Saturday, June 26, 2010


Today we took Vinny to his first-ever movie in a movie theater.  It was Toy Story 3 (which was very good, in fact).  He sat the entire time on my lap, and paid attention to the movie for the majority of the time.  The previews were painfully loud, though, so I covered his ears at the beginning.  I thought I was going to have bad cramps in my arms (not to mention the pain shooting through my left elbow!), but luckily the movie was not quite so loud, and I was able to remove my hands from his ears.

After the movie we met some friends at a sort of arcade/amusement park place, where our three-year-olds just enjoyed sitting at the driving games and thought they were playing without us having to insert any tokens, and also went on all the kiddie rides (e.g., the airplanes that go round and round, the mini-train, etc.)

Then we went out to dinner together before going home and putting Vinny to bed.  I think I will head to bed really soon myself.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Adventures in Conferences

I'm at a conference for students with a prestigious fellowship, in our nation's capital.  Yesterday there was a workshop on high-performance computing, which I attended.  I really enjoyed it because there was a high-level discussion of the future of HPC architectures and algorithms.

I talked to an old friend (we've known each other for a long time, not that he's old) about his work as a manager, and he said something that made me feel really good about my career plans (I see myself ten years from now more as a manager than a scientist, although I definitely enjoy what I currently do).  He said he may not be publishing any papers now, but that there is definitely a lot of intellectual work to do as a leader in the high-performance computing field, synthesizing ideas together and planning for the future of the field.  I am attracted more to the intellectual stimulation of computing in the abstract, and less to the down-and-dirty details of implementation (although I do enjoy coding from time to time, when I get the chance).

I'll talk more about HPC architectures and algorithms when I get a chance to really sit down and write something good.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Adventures in Being a Grown-Up

Generally I am a fairly optimistic person and I see the best in others.  There are few things that make me lose my faith in humanity, but petty, small-minded bigotry is one of those things.*

I am far from perfect, and have my own moments of prejudice, fear, and hatred.  After all, I have simmered in the broth of our misogynistic, racist, xenophobic society my entire life, so it is no wonder that some of it seeped into my mind.  But I have an innate, very strong sense of fairness that I employ at every opportunity, which helps free my mind of biases.

I told my sister once that what made me a good mathematician was that I was fair with the numbers.  When I come up with a candidate algorithm in my work, for example, I try to examine it from as many angles as I can, both the general case and as many exceptional cases as I can muster.  In this way, I can further refine the algorithm when I find an exception, or verify when that it will work.

I employ the same technique in my day-to-day dealings with people.  Sometimes, people do things to me that I perceive as being (for lack of a better term) really shitty.  The easiest and most direct explanation for why they may have done that is to attribute it to pure mean-spiritedness on their part.  This is a very simple and elegant explanation -- it requires no creativity or originality, it aligns with my angry feelings about the situation -- but it is also completely false in the vast majority of situations.

No, the vast majority of people are not cruel.  They're just regular people like me -- people who make mistakes, who don't have all the information they need to make the optimal decision, who have unexamined biases.  They've been hurt in life, and have buttons that other people can inadvertently push without meaning to, just like me.

Dehumanizing your enemy -- making them out to be inhuman monsters  -- is deceptively cheap, but costs more in the long term.  It also leaves you powerless against this inhuman onslaught of cruelty.  There is no connection to which you can appeal for decency.  There is no way to stop the evil without escalating it to the next level.  This in turn begets more cruelty and suffering, and the cycle continues.

I recently learned of a situation in which I was the target of a great deal of derision and mockery.  That, friends, is my button right there, installed by my upbringing.  My first reaction was to recoil in horror at the cruel junior-highschoolers in adult bodies who were made entirely of pure evil.  But soon I was able to bounce back from the visceral fear I felt because of the situation, and consider the motivations of those people who were so hurt that they had to hurt others to feel better about themselves.  I thought of the times that I had mocked others, even though I have never gone to the extreme levels of derision that these individuals did.  We all have our moments of terrible insecurity.

Then I thought about how I could approach this situation with these individuals.  What do we have in common?  Where can I make a connection, and diffuse this tense situation?  I think I know the answer to that.  And while they may be so hurt that they can't take the hand that I'm extending, I'm okay with that.  The important thing is to maintain my humanity along with my dignity when facing these adverse situations.

* This is not to say that there is such a thing as profound, open-minded bigotry.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Happy Fathers Day!

Happy Fathers Day to all the dads out there who are reading this blog!  We already celebrated last Sunday, because I have to leave on a business trip late this afternoon.  We went out to a restaurant of Jeff's choice, and I made him his favorite cake for dessert.  It was a good celebration.

Also, a special Fathers Day shout-out to my dad.  Thanks for being such a good dad and for loving me unconditionally.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

I Survived!

Just a little note to let my vast blogging audience know that I survived the grueling week I described in my previous post.

The crash course was a huge success.  We are planning to offer it again sometime in the fall or winter.  The only problem was that during the morning session I stood still for three hours and by the time noon rolled around I was so stiff that it hurt to walk and then sit down to have some lunch.  So in the afternoon I moved around more and that seemed to solve the problem.

The playdate today went pretty well.  We will definitely have to do another one.  We did not end up going to the concert tonight, which was just as well because Vinny was exhausted by the day of fun.

I am doing laundry as I type this, preparing for my trip.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Plans for the Next Week

This next week is going to be incredibly busy.

  • The week begins with taking Vinny to summer school, same place as preschool, but at an earlier time.  Hopefully I will time it all right.
  • Once at work, I warm up with a meeting that I have every Monday morning and absolutely abhor. 
  • My second summer student arrives.  Pick him up from his orientation, and then set him up with his computer accounts, go through orientation and training info, etc.  The timing may be such that I can get out of that meeting a little early!
  • New employee arrives, and since I am still emergency backup group leader, I get to go to his new employee luncheon and then set him up with accounts, go through orientation information, etc.  Maybe I can do some of this at the same time as I do the student's stuff.
  • Turn in everything I want to have printed out for Thursday and Friday's supercomputing course.  Endure the wrath of my admin when she discovers she's going to have to print out something like 8000 pages of material.  Thank goodness for amazing modern copier technology!
  • Finish reviewing a proposal that I don't actually know much about, but agreed to do because it was one of those things you can't say no to.
  • Try to spend some time with my grad summer student, working with her on compiling and instrumenting some code that she theoretically can finally access.
  • Ping somebody to give me some code that I want my undergraduate summer student to use for the summer.
  • Argue with people about granting priority to a project that really needs high priority.
  • Make sure that a poster I requested will be available in time for me to take it when I go on business travel next week.
  • Continue to fight for undergrad's new accounts, and new employee's new accounts.
  • Hold group meeting and tell everyone to get a dang ergonomic evaluation already unless they want to have a nasty scar on their elbow (or worse)
  • Write up something to tide my high school student over when she arrives on Monday and I am gone until Thursday late afternoon.
  • Do a phone interview with a potential postdoc (or this could take place on Wednesday).
  • Celebrate my boss' first day back at work after his two and a half week vacation!
  • Brief him on everything he missed
  • Work with my students (hopefully the undergrad has his accounts at this point)
  • Perhaps I will have some time to do some actual work
  • Make sure that all my travel plans for next week are in order
  • Beginning course for the supercomputing course
  • Assist my colleague who teaches this day
  • Sneak out and go to a mandatory meeting with a visitor
  • Come home and entertain my sister, should-be sister-in-law, and nephew
  • Say goodbye to my sister et al.
  • Advanced course for the supercomputing course
  • I have to teach this all day
  • Miss out on a full-day mandatory meeting which was only scheduled last week (supercomputing course has been on the books for a couple of months now)
  • Take Vinny and Jeff to playdate with a man and his 3-year-old whom I met at the children's museum a few weeks ago and who is new to town.  Hopefully I will have invited a bunch of other parents with similarly-aged children, as he requested, as well.
  • Possibly go to an outdoor concert featuring Chubby Checker, but it may just be too danged hot, sticky, and crowded to do that.
  • Do laundry and pack for my trip.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Adventures in Popularity

I have organized a two-day course in supercomputing, which I am teaching along with another colleague.  I have done this course in one form or another for five years now.  It is primarily aimed at summer interns, so that they can learn the basics of parallel programming and using a supercomputer.

Last year I think we had maybe 30 people signed up for each day.  This year, we had to close registration yesterday after exceeding 80 registrants for each day of the course.  The capacity of the room is about 70, and I'm counting on some people just not showing up.

I think we will have to offer the course again sometime during the fall or winter, because it was unusually popular this year with staff members and postdocs.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Irrefutable Logic

Vinny: Daddy, I want to go swimming.
Jeff: We can't go swimming right now, buddy, it's raining!
Vinny: It's not raining in a hotel!
Jeff: ...

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Postdoc Preparations

My boss has been on vacation for a while and left me in charge in his absence.  So far not much excitement has been going on, just a few silly fire drills to take care of.  On Friday, though, I had to actually do something of substance.

A postdoc is coming for his pre-employment physical, so the paperwork had to be filled out before he arrives.  I had to fill out a form, checking the boxes for occupational activities that applied or did not apply to his job, such as sitting, standing, crouching, kneeling, running, etc.  I also had to check off which occupational hazards he would come into contact with, e.g., hot or cold environment, chemicals, biohazards, etc.  There were an awful lot of boxes and I hope I filled them all out correctly.

When I was a postdoc, my postdoc adviser inadvertently checked a box saying that I might sometimes need to use a respirator.  As a result, I had to have extensive testing of my lungs, my ability to carry loads, and my ability to crouch.  I also had to have a physical every year to make sure I was still capable of using a respirator.  One physical was when I was bursting-at-the-seams pregnant, and not physically capable of using a respirator, and as a result my respirator use was restricted.  It was pretty humorous because the restriction did not change the frequency of my respirator usage.  But they had to write up a report that detailed all my respirator usage restrictions and I had an extra tag I had to put on my lanyard that explained the restrictions, etc.

Here's hoping that I did not cause a similar situation for this incoming postdoc!

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Adventures with Summer Students

Today my first of three summer students arrived.  This is a student I had last year, so she already knows the ropes.  After her orientation, she just came and got me rather than me having to go pick her up.  She is even sitting in the same room as she was in last year.  But she was a little startled by all the changes that have occurred in the past year, like the construction of a new transformer room down the hall from my office that took away a former lobby and alcove.

But the project is completely different.  She hasn't really started on anything yet because her accounts have not yet been set up.  Last year she did more database work; this year she'll be doing some instrumentation and performance modeling of applications running at full scale on the supercomputer.  I think it will be a good experience for her.

My next student, the undergraduate who will be working on this same project, arrives in two weeks.  Then my high school student will arrive the next week, while I am away at a conference.  I've arranged with my colleague down the hall to look after her for those first four days.

Also, we are offering our summer one-day supercomputing course.  Last year we had about 30 people register for it.  This year we already have 55, and that's before our target audience, the summer students, have even had a chance to register.  The room doesn't hold too many more people (maybe 75 or 80) so we will be in trouble if a lot more folks register.  I'm thinking if it's this popular, we will have to have one course during the year for staff members and another course in the summer just for students.