not have my desired brand, style, color, and size of underwear and (2) I got in a line that was short (too short) but took forever to get out of.

It feels funny, in a way, that I get this sense of complaint about them not having precisely the type of underwear I want, given that my preferences were so terribly specific. (They had a pack that fit the bill except for having a multi-color combination rather than white.) It makes me remember my dad talking about teaching and coaching in a small town in Nebraska where all the boys in the locker room would have underwear in different weird colors because that was what the town's general store would stock. On the other hand, I was at a store on Hanes Mill Road (not to be confused with Hanes Mall Road or all the other X Mill Roads) but was unable to secure my desired type of Hanes underwear. (It occurs to me on preview that it is inaccurate to say this is the second week in a row I couldn't get my desired type; last week, I purchased the last remaining package, but I have wanted to purchase about 3 packages total.)

The experience at the check-out was strange. (It definitely provoked counterfactual thinking while I stood there - "I should have known this line was too short, that a woman buying plants would have problems, I should found another line," etc.) All went well until the checker was presented with a giant gourd - giant as in a 12 pound gourd. A 12 pound gourd with no price tag. After much discussion between the clerk, the customer, and a guy in the produce department, they elected to sell it to her as though it were a pumpkin. (I say "much" but it probably took all of 5 minutes; it just felt like longer as I stood there, getting hungry, alternating between looking at the King Size Reese's Cups on one side and a women's magazine promising that you absolutely will lose weight following these tips, one of which no doubt should have been not to eat anything at all like the world's best macaroni and cheese proudly depicted on the cover.)

I spent most of the afternoon reading articles about self-regulation and persuasion. I enjoyed these quotes from Baumeister & Vohs (2007), Self-regulation, ego depletion, and motivation, Social and Personality Psychology Compass:

In the "it shouldn't surprise me someone has studied this but" category: "Nonetheless, not only do priests masturbate more than nuns (Sipe, 1995)...."

"At the height of passionate love, partners might be willing to sacrifice their lives for each other, whereas several years down the road they might not even bother to bring the partner the remote control."

"Choosing the lesser of two evils is thus apparently a stressful dilemma, even for rats."

This week I was able to make myself stay on in my office and continue working to good effect, and I place at least some of the credit for that with whoever stocked the student lounge with a large bowl of pink lady apples. When I felt myself flagging about 3:00 p.m., having an apple (thereby replenishing my supply of sugar) did make it a lot easier to keep going.

Oh, and Robert will perhaps be amused to know that I finally made the pork chop recipe on the back of the empty shredded cheese package that has been sitting on my counter for several weeks now. It looks tasty. Of course, the package is still sitting there, awaiting my decision to type up the recipe for future use or to discard the recipe forever.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Screwy Statistical Reasoning

As a break from mocking economists for their silly notions, a favorite past-time, it's time to get real on this: psychologists suck at statistical reasoning.

Consider this:

"Oakes (1986, p. 82) reported that 96% of academic psychologists erroneously believed that the level of significance specifies the probability that the hypothesis under question is true or false" (Gigerenzer, "The Superego, the Ego, and the Id in Statistical Reasoning").

Note that I don't have immediate access to the Oakes reference to see what this sample of "academic psychologists" consisted of and so forth, but still, it blows my mind.

What's happening here (presumably) is a serious misunderstanding of conditional probabilities. (A conditional probability is the likelihood of something being true, given that something else is true.)

Here's an example of some conditional probabilities:

(1) What is the probability that a creature is named Leopold Rex, given that the creature is a rabbit?


(2) What is the probability that a creature is a rabbit, given that the creature is named Leopold Rex?

Now, we don't know the probability of a creature being a rabbit or being named Leopold Rex with any precision, but it seems reasonable to believe that there are a lot of rabbits and not very many Leopold Rexes. So for (1), we'd expect that the probability of a rabbit being named Leopold Rex is pretty small (after all, most rabbits in the world don't have any "name" in the human sense at all). But for (2), once we know we're dealing with a Leopold Rex (a rare thing), the probability that he is a rabbit may be pretty good.

Even though we can't say a lot about these two probabilities, we should be able to fairly easily see that the probabilities are not going to be the same, or at least aren't the necessarily the same. If we were able to determine that 33% of all Leopold Rexes are rabbits, we certainly can't then say that 33% of rabbits are Leopold Rexes.

The fact that the two probabilities aren't the same is even more striking when you compare:

(1) What is the probability of a creature being my pet, given that he's a rabbit?


(2) What is the probability of a creature being a rabbit, given that he's my pet?

The probability in (1) is vanishingly small, since I have one pet and the world is full of rabbits. But the probability in (2) is 1 - since I have only one pet, once we know we're talking about my pet, we know for certain that the creature is a rabbit.

But it's also not the case that you can say that if 33% of Leopold Rexes are rabbits, then 67% of rabbits are Leopold Rexes. It's even more obvious that if 100% of my pets are Leopold Rexes that it can't be that 0% of Leopold Rexes are my pet. However, it appears that a lot of academic psychologists get this all mixed up in their heads when thinking about their hypotheses and their data.

The p-value only tells you the probability of having gotten the data given that the null hypothesis is true (i.e. that the effect you were looking for isn't there). This does not magically morph into telling you the probability of the hypothesis being true given your data, even though that's what you really want to know.

Lately I've been thinking about how relatively unprepared psychology students (even masters/PhD students) are mathematically. I have not been able to find (in my very cursory search thus far) any information on what the math background of the typical experimental psychology PhD student is, but given how little math prep is expected of even the very good programs, I believe that it isn't very much - possibly not enough to complete undergrad-level stats courses that demand mathematical rigor. And while I believe that it is possible to develop good statistical reasoning / intuition without having the math chops to prove the central limit theorem, etc., I do suspect that it's harder to understand this stuff without a reasonably solid grasp on the basic underlying mathematical concepts.

Of course, according to Gigerenzer, it's the writers of the psychology research methods/stats textbooks and the people teaching these classes who are largely to blame for the faulty reasoning since they either explicitly misrepresent what the p-values are, etc., or do not bother to be clear, thus inviting misunderstanding. (Sadly, they don't appear to be doing as well as to invite confusion.) Maybe they themselves are confused, and maybe it's easy to slip into error when you're trying to address an audience who isn't really mathematically up to the job of understanding what the hell you're talking about.

I know it's easy for me to say this, since I'm decent at math, but it seems that psychology as a discipline would benefit from requiring more mathematical talent and preparation among those entering graduate programs in research-based subdisciplines. (I would like to say that I can't see how it's relevant to the large number of psych students in the practioner-oriented fields and programs, but as Robert has pointed out, if there is any famously and dangerously statistically-incompetent profession in the world, it's medical doctors. Whether people doing marital counseling need the same level of statistical sophistication as doctors, I couldn't say.) There are already approximately a gazillion people who want to get a PhD in psychology, so reducing that number to those who are capable of and willing to get a higher level of math preparation wouldn't decimate the field. It's a separate question whether increasing the math skill requirements would cut out too many people with high levels of creativity as researchers and theorists, but an economist might note that psychology has too many theories already, and I would suspect that many-to-most of these theorists whose work has proven to be important would have been capable of more math had it had been asked of them.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Definition: Binocular Disparity


(1) In psychology, when a person is viewing an object, the difference in the images created in the left and right eyes. The brain uses information about the disparity in determining the distance of the object from the viewer.

(2) In birding, the difference between the cost of one's binoculars and the number of bird species one can identify without consulting a field guide or other resources.

See also: binocular despairity. The negative emotion created when a birder discovers he or she has insufficiently powerful optics immediately available to identify a given bird. This despairity most commonly occurs in situations in which the birder has no binoculars at all or is carrying binoculars when a spotting scope is required to see a bird at a far distance.

Seen This Morning

A man in a suit riding a bicycle in the threatening drizzle through the gate of the university while holding open and reading what appeared to be a smallish newspaper.

A young woman walking in front of me was carrying a copy of the Access Bible and wearing a somewhat short skirt that was twisted around almost 90 degrees on her body. After pulling on it about a half dozen times, she figured out the problem and pulled it back straight. It is unknown to me whether the skirt twisted itself back around later, but my money is on yes.

The count of people in this town wearing Crocs remains steady at zero.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Applied Psychology at Dinner Time

I spent all afternoon making myself do reading in the self-regulation literature, so of course, when I stopped a bit ago to have dinner, I let myself eat half a pan of chocolate brownies.

OK, actually, I would have eaten brownies but I do not have any. I ate a normal dinner instead. Eating the normal dinner did not cost me anything in terms of self-regulation, so it's back to the articles as soon as I finish this post.

There is an important but oft-forgotten aspect of self-regulation: yes, it's a limited resource, and exerting self-discipline / willpower for one thing can wimp you out for the next thing you do or decision that you make, but the muscle / strength metaphor extends as well to the possibility of developing a larger capacity over time. So if a person finds herself too frequently running out of willpower, it's probably time to start building it up. One interesting finding briefly mentioned in a paper I'm reading now is that people who regularly practiced yoga (which they call a kind of "mental control practice") were less affected or "depleted" following a self-regulation task than other participants were. Now whether this means that people who have a high level of self-regulation are more likely to be attracted to yoga or that practicing yoga helps build self-control or something else entirely, this study can't say. But it's an interesting correlation.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

New Definition of Weekend

"The two days a week in which schoolwork is interrupted by errands and household tasks rather than class."

Some of the great features of the weekend include:
* sleeping in (today until 9:00)
* not having to carry my life in a backpack across campus
* on Friday & Saturday, not having a list of things I must do before falling asleep so I am ready for school the next day (right now, the other days are driven by this demand)

I would like to say that no new work can arise on the weekend, but this isn't true. Damn email. At least this is relatively infrequent (so far).

Sundays are going to be a bit more do-or-die than before since my Monday morning schedule has gotten tighter.
Advisor meeting 8:30 - 9:30
Class 10:00 - 11:00
Lunch (while reading)
Lecture for class I TA (12:00 - 12:50)
Class 1:00 - 3:00

I spent several hours on Friday morning trying to print 5 PDF files (journal articles). There was no obvious pattern of when the article would print correctly, print only the first page, or not print at all. I ended up switching between two different printers when one appeared to stop working for me altogether. My new printer at home works fine, and it prints double-sided (though it requires a manual re-feed of the paper), but it requires watching since it spits the printed pages out so forcefully that about half the time, they spill onto the floor. (This is esp. problematic given the need to have them in order for the re-feed process; it's kind of tough to order pages when you are looking at every-other page of text.)

I think I am going to have to retrain myself to read journal articles on the computer and take notes somehow. The time/expense/weight associated with printing everything I need to read is probably not going to be viable as the semester progresses. But this goes against the grain for me in a major way. We'll see.

OK, the washing machine and social psychology articles are calling for attention...

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Free Rider

I just got back from taking out my trash (which took 8 minutes, by the way - I knew it was a fair walk to the compacter) and brushed a piece of lint off my shorts that turned out to be one of those weird, horned-looking black bugs that I have seen all over the south. I picked him up with a Kleenex and set him back on his way outside my door.

In related news, the movie Wall-E almost had me thinking the cockroach character was cute at times. Behold the power of Disney.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Appropriately Named Food?

Though I've been doing a reasonable amount of cooking these last weeks, I've also been stocking up on frozen dinners for emergency meals, like I had this evening at 7:00 p.m. (These evening I've been struggling my way through figuring out how to write a reaction paper on a neuropsychology article that I understand but that does not inspire me with other ideas, so I ate later than usual. I still am short on ideas, but at least I'm now feeling dumb on a full stomach.)

This weekend, I got a few Lean Cuisines that were on sale. I typically purchase Asian style meals because they are reliably free of cheese, which I find almost always disgusting in the context of a frozen dinner. Tonight, I had one with beef strips, wide noodles, pea pods, red bell pepper strips, and water chestnuts in a brown, mildly spicy sauce.

And while I am not sure that it actually fully delivered "Beef Chow Fun," it tasted pretty good. None of my great-grandmothers would have recognized this as food in the sense that it had weird chemical ingredients and included unfamiliar ingredients, but I think they would have been able to tell from the smell that it was edible. They certainly would have appreciated the fact that it took less than 6 minutes to get from freezer to table, and I spent most of that 6 minutes unloading and loading the dishwasher, another unrecognizable sight that would nevertheless have struck them full of wonder and appreciation.

Sunday, September 6, 2009


In the wake of the California nutrition labeling law, Macaroni Grill reformulated many of their menu items to make them lower in calories, saturated fat, or both. (As you may recall, this law inspired all sorts of extremely poor analytical thinking on the parts of those who are absolutely committed to the notion that such laws could not possibly have any positive effect on what/how much people eat, including the whole not eating a donut in the morning will lead to eating 4 apples at night example.) Reportedly, "the thirteen improved menu items have reduced calories from 25% to 65%, while five popular menu items have seen saturated fat grams reduced by more than 70%."

Robert and I ate lunch at Macaroni Grill yesterday, and this was the second time we had seen the new and improved menu (without the nutrition information, but with items labeled as a new item or new recipe). While I had my usual Simple Salmon, he decided to try the reformulated lasagna.

The most surprising thing about the lasagna when it was served was how fresh it looked. Rather than drowning in cheese and oil, it sported a fresh-looking sauce on top that appeared to be primarily pieces of tomato that was very appealing. It was also much less oily than any lasagna I have seen in a restaurant. It was tasty, too.

One thing this really made me appreciate is how restaurants under-utilize the idea of "freshness" as a concept around which to build menu items or as a selling point for what they have. But thinking about it, it's clear that just as we have evolutionary reasons for being attracted to calorie-dense, fatty, and/or sugary foods, freshness is also an important and appealing aspect of food. But unlike the "hyperpalatable" foods that often inspire ambivalent feelings - "yum" from the lizard brain and "yuck" from the brain that remembers how it feels 15 minutes after eating all those heavy calories - fresh has no downside. While there is an extent to which "fresh" may free associate in many consumers' minds with produce (and perhaps with seafood or bread in some contexts), there is no reason marketers can't make better use of this concept for things like pasta, too.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

TA & Nerves

Before I start grading homework, I thought I'd finally attempt a shortish answer to Tam's query about how the TA (teaching assistant) thing is working for me.

I am the TA for the 1st semester research methods/stats course for psychology majors. (It is a 2 course sequence that seems to do methods and stats together. At Rice, we had a semester of stats first, followed by a semester of methods.) I lead a lab section of 15 students twice a week.

So far (the class has met twice), it's been great. We have been doing discussion sessions over material from supplemental readings. The professor posts the questions online, and the students answer the questions to turn in to me for a grade; the day the assignment is due, we have discussion in the lab. Leading a discussion with people who are pretty smart and have done the readings is easy and relatively fun work.

As the semester progresses, I will be doing actual teaching of SPSS, how to do lit search, writing up results, and other various aspects of doing psychological research.

It's kind of a lot of work because I attend the lectures 3 days per week, do lab 2 days per week, and have to do all the reading the students do as well as grading, writing test questions, and sundry other duties. It's not difficult work, though, and I will probably ultimately be glad to have a break from research (research assistant being the other way that grad students earn their keep).

At the party last weekend, one of the second year grad students asked the professors we were talking to how long it takes before you stop getting nervous when you get up in front of a class of students. One of the older guys said that he is nervous on the first session of each new class for about 5 minutes because it's hard to stand up in front of a group of total strangers and perform. He told us about a prof he knows who has a reputation as a total hard-ass but who gets so nervous on the first day of class she always throws up. He also recommended never to do a conference presentation with a single piece of paper in your hand because it will vibrate visibly as your hands shake from nerves. The laser pointer (a horrible invention that I absolutely refuse to use, ever) also gives tell-tale signs of nervousness.

I was the first TA to do my session, so some of the other newbie grad students asked me whether I had been nervous, and thinking about it, I realized I had been a bit anxious about it ahead of time (because I get anxious over anything in advance) but that I had no sense of nervousness when the day came for my first lab.

I really think more than having a fair amount of public speaking experience in various contexts and with differing levels of importance, I was less nervous than many other people might be because I spent a few months as a substitute teacher, standing in front of a group of total strangers 6 times a day. And it probably helps to be separated from the students by more like 15 years than 3 like some of the other TAs.

Stamp Box

Late this summer, I finally finished this project that I started, if I recall correctly, about 6 years ago as a gift for my mom. Wait, it was longer ago than that. I remember purchasing the wooden box at a craft store (with supplies for a few other projects) after my accidental lay-off in the summer of 2001 but before starting my new one in September. So make that 8 years.

I had managed to paint the box black, but never got around to putting on any stamps, in part because so many of my stamps were in a non-usable state (e.g. still stuck to envelopes). Since I got my stamp collection in order in July or so, I was able to pick up this project again and finish it very quickly.

My own stamp box is covered in a variety of stamps reflecting my interests or just featuring stamps I liked but no particular themes. For this one, I settled on three themes that worked well together, I found: Birds, Flowers, and Love stamps. I have been holding on to the mint 29 cent Whooping Crane stamp for an age (since 1994, when it was released), and I'm glad I found such a good use for it - as the center around which all the other stamps were placed.

It's taken me a while to get this photo up because I am currently in a somewhat screwy computer situation. I am using my school-supplied laptop for most things, because it's faster, has a nicer monitor, has some software that I use but don't have on the desktop (e.g. PowerPoint), and it contains a lot of my current data since it's the one I take to school with me (rather than carrying my gigantic, ancient desktop system, imagine that). But I have yet to successfully link my laptop to the desktop system so that I can print, nor can I connect to the web wirelessly (though using the cord is working fine, if it's a bit of a pain at times dealing with the cord). I also haven't tried moving software from the desktop to the laptop, including the software for my camera. I hope that over this coming long-ish weekend, Robert can help me get some of this stuff straightened out. I'm starting to wonder whether I can, to a great extent, make my desktop redundant, or at least set things up so the laptop is the primary computer in the system.