Monday, December 26, 2005

Holiday Adventures

The Christmas haul was pretty good this year; Santa must have thought that I was a very good girl!

Jeff and I fill stockings for each other at Christmas. Last year, we were so excited that we opened them on Christmas Eve. This year, we made it past midnight and technically speaking, opened them on Christmas.

In addition to the gratuitous candy canes and chocolate, I also got an Elvis t-shirt, an Elvis watch, two sweaters, a sunflower-shaped baking pan, and a luxurious shower head. The shower head is actually a double shower head: it attaches up at the place where the pipe comes out of the wall, and there's a shower head right there, but also there's another hand-held shower head that is on a hose, and a valve that changes the flow of the water from one to the other. I'm pretty excited about all the gifts, but especially the shower head. It was one of those gifts that I wanted but hadn't thought of asking for.

I gave Jeff a similarly good gift. He had wanted a "Darth Tater" (Mr. Potato Head with Darth Vader costume parts) but it had not occurred to him to ask for it. But the look on his face was priceless when he saw it. He also got some of those M&M guys dressed up as Star Wars characters, some DVDs, and a book about Elvis. (Do you think we like Elvis in this household?)

Yesterday we had a big turkey dinner. In addition to the turkey, we had small red potatoes with rosemary, homemade rolls, cranberry/apricot sauce, and carrots. For dessert I made this delicious lemon pound cake in my new sunflower-shaped baking pan. I would just like to say that it was the best cake ever. I wish I knew what made it so good so that I could make another sometime. And while I was on this baking frenzy I also made a loaf of banana-chocolate chip bread. Now we have this enormous container full of baked goods: most of the pound cake, an entire loaf of bread, and a few slices of cranberry bread left over from when I made it for the office holiday party. I think we will probably take it with us to Kentucky when we leave on Wednesday.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Elbow Grease

On Tuesday, I went to the orthopedist for my follow-up appointment. As I had anticipated, the nerve conduction study indicated no damage whatsoever to my ulnar nerve. But, he was still willing to move my nerve, because once it does get damaged, it can't recover. We were talking about that when I mentioned to him that what really hurt was holding my arm in the violin-playing position. For those of you playing along at home, this involves bending your elbow about 120 degrees, tucking it in near your ribcage, and twisting your wrist until the blade of your hand is facing towards your face. I demonstrated it for him and he happened to touch my elbow in a certain place and the jolt of it made me jump. "Oh," he said, after poking around and making me squirm some more. "In addition to cubital tunnel, you also have (insert medical term here)." It basically amounted to an inflamed elbow joint. He told me there was a surgery for that too, but that it was largely unsuccessful. Instead, he would give me a shot in the bone there. He told me to hold on and he'd be right back with the shot.

First he poked at my elbow to figure out where it hurt the most. Then he sprayed it down with some sort of spray anesthetic. Then he took a great big needle and jabbed down into my bone in various places to disperse the medicine (steroid? cortisone? I couldn't tell you.). That hurt like the dickens and it was all I could do to keep myself from withdrawing my arm and pummeling the man. But after it was over, I felt like I had a new elbow! He was really excited about that, although he did warn me that by the evening, I would be hating him with a special kind of hate, because the anesthesia would have worn off. And sure enough, I did hate him with a new type of hate that evening. But, he told me that it would get better over the course of the next week. And it has.

In the meantime, I am not to do anything that will flare it up. I did try some writing with my left hand, and it still gets to hurting, but now I can write maybe half a page instead of the equivalent of a check. He told me absolutely no violin playing for the next couple of weeks, so grandma's going to have to forgo that pleasure when I visit next week. I also have to use a wrist brace and one of those braces for your elbow that are just a band that you put just below the elbow (often seen on basketball players) when I'm active with my left hand. I still need to buy one of those elbow braces.

He told me to come back if the ulnar nerve thing flared up again, and he would move my nerve. I may go back for that, because now that this other thing feels better, the tingling in the pinky and ring finger is more noticeable. But overall, I do feel a lot better.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Best Cranberry Bread Ever

I make The Best Cranberry Bread Ever. That is an indesputable fact. For years, I have guarded my secret, because this cranberry bread makes a really good gift. But, I have decided that you are all worth exposing my secret recipe to, so I will now grant you the knowledge of my secret recipe. All I ask is that if you try this recipe, leave me a comment so that I know!

It was inspired by the recipe on page 43 of Betty Crocker's New Cookbook (1996), but I have made some improvements to it. In particular, I have made adaptions so that it's nearly fat free and a lot better for you. So, without further ado, I present to you

Becca's Nearly Fat-Free Cranberry Bread

1 package fresh cranberries
1 cup sugar*
2/3 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/2 cup skim milk
2 tsp vanilla
2 tsp grated lemon peel
2 large eggs**
3 cups flour ***
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder

1. Move oven rack to the lowest position so that the tops of your loaf pans will be at the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease bottoms only of two loaf pans, with shortening. Rinse cranberries and pick through them, removing any spoiled ones. Chop the cranberries up a little bit, but not too much.

2. Mix cranberries, sugar, applesauce, skim milk, vanilla, lemon peel, and eggs in large bowl. Stir in remaining ingredients. Pour into pans.

3. Bake the loaves 55-65 minutes. The actual amount of time depends, naturally, on your oven. Basically you need to make sure that it's done, make sure that a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

4. Remove from the oven and cool in pans for ten minutes. Loosen the sides of the loaves and remove them from the pans and place the bread on a rack to cool. Let them cool completely before slicing. Assuming that there's any bread left over, you can wrap it tightly and store it at room temperature for a couple of days, or in the fridge for a little longer.

* You could theoretically reduce the calorie content even further by using Splenda for some or all of the sugar. I have not tried this.

** You could use egg substitute instead of the eggs. That would make this truly fat-free instead of just kinda sorta low fat. The original recipe calls for four eggs, and two seems to work, but I wouldn't go any lower than that.

*** Use some combination of white and whole wheat flour. I have used as much as 2 cups of whole wheat, and it tastes just fine. It's a good way to get in some fiber without hardly noticing.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Dr. Clean

My dear husband was gone from Wednesday to Sunday this past week. He was in Louisville with his parents, because his dad was undergoing some cardiac procedure of some sort. Not open heart surgery, or anything particularly drastic, but it was enough that it warranted a trip Up North.

Home alone, I was pretty bored. After dinner on Friday night, I realized that I had better load that stack of dishes into the dishwasher before it took on a life of its own. So I did, and ran the dishwasher too, for good measure. Then I thought, well, there's this dish that we'd baked a ham in, and I should probably wash that. So I soaked it a little, and then scrubbed it clean. It didn't take long at all. Then I saw some other pots and pans that I could wash, so I washed them too. And I saw that there were some dirty baking stones that were just sitting there on the counter top, taking up space, so I washed those too.

The next thing I knew, all the dishes were clean. I was proud of my accomplishments, and I went to bed. The next morning, I emptied the dishwasher and the dish rack, putting everything I had washed away. And that was when I noticed that the stovetop and the counters were pretty filthy. So I scrubbed the countertops and the stove and the next thing I knew, they were looking pretty clean.

I went downstairs to do laundry (one of the perils of having a new size is that I have very few clothes that fit me) and noticed all the dirt and dust on the floor, so after starting the laundry, I searched for the broom and swept the downstairs. I swept all the dirt into piles and then sucked it up with the dust buster. (We don't have a vacuum cleaner because in our previous house my dad had installed a central vacuum, and we plan on talking him into installing one in this house too.) I continued my sweeping rampage by sweeping all the bathrooms, our bedroom, the hallway, the kitchen, and the dining room. And I took the dust buster to the carpeted stairs, one by one. I am a crazy so-and-so.

Since I was on such a cleaning rampage, I decided to keep up the good work by cleaning the shower in our bathroom, and mopping the floors of our bathroom and the kitchen. Then I decided to assemble my new sewing cart and spent the rest of the evening doing that.

The next morning, I decided to clean all the toilets and all the sinks. I found some toilet bowl cleaner, but we have only one bowl brush, so I had to take it around to each bathroom in turn. First I went to each bathroom and squeezed some cleaner into the toilet bowls, then I went and scrubbed the toilets in the same order. And I rotated through them one more time as I cleaned the sinks, ending my sink-cleaning rampage with none other than the kitchen sink.

Next I tackled a lot of clutter, putting old envelopes and junk mail into the recycling, and placing all the bills that are due in the right piles. By that time, Jeff arrived home, and I think he was surprised to find the house in better condition than he had left it.

It's not that I'm a slob (although, I definitely am) so much as the fact that I hate to clean. I don't know what got into me, and whatever it was, it will probably never get back in. But in any case, the house is pretty sparkly at the moment.

I'd like to take this time for a shout-out to my good buddy Mr. Clean, who makes some products that I like because they work without too much elbow grease, and because I can grip them. He makes a pretty good mop, although I wish the handle of it were just a little bit longer. Maybe I'm taller than his target clientele. But the best thing he makes are the Mr. Clean Magic Erasers, which you can use to clean just about anything. I used them on my sinks and they really worked wonders.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Who's In Charge?

I'm not feeling so hot today.

Without going into detail, let's just say that my gastrointestinal system is having a disagreement with me, for the second time in less than a week. It's kind of strange, because normally I have a digestive system of stainless steel. Unless I eat onions, of course. The first one I attributed to too much commercial food containing onions. But this one, well I've been good since then, dammit! So I don't know what it is. I'm thinking I must have a virus or something.

When I was 25, I went through a phase when I had gastrointestinal problems very frequently, for no apparent reason. I used to carry Immodium with me at all times. Then I just stopped having that problem, and the Immodium that I still have in my backpack has expired.

This is not an uplifting blog topic, however, so I will leave you with the following joke (which is ringing true for me at the moment):

All the organs of the body were having a meeting, trying to decide who was in charge.
"I should be in charge," said the brain, "because I run all the body's systems, so without me nothing would happen."

"I should be in charge," said the blood, "because I circulate oxygen all over, so without me you'd all waste away."

"I should be in charge," said the stomach, "because I process food and give all of you energy."

"I should be in charge," said the rectum, "because I'm responsible for waste removal."

All the other body parts laughed at the rectum and insulted him, so in a huff, he shut down tight. Within a few days, the brain had a terrible headache, the stomach was bloated, and the blood was toxic.

Eventually the other organs gave in. They all agreed that the rectum should be the boss.

The moral of the story? The asshole is always in charge.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

More Adventures in Applied Physics

* A couple of weeks ago, I got an electric toothbrush. My dentist had recommended getting one, and I had thought that it might help my arm if I didn’t use it in that back-and-forth capacity several times a day. (I tried brushing with my right hand, but it just doesn’t work as well.) So eventually I was able to put two things together simultaneously: my memory of wanting to get one, and my presence at the store! I can’t actually claim full credit for that one, either, because it was my better half who reminded me while we were at the store.

Anyhow, it’s pretty cool! I think it cleans my teeth better than I was able to clean them myself. The only problem is that it vibrates (duh) and is kind of noisy when it’s inside your mouth. Also, the vibrations make your whole head shake, and one time when I was really tired and using the toothbrush it made me a little nauseated. But it’s something I can do with my right hand so that outweighs any disadvantages.

* I can tell it’s winter because my hands are scaly. I’m disappointed that despite the (relatively) warmer climate, my hands are as dry as ever. My fingers are like fine-grained sandpaper. You know it’s bad when the dry skin cells on your fingers get hooked on your socks in the morning. If I were putting on panty hose, my fingerprints would cause a run.

Lotion doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. I do apply it most mornings, right when I get out of the shower. But my hands are still scaly, scaly, scaly!

* And speaking of other signs of winter, the static electricity has been interesting. Ever since I lost all that weight I can’t seem to get warm in chilly weather. So at work I wear this “warm fuzzy,” a fleece cardigan, basically. Fleece is of course very static-prone. So I have shocking experiences a lot, but the most interesting ones occur when I’m sitting at my desk and hooked up to my iPod. If I move and it causes sparks of static electricity, this causes interference in my earphones.

* The other day I got this new alarm clock. I don’t like to know what time it is at night, because being able to see the time means that this numbers fiend will look at the clock ALL THE TIME instead of sleeping. So in an effort to reduce the interruptions in my sleep cycle, I generally use a travel alarm clock. I used to have a small purple one, but then I stepped on it. It was an awesome clock, but I decided to go up in the world and get one that synchs with the atomic clock in Boulder, Colorado. This feature cost two dollars more than replacing my clock with the same model, but I decided it was worth it.

Since I am a numbers nutjob, I am really excited about the fact that this clock reads the exact time, to within something like 0.2 seconds. I find myself wanting to take this clock everywhere I go and compare the time on it to the time on other devices. I could do that if I wanted, because it IS a travel clock. But I guess that would be a little bit weird and obsessive. Not that being weird has stopped me from doing things, but obsessive, that crosses the line.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Adventures in Applied Physics

(which is actually Applied Math, but I digress...)

* This morning I had my Nerve Conduction Test. It consisted of them putting electrodes on my hand and then shocking the crap out of me. Hahaha it wasn't actually that bad! It felt kind of like touching an electric fence. The biggest shocks made me twitch involuntarily. It was pretty cool to watch. I asked him about the waves on the computer screen, and he explained it to me a little.

As it turns out, I passed. My ulnar nerve is working just fine. I'm glad that it is, but at the same time, I suspect that the next time I go to the orthopedist he'll just tell me that there's nothing that they can do to ease my pain.

* Gundar is now a Tennessee car. His Illinois plates expired at the end of November, so we went to the County Clerk's office on the second to last day of November. (Hey, why rush it?) But Gundar was so proud of his Illinois heritage that he had a hard time giving up his old plates. So for a couple of days, while we were waiting for the WD-40 to work, we had Illinois plates in the standard locations, with a Tennessee plate taped in the back window. Judging from some other cars we saw, that was probably an acceptable solution for Tennessee, but due to our high standards, we went ahead and removed the Illinois plates and replaced the back one with the new Tennessee plate.

In Illinois cars have a front and a back plate, but in Tennessee you only have a back license plate. So Gundar looks a little bare in the front. My better half wants to get a KISS license plate for the front. I think we should get a University of Kentucky plate, but he doesn't want to get beat up.

I'm not afraid of getting beat up for being a UK fan. After all, the sports in which Wildcat and Volunteer fans take pride are orthogonal, so there is very little rivalry there. It's a given that they'll kick our butts in football, and a given that we'll kick theirs in men's basketball. Everyone is resigned to this.

* My favorite part of physics is kinematics. I am therefore extremely thrilled to be living in a place where there are HILLS and other variations in the terrain. It makes for a more interesting driving experience.

I drive about twenty miles round trip every weekday. It takes about twenty minutes to get to work, and another twenty-five minutes to get home. In the morning it's about ten minutes to the gate, and then another ten minutes to the lab from there. In the evening it's ten minutes to the gate, and then fifteen minutes to home from there.

The distance between the lab and the gate is more than five miles, and for a large portion of that distance you can go 55 mph. When you're approaching the gate on your way out, there's a point at which the speed limit decreases to 45 mph, and then just before the gate the speed limit becomes 25 mph. You have to stay at 25 mph until you leave the lab's reservation.

As a former physicist and a professional cheapskate, I am all about using the laws of kinematics to minimize the amount of braking and acceleration that I have to do. So for the past month I've been trying to figure out where I should be when I let off the accelerator so that I don't have to brake or accelerate while still managing to obey these speed limits.

The result of my experiments is that I have found the exact place where I need to take my foot off the accelerator. And I think they must have placed the speed limit signs with Gundar in mind, because the distance between the two speed limit signs is just the distance that I need to decelerate from 45 to 25 mph! I just take my foot off the accelerator at this particular landmark, and then I don't have to brake at all and I don't have to put my foot on the accelerator until I am just about parallel with the gates.

I say that they must have had Gundar in mind, because when I've driven other cars (when Gundar was in the shop and we had a rental car), I didn't get the same results. I guess he has just the right combination of friction and momentum.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005


I submitted a paper to a journal in August. I got back notification today that the paper had been rejected.

At first, it sounded kind of harsh. The e-mail said simply:

Dear Dr. [me],

Thank you very much for submitting your paper [title] to [journal].

Unfortunately your paper cannot be accepted for publication.

With best regards,

But the editor sent me another message about 45 minutes later with a paragraph that had somehow been left out of the letter, containing an explanation as to why. But by that time I had figured out why, because I did have the two referees' comments.

The first referee was pretty harsh. The second one was less harsh, and more constructive, although definitely rejecting my paper in its present form.

Basically I think I was trying to accomplish too much in too little space. I really need to pare it down and then fill in more of the blanks. Both of the referees said that with a substantial rewrite and possibly some additional results, the paper could become suitable for publication. So not all is lost.

I forwarded the reviews to my former advisor, asking for his opinion, and he said that upon first inspection, "the criticisms, though numerous, are not fatal, and addressing them could result in a nice, publishable paper." He said he'd take a second look at the comments and give me a second opinion when he was done. I think I'll ask my mentor here to take a look too.

I was disappointed this morning, but I don't think it's an insurmountable setback. I will rewrite the paper, taking their advice, and resubmit it.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Adventures in Feminism

I am a research scientist, and my husband stays home. We defy the stereotypes. We are a feminist’s dream!

I work hard all day, and when I get home, I’m mentally exhausted. I feel physically exhausted too. I sit down to a delicious dinner cooked by my better half. Sometimes, he hasn’t finished cooking it yet, so I sit down and watch him cook. And then I feel vaguely guilty and I ask if there’s something I can do to help.

I was raised in a family environment that was decidedly traditional. My mother gave up her career to raise us. We had cooked breakfasts every morning, and nutritious homemade dinners in the evening. Everything made from scratch by my mother. Sometimes Dad made breakfast on Saturday mornings, but otherwise he never graced the kitchen with his presence while food was being prepared. He did always do the dishes after dinner, though. But basically the domestic realm was left to my mother.

I think my mom felt used and unappreciated by this setup. Dad’s never been exactly prolific with his expression of feelings, although I know he appreciated her efforts a lot more than she thought he did. Once again this underscores the flaw that was the downfall of their marriage: their inability to communicate with each other.

I grew up feeling generally panicked at all times concerning the state of the world. A lot of what I absorbed was very apocalyptic in tone, including a certain amount of despair concerning the fact that not everyone in the world was as liberal as we were, surely resulting in the destruction of the world. I absorbed a lot of supposedly feminist ideas growing up, and looking back at them, I am horrified with their rigidity and judgmental tone.

Reading Linda Hirshman’s article from the American Prospect, I was nodding with familiarity at her assertions. From my reading of the article (do read it yourself; don’t take my word for it!), she’s angry about women with elite educations giving up the Feminist Cause and becoming stay-at-home moms. She seems to think that they give up their fulfilling careers to stay at home and wipe noses and do other unfulfilling drudgery, and by sacrificing their own dreams of a career, they are making it harder for the next generation of women to rise to prestigious careers.

I was somewhat horrified to see that I had inadvertently followed Hirshman’s advice for women who wanted to keep their careers: I married a liberal man of a lower socioeconomic status who therefore had less bargaining power in the relationship. It was important to me to marry someone who would be supportive of my career. But I didn’t exactly set out to do it in such crass terms.

Something I’ve learned in these past few post-judgmental years is that one size does not fit all. Women don’t have to keep working after their children are born any more than they have to stay home after their children are born. Maybe I would have been a happier and more fulfilled child if my mother had felt happier and more fulfilled. And if taking care of kids is not her thing, that doesn’t make her a bad person. It just makes her a person who would rather do other things.

Hirshman’s feminist utopia seems to be a place where women are full members of the “old boys club” – essentially, men-with-boobs. I don’t really like her idea, because I don’t want to be a member of the “old boys club.” I feel more camaraderie with the women who are suing Wal-Mart for gender discrimination than I feel with white men of privilege.

I think she’s wrong to believe in the “trickle down” theory of equality. It’s almost never the elites leading the fight for equality, it seems to me. It’s the people who have a self-interest in equality who tend to be the ones fighting for it. I think that women are not going to be treated fairly at the highest level until they are treated fairly at the lowest level.

And Hirshman is dangerously snotty towards women in lines of work that are not prestigious. While she’s advocating for these well-educated women to have a career, she doesn’t seem to think about the folks who are left caring for these women’s children. Never does she suggest that maybe the man could take time out of his career; instead she seems to advocate using a lower-class worker (who, statistically, will probably be female) to do the drudgery of childcare. In other words, these elite women should take advantage of less elite women, by paying them a pittance to do their dirty work.

I am of the opinion that my success should not be realized by stepping on others. This is a very difficult ideal to achieve, of course, because simply by being American I am part of a veritable third-world-abusing machine. But nonetheless, when I can see it, I try not to do it. This is one of many reasons I would be reluctant to leave my child in the hands of a stranger.

And my definition of success is different than Hirshman’s. I define success not as my ability to fit into the rigid, patriarchal structure as a man-with-boobs, but as my ability to fit into the human patchwork as a fellow human being. I don’t like the idea of having to “act like a man” in order to be successful. I would like to be treated with respect for the person I am, everywhere I go. If I happen to be the type of person who is a man-with-boobs, then so be it. But I would like to be respected as a kind, gentle, nurturing person if that is the personality that I have.

My idea of the feminist utopia is a place where people, men and women alike, can decide to do what they want to do with their lives, and be rewarded both emotionally and financially. For example, my husband is much better with kids than I am. If we had kids, he would want to be a stay-at-home dad. I would like to see a world where people would applaud his decision: a world where I didn’t get funny looks when I told people that my husband stays home while I go to work.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Better than Before

Thanks, everybody, for your support. I've had a tough week, but I think I'm over the worst of it. I'm almost cheerful today! How good it feels to feel good again!

I went to the orthopedist yesterday, and he basically said, "oh shit, your arm isn't any better," to which I replied, "no duh." So I'm scheduled for a "nerve conduction test" next Friday, which will determine the fate of my arm. If I fail (or pass, depending on how you think about it), then we'll consider surgery to relocate the ulnar nerve from my elbow to behind some protective muscle. This is probably where the nerve should be in the first place, if you really think about it. It's stupid to have this exposed nerve hanging out there, just waiting to be injured.

I was thinking about it last night, and I'm going to have to ask my former karate teacher, but I bet that if I get my nerve relocated, I might no longer be susceptible to certain attacks, at least not with that arm. The thought of being immune to certain attacks has an appeal to it...

In the movie Serenity, the bad guy's signature attack didn't work on Captain Malcolm Reynolds, because the nerve that the bad guy used to make people crumple had been injured and possibly relocated. So if it works in the movies, it must be true! (Ha ha ha ha just kidding!)

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Holiday Blues

November and December are my least favorite months of the year. And here I am right at the point where one ends and the other begins -- well at least it's half over.

I've never been fond of winter, and I believe that has to do with SAD. A girl needs some sunshine in her life. In Illinois, I forced myself to go outside during daylight hours every day -- otherwise I got too depressed. Tennessee seems to be sunnier than Illinois, so that doesn't seem to be as much of a problem for me as it was farther north.

Thanksgiving used to be my favorite day of the year. Now I dread it. Really, I wish there were a way to just skip from Wednesday to Friday, and dispense with Thanksgiving Day altogether.

This transformation in attitude occurred in 2002. That year, I had the worst holiday season ever. It was the year I wanted to kill myself at Thanksgiving, and the year I wanted to go on a homicidal rampage at Christmas.

But the holidays have other associations too. Holidays are family time, and it burns me up that I will NEVER be able to celebrate the holidays with my first family again. Thanks to the negligence and gross incompetence of a couple of cheese weasels who never learned to play fair with themselves or each other, I am made to suffer.

Ten months out of the year, I am okay with my parents' divorce. Hell, sometimes I even think it was a good idea! But it's times like this, times when you're supposed to be together with family, that make you want to shine up the hypothetical hunting rifle.

Because, goddammit, when your parents divorce, it hurts, and it hurts forever. It's something I'm never going to "get over." Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past. And I've done that! But it doesn't make things hurt any less.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Thankful to Be Alive

Nearly three years ago, on Wednesday, November 27, 2002, began the worst twenty-four hour period of my life. For nearly twenty-four hours, I was 99% convinced that I should end my own life. The trigger of this episode doesn't really matter; the cause of it was the disease of depression.

I don't think I've ever talked about anything so personal on this blog. The reason I'm talking about it now is that I think it's important to make people aware of this debilitating disease. It strikes people in all walks of life: young or old, male or female, rich or poor, successful or unsuccessful. Even if someone appears to have it all together, sometimes beneath that veneer there is despair. Anyone looking at me might think that I had "no reason" to be depressed. But depression is not a reasonable disease.

I was at my father's house for Thanksgiving. My sisters were there too, but my husband was not. But there could have been a hundred people there; I felt so alone that it wouldn't have mattered. Thoughts of worthlessness were racing through my head, and I could hear a voice inside me taunting me with that worthlessness. Since I was so worthless and caused only pain to those around me, the nicest thing I could do for the world would be to eliminate myself.

I stayed up all night, haunted by these suicidal desires. There was only one rational bone left in my body. Thank goodness it was there! It was that bone that convinced me to read a book, to distract myself from those thoughts. It also convinced me to call 1-800-SUICIDE if I ever got beyond just thinking about suicide.

Eventually I got so exhausted that I did fall asleep for a few hours. When I woke up I didn't feel quite as bad, although I still felt profoundly sad. I ate the Thanksgiving meal and I took a nap at some point that day. But it was a terrible ordeal that I never want to repeat.

I don't think I'll ever repeat it. I'm in such a different place than I was then. I certainly have depressive tendencies even today, but I have learned a lot of new behavioral mechanisms to prevent myself from getting to that state.

If there's one thing I've learned from counseling, it's that anniversaries of traumatic events are traumatic, too. Maybe not as traumatic as the event itself, but it's still difficult. So Thanksgiving is very hard for me. I feel so sad for that lost woman three years ago, that woman who almost gave it all up. I'm just thankful to be alive.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

A Doctor in the House

On Monday, I went to the post office and checked our box. Among the myriad of bills was a note saying that I had an item that was too big to fit in the box, and I should retrieve it during normal postal business hours. So I went back to the post office yesterday and got the item.

It was my diploma! According to the fancy inscription, I was awarded the Ph.D. in Computer Science on October 15, 2005 by the Senate of the University of Illinois. (Suckers!)

Of course, you can get all kinds of diplomas for much less effort. I still get spam about obtaining my diploma from a "prestigious, non-accredited university." Diploma mills are rampant even outside of academics. My karate teacher in Illinois talked about how easy it was to become a certified eight-zillionth degree black belt. But his favorite was the diploma you could get that conferred "monk status" upon you. Who knew that you needed a piece of paper for that?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Adventures in Applied Math

I realized that the title of this blog is starting to become sort of misleading; there's a whole lot about adventures, and very little about math, applied or otherwise. I think that there must be someone who's reading this thing for the math and is getting awfully disappointed as I blather on about bathmats and dishes and my feelings. There was a little mathematical action going on with the whole mortgage thing, but even that was disappointingly general. So, in honor of that hypothetical mathematically-deprived person, I am going to talk about one of my current favorite applications of math: SUDOKU.

Never fear, math-phobes and mathematically disinclined! I will do my best to keep this entry accessible to those without extensive math training. And if you have any questions you are more than welcome to ask in the comments section, and I will do my best to answer.

For those of you not in the know, Sudoku is the latest puzzle craze. “Su Doku” is Japanese for “numbers singly.” In the canonical puzzle, there is a 9 x 9 grid, in which nine of each number 1-9 must be placed such that each row, column, and 3 x 3 subgrid contains each digit only once. The puzzle is given to you with some numbers already placed, to assure that the solution to the puzzle is unique. (Think about it: if it were an empty grid, there would be a whole lot of correct solutions. And by a whole lot, I mean 6,670,903,752,021,072,936,960 [source: Wikipedia]. So you have to fill up at least a few squares in order to narrow it down.)

Before we get into this, let me say that this puzzle does not involve math in the traditional sense. That is, the digits 1-9 are simply placeholders, with no arithmetic value. You could just as easily use the letters A-I; the names of the planets in the solar system; Snow White, the prince, and the seven dwarves; or nine different colored crayons to represent the same thing. The reason numbers are used is because they’re a lot easier to write. (This square is Sneezy! No, wait, it’s Snow White! Damn! They both start with "SN"!)

The sort of math involved in the Sudoku puzzle is mathematical logic. You use logic to eliminate candidates for each square. For example, if there’s a five in square (1, 3), we know that there can’t be a five in any square (1, y) or (x, 3), or in any square (x, y) where both x = {2, 3} and y = {1, 2} (that’s the row constraint, column constraint, and subgrid constraint, respectively. The notation {a, b} means "a or b.").

According to Peter Lablans at, the Sudoku puzzle is an example of a nine-way logic table. That is, instead of having binary, yes-no logic, we have nine choices (yes/no/maybe/almost always/usually/often/sometimes/rarely/when pigs fly?). I don’t know enough about multi-value logic to say much more than that, but if you’re interested, his site is very informative.

An interesting question to consider is how many squares do you have to pre-fill in order to assure a unique solution? Seventeen is the smallest number of pre-filled squares in a Sudoku puzzle with a unique solution found so far. But this does not mean that all puzzles with seventeen pre-filled squares possess a unique solution. For example, consider the puzzle in which all ones and all twos are pre-filled. (This puzzle has 18 pre-filled squares.) There are many valid solutions to that puzzle. The reason this puzzle does not have a single solution is that many of the pre-filled squares are redundant. For example, removing one of the twos, we lose no information, because we can deduce that that particular square must contain a two based on the location of the other eight twos.

Something else to ponder is how long it will take to solve a Sudoku puzzle. If there are n entries in the puzzle, we should be able to figure out how long it takes to solve the puzzle as a function of n. Meaning, if we are solving a bigger puzzle, such as a 16 by 16 Super Sudoku, or a 25 by 25 Mega Sudoku, there should be a formula into which we can plug our number of entries and come out with the expected time to solve the puzzle in some sort of arbitrary time units.

Sudoku puzzles are in a class of problems known as NP-complete. This means that solving a Sudoku puzzle of arbitrary size (probably) requires an algorithm that takes an amount of time proportional to n! or at best a constant raised to the power of n. This sounds like bad news, but it also means that if you can figure out a faster algorithm to solve the Sudoku problem, then you can apply the same algorithm to a long list of other problems, including the Traveling Salesman Problem (given an itinerary of n cities to visit, what is the fastest route?), the Graph Coloring Problem (given a set of vertices connected by edges, find the smallest number of colors required to color the vertices so that no adjacent vertices have the same color), and even Minesweeper and Tetris.

For small problems such as a 9 by 9 Sudoku puzzle, or a three-city trip, finding a solution in factorial or exponential time is okay, because the number we’re factorializing or raising to a power is relatively small. But for larger problems, beginning with even a dozen unknowns, the factorial or exponential time begins to take its toll.

Computer scientists don’t care about an iterant salesman, but they do care about your e-mail message getting from point A to point B and the connectivity of networks (graph coloring). They also care about making your messages safe, which is why they encrypt them in ways that make their decryption NP-complete (unless you have the right digital key). UPS and the postal service care a lot about how they should route their trucks and planes to minimize costs (traveling salesman). Computational scientists (such as myself) care a lot about how to evenly partition the workload of their computer program across a large set of processors (a variation of the subset sum problem, another NP-complete problem). So the stakes are much higher than one might think for a simple logic puzzle.

The way that these very important problems are solved in real life is with heuristics, or strategies. What we obtain are solutions that may or may not be optimal, but are "pretty good." For example, the only way to figure out the fastest itinerary for the traveling salesman is to look at every possible itinerary and pick the best one. If there are n cities, we’re talking on the order of n! different itineraries. Instead we use strategies like "visit cities that are close to each other before moving on," which make sense but are not guaranteed to give us the best solution. Instead they give us a pretty good solution for a fraction of the cost: more like n-squared time. So maybe the traveling salesman doesn’t go on the shortest possible trip, but at least this way he doesn’t have to wait hundreds of years for us to determine his itinerary!

Because I can’t write comfortably, I was delighted to discover a Sudoku widget for the Mac a couple of months ago. The widget spits out delightful Sudoku puzzles which I then dutifully solve. It has four settings for the puzzle difficulty: easy, moderate, hard, and diabolic. The widget that I use also has a timer on it. I’ve found that generally speaking, I can solve the easy puzzles in under ten minutes without having to make any notes. Sometimes, however, there are some supposedly easy puzzles that take me much longer.

I tried to figure out what the widget author’s definition of easy must be. I think it has to do with the number of pre-filled entries in the puzzle. So I did my own statistical analysis of the number of pre-filled entries in the puzzle, and here’s what I came up with: For easy puzzles, there are anywhere from 27-31 pre-filled, with an average of about 29. For medium puzzles, there were anywhere from 26-29 pre-filled, with an average of about 27. For hard puzzles, there were anywhere from 23-25 pre-filled, with an average of about 24. And for diabolic puzzles, there were anywhere from 21-24 pre-filled, with an average of about 23.

In my experiment, I observed that it took much longer to generate the diabolic puzzles than it took to generate the easy ones. Indeed, as the difficulty level rose, the time it took to generate the puzzle rose. I should have timed it to see if perhaps there was an exponential relationship, as the classification of this problem suggests. My theory is that the widget’s author starts with the lowest possible number of pre-filled squares (based on my experiments, it would be 27, 26, 23, and 21, for easy, medium, difficult, and diabolic, respectively), and checks that the solution is unique. If not, he fills another square and checks again.

Reading the Wikipedia article on Sudoku, I see that the number of pre-filled squares is not a good indicator of difficulty. Indeed, I could see how this would be true. If you pre-filled redundant squares (like my example of filling in all the ones and twos), no information would be gained. My guess is that this is what happens in those surprisingly difficult, allegedly easy puzzles.

There is so much more to talk about, but I think I will stop here for now. You could say that my explanation may not be optimal, but it is "pretty good." And it only took me n-squared time to write it! Ha ha ha, a little math humor there!


Monday, November 14, 2005

Adventures in Unpacking

We spent the weekend moving the last of our stuff from storage and our apartment to our new house, and unpacking in the house. We've been treasure-hunting as we unpack; for example, we had to find the plates before we could eat our dinner on Saturday night. (I found them: downstairs in the basement, instead of upstairs with all the other boxes labeled "kitchen.")

It has been kind of comical to unpack. For example, the movers very carefully wrapped and packed a used twisty-tie for us. To be honest, I'm not sure what I would have done if they had discarded my lucky twisty-tie, so I am glad to have found it. We've also rediscovered some stuff that we didn't exactly recall having, stuff that they packed up from our basement in Illinois. Like I have a set of Astérix dishes, which I remembered, but I didn't remember the (otherwise unrelated) flowery tea cups and saucers that were packed in the same box with the Astérix dishes.

On Saturday we also went bed shopping. We got rid of our old bed in Illinois, so we needed a new one. We found a nice (and expensive!) bedroom set at a furniture store in the Big City (a.k.a. Knoxville) and it will be delivered on Thursday. In the meantime we are sleeping on an air mattress. Also, we've only found one pillow so far. At first Jeff just let me use it, but then I decided we should try to share it, so we did that for a few hours before getting up.

On Sunday, we went shopping for some household items such as a new skillet (our old one got damaged while we were still in Illinois, and we had to throw it away), bath mats (a peachy-colored one for our master bathroom, and a tan one for the other upstairs bathroom), an inside shower curtain for the upstairs bathroom, and other miscellaneous items. We also went to Home Depot and got some supplies for installing more phone jacks. At first Jeff doubted my prowess in the wiring installation arena, but eventually I was able to convince him that I know how to wire things. He deemed the risk of me electrocuting myself negligible and decided not to call a professional to do the job.

Our washer and dryer are really high-tech, and I am impressed by them. The dryer can figure out when your clothes are dry enough, and it also protects your clothes from getting all wrinkled while they're waiting for you to get them out, by periodically turning them over a few times. The washer is a top-loader, so it's not as efficient as it might be, but it has many different settings and it seems like it can hold a bigger load than our old washer in Illinois, so I think it is more efficient than that washer as long as you always make full loads. We also got some of the detergent that doesn't need hot water, which will help in the energy efficiency department.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Adventures in Moving in

All our stuff apparently arrived on Wednesday morning at our new house. I can't be for sure, because we haven't unpacked it hardly at all. Boxes of our possessions stand in stacks in our basement room.

This new house is a lot like our old one, only 150% larger. From the front, it looks like a modest rectangular house, gray-blue with red shutters, with a carport on the right side. But it's a basement ranch, meaning that it appears to be one story from the front but two story from the back. We have a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, a coat closet, a linen closet, and three bedrooms and two full baths on the first floor. The bedrooms aren't that big, but they are bigger than the bedrooms in our old house. The dining room is probably about the same size, but the kitchen is smaller and the living room is a lot bigger. Also, the closets in the bedrooms are a lot bigger than the closets in our old house.

You enter the house via the front door and arrive in the living room. It is currently empty, except for a few boxes, because we don't have any living room furniture yet. To your right is the coat closet. There is a large picture window at the front of the room. Doorways lead to the dining room, the kitchen, and the hallway. The dining room is in the left corner, and there's a large sliding glass door at the back of the house that leads to the deck. The deck is big and wraps around the side of the house, but it is currently a bit wobbly and needs to be reinforced. There's a door that's like a giant set of shutters that goes between the dining room and kitchen. I should also mention that the previous owners went for the "faux bistro" look, and painted fake bricks with plaster peeling off them on the walls of the dining room, and occasional exposed bricks in the living room too. We believe that this is hideous and effacing them from the walls may very well be our first project.

In the kitchen, the vinyl floor is brand new. It is also not white, one of our most basic requirements for a kitchen floor. In fact, it is a busy tiled design, of which I approve whole-heartedly, because it will never show dirt. The cabinets are all wood and I would say that they and the countertops are original. The range is electric and kind of bizarre: it's extra wide and in the center of the cooktop there is a griddle. Pancakes, anyone? It also has two ovens: one normal-sized oven, and a small oven on the left side. This is a clever development and even though the appliance seems kind of old, if it works, I think we will keep it. The sink has two bowls, and there's a nice view to the backyard and the deck; the fridge/freezer is a side-by-side model with an ice maker and water dispenser, neither of which are working at the moment. We're going to need to either fix it ourselves or just buy a new unit.

Coming out of the kitchen through the other door that leads to the living room, if we take a left we go down the hallway to the bedrooms. The first opening on the left is the stairs to the basement. There is a half door (open at the top) to those stairs. On the right is the first of three bedrooms. This bedroom has a lot of shelving in it so I think this is where we will put as many books as we can. To the left after the stairs is the bathroom door. This bathroom has a tub with a shower curtain, a toilet, and a sink. The floor is ceramic tile. All the bathrooms have fans in them, too. The next door on the right is the second bedroom, slightly larger than the other one. It has a ceiling fan and it's on the front right corner of the house. Straight ahead at the end of the hallway is a linen closet. The final door on the left is to the master bedroom. It's not any bigger than the other bedroom, but it has a private bathroom attached to it, behind the other bathroom, to the left when you enter the room. This bathroom has a tub with sliding doors, a toilet, and a sink. It is tiled but the floor is vinyl.

Downstairs the basement is completely finished. At the base of the steps to the left are the washer and dryer, shuttered so that you don't have to look at them. To the right is a large room with a door that goes out to the carport. If you enter that room and turn to the right, there's a small, windowless, carpeted room, the purpose of which we have yet to figure out. But there's a door on the other side of that room that goes to the third bathroom, which has a shower but not a tub, but counts as a full bath to me. There's another door that leads out of the bathroom, which puts you into a hallway to the left of the stairs, and right back near the washer and dryer again. You can keep going straight, however, and you get into what is going to be our rec room, painted "bordello red" (in the words of my better half), where we'll have our futon and TV, and our gaming table. We also plan to install a wet bar down there, although that is a project for a later credit card cycle. There's a door that leads out to the back yard under the deck.

In the back yard we have a flat area with grass, and then the yard slopes down. At night, we have a nice view of the city lights from the back. Where the yard begins to slope down it is wooded, and three stately white oaks from the wooded area shade the house at times. Because this is not Illinois, the neighborhood is not built on a grid and the front actually faces to the northeast and the back faces to the southwest.

I think we're going to like this house! I'll try to take some pictures to supplement my exposition.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Adventures in Closing

I am not fond of surprises, and especially not when I am feeling stressed. I doubt that anyone is particularly crazy about surprises under those circumstances. So I was very unhappy at 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon.

That's when we closed on our new house. Before I get into the rant, we got the loan and we closed on the house, don't worry. I signed eighty zillion papers with the wrong hand, and it only took me an hour and a half.

I really hate last minute things, so I was already on edge about the loan. They figured out at 4:30 p.m. on Monday how much we needed to bring to the closing. It seemed like a lot, and it cleaned us out of all but $600 in that savings account. (Don't worry: we have more money at other banks, and I'm getting paid tomorrow.)

What I hadn't realized was that the interest rate for the loan was higher than I expected. On our preapproval letter, it said we were preapproved for a loan up to thus-and-such amount at a rate of x%, and that the preapproval was good for ninety days. It said the next step was to get a property description turned in to them, and to prove that we had assets totaling y dollars as we had claimed. Maybe this is a difference between states, but I clearly remember our preapproval letter in Illinois being very specific that the interest rate was subject to change until we locked it. This letter said nothing about interest rates changing. I figured it was a special credit union thing that we could have that rate for ninety days. And the loan officer may have said something about variable interest rates, but if he did, it went in one ear and out the other. At the end of the day, what I was left with was this preapproval letter that misleadingly implied that the interest rate was x%.

Of course I know that interest rates do fluctuate. I've gotten a mortgage before. I should have kept track of that and asked explicitly every step of the way what the rate was. I went and talked to the loan officer a half dozen times about one thing or another. On my last visit with him I even asked specifically for an escrow account. I am not stupid or inexperienced with this process. But he never brought it up and I never thought to bring it up, either.

Back to Tuesday at 4 p.m. I get the paperwork and discover that the interest rate is 0.75% more than I expected. That may not sound like much, but over the lifetime of the loan, this puts me out $20,000, and raises my monthly payments by more than $50.

I am furious. I call the mortgage loan officer and express my extreme displeasure. I tell him that the preapproval letter made no mention of rate changes, and even if he did tell me in person, it doesn't say anything on this letter about that. The letter is misleading and I feel like I have been baited and switched. And I am angry that I didn't find out about this until the closing, when I have no choice but to agree to the terms of the loan or lose my house. I certainly raised my voice, but I didn't scream at him, and I talked only about how I felt. I didn't call him any bad names, and, to his credit, he was very courteous to me and let me say my piece, only answering with "Yes, ma'am." After I got off the phone I was shaking and I wanted to cry. I had to calm down before I could begin signing the papers.

After the closing, we showed our realtor the preapproval letter and he said it was definitely misleading. He agreed to go with me to the credit union to see the loan officer in the morning. So on Wednesday morning he and I went to see the loan officer. The first thing I did was to apologize for yelling at him, and he told me no apology was necessary, because he felt really bad about the situation. So we wanted to see what we could do about this mess. I think what we're going to do is refinance the loan right away with a lower rate 5-year fixed ARM loan. They are going to waive some of the fees for that because of this misunderstanding.

I told him that he could tell me whatever he wanted when I was in there getting a preapproval, but at the end of the day when his words have gone in one ear and out the other, what I'm left with is this letter, and the letter says absolutely nothing about the interest rate, and gives you the impression that you're locked into that rate. I said all they needed was just a little asterisk next to the rate with a footnote indicating that the rate will vary until you lock it in, and then the letter would be fine.

He said we were not the first people who had been misled by their letter, and he said he was going to bring it up at the next staff meeting of the mortgage loan department, and get that letter changed. I told him that I'd be happy to help him in any way I could, if it would prevent the next poor sap from getting burned.

The loan officer brought this up himself, that we are their dream customers: reliable people with a steady income, and he felt terrible that we were unhappy. (Especially because we will probably buy two cars and another property within the next five years or so, with loans that we would want to obtain from the credit union!) I think that under the circumstances, we have reached an acceptable solution, so I will probably go to them again for my next loan. I'll just be a lot more cautious and question everything.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Adventures with Gundar

Gundar is our beloved 1990 Volvo 740 Turbo station wagon. I'm not quite sure what color he is: copper or gold, maybe? He has more than 270,000 miles on him, mostly from the previous owner. Gundar is the newest car we've ever owned.

But he is a teenager, and an impetuous one at that. Lately he's decided to rebel and spend all of our money. We still love him and we keep financing his habits. Why, just last month I bought him a new tail light and a new timing belt! Somehow that isn't enough for him, and recently he's gone on strike. He's decided that he won't start if he doesn't feel like it.

He's very wiley, though, and like all teenagers, he strives to prove his parents wrong at every available opportunity. Jeff took our naughty boy to the mechanic here in town, who gave Gundar a clean bill of health. He couldn't see that anything at all was wrong. Gundar started up just fine for him!

But over the weekend we went to Kroger, and when we got in Gundar to go home, he didn't want to start. Eventually, Jeff got him started, but it really spooked us. So next week, we're taking him to the dealer. They'll know how to handle him. They know what kind of discipline our rebellious teenager needs!

Friday, November 04, 2005

Which Action Hero Are You?

Here's how I fared:

You scored as Maximus. After his family was murdered by the evil emperor Commodus, the great Roman general Maximus went into hiding to avoid Commodus's assassins. He became a gladiator, hoping to dominate the colosseum in order to one day get the chance of killing Commodus. Maximus is valiant, courageous, and dedicated. He wants nothing more than the chance to avenge his family, but his temper often gets the better of him.



Neo, the "One"


Captain Jack Sparrow


William Wallace


James Bond, Agent 007


The Terminator


The Amazing Spider-Man


Batman, the Dark Knight


Indiana Jones


Lara Croft


El Zorro


Which Action Hero Would You Be? v. 2.0
created with

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Adventures in Housebuying

One week from today, Jeff and I will be homeowners... twice over! That's right, we'll be closing on our new house here in Tennessee. Our house in Illinois is still up for sale but not yet sold, so we will be the owners of two homes for a few months at least. Anybody interested in a "charming home in old town Urbana", Illinois? We got one that's waiting for a buyer like you!

But if it doesn't sell, I was thinking we could just keep it. We could say that the house in Illinois is our summer home, and the one in Tennessee is our winter home. It wouldn't be so bad. We could still rightfully use the Urbana Free Library (the best public library ever!), and I could even sign up for karate at the park district again. The only problem is that it's pretty far away. But that's nothing a good teleportation device couldn't fix!

It should sell, though. It may be the off-peak season for selling houses, but it's still a nice house in a price range that's affordable.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Adventures in Kentucky

This weekend, I went to Kentucky to see my Grandma and play the violin for her. I arrived in Lexington safely on Saturday, and made it back home safely and without incident last night.

On my way there on Saturday morning, I was about to pass a pickup truck pulling a trailer, when the left wheel of the trailer popped off and bounced across the road right in front of me. The axle fell to the pavement and started dragging along, cutting a groove in the road and flinging chunks of asphalt on me and on the other cars behind them. And the driver of the truck didn't seem to notice! So I accelerated to along side of them, and started honking and pointing like a madwoman. At first he must have thought I had road rage or something, because he accelerated to get away from me! But I sped up even more and honked and gestured and shouted that his wheel was missing, and I basically escorted him to the side of the road. I stopped too, and when I saw that he was getting out and would see the missing wheel, I drove on. I was pretty uptight for the rest of the drive. It was a really emotionally-intense experience!

I arrived in Lexington in time for a late lunch with Dad and Bonus Mom Marvis. Then we went to get some documents for our new house notarized (Dad's lending us some money for the down-payment, because our house in Illinois isn't going to sell in time), and to the Liquor Barn, where I ran into my former stand-partner in the Lexington Community Orchestra, Bernie. He was happy to see me and I enjoyed talking to him.

That afternoon we also talked to Laura on the phone, went for a walk in the arboretum, and then to the Kentucky Theater to see a movie, "Everything Is Illuminated," about a Jewish man (played by Elijah Wood) who traveled to the Ukraine to find a woman who he knew there before he left for America and the Nazis invaded the Ukraine. It was a good movie and it was particularly fun for me because there was a lot of Russian spoken in the movie and I hadn't heard Russian in quite a while. After the movie we went out to eat at Hunan in Southland, then came home and visited a lot before going to bed.

In the morning, Dad made his internationally-renowned muffins for breakfast, and then he left for Cincinnati, where he went with some Wisconsin-connected colleagues to watch the Green Bay Packers take on the Cincinnati Bengals. Marvis and I visited for a while, and then we went to visit Grandma.

Grandma was overjoyed to hear me play. She looked and sounded much better than she did the last time I saw her. She's not on 24-hour care anymore, so when we came she was all alone. She just asked me to play whatever songs I liked or came to my mind. After I finished playing, we coaxed her into eating her lunch, along with some angel food cake and bananas that Marvis had cleverly thought to bring along. It seems like she can't remember enough to initiate eating, but once she gets started, she can really pack it in.

We went back to the house and had a late lunch, and then Rachel called! So I got to talk to both my sisters this weekend. Towards the end of that phone call, bonus sister Vaughan stopped by, so I got to see her too, if only for a brief time, because it was time for me to go.

I limited my violin-playing to thirty minutes, but it still did a number on my arm. I iced my arm down after we got back to the house, but then as I went to use the restroom, I hit my bare elbow on the door frame. Stupid me! So I did my best to drive home one-handed.

I took a break from driving and called my mom to give her my assessment of Grandma. We had a very long and very nice talk. Overall it was a very good weekend.

Friday, October 28, 2005

On Handwriting

I have gotten pretty good at writing with the right hand. Assuming that my elbow is supported, I can write legibly. It doesn't look the same as my left-handwriting, but I'm improving. Right now it seems season-appropriate: My handwriting would make a good Halloween font because it's jerky in just the right ways.

I've been practicing my signature in preparation for the upcoming closing on our new house, at which time I will have to sign dozens of forms. It's harder than you might think. The way in which I make my leading "R" is difficult to imitate. My right hand wants to make it a lot wider than my left hand does it. I find this interesting because I remember reading a book on handwriting analysis once (not that I believe in it, but it was out of curiosity). The author posited that handwriting analysis was a science because if you lost your arms and had to relearn how to write with your toes, whose handwriting would you strive to emulate other than your own? That is a good point, but I find that my right-handwriting differs from my left-handwriting in a number of ways. Besides that pesky "R," there's also a general reduction in ornamentation. I have a hard enough time scrawling with the right, why add to my troubles by writing an extra loop here or making the tails of my g's or y's dip so far below the line? My right-handwriting is perhaps inspired by my left-handwriting, but it has a style of its own.

Thursday, October 27, 2005


This morning I left my apartment and got to my car only to discover that it was covered in frost! Naturally my first instinct was to use my badge as an ice scraper, but remembering my rigorous training, I instead used an actual scraper given to me by the lab's Safety directorate. In the car I had another, Illinois-grade scraper complete with a brush, but I thought the lab-endorsed scraper was more appropriate for weekday use.

The wimpy layer of frost came off quickly. I probably didn't even need to scrape, but it was too much fun to pass up.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Verdict Is...

I have irritated the heck out my ulnar nerve, just as I suspected.

The doctor was a young man, probably younger than I am, but he seemed knowledgeable. He told me that if I had a really serious problem, I would have yelped in pain when he did certain magical things, instead of just feeling uncomfortable like I did. He said the problem is that I am putting pressure on that nerve when I bend my elbow. Apparently the problem is exacerbated by the fact that I am extremely flexible and my elbows are double-jointed. He was impressed how far on my back I can reach with my arms.

He told me that his prescription was to give it a rest. Since it's nerve damage, there's no physical therapy or excercise for rehabilitation. I just need to use it as little as possible. I told him that my work required me to write and all that other stuff, so resting was not much of an option. He gave me a prescription for a special elbow cradle pad, which needs to be filled at a medical supply place of some sort. I'm still not sure where to go for that. But I will figure it out soon, because if he thinks that this thing will help me, I'm all over that.

This morning I went to the dentist for the first time in I can't remember how long. I am pleased to report that my teeth are clean and pearly now, still cavity-free, and that I have no wisdom teeth whatsoever. I was concerned that I might have them, because Rachel and I were both told that we had no wisdom teeth, and then it turned out that Rachel had one. Well, ladies and gentlemen, I have no wisdom teeth at all! Perhaps it is unwise of me to brag about this fact.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Weekend Visitors

This weekend, we were converged upon from the north and the east by Dad and Marvis, and Laura and Anne, respectively. A fun weekend was had by all. Dad and Marvis arrived early Friday evening, and we all went out to dinner at a restaurant which had delicious food but which stiffed us on the vegetables. Our waitress said our meals didn't come with veggies, the writing on the menu to the contrary. Someone needs to get that straightened out. Anyhow, Laura and Anne arrived late that evening, so we didn't get to see them until Saturday morning.

On Saturday morning, we went on the Secret City Excursion Train, a ninety-minute train ride in the Oak Ridge reservation area. I had decided that I wanted to go on this train in celebration of my birthday, so I used my birthday money from Grandma Mary and from Mom- and Dad-in-law to get the tickets for the six of us. The only problem was, I had to pay by check. But I got Laura to write the check for me, so it all worked out.

(And speaking of my hand, I went to the lab Wellness Fair last week, where they had many exhibits from health and wellness vendors, including health clubs, supermarkets, and an orthopedics clinic. I talked to the folks at the orthopedics clinic booth about my pesky hand, and with their encouragement called their office later in the day and scheduled an appointment for Wednesday. One ridiculous thing is that they sent me a bunch of forms to fill out, but since my personal scribe (a.k.a. Jeff) is now here, it shouldn't be that big of a deal. I will let you know how it goes. But I digress...)

After the train ride, which was lovely by the way, we had a picnic near the Clinch River and then went to the UT arboretum for a while. It was a fairly warm day and the leaves were just beginning to turn. After spending some time at the arboretum, we went and rested up a bit before dinner. Laura and I looked in the phone book to figure out where to go to dinner. We saw a place that looked good in Jackson Square (the "historic" downtown area of Oak Ridge), but when we got there it wasn't open. We saw another nearby restaurant but it was more expensive than we wanted. Then we walked over to "Big Ed's Pizza," a local pizza joint that I plan to try at some point, but the line was prohibitively long. Finally we just went to a Chinese buffet that Jeff and I had gone to the night he arrived here. One of the dishes was labelled "Cheese Spanish," but despite its name was not noticeably Latin. Actually, it was spinach with cheese. There must be a linguistic term for that sort of misinterpretation of words.

After dinner, we returned to our apartment and had birthday fudge and opened birthday presents. I guess it is now official that I am thirty years old. I had been procrastinating about turning thirty, since I really hadn't had much of a birthday yet. But now it's official.

On Sunday we went to brunch at Shoney's before scattering our own ways. Laura and Anne went on to Nashville to visit Vanderbilt University, while Dad and Marvis headed back home to Lexington. I think it was a very good visit and I am glad that they all got a chance to come here. It was nice to be among the first to meet Anne (Rach: nya-nya pthbbbt!), who seemed very nice and I could see why Laura would like her so much.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Who Knew I Had So Many Needs?

Okay, my sisters are doing this, so I should too. Even though if they were jumping off a bridge, I wouldn't do it too. But this is kind of funny, instead of dangerous, so I guess it's okay.

The idea is, type "<your first name> needs" into Google, and see what comes up. Since I am extra special, I have both my first name (Rebecca) and my nickname (Becca) to look at.

Here are some of my needs:
Rebecca needs enlightenment! (true, dat)
Rebecca needs support around her educational goals (well, not so much; I'm all learned up!)
Rebecca needs a very specific kind of learning environment (computer, paper, pencil)
Rebecca needs her food to be soft, or cut into small pieces, so that it is easy to chew (uhhh.... no)
Rebecca needs just one good, meaty, dramatic role, and the chances of her skyrocketing into fame will increase tenfold. (yeah, Hollywood! C'mon, I'm waiting for that role!)
Rebecca needs to make up her mind quickly (ME, decide something fast? Ain't happening!)
Rebecca needs to learn how to be a mother, and Emily needs to learn how to be a
(because I already know how to be a superhero!)
Rebecca needs to get out and find a boyfriend

Funny they should mention that, because the first hit for my informal side is:
Becca needs a boyfriend (hmm, I'm not so sure about that!)
Becca needs advice now! (should I get that boyfriend?)
Becca needs an all-around stallion to do her best (is that a horse or does that refer to the boyfriend?)
Becca needs a little more practice. (well, that's true!)
Becca needs friends, especially as she doesn't go to school. (that is so true it's creepy!)
Becca needs a nap now, no scratch that becca needs some fucking sleep, can't take all this hours at work. (It's like they know me!)
Becca needs a discount card for therapy sessions (tell me about it; actually I had one: it's called a student ID!)
Once established, Becca needs minimal -- if any -- maintenance (just an oil change every 3000 miles!) [Actually, Becca is a new type of ornamental grass!]


Words cannot describe the joy that I am feeling right now. My beloved husband is on his way to Tennessee!

He left Urbana in the early afternoon, and should be arriving at his parents’ very soon. He’s going to stay there overnight, and then he will drive here the next day. I am very excited!

In preparation for his arrival, I’ve bought some of his comfort foods: milk, Ovaltine, oatmeal, diet Coke with lime….

I have missed him so much. It’s been hard to be here without him. He makes life a lot more fun.

Distinguished Visitor

Yesterday my former advisor, Mike, came to the lab as a distinguished visitor. He gave a seminar at 1:00. I was there, front row center. It was a good thing, too. At the beginning of his talk, he explained his long association with the lab, having been a staff member for many years and now his former student has begun working here. In the middle of the seminar, he told a joke that nobody but me got, at which point he said, "That was supposed to be a joke, but nobody but Rebecca laughed. You can tell that she was my student." That crack then got a good laugh, and he went on with the seminar.

Mike is a very entertaining speaker. Aside from that one joke that nobody but me seemed to notice, he has a good sense of the audience and keeps it lively, although not so lively that he's not taken seriously. His slides were peppered with visualizations of rockets and other interesting graphics, which also keep people from sleeping.

After his day of visits was over, I got a chance to talk to him alone for about a half hour. We had a very enjoyable talk, some about work but mostly about Oak Ridge and how it had changed since he worked here. In fact, his first joke at the seminar was that he used to park his car about where he was standing (in a beautiful new building). He also told me where he and his wife used to live in town, and that they had donated a piano to the Oak Ridge Children's Museum, so I told him that if I ever went there, I would look for the piano.

He is a really nice man and I miss him a lot. He was a good advisor and always very supportive. He has like three different jobs, which means he's really busy, but he always made time for his students. I think he's quite proud of me and that makes me feel really good.

If my abstract gets accepted, I imagine that I will see him in February at the conference in San Francisco. I could see him again sometime this semester, too, if I successfully persuade the right people to sponsor an FE! in Illinois.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Adventures in Automobiles

Upon my return to Tennessee, I knew that I would need a rental car, so I reserved a mid-size car over the internet on Saturday night. When I arrived on Sunday afternoon, it turned out that they had no mid-size cars, so instead they gave me a Lincoln Town Car with all the bells and whistles. (The woman who gave me the key told me I was going to love it because it had “all the bling-bling.”)

I put my luggage in the rental car and then I got the important items out of Gundar before calling AAA. As it turned out, the guy who drives the only tow truck that can get into the airport parking garage does not work on Sundays, so they can’t tow my car until tomorrow. The AAA towing guy came anyhow, and collected from me the key to Gundar, the parking ticket, and money to pay for the parking. In the morning, they will tow him to the dealer. I’m to call the dealer first thing in the morning to let them know he’s coming.

I suspect that Gundar’s ailment is a broken fuel pump, but of course I don’t really know. I’m thinking that if I’m right, the fuel pump is a moderately priced part but the labor will be costly because it is buried deep inside, at least if a 1990 model is anything like a 1982 model. Ingrid the 1982 Volvo always had fuel pump issues and it took a lot of labor just to get to the pump.

After getting all the necessary items to the AAA guy, I hopped into the Lincoln. That is one fancy car! I felt a bit out of place in my jeans and software company t-shirt. I sat down on the leather seat and inserted the key into the ignition. To my surprise, the seat moved forward! I don’t know if it figured out how tall I am or if it just happened to be set that way, but it moved to just about the perfect position for me. (It moved back again when I turned off the car and removed the key.)

It was a very smooth and luxurious ride back to my apartment. Gundar vibrates at a certain frequency when you’re going 40 mph, and another frequency when you’re going 70, so you can kind of tell when you’re speeding up or slowing down. But this brand new Lincoln drives so smoothly that you start out at 40 and the next thing you know you look down and the odometer reads 70. So you have to be extra careful to keep an eye on your speed.

It has a nice stereo, a sunroof, a quartz clock in the dashboard, heated or cooled seats, temperature climate control, heated side mirrors, a hood ornament, wood paneling, a wooden inlayed steering wheel, and power everything, including the trunk, which when you shut it kind of sucks itself closed.

It’s a really big car, too. I don’t even want to think about the gas mileage! A nice feature it has is some sort of detector in the rear that beeps at you when you get too close to something when you’re backing up. I tried to park at the apartments but I did a poor job of parking, and backed up to straighten out. I got too close to the curb behind me for its liking, so it beeped at me.

It will be interesting to drive the car to work tomorrow. It also has a compass, which has been interesting to glance at occasionally, to cross-check my internal bearings. I am correct some of the time, and very close most of the time. Not bad for a kid who used to think that whichever direction you were facing was north.

Adventures in Urbana

The recruiting went well. I had a great time seeing friends walk by and schilling to strangers about the wonders of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. We gave out a lot of brochures, pens, sticky notes, and magnets, and we talked to a lot of students. We were primarily recruiting for student internships, although if anyone was interested in a job we informed them about that too.

I saw a few of my former students from my TA-ing days too. One student, who got a D in my class, now works for Microsoft. (It figures.) Another one, whom I actually liked and who did really well in the class, was also seduced by the dark side.

I went out to lunch with my (former) classmates and that was a lot of fun. Then in the afternoon, after the job fair was over, I saw my (former) advisor and went to my former office and chatted with the current inhabitants. In the evening, Jeff and I went out to dinner and to see the movie Serenity.

On Saturday, I saw the house in all its emptiness. Jeff is almost done fixing it up and he will come here sometime this week. And I saw Glen and Barb and the kids. It was good to see them.

It was kind of strange going back to Urbana so soon after leaving it. I guess it really underscored to me the fact that I have no home at the moment. I think of Urbana as home, but seeing my bare house, and my now-former school/workplace, staying at a hotel, and being a guest at Barb and Glen’s, drove home the fact that I no longer live there. It is hard to think of Oak Ridge as home right now, because it is unfamiliar still. At the moment, I’m living in corporate housing, and the only things I have that are my own are my clothes and toiletries. I feel ungrounded and that makes me insecure and unhappy.

I remember when I moved to Urbana seven years ago that I felt the exact same way. It did not feel like home for quite a while. What really made a difference was buying our house, which made it feel like we were members of the community, we lived in a house that we had chosen, and it was ours. I think that when we take possession of our new house and all our stuff is moved in, Oak Ridge will start to feel more like home. I’ll be able to let go of Urbana. I’ll still miss a lot of things about it, but I’ll no longer feel homesick.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Adventures in Travel

As you know from my previous entry, I talked to my boss’s boss’s boss last week, and told him that I could help recruit people from the University of Illinois. Imagine my surprise when on Monday morning I found a message in my inbox asking me to go to the ACM Reflections/Projections job fair at UIUC! I was happy to do it, provided of course that I could get permission from my boss. He was happy to let me go, once he found out that he wouldn’t have to pay for the trip!

I was really excited because it would give me a chance to go back to Urbana and actually see my better half, whom I haven’t seen for nearly a month. And it would allow me to see my friends too, and surprise my former advisor by showing up at his office.

I made my flight plans but it took until the day I was to leave to finalize the reservation. I was a little on edge about that. I left work about quarter to five to drive to the airport for my flight leaving at 6:49 p.m. And then, because my life was still not exciting enough, Gundar the 1990 Volvo decided to break down. Luckily, he picked a pretty good place to do that. I was driving into the parking lot at the airport when the engine suddenly cut out. Thanks to gravity the natural accelerator, I was able to limp into the parking lot and make it almost all the way to a parking spot. But then gravity the natural brake took over, and I stopped in the aisle. I called AAA and explained the situation. They helped me by pushing him into a parking spot, but when I get back to the airport I will need to call them again and have them tow him somewhere. But, I am of the opinion that if you have to break down, break down at an airport. After all, there are a hundred rental cars right there, waiting for you. When I get back to Tennessee, I will rent a car, and then I will probably shell out the big bucks to have Gundar towed to the dealer. I’m sure they will be delighted to get their hands on even more of my hard-earned money.

As for what’s wrong with him exactly, that is still a mystery. The oil level was fine; a little low maybe, but not completely out. The battery was still working; when he went out the radio was still blaring. You can hear the starter go, but nothing happens. I noticed this morning that he seemed to be a little hard to start, but I’d think that wouldn’t have much to do with just going out like that. This is an enigma to me, but eventually the answer will be found. I’m just relieved that it isn’t anything like the engine is frozen up because he ran out of oil or some other very preventable problem.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Saturday Adventures

Yesterday I slept in until almost 9:00 a.m. This is unheard of in my world. I always wake up at 7:00 a.m., come hell or high water. I think the biggest factor was that I was absolutely exhausted, but a very important secondary factor is the fact that my bedroom has no windows. Close the door, and it's the dead of night in there.

Also, something interesting is that the sun doesn't rise here until about 7:30 a.m. The nice thing is that it sets at about 7 or 7:30 p.m. But after seven years in Illinois, I've grown accustomed to early morning sun, so this seems strange. Somehow it never really sunk in that the sun rose so much earlier there. I only noticed that it set so early there, instead of paying attention to when it rose. The late rising time of the sun also makes it more difficult to wake up at 7:00 a.m.

Also yesterday I went to Food Lion. Now I have been to all the major grocery stores in town: Wal-Mart, Food City, Kroger, and Food Lion. I didn't like Food Lion very much. I'd say the partial ordering of the grocery stores goes as follows: Wal-Mart = Kroger >= Food City >> Food Lion. When we move into our new house, we will be within a mile of Food City, so that's probably where I would shop the most, because it was pretty cheap. Kroger and Wal-Mart had a better selection, though, so I'd probably want to head over to one of them at least every so often. And they are about the same distance from our new house: they're across Illinois Avenue from each other. Food Lion is the farthest away and I think that I'm not going to be losing any sleep over that.

Also yesterday I watched the movie Love Me Tender on TV. It's a movie in which Elvis stars as the youngest of four brothers. The three older brothers fought in the Civil War while he stayed home and watched the farm. The oldest brother had a sweetheart whom he planned to marry when he got home, but at home they had received reports that he was dead, so the sweetheart actually married Elvis. So the oldest brother came home to face the fact that his sweetheart was married to his brother. Because he was such a tough guy, he swallowed all his feelings about the situation and acted like everything was fine. He told Elvis that he had never actually liked the woman that much. And he told his brothers to hide the fact that he had come home with a fancy suit that he was going to wear at their wedding. Lots of lies and cover-ups.

I was horrified by the dysfunction of that approach. Did he really think he had to hide his anger and grief? Who wouldn't be upset about something like that? Furthermore, did he really think that he could hide it? I guess that was the ideal male of the time: able to completely control his feelings at all times. It's sad that people growing up in that era had such rigid roles to fill.

If that movie had been written today, here's how the plot would have gone: oldest brother comes home, sees that his sweetheart is married to his brother, and pitches a fit. The woman reveals that she's always loved the oldest brother and only the oldest brother, and then they run off to California to start a new life together, but not before we get a chance to see some racy sex scenes. Either that, or they decide to revive the tradition of polyandry, and there's a gratuitous three-way scene. Or, the woman and the oldest brother have an illicit affair in the woods. Or, maybe, the woman chooses duty over love and the oldest brother runs off to California by himself.

The point is, everybody expresses how they feel, and then they figure out how to go from there. In the long term, it's not going to hurt Elvis to know that the oldest brother was disappointed and had planned on marrying the woman. Sure, it's going to hurt right when it's said, but did he not remember how close his brother and the woman were before the war? Ultimately, he'll understand that what his brother is feeling is perfectly understandable. What happens after that can be decided collaboratively. Why hide it when the truth is inevitably going to come out?

Friday, September 30, 2005

The Week in Review

Today I got out of work early because they were cleaning our air conditioning units as part of the mold remediation project. They'd already replaced all the carpets in our building and now they are cleaning the air system.

Overall, the rest of the week was pretty good too:

  • On Wednesday afternoon, I went on a tour of the lab for new employees. That was a lot of fun. I got to ride on a souped-up school bus with a dozen or so other new folks, on a guided tour of the lab with a very colorful and interesting guide. The guy had roots in the Oak Ridge area dating back to the 1800's. In particular, his grandparents were kicked off the land that is now the reservation to make way for the Manhattan Project. They were given a hundred bucks compensation. His father managed the theaters in Oak Ridge during the war, and he used to tag along. At that time, the city of Oak Ridge was inside a fence, and you had to have an official badge to enter. He was also there when the city was first opened to the general public, in 1949. The first civilian who entered the city without a badge was a famous star of Westerns, Rory Calhoun. Highlights of the tour included the new Spallation Neutron Source building, which was interesting, and the Graphite Reactor, where the first sustained nuclear reaction occurred in November, 1943. We even got to see the record book, where they recorded that the reactor went critical. The Graphite Reactor is on the National Register of Historic Places, so everything from the era has been preserved. It was interesting to see the analog sensor readouts.

  • I went to Weight Watchers, after one month of chaos, and lost 0.8 lbs in that time. Despite having been unable to do my regular exercise, eat my normal diet, or keep a consistent daily routine, I did not gain any weight. I'm not going to definitively say that I have really lost 0.8 lbs, because the measurements were taken on two different scales and in two different locations at which the acceleration due to gravity differs slightly. Also, here they weigh you with your shoes on and subtract two pounds, whereas in Illinois you take your shoes off. But just the same, the overall message is the same: I did not gain a substantial amount of weight, if any. I made healthy choices most of the time, despite all the chaos.

  • I have nearly mastered the art of writing with the non-dominant hand. I can now write cursive that is about the same quality as a fourth-grader with neat handwriting. I am also about as slow as a fourth grader with neat handwriting. I still do whatever I can to avoid writing by hand.

  • I talked to the division director. The division director, who is my mentor's boss's boss, likes to meet with every incoming employee. I had a pleasant chat with him yesterday afternoon. As it turns out, he has been charged with recruiting new people from the University of Illinois. I told him that I knew how to recruit computer scientists from the University of Illinois, so he promised to take me along when he goes recruiting. I am looking forward to that!

  • I submitted an abstract for a talk at a conference. This morning, my mentor came by my office and informed me that today was the deadline for the SIAM conference on parallel processing. I didn't really react one way or another until he encouraged me to submit something. So I told him that for the paper out of my dissertation, we had concentrated on the optimization method, but that I thought there was enough stuff on the multilayer parallelization there that I could give a talk at that conference. He told me to write up an abstract, and he would take a look at it. He looked at it, made a few corrections, and told me to submit it. Then he showed me the forms I had to fill out for the lab. You have to get all your papers and presentations cleared by the lab before you can officially release them. So I filled out those forms too, and now I just have to wait until November to find out if it got accepted. And if it did, San Francisco here I come!

  • My (former) advisor from Illinois is coming to Oak Ridge for a visit the week after next. I am pretty excited about this because I will get a chance to see him. I e-mailed him to tell him about the abstract (because I'd put his name on it too, since the research was done when I was his student). It's kind of funny to think of him as my former advisor, and us as colleagues, not student and teacher. It's also weird to think about my grad student days, and the fact that I am no longer a student. Until June, I'd been a student my entire life. So it's weird to think that I'm not anymore. Sometimes it feels like I'm just here for a summer internship, especially since I'm here by myself, although the weather is starting to clue me in that this is not the case.

  • I have learned a lot this week. The work I am doing seems to have a fairly steep learning curve. Sometimes I get frustrated when I don't understand, and I talk down to myself and think of myself as an impostor, that it's just a matter of time before everyone finds out how stupid I actually am. Coincidentally, the topic of the Weight Watchers meeting that I went to yesterday was "positive self-talk." People get so down on themselves when they don't lose as much weight in a week as they wanted to. But really, they should be thinking about the fact that they've already lost as much as they have. Instead of beating up on themselves, they should be pleased with what they have accomplished. I realized that I also needed to talk about myself more positively, in the learning department. I really have learned a lot. Two weeks ago, I knew absolutely nothing about wavelets, multiscale methods, and working at a national lab. Now I know a few things about those topics. I'm certainly no expert on any of them yet, but really, if you graphed time on the x-axis and the amount I know on the y-axis, it's an upward trend. The learning curve is steep, and so is the slope of that graph. It just seems like so little because I'm only looking at a small part of the overall picture.