March 1st, 2006 by Potato


Any Pun Will Do in a Finch

February 23rd, 2006 by Potato

Toronto Transit Commission Map with Anagramed Station Names. Thanks to Boing Boing for the pointer, and especially to RobotJohnny for making the thing in the first place. For comparison, here’s the original TTC map.

The Strange Significance of Digits

February 23rd, 2006 by Potato

While a post title like that should rightly be conserved for a nice, long discussion/tutorial on significant figures in science, I will instead put up a very short “how about that” post.

Have you ever noticed particular sequences of numbers perhaps more frequently than coincidence might call for? For example, “Yoshibai” has told me on more than one occasion how freaky it is that he always catches himself checking the time at 11:11. I do the same thing, except for me, it’s 12:34 and 4:16 (the first one should be obvious why it sticks out in my mind; the second is a number and its square, though I don’t seem to have the same propensity for 5:25, 6:36, or 7:49). There are many days when I’ll catch two 12:34’s, and a few where I’ll get two 4:16 watch checks as well.

It’s possible that there is no cosmic co-inky-dink, and that we really do check our watches more-or-less randomly, and it’s only the pre-existing significance of those numbers that make us notice the times when we do catch them.

I get into this because, of course, I started watching the TV show Lost, and some of the characters have a fascination with a particular string of numbers. It’s actually a very good show. I really liked the way the engine was sputtering after the crash in the pilot. The “monster” also has some cool sound effects (hey, spoilers from the trailer are fair game).

Anyway, here’s a link to apophenia.

You Know What You Want

February 23rd, 2006 by Potato

It’s amazing the degree to which humans know what it is they want, what it is they need to do to, if only in abstract ways, and the phenomenal way in which they manage to fuck it all up.

The most obvious, everyday example of this is of course losing weight. We live in a society where food is readily abundant, and our bodies have not had the evolutionary time needed to unlearn previously valuable traits such as hoarding and cravings. When there’s a chance you could freeze or starve through the winter, then putting on a few dozen pounds through the summer makes a lot of sense. However, when there’s no chance of running out of food, and in fact, when the fatty, salty foods are the “convenient” ones, you quickly find yourself putting on and keeping an unhealthy amount of excess weight.

So, to correct this, you simply eat less and exercise more. That’s it; it couldn’t be more simple.

Yet millions of people (myself included) have trouble with those intermediate steps, despite strong desires to lose weight for reasons of health and beauty.

It may seem simple, but somehow simple is hard. Sure, minor disagreements abound. While it’s generally agreed upon that more fresh vegetables and fruits will help considerably, there are differing viewpoints on how many grains you should eat versus how much fat and protein (i.e.: dairy and meaty things).

And how do you go about eating less and exercising more? Do you just trust your body to tell you, and simply not eat so much that you feel hungry all the time? Well, that might work, but things get a lot harder if you feel awful during the process. Along those lines, you could eat a small number of things, like grapefruit and brown rice, until you were full to the brim. Then, after weeks of nothing but grapefruit and brown rice, you’d get sick of them and not want to eat as much. Perhaps instead you could weigh everything you eat, figure out the calorie content, and try to stay below some rough guestimate of your metabolic rate. Equivalently, you can use a points system, which simply approximates the calorie counting and makes it so you can much more easily do the math in your head. You can let someone else do the counting for you, and stick to strict pre-planned diets (which also works well if you don’t like to cook, since there are so many well-proportioned low-fat heat & serve meals on the market now).

Unlike “eat less, exercise more”, there is no universal solution for how to implement those universal goals. Some people really don’t mind their stomach growling for a few weeks while it gets used to not being filled so fully or frequently, and simply starve themselves a bit until they get their appetites under control. That method probably works best for them, especially if they don’t like math. Of course, the detailed calculation method can work for people who hate math, for wholey other reasons: chocolate leads to a diet log entry; the diet log leads to the spreadsheet; the spreadsheet leads to calculus; calculus leads to… suffering. Others find that fully calculating out what’s in their food and weighing everything gives them a much better appreciation for what they put in their bodies, and that after a few weeks of doing it they learn how to eyeball healthy portion sizes. Oddly enough, this skill is longer in coming for those who use the similar points system. My guess about that is that since you don’t spend as much time calculating each dish, you don’t truly appreciate the numbers in there. “Let’s see, we had a 2 for breakfast, then a 3 for elevensies, a light lunch, that was barely 1 point, and a 17 for dinner. Oh drat, over budget by 2 points again. Oh well, I’ll try harder tomorrow.”

These are just mechanisms for tracking your eating, to make sure that you eat less. They’re still only approaching the periphery of the hard part. That involves finding the willpower and discipline to carry through your very simple goals day to day, hour by hour, minute by minute. How do you put aside the fact that your body is sending a very clear message: CHOCOLATE. NOW. Or sometimes the even clearer (if less specific) monosyllabic message: “eat.” It’s one thing to know consciously that it’s wrong, that the long term plans call for no chocolate until the weekend, when we’re allowed a two chocolate bar ration. It is quite another to have to sit there and go the whole day without chocolate, not even a nibble, or a sniff, or even a furtive glance at the glossy full page spread of that Hersey bar you saw in that magazine your girlfriend tried to hide from you (you know, the one with the recipes).

This matter of dealing with all the daily tests of will, fighting the urges to give into short-term desires at the cost of long-term goals is the struggle of our times. And not just for the millions trying to lose weight, but for those who want a slick ride at the cost of limited fossil fuels for the centuries to come. Those corporate empires that cut too deeply to meet the next quarter’s “whisper number”, only to go totally bankrupt 5 years down the road when all their skilled employees have moved on from all the abuse and lack of job security, their customers have moved on, having lost all sense of loyalty, and their shareholders had never been the same people for more than a few weeks at a time all along.

I hope you didn’t come here for the answer, or tips for solving those sorts of problems. I obviously don’t have them… yet. If I did, I could probably make some modest amount of money selling the book describing how to conquer your harmful desires and lose weight. After all, there’s a whole section of the book store devoted to those types of books (and in many book stores, those sections rival the Sci-Fi/Fantasy areas).

The same basic principle is at work for other things, too. For example, I know that to write a great (ok, a barely passable) novel, or say a screenplay for Netbug, all I really have to do is sit down and write some reasonable number of words every night that can be strung together into a longer, cohesive story. I’ve shown with this blog, my emails, forum postings, (though perhaps not my thesis), etc., that 500 words in a night is no great feat to me. Yet somehow I just can’t put them together into longer cohesive stories (though I don’t usually lack for halfway decent ideas). Of course, this website also demonstrates that I do have great difficulty with that whole cohesiveness of thought, purity of purpose, and flowing of… flow… continuity… thing… that you need to make longer stories work.


This problem we have, that I fight with so much, of knowing what to do but not quite seeing how to do it, how to summon the strength and courage to do what needs to be done, this problem is so central to many other ills of everyday life. For example, it was approximately 3 am when I started this post, and now, as I reach the tail-end, it’s 4:15 am. I was at work late, not getting out of my MRI training until about 12:30 am. I came home, had some dinner, watched the prison break sequence on Star Wars: A New Hope to clear my mind, then sat down at my computer to check some websites and write some emails. Around 2 am, I felt I had done enough, and should probably go to bed.

Yet here I am, hours later and still not in bed. I am usually afraid of going to bed with good rant ideas, since more often than not, they’ve faded come morning. But still, a brief outline to keep the thoughts in line, and then a nice long snooze would have done a world of good for me. The kicker is, I’m tired. I want to go to bed, so I have no idea why it is that I’m still here, typing. I also know that if tonight is like last night, or the night before, then I’ll get to bed, set my alarm for the morning, and realize that while I brushed my teeth, I forgot to floss again. But I won’t get up to do it, even though I haven’t even shut the light off, and even though I know that covers are easily pulled back up a few minutes later.

Is this self-destructive? Pathological? Perfectly normal? I don’t really know.

These are the sorts of problems I’m going to think about for the next few days, and see if I can’t write a more helpful essay… or a best-selling book!


February 21st, 2006 by Potato

It’s strange to come home and not have any animals to greet.

Unfortunately, the degu died this weekend. It was a little sad, but hardly tragic: for a rodent, he was downright ancient. While he was pretty sick on his last day, and a little slow and wobbly the last few weeks, he didn’t suffer. And the whole way, he’s had Wayfare looking after him; and as a small fluffy animal, you won’t ever find yourself in better care. Of course, she was quite attached to him, and is very broken up about it. So I’ve loaned her the kitty to serve as a feline grief counsellor.

She’s good at that. She’ll start by sneaking up and kneading your shoulders a bit, then maybe lean in and tell you a secret to make you feel better. Of course, her whiskers tickle your ear, but that’s all part of the therapy.

So it’s strange not having her around. I keep checking my closet to see how she’s doing, and of course she’s not there. There’s a little home-made kitty bed in there consisting of a towel in an up-turned box lid that’s got enough shed hair to make up two or three other cats. Of course, she’s not there, nor waiting behind my chair to get her tail smooshed when I roll back. I suppose in a few days I’ll be used to it, and not know how I dealt with a cat underfoot all the time, and then I’ll have to get used to her all over again when I get her back next week.

We’ve almost always had a pet of some sort in my family, though we haven’t had much luck with them. We got a dog when I was fairly young (5?), but he was run over by a bus just a few years later (the one time the Willowdale bus did come). Then there were a few years without pets, followed by a few hamsters. Around that time, we also got a “hand-me-down” dog from a friend of my parents who was moving into an apartment that didn’t allow pets. He wasn’t used to kids, and took a while to settle down (he was a little nippy at first), but eventually we became best friends, and he slept on my bed every night. Unfortunately, he bit another young kid a year or so later, and my parents put him down. Then, aside from a pile of gerbils, I didn’t have any pets for a few years on end, and that seemed fairly normal. We always planned on getting another dog, but the deal was my dad had to quit smoking first… unfortunately, that didn’t happen until he got the big C wake-up call.

We got my cat near the end of high school, on vacation in PEI. She was a little older than you usually get a kitten (about 6 months), a purebreed Himalayan. The combination pet store/vets office where she was couldn’t sell her: probably not too surprising on an island where a barn full of free kittens is never more than a 10 minute walk away. One of the girls who worked there was going to adopt her if she couldn’t find a home in a few weeks. My mom and my sister were smitten instantly, and came back to the cottage to get my dad for permission to get her. My dad was in the middle of a conference call with clients in Toronto, and kicked everyone but me out for silence (I was just reading a book). My sister kept tapping on the window and bugging him and trying to tell him about how cute she was. Eventually, he took a pad of paper, and wrote in giant letters “FUCK OFF” and stuck it on the window. My mom, brother, and sister took that as permission and went to get the cat.

I, actually, wasn’t a fan of the idea. I was strictly a dog person, never really got along as well with cats. Plus, I still had hope that we could get my dad to quit smoking and get a pet “legit”, whereas getting one now would remove some of the motivation to quit. Oddly enough, the cat really took to me, I think largely because I left her alone (mostly) while she was getting adjusted to the new place. Apparently she didn’t take it very well: reports have her as being this very social, adventurous cat when she lived in the pet store, and she was allowed to roam it freely and greet customers (unlike the other cats who lived in the typical pet store cages). As soon as she moved in with us, she became this paranoid little ball of nerves that we know and love today. So anyway, I think she took to me partly because I gave her a chance to come see me on her own terms, and partly because I was the only one up late at night when she was active and adventurous.

Shortly after that, we got Courtney, our first bull dog. She was such a sweet, loving, hungry dog, who died far too young after a panic attack. Then, on Christmas eve just before I moved to London, my parents got Millie, our next bull dog. She’s a crazy hyper dog that doesn’t know when to quit. She made it a sport to chase my cat, whose nerves just couldn’t handle it, so I secreted her away to live with me in London around February that year. For a long while I took her back with me every weekend to visit, but she just didn’t like car rides (often peeing in her cage). Soon enough, my parents got another cat, a giant, loping ragdoll named Oscar. Oscar didn’t really like my cat, so the visits home for her got rare in a hurry. I can tell she misses me when I leave her alone for a weekend now, but I’m glad she manages to handle herself ok. One advantage to a having a cat over a dog :)

I know how much pet owners like to go on about their pets, since they’re so cute and all, but I really should cut the pet stuff out now…

Anyway, things have been busy at work on this end. Looks like we’re finally getting the ball rolling forward again in terms of finishing the blasted MSc… and I’ve also started training for a potential PhD project. It involves MRI, so that’s kind of good, as it gets me away from some of the absolute crap I’ve had to deal with in proteomics. However, it’s also going to be really tough, since that’s a part of my brain that hasn’t seen action in over two years. What’s an integral, and how do I derivitize again? In 3-D you say?