Sunday, July 27, 2008

Anniversary Marriage Equality Post

Over the past several years, I have posted something on the occasion of our wedding anniversary concerning my sadness that others are still deprived of experiencing the wedded state that Jeff and I are allowed by virtue of our unmatched 23rd chromosomal pairs. Let this year be no exception.

The difference is that there seems to be a glimmer of hope this year. California's state supreme court ruled that the state must allow same-sex marriages to take place. There is a measure on the ballot in November that threatens to outlaw same-sex marriages, however, but it does not look like it will receive enough support to pass. But I plan to donate to the pro-marriage-equality side sometime soon, as an anniversary gift to myself.

I will leave you with some interesting readings on the subject:

I Do -- And Why: This is an article explaining why Greta Christina and her longtime partner got married when marriage was opened up to same-sex couples in California. Good for in case you wonder why same-sex couples can't just be happy with civil unions.

An Exercise in Empathy: This one I enjoyed because like me, the author is an atheist who is in a relationship with a believer. (The reason I had time to make two posts this morning? Jeff has taken Vinny to Quaker Meeting with him.)

Anniversary Celebration

In honor of our decade of life together, Jeff and I dropped Vinny off at his godparents' house and went out for an evening on our own. We went to Market Square in downtown Knoxville and enjoyed dinner and ice cream together. It was nice to be able to concentrate on each other without having to keep track of Vinny.

As an anniversary gift to ourselves, we are going to get a table set for the deck. We were shopping around yesterday and we may have found one to buy.

Friday, July 25, 2008

On This Day in History

  • 306: Constantine I is proclaimed emperor by his troops
  • 1547: Henry II is crowned king of France
  • 1603: James IV of Scotland is crowned the first king of Great Britain
  • 1868: Wyoming becomes a United States Territory
  • 1920: Rosalind Franklin, co-discoverer of DNA, was born
  • 1923: Estelle Getty, actress, was born
  • 1978: Louise Brown, the first "test-tube baby," was born
  • 1998: Jeff and Rebecca got married

Happy Anniversary, old man! Here's hoping for tens more!

Source of dates:

Monday, July 21, 2008

Friday Night Serendipity

On Thursday I sat down for lunch with a colleague of mine, who was seated next to an Important Person. I asked my colleague if he and his wife (who came along to see the sights of Seattle) had any plans for Friday night. He replied that they were going to see the Seattle Mariners Baseball game. The Important Person asked if he was interested in our Computer Vendor's box seats at the game, because the Vendor had offered them to him but he couldn't go to the game. After my colleague picked his jaw up off the floor, he said, "YES!" so the Important Person called the Vendor and inquired as to whether the seats were still available. As it turned out, there were four tickets available. My colleague asked me if I wanted to come along, and I said sure. I'm not a huge baseball fan but it sounded like it could be fun.

So I arrived at Safeco Field at 5:30 pm Friday. The Vendor's tickets were for the Diamond Club, which are the most expensive seats in the house. This is because it's not just a place to sit (although the seats were really good too -- maybe the fifth row back from home plate); you also get to partake of a buffet dinner before the game starts. Then, while the game is being played, you have a card where you can check off whatever foods you want, pass it to the end of the row, and receive your food within the next half-inning.

I called Jeff during the game, and asked him if the game was being shown on TV. I was curious as to whether he could see us, because we were so close to home plate. He found the game on our TV, and as it turned out, we were sitting just out of view when they focused on the batter. But he could see things in the background that I could see. As we were talking, he heard people cheering in the background and asked me what had happened. "He hit a single," I said. Jeff saw the batter hit the single about 10 or 15 seconds after I did. So I guess when they call it "live," it's on a bit of a delay.

It was a lot of fun and I'm glad I got to go. My colleague was also grateful to me for coincidentally talking to him about his Friday night plans in front of the right person!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Women, Don't Worry Your Pretty Little Heads over Science!

Hey girls, I don't know if you've heard, but we're underrepresented in science because we're not interested in it! Anybody who says that they've experienced discrimination or bias of any kind, based on their gender, is obviously full of it! Why, there was even a guy this one time who got mistreated by a female scientist. See! It's not just men who treat women badly -- scientists are equal-opportunity assholes!

Ladies, you are nothing but whiners! If you just acted more like men, you'd succeed in science! But since you're too interested in people and taking care of babies, you purposefully relegate yourselves to underpaid service jobs. It's your choice and you should be happy with it, gosh darn it!

As a woman scientist, I can tell you that both of the above-linked articles are based in fantasy. There is plenty of bias against women entering the scientific fields. Some of it is overt (e.g., my high school classmates telling me that I belonged in the kitchen rather than the lab), but most of it today is more subtle (e.g., some interesting comments from my professional peers who are trying to be inclusive but instead end up saying things that highlight their biases). Any woman who makes it to my level and claims to have never experienced sexism or bias is either extremely lucky or extremely unobservant. I wouldn't call myself the world's most observant person, but even I, who have been fortunate enough to work with some of the kindest and most fair-minded people on this earth, have experienced sexism -- even from those very kind and fair-minded people. We're all boiled in the broth of our patriarchal society, whether we agree with its tenets or not.

And even I have behaved in a sexist manner towards another woman. Once, when I was giving a tour, there were two physics professors taking the tour, one male and one female. I realized halfway through my presentation that I was directing my presentation to him and not to her. So it's not just men oppressing women; it's something that has seeped into our very subconscious thanks to our exposure to society's sexism.

Performing an act of sexism does not make one a bad person; it makes one a human person. After I saw what I was doing, I made an effort to direct the presentation more towards her interests for a while. And I resolved to be more careful about my behavior in the future. Doing something sexist is not the problem; what you do after you realize that you've been sexist is what matters the most. If I had realized that I'd been sexist and not analyzed or adjusted my actions, then I would have a problem. And I think that getting the science establishment to recognize its complicity in sexism and to make a change is what is most crucial in opening the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields to women and underrepresented minorities.

Many non-scientists have this vision of the solitary scientist, a maverick in the laboratory, whose genius must not be constrained by pesky rules of fairness and the need to respect the dignity of others. But in reality, science is a very cooperative field. Collaborative efforts result in 99.9% of the progress in scientific research. And in order to cooperate, certain rules of human interaction must be followed.

Those rules include treating others with dignity, seeing them as colleagues rather than indentured servants or sex objects, and using your position of authority (as a senior scientist over a student or postdoc, for example) to lead as a mentor, rather than to force, intimidate, or abuse. These are good principles to follow because in the long term, they will provide better results than the alternative.

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen R. Covey discusses production and production capacity. Let's say you buy a brand-new car, which you can use to drive around. (You might think of it as producing transportation.) If you drive it a lot and never do anything to maintain it, then it will break down. The oil will gum up, the engine will lose compression, and your source of production will be no more. If, on the other hand, you periodically get its oil changed, get it tuned up, etc., then your car will last a lot longer and you will get a lot more use out of the money you spent to buy it. The production capacity of your car will remain high for longer than it would if you neglected it.

The same concept applies to people. You can run your employee ragged, and squeeze every last drop of effort from their hide; or, you can give them the opportunity to rejuvenate and remain mentally and physically healthy, and reap more production from their efforts in the long term. In the first case, you may get more production in the short-term, but in the latter case, you will end up with more production in total.

Another facet of the misperceptions about scientists is the erroneous belief that scientists should fit a certain mold that is incompatible with society's constructs of femininity. If you're a "real woman," then you can't be a scientist; if you're a scientist, then you can't be a "real woman."

The idea that scientists must fit a certain mold is what makes it particularly challenging for women to break into the STEM fields. But when those stereotypes are lifted, and a better climate for women is implemented, women meet with success. Here's an example from my own field, computer science.

In 1995, women made up an abysmal 7% of undergraduates admitted to the computer science major at Carnegie-Mellon University. By the year 2000, women made up more than thirty percent of undergraduate computer science majors. What accounts for this drastic rise in female enrollment? After discovering that prior programming experience had no correlation with subsequent performance in the computer science major, the admissions office dropped the programming experience requirements and instead sought students with high performance in math and science classes. And beginning in 1999, the admissions officers began to look for creativity and leadership skills, in addition to the academic criteria.

These new criteria resulted in a very different pool of students; in addition to the admission of more women, it also resulted in a more diverse male population. The admitted students still had exceptional SAT scores and high GPAs, but they were perhaps more well-rounded than previous classes. Realizing that many of these students had little or no computer experience, the department began offering computer science majors different tracks aimed at students with different levels of expertise. The tracks would converge by the end of the second year, at which point all students would take the same upper-division coursework.

Carnegie-Mellon also implemented many outreach programs aimed at computer science teachers and high school students. One program, which provided workshops on advanced placement computer science for teachers, also provided training on gender issues. As a result, the teachers became more aware of gender issues in the classroom and also encouraged their female students to attend Carnegie-Mellon.

Once the students arrived at Carnegie-Mellon, however, retention became a problem, because female students did not have equal access to resources. For example, fraternities and sororities often keep files of old exams, but sororities were much less likely to have files for computer science courses. So an organization for women in computer science was formed, complete with a Big Sister program, research opportunities, an online advice network, and a schedule of faculty/student events.

Nowadays, women students make up a significant fraction of the undergraduate class at Carnegie-Mellon, and go on to happy and productive careers. So it seems like a no-brainer that changing the classroom environment is a good idea.

Then why do some people object so strongly to the encouragement and inclusion of women in STEM? So many people fear that "underqualified" women (or minorities) will take the place of men in prestigious schools, and they all know a friend of a friend who was screwed over that way. This objection boils down to the scarcity vs. abundance mentality. The truth of the matter is that there is a need in this country for as many STEM professionals as we can muster. A prominent group of businesses called for a doubling of STEM graduates within the next decade, and we are not delivering. We need these new scientists to replace the ones that are retiring, but more importantly, to solve the real global crises we face today in energy, climate, resource management, and more!


Women in Computer Science at Carnegie-Mellon:
These papers can be obtained from the following link:
  • The Evolving Culture of Computing
  • Transforming the Culture of Computing at Carnegie-Mellon
  • Women in Computer Science: The Carnegie-Mellon Experience
In addition, I found this interview with one of the authors quite fascinating.

Other Links:

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Travel Reading

I brought along several books to read during my trip. The one I started with, which I have nearly finished, is The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey. It was recommended to me because I feel that I suffer from inefficiency and there is a chapter on time management. That chapter was somewhat helpful but it was the rest of the book that I really found interesting.

The premise of the book is that most self-improvement books today are based on what he calls the "personality ethic" -- use these techniques and think in this way, and you will be a success. On the other hand, his book focuses on the "character ethic" -- incorporate the following principles into your character in order to find success.

Something I really liked about the book was that unlike many other books I've read, success is not defined as getting a promotion, making lots of money, other people liking you, etc. Those are all external goals over which you may or may not have control. No, success is defined quite differently -- being an actualized, happy human being, a person of principle, a person who adheres to the principles of fairness, integrity, human dignity, etc.

And ultimately, that has always been my goal in life, too. As nice as it is to make a lot of money or be popular, those are not enough. I strive to be a person of principle who leaves the world a little bit better than she found it. It is my sense of fairness and belief in human dignity that cause me to advocate for marriage equality, for example. So it was pretty exciting to see a book that promised guidance to help me become even better at what I already want to do.

According to this book, there are seven habits, three of which are classified as "private victories", three as "public victories", and then the last one involves renewing the other six habits. The private victories are ways to achieve personal character, while the public victories involve interaction with others. With successful actualization of the first three habits, one can go from dependence to independence, and with the second three, from independence to interdependence, which is the highest goal.

A fascinating concept which I already knew but had never verbalized was the Abundance and Scarcity mentalities. The basic idea is that there are some people who see the world from the Abundance Mentality -- that there is enough for everyone -- while others have the Scarcity Mentality -- that anyone else's good fortune comes at my expense.

I think that the Scarcity Mentality is pervasive in this country -- quite ironic, given that we are one of the richest countries in the world. If we instead collectively held the Abundance Mentality, we might see that there is enough healthcare for all, and implement a single-payer healthcare system like our neighbors in Canada and our peers in Europe. We might be more willing to pool our resources in support of the collective benefit to our country, and provide sick leave for all employees and longer, paid family medical leave; more money for schools in economically depressed areas and more scholarships for higher education.

But it's not only the scarcity mentality that causes these problems -- it's also a lack of understanding of synergy (synergy is another "habit"). What would happen if inner-city schools' success rates mirrored rich suburbs? It would transform our country! Here's the thing: providing money for inner-city schools takes away from my spending money in the short-term, but it helps me in the long term. When those kids go to school instead of joining gangs, I save money on police, judicial system, and prison costs. When some of those kids become nurses and doctors, I get better access to healthcare. And when some of those kids become scientists, I get more American peers instead of having to rely on the brain drain from other countries to feed the American scientific machine. Furthermore, there would be more heads to think about ways to solve the serious problems we face in this world. The rising prosperity of the residents of inner-cities would raise the fortunes of us all. There is more than enough to go around.

Anyhow, I'm really enjoying this book and I'm glad I read it!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Fun with Family

On Friday, after such a sleep-depriving experience, we took it easy. At my request, we rode the bus. I really miss having public transportation and I wanted to see what the Vancouver public transportation system is like. It was marvelous. We went to a spray park, where there are a whole bunch of spray nozzles spraying water in various directions, and watched Byron play in the water. Rachel and I sat there and used what brain cells we had that were active to keep an eye on Byron and to chat and catch up with each others' lives.

Then in the evening, I treated them to dinner out. I requested that we go to a place that had good food that you can't get in Tennessee. So we went to a Nepalese restaurant. I had the goat curry and it was delicious. When we got back home we had ice cream cake (left over from Rachel's Wednesday birthday) and then I gave out the gifts I had brought.

For Byron, it was a belated birthday present of a book. But he enjoyed the card so much that I need not have brought him anything else. It was one of those cards that plays music when you open it. He's really into Star Wars and this card played the Star Wars theme music. I'm not sure that he looked at the book at all, but the card was a big hit.

For Rachel, in addition to the hominy and hushpuppy mix she requested (so as to better expose her Canadian friends to her native cuisine), I brought along a cast iron skillet and a bag of cornmeal, with which to make the delicious cornbread recipe from The Joy of Cooking. Try that one if you ever want to taste some really good cornbread!

The next day, we went to the Lighthouse Park and did some hiking. It was really beautiful and I admired the big evergreen trees and all the berry-producing plants. It's really a different biome than what I am used to in the southeastern United States.

We also baked for the next day's party. Rachel made peanut pie (like pecan pie only made with peanuts) and I made lemon-poppyseed pound cake, another classic from The Joy of Cooking. (Can I just take this time to say that while I may seem like a walking advertisement for The Joy of Cooking, that is only because it is one of the world's greatest cookbooks.)

The next day, we had a party celebrating Rachel's and Byron's birthdays, in a nearby park. Rachel invited some of her friends, and I got the opportunity to meet them. I am really glad that Rachel has such nice friends to interact with. I enjoyed meeting them all and was sad to have to leave the party while it was still going strong and head for the train station to take the bus back to Seattle.

I enjoyed getting the chance to see Rachel, Scott, and Byron. I had fun playing with Byron, and was interested to see what I have to look forward to in three years when Vinny gets to be that age. We will see each other again in December, when they visit my dad, and I am looking forward to it!

Monday, July 14, 2008

The 24-Hour Travel Marathon (and More!)

I bet you are all wondering what in the world happened to me. Usually I post late in the week and over the weekend, but you haven't heard a peep out of me since last Sunday!

Well, this is because I have been traveling. This week I am in Seattle at a conference, culminating in a tutorial I am giving on Friday afternoon.* But before the conference, I decided that since Seattle is so close to Vancouver, British Columbia, I would visit my sister, brother-in-law, and nephew for a few days.

I left on Thursday morning, flying from my local airport to Denver and on to Seattle. The trip was uneventful and all my flights were on time. I then took a bus to the Tukwila train station near the airport, and waited for a train which would take me into Seattle, where I would transfer from the train to a bus that would take me to Vancouver, arriving at roughly ten o'clock pm.

As I have learned, every time I travel there must be some adventure. This bus ride ended up filling my "adventure quota" for this trip and several more to come.

We left about an hour late, which is typical but not bad for Amtrak. Then, about 45 minutes outside Seattle, the bus blew the left rear inner tire. We sat there for quite some time... well, read an excerpt from the email I sent the bus company:
[The driver] competently pulled the bus over to the side of the interstate. I was sitting towards the rear of the bus so I can't be certain exactly what transpired, but it appeared that after examining the bus, he called someone on his cellphone, perhaps his supervisor, I'm not sure. In any case, he remained on the phone on and off for most of the evening. At about midnight or so, another bus arrived and was able to take some, but not all, of our passengers. I remained with the original bus, which was having its tire changed by the tire mechanic. Because it was the innermost tire on the interstate side of the bus, it took quite some time to change. In the end, we got to Vancouver station at about 3:15 am, roughly 5 hours after the bus should have arrived.

I would like to comment about [Driver]. He seemed like a very conscientious person and dedicated driver, but he had a number of problems that evening. First, he did not seem to know what to do in a crisis event such as this. Do you provide your drivers with training on what to do in emergencies? If so, it did not seem to stick. He did not put out any flairs as far as I could tell, which made it more dangerous for us to sit in this bus on the side of the road while 70-mph traffic whizzed by. Are the buses equipped with flares? If not, they should be.

Second, [Driver] needs more training on how to handle angry customers. It was late at night and people were frazzled and at their wits' end, including him. His methods of handling angry complaints included making idle threats to call the police or not provide us with the latest information on the situation. These idle threats only served to make those who were angry even angrier. A better approach would have been to overlook the negative language and sympathize with the passengers' underlying frustrations. Instead he took their negative comments personally and escalated the situation instead of diffusing it.

But I do not think that [Driver] is a bad employee and I certainly do not advocate firing him or anything like that. He is a man of high moral character and commitment. I was traveling on the bus to visit my sister in Vancouver. I am from Tennessee and I have never been to her house before. [Driver] was committed to making sure that I arrived at my destination safely. I am firmly convinced that if my sister had not been there waiting for me, [Driver] would have stayed with me and done everything in his power to help me to find her, and not left my side until my sister showed up.

As for the bus situation, I am also unsure as to why it took so long to get the bus fixed. Assuming that [Driver] called the proper person, I don't know why it took such a long time to send someone out to fix the tire. Perhaps your company needs to reevaluate its logistics and emergency process. A faster response time would have helped things immensely.
Something I did not mention in my letter but that made the situation more interesting was that the woman in the seat in front of me was deaf and I wrote notes to her to keep her updated as to what was going on. It was kind of fun, but unfortunately my arm was already sore from lugging around my heavy bags and writing notes to her did not help matters. But I used my ergonomic pen and abbreviated as much as possible and was able to keep her updated.

Another fascinating addition to the communication situation was the woman in the seat in front of the deaf woman, who did not speak English. So she called a friend, perhaps the person who was going to pick her up at the Vancouver station, and then asked me to talk to her friend. I explained the situation to him, and he then explained it back to her in her native tongue, and all was well. Both this woman and the deaf woman took the other bus when it came.

By the time I got to Rachel's place, I had been awake for 24 hours. I've been in travel situations like that before, but it's more typical of traveling from Europe to North America, for example, rather than across the continent. And in the usual case, you go to bed early in the time zone in which you arrive. In this case, I got maybe 3 hours of sleep all together that night.

I'll leave the description of my time with Rachel, Scott, and Byron for another post. (Speaking of sleep, I should get to bed soon!)

*Any of my vast fan base attending this conference and/or based in this area? Leave me a comment -- maybe we could get together!

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Sickness Strikes

Vinny caught a little flu virus or something, and was sick yesterday. It's the first time he's actually ever had a stomach bug. I knew something was wrong with him when he just wanted to lie in our bed and snuggle that morning. He didn't seem to have a fever, he was just miserable for some reason. He would periodically moan and then, it happened -- he puked all over our bed and himself. He felt a lot better after that, but not great. He watched four episodes of his favorite show -- Jack's Big Music Show -- and he sipped Pedialyte.

Later that afternoon when I was out shopping for more Pedialyte, he vomited again. But that was the last of it. We gave him chicken noodle soup and crackers for dinner. We also gave him some 7-Up in an attempt to soothe his stomach, but he didn't like it at all. He would take a sip, cringe, and say "Yucky!" I'm fine with him disliking soft drinks -- one fewer unhealthy food item to tempt him with.

This morning he woke up refreshed and feeling fine. We were conservative about his diet in the morning, but after the obligatory 24 hours since he vomited passed, he ate the pizza he'd been clamoring for since the day before, and all was well.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Sharing Sleep

There was an interesting post on co-sleeping on Daddy Dialectic recently. Jeremy Adam Smith discusses his personal experience as well as some other opinions both for and against sleeping with your baby.

The fear with co-sleeping is that you will roll over and squish your child, either because you are sleepy or because you are inebriated. I can see that it could be dangerous if you're such a heavy sleeper that nothing wakes you up, or if you're chemically impaired.

On the other hand, parents have been co-sleeping with their children for millions of years. In many other cultures today, co-sleeping is completely normal and expected. Indigenous South American peoples, for example, would view our culture's practice of putting a helpless baby in another room, far from its parents, as barbarous.

There are valid points on both sides of the debate, which probably means that the best position is somewhere in the middle. Ultimately, it is up to the parents and the child to determine what is best for their family.

Vinny slept between us in our bed for the first several months of his life. I loved it and so did he. It was definitely the right thing for us.

I tried putting him in a bassinet next to the bed, but that really didn't work for us. I had a hard time lifting him into and out of it (because of my arm), and he didn't like being alone. I soon realized that he would sleep four hours instead of three if I kept my arm around him as he lay sleeping. That alone was enough incentive for me to let him sleep with us.

It was more convenient to have him right there when he was still small and needed nighttime feedings. While I didn't breastfeed him, Jeff and I could both sense that he was going to wake up hungry soon, and get his bottle prepared before he got upset.

Another thing I really liked was the fact that I could use my body to soothe him, even if it wasn't through breastfeeding. The sound of my beating heart and steady breathing were comforting to him and that helped me feel not quite so bad about my inability to supply him with soothing, natural breastmilk.

At about six or seven months, we started transferring him to his crib after he'd fallen asleep. Vinny would go to bed with me and fall asleep. Then, a couple of hours later, when Jeff was ready to go to bed he'd move Vinny to his crib and then go to bed. This combined the best aspects of co-sleeping and separate sleeping.

We finally stopped co-sleeping altogether when Vinny started rolling. I was afraid that he would roll off the bed in those hours before Jeff got there. I guess he was accustomed enough to the crib at that point that he wasn't afraid to be in it awake and alone. I would follow our bedtime routine and rock him until he was drowsy enough to fall asleep before putting him to bed.

We co-sleep very rarely nowadays. Last weekend he woke up before dawn with a bad dream or something, so I brought him to our bed. But he rolled and kicked enough that Jeff left and slept in the guest bedroom. I got little sleep that morning, so overall, I'd say that nowadays co-sleeping is a bust.