Tuesday, February 27, 2007

I'm Rich!

Confirmation of what I said before:

I'm loaded.
It's official.
I'm the 47,574,887 richest person on earth!

How rich are you? >>

Saturday, February 24, 2007

In Which My Mind Wanders from Malaria to Pollution to Abortion...

I once watched a show about malaria on the Discovery channel. The subject of the show was how people are trying to stop the spread of this debilitating disease.

Malaria is caused by a protozoan of genus Plasmodium. It is spread by Anopheles mosquitoes. If a mosquito bites a person or creature with malaria and then bites you, it might regurgitate some of the Plasmodium into your bloodstream.

Malaria is not a nice disease to have. Symptoms include shortness of breath, fever, cough, chills, and in the worst cases, coma and eventual death. It is estimated that one person dies from malaria every thirty seconds. There is no vaccine for malaria; people must take preventive measures to avoid getting the disease, and if they still get it, then they must be treated with anti-malarial drugs. There are prophylactic drugs (drugs that prevent the disease), but they are usually cost-prohibitive.

There are many fronts in the war on malaria, taken up by different groups of people, all with the same goal of reducing malaria. Plasmodium is spread by Anopheles mosquitoes when they bite humans, and if we could reduce the occurence any of those three pieces of the puzzle (the protozoan, the mosquitoes, and the biting), we could reduce the rate of infection. Also, if we could figure out a way to make people immune to the infection, we could reduce the frequency of illness too.

There are interested parties working on all these fronts. Some are working to re-engineer the Anopheles mosquito so that it does not take up the Plasmodium from an infected person. Other scientists are figuring out how to infect the mosquitoes with a harmless strain of Plasmodium, preventing them from carrying the more dangerous ones. Others are working to reduce the population of Anopheles mosquitoes by spraying, removing standing water, etc. Still others fight the spread of malaria through human behavioral changes, such as using mosquito nets, chemical repellents, and insecticides. And of course there are scientists working on a malaria vaccine, new and improved treatments, etc. By tackling the problem from multiple angles, their combined efforts are reducing the number of cases of malaria every year.

A multi-frontal approach is the best way to solve complicated problems. For example, Americans are often criticized for how much they drive, because driving is the source of about 20% of this country's annual CO2 output. It would be really nice if we could reduce the amount of air pollution. A naïve approach might be to ban automobiles. But if we were to do that, then millions of people would be left stranded. I, for one, would be hard-pressed to get to work. Instead of outlawing the undesirable behavior, perhaps attacking the reasons behind vehicular air pollution might work. Cars emit pollution because people drive a lot and the cars they drive have internal combustion engines.

First, we could work on reducing the amount of driving that people do. For example, we could implement a reliable and inexpensive mass transit system wherever possible. We could also encourage future developments to incorporate residential and commercial areas together, so that people wouldn't have to drive to go shopping. And we could encourage people to carpool, combine trips, etc.

Second, we could work on reducing the emissions when people do drive. For example, we could develop more affordable and reliable battery-powered cars that people could use for small trips. (If I could afford one, I would totally buy a battery-powered car for my commute to work.) In addition, we could implement stricter gas mileage regulations for new cars, and provide incentives for people with gas guzzlers to switch over to more efficient cars.

As you can see, there are many approaches that address the root cause of the problem, rather than the symptoms. In this way, a solution that takes people's needs into account can be implemented.

This multi-frontal approach can be applied to important social issues too. For example, legislators have been very quick to attempt to ban abortion. I don't think anyone loves the idea of abortion, but it is a sad reality that even if abortion is banned, there will be women who will seek abortions. So instead of banning abortion, perhaps instead we should take on the reasons that women get abortions.

Sometimes, women get abortions for medical reasons. It could be that the woman is in poor health, or that the fetus has some sort of serious medical problem. We can reduce the number of women and fetuses with medical problems by providing good healthcare and especially prenatal care for all. We would be well-served by a single-payer, government-sponsored healthcare system.

Sometimes, women get abortions because of an unwanted pregnancy. In some cases, the woman has been raped; the obvious solution to this problem is rape prevention services, such as education, support, crisis centers, etc. But in the cases where the woman has not been raped, there still may be reasons that the woman does not want to go through with the pregnancy.

Perhaps she works at a low-paying job and cannot afford the child. Obviously, a single-payer healthcare system would eliminate the medical expenses, but what about the time she must take off from work? We could implement a paid family-leave policy. And what happens to the baby when she has to go back to work? Affordable, high-quality child care and schools would help.

Perhaps her husband is abusive and she doesn't want to bring another child into that situation. We could establish a well-funded network of temporary women's shelters where she could stay while she got herself back on her feet.

Perhaps she really doesn't want a child. Adoption is a possibility, of course, but there are tens of thousands of children (mostly minority, disabled, or older children) who are already waiting for a forever home. If Jeff and I hadn't wanted our (healthy, white) baby, I'm sure he would have found a home immediately, but unfortunately, it's not so much the case for children born under less "fortunate" circumstances. One way to maximize the number of homes available for children is to allow same-sex couples to adopt, because they tend to adopt a higher percentage of minority and disabled children than opposite-sex couples.

Perhaps she doesn't want to go through pregnancy. It is hard on your body, let me tell you, and I would not want to purposefully subject someone to such an ordeal unless she really wanted it. The solution to this involves affordable and readily available methods of birth control for both men and women. Also, reliable sex education, because some people erroneously believe that certain acts they perform cannot result in pregnancy, when they actually can. (While abstinence is the most effective form of birth control, the reality is that hormones often get the best of people and they have sex.)

I'm no idealist; no matter how much we would like for people to behave in a certain manner, there will be people who won't. But if we were to take a multifaceted approach to solving our society's most serious problems, we could address people's needs and provide them with the means to do what's right.

Source of some of the information about malaria:

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Door of Science

I am the only woman in my department, aside from the secretary. I try not to notice that my body is different from everybody else's, and the guys do their best to ignore it too. Usually, it all works out, at least until we come to a door.

The guys get a bit squirmy when we get near a door. (Some guys more than others.) But the ones who have issues with doors become really uneasy if I arrive at the doorway and open the door first.

It happened twice today. I went with my colleagues to the cafeteria, and I was the first to reach the cafeteria door, so I opened the door and held it open for them. They all laughed, but I could tell that one guy in particular felt very uncomfortable about it. I lightheartedly informed him that since I have working arms,* I'm perfectly capable of holding a door open.

On the way back, one of the guys managed to arrive at our building's front door before me, but since I was the first person to go inside, I got to the interior door first and held it open for the others to pass. The man who had felt so uncomfortable before essentially refused to go through the door until I did.

So I let him take the door handle and I went through the door. But I asked him why he felt so uncomfortable about me holding the door for him. "I guess I'm just not used to it," he answered, and laughed uncomfortably.

I realized afterwards how awkward the situation had made me feel. Instead of letting that man just feel uncomfortable, I did what he wanted and took on the discomfort myself. (There I go again, sacrificing my own comfort for the sake of harmony! I need to rid myself of the unhealthy habits stemming from feeling responsible for keeping it decorous at all times. They do me more harm than good.)

From what I can figure, the male rules of door throughput seem rather complicated. The ideal situation is where the man arrives at the door first, opens it, and holds it open while the woman walks through. The sub-ideal but still acceptable situation is where the woman arrives at the door first, lets herself through, and then the man follows. The unacceptable situation is where she tries to hold the door for the man.

My rules of door throughput are much simpler. The first able-bodied and unencumbered person to arrive at the door holds the door open while the others walk through.

You may be wondering what the big deal is. It's just a door, after all. And I would agree, except that this whole door predicament is really about something bigger. It's about how men, even very nice, ostensibly egalitarian men, treat women. My colleagues are all very kind, wonderful men, and they behave most professionally all the time. But small incidents like this (an incident that I would not classify as unprofessional) remind me that they see me differently than they see each other, and treat me differently too. It's no longer about just a literal door. It's also about the figurative door into the realm of science.

The majority of men in science are very nice, and they want women to succeed in this field, it's just that they don't know what they can do to help. They sense that something's not quite right, but they just can't figure out what it is, in part due to their societally-enforced preconceived notions about women. So they offer to hold the door open for us, which is a kind gesture, but unnecessary. Really, we don't need them to hold it open; all we need is for the door to not be locked when we try to open it.

So, colleagues, please treat me like a scientist, not a woman who does science. The next time I arrive at the door first (whether figurative or literal), please let me open it for you, and in turn, you can open the door for me.

*Yes, in one of my arms I have a seriously bad case of medial epicondylitis (golfer's elbow), but a) I was using my other arm, and b) this guy doesn't know about my condition.

Thursday, February 22, 2007


The night before last, I was awakened by some pretty heavy rain. I think there may have been hail too. All I know is that it was really loud.

Then, yesterday morning when I was driving to work, the rain was coming down so hard that I couldn't see in front of me at one point. But it all cleared up later in the morning, and the day turned out to be pretty warm and sunny.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Vinny Update

I realized that I haven't talked about Vinny too much lately.

He turned four months old two weeks ago today. We took him to get his four-month immunizations and checkup on that day. He is about average in weight, 85th percentile in height, and 95th percentile in head size. It's from all those brains he inherited from his mommy and daddy!

The doctor told us we could introduce solid food into his diet if he seemed interested enough. He's interested enough, all right! He's watched with great interest our forks' round trip from the plate to the mouth for a month now. I've been giving him rice cereal for about ten days now. The first time, the consistency was like formula, as they recommended, but I've been thickening it up a little more every time. At first, he didn't know what to make of the spoon coming towards his mouth, but he soon figured it out.

He has rolled over a couple of times, but I think it's mostly accidental. They say that easy-going babies tend to be a little slow to roll over, so we're not worried. As far as "easy going" goes, I'd say he's probably in the 99th percentile. I'm not sure where he got that from, as Jeff and I were both high-maintenance, demanding babies. Two negatives make a positive, maybe?

He giggles a lot and loves to play. He loves to bat at the things hanging from his baby gym. He love to play the "grab parts of Mommy's face" game too. I wish I could upload movies to this, because Jeff has this really cute movie of Vinny experiencing bubbles for the first time. Jeff is blowing the bubbles at Vinny and he is just in awe of them. It is so cute!

Anyhow, this has been your Vinny update!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Flavius Babius Capito Maximus

All hail the conquering hero in triumph, after defeating the barbaric Tennesseean tribe!

To quote the great hero, "Vinny, vidi, vici!"

Saturday, February 17, 2007

For Rachel's Readers

My sister Rachel's blog, Milkbreath and Me, is currently down for repairs. Hopefully it will be up soon! Her host, Josh, has to do something very labor-intensive in order to get it back up. If we're lucky, he'll figure out a shortcut and have it all done really quickly. In the meantime, amuse yourself by following one of the links in my sidebar. They are all blogs that I enjoy reading.

Adventures in Applied Physics

My favorite part of my undergraduate major was studying kinematics. My favorite fundamental force is gravity. Unfortunately, there's not much more to discover in the field of kinematics, so I had to find something else to study in grad school.

But I am still an amateur kinematicist, and I perform experiments in the field nearly every day. I have a ten-mile commute to work every day (20 miles round trip), and it can get boring, so I amuse myself by attempting to leverage the force of gravity, friction, and my own ingenuity to use as little fuel as possible. I don't drive a Prius, but I strive for Prius-like mileage in my 2005 VW Beetle. It is a stick shift so I have complete control over what gear it's in. I'm also very familiar with the route, so I know where the hills and stoplights are.

I have two heuristics that I employ to minimize gas consumption: brake as little as possible, and coast as much as possible. These can be conflicting objectives, however, because when you're going down a hill towards a red light, you need to brake rather than take advantage of gravity, the natural accelerator. So there's a balance.

Also, braking is sometimes necessary, to avoid speeding and also to prevent stopping. Stopping should be avoided, because accelerating from 5 mph consumes 20% less fuel than accelerating from a full stop. Braking can be reduced by anticipating the behavior of the drivers around you. I stay way behind the car in front of me, so that I have the time to make fuel-efficient adjustments (e.g., coasting uphill, light braking) to my speed.

Because I am super geeky and I have my art merit badge (see the previous post), I decided to draw for you, my vast blog audience, a crude map of my daily journey. It's crude because first of all I freehanded it without looking at a map, and second of all I added my own contours that are probably completely inaccurate with respect to the true elevations, but they are my impression of the lay of the land. Finally, it is totally not to scale. (Part D of the map is more than half the journey, but it's boring so it doesn't deserve much space.)

The green circle represents home, and the red stop-sign represents work. The thick black line is the route I take, the thinner black lines are roads making up important intersections with stoplights, and the rainbow lines represent the elevation contours, with red being the highest elevation and descending through orange, yellow, green, and blue. So, work is at a lower elevation than home, meaning that my journey to work is mostly downhill, while my journey home is mostly uphill. But, you can see that there are some major hills in between: at A there is a valley, and at C there is a major hill. B is through the city, where it is mostly level but there are a number of stoplights. Somewhere along D, there is a guard shack, where you have to stop and show your badge in order to get on company property.

I can usually coast all the way from the intersection of my street with the main road (at the red contour) to the second intersection because that first stoplight is usually green. If I'm super lucky I can make it through the second stoplight too, although that usually doesn't happen. If I see it's red I just take the car out of gear and gently brake, in hopes that I won't have to stop if I arrive at the intersection later. (Of course I stop if I get there and the light is red.)

Part B is the city and if I go at just the right speed I can hit all the green lights. It is basically flat and pretty dull, except that there is this one intersection where the brains of people turning left into the Kroger shopping center atrophy or something. A statistically significant percentage of the times I am stopped at that light, the people in the first car in the line turning left into Kroger don't notice that they can go until it's almost too late. I don't know what it is: the radiation, the electromagnetic fields, or what, but this happens at least once a week.

It's not until I get to Part C of my jouney that things become kinematically interesting once again. There is a huge hill. I start at the bottom of the hill at 45 mph (the speed limit) and if nobody is behind me I take the car out of gear near the crest. At the top of the hill I am down to 25 mph, but once gravity (the natural accelerator) takes over, I begin to speed up, ending up at 45 mph at the bottom of the hill. Usually I can merge into traffic on the main road of part D without slowing down too much.

As I approach the gate, I take the car out of gear and coast. This probably drives the people behind me crazy, but relying on friction to decelerate saves a lot of fuel. I do usually have to brake, because I haven't figured out where exactly I should start coasting.

The 2005 VW Beetle gets 25 mpg city, 30 mpg highway, but I get better mileage than that. I estimate that I get about 33-35 mpg, which is over 20% more efficient than the standard.

Friday, February 16, 2007

My Kind of Scouts

I think I could definitely be a member of the Order of the Science Scouts of Exemplary Repute and Above-Average Physique (as seen at See Jane Compute and Thus Spake Zuska).

Let me show you the ways in which I qualify.

The "talking science" badge. I love to talk about math and I would do it all day if I thought people would listen. As it is, I sometimes can't help myself and the math spills out onto this blog. But there are actually regular readers who come here for the math, and I've noticed that my top google hits are for the math entries, especially the one about Math and Pregnancy.

The "I blog about science" badge. The requirement is 25% science content, and lately I admit I've been a little low on the science content what with my obsessions about Vinny, atheism, and lately, marriage equality, but I promise to get back on track. I have a little entry on applied physics in the works.

The "arts and crafts" badge. My unique contribution to this badge is that I do a lot of algorithmic development on trees (no not the outdoors kind!) and in so doing, I have to draw a lot of pictures. (I'd go into more detail but we're trying to write a paper on the new algorithm.) My boss has praised my beautiful, multi-colored drawings. Unfortunately, it's something I have to do with my left hand, so I can't do too much of it in one day.

The "I'm pretty confident around an open flame" badge. I am not too intimidated by an open flame. I am respectful of it, and I keep my hair out of it, but otherwise I'm not too worried about it.

The "destroyer of quackery" badge. To be completely honest, pseudoscience pisses me off. So I try to convince people to think about things scientifically. I try to be as diplomatic as possible.

The "I may look like a scientist but I'm actually a ninja" badge. I have a brown belt in karate. Also, I'm the leader of the "League of Distinguished Mathematics Professionals," a group of crime-fighting numerical analysts.

The "I'm a freaking rock star who sings about science" badge. When I was but a wee graduate student, studying for my 90-minute oral qualifying exam in numerical analysis, I wrote a half-dozen songs covering key numerical concepts. Basically I took existing tunes and wrote numerical lyrics. My masterpiece was "The Conjugate Gradient Song," to the tune of "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean." I think you can probably google and find these songs. It is probably not too hard to figure out who I am because I blog using my real first name and there aren't too many women out there, but I don't want to link directly to the songs because they are on my work website.

The "my degree inadvertantly makes me competent in fixing household appliances" badge. Maybe it's not the degree; it's probably due to experience, but I am pretty handy when it comes to appliances and electrical related stuff. One thing I don't touch is natural gas, because I don't want to be responsible for the whole house blowing up.

The "I can be a prick when it comes to science" badge. This goes with the "destroyer of quackery" badge. I can get a little over-invested at times.

The "will gladly kick sexual harasser's ass" badge. Combined with my ninja skills and numerical superpowers, I am an ass-kicking MACHINE!

The "I bet I know more computer languages than you, and I'm not afraid to talk about it" badge. What kind of computer scientist would I be without this?

The "I will crush you with my math prowess" badge. Yes, I will.

The "I know what a tadpole is" badge. Because I do.

The "experienced with electrical shock" badge, level 3. There's nothing like a good shock from an outlet to remind you to switch off the breaker.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Freedom to Marry and Normalcy

I think that a lot of people object to same-sex marriage because they see it as something "weird" or "disgusting." I know that when I was first alerted to the idea that people of the same sex might be romantically interested in one another, my first reaction was revulsion at the thought of how they would... express their intimacy, shall we say. But I soon realized that there were pairs of heterosexuals to which I would have a similar reaction when thinking about the expression of their intimacy. So what really distinguished same-sex couples from opposite-sex couples was the novelty of the idea.

Then I got to thinking, sexual orientation is merely one facet of otherwise complicated human beings. And there are plenty of ways in which I am weird, too, and I wouldn't appreciate people judging me on just one single aspect of my personality.

Here are just a few ways in which I buck the norms:

  • Physically,

    • I am 5'11" (>95th percentile for white women in the United States)*
    • I am left-handed (8-15% of the population is left-handed; the Irish term for left-handed, ciotóg, means "strange person")*
    • I have no cavities (Average 18-year-old has had 12 cavities; average person age 40+ has had 29)*
    • I can curl my tongue in this weird lasagna-noodle shape. (no stats on that, but my sister Laura and I are the only people I know who can do this)

  • Academically,

    • I have a Ph.D (like 0.6% of American women)*
    • ... in computer science (like 2.4% [1136] of all American doctorates awarded in 2005; 19% of which [225] were awarded to women)*
    • and a B.S. in Physics. (couldn't find any stats on that, but there was one other woman in my class and at the time there were no women professors in my department)

  • Demographically,

    • I am American (like roughly 4.5% of the world's population)*
    • Our family is a reverse-traditional family (like 147,000 other American households)*
    • I out-earn 75% of Americans*, and 99% of all people in the world.

  • Philosophically,

    • I am an atheist (5-10% of Americans)*
    • I support marriage equality (unlike 81% of my fellow Tennesseeans)

Any one of these facts about me make me unusual. All of these facts together make me a very strange person indeed! But my uniqueness does not disqualify me from being a member of the human race, deserving of love, respect, and equality. Some people's "strange" attraction to members of the same sex doesn't disqualify them, either.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

La Misanthrope

You Are 43% Misanthropic

You're somewhat misanthropic, but you're not willing to write off the human race (yet!).
There's a few people you like, and even them you like at a distance.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Freedom to Marry Week

I learned today that it's Freedom to Marry Week. The purpose of this week is to raise awareness and encourage marriage equality.

Unlike most of my fellow Tennesseeans, I voted against Proposition One (prohibiting same-sex marriage) on our ballot in the fall. I believe that the state should recognize the union of two consenting adults who love one another, regardless of the parity or disparity in their 23rd pair of chromosomes. As I've said before, marriage is not a religious institution; otherwise, the marriages of atheists like me would not be valid. If churches don't want to perform the sacrament of marriage for same-sex couples, that's fine with me. They wouldn't want to perform the sacrament of marriage for me, either, and it wouldn't be fair to require them to do so. But the secular institution of marriage is beyond their purview.

I've always been a proponent of marriage equality, but this issue is near and dear to my heart because there are people near and dear to me who are adversely affected by the marriage double standard. Two of my immediate family members are left without legal recourse in the event of the decline, hospitalization, or wrongful death of their dearest loved one. And while I may not be on such great terms with one of those family members, I still don't think it's right for her to be deprived of the rights that my husband and I enjoy purely by virtue of having different organs.

Math Links

I don't know if I've posted this one before or not. But one of my favorite math websites is MathWorld, where you can look up all kinds of totally cool math concepts.

Another of my favorite sites is the On-line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences. It came in very handy when I was working on my dissertation. I was reminded of it again today when I was looking for a sequence that might match a pattern I had found.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Product Review: gDiapers

Before Vinny was born, Jeff and I were trying to decide what to do about diapers. Usually, people present the options as cloth or disposables. Each one has its advantages and disadvantages: cloth diapers may be more environmentally friendly, but they require repeated washings. Also, over their lifetime they are less costly than disposables, but the upfront investment is pretty high. Disposable diapers, on the other hand, are very easy to use, require no washings, and while you may spend more over all, you spend it a little at a time. But, they are also very wasteful, in that all that packaging is required to dispose of a small amount of waste, plus it's kind of dangerous to dispose of fecal matter in a landfill. Also, no matter which option you choose, it is smelly. Dirty diapers of any kind are stinky before you dispose of them. Surely there has to be some other choice!

Well, there is. gDiapers combine the best aspects of cloth and disposables, and as an added benefit, they are not stinky! Like cloth diapers, they are reusable and contribute no waste to the landfill. Like disposables, they require (almost) no washing. The basic idea is that there is an outer pants that is reusable, and an inner liner that is disposable. But the liner can be flushed down the toilet, so that fecal matter is dealt with by the system that is best equipped to deal with it: the sewage disposal system.

In order to dispose of the liner, you tear it open and shake the innards into the toilet, then stir it around until the pulpy stuff is dissolved. Then you flush, and at the moment when the water is about to flush down the drain, you drop the exterior of the liner into the toilet and it flushes down too.

The outer pants are machine-washable. You don't have to wash them (except for the liner-holder) very often, unless your baby has a poop explosion or the diaper leaks. The only times we've had diaper leaks, it's been because we didn't change him soon enough. You have to change these diapers more often than you change disposables.

I like the gDiapers because of the environmental considerations, and also because they are fair-trade. While some parts are manufactured in China, they monitor the working conditions and pay their workers a fair wage. I also like the fact that when we use these diapers, we don't have the diaper stench. We were using disposables exclusively for a while and I was always petrified that somebody would come to the house and smell a dirty diaper that we hadn't noticed. We still use disposables for nighttime because I do think disposables hold more.

Some drawbacks are that you have to prepare the diapers before using, by inserting the liner into the pants. (This is something you'd have to do with cloth diapers too.) Also, the gDiapers are larger than disposables, so any clothes that might be getting a little small probably won't fit. Disposing of the liner can be kind of gross, especially after a bowel movement. Also, the gDiapers are kind of pricey. Although the initial investment isn't as large as it would be for cloth diapers, you still need to buy at least four pants (preferably six) and that can run you more than $50. Also, the liners are not cheap. I know that the higher cost is because of the environmental and justice considerations, so I don't mind paying the price, but they may not be affordable for everyone.

But overall, I would recommend gDiapers as a good product for those who want to use an environmentally-friendly diaper.

More on Healthcare

One of my favorite blogs is Shakespeare's Sister. It's the only political blog I read regularly, and I like it because Shakespeare's Sister (a.k.a. Melissa McEwan) and her co-contributors are smart, funny, and not afraid to say what they think. Sometimes they say things in a way that is a bit coarse, shall we say, but I'm not offended by coarse language. Despite the coarse language, it's a feminist- and GLBT-positive and safe space, where people are safe to speak their minds (at least, it was, before the recent troll infestation). I generally agree with most of what they say on the issues and Melissa's very clear prose has helped me strengthen my own positions on many issues.

I was very happy for Melissa when she got the John Edwards campaign blogging gig, and I had a somewhat sleepless night after I heard that her job might be on the line due to some self-proclaimed Catholic church spokesman's claims of bigotry against the church in her writings. I'm not really sure where he got that idea from (aside from perhaps a very dark and poopy place) because while I'm sure Melissa has criticized certain policies of the Catholic church, disagreement does not equal bigotry. In any case, Melissa was not fired and that made me happy (although the negative publicity surrounding this issue is the source of these recent trolls).

Her foray into political blogging made me decide to take the time to look into John Edwards' platform, and I was excited to see what his healthcare proposal would entail. (As my regular readers know, I am a proponent of universal healthcare and this is a very important issue to me.) Edwards proposes to require employers to provide or help pay for health insurance for their employees, encourage employers with tax credits and expand existing government programs, create regional health insurance pools, give the indigent prepaid tax refunds to pay for their premiums, and once the infrastructure is in place, require all Americans to have health insurance.

Realistically, a single-payer system is not an option in this country, because there are too many lobbyists for the health insurance companies. I thought that his proposal was actually very clever, because it left health insurance companies in the game, while forcing them to become more efficient if they expect to compete with government-sponsored plans.

I don't like the fact that health insurance would still be tied to your employer, because of the privacy issues I have mentioned before, but I think this proposal is a step in the right direction. I admit that my heart has been stricken with "Obamania", as they call it on The Daily Show, (my vote was one of many in his landslide Senate victory) but Edwards is winning my mind over with his healthcare plan.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

More on Atheism

There's a very interesting debate going on between atheist Sam Harris and moderate Catholic Andrew Sullivan. Go over there and read what they have to say!

Harris is more eloquent than I could ever hope to be on the matter of disbelief. In particular I like how he dissects Sullivan's preference for Catholicism over other religions.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Math Dreamer

I saw over at The Zero Boss that they were having a Blogging for Books contest where you're supposed to write about a dream you've had. That inspired me to write this post. I suppose I'll enter it in the contest just for the heck of it.

I dream about math.

I think about math when I'm awake, so why not while I'm sleeping, too? If I'm working hard on a problem, chances are I will have a dream about it. Usually the dream makes sense even after I wake up. They should pay me for the time I spend sleeping!

I'm not kidding. I figured out how to parallelize the computations for my dissertation one night while I was examining the backs of my eyelids. And over the course of several sleep-filled nights I solved some complicated algorithmic problems I've been working on here at my job. If I can't figure something out at work, I go home early, with the knowledge that I will sleep on the problem and have a solution in the morning.

Sometimes, other things in life mix with math to produce a really bizarre dream. In college, when I was studying multivariate calculus, I had an anxiety dream that if I didn't triple integrate myself, I would cease to exist. I actually came up with some formulas and shortcuts using lines of symmetry before I woke up. And as a low-income graduate student, the solution to the problem of my empty fridge came to me in my sleep: If I took a similarity transform of the fridge, it would be the same refrigerator, but it would have food in it! Too bad I haven't figured out how to implement that one.

At the moment, I have several things on my mind: complexity analysis of my new algorithm for distributing workload on a supercomputer, a sick baby, finding the time to pick up my new glasses. What will my dreams be like tonight?

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Adventures in Reverse-Traditional Families

Our family is what's known as a "reverse-traditional family." We are traditional in the sense that one of us works outside the home, and the other stays home with the baby. We are reverse because I'm the one who works, while Jeff stays home.

This is an arrangement that works well for us. I make more money than he can. He doesn't want to work at a job anyhow. He's a much better cook than I am, and he is a much tidier person than I am too. So it all works out well for us.

Oh sure, there are some times when I am envious of him: the pressure of work gets to me sometimes, and I wish I could stay home with the cutest baby in the history of the planet. But there are times when I am happy to be walking out that door, like when Vinny is crying for no apparent reason. And it's nice to be out in adult-land where I don't have to talk about myself in the third person. (I do sometimes find myself speaking with exaggerated emotion at work, though.)

I recently read an article from the New York Times, referenced by this entry at Half-Changed World, the blog of another mom in a reverse-traditional family situation. In this article, the author seems to lament her role as primary income earner. While she considers herself feminist and believes in equality and sharing roles, she can't seem to jump the hurdle of women assuming a role that in the past was exclusively limited to men.

She says that the women she knows who are the breadwinners for their family are "seething -- with uncertainty, resentment, anxiety and frustration." The patterns that feel normal when the man is the breadwinner can't be mirrored in this sort of family set-up.

Well, evidently she doesn't know me. Yes, there is a degree of uncertainty that I struggle with -- do I have what it takes to go from postdoc to staff member? -- but that has nothing to do with our so-called role reversal. A man in my situation would have the same worries.

I think the difference is that Jeff doesn't derive his self-esteem from how well he can provide for the family (at least not in the monetary sense), and I have a very positive opinion about the value of the "women's work" he does. His unpaid labor allows us to live a higher quality of life than we would have if he didn't do it, because our income production is so skewed. If he worked outside the home, his income would scarcely cover the cost of child care, and neither of us would have the time or energy to cook the kind of quality meals that he makes. Furthermore, as Jeff observed the other day, if we both worked, I would have competition for getting my baby fix every evening. He gets more than his fill during the day.

The author of the article also mentions her fear of what other people would think of her husband. Ideally, it shouldn't matter what other people think about their arrangement. Personally, I've observed several different reactions. Most of the women I meet think that it's the greatest thing, and probably wish that they could have a husband like mine. When I went back to work after my family leave, a lot of men asked me who was taking care of the baby. They were surprised to hear that it was my husband, but they were happy that it was working out for me that way. I had only one negative reaction, in which a man (not someone I work with, just to be clear) said, "but, the man is supposed to work, and the woman stay home!" and then laughed uncomfortably. I think these reactions from people in such a conservative state show that reverse-traditional families are becoming more accepted.

She also feels pangs of guilt about the fact that her husband is better at comforting their baby than she is. I don't feel like I'm not a good parent to Vinny. I see him a lot less than Jeff does, to be sure, but I think that in my case, this means that the time that I do spend with him is higher in quality, because I know I don't have much time with him and I focus my attention on him while I can.

I guess the thing that allows me to feel happy with our reverse-traditional family setup is the fact that I don't subscribe to sex roles. Why should one's chromosomes mean that he or she must act in a certain manner? While it's possible that on average, women are more nurturing than men (assuming that one's degree of "nurturing" can even be quantified!), that doesn't prove that I am more nurturing than Jeff. I don't believe that I'm "supposed to" be the primary parent, or even anything but whatever I am. If that means I go against the traditions of our society, so be it. This is not the only way I defy the norms.

Thursday, February 01, 2007


We were supposed to get something like four inches of snow overnight last night. I was so excited: I parked the car on the street just in case the driveway was too slick, I got out my boots, and I set my alarm for extra early to make sure I'd be on time to my opthamologist appointment.

At 3:30 a.m., Vinny woke up screaming because he was both hungry and all wet. After I changed his outfit, I looked out the window and didn't see any snow. But when my alarm went off I saw that there was maybe an inch of snow on the grass; the pavement was clear. The car was also covered with snow, so not all was lost. I used my super deluxe Illinois scraper (not my badge) to clear the snow off the car, which took a grand total of two minutes, and I was early for my appointment.

By the time I got out of the eye doctor's office, the snow had pretty much melted away. So that was a disappointment. I really miss the snow in Illinois. I don't miss the cold, though. Monday's expected high in Urbana: four degrees F!