July 2, 2010

Free time is for napping

Writing that last post, I was reminded of conversations C and I have had about vacations - what to do with free time, where to go, whether to go with people. It turns out that we're both reflexively pretty hermit-like: given time off, we'll stay home and lie around, or go to the beach and lie around, or (if we're feeling ambitious) go to Maui and lie around on the beach. When we get to choose what to do with our time, we tend to pick "not having responsibilities" over "trying new things". We both also get frustrated in about 5 minutes with crowds, obvious tourists, and people being clueless in public (though I repeat myself), so trips that are go-to good ideas for some people (Disney, Vegas, Mazatlan) are not even on the bottom of our list.

We know plenty of people who are Action Vacationers, who spend their free time climbing mountains or kayaking the San Juans or skiing every weekend*, who (I assume) would be appalled to go on vacation with us because we'd want to waste all that time doing nothing (while we'd be resentful of being dragged all over instead of taking a break; what do you think is the point of vacation, anyway?).

I don't have a point to make here: this is pretty obviously a matter of personality, and there isn't One True Way to go on vacation. We Lazy Vacationers should all band together so we can lie around with no pressure or guilt, and then maybe go get lunch. Who's interested?

*It's really obvious where I'm from, isn't it? Good thing I'm only semi-pseudonymous.

June 28, 2010

Whirlwind weekend

I know that plenty of people spend their weekends in constant motion, because they've been cooped up all week in a cubicle and there's so much fun stuff to do, or because they have two kids in three sports and life is just a constant soc-vol-swim-ball minivan roadshow, or because they have ambitious DIY plans for their house or yard. Plenty of people, sure, but not me. Pre-kid, I spent as much weekend time as possible with a huge Sunday newspaper and a pot of coffee.

Lately we've been trying to get out on the weekends (Nice weather! Local cities to explore! Not giving L couch-potato habits!), and we're falling into the typical German pattern. Grocery shopping on Saturday (stores are closed on Sundays), some time for going out Saturday morning, but Sunday is the main day for doing weekend things. This last weekend we finally got out to the outdoor swimming pool by L's kindergarten, which we've been meaning to do since last summer, and had a great time. There were a lot of other people there, but there was space for everyone. The pool is big, and split up to make room for serious lap swimmers, loungers, and splashing kids, and there is a huge lawn for people to lie around on. We did a little of everything - splashing, showing L some swimming basics, lying around watching the clouds - and immediately started planning to go back.

June 18, 2010

World Cup madness

It's the World Cup! Did you know? C and I sort of paid attention to it when we lived in Santa Cruz, mostly because we had friends from countries where the football is important. We'd go over to someone's house late at night, or to 99 Bottles (owned by a futbol fan) to watch games, but we didn't have that much invested. The US doesn't always qualify, the tournament is usually held far away, and we didn't grow up in a strong culture of soccer fandom. The US also doesn't often compete as a single entity in international sports events - there's the Olympics, but the World Cup isn't treated like a big deal, the Tour de France is more about the individuals than their national affiliations, and we're not even invited to Eurovision.

People here in HD are psyched, though. Every game in the tournament is on the public TV station, there are public viewings of Germany's games in parks and stadiums all over the country, and even in our sedate little suburby neighborhood there are flags on cars, hanging from windows, and temporarily tattooed on our kid (courtesy of a big kid at kindergarten).

I've been watching a lot of the games, and I feel like I'm not watching the way people here do. I want everyone to win! I'd be excited if the US team kept doing well (hey, I'm even wearing red, white and blue because of the game this afternoon), but mostly I want to see good teams play well, wherever they're from. This is in sharp contrast to how I would watch the World Series, by the way - growing up in Seattle, there are definitely teams I couldn't ever support (coughYankeescough). I'm going to take this "happy whatever happens" attitude about the World Cup as an unexpected advantage of being from a place where soccer success isn't a big part of my identity.

June 17, 2010

So I'm trying this thing

I like Shapely Prose. A lot. The three people who were writing there when I first started reading (Kate, Sweet Machine and Fillyjonk) had a big influence in my "your problem with me is *your* problem" version of self-esteem. The essays they wrote said what they meant, they drew out connections between past and present, society and self, and they said, so clearly that it may as well have been on the banner at the top of the page, "there is nothing wrong with you." I hear a lot of societal messages about the necessity of fixing what's wrong with you, making yourself better, and the terrible vanity of being happy as you are. Vain, and don't forget selfish! Don't you know people can see you? And you look like that? When you take these messages as truth, they're motivations to keep playing the game, looking for approval that you're never going to find.

It reminds me of Sarah Vowell's take on Puritans in The Wordy Shipmates, that their sincere belief that you could never tell if you were on God's good side kept them all looking over their shoulders, never able to relax, miserable in the knowledge that they were probably damned. There's no rest for people in search of external approval, especially from the incorporeal.

I've wandered a bit from where I started out meaning to go in this post, which is this: Shapely Prose has added and lost writers over the past few years, and right now Kate is the only one writing there (in addition to writing here and here), and I've developed a bad habit. I check for new articles all the time. Even though I'm pretty sure essays like this take time and revision, even though it's apparently taken me two months to write this bit of fanmail. So not only am I an inconsistent blogger, I'm a hypocrite too! Enjoy the irony here: what makes sense to me as a response is self-improvement on two fronts. I'll try to write something here when I'm mentally complaining that there isn't something new over there.

April 7, 2010

Not the typical kids & food post

Last weekend was Easter, which (since we're not what you'd call religious people) involved egg dyeing, egg finding, stashing a basket of candy in Liam's room while he was sleeping, letting him eat jellybeans at breakfast, and gardening. It's Wednesday night, and we've still got most of a chocolate bunny and a couple of chocolate eggs in the kitchen cabinet. Heck, we've still got halloween candy in the kitchen cabinet. Are we stingy with sugar? Sort of, but we (C and I) are also kind of forgetful, and Liam seems to have picked up the out of sight-out of mind gene. He doesn't ask for candy or sugar much, in my perception, and we've been letting him have easter-basket candy when he asks (as long as he isn't tired or otherwise unlikely to handle a sugar rush well).

The philosophy we've been aiming for in general is that of course we have sweets sometimes, but it's not a big deal. This is just one part of an overall philosophy that's at least a little informed by Ellyn Satter, where we aim for intuitive eating, an acceptance and enjoyment of variety, and nutrition (integrated over every day or two). There's some conflict with Liam's kindergarten's philosophy, which has a very black-and-white "healthy"/"not healthy" food classification, while I have no interest in endorsing cultural messages about food and morality.

Of course he'll change as he gets older, and who knows whether he'll broaden his tastes, or how many all-cheese or no-veg phases he'll go through, but for now we're all about emphasizing what we like about food, the pleasure of cooking for oneself and for friends, and the good it can do for your body. We'll just have to see whether he winds up with as many forgotten things hiding in the back of the pantry as I tend to have.

April 6, 2010

Both sides, now

I've been thinking about the health-care reform bill (hey, I may live Over Here, but I'm still American), and I've got really conflicted feelings about it. On the one hand, insurance-industry reform, enforced by regulators with real power, will save so much pain, so much money, so many lives. On the other hand, a single-payer public-option system could be much easier for the patients to navigate, less expensive when people have preventative care instead of problems compounded by neglect - but that also has to be run by people who believe it can work, and it will be terrible the minute someone with a "government small enough you could drown it in a bathtub" philosophy is in charge.

On the other other hand, watching the party I vote for get totally played by one person who apparently never read the platform, listening to the serious and
thoughtful discussions about whether their female constituents' rights matter, do their votes really count anyway, why are they so wrapped up in irrelevant women's issues - I'm disgusted that they are the best I can realistically do for representatives in government.

I was happy to hear that a change to the student-loan structure was also part of the health-care reform bill; though the two don't directly connect in my mind, I've seen enough multi-part bills to know that sometimes this is how it gets done. Making federal student loans direct loans from the government, and putting the interest on them (money that had been no-risk profit for banks) into the Pell grant program sound like a great idea to me. I would like it even better if I knew that the amount of grant and loan money available to students was at least as much as it had been before the previous President started de-funding the programs. I heard an interesting spin on the combination of the two bills on an episode of Rachel Maddow from last week: a member of Congress said that health-care costs and college costs are things that middle-class people really worry about, and he thought it made good sense to address them both at the same time. I think he's got a point, though my quick agreement with him has me feeling a little melancholy. Mostly I'm reminded of a line of Joni Mitchell's, and it's making me feel old:

Caught in the middle, Carol, we're middle class, we're middle-aged...

March 13, 2010

I knew we should have stayed vegetarian!

I was putting Liam to bed tonight (which involves reading a book or two, then turning off the light and holding his hand until he's asleep or at least mellow enough not to mind my leaving, and sometimes singing Beatles songs), and he had a very unexpected response to a Dr. Seuss book.

He's funny about bedtime books: obsessively in love with whichever books are newest, and downright insulted if we try to read one that's not on the current favorites list. Surprisingly, though, he let C read "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish" to him this afternoon, even though it is not new. He wanted to read it again at bedtime, and when I got to the page with
I do not like this one so well.
All he does is yell, yell, yell!
I will not have this one about.
When he comes in, I put him out!
he said, very matter-of-factly, "when he comes in my house, I will punch him." I demurred, and said that really, you just have to put him outside so you don't have to hear the yelling, and he upped the ante: "I will make him dead."
"What? No."
"With fire. I will cook him and eat him."
"What? Okay, time to turn the page."

And he was happy and attentive for the rest of the book, and didn't seem to want to cook or eat any of the rest of the characters, but wow, I wasn't expecting that. He's been talking about superheroes and punching for months now (thanks, big kids at school!), and about punching ghosts and monsters, and hey, if it makes him feel better at bedtime, I can go along with it.

He started with the subject of death a few weeks ago, and we're completely improvising: it's something that happens to everyone, but nobody he knows will be dying anytime soon; it's sad to have someone you love be gone, but that's why it's important to love them and have fun with them now while they're alive; hey, look at that bird over there! I hadn't expected him to put food into that context, and it's pressing all my guilty quasi-vegetarian buttons.

January 21, 2010

Building on success

One of the other things I've been musing about since the Big National Conference is just how much feedback there is in My Science: in order for people to take you seriously, they have to know your name already, and once you're Somebody it is much easier to get the research funding and data access you need to do more good work. I don't assume that people have heard of me, with my mighty five (I think) publications in my old-school subfield, but I am trying to raise my profile by moving into sexier adjacent subfields, and by going to meetings and talking about my projects to try to make an in-person impression.

I have a good friend who is already On His Way. E is tremendously dedicated and creative, and also lucky to have thought up a timely and clever project with a well-known and socially adept advisor. He's a good speaker, the right people think well of him, and he just landed a highly respected research job. I'm glad he caught that wave, and hope he stays on it: he'll be great.

We have conceptual feedback as well, of course - research scientists tend to think of ourselves as meritocrats, respecting well-done and convincing work, and if Theory A was well-done and convincing, why should we entertain the possibility of Theory B? There's some ego acting here too: we couldn't have believed the wrong explanation for so long!

These are both deeply human tendencies, and will always play some role in the human scientific community. They can be mitigated with attention, and that's probably good: this article was eye-opening for me (in that makes-you-want-to-hide-under-the-bed kind of way). The effort to be fairer is both individual and institutional (or at least that's how I was thinking about it yesterday), and I think that the effort to be more flexible is mainly cultural. It's our job to not know all the answers, to keep thinking up questions we haven't solved yet, but it is hard to maintain a let's-see-what-happens attitude in a be-right-or-else environment.

On the advice of a total stranger on the Internet (what could go wrong?), I'm making up a new resolution for every month of the year rather than trying to do one thing all year. January's is to be a little easier on myself, to be less harsh a critic, and I see an opportunity for a corollary resolution here: I'm going to give more of a chance to papers whose authors I've never heard of, and I will try to see it as a sign of inquiry, not cluelessness, when people consider alternative explanations and make themselves persuadable.

January 20, 2010


I went to the big national (US) conference for people in My Science a couple of weeks ago. Most people will claim that they find this conference very unproductive, because it is so general, but it is an important venue for job interviews and maintaining personal connections. I actually got quite a bit of work done with some far-flung collaborators, made a point of spending time with people whose general good will I will need in the future, and had an all-around fun class-reunion-type experience.

The meeting itself was overwhelmingly large, so I did not go to most of the talks or read most of the posters. This more focused approach still left me dead on my feet at the end of the first day, and the talks and discussions I did attend kept me busy and engaged. The overall experience sparked a couple of post ideas for me, and this is one of them: promoting demographic diversity is very important in My Science, is totally dependent on the good-faith effort of people who are already in the club, and is pretty much doomed in an admissions and promotion system where we are overwhelmed with applicants and starved for time.

The last speaker in a session I went to on mentoring talked about his experiences as a black man from a small college going into a big-time graduate program: outright hostility, awkward social dynamics, undergraduate classes, and a lasting commitment to making that experience better for students who would come later. He's now a professor at Florida State, and had a lot of interesting and practical things to say about making graduate programs attractive and accessible to people with backgrounds like his: rural, few family expectations for college, no lab experience, not white, few demographic role models in the field, and less likely to maintain confidence in the face of setbacks (and the whole game in My Science is psychological: you need to realize that everyone's insecure, even the really clever people, and you can't listen to your self-doubt).

The things he does to make FSU a more diverse place are these:
  • First, let them in
Obvious! But not done, and also not done in multiples. Admitting one test-case diversity representative is not going to change the systematic things that make your program a hard place for minorities to succeed.

  • Second, allow for remediation without stigma
If you admit students who went to small or struggling undergraduate schools, they may not have covered as much ground as the students who went to world-class schools. Giving them the tools to catch up, without pretending like having gone to a small school makes them somehow less intelligent, will get you a well-prepared graduate class.

  • Third, make a comfortable department community (peer mentors can make a big difference)
I spent this session listening, and not talking, as I have never been a nonwhite person in a [My Science] department, and was very disheartened to hear how strong the xkcd effect is: the pressure to represent everyone Like You, and not to show strain, and never to admit weakness or ask for help. Without those worries, you can convince yourself that everyone needs help sometimes, and having to ask for it isn't an indictment of All Of You People, and - poof! - you get help, and things aren't so hard. Explicitly removing shame from this situation can make a huge difference - if your students trust that you're working in good faith.
  • Fourth, advertise at meetings of minority scientists and at HBCs
Personal connections are a big deal in My Science, and a personal encouragement from someone who is in the club that you should apply to a particular grad school, and that you do deserve a place there, can make a huge impression on young students.
  • Fifth, involve your undergrads
Give them all the research experience and hands-on understanding you can: experience is one of the shorthands graduate schools use in evaluating commitment level and interest.

When I was in grad school, the students had some long conversations on the merits and methods of increasing diversity in My Science. The business-related arguments (that a diversity of backgrounds brings a diversity of problem-solving approaches and perspectives) don't really work in our field: at least from the insider's perspective, there's not much cultural to what we do. The main point, we figured, was justice: why should people gain or lose the opportunity to do science based on what they look like or where they come from?

Being on the graduate admissions committee for a year, it quickly became clear to me that "where you come from" has a lot of effects on where you can go: my institution was very highly ranked as a graduate school for My Science, and as such could be pretty baldly snobby about who was admitted. It didn't matter how good your grades were at the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople; we've never heard of them, we don't know the people who wrote your letters of recommendation, so we don't know whether you are prepared to come here and keep up with people who had "good preparation" (read: known quantity) at the right universities as undergraduates. In order to maintain our prestige, we have to admit mostly/only students who we are confident will do well.

This is pretty obviously problematic for people who want to go to grad school to learn things, or to become professional scientists, and not just to boost the status of a particular school by their effortless brilliance. Overall, and this is something I was shocked to realize I hadn't been using as an admissions standard, admissions ought to be about what students can do, not just what they have already done. It's very difficult to evaluate that, and when you have three days to rank 150 applications, it's so easy to start using shorthands (where an applicant went to college, GRE scores, name recognition of their letter-writers). If your department is willing to work on cultivating the students, and not just putting them to work in the data-reduction mines, I don't think it would be that big of a gamble to shake up the admissions process.