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Mike just told me that the younger boy has been talking about planets. However, he keeps trying to tell Mike that Pluto doesn't exist anymore. He apparently didn't understand that it's just been "downgraded." But he still knows all the planets and which ones are gas giants.

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August is already down the tubes

Wow. Not even a week into August, and I'm worried about it going too quickly. We're doing a lot of traveling this month. Day trips to Bismarck this weekend, Minneapolis the next, one weekend home, then school starts for the boys, then another trip to Minneapolis...and then a trip to Minneapolis and maybe the North Shore again the second week of September (although that one will probably be solo).

We still don't have our deck done. We have one more thing to do (put in some concrete where there used to be a door in our garage), and then we should be ready to begin. Of course, we still have to order supplies.

In the meantime, I've been wanting to see if we can finish the patio in the back so that we can also use our back door. This involves a bunch more weedmatting, sand, and pavers.

I haven't even touched the woodwork around the windows, which we need to be able to open them properly. Of course, with summer almost gone, it doesn't seem so critical.

Finally got into a rhythm on dissertation work. Of course, the fact that I've been putting in a lot of hours at work hasn't helped. But I know how to approach it now so that I can get the best use of my time. Still hoping to have at least a general topic picked by the end of the month. I work so much better when I have defined what I want to be doing.

Haven't really started my chapter. The clock is really ticking on that one. A friend also needs some info from me on some research-related stuff he's working on. He said he's not in a hurry, but I feel bad for not getting back to him yet.

And work. Wow. I should have been done with the project I'm working on already, but there have been errors and problems. I apparently am not the only one to notice these, but not everyone says something because of personality issues. The work on another project eased up because my co-worker unfortunately ended up having gall-bladder surgery. He's doing better, and it looks like we'll be able to pick back up when I finally get things straighted out with my other project. Or that's the theory, anyway.

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Ich liebe kuchen.

The younger boy's daycare has themes for activities every week. This week, the theme was sort of an international one, and they were asking about kids' family histories and traditions. Yesterday was also his day to bring snack. Somehow I put the two together (since our tradition is to make a boatload of kuchen at Christmas) and suggested we could make kuchen for a snack.

As soon as I started cooking, I thought I must be crazy. I remembered that the reason I only make kuchen at Christmas is because it's a lot of work.

However, that quickly changed. The younger boy loves to help me with cooking and gardening, and he was so excited that we were going to be baking his snack. He hopped right up and helped by pouring ingredients out, cracking eggs, stirring things. It was still a lot of work, but the fact that he was so eager to help made it a lot of fun, too.

Today, he brought home their weekly newsletter which shows pictures of things that the kids did during the week. There was a half-page picture of the kuchen!

Oh yeah, and Mike was pretty happy that there was some to be eaten at home, too.


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My heart is breaking

The director of the older boy's Minneapolis school sent out an email containing the supply list and school calendar. I guess they haven't updated the list yet. I don't want them to take me off. The whole thing makes me very, very sad. I really wish the older boy could've stayed.

And while I'm feeling sad, I'm also really bummed out because the hardware store at the local strip mall is closing down. Admittedly, this is not nearly as emotional for me, but it's really a bummer. We live 3 blocks from one of the few commercial areas in north Fargo. During the process of our house remodel, we were over there about twice a week at least. I loved the place because they also had all kinds of cool kitchen items.

They closed down over the weekend and put up a bunch of signs that their going out of business sale would be starting today. I'd been thinking about getting a new grill. Ours is getting so beat up that the metal is even starting to wear through. So I went and bought it along with certain kitchen items that I wasn't sure I could get elsewhere (like a lefsa turner...those aren't terribly easy to find). It really bums me out that they're closing down.

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Citizenship Law

I suggest we pass a law that makes US citizens take an exam every four years. This exam will assess that the citizen actually remembers and understands what is in the US Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, knows why it is relevant, and can actually apply it to real life. If they fail to attain a passing grade on this exam, I suggest we deport these people.

I am thinking this should go over just fine because I was told this weekend by someone that, if they were in Arizona, they wouldn't mind having to carry their birth certificate around and produce it if someone has a "reasonable suspicion" they might be an illegal.

I suggested that this is perhaps a violation of Constitutional rights. This person said it wasn't. I replied with the fact that the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights states that one ought to have probable cause for a search. (I honestly don't know that it is, but it makes sense that examining someone's citizenship status based on suspicion rather than actual evidence may be on par with such a search or request for one. In fact, my understanding is that it used to be that all immigrants had to carry papers on them at all times, and that this was repealed because of such an issue.) They first said that it wasn't in the Constitution. Then they said it was completely different. I asked how they would feel if someone were able to request to know their citizenship status on demand, and they said they wouldn't mind. (I can only think they feel this way because they're rather fortunate to not be part of a group that is often assumed to be here illegally.)

So since they wouldn't mind having to carry ID to verify citizenship status, perhaps they should also be required to behave like a responsible and knowledgeable citizen who can actually understand the rights imparted by the Constitution, starting by knowing what is exactly in the Constitution. If they don't know, their card is taken away and they have to go someplace else.

I'm not going to say that this is an education fail. I think it's a failure on the part of individuals to understand that those rights are there all the time and just not when it's convenient for our own politics. Or at least, they should be...especially because they'd be screaming awfully loud if it was them.

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It makes me crabby

I really wanted some crab salad tonight. I went to the store and, while I was standing in line, read through the ingredient list.

It turns out that imitation crab is made with sorbitol, a fairly common "sugar alcohol".

Sorbitol is one of the sweeteners they use in chewing gum. There is enough sorbitol in a single piece of gum that, after chewing it, I generally spend the next two days at home because it makes me horribly, horribly sick.

I have no idea how much is in imitation crab, but there was no way I was going to chance it. I was awfully crabby when I left the store tonight...as well as disappointed.


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What my lawn means to me...

I am really enjoying being back home, in my own house. My first year in Minneapolis, the place I rented was very close to the Mississippi river. I enjoyed this immensely because there were paths everywhere. If I needed to get out of the house and take a breather, I just went outside and had a path I could take.

The second year was harder. I was much closer to the older boy's school, so we didn't have transportation issues like the first year. However, we were in the middle of an urban area and getting to someplace more remote meant taking a drive.

I don't know what it is, but even though I'm in the middle of town, I don't get so stir crazy. For the most part, walking through town is just as nice as walking out of town. On the other hand, there are a lot of great paths fairly close, so finding a more remote spot to go walking isn't too hard. (The primary problem is whether the river is high and the paths are flooded.)

The other thing I really enjoy but did not do much of the past two years was yard work and gardening. Mowing the lawn seems to be out for me because it is the one thing guaranteed to kick up my asthma. On the other hand, I've been spending nearly every weekend at home working on our yard. We've managed to move a bunch of plants, set up some rocked gardens around the house. This weekend, we spent some time getting prepped to replace our patio out back, and I finished putting the rock in some of our gardens.

I have plans for how I want the yard to look, but I suspect it's going to take 3-4 years to get there. I want my yard to feel like a place to go out and be in nature (even though I'm really not) with lots of places where I can sit and enjoy the view.

Each day I've been out working in the yard, I feel utterly exhausted afterwards. On the other hand, I feel like we're making some real progress, and I enjoy seeing how well our plans have turned out so far. It sure beats renting.


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Personal goals

I've known for a while that I have too many hobbies. About four years ago, I did a triathlon, and I decided I really enjoyed it. About the same time, I was thinking of dropping bellydance.

I kept trying to hang on to bellydance, but I decided a couple days ago that maybe it's just time to let it go. As much fun as I had, it later on became misery. While living in Minneapolis, I kept trying to talk myself into going to lessons. I couldn't make myself go. I really just didn't want to put myself back in the position where people (students, other teachers, even fellow dancers) would be sniping at me. I didn't want to be the one always having to organize or plan things. And it took a lot of time away from my family.

I contrast that with the experience I had doing the triathlon. I really enjoyed training. I liked getting exercise, I liked the solitude, and I liked that, if I wanted, I could 'train' with my family in the form of bike rides or walks together. When it came time for the actual race day, no one laughed at me because I was obviously not fit. I had a goal and I accomplished it, and everyone was very positive, even though I was horribly slow. It was truly one of the best days of my life.

When I was finished, I was so psyched that I decided I wanted to do a half-iron before I was 35.

I turn 35 next month. No half-iron. Admittedly, this was not a lack of will-power. This was due to the fact that in the past four years, I've had a lot of problems because of the fructose malabsorption problem. Most of the doctors I went to were unaware of the issue. One particularly rude one flat out told me that I "had to eat fruits and vegetables" and that I should just take some beano.

When you're chronically sick, can't eat well, and start suffering from chronic dehydration and headaches, the last thing on your mind is going out and running a couple miles (especially when coupled with all the stress of going to grad school and being 250 mi. away from part of your family). On top of that, I discovered that I have pretty bad asthma...when I'm in Minneapolis. I got to the point that walking across campus would be enough to start an attack. When I'm back in Fargo, I get winded but going for a walk doesn't leave me gasping for breath. I haven't had to use my inhaler once since getting back.

So now that I'm feeling better, I've been thinking about getting back into triathlon. I managed to go to a race-walking workshop this spring (because I don't think running will ever be an option for me). I've been thinking about doing some swimming again.

I also took up the violin. I've been playing one year, and I really enjoy it. (Not so sure my family does, but that's part of living with a family, right?)

So this weekend, I think I'm going to go through and start cleaning out some of my bellydance supplies. I'm probably going to hang on to a few things if I ever feel like practicing (particularly my sword), but I think it's time to face the fact that it's really not that important to me right now. If I ever feel the need to do it again, it's not like I can't always pick it back up.

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Rough day...

Today was a particularly bad day at work.

First, I was addressed as "little miss" by someone.

Second, while I was discussing an issue with someone, I started talking with my hands to demonstrate certain aspects of the problem. This person with whom I was discussing made a point of grabbing my hands and holding them while talking about things. I wanted to yell, "No Touchy!"

(I will hug and touch friends, but I don't feel comfortable with it in a work setting...even my husband, most of the time. And no, it wasn't my husband.)

What do you want to bet this coworker would never consider doing that to a male colleague?

Finally, I suggested a way to make one of our processes more efficient. The response was that one of my colleagues started to yell at me, and the things he was yelling had nothing to do with the suggestion and was all about his resistance to one of the things I stated about the project. When I tried to explain that wasn't what I was talking about, he started making excuses as to why my suggestion wouldn't work. At some point, my supervisor had to jump in and tell him he was wrong. At that point, I just quit talking.

On the up side, I was vindicated later in the day when it turned out that this person was wrong about the stuff he was ranting on and that I managed to get my work done despite our process problem.

But it sure went downhill before it went back up. That's always rough.


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Lupus Fundraiser

My friend Cherish is again participating in the Lupus Walk this year. If you have even $5, please donate.


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Learning US History

I've been trying to figure out what to do with the older boy for classes. He's going to take some 'fine arts' and foreign language classes at the high school, but I didn't think some of the standard core classes would work well for him. I think he'd be bored out of his mind, and there's his auditory processing issue. He could work through things faster and get more out of it by studying on his own.

I'm also fighting this mental problem of the concept of high school as being redundant. You learn all this stuff in high school and then you have to retake most of it for college. I realized this part-way through high school, which is when I started taking AP classes. On the other hand, the older boy says he is too young to be thinking about college. I can see his point.

Finally, I have an issue with high school because it's simply too easy. Even taking AP classes through most of high school (and getting all 4s on the exams), I never really did learn how to study. I could usually do just fine by cramming. When I got to Caltech, this really bit me in the behind.

So I settled on the following: he's going to do CLEP exams. Rather than have him run through stuff and possibly have colleges look at it dubiously because I said he did it, I'm going to have him work through things and take CLEP exams. This will show that not only has he learned the material, but learned it well enough that, at many colleges, he won't have to repeat it.

His math course is one that he does on the computer (Aleks), and it turns out they offer a college-level chem class. I think that should be adequate prep, comparing the exam requirements and what Aleks covers. (I also have my old copy of Zumdahl, which may make for some interesting reading here and there.) So Aleks should cover math and science. I'm not going to worry too much about writing and reading at this point. I mean, this is the prolific author of many short stories...which I wish he would put on his LJ. :-)

I have a fun idea for history, however. I really like the Teaching Company videos, so I'm going to get their high school history courses. The guy who teaches them has been famous for quite a while for his theatrical presentations of history. As far as books go, I found a blog written by another homeschooling family who has been doing this same thing with their kids. Their recommendation for a supplementary text for US history is "A Patriot's History of the US." I looked at it as well as other texts by the same author, and it strikes me as completely jingoist.

So the fun part is that along with the videos and study manuals, I'm going to give the boy both "A Patriot's History of the US" and "A People's History of the US" by Howard Zinn. He will have to read them both and write up some comparisons. It'll be interesting to see what he gets out of reading these two books.

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Straw that broke the camel's back

We decided that this past weekend would be a good time to go back to Minneapolis. The older boy wanted to see some friends and I had a dentist appt. Monday. We decided to bring both vehicles so that Mike could drive back with the younger boy on Sunday. The older boy and I would leave after my appointment.

We left after lunch on Saturday. When we got to Alexandria, MN, we could see a huge, dark, and scary thunderstorm just to the north. There were tornado warnings being issued. Because it was still to the north, even if it was trending SW, we could still get ahead of it. Then we could get our cars in the garage at the Minneapolis place. It was very unnerving because it followed I-94 very closely, and I watched a pretty amazing lightning storm that was constantly to my left and barely subsided.

When we got to the Minneapolis place (about 4 p.m.), I remembered that my neighbor, who was checking on the place, said that the garage door hadn't opened the last time she was over. I decided to try it out.

As you may remember, I have a problem where things break around me. (Incidentally, garage doors really seem to have issues around me...)

The garage door opened. In the process, a cable came loose and two of the wheels popped out of the track. Mike and I went to look at it. We looked in shock, and then Mike said: "Look at that."

There was a padlock placed through the track. We turned to go look at the house and found that the doorknob from the garage into the house was gone. We walked into the house and found a sticker taped to the wall with a sign in sheet. The sticker said that the property had been secured by a company called Safeguard Properties. We looked at the front door, found the same sticker, and discovered a lock-box around the knob. They'd broken in and changed the locks.

The wheels started turning, and I remembered that a month and a half ago, I'd been served papers saying that my landlords were behind on the mortgage and the bank was starting foreclosure proceedings. The sheriff sale was supposed to have happened early this month...which would have been after my last visit down to Minneapolis.

I had been told by the sheriff as well as the MN Home line that I did not have to move and was, in fact, legally obligated to keep my contract until the six-month redemption period was over (the beginning of January). At that point, they said the bank would take over the property and that they were legally obligated to honor my lease.

Either way, I had a bad feeling about this. I called the police so they could file a report. We went to UHaul and rented a truck. Mike called a friend, and he brought two of his kids with to help. We packed up the place and loaded the truck. At least until 8 p.m. when the sirens started going off.

The storm we'd been following showed up with gusto. The sirens were not going off because of a tornado warning but because of straight-line winds. I've only experienced this once before, but it's not fun. Basically, it rains like crazy and the winds will kick up in excess of 70 mph.

We were sitting there with a garage door we couldn't close all the way and a bunch of stuff in the garage. Even though the winds were parallel to the garage door opening, the rain still came halfway into the garage. While we were waiting that out, Mike's friend's wife called to say that there was a tornado located in her area.


The storm subsided in less than an hour. By 10 p.m., we had the truck loaded...although we left some furniture behind that I didn't care to haul back with us. We got a room at a nearby hotel. The next morning we drove one of the vehicles and the UHaul to Fargo. My parents met us at the house and took the kids. Then Mike and I drove back to Minneapolis. Monday morning, we got my car, which had been parked at the neighbor's house. Mike drove back to Fargo, while I went to my dental appt.

In light of the fact that I was now leaving, I decided I no longer needed me desk at the U. I packed up all my stuff and turned in my keys. I have to admit that it made me a bit sad.

As I told Mike, it was an unsurprising end to what has been a surprisingly difficult two years. It's not that being apart was difficult. I think we handled it really well. But it seemed like the past two years has been filled with one crisis after another after another. I think when they put the locks on the doors, I'd just had enough and decided I was not going to spend another year this way.

I was hoping that what happened was some sort of bureaucratic error. Turns out, this has been a persistent pattern as of late in many places. It was highly illegal. I'm not sure there is much I can do about it as this point as all remediation seems to be about letting someone move back in. I really have no desire to do that at this point.

But I guess this means goodbye, Minneapolis. I would like to say it was fun, but...not really.

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Teh annoying: feed problems

Just a note for those who are subscribing in a reader: the feed for http://fciwypsc.wordpress.com/feed is not updating. You'll want to manually add a subscription to http://cherishthescientist.net/feed

And of course, I can't post it on the new blog because I know you'll never see it. :-)


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I give up. And I'm disappointed.

People have been pestering me for a long time to move my blog from LiveJournal. I love my LJ. Six years of my life is on LJ.

Chris Gammell today told me that he has to watch advertising in order to even comment. I didn't know that as I have a paid account. However, speaking personally, wading through ads would be enough to make me stop reading some blogs. Ads on the side is one thing, but LJs ad policy is getting nuttier.

I am therefore moving future posts (and maybe a few past ones) to the new Faraday's Cage is where you put Schroedinger's Cat: http://fciwypsc.wordpress.com

Since the title is just the acronym of the blog title, it may be easier to remember the URL.

(ETA: Chris had an even better suggestion, so you can also reach the new blog at http://cherishthescientist.net)

Don't unfriend me if you're an LJ user, though. My thought is that I will put stuff of general interest on the other blog. Stuff my friends would be interested in will stay here...


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I told my younger son that I was going to work at Starbucks today. He thought I meant as an employee. Apparently working at Starbucks is much cooler than being an engineer.

Sometimes I think he's right.

When I was at Caltech (in '95ish), I took an accounting class one semester. (Just for the record, despite the fact that my mom and sister are accountants, I hate accounting.) One of the students was earning a PhD in applied physics but was planning on a career working for one of the mega-name consulting firms. I asked him about his change of career plans, and his response was that, "Peace broke out." The primary opportunity for people with degrees such as his outside of academia was to work for firms contracting to the military...and the end of the cold war meant that such skills were no longer needed.

Or so he thought...

Despite being a pacifist, I have twice ended up working on projects for the military. I am not real comfortable with this, but it has made me realize that the military is also not all about making killing machines.

The first project I worked on related to the detection of submarines. It turns out that they often use magnetometers (things that detect fluctuations in the local magnetic field). While this sounds like a project that a pacifist should not want to work on under any circumstances, the goal of the project was very science oriented: how can you characterize magnetic fluctuations that originate in the ionosphere? It turns out that these fluctuations create noise in some of detection schemes.

The second one involves developing devices that the military can use in communication devices.

Believe it or not, I think I was more comfortable with the first project. It was a project that involved developing a lot of pure science: measuring, characterizing, and developing models of the 'micropulsations' we were studying. The science just happened to be useful to the military...but could easily be useful in other areas, such as geophysical exploration and mapping.

The bad part of the second project actually has nothing to do with military: any of these devices can and are incorporated into consumer electronics. In fact, many companies use such funding to develop products that can be used by the military but will result in significantly more profit if marketed to the electronics industry. Despite the fact that I am an avid consumer of such products, I really don't like the way that the electronics industry works as it encourages consumption and waste. I'm sure some companies would be appalled to know that I used my first laptop for 7 years before replacing it. It still works...but I can't find software that works with it anymore. My six year old now uses it to watch movies and play educational games.

I think that, because of this, I'm actually more comfortable with the military's role in all this. They are spending money to develop products of use to them, but these products can be used for commercial purposes as well...which creates jobs and boosts the economy. It just so happens that this particular facet of the economy is rather wasteful and that bothers me for other reasons.

Why would someone work at a job when they may have moral objections to the purpose of the job? Certainly, many people do so because they don't think about the implications of their job. (I was very stunned when a very pro-life Catholic friend was hoping to get a job with the Navy upon graduation.) Some people do so because it's the only job they can get. Or there is a choice between a job utilizing ones skills and doing something for which they weren't trained...or don't need to be trained.

But sometimes, it's the perfect irony. Sometimes you need to do a job like that to gain skills and knowledge...which can then be used for jobs of a different (more positive?) nature.

I guess some of it depends on whether you see things as black and white. While I'm still pacifist, I guess I have come to see the military as much more than a 'war machine'. Despite the fact that conservatives would hate it, the military is the ultimate 'socialist' program: it has benefitted us in many of the same ways that other large government enterprises have, such as NASA, in the form of jobs and innovation. And, in the long run, many people who are trained under some of these programs may use these skills in very unexpected ways.

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Some of you may know, I have been told I "probably" have a problem with fructose malabsorption, also known as dietary fructose intolerance. Through the magicks of the internet, specifically Amazon, I found a couple books dealing with the issue. I thought I'd share this info as I know a couple of you who read this may find the topic interesting.

The first was "Living with Dietary Fructose," a self-published book by Judy Smith. The second is "IBS - Free at last!" by Patsy Catsos.

The contrast between the books has been startling.

As horrid as I feel for saying this, don't bother Judy Smith's book. It looks like a bunch of tips someone wrote on napkins and then typed into the computer. It's meant to be helpful, but it's confusing and doesn't really explain anything.

Patsy Catsos, however, has put together a very nice guide. Catsos is a registered and licensed dietician. While she says that her suggested diet hasn't been scientifically studied, the basis for the diet is several studies that have been done in Australia.

Her book deals with people who have sensitivities to FODMAPS: Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-, and Polysaccharides. Roughly translated, these are sugars, fiber, and starches produced in fruits, vegetables, and grains. They are also added to our foods in forms such as high fructose corn syrup. One of the most common manifestations of this is lactose intolerance (lactose is a disaccharide), but people can be intolerant to a variety of FODMAPS. According to the research she cites, nearly half of people diagnosed with IBS may in fact be suffering from FODMAPS intolerances. Catsos explains what FODMAPS are and the various types that exist. She then shows which foods contain FODMAPS and describes a diet to eliminate those foods. The idea is that one can get away from such irritants and then slowly add them back into the diet, testing to see which groups of foods cause bad reactions as well as how much one can tolerate. (Unlike food allergies, the body can handle a limited amount of these.) She even gives a week's worth of sample menus and a shopping list for the menus.

The book is extremely well thought-out and thorough. I only had two complaints. First is that it would have been helpful if she had discussed more thoroughly issues of symptoms, although she did mention that one complicating factor is that people have different levels of sensitivities to various FODMAPS groups. As an example, some people are both lactose and fructose intolerant. If they aren't highly sensitive to both groups, they may be able to get away with having a glass of milk if they bypass fructose-rich foods that day (like fruit). On the other hand, if they add them in, the milk may in fact cause a reaction. Because of the inability of the body to handle the entire load of various FODMAPS, it can be extremely difficult to determine what is causing a reaction. However, she didn't really discuss how long symptoms can affect a person or things of that nature. Second, I don't know that she emphasizes strongly enough that even 'safe' sweeteners, like regular sugar or maltodextrin, can cause a reaction in large enough quantities.

Catsos also has a very helpful website: http://www.ibsfree.net

It's an extremely good book, based in scientific literature. It takes a logical progression and lays out a good explanation for the problem and how one can deal with it. Her website augments this information. The best thing about the book is it gave me far more information than my doctor ever did about dealing with the problem, especially in helping to find foods that you can eat.

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Home, sweet, home...

Despite having no desire to live on a farm or ranch, I feel a very strong connection to that part of the country where such things exist. My dad was one of those in the generation that grew up in the city but was expected to spend his summers helping on the family farm.

I also grew up in western North Dakota and Eastern Montana, so going back that way always feels like going home. For the weekend of the fourth, we decided to take a trip and spend some time at Teddy Roosevelt National Park. The kids and I had never been through there. We also went to the Pitchfork Fondue and the Medora Musical in Medora, ND...just 'across the road' from the park.

If you've ever been through North Dakota, but not to the park, you may have stopped at the Painted Canyon exit. There's a nice rest stop, and if you walk a little way behind it, you'll be met with a scene like this one:

Painted Canyon in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Painted Canyon in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

This is the North Dakota Badlands. It's an awesome lesson in the geology of some parts of the great plains region. The badlands were created by deposition of layers of pre-historic swamp (when compressed, turns to lignite coal) which is black. There are tan to grey layers of limestone and sandstone. There are also layers containing weathered volcanic ash, called bentonite, which are blue in color. Finally, the red layers are clay and limestone that were baked by burning lignite deposits. The lignite is set on fire by lightning storms and can burn for decades or even centuries. As it bakes the layers around it, the hematite oxidizes to rust. If the layer is wet, you'll get a deep red color. The locals call it scoria, probably because of its resemblance to scoria. But actual scoria is a volcanic rock of mafic origin.

The area is called the badlands because it is generally hot and dry. (In my entire life, I have never seen it as green as it was this weekend.) It is useless for growing crops both because of the poor soil and crazy topography. It is only moderately useful for ranching, as cows are not terribly nimble and cannot handle the topography well, either.

My son said they ought to raise goats in the area. I think he may be on to something there.

The park is filled with herds of wild bison and some stray wild horses. There is a lot of information in the museum on Theodore Roosevelt, who owned two ranches within the park boundary before his days as a war hero and, eventually, the presidency. You can tour the ranch houses or follow some guided tours. There are plenty of hiking trails as well as guided horseback rides. And if you're into Mountain Biking, you can ride the illustrious Maah Daah Hey trail, which circles around the western end of the park in the Little Missouri National Grasslands.

With young kids, it can be difficult to do some of the longer things, and we only had a weekend. We drove the loop within the park (about 36 miles). There were tons of people riding road bikes.

The highlight, however, was a 0.6 mile Ridgeline Trail loop. This does begin with a steep ascent of about 30-40 feet in vertical. The loop was a self-guided nature trail with handouts at the trailhead. The points of interest are numbered on the trail, and the number corresponds to the description on the handout. And there are views like this:

Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The trail was part of our effort to help the younger son earn his Junior Ranger badge, which he did. I think he learned a lot, but both boys enjoyed seeing the beautiful scenery and learning about the plants, animals, and geology of the region.

If only we hadn't forgotten our sunscreen!

We saw some bison, horses, and elk throughout the park, making sure to keep our distance. We also saw some lovely prickly pear blooms and skunkbush with berries. And there was, as always, a ton of juniper and sagebush. It's very funny to me how I spent so much time in girl scouts and various school activities as a kid in western Montana learning about the plants and animals of the region. The climate and soil is different enough in eastern North Dakota that I don't know as many of the plants out here, but I am always surprised how much I remember when I go back.

The kids were allowed to get one 'souvenir' at the park store. The younger boy chose a small telescope. This came in handy for watching bison and prairie dogs from a distance. The older boy chose a stuffed Theodore Roosevelt doll which was holding a teddy bear.

We spent the morning and early afternoon in the park. In the evening, we enjoyed the pitchfork fondue and the musical.

The best thing we saw, however, was an entire, gorgeous double rainbow right before the musical. The picture doesn't do it justice.

Rainbows over the Little Missouri National Grasslands
Rainbows over the Little Missouri National Grasslands

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Coworkers can make your life great or miserable. However, determining who would make a good co-worker is often a difficult task, especially when chosen using the very unpredictable method of interviews. I really think there must be a better way to do this, a quantifiable way, and I believe this can be accomplished by stating some measurement criteria and restructuring of the interview process.

First, you need to determine what it is you need to measure. I am proposing a three-dimensional scale.

The first dimension is density. Density is the normalized ratio of useful brain matter to total brain mass, thus occupying a scale from 0 to 1. Obviously the ideal co-worker is nowhere near zero on this scale. However, too high a number is obviously not good for ones own career. The optimum high end of this scale is, of course, approximately .05 to .1 below your own density value. The difference needs to be high enough for management to notice. There are also co-morbid conditions, such as minor insanity, that often accompanies those who are extremely close to 1.

The second dimension is velocity. This value is not normalized and has both positive and negative values. Velocity is, of course, the speed at which your coworkers can complete tasks which are relevant to their job. The coworker who spends all afternoon making wedding plans instead of working would score very high on the negative end of the scale. On the other hand, no one likes the coworker who comes in with everything complete and in order. (Subordinates yes, coworkers no.) The optimum value for this scale is far enough below your own value that superiors will notice but not so low that working with this person becomes an exercise in frustration.

The third and final dimension is viscosity, or resistance to stress. This is measured on a positive scale, beginning at zero. The optimum coworker will certainly not have a value near zero, as this coworker would be classified as wishy-washy or difficult to pin down. The minute they are asked to do something, they claim no culpability and/or turn into a puddle. And, again, a high viscosity coworker is not desirable as such a person is rigid in their thinking, either unable to acclimate to a situation or unwilling to trust someone else to make a decision with which they don't agree. Such a person causes projects to creep to a halt. In the latter case, such a person will spend so much time demanding justification that it bogs down the other individuals. The end result is that you want a coworker who can deal with a reasonable of stress without making everyone around them insane. The term "flexibility" is preferred by some individuals, but this doesn't give a good indicator as to a way to quantify this scale.

Measurement of these quantities is not simple, but it requires restructuring of the processes currently used to ascertain the abilities of a potential employee/coworker. Often, the first issue (density) is the one that is most frequently addressed. While it used to be performed by looking at one's resume and looking for similar past job experience, this is not usually informative. Many engineering jobs now address this issue by asking questions about actual topics one may encounter on the job or performing a small related task.

Velocity may be a bit harder and is almost never addressed. The recommended method of measurement is to give the person a problem you have dealt with in the past and for which you have a reasonable estimate of your completion time. Lock them in a room with the necessary tools. If the potential employee finishes it very quickly, far more quickly than you did, then you should recommend this person not be employed. If you go back into the room and find a corpse, obviously they weren't sufficiently devoted to the task. If, however, they finish the task in slightly more time than you took, they may be a suitable choice.

If the candidate seems acceptable for the first two categories, it is time to measure viscosity. A person's ability to deal with stress could easily be measured with a medieval torture device, but that is only appropriate for current coworkers. Instead, one should lock the candidate in the room (not that you were supposed to let them go in the first place) with another task. Then one should enter at regular five minute intervals and change the requirements for the task. If they ask for justifications for every change, they are probably not a suitable candidate. Be sure to wear protective gear, as the goal is to find the point at which the candidate becomes so enraged that they physically assault you. If they do so in less time than you have been tempted to attack your current coworkers, they are probably not an ideal candidate as well.

As has been discussed, there are methods for characterizing and measuring the suitability of potential coworkers. The scales established would measure a coworkers density, velocity, and viscosity. Appropriate activities during the interview, such as assessment of knowledge and bugging the shit out of them, could be used to determine how potential coworkers will rate and whether they should be hired. It is left as an exercise for the reader to determine how well such methods compare with currently used interviews in their organization.


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Reading the comments on Those crazy scientists, I thought there were two interesting issues brought up.

The first, by oddprofessor:

They lose faith because they don't trust the process, because they don't understand the process. And that's a real tragedy.

The second, by tomysky:

the areas that people like me--horribly ignorant to far too much--hear about most frequently are influenced and confused even further by politics, media and religion/philosophy.

I think that the first problem, people not understanding the scientific process, makes the ground more fertile for the second problem, that it's easy to be influenced by other areas on what should fundamentally scientific issues.

I think the root of the problem, though, is how we educate people about science, as well as everything else. In essence, I think this is a problem of education. I'm not one of those people who says, "In the good old days, things were better." I think we've always had a large chunk of the population which has been scientifically illiterate and probably always will. I think the notion of compulsory education was meant to remedy that, but the method used simply reinforces science illiteracy because it was based on the Prussian method of educating soldiers and laborers: teach them enough to follow orders and directions, but not enough to actually think for themselves. Social obedience is key. (I'm not saying the system is bad as I think widespread literacy is extremely important...but the implementation of the system goes completely counter to how science functions.)

What this has evolved into is a system where children are taught things in black and white. They memorize facts, and there are always right or wrong answers. There is no ambiguity. And frankly, I see advocates of this method coming from both the scientific literate as well as the science-phobes: our version of the truth must be taught as fact, and children should memorize these facts. Either way, it's in the same vein: "You must fashion him, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will."

What it should really be a process of discovering facts along with reasoning skills. A prime example is the age of the universe. When I learned the age of the universe, I was told it was approximately 7 billion years old. Then the teacher moved on to the next fact. Shortly thereafter, there was a big hulabaloo because Hubble sent back pictures from an area of the universe believed to be nearly 14 billion years old.

How could that be?

It was one of my first introductions to the process of science, and some scientist showed up on the news that night explaining that process. He said that we thought the universe was 7 billion years old because we had no evidence to give us any indication it was older. However, when presented with evidence that it's older, we have to change our understanding.

We have to understand that a fact is merely the representation of our knowledge at a given time and not something immutable. But how do you teach that?

The best way, and the least used in schools, is to shift away from science as an area of facts and into an area of the process of discovery. Get kids used to the fact that knowledge grows and changes over time. Give them a problem, like asking them how a plant grows (i.e. where does the mass of the plant come from?). Have them brainstorm ideas and keep a list. Then they should conduct an experiment measuring the mass of plants, the mass of the water given to the plant, the mass of the soil in which the plant is growing, etc. Then, after the experiment, have them use their measurements to invalidate or validate some of the hypotheses. Any kid that knows how to read numbers and add and subtract can do the experiment.

You see, usually someone is told about this experiment and the results. They are expected to memorize it and regurgitate on a test. After all, why would we do something that someone already did? The results are the important part, right? All we're after is the facts...

'Facts' are easy to test. Herding a group of 4th graders around with dirt and buckets of water and plants and measurement devices and beakers is hard. But the point of the experiment is not to teach facts. It is to understand how our perception of a process changes as we acquire more knowledge. Because, really, we live in a world that science is moving so fast that it can change very quickly. The facts are things we discover as part of the process, but the process itself is just as important...or possibly more important.

It should be reinforced, after that, by talking about how the students' various hypotheses matched what people believed historically and how it has changed. We are very prone to thinking that what we know now was what people always knew and believed. That is false. People's understanding has been shifting for a long time. The major difference is that the timescale on which those changes have happened has drastically decreased.

But what about an adult? So many of us were already brought up in the 'facts as immutable objects' schooling system that it's impossible to know where to turn. As Luke mentioned, adults also have the added complications of political, religious, and other issues.

First, science has become a much bigger endeavor than it ever has been in history. I think the problem is that it's also such a competitive field that people have to make a big splash and get their results out quickly because of career issues. So I think the way the enterprise is run is adding to the confusion. There are additional complications that certain results may bolster people politically, economically, and, perhaps, spiritually. But my personal feeling is that is the sort of thing you should ignore. It's the "noise" in the system. What a scientifically literate adult understands is that the result making a big splash today may fall by the wayside once problems with process are discovered. The 'facts' which stand up over time are the things upon which we need to focus.

Evolution is one such issue. Darwin said that species will adapt, over several generations, to their environment. He had a lot of evidence but lacked a mechanism for that to happen. Much later, genes were discovered. Since then, evolution has been observed in a laboratory. There have been theories on large and small scales about how this may happen, especially in individual groups of organisms. However, even if these areas are in debate, consensus among scientists is that evolution is the only theory that accounts for the relationships observed in virtually every area of the biological and medical sciences. Therefore, one should look for a) the theory that has a consensus in the scientific community and b) one that has withstood the test of time.

But the second issue is nearly as important: where do you find this information?

The best answer is from scientists. With the advent of the internet, it's a lot easier to access scientists and scientific journals directly. As an adult, you can't rely on a teacher standing in front of you, as in high school, and feeding you information that has been run through some sort of 'distillation' process to leave just the essential stuff in an understandable form. That's what our culture breeds with it's Prussian-based system of reciting facts absorbing whatever an authority figure tells us. As we move from high school to adulthood, those authority figures change from teachers to the media, the clergy, the politician, some of whom have no more an idea of how to deal with these issues than the average adult. Who do they go to for information of a scientific nature?

There are good sources of science for the layman: Scientific American and Science News Weekly come to mind. These are written, in many cases, not by journalists but by actual scientists. Go to blogs written by scientists (ScienceBlogs and Discover have excellent examples of such, if you filter out some of the more political aspects of the internet).

I know a lot of people look at those articles and honestly don't understand them. My first response is, "Good!" It helps someone understand that they can't take an area where someone has devoted years of their life and be able to understand it in 30 minutes. This includes a politician or member of the clergy or anyone else. But if they read it and try to understand it, and they keep reading more of it, they will develop an understanding. They will get a sense of what seems to stay constant in the long-term and what has changed over time. They will start to be able to distinguish the noise from the consensus.

I think if we could get people to peel themselves away from their TVs and talking heads for 30 minutes a day and spend those 30 minutes on something involving educating themselves from a legitimate source, we would have, essentially, a population that's about a scientifically literate as we really need. But that would require effort on many people's parts, and many people have never had training enabling them to understand the scientific process which is, as oddprofessor said, the real tragedy.

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The older boy struggled through algebra this past year. He hated, HATED it. As much as I hated it, I knew I had to keep him going.

I knew if I could drag him through the desert of algebra, he could soon drink at the spring of geometry.

Given we're both extremely visual, I was pretty sure that his experience in math would end up mimicking my own: I spent most of 9th grade mentally talking about how I hated math only to discover the joy of proofs and visual logic that followed the next year.

As I suspected, the boy is extremely happy right now. He decided to do geometry over the summer because he ended up falling back last summer by not doing any math. In the fall, he spent a couple months finishing up what should have only taken a couple weeks.

He started geometry 2 weeks ago, and he's already covered 1/3 of the course. He's been getting his homework done with minimal reminders. He noted how he really likes geometry, but he's surprised given the amount of algebra it requires. I'm glad he's realizing how these skills build on each other.

I had a truly awesome moment tonight, however. He asked me for help with a concept. As we looked over the problem, I started explaining how to solve the problem. After I explained, he said that he thought it would be easier to solve it a different way. His method was perfectly valid. So we both solved the problem using our own method, and our solutions matched.

It really impressed me that he was able to come up with an approach I might not have taken. Some of this might be attributable to the explanation one is given, but he also was able to see my approach and, I think, could have solved it that way as well.

I think I need to remember to sit back and let him explain what he thinks before I launch into an explanation. It's a skill that's useful for a lot of other topics, not just math, and I think that means he's becoming an adult.


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I recently had dinner with some people from the deep south.

Someone asked them if they'd gone to the beach to see the oil spill. They said that people were being turned away, but this ended up in a big discussion of various oil spill-related trivia. I listened intently to stories of how Obama is apparently responsible for the spill as well as the lack of clean-up. Trying to divert a bit from politics, I mentioned I'd seen a video from NCAR showing the possibility of oil escaping the gulf and traveling along the eastern seaboard.

The original video is directly below, but the second video eliminated some of the lower concentrations. I am assuming that this is to eliminate dilution levels which would be of minimal environmental impact.

Mentioning this was apparently a bad move. One person said, "Well some scientists are saying this whole spill is just a drop in the bucket, so you can't believe what any of those scientists say anymore."

An astute observer in the group quickly jumped in with an entirely different topic of discussion.

As you may have guessed, that particular comment was extremely bothersome to me. First, as far as I can tell, the only people saying that are the ones who came up with this graphic.

Second, I am starting to take those sorts of comments a bit personally. I am a bit tired of people thinking that they can be armchair scientists without ever having looked at a differential equation. I'm not saying that people who really enjoy reading Scientific American and are science-literate bother me. Often, they are very enthusiastic and have a clue how much work becoming a scientist involves...which is why they like reading about it but have no desire to do it.

No, it's the people who have very little clue about science but feel that they can dismiss any scientific study by using "common sense" or "intuition". Admittedly, I suspect that some of the people at dinner are science deniers because of their religious beliefs. The response may have been a way of rendering science impotent.

I have been contemplating a new response to this sort of comment, the more I come into contact with it. So far, I see two options.

The first is to jump in and start giving people advice on their careers and tell them what they're doing wrong.

The second is to start talking to them on my level of scientific understanding. "Oh, you're following the work of Dr. XXX, who showed that such a method works fine under those conditions. Can you tell me what aspect of the experiment you object to?" or "Wow, it's so great that you're interested in computational modeling. So what do you think are the short-comings of using a finite-volume method for such work?"

I think the second method will get the point across better, but given how often the malignment of scientists seems to be occurring in my presence lately, the first is getting to very tempting. (It does not feel too unlike the time a white supervisor told me how they don't like blacks in the area where she lived and expected me to be understanding of her point of view. By contrast, I think it must've been one of the biggest WTF moments of my life.) Maybe some of these folks don't know that I plan to be a scientist. If they did, some individuals might be less likely to say things like that around me.

On the other hand, I am disappointed that it's being said at all, even if not directly to me. I am surprised how often people who do not have a good background knowledge in a scientific topic will take on a subject as if they know far more than people who have studied in depth for many years. It seems like when people run into lawyers or doctors, they will ask them for advice or diagnoses respectively. But if you run into a scientist, it's perfectly okay to say that their 8-10 years of school (or more) as well as additional time building a career can easily be replaced by a little common sense. Where would the world be if that were actually so? And are people really naive enough to believe it?

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Academic Licensure

I have to admit that I'm getting rather peeved.

Part of my job this summer is to do some emag simulations using commercial software. However, the stuff I'm doing is rather new to me, so I have been trying to get access to tech support to verify that the way I'm performing the simulations is correct.

Except I haven't been able to get through to tech support in a week and a half. They will get back to me every few days to ask me some other question, but they still haven't sent me contact info so I can talk to a tech.

It came out a couple days ago that our commercial license was incorrectly listed as an academic license. One of the holdups is that I used my IEEE email rather than my institutional email, and the software company was freaking because my email didn't end in .edu. (This, despite the fact that I emailed them from my NDSU account, which does end in .edu.) I have heard rumors that some companies will be really lax about supporting academic customers. My husband has complained that he often cannot even get quotes for equipment because of his academic affiliation. I'm beginning to think the problem with this software support is similar in nature. Despite working at a university, some of our customers are in industry or government, so our work is technically commercial.

And while I'm waiting for this company to get their act together, I am holding things up because of our lack of support, which is not making the customer terribly happy.

Moral of the story: where ever I end up job-wise after I graduate, I will probably advocate not dealing with these people. If I end up in a faculty position, I will be steering my students toward other software.

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Synchronized Metronomes

This is a VERY COOL demonstration of metronomes being coupled by placing them on the board.

Thanks to Swans on Tea.

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Bad science day

I've been back in Fargo for less than two weeks. The really crazy 'must do when I get back' stuff is finally starting to slow down, and I think we're all starting to get a routine. However, I was having a very bad science engineering day. Those happen on occasion. I'm essentially working on four things at work. I'm spending most of my time on one, but I feel like I've been stuck for nearly a week. It's a simulation, and I've been fighting to get some tech support from the company (which mistakenly thinks we are supposed to have an academic license) on top of compatibility issues and design version frustration. I've had a little tiny bit of time to work on a second project, but I feel like because I have so little time, it's progressing at a snail's pace. That is an improvement over the other two projects, which are so low on the priority list that they are getting no 'air time'.

And it doesn't help that I'm only working half time.

In my afternoons, I'm starting to spend some time doing dissertation research. I'm starting a new project. I'm currently in the 'what the hell are they talking about' phase. This is the phase where you hope that by reading a sentence 18 more times, it might just make sense...for every single sentence in a paper. Okay. It's not that bad. However, it is extremely challenging, which makes for slow-going. On top of that, I've had a lot of interruptions that I'm finally just starting to quell down.

So my professional pursuits are making me crazy right now. I guess I'm okay with that because 1 - I know that eventually something will pop into place, as long as I keep plugging away, and 2 - I am home with my family, and they are keeping me grounded. They are keeping me very busy, as well, but I feel better after spending time with them. I just wish that on the days they were making me crazy, the science/engineering was going really well. That's a bit more rare. :-)

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The young experimentalist

The younger one's birthday was today. Since he appears to be a budding electrical engineer, he was the proud recipient of a snap-circuits rover. He has been working his way through the circuits, and one of them was a 'water detector': you place the electrode leads in the water, and a light turns on because the water is conducting the current.

He set it up, but I couldn't see any visible change in the circuit when he put the electrodes in the water. I said I didn't think it was working.

"Yes, it is, Mom. See! There are bubbles forming."

He was right: when the electrodes got close enough, there was hydrolysis going on. We spent a while playing with the electrodes and watching the bubbles form faster and slower. When we were done with that, I realized he'd just put the electrode on the wrong end of the light...there was no current going through it. Easy fix.

Tomorrow we're going to try the salt-water detector. This one apparently changes light intensity as you add salt to the water, but there are a few more resistors in the circuit so you don't blow out the light.

Anyway, the rover has been a huge hit. I just wish it came with a muffler.

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Isn't it OBVIOUS?

Okay. I give up.

If someone asks a question about you, it is apparently perfectly okay to get very offended if they made an incorrect assumption about you. Because, you know, appearance will tell a person everything they need to know about you, just a like the cover of a book reveals its quality. So will reading their blog. And if not, everyone should be able to read your mind and know everything about you in a few split seconds.

Apparently there has been some sort of telepathy gene that was introduced in the population, but a few of us just happened to miss out on it.

Therefore, feel free to tear someone to shreds if they say something that is personally offensive even when it's totally obvious that they really meant no offense. Obviously they deserve it because they are one of the genetically inferior non-telepathic folks on the planet and have no right to be here and deserve no dignity for being so obviously stupid.

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Happy Father's Day!

Two father-filled articles of interest:

Now, Dad Feels As Stressed as Mom

“Men are facing the same clash of social ideals that women have faced since the 1970s — how do you be a good parent and a good worker?” said Joan C. Williams, the director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the Hastings College of the Law at the University of California. “This is a pretty sensitive indicator of the rise of the new ideal of the good father as a nurturing father, not just a provider father.”


It doesn’t help that work eats up more time. In 1970, about two-thirds of married couples had a spouse at home (usually the wife). But today, only 40 percent of families have a stay-at-home spouse to handle domestic demands during the workday. Couples now work a combined average of 63 hours a week, up from just 52.5 in 1970, according to a 2009 report on workplace flexibility from the Georgetown University Law Center.

Men may be stressed out, but try telling that to their wives. Although men do more vacuuming and dishwashing than their fathers did, they still lag behind women when it comes to housework. When both husband and wife work outside the home, the woman spends about 28 hours a week on housework. Her husband can claim only about 16 hours, according to the National Survey of Families and Households from the University of Wisconsin.

Family Guy: Fathers No Longer Just Backup Parents

Fatherhood has undergone a profound change in the past half a century. In 1965 fathers were spending 2.6 hours a week on child care; by 2000 that figure had reached 6.5 hours. There are three times as many stay-at-home fathers as there were a decade ago, and families headed by single fathers are the fastest-growing household type in the U.S. “When I started studying American mothers and fathers, the majority of the fathers I studied had never bathed their children. Many of them had never changed a diaper,” says developmental psychologist Michael Lamb of the University of Cambridge. That was in the 1970s. “Now,” he says, “men would feel embarrassed to say they hadn’t changed their children.”

Now if I could get my husband to bake. Maybe he wouldn't screw up the angel food cake like I managed to. Maybe we can pretend it's Angel Pound cake...

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Gregor Mendel was a...

Female Science Professor wrote a response to a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education. One point of the Chronicle piece is that work that is not cited is pretty much useless.

Upon reading this, I snickered because I would think every scientist would know the story about how Gregor Mendel's work on genetics was pretty much lost and rediscovered later on. In fact, the wiki article says it was cited about 3 times over the next 35 years. Now, it's considered fundamental biology.

I remember learning about Mendelian genetics in my senior year of high school. (It got me a lot of mileage when I participated in the science olympiad biology competition at state that year.) However, I didn't learn that Mendel was actually trained as a physicist and that most of his published work was in meteorology. He studied physics under Christian Doppler. (You may have heard of him. *ba dum ching*)

Anyway, I think it's fascinating that his background was in physics, and I wonder if that had a lot to do with his experimental success in biology.

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I think I've finally gotten through a good chunk of this hullabaloo in the blogosphere about 'why are we treating family/work balance' like it's a woman's problem. (A good compilation of relevant posts can be found at Dr. Free-Ride's Blog.) The discussion evolved into 'why aren't men blogging about family/work' balance.

I'm going to jump back to the first issue instead. It is a woman's problem. It doesn't matter if the woman is in science or not, almost all the women I know are fighting this, and many simply don't have husbands who view it as their issue: it belongs to their wife. I have had a lot of friends ask me how I got so lucky to have a husband that is an equal (and sometimes more) partner in housework and childcare. The reason I got lucky is because I've never had to ask him to do housework: his mom did that plenty as a kid, and it shows.

I was extremely surprised that one of the things that started all this was the notion that the advice that really needs to be dispensed is that women ought to be discussing household duties with their husbands.

That all said, as a woman in science, it is sometimes disheartening to almost never hear an article suggest that a woman in science discuss household duties with her partner and split them evenly.

Seriously? Do people wait until their into their careers and have kids to suddenly decide to discuss the issue of domestic duties with their spouse? I guess my feeling was that if my future husband wasn't wouldn't pick up a dishtowel before we got married, then he most likely was not going to pick one up afterwards...in which case, I was probably wasting my time because I didn't want a marriage like that!

Yes, housekeeping and childcare are issues that a husband and ought to be prioritizing and participating in. I think that it's important for both partners to be flexible. I don't believe, however, that you just suddenly find yourself in a situation where you are in need of getting help with the housework and just now realize your spouse may be of some help. Those patterns have probably been quite evident from the beginning of the relationship. Unfortunately, I know a lot of women who thought they were okay with being the housekeeper until kids came along. Sure, they all tried to talk with their spouses, but my observation was that there would be, at best, temporary efforts at taking responsibility which fell off after a couple months.

My second point is that even if you do have a situation where the man is doing as much as or more housework and child-rearing than the woman, that doesn't mean you can still accomplish everything you need to. As much as my husband and I try to just do what needs to be done, there is far more than we can accomplish even together. This is also why discussions of what men can do are not always helpful: some of them really are doing as much as they can. Discussing it doesn't change the end result that they're already packed to the hilt. I think this is why the original column was trying to make the point that women scientists need to look at other ways of taking care of domestic chores, particularly since female academics are more likely to be married to other academics or professionals (i.e. someone with a time-sucking career) than male academics. In reality, two busy people are still going to have packed schedules and will still struggle to keep it together in regards to house and family. Ideally the partner in a relationship will help as much as he or she can, and it really should be an issue for the adults, not just the woman. But most women either have unhelpful spouses or over-scheduled spouses. I think the point is that we need to have a discussion about ways to deal with these stresses that are not spouse-dependent. (Especially true for academics who are single-parents!)

So really, the suggestions about how women need to spend more time talking to their spouses about creating a balance are, in my opinion, of limited use. Even today, a lot of men see housework as something that is beneath them or not their responsibility. (That does not, however, mean that they will reduce their expectations about it getting done.) You can talk until you're blue in the face and that won't change anything: he's either not going to be willing or he's going to be too booked up. Realistically, most women still bear the brunt of this problem and feel more responsible for it. Yes, it would be nice if this was viewed as a problem for both sexes, but until men start dropping out to take care of kids, I don't think that recognizing that reality and trying to find ways to help women is a bad thing.

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Always the wife, never the engineer

Last summer, I discussed my confusion about whether or not I was one of the guys.

I think that, this summer, I may have face this issue head on: my wifehood (or wifeliness, or whatever noun you use to describe the person who fulfills the female gender role in a legally sanctioned marriage) seems to mean that I am a mental appendage to my husband.

In the previous post, I questioned whether certain co-workers viewed me simply in that role.

I am fairly certain that one does, specifically because, when introducing me to people in a professional context, he always states, "This is Cherish, Mike's wife." And it makes me bristle.

I probably would not mind it so much if Mike was introduced as, "This is Mike, Cherish's husband," in a professional setting. At least there would be some symmetry. No, he is usually introduced as, "Mike," sometimes now with a Dr. in front, and always with a reference to his area of expertise.

It feels like my expertise is in dealing with my husband.

I realize this person really is clueless about my feelings on this topic, and I am undoubtedly going to have to explain that my relationship to my husband, while no secret, is not the first thing I want people to know about me when they will be working with me. I, too, would like to have professional credentials and expertise provided rather than marital status. I also don't like that he mentions the relationship every time he is discussing me with collaborators.

As much as I enjoy working with my husband, I have to admit that this is a serious drawback.

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On being a stubborn parent

The younger boy has a fairly long list of food aversions, and sometimes it just gets too be too much. It can be fairly frustrating introducing him to new foods because he will simply refuse to even take a single bite.

Tonight, I was getting frustrated again, and I hit upon an idea. I remembered an incident from my youth where my father was demanding that I hold my silverware properly. I was refusing, saying the way I held it was good enough. (I think I was 7 at this point.) So he said I couldn't eat until I held it properly, and I refused.


I can't remember if I finally gave into him or not, but I do remember he was tired the next day...because we sat there until midnight.

Yes, folks, I have stubborn in spades.

My solution was therefore to try this on the younger son, especially since he wanted to go to the park tonight.

"You and I are going to sit here until you try one bite of everything on your plate." His plate consisted of my homemade meatloaf and spiced, cooked apples. His older brother, who ate nearly half of the meatloaf by himself, was looking at the younger boy as though he'd completely lost his mind.


"Yep. Sorry pal, but I do have all night. I can wait. I can wait forever if I need to."

After a bit of back and forth, he asked, "Do I have to sit here even if I'm a grown up and old?"

I nodded. "Yep, even when you're old."

He burst into tears at that point. "But I don't want to live in this house when I'm old!!!"

Apparently that was enough to scare him into eating one apple slice. Fruit is easy, though. Most of the time he likes it. He argued a bit more on the meatloaf. I took a tiny piece and drenched it in ketchup before he braved it. He screwed up his face like he was going to complain how horrible it was. Then his eyes popped open, and he looked surprised. Next thing I know, he's shoveling it in.

"So you like that?"

"Yeah, I'm going to love it for the rest of my life!"

He ate it all. I'm glad he didn't call my bluff. Although, if he hadn't eaten the meatloaf, I'm sure his older brother would have.

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The real problem with science

oddprofessor sent me a very thought-provoking and well-written article on the problem with the science job market. (Unfortunately, it's extremely long, too.) It details how there have been all these cries that there aren't enough up and coming scientists while the statistics show that there is a glut in prospective scientists. It creates an interesting historical narrative, and then summarizes with the following:

Whereas new Ph.D.s had formerly spent a year or so applying for perhaps three or four faculty openings before accepting a job, they now spent multiple years sending out scores of applications, often without success. Graduate students and postdoctoral “trainees” were less and less the protégés of mentors morally responsible for their futures, Mangematin points out. They morphed instead into highly skilled, highly motivated and invitingly inexpensive labor, doing the bench work needed for professors to keep their grants. Winning those grants gradually came to outweigh placing their students in good jobs as a major mark of professional stature.

The obstacles facing today’s young scientists therefore don’t constitute temporary aberrations but rather are structural features of a system that evolved over a period of 60 years and now meets the needs of major interest groups within the existing structure of law and regulation. Essentially, this system provides a continuing supply of exceptionally skilled labor at artificially low prices, permitting the federal government to finance research at low cost. Based on federal statutes, regulations and appropriations, the system can be fundamentally altered only by congressional action.

Then later:

During the 1990s dot-com boom, as the market for information technology workers began to tighten and salaries to rise, information industry interests agitated in Congress for admitting more high-skilled foreign workers. According to Teitelbaum, lobbyists for the tech industry struck a deal with those of the research universities: If the universities would support a higher visa cap for industry, industry would support an unlimited supply of H-1B visas for nonprofit organizations, essentially giving universities the right to bring in as many foreign postdocs as they wished.

Since then, tens of thousands of Ph.D.s, primarily from China, have arrived to staff American university laboratories, and the information industry has padded its ranks with temporary workers who come largely from India. The transformation of postdocs from valued protégés to cost-effective labor force was complete.

The one down side to the article is, as one would expect, the lack of solutions to the problem. They mention that there should be more hiring of long-term career positions, replacing things like post-docs with career research scientist positions. On the other hand, they are suggesting this as a fix at a time when most universities are trying to get rid of things like tenure-track faculty and replace them with short-term contract positions and adjuncts.

I think the other oversight of this article is the fact that a lot of this same thing is going on in industry. No one works a single-job career anymore. The market is fickle, and a lot of the good-paying US jobs are being shipped to India and China. In essence, education is now being viewed as a 'product' and trying to emulate industry-based models.

I personally think a lot of the issue is globalization of both marketplace and workforce in combination with a stronger emphasis on outcomes and profits. A good researcher is one who gets a lot of grants, not necessarily one who places students well, as used to be the standard (according to the article). A good business is one that returns a good dividend to shareholders usually by product innovation, not necessarily one that provides consistent long-term employment or even a solid product. (I'm surprised that someone hasn't tried to instigate planned obsolesence into degrees, yet.) In order to meet these goals, employees, students, post-docs are all viewed as an expense and a commodity. If we can get it done cheaper or faster by sending it someplace else or bringing in immigrants, that's what we'll do. Who we hire or where the work is done is not as important as getting it taken care of cheaply.

I'm not going on an anti-immigration rant. I'm saying that we claim values that say one thing while doing exactly that which undermines it. If your goal is to make science and industry cheaper and more efficient, such a goal is going to be completely at odds with keeping the US on top in various markets or in general innovation. The two goals are, to a large extent, mutually exclusive. You can produce all the scientists you want, but if you are going to pay them crappy wages and get away with it because there are so many, they are going to leave science. Rather than focusing on producing more scientists, we ought to be figuring out what to do with the ones we've got.

I'm also not saying that this is entirely the fault of the people doing the research. They are constrained by the system in the same ways as those who are financially dependent on them. That's the point the article makes in saying that the only way to fix the system is congressional overhaul, although it also says that those people who have succeeded with the current system stand to lose a lot by such a change.

I think the US, both the people and their representatives, really need to figure out what is more important to them. At this point, the people in charge have decided that expense is more critical. The whole notion of keeping the US 'on top' is nationalist lip-service. Really, most people don't care where the jobs go as long as they get what the want on the cheap. The same people who say those things consistently shop for their Chinese-imported goods from Walmart...while complaining about all the manufacturing jobs being sent overseas. I guess it's sad to see the US education system following the Walmart model, but it'd be nice if people admit that's what they really want. Rather than saying they want the US to be on top and then making fun of the science being done or calling it a waste of federal funds or even, *gasp*, socialism, I'd rather see them admit that it really isn't important to them. Either that, or put your money where your mouth is and call your congress-critter about fixing the problem.

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Spoke too soon...

The older boy just told me something.

I suggested he write thank you cards to the cast of teachers at his school, which he gave them today.

I should've checked them before he gave them to the teachers.

He wrote in one:

"Mom wanted me to write some sort of butt-kissing thank you card. But I knew it wouldn't work on you."


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For the record...

I hate packing. And cleaning.

That is all the insight I have to share with you right now.

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There is something that really bugs me about the BP oil spill in the Gulf: the response. Everyone I know, regardless of political affiliation, is hugely disconcerted by the spill and the impending (and now current) effects on the environment and various industries in the Gulf region.

It bothers me because if you ask people about global warming and air pollution (which often go hand-in-hand), they will inevitably split their feelings on the topic based on their political loyalties. However, anthropogenic climate change has had and will continue to have large effects on any industry that is based on renewable resources: agriculture, fishing, etc. It also has huge effects on climate and environment, causing population decline or migration of animals.

Pollution is causing our food supply to become filled with toxic mercury, as an example. But during the Bush Jr. administration, the controls on mercury emissions were pushed off so they would not take place during his term. Incidentally, the controls were proposed by the Clinton administration, but they suggested an enactment during Bush's administration, so while they were on the right track, they also pulled a bit of the same. Bush's administration, however, tried to spin it that mercury pollution was decreasing, which is why the rules weren't needed, from their perspective. (That, by the way, is a false statement.) Few people protested, with the exceptions coming from various physicians groups.

Realistically, people should have been in an uproar over the mercury problem long before the last decade.

So why the hullabaloo about the Gulf spill and the political bantering about global warming/air pollution?

One word: graphics.

Right now, the news is replete with images of dead birds and fish, tar balls washing up on coastlines, oil in the bayou.

And what do you get with global warming: images like the one in this article.

Isn't that a lovely image of ocean water washing over some rocks? Totally makes you realize that there is a disaster at hand, right?

The problem is that it looks 'normal': you can't see that there are toxins in the soil, including residual DDT. We can't see the residual mercury and other contaminants being ingested and stored in fish. We can't see that the flounder population is dropping because predatory fish are becoming active earlier and feeding on eggs and young before they have a chance to develop. We can't see that there are more severe rainstorms, washing more toxins from the cities nearby into the bay. And we can't see the destruction of microorganisms that are essential for life to flourish in the bay.

In fact, what some people see, as mentioned at the end of the article, is that it is better than 50 years ago because at least toxic substances aren't being dumped en masse into the bay.

The reason doctors were the main proponents of mercury pollution regulation is because they were the ones seeing mercury poisoning in their patients. While pregnant women are told to avoid fish, most people don't think about how much fish they consume and the potential risks of mercury poisoning. It's not something that most of us see or know to worry about unless we are told about it.

With global warming and air pollution, all we have is a series of graphs. Some show temperature, some show contaminant concentrations, and some show population statistics. But they simply aren't as graphic as seeing a young chick covered in oil and suffocating to death.

ETA: At least some people are starting to get the right idea.

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And I'm not even back at work...

I'm still in the big city until later this week. In the meantime, however, my summer job has already started, and I'm doing work remotely.

I can tell that this is going to be a busy summer.

Part of the reason I keep going back to work in my old stomping grounds (aside from the fact that half my family is there) is my knowledge of a particular software program that I used during my MS project. There aren't too many people who know how to run it, so obviously they bring me back to run simulations. That is one thing I've gotten started on. It's rather cool that I'm learning to do some new things in the program. Learning new things, while sometimes frustrating, is generally a very fun activity.

However, I'll also be spending time on two other projects. One is a continuation of what I did last summer, involving validation of a testing process. Thus far, I have spent a good amount of time reading and constructing some Matlab code. I like coding. Specifically, I like making cool plots. However, sometimes my plots are too cool because while they look neat, they aren't giving me the data I want, or Matlab is hosing up what would otherwise be some very beautiful plots. (Why does Matlab reflect negative values about the origin in polar plots? It would make much more sense to autoscale them...especially when I'm working in decibels.) Despite the fact that I'm working on items related to testing, my role is to develop a way to validate our process, some of which I will do by modeling.

But no, they aren't going to let me run the equipment myself. In fact, I may even have a(n) lackey undergrad working with me who will probably execute the tests I'm developing. Why? Because they know things blow up around me, and they aren't willing to take any chances.

The last thing I'll be working on involves a newer measurement method. I'll be working with a couple people, but my role will be in dealing with the math aspect of things.

Okay, it's not strictly true that they don't let me touch equipment. In fact, I've gained a lot of facility with certain pieces of equipment in our labs. Maybe it's only cheap equipment that blows up on me?

Sometimes I feel funny calling myself an engineer. I always had this image of an engineer as someone who 'plays' with equipment all day. Instead, I'm writing computer programs, developing computational models, and doing a lot of math. (I also do a lot of writing...although that, for me, was not unexpected.) I guess it took me a long time to realize that engineering was a lot more than 'tinkering' with PCBs; it can also be a job where I get to spend a lot of time thinking about things.

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Spiritual but not religious

I came across an article at CNN.com the other day: Are there dangers in being 'spiritual but not religious'?

Most of the article was a discussion of this or that perspective, which I didn't mind. However, what bugged me was what a Jesuit priest had to say on the matter:

But for Jesuit priest James Martin, the phrase also hints at something else: egotism.

"Being spiritual but not religious can lead to complacency and self-centeredness," says Martin, an editor at America, a national Catholic magazine based in New York City. "If it's just you and God in your room, and a religious community makes no demands on you, why help the poor?"

and later

"Religion is hard," he says. "Sometimes it's just too much work. People don't feel like it. I have better things to do with my time. It's plain old laziness."

Ummm, no. I get the feeling that he hasn't really talked to someone who is 'spiritual but not religious', or at least not someone who was willing to be very open and frank about their reasons for being this way. And somehow, I think he and I must've been reading different Bibles.

Let's start with his point about the community making demands on a person. There are several issues with this. First, and probably primary in my mind, is that if one is doing something because the community demands it, they are more likely doing it by 'going through the motions'. Do they genuinely want to help the poor (as in his example)? Do they really have charity in their heart? Or are they succumbing to peer pressure. Doing something that helps other people is not a bad thing, but doing it because you feel externally compelled means you're not doing it because you recognize humanity in the needy. And it can become a bad thing when it starts being a means to show your involvement in a religious community rather than a desire to help those in need.

This is, in my opinion, one of the examples of why people become 'spiritual but not religious'. For those that are Christian, they may recall the story of the poor woman who cast copper coins into the treasury or when Jesus tells people how to pray. Although the verses deal with slightly different things, I think that, taken together, they say a lot about how we should approach religion. First, give what you can. Second, don't do it as a show. If God knows what is really in your heart, then going through the motions is really doing you no good. You shouldn't need a community to do the right thing; the right thing should be in your heart regardless of the presence of a religious community.

And I think it is the things that these verses are trying to point out that are such a turn-off for so many people. How many people go to church and see those who are actively involved in the church, yet turn out to be so judgmental against those who can't give more...or for any number of other reasons? Every church has them...

When I was very young, my family was extremely poor. There are many things my mom said over the years that made me suspect that the only reason we were able to get by as well as we did was because the pastor at our church was able to arrange donations of food, clothes, and even money on occasion. On the other hand, I also heard my mother talk about how certain people in the church were not terribly nice to my family (and, I suspect, some others), and I even remember the pastor giving a sermon about this very topic. I remember this one, even though I was only seven, because there were several people in church who actually said, "Amen!", while several others walked out. (I recall this because I was terrified: I'd never seen such strange behavior. I was raised Lutheran, and no one said anything during church unless it was part of a group response. I was convinced that something terrible was going to happen. I just didn't realize that something terrible had already happened...and the pastor was being very blunt in saying that Christianity isn't shouldn't be treated as some sort of exclusive club.)

So what does someone do when they encounter this type of behavior? They quit going to church. Or they change churches. Or a combination or serial practice of the two. Sometimes they just disregard religion altogether. My experience is that people become 'spiritual but not religious' because they want to believe in God but they can't stomach the dictates of a church or the hypocrisy they see among some of their fellow church-goers. They refuse to go through the motions, doing instead what they believe is the right thing to do: keep their religion between themselves and God. They are not accountable to the church or the community, just God.

I came across another blog post that reinforced this. It specifically discussed Quakers, but the point applies to anyone: God is not bound by sacraments. God is greater than the temple.

I think people who become 'spiritual but not religious' know that and feel that exploring sprituality on a personal level will provide more spiritual growth than involvement in a church ever could. And the priest, by condemning those who try to seek on their own, is only making their point for them. I think he's failed to realize that sometimes the lazy ones are the ones who stay in the church. They assume that whatever they need is obtained by sitting in church every Sunday and never really concerning themselves with their religion outside of that.


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The coziest beer I've ever seen

A friend wanted me to crochet him a beer cozy in Minnesota Twins colors. I happened to have a skein of Sugar 'n' Cream Stripes in American Stripe. I'm not sure the blue is dark enough but if he's really distraught, I'll make him another.

I've never made a beer cozy before, so I made up a pattern. I wanted something that would stretch a bit more than the average stitch (because of the variety of bottle sizes), so I got fancy. And since I don't want to forget what I did, I'm posting the pattern here.

Pattern under the cut...Collapse )

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Where are you from?

Over at Isis' blog where she gave Geekmommyprof the smackdown (which I personally think was unwarranted), I have been going back and forth about the question, "Where are you from?"

Apparently this question has prejudiced overtones.

I am amused that this question is considered to be an overt sign of prejudice because of the following definition:

prejudice: a preconceived belief, opinion, or judgment made without ascertaining the facts of a case

Translation: if you make an assumption about a person without gathering facts, you are guilty of prejudice. Asking the question is the act of gathering the facts. Making an assumption about someone's inclusivity or exclusivity in a culture is closer to prejudice than asking a question about their place of origin.

Now if you're asking the question as a way to reinforce some preconceived notion, that is prejudice. I don't doubt that there are people who do that. However, I think that making the assumption that someone asking that question has the intent to reinforce preconceived notions is also a form of prejudice.

Anyway, when I ask that, it is not my intent. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The reason I ask people where they are from is because, in the past, I have made erroneous assumptions about people's place of origin, sometimes with pretty awful results. And really, I've had people be offended both because they felt it should have been obvious they fit in or obvious that they did not.

My friend, whose wife is from Russia (and whom I hope doesn't mind me using her as an example), had a math teacher in school. This person saw her last name, walked over to her, got in her face, and asked in very. punctuated. English, "When did you get here?" Incidentally, her English is impeccable.

Not cool.

My first year in California, I made a horrible mistake: I thought someone was Japanese, and they were Korean. All I can say is that I'm lucky it was a friend because I think I would've had the shit kicked out of me otherwise. Instead, I benefited from a very long lecture on Asian history.

When I worked for Migrant Health Services, I couldn't tell the ND and MN native Latinos from those who came from Texas. If I made a wrong assumption either way, the person would be offended. How did I know? If you assume locality for someone and they ask you for directions, they can tell about your implicit assumptions. I just gave up and started asking. And, again, I initially made assumptions both ways.

I've also had to listen to friends, particularly Indian, who complain about the assumption that they grew up in India when they, in fact, grew up in North Dakota. (Yeah, seriously...we're not all pasty white up here.) Their views and attitudes are more similar to mine than to their parents, but people didn't ask...

It has not always ended badly: I assumed that a friend from Germany was actually from a local place. (I grew up around a lot of German speakers, so the accent isn't all that easy for me to pick out.) Another friend I thought was from the east coast turned out to be from Nigeria. In both cases, we had a good laugh about it.

The reality is that we live in a world where you can't tell much about a person based on their looks. People are very mobile so appearance is often useless as a clue. Jumping to conclusions one way or the other is prejudice. By getting an answer, I can push aside any assumptions I may have otherwise made based on their appearance. Yes, I do make some assumptions about their culture and values based on the answer, but this is, in most cases, far more accurate than making those assumptions based on skin color or accent or whatever else people use as indicators of these things.


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Very high squee factor

I've been emailing back and forth with my MS advisor about the book chapter we were invited to write. I have to admit that when he sent the email to the publishing group, I totally squeed at this:

I consulted with my colleague Cherish...

I know he always tended to think of and refer to grad students as colleagues, but I've always mentally used 'future' as a descriptor in my case. (Many of his other students were already working in industry, but I was not, so I felt a bit odd.)

Still, seeing it in writing is just kind of cool.

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