Answering my readers’ questions

Everyone gather ’round. It’s that time again! It’s time for me to answer my readers’ questions!

And by that, I mean, it’s time for me to see what strings of words people have typed into Google that brought them to my blog. Then I look through the search keywords that are (more-or-less) well-formed questions and answer them as best I can. It’s the least I could do, since they took the time to visit my site with these questions on their mind.

“Why can’t the space shuttle leave conventionally from an airport?” (July 26)

Mostly because it’s not an airplane. Those booster rockets that the space shuttle normally uses for take-off are not decorative.

“If I fired a laser beam at my hand would it come out the other side?” (Aug 4)


“How to castle in chess with friends?” (July 31, Aug 7, 14, 17)

Begin a chess game with a friend, castle normally.

“How do you move your king and castle at the same time?” (July 26)

You probably meant “How do you move your king and your rook at the same time?”

“Rook” is the name for the pieces that start at the corners of the board.

In chess, “castle” is a verb. It’s the verb that means to move your rook and king at the same time, two spaces toward each other, provided that the intervening spaces are not occupied and that neither the king nor rook has been moved before in the match (and that you’re not trying to castle out of check).

“Cheat on MCAT tips?” (Aug 1) / “How to cheat the MCAT?” (July 30)

Are you really asking me to help you to cheat on the MCAT? Get out.

“Has anyone ever cheated on MCAT before?” (July 28)

No. No one in the history of mankind. No one whose motives were so pure as to aspire to medical school has ever even considered cheating to attain such a goal.

“Grammar is one of the greatest joys in life, don’t you find?” (Aug 8)

Actually, now that you mention it, grammar is the greatest joy in life.

“How to avoid getting your bike stolen [in] Montréal?” (Aug 25)

Sell bike, and buy Bixi pass with the proceeds.

“How to get your thesis bound at McGill” (July 27)

You gotta do it yourself, I’m afraid. You can get Acco-Press binders at the bookstore.

“How to take someones fortune?” (Aug 21)


“I bought wrong grammar?” (Aug 10)

You sure did.

“I might have strep throat I don’t got insurance?” (Aug 7)

That’s quite the predicament! Are you a Canadian citizen?

“Is there a Montréal métro pass for mature students?” (Aug 19)

Nope. No such thing. Once you’re 25, you pay full price, whether you’re a full-time student or not.

“What happens after you accept a TA-ship offer?” (Aug 4)

Heh … Do you really want to know?

“What is giving you the most problems with Microsoft Word?” (July 26)

Thank you for asking! Mostly crashing, interface glitches and the fact that there’s no separation between content, formatting, comments and meta-data.

“Where can i get hasperat?” (July 28)

Bajor, if you want it authentic.

But if you would make the brine for a really strong hasperat—I mean eye watering, tongue searing strong—you’d make an old man very happy.

Cheating on the MCAT

Recently, two men in BC were caught cheating on the MCAT.

I was discussing this with a friend of mine, who was mainly shocked because “they could’ve got away with it if they only added maybe two more levels of sophistication: Not letting the tutors work together, and doing OCR on the text in the image.”

I have a pet conspiracy theory that for the most part, it is the best cheaters who get into medical school. Maybe that’s just me being jaded, and maybe it’s stories like this, combined with personally knowing some people who not only cheated in their undergrad, but bragged about it and were admitted to medical school.

My friend’s response was that my suspicion sounded plausible, but that “not everyone can get in [to medical school] … and cheating may not be the cause, but there is certainly something wrong with the system.”

Of course not everyone can get in. The sizes of medical school cohorts have been artificially suppressed. The doctor shortage is not an accident. We’re short of doctors in Canada as a matter of public policy, not because factors outside of our control have made it so.

In many ways, our current medical system has been engineered to contain the optimal conditions for encouraging cheating.

First off, the stakes for getting into medical school are very high. Doctors are paid extremely well, and within the medical community (and among people generally) they are revered as nearly godlike.

Not only that, but the consequences for failure to get into medical school can be devastating. Entire university programmes are geared toward prep for med school—there is a huge investment that someone has to make even before a student can even be considered for admission.

By the time someone has got to the point of writing the MCAT, she has invested an amount of money in the five-figure range. All her friends and family know that this is where she’s headed. If she doesn’t make it, she loses all her sunk costs, she loses face and she might also have to deal with the pressure of parents’ expectations, either because they themselves are in medicine or because they helped to finance her education.

The slightest error or even a doubt in the mind of a student, a bad mark or a comment from a well-meaning parent might be enough, in the face of all these pressures to make an otherwise good student cheat.

And as much as professors like to say that universities are tough on cheaters, they’re not. I know from a few personal experiences as a TA that even in schools like McGill, nothing at all is done about academic offenses, even when students are caught cheating red-handed.

So, we have a huge potential payoff, limited numbers of people who can cash in, terrible consequences for failure and we train students not to fear the consequences of cheating.

I don’t know why we’re all acting surprised at this.

The tip jar at the Queen-Mary Java U

Link vs Ganondorf
Link vs Ganondorf

Down the street from my place, there’s a Java U coffee shop across the street from Snowdon station. Last summer when I was studying for the MCAT, I went there regularly.

The tip jar at this Java U always makes me smile. Someone who works at the coffee shop draws little illustrations—always in pairs—and puts each of the two in a coffee cup near the cash register. There’s always a question that goes with the illustrations. I’ve attached a couple examples.

First is Link vs Ganondorf. I took a picture of this for the benefit of my little sister, who enjoys video games way more than I do.

Chicken or Egg
Chicken or Egg

Next is “Which came first—Chicken or Egg?” And of course, there’s a drawing of both.

The drawings and questions change fairly regularly, and there doesn’t appear to be any pattern. (That said, I don’t really come regularly enough or even remember the ones I have seen well enough to discern anything but the most obvious patterns.) At the end of last summer, the question was “Did you fall in love this summer?” accompanied by a “yes” and a “no” drawing (I’ll let you imagine what they were).

The drawings must be done by someone who works at the particular coffee shop. They’re obviously not something sent from Java U’s corporate headquarters. I’m kind of curious to know if this is something that the artist spends a lot of time thinking about, or if it’s something that (s)he just draws up when business is slow.

Things that I accomplished today

  1. Periodically, Canada Revenue likes to send me confusing letters. I think they do it just to mess with me. This weekend, I got a letter from them, indicating that I owed money … or maybe it was indicating that I didn’t owe money. The letter wasn’t very clear. This morning, I phoned Canada Revenue (despite being given the wrong number in the letter) and figured it all out. It turns out that the letter was sent for no reason at all. They already had the information that they were requesting, and no balance was owing. In fact, the whole issue was resolved months ago, but for some reason, it took a long time for the letter to reach me. At the end of the conversation, the agent told me that I could have put the letter in my shredder without opening it and there would have been no repercussions. If only I could do that with everything Revenue Canada sends me!
  2. OSAP has been dragging its feet, and sending me terrible, contradictory messages for weeks now, which have made me worry about whether or not I’ll have money for school. I finally got in touch with people from the McGill Financial Aid office and they told me that OSAP has figured out what to do with me after all, and that my OSAP might be in as early as Thursday of this week!
  3. My computer monitor has gone and died on me, but it’s under warranty. Today, I took it to the UPS store (as much as I hate UPS) and had it delivered back to the company that made it, to be fixed or replaced.
  4. I renewed my Québec driver’s licence, and went in to have my photo taken for the new one.
  5. I did three chapters of organic chemistry, and also reviewed two chapters of biology. I finished biology three weeks ago, but I’m going over it again, so I don’t forget.
  6. I did four loads of laundry.
  7. I made a delicious dinner.
  8. I even did the dishes.

Done with bio

Kaplan MCAT Biology Review
Kaplan MCAT Biology Review

Yesterday, I finished all 16 chapters of the Kaplan MCAT biology review volume. My favourite part of the book is the bit of the cover where it guarantees a higher score. And then there’s an asterisk. Follow the asterisk down, and it says, “Or your money back. Conditions apply. See inside for details.”

I looked through the book a couple times, just out of curiosity, but I could find no reference to these conditions or details. Oh well.

Today, I will go through a couple of the practice exams on this section of the material, and go to the Financial Aid office at McGill to drop off the last of the OSAP forms.

This is going to be the first time in a long time that I went downtown. I’ll bring my camera, in case something unexpected happens.

Rainy days

Rainy days are perfect for studying. I don’t want to leave my apartment at all.

I’ve had a relatively productive day. I’ve cleaned up a bit, studied some genetics, moved one step closer to getting my OSAP loan, and I assembled all the documents I need to make sure that my OHIP health insurance doesn’t expire this September. Once it stops raining, I’ll go outside and put them all in the post.

You’ll notice that I’ve done a bit of a refresh on the blog. I’m still not 100% fussed on the colour scheme, but I wanted to go live anyway. The old theme was very dark, and hard-to-read, and I think this one is better by those criteria anyway. :)

Update: I just got an invoice for tuition for this year. :| School is expensive. I hope that OSAP is generous to me this year! I also changed the colour scheme on this theme a bit. I got rid of the blue highlights. It’s got a kind of “coffee” thing going on now. I think I’ll leave it like this for a while and see how I like it in a few days.

Academic vs corporate study materials

While studying from the privately-produced MCAT study guides that I bought, I’ve noticed some differences between the way material is presented in the study guides as opposed to most academic material that I’ve consumed over the years.

I suppose that the Kaplan study guides are the product of different sorts of pressures than the textbooks and course notes produced by academia, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Academia is designed to produce freedom of thought and allow discourse at the highest level. It is supposed to be a no-holds-barred intellectual brawl. That’s why universities have the institution of tenure. It’s so that professors can pursue their research along whatever lines it takes them, without worrying that they’ll lose their job if they discover something that their employer doesn’t like. (This is a massive idealization and simplification of course.)

The Kaplan study guides, on the other hand, were designed for one purpose: to make profit for Kaplan’s shareholders. The Kaplan company thinks it can make money by producing MCAT prep materials and services and selling them. The pressure for the Kaplan guides to be good is so that they don’t get sued for publishing misleading MCAT guides, and so that they have customers with good experiences, who will recommend Kaplan study guides and prep courses to others.

Both academia and the commercial preparatory systems are set up such that they (generally) produce good curriculum, but I’ve noticed some differences between the two, which I think demonstrate some characteristic features of each one.

For example, the Kaplan study guides are written with mnemonics in the margins, silly analogies that are intentionally carried too far so as to be memorable, and the guide’s text is written with humour.

Academics are often guilty of making the material difficult to learn, or at the least, there isn’t nearly the same emphasis on trying to help the student pass the test.

The Kaplan guides are written engagingly, even soothingly. They are specifically trying not to scare you with the amount of material you need to know.

I had a physiology prof who stood at the front of the lecture theatre, held up the course package on the first day of the course, and actually did try to scare us with the sheer size of the volume.

I don’t think I’d go so far as to say that the Kaplan guides are entertaining, but they are certainly better to read than that physiology course package was.

The Kaplan guides have each of the articles rated out of six stars. The higher the number of stars, the more frequently it is examined on the MCAT, and the easier it is to learn. So a one-star concept would be one that is tested very infrequently, and that is difficult to master. This is to help students focus on the pieces of information that will best help them score well on the exam.

I have had courses (and textbooks) where the most insignificant detail is dwelt upon ad nauseum, because it is the professor’s favourite subject. This sort of thinking is encouraged in the academic world, since new developments in science and philosophy often come about because of attention to the details of seemingly insignificant problems.

Such ways of thinking do not help students pass exams, though, so the Kaplan guides are very focussed.

In some ways, academia could learn something from the focus that the corporate world brings to their prep materials. I mean, really, who in their right mind (except an academic philosopher) would recommend studying the works of Immanuel Kant in an attempt to learn the discipline of rigourous thought?

Medicine admissions is big business

I have been studying for the MCAT using a set of books from Kaplan, an MCAT prep company, and I’ve realised a few things.

First off, medicine admissions is big business. I’m not even talking about medicine. I just mean the admissions process. Imagine you just wanted to apply to all the medical schools in Ontario, for example. First you would have to write the MCAT. This will cost you $230. Then, you will need to pay for the application, and to apply to every school in Ontario through OMSAS, it will cost about $660.

That’s $890 just to apply and take the MCAT.

Now imagine that you want to take a prep course for the MCAT. I went shopping around for MCAT prep, and someone from Kaplan tried to sell me a comprehensive package which included one-on-one tutoring, online lectures, books, and practice exams. All told, the tutor would have been making roughly $180 per hour from me, and the package would cost me $2799.

There is a whole industry built up around the fact that there’s huge competition to get into medical school. I ended up spending $150 for review books and practice exams, myself.

I can understand companies like Prep 101 and Kaplan charging huge sums for their expertise and time. They are, after all, in the business of making money, and people (generally) are willing to spend money on investments that they think will bring a greater return in the long run. I have no problem with them.

That said, there’s no way they are getting $2700 from me! I don’t care how good their tutor is. There’s no way he’s worth $180 an hour. Imagine knowing that your MCAT tutor is coming, and that you’re paying that much for him. I imagine I would spend as much time prepping for my meeting with the tutor as I would spend prepping for the MCAT, so that I would be sure to get my money’s worth, and that sort of mentality might not actually best help one to prepare for the MCAT.

Anyway, I was thinking, and of course, I can understand wanting policies that make it difficult for someone to get into medical school. You don’t want an unqualified person committing surgery against a patient, after all. So you would want to produce a high intellectual barrier, or a high skill barrier, or otherwise make it difficult, but in ways that elminate the greatest number of people that should not be doctors.

What’s confusing though, is why medical academia would have policies that produce such a high financial barrier to entry. The $890 is what you would pay if you were going for a bargain-basement medical school admission. That’s the minimum you would have to pay. You’re not buying any extra review material on that budget. You’re not getting any practice exams, tutoring or classes. That’s just what it costs to apply, and nothing more.

Maybe it’s to weed out those who might just apply on a whim. Or maybe doctors don’t want new applicants to be spared any hardship they themselves had to suffer. Maybe it actually does cost that much to ensure that the process is fair. I’m not sure what the real reason is.

On Thursday, I quit my job

… Effective August 1, 2010.

A lot has changed over these past few months. My original plan, coming in to the summer was to work at my job for a year, and take a year off school, or if I could manage it, work at my job and finish my thesis at the same time. As the summer went on, I quickly discovered how unfeasible that plan really was.

First off, when I went to the philosophy department to see if I could find a supervisor, I discovered that there was a professor who would have been perfect for supervising me, but she took last year off for maternity, and this year she’s on sabbatical, and so I just happened to be doing my MA on the two years that she wouldn’t be here.

So a couple weeks ago, I spoke with a professor regarding my situation, asking if it would be possible to take a year off, since that would give me a chance to recover financially and to figure out what to do for my thesis.

I had a lengthy conversation with that was emotionally cathartic, rational and productive. The prof I spoke to was my Human Research Ethics prof from last semester, who was also the acting head of the Bioethics MA programme at the time. When I told him my plan, his response was basically:

“No! Don’t take a year off! You’ll never come back!”

So we talked about that for a while. And the big thing that was keeping me from continuing in September was the money. I had done some math before the phone call, to see what my situation was, and really, I wouldn’t need that much more to make it through the school year. A second TA-ship in my second semester would do it, but I can’t count on getting one of those, necessarily.

The prof called me back a few days later with an offer of some grant money for a research assistant-ship, and he suggested that I re-arrange my thesis so that it aligns with the RA-ship. I’m going to be researching the ethics of prediction in human research.

(The term “RA” is confusing. At McGill, it means “Research Assistant,” but at UWO, where I did my undergrad, it means “Residence Advisor.”)

This is great. Now, I have a supervisor, a thesis topic, and a bit more money.

I estimate that if I take all the money from my TA-ship, my new-found RA-ship, the money in my bank account, everything I will have set aside by September, and what I expect to receive from OSAP, I will have just enough to make it through the school year, as long as there are no nasty surprises.

But I suppose, even after all that, the question still remains, Why did I quit my job?

I’m going to take the MCAT this September. I’ve been preparing for this for the last few weeks (I’m almost done orgo!), and I want to take the month before the test off, so that I can focus on my studies. I’m able to do this because I got paid for some old freelance web design work that I’ve been doing off-and-on for the last few months.

My plan for the month of August will be to get up like I normally do, at 5h, go to the gym for 6h30, be done there by 8h30 and hit the library by 9h. Then I’ll spend the day there, either working on my research, or prepping for the MCAT. I’m going to study like it’s my job.

I’m glad of the design job that I had this summer, but I’m excited about the beginning of August, too. :)