Sunday, August 31, 2008

Adventures in Staying Afloat

I've been really busy lately, with more things on my plate than I can really handle at once. It's evaluation time at work, so I've had to come up with ways that I'm super awesome, and also with evaluations of other people's performances should they request them. I've actually had two feedback requests, which surprised me.

Then it's also the time of year when people want to get papers finished, so that they can put them in their self-evaluations. I am writing a paper with a sometimes-reader of this blog, so let me right here add the statement that I've been working really hard on that paper, honest!

Then I finally understand how to do something that I had spent several months not-doing because I didn't understand it. When my collaborator took the time to explain to me what he was talking about, suddenly it made sense. So that's something else I have to do.

Then we're trying to get ready for a new supercomputer, and in order to do that, we have to prepare some tests for the new machine. I have to prepare a test based on the chemistry application I work on. Basically, you know how well the application performs on the current machine, so you extrapolate from there how it will do on the new machine. You want to create a goal that is realistic but not too easy or too ambitious. So I've been working on that too.

Then, of course, there's my family, whom I do not want to neglect. So I try to spend as much time as I can with them, but on weekdays, that's about three hours if I'm lucky. I'm glad to have this three-day weekend, so that I can actually see them, but it also means that I'm putting off my work for another day.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Stay-at-Home Dads: Fantasy vs. Reality

This has been all over the blogosphere, but for those of you who haven't seen it, I present you with fantasy and reality on my family arrangement.

First, a flight of fantasy from a judgmental, sanctimonious, smug, and pitiful little man:

That's John Hagee, in case you were wondering. He goes by the title of "Reverend" but I've seen nothing in his behavior that is worthy of reverence or respect, so I will not honor him with it.

And to cheer you up after it sinks in that there really are people who think like that, a realistic point-of-view on stay-at-home dads, with a touch of humor:

That's rocker Jon Lajoie, who's going to be on tour in September and October on the east and west coasts. Very cool video.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Rebecca Over the Years

Something you may not realize is that I'm a time traveler. One of my hobbies is to travel through space-time and pose for high school yearbook photos. How am I able to bend the space-time continuum? That's left as an exercise for the reader.

Unfortunately, the power of the internet has caught up with me. Now all my high school yearbook pictures are online. Since any intrepid investigator would be able to put this together, I figured I may as well just come clean on my own.

This is me in 1954. While all you folks were fussing over your poodle skirts, I trying to use the laws of physics to grow my bangs out.

This is me in 1960. By then, my bangs had grown out, as had the horn rims of my glasses.

1966: I discovered the law of Conservation of Poofiness.

1968: I discover the Conservation of Horns as the horn-rim glasses are replaced by horn-rim hair. (This picture looks a lot like a senior photo of one of my aunts.)

1970: I began experimenting with the physics of springs (at the ends of my hair).

1974: I discovered string theory -- in my hair.

1978: I went for a different look, inspired by the van de Graff generator. It was a preview of what the next decade would bring.

1984: I was wearing neon colors and trying to simulate an electron cloud structure with my hair.

1986: I was having fun with optical illusions.

1994: I had discovered anti-gravity, but it worked only on hair.

1996: My asymmetric pageboy look mirrored quantum asymmetry. (I actually had hair like this, except it was not blond.)

2008: Here I am today, writing a program to simulate the bending of the space-time continuum.

Make your own photos of yourself throughout the ages at Idea borrowed from Shakesville.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Illness Stigmas

One time, I was involved with a job interview in which the interviewee was a cancer survivor. The young man was quite proud of his success at overcoming cancer, and felt that if he could beat cancer, he could do anything.

There are many other proud cancer survivors out there. Lance Armstrong comes to mind. He has used his fame to found the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which provides support to people affected by cancer.

Cancer survivors are a source of inspiration. Rarely do people with cancer get blamed for their illness. But the same could not be said for another type of debilitating disease: mental illness.

Like cancer, mental illness is simply a case of a physiological defect. It's a deficit or surplus in production of chemicals within the brain, not a character flaw. Too often I hear people talk about clinical depression (for example) as though it's something that can be overcome with positive thinking (or Jesus). Sometimes, perhaps, it can be, but more often than not, depression stems from a serotonin deficit in the brain, something that must be treated with medications.

When we lived in Illinois, there was a woman in town -- a well-educated professional with two young sons -- who fatally stabbed one of her sons and critically injured the other. She was suffering from mental illness, which drove her to commit these horrible acts of violence against her children.

If she had been of sound mind at that particular moment, I could almost guarantee that she never would have done such a thing. But she was not. She was tried and sentenced to several years in a mental hospital, and her rights to her surviving son terminated.

It seemed like a reasonable sentence to me, but there were others in the community who did not. How could a woman murder her child like that, they wondered? They would never dream of harming a hair on their child's head.

Like the critics of the sentence, I cannot imagine what was going through the woman's mind that day -- and I'm glad of that fact. I'm glad that I have not experienced such a horrible thing -- the need, the desire to kill anyone, not to mention to kill my beloved child. But, unlike the critics, I understand that it is a result of my good fortune that I have not had this experience. I'm not morally superior while she is morally depraved, I'm not blessed by God while she is being punished for her sins; I'm just lucky that the combination of my genes and my environment have not induced this experience in me.

Mentally ill people have these horrible thoughts and impulses -- even though they don't want to. They're not morally depraved; they're neurotransmitter-deprived (or oversaturated).

I'm sure that the woman was -- and is still -- being punished more than enough for her actions. After that horrible episode, she regained some sense of sanity, and felt remorse for the actions she had committed in her psychotic state. She will suffer the guilt of actions committed by her body but not by her sound mind, for the rest of her life.

Mental illness does not usually lead to such tragedy, though. Most of the time, it simply makes life more difficult for the person suffering from the illness, and their friends and families. Once an effective treatment is found, the daily maintenance activities aren't any more inconvenient than the treatments for other chronic illnesses such as asthma, high blood pressure, or diabetes. And it shouldn't be stigmatized any more than those illnesses.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Artistic Endeavors

It has been a recent development that Vinny has been able to tell us what he's drawing. He's been scribbling on a page for some time; his grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins have gotten cards "signed" by him since before he could sit up on his own. But it was just last week that he told me that he'd drawn an airplane.

This detail from one of his masterpieces shows his other favorite still-life subjects: thunder, lightning, and the moon. Personally, I find the pictoral representation of thunder amazingly expressive. Sometimes, it does sound just like that.


So I installed Adobe Acrobat 8 on my work laptop, because that way I would be able to fill out forms without having to write, which would be good for my arm.

Too frequently, I get Word documents from people, in which they want me to fill in the blanks, sign, and return. For example, a couple of weeks ago I got a committee housing reservation form for the conference. What they expect you to do is print it out, fill in the blanks by hand, and then fax it in. But, I can't really do that comfortably, so instead I try to type in the blanks, but that just ends up messing up the formatting.

So I asked my boss if I could please buy Adobe Acrobat 8, which I could use to create a pdf form from Word documents such as the housing reservation form, and fill them in by typing. He of course said yes, because he is made of awesome. I joked with him that it was a good thing he agreed, otherwise I'd have to report him to the Equal Opportunity Office.

(I voluntarily self-identified as disabled when I began my staff position. This is because it had been a month since my elbow surgery and I didn't know how it was going to turn out. So I figured it made sense to get the woman who was helping me fill out all my new employee paperwork to go ahead and fill out that form too. Fast-forward two months, and the EOO calls me to make sure that my disability had been adequately accommodated. I had to confess that I had gotten an ergonomic evaluation very quickly -- showing off that fabulous scar bumped me up to the top of the wait list -- but I hadn't yet ordered the ergonomic materials. It was entirely my fault; my boss had told me to order whatever I wanted and given me the appropriate charge numbers -- and I told them so. But apparently that didn't stop them from calling and yelling at him about it. He yelled right back and asked them what they wanted him to do -- install the keyboard tray himself?

We have a good relationship, my boss and I -- good enough that I can give him a good-natured ribbing about the Equal Opportunity Office, and many other things, for that matter. As I said, he is made of awesome. But I digress.)

Anyhow, in my short experience with it, Acrobat 8 is not all that great. It crashes a lot and corrupts your files as it goes down. This doesn't matter so much, maybe, if you're doing what I mentioned before, because it doesn't take long to recreate the form. But I was trying something more complicated with it earlier, and it completely destroyed my pdf file.

Also, if you have Acrobat 8.0.0, it is known to crash within ten seconds of startup because of the automatic update package. So you have to go into info (Apple-I), look under packages, and uncheck the automatic update package. I upgraded it to version 8.1 just now, so hopefully that will improve the stability, but who knows. So far I am displeased with Acrobat 8, but I will let you know if my opinion changes.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Toddler Tunes

Vinny is a big music fan. This is at least in part because his parents are musically inclined. I started playing the violin at a young age and Jeff was in a boys' choir for a number of years.

But in addition to being predisposed to enjoy music, we've exposed him to a lot of music in the 22 months since he was born. (You might argue that we exposed him to a lot of music in utero, too.)

When I put him to bed, I always sing at least one song to him. Every night, we read (sing) Down by the Bay, which he absolutely adores, and then I sing "Can't Help Falling in Love." Despite my voice's bad reputation (my singing was once mistaken for the sound of someone being strangled by a snake), Vinny seems to enjoy it. Personally, I think that I may not have the best voice tone, but thanks to my perfect pitch, I'm never off-key.

Vinny loves Jack's Big Music Show, and from that show learned about the renowned children's singer/songwriter Laurie Berkner. Jeff bought a couple of Laurie Berkner CDs and put them on his iPod. Vinny can't get enough Laurie Berkner. His favorites include "I'm a Mess," "Under a Shady Tree" (which he refers to as "Twee"), and "Running Down the Hill" ("I-I-I-Wunning" -- from the lyrics).

He's always been fascinated by the piano. In February, we got it tuned, and he watched the piano tuner intently. When the man tested his tuning by playing, Vinny had to sit next to him and watch, and cried when ir was time for the piano tuner to leave.

He loves to play the piano too. He will actually sit on the piano bench and play for several minutes, which is remarkable, given the attention span of a toddler. He does more than just pound on the keys; he sometimes appears to be picking out a tune of some sort. And when he finds a sound that he likes, he repeats it before moving on to something else.

Something that's been interesting to watch is his musical development. He doesn't really sing yet -- he hasn't figured out how to make his voice change pitch -- but he definitely can distinguish singing from speaking. He also seems to have tunes going through his head: he'll break out with "I-I-I-Wunning...daaaw Hiw" (for example), even when he hasn't heard the song for quite some time.

Vinny sometimes sings along with music -- he especially enjoys singing along with the "Jack's Big Music Show" theme song. It is incredibly cute to hear. He knows to lengthen or shorten syllables with the rhythm, but like I said, he hasn't figured out how to change the pitch of his voice yet. He also claps to the rhythm of songs, and dances too. He is so cute when he dances. He jumps but he hasn't figured out how to get completely off the ground, so it's more like springing up to his tip-toes and back down.

I am looking forward to seeing how his musical talents develop. In a few years, I would like for him to take piano lessons, because one thing I regret is that for all the musical talent and skill that I have, I don't know how to play the piano. I don't plan to push him to pursue music, but we will definitely expose him to music through music lessons, and music fun at home. It will be interesting to see where his interests take him.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Electric Cars

So I saw some new electric cars on the market. The Green Vehicles are cool-looking, but only one model is street-legal on roads with speed limit above 35 mph. The aforementioned model costs about the same as a VW Beetle. It has a 100-mile range and takes about 5 hours to charge up from completely empty.

I would totally buy one if I thought I could. You end up paying something like two cents per mile in electricity. Compared to about twelve cents per mile for my current vehicle (figuring roughly 30 mpg and $3.60/gallon), that is a steal. Plus, we have extremely low electricity rates thanks to TVA, so my cost could be even less. So we're talking order of magnitude lower cost of operation.

But it looks like they are mostly focusing on California markets, and the cars are in great demand, so I would have to wait a long time before there would be one available for me to buy. It's probably not a bad idea to wait anyhow, to make sure that the cars actually work as advertised.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Mother-Son Afternoon Excursion

I spent a wonderful Saturday afternoon at the children's museum with Vinny. Jeff was feeling a bit under-the-weather, so I took Vinny out for a fun mother-son afternoon.

I hadn't taken him to the museum in a while. In fact, the last time he was there, he wasn't walking yet, so he didn't get as much out of it then as he did yesterday.

We started in the train room, where he could have easily spent the entire afternoon. There are lots of toy trains to play with there, and he was shouting "TRAINS!" with excitement. After at least twenty minutes, I was able to lure him to the next exciting room, the child-sized dollhouse. He enjoyed playing in the kitchen of the dollhouse but didn't try to go upstairs. Unlike the last time we were there, there were no other children in the room so he had the run of it to himself. Then we went to the rainforest room, where he enjoyed running on the boardwalk and opening and closing the doors of the "research station." Another room he really loved was the bird room, where, if you go up on this deck, there are bird's nests under glass on the floor. He really loved pushing the buttons and turning on the recessed lamps in the floor, illuminating the nests. We must have done that approximately 8,423,986 times. But I could tell he really enjoyed it so that made it worth it.

It is readily apparent to me that Vinny loves two things above all else: wheels and lights. The wheels on the train toys were what made them so awesome. In another exhibit, there was an old-timey wheelchair and he studiously examined and tried out the wheels on the wheelchair. And I tried to get him to look at the plants and animals in the rainforest room, but he was more interested in checking out the lighting system. I taught him the word "nest" from the aforementioned bird room, but it's entirely possible that he thinks it means recessed lighting.

Altogether we spent about four hours at the museum. We took one short break to eat some goldfish crackers and drink some milk, but otherwise, the whole time was spent in the museum. He really had a great time and I'll have to take him back there again very soon.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Understanding Before Being Understood

One of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is to "Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood." The idea is that before we can fix a problem, we have to understand what's going on. This involves empathetic listening, which is a skill that the majority of us have not cultivated very well.

I know that I have long been in the habit of listening with the intention of replying rather than understanding. My empathy is too often limited to relating someone else's experience to my own. But sometimes, I cannot see where my experience and the other person's experience intersect. It is as if we are from different planets, or maybe even different galaxies!

This is where the empathetic listening comes into play. The times when our opponent's point-of-view seems the most foreign and far-fetched are precisely the times when we must seek to understand first.

I'm far from perfect at this skill but I'm working on it. It's especially hard for me to try to see things from the perspective of those who disagree with what I consider matters of human dignity and respect. Ironically, I have trouble affording those who disagree the dignity and respect that they fail to show others. So I was particularly impressed by this letter from a librarian to a patron who didn't want the library to have a children's book with a gay wedding on the shelf. This librarian's letter is a model for the level of understanding that I hope to someday attain.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Cake Wrecks

My sister Rachel alerted me to this blog called "Cake Wrecks," where there are pictures of horrible, professionally-decorated cakes sent in by alert readers. Some of them are funny, others are ugly, while still others are creepy, such as all the baby-shower cakes featuring semi-realistic babies. Anyhow, if you need a laugh, go check out the cake wrecks!

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Vinny Update

Vinny is an amazing young lad. He began speaking in sentences in earnest while I was in Seattle. The day I came home, he said to me, "Mama, I missed you all day!" (which is what I tell him every day when I come home from work, but I hadn't said it that evening).

He's said plenty of original sentences. Just yesterday he said to Jeff, "Open trash door, I throw away trash." When he's hungry, he says (for example), "Want some yogurt-toast" (that's toast with yogurt instead of jam).

He's also learned how to turn doorknobs, which means that he can leave his room if he's not tired enough to take a nap. (Or he could, until we installed the child-proofing on the doorknob inside his room.)

He's getting a lot better at feeding himself. He gets more than half the food in his mouth when he feeds himself, which I call a success. But he does enjoy rubbing the yogurt (for example) into the tablecloth or his clothes when he drips or misses his mouth.

He can recognize all the letters of the alphabet. He doesn't know the order yet but we've been practicing the alphabet song with him. He also knows his numbers, although again he doesn't quite have the order down. I like to count things with him. For example, he'll be playing with a truck and I'll ask, "How many wheels?" He'll usually "count" the wheels, although the wheels are actually a means to an end. The goal of counting, you see, is to get to ten (or sometimes, twenty). It doesn't really matter if you skip a few numbers or go out of order. Once you get to the target number, you celebrate. So usually, the reply to "How many wheels?" goes something like this:

"One, two, four, five, seven, eight, ten, yay!"

Close enough.