Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tour guiding Nostalgia

I wrote this entry some time ago after reading this article in the MIT magazine.

But was inspired to post it after seeing this rather vapid article on the NY Times most e-mailed list.

We were told not to walk backward way back in 1997. Though I did anyway, since that was the only way I was able to get through my 75 minute spiel.

I swear that tour guiding was responsible for getting me to feel comfortable talking in front of a large audience at length (sometimes over 100 people). Before then, in high school, I came in close to last in the 5 minute speech event required for the Academic Decathalon. The thought of having stuff to say for more than 5 minutes was incomprehensible. Of course, now I regularly do 6 hours of lecture in a single day, it's funny, how life works.

I became a tour guide, inspired by my guide when I first visited MIT as a high school student in 1995, and tried every time to give a tour that went beyond a recitation of the same platitudes about class sizes and TA's that made all the other schools sound the same.

I worked extra hard because I knew that who your tour guide is has a disproportionate effect on which college you choose (the weather on the day you visited also does). I was told by one parent after a tour that they were impressed because tour guides at most colleges are normally pretty girls, and given I was neither, I started with two strikes against me.

I also always tried to dispel the myths people normally have about MIT. Telling people about how we have the most varsity sports in the country (which unfortunately ended this year), with the best civilian pistol team in the country (I always joked that I always thought it was a good thing that West Point beat us at pistol).

I talked about the almost balanced gender ratio in the Ellen "Swallow" Richards lobby (sometimes mentioning the quotes around the words "Swallow" as my favorite hack), and how women have graduated women since the beginning, whereas that school up the street didn't graduate women until 2000 (up until then, women only got degrees from Radcliffe). One of the mothers on a tour noted that I mentioned Harvard at least a dozen times. I was always happy to play up the friendly self-deprecating one-sided rivalry.

I talked about Tetris on IM Pei's Green Building. About the sleepy student discovering a Japanese tourist sketching the urinal in the Alvar Aalto designed Baker Hall one morning, or the moat that reflects light from beneath the Aero Saarinen MIT Chapel, or the 1/8 sphere of his auditorium.

My most memorable tour was for the mayor of Dalian, one of the largest cities in China, which I did in broken Chinese. I felt bad that I was the only representative of MIT his large entourage got to meet.

One of my favorite tours was the ones where only tourists came. And I could just talk about the fun stuff.

Good times.

Glad to see the tradition lives on.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The secret to losing weight

Recently people have emphasized the formula:
[calories eaten minus calories burnt] times 3500 = change in lbs of weight
Which is fine, and a useful tautology to start with, but people interpret this the wrong way.

Time magazine recently came down on the side that reducing calories eaten is all that matters, though others have argued that increasing calories burnt through exercise is all that matters.

The problem is that all of these things are missing a third factor, metabolism. which we don't directly control, but is probably far more important than the other two.

The typical American gains about one pound a year. That corresponds to 3500 calories.

That means over the course of a year where we typically eat around 1 million calories, the difference between calories eaten and calories burnt is only 3500, or or about 0.3%

I do believe that we probably have a fair amount of control over how many calories we eat (not complete, but fair). However, I find it hard to believe that somehow our conscious self manages our activity level to be within 100.3% of that calorie level. Clearly automatic mechanisms in the body are kicking in that regulates how fast we are burning calories.

Thus, as the Time magazine article points out, it is not at all clear that exercise increases calories burnt. It does while you are exercising, but if it causes those automatic mechanisms for metabolism to slow down for the rest of the day, then exercising would achieve nothing at all.

So that's the secret. Find a way to adjust that automatic mechanism and the path to weight loss is clear. Just don't ask me how to do that.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Damn you Congress for ruining my credit line

I still have the same credit card from 2000 back when credit was cheap and interest rates were low and I got offered a credit card with a 7.99% APR. Not that I use it much, but it's nice to know I have a credit line that's almost cheap enough to finance buying a car, or to borrow money to invest in the stock market. So a couple weeks ago, for no apparent reason, they tell me they are doubling my APR to 17%, and if I don't like it, they will cancel the card.

Thanks Congress. Since Congress made it much harder to increase APR in the event of missed payments, the credit card companies reasonably responded by pre-emptively raising APRs on everybody including me.

Stupid populist policies and stupid populist NY Times who thinks this is a good thing. Last time I checked, price discrimination was welfare enhancing, but I guess it doesn't feel fair.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Good times for the car industry

Wrote the paragraph below a few months ago. Just wanted to state for the record, that even with out the Cash for Clunkers program, the car industry is in for good times. The Clunkers program which probably has no redeeming social value except as a very rapid $3 billion stimulus (the last $2 billion are still being debated though) into the economy. I am probably also more annoyed because my "clunker" missed qualifying by just 1 mpg. But otherwise, it is likely bad for the environment, potentially quite wastefully destroying good cars.

Despite the doom and gloom, the short term forecast for the car industry is good times ahead. This article takes a gloomy look, saying that US demand for news cars will fall just like it fell 46% this year from 17 million to 10 million. But the short term effect of that is a huge pent up demand for new cars that is going to help the car industry come roaring back in the next few years. That along with the $60 billion or so in handouts GM alone got, will mean the US car industry should be quite profitable in the short term. Of course, one still has to wonder whether it was worth the $60 billion+ in tax payer money.