Sunday, May 30, 2010

Product Placement

In the movie The Invention of Lying, Pizza Hut must have one of the greatest product placements of all time. (OK, it's no E.T. / Reeses Pieces moment, but nothing is.)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Delay of Gratification

The last couple days, I've been reading quite a bit in the self-regulation literature.

In a series of experiments, Walter Mischel (famous for his 1968 book questioning the existence of personality conceptualized as consistent trait-relevant behavior across situations and for the cognitive-affective processing system) investigated delay of gratification in children. In his basic paradigm, kids would be faced with two choices: eat a single yummy treat before the experimenter comes back to the room (by ringing a bell to summon the experimenter) or get to eat two treats when the experimenter returns on his own, at an unspecified time. (The kids chose treats that they liked and preferred two treats to one.) The kids were timed to see how long they were willing and able to delay eating the treat (up to 20 minutes).

Several findings emerged from these studies:

* Delay was longer when the reward was not present than when it was present

* Distraction led to longer delays

* Delay was longer when a photo of the reward was present rather than the actual reward was present

* Delay was longer when the kids pretended that the real reward was a photograph

* Delay was longer when kids imagined the treat to be something else - e.g. thinking of a pretzel as "a little brown log" rather than as "salty and crunchy"

Mischel linked these findings to the idea of two thinking systems: a "cool" system that is cognitively-oriented, complex, slow, and contemplative (the know system) and a "hot" system that emotionally-oriented and quick (the go system). (Psychology is full of these two system / dual process theories.) Photographs and little brown logs are cool representations that enable self-regulation while real treats and delicious-sounding descriptions are hot representations that trigger an approach reaction.

In Mischel's view, willpower (in this situation) requires both regulatory motivation and regulatory ability, thus both hot and cool systems are needed to work together. The hot system provides the motivation (recognizes that the treats are desirable) and the cool system provides the regulatory competency (allows the child to delay gratification).

Monday, May 24, 2010

Spring Grades

I just checked my grades online - all A's! I'm happy.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Locally Grown

This weekend, Robert and I went to a big, state-run farmer's market that's about half an hour drive east of my apartment and that is open 7 days a week. I finally got some herbs to plant in my container garden - two kinds of basil, thyme, rosemary, and oregano (which are now planted and ready to generate lasagna ingredients, etc., for months to come). Robert picked out a nice selection of fruit and veg, and I talked him into buying a small jar of honey for "medicinal" purposes. Everything we bought was locally grown and the same price or cheaper than Wal-Mart prices, let alone normal grocery store prices or Whole Foods prices. (Even the potting soil I bought at the seed store at the market was cheaper than what the identical product sells for at Lowe's.)

I think that when it comes to taste, having food be locally grown is much more important than having it be organic. (Of course, locally grown food often is organic, but certainly not always.) For example, I was expecting the tomatoes to be yummier than supermarket tomatoes, but was surprised that the various locally grown berries and especially the honey was yummier than their supermarket counterparts. By contrast, I've not generally found organic but not local produce from stores like Whole Foods to be consistently appreciably tastier than other produce, especially if you consider how much more expensive it is.

It seems there are a lot of farmer's markets in NC. There are several in W-S that are held on particular days of the week. Robert is fortunate to have a small one occur outside his office building in Raleigh every Wednesday. Last weekend, he brought me some asparagus he had purchased from that market and we roasted it with olive oil and a bit of seasoned salt - yum. Seriously, I could have eaten the entire pound of it myself.

If you haven't been to a farmer's market recently, this summer is a good time to check one out. Peach season is just around the corner!

Thursday, May 20, 2010


In an article about the new coalition government in the UK, The Economist notes that Cameron and Clegg (and is it just me or do they look bizarrely alike?) will have their "man-management skills" tested.

Man-management? It was odd to come across a word in a mainstream political/economic magazine that both is sexist and seems less familiar and more awkward than its non-sexist synonym (person management). Actually, it was so unfamiliar that it felt made up, but apparently it is (or has been) a commonly used term, if the high google count is anything to go by.

Oh well, if those guys need to increase their man-management skills, it's nice to know that UT Austin offers a series of graduate classes labeled "MAN management courses."

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Weekend Birding: Two New

This weekend, Robert and I took another shot at spring warblers.

On Saturday morning, within minutes of arriving at our location, we happened upon a large mixed flock of birders (though of varying size and plumage, they all showed the distinctive field marks of binoculars or camera with gigantic lens and were engaging in characteristic behaviors such as looking intensely at the tops of trees and peering into underbrush) gathered near the parking lot. It was the gathering of the monthly bird walk of the county Audubon society and we decided to join it. This was by far our best chance at finding warblers and the upside is that even if the birds aren't cooperative, it's fun to hang out with a group of like-minded folk, i.e. bird/nature geeks. (Birders are also in my experience just really nice. Robert suspects that the misanthropic birders just make a point of never joining a birding group. In any event, the people on Saturday were no exception.) The group was so large that we divided into two groups, a second leader (for our group) was pressed into service, and off we went.

Robert and I added the eastern kingbird and the Swainson's thrush to our NC bird list. I was the one who actually found the Swainson's thrush, which caused the following cascade of happy events: (1) Hey, I found a thrush!, (2) The expert designated as eyes-and-ears for our leader compliments me on the find and confirms it's the Swainson's!, (3) Several people in the group haven't seen a Swainson's before but they got good looks at this one!, (4) One woman is positively glowing with happiness at seeing the bird!, (5) Turns out I've not seen a Swainson's in NC before myself!

And in this corner...
It's really great to be in a birding group in which you have a mid-level of expertise - you both benefit from the expertise of the super-knowledgeable birders and get to contribute to the experience of those who are less expert. I believe that having even one (relative) beginner in the group makes it more fun for everyone involved, actually.

We also added 5 warblers to our NC list:
Northern parula
Blackpoll warbler
American redstart
Worm-eating warbler
Black-throated blue warbler

The last two were also first-time (life) birds for us! (They stick to the east coast.)

This pretty much represents our sightings of these warblers:

Invisible warblers
Yes, sadly we did not actually see any of these warblers, but Eyes-and-ears was able to identify them by their song and the leader was able to play recordings of the songs on his cell phone so that we could be sure we had heard the right song. (It can be amazingly difficult to pick out high warbling songs with extremely loud cardinals, towhees, wrens, crows, blue jays, etc., all around.) So it was great to identify these birds but as our leader said, it's disappointing not to actually see them. Oh well, another time.

We also saw painted turtles, fish that some people thought were bluegills, and a whole lot of trees. At one point, several people were having a conversation about different varieties of trillium, a type of wildflower, that bloom near one area of the trail earlier in the spring. We got nice exposure to the various trails and areas of the site over the 4 hours we were out and some good tips on places to look for specific birds at different times of the year.

I also had that peculiarly satisfying experience of being able to say, "Really? I grew up in [my hometown]" to someone who is familiar with this small town of 15,000 people in a state very far away. (I was talking to our leader, an older man who grew up in the city 8 miles east of my hometown, and we got to compare notes.) It also turned out that he is a retired professor from My Masters University and that his son until recently was working as a contractor at the same company Robert works for in Raleigh.

Overall, I felt the lack of warbler sightings was more than made up for by hearing 2 new life birds, hearing 3 other new NC warblers, a long walk in a beautiful place in gorgeous weather, and enjoying the company of fellow bird nerds.

It was supposed to rain overnight (and it did), so I was more hopeful that we would see warblers this morning.

But when I woke up this morning, I was feeling kind of sick and grumpy, and I complained that I missed my morale officer. "Do you feel like that?" Robert said, pointing to a clever photo of a "sick" washing machine in an American Express ad that I had pulled out of the Economist last week. (I typically have some picture from a magazine or mail advertisement sitting on the table next to where I eat; I'm not sure why other than I enjoy having something there I like looking at. And yeah, it's often rabbit-related.) I agreed that I did, then had an idea - I put together this tableau with the idea that if the sick washing machine represented me, then by the laws of sympathetic magic, I should be made less sick under the influence of the pills and less grumpy under the influence of the bunny-love.

Contagious magic at work

We made a somewhat early start for the park we commonly bird rather near my apartment (the same one that held the Celtic festival last weekend). By the time we got there, I could feel the effects of the magic working.

Every time we see the community garden there, we think that we should see a rabbit taking advantage of all the veggies, and this morning, we were there early enough to see one. Unfortunately we had just been talking about the monstrous slugs and the various kinds of BABs (big-ass bugs) in the garden, so when Robert made one of those "I've just seen something that's really caught my attention" sounds, my mind immediately went to scary insect and I averted my eyes, thus missing the good view of the bunny. But I did see an extremely fast-moving rabbit-sized brown shape through the gaps in the wooden fence around the garden as the rabbit took off for safety. Robert reported that the rabbit looked large, healthy, and well-fed. (In this place, I bet so.) It wasn't the same as having a nice pet with Katy or Leo, but it was good. I needed a dose of bunny, even a small, fleeting one.

We were also rewarded within the first half hour or so by seeing four species of warblers (clockwise from top right):

Common yellowthroat (new NC)
Pine warbler
Prairie warbler (new NC)
Black and white warbler (new NC)

If only warblers were this cooperative

We also saw our first NC grey-cheeked thrush, which was another find of mine. (I also found a wood thrush and of course there were a gazillion robins around, including one sitting on a nest. We actually came across several nesting birds.) I was hot on thrushes this weekend, I guess.

If only they came with labels
And we happened to run across the leader from the other group on Saturday, whom we'd met, and got to fill him in on our warbler situation. (He was there for a walk with a woman I took to be his partner and didn't have his binoculars with him.) He also helped Robert get the last 20% of the way to identifying the flycatcher we were hearing (a great-crested). So, yep, small world.

(And yes, I've been playing with Corel Paint Shop Pro, but it's more like Corel Paint Shop Rank Beginner where I'm concerned.)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


One thing I've enjoyed a lot this vacation week before my advisor gets back in town and we get serious about our work this summer is playing computer games. For several years now, I have been playing almost exclusively "casual" games, usually purchased through Yahoo (or PopCap or Big Fish).

Over the last two days, I've played (and finished) Bookworm Adventures for the second time, a game in which your little wormy protagonist fights baddies of all kinds by forming words from a replenishing 4x4 stock of letter tiles. Since finishing the main game, I've become a bit addicted to the mini-game that gives you 5 chances to guess a 5 letter word (first letter given), using gold and silver feedback to indicate correct letter in correct position and correct letter in incorrect position, respectively - it's a lot like the old Mastermind game I played in elementary school in that way. (My current record is 39 correct answers; I crashed on the shoals of "pudgy," I believe.)

I just saw from the Bookworm Adventures wiki page that there is a sequel with more lexical battle action. Bring it!

My mom got me hooked on hidden object games over the Christmas break (and at various times, I was playing with different combinations of my mom, my sister, and Robert - all of us turned out to have different strengths, which was fun) so I am also looking forward to spending the big $6.99 to get Mystery Case Files: Dire Grove.

(Hey, it could be worse - I could be playing that farm game on Facebook and messing up everyone's page with incessant updates on the progress of my olive grove or whatnot.)

Anybody have any game suggestions?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Weekend Birding

UPDATE: Robert reports that the "slugs" we saw were the larval form of the Colorado Potato Beetle.

Robert and I went out for the three mornings of his three-day weekend, looking for migrants (particularly warblers, orioles, and tanagers) and having minimal luck. However, we did see (and hear) a lot of resident and summer birds, and at two different gardens we very much had the "birds and blooms" experience. And the community garden at the park with the festival was full of yummy-looking veggies that made me think of Kate and Leo and how much they would have enjoyed decimating the various greens available. (Not so yummy: some cabbage were hosting a large number of small pink slugs with black dots in rows down the sides. I first looked at them from a distance with my binoculars, so they looked gigantic and monstrously disgusting. Up close, they look sort of icky but like, you know, just bugs and not aliens from outer space intent on destroying everything on our planet in the slimiest way possible.)

The prettiest birds we saw were three male American goldfinches with their bright and shiny yellow-and-black suits on. If I wanted to paint these birds, I would have needed to use a yellow fluorescent highlighter to even have a chance to capture the intense brightness of their feathers. These three males were accompanied by three females, so perhaps I was not alone in being impressed by their healthy good looks.

We also found a kingfisher nest (a hole in the river bank under a bridge) and though we did not see any babies, we saw the parents fly out down the river. Any day I see a kingfisher is a very good day. Two kingfishers makes an excellent one.

Even though we struck out on migrant warblers, we did add several birds to our North Carolina bird lists. (I think keeping increasingly specific bird lists is an inevitable progression for listers. 20 years from now, I will be reporting my first sighting of a female purple finch for my Blah County 2030 backyard list.) I am currently up to 68 species for NC.

Some of the new NC birds from the weekend include:

* Tree swallow (he looked like a blue jewel on a snag over the water)
* Caspian tern (in migration - flying; it was surprising to see this one while standing in a vegetable garden)
* Wood duck (ditto)

* Indigo bunting (a resident breeder in the summer)
* Cedar waxwing (this has been a winter bird for me historically, but it's a migrant here)
* Pine warbler (not a migrant warbler - it breeds here as it does in central Texas)

(As usual, these are not my bird photos - I snagged them from various places online.)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Celtic Festival

Yesterday Robert and I happened to go birding in the morning at a park that was hosting a Celtic Festival that started just as we finished our birding. I probably would not have hassled with trying to find parking and all that to attend the festival, but since we were already there, we checked it out for about an hour, which turns out to be a really nice period of time for spontaneously attending an event.

There were a lot of men dressed up in kilts, and they looked good. On an adult man (say, over age 25), I think a kilt looks no more ridiculous than shorts, and a kilt with boots looks distinctly less ridiculous than shorts and flip-flops worn outside of an actual swimming occasion. Several guys were wearing fabulous tall (just under the knee), soft leather boots that I coveted. There were also some women dressed up, but it appeared to be about 10 men for every woman.

And if you might be tempted to giggle at the sight of a "man in a skirt," watching a bunch of manly men throw 22.5 pound hammers for 90 feet will quickly disabuse you of such a notion. It looks something like this.

On our way out of the festival, I was momentarily tempted by the sign at the ice cream stand for "Sally's Silly Strawberry" ice cream, but shouldered on. However, I did encourage Robert to buy some sweets from the "Susan's Shortbread" stand. The shortbread was utterly delicious. (Sorry, Mom - it seems rude to eat your shortbread on Mother's Day weekend and not even share, but I like to support the vendors.)

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Just One More Thing

I surprised myself by finishing my last final exam (a take-home essay test) last night, so other than showing up to grade stats exams this afternoon, I'm done with the semester.

It's really time.

And here's my exam's word cloud.

Note that the word "attitude" does not appear. Shocking, I know.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Amazon Meme

OK, this got me curious:

"A friend suggested this exercise: go to your Amazon orders page, and see what the very first thing you ordered from Amazon was."

In June 1999, I ordered Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson.

The last book I bought on Amazon that was not school-related was in December 2006! (Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert.) I've been making good use of libraries and used bookstores (online and otherwise) these last few years.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Presentation Post-Mordem

I liked the page Lee linked to so much that I decided to evaluate my presentation using these guidelines.


"A slide with more than 12 words on it is usually counterproductive."

I had 18 slides - 9 with text, 9 with graphs (and a title). The average words per text slide was 23.6, and only one slide had fewer than 12 words. So my slides were definitely too text-dense by this standard.

I admit, some of my favorite presentations of the past have been ones that included a title slide and graph slides, but that required me to be super-extremely comfortable with my research and my audience.

"Resort to text only where illustrations fail you."

I have never attempted to use (nor have I heard recommended) illustrations in place of text. I'm not sure what illustration would say something like "attitude certainty" to either me or my audience. Hmm. This might be a hard one to follow, but it would be fun to try it and see how far I can take it.

"Examine your unconscious belief that the purpose of slides is to remind you what to say."

I have to disagree vehemently with him here - there is nothing unconscious about this belief for me. Several of my slides got text added when I realized I just didn't have time/energy to remember as much as I'd hoped I would. I knew it was "bad" but did it anyway because I felt I needed the crutch. I do wish we could get back to using index cards as prompts, but I have no idea how that would come off because I've never seen anyone do it.

I also am skeptical about the idea that "some presentation programs let you write notes that appear only on your laptop screen" is helpful during the presentation. In my experience, Powerpoint shows the same thing on your laptop as it does on the projected display, so while the notes can help you when practicing, I don't think it helps when presenting - am I wrong about this? (Later he says not to look at your laptop screen when talking anyway, so what's the deal?)

My text was also smaller than recommended and had serifs. But I did make pretty good use of the space on the slide, though it could be better.


"What is the one big idea that you want people to leave your talk with?"

My first version of this presentation to my research group made it clear that people did not fully understand how crazy and counter-intuitive one set of results were, nor how very surprisingly well the other set of results provided evidence for the novel underlying mechanism. I think I did a good job of making these points clear in the final version of the talk.

The Talk

I practiced as much as I could, and I think it was basically enough, but I was not prepared to be thrown off a bit by the time-keeper's indication that I had reached the 10 minute mark just as I was bringing up a series of complicated slides that I had changed around at the last minute. That part could have been better, though I was able to fall back on a reasonably well-developed ability to talk myself through it.

"I really, truly despise laser pointers, but this is because most people use them badly."

I hate using them and just refuse to do so. Wrong or not, I prefer to just point at things with this old-fashioned technology called "my finger."

"Another way speakers make themselves look goofy is by staring at their laptops' screens while speaking."

After putting those extra words on the screen to remind myself what to say, I only looked at the slides with text on them when the new slide came up. I talked to the audience, except when I needed to look at the graphs and point things out. I think that worked pretty well.

"If the talk is important enough (e.g. a job talk), have your spiel memorized for the first few slides, so you get a smooth start no matter how flustered and tired you are."

I did this and am glad that I did. I don't think I recited my prepared words verbatim, but having practiced saying the same basic thing on the first two slides more times kept me calm because I knew I wouldn't freeze, allowed me to talk directly to the audience, and ensured that I made a fluent series of connections that was important for understanding what the hell I was doing.

"Any thought regarding whether the audience approves of you or not is the worst place to put your mental focus. It's like beseeching God to make you a loser."

Hah, yes, I did refuse to view the presentation as an opportunity to be judged, and I think it was an excellent idea.

"Perhaps the best place to focus your attention is on the sensations in your own body."

I'm not sure I agree with this advice. I can see the argument he's making, but I can also see it back-firing for someone who is experiencing anxiety as they get started.

This being said, I do like to practice my presentations at least once in front of a full-length mirror, and I did that the day of this presentation in my bedroom, after I got my full kit on. However, I did not really focus on myself physically during the presentation at all. It's hard to say where my attention was, actually. It seems like I just talked to people and did physically whatever seemed natural.

After the presentation, one of my fellow students asked me, "So, how did you feel up there?" Not knowing where she was going with this, I thought a moment and said, "I felt fine." "I ask that because you looked really relaxed," she said. I am going to take that as a good thing.

"Never meta-comment on your speaking."

I didn't do this, but I can see how easily it could happen. This is a good piece of advice to remember for future talks.

"Always end your talk by saying “Thank you.” It is not pretentious—you are doing the audience a favor. If you do not cue the audience so they know when to applaud, they will be confused and irritated."

We were encouraged to have a concluding thank you slide where we list people we'd like to acknowledge, so everyone did the thanks-applause ritual.


Now that the presentation is over, I do look forward to seeing the feedback from the professors in the audience. I felt like the talk went well, but it's hard to gauge whether I was really making sense to everyone, avoided distracting idiosyncratic body language, etc.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Kopfschmertz Sonntag

Tomorrow evening I want to do a post-mordem on my presentation, but the short report is that it went fine and nobody asked me a Wittgenstein question afterwards.

Today is the 9th straight day I've had a headache. It sucks. I've spent most of the day either lying around with a cold cloth on my head and sort of whining or studying for my stats exam that is tomorrow afternoon (a task to which I will be returning momentarily).

Meanwhile, my mom had a very cooperative male painted bunting in her yard this afternoon, and it stayed long enough for her to get great binocular views of it. This is just a spectacular-looking bird. Unfortunately, it lives in only four states in the south-central US, which does not include North Carolina. It is among the many summer birds that I knew I would miss moving out here (a list that starts with scissor-tailed flycatcher, a bird I could count on seeing basically every single day when I was driving home from work along back roads in south Austin and that was a beloved friend of mine growing up).

Hey baby
So, what have you been up to?