Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The wonders of academia

I became a full professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2001. Among the responsibilities of full professors are (1) to evaluate whether professor at schools other than ours merit promotion and (2) to chair and serve on promotion committees at our own schools.

So far as I can tell, senior faculty take these responsibilities very seriously. The strange part is that we take promotions of people at other schools very seriously, even though we compete with those very schools. I suppose one could make an argument that we at USC should try to blow up the cases of those who we deem to be good at other schools in California, while also waxing enthusiastic about weaker faculty at these schools. It is as if Honda were telling Toyota who to promote, and vice versa.

In the end, though, faculty at one school tend to recommend that faculty they deem meritorious at another receive promotion. While the process is certainly less than perfect, the good faith that most faculty show in these affairs helps explain why the US still has the best research universities in the world.
I know I said I'd be back yesterday with a real post but I'm pretty backed up right now with work & trying to figure out the childcare situation, so I need a little break.  We toured a couple of daycare/ preschools  yesterday and I'm feeling pretty good about 1 so we'll see how it goes.  For now I'll just leave you with an image I got from one of my favorite reads, Head Over Heels.    It's perfect for the beginning of Fall and I cannot get over that velvet.  So sumptuous & beautifully aged!!  (I'm not sure I've actually used "sumptuous" in a sentence before but could think of no other word!)


Monday, August 30, 2010

Taking the Plunge

We're off today to check out a part-time daycare/ preschool for our little guys.  I'm sort of mixed about it, but mostly excited.  It will be 3 days a week and my mom will be watching them on a 4th day.   I'm attempting tp take the 5th day off so we'll see how it goes.  Christian's three years old and is dying for "friends" and loves classes and that sort of thing so I think it'll be great for him.  I worry a little bit about Justin (8 months) but I'm sure he'll be okay too.

We're really hoping that with almost full-time daycare, that we'll be able to get a bit more of a separation of work & home.  I hope my expectations aren't too high but I really feel right now that "something's gotta give."  If anyone has any insight out there about all of this, I'd love to hear your thoughts. 

I'll be back today later with a real post!!

  xoxo, Lauren

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Did Californians break their contract?

Mark Thoma, whom I admire, approvingly posts Michael O'Hare's letter to his students. Professor O'Hare says something that really bothers me:

...for a variety of reasons, California voters realized that while they had done very well from the existing contract, they could do even better by walking away from their obligations and spending what they had inherited on themselves. “My kids are finished with school; why should I pay taxes for someone else’s? Posterity never did anything for me!”

As Professor O'Hare correctly notes in the header to his blog, "everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts."

So before we accuse middle-aged Californians of being greedy, we should consider four things. First, California ranks 4th in state and local per capita spending in the country (and number one is Alaska, where the tax price of government service is essentially zero). Second, about 2/3 of California bond referenda that go to the public receive the 2/3 super-majority necessary to get passed. Third, we in Los Angeles County voted two years ago, in the middle of a recession, to tax ourselves to pay for transportation infrastructure. Finally, we absorb more people from the rest of the world relative to our population than any other state. These facts are more consistent with generosity than greed.

I understand Professor O'Hare's frustration with California's state budget process and with the threats against the wonderful UC and Cal State systems. Those who know me know that I enthusiastically support all kinds of public spending. But Professor O'Hare's rhetoric could well alienate many whom he wants on his side, and may actually give aid and comfort to the Sarah Palins and Glenn Becks of the world.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Saturated Fat, Glycemic Index and Insulin Sensitivity: More Evidence

Insulin is a hormone that drives glucose and other nutrients from the bloodstream into cells, among other things. A loss of sensitivity to the insulin signal, called insulin resistance, is a core feature of modern metabolic dysfunction and can lead to type II diabetes and other health problems. Insulin resistance affects a large percentage of people in affluent nations, in fact the majority of people in some places. What causes insulin resistance? Researchers have been trying to figure this out for decades.*

Since saturated fat is blamed for everything from cardiovascular disease to diabetes, it's no surprise that a number of controlled trials have asked if saturated fat feeding causes insulin resistance when compared to other fats. From the way the evidence is sometimes portrayed, you might think it does. However, a careful review of the literature reveals that this position is exaggerated, to put it mildly (1).

The glycemic index, a measure of how much a specific carbohydrate food raises blood sugar, is another common concept in the diet-health literature. On the surface, it makes sense: if excess blood sugar is harmful, then foods that increase blood sugar should be harmful. Despite evidence from observational studies, controlled trials as long as 1.5 years have shown that the glycemic index does not influence insulin sensitivity or body fatness (2, 3, 4). The observational studies may be confounded by the fact that white flour and sugar are the two main high-glycemic foods in most Western diets. Most industrially processed carbohydrate foods also have a high glycemic index, but that doesn't imply that their high glycemic index is the reason they're harmful.

All of this is easy for me to accept, because I'm familiar with examples of traditional cultures eating absurd amounts of saturated fat and/or high-glycemic carbohydrate, and not developing metabolic disease (5, 6, 7). I believe the key is that their food is not industrially processed (along with exercise, sunlight exposure, and probably other factors).

A large new study just published in the American Journal of Clinical nutrition has taken the evidence to a new level (8). At 6 months and 720 participants, it was both the largest and one of the longest studies to address the question. Participants were assigned to one of the following diets:
  1. High saturated fat, high glycemic index
  2. High monounsaturated fat, high glycemic index
  3. High monounsaturated fat, low glycemic index
  4. Low fat, high glycemic index
  5. Low fat, low glycemic index
Compliance to the diets was pretty good. From the nature of the study design, I suspect the authors were expecting participants on diet #1 to fare the worst. They were eating a deadly combination of saturated fat and high glycemic carbohydrate! Well to their dismay, there were no differences in insulin sensitivity between groups at 6 months. Blood pressure also didn't differ between groups, although the low-fat groups lost more weight than the monounsaturated fat groups. The investigators didn't attempt to determine whether the weight loss was fat, lean mass or both. The low-fat groups also saw an increase in the microalbumin:creatinine ratio compared to other groups, indicating a possible deterioration of kidney function.

In my opinion, the literature as a whole consistently shows that if saturated fat or high glycemic carbohydrate influence insulin sensitivity, they do so on a very long timescale, as no effect is detectable in controlled trails of fairly long duration. While it is possible that the controlled trials just didn't last long enough to detect an effect, I think it's more likely that both factors are irrelevant.

Fats were provided by the industrial manufacturer Unilever, and were incorporated into margarines, which I'm sure were just lovely to eat. Carbohydrate was also provided, including "bread, pasta, rice, and cereals." In other words, all participants were eating industrial food. I think these types of investigations may be limited by reductionist thinking. I prefer studies like Dr. Staffan Lindeberg's paleolithic diet trials (9, 10, 11). The key difference? They focus mostly on diet quality, not calories or specific nutrients. And they have shown that quality is king!

* Excess body fat is almost certainly a major cause. When fat mass increases beyond a certain point, particularly abdominal fat, the fat tissue typically becomes inflamed. Inflamed fat tissue secretes factors which reduce whole-body insulin sensitivity (12, 13). The big question is: what caused the fat gain?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Maybe we are more like Homer Simpson than Spock

I saw Juan Carrillo of the USC economics department present a very nice paper testing auction theory using experimental data. The only problem was that the people in the experiment were Cal Tech students, who are not exactly representative. But even Cal Tech students, while likely more rational than the general population, and who certainly understand experiments better than the general population, are still far less than perfectly rational.

Corolla & "my" Beach House

We're finishing up our week here in Corolla, North Carolina and I DO NOT WANT TO LEAVE.  I love this place.  we've been coming here for summer vacations ever since I was a kid and I even spent a summer working here with one of my best friends, Alissa, at the local sports bar, Sundogs.   

Here's a picture of Sundogs and its appearance is deceiving.  It's so much fun!!!  (If you ever come here, it's in the front of the Food Lion Shopping Center and gets going late night.  There's a huge tiki bar inside.)

During the 4 months that I worked at Sundogs (a college summer) I made some amazing friends who we get to come back & see every year...

It was a late night...  Nat Hall (on my left) & Jerry Cooper (on my right) used to bartend at Sundogs and play music all over the Outer Banks.  (Jerry's since moved & is now living with his wife in SC)...  I worked there 8 years ago and I've never looked at Corolla the same since.  It was interesting to get the "local" perspective after vacationing there for so long.  Honestly, I'd recommend having kids work at least a summer at their vacation spot because you really just do get a whole different flavor for it.  You respect it in a different way.  You see all that goes on behind the scenes and you appreciate it more.  (And, you always having friends to come back to!)

...The only types of pics Dave & I usually get together are the hand-holding the camera kind:

So, as I was saying, I do not want to leave this place:

Here's our beach house this year:

I'm not going to show you the inside BUT I'll show you what I wish it was:
Check out the lower level entry:

{Image via House of Turquoise)

And the dining area:

{Image via Head over Heels}

And the living room- oh my goodness!!!

{Design by SR Gambrel}

And "my" bathroom:

I LOVE this hammock which sits on the deck:  (really)

The bunk room:

{image unknown}

And my bedroom:

{Design by SR Gambrel}

Here's the walk up to the beach:  (Now back to reality ;)

Christian's having the best time.  He & my grandmother built this fortress:

Dave & my little sister Morgan (13 years old) enjoying the surf:

And Justin relaxing in his stroller:

I could literally dedicate an entire post to my son's thighs.  I CANNOT get over them.  They are so insanely squeezable and kissable and...  I'm going to spare you but it's hard for me to stop ;)

So anyway, have an amazing weekend and we will be enjoying the rest of ours right here:

xoxo, Lauren

Thursday, August 26, 2010

What is the correct downpayment?

If required down-payments are too low, we get the nonsense of the past several years. I am reasonably sure zero is too low. If required down-payments are too high, we, among other things, perpetuate wealth disparities (i.e., the only people who get credit are those that don't need it). I am reasonably sure that 25 percent is too high.

What is both socially optimal and just? We need to try to figure this out, but it would involve knowing the correct social loss function and then minimizing it. Social welfare functions are very, very tricky businesses.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Preview of LollyPollies.info

Earlier this month I started working on a new concept for a website about politicians and elections – something educational, something for fun, something for serious opinion gathering. The idea was to put together a few pages based on bits and pieces of code I had from other projects and launch a site during August to coincide with the Australian Federal Election 2010 campaign. For personal reasons, I had to abandon the full scale development for now but since the results of the elections are not yet known, I decided to put in the public domain at least one main and a few minor pages from the site. It is not an official launch yet, just a dump of what is semi-ready, because I am not sure when I will have another opportunity to work on it again. Here it is: “Lolly Pollies – sweet with bitter aftertaste… ”. More in due course.

Decorative Memories in our Core

I often think about patterns from my childhood... Fabrics, tile, wallpapers, even linoleum patterns.  Many of them have really stayed with me over the years and I remember them fairly clearly.  For the ones that are no longer around... I wish I could just have a piece...  A yard or a square foot to look at and remember perfectly. 

The sofa in the photo below was upholstered in a beautiful chinoiserie floral in orangey-pinks, cream and green and was in my grandparents' living room in Honolulu many years ago.  I've seen the photo below of my grandfather & me over the years (and I'm not sure at what point I started consciously thinking of the fabric) but it's just sort of always been one of those fabrics filed away in my mind that I think of every so often and love. 

{My "Geedaddy" & me}

Below is another photo of me in my muumuu on the beloved sofa fabric.

My mom and I moved in with my grandparents to McLean, Virginia (just outside of Washington, DC) when I was 4 years old.  My grandmother has an amazing sense of style and we lived with them for 6 years before moving only a few minutes away. 

{My grandmother whom I called "Beautiful Grandmother" (she told me that was her name ;) and me...  Again, the blue & white Hawaiian print that I'm wearing...  that's one of those fabrics that's so ingrained in my memory that it just feels good to look at.  If I ever had a little girl and found an outfit just like that one, I'd be in Heaven.}

When I find things that remind me of pieces  my grandmother's had over the years, I often buy them on the spot.  They just give me this good feeling. It's almost that feeling you get when you first wake up and you can't quite remember a dream but then you do and it just feels so good.  Does that make sense?

{I bought this Chinoiserie ginger jar flea market lamp the second I saw it because it reminded me of my grandmother's lamps}

It's what it would be like if you could actually grasp a cloud.  (I remember being little and scraping the inside out of an oreo and just holding the white part...  It was strangely satisfying in that same weird way.)  It's the intangibles in life.  And when you finally have them clear in your memory or physically in your hands, its's so oddly satisfying.  I feel this way about prints...

Another one is this vintage blue peacock flower fabric on my Grandma Maestranzi's (my Grandmother on my dad's side) dining room chairs in Antioch, Illinois:

Lucky for me she was a little old Italian grandma who protected everything under oh-so-chic PLASTIC.  It's still perfectly preserved to this day.  (Thanks Grandma!!) 

I'll never forget the cloud wallpaper in my nursery or the pale green vine fabric on my first big girl bed - a canopy bed- at my dad's house.    I remember picking it out at the store. (My parents divorced when I was really young and so I had a bedroom at my mom's and a bedroom at my dad's.)

My mom had this vintage butterfly quilt in cream and earthtones...  I wonder if it's still around?  My Aunt Josephine had these beautiful japanese gardens with stone pagodas that I'll never forget...  My grandmother has a beautiful blue and gold floral throw blanket made by my great grandmother (I think?)...  Terrible linoleum in the kitchen (not picked out by her I don't think) that I used to love & stare at...  It was fun finding shapes in the linoleum and I'd always show people the "two dinosaurs" I'd found throughout the pattern. It's since been replaced and looks so good, but I can't help but miss that pattern.  

...Anyway, I could go on & on (and seriously it's so satisfying recounting the patterns) but I guess what I'm getting at is that these patterns are so ingrained in my mind.  These choices made by my grandmothers & my mom and the people who decorated & accessorized the homes I spent time in really did affect me.  Even at that age, I recogized beautiful & interesting things.  (Some of them were even plastic flowers so I'm not saying they're necessarily beautiful today...  but to me they are.)   I loved looking at them.  The same goes for a lot of the artwork and accessories around the house- things my grandparents had picked up on their extensive travels, knickknacks and china my Grandma Maestranzi collected...  I remember going from tabletop to tabletop in both houses playing with the accessories... 


I was an only child for 15 years (my little sister, Morgan, was born 15 years after me when my mom married my stepdad, Tom) so I guess before that, I spent a lot of time alone, exploring the houses, observing everything in them.  To this day I like looking through my grandmother's linen closet at her sheet sets and still get a twinge of excitement when I see the vintage leafy green printed futon being pulled down from the garage.  (This happened when my closest cousins came to visit us and - just like a memory-inducing smell- the sight of that futon still gives me a childish excitement.)

Even as I write, I'm struck by the flood of memories & feeling that seeing or remembering patterns and objects from my past elicits in me.  I am so happy when Christian asks to be lifted up to see something on a shelf- like the little froggy limoge box that sits on our bookshelves.  He gets to hold it and play with it for a little bit before we put it back, just like I used to be allowed to do. 

What we put in our homes today affects our  not only our present, but is also the backdrop for our future memories. If you have kids around noticing the things, you just might be helping to develop their taste, style.  The fabrics and patterns from my past are so ingrained in my memory that I know they've influence my design aesthetic.  As I work on fabrics for the my upcoming fabric line, I'm amazed by how many of my ideas spring directly from the patterns of my past.

To some people, picking the fabric for a throw pillow may be as easy as running to Target and choosing a color that works with their rug...  to me, it's way more than that...  (although the pillow could be from Target! ;)  It has to elicit an emotional response from me or my client.  A fabric I choose is typically somehow tied to the past, memories or a feeling -although I (or they) might not even know it at first...   Designing a home's a big deal to me and those little choices are all a part of the equation.  Your thoughts??

xoxo, Lauren

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

In praise of Lawrence Yun

As Robbie Whelen notes in the Wall Street Journal, it could not have been fun to be Lawrence Yun, the National Association of Realtors chief economist, today. As Whelen notes, he must "toe the line between housing industry economist and housing industry motivational speaker."

I think Lawrence does this well--he is clearly on the side of the people who pay him, but he also takes his positions honestly. I assume that he had something to do with NAR's decision not to advocate for an extension of the home buying tax credit. More important, he is in charge of the data that NAR puts out, and bad days like today essentially prove that the data are credible (full disclosure: I, along with Orawin Velz and Kevin Thorpe, helped design the methods by which the Existing Home Sales data are produced, but I have nothing to do with the monthly estimates that NAR puts out). I am guessing that one or two members of NAR wish he would fudge the data, but he does not.

No more goosing with tax credits please.

The July Existing Home Sales number of 3.8 million units was abysmal--it was 1980s bad. I am guessing that a lot is it is that July gave back the tax credit driven boost of spring. If we look at average sales for the year, it is 5.1 million, which is pretty much normal. March, April, May and June were above normal, but all of that "strength" was given back in July. Credits just pull sales forward--they don't change the underlying dynamic, and they add to the deficit.

The best laid plans & the disadvantage of berry bushes

Justin's 'cruising' now so I temporaily switched out our lucite cocktail table in the living room with an ikea slipcovered ottoman from our family room.  It'll stay in here until he can walk & I don't have to worry about him breaking his face on the table.   The look is a bit cuter than I like for my living room, but since it's temporary, I can deal.  Whatever's there always seems to be toy central and here's a quick pic now: 

{I tried to get Justin in the picture but he got away}

The beauty of slipcovers is that you can wash them whenever you need to.  The not-so-beautiful part is that with my little guys and Justin's tendency to spit-up, that'll be fairly often. 

Well, as expected, we had our first major spit-up on the ottoman so I took off the top slipcover & washed it.  Everything came out fine and I laid it out to dry in the backyard.  That evening, as Dave & I were having a drink before dinner, I looked out the window and saw this:

Seriously???  Dave went down for confirmation as I took these pics from the living room... (ever-helpful am I ;)

{Yup.  Berry bird poop.  On the ottoman.}

We will now be attempting the "you can always bleach white slipcovers" thing. 

xoxo, Lauren

Monday, August 23, 2010

Quiet time on all-things-spatial

Due to personal reasons I have been forced to take another brake from regular posting on the blog. It is the second time this year... Some things in our lives are just beyond our control. It is very disruptive. I have just found a spare moment so, I am taking this opportunity to write a few words. This will be just a short post with a few personal reflections from my recent unplanned travel to Europe.

I opted for the fastest route to my destination, with various airlines, but I must admit, nothing compares to Qantas on long haul travel. I always feel sentimental about Qantas, not only because of a great commercial with ever evolving version of “I still call Australia home”, but primarily because I feel very special every time I travel with that airline (even in economy class). It is little things that count the most. A smile from the cabin crew on duty - even after many hours of flight, always ready to serve, very professional and courteous. Unlimited supply of water “on tap” throughout the journey. Personal hygiene and “cabin cosies” kit. Working audio-video equipment... These are “ingredients” of a pleasant journey I take for granted on Qantas flights but it turns out they are missing on other airliners!

Do you think our dollar counts for much overseas? Well, you can definitely buy a lot more these days than two years ago when I last travelled overseas (actually, almost 40% more in some places!) but it was a big surprise for me to find out that Zurich Duty Free does not accept our currency at all... Lucky I carry plastic as well. Ah, Zurich... I spent a few moments in that lovely city – I was greeted with “mooing cows” on the train between the terminals (a local I chatted with was embarrassed with that cliché - but it must be working well for tourists!) and real smell of cow paddocks (exactly as I remember it from my childhood!) while walking on the tarmac to the plane. The Milka story must be true!

If you ever complained about road works near Canberra airport and now near Russel Offices, just spare a thought that in some countries roads are permanently under construction… The road I travelled frequently 2 years ago, which was always packed because of road works, is still jam packed and under repair/construction. The only difference is that these days no one pays attention to 40km/h speed limit any more.

And the final observation is about the world economy – as manifested in a local version of “market forces". Well, there is something terribly wrong with the principles of capitalism these days… we’ve got an extended heat wave in Europe this summer yet you can’t find any fans in the shops! It’s a long way from China...

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Pure Project #14: Ride Down Memory Lane

When I was little and I used to visit my grandparents lakehouse during the summer (where my dad lives now) one of my favorite things to do was pick flowers.  They were everywhere in Antioch.  We used to make these little pressed flower arrangements in the dirt called "madonnas."  Have you ever heard of these?  I tried googling them and nothing came up so I don't know if maybe it's just something my Grandma Maestranzi made up??  Anyway, I remember doing it with my cousin Tracy.  It's so one of those things we probably shouldn't have been doing on our own, but it's one of my best memories.  Tracy & I went into the garage and filled up a paper bag with glass jars.  She hammered the jars and broke the glass.  (I was probably 5 and she was maybe 12? seriously.)  Then we took the "good" shards of glass and saved them for our maddonnas.    

{Tracy & I---- hammering glass for madonnas this summer... 20+ years later}

Then we picked a bunch of flowers and made little arrangements in the dirt and covered them with the broken glass pieces. 

We used to make little "tours" around the yard and take people from spot to spot to check out our madonnas.  This year we thought it would be fun to do madonnas with our kids. 

{Francesca, Christian & Maddie}

They girls had so much fun picking flowers and Christian just loved being with them.  This time, I handled the glass shards, but we let the girls make arrangements.  (Francesa is my cousin Michelle's daughter and Maddie is Tracy's daughter..  and Christian's mine :)

The photos really don't show how pretty they are...

{lily petals & weeds}

...  But I can share Maddie's reaction to them with you.  We wanted to surprise the girls so I had everything ready to go and did a couple of madonnas myself to show the girls for when they came outside to help.  When Maddie saw them she was wide eyed.  She has this soft little voice and she's a pretty chill kid who doesn't get excited about just anything.  She just stared at them in awe and said really slowly, "Oh...what are these beautiful things called?!!" It was too funny.

  They're literally just flowers & leaves pressed into dirt and covered in glass, but to a kid there's just something so beautiful & special about them. 

So this week's project is to take a minitrip down memory lane and recreate an old pastime.  Do something you loved to do as a kid and do it with your kids if you have them.  If you don't, do it on your own or with a friend and I think you'll be surprised at how much you still enjoy it.  -maybe it's a craft, a game, a meal, drawing, coloring, etc---   IF you're up for madonnas, it's also a fun tradition to start with your family and kids love it.  (just make sure that you're in charge of the glass unlike when we were kids.)  Let us know how the projects go and be sure to link up if you join in!!

xoxo, Lauren