Saturday, December 29, 2007

End-of-the-Year Meme

I've been tagged by Jane for this end-of-the-year meme. I am pretty bad about doing things when people have tagged me (I have at least two outstanding tags that I haven't done), but the timing is right this time, so here goes.

1. Will you be looking for a new job?
Nope. Not unless something unexpected happens. I just got a new job, I like my new boss and colleagues, and they like me too.

2. Will you be looking for a new relationship?
I'm always open to making new friends, but I'm not looking for a new relationship per se. Something I'd like to do is to further cultivate the friendships I have developed with some of my female colleagues.

3. New house?
No, thankfully. It would take a lot for me to move again. And if we ever do move again, as frustrating as movers are, they are less frustrating than doing it yourself.

4. What will you do differently in 08?
Now that I've found this martial arts club at work, and Jeff and I have found another enjoyable exercise activity (I may blog about it at some point), I think I will be able to "move more" (as they call exercise in Weight Watchers) and keep my body in better shape.

5. New Years resolution?
I like Jane's/Profgrrl's idea of a new years theme. I think I'd like to have a theme of "happy and healthy," highlighting the need for me to move more and to continue to eat right and spend quality time with my husband and son.

6. What will you not be doing in 08?
There are a lot of things, such as smoking, that I have never done and will continue to not do in 2008.

7. Any trips planned?
Yes. March is busy: I'll be going to a conference, going to a planning meeting for SC08, and going to my sister Laura's dissertation defense celebration. There are two more planning meetings and the actual conference to go to. Jeff and I are planning a fun getaway for the two of us this summer, in celebration of our tenth wedding anniversary. There's the annual family reunion, although I don't know if we'll have the energy to go to that too.

8. Wedding plans?
Been there, done that. I wouldn't mind attending a wedding, though :)

9. Major thing on your calendar?
There are lots of looming deadlines and so forth, but I'd say the biggest thing, the project I've never done before, is this conference committee work.

10. What can’t you wait for?
I'm pretty excited about a lot of things. I'm looking forward to my sister's dissertation celebration. I can't wait for Vinny to walk (he may get around to it just before New Year's). I can't wait for him to really start talking.

11. What would you like to see happen differently?
I'd like the political world around me to stop going to hell. Eight years ago, we were a respected world superpower with a strong military, known for our commitment to human rights. Today, anti-American sentiment is at an all-time high, the dollar is at its weakest level in my lifetime, our beleaguered military is stretched thin, and we use torture on our enemies and egregiously violate the rights of even our own citizens. These developments are entirely our fault, and I hope that the next president (who will be elected next year, although not yet in office) will be able to turn things around for us.

12. What about yourself will you be changing?
I'm always working on becoming more confident and this year will be no exception.

13. What happened in 07 that you didn’t think would ever happen?
I got a "real job."

14. Will you be nicer to the people you care about?
There is always room for improvement in my behavior towards my loved ones, and I definitely will continue to do my best to be aware of their needs and be considerate towards them.

15. Will you dress differently this year than you did in 07?
I hope to shed the last 20 lbs of maternity weight and be able to get back into the clothes I wore in 2005, and maybe some new clothes too.

16. Will you start or quit drinking?
I don't drink alcoholic beverages, and I don't plan to start. I do, however, need to drink more water during the day :)

17. Will you better your relationship with your family?
There's always room for improvement in my existing family relationships, and in my non-existing family relationships, for that matter! But I don't anticipate that the status of any of these relationships will change.

18. Will you do charity work?
That's one thing I really haven't made time for in the past. As Vinny grows older, I hope that we will introduce him to charity work and cultivate compassion in him.

19. Will you go to bars?
No, probably not.

20. Will you be nice to people you don’t know?
Of course. Even evil atheists know the golden rule :)

21. Do you expect 08 to be a good year for you?
Yes. I think it will be a good year both personally and professionally.

22. How much did you change from this time last year till now?
I changed a lot. I lost a lot of weight, the pregnancy hormones wore off, I felt like I was once again on top of things at work, I had elbow surgery (a funnybone-ectomy, as one of my colleagues called it), I got a new job, and I watched my little baby grow (which, as Jane says, really does change your life).

23. Do you plan on having a child?
I don't anticipate having another child in 2008, but we might make an addition to the family in 2009.

24. Will you still be friends with the same people you are friends with now?
Yes, I think so.

25. Major lifestyle changes?
Not that I know of.

26. Will you be moving?
Not if I can help it!

27. What will you make sure doesn’t happen in 08 that happened in 07?
I didn't publish any papers or present at any conferences in 2007 (although others did, and included my name as an author). I'm already signed up for a conference in March, and my former boss is currently reviewing a paper that I've prepared about our work, which we will submit to a journal.

28. What are your New Years Eve plans?
My dad and bonus mom are going to be here. I think we will ring in the new year with sparkling juice, like we did last year.

29. Will you have someone to kiss at midnight?
Yup. Jeff will be there.

30. One wish for 08?
That common sense may prevail throughout the world.

Now I have to tag people. I'm with Jane, I hate tagging people. So I'm going to tag people who love me in real life and will forgive me if they're unhappy with being tagged. My sisters Rachel and Laura are obvious first targets, as are my favorite sister-in-law in the entire blogosphere, Ginger, and my better half, Jeff. And my cousin Susie, who won't be overtaxed or sleep-deprived until sometime in January ;)

Anyone else who wants to play, consider yourself tagged!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Think Pink?

By some twist of fate, our beloved son has a significant number of sippy cups in hues generally associated with the female gender. He has three pink ones, and one lavender purple sippy.

The wavelength of the light reflected by the sippy cup doesn't bother him in the least. The liquid inside tastes just as good no matter what pigment is used to decorate the cup!

Sometimes I take him out in public with one of those cups. We get some looks, my camo-clad*, pink sippy-clutching lad and I. But I have to laugh, because one hundred years ago, pink was preferred for boys, because of its strong, masculine qualities. The author of the Bad Science blog quotes the fashion authorities of the time:
“There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” (Ladies' Home Journal, 1918)
“If you like the color note on the little one’s garments, use pink for the boy and blue for the girl, if you are a follower of convention.” (The Sunday Sentinel, 1914)
Somehow these colors got reversed around the time of World War II.

I felt a smile spread across my face when I read of someone else fighting against gender essentialism in a similar manner: Jeff from Feminist Allies carries a pink cell phone, and discusses the reactions his carrying of it elicits. I say, go Feminist Allies Jeff, go! It's a small thing but it makes people think about gender.

* Choices for 18-month-size boy's pants: forest camouflage (green), water camouflage (blue), desert camouflage (tan), khaki (usually cargo-style), jeans. My inner pacifist prefers the last two choices, however, I (not to mention my inner pacifist!) was not the one who purchased the majority of his clothes, and furthermore, there are more important things to worry about than the pattern on his pants. Plus, the contrast between the ultra-masculine camo and the ultra-feminine pink with purple accents sippy cup makes the act of being seen with both feel that much more subversive!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas to All, and to All a Good Night!

Hopefully the little man in the red hat with the puckish grin brought you everything you wished for as you were sleeping last night. Best wishes to you and yours, and enjoy the day!

--Rebecca et al.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Holiday Fun for All (Including the Godless)

Some people may be wondering how I, an atheist, can possibly enjoy the holiday season. After all, the alleged reason for the season is the birth of the founder of a religion in which I do not believe.

The short answer to that question is that I'm not a misanthrope. The Christmas holidays herald time off work to spend with family, holiday parties, delicious seasonal foods, beautiful seasonal music, and gift-giving and receiving. Belief in Jesus or any kind of higher power is not required in order to enjoy these holiday treats. Like every human being, I experience love and enjoy spending time with others, I savor the sensation of delicious foods on my tastebuds and beautiful music vibrating in my ears, and I feel good when I am generous and when others are generous to me.

You might be surprised to learn that I like Christmas music. Actually, if you knew my taste in music, it would be no surprise. I listen to a lot of Early Music (Medieval and Renaissance), 90% of which is religious in nature. This does not bother me in the least, because I am listening to the melody (or the polyphony!), not the words. They could be singing complete nonsense syllables for all I care.

I enjoy singing Christmas carols. The singing of carols reminds me of fond memories of childhood, times when we as a family would gather together and sing. So what if I disagree with what the lyrics are saying? I disagree with the lyrics of plenty of secular songs too: for example, I prefer red doors over black ones, but that doesn't stop me from enjoying the Rolling Stones' song Paint It Black.

In summary, I, along with plenty of other atheists, enjoy the holiday season. It doesn't make us hypocritical; we don't believe in any gods but we do believe in loving our fellow human beings and having a good time.

Happy Holidays!

I hope you are all having fantastic holidays. We are enjoying the time together as a family. On Saturday, Adam and Jody came over for the afternoon and evening, and we had a wonderful time together. Today, we had a turkey breast with potatoes, homemade rolls, and some gingerbread cake with lemon sauce for dessert. I'm planning to make some cinnamon rolls for Christmas morning, and we're going to use the leftover turkey to make some turkey tetrazzini for dinner.

Happy holidays to you all!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Supercomputing Course: Example Performance Evaluation

I bet you thought I'd never post the final installments of the supercomputing course. It's been how long? Too long! Well, I didn't forget, I just had to wait until I had the right software to make just the right graph. Enjoy!

If you examine the graph you made in the performance evaluation, you may be unpleasantly surprised by your program's performance. Alternatively, you may be quite pleased with your program's performance, but your boss or your dissertation committee want to know how you got such good results. It may be unclear as to what exactly is going on. In order to clarify things, you will want to perform a least-squares fit of your data (performance timings) to an equation that models the performance of your code.

There are three main categories into which everything that your program does will fit: communication, computation, and idle/serial. These categories are mostly self-explanatory. When you are sending and receiving data, that falls into the communication category; when you are crunching numbers, that falls into the computation category; and when one processor is doing an inherently serial operation, or when a processor is waiting for others to finish, then these actions are in the idle/serial category. We can classify each major piece of the algorithm into one of the three categories, and use this information to develop an equation that models the performance of our parallel program.

Suppose we had written a program that finds the numerical integral of a program using Monte Carlo quadrature. The idea of Monte Carlo quadrature is that we can approximate the area under a curve (in 1-D) or the volume under a surface (in 2-D) or the hypervolume under a hypersurface (in n-D) as a function of the average value of the function sampled over the problem domain. In math notation, that's V f(x) dV = V/P ∑i=1P f(xi). The accuracy of the integral is proportional to 1/√P, where P is the number of times we evaluate the function. In order to understand this example, all you really need to know is that we want to compute P different values of the function f(x), and at the end we're going to do something with them.

What follows this paragraph is some C-like pseudocode for this Monte Carlo quadrature program. When I write a program, I generally write out on a piece of paper* a basic algorithm in a code style that is similar to C but that may not be syntactically correct and that may have some commands missing (because I can't remember the exact syntax, or because I don't feel like writing them out). Notes in red are notes to the reader that I would not normally put in my pseudocode. (I also wouldn't put so many comments in my own pseudocode since I mostly know what I'm talking about already.) I recommend writing pseudocode before tackling anything but the simplest of programs.

#include <mpi.h>
#include <stdio.h>
int main(int argc, char **argv) {
  // declaration of variables
  int me, np;
  long P; /* number of function evaluations */
  double my_result;
  MPI_Status status;

  // initialization and environmental inquiry
  MPI_Init(&argc, &argv);
  MPI_Comm_rank(MPI_COMM_WORLD, &me);
  MPI_Comm_size(MPI_COMM_WORLD, &np);

  if (me == 0) {
    // manager process
    // receive input from user as to accuracy we want
    double tol;
    // tol = input (this is not proper C syntax but I will find the right syntax later)
    P = (long) 1./(tol*tol); (the (long) coerces the type, forcing it to go from type double to type long)
    long Psend = P/np; // everybody does one npth of the work

    for (int i = 1; i < np; i++) {
      // send Psend to all worker processors
      MPI_Send(&Psend, 1, MPI_LONG, i, me, MPI_COMM_WORLD);
    // now, do my own Monte Carlo
    my_result = monte_carlo(Psend);
    double final_result = my_result/np;
    for (int i = 1; i < np; i++) {
      // receive results from worker processors
      double tmp_result;
      MPI_Recv(&tmp_result, 1, MPI_DOUBLE, i, i, MPI_COMM_WORLD, &status);
      final_result += tmp_result;
    printf("final result of quadrature, for tol=%g, integral=%g", tol, final_result);
  } else {
    // worker process
    MPI_Recv(&P, 1, MPI_LONG, 0, 0, MPI_COMM_WORLD, &status);
    my_result = monte_carlo(P);
    my_result /= np;
    MPI_Send(&my_result, 1, MPI_DOUBLE, me, me, MPI_COMM_WORLD);
  return 0;

double monte_carlo(long P) {
  double answer = 0;
  for (long i = 0; i < P; i++) {
    // evaluate function at pseudorandom point
    // add it divided by P to answer (avoid overflow)
  return answer;

Let's examine this code for the different classes of operations. We could make a table detailing what basic operations occur, which processor performs them, and how many of them take place.

Which Processor?
(how many times)

All (1)

Receive input,
compute how
much work each
processor does
Manager (1)


Manager (N)


(1 each)

All (1)


(1 each)


Manager (N)
integral (sum
results from all

Manager (1)

All (1)

The total walltime is the sum of the time spent computing, communicating, and in serial activities. So we could work out a formula that would approximate the performance of the algorithm. Let's start with the computation.

TNcomputation = TNmonte-carlo + TNsum.

We can break this down further, because the time it takes to do the Monte Carlo part of the computation is proportional to the total number of Monte Carlo points (P = 1/tol2) and inversely proportional to the number of processors (N). The amount of time required to perform the sum is insignificant, so we can treat it as a constant. So we have

TNcomputation = P/N tmonte-carlo + tsum
= 1/(N tol2) tmonte-carlo + tsum,

where tmonte-carlo is the amount of time for a single Monte Carlo point to be computed.

As for the communication, we do N sends and then N receives. They are all done sequentially, and it is reasonable to assume that they each take the same amount of time, so

TNcommunication = 2N tcommunication.

The cost of communication is equal to the startup cost plus the bandwidth cost. But since we are dealing with such small messages (a single long or double) we can neglect the bandwith cost, so tcommunication = tstartup.

Finally, the third category takes all remaining operations into consideration.

TNserial = Tinit/finalize + Tserial.

There's actually no way to distinguish between the tasks in this category in terms of time, since they do not vary with N. So our final equation looks like this:

TN = TNcomputation + TNcommunication + TNnon-parallel
= 1/(N tol2) tmonte-carlo + tsum + 2N tstartup + tserial.

We would want to do a strong scaling study to provide some data to which we can fit this equation. We would run the program on different numbers of processors (most conveniently, powers of two), running it at least three times and taking the average run time for each N. Suppose we got the following timings** from our strong scaling study, for tol = 10-4:

Average Wall Time (s)

We could make a log-log plot of the results, and see that the algorithm scales pretty well. (You can see this without making a plot by looking at the numbers, and observing that 30.0 is close to one half of 58.6, 15.2 is close to one half of 30.0, etc.) We are not too far off from ideal. The big difference appears to be at the tail end, where the walltime doesn't halve when the processor count is doubled. Let's see how well we can fit these timings to our formula. We have to solve the non-negative least-squares problem

I solved it using Matlab's lsqnonneg function (non-negative least squares), and obtained

We can graph all these results and see how the algorithm performed and how well our function fits the results. The figure shows a log-log plot of number of processors versus walltime. The solid blue line with the blue dots shows the actual performance data. The dashed red line shows our least-squares fit, and the turquoise dotted line shows ideal scaling.

As the number of processors grows, the computation time is not quite halved. We would expect this because the amount of communication is proportional to the number of processors, so doubling the number of processors doubles the amount of communication required. So as the number of processors grows, the amount of work per processor shrinks and the amount of communication per processor grows, and time spent in communication begins to dominate the wall time.

*pre-arm trouble. Nowadays I either minimally sketch it on a piece of paper, or I type pseudocode into a Word document on my laptop and print it out before coding the real thing on my desktop Linux box.

** These numbers were pulled from my posterior. Yes, I totally made them up. Trust me, gubmint auditors, I did not waste valuable computing resources on a blog entry!

Next topic: More on scalability

Just What I've Been Missing

The thing I miss the most about Illinois is my karate class.* As a child, I'd always harbored a secret desire to study the martial arts, and I was able to fulfill my dream by taking shito-ryu karate through the park district. I was a very slow learner, but I was determined, and by the end of my three-year tenure, not only did I have a brown belt, but I was teaching children's karate and even giving belt tests. Not bad for a person who used to trip over her own shadow!

One of the most disappointing things about moving down here was that I really couldn't find a replacement for that class. Nobody taught anything that resembled shito-ryu, so if I took a class I would essentially have to start over completely. But then, life got in the way (baby, elbow surgery) and I gave up my quest for the perfect martial arts class.

On Monday, I looked in my workplace's weekly newsletter, and saw that there was going to be a women's self-defense class offered by the Other Division Martial Arts Club (where Other Division is the name of another division in the lab). Why had I never heard of this club in the 2+ years I've been here? And, I saw that the instructor for said self-defense class was a man with many martial arts credentials, including a 4th-degree black belt in shito-ryu karate! I thought I was going to die of excitement!

So I emailed the instructor for the class, introduced myself and my martial arts background, and inquired about the martial arts club (in particular, was it open to people outside that division?). He replied that it was open to everyone at the lab and he invited me to come to one of their classes, which was held at noon yesterday, where he was to be teaching muay thai.

So I went. I don't think I've had that much fun in a long time! It's not that blocking, punching, and kicking are a barrel of monkeys, exactly; it's just that moving my body in predefined sets of offensive and defensive moves is something that has been missing in my life for over two years. As the endorphins rushed through my body, I felt a certain bliss that I had nearly forgotten existed.

They meet on other days and at other times, and some of the other members teach different martial arts at those times, including kung fu and some flavor of karate. So I definitely plan to go back again, and sample some of those other classes, and maybe pick two that are my favorites and go with them.

* A close second is missing my aunt and uncle and their kids, but this is lessened by the fact that we have Vinny's godparents in town, who may as well be family.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Fun with Granny and Granddad

This past weekend, Jeff's parents came down for a whirlwind visit. They were bringing Christmas presents for their favorite baby grandson (and a few for his parents, too!). They arrived late Friday night, and returned home on Sunday, so really we had only one full day with them.

Jeff and I cooked them a delicious breakfast that morning (I had to get those pancakes in there somehow). There were various activities throughout the day. We had them open their Christmas presents from us. They were thrilled by the fleece blanket with a picture of Vinny on it (for Granny) and the tie with one-inch pictures of Vinny on it (for Granddad). Jeff and his dad went to pick out a Christmas tree for us. They brought home a very nice Frasier fir. Meanwhile, Vinny and his Granny played a lot together. Granny also fed Vinny his lunch.

That evening, we went out to dinner at a restaurant by the river. The view was great, the food was delicious, and the company was fantastic. It was a good ending to a great day.

When Granny and Granddad left the next day, Vinny was distraught. He cried for about ten minutes because he was so sad that they had left. This is a new development for him. He cries when Jeff or I leave the room, but he's never cried for anyone other than us. But I can definitely understand why he did, because his grandparents are just crazy about him and showed him a lot of attention while they were here.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


This week I decided, since my workload was a bit less demanding, that it would be a good time to get a little more organized. I got the idea from reading some messages from some other women scientists that maybe a wiki would be a good thing to try using.

I realized through the discussions that it would make a good centralized repository for all my bright ideas. Back in the days before arm trouble, I used to have a three-ring binder in which I placed all the papers I had scrawled my brilliant plans on. Usually I would take paper from the recycle bin that had printing only on one side, punch holes in it, and write on the blank side. I organized everything chronologically, making sure to put the date on every page. I still have several notebooks full of my notes from graduate school.

When I was a postdoc, I used Word documents rather than handwritten pages. This saved my hand from the torture that was writing, but otherwise it was a system a lot like the one I had in graduate school. Instead of a three-ring binder with pages in chronological order, I had a directory in which I stored my musings. I still have those documents, which I transferred to my new laptop when I changed jobs.

Both of these methods were useful at the time, but a wiki has distinct advantages over them both. First, it is more searchable than the binders or Word documents. It has a built-in search feature, so I don't have to remember when I did the work or what I entitled the document in order to find it. Second, it's inter-linkable, so I can link pages together and organize them in multiple ways. There are different types of wiki pages that you can create: one of them is an index page, so all you have to do is have a link to the index page in every page that you want to show up on that page. So for example, I have a Software Tips page, that has links to all the pages on software. So I have a page on PETSc, and a page on TotalView, for example, and each of those is automagically indexed by this Software Tips page.

I'm using the Desktop Wiki version of MoinMoin, and so far I'm pretty happy with it. I set it up so that when I log in, MoinMoin automatically starts and launches a browser window with my wiki in it. I had fun learning about creating Mac applications, and getting everything all set up on my machine.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

More on Names

I've had a lot of good comments on my post on naming. Here are some more thoughts.

It seems like a given that Lenna should be retired, but "promiscuous" and "master-slave" are both descriptive, so why should we given them up? I'm going to focus on "master-slave" for the sake of simplicity; a similar argument against promiscuous exists.

First, there is an equally-descriptive, oppression-neutral term that can be used: "manager-worker." Sure, managers sometimes oppress their workers, but theoretically speaking, workers can go find other jobs. And in cases like factory workers in third world countries who work for pennies and owe their employers for the privilege of working there, that's actually slave labor being relabeled as free labor. Slavery still exists in this world, there is no getting around that fact.

Second, the problem is not that using the "master-slave" terminology causes conscious bias; the problem is that it elicits subconscious bias. I'm not saying that anyone hears the term "master-slave" and starts spouting racial epithets! I'm saying that just as god-thoughts and civic-minded thoughts have a positive influence upon social behavior, thoughts of injustice negatively influence social behavior. According to the study referenced in the link above, the subjects of the experiment didn't even have to believe in god for the god-thoughts to have a positive influence upon their generosity. Likewise, you don't have to believe in the inferiority of other races for "master-slave" to have an adverse impact on your social behavior.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Exercise and Moving More

My sister Rachel has a post up about exercise. She says that exercise doesn't actually make you feel better; what it does is keep you from feeling bad.

You can tell that Rachel and I are sisters. We both hate exercise, but we enjoy certain activities despite the fact that they involve exercise. Rachel enjoys dancing. I loved karate because it was so much fun (and incidentally, I got exercise). I hate to sweat, but I would do it for karate because I enjoyed it so much.

I haven't found a suitable form of exercise since I moved to Tennessee. Part of that is the fact that I have much less free time. And part of it is my $%&*# elbow. But most of it is just plain inertia.

I was thinking of taking up belly dancing, or tai chi, or kung fu, but that would involve taking the initiative and finding a class, and then signing up for it, and then going to it. And I feel bad enough about all the time I spend away from my family because of my job, and I would hate to take even more time away from them just to do something like that. So I have plenty of good excuses not to exercise.

Our Weight Watchers leader encourages us to just move more. I do the small things, like parking farther from the store entrance and taking the stairs. Every day I climb a huge hill to get into my car for the drive home. Also, there's a circuit I take whenever I get up to use the restroom or to talk to my boss or the secretary, so anytime I get up I walk a tenth of a mile. It's not much, but it's better than nothing.

I realize that this low level of exercise is not helping with my weight loss. Last time I was in Weight Watchers, I was getting an average of six hours of exercise a week, because twice a week, I taught children's karate and took the adult class, and then I also walked to school at least once a week. I really need to figure out a way to move more.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

What's in a Name?

What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title....
-- Juliet, in Romeo and Juliet, Act II Scene 2

I work in a heavily male-dominated field. Few people are crazy enough to get a Ph.D. in computer science, and a minority of those who are that crazy are women. The applied math area has more women than other computer science fields, but that's not saying a lot.

Because of the male-dominated nature of the field, there are overlooked areas of bias. For example, Lenna, the picture that everyone in the image processing field uses to test their image processing algorithms, is from Playboy. Sure, it's just a cropped piece of the full-page spread and we don't get to see anything work-unsafe, but just the same, this seminal picture originated in a magazine that reinforces the objectification and commoditization of women.

There are plenty of other "politically-incorrect" standards in computer science, too. A process that accepts messages from any other process is known as promiscuous. An algorithm that involves one process assigning work to other processes is known as a master-slave algorithm (although thankfully, master-slave is being replaced by manager-worker).

Why should I care about the picture of Lenna? I'm not being objectified. Why should I care about so-called promiscuous processes? After all, I don't sleep around. And why would I (a white woman) or even anyone who's African-American give two hoots about calling an algorithm a master-slave algorithm? After all, none of us are in bonds.

The reason is because Juliet was wrong. Names do matter. If there were a machine that could perform an objective measurement of sweetness of scent, then sure, a rose would always have the same number of sweetness units, no matter if we called it a rose or a skunk.

But it's not machines that are determining the sweetness! It's people, and if they have preconceived notions about the object they are about to smell, they won't measure the sweetness the same way.

For example, if I come up to you with two paper bags and I say, "smell this rose" and begin moving one of the bags towards your face, you will react very differently than if I say, "smell this dirty diaper" and move the other bag towards your face. Even if both bags really contain roses, you will probably turn your head and try to avoid smelling the one labeled "dirty diaper." And if both bags actually contain dirty diapers, you will be unpleasantly surprised when taking a whiff if it was the bag that I had claimed held a rose.

Similarly, our preconceived notions about others will impact the way in which we view them. We are all marinated in the brine of modern-day society, so even if we don't hold the prevailing beliefs about women and minorities, we are aware of them, and they can distract us from thinking about others or even ourselves in an objective way.

So even if we do not believe that women are sex objects, Lenna reminds us that they are. And even if we believe that having multiple sex partners has the same moral value whether it's done by men or women, the term promiscuous, which is applied overwhelmingly to women, reminds us of that double standard. And even if we believe in the value of all people regardless of their skin color, master-slave terminology reminds us of the fact that some people in this country were once forced to work against their wills and were considered inferior, based on their skin color.

I wish that Juliet's youthful idealism could prevail. I used to think that she was right, but I have seen too much evidence to the contrary. I can only hope that as our society advances, all people will be viewed as human, independent of their gender, color, ancestry, religion, class, etc.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

All about Vinny

I realized that I haven't written much about Vinny lately. This is not because he hasn't done anything interesting; it has more to do with my lack of spare time. Anyhow, the purpose of this entry is to remedy that oversight.

Vinny is growing bigger and taller every day. I was away from him for a week when I was at the supercomputing conference, and when I came home I hardly recognized him because he had changed so much in just that short time! He isn't walking yet, but I think it is just a matter of time. He can go from sitting to standing without holding on to anything, and he can stand unassisted for a while, but he's kind of like Wyle E. Coyote in that once he realizes that he's standing, he falls.

He hates to wear socks or shoes or anything on his feet. Footed sleepers work only because he can't pull the feet off. So we have invested in several of those for the "cold" "winter" nights. (The nights aren't that cold, but it can get chilly if you're an active sleeper like he is, and don't have any blankets over your body.)

He has the sweetest, most generous heart I've ever seen in a thirteen-month-old. He recently realized that when he bites me, it hurts me. Ever since then, he has stuck my finger in his mouth, but he has only nibbled on it, rather than clamping down really hard like he used to. Also, he's been very generous with his food and drink for several months now. He'll feed himself a cheerio then offer one to me. He drinks some milk from his sippy cup and then offers it to me. And he is so overjoyed when you accept his generosity. A smile grows across his face and he claps his hands.

The exception to this generosity is when there's an apple involved. He has a lot of teeth (13!) so I let him eat some pieces of raw apple (peel removed) one day almost a month ago when I was making baked apples. He really enjoyed it, and ate every single piece I offered him. Then, last weekend, I was eating an apple while he was sitting on my lap, and he was really interested in it. So at first I pulled off some chunks and fed them to him, but that was not enough for him. I let him bite some apple off the core for himself, and he loved that. I ate the entire outside of the apple, but he ate most of the (edible) interior.

Today, I got an apple from the bowl of fruit and he looked at me with excitement. He was very impatient as I washed it off, and he immediately wanted to bite into it himself. But I told him that I had to eat the peel layer, but he could eat from the interior. We sat down together and he immediately grabbed my wrist with both his little hands, the wrist of the hand that was holding the apple. He tried to pull it towards himself, and I had to move my head forward to sneak in a bite before he brought the apple to his own mouth. I turned it around to a part where he could eat, and let him take a bite. Periodically, when his mouth was sufficiently full, he would loosen his grip on my wrist and deign to allow me a bite of the apple. But when he wanted more, he pulled it right back. So he may be generous with his milk, his cereal, and his crackers, but not with apples!

Not only is he a generous baby (with the exception of apples) but he is incredibly happy, too. The only time he is cranky is when he gets really tired or if he is in pain. He is going through some separation anxiety and will cry when either of his parents leave the room, even if the other one is still there, but he gets over it quickly. But otherwise, he is almost always as happy as can be. I took him shopping at Kmart today, and there were so many interesting things to see, and so many people to watch, that he couldn't have been happier!

He brings a lot of joy to everyone's lives, and mine is no exception. I was kind of nervous about the idea of having a baby, but I'm so glad that we did!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Touched by His Noodly Appendage

My sister Laura is a scholar of religion, finishing up her Ph.D. in religious studies. Last week she attended her professional society's meetings, where she had many interviews but managed to find time to attend a session on the religious implications of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a parody religion born out of frustration with "Intelligent Design" advocates. Her account of the session was very interesting, and I encourage you to read it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

In Which a Deer Pulls at My Heartstrings

I was coming home from a productive day of work last night, taking my usual route. I turned left from part D to part C of the map, and I had to stop immediately, because the car in front of me had come to a complete stop. I leaned my body from side to side, trying to see what had stopped him, and I could make out enough to see the body of a deer, lying in the road. But soon I was surprised and horrified to see it get up and attempt to cross the road: surprised because I thought it was dead, and horrified because its back legs had been completely obliterated.

I could see the pain and the fear in the deer's eyes as it dragged its lifeless backside across the road with the strength of its front legs. It collapsed when it got to the middle turn lane, rested a bit, and picked itself up again. I called 911 from my cellphone, and informed the operator of the location of the deer. It would not be suffering much longer.

After I got off the phone, I began to cry. Accidents happen, but whatever motorist hit this deer did not bother to stop, or to call 911, and instead left an animal to suffer. Death is a natural consequence of life, and suffering is far too commonplace for my tastes, but I couldn't help thinking about the situation from the poor deer's perspective. Is that how I would want my final moments? To suffer pointlessly, thanks to the insensitivity of a fellow creature on this earth?

And then my mind drifted to war. Our brave soldiers come home without legs, like this deer, or with their faces completely gone, or their brains damaged, etc., and all due to the insensitivity of their fellow human beings: the lack of compassion of our leaders, who send them into a pointless war; the cruelty of the people who set roadside bombs; the bloodthirstiness of psychopaths on both sides of the conflict, engaged in a Holy War. These soldiers are people's children, caught in the middle of this horror!

I could not, in good conscience, send anyone's children to die except as a very last resort. (I cried over a deer. If my son died, I don't know what I would do! So there's no way I could sentence someone else to that fate.) Some may consider me weak, but I don't think so. There are plenty of more effective methods of conflict resolution. Nonviolent communication, which involves listening and understanding the grievances of the other side, is a good way to start.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


We had a great Thanksgiving. Our friends Adam and Jody came over for Thanksgiving dinner. We made a goose rather than a turkey, which was interesting, but I think maybe next time we'll go for something more traditional.

The dinner menu included the aforementioned goose, giblet gravy made from said goose, apple-raisin stuffing, corn pudding, mashed potatoes, sweet potato patties, broccoli casserole, corn, rolls (that turned out more like hard tack for some reason; where have my breadmaking abilities gone?!), cranberry sauce, apricot sauce, Jody's grandmother's stuffing, and banana pudding, pumpkin pie, and brownies for dessert.

It was a feast of magnificent proportions. The food was good overall, even if the rolls were pretty bad. I was actually pleased by our gravy. I had never had much success making gravy, but this recipe (from The Joy of Cooking) was easy to follow and worked out really well. I really liked Jody's grandmother's stuffing recipe. It was delicious.

We had a good, low-key Thanksgiving, and I'm really glad that we could share it with our friends.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Judgment Day Program

While I was on travel, Nova had a show about the Dover, Pennsylvania Intelligent Design trial. I didn't get to watch it when it aired on television, but I did watch it this evening on my computer. I really enjoyed the program, and gained perspective about the trial and the situation that precipitated it.

It was obvious that the purpose of the members of the school board was to introduce this religiously-based "theory" into the classroom, and I am glad that Judge Jones, a George W. Bush appointee, saw through their shenanigans and ruled against teaching "Intelligent Design" in the classroom.

"Intelligent design" is not science. For starters, it is not testable, it is not falsifiable, and it does not contribute anything in the way of explanations of natural processes. If it has none of the characteristics of science, it cannot be science, and it does not belong in a science class.

Of course it is not unexpected that I would not be on the side of so-called intelligent design, which is simply Biblical literalism dressed in fancy clothes and wearing lipstick. Anyone who believes that the earth is on the order of thousands rather than billions of years old lacks mathematical perspective. And anyone who thinks that we are intelligently designed has evidently never suffered from ulnar nerve entrapment. Because let me tell you, having a major nerve basically exposed, sitting right below the skin of your elbow? That's fucking moronic. Even my orthopedist -- who is not, to the best of my knowledge, omniscient -- figured out a better place to put it.

Adventures in Probability (or, Why I Did Not Gamble in Reno)

As you might surmise, I made it back safe and sound from Reno last night. I had a good time at the conference, but I am very glad to be home.

Reno (like the rest of Nevada, I imagine) is chock full of slot machines, video poker, keno games, and other opportunities to gamble. There were slot machines in the airport terminal. There are video gambling consoles at the bar in many restaurants. They had keno runners in the restaurants, so you didn't have to interrupt your eating in order to gamble. The cost of lodging is relatively cheap, because it is subsidized by the gambling in the casinos.

The casinos felt incredibly depressing to me. They are designed for optimal gambling output, I imagine. They have no windows and the lighting makes it feel like it's the middle of the night, even at noon. You lose all sense of the passing of time.

I am of the opinion that the lottery is a tax on stupidity and desperation. Sure, somebody wins, but the probability of that person being you is lower than the probability that you will get struck by lightning. Similarly, I don't see the appeal of gambling games of chance. Maybe it is because I am not much of a risk-taker. Sure, I take risks, but I mentally calculate the probability of success before I take the jump. And all I have to do is take one look at the opulence of the companies that run casinos to know that gambling is a risk not worth taking!

As I was eating breakfast yesterday, I was offered the "opportunity" to play $1 Keno. In this "game," you pick any three numbers from 1 to 80. The casino draws twenty numbers from that same range, and if your three numbers were all drawn, you can win $35 and a $15 meal voucher.

I did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation of my odds. Roughly speaking, there is a 1 in 4 chance that any number I pick will be drawn. So the chances of all my numbers being drawn is roughly (1/4)3 = 1/64 ≈ 1.56%. I knew that this calculation was not exact, but it gave me enough information to know that this game was set up in favor of the house.

Every time you play, you pay them a dollar. Once in 64 games, they have to give you $35 plus the meal voucher. If you spent the entire thing, that's still only $50 that they've given out, whereas they've taken in $64, for a net profit of $14.

The exact odds are actually lower. Here's how to compute them:

Let's suppose that you're picking numbers in the range 1-80 and that the casino has already drawn their numbers. The chance that the first number you pick is one that they drew is 20/80, because there are 20 numbers that they drew out of a total of 80. Let's suppose that you got that one right. What are your chances of getting the next one right? Well, there are now 19 possible right numbers out of a total of 79 numbers (because we've picked one of the right numbers and we can't pick it again). So the probability that we got this one right is 19/79. Similarly, if we have been lucky so far and are picking the third number, the probability that we pick another drawn number is 18/78 (because we've picked two of the right numbers and we can't pick them again). So the exact odds are 20/80*19/79*18/78 = 6840/492,960 ≈ 1.39%.

I wrote a little program to illustrate how this keno game works. It's short enough that I'll include my source right here.

#include <stdio.h>
#include <math.h>

int main() {
  long i = 0, ngames = 10000000, nwins = 0, npicked2 = 0, npicked1 = 0;
  int nmatched = 0, ndrawn = 20, nmax = 80, rand0, rand1, rand2;

  for (i = 0; i < ngames; i++) {
    rand0 = rand()%nmax + 1;
    do {
      rand1 = rand()%nmax + 1;
    } while (rand1 == rand0);
    do {
      rand2 = rand()%nmax + 1;
    } while ((rand2 == rand0) || (rand2 == rand1));
    nmatched = ((rand0 <= ndrawn) + (rand1 <= ndrawn) + (rand2 <= ndrawn));
    if (nmatched == 3) {
    } else if (nmatched == 2) {
    } else if (nmatched == 1) {
  printf("Out of %ld games, you won %ld of them, or %f percent\n", ngames, nwins, (100.0*nwins)/ngames);
  printf("You picked exactly two numbers correctly %ld times, or %f percent\n", npicked2, (100.0*npicked2)/ngames);
  printf("You picked exactly one number correctly %ld times, or %f percent\n", npicked1, (100.0*npicked1)/ngames);
  printf("You picked no numbers correctly %ld times, or %f percent\n", (ngames-nwins-npicked2-npicked1), (100.0*(ngames-nwins-npicked2-npicked1))/ngames);
  printf("You paid %ld dollars, and won back %ld dollars\n", ngames, 50*nwins);
  printf("For a profit of %ld dollars (for the casino)\n", ngames - 50*nwins);
  return 0;
And here's the output of my program:

theano:~/misc rebecca$ gcc -o keno keno.c -lm
theano:~/misc rebecca$ ./keno
Out of 10000000 games, you won 139116 of them, or 1.391160 percent
You picked exactly two numbers correctly 1389265 times, or 13.892650 percent
You picked exactly one number correctly 4307469 times, or 43.074690 percent
You picked no numbers correctly 4164150 times, or 41.641500 percent
You paid 10000000 dollars, and won back 6955800 dollars
For a profit of 3044200 dollars (for the casino)

So as you can see, if I play keno ten million times, I pay ten million dollars and earn back nearly $6.96 million (including the meal voucher), resulting in a profit of over $3 million for the casino. So they earn a 30% profit on my "purchase" of keno.

This was the simplest game that they offered, but it is illustrative of all the games in a casino. You can see why I did not play any games of chance.

For keno, they draw actual balls. I wonder what sort of random number generation techniques they use for the video gambling games. I am curious to know, because it might be possible to take advantage of flaws in the random number generation. I've also read about people who used a computer program to defeat roulette. They used their cell phone to gather information about the current velocity and deceleration of the wheel and compute in which quadrant the wheel will stop. They had enough success at it that they made over £1.2 million. Not bad for a night's work!

Without fancy equipment like those three had at their disposal, your chances of overcoming probability are slim at best. My advice: don't bother. Keep your money and spend it on something else.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Conference Blogging, Part Three

On Tuesday, I collected a lot of swag and finished up a lot of hunts. I'm now registered to win a laptop, an iPod, a PS3, and a Wii, and probably many other things I can't remember. The thing is, some drawings you have to be present for, while others you don't. If I were more organized, I would have written these things down.

I also went out to lunch with my classmate from graduate school. And I gave him an invitation to the vendor party I was planning to attend that night. We went to the party together that evening. He had never seen such a thing before. At the front of the room, the vendor had an ice sculpture of their logo. There was a lot of delicious but expensive food, and an open bar. I don't know how much money they must have spent on this party, but it was a lot. Many of my colleagues were at this party, and I also saw some more people I knew from way back when.

After the party, I was going to split a cab with a colleague who is staying in the same hotel as me, but he wanted to go out for dessert with another guy, so I tagged along. While we were out, we met up with a Somewhat Important Guy, who said we could all get a ride with a Pretty Important Guy to go back to our hotel. It was going to be a little crowded but it seemed like it would work out. Unfortunately, a Very Important Guy then decided that he wanted to go in the car, so my colleague and I were uninvited. The Somewhat Important Guy uninvited himself and the three of us took a cab back to the hotel.

Yesterday I worked at our booth. I got a big breakfast at a buffet restaurant in my hotel before heading over to the convention center. The buffet was enormous, and the food wasn't bad. I had wanted pancakes, but unfortunately their pancakes were kind of dried out and not very fresh. But they had a chef making omelets to order, so I partook of that.

Standing on a concrete floor really takes a toll on your feet and back. I think that a massage should be a reimbursable expense if you've spent the day working at the booth! I enjoyed talking to people when they came to our booth, and hooking them up with other people who knew more about the topic they were interested in than I did. It was especially nice because people who came to our booth were generally interested in what we do, rather than on the prowl for prizes. We can't give away fabulous prizes like the companies can.

In the evening, I went out to dinner with four men I work with, before coming back to my room and turning in early. There were parties but I was too tired to go out to them. Also, since I'd already had a really big meal that day (breakfast) I figured I should really just eat a salad for dinner, and they don't usually serve those at parties.

Plans for today: go to some of the technical program talks, pick up good tickets for tonight's conference banquet, and go to the banquet. They're having the Blue Man Group perform for us tonight. If you want to see them live inside the theater rather than on a screen outside, you have to get tickets. I plan to be one of the first people in line.

Tomorrow I leave for home. It has been a fun trip, but I am definitely looking forward to being back at home and seeing my family again!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Conference Blogging, Part Two

Yesterday was the opening of the conference. I caught up with some more acquaintances in the morning. In the summer of 2004, I spent a week teaching minority students in the DC area to use a supercomputer (this is the origin of my supercomputing course). So I saw the woman who coordinated that experience, and she told me that some of the people from that workshop were at the conference.

I first ran into the father of one of the kids who was involved, and then I saw the director of the foundation that these kids participated in. It was really great to hear about what they were all up to. That workshop was really a launching point for them. They put together a small cluster, and they gained more experience with Linux, and they did a lot more work and participated in many competitions and conferences over the past three years.

I heard about the kids, who are no longer kids but rather college students, and was pleased to learn that they were now juniors and seniors majoring in computer science. So I feel good that my efforts that summer made such a difference in their lives!

We had our booth meeting in the afternoon, and after that I went back to the hotel to rest up a bit before changing into the shirt provided by my lab and going to the opening gala event. I mostly wandered around picking up awesome swag and some pretty good food. I wandered around for much of the time with my former boss (who is still my boss for 1/3 of my time). At some point, I wandered down to the booth where my friend from grad school was, and let him know I scored us some tickets for a vendor party tonight. I got to meet some of the people he works with, but I didn't tell them any embarrassing stories about him (mostly because I don't know any).

I really had Vinny in mind as I went around collecting swag. I got an inflatable globe ball, a mini-football, a glowing bouncy ball, a pen/bubble wand, and a light-up plastic martini glass, amongst other things.

I have a few scavenger hunts to do. I can collect a bracelet USB drive by going around to a couple of sites. I can be in a drawing to win a TOMTOM if I visit eight booths (just six more to go). And I entered into a lot of drawings for iPods and other fun things.

Today's plans: there are some interesting talks in the technical program that I plan to attend. Also, I'm going to walk around the floor a lot and finish up my scavenger hunts, while getting exercise! Then, tonight is the vendor party that I'm going to attend with my friend from grad school. I plan on having a good time at the party, and also harassing some people who work for this particular vendor, to make them do what they need to do for our big machine.

The former boss who got me into going to these conferences has now recruited me to be on the committee for next year's conference. He even asked my current boss if he would pay for me to travel to the meetings, and my boss thought it would be a great idea. So, I'm going to be the co-chair for signs at next year's meeting. If you get lost next year, I apologize in advance. Although, as directionally impaired as I am, I think I might be the ideal person to decide where signs are needed.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Conference Blogging, Part One

Yesterday I got up at 4 a.m. so I could catch my 6:50 a.m. flight. First we flew to Chicago and from there we flew on to Reno. There were about a half-dozen people from work who were on these flights. The flight to Reno was packed, and I was seated in the middle of a row, between a man who was also going to the conference, and a 77-year-old woman who was going to spend a week with her daughters at a resort in Reno.

She was a fascinating woman, and as we talked, she mentioned that she had always wanted to learn to do Sudoku puzzles. Well, she was seated next to the right person for that! So we did the easy puzzle in the airline magazine together. I explained the rules to her, and showed her where one of the numbers went, and why. Then I periodically gave her hints as to what to look for next. She was an amazingly intelligent person, and she quickly caught on. (If she weren't 77, I might have tried to talk her into becoming a mathematician or computer scientist. She obviously had the ability for it.) She was so excited about the puzzle! Every time she'd get another number put into the puzzle, she would clap and laugh with glee. She was excitedly planning to call her sister and tell her about it, and also to buy a book of Sudoku for her flight home. I really feel like if I do nothing else this trip, I have accomplished something by giving this woman the knowledge to do Sudoku puzzles.

I took their shuttle bus to the hotel (which, like all the other hotels around here, does not have the word "hotel" in its name; it is a casino first and resort second) and checked into my room. It's pretty nice. I am on the 23rd floor, and I have a nice view of a mountain peak and the city lights below.

I took the conference shuttle to the convention center, and registered for the conference. While I was there, I looked for a dear friend of mine, who was my boss's boss at one point when I was in graduate school, and gave him a huge hug when I finally found him. I knew he'd be around, because he always serves on the committees for this conference, and in fact, he is the one who first clued me into going to this conference as a student volunteer in 2002. We talked for a few minutes, and I introduced him to my boss, who had not formally met him before, but then he had to go to a meeting, leaving me to my own devices for the next few hours before the evening's exhibitor banquet.

I was sitting on a bench, trying to stay awake, when a former classmate of mine from graduate school happened by. We sat and talked for over two hours, before he went back to his hotel. But we are going to get together at some point to go out to dinner. We were talking and neither of us knows how many other former classmates of ours are going to be at this conference. I know of at least two, but I don't think that they are people he knows.

The exhibitor party was held at the National Bowling Hall of Fame. You could bowl if you wanted, but I knew that even when I wasn't so exhausted from a long day of travel, that bowling was probably not the best activity for my elbow. I went to the party and had some food, but I was so tired that I didn't stay for long. I was in bed by 8:30 local time, and then I woke up at about 4 local time, but I kept myself in bed as long as I could stand it. I realized that I am succumbing to the cold I had been trying to avoid, so I need to be careful and take it easy if I can.

Today's plans are to go to our booth meeting this afternoon, and to the opening gala in the evening. I will try to roam around the booths and see if I can find any other friends. I'll try to keep you updated, as I do have free internet access at my hotel (thanks, special deal for conference attendees!).

Friday, November 09, 2007

Conference Time!!!

I'm leaving for Reno, Nevada on Sunday, for SC07, the biggest conference in the HPC field. Does anyone of my vast readership happen to be going to this too?

I love this conference. This will be my third time: I attended in 2002, 2004, and now 2007. You don't go for the groundbreaking research. You go to it for the spectacular showmanship, the free food, and the giveaways! This year, I'm trying to win a PS3, a radio-controlled Porsche, an iPod touch, a Wii, bluetooth-enabled sunglasses, a handheld GPS, a solar power computer charger, a digital frame, and/or a server. Also, I'm betting that Microsoft will have some sort of game or scavenger hunt where you can win an Xbox 360, and other companies who haven't sent me e-mails will also have some good giveaways.

In addition to all these things I'm going to try to win but probably won't, there are lots of free giveaways. I am going to collect a 1 GB flash drive, lots of t-shirts, lanyards, pens, pencils, decks of cards, stuffed animals, mints, tote bags, and more. The weirdest giveaway I ever got was a screwdriver. It's a pretty nice one, actually, and we use it sometimes. The most surreal giveaway I ever got was a cut-out model Earth Simulator. It was made of card stock, and you could cut it out and construct your own 3-D model of the Earth Simulator.

I'm also looking forward to meeting up with old friends, some of whom I originally met at SC02. My then-boss's boss was and still is quite active in this conference, and I am looking forward to seeing him again. My current boss is also on a number of committees for this conference.

And I'm looking forward to the parties. I haven't been out of graduate school long enough to turn down free food!

During the conference I will be working at our booth for part of the time at least. I was asked to man the booth, but I told them that I was unable to do that. Instead, I told them that I would be more than happy to woman it at any time. So I'm going to be womaning the booth for most of the afternoon on Wednesday!

On Competitiveness

My sister Rachel has written a very interesting post about giftedness and competitiveness, which brought up a lot of thoughts. I have written a few things about my struggles with studying after I had been able to coast through school for most of my life, and I've written about overachievement, but I've never talked much about competitiveness.

I wouldn't call myself a particularly competitive person. When I was a 4-year-old, I threw such a fit in Sunday School that they had to call my mother out of the church service to calm me down. I was upset because we were playing musical chairs, and not everybody had a chair, which I didn't think was fair. I wanted everybody to have a chance to sit down when the music stopped!

The times I feel the most competitive are the times when I feel insecure about myself and my abilities. For example, I was pretty jealous of a woman who started karate two years after I did, but we both took the brown belt test at the same time. I felt competitive with her, until I really thought about the situation.

Different people have different talents. She was naturally athletic, whereas I was not. There was bound to be some talent that I had that she lacked. If I compared myself with myself pre-karate, it was easy to see how far I had gotten and how, in a sense, my brown belt was more of an accomplishment than hers. In many ways I am more proud of my brown belt in karate than I am of my doctorate.

If I feel confident in my abilities, I rarely feel competitive. For example, I work with a lot of people who are a lot smarter than me, and who could be considered "better" scientists than I am. Most of these smart people I work with are really nice, and I don't feel competitive with them. That person published ten papers last year? Wow! That's really impressive.

There are a few people who bring out that insecurity in me, though, and it makes me feel like I have to "show them." Many times they are people who are insecure themselves. I've learned from experience that just because somebody tries to make their problem into a problem for you, it doesn't mean that you have to accept it. So usually, I'm able to take a deep breath and unhook myself.

I'm not interested in status symbols or flashiness. That's why I say that my goal is to be the best second-rate mathematician in the world. It is a good description of the degree of my competitiveness and the attitude I have about it. Of course I want to be good at what I do. I'll do my work and my superiors will be pleased by the quality of it. But measures are meaningless, just like the phrase "the best second-rate mathematician in the world."

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Cake-Baking Encore

What happens when you tell all your colleagues about your incredible sombrero-shaped cake, your boss, who was at that party, vouches for your mad baking skillz, and your workplace holds a Thanksgiving potluck dinner?

You bake a turkey-shaped cake for the potluck, of course!

The baking extravaganza began on Sunday evening. Since I had signed up to bring a chocolate cake, I made cocoa devil's food cake, once again from The Joy of Cooking. Incidentally, the current author of that cookbook, Ethan Becker, lives in East Tennessee, although I'm guessing he doesn't live anywhere near my neighborhood. But I digress...

Here are the most important ingredients in the cake:Here I'm mixing the butter and sugar together:
In these bowls are the dry ingredients (left) and the cocoa, vanilla, and buttermilk (right).
After beating the eggs into the butter and sugar,
I alternated the flour and buttermilk mixtures, until I got this nice batter:Here are the cake rounds before
and after baking.

Fast forward to Monday evening. Now it's time to decorate the cake. I begin by cutting up one of the rounds into pieces that will become a turkey:You can see from this picture how I will assemble it:
Now it's time to make the frosting: quick chocolate frosting, again from The Joy of Cooking. The butter and unsweetened chocolate squares melted together in the microwave.
After that, I added some milk and vanilla to the melted chocolate mixture and sifted in some powdered sugar, resulting in this fudgy concoction:I begin frosting the lovely bird. At first the frosting goes on well, but I was actually dissatisfied with a recipe from The Joy of Cooking for the first time ever. The butter seemed to come unmixed from the frosting, and form pools.
I tried to sop it up with a paper towel, and I got most of it, but it sure was a pain. Next time I make this frosting, I will omit the butter (or at least use much less than is called for in the recipe).
Now it was time to decorate. I had candy corn and Reese's pieces for the occasion:
I used the candy corn to make tailfeathers for the turkey:
and then I made a wing,
an eye, and the waddle from Reese's pieces.
ending up with this outstanding turkey cake:
It was a big hit at the party. My cake was the centerpiece of the dessert table. I received lots of compliments on the cake, but the best compliment was that I didn't have to bring very much of it home with me this evening!

Monday, November 05, 2007

I'm #1!

The Google Rank meme has been going around the blogs I read, most recently at Lab Cat's, but also at Thus Spake Zuska.

From the original at World’s Fair: The exceptional “I rank number 1 on Google”:

I’d like to suggest a meme, where the premise is that you will attempt to find 5 statements, which if you were to type into Google (preferably, but we’ll take the other country specific ones if need be), you’ll find that you are returned with your blog as the number one hit…

To make it easier, we’ll let you use a search statement enclosed in quotations - this is just to increase your chances of turning up as number one, but if you happen to have a website with the awesome traffic to command the same statement without quotations, then flaunt it baby! Of course, once you find your 5 statements, pass the meme on to others.

I found several statements for which this site is number one on Google.
  1. adventures in applied math -- apparently there's also a book by (almost) the same title, but I beat it hands down.
  2. cranberry bread secret -- my recipe for cranberry bread is very popular, and you can find it on the first page for best cranberry bread, but you have to add the word secret to boost my recipe up to number one.
  3. pareto-optimal healthcare -- it has to have the hyphen in order for my entry on Pareto-Optimal Healthcare to show up as number one.
  4. ask an applied mathematician -- I knew I would get that one!
  5. "sombrero-shaped cake" -- the first one I've listed that needs quotes. My sombrero cake is a very popular entry. Unfortunately, that search does not lead to the entry where I show how I made the cake.
  6. math pregnancy eye -- (because adventures in applied math was too easy) I get a lot of hits to my entry on math and pregnancy from people who want to know the eye color of their future child.
What searches show your blog as the first hit?

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Evolution of Watches

I saw this video, via Greta Christina, and I thought it was so cool that I wanted to share it with you, my vast blog audience.

Suppose that gears, springs, and hands had properties that attracted them to one another like biomolecules do. What would happen if "creatures" consisting of these building blocks of "life" were allowed to mate and mutate, with the "environmental pressure" that the ones best able to tell time would survive to pass along their "genes"?

They would create clocks, that's what would happen!

The author of this movie wrote some code to look at how this would happen. I'm looking forward to downloading his code and checking it out.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Halloween Madness

What do you call this

other than "a perfect excuse to be Bride of Frankenstein for Halloween?"

I got a costume for a "death bride," and Jeff made me up to look dead. Here's the artist's palette:
and here's the final result:
except for the fact that even Dr. Frankensteincouldn't fix my eyesight after death, so I had to wear my glasses
as we escorted our cute little devil
around the neighborhood.

It was a lot of fun, except that the red makeup and fake blood dyed my skin red. So I had very bright pink eyes, a pink streak on one cheek, and a pink line around my neck after I was done scrubbing all the makeup off my face. Yesterday I slathered on the eye shadow pretty thick, wore a sweater that covered my neckline, and hoped that people would just think I had a little rash on my cheek, but today it seems to have mostly worn off.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

More on Critical Thinking

I found this blog piece on Sixteen Techniques of Critical Thinking recently, and I thought that the suggestions were excellent. A lot of it was stuff that I already do but hadn't formalized in my mind.

The author also provides as introduction several really good reasons that you would want to develop critical thinking skills. Those reasons include
  • Avoiding being taken advantage of by con artists
  • Avoiding false beliefs that are held simply because it makes you feel good or some sort of authority told you so
  • Being able to focus on goals instead of getting distracted
I would add to that list
  • Being able to defend your beliefs
  • Avoiding taking personally actions that you perceive as attacks, and being able to resolve conflicts in a positive way
  • Increasing your self-confidence by knowing that your judgment is good
  • Keeping your mind sharp

Monday, October 29, 2007

Family Time

So you may all be wondering, "What is she doing instead of writing screeds for our reading pleasure?"

And the answer is, I'm spending time with my husband and our beautiful son. I'm not necessarily doing anything. And after a day of doing at work, it feels good to come home and just let things be the way they are.

I miss much of Vinny's development by working. I was asleep the first time he crawled (because I had to wake up early the next morning to go to work). Chances are good that I will miss his first steps, too. But even though I may not get to experience these firsts, I can still spend plenty of quality time just enjoying him.

Life is so interesting through the eyes of a baby. Normal things, like buttons on a shirt, are so novel, so fascinating, so thrilling! Milk is so delicious and so thirst-quenching that the mere sight of a sippy cup causes him to jump for joy. When was the last time you enjoyed your food that much?

I know that I, for one, have lost a lot of that sense of wonder, that excitement about things that seem so trivial and pedestrian to the rest of us. I admire his ability to derive such pleasure from the very simplest of things, like squeezing his hand into the sign for milk while he drinks his morning milk, or squealing with delight at the sight of his own reflection in the mirror. How much would it take for you to be so happy?

A lot more than that, for me.