Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Suze Orman

Suze Orman is currently famous for her motivational speeches and books preaching to the layperson about how to be financially responsible. Her most recent book is The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous & Broke. For reasons I've never been able to identify, Suze Orman has always bugged the crap out of me. Really, on paper, she's the kind of gal I should get excited about. She's fashionable. She's hip. She's empowering women by being a role model for financial freedom.

A recent interview with Suze Orman yielded the following question/answer exchange:

Q: What's the number-one positive reason for going into debt?

Orman: Number one, even before a retirement plan, is to save for a down payment and finance a home. A home will provide not only a place to live, but also great tax write-offs. Mortgage interest is tax deductible, as well as property tax. Live in the home two years and the first $250,000 from the sale of a primary residency is tax-free; $500,000 if you own it with someone else.

On the surface, this is a great answer. Buy a house. Save money. The problem is, that her answer is not entirely true. Sure, you can deduct mortgage interest from your taxes, and that's great if you live in a nice house in a big city, like her native Chicago. Back when I lived in Portland, I was happy to deduct my mortgage interest from my taxes and get a sizeable refund. I was also making $70,000 a year, and living in a $155,000 house.

Now, in GradShitTownVille, I live in a 3 bedroom house amid miles and miles of flat farmland. My 1950, 1.5 story house cost $60,000. I'm currently living on my $1500 per month stipend from the university. My monthly mortgage payment, sans mortgage insurance or property taxes, is $280.11 of which the interest is $222. Over an entire year, that interest is nowhere near the standard tax deduction for a single person filing a 1040. So, instead of deducting my taxes, I just take the standard deduction.

I'm not going to complain about my $280.11 mortgage payment. It's far nicer than paying $600 for a shitty apartment with paper walls and loud undergrads for neighbors. I just want to point out that simply because I own a home doesn't mean I get to deduct it from my taxes. It feels like Suze Orman is too caught up in her world, not realizing that poor people live in cheap, little houses which don't amount to anything of value when it comes to tax deductions. It's just another example of poor staying poor.

I kept trying to like Suze Orman until I read the following quote from a recent interview with her. She was describing what it was like growing up with a speech impediment and learning disability. She didn't really start reading books until she was an adult. She describes the effect reading a couple of fiction books had on her,

"I loved the books but I didn't like what they did to me," she said. "Prior to that I hadn't had any other voices in my head - no characters or plots. My life was all just me.

That seems incredibly narcissistic. Reading stories distract her from paying 100% attention to herself and her books about being financially responsible as a rich white person in America. Perhaps if she read more stories, she might find about about the rest of America, and the 35.9 million Americans below the poverty line.

City of Bridges; my own Portland guide

In just a few days, I'm headed to my homeland of Portland, OR. The Northwest, I've come to find, is nothing like the Midwest so my trips home always feel like international flights instead of domestic ones. Planning my trip home is always tricky because I want to visit all my favorite haunts in addition to balancing my friends and family. In many cases, I create an Evite and broadcast a time and place to meet. I cross my fingers and hope everyone can make it.

A number of my friends have travelled to Portland for conferences, and before departing, they approach me about my own recommendations for things to do in the city. I generally give them the list of places I'd go if I were there. Most of my own hangouts are not the typical tourist destinations, given that I was an edgy city-dweller living in NoPo. I thought, for the benefit of not having to repeat myself for future conference goers, I would write them down here.


If I could pick just one restaurant that captures the granola-enviro-vegan-liberal spirit of Portland, it would be Old Wives' Tales. Almost everything on the menu has veggie alternatives, the salad bar is fresh and awesome, and the mushroom soup is great. They are on the east side, so parking is a breeze with their dedicated parking lot. Get a glass of soy milk to make for a complete experience.

Papa Haydn's is an upscale restaurant in NW Portland. I've gone for dinner once or twice. It's a nice meal, but rather expensive. For example they've got $10 burgers. Instead, I go for their beeeeeautiful desserts. The cakes, sitting perfect in their stands, are more art than food. It's a nice place for a little snack in the downtown foo-foo/shi-shi shopping district.

If you aren't interested in vegan food or snooty white people, head downtown for a pizza and a glass of bear. Set in spooky old town by the Skidmore Fountain, Old Town Pizza offers a variety of toppings and a number of cozy velvet couches to sit on.

The weird thing about Portland is the huge number of Thai restaurants. Walk into any Thai place, be it in a strip mall or a whole-in-the-wall, and you are almost guaranteed a perfect plate of Pad Thai. Among the best is Thai Orchid, with a number of locations in the city.


The major micro-brew in Portland is McMenamins. There are a number of establishments, but the more fun ones are the old dilapadated places that they've converted into bars; including a ballroom, a grade school, and even my old day care center. The food is mostly mediocre and a bit overpriced, but the beer is worth it. I do heartily recommend the Fish & Chips with a glass of Hammerhead at the Kennedy School. You can even take your glass of beer into the movie theatre and enjoy a show on the big screen. If you want to visit my old neigborhood, head to St. John's Tavern and watch some live Bluegrass music.

Aside from McMenamins, Portland offers a number of other eclectic drinking establishments. A smaller microbrew, Lucky Labrador, is the perfect place to take the dog on a sunny afternoon for a beer and a burger. Horse Brass may have the largest selection of beers on tap, with a laid-back atmosphere. Jimi Mak's is one of the best jazz clubs in the nation, the beer isn't great, but the Greek food is. Another brewery, Widmer, offers a Gasthaus complete with German food including a yummy chicken pot pie and beer cheese soup.


The latest phenomena that I've noticed in Portland is the "Community Studio." A co-op of folks buys an old warehouse, installs a dance floor, and offers activities including all-ages dancing, yoga, and crafts. One such place is Nocturnal and offers dancing on many days during the week. For a great calendar of events for swing dancing in Portland, go to swingout.net.


Portland's "First Thursday" takes place every first Thursday of the month. The art galleries open with their latest shows. Most galleries are open until 9 pm, are all within walking distance of each other in the Pearl District, and you can see the sites of Portland's local color, street performers, and DINKs. For details on gallery locations, check out: http://www.firstthursday.org/. To get to the Pearl District, take the
MAX west to downtown and catch the Street Car Trolley to the Pearl District.


If you want to do some thrift shopping, Portland is the place. Many movie companies come to Portland because it's so easy to get period clothing and period cars. Because the weather is so mild, cars don't
get rusted out, and you'll see many many more Karmen Gia's and Volvos there than you would ever see in the Midwest. Atomic Lily, offers a reasonably priced selection of cool jackets and kitchy t-shirts. Avalon is also good. It's more expensive, but the owners really know what they are doing, as the era of the item is often indicated on the price tag. If you are looking for music, Everyday Music is a good place, with a separate section for jazz and classical music.


Portland is a beautiful city. One of the best activities is to just go outside, as long as you have some rain gear. It rains, on average, every third day of the year. But the rain in the Portland is more like a thick fog, a day-long drizzling mist as opposed to the gushing 15 minute downpours of the Midwest. Mt. Tabor Park, located on an inactive volcano, provides a nice view of the whole city. Columbia Park, in North Portland, is in my old neighborhood and is the park where my dog and I walked twice a day for three years. Cathedral Park, located beneath the St. John's bridge, offers an interesting view of a well-design bridge. Washington Park, near the foo-foo/shi-shi shopping district, includes a rose garden and Japanese garden. You can even ride a little train to the Oregon Zoo.

Saturday, May 28, 2005


The back door of my house has a deadbolt, the kind you can only open with a key from the inside or the outside. I open the backdoor for the dog so that she can go outside and do her business. The key for the deadbolt is always either on the hook on the refrigerator or in the lock when the door is open.

Tonight, I couldn't find the key. It was nowhere to be found. I was convinced, in a frantic irrational state, that the creepy guy had snuck over here and taken it when I was upstairs or in the shower. Scared he would come in any second, I boarded the door shut.


Only to find, minutes later, that I had misplaced the key on my desk. And for the thousandth time in my life I so wished to god I was a man.

My neighborhood, the good and the bad.

I live in GradSchoolShitTownVille. Populations in small college towns such as this don't follow the same trends as those in the big cities in which I've lived. Instead you get four major groups:

1. Bratty, rich, annoying college undergrads from the closest big city suburbs.
2. Families young and old who are native to the town.
3. Graduate students from every corner of the planet.
4. Townies.

It's quite strange, living in this town. Around the campus, it feels like the average age is 19.7 and that I'm in some kind of MTV jam party video. Outside the campus, especially in my neighborhood, it feels more like an episode of Picket Fences or The Andy Griffith Show. Being a few miles from campus, my own neighborhood represents only the latter three categories. Two doors down and across the street are graduate students from Florida, China, and Michigan. Next door is a young family with two young boys who help me in the yard from time to time. Across the street is an older couple who both went to the university in the 1930's and are trying to find the right combinations of medicine for their cholesterol and arthritis. Also across the street is Vernon, an unemployed, illiterate man in his 50's who spends most of the day drinking on his porch.

The old couple across the street are my informally adopted grandparents. Having no family in town, and having no living grandparents, I spend a lot of time at their place. I visit on Wednesday mornings with the wife, G. while her husband W. is at his Lions meeting. I enjoy our visits, though I'm often badgered about my weight, my lack of husband, and that I don't get enough calcium. Usually our visits are complimented by Fox News in the background, and a sandwich in the afternoon. Sometimes we go on covert operations so that her husband doesn't know how much money she spent on her grandaughter's birthday gift. In her 80's, G. is a dedicated republican and devout catholic, but it's interesting to discover the small non-conservative facets of her political platform.

In our last visit, we were talking about a boy she had a crush on when she was at the university. "He was Lutheran, so of course Mom and Dad didn't approve. But he got a girl halfway pregnant, so it was probably best I didn't date him anyway."
"Halfway pregnant?" I asked.

"Well, she took care of it. Abortions were illegal in those days, but everyone knew the doctor on campus who took care of stuff like that. Not everyone knew, but every dorm had 'that girl' who'd had an abortion. In those days, we took care of each other. A girl was pregnant, and we'd raise the $200 to pay for the abortion. None of us had much money, but a few dollars here, and five bucks there would add up. One girl even charged 5 bucks for nookie."

"Nookie?" I asked.

"Yeah, she'd go in her room with some boy and charge him 5 bucks. We didn't ask what she did, but you know..."

"Isn't that protitution?" I asked.

"Not if it's for a good cause."

Just next door to G. and her husband is Vernon. I think of Vernon as the owner of the neighborhood skank hostel where other alcoholics come and go. Some days, he'll have drinking buddies, and they stay for a few months. Other days, he's alone with his barking dog. Currently, he's got a new guest who left a letter in my mailbox last week. Part of me wants to shrug it off as an innocent crush. If I ignore it, it will go away. That's hard to do when every two and a half minutes, somewhere in America, someone is sexually assaulted. I did a little searching, and in my state's Department of Correction website, this guy is listed as being on parole for a burglery charge. He was let out of prison in February.

Today, I called the police to report the letter. An officer came by and wrote my name, birthdate, address, and description of the situation on a 3x5 card. He says he'll look into the guy and talk to him if he thinks it won't escalate the situation. I figure he'll make his report and go back to eating his doughnuts. On his way out, G. noticed the police car and was out with her cane interrogating the officer about his presence. I had to go over to assure her I was alright. She called her daughter-in-law, who lives down the street, to declare, "We need to circle the wagons for FemaleCSGradStudent!"

On the one hand, I'm angry that I have to be afraid of going into my own house as the creepy guy sits on Vernon's porch and drinks. On the other, I'm impressed that I've got a neighborhood comprised of a midwestern posse.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

ABC, will you please get your head out of your ass?

Scene: I'm volunteering at my community radio station. There are a number of people pitching in to help with this quarter's mailing, including two high school girls from the urban league. They are in this cool program in which they learn all about radio, from producing beats to internet broadcast. One girl, C., is 15.

Me: What do you want to be when you grow up?
C: Well, either a elementary school teacher or a lawyer.
Me: Why do you want to be an elementary school teacher?
C: I really like kids.
Me: Why do you want to be a lawyer?
C: I really like Law & Order.


I used to date this guy.

Not tonight honey...

Holding my womb hostage

All around me are babies. Friends trying to conceive, being pregnant, having babies, and raising toddlers surround me as I remained chained to my desk, trying to get my Ph.D. in computer science. It seems surreal in a way, that my friends are making little people while I'm publishing papers. I feel like I'm not contributing to evolution like I should. I feel like I'm way behind. I feel inadequate in my singledom. In terms of having babies, I'm old, with only seven more years before I need to start worrying about the safety of my own body and of the child.

As I do with any problem I face, I research. I read and read about the topic until I can recite passages from medical studies, until my head swims with statistics, and until my dreams are engorged by the subject matter. I'm currently re-reading "Misconceptions," by Naomi Wolf,
When I was growing up, I knew exactly how I wanted my life to be 'after the revolution' in gender roles and work expectations that I fully expected would arrive just in time--that is, before I had children. I had wanted to work at a job I cared about and share child rearing with a man I loved. I had wanted us to be a mother and a father raising children side by side, the man moving into the world of children, the woman moving in to the world of work, in equitable balance, maybe each working flexibly from home, the two making the same world and sharing the same experiences and values.

'Ha,' as women usually comment at this point in the fantasy.
Each time I read this above passage, I get angry. I get so angry that I will have to fight in my marriage for equality in child-rearing. I am angry, because in that passage is every fantasy that I, too, have about raising children in this supposed post-revolution era. I want the flexible job, the loving, egalitarian husband, the community day care, and the village helping to raise my child.

I already have to fight for equality at work. As a female computer scientist, I have to work every day to dispel the unspoken myth that the only reason I got into this school is because I have tits. I have to fight my socially polite creeds, and yell above the other rude voices to finish my own sentences. I have to fight against the stereotypes of my field and try to change a culture of men to a culture of scientists. Tired of fighting, will I really be able to go home after a day's work and fight there too?

My fears about equality in marriage and child rearing are based in reality, especially as a potential Ph.D. graduate looking for a job. Family formation affects significantly whether or not women acheive tenure in academia. Of tenured female faculty at Berkeley, 11% report that they stayed single because of their career. Moreover,
Only one in three women who takes a fast-track university job before having a child ever becomes a mother. Women who achieve tenure are more than twice as likely as their male counterparts to be single twelve years after earning the PhD...women who are married when they begin their faculty careers are much more likely than men in the same position to divorce or separate from their spouses. Women, it seems, cannot have it all—tenure and a family—while men can.
Without many options, I'm holding my womb hostage. Until I find a midwife who doesn't know the words "episiotomy" and "caesarean" as standard birthing practice, until I find a job that doesn't expect answered e-mails at 3 am and considers me a brain on a stick, until I find a group of people who would support me with safe community-based childcare, until I find a suitable husband who doesn't think me a crackpot feminist, but just a person who wants things to be fair for people. Until then. Maybe then.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

The perfect protocol, the perfect bag.

For most of my short life as a researcher, I've been dedicated to simulating an implementation of a network protocol in ns-2, which stands for "Network Simulator, version 2." It's a large piece of simulation software that's been passed around like chicken pox, like a three-legged dog, like a cussing parrot, like a bloody glove, like anything you never really want, but sometimes find yourself the special circumstances that require it.

The thing I've found most frustrating about ns-2 is that it wasn't really built to do many of the things that anyone would want to actually do with it. So, instead of designing software the way it should be designed, I end up taking on a sort of A-Team persona, building a network protocol out of parts I found when I was locked up in a garage by a rowdy group of insurgents; a garage filled with old cars and welding equipment

I'd been stuck on a particular problem for some time. I'd been stuck to the point of sobbing at my desk on any given night at 3 am in recent months. Today, after a short repreive, I fixed the problem. I fixed it in a way not really typical of fixing bugs, by adding another bug.

As a reward for fixing the problem--one of many that are still in there--I decided to some more on-line searching for THE PERFECT BAG. My current backpack is a security disaster in that the small pocket where you would put items such as passports and wallets has a tendancy to fall open. Combine that with a lot of summer travelling, and the need is desperate. However, in the last four months, I've yet to locate it.

Requirements? Hip. Fashionable. Small, but spacious. Something that I can carry while riding my bike or while on a night on the big town. I want organizational pockets that zip for security and are easily accessible when talking to the nice police officer or boarding a plane. I want it no larger than 15" x 15" x 3", so I can fit my laptop, a book, and my swimsuit. Any bigger is no good because when I did have a big bag, I just filled it with a lot of crap I didn't need.

In searching for this imaginary bag, I've found a few good contenders, and also a lot of cute little companies and artists who are making a living creating cool stuff. I wanted to highlight them here, in case you are on a similar search.

  • Kolobags is an LA-based company trying to provide fashionable means for carrying your laptop.

  • Anna Mull is a seamstress in Germany creating really neat messenger, diaper, and handbags with fabric that seems like it could easily be out of an Elvis movie.

  • Tom Bihn is a small company of folks making bags with a focus on carrying laptops. All their bags can be paired with laptop sleeves, and their site includes a laptop bag sizing guide. Their bags also have an interesting statement on their tag.

  • For way cute handbags Gracie Tom offers
    just what you might be looking for in the flowery, bohemian variety.

  • A lot of my favorite bags I found via this site which lists vendors who offer more than just cute handmade bags. You can find anything from vegan sex toys to button jewelry.

Have fun shopping.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Avoiding an episiotomy

My friend just had a baby last week. It had been a long time coming given the trouble she had conceiving. Being single and childless, I was curious about the details of the birth. She gave birth at a hospital with both a midwife and a physician attending. She felt it the best combination for a birth; a midwife offering comfort and female lore, and the physican offering a safe environment in case anything happened. Despite her birth plan, she endured an epidural and an episiotomy at the urging of the midwife and physician respectively.

My college roommate in the late nineties was a nursing major and was the first to introduce me to the concept of an episiotomy. I can still remember the swift downward cutting motion she gestured as she made a slicing noise through her teeth. It's an incision made in the area of skin between the vaginal opening and the anus, the perineum, so that the space can be enlarged for the baby's head. Episiotomies in the United States, despite their risks, are more common than caesarean sections with reported numbers ranging from 39% to 80% depending on the area of the country. During the birth, episiotomies can cause tearing into the rectum as well as an increase in blood loss. Post-partum, episiotomies are painful, with sexual intercourse still painful after three months. Other risks include a reduction in sexual sensation, urinary stress, and fecal incontinence. In rare cases, it can lead to gangrenous infections that can kill the mother.

Doctors, researchers, and midwives against episiotomies make the following analogy. Take a piece of fabric and pull two corners. It's difficult to rip until an initial incision is made, at which point it rips easily. They argue further that women who do not receive episiotomies tear no greater than the incision made during an episiotomy. Doctors for episiotomies argue that a clean incision will heal easier than a jagged tear. For anyone who has sliced through her finger with, say, a pair of yard clippers, this argument is quickly thwarted. Moreover, research shows that episiotomies are a deep incision which can cause more destructive, deeper tearing that is even more difficult to heal.

The episiotomy was invented during the 1920's, a time when there was a general distrust of the female body to do what it was built to do. The medical field made women to believe that their natural bodily functions such as menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause, were illnesses that required treatment. Moreover, DeLee argued in 1920 that it prevented brain damage in the baby as it prevented the pounding of the skull against the perineum. This is a foolish argument as the perineum is a piece of elastic skin.

Episiotomies aside, the whole of the birthing ritual is diseased in the United States. A woman is lead into a cramped hospital room and laid down on a bed where she must fight gravity and labor for the next 16 hours, the limit given by most HMOs for the length of labor. She is denied food, despite the grueling amount of work it takes to labor. If after 16 hours, she happens to "seize" (that is, her cervix stops dialating), she is given an epidural and episiotomy to hurry the birth via forceps, or in other cases, a caesarean.

American women do not need this kind of medical intervention to do what they were built to do. The myths and rituals surrounding the American way of birth are based on economic incentives (a caesarean generally adds $1000 to a medical bill), and anti-female notions generated during the Victorian era. Until conditions in the U.S. improve, at 6 months pregnant, I'll be on a plane headed for France.

Friday, May 13, 2005


I thought I would try to chop off my finger today. Not really. It was more of an accident due to my racing the weather while I did yardwork. The weather in the midwest is as schizophrenic as Sybil or Truddi Chase. One minute it's sunny and 80 degrees, the next it's raining so hard I'm putting the storm windows back up. As I was edging the yard with a pair of manual clippers, I sliced through the first 80 percent of my finger tip.

Since I'm often hurting myself, I'm usually out of first-aid products. That was the case today, and I went right for the maxi-pads. Maxi-pads are incredibly absorbent, specifically designed to sop up large quantities of bodily fluid (the average period is about 3 tablespoons of blood and other vaginal secretions). What I found ironic is that while I was using a maxi-pad for first-aid, years earlier the invention of cellucotton in WWI lead female nurses attending to the wounded to invent their own disposable sanitary napkins out of first-aid items. True, the Germans had come up with the first disposable sanitary napkin in 1880, but these weren't available in America because of the Comstock Laws.

The Comstock Laws, passed in 1873, were an effort to impose morality on Americans. Items relating to birth control, sexually-transmitted diseases, pornography, abortion, and obsenity were prohibited in an effort to stop these immoral trades. In this same "Victorian Age," doctors were performing clitoradectomies on women to supress their sinful urges and help keep their thoughts moral. The risks of birth control were strongly touted, to the point that they lied about issues regarding sterility and cancer. The laws weren't repealed until 1939.

These days, in regards to hormonal birth control, the opposite is true. Women are rarely warned about the risks of birth control. What's common knowledge is that if you smoke, you shouldn't use oral contraception since it increases the risk of stroke and heart attack. What is not as well known is that even in non-smokers, hormonal birth control introduces risks of heart disease, blood clots, and stroke. Almost all hormonal birth control results in weight gain. Doctors attribute the weight gain to an increase in appetite, though I believe (with nothing but anecdotal backing) that birth control affects metabolism more than researchers understand. Depo-provera, the birth control shot, presents risks of bone-density loss increasing the likelihood of osteoporosis.

While hormonal birth control reports that it can contribute to increased mood swings, there's no determined link between depression and the birth control pill. In their defense, researches state,
Starting on the Pill may also coincide with increased sexual activity, which may cause deep psychological conflicts for the user. This inner turmoil can easily seem like depression.
Sigh. Doctors say that taking vitamin E can alleviate the mood changes, but I found this to be ineffective for me.

In a world where sex education in schools is being reduced where does a discussion about osteoporosis risks of Depro-Provera belong in an abstinence-only sex education course? As high school girls become young, sexually-active women, will they have the right information to make a good decision for their own body? Or, like I did, will they wonder in fear if they've gone insane because they've gained 10 pounds and are crying daily?

All because I tried to cut off my finger.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Hand signals

Yesterday I went to a talk by Seymour M. Hersh, the investigative journalist that exposed, among other things, the My Lai massacre and cover-up in Vietnam, to uncovering the brutal treatment of people in Abu Ghraib. He was the typical old man with a meandering telling of the things he's seen. Unlike the local old-timer sitting on the park bench, he wasn't talking about the year that they planted all the new elm trees after the locust infestation, or how the Corner Cafe used to be called "Karmen's." Instead, he was talking about the fragility of our democracy, the biggest American mistake otherwise known as the war in Iraq, and how being a journalist has become a tough and lonely job.

He also talked about questioning the credibility of the news about the war Iraq. As a paranoid liberal, I tend to believe that everything in the news is an incredible spin of something that probably happened, but is reported mostly to distract the public from the topics that actually matter. I was visiting my elderly neighbor today, and we talked as FOX NEWS blared in the background. For the entire two hours of my visit, I watched about 2 minutes of repeating footage about the cessna which had flown within 3 miles of the White House. At least 10 times, I was assured that the Son of a Bush was out safely riding his bike and that everyone that mattered was safe. During the broadcast, I said to myself, "It's probably a stupid rich white guy who screwed up his flight plan." I was wrong. It was two stupid rich white guys. What a waste of two hours of satellite bandwidth.

In a snippet of today's news in the Washington Post:
The military also said that Marines at a checkpoint had killed a woman and a child who were passengers in a car that, despite warnings, refused to stop as it approached a checkpoint. The statement said the marines thought the car was a suicide bomb and were "unaware of the gender of the passenger or that there was a child in the vehicle.
There is something here that isn't being said. In America, how do we gesture to someone to stop? We hold our hand up, palm facing the addressee. Despite what you may think, this is not the universal hand gesture for "stop." In Iraq, to gesture to someone to stop, you hold your fist in the air. How conceivable is it that this woman didn't even realize that they were telling her driver to stop and that a language barrier is what killed her and the child? Certainly, it may not be the case in this particular incident, but interviews from American journalists who have been in Iraq have reported this hand-signal confusion contributes to the casualties at checkpoints. I don't blame the Marines for shooting, since car bombs are a serious threat to their survival. I don't blame the driver for not stopping. All I'm saying is, "What a stupid loss."

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Scientific support of the breast

It had been 17 months since I'd last bought a bra. Weary of my raggedy underwear, I headed wearily to the mall today, hoping to quickly find a plain cotton, white bra that could offer some stylish support. The bra would have a heafty job to do. I'm 5'6", 187 pounds, size 14/16, with a 40D bra size. My breasts are huge, but unlike some, they are real and actually proportional to the rest of my healthy, hormone-free, caffeine-free body.

Forgetting how much success I had last time with Lane Bryant's bras, I went to the local department store. I couldn't resist their usual "Buy 2 Get 1 Free" offers given the luxurious stipend I receive from my university. I located my size, and had one of the most ridiculous experiences ever trying on a bra. The 40D version of the Bali bra I was trying was simply a linearly scaled-up version of the 32A. The straps were too narrow, there were only two hooks, and my breasts sort of just hung in the large, badly designed flaps that Bali was trying to pawn off as cups.

As I faced my silly image in the mirror under the horrible fitting room lighting, I was reminded of a Bill Nye the Science Guy episode I saw once about structures. He was demonstrating why ants can lift such a large percentage of their own body weight. It has to do with the stucture of body mass and muscles. Body mass increases as a cube of length. Muscle increases as the square of length. The reason that ants are so "strong" is because they are so small. Humans are larger beasts, so we have less proportional muscle mass to lift things. Bill Nye, as usual, demonstrated the concept with cool models of really big ants, which he then gozilla-crushed in his usual goofy fashion.

A similar concept is in the building materials of structures. A house can be reasonably made with materials such as wood and brick. The largest free-standing wooden structure in the world (depending on who you ask) is a WWII blimp hangar located in Tillamook, OR. It's impressive to see, but not really that big compared to today's skyscrapers. Increase the size of the structure, and you must use different materials, such as steel and concrete, which can support higher compression forces.

Finished with my science daydreams and fed up with the department store, I headed to Lane Bryant, the local "Fat Lady Store." Apparently, unlike Bali, the folks at Lane Bryant understand that the bigger the breast, the bigger the bra. I guess the bra designers of Lane Bryant watch the same science shows I do.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Ownership, art, and domain models

My department is located in a "Smart Building" out here on the plains of the midwest. In addition to a lot of technology that is usually broken, the building has a very open floorplan in which one entire outer wall is comprised entirely of glass. Many of the labs are enclosed on one or two sides in glass, giving the interior a sort of fishbowl feel as you walk past the small groups of geeks laboring in these glass enclosures. A couple of comedians have put up signs saying, "Do not feed the animals." Still, it's rather unnerving to work in a room where anyone walking by can see what you are doing. I do as little work in our lab as possible, keeping to the "privacy" of my cubicle.

Because it's one of the weirdest buildings on campus, it's strongly tied to a Seedbed Initiative to explore the human experience through art and technology. It's one of the ten cross-campus inititiatives which encompass a wide range of interests and involve faculty, students, schools, and the community. It's a good idea, but as far as my Smart Building and I are concerned, it's not working very well.

A number of art installations have leaked into our building since its opening, but they've all been fairly small-scale. A number of plasma displays show animations, and for a while there was the "Sniffer" in the lobby which translated radio transmissions into ambient noise. But last week, there was a new installation in one of the glass-enclosed labs. Basically, it's a female mannequin, dressed in Avant Garde fashion (compared to the Old Navy uniforms worn by my CS peers), standing as if she's engaged in conversation with a nearby cluster of machines. I noticed it immediately because it was dressed as a woman, and for a moment I thought our female population had been increased by 10%. For a week, the mannequin just stood there, without explanation. I figured it was art, but it wasn't widely accepted by the rest of my peers. Mostly people were just asking, "What the hell is that?" "Why is it there?" "Why is it so creepy?" A week later, a small placard explaining the work was placed on a nearby wall.

I'm still reading "Domain-Driven Design" by Eric Evans. It's a tedious book, albeit well-written, so I can only digest about twenty pages a day. In my last reading, I took note of the following:
If the people who write the code do not feel responsible for the model, or don't understand how to make the model work for an application, then the model has nothing to do with the software."
He's speaking of ownership. If software developers don't feel that they own the domain model, then they won't use it. The same need for ownership applies to the installations in my "Smart Building." I don't think that anyone here really likes the creepy mannequin mostly because of the manner in which it was installed. It was almost snuck into the building, and without any guide, we geeks do not how to process it. Moreover, it's rather intrusive to the faculty whose offices are nearby, as passersby are constantly asking them, "What the hell is that creepy mannequin doing in there?" Basically, geeks aren't trained to recognize and appreciate art, especially art which is snuck into the building and results in lower productivity.

I can easily see the counter-argument. Site installations, such as the creepy mannequin, are created for the site in which they are installed. They are created by the artist to interact with the site and effect the public space in which its installed. For Benson, the creator of the creepy mannequin, she "blurs already faint distinctions between reality and representation in works that are both absurd and eerily beautiful." That's a wonderful goal, but it's hard to accept in a place where people are trying to do thoughtful work.

I feel what the folks behind the Seedbed Initiative have failed to do is consider their audience. In this building are approximately 1000 people who, for the most part, use only the technical portions of their brains. We need guidance and explanation to understand the installations in our building. We need to be informed of the installations so that we can avoid being infiltrated and attacked by creepy mannequins. We need not to be annoyed by the installations. For example, the "Sniffer," essentially a buzzing-sound generator, was placed in an area where people are trying to concentrate and do work. I'm not saying that the art should be changed or designed so that geeks will get it, but rather it should be installed in a way that will bring the geeks to a better understanding of it, rather than just shoving it down our throats.