Month: January 2013

Pride (?) of Ownership

I have once again ventured into the land of Personal Training (receiving end). This is the third time and I hope it works like a charm, as the first one I worked with 4 years ago seemed disinterested (possibly a reflection of my attitude of “I’m paying you so my work is done here”), the second one found all the things I didn’t like and increased them in proportion (I hate kettle bells).

Up until now my ventures into physical activity consisted of the following process:

  1. I need to lose weight.
  2. I don’t make time for the gym.
  3. Unless I have paid for an event.
  4. If I’m going to pay for an event it should be a “big” thing.
  5. Which event has enough credibility and pressure?
    1. Half Marathon
    2. 200 mile bike ride
  6. Register for event.
  7. Feel pumped about event.
  8. Figure training schedule for event.
  9. Skip some days but don’t worry I’ll make it up.
  10. Train in earnest.
  11. Injure myself during training because I didn’t ramp properly.
  12. Ignore or marginalize injury because I’m in denial.
  13. Do event. Maybe whine a lot. Maybe get a little irrational.
  14. Injure myself during event and/or exacerbate injury from training.
  15. Go to Physical Therapy. Go Directly to Physical Therapy.
  16. Have PT person:
    1. Shake head
    2. Remind me of the last time We Were Together, Ask if I’ve Been Doing My Exercises
    3. Hand me New Exercises
    4. Graduate me 2-3 months later
    5. We both know we’ll see each other again.
  17. Celebrate my newfound physical wellness by “taking a break”.
  18. Gain weight. Go back to #1.

The part of this cycle I’m trying to break is numbers 2, 9, 12, and 17.  Hence, Personal Trainer.

My Personal Trainer’s name is Dave. Dave is a former Marine Corps Drill Instructor and acts like it, which is good, but he’s also pretty cheerful at points and is sensitive to the random pains that come with arthritic knees. Dave managed to work me out so hard the first two days that I was actually sore in my armpits. Did you know you have muscles there? I did not… until they were sore. Or there was the time I coughed and my stomach muscles hurt…

This process started about three weeks ago and it’s fairly predictable – while I’m using MyFitnessPal to log all of my food (for the most part honestly), I’m typically tracking more calories than I ought to have, and usually due to the end-of-day meal. I’m also (theoretically) increasing my muscle mass, and since muscle weighs more than fat, my weight hasn’t gone down materially. *

The part that I’m proud of though is that, for more than 21 days (23 as of yesterday) I have made it to the gym 6 days out of each week – at least 3 runs and at least 3 weight workouts. My knees have managed to make it through 32 minutes of running with one, 1-minute break; there’s only minimal swelling and it’s gone at end of day. I’ve also noticed if I don’t run or work out (e.g., that 7th day) I’m a bit of a princess crankypants. I am taking all of these as good signs and hoping the adage that “21 days  makes a habit” is true.

And I haven’t signed up for any events, thank you.

*Actually muscle does not weigh more than fat, any more than a pound of gold weighs more than a pound of feathers, because a pound is a pound is a pound. However, the DENSITY of muscle is higher than that of fat, so the VOLUME required to make 1 pound of muscle is smaller than the VOLUME required to make 1 pound of fat – which is how come the inches go away long before the scale registers anything.

Solving for X

It’s been some 20 years since I last messed with PreCalculus and I was apprehensive as the quarter started. I mean, do you remember how to factor a quadratic equation?

Most of the last six days I’ve spent pouring over my online textbook, doing the requisite problems and watching the requisite videos, trying to get back into the hang of things, mathematically.  Part of the problem is that the first time I took this in school it was to satisfy a separate need: as a Marine Biologist, how often was I really going to need to use trigonometry? Or create mathematical formulae to describe something? You never saw Jacques Cousteau whip out a Texas Instruments graphing calculator, so I spent four or five quarters of advanced math thinking, “yeah, yeah, but this doesn’t really apply to me”. I studied long enough to get the grade and not one moment longer.

Here we are 20 years later, I’m in the same class (in the same school – although not with the same teacher) doing the same work, and have discovered two things:

  1. It’s a lot easier to do the work if you understand the theory and are studying to that rather than the formula itself – if you get the “concept” you can back into the “formula”, it doesn’t work so well the other way around, and
  2. The newer textbooks have pretty much accepted you’re going to rote-memorize some things and probably don’t care about the formula.

Yep, you read that right. For example, one of the things I find now in my text are handy “tables” that tell you the “standard answers” for common mathematical functions. Twenty years ago, we had to demonstrate mathematically WHY, for example, the sin(pi/6 aka 30o)=1/2.  You got out your quadrille paper, you graphed a unit circle, you labeled stuff, drew your arc, and did the math. Now, you have a table. This helps, right?

Not really. Sure, you have a handy table, and you go and apply that to all of the problems in the homework. Or you leverage your graphing calculator to tell you that sin(30)=0.5, no problem. But when it comes time to use what you have learned so far to apply it to a new concept, or to solve a problem where there is more than one missing value, you’re hosed until you get another table or some set of instructions on what to plug into your TI83.

As I’m actually going to USE this math in Economics – first quarter Microeconomics shows you enough graphs and charts that you immediately understand the significance of Understanding What The Graph Is Actually Telling You and How To Derive a Formula For It – I wish the textbooks actually worked to have you get the theory as much as they do the application. This is like when you’re at work and your boss asks you to provide a presentation and then hands you the template and tells you exactly what to write – that’s great, but I’d really like to participate, please.

The Cobra Effect

Once upon a time in India, in a village (so the story goes), there was a problem with cobras. There were too many of them.

Cobras, those freaky little reptiles, have a bad rap but the unfortunate truth is they *can* kill you, so it’s understandable that the village wanted them gone. And so the village leaders instituted a bounty for every dead cobra. This would surely be successful, as everyone likes money, and no one likes cobras! Couldn’t miss!

Sure enough, tons of dead cobras were brought in…. but the overall cobra problem didn’t seem to subside. This is because just outside the village were people (you guessed it) breeding cobras, so they could kill them, so they could collect the bounty. Naturally the government didn’t want to pay for purpose-bred cobras, so they stopped the bounty. And the breeders, with no more financial incentive to breed cobras, let the cobras loose, thereby increasing the cobra population.

This would be the precise opposite of the desired solution of the bounty, and this sort of circumstance is called the “Cobra Effect”. You can read about it here (Wikipedia lists the village as the city of Delhi, but I’m not sure I buy that). Another example is the famous pigs of Fort Benning.

Essentially, the Cobra Effect is when your proposed solution actually makes the problem *worse* than it was to begin with. It doesn’t always have to be economic in nature, as I am seeing at work currently.

Fourteen months ago I took my current job and in the first couple of weeks I volunteered to work on a given project. The given project had been languishing for a few months and was on someone’s radar again, so it needed attention. The basic idea was to take 200,000 records and consolidate them into about 6 or 7 thousand, with minimal disrupt. We crafted a comprehensive plan to get the project done, executed it, and…

…it blew up in a horrific, ugly mushroom cloud. Everything that could go wrong did: bad data meant some emails went to wrong people. Emails that went to the right people invariably succeeded in pissing them off, and emails that had been declared not necessary to go out turned out to have been rather necessary, after all. Data was updated but not correctly, thanks to an artifact in code knowledge no one remembered (so the after effect was, “Oh, that’s why that was there.”). 112 Hours later it was fixed. 

After six distinct debriefs and detailed postmortems (“Fix the contact information”, “Vet it with this team in this other fashion even though they originally said the first way was fine”, “Avoid Excel”, “Use Excel”, “put a PM on it”, “Take the PM off of it”, “Let’s start from scratch”, “Let’s use what we had before and refine it”, “Take it out of this team”, “Give it back to that team”) it looks like the current plan is to…

… do nearly exactly what we originally did. Only now, we’re doing it with 30% more records, because the first reaction from the first go-around that went awry was the recipients of the new format/data/project went into the system and… created more records. 

Points:

1. Unintended consequences are everywhere, and the best intentions often create more of them, and

2. The Cobra Effect doesn’t just apply to economics, although given a few minutes I could probably monetize this project and it would make me cry, and 

3. You can have a fancy name and anecdote for something, and even have it written about in many management books, but it won’t prevent people from making ill-advised choices (despite best efforts at education).

Brand New Year, Now, With More Crazy!

As much as I’d love to blog about the FiscalCliff, Cliff 2, Cliff 3 First Blood, Child of the Fiscal Cliff, Return of the Fiscal Cliff, Fiscal Cliff Revolutions, etc., I’m not going to, as others have written much better prose and admonishment of it than I could ever hope to do. Suffice it to say that the “deal” currently discussed in the house (and passed by the Senate) doesn’t address any of the problems that need addressing, and the cliff itself is largely a fabrication of this broken legislature we have and so applauding any sort of garbage-pile-at-the-bottom-save they’ve managed to create is an exercise in self-delusion. I’ll save my self-delusion for better use.

(For really excellent writing and explanations of Why This Isn’t A Save and In Fact Is a Huge Ream of BS, Regardless of Which Side of the Political Spectrum You Are On, see: this and this and this. I also recommend following Heidi Moore and Ezra Klein on Twitter. Their play-by-play is excellent.)

Fiscal-political brinksmanship aside, I find myself as many do, the first day of the year, wincing in readiness for the email onslaught as brought by January 2nd; in full knowledge that school starts tomorrow (for both the boy and I, I get Macroeconomics and the last PreCalc class); bracing myself for the inevitable deluge of resoluters at the gym. All the classes will be full and the instructors will be randomized.

I’ve used the past few days off to catch up on my OCD; my rock collection is now digitized (I can look up rocks by family, size, or color), the undercroft is organized (2 thousand plus books are packed up to go to my parents house), the fridge is cleaned out (literally and figuratively), the study is reconfigured, I finished two knitting projects. In typical fashion, this is because I’m avoiding something.

I am avoiding my annual review.

Every year I am asked to write a series of paragraphs (or oblique sentences) about my performance, and every year I’m startled by two things: 1, how much I (and my team(s), when appropriate) have done, and 2, how it bears no resemblance to what we thought we were going to do. At the onset of each year we craft goals based on the plans of the company, and, in the form of companies everywhere, things change. Constantly. It’s got to the point where we should have t-shirts that say “the only constant is change” or “entropy always increases”. I may do that with my morale budget.

There has GOT to be a better way. 

This year, we have attempted to frame our goals in the context of the purpose of the exercise rather than the exercise itself; instead of talking about creating XYZ report or accomplishing ABC task, we’re focusing on the end result: how do we make the company more successful, which thereby (frankly) increases the bonus pool, which thereby (frankly) makes its way into our own microeconomics. That is the part of this exercise the company wants and needs, and that’s great.

It occurs to me however that a lot of us are thriving off of the variety, the change, and the volume of things to do for the sake of the variety, change, and volume. Each new email brings a challenge, almost baiting you: are you up to it? Some crisis has erupted, can you handle it? Can you delegate it? Can you deal with it? I’m happy to say that in the ensuing year I am confident I can do all of those things, this is the rare comfort of someone who has really excellent people to rely on at work. 

And with that, tomorrow officially brings the crazy for 2013. School, school, work, home, and all the entropy that can increase. There is no room for triskaidekaphobia, there is no room to wallow. And so I will write my review, take a deep breath, and acknowledge 2013.

Bring it!