Thursday, February 28, 2008

Fashion Update

Just a brief entry to thank my fearless readers for their fashion advice.  I bought four new pairs of pants first, since I could go to the store and buy them.  For all my efforts I got two pairs of corduroy -- one tan, one black, and two pairs of Dockers -- one tan, the other chocolate brown.

Then, I ordered some tops from in tall sizes.  I got six blouses in total -- two 3/4-sleeved, four long-sleeved.  Two of them are striped but the rest are solid colors.  They finally arrived on Monday, and I was so excited when I tried them on.  I could sit and not feel my bare back touching the back of the chair!  The shortest part of the shirts -- on the sides -- was a couple of inches below the waistline of my pants!  (Usually, it is right at the waistline.)

As for shoes, I bought some Mary Jane shoes like Twice and Jane recommended.  They are very comfortable.  I used to have big clunky shoes because small shoes like that made me look overly heavy.  But now that I am close to my target weight (only 15 more pounds to go!) I feel more comfortable with my proportions.

These purchases were all fairly expensive to a cheapskate like me.  (Euroyankee is my cousin and knows the mentality I grew up with.  Thanks for your words of wisdom, cousin!)  But I went ahead and paid the extra price anyhow, even though tall sizes cost even more than regular sizes.  I was able to get two of the tops on clearance, but for the others I paid close to full price, which was difficult for me.  But I held my nose and paid it anyway.  And I'm glad I did: I'm definitely sold on tall sizes and I think that from now on, I will buy only tall sizes.

One piece of advice I'd like a follow-up on: Jenny F. Scientist, you mentioned scarves.  I have a few scarves already, but I am 99.9% clueless about how to wear them.  Jenny (or anybody else who knows), how do you wear a scarf?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Ancient Egyptian Women

I read an interesting article about the situation for women in Ancient Egypt. Apparently women in Ancient Egypt enjoyed a surprisingly high level of equality. Royal women commanded armies; tradeswomen bargained in the markets.

From the article:
Egyptian women also enjoyed a surprising degree of financial independence, with surviving accounts and contracts showing that women received the same pay rations as men for undertaking the same job - something the UK has yet to achieve. As well as the royal women who controlled the treasury and owned their own estates and workshops, non-royal women as independent citizens could also own their own property, buy and sell it, make wills and even choose which of their children would inherit.
Go ahead and read the rest: it's really interesting!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Growing the "Computity"

Something fun that I get to do in my job is give tours. My boss doesn't want me to do more than one a week, and because of his prohibition, I give tours infrequently enough that they are fun every time. I give a 15-minute spiel on the "observation deck" overlooking our machine room, before escorting them upstairs to the visualization lab.

There are some standard tour guide tricks that I perform. If you tour any cave, there are standard cave tour guide jokes (such as the wishing rock... the rock you wish you hadn't hit your head on), and likewise there are standard leadership computing facility tour guide jokes.

I make the jokes to keep people awake and interested. But I hope that I do more than provide light entertainment to all our visitors, but especially the students.

In particular, I hope that my words reach deeper than a light-hearted tickling of their funny-bones. I hope that some of the students who visit come away with new ideas about their futures. I hope that they discover that supercomputing is a fascinating field. I hope they can see all the things I love about my job, and seriously consider a career in high-performance computing. I hope that they can see that scientists are normal folks with people skills and good senses of humor.* I hope that I can be a role model, to girls in particular, who can remember me as a counterexample when people tell them (directly or indirectly) that science is not for them.

Even if they don't remember me later in life, I hope that I have planted a seed in their minds, and that someday, some of these children grow up to be computational scientists. The "computity" needs new members!

* Nerd joke: How do you know that you're talking to an extroverted {mathematician, computer scientist, physicist}? Because the {mathematician, computer scientist, physicist} is looking down at your shoes rather than his or her own while talking to you.

Another good (but only tangentially related) joke: How do you know that you're dealing with the mathematics mafia? Because they make you an offer you can't understand.

More Words

Vinny is becoming more and more verbal, and it's really exciting. He's learned that words get you somewhere. Over the weekend, he and Jeff were visiting Granny and Granddad, and they were sleeping in the same room (Jeff in the bed, Vinny in the Pack-n-Play). Jeff said he was awakened by Vinny, standing in his crib, staring at him, and reciting all the words he knows for food. Jeff got the hint, fed him, and all was well.

He's also learned to say the word "no." His first negative word was "Ning-ning," which meant that he was unhappy. That morphed into "nay-nay," and it's now "no-no."

He's learning even more body parts: he can identify his tongue, his arm, and his knee in addition to his mouth, nose, eyes, and ears.

I'm really enjoying his expanding vocabulary and I'm looking forward to seeing what he learns next!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Things I Love about My Job

I love the work I do for a living. Okay, so the excessive number of PowerPoint presentations, Excel spreadsheets, and Word documents I have to create and/or edit in order to impress Important People -- I could do without. But the science -- that is exciting stuff!

In my job, I work with power users of our supercomputers to get their codes up and running on the big machines. Depending on what the project PI wants, I just help them get started, or I get deeply involved as a member of the development team, or anything in between. These are people who have allocations of millions of CPU-hours, and run big codes that simulate scientific processes that are generally either impossible or too expensive or dangerous to do in the lab.

For example, we have users who simulate supernovae. As I say when I give tours, you can't simulate a supernova in the lab, or if you did, no one would live to tell about it. You also can't go check one out "in the field," because it's (hundreds or thousands of) light-years away and by the time you got there a) you'd be dead, and b) the event would be over. Furthermore, even if you did get there in time, a supernova is... shall we say... inhospitable to human life. So the only thing that astrophysicists can do is take the observations they can make from earth and near-space, combined with their knowledge of the laws of physics, and simulate supernovae on a computer. And there is so much physics involved that these computations require the use of thousands of CPUs for days at a time.

I don't work with the astrophysicists; I work with chemists and nuclear physicists. The nuclear physicists are my new project, so I don't know that much about what they do. But I do know what the chemists are doing, because I've been working with them since I came here as a postdoc.

One of the things they're studying is catalysis. A catalyst is a substance that speeds up a chemical reaction but is not used up by the chemical reaction process. The production of ninety percent of commercially-produced chemicals involves catalysis at some stage or another. You may have heard of the catalytic converter in your car's exhaust system, which converts toxic chemical byproducts of combustion into less toxic chemicals.

From what I understand, the discovery of most catalysts has been more-or-less serendipitous. Somebody accidentally contaminates a reaction, and discovers that the desired chemical reaction still occurs and actually goes faster! But it's inefficient, expensive, and possibly even dangerous to make discoveries in this way. If we instead simulate catalysis on a computer, we can be more systematic about it, and try a bunch of different catalyst candidates for a given reaction, without having to worry about safety or pollution. Then, we can pick the top-performing candidates, and actually try them out in the lab.

Something I really love about this job is the fact that I get to work on projects that make important breakthroughs in many different fields of science. I don't know much more than I've just described about catalysis, yet my work is instrumental in the true experts on catalysis learning even more about it.

Sometimes, the day-to-day stuff, such as tracking down a bug, or figuring out why the code doesn't compile, or why it gives incorrect answers, can be a real drag. But seeing the bigger picture is what makes all that boring stuff worthwhile.

Friday, February 15, 2008


You, my vast blogging audience, may have noticed that I have enabled comment moderation. This is because I have received a couple of spam comments recently, despite the word verification. I am sorry for the inconvenience but I will do what I can to moderate comments in a timely manner. The main obstacle to timeliness is that I really can't do anything with the blog from work, for obvious reasons. But fortunately for me, I don't get that many comments anyhow, so moderating them is not an arduous task.

Good Deeds Going Unpunished

They say, "No good deed goes unpunished." So far, one of my good deeds has not only gone unpunished, but I was actually rewarded for it!

In early January, I gave two tours of the supercomputer room, back-to-back, because of this huge engineering conference that was going on down at the University. Well, today I reaped the reward of being such a good citizen: being treated to a delicious catered lunch. Two other colleagues who were also involved in the tours attended too.

While I was there, I met several Important People, one of whom I'd met last week at the Black History Month celebration. He remembered me and my violin, and I was glad to have the opportunity to meet him again. I also met the project PI for one of the projects I've been assigned at work. He seemed like a very nice man. His visualization liaison and I have a meeting scheduled with him next week, so it was nice to meet him ahead of time and explain what my role is supposed to be with his project.

Anyhow, it was a delicious lunch and an enjoyable time. I'm glad that I was assigned to give the right tours to merit such a nice meal!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Game Theory and Human Behavior, Part I

Game theory is a subfield in applied mathematics that is used by social scientists to quantify and predict behavior. The main concept is that of the game, consisting of players, a set of moves available to the players, and the benefits or costs associated with each move.

One of the most famous games in game theory is known as the Prisoner's Dilemma. Here is the classic setup: Suppose that you and your accomplice have been arrested for a crime. The police place you in separate cells, and you cannot communicate with one another. They then tell you the following: they can convict you both on a lesser charge, but they're lacking the evidence to convict you for the big crime you committed. But, if you cooperate with them, they may be able to work something out with you. If you rat out your accomplice, and assuming he doesn't rat you out, you'll go free and he'll be sentenced to ten years in prison. If you don't rat him out but he rats on you, he'll go free and you'll be facing ten years in prison. If you both rat each other out, you'll each get five years in prison. If neither of you cooperates, you'll each get six months in prison on that lesser charge.

So, in this game, the players are you and your accomplice. The possible moves are to cooperate or not cooperate. The outcomes can be summarized in a table:

You Cooperate You Don't Cooperate
Accomplice Cooperates 5 yrs / 5 yrs 10 yrs / free
Accomplice Doesn't Cooperate free / 10 yrs 6 mos / 6 mos

The best outcome for both of you together is if neither one cooperates; however, by not cooperating, you risk facing the worst personal outcome. The best personal outcome occurs if you cooperate, so, no matter what your accomplice chooses, it is best for you personally to cooperate. If he doesn't cooperate, you get out free; if he does cooperate, at least you got only five years rather than ten.

Another problem in game theory has to do with signaling. Generally, we have one player who is sending messages and another who is receiving messages. Each player has a knowledge space (the set of all facts that the player knows), and these knowledge spaces may or may not intersect (overlap). Each player can assess the veracity of a statement, within the limits of his or her knowledge space. We could express the likelihood of a statement being true as a number between zero and one, with 0 = completely untrue, and 1 = completely true.

So, for example, if I'm the sender and you're the receiver, if I tell you that I have a tattoo on the bottom of my left foot, I know the veracity of that statement, since it's my foot and I can take a look at it. You can assess the veracity of the statement based on the last time you examined the sole of my foot; or your knowledge of my personality, sense of humor, and threshold of pain; or, if you've never met me, you might consider the likelihood of someone like me having a tattoo of any type. In the end, the better you knew me, the more you would be persuaded that the likelihood of me having a tattoo on the bottom of my left foot is very low (indeed, it is zero).

A classic signaling game is the job-market signaling game. Let's suppose that there are two types of employees: good employees and bad employees. Employers want to hire good employees, and are willing to pay them more than they would pay bad employees. The problem is, it's not possible to distinguish between good and bad employees without hiring them. This is fine for people who are bad employees, because they can get hired and coast on the productivity of others. It's not fine for the good employees, however. So they have to somehow signal to the employers that they are the employees that should be hired.

The way they can do this is through education. In this game, we assume that education does not actually enhance the skills of the employee; we assume that an employee would have to possess a certain level of natural ability (or other positive traits) that would allow the employee to make it through the educational experience. If a prospective employee makes it through a prestigious program of study in a timely manner, then he or she is a good employee. A bad employee wouldn't bother to pay the cost (in time, money, and effort) to produce this signal.

Of course, this game is imperfect, as in real life there is not a true one-to-one correlation between degrees from prestigious institutions of higher learning and intelligent, hard-working, successful employees (George W. Bush, anyone?), but in the game theory world, where the only way to make it through school is to work hard, this game makes sense.

A practical application of signaling is in the game of contract bridge. I love bridge, and I used to play duplicates in bridge tournaments. For those unfamiliar with the game, it is played with a standard deck of 52 cards, by two pairs of partners. Let's go with the convention of the bridge advice column in the newspaper and refer to them as North/South and East/West, respectively. Each player is dealt a hand of 13 cards, and then there is a round of bidding. After the bidding, the cards are played.

It's not really that important to know much about the bidding, except to say that the winning bid is what determines which card suit will be trump. But during the bidding, players often make bids that signal something completely different than what they sound like on the surface. For example, practitioners of the Blackwood convention recognize that when they bid "Four no-trump," the suit their partner responds with tells them how many aces are in their partner's hand. So if North bids "Four no-trump" and South responds with "Five Diamonds," South could have no diamonds in her hand; she's signaling that she has one ace.

Knowing these signals is very useful, even if you don't use the Blackwood convention yourself. You might perk up every time you hear a "Four no-trump" bid, and assess the likelihood that the bid responding to it is a Blackwood response, based on your evaluation of the experience and expertise of your opponents. In bridge tournaments, each partnership fills out a form explaining which conventions they use and the frequency of usage (always, often, sometimes, rarely, never). So you can check your opponents' form to get an idea of what signals they're using.

It's a shame that at the time I was playing in bridge tournaments, I didn't know game theory. I might have done a little better!

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Bullets of Cranktastic Goodness

As I am recovering from my illness (I'm up to about 60% of full power today, thanks!) I still lack the focus to create a posting masterpiece. My usual M. O. is essay-style, not bullet-style blog entries. But bullets are about all I can handle right now, so here goes.
  • I have all kinds of brilliant ideas for posts, just no time (or energy) to follow through. Some topics of interest:
    • Cars: basic mechanics, horsepower, RPMs, and getting the best gas mileage out of them
    • Math: significant digits (this is related to the cars discussion), estimation, integration (also related to the cars discussion), game theory
    • Computers: computer hardware, how a computer works, technology trends, supercomputers of the future
    • Social Science: why torture is not useful (incorporating the game theory from the math discussion above); stereotyping and closed minds
  • My sister Laura is getting ready to defend her dissertation next month. (Yay, Laura!) I'm supposed to make a cake for her party. I have a few ideas for an interesting cake, but if anybody has any suggestions, I'm all ears.
  • Getting sick really makes you appreciate your good health when you get it back. I'm at about 60%, but hey, I feel awesome compared to how I felt on Wednesday and Thursday!
  • Vinny's learning a lot more words. For "milk," he hears only the final consonant and calls it "k" (like he did with "light"). He knows his nose, his mouth, his ears, and his eyes pretty consistently if you ask him where they are. He thinks most four-legged creatures are dogs, and that they all say "oof" (that's "woof" without the w).
  • Also, last night when he and I were playing together, he peered between the handle and main body of his toy "workbench" and saw me. This was possibly the most hilarious thing ever. He then got a huge kick out of it when I poked my finger through there and beeped his nose.
  • Speaking of his workbench toy, that thing is one of the most annoying toys out there. The problem is the fact that it counts and it sings the alphabet song.
  • I have to know: Is the woman who joyously exclaims "One!!!!" "Two!!!!" ... "Ten!!!! Let's count again!!!!!!" that manic in real life? How did she inspire in herself so much enthusiasm about the numbers one through ten? And how did she feel about singing this somewhat stilted version of the alphabet song? Does she really love the letters that much? Was she paid well? I certainly hope so.
  • Here in Tennessee we were part of Super Tuesday. Unfortunately my main man John Edwards had already bowed out of the race so I had to decide who to vote for between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. (I could have voted in the Republican primary, I suppose, but then I would have had no one to vote for.) I think that either one would be good (and definitely an improvement over the current occupant of the White House!), but in the end, I chose to vote for Hillary Clinton. Her health care plan is better than Obama's, she seems less homophobic than he is, and when we watched the debate the week before we really admired how well she did.
  • Also, I'd really like to see a woman in the White House. It would be interesting to count the number of heads that exploded on Inauguration Day. (Think Clayton Bigsby the black white supremacist.)
  • Is she perfect? No. Is any candidate perfect? No. Even John Edwards, whom I really liked, tried to paint Hillary Clinton as weak for being a woman. Not cool, John Edwards, not cool!
  • Here's the thing: Attack her policies, her votes, whatever. Those are legitimately up for criticism. But attacking her for being a woman? Not appropriate. Ever.
  • So that misogynist who suggested she was pimping out Chelsea? I hope he never finds another job. Rush Limbaugh, who said that we don't need to watch a woman age as president of the United States? He needs to STFU, for good. And the entitled assholes who hired these two losers? May they lose their entire fortunes to "uppity feminists" and "articulate minorities."

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Under the Weather

I feel terrible. I have a miserable cold/flu virus that has completely wiped me out.

And if you know me, you know that it takes a lot to wipe me out! If I were a D&D character, I would have a Constitution of 20. But I have a fever, my body aches all over, my head is congested, my throat is raw, and my lungs are full of uncoughable phlegm. I'm at about 20% power right now.

I went to work for two half-days yesterday and today. I really shouldn't have gone at all, but today was the Black History Month choir performance, and I had to be there. (It went remarkably well, given how poorly I was feeling.) But by the end I was so weak that there was no way I could climb up the (huge) hill and retrieve my car from the parking lot. So I found a colleague who knew how to drive a stick, and asked him to drive my car down for me. I owe him one. Maybe when I feel better I'll bake him something nice.

Tomorrow, I'm taking a sick day. Hopefully the weekend will give me a good opportunity to convalesce, and I'll be back at work on Monday.

Otherwise, if you're off work for health reasons for more than four days, you go on short-term disability. I don't want to find out how that works.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Discovering My Inner Critic of "Discovering Your Inner Economist"

I've been reading Discover Your Inner Economist by Tyler Cowen, a Christmas present from my brother-in-law. My sister Rachel has also been reading this book, which has been both entertaining and somewhat troubling to the both of us.

Cowan is a witty and engaging author. But at times he makes unwise leaps that reveal his biases and a lack of foresight. Consider the chapter on "Look[ing] Good at Home, on a Date, or While Being Tortured." This chapter is about the art of signaling ("incur[ring] a cost to send a message about ourselves to the outside world"). My sister has already written about some of the ways in which he reveals his biases in this section. It was written almost exclusively from a male point-of-view. Okay, the author is male, but this is a book about discovering your inner economist, not "Discovering Your Inner Economist for Men."

I found his discussion of the options of an innocent person being tortured quite interesting. It underscored the futility of using torture as a means of extracting information from enemies. Basically, there is no way that the innocent person can differentiate himself or herself from a true enemy of his/her captors. The reasoning behind this analysis is a post for another time, but it fits with what I know about game theory and psychology. (Stay tuned for that analysis.)

At the end of the chapter he writes about counter-signaling. The most impressive Japanese business cards, he says, are those that have only the person's name printed on them, with no company or position. The businessperson who has these cards is so impressive that no introduction is necessary (p. 108).

He then admonishes against buying books in which the author's name is followed by the initials "Ph.D." If they have to advertise their degree, it suggests that the author is up to something, such as attempting to dupe the gullible by appeal to authority. To bolster his argument, he discusses a study that showed that the least successful people with a given title are the most likely to advertise that title. Sure enough, professors at less elite universities are more likely refer to themselves in voicemail greetings and course syllabi as "Doctor" or "Professor."

Now, I understand his point, and it is true that this sort of situation occurs (think of Dr. Laura, whose Ph.D. is not in a counseling field!), but there are other reasons to advertise one's advanced degree, reasons even beyond vanity or insecurity. It could be that due to societal biases, professors at more elite universities are more likely to be properly addressed than their counterparts at less elite institutions. They may feel no need to preemptively lead students to the proper form of address, not because they are better people. It could simply be that they are more likely to fit the mold or stereotype of what a professor looks like than their counterparts at less elite institutions do.

I append those three letters to my name on my business card and my professional webpage, not because I am vain or particularly insecure. I, like any other woman in this field, do not fit the mold of what a scientist looks like. I put "Ph.D." at the end of my name because in my experience, the fact that I have one is often forgotten otherwise. I would venture to say that many women (and other underrepresented minorities) do the same.

It's an interesting book, though, and I'll be interested to read through to the end.


Vinny is learning lots of new words. He has already mastered "Mama," "Dada," and "up" (which actually means "change position" -- he says "up" when he wants you to put him down, too!). And he knows a few signs -- "more" (which simply means food to him), and "milk."

But we've been working with him to learn more words, especially for some of his favorite things. He can now say "apple" with amazing clarity, "cracker" (although it sounds more like "ca-ca"), and "pr" for "prune." But there was one thing he kept doing that kind of stumped us for a while: he would point at the ceiling and say "t" -- very aspirated, very clear, and very confusing to his parents. Eventually I figured it out, though -- he was saying "light." When we pronounce the word light for him, we exaggerate it greatly, saying "liii-tt" -- and he was hearing the final t and repeating that.

It will be interesting to see what he picks up next.