Saturday, February 27, 2010


I watched the first two episodes tonight and I can't quite decide whether I hate it or not. I need more data.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

An Obvious Result

From my notes on a recent lecture about modularity nativism, this is my favorite statement:

"Rabbit experiment - the 'rabbit in window' view (most rabbit) was looked at most [by infant participants]."

I mean, duh - who wouldn't look longest at the view that gave them the "most rabbit"? I don't organize my entire life around maximizing my exposure to rabbit pictures, but I am at this moment facing a wall with 30 rabbit images on it (and have an extra computer screen next to me on this desk displaying my prized Leo as Unstoppable Force / Master of the Universe photograph).

Actually, I thought that the findings were completely expected on other grounds (I think I spent the entire class period listening to some experiment that supposedly supported nativism but that was obviously grievously flawed and could be countered with a simple methodological change only to then be presented with the results of the counter experiment I had just been thinking about and which supported the other view - it was kind of bizarre), but I did savor the whole "more rabbit" aspect of the thing.

And on this note: More Rabbit for you to look at.

When you look at the rabbit, the rabbit looks back at you

Monday, February 22, 2010

Stats Exam

I got a 92 (the class mean was 85, the high was 96). He said that he graded really strictly, but we can earn back half-credit for missed problems by doing re-writes, which means I should be able to get my grade up to a 96.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


This Mona Lisa lily bloomed overnight.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Week in Review

A disjointed compendium of this week's events:

* The starter on my car finally died Tuesday night. Wednesday morning (too early) I got a tow to the Nissan dealership that's 2.7 miles away from a guy with whom I had a conversation about blood phobias (his phobia: open wounds) and a ride from a nice old lifelong Carolinian with whom I compared notes on Texas vs. NC weather home again (with a silent, perhaps pissed-off dude in the backseat). I took the shuttle to school, which was really convenient. After school, I called the guy from the dealership again and caught a ride to pick up my car, in which they had replaced the starter and the battery as well as re-attached the front bumper that had been knocked loose by my I-35 blow-out last year. (The service guy said, "The interior of your car is immaculate, but what's the story on the bumper?" I gave him the two sentence version that did not involve how I got my hand injured fighting a mugger.) They also have ordered a new windshield washer fluid assembly that they'll be installing later.

A nice bonus is that not only does my car start up really fiercely every morning but the windshield wipers, which have been only barely functional for months, and then only with me carefully turning them on and off while I drive (which is distracting and dangerous), are now working normally again. The mechanic said that they were probably working so pathetically before because of the battery problem. It's nice to have a problem that money can solve, and the money to do it.

* Thursday was also the day of the stats exam that had sneaked up on me when I wasn't looking. I felt pretty good about my grasp of the material going into the exam, but it was different from what I had expected, and harder. I know that I was tired from getting up so early the previous day to get my car into the shop, but I don't think that was the reason I struggled with it. My best guess is that I let myself be thrown by the way that the test questions bore basically zero resemblance to the homework questions or to what I had anticipated the questions to look like. They were "trickier" and less straightforward than what I had expected based on his statements about what the test would be like. This is not to say that they seemed unfair, out of bounds, intentionally confusing, or anything like that. For instance, one section of the exam required us to use this giant array of SPSS output to fill in the missing numbers marked with letters, ignoring the numbers that had been marked with XXXX "to keep things interesting" he wrote, and to indicate if we did not have sufficient information to answer the question. Don't you love those questions that you don't know whether you should give up trying to find an answer to or not?

And from talking to other people today, I was not alone in being thrown for a loop by the professor saying it might take a little longer than our usual class time (1:15) but then finding the test time-consuming to get through. It took me 2:45 to finish. I did waste about 45 minutes in a doomed attempt to use linear algebra to solve a problem that I gave up on, decided was unanswerable, but then realized, shit, in this specific analytical situation, I can get the answer by taking the square root of this other number, then use that in combination with these other numbers to answer this second problem, but there were many questions that took me a long time to work through. I probably should have worked on the exam longer but I was the only person left in the room (I discovered today that others started earlier than I did and/or continued the exams in other rooms, since they thought another class was taking over our classroom) and I had a meeting to grade my students' stats exams in 15 minutes and I was just done worn out.

All this being said, I think I did fine, if not as well as I should have done. I do feel confident I did better than my student who got a 56.5% on her exam or the one who did not show up for the exam at all yesterday morning.

* My home-cooked lunches continue to amaze, astound, and provoke hunger in my office mate. (I do not eat in my office, but we often end up crossing paths in the lounge a couple lunch-times per week.) This week, it was chicken and rice soup that I rustled up from my freezer (and which heated up extremely well with the addition of extra broth). Last week it was a chicken/rice/broccoli casserole in white sauce and a spicy beef/rice/peppers casserole with tomato sauce. It's funny to me, since those two casserole recipes came from Hillbilly Housewife (who has a fancy new web site) and the back of a package of Kraft shredded cheese, respectively, but by lunchtime, it does not need to be gourmet to smell good enough to make grown men drool.

* By this afternoon's seminar, I was feeling rather punch-drunk, and when we were talking about behavioral genetics studies with siblings, identical twins raised together, identical twins raised apart, randomly selected partners, etc., and the correlations between these different pairs on various personality traits, I had to summon a great deal of inhibitory control not to ask the question: What do the correlations look like between people and their evil twins?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Snow Tracks

A nice guide, including a classic rabbit pun. (Be sure to hover your mouse to see the alt-text.)

I only this past Christmas, on my approximately 8 millionth viewing of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, noticed that Legolas walked on the surface of the snow rather than crunching down into it like everyone else. (This realization probably only occurred this time because of my recent experience walking around on and in the 9" of snow outside.)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Life Bird #457

This evening, Robert and I stood around in the cold for an hour but were rewarded by seeing (and hearing) 3 American Woodcocks displaying in flight. (He had seen a report on the Forsyth county bird list that woodcocks were being seen in this park near my apartment.) These days, I have no expectation of seeing life birds without either chasing rarities or going to a new geographical region (Robert suggested Costa Rica about the time my toes started freezing). So, Happy Valentine's Day to us!

I am the cock of the walk...or flight

Stats Surprise

For the past week, I've been thinking about the fact that my lab is having their first stats exam this Thursday and having this sort of sympathetic "I hope they're going to be ready for this" feeling. (I am also, you know, actually teaching the material so this is not entirely a wing-and-prayer situation.)

Just now, I got an email from my own stats professor with a list of fair game topics for our exam. What?! Oh, I also have a stats exam on Thursday that I had put on my calendar the first week of class and promptly forgotten about entirely. Oops. While showing up for class and being told that I have a statistics exam starting in 3 minutes is something less of a complete nightmare scenario for me than for most, perhaps, it is still really unpleasant to imagine.

It's funny how I have a disconnect between the flow of the undergrads' semester and my own. It never occurred to me to think that if my students are reaching the point where they are having exams, maybe I am reaching that point, too.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dog Gear

My mom is infamously anti-superfluous-clothing-on-animals, but I think she will agree that this is a pretty cool idea. Now if only she would make them little matching jogging suits....

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Pet Peeve: Snow Edition

The comments on this post started to veer into the area of one of my pet peeves: people complaining about how other people (typically, northerners complaining about southerners) don't know how to drive in snow/ice.

* The infrastructure for dealing with snow is pretty minimal in southern states. This includes both city resources like plows as well as individual resources - people in the south do not buy vehicles with an eye toward how it will function in snow and ice nor do they change out their tires.

* It snows too infrequently to actually learn how to do it very well.

Whenever I hear one of the "those people don't know how to drive in snow" scoffing comments, I always want to say, "Oh, so I take it you know how to drive a four-in-hand." Because really, in someplace like Austin, TX, you're about as likely to need to know how to solo drive a horse-drawn carriage as know how to drive a car in snow.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Football Bunny

Robert sent the link to this funny rabbit video - be sure to watch with the sound on because the commentary is great.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Sugar Wars

I'm not sure why high-fructose corn syrup gets singled out as a uniquely evil sweetener, other than its close association with sugary soft drinks (possibly the most nutritionally-useless source of calories in the American diet) and the feeling that it is less "natural" than other sugars. But I liked the straightforward way the HFCS vs. table sugar issue was discussed in the Jan/Feb issue of the Nutrition Action Healthletter:

"To hear some critics talk, high-fructose corn syrup is the real villain. Table sugar gets a free pass.

In fact, high-fructose corn syrup is roughly half fructose and half glucose, as is table sugar (sucrose) once it breaks down in the body. And although the fructose half may cause some problems, the glucose half causes others. So if there's a villain, it's all added sugars."

Later in the article, they point out that when considering the dangers of HFCS, many people (including self-appointed health guru Dr. Mercola) "confuse high-fructose corn syrup with fructose, as though high-fructose corn syrup were mostly fructose. It's not....Glucose makes up the rest of both HFCS and sucrose. So it's not surprising that researchers find few differences - in blood sugar, insulin, ghrelin (which stimulates appetite), or leptin (which curbs appetite) - when they pit high-fructose corn syrup against table sugar."

Other than some sketchy correlational studies showing that the switch from white sugar to HFCS in sodas coincided with a rise in obesity levels, and various rat studies looking at effects on leptin (which have come to contradictory conclusions, as far as I know), I'm not really familiar with any evidence to suggest that HFCS is any worse than any other sugar. Is there science to back this up?

If not, this isn't to say that there aren't reasons a person might choose to avoid eating HFCS, such as:

* You prefer the taste of table sugar (or think that you do) - the taste difference in sweetened soft drinks is obvious (since that's almost the only ingredient), but it's not like switching from regular Coke to Jones soda or Mountain Dew Throwback is a health-conscious choice. I somehow doubt that most people could tell the difference between two store-bought chocolate chip cookies that are identical except for the type of sugar used.

* Creating a personal rule to avoid HFCS helps you avoid eating a lot of the most commonly-available (e.g. in the vending machine at work) sweets you encounter. Requiring yourself / getting in the habit of eating only sweets with other sugars helps you avoid temptation and make sweets consumption more planned and intentional, thus bringing down your overall sugar intake. (Note that I specifically mean a rule against HFCS rather than an attitude against or belief about HFCS - these are very different things.)

* You like to eat a more upscale or foodie diet. You avoid foods that give off a chemically, not-healthy vibe. You have sort of pseudoscientific views or feelings about food. Maybe you hate Big Corn. HFCS just doesn't fit in with the general sense of how you see yourself or how you see yourself eating. It may be a lot less about HFCS per se and more about what HFCS represents.

I don't think a person's decision to reduce HFCS consumption is a bad idea at all. I can see it being an especially effective strategy if you do not shop at Whole Foods or other "health" (cough) food stores that are very, very happy to provide sweets made with "brown rice syrup," "dehydrated cane juice," and other sugars by any other name, and instead you have to get off your duff and bake for yourself if you want a sugary snack. It's all the more effective if you're lazy, busy, or don't like cooking.

But I do think scaremongering and scientifically unvalidated claims about HFCS have the potential to bias public policy, as well as individual choices, in bad ways. And the extent to which people complete the heuristic of "HFCS = bad" with "No HFCS = good," we run the risk of going back down the road of idiocy that brought us jelly bean packages proclaiming "A Fat Free Food!"

I just did a google search which turned up a really funny observation along these lines: "I'm also pleased to see that the new Pizza Hut ads for "The Natural" pizza has a disclaimer that the sauce contains no HFCS!" Heh, yes, because of course the biggest health risk of eating Pizza Hut is the HFCS in the sauce. But when I looked at the site, I realized they were completely serious. (I am not at all trying to single this person out as some special case of moron or anything like that; it was just a perfect example of the thing I'm talking about.)

I could only find four things in my kitchen that contain HFCS: Robert's Dr Pepper, All Bran cereal, ketchup, and barbecue sauce. My normal cereals, granola bars, yogurts, pasta and pizza sauce, etc., all came up free of HFCS. Because I would be surprised if I ate even one of those four things in a given month (and how much ketchup does a person eat at a sitting anyway), and I rarely eat out, I probably am already limiting my HFCS consumption quite a bit without even trying. Good for me! I think I'm going to go eat a dozen Ande's mints to celebrate! OK, actually, I am going to eat one. Mmmmm. Sugar.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Converging Evidence

This study reported in Time is yet another one finding overweight as measured by BMI to be protective against the risk of death among elderly adults. (I was unable to find the study in PubMed or google scholar to link to an ungated copy. Readers with library rights can find it in the current issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.)

Australian men and women ages 70-75 self-reported height, weight, demographics, lifestyle (including smoking, drinking, and exercise), and health status characteristics. Participants were followed for ten years or until death, if sooner. Cause of death data was collected from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and classified as cardiovascular disease, cancer, or chronic respiratory disease.

The researchers found that both men and women with BMI in the overweight range had a lower risk of death in the following ten years compared to participants with normal weight BMIs. Their model finds the minimum mortality risk to occur when BMI is about 26.

I liked this about their analysis:

"A potential source of bias arises if, for some participants, illness has caused weight loss and this illness also increases the risk of mortality. To determine whether the presence of preexisting illness modified the relationship with BMI, men and women were categorized as healthy if they reported no prior history of diabetes mellitus, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, or chronic respiratory illness and if they were not current smokers. Regression models were also fitted conditional on 1-, 2-, and 3-year survival. This removed the influence of early mortality from the hazard ratio estimates, and these were compared with those obtained from the full cohort."

However, a significant problem with the cross-sectional or short-term longitudinal studies of the elderly is that all those people (fat or not) who died before they reached old age are not represented. To me, this makes these results sound potentially like, "People who are fat but still manage to reach the age of 70 despite the higher risk of so many diseases due to overweight, perhaps because they won the genetic jackpot for health and longevity, live longer than thinner people in their 70s who may not be as genetically blessed." I think we need longer-term longitudinal studies, starting when participants are younger, that include measurement of key variables of interests at regular intervals (unlike this study, which only measured weight, etc., at time 1) in order to better understand the influence of weight on mortality.

I think there is some common sense appeal to the idea that having a bit of a weight buffer when you're old might help if you get sick, can't eat, and start losing weight. Of course, too often results from these studies are interpreted to mean that it's healthier to be overweight, full stop. I have lost track of the number of times that study a few years ago in Obesity was linked to by young overweight bloggers to justify the healthiness of their weight even though the research only looked at people over age 65. Many of those robust oldsters may have been quite lean back in the day.

I still wonder how "normal weight obesity" (having a BMI in the normal range but a high amount of body fat and a relatively low amount of muscle mass), which has to be common among older people, affects the results of these studies. Would using a better measure of body fat give different results?

But there does appear to be converging evidence that overweight old people may not benefit in terms of mortality risk from weight loss. (The effects on general health and quality of life may be another story.) Interesting.

View from My Balcony

While it's not literally true that I've seen more snow in the last six weeks than in the last ten years put together, it has been an unusually snow-filled winter for me, considering I haven't made it north of Oklahoma.

It's been raining all day today (since the temperature has remained just above freezing), but it might be snowing again over the weekend. I stopped at the grocery on the way home from school and found out that my "oh my god I can't let myself run out of that" foods include honey nut cheerios, eggs, oatmeal, triscuits, cheese, and grapes - I seem to buy cheerios and eggs the way normal people buy bread and milk. (This indicates a potentially scary lack of produce in my diet but rest assured I have enough frozen vegetables to last many weeks.)

The $7 Potato

What comes next after organic is locally-grown, but this is an interesting twist on parting Whole Foods customers from their money.

Monday, February 1, 2010

NC Tex Mex

Note to self: I have been advised by my former-Texan shuttle bus driver that Don Juan's in Lexington (about 40 minutes south of here) has the best Tex-Mex in the area. I did not get the impression that W-S has any very good Tex-Mex restaurants, which is not terribly surprising.