Thursday, December 22, 2005

Feelings of Fraudulence

Christine Overall, in "A Feminist I: Reflections from Academia" does a very good job of describing the feelings of fraudulence that I mentioned in my last post. DC questioned that it's not just women who have these feelings, but men as well. I totally agree, but I failed to mention it in a post titled "Real Women." Let me summarize Dr. Overall's description here.

She says that these feelings of fraudulence in academia stem from many things. Foremost, for professors, there is this notion that you have to stand up in front of a classroom and teach and pontificate intelligently about topics in which you may not feel strengths. As graduate students, teaching assistants, research assistants, we experience this as well. We do research. We teach students. We are supposed to know this stuff, but we never feel that we know it as well as perhaps we "should." Thus, men and women can both feel this way. They all say to themselves, "Any minute now they'll figure out I don't belong here."

But consider what emwc notes. Women are leaving at faster rates. This is, in part, due to an even greater feeling of fraudulence. There's not one thing that causes this feeling. It's not like the head of my department approached me at one point and said, "You don't belong here. You should leave." It's the thousand paper cuts that I've discussed before. It's the professor that hits on her, the advisor that treats her like a secretary, the high school counselor that advises her against calculus, the stupid jokes by stupid guys about dumb women in front of her, that contributes to a woman's decision to leave computer science. It's a culture which favors the stereotypical geek male that posts comments like this on slashdot. It's a culture to which I've had to say many many times, "Fuck you."

Most recently, I've been thinking about bathrooms. At my old campus, the school was originally an all boys school. The engineering building had only men's bathrooms, and a women's bathroom resulted from repainting the sign on the door. The urinals were still there, which were admittedly a little startling the first time I saw them. This goes for some of the other engineering buildings on my present campus. The only reason there is a women's bathroom is because someone taped a "Women" sign over the "Men" door. The urinals are still in there. In my own building, there are no machines for feminine hygiene products, and I've received many a quiet IM from my female friends imploring me for any tampons I might have. I don't think anyone is intentionally leaving out tampon machines or leaving in urinals to make me flee science, but it's just one more thing I have to ignore.

I don't want to get in a discussion about who is better or worse off, because that is a very stupid discussion. If you look at all the stereotypes in which we are all raised, all genders arrive to computer science and graduate school with some baggage that could be very disabling. I'm just talking about my own experiences; as a female cs grad student. I don't mean to make the male reader, the transgendered reader, or any other reader feel marginalized because I'm not talking about everyone's experience.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Real Women

From a comment on the previous post:

I think it depends on what research you believe. My impression is that the quantitative sciences have shown more and more, in recent years, that men and women do show some differences on average, for example, in studies of how and when cortisol is released in the stress response (ref. Marianne Legato), in styles of map navigation or spatial rotation and linguistic abilities, brain scans of men and women performing the same task, to name a few that come to mind.

Like you said, L. Wu, I think it depends on what research you believe. While studies do show that grown men and women have different brain mappings, I don't think that really proves much. It has been suggested that hormones have an effect on brain development. It has been suggested that estrogen promotes mental skills while testosterone promotes better spatial skills. Still, studies on the brain show that there is a "use it or lose it" notion. Babies are born with twice the synapses needed in the brain. As the brain develops, neurons and synapses hook together to develop specific skills and abilities in humans. How these connections are made is still unknown, but due to this overdevelopment of synapses, there is synaptic pruning that takes place until the age of two. This pruning leaves only the fittest synapses in place. By the age of three, boys and girls can identify persons of the other gender, and by age 5 they have a very strong idea of what activities are for boys and which are for girls. Do boys play with trucks because they have a stronger spatial ability and are therefore attracted to trucks? Or do boys play with trucks because mom and dad give them trucks which leads to improved spatial ability? I think what I said before still stands. Men and women are different. We don't know exactly why. I'll admit, given my perspective as a female scientist, that I am more willing to believe that men and women are not wired differently, because I stand here as living proof that women can do men's work.

Something that many of the women in science fields talk about is the "Charlatan Effect" or feeling "like a fraud." They say things like,

Any minute now, they are going to figure out I don't belong here.


I wonder when they'll figure out that I'm a complete idiot and don't belong here.

In part, we feel that we don't belong in science because we are women, but as my friend H. has recently pointed out, "we aren't real women either." We code, we test specimens, we integrate, we derive, we induct, we recurse, we prove, we analyze. We don't own purses, we don't wear heels, we don't wear makeup, we don't like shopping, we don't scrapbook, we don't mother.

Which begs the question, what is a real woman? I was trying to gather up an image of a "real woman" today and could think of only Reese Witherspoon. She's beautiful. She's graceful. She has a successful career. She is a mother. She is blonde. But because I'm not Reese Witherspoon (or behave in any way that exhibits Reese Witherspooness), does that mean I am not a real woman? Like most women, I loathe my body, but unlike most women, I don't wear makeup. Like most women, I cry irrationally during my period, but unlike most women, I haven't worn a skirt in months. These are silly juxtapositions, but it asks an important question. How many women identify themselves as "real women?"

We've been taught that gender is binary. A person is a girl or a boy. There is nothing in between. But like Kinsey introduced with his measure of sexuality, my friend H. suggests that there is also a gradient of gender. A person can have elements of male or female, despite their ovaries or scrotum. A person can be more male or more female than his or her peers. While, my perspective is much different from that of L. Wu, together we are two women who challenge a huge
majority of the stereotypes of women. I am a woman in a "man's field." L. Wu identifies as a woman. In a way, I think that L. Wu and I are making the same point. Neither of us are "real women," (whatever the hell that even means) but we are women all the same.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Open Letter to Dr. Phil

Generally what happens at the end of a semester is that I go up to my friend's house in TheBigCity for a visit. She has a J-O-B, so I either hang out in TheBigCity, or watch television during the day. Yesterday, I ended up watching Dr. Phil. It was an episode about failing marriages, and at the end of the show, he encouraged his viewers to check out his website for advice on relationships.

I have a love-hate relationship with Dr. Phil. He's pragmatic and no-nonsense. His success is based on the fact that he can state common sense ideas to people who need to open their eyes to the bigger issue. I love him because he's right. I hate him because it's such a simple concept that has made him successful. Are people really that dumb? Having a love-hate relationship with him, means I had to go to his website. The following letter to Dr. Phil, sent via his website, resulted:

Dear Dr. Phil. In your 10 Myths about relationships, you say the following, "Men and women are wired differently." While the purpose of this statement was to express that couples cannot have the same mind about various issues in a relationship, there is a subtext to the statement that has serious negative impact on readers.

Since the 1974 publication of Maccoby and Nagy's "The Psychology of Sex Differences" more and more research has shown that there are very few differences physically between men and women. Women are not more sensitive than men. Women are not more suggestible than men. The list goes on. Certainly, there remains to be a firm answer to this issue. Are men and women different? Yes. How much of this difference can be attributed to nature and how much can be attributed to nuture? This is still unknown. According to research, what's most plausible is that men and women, due to social constructs, are raised in two completely different cultures, leading them to have very different ideas and behaviours. Just like Japanese and Americans may have trouble communicating due to differing cultures, so do men and women.

To say that men and women are wired differently suggests that men are "built" to perform certain tasks while women are "built" to do other tasks. This is a particulary sensitive issue for me because I am a woman in computer science. I am working towards a PhD in computer science in a department that is made up of only 6% women. Despite great strides in the women's movement, there are still so few women in this fascinating and financially empowering field. I strongly believe that part of the driving reason behind these low numbers are the messages that women receive in the media. Turn on almost any television show, and the "computer expert" is a date-less geeky guy, locked away by himself with all his gadgets. Your statement, that men and women are wired differently, contains a similar, though less visual message.

I believe that folks in the public eye like yourself have a greater responsibility not to further these kinds of incorrect ideas about the genders. You have a great show, and a great website, and you have the influence to change popular ideas. I implore you to change this wording in your website and in your vocabulary. Help to change a culture that teaches men and women that they are built only for certain tasks.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Why the qualification exam doesn't prepare you for research

I'll admit, like most grad students, I bitch about my advisor (both of them) behind his back. "He talks too much." "He doesn't listen." Despite my complaints, he's a well-intentioned man who just suffers from the same social inadequacies we all do. He's a smart guy, and every couple of months he says something that makes a lightbulb go on in my head. Today, he lit up one of those 10000 Watt bulbs that light up Wal-Mart parking lots.

I won't go into the details, mostly to protect the identity of said advisor, but I will impart the lesson here.


For my department, the qualification exam is what students take to prove to their qualification committee that they have what it takes to do research. Years later, they take the prelim, which is a kind of oral contract between you and your PhD committee on what your dissertation topic is about. One year later, they defend and graduate. Of course, this all depends on the advisor, but it's a rough time-line.

In some areas of research, students are given two papers for the qualification exam. They have to read and understand the papers and their related works within a month, and give a stellar presentation to a group of three professors, none of whom is their advisor. The qualification exam is mostly about luck and attitude. It's about luck because you could get a committee of baby chicks or a committee of angry, blood-sucking pirates. It's about luck because you could get a good paper related to your research topic or a bad paper that consists of 61 pages of formal methods from hell. Ahem. It's about attitude because these professors can smell fear. If you cannot emulate a cocky, knowledgeable mini-professor, if you exhibit the least bit of doubt in what you are presenting, then you should just go home. I've seen very, very, very knowledgable people fail the qual and get kicked out of this department because they are too, well, mousy. It's stupid, but maybe being a cocky bastard (or at least being able to emulate one) is part of academia. Or maybe it's another facet of this bizarre culture.

In other areas, students are given a written test which they pass or fail. I won't speak on this because I don't know enough about it. I just know that if I had a six hour test to take on theoretical computer science, I'd likely wet myself.

That said, I came into graduate school having worked in Industry for four years. In Industry, it takes years to make anything, mostly because your days are filled with regression tests, writing white papers, attending meetings about 401K plans, and attending workshops about how to use Clearcase. Most of the time, what you made isn't particularly new, but what you made is QUALITY because other people have to use it. For some companies, this is truer than for others.

Three and half years ago, I started graduate school. I did the coursework. I got the grades the department demanded. I courted and begged for an advisor. I took the qual.

How did I pass? Well, technically, I didn't really pass. I got a conditional pass because some blood-thirsty pirate starting asking me R-A-N-D-O-M questions in the last twenty minutes. I had to take a course, but I passed. So, how did I get the conditional pass?

1. I read and read and read and read and read. I read many of the citations. I read book chapters that the author had written. I read other papers that criticised the papers. I read and read and re-read the papers.

2. I practiced and practiced and practiced. Including the first practice where I broke down and started crying in front of all of my friends. My girlfriend had to lure me back out of the bathroom saying, "Just finish it this time and it will get easier." Including the first practice where the beautiful man who would later become my boyfriend told this particularly enthusiastic though overbearing guy to shut up because, "She needs to answer the questions."

What did I learn about research? What did I gain from my experience in Industry and the qualification exam that would help me do research?


Research isn't about reading. Certainly you need to be familiar with related work or you will suggest the Mousie-Kitten model for web interfaces and people will laugh at you. Research isn't about making release 1.0021, making sure to refactor carefully and be backward compatible with old ideas. Certainly it helps if what you are doing works on Linux, works with the http, or works with AADL, or works with ______ so users don't have to have take for granted your weird-o setup to understand your results.


Research is about what I think. Lately I've been thinking to myself, "I'm just making this up!" But I've gotten to the point in life where what I "make up" isn't bullshit I'm writing on short essay test questions anymore. No, what I "make up" are my ideas and I have the intellectual back-up of ten years of working on this stuff to give these ideas weight. Yeah, I have to make my ideas work. Yeah, I have to show a room full of experts that my results are reasonable. I have to have my own ideas. I have to be brave enough to stand in front of people and say, "This is my idea and it is good so nah nee nah nah nah."

I don't know how to fix this. I don't know how to change the system so that it doesn't take other graduate students A YEAR AND A HALF AFTER THE QUAL to understand the concept of research. I'll think about that and let you know.

PS. You've caught me at a moment of anger combined with confidence. The usual angry and depressed FCSGS should be back in future posts.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Whining and Learning, Part II

Scene: The boyfriend and I are walking to his apartment. I'm whining about the 9 page paper.

Me: I don't want to work on it anymore. I need to work on my research.
Bf: Why don't you write 3 pages about your research and stick in the paper?
Me: Hm. Hm. Yeah! I could do that!

The next day, I end up with fourteen pages in 12 pt font. I love that man.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Whining and Learning

So far, I've written 9 pages of the last 12 page paper that is due for the course I'm taking this semester. This course was really heavy on the writing assignments, and while I like to write, I'm a little worn out. I'm approaching the mind-set that likely every student enters at the end of the semester, "Okay, let's say I get an A on the final, and I got an A on everything else, so that means I can totally blow off the rest of this essay and get the B that I want as my final grade." Sure, I want this professor on my dissertation committee, but I don't think he'll think less of me if I am four pages short. Besides, I could make up four pages of bullshit which would just give him more to grade. I think he'd be more upset by the bullshit than by a lack of pages.

Whining aside, I wanted to share with the readers what I learned this semester, much of which didn't have anything to do with the class I'm taking. Like Mark Twain said, "Don't let school get in the way of your education."

  1. Every diagram and figure for every paper and presentation should be drawn in the same program and placed in a central directory. When it comes time to write the dissertation, culling diagrams will be easy.

  2. Third year+ graduate students should not act like students. They should act like junior faculty.

  3. Don't ask for what you want. Tell THEM what you are going to do and ask for help on how to get it done.

  4. Talk to everyone, whether it's the head of your department, your group's secretary, or the assistant dean of your college. The more you are known and the more you help, the more favors you can call in later. This is networking.

  5. Leverage the help of your dissertation committee to make progress on your research. This is also networking.

  6. Leverage the power of your dissertation committee to help convince your PhD advisor that you are ready to prelim. This is also networking.

I've also got a glimpse of what academic life could be like if I don't quit and work at McDonald's. In recent months, I've started working on a side project having nothing to do with my actual "research." It's been an interesting process of making friends with smart people, and deciding to work on a cool project with these smart people. We've worked on writing outlines, proposing workshops, obtaining funding, getting authorization, and all kinds of other bureacratic fun because we really really believe that this problem is worth solving. It's just too bad that this has only happened once in my four years here.

PS. Here's my New Year's resolution. Stop cussing so much. Last week, I was in the office of the Assistant Dean of the College Engineering, and I'm pretty sure I said "crap" 12 times.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Lost & Found

I just found my soldering iron. I'd been looking for it for a few months to try to finish a project I'm working on to get more computer science education into children's museums. I found it while I was looking for a wrench somewhere in my desk.

Why a wrench? I want to find a wrench because I hate my chair. Combined with my desk, the whole setup was built for someone much taller than me, and I cannot get into any position in which my right arm doesn't feel like I'm trying to twist it off my body while I use my mouse. Most of the time, it's not a big deal. I use my laptop a lot and I tend to avoid my desk.

However, there is a current combination that's screwing up my arm.

1. The loss of my laptop (it's on the fritz, gonna die any second),
2. My current mood of "Every second I don't work is one second longer I have to spend in this hell-hole."

So, I'm doing a lot of work at my desk. And so my arm is aching like fucking hell, and I want to take it out on my chair by ripping it's arms off. I'm also stressed about the loss of my laptop, my lack of "good research" (whatever the heck that means), and other general financial malaise that comes with being a graduate student. It's really no mystery to me why people quit. For all those reasons, I'm trying to find a wrench.

Instead, I found my soldering iron.

Saturday, November 26, 2005


I painted my kitchen over the Thanksgiving break. I told myself I was allowed to spend three days working on the kitchen, knowing I have so much other work to finish before the semester ends. I'd been wanting to paint it for four years, ever since the initial work on the house resulted in tearing out many of the "special inventions" that littered the house. Likely installed by the previous owner known as "Adelore Chevalier" by the name engraved in the attic, the "special inventions" included weird towel hangers, dangerous light switches, and other electrical stuff that might have burned the house down given the right amount of voltage. In the end, my kitchen was 5 different colors--beige, dark blue, red, yellow, and light blue--based on what had been installed at what time over the 50 years that Adelore lived in the house.

I decided to paint the kitchen yellow. In theory, it was a good idea. The kitchen would be sunny and happy and might hopefully cheer me up. Moreover, the yellow would match the 1950's era flooring that is decorated with orange and yellow flowers. In practice, it was a very bright, very garish yellow. It felt like the sun was inside my kitchen. Rather than hate it, I decided to accept it. Moreover, I decided to balance it out by hanging up even more garish art. Knowing that GradShitTowneVille is home only to the big box stores that sell reprints of Anne Geddes photographs, I decided to make my own garish art. I call it, "Spanish Swedish Chef with Cleaver." It's 22 by 28 inches big, and it's lovely.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Bad Talk, Good Talk

I went to a really good luncheon today. It was very different than the really bad talk I went to yesterday. The former was an IBM sponsored event targeted at women who are in the last stages of their PhD program and the opportunities that they have awaiting them. The latter was one academic's opinion of working in academia. Let me give you the secret title's of these talks; the actual description of the actual content of each one.

1. "In which two very distinguished, articulate, and snarky women from IBM encourage their audience to just stick with a PhD; that you have power to negotiate your completion plan with your advisor and that your thesis is only proof that you can start a big project and see it to completion, and there are plenty of opportunities in places that aren't sick, diseased, and horribly misogynistic."

2. "In which a narrowly-focused academic who has never had a job in industry perpetuates myths about how working at a top-tier university as a tenure-track professor is the greatest profession in the world which is perfectly fine opinion to have but then goes on to say that everything else is just a job; a stress-free, nine-to-five, job where no great ideas are formed and that you as an audience member should feel horribly guilty for considering anything else leaving the audience member to wonder about how teachers, waitresses, and engineers would feel about this."

I am very glad that (1) took place after (2). Yesterday I was depressed. Today I'm inspired.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Essay contest

I suppose that part of the reason I haven't been blogging is because I've been using up all my creative energies writing an essay for a contest I'm entering. I'll include the essay below, as a kind of apology for my lack of posts. My eternal thanks to the burdened few who helped me with feedback and revisions.

* * *

The Perfect Method

My college roommate was a nursing major and the first to define for me the word "episiotomy." Her initial explanation was non-verbal, a swift downward cutting gesture as she made a slicing noise through her teeth. Noting my confused stare, she added that an episiotomy is an incision made in the area of skin between the vaginal opening and the anus so that the space can be enlarged for the baby's head.

Her definition was traumatic, but I was a college kid trying to figure out the details of Thevenin and Norton circuits in my electrical engineering courses. The episiotomy was just another bit of theory to pack away in my head alphabetically, after decibels and emitters but before epsilon and Faraday. I was dedicated to my daily birth control pill. If 99.95% efficacy wasn't enough to prevent pregnancy, there was a clinic in my hometown that performed abortions. Babies were not an acceptable reality, so neither were episiotomies.

Back then, I loved my birth control pill. Twenty-one active blue tablets containing progestational and estrogenic compounds and seven inert green tablets packaged in a perfect foil blister pack. The pill was a testimony to my skills in mathematics. Figuring out how not to have a period during the three-day road trip with a new boyfriend was a matter of base-four arithmetic, counting back four weeks at a time from the desired period-free date and reducing the number of sugar pills accordingly. The pill kept me safe from pregnancy and thus safe from episiotomies.

After years of taking the pill, I decided it was a strange exercise to note a week's passage by extracting a candy pellet from a foil wrapper, placing it on my tongue and swallowing it. After the twenty-first pill, I'd throw the blister pack away in the bathroom garbage with the seven sugar pills intact. The following Monday I'd start a new pack. I'd been doing this for a year when the live-in boyfriend yelped from the bathroom one day.

"What? Why aren't you taking your pills?''

I immediately laughed. He didn't realize they were sugar pills. I thought of the episodes of Jerry Springer I'd watched about women who tried to lure men into loving them by having their baby. I imagined being on the show. I envisioned what I would wear and if I could get my hair unfashionably frosted by then. Maybe I could find that pair of splatter-paint stirrup pants I wore in 1987. If I could find
those, certainly I could find the matching hair clip which I would use to pull back my over-processed hair. I'd read my old BOP magazines to recall the methods used to give my bangs that cascaded waterfall look.

"This isn't funny!''

His yelling, as it always had, sobered me out of the situation's hilarity. My laughter hadn't given him the necessary clue. He wasn't kidding. He was angry that I would be so cavalier about getting pregnant. Quickly, too, I was angry. It wasn't the pills. I realized that he didn't know me well enough, despite our living every
day together, that I valued my education and my job too much for an accidental pregnancy in our ad-hoc relationship. He didn't realize that I was just living with him because our relationship wasn't great enough for me to consider marriage. We were only living together because he had argued and nagged about the financial advantages of co-habitation until I finally conceded.

I yelled back, "They're sugar pills!''

The conversation was over, but I had more fuel to add to my inner rage. This was in my early years when I chose silent resentment over open conflict and communication. I thought that asking for help or expressing my needs wasn't something a nice girl like me did. Instead, my anger was expressed in subtler ways. The boyfriend was left to guess why I wasn't doing his laundry anymore.

A few months later, I woke to a quiet house. Our other roommate had left the house early to walk the dog, and the boyfriend was sleeping. I went to the front door to get the mail. A note had been left on the inside of the door. It read, "DON'T GO OUT. BEES!"

I left the house through the garage and walked around to the front to find a swarm of angry bees at the front door. It was funny to see something at my own front door that I'd normally see on a public television documentary. Contemplating the situation, I was joined by the boyfriend. He had a different reaction, and barked the following orders,

"We should hose them down. Go get the hose. We'll hose them down."

It seemed like a bad idea to meddle with nature with Home Depot gardening equipment. I ignored him and watched the swarm. Fortunately, getting the hose was a woman's job, and I was spared the disaster that would come with spraying water at an already angry swarm of bees. Once in a while, a stray bee would come our way. The boyfriend would weave and dive around the yard, waving his arms until the bee returned to its swarm. I wondered about a possible PCP overdose, that he was hallucinating more bees than I saw.

It wasn't drugs. It was fear and anger. He was afraid of the bees and he was angry at the swarm at our front door. He could not tolerate the blatant injustice of the situation. He gathered up the despair felt by all those who'd been made homeless by the destructive forces of nature, and in his best Joan Crawford voice, shook a single fist at the bees and cried out to the sky above,

"We can't live like this?!"

I replied. "Like what? It's been fifteen minutes."

Determining the beginning of the end of a relationship is not easy. I don't know if it was the moment he found the pills in the garbage, or the day he wanted to pay a man $90 to take care of a bee infestation on a Saturday, rather than allow me to spray a can of $3 Raid. It might have been any one of the melees in between. I can't know the beginning of the end, but I can be thankful that there was one.

My relationship with this boy was before the advent of "The 26 Requirements." He had come before I had concocted my own recipe for my perfect mate and enforced its ingredients before unzipping my pants. He had come before my realization that I was a damn fine catch; that my combination of skills as a baker, an assembly language
programmer, a swimmer, a mechanic, a dancer, an electrical engineer, a gamer and a mountain climber was unique and high in demand in America. It was back when I was just one of those girls who didn't know any better than to fall in love a boy simply because he exhibited interest in me. I was a puppy, a twenty year old girl, starved for attention and any boy who would take eight seconds to laugh at one of my jokes was certainly worth loving. Had I written "The 26 Requirements" before meeting this particular boy, I would have been protected by items 2, 3, 7, 8, 11 and 23 through 26.

He must:

  1. Be a friend.
  2. Posses a fair sense of cleanliness.
  3. Be intelligent.
  4. Have a sense of humor.
  5. Know who he is and what he wants.
  6. Not be reliant upon white athletic socks as a wardrobe staple.
  7. Respect me and my opinions.
  8. Be capable of waiting patiently in a busy restaurant.
  9. Be able to get angry.
  10. Find me sexy.
  11. Make love to me often.
  12. Have a willingness and commitment to father children.
  13. Be able to tell stories
  14. Want to listen to mine.
  15. Be open to discussing any topic.
  16. Get along with my dog.
  17. Enjoy the outdoors.
  18. Have an ability to dance.
  19. Be able to appreciate \$6 chocolate cake.
  20. Be able to talk me out of my tree.
  21. Be able to nurture me when I'm sick or down.
  22. Not embarrass me.
  23. Not be afraid of bees.
  24. Spend more time with me than his computer.
  25. Not drink to excess.
  26. Love independent women.

Temporally speaking, these exact requirements didn't exist until after his departure, but it was the notion of "The 26 Requirements" which helped me to dump my live-in boyfriend. That, my severe mood swings and the twenty-five pounds I'd gained thanks to the pill. It had become traitor and I dumped it too.

Being boyfriendless, abstinence seemed like the new perfect method of episiotomy prevention. It's the first birth control method listed in any reproductive health textbook and it's 100% effective. In today's political climate, sometimes it's the only choice presented. It is also one of the most unrealistic forms of birth control. Certainly, people can be sanctimonious about abstinence when they don't have the opportunity for sex, but the human brain has evolved to turn off when
reproduction is on the line.

Abstinence worked well for me for two years. Once I got a new boyfriend, I needed something else. By then, I was attending graduate school in a Midwestern computer science department. The program was demanding; to the point that I was constantly in an environment consisting of 91% men, but it took me an entire year to get laid. It
wasn't even with a guy in my department. Instead, it was with a theoretical biophysicist from Minnesota who appeared to meet my requirements.

At the time, the newest form of birth control was the patch. Offered by the pharmaceutical company Ortho-McNeil under the name Ortho-Evra, women now had a hormonal method to pregnancy prevention delivered into the body via a sticker worn on the skin. It's reputed to be better than the birth control pill as women only have to think about it once a week, rather than once a day. Television commercials for the patch show a freshly showered woman giving the viewer a sneak glimpse of a perfect square adhered to her skin just above her size-four pastel panties. A calm female voice narrates as taffeta curtains billow in the windows. She assures the viewer that the patch won't fall off, and that, because it's delivered via the skin and not the liver, it doesn't affect the libido.

Like the Missile Defense Shield, the patch seemed to be the new idea that would revolutionize my world while protecting me from enemy warheads. I tried it, but unlike the woman on the television commercial, my patch was never that perfect pretty square. Instead, my patch wrinkled with the folds of my skin and within the week it had collected a black line of lint around its sticky perimeter. Over time, I came to find that the patch was never tested on other neurotic clean freaks like myself. My twice daily showers and tri-weekly lap swims made for a challenging body on which to keep a sticker for an entire week. I frequently lost the patch in the pool, left to wonder what effects it might have on the rest of the lap swimmers. I lost the patch in the bed sheets while I slept and it would sometimes fall off and reattach itself onto my clothing during the day.

After adding requirements 27, 28 and 29 to form what is now "The 29 Requirements" I dumped the physicist. That is, if dumping him meant that he dumped me in one of the worst methods of dumping in post-modern times. To reveal his method of dumping here would encourage those diseased with evil to attempt an even more abominably wicked method of dumping to include not only public humiliation on a major holiday in the suburban City of Surprise, Arizona after baking a homemade pumpkin pie, a 1000 mile road trip and $280 plane ticket to reach said public humiliation on said major holiday, but also a bratty sister, judgmental parents, a missed return flight, a missed wedding reception and six hours spent in O'Hare airport watching X-Men 2 three times at the AltiTUNES store. As a humanitarian gesture, I will not document further details here.

He must:
27. Take an active role in birth control.
28. Be able to fall in love with me.
29. Be able to tell me so when he does.

After a year of reflection and depression, my best conclusion about my relationship with the theoretical biophysicist was that he was a cowardly fool and I was a hopeful, ingenuous fool. Our relationship was built on an uneven base. I was a woman who wanted to prove herself with a great ability to have an open, loving relationship thanks in part to her new requirements. He was a man who wanted to have a last fling before graduating with his Ph.D. I fell in love quickly and hard. He never fell in love at all. I would say, "I love you." He would say, "I know." The unevenness was apparent in all that we did. I suffered. He wrote his dissertation. I waited and hoped that he would see the damn fine catch that he had. He waited and hoped I would just leave. The end came when he was no longer willing to wait.

After our relationship ended, I realized that the patch wasn't as free of side-effects as I hoped. I had to cope with the weekly sobbing that came with each Monday that I applied a new patch. I had to adjust my class schedule so I could stay home on Monday afternoons and cry. Despite my emotional disability, the patch was sexy in a white trash sort of way. Dressed in a tight camisole, I could wear it on my shoulder and broadcast to the general public that I had only a 0.05% chance of getting pregnant. It was the opposite message given by the female baboon whose gentalia increase in size when her fertility level is high. Instead, my message was, "Come hither big boy and we'll certainly fail to reproduce.''

Armed with "The 29 Requirements," it took me 14 months to find another boyfriend. This time he was a computer scientist from Texas. Even at 28 years old, I was still committed to avoiding an episiotomy. For my new method of prevention, I turned to the condom. The condom would be my new hero. While only 97% effective, there wouldn't be any hormones to wildly swing my moods. There wouldn't be anything to remember. Sex would become a simple three-step process.

  1. Locate erection.
  2. Apply condom to (1).
  3. Have sex.

The condom works fabulously for me. I can't say if this method works because the condom is a superior method, or because "The 29 Requirements" empowered me to find a more worthwhile man. I certainly suspect the latter. Arousal comes easily when the man who has his arms wrapped around you says he really loves you and "The 29 Requirements" help you to know that he really does.

So far, the condom has been the cheapest way to have reproductionless sex. It's pay as you go. I don't have to pay $20 every month for hormonal birth control whether or not I am active. Instead, by purchasing high-quality condoms on-line in bulk, I can have sex for just ninety cents a shot. Best of all, the boyfriend is involved,
since it's his erection on which the condom is applied, and he can show up with a 6-pack of Durex Avantis from time to time.

The condom also requires no prescription, which is truly advantageous if one finds herself without birth control in a foreign country. The trick is trying to figure out how the other culture feels about sexual activity. In the US, if a couple is caught without condoms, they go to an all-night drug store or a gas station. Generally, they'll be able to find a three-pack of latex Lifestyles. After avoiding eye contact with the cashier, they can make their way back to the wilderness to get in the mood again.

In Japan, drug stores only sell beauty products and health tonics while gas stations only sell gas. As a sexually active couple traveling during our summer vacation, the Texan and I had to find the Japanese equivalent to the American condom supplier. In a small part of Osaka known as "America-Town" I found Japan's interpretation of the typical US city. I'd visited Tokyo, Kyoto, Kamakura, and Osaka, but it was only in America-Town that I saw vandalism on the walls and garbage on the ground. Parked along the narrow streets, I saw low-riders, and it seemed like everyone was dressed as an extra in a 50 Cent music video. Next to the three-story McDonald's, I saw the
Condomania store. Alongside the golden arches was an animated condom urging passersby to "Stop AIDS!" and "Have Safe Sex!" The store was well-lit, the salesman well-dressed, and he even nodded at me when I gave him my selection of UMark large polyeurathane condoms. I paid my 1700 yen and he bowed slightly as he handed me my purchase in a neatly wrapped bag.

To date, there are still 29 requirements. There is still an eclectic collection of international polyeurethane and latex condoms and a prescription for Plan B in the drawer of my bedside table. To date, I've seen an evolution in my relationship with the episiotomy, just as I've seen an evolution in how I prevent from getting one. What began as trauma and theory as a sexually active twenty year old on the pill, has become fear and reality as a sexually active twenty-nine year old with a handful of Kimono Microthins. Epsiotomies are more real to me now. My friends are getting them. They talk about their birthing plans, the hours of laboring and the midwife who had previously agreed not to cut, but in the sixteenth hour admits defeat.

Because it is so real, mentioning an episiotomy to me is like mentioning a good kick in the balls to a man. My body doubles over slightly, I squeeze my thighs together and my face twists into a wince. I imagine at some point, my method of episiotomy prevention will no longer include avoiding pregnancy. I imagine I will someday make the choice to have a child and the average thirteen cm diameter skull will be making its way out my average ten cm diameter vagina. Once again, I will have to find a new perfect method.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

The visit ends, I'm getting older.

Scene: Dad and I driving around GradShitTownVille on the last day of his visit. We're on an "outing," as he likes to call it, which is nothing more than running errands and getting lunch.

Dad: I can't believe the number of bugs in this place. All kinds of bugs that bite the shit out of you. I hate them one kind, they're so small they look like a speck of dirt, but then are biting the shit out of you. How can something so small have such a big mouth? It would be like you biting a watermelon.

* * *

Scene: Dad is collecting and organizing his two months of bargain collecting, tool aquisition, and general knick knacks. He hands me a stack of CDs.

Dad: Hey, look at all these CDs I just got at Salvation Army!

Me: rummaging. Um, don't you already have this La Bouche CD?

Dad: Yeah, but it's really good, and I wanted a copy for here.

* * *

I just got back from the Big City, dropping dad off at the major airport. By now, he's somewhere in Seattle, making his way back to Oregon. Just like I always do, I cried after he rounded the corner at the security check-point, for it is his presence that makes GradTownShitVille almost bearable.

In the moment that I dried my tears, I saw my life modeled a finite number of events. I now have one less time that I will say goodbye to my father at an airport. While I may have not aged in the past two months during his visit, I certainly did in that moment of realization. I guess that's perfect timing, since next week I will turn 29.

I am not glad to turn 29. I would much rather skip my birthday this year, skipping all my birthdays until I've left GradShitTownVille. I think of the quote I posted from Carson McCullers a few weeks back. I think of how Frankie modeled her life in three layers, in which the present layer was very thin, for she was about to embark on a new life.

My own present layer is sweaty, greasy and thick, filled with old events spanning my present that is simply graduate schol. There is no grand future to which I can look forward, for my future is distant and unknown. Will I graduate? Will I give up? Will I ever get my dream job? Instead, I remain mired in my present layer, filled with frustrating meetings, gender battles, long-acting beta agonists, humidity, and snow.

Bye Dad. Come back soon.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Just before you feel the car go under,
roll the windows down.
Just before you fill your lungs with water,
and watch the fish slide in.

All your patience will disarm you, come to harm you
All your wasted time in silence, come to violence.

--"Converting to the Diver Species" by Blake Hazard.

Find her music here.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Lost Girls

"Let's ordain Wendy as an honorary Boy."

"Honorary Boy!" the throng cried.

The unanimous cheering caught me off guard.
A bubble of nausea made its way up my
throat and I succumbed to a hiccup. For
there it was, a small voice inside me wondering,
If I was being accepted for who I was, why
did I have to become a boy in the process?

--"The Lost Girls" by Laurie Fox

Tuesday, September 27, 2005


A last difference about that morning was the way her world seemed layered into three different parts, all the twelve years of the old Frankie, the present day itself, and the future ahead when the three of them would be together in all the many distant places.

  --From "The Member of the Wedding" by Carson McCullers

Sunday, September 25, 2005

I'm losing faith in my country.

If you want some idea of how fucked up the United States is, just type "[social issue] cross national" into Google and you'll find a nice study demonstrating that we have higher rates of crime, teenage pregnancy, teenage abortions, underrepresented women in the sciences, poverty, and illiteracy than other developed countries. For example, take a look at the results from a study on teenage pregnancy I found here:

The primary reasons why U.S. teenagers have the highest rates of pregnancy, childbearing and abortion among developed countries is less overall contraceptive use and less use of the pill or other long-acting reversible hormonal methods, which have the highest use-effectiveness rates.

Overall, declines in the adolescent abortion rate between 1980 and 1995 are less prevalent than are declines in the adolescent birthrate. However, the decline in the U.S. teenage abortion rate between 1985 and 1996 was one of the largest in the developed world—the rate decreased by more than one-third (from 46 to 29 per 1,000). Nonetheless, the U.S. adolescent abortion rate remains one of the highest among developed countries.

My inner pessimist conjectures that the reasons why we have less use of the pill and declines in abortion is simply due their unavailability. Rather than provide education, choice, and opportunities for safe sex, the United States relies on abstinence to prevent these social problems. In 1996, Congress attached a provision to welfare legislation that established a federal program to exclusively fund programs teaching abstinence-only. In 2005, Congress ear-marked $170 million for abstinence-only education. Fewer than half of public schools in the U.S. now offer information on how to obtain birth control, and only a third include discussion of abortion and sexual orientation in their curricula. Moreover, these abstinence-only cirricula contain misinformation and other innacuracies, including,

Choosing the Best, The Big Talk Book states, "[R]esearch confirms that 14 percent of the women who use condoms scrupulously for birth control become pregnant within a year." In fact, when used correctly and consistently, only two percent of couples who rely on the latex condom as their primary form of contraception will experience an unintended pregnancy (Hatcher, et al., 2004).

Abstinence is one of the most unrealistic forms of birth control. Certainly, people can be self-righteous about abstinence when they don't have the opportunity for sex, but the human brain has evolved to turn off when reproduction is on the line. The U.S. preaches abstinence to its teenagers, and it has the highest teenage pregnancy and abortion rates of all the developed countries in the world.

I am pro-choice. I am not pro-abortion. I want to see the rates of teenage pregnancy and abortion decline just as much as the pro-life supporters do. I wish that everyone would realize that simply preaching "abstinence" to our country's teenagers is not having the effect that the right would have you believe that it does.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Like a cat, tied to a stick (Part III)

Scene: I'm presenting for my class today. I'm wearing clean, nice clothes with my usual subtle-though-funky fashion sense.

Teaching Assistant: You didn't dress up?

Me: What, you wanted something boobier?

Like a cat, tied to a stick (Part II)

I saw a recent NY Times article referenced here, here, and here. The article is about female students at universities like Yale and University of Pennsylvania who are already planning to opt out of a career to be a stay-at-home parent, or plan to reduce their working hours during their child-rearing years. The article states:

Many women at the nation's most elite colleges say they have already decided that they will put aside their careers in favor of raising children. Though some of these students are not planning to have children and some hope to have a family and work full time, many others, like Ms. Liu, say they will happily play a traditional female role, with motherhood their main commitment.

It goes on to say,

"I've seen the difference between kids who did have their mother stay at home and kids who didn't, and it's kind of like an obvious difference when you look at it," said Ms. Abugo, whose mother, a nurse, stayed home until Ms. Abugo was in first grade.

Oh yeah, like, I totally know what you mean. This guy?

His mom stayed at home.

* * *

This article is the kind of really poor reporting that has altered the history of our nation. The formula is this: an interview of one of two people lends to the reporter's conclusion about a "trend" taking place in our society today. Consider the following trends:

  • Crack babies: To supplement the "War on Drugs," the 1980's media fostered the notion that thousands of babies all over America were born addicted to crack, and would be a serious burden on our society. Later research showed that babies of mothers addicted to crack had no lasting effects.

  • Welfare mothers: The media likes to report on myths of welfare, on black women with 4 children by 3 different men, yet over 70% of welfare recipients only have 1 child. More welfare recipients are white than black.

When I get my time machine finished, I will go back in time and publish a far better, and more responsible article in the New York Times. It will begin in a similar fashion, that some of today's young women have decided to become stay-at-home mothers, just like millions of women have before them. I won't say "many women," because as a responsible reporter, I will realize that I haven't surveyed the nation's 20 year-old women to determine if a significant portion of women have made this decision.

I will then discuss the options that mother's have, both as stay-at-home mothers and working mothers. I will not pit one against the other in some kind of cat-fight or mud wrestle. I will not vaguely suggest that one is better than the other, because I will recognize that likely every mother will be one or the other at some point. I will point out that despite being an industrialized nation with a strong economy, we still have no federally funded child care like nations such as France, Denmark, and Finland. I will discuss that a lot of research--done as much as twenty years ago by folks like Clarke, Belsky and Steinberg--shows that children who spent time in quality day-care facilities are "seen as being more socially competent and independent." Other more recent reports highlight the positive effects of day care on low-income children, including increased reading and cognitive abilities. I won't scare families from day care by writing about lone cases of child molestation at nanny facilities. I will encourage them to do their research. I will write about the top ten places for women to work, and encourage other companies be as positive towards women.

I will write an accompanying piece, a commentary! I will remind my readers that it's not just women that raise children, but men as well. I will encourage paternity leave as strongly as I encourage maternity leave for companies so to support healthy families in our society. I will remind my readers that families aren't punched from a stamp, that some children have two mothers, two fathers, step-fathers, step-mothers, half-brothers, single mothers, and single fathers. I will help to wake up a nation that has become complacent against one of the most important primitives of society: The Family. I will remind them that women's issues are everyone's issues.

That is, I'll do all of that once I get my time machine finished.

I'll leave you with this little gem from the article.

Ms. Ku added that she did not think it was a problem that women usually do most of the work raising kids.

"I accept things how they are," she said. "I don't mind the status quo. I don't see why I have to go against it."

Forgive me now, while I barf into my shoe.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Like a cat, tied to a stick (Part I)

Operation Ivy was an underground punk band in the late eighties. The band was only together for a couple of years before it broke up, a break-up which later on healed to form the punk rock band Rancid. OpIvy is responsible for many catchy tunes, including the following little ditty:

I know that things are getting tougher
When you can't get the top off from the bottom of the barrel.
Wide open road of my future now,
It's looking fucking narrow.


Whatcha gonna do with yourself,
Boy better make up your mind.
Whatcha gonna do with yourself boy,
You're running out of time.

--"Knowledge" by Operation Ivy

I heard the above song today while I was taking my ten minute dinner break between swimming and working. It seemed perfect given the day I've been having, and given the month that America has been having.

My preoccupied mind can be broken into three compartments.

That which is petty: ...why did I just eat those reese's, my thighs are always going to be huge...why can't my computer science building install some fucking tampon am I ever going to graduate if I don't get time to focus on my actual research...why do I have to be so hard on myself...why does my boyfriend put up with me...will I ever have time to have kids and get tenure...why does my dog have to roll in dead animals...

That of local importance: can I increase diversity in computer science...why is my country's president such an incompetent moron...why do so many people own those damn hummers....why does Texas have so many freeways...

That of global importance: ...what is going to happen when the world's oceans rise 5 feet...will my father be the 1 in 3 that dies of avian my country working to make more vaccines so its citizens will be safe...why can't the world's countries just sign the damn Kyoto agreement...

It is the third compartment that gets me into serious trouble. It has been working in overdrive today. I'm not sure if it's my obsessive personality, my predisposition to depression, or my oversensitivity, but when I think about the trouble that the human race has gotten itself into, I fall into a tear-stricken panic. I am paralyzed, and I think, "Why is it all so horrible?" I think, "I can't fix this, nobody can fix this, what's the point of any of this?"

Why do I work so hard to get a PhD in computer science when I'm just going to die anyway? A single life can make no difference, as Milan Kundera so gracefully points out in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." I think only hope for surviving without going all Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys (translation: completely nutzoid) is to hunker down, put my head in the sand for a while, and read about Domain Driven Design.

Exchange Programs

"The Projects" or public housing projects are, "owned and operated by local public housing authorities for occupancy by low- and moderate-income households. The federal government covers the costs of development and the sizable share of operating and modernizing costs not covered by tenant rent payments."

While the federal government providing housing to the poor is a good idea, the notion of concentrating a society's poor all in one location leads to a concentration of social problems. Many have spoken out against the negative effects of the projects, including two teenaged boys who live in a Chicago Housing Project and their documentary entitled Remorse. In 2005, when the Chicago Housing Authority tried to revamp their image with their CHAnge ad campaign, it was hijacked and mocked by a CHAos copy-cat who hoped to put the spotlight on the existing problems with CHA.

The projects have been a sad story about social design. Huge, high-density apartment buildings are located behind the walls of huge interstate highways, segregating the poor from the rich. Consider how Interstate 35, known as the NAFTA highway, cuts through the heart of Austin, separating the affluent University area and entertainment district from the poorer communities (Texas loves their freeways, and watch out any environmentalists who "devastate" their plans).

Newer programs offered by the HUD include tenant-based assistance which "allows eligible households to select their own units in the private housing market and receive a subsidy to cover part of their rent." Programs like these echo the belief that "the best way to improve social conditions tomorrow may be to improve the circumstances and life prospects of low-income children today." Programs which actually help children in terms of their performance of school are those which help their recipients to work, AND subsidize thier income in order to elevate their economic standing. It's not a matter of seizing a recipient's welfare once she gets work, it's about continuing to give her subsidies to help pay for child-care and housing so that she can help her family out permanently. It's about raising children in a safe neighborhood, rather than a high-density slum where drug and gang activity are high, slums hidden away from the rest of the city by insurmountable highways.

* * *

I was thinking of welfare families today as I had lunch on campus. I thought of how much they benefited when they had the opporunity to change their environment. I thought of them as walked two blocks from my building to the little truck that sells sandwiches. While I waited for my sandwich, among the group of men that always people the line of the truck, I looked up when I saw a woman approach the truck to buy a sandwich. In all the times I'd bought sandwiches from the truck, I'd never seen a woman.

My computer science building is located in the heart of the science building quads on campus. I can throw a stone to buildings in which research into self-healing materials, theoretical bio-physics, rocket propulsion, and nanotechnology take place. Women are underrepresented in all these buildings.

Back when I worked, I remember riding on what had been termed, "The Nerd Bird." The early morning flight from "The Silicon Forest" to "The Silicon Valley" generally consisted of men and their laptops headed to whatever conference was taking place in San Jose that week. One morning, I counted three women on the flight, excluding the flight attendants.

I am not suggesting the my environment is anything like the projects. I'm thinking about the general concept of human environments. Our environments are important to our well-being. Our environments tune who we become as people. I'm constantly in an environment of at least 90% men. For the most part, I don't pay attention to it. But sometimes, I look up from my little desk, and I wonder, "What the hell?"

I was wondering about the purpose of having all of the science buildings concentrated in a single place on campus. It makes sense, I suppose. As a science major, I'm going to be taking classes mostly related to science, and I don't want to have to go very far to get to class. In many universities, like my undergrad, this isn't a problem since all the buildings are within visual sight of each other. But for universities such as the one in GradShitTownVille, this is a factor. It also helps for related research groups who want to collaborate. I wouldn't want to walk 20 minutes to a research meeting every week.

Still, I wonder about the benefits of being surrounded by, say, the law building and the art building. At some point, many of the lawyers, the artists, and computer scientists are going to have kids. When they suggest vocations to their children, they will do so based on their own biases. Ever notice how many computer science females have at least one parent who is a programmer?

There are all kinds of vocation biases, many which are perpetuated by the media. For example, I think all lawyers look like:

Yeah, laywers are just a bunch of uptight dorks that wear Ann Taylor sweaters. I would never tell my child that she could become a lawyer, unless of course I saw a bunch of lawyers who seemed like cool, normal people.

Similarly, the general public thinks all computer scientists look like:

It would be impossible to simply move all the buildings around on university campuses. But when the oceans rise 3-5 feet and my campus is a flooded swamp, and after 1 in 3 people die from avian flu, and our society finally gets to the point of rebuilding everything, we may consider how university campuses are designed.

Overall, I think the computer science community would benefit from some kind of exchange program, where we send out representatives to public forums so that people can see how normal and cool we really are. Other groups have tried, but guys like this aren't really helping us.

* HUD program descriptions taken from here.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Last reflections on the conference

I get hit on very rarely. I'm generally not in environments where hitting on a woman makes sense. The bars I do frequent in GradShitTownVille are overrun by half-naked sorority girls, so I can easily slink into the back of the bar unnoticed. I'm perfectly content with this. I prefer being a wallflower to being groped.

The computer science conference I attended a few days back was the last place on earth that I thought I would get hit on. It was during breakfast, sitting at a table with six other male computer scientists. After a series of weird jokes and awkward touching of my arm, the guy next to me delivered the following gem,

I bet you are a Nine Inch Nails kind of girl.

As I excused myself from the table, I replied, "Well, I've always thought 'Head Like a Hole' was a catchy little tune."

Of course, I wasn't sure that I was being hit on. I was running on 1 hour of sleep, and I'm pretty naive about such things. Later, I asked my Spanish friend who also happened to be at the conference, "Erm, was that guy hitting on me during breakfast?" To which he replied in perfect Indigo Montoya pentameter, "He was hitting on you so hard."

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Today was a gastronomical sort of day. Thanks to being T-3 days from my cycle, I am compelled to eat my entire weight in food. Unfortunately, I'm also a workaholic, so I generally can't tear myself away from my desk until my stomach is loud enough to interrupt my neighbors, or I fear I might pass out. Just the other day I ate lunch at 4 pm. That usually results in these weird eating binges. Today it was a bag of carrots and two bologna sandwiches for dinner followed up by a scoop of ice cream. To counter the effects of my bizarre binges and my emotional instability, I exercise 5 days a week. As the days have gotten shorter, I've moved from my evening bike rides to evening swimming, from my summer exercise regimen to my autumn one. At one point, I'll start going to Pilates again.

After swimming a half mile (which takes me an embarassing 35 minutes), I was so t-h-i-r-s-t-y. I find it odd to be so thirsty after swimming since I was immersed in gallons and gallons of water, but anyway. I wanted nothing more than to pay 150 yen for one of those satisfying Active Diet beverages that I loved so much while I was in Japan. Instead, I bought some FUZE Green-Tea flavored drink to compensate. It tasted foul. Damn you Coca Cola for your demographic-based products.

In other gastronomical news, I have the results of the recent Pop-Tart taste test suggested by awu. I made two versions of homemade poptarts and bought two versions of the real thing.

1. Strawberry Pop Tarts with festive white frosting and sprinkles

1. Strawberry Pop Tarts with buttery crust (I tried to mimic the presentation with festive sprinkles). Ingredients: flour, sugar, salt, butter, water, Welches strawberry jam, and powdered sugar.
2. Strawberry Pop Tarts with not-so-buttery crust. Ingredients: water is replaced by Seven-Up Beverage (which is how my mother makes her pie crust).

The homemade tarts won hands down. My neighbor put it best when she said, "They taste much better because they don't taste like Pop Tarts." I had to agree. If anything, this helped me realize how disgusting Pop Tarts are. Thank you awu!

Monday, September 12, 2005

The Last Unicorn

The Last Unicorn is one of the best cartoons of all time. A Japanese animation released in 1986, it was dubbed into English. It stars the voice talents of Alan Arkin, Mia Farrow, Christopher Lee, Angela Lansbury and Jeff Bridges. It tells the story of a unicorn who finds herself to be the very last known unicorn in her world. Armed with a little gossip about a red bull from a zany butterfly, she sets out on an adventure to find her kind.

From a feminist point of view, the Last Unicorn is a fabulous movie. There are an equal number of strong male and female characters, each with his or her own vulnerabilities. The magician, Schmedrick, has a kind heart and is guided by his own home-brewed sense of wisdom, but isn't without haughtiness when his spells actually work. The cook, Molly Grue, is a strong, independent woman though unable to guard her emotions, quick to flare into anger or to break into tears. The prince, able to kill dragons and execute other dangerous tasks, cannot find a way to woo his beloved. The unicorn, though brave and powerful, is a creature confused and sometimes intimidated by how the world has moved on without unicorns. In the end, as prophecied by the butterfly, she is brave, but it seems that almost everyone was a hero. Compare this to Disney movies like "Toy Story" where the only female character, "Little Bo Peep" waves goodbye as all the boy toys go off on an adventure. Or "The Little Mermaid" where Ariel can have what she wants as long as she doesn't talk. Or "Snow White and The Seven Dwarves" where the first thing that Ms. White does after a murder attempt on her life is clean a strangers' house.

These days, the following scence is repeating in my head. In this scene, Schmedrick the Magician and the Unicorn are travelling to the castle of King Haggard, and Molly Grue spots the unicorn from her hiding spot. She confronts the travellers.

MOLLY GRUE: (gasps) No. Can it truly be? Where have you been? Where have you been? (yells) Damn you, where have you been!?
SCHMENDRICK: Don't you talk to her that way!
UNICORN: I am here now.
MOLLY GRUE: (laughs bitterly) Oh? And where were you twenty years ago, ten years ago? Where were you when I was new? When I was one of those innocent, young maidens you always come to? How dare you, how dare you come to me now, when I am this? (She begins crying.)
SCHMENDRICK: Can you really see her? Do you really know what she is?
MOLLY GRUE: If you had been waiting to see a unicorn as long as I have...

Recently, I was approached by a professor outside my department to write a paper regarding diversity in computer science education. We'd been having a discussion about the lack of women in computer science, and he pointed out that I have the makings of a good paper on the subject. It's one thing to gripe with my female colleagues about how my department sucks. It's another to have a professor say, "Your knowledge on this issue is legitimate."

I feel like Molly Grue. Entering my fourth year in graduate school at a place where I don't feel a sense of belongness or even particularly welcome, I wonder, "Damn you! Where have you been?!" On the other hand, I'm happy to have a professional relationship with someone who thinks that diversifying cs education is a task that needs dedicated people and resources, that it is a legitimate research endeavor. I'm happy and relieved to finally see the unicorn.

Not very christian

He also promised to reimburse states for the costs associated with taking in people forced out of their homes by the hurricane, telling state leaders, "You should not be penalized for showing compassion."

This is a Christian man? This is a man who wants a "day of prayer" for the victims of hurricane Katrina, and then talks about compassion as exacting a penalty? Let me quote a few phrases from the bible:

John 3:18 - Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

Matthew 7:12 - Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.

I Corinthians 13:3 - And thou I bestow all my good to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

All over the United States, citizens are offering compassion and charity to the people to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. They are travelling south to help with rescue efforts, they are donating clothing and money and blood, they are doing what they can. They aren't worried about the "penalties" of compassion and charity. Whether or not they believe in God, they are certainly acting more "Christian" than the president.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005


Back when I was an engineer, I developed operating systems. I wrote a lot of very low-level code. Sometimes I worked in the depths of the operating system, as when I implemented the memory manager. Sometimes, I worked on device drivers. At one point I was assigned to write a device driver for an ethernet card. The ethernet card is what allows a computer to access a network and receive data from other computers. There are three modes. In the first mode, "loopback mode", the card can hardwire its output to its input. Loopback mode is generally used for testing purposes for the developer. In the second mode, the card will only listen to data intended for its computer. This is the standard mode for most cards under normal use. In the third mode, it will listen to all of the data being transmitted on the network. The third mode is known as "promiscuous mode."

Though Webster's third definition for the term promiscuity is "not restricted to one sexual partner," promiscuity is associated in different ways with the two genders. There remains fierce debate as to whether male promiscuity is innate--and thus normal--and whether female promiscuity is abnormal or wrong. In all the times I've heard the word used, it's been attribute to women, and generally in a negative way. I'm pretty sure that when my step-father called me a promiscuous bitch when I was 17 years old, it wasn't a compliment.

This is another example of the little things in computer science that, when examined individually don't mean a lot, but when summed up point to a male-dominated field whose internal and external attitudes can often make women feel uncomfortable.

My first experience with "boys do math, girls cook" was when I attended a city-wide TECHNICAL job fair in Portland in 1996. I was just finishing my sophmore year at the University of Portland, and I was looking for a summer internship in electrical engineering. I approached the woman in the Tektronix booth and asked, "Do you have any internship openings." And the woman, at the TECHNICAL job fair replied,

"I'm sorry, we don't have business internships."

I smiled and gently corrected her. "Engineering," I said.

I, personally, can deal with having to correct people in this way. Sometimes it's gentle. Sometimes it's not. Certainly, I never feel like I'm allowed to get angry when stuff like this happens. I never feel like I can voice my concerns in a legitimate way, except with other enlightened men and women in quiet corners of the building. And why? Because of promiscuous mode and all the other little things that point to the fact that I don't "belong" here.

This must change.

I find myself needing a little push.

It's 11 pm and I've just started my work day. This morning I worked with my father to clean up the five truckloads of yard debris from the previous day's tree pruning. The afternoon was spent in meetings. The evening was spent at day one of a conference. I'm sitting in front of my computer with three different projects to work on, two of which involve writing, but my brain is stuck on processing the days events. Pardon me for the blatant clearing of my cache.

I hate conferences. Ideally, they should be a place where smart people gather to talk about a common topic. Sometimes that happens. The benefit that I've gotten from conferences aren't in the big rooms where an author stands in front of everyone describing the vision he wanted to impart in his particular conference paper. It's in the little conversations in the hallways between two people. That's where I find the regular people who don't have all the answers to all the questions, and are interested in finding answers. These are the people who offer their e-mail address with the genuine intent of keeping in touch to discuss domain models or component-based system architecture. Little conversations aside, I usually just feel like a glaring zit on the face of a teenage beauty queen. This conference is no different.

I'm one of the student volunteers for the conference (translation = 10 hours of work for registration fee waiver). As one of the volunteers, I was in charge of helping with registration, mostly because I'm especially good at making eye contact and smiling while talking to strangers. I handed out name tags and t-shirts, signed people up for conferences, and chatted about the drives and flights that helped attendees arrive to the conference. One particular gentleman was new to this conference and found talking to me easier than mingling with a bunch of strangers who all acted like old friends.

"Everybody checked in?" he asked.

"Nope. That's why I'm still standing here. Once everyone checks in, then I can..."

"And then you can..." Yep, he's going to do it. He's going to indirectly reveal to me that he thinks I am just a secretary, or maybe affiliated at the hotel. I'm so embarassed for him right now, "...go home?"

I reply, "No, I'll attend the rest of the conference."

Then the look comes. The same look I got when I said "Noam Chomsky" to the webmaster at the swing dance. It's a look of surprise, confusion, and, with this particular gentleman, a sudden understanding that I am not who he thought I was.

I work every day in a place where I'm the only woman in an entire wing of a building's top floor. I don't mind that there are so few women in my field. I mind all of the stupid crap that results from not having many women in my field. I mind that these are some of the reasons why other women aren't joining the field. And the reasons are all very small when examined independently, but when summed together paint a very patriarchal picture of computer science.

At the conference, one of the attendees was talking about one of the papers he had read. He was explaining that Section I seemed very introductory and that Section II was more technical. He referred to the subject matter as having a "hairier chest." To describe it in this way me feel that only men can understand this technical material. I felt like I didn't belong. I would have liked to pose a question to the speaker. What if I had said that Section II was "boobier" or "titty?" I remained silent, mostly because I've been in a male-dominated world for over a decade, and my skin has thickened to these frustrating comments. Still, they remind me of how far the computer science culture has to go if it really wants to have 50% women instead of 9%.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

You haven't learned anything, have you?

DeMint says he'll announce a bill within the next two or three weeks to create a national All-Hazards Alert System that would take advantage of technological advances in cell phones, BlackBerries, and the Internet to allow government to provide disaster information in real time -- and to get messages back from stranded citizens. As with New Orleans now, "it would be great to know where all the survivors are," DeMint says.

Riiiight. What a good idea. It's such a good idea because everyone has cell-phones, especially poor people like those we are seeing in New Orleans.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

I feel compelled.

I finally finished "A Feminist I", Christine Overall's book highlighted by Theory Girl last July. The book is rather dry, written by a philsopher, and reads more like a research paper than the inflammatory yet witty feminist books I'm used to. The book does make a few good points about being a woman in academia. Her first point resonates with me most these days.

Christine Overall makes the point that, because she is a feminist in Academia, she is often asked to participate in conferences, talks, and other activities that fall far outside her usual responsibilities. I have similar requests made of me, as an undergraduate and a software engineer in the nineties, and as a graduate student today. I often make the joke that my name is written on a bathroom stall somewhere, because I'm always getting asked to helped with mentoring, showing students around campus, moderating panel discussions, and other work that is geared towards attracting girls to computer science. Generally, as Christine Points out, feminists are happy to do this work. However, when we have to say the horrid little word, "No," we are often victim to some kind of guilt trip, either by the requester or internally.

I did not come to GradShitTownVille to make the field of computer science a better place for women. I came here to get a PhD, but because I am a woman in a field dominated by men, I am compelled to contribute to an additional, though implicit, piece to getting a PhD. I am compelled to advocate. I am compelled be an active member of the female engineering societies. I am compelled to be visible in the department, including assisting the department with recruiting new students so that they see a female presence. I am compelled to say "Yes" to any requests about helping with Freshman, Girl Scouts, High School, and Middle School students. I am compelled to be the "liberal bitch" who is visibly offended by idiotic sexist jokes, and must vocalize my offense to the appropriate parties. I am compelled to defend my entire gender entirely by myself in meetings, offices, hallways, conferences, and buildings of 93% men.

Some days, I am happy to do all these things. The entire field of computer science will benefit with an increased diversity in its population. Generally, I enjoy getting away from my desk and helping people to see what a fun field computer science is. For me, this isn't just about attracting more women and racial minorities, it's about making a group of computer scientists more fabulous and more interesting because we have a melting pot of different perspectives.

Other days, I just want to do my work and go home. On those days, I wonder if what I am doing is even improving a situation that seems so hopeless, and if I really could graduate and get out of GradShitTownVille if I just stopped helping out altogether. And there are days, even worse, when I feel like I need help more than the younger girls. Where is my mentor? Where is that guiding hand to pull me out of tight situations and stop me from leaving the field? Those are the days when I have to avoid helping out, because I'm so angry at my own situation that I would never want any other woman to go through it. I could see myself singing a song very much like Willie Nelson might sing,

"Mammas, don't let your daughters grow up to be geeky. Don't let 'em play teris or hack the xbox. Make 'em be doctors and lawyers and such."

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

When I grow up.

I have a running list in my head. It's entitled, "When I graduate with my PhD and I am a fabulous professor with students that I advise, I will never..." It's a list of things that I will never do to my future advisees. Some of these are very obvious:

1. Take calls during a meeting with a student.
2. Have regular meetings that exceed four hours in length.
3. Interrupt; especially new students who are just getting used to technical words being in their mouth.
4. Meet with a student about their paper that I haven't read.
5. Assume the student knows how to do research.

Some are not so obvious. I have one that I'm trying to articulate right now. It regards meetings.

I have a true hatred of meetings, generally because most meetings are badly run. At my old workplaces, meetings were treated as a means for 1 to many communication which could have been performed just as easily in an e-mail or other document. Generally, a "boss" stand in the front of a big room, presenting information by reading bullets of a powerpoint document projected onto the wall while the "peons" sit very confused or bored, anxious about the time being wasted while the hours to their next deadline become fewer.

Other meetings consist of 1 to 1 communication where the rest of the people in the meeting become a drive-by audience. Of course this 1 to 1 communication can take a round robin fashion where each person in the meeting reports their current status to the meeting's leader. In some cases, this is an effective meeting model. It helps everyone to know what everyone else is doing, important for a tight group of software developers all working on the same few files of code. In other cases, it's a horrible waste of time for everyone, since the projects being reported may be incredibly divergent.

My ideal meeting consists of a few people who've all come prepared, have read the material and are ready to have a dynamic, interactive conversation about the topic at hand. People in attendance listen to each other, and each subsequent comment in the meeting is strongly or loosely based on what's been said previously. People walk away from the meeting feeling like their ideas have been heard, but with a greater understanding of new perspectives.

It's very difficult to implement my ideal meeting. In the classroom, it can be forced by awarding participation points to students and giving those points serious weight in the final grade. In the workplace, it can be forced by people's fear of termination or the promise of a promotion. However "brownie points" such as those can quickly single out one person into the group butt-kisser. Without some kind of reward system, this interactivity can't exist because there are so few people who will share their ideas just for the sake of the idea.

* * *

When I was an undergraduate at my small Oregon university, I was in love with Joel Sullivan, one of the guys in my engineering program. He was a tall, pale boy of slight build whose father was an tenacious engineer from Tektronix. Joel was a genius and often expressed his genius through his eccentricity. Many on the campus knew him as "The Bathrobe Guy" because he would often walk around campus in a bathrobe. When I asked him why he wore a bathrobe, he replied, "It's very absorbant. I always wear one when it rains." Genius. He always seemed two steps ahead of the rest of the us, often offering his own insight in class if only to help the rest of us understand what the professor was trying to say. I was always glad to hear what Joel had to offer, and he was a likeable guy. He was someone that I would always want in my ideal meeting, for he shared his ideas for the sake of the idea.

The opposite of Joel Sullivan was the "Ice Cream Guy." During the evening meal at the campus dinning hall, Ice Cream Guy would finish his dinner, bus his tray, and get an ice cream cone. He would walk out of the hall with the tip of the ice cream cone perched in his fingertips, holding the cone a foot in front of him. Ice Cream Guy was also in my undergraduate program, but he would never be invited to my ideal meeting. His idea of classroom participation was asking questions that he thought sounded very intelligent to which he already knew the answer. I was never sure if he was trying to show off his knowledge or trip up the the professor. I felt bad for him, because he was just a goofy guy with a good heart, but he would still not be invited to my ideal meeting, not even for pity's sake.

These days, I'm attending meetings as usual. They are definitely not my ideal. People come, they sit, they check e-mail on their laptop, they don't listen, they interrupt, they read papers, and they certainly don't contribute to the meeting's interactivity. The topic may appear to be not in their area of research, but they don't take pains to expand their ideas and their research to include new ideas. I don't blame them. It's hard to be interactive for many hours in a row.

I think one origin of this problem is American science education. For the most part, I have attended my math and science classes with nothing but a blank sheet of paper, ready to be lectured. The lecture consists of complicated material which I don't know, and couldn't possibly understand, so I'm not expected to contribute to the conversation. This is quite unlike the Spanish Literature courses I took in undergrad (I tested out of English). I was expected to read the material and be able to discuss it intelligently in a language that was not my own. The classrom was an interactive space for sharing, not a radio program.

All that, and I still don't really have an idea of how to put this in my list. I want to remember my ideal meeting. I want to come up with ways to implement it. I want to be able to inspire people to talk to each other in effective ways that further good ideas. Most of all, I want to graduate.

Monday, August 29, 2005

There are no women at CBS

I miss the 1980's. Shows like "Kate & Alley" and "One Day at a Time" glowed on my face during primetime. These were stories of women who had divorced their husbands, but kept going with their jobs and child-rearing and were doing just fine. "Who's the Boss" showed us a working woman with a son, and her male live-in nanny. The 80s were a time when we saw a small shift in the media's representation of the nuclear family. Of course, other than Claire Huxstable, only good, happy mothers were white.

These days, what shows do I have to watch?

ABC, also home to such classics as "Desperate Housewives" and "Wife Swap", presents, According to Jim: in which we see working man living with his housewife and kids, and the funny antics that ensue. There are a number of shows that follow this model, many of which are at CBS:

  • King of Queens: Working man, working woman, father in the basement, funny antics.

  • Yes, Dear: Working man, housewife with kids, working brother and stay-at-home sister-in-law next door with kids and available to babysit, funny antics.

  • Everybody Loves Raymond: Working man, housewife with kids, parents next door are available to babysit, funny antics.

  • Still Standing: Working man marries his high school sweetheart now a housewife with three kids, friend hangs around and is available to babysit, funny antics.

Shows like Law & Order give me some hope. Anita Van Buren is a black mother of two whose husband owns a hardware store. She works hard as a police lieutenant. However, we never see Lieutenant Van Buren bring in her kids when she doesn't find a sitter. I think there was one episode where she left early to pick up her kids, but for the most part her kids never get in the way of doing a fine job for the people of New York City.

This week, the media is working hard to present the two most important
issues of Americans today.

1. Hurricane Katrina.
2. Brad and Jen.

I don't read People or US magazines, but I do go grocery shopping, so I am a victim of their glossy, airbrushed covers. I don't read the stories, but it's hard not to be informed of celebrity culture simply based on the covers of these magazines. Because I have to buy food to put in my fridge, I'm aware of the fact that Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston's divorce is final, and that Angelina Jolie just adopted another baby from some far-away country.

If I had been the editor of US magazine when Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston broke up, I would have put a picture of Brad Pitt on the cover with a sharpie-drawn moustache and blacked-out teeth. The headline would have read, "Look at this Big Asshole!" And that would have been that. Instead, we are bombarded week after week with pictures of Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie. We see pictures of Jen all stressed out with headlines like "Is She Too Thin" and "Jen's Warning to Angelina." We see pictures of Angelina Jolie bouncing her adopted son on her knee, or bringing her newly adopted daughter home from the hospital, her hair in perfect arrangment. Paparazzi pictures show us the fabulous time that Brad is having with his new family.

The overall message from the media has been, "Poor Brad. Just look at that Jen. She has no mothering instinct at all. She's just a fruitless whore only interested in her career. Good thing he found Angelina when he did. She's got so much love to give those adopted kids of hers. Now he can be the dad he's always wanted to be."

Bullshit. BRAD LEFT HIS WIFE FOR ANOTHER WOMAN! In most cases, that's a really shitty thing to do. It's definitely a really shitty thing to do when the man LIES about his "friendship" with the other woman while he's still in his marriage. Instead of just chalking it up to, "Look at that asshole," we have to spend the next three months deciding who is the better woman, and likely concluding that poor Brad was right to do what he did.

Secondly, if Angelina Jolie were black and poor, she wouldn't be touted as the perfect multi-tasking mom with so much love to give. Instead, she would be a working mother with two children from two different fathers. Instead, she's the perfect white mom. I, too, could be the perfect mother if I had on-site daycare at my latest movie set and could afford million dollar homes, all the necessary medical care, and an army of nannies because I did two movies about a video game character.

Snark aside, I'm sure that Angelina Jolie is a fine mother. I'm sure she loves her kids. I'm just sick of hearing about it. Moreover, I'm sick of the media's guilt trip about not being one. I can't help but feel like we are back in the 1950's when the only choice for women is to have babies. Susan Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels in the book, "The Mommy Myth" explain the time warp best:

Feminism won; you can have it all; of course you want children; mothers are better at raising children than fathers; of course your children come first; of course you come last; today's children need constant attention, cultivation, and adoration, or they'll become failures and hate you forever; you don't want to fail at that; it's easier for mothers to abandon their work and their dreams than for fathers; you don't want it all anymore (which is good because you can't have it all); who cares about equality; you're too tired; and whoops--here we are in 1954.

Like Jennifer, I am a fruitless whore. I'm 28, single and childless working to get a PhD rather than a husband and house in the 'burbs. I wonder what kind of heyday the media would have with me if I were more famous. I probably wouldn't want to read that garbage either.