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.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Six Weeks of Work

I have now worked at my new job for six weeks. If you can't tell already by the frequency of my posting, my new job is quite a bit harder than my old job.

The main difference is that I have a lot more responsibilities. As a postdoc, I just had to make sure that my boss (and maybe my indirect boss) was happy. Now, I have to make sure that my boss, his boss, another indirect boss, my old boss, my old indirect boss, and the users of math software on the supercomputers are all happy.

I've spent quite a bit of time installing math software lately. One user needed some software installed, but after I installed it, it turned out that the software exhibited some sort of error sometimes. So I installed a new version, minus a particular optimization that had the reputation for causing troubles, but it still made the same error. Luckily, I had installed an even less optimized version, and although it is a little slower, it does work without any problems.

I'm glad that I have this job, but it sure does eat up a lot of my time! I've had to cut back on blogging because my highest priority is my family: not only do I provide an income for them but I don't want to miss out on spending time with them. Most evenings I don't bring my computer home, which helps me to avoid succumbing to the temptation of getting on the internet. So I think you'll be hearing the most from me on the weekends or occasionally on weekday mornings.

Note to supercomputing course fans: I'm almost done with the next installment, but it's taken me a while to get it just right. Please pardon the long break between posts.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Fun with Visitors

We had visitors over the weekend. Jeff's brother and sister-in-law came down for a visit. It was the first time they'd been down to our house in Tennessee, so we had to show them a good time.

On Thursday evening, we took them to our favorite Chinese buffet. So far, it hasn't burned down yet, although we were really pushing our luck by taking Jeff's brother there. (He brings with him an unlucky curse, especially if he likes the Chinese restaurant.)

On Friday, Jeff took them to the Smokies. (I had to work.) There were a lot of spectacular views there, because the trees are just turning their fall colors. They took lots of beautiful pictures. We enjoyed pizza together when they all got home.

Then on Saturday, we went South. First stop: Chattanooga, where we saw Lookout Mountain Battlefield. The view from up there was pretty impressive. Then we headed down to Stone Mountain, outside of Atlanta. We didn't get there until almost 5 p.m., so we didn't have much time to see everything. I think if we were going to do this trip over again, we'd do better to go to one or the other, but not both destinations in the same day. Anyhow, we saw the antebellum mansion and went on the train ride, although when we went on the train ride it was dark so we didn't get to see much. We didn't get home until well after midnight.

In the morning, it was time for John and Ginger to pay the penalty for visiting: they had to eat my pancakes. Fortunately, they survived the difficult ordeal, and we saw them off soon after. It was a lot of fun to have them visit, and we'll have to do it again sometime!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Importance of Critical Thinking

When I was a senior in college, my parents and younger sister spent the year in France, leaving me with the house, the car, and the checkbook. It was a pretty sweet deal, except that I had to share the house with some housemates: a Chinese couple, Yang and Jinghong.

They were pretty nice, don't get me wrong. Jinghong was easy to get along with and fun to talk to. But Yang would really get on my nerves sometimes. In particular, he would ignore what I had to say because I was female. I remember one time, Jeff was over for dinner and he asked Jeff where the forks went. Well, Jeff had no clue where the silverware drawer was; I, on the other hand, having lived there all my life, knew exactly where they belonged. So Jeff told him to ask me!

Another thing that Yang did was he tried to boss me around a lot, telling me what to do. Luckily, before they left, my mom had had the foresight to make my dad tell him that I was in charge of the house; otherwise, I think he would have tried to impose a curfew on me or something!

I soon realized that all I had to do was invoke the holy name of My Father to get Yang to go along with whatever I wanted to do. I remember I first figured this out when I was trimming a plant (the hateful papyrus plant, which I learned that year that I was allergic to!), when Yang asked me what I was doing. "I'm pruning this plant," I informed him. "Ohhh, you cannot do that!" he admonished me. "My Father told me to," I said. "Oh. I help you!" he replied.

Yang had a big blind spot. He was blind to the fact that I, a mere woman, might actually have a few good ideas of my own. He was also blinded by his admiration for my dad. Fortunately, my dad's a great guy, but he could have really led Yang off a cliff if he'd so desired.

I've seen similarly mindless devotion to a leader in the people around me. Yang's devotion to the great prophet known as My Father was somewhat amusing and mostly harmless, but it's depressing to see people who just accept whatever the Great Leader tells them, when what they are being told is inconsistent, nonsensical, or just plain untrue, and ends up harming them and their loved ones.

I don't know how people swallow all the rubbish that George W. Bush feeds them (for example). Even Ronald Reagan said, "Trust, but verify." For some reason, the devotees of George W. Bush don't feel the need to verify what their Great Leader tells them, even when what he tells them is inconsistent, nonsensical, or just plain untrue, and ends up harming them and their loved ones.

I prefer to think that such mindless devotion is a product of naiveté and inexperience with critical thinking. Critical thinking is a fundamental skill that I plan to nurture in my son. I've noticed that it's something that continues to develop in me as I gain experience and foresight. Hopefully as they gain in life experience, something will awaken in these mindless devotees of harmful leaders.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Adventures in Measurement

It's often important to quantify the properties of objects around us. For example, if we were selling apples, we would need to have a way to quantify them in order to set consistent prices. We might decide to quantify the apples by number, weight, or volume. Maybe we'll sell 3 for $1, or 50¢ per pound, or $5.00 per peck.

The study of the science of measuring is called metrology. Metrologists concern themselves with several important questions: How can we quantify the properties of objects? What units of quantity are meaningful, and how do we measure them? How do we apply these methods of measuring in the real world? How can we create measurement systems and apply them in a manner that helps regulate trade, taxation, safety, etc.?

How do we assure that measures are accurate? For example, if I'm pricing apples by weight, how can my customers be assured that they're getting a fair deal?

The scale I use to measure the weight of the apples is calibrated to a certain accuracy, which assures that the "pound" of apples I sell you isn't lighter than the "pound" of apples somebody else sells you, at least within a certain margin of error. The pound is officially defined as 0.45359237 kilograms, and the kilogram is officially defined in relation to an artifact, the International Prototype Kilogram (IPK). "The IPK is the kilogram... [it] is made of a platinum-iridium alloy and is stored in a vault at the BIPM in Sèvres, France." The United States owns three replicas of the IPK, housed at NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology).

How accurate is the scale I use to measure apples? There are NIST standards which the scale would have to meet before I could use it to sell apples. At a minimum, it would have to be accurate enough that the uncertainty of the measurement (e.g., x lbs ± y lbs) would not impact the cost of the product. So, for an uncertainty of y when buying x pounds of apples, the cost of x+y lbs should be the same as the cost of x-y lbs.

How could that be, you may ask, since x+y ≠ x-y (unless y=0)? Well, when we deal with money, we don't pay fractions of a penny; merchants round to the nearest penny. In other words, if I charge 50¢/lb, then if I weigh out an amount of apples a that has a "true" cost c such that 49.5 ≤ c < 50.5. If c is defined by the previous inequality, and c = 50 a, then what are the upper and lower limits on a?

Well, if c = 49.5, then 50 a = 49.5, and therefore a = 0.99. At the other extreme, if c = 50.5, then 50 a = 50.5, and therefore a= 1.01. Thus my scale would need to be calibrated such that it measures one pound to within an accuracy of 0.01 pounds. If we convert this to relative error, its percent error must not exceed 1%.

For measuring apples, we would need a much higher accuracy than we would need for measuring the weight of trucks at a highway weigh station. We don't need to know the weight of the truck to within a hundredth of a pound, but we might still need the same relative error (i.e., 1%).

Also, sometimes we don't need to know the exact size of something, we just need a ballpark figure. For example, if we're trying to fit a couch into the back of a pickup truck, we just need to make sure that the couch is shorter than the length of the truck bed.

Other times, we want the most accurate measure we can get, but are limited by uncertainty or human error. For example, if we want to measure the length of an ant, but all we have to do it with is a yardstick, we will be limited by the size of the calibrations on the yardstick, and by the ability of our eyes to see something so small. If we had better equipment (i.e. a smaller, more finely calibrated ruler, and a magnifying glass) we would get a more accurate measurement.

One of the things that makes me roll my eyes every time I watch American football is the questionable way in which the status of the downs is sometimes determined. The referees have a chain of length ten yards, anchored by bright orange poles at each end, which is handled by the chain crew. The chain crew holds one end of the chain on the sideline at a point that is parallel to the location where the ball starts upon first down. The length of the chain is stretched along the sideline in the direction the team is driving, to determine whether the team has made a first down. Sometimes, when it is a close call, the chain crew moves the chain onto the field, and the referees measure with it, to see if the first down has been achieved. Sometimes, by a matter of inches, the team doesn't make the down.

There are some problems with the manner in which the status of the down is determined. We need to see the errors inherent in the system, which compound to make this measurement wrong.

First, the starting point at which the chain is placed is lined up visually with the location of the ball more than twenty-five yards away (In the NFL, the field is 160 feet wide). If the angle between the ball, the end of the chain, and the sideline is off by one tenth of a degree (i.e. it's 89.9° or 91.1°), then the difference between the starting point of the chain and the true starting point of the ball is off by more than 1.5 inches.

Second, when the down attempt is over, the referee generally places the ball in the place he believes is the point of farthest advance. How accurate is his placement? This is something I don't know, but it can't be more accurate than within a few inches. Let's say within three inches for the sake of argument.

Let's assume that the length of the chain is perfectly accurate. (It is probably off by some small factor; also, we are neglecting shrinkage or expansion due to temperature, but that's okay.) Even so, in the worst possible case, the starting point of the chain was 1.5 inches ahead of the starting point of the ball, and the referee put the ball down three inches behind the line of farthest advance, meaning that the difference between the true advancement and the measured advancement exceeded 4.5 inches. Given that a football is about 11 inches in length, that means the measurement could be off by more than 2/5ths of a football length! I've seen downs decided by less than that!

So what happens in football is that they think they have an accurate measurement of the lengths involved, but in reality, the fate of a team's advancement down the field is determined by little more than luck.

This is a real-life example of an organization needing a consultation with metrologists. If I were the football commissioner, that would be one of the first things I did.

Metrology is a fascinating subject. It's about more than weights and lengths; metrologists also determine how to measure volume, time, energy, work, and many more qualities. If I weren't a computational scientist, I think I'd want to be a metrologist. I hope you enjoyed this foray into metrology as much as I did!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

What Kind of Reader Are You?

What Kind of Reader Are You?
Your Result: Literate Good Citizen

You read to inform or entertain yourself, but you're not nerdy about it. You've read most major classics (in school) and you have a favorite genre or two.

Book Snob

Dedicated Reader

Obsessive-Compulsive Bookworm

Fad Reader


What Kind of Reader Are You?
Create Your Own Quiz

Friday, October 12, 2007

Now I REALLY Want to Kiss the Top of His Head!

I was delighted this morning to learn that the target of my beaming maternal pride, Al Gore, has won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize! I had to wipe the tears from my eyes because of all the joy I felt about this great honor being bestowed upon him.

I feel a certain kinship with Al Gore. I tend to think that if I were a politician, I would be something like him, and that if he were a scientist, he'd be something like me. He is a very smart man -- a bit of a nerd, really -- and thanks to his foresight in introducing the High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991, I have an interesting job in a very vibrant and growing industry!

In addition to securing the funding for the NCSA and development of Mosaic (the first graphical browser), the technology coming out of this act indirectly boosted our knowledge of the science behind his current passion, climate change. High-performance computers allow scientists to make better climate models and gain a better understanding of the forces that impact the climate.

We have a machine in our computer room that was signed by several dignitaries, including Al Gore. I walk past it every day. That's probably the closest I'll ever get to Al Gore, but that's just as well -- I wouldn't want the Secret Service to tackle me when I try to give that man a hug!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

National Coming Out Day!

I didn't realize it until this morning, but today is National Coming Out Day! So, Happy Coming Out Day to all my GLBT friends and loved ones!

In case it wasn't already obvious, I support my friends and loved ones of all sexual orientations, gender identities, ages, races, shapes, sizes, religious persuasions, national origins, handedness, eye colors, etc. But I figured that today would be a good day to come out explicitly as a GLBT ally.

Half of my first family, excluding myself, is gay. My situation is somewhat unique, in that one of my parents is gay, and before she figured that one out, she spent more than 35 years married to my dad and had three wonderful daughters. I'm glad that she eventually figured it out and found the woman of her dreams. Overall, we're all much happier now that we've adjusted to our new-found places, although getting there was rather traumatic.

So I'm really glad that my sister was able, whether through simple self-awareness or because society is much more tolerant now, to find the woman of her dreams without having to go through the unhappiness of being with the wrong person for two-thirds of her life!

There are other GLBT people outside of my family whose existence has impacted me in such a positive way that I can't even imagine life without them! This world would be a lonely place without them. So I thought I'd give a brief tribute to two of them, going in chronological order.

The first was a friend of my older sister's… let's call him Maury, for the sake of argument ;)

Maury was two years ahead of me in school. He went to the same high school as Rachel, which was a different school from the one I went to, but he was also in the youth orchestra with me and Rachel. He came over to our house fairly often when Rachel was a senior. He had outstanding taste in music, I remember, introducing us to Poulenc, and most importantly, me to opera. He had the CDs of Carmen, sung by Maria Callas, and Carmen ended up being something I grew quite fond of. After Rachel graduated and went on to college, for some reason he still liked the rest of the family enough to come and hang out at our house. I went to a play and maybe a couple of concerts with him his senior year of high school. Then he went off to college, although he would still stop by during breaks. But I don't think I've seen him in over ten years, although Rachel still keeps up with him somewhat.

Maury really opened me up to some music I never would have heard of, had it not been for him, and to opera, which was not well-liked in my first family for some reason. But I have to admit, Jeff and I own three CD sets of complete operas: Carmen (with Callas), Don Giovanni (with Samuel Ramey), and L'Elisir d'Amore (with Pavarotti). Maury would probably think this is insufficient, and I would agree with him, except that CD sets of operas are expensive! So, Maury, if you're reading, I would gladly take donations of operas! :)

The second GLBT person I'm going to write about was not a close friend. It was somebody whom I knew in Illinois. This person was a man when we first met, and transitioned into a woman by about a year before I left.

I met "Dan" early in my graduate career. He was a staff member at the university. He was short, and sleight of build, with glasses, kind of a squeaky voice, and a long blond ponytail. As we interacted I had no idea that he felt that there was a mismatch between his body and his mental image of himself.

I didn't see him much for several years, so I had no idea that he was doing hormone replacement or anything. We interacted via computer, on newsgroups, so I never saw any changes. As the time came closer, he started hinting on the newsgroups about a big change that was happening to him, and I soon figured out that he was about to become a she.

Some religiously conservative people on the newsgroups were less than charitable in their reactions. They called Dan a sick person with a mental illness, condemned him to hell, and even threatened him. But Dan prevailed and became "Cherise," getting an official name change, a new driver's license and even a new user ID from the university. (The new user ID was probably the hardest one of those to obtain. They never did it for women who changed their names when they got married, so I don't know how she did it, quite honestly!)

I visited her in the same old office I'd been to before. It was a little strange to call this person I knew Cherise instead of Dan, but really it was not any stranger than calling women I've known my whole life by their new married name, or calling a friend of mine who changed her entire name by that new name. This change of identity didn't threaten my ideas of gender roles or anything, seeing as I don't really conform to gender roles myself. And I noticed that Cherise had better hair than I did, so I asked her for her secret. We remained friends until I left. I tried to see her when I was back in Illinois in August, but she was out of the office when I stopped by.

I admire Cherise for her ability to be herself, no matter what others said. Her parents were pretty displeased at their son becoming a woman, and I'm not sure what kind of relationship they have today. Her courage inspires me to be true to myself, and I'm glad that I know her. If she can face down that kind of opposition, then I can face anything that life gives me!

Anyhow, I'm grateful for what the people I've met of all sexual orientations and gender identities have shared with me. Happy Coming Out Day!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Becca's Cake Bakery

It was a normal Friday night for most people -- except for me, Jeff, Vinny, Jody, and Adam. You see, we were all preparing for Vinny's birthday fiesta.

I planned to bake some gluten-free, egg-free cupcakes for my 365-day-old son, and a cake shaped like a sombrero for the guests at the party. I started with the cupcakes.

This is a picture of the ingredients I used to make the cupcakes. On the far right we have the gluten-free cake mix that I bought in Lexington at the Good Foods Coop. It called for 2 eggs, 1/2 c. oil, and 1 c. water. I looked on my favorite baby food website and found out that sunflower oil is one of the least allergenic cooking oils, so I bought some sunflower oil for this cake. Unfortunately, my mother is allergic to eggs, so I went with Ener-G egg replacer (also purchased at the Good Foods Coop) instead of real eggs.

If you ever wondered what egg replacer looked like when you mixed the powder with water, then this picture is for you! It gets kind of foamy. I've used egg replacer in a lot of baked goods, (such as my famous cranberry bread) and it results in a crunchier crust but otherwise the bread is just as tasty as it is when made with eggs. I was curious how the egg replacer would impact the gluten-free cake mix.

I mixed it all up in my mixer, and I was pretty surprised by how runny the batter was (as you can see in the picture). But actually, that made it fairly easy to fill the muffin cups. I ended up with a total of 21 cupcakes (good thing I have two muffin tins!).

The following two pictures are the before and after baking photos. I baked them at 350 F for about 15 minutes. They looked pretty nice -- a nice golden color, and a moist texture.

After I finished baking those cupcakes, I took a break and talked to my better half and Adam and Jody, who were busily preparing salsa.

Vinny was sitting in his high chair, waiting patiently for us to pay attention to him. (Okay, not actually waiting so patiently.) But soon Granny and Granddad arrived, and paid more attention to him than he had ever thought possible, so I think it worked out okay.

Then, it was time for me to start on the sombrero cake. I decided to try the buttermilk cake recipe from The Joy of Cooking. Here are my ingredients (not pictured: vanilla, baking powder, and other uninteresting ingredients):

(Sorry for the blur. I forgot to use the flash.) I tried cake flour to make the cake for my in-laws' anniversary party, and ever since then I have been sold on it when it comes to cake-baking. I used real butter for the cake, too.

Next I sifted my flour and other dry ingredients, before creaming the sugar and butter, beating the three eggs, and then mixing everything together into the cake batter.

After I got the batter all made, I put it into three different baking dishes (pre-sprayed with Pam Baking Spray -- that stuff works better than I can ever hope to do with greasing and flouring pans) to bake. The following image is big so that you can see what I did. I had a normal cake pan, which I used to make a thin layer that was the brim of the sombrero. (It's sitting on top of a big mixing bowl, in case you're wondering.) Then I have two Anchor-Hocking bowls, one medium-sized (1.5 qt), and one small (1 qt), that I would stack up to make the part of the sombrero that goes over your head. I'd say I put nearly equal amounts of batter in each bowl, with slightly more going into the medium-sized bowl.

I baked the three pieces in the oven at 350 F. I don't know how long I baked them, because I forgot to check the time when I put them in, so I had to just keep an eye on them. But I can tell you that the cake pan came out first, followed by the smaller bowl and finally the bigger bowl. Here are some pictures of them after they came out:

I waited a few hours for them to cool, and then, at about midnight, I began making the frosting. It's just your average powdered-sugar/butter/milk/vanilla frosting, from The Joy of Cooking once again!

I started off by frosting the top of the sombrero brim, in order to stick the hat part on top.

Then I put the first hat layer on it, frosted the top of that, and then added the top layer.

Then I frosted the whole thing using most of frosting, but luckily there was still some left over for what I wanted to do to decorate the cake.

I had some M&M's (plain and peanut), some star sprinkles, and some food coloring. I colored the top of the cake yellow, put a blue rim around the top, and a red rim around the brim of the sombrero. Then I decorated it with M&M's: peanut M&M's around the bottom of the brim (like pompoms), and plain M&M's on the hat itself.

Now for some pictures of the final result:

I was pleased by the result. I am not the world's best cake icer, but the decorations mostly hid my deficiencies. If I had it to do all over again, I'd buy some tubes of colored decorating frosting and use that for the colored ribbons instead.

Cake-Baking Preview

The party was a big hit; we had a great time, the food was delicious, and the cakes were spectacular.

I took lots of pictures of the cake-baking process, but unfortunately, I don't have enough time before I leave for work this morning to make that cake baking post. In the meantime, I will leave you with this picture of the three of us in front of Vinny's cakes, so that you can be tantalized and say to yourself, "Rebecca, I just have to know! How in the world did you ever make such a fabulous sombrero-shaped cake?" Stay tuned for the answer to your question!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Visitors and More Visitors

On Tuesday night, my cousin Elizabeth spent the night, on her way from North Carolina to Minnesota. She had been living in NC but she's moving back to Minnesota again. She arrived kind of late but we had dinner ready soon after she got here. Then in the morning I made her some pancakes (because if you stay with me, you get a pancake breakfast, that's just how things go) and we had a leisurely breakfast before she took off again, this time for Evansville to spend the night at Grandma's (that's my dad's mother, not my mom's mother who we visited this past weekend).

I hadn't seen her since our baby shower over a year ago, when she was living in Kentucky. She appeared to be well and in good spirits, and happy to be returning to Minnesota (where she did her undergraduate degree and where her boyfriend lives). I was glad that we were on the route for her move.

This weekend, both sets of grandparents are coming down for Vinny's birthday bash. In honor of the fact that his favorite food is refried beans, we are having a birthday fiesta. His Tia Jody is making Mexican food for his party, to which we have invited a lot of people from the area in addition to our immediate family. I've ordered a sheet cake, and in addition, I am baking a sombrero-shaped cake for the party. I will try to take some pictures as I make it, and show them to you, my vast blog audience!

Sorry to Disappear

Sorry to disappear on you like that... I've been very busy this week.

We went to Kentucky to see Grandma over the weekend. We left Friday afternoon after work. Jeff and I went over to see her on Saturday morning. I brought along my violin too, and played for Grandma for longer than I should have. But she enjoyed it, so it was worth it. I took some tylenol before we headed over there, and then when we got back to Dad and Marvis' house, I iced it down and kept taking tylenol and ibuprofen for the rest of the day.

In the afternoon, we took Vinny over to see her, and Dad and Marvis also came along with us. Grandma enjoyed seeing Vinny, although she kept trying to trick me into playing some more for her. But I really couldn't (I had left the violin at Dad and Marvis').

I learned that she was experiencing kidney failure, so I called my sister Laura and encouraged her to pay a visit ASAP, which she did. But apparently Grandma is still holding on, or at least I haven't heard the news yet.

I was really glad that we got a chance to see her one last time. She's a beautiful person and I am going to miss her a lot.