Monday, December 1, 2014

Canadian words

We are barely 45 minutes north of the Washington state border, but undeniably in Canada. There's plenty of things to remind you "you are not in Kansas anymore" but one of the few concrete items are words that aren't used in the States (note, not "America" since Canada is firmly part of North America!).

  • toque -- a ski cap (pronounced just like the chef's hat)
  • appy -- appetizer
  • Eggs Benny - Eggs Benedict
  • stuffy -- a stuffed toy animal
  • cough candy -- cough drops (used interchangeably)
  • keener -- an enthusiast, the local community center has extended day camps for keeners -- kids who love camp so much they don't want to go home
  • grade one -- rather than 1st grade 
  • frozen -- when you go to the dentist you don't get anesthetic or Novocain you get frozen
  • Robertson screw -- this is like a flat-head or Phillips screw but square -- see Wikipedia.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Oh how much I hate Qwest

I switched from Qwest internet to a local wireless provider a year ago because I couldn't for the life of me figure out why my Qwest bill went up and up and up. I like to pay my phone bill automatically from my checking account, and my basic phone service (no long distance) plus internet should be simple, yes? I called them and they claimed that they couldn't predict what any month would cost me because of taxes and fees. But I know my state and federal government are not changing taxes or access fees on a monthly basis -- they barely have the capacity to change them on a yearly basis. I also can't get over the fact that somewhere Qwest has a computer that knows how to calculate how much to bill me every month, but the computers customer support has access to can't predict that amount.

Now, I've had to switch back to Qwest, and just the process is a nightmare. I start by looking at the options online. I choose a modem ($70), investigate speeds at -- people in my town using Qwest seem to be getting 5 Mb/sec, so I sign up for the 7Mb/second, knowing that that probably means 5 Mb/sec. When I go to checkout, the bill is $14 higher. There's suddenly a $14 shipping charge that wasn't mentioned earlier. I cancel the transaction and go to my local computer store to find a Qwest compatible DSL modem.

Then I go back and start over. This time I've been automatically signed up for the $49 installation fee. Go back and remove that. Now my bill looks like this:

Really? $30+$0=$43.50? In which universe? The difference isn't taxes, which I can check with a nice little button -- my taxes will be $3.20.

I give up on the website and call customer service. They explain that even with their system, the non-discount price shows up first, then you are credited on your bill for the difference between the discount and non-discount price. That's interesting, but the non-discount price is $49.99 for 7 Mbps.

So either that isn't the answer or Qwest is doing the math wrong.

Then he explains that installation will be finished by May 5, and my first bill cycle will end on May 25, therefore there will be a prorated charge for those 20 days. That prorated charge won't be from the discount rate but the full rate and my bill will be approximately $90.

Wait! My home phone line currently costs me $26. The full rate for 7Mbps is $49.99. So even a full month at the nondiscount rate could be only 76 dollars!

At this point he explains that the nondiscount rate for 7Mbps is $60. Interesting, not what the Qwest website says:

I will be billed a month in advance for my internet service. (Let's leave aside the fact it's crazy to prorate anything if I'm paying in advance anyway.) So that should be $26 (local phone) + $40 (prorated) + $30 (month in advance). That's 96, plus those taxes, call them $4. I call that approximately $100. I can't wait to see what the actual bill is.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Bad reasons to go to graduate school

Bad reasons to go to graduate school
1. Real life is scary
There are a billion choices out there (which is good) and few of them are tagged with a name that matches your degree. Graduate school can seem much less frightening by comparison -- a set path, set course work -- you'll know where you will be and what you will be doing for the next 5, 10, 15 years. However, you can only delay the complexity of choices, you can't really avoid it -- believe me if you take a job at age 23 and wonder if this is what you should be doing, you'll have plenty of support from your friends and peers. The problem is that life is complex because people are complex -- there are a million options because we are all different. You might be the one in a million that can only be happy in an academic career, but chances are low, and it represents a pretty narrow option.

2. Trying to prove that you're smart
There are a lot of reasons why we feel we have to prove we are smart. Graduate school has to be one of the dumbest ways to assuage that worry. The problem is that you're self-selecting to hang out with some of the brightest people around -- no matter how smart you are, in your program, in your field, you are going to be working with certifiable geniuses. They are great people to work with -- it's nice to have competent help. But the company you keep in graduate school is not going to make you feel good by comparison.

3. It's not only the clothing that is antiquated
During graduation the faculty put on their academic regalia -- clothing that originated in unheated German universities in 1200. When you are struck by the charm of this long standing custom, it would be good to remember there are many other things about graduate school that are mired in the dark ages. This includes the cannon -- classes you take which are almost completely irrelevant to the field, the fact that graduate-level teachers and advisors distinguish themselves from their secondary counterparts by having absolutely no qualifications or training to advise or teach, and that with your thesis committee, much like the inquisition, has no court of appeals. This list could go on but hold this thought -- if you go to graduate school you will have to suffer through traditions more pointless (and much less charming) than wearing floor-length black-velvet robes on a 90 degree graduation day in May.

4. Who should be selective here?
It is easy to get caught up in the application process for graduate school (then postdocs, then faculty positions) with an eye on whether you will be selected by an appropriately selective body. However this can shift the burden of choices from you to the institutions you apply to. There's a sense that the process is so selective, that if you can do it, of course you should do it. After all, who would turn down a winning lottery ticket or an opportunity to go into space? But is this what you should invest seven years in between 23 and 30?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The morbidity of difference

"High quality" schools these days, public and private, seem to agree. Any kid who is not in perfect step with her peers must be tested and evaluated.

Let me describe the cycle of horror -- first a message goes home to the parents "Jamie, when you get a chance, could you stop by. I'd like to talk to you about Ruth." Stress spike! Then the delivery: "We've noticed that Ruthie is a little different than her peers". Choose one of the following: "She's still reversing her S's" or "She has an especially hard time holding still" or "She doesn't look at the teacher when she's talking" or "She's not as coordinated as the other kids". "We would like your permission to test her for" followed by some extremely scary words. Major stress spike. Sleepless nights for the parents. They worry that they've loved the kid so much that they've overlooked something terrible. There there's the waiting...a week, three weeks, to see a specialist (and in private school the expense). Then the test, will your child be so afraid of the specialist they won't cooperate? Will he actually sleep during the sleep study? Then waiting for the results, then the results.

The results are at first scary, then disappointing, then enraging. First it's scary, because it does turn out that Ruthie is a little different. She's at the 35th percentile dyslexia-wise. Which means she may have slight tendencies in that direction but doesn't qualify for the label. (What were we hoping for? Exactly 50th? Plus or minus what? 5%? By that definition, 10% of kids are "normal" and 90% of kids are abnormal).

Then disappointment. For all the fear and stress raised, there is to be no consequence. No specialist doctors, no support group, no books to order from Amazon. No antibiotics for this diagnosis. There has been two to six weeks of stress and waiting...and now nothing...

Then anger...two weeks of sleepless nights...a thousand dollars worth of tests and what do we have? We've proven that the kid is a little different from normal. Something that the kid's grandmother could have told you (with love and affection).

There's no doubt that testing has it's place -- screening for hearing loss has saved many a school career. Some extreme examples do benefit from a diagnosis and attention. But testing has gotten way out of hand, especially when the "solution" to a diagnose is exactly what a child should be getting out of his small, individually tailored classroom anyway.

In my mind, the point of a good school, private or public, is that they know the children as individuals. They have the room and time to address children individually. For teachers to practice "defensive teaching" and refer every quirk over to a specialist is a waste of money and time. It causes great stress for the parents, and while it is intended to allow the system to prescribe remedies for specific diagnoses, in fact many of these diagnoses have common sense recommendations.

The first step for mild cases of left/right hemisphere processing, ADD, ADHD, Aspergers syndrome, and dyslexia are all treated the same way: children need to be presented with information in more than one format (visual, oral, kinesthetic). They need to have sitting time broken up time for physical play. They need to have their personal achievements recognised, without comparison to the group (this is true of gifted children as well!). Teaching is not like watering plants -- each child doesn't get the same dose, with the same effect. Any good teacher treats children differently because they are different.

The second step is to give the kid time and space. The bell curve exists for a good reason -- 20% of us fall into the 20% percentile. We walk late, we talk early, we write with our left hands. It's always comforting for the parents to know that "All the Smith side of the family crawled for an extra six months" but that only affirms what we should know already -- that our child does things in his own time, in his own way. You might be surprised at how kids compensate. Some of us will be rotten spellers for our entire lives, some of us will discover in high school (from Latin class!) that you really can sound out a word.

Which brings me back to my childhood -- when children weren't expected to be the same. Some of us needed extra attention, some needed extra practice. Some children "marched to the beat of a different drummer". This wasn't labeled, granted special allowances, or diagnosed. We got more drill, or new drills if the old ones weren't working. Our parents were told which things we did really well, and which things required more practice.

I know a loving Catholic family with seven children. One of the middle children struggled through the college-prep Catholic school that every single kid in the family attended. The mother confessed she probably should have had him tested, but she was opposed to the idea that you can use a label to excuse lack of achievement -- that solution in life came in the form of a pill. So she didn't get him tested. The family loved him, they honored his achievements (A C in math? That's awesome! We can tell you really worked hard.), they acknowledged he was different. During high school he moved from college-prep to a large public school with a wider variety of classes -- he eagerly enrolled in pre-nursing, woodworking and a technology class. When I first heard this story I was appalled...what if a dose of Ritalin could have turned him into a scholar? Then I realized that he, more than most kids, has everything he needs to succeed in life. He's loved, he is accepted. He's eagerly pursuing his interests, and he's learned how to work hard, both at things that come easily and things that don't. Ritalin might have made him a B rather than a C student. Instead he will become excellent at something he's uniquely good at.

Keep in mind that we are not done discovering "illnesses" and "syndromes" we can test our children for. Twenty years from now, people will be horrified that we didn't screen for certain conditions, we didn't provide special teaching techniques for children with needs. What can we do for those kids, who's condition isn't yet diagnosed? Let's give them time and space to develop. Let's show them, tell them, ask them to act it out. Let's recognise them for their personal progress and let's allow them to be different.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I hate Science Fairs

I find it deeply disturbing that people point to the success of students in science fairs, as a measure of local science education. I've been a judge at several science fairs, and I've come to the conclusion that science fairs are an anti-education tool -- they represent the worst of the American educational system.

First of all, there is nothing democratic about science fairs. Some schools (very few) require every student in a particular grade to develop and submit a science fair project. However the majority of the entrants at a science fair are selected by their teachers, or self-selected. The kids who already like science, already know they are good at it, choose to participate. I'm glad they have an outlet for their interests, but the existence of a science fair does nothing for the scientific education of the majority.

Second, science fair prizes are in reality awarded to the parents of the student. During the science fair, as a judge I get to interview the students about their projects. One science fair project involved shooting arrows from different distances into a target and measuring how far they penetrated. "How did you come up with the idea for using arrows?" "My dad bow hunts". Pity the kids whose fathers don't have interesting hobbies. At another fair a student showed the results of running ketchup through a centrifuge. How did she get access to a centrifuge (something most elementary schools don't have on hand)? Her mother works at a national lab, with, guess what, centrifuges. Another student wrote software to analyze images from astronomy. Guess what his father does -- right, he works at a national lab writing software for astronomy. In none of these cases am I actually accusing the parent of doing the work -- I merely point out that the child of the janitor, the secretary, the farmer, is laboring under an enormous handicap. When they cast about in their daily life for an experiment, it is unlikely they will come up with anything so dramatic. Odyssey of The Mind (some states have s sister program Destination ImagiNation), a very different science enrichment program, has gone to great lengths to even the playing field. Teams have a strict budget, and even if the parents can give the team equipment, the fair-market cost of "free" items is required to be included in the budget. Judges question the students intensely, and evidence that a parent, rather than children, shaped a project results in demotions. Science fair makes no attempt to level the playing field. One year I partnered with an elementary school teacher. She picked a few bright kids who were not children of scientists, and I matched them with (childless) volunteer scientists, whose job was to play the role of the scientific parent, suggesting error bars, negotiating equipment loans, helping with library research.

The one project within reach of most children is what I will call "the out of control collection". Students in need of a project pick something they think they would like to study. Bugs, plants, coins, etc. They start small, then the project gets rolling, and they are sucked in by their interests. It is the persistence and enthusiasm of a child (rather than the Ph.D. level of the parent) which determines the difference between a sloppy notebook with five dead plants and six beautifully indexed three-ring binders with pressed flowers. Sadly, none of these child-scale projects are eligible to win. Science fairs require projects to be run according to deductive reasoning. The child is supposed to come up with a hypothesis, design an experiment to test it, and then prove or disprove the hypothesis. I was taught myself that "this is what real scientists do". Only, a Ph.D. and many successful research projects later, I have to say, the emperor has no clothes. There are times in my research, in famous Nobel Prize winners research, when one poses a hypothesis, and tests that hypothesis. However, many extremely important discoveries depended on the existence of the "out of control collection". Kepler discovered the true motions of the planets around the sun because he had Tycho Brae's wonderful, precise, collection of planetary motions. The HR diagram, which describes the life cycle of stars, was created by Henry Norris Russel. However Henrietta Swan Leavitt and the other Harvard Observatory "computers" (most of them women) laid the ground work by analyzing thousands of stars. In the process of creating this magnificent collection Leavitt realized that the sorting of stars (ABCDEF...) was out of order. She re-ordered them (giving astronomy students a headache trying to remember OBAFGKM), which led directly to the HR diagram. In my experience, interest and passion drives scientists to collect data. Familiarity and an analytic approach to the collected data suggests a hypothesis (more often several), and only then can "experiments" be run to tease out the scientific fundamentals. Dmitri Mendeleev did not invent the periodic table by coming up with a hypothesis that elements should be laid out in rows and then testing it. He collected information about known elements on notecards. He became very familiar with them and sorting them out one day, like setting up a game of solitaire, he realized there was a graphical pattern, which allowed one to predict the qualities of an element by it's position in the graph. This realizing, discovering, the "light bulb going off", is the core of science, and it is built on a careful collection and an easy familiarity with the collection. "Out of control collections" following their interests are an excellent way for children to enter the world of science.

Finally, when average students are exposed to science fairs, they receive a strong message that science is not for them. It reminds me very much of stock-picking contests. In a stock picking contest each member of a class "invests" a set amount of money, then they follow the stock market for a few weeks or month (the amount of time available during the semester). The students whose portfolios do the best are not the highest quality stocks, or the best balanced portfolios, but the outliers -- 100% invested in penny stocks which through a stroke of luck doubled. In a similar manner, the average middle school student wandering through a science fair sees only very complex projects, projects they would never be able to come up with (not having those PhD parents). These projects are highly polished, often they are the work, not of a month, but several years, being presented for the second or third time. The science is presented as if the hypothesis dropped out of the blue, and funny that, the hypothesis is almost always true -- science fair projects that disprove a hypothesis are unlikely to get prizes. "I guessed that when I dropped the rock, it would fall straight up". This serves as a poor introduction to scientific thought, a poor example of how science is actually done -- it is an anti-education in science for 99% of students.

I will say I have seen one science fair project that gave me hope for the future. The student (him or her, names were concealed for judging) had gone to the grocery store and purchased food coloring and food flavorings. He or she had then cross-mixed the food flavoring and colors with water, so that lemon-flavored water was red, and strawberry-flavored water was blue. The student then gave the water to friends and family to taste and asked them to identify the flavor. Data was kept carefully, with age and sex noted. The hypothesis sprung from the first few "experiments" -- Which is stronger, flavor or color? (Oh right, not a hypothesis, cannot be falsified). It turns out that red is a dominate color -- red things, regardless of actual flavor, are identified as cherry/strawberry. Citrus (lemon/orange) is the strongest flavor -- people can identify it even if it is blue or purple. But when citrus flavored liquids are red, the red wins. People still call it cherry or strawberry. This project was the correct scale for an elementary school science fair -- it was low cost, required no equipment or expertise the average child couldn't get their hands on. The student had clearly learned a lot, and followed a very standard scientific thought process: play, collect, suspect, develop hypothesis, test. And that carefully collected data contained another surprise: Children under the age of five are much better at detecting mis-colored flavors -- but even they are thrown off by red.

Can science fairs be saved?

  • Science fair projects need to be judged on the distance the student has traveled rather than the shoulders of giants the child has to stand on.
  • Second and third year projects should be forbidden. Middle school and high school are not appropriate times to specialize and polish a paper for publication -- students who place one year should be required to find a totally different field of study the next year -- maybe the child of the engineer will LOVE biology.
  • When science fairs are part of classroom enrichment, children should be formally assigned scientist partners -- this gets childless scientists into the classroom, provides mentors for kids, and opens everyone's horizons.
  • Rather than being "winner take all", there should be a threshold for science fair prizes, after which everyone takes a blue ribbon. Every student should be capable, with support, diligence, and hard work, of taking a blue ribbon.
  • "Collections gone wild" should be an approved and awarded option -- developmentally appropriate for not only children, but fully grown scientists.
  • Correct scientific thought goes like this: interest, collect, play, suspect, hypothesize (more than one), experiment. To which I would add, fail, rebound, and take advantage of limitations. Odyssey of the Mind gives out an award for the best idea that totally bombed. It is named Ranatra Fusca after a team that tried to build a water skating insect -- which sank like rock.

Monday, September 1, 2008

online calorie diaries, part III, FitDay

The Facts: FitDay online is free. I used FitDay for two weeks. I lost 0 pounds (not the site's fault!).

FitDay is another online food journal/calorie counter that is free, supported by advertising, but it also is itself an advertisement for the Windoze software. Like CalorieCountPlus, the ads on the site are for alternative and unhealthy diets, with the addition of pharmicutials. FitDay feels less cluttered by the ads than CalorieCountPlus

FitDay is slow, maybe a little bit faster than CalorieCountPlus. Much is made on the site about the "upgrade" to FitDay PC but no PC-only features or screenshots are given.

FitDay has fewer name-brand choices than MyFoodDiary or CalorieCountPlus but I've discovered that at this point in the game, that is OK. Lasagna is just not good for you -- the differences between Stoffer's and Michalina's is minor compared to the difference between lasagna and steak-and-salad dinner. There are some annoying holes however, such as no hot dog buns (MyFoodDiary and CalorieCounterPlus can find hot dog buns).

What FitDay has going for it is a solution to the units problem: On other sites you not only have to locate your food, you then have to scroll down through the foods to find units you would like to use. FitDay allows you to add the food, and only then gives you a list of units that is not only longer than most, but appropriate to the food. Eggs come in one egg, small, medium, large, jumbo, grams, ounces, cups, kilograms and pounds. Red pepper comes in slice/ring, grams, ounces, cups, small, medium and large. Even "Custom Foods" you enter come in servings, grams, kilograms, pounds and ounces (cups would be good here but I can see the difficulty).

The second thing FitDay could have going for it is the the one-click add. Foods you have added recently are available on a drop-down list called "Recent Foods". Choosing something from this list adds it to your food list for that day, in the last amount you used, automatically. This saves at least three steps over adding from the search engine. Unfortunately this list is not sorted by how often you choose a food, it is sorted alphabetically. Foods beyond the first 21 require a page reload, where they are listed by date. After nine days of using it I can only see my foods Alcoholic Beverages (Wine) through Tomatoes, raw. Clearly when the list has 21 foods Apples through Avocado, it will be completely useless.

FitDay has a merely adequate "Overview" page -- the page that gives you the daily feedback about how the diet is going -- are the your input calories lower than your output calories? The first graph should be "Average Daily Calorie Balance" but in fact you have to scroll down to find that. The "Nutrition Graph" is interesting but really completely useless for weight loss. None of the graphs or reports really hit the mark like MyFoodDiary's smiley bullets.

FitDay allows you to add "Custom Foods" (known as recipes on other sites) but you have to type in the nutrition information, a fact that sent me back to CalorieCountPlus to enter the recipe there to get that critical nutrician information. As I've said before, if a diet site makes it harder to enter food you have cooked, than food you ate out, that rather defeats the purpose, since cooking at home is key to losing weight.

FitDay has a mood tracker that lets you customize a smiley face -- happy and worried? Angry and clear of thought? This might be useful if the site could analyze how foods fed into mood, but here it's just a toy.

I don't use the "community" aspect of any of the sites, but if that's important to you, FitDay doesn't have one.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

online calorie diaries, part II, Calorie Count Plus

During August I used's free program, Calorie Count Plus.

The Facts: I used CalorieCountPlus for two weeks. I lost 7 pounds.

The really great thing about CalorieCountPlus is that entering recipes is a breeze! You just type in the ingredients list:

1/2 cup skim milk
2 eggs, beaten
1 watermelon
and hit enter and the nutritional value pops up. What could be easier? After seeing the nutritional value you have the choice of adding a single serving to your food log, or typing in the complete recipe (directions, cookbook, etc) and saving it for yourself and anyone else who would like to use it. There are more than 100 recipes already entered from Joy of Cooking, Moosewood and Betty Crocker. 66 from America's Test Kitchen, 9 from Madhur Jaffrey (Indian), 3 from The Vegetarian Epicure. And those aren't even diet books. Since the recipes are shared by everyone (your screen name gets credit for having contributed a recipe) you can build a yummier diet for everyone! There are some odd hitches -- when you go to My Recipes to retrieve something, you cannot change the portion size -- so if you carefully typed in Aunt Edna's favorite cake, and then eat only half a slice, too bad! Better eat a whole one. Unlike MyFoodDiary, CalorieCountPlus has spelling correction.

A large fraction of the foods in CalorieCountPlus have a grade from A to F. In addition to your calorie count, you get an overall food grade for the day. CalorieCountPlus has two not very well-designed meters which tell you how close you are to your calorie limit for the day (going over it does nothing graphically as far as I can tell) and how close you to your activity goal. Whereas MyFoodDiary treats food input and calorie output as part of the same calories meter, CalorieCountPlus treats them separately. Meeting both goals for the day is probably a healthier way to lose weight. One interesting aspect is that you can get the CalorieCountPlus toolbar for Firefox. This gives you the multipurpose food/recipes/activity search box, an "Eat Meter" and food grade for the day, along with how much weight you've lost so far. All of the online food diaries have plots of how much weight you have lost, but if you are someone who weighs themselves every day, you'll appreciate the one at CalorieCountPlus -- it has a trend line that smooths out little fluctuations to show you your true progress.

You can upload a picture into CalorieCountPlus -- probably they expect it to be a picture of yourself but it appears on your home page and I didn't need to see my face every day -- I know what I look like -- so I uploaded something inspiring -- an irreplaceable vintage dress that I got for $5 that I want to fit into again.

How CalorieCountPlus could be improved:

There are two big downsides to CalorieCountPlus -- the screen is cluttered, not just by ads but by poor layout -- I'm always scrolling to get to the important part. And the site is slow. There's a long delay between each submission.

CalorieCountPlus doesn't have a water meter -- I rather miss this feature which gave me an easy goal to shoot for.

Other than the weight loss chart, there are no other charts -- past calories eaten are only shown in table form and aggregate for the day -- you never know if you are always eating too much at breakfast for example.

Since CalorieCountPlus is paid for by ads, they don't have much control over what comes up -- and what comes up is in direct conflict with good diet practice -- "Lose 10 pounds in 10 days", "The Supermodel Diet" etc.

Some features sound like a good idea -- food suggestions for example which make suggestions for new foods depending on foods you normally eat -- however in my case it reccomended either foods even worse for me than what I was eating (whipping cream? really? grade of D-) or recomended brand name items, having a beer resulted in "Coors Blue Moon", more of a product placement. Some of the items were just dumb: Brussels Sprouts - Cooked, Boiled, Drained, Without Salt -- that's enough to send you screaming off your diet. Another feature "Determine Your Diet Profile" gives you a quiz to determine why you overeat. As I took the test it was obvious to me that I wasn't scoring strongly in any particular direction, nevertheless I got a stern warning that comfort eating was my downfall -- I guess you must fit into one box or another.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

online calorie diaries, part I, MyFoodDiary

Yes, well, it's back to the old diet. Time to give up on the idea that chocolate is a major food group and start trying to get veggies into the lineup. I've had really good results in the past with online food diaries -- one enters the food, they tell you the calories and at the end of the day give you some idea if you are ahead or behind calorie-wise. I should note that each of these sites has discussion boards and "weight loss groups" -- I'm an Internet loner so I don't use these. But as long as I have to do it, why not try different food diaries? One a month? OK, July is MyFoodDiary.

The Facts:

I used MyFoodDiary for 5 (non-consecutive) months (I paid for it for a year) It is $9/month = $108 per year.

Strong points. MyFoodDiary has a lovely clean layout. If you've worked with a free food diary that makes it's income from advertising, you've experienced clutter. Stuff irrelevant (to your diet) pops up to grab your attention. MyFoodDiary is like the Google search page -- uncluttered, with the most important stuff front and center. You choose the foods by entering search terms and then choosing from the list that results. Make a mini-list of exercises, then choose from them to keep track of what you burned. Two clock-like counters focus on the big picture -- how many days in that last week did you exercise? How many days in the last month? -- reminding us dieters that it's not how we screwed up today, it's how we get back on the wagon.

The status page reports on the overall health of breakfast lunch and dinner (with snacks in between and dessert), shows you how many calories you have left (you get credit for exercise), has a water meter (have you drunk your 64 oz today?). One of the nice features is a text and smiley face feedback (not as irritating as it sounds). So you didn't make your calorie goal for today, but you got a smiley face for skipping dessert! Ate nothing but brownies! But they were high in vitamin A!

Weak points MyFoodDiary works best if you buy lots of name brand products, never cook, and eat out at chain restaurants. Of course that is the exact opposite of an effective diet strategy -- you should be shopping the outside of the supermarket -- dairy, produce, meats and cooking at home. Entering recipes is a pain -- you have to find each individual ingrediant on a list. If you know another person (like a spouse) who is using MyFoodDiary you can share recipes so that both of you don't have to enter them but there are no cookbooks included and every other user has to enter their recipes from scratch.

The quantity options are also awkward. You need to be able to enter almonds in 1 almond, cups of almonds and ounces of almonds. You need to be able to enter water in ounce, cups or milliliters. Scrambled eggs come only in large, fried eggs come only in medium.

If you are going to come back to MyFoodDiary several times a day, you may be annoyed that it boots you out to a "diary" page, rather than leaving you at the page for entering foods. If there is one thing that's a little annoying, it's that for a pretty expensive place, there's very little development going on. Over the last two year even the motivational pictures and quotes are the same.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

I hate DVDs

Who would have thought that when we moved from 1970's technology to 1990's technology, we would be taking a gigantic step backwards? That is however what has happened, and as long as we remain capable of playing videotapes, that will be our preferred technology ("Honey, should I get it in video or DVD?" "It comes in video? Get the video!!!").

There are two main problems with DVDs -- they are fragile (more fragile than videos -- how could you do that?) and you have less control over how they are played. First the fragility -- DVDs are so easily scratched that 60% of the DVDs we get from the library won't play at least a segment and 10-15% of those from Netflicks won't finish. For reasons I don't entirely understand, it's always the climatic end of the movie that freezes. From video rental, the fraction is higher -- maybe 25%. Nice of Netflicks to ship you a working one, but in our busy lives we don't get a second chance a few days later to sit down again. Videos were never this bad -- it was a rare video that had problems -- as a teenager I rented tons of flicks, watched them from beginning to end. Then in college I worked at Pleasant Street Video renting videos and while we were prepared to refund rentals if the video didn't play, I don't remember having to fill out that paperwork a single time. They melted spectacularly in the car window -- but so do DVDs!

Add a technologically savey four year old to the mix and the stress goes through the roof. She knows how to pause and play the DVD player. She can turn off and on the TV, and she wants to load her own DVDs. At the moment, with her safe in bed, I don't think rationally that her little fingers make scratches between the case and the DVD player. But in the light of day, with half of the DVDs not playing, seeing her open a DVD case causes instant panic. I've heard of people who break the copyright protection to create copies, then file the originals and let their kids watch the copies -- that sounds smart. For our commute to work, we get lectures on CD from The Teaching Company, which has a lifetime warranty -- if any CD gets scratched, as long as they are still making it, they will replace it. DVDs are much cheaper to make and ship than the videotapes they replaced, but unlike The Teaching Company CDs we cannot make a backup copy, and the distributor feels no obligation to replace them when they fail.

The second problem with DVDs is the lack of control over how they play. We prefer our four year old to watch DVDs over TV precisely because we want to preselect what she watches and we don't want her watching advertisements. At first, if you wait patiently through the FBI and/or Interpol warning, followed by logo presentations with sound effects for two or three responsible entities, then pressing "MENU" would skip the previews -- important because we already steered her past Disney Princess movies, Lilo and Stitch in the library so we don't want the DVD we've selected drumming up demand for the things we've already tried to avoid. It's not just that we are against previews to kids movies -- some of the movies are veiled comericials -- Transformers, The Weebols Movie. Some are ads for merchandising related to Disney and some are ads for interactive computer and internet games. The last thing I need is my savey four year old on the internet at this age. Now "MENU" is as forbidden during previews as it is during FBI warnings, although skip will take you past one of the X number of previews. Then, last week, the final indignity. On the Wiggles DVD, "Menu" functioned properly, but the preview had been prepended to the episode!

I can understand being forced to sit through the FBI Interpol warning. However I think messing with the controls in any other way, preventing my skipping to the part I want to watch should be against the law. I have to say, I love videos -- I can get them used very cheaply, and we may just build our collection that way...and wait for technology to start serving consumers again.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Books that are too American

Recently I sent a care package to a German princess mewed in a tower in Spain. She's been keeping her sanity by reading English-language books, so I sent a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction to give her a mental escape route. However, as I came up with this list, I discarded a bunch of my favorite books as "too American" -- they were diverting, well written, but either too US-centric or required a sensitive finger on the American pulse to appreciate.

Only after I'd sent off the box did it strike me that as a set, the list of books that are "too American" was interesting. My patriotism has suffered in the last few years -- a week ago I passed the Statue of Liberty in a boat, and all I could think of was that recently we've really let Her down. But these books, inappropriate for my German Princess, have a uniquely American vitality. Some are nostalgic, some are unapologeticly critical, but they do embody a sense of life (sometimes struggle, sometime joy) that is truly unique. A small glimmer of hope for Liberty.

  • Sarah Vowell -- The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Assassination Vacation, Take the Cannoli
  • Connie Willis -- Lincoln's Dreams
  • Eudora Welty -- in particular "Losing Battles"
  • John McPhee -- just about anything
  • James Loewen-- Lies My Teacher Told Me
  • William Faukner -- As I Lay Dying
  • Forrest Carter -- The Education of Little Tree
  • Chaim Potok - My Name is Asher Lev
  • Jean Craighead George -- My side of the Mountain
  • Barbara Ehrenreich -- Nickel and Dimed
  • To Kill a Mockingbird -- Harper Lee
  • Stephen Dubner Morrow -- Freakonomics
  • Susan Jane Gilman -- Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

On Returning to Denver After 15 Years

So I went back to Denver to for the Science Fiction Recon Unit (SUFRU) reunion...I drove past the old house, the location of Toddy's, the Holly pool, went by (but not into) Kent Denver, ate ice cream (Grand Marnier chocolate in a chocolate dipped waffle cone -- yum, yum) at Bonnie Brae Ice Cream, went to the Tattered Cover (new location), went to the 16th Street Mall and found one of my two old climbing fountains in Skyline Park.

Two things really struck me about Denver. The first is that it's really big. Everyone warned me about how much development had happened, but it wasn't that which was surprising. Even when we lived there we saw the fields turned into developments -- Of the three large lots (tens of acres) near our house, the first (full of prairie dogs and dirt bike trails and mini canyons) was turned into the shopping center that housed Toddy's (site of my first job, bagging groceries), the second into upscale housing (where Dad got arrested with Stanley and Shane for setting off rockets in a dry field during a drought...and later subpoenaed the chief of police for his trial...) and the third, after I left home, into a public library. I wonder if it's easier in Colorado to let the fields go because they seem so featureless -- if you had to cut down trees or fill in wetlands you might find something to stage a protest over but in Colorado on the plains, one field looks much like another...each square foot doesn't seem individually valuable. Even the land that does get protected is called "Open Space", emphasis on emptiness.

So what did really shock me is how large the Denver Metro area is. I just didn't realize, as a teenager and beginning driver, how huge the metro area was. Washington DC plus suburbs is 30 miles across. Denver is easily 40 miles across. Really that hasn't changed much -- it was true fifteen years ago. We navigated this expanse as a matter of course -- Aurora to see Lawrence, Broomfield to see James, downtown to Megan's, Bonnie Brae Hobby Shop, and Vince, then field trips to Boulder and Red Rocks. The fabulous prom dinner I remember was in Thorton, 10 miles north of downtown Denver. Casa Bonita is six miles west of downtown. Brian Spanger and Matt Hazelton remember thinking that my family's house in a southern Denver suburb was out in the middle of nowhere (HA! then I dragged them to the "mountain house" beyond Red Rocks, and in a total fit of insanity to a Woodstock reenactment in Herford, Colorado, a scant 3 miles from the Wyoming boarder!).

Having lived in DC where often you can often choose between walking or take the metro, Raleigh (no more than 10 miles wide in any direction), Albuquerque (5 miles wide by 15 miles tall, including Rio Rancho), the scale of Denver just seems enormous -- and the idea that we drove all over it constantly, absurd. I didn't have specific rules about where I could take the car -- a '76 Jeep four wheel drive that got 12 miles to the gallon, but I got a $20 bill at the beginning of the week for gas, leftover change to go into my pocket, and that had to last. Let me tell you, that was a very short leash. I can't tell you the number of brilliant schemes discarded because we couldn't come up with enough gas money.

So what the development has done (beyond eating up all fields within the metro area) is added traffic beyond your wildest nightmares to this driving city. We knew in 1986 not to take the freeway during rush hour, but the freeway now has twice the number of lanes and is clogged during lunch as well. We drove the Mousetrap portion, just west of downtown, near 5 PM on a Saturday and a Sunday and found it clogged.

The second really notable thing about Denver is how prosperous and shiny it is. 16th Street Mall boasts every upscale venue you can think of -- you might as well be in Austin, San Francisco or Seattle: Hard Rock Cafe, Banana Republic, NikeTown, ESPN Zone, no less than three Starbucks, two Ann Taylors, Chipotle, The Cheesecake Factory, Rock Bottom Brewery, and Virgin Records Megastore, P. F. Chang's China Bistro, Ruth's Chris Steak House. (Of course this has it's plus side, Title Nine, my favorite catalog for bra's has a store here, note that the other stores are in Berkley, Seattle, and Portland -- I rest my case). Hidden among these names are a few pricier Colorado businesses...Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, Overland Sheepskin Co., and, OK, Jimmy John's Sandwiches.

When I was there there was a struggling symphony, a non-collecting but fun art museum, and a Zoo. Now Denver has a Children's Museum ($7 apiece for those over 12 months old ), a 90 million dollar new wing to the art museum, Opera, Ballet, a new Museum of Contemporary Art (in addition to the one with the new wing), and an aquarium, "Colorado Ocean Journey" (now in addition to finding the same retail everywhere you go, now you don't have to distinguish between cities with and without an ocean!).

The King Soopers which replaced Toddy's in Orchard Commons is way, way upscale. OK, so Toddy's had Parcel Pickup and carpet on the floor, but this King Soopers is very shiny. Michael was drooling -- Albuquerque has Wild Oats, which is fun to visit, but you can't shop there because they don't have things like dryer sheets and normal flavors of toothpaste. We have Rayley's, which pays their employees a living wage and gives them health insurance -- its fun to shop there because the employees are actually cheerful. But these have glaring florescent lighting, faint bleach smells and worn linoleum -- all the romantic ambiance you might expect from a grocery store. (I confess that the Westminster King Soopers and Downtown King Soopers were more normal versions...).

Our old neighborhood, Palos Verdes, is "pleasantville" tidy. There are a scant few weedy dirt yards, but they are vastly outnumbered by astroturf perfect greens marked with "Chemlawn" flags. Michael and I hung out in the little playground between Orchard Commons and Palos Verdes for about 40 minutes, overlapping with some sort of mom and toddler playgroup at 10AM on a Monday. We were within 15 feet of six moms with children of identical ages to Lynn and not one of them said hello to us -- there was this strong feeling we were crashing the party. Maybe it's just that I had brought Michael, who clearly should have been at work, earning the family bacon.

We walked by the old house -- still dark brick and vine covered. The lilac bush seems to have recovered from Mom's drastic pruning in 1984. They've taken out a tree in the back yard -- the light is very nice. Nobody home to let us in.

After a 7 hour trip in the car to Denver, Lynn was burning off unused energy, so I moved the car so she could walk from the park. We got out the stroller and circled the block, which brought back few memories. I think moving into a neighborhood at age 13 means you never really settle in -- the exploring, patrolling-your-territory-age is younger, maybe seven or eight? Even the house that backed up to ours returned our lost balls by silently launching them across the six foot privacy fence -- I have no idea who lived there. When we returned to the car, stowed the stroller, and coaxed Lynn back into the carseat, a women came out of the house we'd parked in front of to inquire pointedly, if politely, if we needed any help. Just what I'd wonder of two people with a kiddo and stroller who were obviously leaving.

After Orchard Commons, Palos Verdes, a drive through of Cherry Hills, and a drive-by of Kent Denver, Michael remarked "I could see how Eddy and SUFRU would be a breath of fresh air".

At the end of the trip we left with the sense that we were certainly priced out of Denver. We'd have to make a great deal more money to live there now. Albuquerque seems a bit impoverished by comparison. Well, let's says it has a shabby charm, which seems to go with crumbling adobe and the closed cowboy-themed motel on route 66. And no traffic, so to speak.

PS, Interestingly enough the incomes aren't very different for the two: Denver, median $39,500, per capita $24,101, average home $213,068. Albuquerque median $38,272, per capita $20,884 per capita, average home price $204,502. What this doesn't taken into account is that Denver has this huge outlying area (1.8 million), while Albuquerque has maybe Rio Rancho (67 thousand) and Bosque Farms (4000)...numbers from Wikipedia.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

I love my doctor

A year ago, my three year old woke us up screaming in the middle of the night. Not tantrum-screaming, bloody-murder screaming. We turned on the lights, picked her up, found the favorite blanket, and tried to hold her writhing body. After about 20 minutes, without so much as a pause for air on her part, we called our pediatrician's after-hours number. This connected us to a switchboard who asked us several questions (date of birth, weight, etc) who then transferred us to a pediatric-nurse hotline, who then asked the same questions. She unhelpfully suggested we undress her to see if we saw anything on her body (hard to do with a screaming-writhing kid), then confessed she had no idea what to do and we should probably take her to the emergency room "just in case". Thinking that my pediatrician had admitting privileges at only certain hospitals or the practice might prefer the children's hospital, I asked which hospital to take her to. "The nearest one" she replied -- at which point I discovered that this nurse was in Wisconsin (we, and our pediatrician live in New Mexico). We bundled the now-naked screaming kid into the car and took off.

This isn't the first time a doctor (or their practice) has let us down in a time of need. I've waited for three hours for an appointment. I have had the temporary "doctor of the day" in a group practice override written instructions left by my midwife (who I can't see because she has to be scheduled five weeks in advance -- in fact my monthly appointments have to be "fit in"). A number of baby books have chapters on "How to select your child's pediatrician". You might as well save your breath. No matter how carefully you research your pediatrician you will see him or her only for scheduled shots. The majority of visits (head bonks, ear infections, weird rashes -- the most important visits from the patient's/parents's point of view) can't wait three weeks, so you will be seen by a rotation of nurse practitioners, none of whom will be working for the office next time you call. I've waited six weeks to see a doctor I'd hand picked to discuss surgery options, only to discover someone had changed my appointment so I'll be seeing the newly minted MD resident instead.

But it doesn't have to be like this. And right now, it isn't. Friends of ours recommended a doctor they "really liked" -- little did they tell me this was going to be a life-changing experience for our family. The first indication was her receptionist telling us that the first appointment would be for an hour, and suggesting that it would be better if we were completely well at the time of that appointment. With an hour, our new doctor had enough time to listen and take a health-history, write out ongoing prescriptions, and discuss toddler ear-infection philosophies. She takes her own call, except when someone covers for her on vacation. Standard appointments after the first are for 30 minutes and can usually be scheduled in a few days. What I call "fit in" appointments are 10-15 minutes and are usually same day or next morning. These include single issue urgent items: can you look at the baby's ear? Does she have pink eye? This family doctor understands the dynamics of infection in a family using daycare, she can check all of our throats for strep, and is gently, gradually getting us to take better care of our heath -- stress reduction here, cholesterol there. The difference continuity of care makes is enormous. Here is someone I actually trust -- she's been there for me, she knows how I think about my health and she sets me challenges -- I'm actually doing yoga and walking, rather than just thinking about it. As a single healthy 20-something, medical care played a tiny part in my life, but now as a 36 year-old with a child, this makes such a big difference in our quality of life I can't imagine moving, unless she comes with us. Oddly enough this "quality of life" effect persists outside her office. Read something scary on the web? Don't worry, we'll print it out and take it to the next visit for her opinion. Baby has a fever on a Friday afternoon? No panic. We'll treat it with ibuprofen, and if she breaks out in Dengue fever on Saturday, our doctor will be there. Someone we trust, who knows us, will answer the phone.

I've been told you can get medical treatment of this quality in large cities such as Washington DC and Los Anglos, under the name of "concierge medicine"-- you pay an annual fee $1,000-$20,000 (completely unreimbursable under your health insurance). For this you get continuity of care, same day appointments that start within 30 minutes of their scheduled time, and the pager number of your doctor. The extra money allows the doctor to see fewer patients and run a smaller practice without losing income.

But what my doctor is doing is different. She's in a solo practice; she calls it "providing a medical home for her patients". She's part of a larger group that calls their goal Ideal Micropractice. They are participating in a study by The Physicians Foundation for Health System Excellence (the preliminary and rather technical report).

I asked her what this is like from her perspective. In the old office she used to see 20-25 patients a day, then chart for 2 hours, and answer calls. Now she sees 10-12 patients each day, giving her time to care for and enjoy her relationship with patients. Unlike a group practice she does her own chores. She cleans up after herself, answers most of her own calls, call pharmacies, orders medical supplies, calls to find lost labs, and fills in forms. However, daily, it takes no more time than charting, answering calls and taking call did at the group practice. (She protests "It is still too much time!"). Her solo practice works financially because the average overhead for a family practice office is 65-70%. She's cuts this to 25-30%. So despite seeing half the number of patients, she makes (only?) 20% less than she would in a local group practice. While her solo practice is doing well, she does worry that in the long run, her practice will get squeezed to death between rising costs and malpractice, rising demands by all insurance plans for more paperwork and lower or flat insurance payments. She says she feels like she walks a thin line each day between the number of patients she can care for well, and the financial costs. (Actually her worst complaint is that she has to administer shots herself to the babies -- a chore the nurses get to do in typical group practice.)

It's not just me that appreciates the quality of care. The first visit with a newborn/new mom always includes help with breast-feeding. Teenagers don't have to explain delicate health issues to first a receptionist, then a nurse, before they get to a doctor they know and trust. She says "A lot of them call me from college with crises and news". There are about 50-70 of these doctors in the US (in addition to the small town types who have known their patients well for years).

Want one for yourself? You can get a list of them at

Do these people have anything in common? Does working solo actually imply a philosophy? In fact it they do seem to hold some common truths. They don't like medicine as it's being practiced -- they don't enjoy doing it and they don't think it's good for the health of their patients. While quality-of-care sounds like a throwback to small town family doctor days, they are pro-technology -- electronic records, evidence based medicine and surveys (in particular "How's Your Health") and determined to beat costly and debilitating disease by being proactive with patient behavior (note my walking and yoga...more than I've ever done for any other doctor).

Other article on micropractice/solo practice/ideal practice/medical homes:

And the screaming in the middle of the night, how did that end? My daughter fell fast asleep in the car on the way to the emergency room. She stayed that way through the first two hours of our wait (I wasn't upset with the wait -- I was relieved she'd quit screaming and we certainly no longer looked like any kind of emergency) and then started causing mischief in the waiting room at 4 AM. Four hours after we arrived we gave up and went home, mostly exhausted but slightly uncomfortable about the lack of medical feedback that our kiddo was going to be OK. The next day the assistant to the nurse who assists our doctor called us (evidently they keep track of who uses the rent-a-nurse line) to see if we were OK. She tentatively suggested it might have been gas(!) or a nightmare(!) but didn't know for sure, not being medically trained. She also didn't offer us an appointment or a phone call to discus it with the doctor. She had no idea that the after-hours line connected to somewhere out of state. We fired that pediatrician -- or rather her practice -- and having found a "medical home" we haven't looked back.