Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Important Question for My Vast Readership

Lately, I have been briskly walking the 5K route at my workplace with some friends. It is cold out, or at least what passes for cold in Tennessee. Let's say it's 40 F (roughly 5 C) or colder outside.

As I walk briskly, my hands get very hot. As my friends walk briskly, their hands remain cold. In fact, they have to wear gloves on the walk because their hands are so cold. When we get back to our office, my hands are extra warm and puffy, and theirs are cold. We are all sweating in our torso regions and breathing somewhat heavily from the exertion, so it's not like I'm the only one who has exerted him/herself. They think I'm a freak because my hands are so hot and swollen. I think they're freaks because their hands are so cold.

Question: What happens to your hands when you walk briskly on a cold day?

Monday, December 28, 2009

Post-Holiday Return

The holiday weekend is over and I once again return to the normal world from the fun time with my family.

Vinny was pretty thrilled with the whole concept of Christmas morning. All those presents... what's not to like, at least in principle? In practice, waiting through opening all those danged presents, that is no fun. This is one major drawback to having literally carloads of presents.

Some of the highlights of his haul included a kid-sized easel, a pirate game, and this pretend electrical board that I made for him. It's a small pegboard with a set of switches and outlets that he can attach to the board with bolts and wingnuts. I took actual electric outlets and light switches, attached each end of them to a small block of wood, and drilled holes in the wood so that the blocks would align with the holes in the pegboard. Then I also got some replacement plugs plus a few other interesting accessories (such as a plug that converts an outlet to a light bulb socket, and another one that converts it back the other way) for him to play with too.

The most exciting gift for me was a Roomba (a vacuum cleaning robot). It is supposedly a time-saving device, but in order to save time, you can't sit there and watch the thing do its work. Vinny and I are both mesmorized by it. So far I've had it clean two of the bedrooms in the house, which has been great, because it can reach under the beds a whole lot better than I can!

I made some special oatmeal for Christmas morning. A friend at work told me you can make oatmeal in the slow cooker overnight, so I thought I'd try it. You have to use steel-cut oats, not rolled oats, and they are a bit harder to find, but I found some in the "health foods" section of the grocery store (which makes me wonder, is the name of this section an indictment of the quality of the rest of the food in the store?). Anyhow, the ratio is 4 cups of liquid to 1 cup of oats. I used half milk and half water for the liquid. I put it in the slow cooker right before I went to bed, and it cooked on low all night.

It did stick to the side of the crock, unfortunately, but it wasn't too bad. Next time, though, I think I'll do a double boiler -- use a larger size slow cooker, half filled with water, and put the oatmeal in a smaller bowl inside. I say "next time" because there will be a next time -- it was really delicious and creamy. This is saying a lot because I am not really an oatmeal person.

Anyhow, I had a great time at home the past four days, and I'm kind of sad to have to go back to work this morning. But oh well. Once I get back into it, I know I will enjoy it. Thank goodness for having such a great job!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Adventures in Radar Detection

As I was driving down the highway the week before last, I got to thinking about all the police cars and their radar speed detectors I was passing. Thankfully I am not a big speeder and did not have to learn from personal experience the effectiveness of their radar guns. But it did make me curious how exactly the radar gun was used to determine a car's speed.

I knew it had to be using the Doppler Effect somehow. You know when you are driving along and you hear a fire engine or police siren behind you, and how the pitch shifts as the emergency vehicle passes you? That's the Doppler effect on sound waves.

What happens is, the wavelength of the sound gets compressed as the siren approaches you. Conceptually, the siren is producing a sound wave that peaks every so often (hundreds or thousands of times each second). In the case of a stationary siren, these wavefronts would be equally spaced, but in the case of a moving siren, the wavefronts are going to be squished together in the direction the siren is going, and spaced farther apart in the opposite direction.

Mathematically speaking, we know the wave equation: v = f, where v represents the velocity of the wave, is the wavelength, and f is the frequency. Let's suppose, to keep things simple, that you (the observer) are stationary, and the siren is moving. The frequency of the wave that you observe is proportional to the velocity of the observed wave divided by the frequency of the observed wave (i.e., fo = vo/o). The velocity of the wave is constant; the siren isn't pushing the air faster, it's altering the location and frequency of the wavefronts. So vo = v (a constant). How does the movement of the siren change the wavelength of the wave? Well, there is some amount by which the wavelength o gets changed from the at-rest wavelength ; let's call that a. So o = -a, making our equation
fo = v/(-a).

The shift in wavelength, a, has to be proportional to the velocity of the siren, vs (i.e., vs = af). We can substitute v/f for , and vs/f for a, by solving for the wavelength in the wave equation. Thus we obtain
fo = v/(v/f - vs/f)
fo = (v/(v-vs)) f.

We can go through this exercise again, with the siren stationary and the observer moving, and obtain the equation
fo = ((v-vo)/v) f,
and then combine the two equations into the more general
fo = (v-vo)/(v-vs) f.

Of course, a radar gun uses electromagnetic waves, not sound waves. When v is much, much bigger than vo or vs, then we can simplify this equation somewhat. Suppose we multiply the right-hand side, ((v-vo)/(v-vs)) f, by (v+vs)/(v+vs), or in other words, by 1. Then we obtain
fo = f (v-vo)(v+vs)/((v-vs)(v+vs))
= f (v
2 - (vs-vo)v - vovs)/(v2-vs2).

This doesn't look very nice or helpful, but since the velocities of the source and the observer are so tiny compared to the velocity of the wave, then we can cancel out any second-order (i.e., squared) terms in vo and vs:
fo = f (v2 - (vs-vo)v - vovs)/(v2-vs2) = (v2 - (vs-vo)v)/v2

So finally, we end up with the much simpler equation
fo = f (1-(vs-vo)/v).

This is the equation that is used in a radar gun. The radar gun shoots out some radio waves, which bounce off your speeding car. The frequency shift is used to determine the speed of your vehicle.

It is slightly more complicated, however, when faced with identifying the actual culprit who is speeding, as well as correcting for certain types of errors that crop up when the radar is not trained in the exact direction of the car's velocity, etc. But combining the radar gun readings with other techniques, such as observation, speed matching, etc., police are able to catch speeders with better and better accuracy.

How Radar Guns Work
Doppler Effect (Wikipedia)
Doppler Shift (Eric Weisstein's World of Physics)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Signs of Change

Driving partway across the country gives you an opportunity to get out and see things you wouldn't have otherwise seen. There are some interesting signs by the interstate near Urbana, for example, with Burma-Shave-esque rhymes promoting the benefits of gun ownership. I can't say that I completely agree with the author of these signs, but they are entertaining.

I saw another sign, this one nearer to home, on a church, which asked, "Jesus never changes, how about you?"

This sign had me thinking for a good thirty minutes. The first minute or so consisted of the obligatory jokes about underwear and odor, but then I got down to seriousness, and decided that I completely disagreed with the premise of the sign.

Leaving aside the debate for a minute about whether Jesus changed or not (which, he did!), I just don't see remaining the same as being a virtue.

Let's suppose for the sake of argument that Jesus represents perfection as a human being. Okay, then, we should all strive to become more and more like Jesus... in other words, change. And since we can never actually become perfect, we should keep changing for the rest of our lives, until we die.

But people in this country -- and our country as a whole, really -- have a mortal fear of changing. For example, if we change our opinions on something, then that means that we were wrong about something, and if we were wrong about one thing, what's to say we're not wrong about a whole bunch of things?

Indeed, what is to say that we're not wrong about a whole bunch of things? It is certainly quite a frightening prospect. But to me, knowing the truth about something is not nearly as frightening as not being able to know about it and make corrections.

For example, if I were on an airplane that had been taken over by terrorists, I think I would like to know that fact so that I can at least try to do something about it. The realization that the plane is indeed hijacked would be frightening, to say the least, but once I got over that, maybe I'd be able to do something to stop the terrorists or at least to land the plane safely. I'd at least prefer to die trying than to die cowering!

Similarly, if I harmed another person, I would want to know. The realization that I had broken my ethical goal of not hurting others would be shocking, anger-inducing, and depressing, but that way I could at least have a chance to try and make up for my transgressions, and to change my ways so it didn't happen again.

But all too often people see any kind of change as a sign of weakness. Think about how much flak a politician gets when he/she changes his/her mind on an important issue. The sad thing is, people's forced rigidity will be their downfall. When things can't fit into the boxes people use to classify life, something has to give -- either the rigid system, or their sanity. Too often it's the sanity that goes rather than the unrealistic and unhealthy worldview.

I for one know that I have changed throughout my adult life, and I am extremely glad that I have. I've developed a new outlook on life, and no longer feel worthless and depressed. I've become aware of patterns playing out in some of my interpersonal relationships, and have been able to change the course of the relationships, or if not, at least to take it a lot less personally. And I have learned so much more about compassion and become so much less rigid and inflexible as a result.

Learning from life experiences, and growing and changing as a result, seems like a better plan than not changing at all. I think even Jesus would approve!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Music I Like: Gipsy Kings

I feel that I owe the Gipsy Kings something after their epic concerts (spanning multiple states and multiple hours!) with special guest singer Rebecca, in my car on the way to and from my sister's house. Those guys kept me awake and having fun despite the flat terrain and the fact that I detest driving.

But also, they're darn fine musicians and composers. You may have heard the ubiquitous "Bamboleo" in the 1990s -- which is a fine piece of music, but I prefer some of their less popular works, which are musically deeper and more complex.

I don't understand a word that they sing, and had they actually been present at our in-car concerts, I'm sure they would have been horrified at what was coming out of my mouth. But to my own credit, had I been able to use my instrument of choice (the violin) rather than my instrument of necessity (nothing like singing to get the lungs pumping and the oxygen flowing) they might have enjoyed themselves.

Anyhow, I have told you many times how much I love a good surprise. I love a piece of music that is clearly going one direction and then veers off in another. The Gipsy Kings are very good at this. Their masterpiece in this way is a piece called "Majiwi," from their album Somos Gitanos.

"Majiwi" begins with a flute playing a sweet, peaceful little melody in C major, which is then reproduced by the solo voice, before launching into the piece as a whole. Here's the awesome thing about this piece. You know that beautiful, peaceful C-major melody that you hear at the beginning? It's the chorus of the song! They take those same notes, but harmonize it differently, for a completely different effect. In this case, we go from C major to A minor. I love it! (And since I am a sucker for minor keys, there's twice as much to like: a surprise, and it's in a minor key!)

The thing I love is that I get fooled every time. I mean, I totally know what's going to happen, having heard this piece hundreds, if not thousands, of times, but nonetheless, I get caught in this thought that a peaceful little melody on a flute cannot possibly be in a minor key. Then, halfway through the song, I find myself thinking, "How could I have ever imagined that this was a C-major melody?!?!" It's a form of cognitive dissonance that only a serious music nerd like me loves.

Another of my favorite Gipsy Kings songs is "Montaña," from Love & Liberté.

It starts out plain and simple, with a guitar playing the melody and the chord sequences that harmonize the melody, as an introduction: not quite a simple I, IV, V, I (A major, D major, E major, A major), because the Gipsy Kings are a little more sophisticated than that, but pretty close. Still, it sounds very comfortable, very beautiful, if a bit plain.

The voice begins the song, and there is a little more texture that joins in: a little rhythm, some more guitars, etc. But it is still mostly quiet and peaceful.

It is not until the 0:45 mark that the action begins. At this point, we hear a change in the direction of the song. We branch out into the minor chords in the A major scale: vi and iii (F# minor and C# minor). This change in mood is amplified by the addition of the electric bass and keyboards. The guitars begin adding ornamentation -- ascending scales harmonizing in the minor key. But the progression works its way back to major -- V, or E major, and makes it way back to the melody in major again, but not before repeating the minor portion.

The progression of the harmonies in the song is kind of mountain-shaped, the way that they do it. There are some chords in there I can't completely identify outright, but the basic sequence goes: I, IV, V, I, vi, iii, IV, V, I. That's probably complete gibberish to most of you, but there is a way that you can play the sequence of these basic chords on a piano and change (usually) only one or at most two notes per chord progression. And in doing so, the bass note (the bottom note played, but not necessarily the root of the chord), rises (like a mountain peak) and then descends. You can hear this at about the 4:20 mark of the above video -- just concentrate on the first note the bass plays per chord sequence.

There are really no Gipsy Kings songs I dislike, but I do prefer some over others. Other favorites include "Tu quieres volver," "Ami wa wa," "Vamos a bailar," "Legende," "Love and Liberte," and "La Tounga." They have some really good instrumentals -- we share the philosophy that the voice is but another instrument, so they use it in addition to guitars, percussion, keyboards, clapping, and many other things. So maybe if one of my vast blogging audience goes out and purchases one of their albums, the Gipsy Kings will forgive me for our in-car concerts, and we can call ourselves even!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Music I Like: Christmas Edition

I may be an atheist, but I still like a lot of Christmas music -- for the tunes and the associated holiday memories, of course!

Something I really like in a melody is when it has an interesting shape to it. Imagine creating a graph, with time on the horizontal axis and pitch on the vertical axis. Songs with melodies that stay close to being a horizontal line can be pretty boring. (I say "can be," because it all depends on what is happening in addition to the melody.)

Some of my favorite holiday songs that have good shapes to them include Silent Night, Joy to the World, and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.

I've always had a soft spot for Silent Night. It's a very soothing lullaby (which goes well with the sentiments of the lyrics). Here's a graph of the song, almost as described above -- note number on the horizontal axis, and pitch on the vertical axis:

I unfortunately could not figure out how to get it to display this graph with the actual measure numbers on the x-axis -- this is what I get for not using an actual graphing program!

But you can see the general arc of the melody, even if the scaling of the x-axis is not quite right. At the end, we have a climatic rise followed by a climatic drop. The melody hints at this from the beginning -- "Silent night/holy night" is a miniature preview of the last two phrases ("Sleep in heavenly peace/Sleep in heavenly peace"). Likewise the middle previews this: we begin to soar with "Round yon virgin" but come back down to the baseline with "mother and child."

You can see these parallels on the graph: from about 33 on the x-axis to the end is the big finale of the melody. You can see a similar shape at the very beginning (1 to 4, repeated immediately), and in the middle (15 to about 24, also repeated).

Joy to the World takes a different shape -- it's kind of like a V or W shape. The first line ("Joy to the world, the Lord is come") descends an entire octave, the second one ("Let Earth receive her King") comes right back up. Then we have a few descents ("Let every heart" and "Prepare him room"), followed by some ascents, modulating downward (the first two "And heaven and nature sing" lines), followed by the octave-jumping and ultimately descending final phrases ("And heaven and heaven and nature sing").

The grandiosity of Joy to the World is very similar to the final movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, which follows the same octave-spanning, V-shaped melodic concept (although the symphony is more like an upside-down V, because its melody ascends first and descends second). But this octave-spanning movement up and down the scale is part of what makes many melodies very grandiose and pompous (which I don't mean in a bad way). Other examples include "The Star-Spangled Banner," "Pomp and Circumstance," and Mendelsohn's wedding march from A Midsummer Night's Dream (a staple of American weddings alongside Pachelbel's Canon).

My favorite movement of my favorite Sibelius symphony -- the third movement of the Fourth symphony -- also uses the (inverted) V-shaped melody spanning an octave, but turns the grandiosity on its head by making it a minor octave rather than a major octave. (I hope to share this symphony with you at some point -- but it is an acquired taste. The first time I heard it I was like, WTF?!?! But I gave it a few more listens and fell completely, head-over-heels in love. It is the leader on play count in my iTunes collection, and by a long shot. This is saying a lot because this symphony is more than a half hour long.)

But I digress.

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen has an interesting arching shape to its melody, more like Silent Night than Joy to the World. But what sets this song apart to me is its minor key. I've mentioned before, I'm a sucker for something a little surprising or different, and this song does that by being in a minor rather than major key. It is also great fun to harmonize against, because there are so many ways you can go. I have fond memories of playing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen with my sisters when we were kids -- me on the violin, Rachel on the cello, and our younger sister on the viola or singing. Usually she would be the one to play the melody, while Rachel and I harmonized. Rachel had a good bass line that she would do, and I would tend to try something different every time. Ah, yes. Good times with music!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Back Home Again

I made it home safe and sound on Tuesday, one day later than I had planned. The delay was because when I got out of my car to pump gas, I got a migraine! Luckily, this happened right outside of my hometown, so I just called my dad and bonus mom and they came and picked me up and let me spend the night. If it had happened anywhere else I suppose I would have had to find a hotel room.

Then, on Thursday, I got another migraine! I was so angry and disgusted about that. I don't usually get them in such short succession like that. It made me feel a little worried that something is changing (for the worse).

But it hasn't been all headache, all the time, around here. (Well, okay, it pretty much has. Because even though I didn't have an aura obscuring my vision on Tuesday, Wednesday, and most of Thursday, I did still have a headache -- enough of one that I chose to wear my hair down rather than in my usual ponytail.)

It was great to be home and see my number one fans again. Jeff was relieved to be no longer single-parenting it, and Vinny just thinks I'm lots of fun, which is very affirming. Last night he and I made some gingerbread dough, which we rolled out into gingerbread cookies this morning. I used the cookie cutters of his choice (two different gingerbread people cutters, as well as the slightly less Christmas-themed shapes of hearts, flowers, butterflies, and squares) to make the cookies, which he then decorated with various candies before I popped them in the oven for seven minutes.

I used the gingerbread recipe in The Joy of Cooking, which I had never tried before, but they turned out quite well. The only problem I had was that the dough comes out of the refrigerator hard -- I had to chip away at it with a fork in order to get some pieces out. Even when it cools to room temperature it is still quite hard, and rolling the dough is a major upper-body workout -- along the same lines as sawing a gigantic squash, only you have to do it more than twice. My left arm was in a fair amount of pain by the end of the whole deal.

But, once you worked the dough, it made some fantastic gingerbread cookies. They held together better than any other recipe I've used. Vinny was able to decorate them with no problems. And most importantly, they were really really delicious. I got a chance to eat one before packing them up and sending them off with Jeff and Vinny to Granny and Granddad's.

I have the house to myself this weekend; they're coming back on Monday. I plan to spend a significant amount of time sleeping and trying to get rid of this blasted headache (yup, my hair is still down today).

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Great Squash Adventure

So, at my sister's house there was a giant Hubbard squash that needed to be cooked. When I say giant, I mean a 30-pound squash. For the record, that's 5 lbs less than my 3-year-old son. It was also about 2 feet long, and 1 foot in diameter in the plane normal to the stem-to-blossom-end axis. This squash was so huge, we didn't know exactly what to do with it. First we decided to see if it would even fit in the oven:
Turns out that it did, but just barely:
The internets told us that if we baked it at 400 F for 30 minutes, it would soften and we could cut it up with a knife. The internets, however, were wrong, or at least they were talking about smaller squashes than this one, because we ended up with a hot but still very hard squash when we took it out of the oven:
Here it is on the kitchen counter, ready to have either end cut off.
So, I took a saw to it. This is the first time I've ever taken a saw to my food.
I began by sawing off one end, and let me tell you this was quite a workout.
In this picture you can see the sawdust as my cut goes into the fleshy part of the squash -- it's getting orange!
Finally I sawed through the blossom end of the squash!
I put that piece in a dish to roast in the oven.
Next I tackled the stem end. This was easier because I turned the squash to rest on the flat place where I had made the previous cut, and it was much more stable:
With that piece off, we put both ends in dishes, cut side down, and baked for about 2 hours in the 400 F oven.
Next, what to do with the main body of the squash?
I cut it open with a knife and removed all the seeds and other gunk.
I had to use a flashlight to get a good view of the cavity.
Then, we made some stuffing from walnuts, apples, and dried cranberries, tossed in melted butter and brown sugar, and spooned it into the squash.
Here's a closeup of the stuffing:
And here's the stuffed squash, ready to go into the oven at 400 F.
We baked it for 2 hours, but probably should have left it in for longer. The stuffing was delicious, though, and the squash wasn't half bad either!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Blizzards Are Good for Something

Tonight, in honor of my nephew's one-week birthday, we took advantage of the snow on the ground and made some winter treats.

First, my sister's better half and I both remembered the molasses candy from the Little House books. An internet search revealed this recipe. I don't have much experience with candymaking so I had to learn as I went what the different stages of sugar were -- we had to get the molasses and sugar mixture to hard crack stage and we didn't have a candy thermometer to work with. I think I got it to the right temperature, but it was hard to pour the stuff out in any kind of interesting designs.

Next, we made snow ice cream. We used snow, soy milk, sugar, and vanilla. That was really good too. I'd never had snow ice cream before, so it was fun to try it.

I told them, that's one advantage of living up north -- we could never make those things in Tennessee!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Words Matter

I am a proponent of using gender-neutral wordings to make documents, books, and presentations more effective and more inclusive. It grates on me every time someone uses man/men, or he/him/his as the "generic" person. This is because they are not generic. I've talked about the word "guy" before and how it is not inclusive. The same thing applies to these other words: If you were at a party and someone asked you if you knew of someone who possesses expert knowledge about optimization, supercomputing, and ulnar nerve entrapment, would you say, "He's that man right over there, wearing the turquoise blouse?" No, you would not.

If you have trouble understanding my argument, please read this piece of satire to gain enlightenment. If you're not squirming in your chair by the end of it, you may be entirely devoid of empathy for others.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

On Family

Doing the graveyard shift with a sweet little newborn in my arms has given me plenty of time to think about things. Tonight, the topic is family.

The first presidential election I was really politically aware of was the 1992 election, in which Bill Clinton was facing off against George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot. During this election season, Vice President Dan Quayle made some sort of disparaging remark about Murphy Brown, a woman in a white-collar job who had a baby out of wedlock on the eponymous television show. He questioned whether the unit formed by Murphy and her baby were actually a family.

Naturally, the definition of family has evolved over time -- the so-called "nuclear family," the alleged backbone of American society, would have been decried by politicians a hundred years ago just as Murphy Brown was criticized in our time. In earlier times, it took more than a mom, a dad, and their 2.5 kids to create a family. People had always lived in extended family units -- and still do, today, in much of the rest of the world. So, family is a fluid term.

I define family as a set of people who love and take care one another. These people may or may not share genetic ancestry, although often they do.

I've been rather oblique about it in the interests of their privacy, but I am at the home of my sister and her partner. The baby in my lap is no more genetically related to me than your average person on the street. But he, and my sister's partner as well, are more family to me than many folks with whom I share ancestry. My dad's wife, or, as I call her, my Bonus Mom, is also family. Her love for my son is indistinguishable from her love for her biological granddaughter. And Vinny's godparents, although they are no biological relations, are the family members who live nearest to us. They are wonderful to him and to Jeff and me as well.

To me, family is all about the love. I have some biological family members who don't share my values and seem to be too full of fear and insecurity to be able to operate on the basis of love. Those folks I regard as relatives, but not family.

I don't have a coherent end to this discussion that ties all the threads together, because it is 3:30 am and I am sleep deprived. But basically, a family is created by the individuals within it, and not the other way around.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

More News from the Night Shift

Apparently we may experience a blizzard here tomorrow. It will snow at least six inches, possibly more, and it may blow around a lot and cause white-out conditions. Also, there's a good chance that the high winds could knock out electricity. I'm glad I'm already here, and not having to contend with that. I'm hoping that everything will be clear by the time I leave on Sunday.

We brought a bunch of firewood into the house today, just in case the power goes out. We should be able to all huddle around the fireplace and keep warm. But if that doesn't work out, I'm sure that my baby nephew will give us top priority on getting emergency shelter somewhere.

Monday, December 07, 2009

News from the Night Shift

My nephew is the cutest little thing. I had forgotten just how tiny newborns are. I was amazed and charmed by his little tiny face, his miniscule fingers and toes, and his paper-thin fingernails. I had also forgotten that distinctive newborn scent -- they really do have a unique smell about them. Every time I inhale I can take in that delicious smell.

But one thing I have not forgotten are my mad baby-wrangling skillz. I can shush and rock and put a baby to sleep like it's nobody's business. (Okay, it also helps that this one sleeps like a champ.)

I have the night shift, at least until 4, and then it's my sister's turn. I'll probably let her sleep until 6 though -- she needs it. It's just too bad that neither of us can give the nursing mom a break.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Live from Urbana

I was concerned about the weather forecast for today, because snow was promised at home.  Now, normally, snow in East Tennessee is a joke -- that is, as long as you're at the lower elevations.  But today, I had to cross a mountain -- sure, go through a mountain pass, but still, it was a concern.

The promise of snow actually delivered.  We got about 1/2 inch in our yard.  We got Vinny dressed and went outside and played in the snow with him.  Because, hey, this was going to be one of the few snows of the winter!

I left home at about 11, when I figured the roads would all be clear.  And I had no problems over the mountain at all.  When I called Jeff later that afternoon, he said that all the snow had melted by 1:00 pm.  Once I got into Northern Kentucky, the roads were completely dry.  As I drove North, the temperature kept going down, but since the roads were dry I didn't really care.  My drive was completely uneventful, except for the fact that I had the radio cranked up and was singing at the top of my lungs in order to keep myself from getting drowsy.

I got to Urbana at about 6 local time, dropped off my stuff at my aunt and uncle's house, and went out to dinner with an old friend who still lives in Urbana.  We went to this Chinese restaurant that I had really missed, where I ordered "Ants Climbing Trees."  I'm not sure what's in it, but there are no trees or ants in this dish, just some combination of ingredients that tastes really good.  I got a chance to catch up on what my friend is up to as well as some local gossip.

Now I'm back at my aunt and uncle's house, waiting for them to get home.  I plan on sleeping in late in the morning, and then making my way to my sister's place sometime in the afternoon.  She and I will talk tomorrow, to coordinate.

Friday, December 04, 2009

I'm an Aunt!

My newest nephew was born last night at about 5:30 pm. He weighed 8 lbs, 11 oz and was 21 inches long. Mamas and baby are doing well.

So, it's off to bed with me, so I can leave in the morning! I'll be spending the night in Urbana before driving the remaining 3 hours to help with the newest member of the family.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Our Little Christmas Elf

I'm not a big Christmas enthusiast, but my son is. This is the first year he's really understood what Christmas was and been able to anticipate it.

He's been wanting a Christmas tree since Halloween. So on Sunday, we went to a Christmas tree farm and cut one. He enjoyed cutting down the tree and was pretty excited about decorating it. We let him put ornaments wherever he wanted them, which meant we ended up with a couple of clumps of ornaments down at the bottom of the tree.

Normally Vinny wakes up after the sun rises, but on Monday morning he woke up before dawn because he remembered that there was an exciting Christmas tree full of lights to see.

I have other plans for him, including making Christmas cookies and a gingerbread house. I'm also thinking we might take him to a Christmas concert -- my workplace is offering discount tickets to the local symphony orchestra's holiday concert.

He's excited about Christmas and wants to know how much longer it is until Christmas every day. I thought about getting him an Advent calendar to count down the days until Christmas, but I didn't think it would really help him understand how much longer it was. A colleague of mine suggested doing something that his dad did for him -- create a paper chain where each of the links represents a day until Christmas, and then tear one off every night. I thought this was a great idea -- it's a graphic illustration of the length of time remaining.

I wrote the date and the number of days remaining on each link (e.g., Wednesday, December 2 [23]). I included the days of the week because he is starting to catch on to the days of the week. He knows that Saturdays and Sundays, Mama doesn't go to work, and he's learning the order of the days. He is really excited about the chain and it gives me something to point to when he asks how much longer until Christmas.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Chef Vinny

Vinny loves to cook, as I've told you before. As he gets more and more mature, he's able to do more and more complicated things. On Monday, we made some apricot sauce in preparation for Thanksgiving. This consists of stewing dried apricots in water for several hours. At first I had him help me by cutting the apricots with kitchen scissors. He held the scissors and cut while I put the dried apricots into the path of the scissors blades. But he lost interest in this task rather quickly because he had trouble operating the scissors. So instead he just stirred the apricots in the water as the pieces dropped from my scissors. He seemed to really enjoy doing that. Then, as the apricots stewed, I let him stir them (with quite a bit of supervision) on the hot burner.

Tonight he also helped me make some cranberry sauce. He remembered making cranberry sauce last year too. He absolutely insisted on stirring it, so I let him stir it while I held the pot handle with my left hand and held him back with my right. He was really fascinated as the cranberries popped and the sugar water became redder and redder and finally thickened.

Tomorrow, we'll make some rolls. Hopefully this won't turn out like it did last year, but worse things have happened I suppose.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Conference Woes

So, Jeff had come down with something really nasty last Monday night, and was incapacitated Tuesday, and barely functional Wednesday. I had hoped to avoid it, but no such luck.

Even my constitution of steel (if I were a D&D character, I'd have a score of 18) was no match for this virus. I woke up early Thursday morning to the most painful sore throat in the history of the universe. Then, as the day progressed, I felt worse and worse until by Thursday afternoon I had a fever of 101.5 F. In addition, the sore throat had been replaced by horrible head and bronchial congestion. I went back to the hotel and skipped the Thursday evening event entirely. I didn't sleep well at all and missed Friday altogether. Luckily nothing much was going on at the conference and Jeff just went in and moved a couple of signs for me.

I suddenly realized that I would have to travel the next day, which in my state, did not seem like a good idea. So I called my dad and bonus mom and asked for their advice. Their advice: seek medical treatment (oh yeah, what a great idea!), so I called the hotel's front desk and asked if they could tell me the location of the nearest urgent treatment center. Instead they suggested that they could call the house doctor for me. He could come and look at me in my hotel room. Sold!

So, I got my first-ever doctor housecall, which was mighty convenient, let me tell you, although not particularly cheap ($150). A wet dishrag had more going for it than I did at that point. The doctor told me that I did not have the flu (I was missing a few of the symptoms associated with the actual influenza virus), but I had some kind of virus and an ear infection. He wrote me some prescriptions for antibiotics and pseudoephedrine (in Oregon it is available by prescription only!) and my wonderful husband went and got them filled for me. The doctor said I'd probably be okay to travel the next morning, but to wear a mask so as to minimize transmission of the virus.

He was right. The fever broke that night and I was actually able to get some sleep before our 6:30 am flight. I wore the mask, and got some dirty looks from other passengers despite the fact that I was the passenger least likely to spread disease thanks to the mask. The descents before landing were fairly painful on my ears but I chewed a lot of gum in a semi-successful attempt to reduce the pressure in my ears.

Dad brought Vinny to the airport to pick us up. He was really happy to see us, and simultaneously intrigued and confused by the mask. He had grown that week, both in size and cognitive ability. His sentences are getting longer and longer and more complicated in meaning. I know he had a great time with his grandparents and I am very grateful to them for generously agreeing to take care of him for nearly 10 days!

We spent the night at Dad and Marvis' house before heading home the next day. I was still sick enough that I stayed home from work yesterday but went in today. The people at work were happy to see me until they heard my horrible cough. But I did what I could to avoid coughing on them and just get some work done.

It's great to be back home. Getting sick far from home is No Fun. I plan to use the four-day weekend to recover, especially so that I can go on my next trip the week after next -- back up to the QC to see and help take care of my sister, her better half, and my soon-to-be nephew, who will be born on or before December 3! I'm taking a week off work so that I can help them adjust to life with a newborn. I'm really honored that they asked me to come up and help them make that transition, and I hope I will be able to help out in a big way.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Oh, Hi. How Are You?

Yes, I do have a blog. It's not just a dream.

I've been so busy since leaving for this conference that I've literally had no time to sit down and entertain my vast blogging audience until now.

The conference is going well. The signage is getting put out in a timely manner. We had more signs waiting for us in the signage office than I had anticipated we would. I don't anticipate ordering any additional signs the rest of the week.

I got to see the ever-wonderful ScienceGirl, whom I will hopefully see again while I'm here, as well as my summer student, another summer student who worked in our department, and various students from the summer HPC courses that I've taught over the years. I also saw a lot of friends and colleagues who I basically see only at this conference once a year.

Jeff has been a tremendous help with handling all the signs, which I realized but was fully underscored to me yesterday, when he was under the weather and I had to handle everything myself. I am so glad I talked him into coming with me, even if he wasn't able to help out yesterday.

The loot from the showroom floor is not as shiny, sparkly, or plentiful as it was last year. This is unfortunate for the sake of the three-year-old recipient of the loot that we collect. But, I was able to score a propeller beanie, which I know he will love (since, after all, the propeller goes round and round). It's also harder to score vendor party tickets, although I admit that because of all my signage responsibilities I'm not actively looking for them this year.

We were able to call Grandma and Grandpa and Vinny once, when we had a brief respite, and Vinny was doing well. He was watching a TV show about whales at the time we called. I have to admit, I am almost too busy to think about how much I miss him.

Tomorrow night is the conference social event, and then on Friday night is the wrap-up celebration. It's been fun, but I must admit that I'm looking forward to going home (well, at least back to the right time zone) on Saturday. It will be good to see Vinny again.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Grandpa Vinny

Me: Vinny, who are we going to see tomorrow?
Vinny: Grandma Marvis and Grandpa!!
Me: That's right -- Grandma Marvis and Grandpa John!
Vinny: Who's Grandpa John?
Me: You know, Grandpa! His name is John. Like Vinny. In fact, when you're really old, someday, you'll be Grandpa Vinny!
Vinny: Grandpa Vinny?!?! Hahahahahaha!!!!!

Monday, November 09, 2009

Music I Like: Mille Regretz by Josquin Des Prez

Josquin Des Prez was a composer from the late 1400s/early 1500s, who is often referred to as "The Beethoven of the Renaissance." This is because Josquin was not only prolific but also had a great influence on the way that music evolved. Josquin is my favorite Renaissance composer, and I plan to share another piece by him in this series at some point.

His most famous composition is "Mille Regretz" -- the lament of one thousand regrets at abandoning one's beloved. It was a popular tune at the time -- you can tell because many people used it in writing church masses, which was the thing to do with popular music at the time. Listen to this recording by the King's Singers:

I chose this recording because it is the most beautiful interpretation of Mille Regretz that I have ever heard. Every time I hear it, I feel those thousand regrets. I love both the melody and the harmony. The rise and fall of the melody evoke the same emotional turmoil as the words do.

The King's Singers have modernized it somewhat -- the dynamics, such as the big crescendo at 0:42 (Jay si grand dueil...), and the phrasing, such as the short pause at 1:25 and the rallentando (slowing down) of the last phrases are additions by the King's Singers. But I really think this goes to show how timeless this piece of music is -- it's still accessible 500 years after it was composed. Josquin was a masterful composer.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Travel Plans

It's that time of year again -- conference time! Once again I am in charge of signage at this conference with 10,000+ attendees. And once again Jeff is going to go along with me. And once again we're leaving Vinny with Grandpa and Grandma for over a week. I think he's going to have a blast. Or at least I hope so.

This year we'll be in Portland, Oregon. We'll head to my dad and bonus mom's place on Wednesday, and Jeff and I fly out early Thursday morning. We'll come back the following Saturday.

Did I mention that next year, I'm just going to attend the conference? Because I am. Remind me of that before I go and volunteer for another job.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Friday, November 06, 2009

Music I Like: Pachelbel's Canon (Sort of)

So, I've been ragging on Pachelbel's Canon all week. And in fact, I do hate Pachelbel's Canon. I'm lucky to now be in my mid-30's, and therefore beyond the age when my friends are having church weddings, so I'm not often forced to endure another performance of that dreadful piece of music.

But, truthfully, there are some really cool things about Pachelbel's Canon. Okay actually, there's only one cool thing about Pachelbel's Canon, and that's its chord progression. The cool thing is that it's a harmonization of a descending major scale. In other words, if you start on the right note, and sing a major scale downward for an octave (i.e., the D two octaves above middle C down to the D just above middle C), your pitches are harmonized by Pachelbel's Canon.

If you listen to the radio, it's just a matter of time before you hear a song that follows the same chord progression as Pachelbel's Canon. In fact, serendipitously, I heard one just last night as I was composing this post in my head! It's Don't Pull Your Love Out on Me, Baby, which was sung by Elvis (both on the radio last night and in the link). Other songs you may have heard that follow this chord progression (with slight variations) include "A Lighter Shade of Pale" and "When a Man Loves a Woman."

But my favorite song that follows this chord progression is one that you've undoubtedly heard but never realized that it was so similar to Pachelbel's Canon. In part this is because this piece descends a minor scale rather than a major scale. (Okay, maybe it's also because you never suspected that Pachelbel's Canon was so pervasive!)

The song I'm talking about is Hotel California.

If you transposed Pachelbel's Canon into a minor key, you could harmonize the verses in Hotel California with it. (The chorus is different.) Try singing the transposed-to-minor cello part along with the Eagles in this video:

I picked the above video because it's the Eagles performing Hotel California live, and I enjoyed watching them have such a great time playing. Listen to their somewhat improvisational introduction, and see when you can recognize that it's Hotel California. Admittedly, knowing the title of the video put me at an advantage, but I recognized it long before the audience caught on.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Music I like: Beethoven's 5th Symphony

I picked Beethoven's Fifth Symphony to share first because everybody knows the first movement. Yes, the first movement is waaay overplayed, but I like it because, well, there's not much music that can stand up to being that overplayed and still be so compelling that I regularly listen to it of my own volition. So hats off to Ludwig van Beethoven for composing such an excellent piece!

What do I like about it? Well, it's not the melody, I can promise you that. I mean, "be-be-be-baaah"... what kind of a melody is that? Not a good one.

In fact, something I really love about Beethoven is that he can take these crappy, almost non-melodies, and just do something amazing with them!

In each movement of a symphony, there's a primary theme and a secondary theme. Here, the primary theme is what opens the movement, and the secondary theme begins at about the 0:49 mark. I've already dissed the primary theme, but to its credit, the secondary theme is a little more melodious. What is Beethoven going to do with these two themes?

He modulates them, changes keys and modes, and generally mixes each one up. At 2:55, the primary theme appears again, this time changed to a slightly different interval. And the secondary theme pops up again too. But the thing he does to combine them is what keeps me coming back for another listen.

At 5:12, he uses the primary theme as a fanfare introduction to the reprise of the secondary theme. He modulates the second theme from C major through a minor key, and beginning at about 5:32 the cellos and basses start playing in the rhythm of the primary theme. And gradually, the second theme takes on more and more characteristics of the primary theme until before we know it, we're back to the primary theme!

I actually like the third and fourth movements of this symphony the best (although I like my scherzo and allegro substantially slower than the videos I've linked to). When I listen to the fourth movement, I feel like I could do anything -- it's just so triumphant and powerful! I love the reprise of the C-minor scherzo theme in the middle of it (at roughly 5:20) -- it's like you have this triumphant feeling, then you see this potential problem, but you know you can overcome it and end on a positive note -- 29 bars of fortissimo C-major chords, to be exact. There's no better ending than that!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Music and Performers

My sister Rachel, in an effort to ruin my life, comments on my previous post:
Seeing the word "composer" there toward the end has me wondering: do you ever like a piece of music because of the performer, more than the composer? People who are really into opera, for example, are often quite picky about which performers they want to hear interpret which pieces. Vivaldi's 4 Seasons is pretty blah to me UNLESS it's Perlman playing it (that's the one we grew up with, I guess, and I prefer his interpretation).

When you get into popular music, the question becomes even more difficult to untangle, I guess. You get people performing their own music, covering each other's music, performing music by professional songwriters, performing traditional songs. There's much more scope for individual interpretation there, and again, a song that may be so-so may get a lift from someone else's touch (or may not - I can't think of a single Beatles cover I like better than the original).

A long way toward saying: sometimes it's not the music that's most awesome, it's the performance.
Sure, a performer can make or break a piece of music, I'll grant you that. Perlman playing a piece is going to sound a lot better than me playing it, because even assuming that it's within my skill level, his interpretation is going to be more nuanced and his execution is going to be better.

There are plenty of cases where the individual(s) performing the piece completely ruins it. For example, I abhor Rod Stewart because his voice makes me want to forcibly remove my eardrums. The Mommas and the Papas have some pretty good songs, but when I listen to their poor intonation I want to reach through the radio and change the record to something else.

Likewise, a good performer can make anything sound good. If I had to listen to Pachelbel's Canon, I'd want to hear it played by somebody good like Perlman, because it would be the best Pachelbel's Canon that it could be.

An example of the cover being better than the original would have to be anything by Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan is proof positive that the American Dream is true -- anyone, if they work hard enough, can succeed. Because, lemme tell you, I don't know how else he got to be such a well-known performer. His voice is just miserable -- an unpleasant tone, poor intonation -- he's just terrible! But, he writes really good songs, and for example, Joan Baez singing "Blowing in the Wind" is great (and a huge improvement over him singing it!). Simon and Garfunkel also did a cover of "The Times Are A-Changin" which was far superior to the original.

I could hear the song immediately, but it took me another 20 minutes to remember enough of the lyrics to reconstruct that last title, which brings me to another point that I should have made in yesterday's post: I mostly ignore song lyrics.

It is profoundly difficult for me to remember the lyrics to a song. I'm lucky to remember how to sing the alphabet song with Vinny -- it almost seems like the only reason I can remember it is because I know the alphabet. I enjoy singing to him every night, but I have an extremely limited repertoire of "real" songs that I can sing, because while I know thousands of tunes, I cannot for the life of me remember more than a dozen lyrics. It's kind of embarrassing to admit to this.

To me, the voice is just another instrument. This explains why it's easy for an atheist such as myself can listen to so much medieval and Renaissance music,* which was really centered on Jesus. And why I enjoyed playing gospel music during my workplace's annual black history celebrations. The lyrics hardly register.

That being said, there are some songs with lyrics that have made their way past my incomprehension, which I cannot bear to hear. Those songs include "Hard-Headed Woman" (Elvis' tribute to misogyny), "Under My Thumb" (The Rolling Stones' foray into controlling abuse), and this certain song by some asshole from the 60's in which the lyrics make him sound like a creepy pedophile. And for that last one, since all his songs sound alike, any time he's on the radio I have to change the damn station, because I get the dry heaves every time I hear his voice.

Anyhow, now that I have all that out of the way, next time I promise to actually talk about a piece of music that I like.

* Yeah, it's mostly in Latin, but it's simple enough to translate.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Tuneful Tuesday

Before I really get started on specific pieces of music that I like, let me give you an idea of the characteristics I like in music.
  • I like a good melody, which is not to say that it has to be catchy. Catchy tunes are good, but sometimes, they can get a little too catchy and become an earworm, which will make me mad. I like to be able to hear a tune in my head by choice, not necessity.
  • The basic I-IV-V chord sequence, over and over, will make me mad and want to smash things. I like more interesting chord progressions. One of my favorite things is to hear an alternate chord being played, like when I expect a IV but I hear a vi, that makes me happy.
  • I like music that combines two seemingly unrelated melodies into something really interesting. There are a lot of good pieces of music of many different genres that do this.
  • I like music with an interesting texture, meaning I'm not a fan of simple homophony -- music where one instrument always plays the melody, and the others always play the harmony. I like it when the melody is passed from one instrument to another, and when it's not even completely clear what the melody is (such as in the previous bullet).
  • I like an interesting rhythm, but since I'm more of a classical musician, this is not strictly necessary.
  • Actually, none of these are deal-breaking requirements. Some of my favorite pieces of music have crappy melodies, use simple chord progressions, or are homophonic. It's what the composer does with it that makes or breaks a piece of music.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Musical Monday

Something I realized last night was that I have not spent much time on this blog talking about music. I thought I might remedy that oversight starting now!

I am a music afficionado. In fact, it's entirely possible that music, rather than blood, courses through my veins. (Although the mosquitoes do like me an awful lot, so maybe not!)

As a toddler, I was somewhat challenging and emotionally intense, but a surefire way to make me content was to put some headphones on me and play some music. I'd just sit there and listen for hours, which, as a mother, I now find pretty amazing, because there's no way I could get Vinny to sit still that long.

I loved music so much that my mom signed me up for violin lessons when I was 3 going on 4. I studied Suzuki violin through elementary and junior high school, and continued to take violin lessons in high school. I also played in the youth orchestra from the time I was in 6th grade.

In college, I took almost enough courses to get a music minor, and I played in the community orchestra, which I really loved. But at that point, the years of abuse to my arm was beginning to catch up with me.

In grad school, I found a community orchestra and played with them for about one semester, but it wasn't as fun as my former orchestra, and I got busy, and ended up not going back. I played less and less often, which was probably for the better, because my left arm kept getting worse. I had my first ulnar nerve entrapment problem after a particularly long essay exam (yes, even computer scientists can have essay tests; this was the final in a parallel computing class!), and then I continued to have more arm problems, until a particularly long but exciting derivation left me in severe and permanent pain.

But luckily, playing is not the only form of musical expression I had at my disposal. My arms may not work the way I want them to, but I still have my ears! So throughout the years, I've listened to a lot of music.

In college, I bought a fair number of CDs, but when I became a poor graduate student, I was able to borrow a lot of music from the library. This allowed me to broaden my musical horizons without risk.

Classical music is my favorite genre, although I don't like most of the things that your everyday person thinks define the genre, such as Baroque music (e.g., Pachelbell's canon, The Four Seasons, etc.) and Mozart. No, I am a big fan of early 20th century symphonic music, Russian romantic era symphonies, and medieval and renaissance music. There are other pieces I enjoy that don't fall into those categories, but by and large, those are my favorites.

But, I also enjoy a lot of other music. In particular, as a failed liberal elite, I listen to the oldies radio station instead of NPR when I'm driving to and from work. (I hate listening to the news, and when they're not playing the news, NPR plays too much of the aforementioned Baroque and Mozart.) I enjoy a lot of songs from the 1960s and 70s, so it's a good station for me to listen to.

I also enjoy a lot of world music, including authentic folk songs and fusion music that combines traditional ethnic elements with Western musical sensibilities. I always like hearing something new that pushes the boundaries of what I'm accustomed to.

I was thinking I'd start a series of indeterminate length to share with you some music that I like, as well as the reasons I like it. I plan to start with some songs that are probably more familiar (e.g., from the oldies station) and work my way towards obscurity. I hope you enjoy this as much as I do!

Sunday, November 01, 2009

More Vinglish

From the mouth of the wee one:
  • "Mama, let's play blinky logs!" (that's Lincoln Logs to the uninitiated.)
  • "Can you fix it please?" [After I fix it, whatever it may be:] "Thanks, Mama, it's good as noon!"
  • "May I like some bran flakes please?" (it's all the polite phrases he's learned, rolled into one!)
Another interesting thing: today he saw a picture of a chicken on a rotisserie, and spent the rest of the day being chased by a giant chicken. I just told him to pretend to want to eat it, and the giant chicken would run away. I'm not sure how the picture inspired this piece of pretend play, but he says it did.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Vinny and the Potty

Vinny is pretty close to being potty trained. This makes both Jeff and me immensely happy. Jeff has worked with him really hard to get to this point.

We're now at the point that he can go to the bathroom on his own, removing his own pants, although he still needs some help putting them back on. And of course wiping, when applicable. He likes to stand and pee in the potty, and is remarkably good at it.

He also sometimes needs reminders to try the potty, but more often than not does go on his own. We have an incentive system: one star for peeing, two stars for pooping, and for every ten stars he gets a prize. After he realized that he could get two stars for pooping, he started trying to do it several times a day, which is ... a little different from his natural tendencies, let's say. But as of yet he hasn't strained anything so I guess it's okay.

Anyhow, I am really excited that we seem to be near the end of the diaper era and I'm looking forward to him being completely potty trained.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Monday, October 19, 2009

Drawings by Vincent

For the first time, we are starting to be able to understand what Vinny is drawing. Today, he drew the following masterpieces:

(a stoplight)
(a lightbulb, complete with beams of light coming off it)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Tours... po russkii!!!

Yesterday I had the opportunity to give a tour to some Russian guests. It was a group of Russians visiting my workplace, and they had a professional translator with them. I took that opportunity to try some Russian on the visitors.

I took four semesters of Russian in college. I really loved learning the language -- it's sufficiently different from English so as to be challenging, but not completely alien. I had to learn a new way of writing, for example, but it was simply a different alphabet and you could still sound out words.

The thing that totally blew my mind about Russian was the way that verb tenses and meanings were formed. You could just add this "particle" (sounds weird, but that's the linguistics terminology) and it would change the meaning of the verb. Like you'd have a verb, let's say "to speak" -- and then you'd add one particle and it would mean "to have a conversation." Or you'd add a different particle and then it would mean "to be talking." It was just such a cool way of slightly altering the meaning of verbs, without having to learn additional words like if you were learning English.

Anyhow, I never really got a chance to use Russian outside the classroom. But yesterday, I decided to dust off the cobwebs from that part of my brain, and speak some Russian. I figured I could use the help of the translator if I came across something I didn't know how to say.

When I started speaking Russian to the visitors, I could see their faces light up with smiles. I welcomed them and told them a little about my background. I told them I was going to try to speak some Russian and some English. I was able to explain some basic stuff in Russian, but I did get a little hung up on the more technical terms -- we never learned "floating point operation" in class, for example. Listening to the translator, I'm not sure that he knew that term either, but when I explained what it was he was able to give them an explanation in Russian.

As it turned out, I'd say the tour was probably one-third my crude Russian, two-thirds English translated into Russian. But I know the visitors appreciated my valiant effort to speak their language -- I got a lot of spasibo's as they filed out.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Blonde Walked into an HPC Article...

I like to keep up on the latest news in high-performance computing (HPC) as much as any other computational scientist, but there are some websites that evidently don't want me as a reader. I don't fit their model of what it means to be a scientist, you see. I read this particularly problematic article and had to check my computer's date function to confirm that it is 2009, despite troubling statements like
Each Opteron core gets its own Cell chip to do its math for it, like the blonde who isn't dating the nerd but the nerd thinks is...
What Jaguar needs is some powerful nerds so its blondes can run code, and it looks like the next generation of machines at the supercomputer center are going to be using the Fermi GPUs.

Really, Turd Biscuit? Is it necessary to insult 50% of the population (because blonde jokes are not about people with light hair, they're about women), and impugn the abilities of accomplished women?

It is so depressing that these types of "jokes" are still an acceptable type of "humor." When I complained about the blonde "jokes" contained in this article on another forum, I was soon accused of being too uptight and having no sense of humor.

I knew when I did it that I was opening myself up to criticism, and I was counting down the minutes before somebody called me a humorless feminist. I did not need to wait long. I gave a short reply to that man, but here's a more in-depth explanation of why I object to these so-called jokes.

First, the stereotype that women use men to do their homework for them is so tired, untrue, and insulting to everyone involved. It's insulting to me and women like me, because it places doubt in people's minds about our abilities -- maybe I manipulated a man to do my work for me, and am actually incompetent! It also provides space in men's minds to think it's actually appropriate to ask whether I got my job because of my husband, upon meeting me for the first time.*

It's insulting to men, too, suggesting that they are so desperate to get women's affections that they will compromise their academic integrity, or so socially inept, that they don't know when they're being taken advantage of. Either way, it's an insulting insinuation.

Second, these types of jokes in a professional setting (and I would classify reporting about a new supercomputer on "one of the world's biggest online tech publications" as a professional setting) serve to remind the targets of the joke that they don't belong in this field. Thanks a lot for letting me know I'm not one of the nerds, for reminding me how different I am from everyone else in HPC, and for reminding me that some people think I'm too stupid to do my own work. That helps bolster my confidence and builds trust between me and my male colleagues.

Finally, humor legitimizes prejudices. Sexist humor acts as a 'releaser' of prejudices, according to a study by Professor Thomas E. Ford of Western Carolina University et al. The presence of sexist humor in a social environment creates an environment where men with sexist beliefs feel free to act upon those beliefs, because they believe that within that environment, sexist behavior is acceptable.

In their experiment, they asked men to imagine that they were members of a workplace. They then had the men read either sexist jokes, neutral jokes, or sexist statements, and subsequently asked them how much they would donate for a women's organization. Ford and his team found that "men with a high level of sexism were less likely to donate to the women's organization after reading sexist jokes, but not after reading either sexist statements or neutral jokes." Similarly, after viewing sexist skits disparaging women, the men allocated larger funding cuts to women's organizations in the hypothetical workplace. The studies show that "humorous disparagement creates the perception of a shared standard of tolerance of discrimination that may guide behavior when people believe others feel the same way."

I'm sure there are people out there who, even after reading this, would accuse me of political correctness. Sure, you may have the right to free speech, but how about tempering that freedom with respect for your fellow human beings? Treating others with respect is not such a huge constraint. Or, if the only way you know how to talk is by using sexist tropes, then you need psychological help.

Please, people, it's not hard to come up with inoffensive metaphors. I can think of so many better ways that he could have expressed his point, that wouldn't be offensive to anyone! What about Dilbert and the pointy-haired boss? That would have expressed the exact same dynamic, minus the antipathy for women. Or a brain and muscles. The brain tells the muscles what to do, and they have to do all the actual heavy lifting! Those are the first two jokes I thought of, in under 30 seconds, and they disparage no one.

* Yes, this happened to me. I should have either asked if he'd gotten his job because of his wife, or told him that I got my job through the powerful stay-at-home-dad cabal, but I was too stunned to think of those replies at the time.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Label Fail

I guess it's okay that nothing in this package is a book in which one could confide their deepest thoughts and darkest secrets -- kids today share those things on the internet!

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Vacation Fun

We spent the second part of our trip in Nebraska. One of the sights I really wanted to see was this great monument of mystery, rising from the Salisbury Plains Great Plains:
Unlike Stonehenge, you can actually go right up to Carhenge:
Vinny found some wheels that still turned, within his reach:

We then went to my grandmother's memorial service, which went quite well (as far as memorial services combined with family dysfunction goes). Actually, though, I got to see a lot of relatives whom I hadn't seen in decades, as well as my oldest sister's gravestone (she died of leukemia when she was four years old, a year before I was born), and spoke plainly and honestly to my mother about the situation between us. This isn't really the place to discuss it, but it's possible that some progress has been made.

Anyhow, we decided to go to every single children's museum in Nebraska. We are now children's museum connoisseurs, folks. It's interesting to see what other children's museums in other states have.

The defining characteristic of Nebraska children's museums is that they all have these pin boards that you can press into, like the picture below:
Jeff pressed first his face and body, and then Vinny's, into this particularly large specimen at the Lincoln Children's Museum, which I would rate as an excellent children's museum.

We also went to the Children's museums in North Platte (a fantastic little museum in its own right), Kearney (where Vinny had a lot of fun with a cloud generating machine), Hastings (where he had a great time with their pizza place), and Omaha, where he got to ride on the carousel
and played for hours in this room full of gears, wheels, and balls:
The "super gravitron," as they call it, consists of all these different ways to move the balls through the Rube Goldberg-esque tubing via different techniques, such as levers, pulleys, and gears, but also pneumatics and hydraulics. Every so often, a siren would go off and the plexiglass bin on the ceiling would open (as it is in the picture) and all the balls would fall out. Vinny enjoyed this room so much that we went back to the museum the next morning. I must admit that I had a blast in that room myself.

We didn't just see children's museums. It's just that those were the only places I had my camera out. But we also saw some interesting museums for grown-ups, including the Nebraska Prairie Museum and Harold Warp Pioneer Village. Did you know that German POWs during World War II were held at Holdredge, Nebraska? They actually were free to work in the area and provided a lot of labor to the local economy.

I spent a summer in Lincoln, Nebraska as an undergraduate, so I had to expose my family to some Nebraska culture. We ate at Valentino's (a fabulous regional pizza chain that originated in Lincoln) and Runza (also emanating from Lincoln, whose eponymous menu item is a unique calzone-like sandwich -- stuffed with ground beef, cabbage, and spices).

After leaving Nebraska, we traveled to my former babysitter's house and had the fabulous windmill cake you saw in the previous post. We had a great time playing games with Alice and Jerome as well. We played one called Labyrinth, another one about zombies, and lastly Settlers of Catan. They were all a lot of fun.

We left their house on Sunday at about noon. The original plan was to stop somewhere for the night, but eventually we just decided to go the whole way. So, we arrived home at about 4:30 am on Monday.

It was good to be back home. Plus, I got to sleep in my own bed for twice as many nights before heading on business travel as I would have otherwise.

It was a really fun and refreshing trip overall. A break from work to spend some fun time with my family was just what I needed. Now, it's back into the grind.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Happy Birthday, Vinny!

Today is Vinny's third birthday! It is hard to believe that it's been three years since he was born. On the one hand, it feels like it was just yesterday that he was an itty-bitty baby. On the other hand, I almost can't remember what my life was like before he came into it.

Since he doesn't really know the difference between one day or another, we're celebrating throughout the month. His first celebration was when we visited Alice, my former babysitter (as in, she used to babysit me when I was a child), and her husband, in northwestern Missouri on Friday and Saturday, and she baked him a cake, complete with his favorite obsession (windmills) on it -- see the following pictures.

Alice got some small fans on clearance and put them on the cake to look like windmills. (She also bought him some bigger hand-held fans on clearance and gave them to him as a birthday present, and he played with them all the way home from Missouri. The buzzing sound was irritating, but much better than whining might have been.)

After I get back from a business trip this week (yup, I'm leaving tomorrow, and coming back on Thursday), we'll have a family celebration. And then we'll hold a birthday party later this month.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Good Times in South Dakota

We've had a fun time on our vacation so far. On Monday we drove the entire width of SD, to get to the Black Hills. The day started out cold and rainy, but on the way, we stopped in a few places. First, we saw the Corn Palace. We enjoyed the corn mosaics there but unfortunately it was still cold and rainy when we were there.

We pressed on, to 1880 town, which was the most interesting site we saw that day. It's a collection of buildings and artifacts from the era and the area. Vinny really enjoyed running around the town and looking at things.

Our final stop before Rapid City, where we spent the night, was Wall Drug. The Wall Drug billboards are amusing and entertaining as you cross the countryside, but Wall Drug itself is somewhat disappointing. We had dinner there and paid more than $30 for worse food than you could get at McDonald's for $15. My advice, should you ever find yourself driving across SD on I-90, is to skip Wall Drug and go see other more interesting things.

We stayed at a hotel with an attached waterpark in Rapid City, which Vinny really enjoyed. It seems like any hotel worth its salt in South Dakota has an attached waterpark, presumably because there's nothing else to do in South Dakota. ;)

On Tuesday, we went to the North and West areas of the Black Hills, stopping at Sturgis (home of the famous motorcycle rally), Devil's Tower, and Deadwood, where we saw the cemetery that is the final resting place of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Then we went camping that night at Big Bear Butte State Park. Vinny had been really excited about the prospect of roasting marshmallows by the fire and sleeping in a tent. We got to the campground about 30 minutes before sunset, and set up the tent and built a fire. We were the only folks camping at the campground, and it was extremely cold -- lows in the 30s F. We could hear coyotes howling all night, and Jeff thinks he heard something get eaten by a predator. We didn't get much sleep because it was so cold and we had to keep moving Vinny back into the sleeping bag.

We woke up before dawn and we just packed up and left. We had a breakfast at Denny's before going to see Mount Rushmore. Mount Rushmore was spectacular and really interesting to see. But we were feeling tired and dirty so we checked into a hotel in the early afternoon, and took showers and went swimming for probably nearly 3 hours with our swim-obsessed son.

It's kind of an odd contradiction, but Vinny both loves swimming and is terrified of the water. But he's getting less afraid of the water the more time he spends in it. By the end of yesterday he was able to "swim" a couple of feet between me and Jeff, and feel okay with the fact that his face was in the water (although head dunking is another matter entirely). We will have to sign him up for swim lessons or something, because he seriously loves the water so much.

Today we're going to head south to the Badlands and maybe even onward to Western Nebraska, which is also beautiful (rolling hills, not exactly what you think of when you think Nebraska). Ultimately we have to make our way to Lexington, Nebraska, for my grandmother's memorial service on Saturday. I'll try to keep you updated as the trip progresses!