Thursday, June 22, 2006

Adventures in Vanity

The weekend before I taught the supercomputing class, I decided to get a pedicure. Because, of course, all these people were going to be staring at my feet! Naah, but it's just one of those things: If you look your best, you feel more confident.

So I went to this certain establishment, the name and location of which is withheld for the moment. As the woman was getting rid of the calluses on my heels, she accidentally cut my heel. At the time, it just felt like a nick (like cutting yourself shaving) and I didn't think too much of it. But she was very apologetic and every time she caught my eye she apologized again and again. I wasn't angry because I knew it was an accident. I didn't complain about it; I just paid my bill and left.

It wasn't until I got home that I saw the full extent of the damage. It was actually a very deep cut, a square about 1/2" on a side, and right in the center of my right heel, exactly where your foot first contacts the floor when walking, and exactly where I can't see it very well without contorting myself.

So, during my course, I was glamorously limping around. But at least I had shiny toenails! This is my punishment for vanity, I mused.

But of course just limping for a few days would have been getting off too easy! Because I couldn't comfortably place my heel on the ground, I was just walking on my toes and I started to get really bad leg and foot cramps. Then, I noticed that the wound was still draining and it didn't seem to be healing up. I figured it was a good excuse to find a family doctor for us, so I asked the department secretary for a recommendation of a good doctor to establish a relationship with. She recommended a certain practice and I managed to get an appointment for this past Monday.

The doctor was impressed by the depth of the wound and the infection that I had developed. She cut out a bunch of dead skin that was preventing it from healing up, put a special dressing on it, gave me a prescription for antibiotics, and wants to see me for a follow-up appointment next week. In the meantime I am to take the antibiotics and keep the special dressing on it.

I think that the treatment seems to be working pretty well. I'm able to walk on it almost normally, meaning I'm now down to only half speed (due to pregnancy) rather than quarter speed like I was before. So maybe my punishment is coming to an end!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Adventures in Teaching

Yesterday I gave my world-famous Crash Course in Supercomputing. My boss, after learning that I had given this course before, asked me to teach the summer students about supercomputing. Fifteen or twenty students showed up to learn from my wisdom.

I first developed this course for some minority high school students in the Washington, D.C. area in the summer of 2004. I improved upon it for this second iteration, generalizing some of the stuff that was specific to the computer they were using, adding content, improving explanations, and adding lots of pretty pictures, including pictures of old computers, such as this one, my all-time favorite supercomputer:

1976 Cray Supercomputer/Bench for your lobby

That is a Cray supercomputer from 1976. The tall part in the middle is the computer. The shorter, C-shaped part contains the cooling system. The nifty thing is that this computer doubles as furniture for the lobby of your company headquarters. The outer part is a vinyl-covered C-shaped bench. If I knew where I could get one of those bad boys, I would totally buy one. Too bad they stopped making them thirty years ago! But I digress...

This time I gave the course in one day rather than over the course of several days. This is because the room I wanted was available only on Mondays and Fridays, and it didn't make sense to do the course on non-consecutive days. So the morning was spent learning about Unix, the vi editor, Makefiles, and batch scripts, while the afternoon was reserved for parallel programming concepts and MPI.

I think they thought I was a little bit insane. I like to keep things lively, because otherwise people will go to sleep. So I said some pretty outrageous things just to see what would happen. At one point, I talked about the command to look at the batch queue, so that you can see what jobs are running and get an idea of how long you'll have to wait before your job will run. "You can use this command to figure out who to hate," I said. One person got it and laughed. Everyone else stared at me blankly. "That was meant to be a joke," I added. "You were supposed to laugh." Then they all laughed.

At the end of the day, I had them fill out an evaluation form. Overall I got pretty decent evaluations. Nobody completely hated me, and most people learned a lot from the course. I felt good about that and I'll probably do it again next year.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

My Take on Obesity

I used to be fat. I weighed over 240 lbs. I really liked eating, and it was one of the few pleasures I had in my life at the time. I was going through a painful time; my parents were divorcing, my own mother wouldn't speak to me, and my husband was mentally ill. I contemplated suicide, and I was too upset to do any work. Life was not good, although chocolate sure was!

I took anti-depressants, I got psychological help, and I took up karate. My husband started getting better, and I started being able to do my work. The pain caused by my fragmented family lessened, although it was still there (and is still there to this day). I was able to go off the anti-depressants and think more positively about life.

As I began feeling better about myself, I became less dependent on food to make me happy. It was at this point that I got up the courage to join Weight Watchers. I think I told Jeff, but I didn't tell anybody else, just in case it didn't work for me. I decided that I was a worthwhile person who deserved to be healthy, so I resolved to lose weight for my own sake.

I really like Weight Watchers for several reasons. First, by going to a weekly meeting, you get to know other people who are also in your shoes. Some of them are ahead of you in their weight loss goals, others are behind you, but you're all in the same boat. Weight Watchers stresses lifestyle changes: eating healthier foods and a balanced diet, engaging in positive self-talk and assertiveness, recognizing your needs and finding positive ways to meet them, and encouraging increased physical activity. You do have a weekly weigh-in, and your weight is recorded, but the numbers on the scale are not stressed as much as the lifestyle changes. I made a lot of friends at the meetings and it was a really positive experience for me.

Thanks to hard work and perseverence, and with the support of my Weight Watchers leader, my karate instructor, and my friends and family (whom I did tell after I began to see some progress!), I lost 68 lbs over the course of 19 months. I also worked hard in karate, culminating with my brown belt at about the same time. I am prouder of those two accomplishments than I am of my Ph.D. They were two things that I thought were impossible.

This is my personal story about fatness. I used to be unhappy, which led to being fat. Once I resolved the unhappiness, I decided to lose weight by changing my lifestyle, and I was successful. But I don't pretend to think that everyone else works the same way.

I had a few friends who felt intimidated by my weight-loss success, and they became self-conscious in front of me. I told them that my weight loss didn't change my opinion of them. I like people because of their personality on the inside, not their appearance on the outside.

Weight is a very complicated subject. There are many reasons why people are fat, and not all of them are because the person is unhappy or lazy. As I said before, I was unhappy and became fat. In that order. This does not mean that all fat people are unhappy. And there are plenty of non-lazy fat people. Laziness is just a negative stereotype that people associate with fat people. There are three primary factors that influence weight: priorities, behavior, and biology.

Often, a person's priorities are a big factor in their weight. To some people, enjoying good food takes a higher priority than being thin. This could be because they are unhappy and food makes them feel better, but it could just be that they really like food. Sometimes, they just have so much going on in their life that being thin takes a back seat. Whatever the reason for not being thin, it's their body. I think that's their choice and should be respected as such.

Sometimes people have behavioral habits that cause them to be fat. They may be unaware of how to eat healthily, or of physical activity that could assist them in losing weight. Sometimes there are behaviors that seem minor but make a huge difference. Also, sometimes people engage in negative behaviors like negative self-talk and feelings of helplessness that complicate the situation and make it harder to lose the weight they might want to lose.

Genetics also play a major role in determining a person's weight. Some people have a genetic predisposition to store more excess calories as fat than others. This genetic predisposition was useful in earlier days, when food sources were inconsistant and unreliable, but in our society, with food always available, it is not necessary. People with the propensity to store excess calories efficiently will easily gain weight and have a lot of trouble losing it. And some medications have a similar effect. Also, I know that some people have trouble knowing when their stomach is full. Due to some sort of genetic problem, or the interference of medication, they never feel full.

Another problem in our society is the fact that food with high nutritional value is so much more expensive than food with low nutritional value. For example, you can buy five pounds of white flour for less than a dollar. How much lettuce can you get for a buck? Not nearly as much. So, if you don't have much money, you're going to buy the flour instead of the lettuce, because you can get a lot more meals out of it than you can out of the same money's worth of lettuce.

I once read an article about the epidemic of obesity and diabetes in the migrant workers who harvest our fruits and vegetables. They subsist on low-cost foods such as white flour. They are paid so little that they can't even afford to eat the very food they harvest! If I ruled the world, I would subsidize fruits and vegetables so that the poor could better afford them.

Ultimately, it is possible for everyone to be at a healthy weight. Genetics, medication, and behavior can make it hard, but if maintaining a healthy weight is high enough priority, it can be done. I know, for some people it's a lot harder than for others. But ultimately, the laws of Physics make it impossible to stay heavy if you take in fewer calories than you expend. If there's somebody who can beat the laws of Physics by storing more calories than they consume, then we need to figure out how to harness their biochemistry to make a perpetual motion machine!

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Health Insurance and Privacy

Earlier this week, I went to a meeting about my company's health insurance plan for the upcoming fiscal year. I learned a lot about how they operate the health insurance. My company actually self-insures, meaning that they keep the health insurance premiums that they collect and pay for the health insurance claims themselves. As a backup, they buy reinsurance just in case the claims exceed the collected premiums. They contract with a large health insurance company to administer the plan.

They were proud that last year, the premiums revenue exceeded the claims. The main cost of the claims was due to prescription drugs, although it was lower this year than in the past years because they stressed to people to buy generics. Still, due to the skyrocketing drug costs, the new plan has higher drug co-pays. They aim for a 70%-30% health insurance/consumer cost share on the drugs, and with the increased cost of drugs, they have to raise the co-pay. Otherwise, the plan is the same as last year, with the premium going up by a very modest 1.35%.

My company offers a lot of health and lifestyle improvement classes, such as smoking cessation and weight loss classes, and now I understand why. It's because when people stop doing things that are bad for their health, the company doesn't have to spend as much on health insurance claims. It's not that they're doing it out of the kindness of their hearts; they're trying to decrease the bottom line. At least since they are self-insuring instead of handing the premium revenue over to a private company, the extra premium revenue from our improved health isn't going to line somebody's pockets. Instead, it's the reason that our insurance premium is going up by 1.35% when for other companies it's going up by 7% or more.

Personally, I think that it's none of my company's business what I do with my health. The company should not be concerned about whether I smoke or eat too many cheeseburgers, because the only thing that they should care about is how well I can do my job, a job that neither requires an extensive lung capacity nor being on my feet. But my company is concerned with these matters, because they are taking me on both as an employee and as a health insurance dependent.

People should be hired because they are the best candidate for the job. We have laws that protect against discrimination against people due to race, gender, religion, etc., because those should not be factors in the search for the best candidate for a job. Likewise, people's potential cost to the company in health insurance claims should not be a factor either. But because the cost of my health insurance premium alone (not to mention the claims I might generate as a high-risk employee) is nearly 20% of my compensation (and an even bigger percentage for employees with lower pay), it is a big factor. There have been cases of obese people and smokers being passed over for jobs and pay raises, precisely because of the potential extra cost of funding their health insurance. There's even an infamous Wal-Mart company memo recommending practices to discourage unhealthy job applicants, to reduce company health care costs.

As you no doubt know, I am a formerly obese person, having lost 68 lbs through hard work and perseverance. Because of this, I am not particularly sympathetic to overweight people's claims that they cannot lose weight. The laws of physics are infallible: if you eat fewer calories than you expend, you will lose weight. I do, however, understand the psychological impediments that make overweight people feel as if it is hopeless, and the physiological conditions that make weight loss very difficult. (Perhaps I will write a blog entry about this at some point.)

Whether or not people can or cannot lose weight, their weight should not be a factor in hiring decisions. Unfortunately, it is a factor in hiring decisions, and it will remain a factor as long as companies stay in the business of offering health insurance benefits to their employees.

We could easily eliminate this factor while retaining insurance benefits by implementing a single-payer health insurance system. I have already presented the Pareto optimality argument for a single-payer system, and I think that the right to privacy concerning our health is another good reason. Oh sure, the gubmint isn't really that in to our right to privacy these days, but I would rather George W. Bush know all about my family's history of colon cancer than have my potential employer reject my job application because of my family's health history.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Adventures in Tooth Brushing

I recently bought a new electric toothbrush. The last time I went to the dentist, they guilted me about all the plaque on my teeth, linking gingivitis and premature birth/low birth weight. So they told me to get a super duper industrial-strength electric toothbrush, an Oral-B Braun. I shelled out the hundred bucks for it, trying not to think too hard about the cost of the thing. On the bright side, it has removable brush heads, meaning that Jeff can use it too, so it's only like fifty bucks each.

But it is pretty cool. The sensation on your teeth is a lot like the feeling when they brush your teeth at the dentist's office. It gets them really clean. It has a timer on it, too. Apparently you're supposed to brush each quadrant of your teeth ({left/right} {upper/lower}) for thirty seconds. So it stutters every thirty seconds, at which point you're supposed to go on to the next quadrant.

The only thing I don't like about it is that it makes me drool more than ever. I produce more saliva than anyone any dentist I've been to has ever seen, but this thing stimulates my saliva production even more and by the end of the two minutes I've drooled all over the toothbrush, my chin, and my shirt. It's kind of embarrassing. But I guess it's worth it to get my teeth so clean!

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Adventures with Colds

You'd think it wasn't the season to have a cold. But you would think wrong, because I have a really terrible one. It's not as bad as whatever it was that knocked me flat on my back for a week in March, but it's plenty bad enough.

On Monday night, I woke up in the middle of the night feeling terrible. I was snoring so horribly and thrashing about enough that Jeff left the room and slept elsewhere. On Tuesday morning, I didn't feel very good but I went to work anyhow because I had an appointment with an ergonomics specialist. He came to my office, figured out what was ergonomically bad, and had my boss order me a new keyboard tray, a lumbar support for my chair, and padding for the edge of my desk. So far I have the keyboard tray and the lumbar support.

Anyhow, after that appointment, I felt bad enough that I came home early. On Wednesday, I slept in and went to work a little later than usual, so I didn't feel too terribly bad most of the day. We went out to dinner with our friend Adam and at that point I started feeling weaker. But I went to bed early and got a pretty good night's sleep. Thursday wasn't so great either, but I managed to work through it. Yesterday I think I took a dud decongestant pill because I couldn't breathe hardly at all. Also by that point it had progressed down from my head and into my throat and lungs. I came home early yesterday too.

Today I'm feeling a little bit better, although I am still congested and coughing up a lot of fun stuff. This is just in time for Jeff to come down with it, of course. You know me, I'm always delighted to share everything with him!