Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Today in Treading Water

Sometimes, trying to stay afloat in the sea of things to do is hard.  There are so many requests, so many reports, so many deadlines, so many different things to do, that it becomes overwhelming.

At a certain point, there are so many different tasks that have to be done, that the overhead of switching contexts hogs the majority of your time.  It is at this point that my brain completely freezes up and I lose the ability to decide what to do.  I just give up, ceasing to get anything done whatsoever.

I give myself a little break before looking at my long "to do" list and reprioritizing.  Then I take a deep breath and dive back in, hoping that I can keep my head above water for a little longer this time.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


Vinny has recently learned the art of the knock-knock joke (sort of).  Just now as I was putting him to bed, I was treated to the following:

Vinny: Knock Knock!
Me: Who's there?
Vinny: Orange!
Me: Orange who?
Vinny: Orange fan! [hysterical laughter]

Vinny: Knock Knock!
Me: Who's there?
Vinny: Red!
Me: Red who?
Vinny: Red light!
[we both laugh]

Me: Okay, okay, my turn.  Knock Knock!
Vinny: Who's there?
Me: Nighty!
Vinny: Nighty who?
Me: Nighty Night!
[much laughter from both of us.  I kiss him, get up, and leave the room.]

Friday, May 21, 2010

For Days When I Feel Like SMASHing...

... there is Feminist Hulk, who is smashing the gender binary, defying Cartesian mind-body duality, baking for the monthly feminist potluck, and smashing male privilege into hegemonic shrapnel.

I am in awe of such verdent power rising up against oppressive societal norms.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Eating My Vegetables

So last week was the first week of our CSA.  For last week, we got some strawberries, lettuce, arugula, and bok choy.

We had never cooked with bok choy before, but I searched for recipes on the internet, got inspired by them, and ended up making a stir fry with chicken, mushrooms, baby corn, and the bok choy, and boy was it delicious!  I started with cooking some ginger and some garlic in the hot oil before adding the chicken.  Then I took the chicken out and cooked the mushrooms.  I added the bok choy and the baby corn at about the same time, and also added some soy sauce.  It turned out amazingly well despite my complete lack of measurements.

This week we got more strawberries, more bok choy (yum!), some more lettuce, and some beets.  I am pretty excited about the beets.  I love beets!  Jeff does not share my opinion of them.  But hopefully I can cook them in a way that he will like them if he just gives them a try.  We were both kind of skeptical about bok choy but we really ended up liking it, so I think he will probably end up liking beets too.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Vehicular Velocity

A few weeks ago, I had our GPS in the Beetle for a couple of days.  The GPS has a spedometer feature on it, and I observed that the speed the GPS reported was lower than the speed on the car's spedometer.  In fact, it was about 5% off.

I didn't know which one to trust, but then I observed that the radar speed reader that the police put out also put me at about 5% slower than what my spedometer read.  So I'm thinking my spedometer reads 5% faster than the actual speed.

This explains the times when I've been driving along at the speed limit and other cars have come along and driven right behind me, like I'm driving too slow.  I guess I really was going about 5% too slow even when I thought I was going the speed limit.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Summer Student Spectacular

I am going to have a veritable entourage of students working for me this summer.  The graduate student who worked for me last summer is coming back again.  I acquired an undergraduate by being the only person who had an idea for a project for him.  And if I can get all the paperwork done, I'm also going to have a 16-year-old high school student.

The grad and the undergrad are going to work on performance modeling for my big project.  The high schooler is going to work on some visualizations of nuclei.  I'm going to supervise all three of them while doing my regular job.

The way I got the high school student is kind of a long story.  I wanted to bring the graduate student in through a different program than the one she came in under last year.  The only program I could find that would pay her what I felt she deserved to be paid was in a somewhat unrelated engineering field.  All the other programs would have paid her something like $400 less per month than what she made last summer.  Luckily, one of the codes that we are analyzing for my big project is in that engineering field, so I asked the PI of that code if he would be willing to be her official mentor on paper and let me supervise her in practice.  He said of course he would be willing to help like that, so this is how we got her in and at a fair pay rate.

But while we were talking, he told me about a girl who he had coached in soccer, and how she was really interested in science and asked me if I'd be willing to be her mentor.  I said sure, with the caveat that I had to find some funding.  I didn't really think too much about it though, until last week when the girl emailed me to express her interest.  Then I had to find something for her to do.  So I talked with another of my collaborators and found a project and some funding.

Now I just have to go through a whole lot of extra paperwork because she is a minor.  I have to have a special inspection of the workplace, develop an individual, restricted work plan just for her, and also verify that this is not a case of nepotism (fortunately, it is not).  But, if I can successfully jump through all these hoops in a timely manner, I think this will be a really good experience for her, and we'll have some fantastic nuclear visualizations!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Vinny and the Violin

I was only a little older than Vinny when I started playing the violin.  I had always loved music, and it was a logical next step to sign me up.  I mean, I loved music so much that it was one of the only thing that would soothe me when I got upset.  So it made perfect sense to start creating it on my own.

Vinny recently saw a picture of me at the age of 4, playing the violin.

Ever since then, he has been enthusiastic about learning to play the violin himself.  When we talk about musical instruments, he regularly mentions that he wants to play the violin.

I haven't actively discouraged him from it, but I admit that I am less than enthusiastic about him learning to play the violin at this age.  I think he still needs to be a child, and I don't want to subject him to the kind of discipline that is necessary to learn an instrument yet.

And when he is old enough for it, I am not enthusiastic about the violin as a first instrument.  I think he would be much better served to learn the piano first.  Piano is a useful skill.  There are a lot more opportunities for gigs.  Also, musically speaking, you learn to think about more than just a single melodic line, which is very useful when you play in ensembles or even when you're just trying to appreciate music.  I think a lot of music theory would have come easier to me if I'd had training on the piano.

I also worry about the impact that playing the violin has on a young body.  I know that twisting my left arm into the fingering position on the violin starting at such a young age and for so long contributed to my arm and elbow problems.  I would hate for my son to be disabled as a young adult like happened to me.  He's not left handed, though, so maybe he wouldn't have the same thing happen.

In any case, I won't be signing him up for any lessons any time soon.  He needs to just keep enjoying music for a year or two more.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Dr. Mama

One of my colleagues at work defended her dissertation last month, and is now an official member of the Ph.D. club. I am very happy for her, because completing her degree will make the future that much easier for her. But nothing has really changed within her. She was just as smart two months ago as she is today. She was doing kick-ass science then, and she will continue to do kick-ass science for the rest of her career. But those three little letters make quite a difference in how she will be perceived.

Thinking about this made me realize that I am approaching the five-year anniversary of having a doctorate. It is not that big of a deal to me, really; I think I remembered to celebrate the date of my defense the first year, but totally forgot about it every subsequent year. And really, beyond the fact that having a Ph.D. has opened doors for me in my career, I haven't felt much personal impact from it at all. Every year I get a few letters addressed to "Dr.", and sometimes I use the title just for a laugh, but I'm not reminded of the existence of my degree enough to hardly notice it.

I do feel a lot different than I did five years ago, but becoming a mother is what transformed me the most, not earning my Ph.D. After all, I do get called "Mama" every day. But more importantly, motherhood has changed my perspective and transformed my personality. A measly degree couldn't hope to do that.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Music I Like: Gluck's Overture to Iphigenia in Aulis

I first became acquainted with this piece when I was in youth orchestra. I think it may be some sort of standard piece for youth orchestras to play -- it's not too complicated, the first violins never have to go higher than third position, and there are a whole bunch of youth orchestras playing it on YouTube. The video I picked is not bad, but a little rough along the edges.

But I was smitten from Day One. And it has many of my favorite elements in it -- a minor key, surprises, contrasting themes that get combined in ways that you would not expect. It's no wonder I still love this piece even today.

This piece has some surprisingly advanced harmonies for its era -- Christoph Willibald Gluck was a contemporary of Mozart, and you won't hear anything this dark or despairing in Mozart, with the possible exception of Don Giovanni (composed after Gluck's death).

Before I get started describing the music, it might help to know what Gluck was trying to depict. Iphigenia in Aulis is a Greek tragedy by Euripides. Basically, poor Iphigenia gets sent to Aulis to be sacrificed so her father (Agamemnon) can sail his ships to Troy. This piece opens Gluck's opera of the same name, so it has to set the mood for such a sad and somber tale.

The overture begins with a very tragic and slow primary theme, a fifth echoed as an augmented fifth, followed by a descending scale that goes one note below the starting point. At first it's just the upper strings that are playing, but then the rest of the string section gets involved.

At the 1:09 mark we hear the first sign of the second theme. It's markedly different -- we have nearly the entire orchestra playing in unison. Then it breaks off into a fast paced, cheerful melody, leading you to wonder what this has to do with anything?!?! There's a sweet, interlude-like melody we first hear at the 2:08 mark, led by the first violins, too, which leads into a modulation of the second theme into a minor key. This interlude melody reappears at 4:58 and leads to a recapitulation of the second theme back in its original key. Then it's back to the interlude melody before another series of modulations of the second theme, which works its way through several different keys until at 8:47 after ascending two half steps we're dropped off back at the opening theme. At the 9:20 mark the first theme modulates in some interesting ways (augmented chords, minor sixth chords, and the like), as if to further illustrate the tragedy of the situation.

How is this all going to come together at the end, you may be asking yourself. Well, when the original theme takes on some new harmonies (augmented chords and minor sixth chords and the like), those harmonies take the rhythm of the first sign of the second theme (you can hear this in particular beginning at 9:46). This ending was written by Richard Strauss, because in the actual opera, the overture just segues straight into the action (and in fact, the last occurrence of the first theme is the beginning of the singing part of the opera). I actually have a recording of the opera, and the different themes in the overture all occur later in the arias, so Gluck didn't necessarily feel the need to tie it all together so beautifully in the overture. But Strauss definitely put a bow on it at the end.

In stark contrast to my ability to put a bow on the end of this post... just let me end by saying that I hope you enjoy this music as much as I do, some twenty-plus years after I first played in it.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Post-Race Analysis

The race went really well! But first, some pictures before a more detailed analysis. Here I am stretching before the race:

And here is the group of runners taking off:

My #1 fans were waiting for me at one of the bends, so I waved to the sound of an encouraging "Go Mama!" as my other favorite fan took my picture:

I was snoozing my way through the awards ceremony when I heard my name being called. Turns out I won third place in my age division!

Here's what I won, up close and personal -- a medal and a plaque!

That was actually the first of three times I went to the podium -- I was the captain of a team (composed of colleagues of mine) and we won awards for the largest team and the best team name (Nerds in Motion). Several of my teammates, including my mean running coach's daughter, got metals as well. The girl got first place in her age division -- a fine encouragement for a first-time racer. And although we didn't win anything for this, we were runners-up to a local fitness center's team for fastest team (the lowest total time for your team's top four participants). Still, I consider us to have swept the awards.

Now for the analysis.

This year I did a personal best time of just under 40 minutes for the 5K. I think I reported that last year I ran it in 41 minutes but either I misremembered or just typed it wrong, because official time records say it was more like 47 minutes. So, I shaved seven minutes off my time. I attribute this to several factors:
  • It was a lot cooler yesterday. It may have gotten up to 60 degrees by the end of the race but I'm not sure. This was because there was a big storm rolling in, which finally came in the early afternoon.
  • I was familiar with the course. I remembered what it was like from last year.
  • I'm a more mature racer. I didn't get overexcited and run too fast at the beginning and wear myself out.
  • I was well hydrated. I spent much of Friday drinking as much water as I could stand. I did not refuse the water at the halfway point like last time. I was sweating less because it was cooler. I did not worry about the fact that my bladder was leaking and just accepted the existence of a full pantyliner as collateral damage. And I did not get a post-race migraine as a result.
  • I am in better shape. Thanks to just running regularly for a year and four months (vs. four months last year), plus my mean running coach sending me up that enormous hill, I am in much better shape.
I ran nearly the entire race. I ran the first mile without any problems; I could have carried on a conversation the whole time. At the halfway mark I was getting tired because of a small hill. At the water station, I slowed to a walk to try to drink some water. And then I had to stop because my shoe was untied. But after I got done tying my shoe, I was refreshed enough to run the rest of the second mile and part of the third. I decided to walk up the hill that I encountered at that point, start running again where the route turned around at the top of the hill, and run it in. As I turned the corner toward the finish line, I saw the race clock read 38 minutes and something. I put everything I had into making it to the finish line and beat 40 minutes by about thirty seconds.

My goal was to complete the 5K in under 40 minutes, and I did that. My first-ever award for athletics was just icing on the cake! In my post-race high, my mean running coach convinced me I should train for a 10K now, and then, a half-marathon. It sounded like a good idea at the time...

The only problem yesterday was that earlier in the week when I had been hyping up the weekend's activities to the youngest racer, we had talked about the existence of triathlons, in which you run, bike, and swim. Somehow he got it in his head that you got to swim in this race, so he was pretty disappointed when I said we weren't going swimming. There were tears involved. A post-race meal at IHOP with my mean running coach and her family seemed to cheer him up. But maybe at some point I need to sign up for a triathlon.