Monday, December 31, 2007

Snapshots II

Time-travel bowling with my brother: The only updates that the Northside Bowling alley has seen in the last 50 years is the Coca Cola logo. By frame 3, my brother's score is 4 times greater than mine. When I hit at least 1 pin, I do victory dances to Abba's gold.

Running alongside the Willamette River: The recent rains have put the river at toe-level. I run the trails at Minto Brown Island Park, wearing shorts and a long-sleeved top, noticing how Oregon's 32 degrees F is so much warmer than GradShitTownVille's 32 degrees F.

Friday, December 28, 2007


Five movies in two days: including "Once." This was a movie I missed in the theaters, partly because it got bad reviews and partly because I was immersed in work. Holy crap! I'm sorry I missed it in the theatre, because the music is fantastic, and it would have been great to hear it on proper speakers. If you don't mind slow-paced movies like "Waking Life," and you like Indie music sung by handsome bearded men and a gorgeously feisty Czech woman, I recommend "Once." I splurged and bought the album.

Lessons from under the hood of the 1984 Toyota pickup: Installing a new battery in my dad's truck, wrestling with the aged lead battery terminal clamps. I'm sawing away at the lumpy bits, trying to get the clamps to clamp. There is lead shrapnel everywhere. Dad tries to clean it up and says, "It's hard to blow with gum in your mouth."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

It's been a while since we've had a little allegory

Once upon a time, there was a little girl whose parents had died, and she had to be sent to a boarding school. Her parents had been kind people, and taught her right from wrong, and how to live a decent, multi-faceted life. They taught her how to grow tomatoes, how to snuggle babies, how to ride a bicycle, how to be angry and sad, and how to get over it.

The people in charge at the boarding school were much different. They taught the children how to make stained glass windows. At first, it was very difficult. She cut her fingers on the glass, and often broke pieces in her projects. The people in charge were very disappointed. They said,

"You should be like Jenny. Jenny is our best child, all grown up now. She has made hundreds of beautiful stained glass windows all over the world."

The little girl improved over time. Her stained glass windows were medium-sized and nice looking. The people in charge at the boarding school sold them to tourists and hotel corporations looking for cheaply-priced art to adorn their walls.

Still, the people in charge were very disappointed. They said,

"You should be like Jenny. Jenny is our best child, all grown up now. She has made hundreds of beautiful stained glass windows all over the world."

The people in charge rarely mentioned other things about Jenny. Jenny lived alone. Jenny couldn't keep houseplants alive. Jenny ate too much salty food. Jenny was mean to waiters. Jenny spent so much of her time making beautiful stained glass windows, she hardly had time for anything else. The little girl heard rumors about Jenny, but the people in charge spoke only of her stained glass windows.

The little girl worked very hard to improve. Her stained glass windows now were large-size and very detailed. They were interesting to look at, and real artists hung them in their big white galleries with yellow oak floors.

Still, the people in charge were very disappointed. They said,

"You should be like Jenny. Jenny is our best child, all grown up now. She has made hundreds of beautiful stained glass windows all over the world."

It had been many years since her parents had died. And the little girl was all grown. Some days, she thought of the lessons that her mother and father had taught her about living a decent life, about right and wrong, about growing tomatoes and snuggling babies and riding bicycles. And other days, she thought about Jenny. And
sometimes when she thought of Jenny, only sometimes, usually in the dark of night, she was envious of all those stained glass windows that Jenny had created.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

28 degrees Fahrenheit tastes a lot like butter.

It's cold in GradShitTowneVille. There's snow on the ground; the sidewalks with unshoveled snow have been transformed into bumpy Slip 'N Slides. I've been keeping up with the dog's walks, but I feel like the 25 minute adventures in the sub-freezing temperatures have thrown my body into some kind of hibernation mode. Eating a whole stick of butter sounds like a great idea, which disturbs my rational half.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


I just spent 24 minutes chopping 1.5 cups of walnuts and pecans. They are for the Mexican wedding cakes, or polvorones, that I'm making as thanks to a collection of friends and colleagues who are writing letters of recommendation for me.

I bake a lot. I treat it like research. I take pictures of the food I make. I keep a journal and photo diary of what I made, so I can remember what worked and what didn't.

I bake a lot: so much, that one might be suprised that I don't have a food processor. What is 24 minutes of chopping with a 5" Wustof Classic serrated knife versus 20 seconds of pulsing?

The cookies don't taste better. These mexican wedding cakes would probably offer a more "melt-in-your-mouth" experience if it weren't for the random chinks walnut my knife didn't cleanly slice.

And certainly, it's not because I'm stingy with my equipment. Sure, I have a second-hand coffee table bought from a garage sale for $10. The bookshelf was $30. The oddball collection of chairs littering my house are from City Liquidators; they amount to less than $5 a chair. I even have a second-hand dog. But my 8 year old Chantal stockpot was $125. The matching saucepan was $80. And my good friends give me great kitchen gifts. I have a lovely heavy duty wooden spatula from Moira, a beautiful Chef's knife from the boyfriend, a Le Creuset dutch oven that my friend R. claims was "really on sale," and my mother has given me every one of my mixing bowls.

What then?

I'll tell you.


Ritual for me. Much of my "old life" has been deferred or abandoned since coming to graduate school: making pop-up Christmas cards, hiking, inhaling art, gardening, feeling confident. Spending 24 minutes chopping nuts is a small bit of leisurely time that I get to reclaim. It is a quiet rebellion taking place in my yellow kitchen with the ugly floor.

And ritual for them. This small army of people has dedicated a lot of time telling a group of strangers nice things about me. Their time must be repaid with my time: 24 minutes of chopping nuts.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Nerves could be contagious

Thursday. 6:00 am. Four hours to the prelim, and I'm hunched over the toilet, throwing up the entire contents of my stomach. Funny thing about throwing up: it's an oral diary of the last few meals. The baked potato for dinner. The orange juice for breakfast.

I stumble back to bed after tossing my favorite pants in the dryer. The boyfriend says, "Are you okay?" Not really. I don't think I can do this today. But I can't stand the idea of postponing it either.

I say, "I think I have food poisoning or something." He says, "Maybe it's just nerves."

I've never had a problem with nerves, but I conceded. I slept right up to 9:30 am, and the boyfriend drove me to school and dropped me off at the front door.

I don't remember much about the prelim. I spoke for 40 minutes. My advisor spoke for 15. One committee member asked two questions. Another made a comment. Another said nothing at all.

I passed.

The boyfriend was in the audience, along with two of my research group members. The boyfriend says he couldn't tell at all during the prelim that I was sick; my acting performance made it hard for him to understand why I napped lethargically the rest of the day. Between naps, I took trips to the bathroom, surfed the internet, concluded I had stomach flu, and worked on my research proposal due that night for a post-doc position.

He went to the store and bought me juice. He took care of the dog. He remade the bed while I half-slept in it.

Saturday. 6:00 am. The boyfriend is hunched over the toilet. Poor guy.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

P & P

I had a pelvis exam today. My preliminary exam is tomorrow. It seemed appropriate for me to schedule them in the same week. Really, a preliminary exam is like a pelvis exam. It's something I dread, it's an uncomfortable process, but I'll most likely pass.

I wonder how far I can take this metaphor? How similar are gonorrhea and proposed work?

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Theme Song

From the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Everything is everything
What is meant to be, will be
After winter, must come spring
Change, it comes eventually

I wrote these words for everyone
Who struggles in their youth
Who wont accept deception
Instead of what is truth
It seems we lose the game,
Before we even start to play
Who made these rules?
We're so confused
Easily led astray
Let me tell ya that
Everything is everything
Everything is everything
After winter, must come spring
Everything is everything

Sometimes it seems
We'll touch that dream
But things come slow or not at all
And the ones on top, wont make it stop
So convinced that they might fall
Lets love ourselves then we cant fail
To make a better situation
Tomorrow, our seeds will grow
All we need is dedication

Because it seems wrong to feel hopeless 6 days before my 31st birthday.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Bad Mood

Three scenes indicating that I'm very angry.

Scene 1: I created the following "Prelim Playlist."

* * *

Scene 2: I'm talking to the boyfriend, telling him about my terrible day.

Me: I yelled at Jenny today during our meeting. I feel terrible.
Him: Jenny? Jenny? That's like yelling at a nice, happy puppy.
Me: I know [hanging head]

* * *

Scene 3: I hurt my hand on the dryer, and then cry uncontrollably for 30 minutes. The boyfriend walks in,

Him: What's wrong?
Me: Lots of things.

* * *

I know exactly why I'm so angry. What's strange is that it's because of something that happened six months ago. I usually don't hold onto anger this way. I'm like a firework. I explode immediately; it dissapates and I usually forget why I was angry. This anger is different; it has turned into firey stones that I carry in my shoulders, brain, and belly.

Scene 0: I'm talking to my advisor about my preliminary exam.

Me: I think it's time for me to prelim. I've published another paper, and we agreed that after I published another paper, it would be time.

Adv: You aren't ready. Let's say this, you can prelim when your boyfriend prelims.

Me: Um... What? I don't think that's appropriate. I mean, we aren't married or anything...

Adv: Why not! Why aren't you married yet?! [20 minute lecture on marriage and children ensues].

* * *

I'm really tired of this hell. I'm really tired of being slapped in the face for having tits. I need to get out of here before all this anger does permanent damage.

I think I'll get back to work on that prelim.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Leaking is Bad.

I went home last week to attend a wedding. It was a fantastically-timed trip. I had just submitted two papers in two weeks, and I was finishing up a camera-ready version of a third. For a few days, the panic attacks subsided. At the wedding, I saw some old friends, including one civil engineer who was very excited to hear that I was living in GradShitTownVille,

"Do you know that GradShitTownVille is the leader...THE landfill liners?!"

I didn't.

I also got to go camping.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Signs from an Overcast Sky

The advisor speaks,

You have made great progress on [ponies in edifices] and published accordingly. I would suggest you starting to prepare your prelim based on your current and planned publications

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

"I Just Knew"

I see this in movies all the time:

Scene: A 110 pound daughter and her equally thin mother, probably played by Diane Keaton, are rummaging in the attic when they come across the mother's wedding dress.

[Daughter]: "Mom, how did you know dad was the one?"
[D.K.]: "I just knew"

Or it's like in Sleepless in Seattle,

[Mrs. Reed]: "It was like magic."

In movie life, and sometimes in real life, there is this "just know" part of people's brains. They know how to jump to the next step in life: husbands, wives, new jobs, kids, cross-country moves, trips to Hawaii.

It's similar to the "always know" group or the "since I was little" group.

I always knew that I wanted to jump out of a plane while eating peanut butter so I could break the world record in tryptophan consumption at 5000 feet.

Ever since I was a little girl, I knew that I wanted to get married the same hilltop as my grammy Ada.

* * *

I have no "just know" ability. I have no idea how to move into the next phase of life. I slept on my college futon until this year. I was with a guy for five years, but never got married. I think the only time I ever "just knew" was when I picked up my dog 8 years ago from the Humane Society.

This is realy bugging me right now because I'm trying to figure out when to graduate. May? Next December? Next May? Many of my friends, also sixth year graduate students, are getting their C.V.'s and teaching statements ready to apply to academic jobs in the next few months. They seem quite confident that they will be done by May. But since I have no "just know" gene, or brain cells, or whatever, I ask this of the blogosphere: How do you know when you are done?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Batting Average

Taken from Wikipedia:

In modern times, a season batting average higher than .300 is considered to be excellent, and an average higher than .400 a nearly unachievable goal. The last player to do so, with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting championship, was Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox, who hit .406 in 1941, though the best modern players either threaten to or actually do achieve it occasionally, if only for brief periods of time.

Spring 2007. Three papers submitted. One paper accepted. My batting average: 0.333. Not much worse than Babe Ruth, so I'm feeling okay.

Friday, August 17, 2007


A full confession: I went on a rare beauty product shopping spree last week. For $30.53, I bought three hair products, a round hair brush, and mascara. Now I have moisturized, glossy, kinky hair, stylized with the round hair brush. The topaz mascara makes my blue eyes "pop:" so says the packaging.

Last night's spree was a desperate rebellion against my own rules of conduct. Since 1994, I've coped with being in a male-dominated field by disguising my femininity. Since coming to GradShitTowneVille, I've been more extreme in my covert acts. I say the f-word four times a day. I talk about changing my break pads. I talk like a big dog. I wear pants, never shorts; skirts are reserved for 101 degrees F.

Just last week, I was marvelling at how much ass I kick. Wearing an old pair of my dad's overalls, sweating in 90 degree heat, I was fighting the grass with my vintage push reel mower. After two hours of pulling and panting, battling the weed eater, and admiring my developing biceps (thank you weight-lifting), I had a front yard that could be a decent backdrop for a live local news broadcast.

Broadcaster: I'm standing in a North GradShitTownVille neighborhood where we are getting reports of a young graduate student who is holding her advisor hostage in her attic. Sir, can you tell us about the events taking place this explosive Friday afternoon?

Yeah. Like that.

But that's not the frustrating thing. That's not what I'm rebelling against. I'm fantastic at being masculine. I'm great at doing "guy" things. I'm horrible at giving myself permission to be a woman.

Ideally, I'd live in a world where there aren't "girl things" and "guy things." I would live where there are just "people things," and people do what they like. None of these other graduate students who tell me I should have a baby or ask me how my boyfriend's research is going. None of these predatorial professors who waaaaay overstep boundaries. Just me. Just "cs grad student" instead of "female cs grad student."

But after so many years of pants, what used to be a tiny inkling of femininity has lately turned into the rioting oppressed. She is demanding to be unleashed.

I don't know how this will resolve itself. Other women I know have different ways of being in this place:

"Emma's" voice drops a half-octave whenever there are men in the room, including her husband. I'm not sure if she knows that she does this.

"Jenna" takes charge of the room. She says she's more apt to be her bossy self with men present. She wears a t-shirt and jeans most days.

"Tina" replies to most comments or explanations with an uninterested "sure." She paints her fingernails and wears heels to class.

"Claudia" just acts like herself. She's cutesy and fun in her skirts and Keenes, proclaiming her love of graph theory in front of a class of 28 guys.

Lots of approaches, but I'm still not sure what's right for me. How do I assume my role as a woman in science, rather than a woman-in-disguise in science? I don't know. For now, I'll keep wearing pants, but with topaz mascara.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Ovary Twitch

My friend Cheryl taught me the phrase, "My ovaries are twitching." We'd be in a park, walking the dog, and we'd see some super cute kids who want to play with the dog. They'd be polite, and sweet, and fun. For a brief moment, the ovaries would twitch, and we'd want to have kids. Of course, we'd quickly recall the pain of childbirth, or realize that neither of us have husbands. The twitching would stop.

Wait a minute, Cheryl got married last weekend.

That's not really the point of the story, is it?

My neighbors have been in the process of moving. For the past few days, they've dropped off their 2 year old son at my place for an hour or two, so they can move heavy furniture or clean the house. I don't really have any toys at my house, so the first day, I took him down into the basement to play with nuts and bolts and measuring tapes. He's just learning how to categorize things, so it's fun to sort the big bolts from the small nuts. It's funny how boring things can become toys.

When I was little, my favorite toy was a washrag.

The next day, we were coloring in the front room, when he proclaimed,

"I want coffee."
"What? Coffee?"
"Yes. Coffee. Let's go coffee!"

Keep in mind that this kid speaks three languages, and he's not great at always speaking the one I know. So I figured "coffee" was some Chinese word that I didn't know. It just happened to sound like coffee.

He grabbed my hand and lead me into the kitchen. Then down to the basement. And back to where we had been playing. And I realized he had been putting nuts and bolts into a big plastic coffee cup.

Smart kid.

So, yeah, my ovaries are twitching.

Oh shit.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Neat Thing That Happened While I Was Gone

The bathroom on the floor in my building on campus has "feminine hygiene" wastebaskets in all the bathroom stalls. Yay!!!! I don't have to tote a balled-up fist of toilet paper and tampon around the bathroom anymore!

Final Vacation Highlights

Three Amtrak train rides. $72

Three Sound Transit bus rides.

Four tanks of gas. $120

Effortless Shopping. > $100
- Olive linen jacket.
- Oversized linen sheer sweater.
- White camisole.
- Black Pat Benetar-esque t-shirt.
- White notched t-shirt.
- Textured button down shirt.
- Flattering jeans.
- Comfy cardigan.
- Gifts.

Most relaxing moment. Laying in a field in Discovery Park, soaking in the sun, letting the bugs sleep on me.

Luckiest moment. Getting a $400 travel voucher to volunteer to take another flight three hours later. Having a great friend in "The Big City" to put me up for the night.

Foodiest moment. Eating a demi-poulet with mayonaise at a hip French restaurant near Capitol Hill in Seattle. Sharing a taste of it with the boyfriend who is eating baked fish in a lentil ragout.

Funniest moment. I'm telling a story about this couple I know to my boyfriend and his friends. The story is about the woman who takes care of the kids, the man who does nothing with the kids, and the nosy co-worker who tells him he's a bad father during a staff meeting. My punchiline, "It's important to marry well."

One of the boyfriend's buddies asks, "Well? Doesn't that mean rich? What are *you* doing with a graduate student?"

I'm suddenly unable to speak English. I stutter, "We aren't mah...'Well' 'well' I mean, you know...not..."

The boyfriend leans back and proudly says, "She means well-hung."

Honorable Mention. Eating a sandwich on the train back to GradShitTownVille; the sandwich my friend Iu made for me while I slept in this morning.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Family Statistics

  1. Number of songs my dad whistled while we drove to Albany to play miniature golf: 3.

  2. Their titles:

    • The Little Drummer Boy.

    • The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow (from Annie).

    • The Brady Bunch Theme Song.

  3. The Golf Game Score: Me-56. Dad-48.

  4. Number of pans of clam roll ups my mom made for dinner: 4.

  5. Number of boxes of raisinettes my brother bought me for the 10:15 am Harry Potter showing: 2.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Vacation Panic

It's 1:30 in the morning. I just finished eating peanut butter out of the jar in the dark kitchen of my father's house, hoping the tryptophan might alleviate my inability to sleep. I've reached that point in my vacation where I've turned it into an optimality problem. How do I schedule my time so that I can appropriately balance it among all of the people I want to see in the Northwest, while at the same time finding time for myself to relax?

Over the years, I've gotten better at vacationing at home. I think my first visit home after going to graduate school, I had everything scheduled in 30 minute blocks. Five years later, I try to force myself to be more relaxed and fluid, but there is still a little choke of panic here and there.

* * *

So far, here are the vacation highlights:

In which I realize that my favorite yogurt costs $3.19 in Seattle. It costs $5 in GradShitTownVille!

In which I go to the Bellevue farmer's market and enjoy strawberries, raspberries, rainier cherries, and baby carrots.

In which I go on a four hour hike with my boyfriend, and he doesn't mind that I insist on taking 6 liters of water.

In which I buy my first digital camera as a gift to myself for submitting three papers in one semester.

In which I go on two bicycle rides with my father on the rural roads of Lebanon, OR.

In which I get an update from a friend back in GradShitTownVille that my dog is getting several man hours of attention every day.

In which, hopefully, I fall asleep tonight before an important meeting with a liberal arts university professor to discuss job search advice.

In which, hopefully, I don't screw it up.

Friday, June 29, 2007

No really, good things happen in GradShitTownVille

I ordered two bras online. They were both on sale. They both fit.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

What do you want to hear first?

The good news? Or the bad news?

Good news

The grant that I wrote for my advisor was accepted. That's right, rather than spending time actually relaxing over Winter break, I was a stress-case about an NSF proposal. Fortunately, it paid off. Now I can relax a little more during my god-damned-well-deserved summer break in July.

Bad news

I got a paper rejection last week. One of the reviewers gave the classic 4 line,

"This paper is inadequate. It is only a survey. It's not awesome enough for the awesome journal of awesomeness. I do not recommend it for publication."

Where do people learn how to write these reviews?

As a result, I'm feeling a little stuck. I don't feel inspired to work on my paper due in September. I don't feel inspired to rework this rejected paper and resubmit it. I'm not inspired at all.

Given such lack of inspiration, instead of working on research today, I spent five hours installing track lighting at the community radio station. Turns out, being the daughter of an electrician, I'm one of the most highly skilled volunteers at that place. At one point, someone asked,

"Could I have the wire cutters?"

I replied, "You mean the diags or the Kleins?"

Confused look.

At least I have another fall-back if this PhD doesn't work out.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Awesome functions

Over the phone, the boyfriend and I laugh at horrible research proposals.

Me: I think I'll work on writing a "Do-Over" system, so that when something bad happens in the computer, it will just do it over, and everything will be fine.

Bf: I'm going to write a "No Take-backs" function that will increase security of a system and enforce safety protocols.

Me: I'm going make a "Triple-Dog-Dare" function that will cancel out your "No Take-backs" function.

Dilbert-Style Management

I was in industry for a handful of years. Back then, I didn't read Dilbert for the same reason I don't read the Ph.D. comics today. These comics that others find so funny, I find utterly depressing. They just reflect things in my life that I find miserable. I had the pointy-haired boss. I was Alice, always trying to manage my temper. Now I have the demanding advisor. I watch people piss away several years trying to graduate. Why sit and read a comic about my own pathetic life? I'd rather spend my time trying make change.

In this place, I still see pointy-haired bosses. Advisors manage their groups using the same management style that I saw in my first job after graduating in 1998. I quit that job after two years.

Consider a small subsidiary of a huge company. The small subsidiary has to make enough money to be viable, otherwise, the huge company will close the subsidiary. Cut its losses. Hand out the pink slips. Reduction in force, or RIF, is what they called it at my subsidiary. I think they call it "denied tenure" here. Worse, my subsidiary had to suffer the decisions of the huge company, and yet we had to make money based on those decisions. Their decisions pitted us against Intel.

Question: How much money does a subsidiary of 45 second-rate engineers and 5 good ones make when competing against Intel?
Answer: $27.50.

Whenever we got a customer (which was once every three months or so), we had to completely reorient all our goals. Qualcomm signed a contract, so suddenly everything we did was about cellphones. I started work on a soundcard driver. Then Wacom, and everything was about tablets. That only lasted a couple of weeks, then they cancelled the order. Then Nintendo gave us a look, just a look, and we were immediately simulating Mario Bros games on our hardware. I worked on a flash memory driver.

I never finished a project at that company to any successful degree. Admittedly, the soundcard driver limped along, and I could at least read and write to flash memory. I was miserable. I had four bosses. People asked me "howseitgoing?!" all the time. I got in trouble once for yelling at one of my bosses.


Got a letter in the file for that one.

Like I said, I quit after two years. Then I worked for the best place in the world: Dragonfly Consulting. That Dragonfly Consulting doesn't exist anymore. In the wild, dragonflies only live about four months. In a capitalist economy, it's five years.

I miss that job. Had it not been bought by an evil corporation, I might still be sitting in my little cube, working happily on hardware. I worked on small focused projects until I got them done. I learned a lot. I wrote software that brought a computer to the C-prompt: TLB handlers, boot loaders, memory partitions. I could read Assembler as fast as I could read English. I could debug anything with just two LEDs. I worked with five very smart people. It was the perfect combination of great pay with a grad-school-style working environment. Except that they insisted nobody work more than 40 hours a week. West Coast hippies.

Eight years later, history repeats itself. Again, I am suffering from the "1-big customer" management style. Again, I am miserable with meaningless work that changes faster than I change air filters in the furnace.

Except this isn't a job I can quit.

Let's just hope I can catch another Dragonfly.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Walker Percy and His Moviegoer

Last time I was this bored, I ended up dyeing my hair orange.

These days, I am a moviegoer. Ticket stubs litter my wallet. Away from Her. Mr. Brooks. Oceans 13. I try to draw lines around what I won't see. I divide the garbage from the acceptable mediocrity. Then a day comes when I am especially bored and I have to renegotiate. Hence, "Oceans 13." I hope that I can hold out against Shrek 3.

Typically, I like summers in GradShitTownVille because it's so desolate. The thousands of undergraduates have gone home. The coffee shop isn't packed with laptop surfers. Not every night is douche-bag night. But there is a price. Summer is also the time that friends typically go on internning adventures or take their final bow. My boyfriend is at Microsoft until August. My favorite movie buddy has graduated and left town. I'm left trying to figure out which of my remaining friends will put up with me. Trying to figure out if I should make new ones, or just build a hermitage.

Boredom doesn't mean a lack of work. There's plenty to do. I have two more papers planned for a September deadline. Boredom means a lack of engaging human contact. A lack of new things to see. Even when I dyed my hair orange two years ago, I had a friend to keep me company in the bathroom. She's in Chicago, wondering when I will tear myself away from work to come visit. Part of me wants to. Part of me wants to graduate as soon as fucking possible.

I bought myself a half-dozen roses tonight at the 24 hour grocery. I wasn't cheery enough for my favorite Gerber Daisies. The roses seemed elegant, dark and somber, a nice complement to my movie-going self.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


Taken from "Affectionate Technology" by Philip Agre

On a humorous, but nevertheless significant note: A friend of mine created a computer "character" that you could converse with in written English. One of the things he found that was crucial to making it seem human was that it not listen to you very carefully. It had its own agenda and invariably it would bring the conversation around to, say, its sick grandmother living in Arkansas. No matter what you talked about, eventually the grandmother that lived in Arkansas came up. It is rare that computer scientists have not-listening as a design goal--but it is a human characteristic.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Letting Go

I went on a little adventure to a nearby city last weekend, taking the opportunity to listen to the old cassettes that haunt my glove box. The pick of the drive was Tina Turner's 1983 release, "Private Dancer" which won the Album of the Year award in 1985.

I noticed the cassette cover art was essentially a thumbnail of the vinyl album artwork pasted into the top two-thirds of the cassette. Despite the cassette being rectangular in shape, the graphic artist could not let go of the square form factor of the original album. Even today, with iTunes cover art, one sees the same artificial form factor. There is nothing particularly "square" about an mp3, and yet that is how iTunes cover art is displayed:

Stepping away from that artificial form factor proved fruitful for Stefan Sagmeister who won a grammy for the design of the Talking Heads Once in a Lifetime Boxed Set.

In fact, stepping away from the artificial structures is how a lot of effective research can be done in many subfields of computer science. Because software isn't bound by the rules of physics, or materials science, or practical cost--because one can do "anything" in software--computer scientists have to create their own artificial structures in order to make sense of things. There's no real reason that there are seven layers in the networking stack, somebody just made that up.

These are my approaches to research: to examine those artificial structures with a skeptical eye, to redesign them in the context of a specific domain, or to throw them out completely. I believe I'm good at this because I've always been good at letting go of material goods. I bought a new car. Hated it. Sold it. Bought a sensible used one in its place. I bought a house. I was accepted into graduate school in another state. Sold it. No big deal.

I was at the nursery on Friday looking for some perennials for my shade garden. I considered buying some annuals, but I caught myself thinking, "I'll get them next year when I sell the house." Already pushing myself to get out of here. Already getting reading to let go of the material goods that have accumulated in my stay in GradShitTownVille...

...and I still haven't prelim'ed yet.


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Scientiae Seven: How We Are Hungry

Growing up, it was the four food groups, swimming lessons, and playing outside.

My body at 30 has more complicated needs than when it was seven. Now it's alkaline body chemistry, weight-bearing exercises, calcium absorption, omega-3 fatty acids, iron-rich foods, target heart rate, LDL cholesterol levels, glycemic indices. And the food pyramid, though its look has changed a bit since I last saw it.

That thin slice of yellow? That's flan.

Pyramids have long been a way of expressing hierarchical relationships. There's the wellness pyramid, the $50,000 pyramid, the Maslow Hierarchy, the thin plot-lines of the Da Vinci Code, and wedding favors to keep those bridesmaids in their place. If the older generation computer scientists were more creative, the Networking Stack would have been a pyramid.

So it is with a pyramid that I express the hierarchical needs of our scientiae bloggers: how we are hungry.

* * *

Maslow had it right. At the bottom of our pyramid are the necessities. (Rosa's Organic) food, sex, bathroom breaks. And sleep. Jane of See Jane Compute can certainly attest to the importance of sleep these days. Beautiful and Brave Baby Jane is keeping her up as newborns do, but Dr. Jane and Mr. Jane appear to be adjusting well. But Maslow forgot tea. As fundamental as a good number two, Jenny F. Scientist reminds us that a hot cup of tea is what lures her out of bed.

When basic needs are met, we hunger for more, for jobs that pay money. And at those jobs, we want to teach ourselves to work effectively. Kate is inching closer to a system in which she balances her four projects, and even leaves space for the mysterious "Sun Fun Time."

Between eating, sleeping, and working, we hunger for leisure time. Skookumchick details her reading wish list and Lab Cat laments the lame characters in "Size 12 is Not Fat." Zuska's leisure is the outdoor kind, and she points out using her garden of irises that the women's march towards contributing equally in science has not been a steady one. Rather, it's been like a game of Sorry; it starts and stops and sometimes has to begin all over again.

Still, to return from a leisurely lunch hour with a full tummy, a book tucked under the arm with a fistful of flowers, we are still left with an ache. Where are the engaged co-workers, the professional friendships? Where are the lively discussions about Kalman Filtering? Where are the collaborators who bring out our best work? Kat on a Wire describes her emotional isolation at work.

Most of all, though, our bellies growl angrily for recognition. Emma highlights her heroines demonstrating her hunger to see other women receive their deserved recognition. To recognize all people as potential contributors to science, Twice tenured discusses the delicate matter of single-sex events as she hungers for equality. Addy and Elli want to be recognized simply as REAL SCIENTISTS instead of graduate students, or secretaries, or "scientists-in-training."
But recognition is not just Turing Awards and social change. It can be a simple act, like Astrodyke's proud display of merit badges

At the very top of our pyramid? Good public relations and a functional and funky bag.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007


Spring 2007 is finally over in fcsgs-stan. In an effort to make my publication list "worthy," I submitted three papers this semester, with numbers 2 and 3 submitted last week. One might call that an academic death march.

After three days of movies, sleep, and retail therapy, I arise from the ashes to resume my workaholism. Here are the highlights from the three-day fallout:

  • Took the package to the post office I'd been meaning to send for a month. It was a return on the bras I'd bought online. Both were the exact same size from the exact same company of the exact same bras I'm already wearing. One was too small. One was too big.

  • Paid my bills.

  • Watched "Waitress," "Pirates of the Carribean 3", and the first sixteen episodes of "Heroes." Ratings: Good, Confusing, Addictive.

  • Spent the "Linens & Crap" gift card I got for my birthday (yeah, last year). Thanks to Moira for a new mesh strainer!

  • Went to the vet to refill the dog's prescriptions.

  • Went to a bar with the boyfriend's friends. The duchess and I kept each other company while the boys talked about oral sex and unification.

  • Went to the bank.

  • Lost three "stress pounds" in 4 days.

  • Bought a fantastic pair of pants that met 3 of my 4 pant requirements: i) drape nicely on my bottom; ii) comfortable; iii) funky.

  • Bought Miranda July's newest book with the Borders gift card I received last January for participating in a study. I don't normally buy books, but I really like this gal!

  • Planned two parties. One going-away. One birthday.

I just did a quick calculation. Between walking the dog and riding my bike, I've burned more calories today than I've consumed. Hm. I think I'll have a latte!

Friday, May 18, 2007

How We Are Hungry

I've been an off-and-on contributor to the Scientiae carnival of female bloggers in the STEM fields. I'm the host for June 1st, and I thought I'd take a moment to mention the theme:

"How We Are Hungry."

Interpret it as you like. I'm looking forward to the posts. While you are thinking about ideas for posts, check out the #6 Scientiae Carnival.

And if you are looking for some good fiction, check out David Eggers book of short stories of the same name.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Dish Licker, Not Washer

I Can Leave My Attic Now

I have a photo of a group of friends, 12 minutes before a big final exam in December of my first semester in graduate school. There are 16 people in the picture, 11 of whom are no longer here. Only three left with their intended degree. The rest are "drop-outs."

Drop-out? Isn't that the kid who dropped out of high school, is living at home and working at Payless Shoe Source to pay his cell-phone bill? No. These drop-outs are all living fabulous lives: enoying fun jobs in big cities, getting married, making large sums of money, and having babies. They are making what my friend K. calls "Life Progress."

I'm not a drop-out; I just finished my fifth year of graduate school. Yet, I'm the loser. I have $607.40 in my checking account. I'm an unmarried homeowner with a greying dog, an empty refrigerator, and unfinished knitting projects. My front lawn hasn't been mowed in two weeks. I haven't called my mother today.

Still, things are looking up. The boyfriend mowed the backyard just before he left for his summer internship. I have a paper draft for a paper deadline that just got postponed one week. If I squint hard enough, I can kind-of-sort-of see a small light at the end of this tunnel.

So says Annie Proulx in "The Bunchgrass Edge of the World."

The main thing in life was staying power. That was it: stand around long enough, you'd get to sit down.

No (thank you) flying car

With all the freakin' advances in technology, my needs are not met. I don't want a camera phone, an iPod, or anti-bacterial soap. All I want is an e-mail client that searches my sent mails for the word "attached." If there is no attachment, it should result in an error message, "You have the word 'attached' in your e-mail. Did you mean to send an attachment?"

This would save me months of embarassment.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Gadget-influenced Hypochondria

I've locked myself in the attic until I finish a draft of the paper. I'm allowed downstairs for iced tea refills and cereal.

The days have been hot, and I've kept the attic windows opened to cool the house. The carbon monoxide detector has sounded its alarm a few times. I wonder if the doofer-neighbor smoking next door on his porch is the source. Still, I have this dizzy-nauseous feeling; perhaps I'm being poisoned by my own house.

If I didn't have a CO detector, I probably wouldn't feel dizzy-nauseous at this moment. I have little choice, since CO detectors are mandated by GradShitTownVille. I can't disappoint the fire fighters that stop by my place annually for inspection.

This is just to say that I'm a dedicated graduate student today. Even the threat of CO poisoning won't prevent me from finishing this draft.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Somewhere Else

I envy the characters in Haruki Murakami's head. To them, it is everyday happenstance that their bodies melt into another place, that without much effort they can be somewhere else. They go, because they must, because it's what is done. "Don't look for me," they say; they return when they are ready.

Sadly, I am not one of these characters. My body is too physical; it is not gleamed from a page. When I crave other places, when I want to be left alone to do absolutely nothing, I've no magical realism at my disposal. I've only my little truck and miles of nighttime corn fields. My brain is given no demands. My autopilot drives the little truck, and there is nothing to see. It's the closest I have to sitting at the bottom of a well.

Tonight, not even the little truck will help me. A paper deadline is ominous, and every moment is spent thinking about it, or my pathetic CV, or my ever postponed prelim, or my right butt-cheek that's been strangely clenched for two weeks. Nothing is fun when there's a paper to be written.

Tomorrow, when I mow the lawn, I'll look more closely for an abandoned well.

Sunday, April 22, 2007


Things overheard at a party I recently attended which confirmed that it had a high computer scientist attendance.

I just learned about algebraic multigrids. They're really cool.

We met in our formal verification class.

Don't look at me, I study fish ears.

It's useful, not like formal methods or anything.

No not that one. What's the name of that other guy who is dropping out of the PhD program?

So what's with Malaysia?

I think that some of the folks at this party are the target audience for this McSweeny's List about first dates.

Friday, April 06, 2007

How much further?

A cool article on "Inside Higher Ed" highlights Princeton's recent family leave policy for its graduate students.

A comment by "Science Prof" shows how so very much further we have to go.

The fact that women have a “biological clock” means nothing. The issue is still one of people making choices and accepting the consequences.

In my graduate program, I would much prefer to have grad students who have no children. They are willing to work harder and will not be whining about having to be home by 5 p.m. Graduate school is extremely demanding — my graduate program often requires an 80+ hour/week commitment. Grad students who have children are often unwilling to make that sort of a time commitment and they often fall behind or flunk out.

This is simply the nature of graduate school. Attempting to make it more “family friendly” will 1.) Reduce the academic standards of the program to accomodate students who cannot make the required time commitment and, 2.) Raise the costs on everyone else — especially students without children, who will likely end up paying more in tuition to subsidize those who do have children.

In 30 seconds, I thought of 11 faculty members at my university who could have written this.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Scientiae Carnival, A Logo

There's been a neat blog carnivale going on these past few weeks. It's called "Scientiae" and it features "Women in Science" blogs. They made a call for a logo, and I've got a first draft:

I didn't so much emphasize the "Science" part as I did the "Women Blogger" part. Given that it's a carnivale, and we are masked bloggers...Ok, I'll admit the result is a little cliche.

But I'm not playing!

Walking back from lunch, I tell the boyfriend the good news about my friend K.

"K. is defending on Monday."
He thinks about it, "Because the best offense is a good defense."
He thinks about it more, "And we know that CS majors are offensive."

* * *

I was a mean big sister. Was. In 1992, my brother puberty-ed up to 6 feet, and I became the nice big sister that I am today.

Back when I was a mean big sister, I played competitive games without my brother's knowledge. We'd be walking to the car, and I would quietly walk a little bit faster, knowing I'd reach the car (store, house, tree) first. "I WIN!" I would declare. He'd cry, "But I'm not playiiiinggg!!" And I would laugh in my mean big sister way. Horrible. I realize that I deserve the bad things that happen to me.


The University of GradShitTownVille is exacting my brother's revenge. They are playing a competitive game against me. Unlike my brother, I know they are playing. Thing is, I just don't want to play. There's a variety of names for this game,

Publish! Get the biggest pile of publications and work at a Top 10 school!
Buzz! Lie to your colleagues about your accomplishments, and make people think you are better than you are!
Plagarize! Steal from old publications and put them in your own!
Intellectual Starvation! Need things other than CS Research to make you happy? Forget about it! You need to focus to get that Top 10 job!!

[ages 22 and up]

Because I'm not playing, people often tell me, "You are losing. You aren't good at this game. You aren't going to win if you keep this up."

Well, that's not exactly what they say. Their messages sound more like, "You don't have enough publications to get a good job. You aren't going to get a good academic job with this publication record. You can't prelim with this few publications."

And yet, I get all these recruiter e-mails. Google. Lockheed Martin. Wind River (which is a funny one, since they laid me off in 2002). They tell me they are interested in me. They tell me that my skills are a good match. They say nice things about me. I feel like that 13 year old girl with low self-esteem sought out by the 26 year old man. Perhaps you know her. She makes public phone calls to Dr. Drew Pinskey.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Working at a radio station late at night ensures conversations with drunk callers

The phone rings. My co-host answers it, "Request? Let me give you to someone else, she knows the music better."

He hands me the phone. I greet the caller with, "WXYZ, 103.2, how can I help you?"
"Yeah, you guyssh take requests?"

I glare at my co-host. He's handed the drunk call over to me. Fine. Let's have some fun.

I reply, "Sure, we might not have it, but we'll do our best."
"Okay. How about Distant Early Warning by Rush."
"Sure." I have no intention of playing this.
"What are you doing down there tonight, baby? You guyssh partying?"
I winced at the b-word. "Nah, not really. Just playing music."
"You like it around here?"
"No. I hate it."
"I hate it."
"I hate it. Hate. H-A-I-G-H-T."
"Oh you aren't from around here?"
"No. I'm from the west coast."
"Ah, California, that's nice."
"Nope, not California."
"Huh? Uh. Washington?"
"Nope, one more try."
"Ah yeah, that'sh here for school?"
"Yeah, I'm going to the Cosmetology college on main street."
"Yeah, I want to do make-up for the American Idol show."
"American idol."
"What? Oh. What about hair? You do hair?"
"Nah, just make-up. You gotta specialize these days."
"Ah, that'sssh pretty cool..."

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A heart to heart

I asked the boyfriend,

"Do you think I'm mean?"
"...not to you, but to other people."
"Yes, but only to people who suck."

Friday, March 23, 2007

Learning to write

I'm currently working on three papers. On one, I'm second author. I'm mentoring the junior first-author on writing research papers. It's been a long process, but we've got a working draft, and I'm seeing the reward of mentoring.

I've noticed that my first author suffers from the "Cheever Fever" that Ethan Canin describes in his essay, "Smallness and Invention." He wants to make great, poetic conclusions, but does so without giving his reader any concrete details. Canin points out the following passage from Cheever's "The Pot of Gold,"

... Alice strode to the door, opened it, and went out. A woman came in, a stranger looking for the toilet. Laura lighted a cigarette and waited in the bedroom for about ten minutes before she went back to the party. The Holinsheads had gone. She got a drink and sat down and tried to talk, but she couldn't keep her mind on what she was saying.

The hunt, the search for money that had seemed to her natural, amiable, and fair when they first committed themselves to it, now seemed like a hazardous and piratical voyage. She had thought, earlier in the evening, of the missing. She thought now of the missing again. Adversity and failure accounted for more than half of them, as if beneath the amenities in the pretty room a keen race were in progress, in which the loser's forfeits were extreme. Laura felt cold. She picked the ice out of her drink with her fingers and put it in a flower vase, but the whiskey didn't warm her. She asked Ralph to take her home.

Of this passage, Canin gives insight,

I discovered two things: first, that Cheever's great, epiphanic leaps were almost invariably preceded (and followed, it turned out) by paragraphs that accumulated small, accurate detail.

I'll leave it to you to read the rest of the essay, which appears in The Eleventh Draft.

* * *

Mentoring my first author does not mean that I know how to write well. I realized I couldn't write when I was 16. I got a "C" grade on my first essay for my American History course. Devastation. Through the rest of the semester, the teacher tried to cure my own Cheever Fever. He fought against my long sentences; encouraged me to write like Hemmingway instead of Faulkner.

(True, good Faulkner is good. Badly imitated Faulkner is criminal.)

I'm editing my own article today. I see that I still have bouts of Cheever Fever. Take a look at these "Before and After" edits:


B: "The current media climate surrounding the issue of declining enrollment and lack of diversity in the sciences ought to peak the interest of today's scientists and educators."

(Pique. As Inigo would say, "I do not think that word means what you think it means")

A: "The faces of today's computer science community do not reflect those of the larger global community."


B: "we highlight the means by which participants were initially attracted..."
A: "we highlight how participants were initially attracted..."

* * *

To the delight of my friend Moira, I'm also learning how to use a semicolon. Trimble says, "If you can replace your semicolon with a period, your construction is OK, but if you can't, substitute a comma for it."


Over at "On Being a Scientist and a Woman" there is a good debate going on regarding "Why Women Leave."

I wanted to point out a really good article related to this post, namely about women "choosing" to leave the workplace. It says,

On a variety of basic policies—including parental leave, family sick leave, early childhood education, national childcare standards, afterschool programs, and health care that’s not tied to a single all-consuming job—the U.S. lags behind almost every developed nation. How far behind? Out of 168 countries surveyed by Jody Heymann, who teaches at both the Harvard School of Public Health and McGill University, the U.S. is one of only five without mandatory paid maternity leave—along with Lesotho, Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland.

The article is entitled, "The Opt-Out Myth."

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Spring means mixtapes and Disney characters

I've been going to bed later, getting up later, and having trouble sleeping. It's either the depression, or the asthma medication I resume taking in the spring. Either way, it's the perfect set up for bedtime antics.

Last night was all giggles. The boyfriend and I were trying to think of the worst romantic mixtape ever. It wasn't just enough to say the title of a song, like "Reunited by Kool and The Gang," because the boyfriend can't remember artists and titles. Instead, I'd say,

"What about the song from Ghost?"
"Song from Ghost?"
"Yeah, the song they make out to when they're makin' clay."
"Is that the...I can't help fallin' in love with you..."
"No no. That's Elvis, but covered by UB-40. Which version?"
"Definitely Elvis."
"Ah. No, the Ghost song is Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers."
"I don't know."
"oooooo...myyyiayyyy darrrlin'....I hunger for..yourrrr toucheh!"

And so on. Keep in mind, I can't sing. I assume the voice of an unknown cartoon character when I sing.

And now that Spring is here, the pajamas are evolving for increasing warmth. We are calling each other "Mickey" and "Donald."

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Google Ain't Green

I've been obsessed with "target heart rate" lately. I'm trying to streamline my exercise program, and at the same time fall off the stupid weight plateau I've been trapped at for 9 months. So what if I lost 25 pounds, I want to lose MORE. And don't worry that your beloved FCSGS might be anorexic. When you start at 205 pounds, there's plenty of room for loss.

Big shopping trip today. The bike is back from its Spring tune-up. Bought new athletic shoes, and a heart rate monitor. I'm going to the gym tonight, so I wanted to make sure the monitor worked. I've got it all set up and enabled. I'm at my expected resting heart rate of 70 bpm. As I continue with this post, we'll see how close I get to my target heart rate just by being pissed off.

* * *

Google has been in the news lately with their Google Bus system they've deployed for their employess. The Google bus isn't new. It appeared on their blog in 2004, reporting a total 155 riders per day. A testimony to Google's increasing size, their modest transit system now has 1200 riders per day.

For Google, I'm not convinced that the bus is about being Green. It's about aggressively getting improved worker productivity. The key is this,

And Google can get a couple of extra hours of work out of employees who would otherwise be behind the wheel of a car.

I'm currently a victim of Google's aggresive hiring tactics. I was a finalist for one of their scholarships a few years back. Ever since, my e-mail address has been on the bathroom stall of their recruiters. A recruiter contacts me every month, at which I send a polite, "Thank you for the opportunity, please leave me alone."

But it's not the e-mails which set my heart on fire. It's the swag.

Every six months, I get a 16 x 16 x 6 box from Google. It contains some silly thing with the Google + Female symbol, plus a note that says, "Let's Keep in Touch!"

I now have a t-shirt, a bathrobe, and a blanket. Of course Google's notion of "Extra-Large" or "One Size Fits All" makes me feel like a giant. Even in a Google XL baby doll, I look more like Baby Huey.

My mantra as an environmentalist is the classic "reduce, reuse, recycle" with "reduce" being #1. I didn't need (or want) a bathrobe or blanket or t-shirt. I already have a big pile of t-shirts from my industry days, all of which I use to wash my car.

I wonder if I can file a restraining order against Google's mailing department.

* * *

Hm. Good workout! 37 minutes. Max heart rate 103. 73 kCalories burned.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Death and Shame

I got a letter from my Dad yesterday. It was mainly a report of the two relatives who had died recently. I'm related to both only through marriage, and actually had never met one. Dad also mentioned in the letter that he had to clean up the apartment of my "cousin" because all the other family members were too bereaved. Or lazy.

I got a package from my Dad today. Sheets. Just sheets shoved in a box. No letter of explanation. I'm guessing they are my dead cousin's sheets. He was cleaning up her place. Came across some perfectly good sheets. Figured I needed some new sheets.

Now I have my dead uncle's VCR and roasting pan, and my dead cousin's sheets.

Seems that perhaps there should be shame in using the mediocre household items of the dead. I've never been particularly ashamed of things that make others ashamed. I'm not easily embarassed, except by the site of naked Barbie dolls. I talk freely about body parts and eggs. I'm not phased when my international friends ask me to explain "Douche bag." I go to the gym looking like a homeless person. I wear second-hand clothing. I own third-hand furniture. I use my dead uncle's VCR to watch movies.

Instead, I carry around shame about things I did 10 or 20 years ago. I was a stupid kid. I did stupid things. I'm still mortified about them. Like the time I cheated on my English homework in Mrs. Hansen's class. I got caught. It may be why I'm so sensitive about cheating today. I still remember the horrid pink cardigan she was wearing as she was lecturing me. Or the time I screwed up as Stage Manager of the "Bye Bye Birdie" production at my high school. I didn't show up to some important meetings. I'd been given the calendar of meetings, but did a horrible job of keeping track and staying organized. Mr. Putnam was pissed. It bugs me that I have this stupid teenage shame that I can't shake. Seems like a stupid heavy load to carry for so long.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Maybe I should streak at the next conference

Over and over again we are told by our department that to get that top tenure track position, we should "Get Noticed." And yet, little is done to help students get noticed. To get noticed they advise: do groundbreaking research; attend lectures and ask smart questions; give interative talks at conferences; attend the same conferences year after year. So much advice. Very little action.

In a College of Engineering that consists of thousands, or at a conference that consists of hundreds, there's not much I alone can do to get noticed or, as one former faculty called it, "Create Buzz" My feeling is that there are things that a department can do to help its students get noticed. For example, as Crispin Taylor describes in his essay, "Heeding the Voices of Graduate Students and Post-Docs"

I did my PhD in a well-funded institute that many prominent scholars wished to visit. Moreover, the faculty encouraged the students to select and invite on seminar speaker each semester and to host that individual when she or he came to give the talk. Imagine our suprise when we learned that distinguished scholars were more inclined to accept a speaking invitation when it came from students!

Like Crispin notes later in his essay, informal, one-on-one conversations have significant value. The best experience I ever had at a conference was when I shared a 40 minute cab ride with one of the grandfathers of my field. Imagine the value if I were given the chance to pick up a lecturer from the airport, chat with them before a lecture, or take them out to dinner. Maybe then I could finally get that elusive "external member" for my committee.

I suggested this idea to my department leaders once. They replied with, "Oh but distinguished lecturers wouldn't answer your e-mail." Another kick in the head. Me talk booga-wooga crazy talk.

* * *

Another good idea to help students get noticed comes from Ronald Breslow of Columbia University. He writes in his essay, "Developing Breadth and Depth of Knowledge,"

Scientists need to speak and write well. Graduate programs should make efforts to help their students develop these skills. For example, students should deliver several public seminars, both on their research and on topics from the research literature."

Even better, what about a "Senior Graduate Student Seminar" series in the department that students can take for credit? If I know what the senior graduate students are doing, I too can help them get noticed. Imagine if I'm at a conference, and the subject of databases comes up. I can say,

"Oh yes, there is Michael J. Rumpenstuff at my department. He's doing some fantastic work on databases! Maybe he could give an invited talk for your research group? Yeah? Here's his e-mail."

It's true that I present to my group about once every three weeks. But, during my presentations, for every minute I speak, my advisor speaks three. Admittedly, he's giving me feedback, but this isn't the same environment that I'll have when I'm giving a job talk. What if I suggested a "Senior Graduate Student Seminar" series in my department. Would it just be more of my booga-wooga crazy talk?

* * *

From Alvin Kwiram,

There is today a serious mismatch between the nature and purpose of the doctoral degree and the demands and expectations of the academy. Imagine spending years training an athlete to learn the intricacies of playing football, and then once he finishes playing college call, assuming because he is a well-trained athlete he can immediately be appointed head coach. This is essentially what we do in the academy.

Be the Big Dog

I've received some good feedback on how to be the big dog. I also spoke with the boyfriend about my frustration with being a little dog, and it was interesting how he misunderstood my use of the phrase "big dog." He understood it as "top dog" and that the conversation was really a power struggle. I explained about my "yipping" and he correctly pointed out that I have a tendancy to overexplain, to chat up my feedback or my questions. He said, "I try to say things in as few words as possible."

Or, as David Byrne puts it,

You start a conversation you can't even finish it.
You're talkin' a lot, but you're not sayin' anything.
When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed.
Say something once, why say it again?

I tried this out at a seminar the other day. I raised my hand, and in as low, slow, and calm voice as I could muster (given the inflammatory topic), I asked my question. The speaker replied with "Oh that's a very good question, but I'll get to that later." He never did answer my question. Sigh.

I asked a later question, again using the big dog recipe. He asked for clarification, and I explained in big dog terms.

All on a day when I didn't have Dottie Dog hair.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Dottie Dog and the Get Along Gang

All day yesterday I had Dottie Dog hair. It happens when I let my hair air-dry, and it puffs up into what look like two curly, wavy dog ears perfectly framing my face. Well, like this:

I kind of wish that this blog wasn't anonymous, because then I could post a picture of myself, and you'd see for yourself that I really do look like Dottie Dog. It'd be a startling resemblance and we'd all laugh.

I don't post that picture, because I value my anonymity too much.

Many of my favorite bloggers who blog under their own names have recently abandoned the blogosphere for reasons somewhat related to their un-anonymity. This includes Brian, and Kortney whose posts I really enjoyed. Sadly, there were some pretty crappy, mean, and belligerent commenters on these blogs, and very understandably the bloggers got burnt out. Recently, Geeky Mom posted that she was considering retirement as well because she felt less comfortable expressing herself. I, of course, lamented the potential loss of another ethereal pal.

I've always wrestled with my identity on this blog. I'd say my blog is mostly anonymous. There are many readers who know who I am, because they are my friends that I trust and told, or they just figured it out. There are other readers who I don't know. Looking at Google Analytics, it seems there's a readership in Hawaii.


I've put a link to my blog a couple of times on my homepage, only to regret it and take it down a couple of hours later. Even with my faux anonymity, I never blog about anything I could get in trouble about, in particular the dirty details of my advising relationship or the names of my offenders. I feel I was lucky with the choice I made. For now, I feel it's a good mix. I censor myself only a little, which probably produces better posts in the long run. Otherwise, there'd be 200 whiney posts on how I'll never graduate. There's enough of those already.

It felt appropriate that I looked like Dottie Dog yesterday, given that I was acting like a little yippy dog. I had 4 meetings, during two of which I needed to talk. When giving feedback in a meeting, I generally talk louder and a little higher pitched than I would talking to a friend or into the mic on my radio show. I suppose I do this because I want to be heard, and we all now what a fight it is for air space in this department. At one meeting, after I yipped like a little dog, a friend of mine was giving his feedback. He was a big dog, just calmly stating what he thought, and asking good insightful questions to get better material from the speaker. I thought to myself, "Man, I want to be more like that."

At the second meeting, I made a statement, and used some data to back it up. Someone else interrupted me to say, "I don't think that's true." My reply, "Well, I just have data, that's all." There, I was a big dog, but the topic was something I felt much more comfortable with.

Again today, though, I was a little dog, to the point of a Taco Bell Chihuahua. In part, it was because I'm not terribly good at hiding my frustration. Anger yes, frustration no. I was really frustrated in a meeting, and I wasn't getting a straight answer from the speaker. I put my hands to my head to smooth back my Dottie Dog hair, and said, "Look! I'm just trying to understand, do you mean A, B, C, or ..." And of course, I didn't get to finish my question, further exacerbating the yipping I already was doing.

In general, I feel really stupid after being the little dog. I regret not having handled myself better, and wish I didn't get so frustrated here with the fight for air space. I wish I just kept my damn mouth shut, but that's not a possibility. That was my initial strategy in my early graduate years, and I was chided for not contributing.

My question to you dear readers, is, "How to be the big dog?"

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

World View, Bubble Burst

I sometimes think I'll get tired of saying this: "Larry Summers was a fool."

But I doubt it.

Larry Summers, a person in a seat of power saying idiotic things. Larry Summers, an economist, a Harvard President, trying to say intelligent things in a public forum about subjects he knows nothing about; biological gender differences, cultural influence on education, and women in the workforce.

What's astonishing to me is that he said these things three years after Maria Charles and Karen Bradley published a paper in 2002 called, "Equal but Separate? A Cross-National Study of Sex Segregation in Higher Education" Their cross-national study of male overrepresentation in Computer Science starkly demonstrates the huge cultural influence on a woman choosing a field. The degree of male overrepresentation in the Czech Republic is three times that of Turkey, the country with the most gender-integrated computer science program.

Hey Lar, where's your world view?

But what infuriates me most of all about this blowhard is that he has daughters. What is he teaching them?

There are women in my department who went to undergrad in some of the countries where they report that CS is "about 50-50." A friend of mine from Kuwait still hasn't adjusted to the severe male overrepresentation in our department. She said, "In Kuwait, CS is a desk job. Women do desk jobs." Another fried of mine, from Israel, hadn't noticed the US gender disparity until I mentioned it to her yesterday. She was asking me advice about selecting a PhD program after she graduates with her Masters degree, and I mentioned CMU as the current leader for diverse academic culture in computer science with regards to gender.

"It's about 10 percent here," I said.
"Really? I thought it was higher?"

With so many women in her group, and so many women in her undergraduate program, the gender problem had not presented itself to her. In a way, I felt sorry that I had burst her bubble. I wish I could take it back.

My own bubble burst at the age of 26. It was the year I came to graduate school. Until then, I knew that there weren't that many women in engineering and computer science, but I chalked it up to, "Well, we're just catching up after the feminist revolution. It's only been...50 years." Despite evidence from the other fields that had been male dominated were now more equal, like family medicine, pyschology, and biology, I held firmly to that idea. I had been the only girl in my electrical engineering class. The only woman in my product group. One of four women on the plane to San Jose for the Embedded Systems Conference. But everyone had always been nice and supportive. I had friends and mentors. I had the support structure I needed to be successful. I worked in fun programs for girls in science to do my part to boost the numbers, to give back. The gender disparity hadn't really punched me in the face yet. Not like it has in graduate school. Again. and again.

My hope for now is that I can return to a place where those support structures exist. Where the diverse contributions of many are appreciated, and folks are generally just nice.

Monday, February 26, 2007

I Miss Knitting

From, "Landing an Academic Job" by Jonathan A. Dantzig:

No one is able to teach three courses per semester, manage a $250,000/year research program, supervise seven graduate students, write four important papers per year, go to five national meetings per year, serve on six committees, and do an excellent job in every category. Nevertheless, there are institutions that expect this kind of performance. Do you want to work for one of these?


Thursday, February 22, 2007

Minnesota Gift Baskets

A recent conversation with the boyfriend, not at all related to Minnesota Gift Baskets,

I say, "My brother sent me a video today."
"Like on UTube?"
"No, a video."
"Like in an e-mail?"
"No...a tape."

How quickly the old technology gets forgotten.

The first time I ever heard Bjork's song "Isobel" was on a telephone. The local paper had done a review of her album. Following the review was a small blurb, "If you'd like to hear a track from the new album, dial 503 555 1212." At that point, I hadn't yet heard of TMBG's "Dial A Song," but it was a similar idea. "Dial a song" is much different these days.

How quickly, indeed.

And yet, the really very old continues to be revered. An Australian website was recently launched, providing high school teachers with resources to discuss careers in science. The graphic design and writing style suggests that it might also be intended for a younger audience. Among other things, the site features Australian Nobel Prize winners:

To me, this is a corrollary to what I mentioned recently regarding the stock photo diversity poster. This line-up of white dudes in dated frocks is an equally unrealistic reflection of what science looks like. In high school, I was presented with similar line-ups, though Marie Curie was usually involved, and I always felt so far away from the excitement of scientific inquiry when faced with those grainy black and whites.

So what's the answer? You don't like the diversity poster. You don't like the Nobel Prize winners. What would make you happy?

A better alternative can actually be found at the same Australian website. There, we see a list of scientists, both men and women, ranging from biology to engineering, from geology to scientific journalist. I feel this is the most engaging part of the website, but I really wish it were expanded. Perhaps, I dunno, adding pictures of these real people would really brighten things up. It's so much easier for a kid--a potential member of the scientific community--to relate to a "Scott Burgess: ecologist" or "Suzanna Turk: engineer" than it is "Old white dude: Nobel Prize winner."

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Time Travelling with Scrooge McDuck

So say the boyfriend,

I can't believe it's 11:25 am on a Saturday, and I'm already pissed off at the department today.

Okay. Let's back up.

I attend panels. I don't know why, because 90% of the time, the panels I've attended are less than mediocre. They are generally made up of four people with the exact same perspective. They are all the same because whomever was given the task of organizing the panel did so at the last minute. Moreover, the panel moderator doesn't moderate, and instead talks more than the panelists themselves. The result is a panel that answers 3 questions in 1 hour, and thanks for coming folks!

There have been one or two panels that have been really valuable. The panelists were caring, informed people with good ideas, and the panel was well-moderated. Maybe that's why I keep going. It's like the time I did a really awesome flip-turn in the pool. I keep trying to do flip turns, thinking back to that awesome one, but I usually just get water up my nose, and push myself into the floor of the pool.


I'll be honest. My perfect panel would consist of multiple clones of myself that had made very different life choices and gone forward in time to live out the next 10 years of their lives. For the panel, they return from year 2017 to report back to me what they'd seen. I'd ask questions like,

"So, "fcsgs B," who decided to get married but stay childless. You now work at Carnegie Mellon. How are things for you? You published 10 papers this year? Wow! But, do you have enough time to do the things you want, like practice yoga and write your novel? Do you regret not having kids?"

"And you, "fcsgs A," who quit school, had two children by 36, and started a successful chain of self-serve dog washes in Seattle. Do you feel intellectually fulfilled? How do your children feel about your upcoming divorce?"

"How about you, "fcsgs C?" You are still single. You haven't published in two years because of all your teaching responsibilities at University of Portland. Are you hopeful that your sporadic research will make an impact on the field? Is it important to you to make such an impact? Did your shoulder ever get better?"

And for some reason, Alan Young of the original Time Machine would be there as moderator, entertaining us with his Scrooge McDuck voice acting.

Okay, I didn't say "ideal" was at all "realistic," so I keeping attending the panels of this world, hoping to catch a glimpse of my own future clones. I haven't found them yet. It's been a little wearying, really, not having anyone that I can talk to about this. It doesn't even have to be a clone. I'm just searching for someone with an open mind. Someone who doesn't want me to be just like them. For most people here, students and faculty, any mention of not applying to the Top 10 is received with scoffing. "Why wouldn't you?" Or, "At a small school, you'd be teaching all the time, you don't want that."

I don't?

In an effort to have a real conversation about this, I got a membership at MentorNet. It's a website bringing together people who are looking for mentors with people who would like to be mentors. I decided to be more proactive in looking for this magical person I've described. I decided to find that human being interested in mentoring, one who would give me advice about the small school vs. big school issue. A person who'd been through something other than working like a dog and making sweet love to the University of GradShitTownVille.

At MentorNet, members can configure their profile, including setting preferences for a mentor. The preferences are things like,

Field of Study
Work Sector (e.g., private, government, university)
Alma Mater
Geographic Location
Professional Memberships

My only preferences were "[Computer Science or Computer Engineering or Electrical Engineering] + PhD + University." And MentorNet reported,

Unfortunately, there are no mentors that match with your preferences at this time.

Sigh. In fact, the only PhD's in MentorNet in my preferred field of study, are these five people that all work at Texas Instruments. I appreciate that they've volunteered, but I don't need to talk about industry, thank you.

Here at University of GradShitTownVille, there's been a lot of attention lately paid to graduate students getting academic jobs at the top schools. Perhaps by "attention" I should say "propaganda," which is honestly getting quite old. Recently, a "club" was started for students interested in academic jobs. I inquired with the club president that perhaps a panel would be of value. Perhaps a panel of people who could candidly discuss the pros and cons of working at the small liberal arts school versus the Big Top 10 University. The question was essentially ignored, translated into this defensive "Why not work at top 10?"

To these people, when I ask questions like that, I may as well ask, "Explain to me the benefits of breathing in and out, versus not breathing at all."

And so, with telling the boyfriend that whole story, comes that quote,

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Mr. Loaf speaks for Dr. Moore

I've been in close touch with my brother lately. In part, because it's Valentine's Day, and we always send each other Valentine's cards. In part, because I know from Mom that he's having trouble with his girlfriend these days, and I thought he'd need the pick-me-up.

My brother and I have always been pretty close. We fought like rabid dogs after my parents got divorced, but once he hit 6 feet, it all worked itself out. Mainly, because I realized he'd seriously would kick my ass if I kept bugging him. Usually, when my brother and I are together, we make random allusions to stuff that happened to us as kids. For example, I sent him the following picture in my last e-mail to him.

He got a good laugh out of that. I won't go into the gory details of that one. Maybe another time.

Anyway, chatting so much with my brother makes me think of Meat Loaf, the singer/actor who appeared in award-winning films such as "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and "Fight Club."

His name was Robert Paulson.

The year that Meat Loaf released his "Bat Out of Hell II" album was the same year my mother married her third husband. My mom's third husband wasn't a particularly nice guy, so my brother and I were usually holed up in my brother's bedroom. He had a TV and Super Nintendo in his room, so many hours were spent playing Super Mario Kart and listening to music.

For Christmas of 1993, my brother and I each got our own copy of the "Bat Out of Hell II" cassette, though I think what actually happened was that my brother got two copies and gave one to me. Or that's what happened with the Cake album. Hell, I don't really remember. Anyway, "Bat Out of Hell II" was the album that had the 12 minute song, "I Would Do Anything For Love, But I Won't Do That." The joke between my brother and I was always, "Do What Meat Loaf? What won't you do?" Though, I think everyone in America made that joke.

I'm trying to write a workshop paper right now (with 1 week's notice) and with all this thinking about my brother, it seemed like the "Bat Out of Hell II" was just the right album for working like I'm on fire. Lots of bad-ass rock ballads about Rock & Roll, wasted youth, bad sex, cheerleaders, and motorcycles. If that isn't inspiration for a crappy workshop paper, then I dunno what.

The lyrics for the songs on this album are freakin' great. For example, in his "Life Is A Lemon, and I Want My Money Back," Meat Loaf declares,

What about your school?
Its defective!
Its a pack of useless lies

What about your work?
Its defective!
Its a crock and then you die

True genius.

Jim Steinman wrote the lyrics to the songs on this album, as well as to some of the mega-hits from 80's goddess Bonnie Tyler, but damnit it's Meat Loaf who knows how to deliver.

For the past few days, I've been reading a really well-written and informative research paper written by Moore and Boyer in 1985. It tells the story of integrating a linear decision procedure into a theorem prover. Moore and Boyer do two things right with this paper. First, they do a good job of raising general issues of system integration, using their case study as a motivating example. Second, they write the paper in a tone that's entertaining to read. It's like I'm having a coffee with Moore, and he's just telling me about his adventures with a particular theorem prover. And sometimes, they've got a little bit of snark that is so professionally delivered,

Readers troubled by our selection of such a simple and old-fashioned decision procedure are invited to reflect upon the fact that an instantaneous oracle for deciding linear arithmetic problems like those above would increase the speed of our theorem prover on typical program verification problems by less than 3%.

Admittedly, I'd like to see a research paper written by Meat Loaf. The above passage from Boyer and Moore, if written by Meat Loaf, may be something like,

Readers who think we ought to be fast,
Have got a hell of a lot to learn,
And can shove it up their ass.