Monday, August 31, 2009

Question of the Day

Who took the summer weather, and what did they do with it?

It feels like fall. I've been enjoying the beautiful weather, but it just feels wrong for this time of year. A high of 80 F? Unheard of, this time of year.

Maybe the cool trend will continue and we'll have an actual winter, with snow and stuff. That would be awesome!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Last night, Terminator 3 was on television. I'd never seen the movie, so this gave me a chance to make fun of all the computer stuff in it.

The computer that controlled our national defense was a 60 Teraflops machine, meaning that it was capable of doing sixty trillion floating point operations per second. (A floating point operation is just any basic arithmetic operation involving a decimal point: 1.1+1.1, for example.) I looked at the Top 500 list from 2003, the year the movie came out, and the fastest supercomputer was the Earth Simulator, at 36 Teraflops, which had come out the year before, so I suppose that machine would have been considered super-powerful.

It's just that, to me, a 60 Teraflops machine is quaint. I work with a machine that is 1.6 Petaflops (that's 1.6 quadrillion floating point operations per second). Let me say something about these machines, though.

First, they are very delicate. In the movie, John Connor talks about having enough C4 to take out ten supercomputers, which made me laugh again. You don't need C4 to take out a supercomputer. The easiest way is to destroy its air conditioning system. Without air conditioning, it will be a pile of silicon goo in no time. If it is so smart that it has a backup system (more on the intelligence of these machines in a minute, by the way), then seriously, it would be pretty easy to just go in and pull out a few boards and cables and do a lot of damage. A machine that is fault-tolerant enough to handle something like that is but a dream at this point in time. And furthermore, you could probably just wait a couple of days and the machine would go down on its own. Without human intervention, these machines are helpless.

Second, supercomputers are stupid. They are tremendously skilled at performing floating point operations, but that is a far cry from intelligence. Our brains operate a whole lot differently than a computer's processors. Artificial intelligence is really the holy grail of computer science. All the petaflops in the world aren't going to help anything. I mean, humans are pretty flops-deficient, yet we've accomplished a lot more with our intelligence than computers have.

Here's just how flops-deficient we are compared to computers: if we took everyone in the world (babies, old people, and everyone in between) and we all did floating point operations at a rate of one flop per second (which is a pretty fast pace), it would take us more than three days to do what it takes my friendly neighborhood supercomputer to do. But floating point operations aren't the way that our intelligence operates, whereas they are the only way that a computer's intelligence operates. And there's not a very good way to use floating point operations to mimic our type of intelligence, which is why even a petaflops machine would not be able to take over the world.

Friday, August 28, 2009

On Students

I have had the privilege of mentoring three students since I started working. While others I know have had bad experiences, working with these students has been a very positive and fulfilling experience for me.

Of course I was careful to select only the best students to hire, but I think that the main reason my experience has been so positive is because of my attitude going into the mentoring relationship.

I see an internship as an opportunity for an up-and-coming scientist to learn science, not as a way for me to get some extra work done. And because I have that attitude, I'm never disappointed.

I fully expect my students to be time sinks, and I have developed ways of mitigating the worst wastes of my time; for example, I provide them with a handout detailing the project parameters on the day they report, and I schedule weekly meetings with them and try to touch base briefly once a day. They can read the handout rather than having to rely on any notes they would have taken while I was verbally explaining the project, resulting in fewer gaps in their understanding. I schedule for one hour per week of my uninterrupted time, and I usually go touch base with them about 15-30 minutes before a meeting, allowing me an excuse to escape if my time is being wasted.

I also assign them a project that it would be nice to have completed, but that is not vital to my work. In this way I can be only pleasantly surprised by their progress on the project, rather than depending on their work.

So far I have not been disappointed. Even if my student gets nothing tangible done, I do not consider my time to have been wasted. Students don't learn high-performance computing in school; it's really something that has to be learned through experience, and that is what I have enabled them to do during their internship with me. And if we don't give them the chance to learn it, how are we ever going to be able to develop the next generation of computational scientists?

I was once a student who knew nothing about high-performance computing. Someone took a chance on me and I was hired as a graduate research assistant in our university's HPC center, despite my lack of knowledge. It took some mentoring and time-wasting on his part, but I learned the skills that I needed to get to where I am today. I think it's only fair that I give others the same opportunities that my mentor gave me.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

My New Toy

I'm typing this from my new toy: a Dell mini, 8.9", with a 16 GB solid-state drive and Ubuntu Linux. It is really cute and little!

I got it as an early birthday present, so that I could have a computer to take along on our trip next month. It is so small and so light (about 2.5 lbs) that it will be easy to just toss it in a bag and take it with us.

The only problem is that some of the keys have been moved, so, for example, the apostrophe is down a row and I keep pressing enter rather than apostrophe. No doubt it will take some getting used to.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Running Update

I'm still running three times a week at noon. It's summer, and not really possible to run outside at noon (unless you like that kind of misery, but I sure don't!), so we've been going to the fitness center at my workplace and using the treadmills and elliptical machines.

A treadmill is way easier than actual running, and I suspect that I will be miserable when we transition back to road running in the fall. The road isn't padded like the treadmill is; plus, this is East Tennessee, so the roads aren't level!

My fearless coach was gone for three weeks in the summer, so I recruited another friend to go along with me, and now she's hooked too, making it three of us. I was really impressed with myself that I didn't just let it go while my colleague was away. We'll see how I fare when I'm gone on vacation the second half of September. Maybe running in flat Nebraska will be just like running on a treadmill!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Health Care Reform: The Ethics and Morality

This series of posts features my thoughts about health care, organized into some simple categorizations. It is this data, these experiences, and these moral arguments that inform my opinion about health care reform. It is, of course, incomplete compared to everything in my head, and I welcome your questions and comments.

I care a lot about other people. It is very important to me to care for others in this world. As an atheist, I see this life as the only one that we have, and that makes it all the more important to do the best with it that we can.

But it's not just atheists who care about other people. Religious people also care about other people. Every major religion (and the minor ones, too!) compels its followers to take care of the sick and the poor.

The big question, then, is to what degree should we/are we obligated to use our money to pay for others' health care? I posit that we should form a national (or possibly regional or statewide) pool of money from which everyone draws to pay for health care. This is an option that is not only possible, but is affordable and will benefit everyone.

We live in the most prosperous country in the world, and health care is not a scarce resource. (Health care is not accessible to some people because of the costs involved, but that is the primary barrier. There are some locations where it is scarce as well, but again, this has more to do with costs than anything else -- doctors need to make a living and can't do so if none of their patients can afford to pay them.)

Currently, we spend more money per capita than any other country does, and receive suboptimal results from it. We could take that same money and apply it more intelligently, and receive much better results.

A single-payer system could be financed by a 9% payroll tax -- 2% paid by the employee and 7% paid by the employer[1 -- the question about raising taxes, but the whole thing is an interesting read]. My personal income is in the 90th percentile of American incomes, and my employer and I would be coming out ahead on this deal. Together, we pay $1250/month to insure my family -- and this rate applies to everyone they insure, not just high-income professionals.

Having a single-payer system would benefit everyone. It would benefit those who currently lack access to health care, for obvious reasons. But it would also benefit those of us who do have access to health care as well.

Something I worry about, as the primary breadwinner and person who enables my family to have access to health insurance, is what happens to my family if something happens to me. The best case scenario is if I am killed instantly -- my family collects on my life insurance policies, they can use the proceeds of that policy to pay for COBRA, their regular bills, and training for my husband to get himself back into the workforce. Hopefully he would be able to get a job with benefits that would cover his pre-existing conditions, although that could be difficult to find.

The worst case scenario is if I linger. Jeff will want to spend those last weeks or months with me, and taking care of me, when he should be getting himself back into the workforce. I'll be terminated from my job -- perhaps I'll receive long-term disability payments, but no longer an employee of my workplace, I'll have to begin paying the full health insurance premium -- and the clock will start ticking on COBRA. My care will eat up our savings, as our health insurance company finds limits in our policy that I hadn't realized were there, and I'm too weak to fight them for it.

A single-payer system, on the other hand, entirely eliminates this worry. My family's pre-existing conditions will always be covered, regardless of my employment status. My final months of life will not send my family into bankruptcy, because it's all covered by the system. But this is not the only way in which I will benefit.

If everyone has access to the health care they need, then they will be able to innovate without worry of the consequences. If I come up with a brilliant idea for a new company, I'll be able to pursue that idea without worrying about the consequences to my family's health insurance coverage. (It's a good thing I love my job, because I am basically tied to working for a large employer with health insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions, thanks to our health history as a family.)

A healthier workforce means a more productive workforce. If everyone has access to the health care they need, then there will be fewer people on disability. A person with diabetes can get the treatments they need to prevent blindness, for example. A person with a broken leg can get it set properly so that both legs are the same length and their back doesn't get strained by the imbalance.

Even the wealthy would benefit from a single-payer health insurance system. The amount of money that their businesses would have to pay to provide health insurance to their employees would decrease, lowering the bottom line. Their assets would not be at risk should they develop a costly or life-threatening illness. And they could use their influence with the government to improve the quality of health coverage, should they be unhappy with it.

A single-payer system is the right choice ethically and morally. It's a system that works well for many of our peer countries, and that could benefit the United States too.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Health Care Reform: The Math

This series of posts features my thoughts about health care, organized into some simple categorizations. It is this data, these experiences, and these moral arguments that inform my opinion about health care reform. It is, of course, incomplete compared to everything in my head, and I welcome your questions and comments.

I. Money

In the United States, we spent $2.4 trillion, or $7900 per person, on health care in 2007. This is 17% of our GDP [1]. Health insurance premiums increased by 5% last year -- twice the rate of inflation. Our neighbors to the north (Canada) spend half what we do per capita, yet have the opportunity to consult with doctors nearly 60% more than we do (an average of 6.0 visits vs 3.8 visits per year) [2].

II. Demographics

In exchange for the highest per-capita investment in health care, we end up with suboptimal health outcomes. We have the 33rd or 46th lowest infant mortality rates in the world (depending on if you use the UN or CIA factbook statistics), getting beat out by countries like Cuba and Israel [3]. We have the 30th or 38th longest life expectancy, getting beat out by Cuba, Greece, and Jordan [4]. In the WHO assessment of health care systems by country, the United States ranked 37th out of the 191 countries evaluated, behind Saudi Arabia [5]!

What are we getting for all that spending, then?

For those who have access to healthcare, we get some of the best care in the world -- the United States has a lot of resources that aren't available in places like Cuba, after all. But those who lack the access to healthcare, well, they may as well be living in a country that doesn't have any of those resources, because they won't get a chance to see them until there's such a dire emergency that the medical bills just can't be avoided any longer.

Here's the dark side of what we're getting: we're getting a whole lot of money wasted on administration -- six times the amount per capita than is spent in our peer Western European countries, all of which achieve superior health outcomes to us. We're getting CEOs rewarded with nine-figure bonuses when they merge two large health insurance companies into one mega-company. We get our insured health care decided based on profit, not on what's actually best for the patient, and all health care rationed based on people's assets rather than their needs. We get 68% of medical-bill-related bankruptcies being folks who had health insurance when their medical condition began [1].

Surely there's got to be a better way. We could spend all that money more wisely and provide better healthcare for more people.

Next: The Ethics and Morality

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Adventures in Rollerskating

Vinny was invited to a 7-year-old's rollerskating birthday party, and we all attended it today. I had told him last night that in the morning, we were going to need to take a bath and then we would go rollerskating. He's never skated but he knew what rollerskating was because there's an episode of Oswald where Oswald learns to roller skate.

He was really excited about the idea of rollerskating, and in fact this morning he remembered that today we were going rollerskating! After a relatively short bath, we headed out to the roller rink.

We got Vinny a pair of skates, and Jeff and I remained in our shoes and helped him around the rink. At first he could hardly keep his feet under himself, but as his time on skates progressed, he improved dramatically. He couldn't really skate without assistance, but he wasn't falling flat on his behind. And in fact, he was able to get up from sitting and balance himself for a short time before he got too wobbly.

One thing that did not help his roller skating was all the cool blinking lights up on the ceiling, which were much more interesting to look at than the rink. At first he was just skating while looking straight up, but eventually we were able to get him to look ahead of him instead, which dramatically improved his skating.

This evening when I tucked Vinny into bed, he asked me if we could go rollerskating tomorrow. Evidently it was a big hit with him!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Su(doku), Meet Ken(Ken)

I'm on business travel this week, and in celebration (?) of that, I decided to get myself a book of sudoku. When I looked on the shelf, there was a book of another sudoku-like game called KenKen. So I bought that to try out on the plane.

KenKen is like sudoku in the sense that all the numbers have to appear exactly once in each row and column, but there are bolded "cages" in which the numbers have to make a number in the upper left corner of the cage by using the operator that follows the number (e.g. 17+ means the numbers have to add up to 17).

I read the basic instructions at the beginning of the book before starting to work on the puzzles. It has been so much fun to develop my own techniques for solving these puzzles. I look out for unique cages first: for example, a two-square cage with 3+ must contain a one and a two, and a two-square cage with 15x must contain a 3 and a 5. I then use the column- and row-uniqueness rules to solve the puzzle.

I am fast falling in love with KenKen puzzles. I did 15 of them while on the plane! Okay, so I've only done the easy puzzles, but they are so much fun that it made the ache in my hand and arm from writing too much totally worth it.
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Monday, August 10, 2009

Our Little Boy Is Growing Up

I think Vinny's going to be able to read pretty soon. He's known all his letters since well before he was two years old, thanks to his "computer" -- an electronic alphabet game for kids much older than he is. At first, he would just randomly push buttons on it, but he quickly learned the letters, the sounds they make, and words starting with each letter.

He's recently begun to express interest in the words on the pages of the books I read him every night. I reply to his questions about what the words say by pointing to each word as I slowly read it to him.

In other news, he's starting to catch on about when to use the potty. Today he successfully asked to use the potty and peed three times, which made us incredibly happy!

Our little boy is growing up! But I have to say, I won't miss the diaper changes when they finally cease.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Dora Admiration

Vinny is a big fan of Dora the Explorer. He's such a big fan that yesterday at the store he saw a Dora outfit that he really wanted. Trouble is, the outfit was very pink and very frilly. And while Jeff and I don't personally care what he wears just so long as it fits and is appropriate for the weather, we were hesitant to buy him a pink frilly outfit. This is a conservative state -- would child protective services be called against us? Luckily they didn't have any of these particular outfits in his size, so we were able to hedge by saying, "Sorry, sweetie, but they don't have the right size for you."

I've never seen him want anything so badly before. He was really upset when we didn't get it for him. We tried to assure him that we would find something in his size later, and that seemed to soothe him, but he kept asking about it for the rest of the day, and even several times today.

So while Vinny and I enjoyed the children's museum this afternoon, Jeff shopped for something Dora-themed that he wouldn't have to worry about Vinny being seen in. He finally settled upon a Dora nightgown. It's purple and it has puffy sleeves, but it's a nightgown and will only be worn inside the house.

You should have seen the joy on his face when Vinny first saw that nightgown. He was very excited and wanted to put it on right away! In fact, he is lying here in my arms asleep wearing that nightgown as I type this.

Jeff also found a website where you can create your own custom t-shirts with Dora on them, so we'll probably order one of those so he can show his enthusiasm for Dora outside the house without us worrying about the consequences.

Ideally, I would want my child to feel free to wear whatever outfit he wanted to wear, without fear of consequences. I don't want to indoctrinate him into the ridiculous notion that there are some things/activities/colors for girls and other things/activities/colors for boys. I want him to continue to enjoy cooking, dancing, and holding pretend picnics. I also want him to continue to enjoy screwdrivers, tinkertoys, and fans. In other words, I want him to feel free to express himself in any way, even if that way is categorized as feminine by our society.

I am, however, aware that this is a far from ideal world. While sticks and stones certainly do break bones, words can break hearts. And sadly, we have to watch out for both possibilities when the arbitrary lines of gender norms get crossed.

The propagation of gender norms has been a recent topic of conversation over at Isis the Scientist's place. The problem is that it's okay for girls and women to cross gender boundaries (heck, I'm a scientist and I wear pants all the time!) but it's not okay for boys and men to do so (my husband faces more discrimination than I do because of his choice of vocation). This is because in our patriarchal society, "male" is regarded as the default, and "female" as "other" -- inferior to men. In this set-up, it makes sense that girls and women would want to cross over to the other gender, and doesn't make sense when boys and men want to do it. Similarly, girls and women can and do regularly have male role models, while it is very rare for men to have female role models.

This is why Vinny's admiration of Dora is problematic in this society, and why there are no shirts for boys with Dora on them. On the other hand, if Vinny were a girl who admired Diego, we'd just cross over to the boys' side of the clothing aisle and not think twice about it.

It's really sad that we can't find a boys' Dora shirt off the rack, and I feel guilty about caving in to society's norms by not buying him the frilly pink Dora outfit. But I think we were able to frame it in a way that will keep him innocently admiring Dora and feeling free to wear pink for a while longer.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Hello, World!

Hello, treasured readers! Sorry for the involuntary hiatus there. The internetz (you know, the series of tubes) broke down at our house, so I was unable to post until they got fixed. But now they are working fine, so I'm able to resume entertaining you with my awesome wit.

Actually, how about some of Vinny's wit? That boy is hilarious. Why, just this evening when I put him to bed, he asked me, "Mama, do wishes come true?" I have no idea where he picked that up, but it made me laugh, and then reply, "Sure, sometimes they do, sweetheart."

Lately we've been playing lots of hide and seek. He doesn't seem to quite understand the purpose or the strategy of the game. When you ask the rhetorical question "Where's Vinny?" you'll hear his fluty little voice answer "I'm right here!" We take turns being the one to hide, and he usually hides in whatever hiding place I used in the previous round. I guess that's because wherever I hid was so awesome that it will be as hard for me to find him as it was for him to find me. After I hid in the shower, Jeff tried to steer him towards a better hiding place, but he declined to hide there, saying, "No, it's my turn to hide in the shower."

Good times here at Casa Rebecca.