Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!

Just before Christmas I made my way down to Virginia, via a few stops in New Jersey. It was so sad to leave so much snow; we had at least a foot of snow at my house when I left, and it was still falling! It definitely didn't help with driving progress, but I still made OK time. My bigger driving problem was that I was still on 66 near DC at 3:00 when rush hour started. Over an hour was added on to my total trip because of that timing. Oh well, I still made it home in time for dinner!

Christmas was great as I was able to see my adorable niece. She is around a year and a half old, and has grown so much since I saw her this summer! I gave her a play camera for Christmas as she loves having her picture taken, and she seemed to really enjoy it. It may be another year before she really understands how to use it, but she likes pushing the buttons on it and having other people pretend to take her picture with it.

Today though we actually had some flurries here! I couldn't believe it was actually snowing, especially since it was warm enough for me to wash my car yesterday morning. It didn't stick though, and also didn't last for very long. But at least it felt like winter for a bit. How amazing, winter in December!

Well, I only have a few more days of vacation left, and then it's back to Massachusetts to work on all of those paper deadlines that are rapidly approaching. It was a fun break though, and since it's snowing in MA again today I'll definitely have snow when I get back!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Officially Class Free!

As of 12:30PM this afternoon, I have finished all of the course requirements for my graduate program! This is of course assuming I pass the class whose final I took this morning, but I'm not very worried about that.

Yes, I am a fourth year graduate student who is just now finishing classes; but for my department, this is a normal amount of time. Luckily, they just decreased our required course load by 4 classes, so instead of taking classes again next semester, I can completely focus on my research. What a relief! I am not opposed to classes, but I have lost so much time in the last 3.5 years because of classes that I can't wait to catch up on all of the different research pursuits I've been working on. I plan to still sit in on some classes and take a few interesting seminars, but now I can choose solely based on what is useful to me, and therefore concentrate on learning what I need to know instead of worrying about a grade.

It's an amazing feeling to be done. Sure, I have a year or two left in the program (our median is almost 7 years), but I finally don't have to take classes! Amazing! It's similar to the feeling I had after taking my last final in undergrad, where this immense burden is just gone. An important goal has been accomplished! I feel as if I have plenty of time to accomplish anything I want. Hopefully that will last at least a few days.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

You can have an Obama [insert anything]!

It's interesting how many e-mails I get from Barack Obama's campaign as well as a month after elections have ended. They are still trying to raise money, and are going about trying to get donations by offering many different free items for your donation. In the past few weeks I have been offered "limited edition" calendars, hats, scarves, t-shirts (first there was a Victory t-shirt, now there's an Inauguration t-shirt), long-sleeve t-shirts, and stickers. Actually, the stickers from were free right after the election, although they encouraged you to also make a donation (I got a free one).

Do people really need to be essentially bribed to give money? Wouldn't it be more effective if all of the money went to the campaign, instead of also having to pay for the goodies? But yet, I can't help but want the goodies myself. The idea of "free" things, even if I'm technically paying for it, can be too much to resist! However, I have indeed resisting giving more money to anyone this late in the year (Although I did get conned into finally giving to an environmental group, and my "gift" for being a first time donor should be coming in the mail soon!).

On another note, anyone who watches The Daily Show is probably thinking about the segment they did just after the election about all of the Obama stuff that is floating around nowadays. "Get your commemorate plate now, to celebrate the election of our first black president!" It's consumerism at it's best (or worst, depending on how you look at it), but yet I still want "stuff" so I can commemorate such an exciting time in America! So far I've only succumbed to stickers though, as I'm trying to get less "stuff" in general!! I guess it helps to have a limited amount of disposable income, thank you graduate school! Although most people can probably "thank" the recession for giving them that same situation.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Rutgers, New Brunswick

This past Saturday I finally visited the Rutgers New Brunswick campus, Tim's Alma Mater. It's interesting that the campus is actually divided up into multiple different campuses based on department. Since Tim was an engineer he lived on and primarily took classes on the Busch campus. From what I saw, this campus was the most industrial looking, with concrete and brick buildings. Their new Biomedical Engineering building was gorgeous, but the rest left something to be desired. However, we also visited the downtown College Avenue campus that from what I understand is primarily for liberal arts departments. That campus was beautiful! There were many buildings with wonderful architecture, and many old large houses that are used by different academic departments.

It was fun to finally see what Rutgers looks like, and see how the different New Brunswick campuses relate to each other. I can't imagine having to take a bus to another campus to take classes outside of my department/college, it seems like it would be a scheduling nightmare. Also, you could never have a roommate who has a vastly different major than you do! For some people that might be nice, but my best friend in college who was also my roommate for all but senior year was definitely not a Computer Scientist! I may never have even met her if we had both attended a university that was segregated by college in that way. How sad.

I wish I had some pictures to share, but I didn't take a camera with me. It was also a very overcast day, so they wouldn't be very good anyway. Suffice it to say that the different campuses are very different in their building styles, and I still think Virginia Tech has a much more beautiful main campus...even if I am a little biased. They definitely are two rather different universities, at least as far as that can be possible!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Don't forget to Vote!

Well, I just voted for president in person for the first time! This is not the first presidential election I've voted in, but before it was with an absentee ballot. Now I had the pleasure of going to the voting booth! Although our voting booths aren't really booths, you could turn around and see someone else voting. At least my precinct didn't really have any lines though! I think I picked a good time to show up; that may be a benefit of being a grad student, in that I can make my own hours on days like this. :)

I also had the delight of getting to vote for John Kerry again, although this time for Senate. At least he'll probably win this time...ha!

If you haven't voted already, please go vote! Every vote counts, and it could be very close! I'm so pumped about Election Day, I hope I can concentrate enough to finish the work I have due tomorrow! Not to mention some of my foreign friends are going to be over hyper today about how important the election is and how they wish they could vote in it.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Big mistake in little itty bitty packages

When I went to Target this weekend I saw the candy aisles, and suddenly remembering that Friday is Halloween inspired me to buy candy for my lab. I've done this every year since I came to grad school, using a plastic pumpkin to contain it on a bookshelf.

Well, now that I've had about 6 mini-candy bars in the span of 4 hours, I'm starting to wonder if this act of kindness is indeed a fault. Maybe the guys have enough self control around cheap chocolate (come on, you know some dark almond turtles from the local candy maker would be soooo much yummier and totally unaffordable), but for some reason I don't. Honestly I'm not sure they have much more self control either, but I have an added problem: the extra candy that didn't fit in the pumpkin is in my desk drawer. I did just lose all the weight I'd gained over the past year (thank you, exercise), but I suspect in the next week I may gain a few pounds of it back. Actually, I'm not sure it will even take that long...I've already eaten 4 more while writing this paragraph.

The funniest thing is that I was eating so healthy the past few weeks; I'd make a big dinner, and then eat leftovers for a few days, and then repeat. I haven't had an instant type lunch more than a few times in the past few months, and even though I've spent a good 10+ hours in the lab most days I haven't been snacking on junk food (because it wasn't here). So much for that.

Well, I guess I should enjoy my yummy holiday treats now, so that next week I can be better about it. Those evil little bite sized candies...yum...

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.

Last week when I put the trash out I was very impressed that our standard sized trash can was only half full, meaning our house of 4 grad students had created half our usual amount of trash! The recycling bin was also not any more overflowing than normal. Today is trash day again, and as of this morning the can was empty! Granted, we have a basically full kitchen trash can, some trash in the bathroom, and some bedroom trash, but that still means we will have a low trash amount again this week. We have reduced!!

Of course, the amount of "stuff" we buy has always been fairly low; grad students only have but so much money to throw around. On the same note, we've always tended to reuse: we have plastic and glass food containers we reuse in the house, we acquire much of our furniture used and give our old furniture to new homes, give clothes and "stuff" to Salvation Army or sell at yard sales, and put old things to new use.

Recycling though has been a more interesting progression for me. When I was a kid I didn't really care much about the environmental impact our actions had. I was brought up to not be wasteful and not throw away anything that could be reused, but it was my younger sister who was adamant about recycling. For instance, she would remind us to recycle our soda can when the thought of throwing it away had only half-formed in our minds. We didn't have house pick up of recyclables in VA (they still don't, at least in the southern half of the state), so bags of recycling would pile up in the basement until it was time to take them to the recycling center. What a hassle! I never really cared all that much about it, and didn't think it would really make a difference. To this day everyone in my immediate family still recycles, but I think sometimes some of them get annoyed with how much effort it takes.

Now that I live in MA, I've become at least as aggressive about recycling as my sister already was about 15 years ago. I understand much better the environmental impact of our waste, and how crucial it is for us to try to do our best. I will buy a different brand of the same product in the stores if the package is made from recycled material or is more easily recycled. I remind housemates when they throw away or are about to throw away something that could easily be tossed into the recycling bin instead. Since we have recycling pick-up with our trash once a week, it is practically hassle free to recycle, which makes it so much easier to actually do it.

The next step is composting, which I find a little bit harder without my own yard. Many of our friends compost, and it really does seem like a crucial way to decrease the amount of stuff sent to landfills. In Springfield, MA they recently instituted an additional bin for food waste that is picked up on the curb with the trash. I'm not sure how well it's working since I don't live there, but it's great that they are trying to take that step.

I really feel like where a person lives and the attitude toward reducing, reusing, and recycling in that area (as well as accessibility of recycling) makes a big difference toward how much that person participates. For me, both taking a resources geology class my last year at Virginia Tech and moving to MA really made the difference.

What do you think influences people on this issue? Do you have any other ways we should be trying to save the environment within the reduce/reuse/recycle strategy?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Twilight is my favorite time...

Actually, Twilight is the title of one of my new favorite books! It's a YA novel by Stephanie Meyer that is being released as a movie this November. A friend of mine (the one I wrote about working on her MFA to write YA literature) has been gushing about this series for years, so this summer I bought the book and this past weekend I finally read it! It's an easy read (the vocabulary is accessible for 13 year olds, after all) and some parts are obviously meant to relate to people in their teen years, but it still drew me in quite easily.

There are two reasons I enjoyed this book so much: the characters, and the world definition. Edward is still on my mind this evening, he is so eloquent, knowledgeable, and fascinating. Bella is very entertaining, and actually a teenager I can somewhat relate to if I draw on the memories of my own teenage years. Both of those characters are incredibly intriguing, as are all of Edward's family. I LOVE the interactions that happen in this book among them all.

The world is one of my favorite types: everything occurs in our own world, but the twist is the definition of vampires and other "monsters" that exist. She redefines what it means to be a vampire, and how they interact with the human population. Of course, the sheer fact that there are vampires in the book immediately appealed to me; it's like a lighter version of Ann Rice, whose books I enjoyed when I actually was a teenager. It also reminds me of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that I've recently started watching in my "free time" (I never watched it when it was actually on TV).

I read 40% or so of it Friday night, and the rest Saturday night. Granted, we grad students have tons of work to do, so even though I stayed up really late I didn't sleep in much. But it was very worth it to finally read for fun again. I haven't read for fun in at least a month, and I haven't finished a book I was reading for fun in about a year (unless you count the audio books I listen to each time I have to drive down to VA and back). And of course the last time I finished a book that quickly was the first time I read the last Harry Potter book.

I hope to continue reading for an hour or so in the evenings this semester, not that I really have the time. I started Mists of Avalon so long ago I can't even remember the month or year, and it would be great to be able to give it back to my sister at some point. That's definitely another book I love, for similar reasons (more about that if I ever finish it!).

Then I'll definitely move on to the other 3 books in the Twilight series...

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Wintry Confliction

Right around this time every year I feel very conflicted about both winter and living in Massachusetts. If I was still in Virginia it would not be quite as cold yet, and the leaves would still be on all of the trees. I would have a longer time to wear autumn clothing as well; it's already too cold in the morning and evening to wear only a light jacket. I wouldn't be running the heat all evening and morning in addition to overnight, and the growing season wouldn't be as good as done. When I woke up in the morning the air outside of the covers wouldn't be so cold, so maybe I'd actually be willing to get out of bed.

Despite all of that though I do love winter in MA. I love waking up to a snow covered driveway, and layering on the covers at night. I'm always excited about a good excuse to drink hot drinks, so I consume a large amount of hot tea every day. I love snuggling under the blanket while watching TV in the evenings, and using a warm shower to warm up in the morning. I always wear layers anyway, so soon I can start layering with the sweaters that have been under my bed for about 5 months. I love being bundled to some extent.

I also love playing in the snow, and I love that we can still drive around after and while the snow is falling! Sure, the snow comes more often here than in VA, and we get more of it each time it falls as well, but still the roads are generally clear soon after it stops falling. People are also a lot less idiotic about how they are driving in the snow (for the most part).

Of course, clean roads mean school is never canceled. Usually I'm fine with that, but since I'm taking a 9AM class this semester it means I have to get up extra early when it snows to clean off my car and warm it up! That's of course going to be a problem every morning they don't call for snow and it snows anyway, as well as mornings where they call for snow and it doesn't happen. Either I end up not getting up early even though I need to clean off my car, or getting up early and then not needing to clean off my car! So I hope the snow stays away for most of the semester, because getting to school by 9AM is enough of a challenge for me without that extra 15-30 min of work!

At least in the winter our lab at school is too warm instead too cold; I can take off extra jacket layers instead of wrapping myself in a blanket as I work!

Thus, I have a conundrum. I wish it was warm outside, as it's just barely too cold most of the day for me to really want to sit outside. However, I also wish winter would hurry up and get here so I can wake up to a winter wonderland most mornings! But then again, I don't want to have to spend the time to clean pieces of that wonderland off of my car. Sheesh.

I wonder if Blacksburg was ideal as it's not as cold as MA, but you still get snow relatively often. Not to mention the bus system is good enough that I could just take the bus instead of cleaning off my car. Oh well, I gave it up to come to MA!

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Grace Hopper Pictures

Jen and Me at Grace Hopper 2008

Grace Hopper was such a fun conference, and to prove that I wanted to share a few pictures from the trip. First of all, as mentioned in a previous post, I ran into Jennifer, who I interned with in summer of 2007. She was a Google Anita Borg scholarship finalist this year, which I either had forgotten about or didn't know about until I saw it in the back of the GHC program! She is such a fun person, I'm so glad I got to see her again and get a picture with her! And hey...doesn't that look a lot like BJ behind us??

dancing at Grace Hopper 2008

Also, would you believe that we had lots of dance parties at this conference if I didn't have photographic evidence? It really is a fun conference to attend; both Wednesday night and Friday night were essentially party nights this year. Friday night was sponsored by Google and Microsoft, giving away free t-shirts, a good dinner, and a DJ that encouraged lots of crazy dancing.

3 of us at the resort outside in Keystone

Of course, I can't leave out the scenery. There was tons of great scenery, and the few pictures I took will primarily be posted on Moments Caught on Film, but here is one of 3 of us the morning we were leaving for the airport. It was quite cold in Colorado, but I suppose it was just priming us for the next few weeks here in New England. Goodbye Colorado, we had fun!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

It's good to be home, but it was fun!

I really enjoyed Grace Hopper this year. Although I'm relieved to be home and able to work toward all the deadlines coming up, I can't wait for another chance to attend! I met so many great people in so many different career and life stages, learned some more about how to decide where to go with my own career, and had a great opportunity to present my research.

My favorite part of the conference was definitely the networking aspect. I wish there were more opportunities to talk; often I found myself rushing to the next session because the previous one went over, which keeps me from being able to talk more with those people in that session. I did however find some familiar faces that I hadn't seen in over a year! I found a friend Jen who I interned with at PNNL two summers ago, and had not talked to in many months. I also found Kristin, who I had met at the Google retreat for the Anita Borg Scholarship in 2006 and had vaguely kept in touch with through Facebook. Unfortunately many of the other people I met in 2006 at Google and at Grace Hopper were not at the conference this year. However, I met so many interesting new people that I didn't have much time to be sad about that. Hopefully we will all meet again next year, or some other future year.

For anyone wondering: I did not make it to the next stage of the Student Research Competition, but that's OK. I had a great time presenting my work in the poster session; a lot of people came to my poster, and many seemed to understand when they left it. I especially loved talking to the undergraduates, many of whom had no idea about my type of research when they stopped to talk, but most of whom grasped it very well by the end. It was great to be able to teach them about something new, that might help them later.

So, I've been incredibly exhausted since returning from the conference, but I still have so much more I'd like to say about it! Maybe I'll continue to post about GHC for the next week or so, in the "free time" I have between catching up on coursework, research, and paper writing. I actually needed a coffee to get through the day yesterday, which hasn't happened in at least a we'll see how the week goes!

Monday, October 06, 2008

Environment and GHC Occasionally Collided

On Friday Mary Lou Jepsen spoke about her experiences with the One Laptop per Child and her company Pixel Qi that she started to continue that work. Apparently then have shipped approximately 1 million laptops already. In one African country an 11 year old girl created a laptop hospital to fix the broken laptops for other kids, after figuring out how to fix them herself. The laptops come with 6 extra screws, as Mary had envisioned the laptop to be fixable by the children themselves. I think this anecdote is yet another that supports the idea that girls are just as likely to be interested in computers as boys, as long as you don't tell them they shouldn't be (implicitly or explicitly).

I was also impressed to hear how little power these laptops take, and that they can be charged with a bicycle, cows walking on a treadmill-like device, and other non-traditional energy sources. According to her graphs, if a large number of people began to use these laptops instead of their traditional laptops, we could save a significant amount of energy. The laptops have innovative power saving capabilities, as the screen is exceptional in its low power usage, and the hard drive and processors are turned off whenever they aren't being used even if the computer is still on. Any action by the user essentially turns them back on immediately, so the user doesn't really notice that anything was turned off. How cool is that?! These laptops have so many capabilities that it would be great to have on ALL laptops!

Not only do I love that there is such an innovative laptop, I also love how environmentally friendly the use of it is. I wonder, of course, how environmentally friendly the actual development of the device is compared to other laptops. I hope that one day we can make computing have a much lower environmental impact, and maybe this laptop is a step in the right direction. Any guesses on how long that will take?

On a related note, GHC was overall much more environmentally friendly than usual. Every attendee was given a reusable plastic water bottle and encouraged to use that instead of plastic cups throughout the event. ThoughtWorks gave out organic cotton paper that when planted will bloom flowers, NetApp gave away organic chapstick, the free Microsoft t-shirt was made with organic cotton, and overall a lot less "stuff" was given away. Although it's always fun getting stuff, we really don't need it. There were even bins at the conference center for attendees to place any unwanted free stuff, that would then be donated to local schools. I think it's great that the organizers took the time to try to be more responsible toward the environment, and I hope the trend continues for future conferences.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Mary Lou Jepsen's thoughts on being a women in Technology

On Friday Mary Lou Jepsen spoke about her experiences with the One Laptop per Child and her company Pixel Qi, but she also gave suggestions on how to approach being a woman in computing. She quoted Gloria Steinem as saying "Sexism is still confused with nature as racism once was." Although the quote was initially referring to Hillary Clinton vs. Barack Obama, it still applies that often gender is the most limiting factor in equality today. Personally, I hope we can work to change this for the next generation.

She said that you should always negotiate before accepting an offer, because it helps them think of you as a good negotiator and then they'll give you better jobs later on. Getting that extra little bit is important in the beginning (before accepting an offer is your best chance for the next 2 years to make a change like that), but letting them know you'll negotiate is possibly more important.

She reminded us all not to give up too easily as well. She claims that getting your degree (PhD, if relevant) is very important as well. Although we see men who have succeeded very well without finishing their degrees, we don't really see women in that position. Having the degree will give you that extra believability, and make it harder for people to discount your ideas and criticisms. This is important more for women than it is for men, due to that inadvertent/invisible/unacknowledged sexism problem.

The biggest point and my favorite point is that it all boils down to confidence. When she was taking testosterone, her entire world view changed. She suddenly thought of herself as the smartest person in the world, she was always angry, and she was always thinking about sex. Nothing was different in her life but the testosterone. She feels that these feelings came from the same place as the self-doubt without the testosterone came from: being unsure about herself. Although the story is funny, it also points out that quite often the same feelings manifest themselves different ways in the different genders. What she wants everyone to learn from her experience is that when a guy is giving this type of attitude, stand up to him; he's not any more sure that his idea will work than you are that your idea will work. Don't let that type of attitude stop you, know that it means that you have a good chance of winning if you don't give up. I think this is advice that many women in technology really need to hear, as often the biggest barrier to success is dealing with the people who seem to want to put you down no matter what.

Her last piece of advice is to give credit to others, and stand up to take credit of your own work as well. If you give credit, people are more likely to believe you deserve the credit you ask for. Take advantage of the fact that you'll be easier to remember because you look different than the millions of guys in your position, and that companies will be more likely to remember you; so if you do something good, that reputation will last well.

GHC Keynote Fran Allen on Diversity

Both of the keynote speakers at GHC have been very interesting. On Thursday we were honored by hearing Francis Allen, the first woman to win the Turing Award (the highest award in the computing field). I actually had the honor of meeting Fran Allen on the shuttle ride from the Denver Airport to the Keystone resort. She's a great lady, and definitely has strong opinions about where the field of computing is going as well as the state of women in our field. Although she spoke primarily of technical aspects of the field during her talk, she also spoke on her beliefs about the reason the number of women in computing dropped, based on her experiences in the field. Apparently, in the 1960's the field of computing started to become a major at universities and was based out of engineering departments. Well, engineering departments were primarily male, so suddenly women who were entering computing from other fields were blocked from entry as they didn't have the engineering knowledge that was suddenly defined as necessary. So by the 1970's the number of women had dropped in the field, and the glass ceiling started to exist.

This is a view of the problem that I've never heard before, and find very interesting. For everyone who actually thinks that women don't belong in computing or aren't capable of being in computing, this could finally convince them they are wrong. Not only are women now a large number of engineers graduating each year (I believe it's around 50%), which proves that we are capable of being engineers, it also proves that women have always been interested and the reason they left is that they were pushed out by sudden strict requirements. Of course, these are things that most of us believe anyway, but maybe a true history of the changes in computing would help remind everyone that men are not automatically better at it, they just shaped the field in a way that preferred them at the time. We have bigger problems to look at too, like visibility and perception of computing, but if we can work on increasing everyone's knowledge of how our field became defined it may help the rest of our work as well.

My favorite quote from her talk is that she is "both honored and concerned" about being the first woman to win the Turing Award. If you want to read about the technical aspects of her talk & her views on awards, the GHC Wiki page on her keynote has lots of details (written by me!).

Monday, September 29, 2008

It's almost time for GHC!

3 of us from my school at GHC 2006

In a few days I'll be traveling to Colorado to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC). The only other time I've been able to attend was in 2006, so it's great to be returning! The picture above is from that trip, during Sponsor Night, where we gets lots of free stuff from companies, and basically spend the evening having fun!

GHC is a conference primarily for women in computing, although men are welcome to attend as well (only a handful do each year). There are many goals of the conference: bring women together, support women in computing, share tips on finding success, and share research results. It's a fun conference, although many serious topics are discussed. One of the most exciting reasons to attend is to see so many women in one place that all have careers (or future careers) in computing!

I'm participating in the ACM Student Research Competition this year, and I think I have a good shot to at least make it to the next round at GHC. My research is solid, my poster is beautiful (although the poster printer did mess up a subtitle that's fine in the file I printed from...), and I think I've figured out how to describe 3 years worth of work in 5 minutes. We'll see if the judges agree, but I'm ready to be there and go for it! The poster session is Wednesday night (I really hope I don't get a migraine from flying), and everyone who is chosen to move on will give a 10 minute oral presentation Thursday evening.

I met a lot of great women at GHC 2006, so I hope to reconnect with them as well as make some new acquaintances. There's even this new CONNECT project, that allows participants to scan their badges when they meet someone new, and then they'll each get an e-mail with the other person's contact information! It's supposed to make it easier so that you don't have to use business cards. I've still got my business cards ready though, do you?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Pandora -- A way to Happiness

I know that for many people Pandora is old news. I've always thought it was a neat idea, but for some reason I only recently started using it regularly. Now that I use it, I think it's great!

For those that don't know, it's an internet radio website that will create a station for you based on your preferences. The people who run the website listen to music and characterize it (supposedly by "400 distinct characteristics"), and those characteristics are used to determine what music you might like based on what songs you've marked as "good" in the past. This is done from radio station to radio station, so you can mark that you don't like a song for a specific station you've created, but it could still show up on a different station.

One of the reasons I love Pandora is that I can create a station based on a single song I love, and then it'll play other songs it thinks are similar. If I don't think the song is good, I mark is negatively, and it readjusts. Since my music tastes are very varied, this is a great way to find new artists I like with little effort. I've already bought a few songs from iTunes that I found on Pandora! Not to mention that I've discovered the names and artists of songs I've heard before and liked, but never could have easily found.

The only downside is that they only have but so much music. There have been a few songs I really wanted to use as the seed to create a station that they didn't have. There is also a newer band I love that I wanted to use as a seed to see what other artists are similar to them, but they didn't have them either. However, all of the other stations have been great, I was even able to make one based on a song by a Japanese artist!

If you've never tried Pandora, you should check it out. If you already use it, please share your username so that we can share stations! I'd love to see what types of stations you guys are making (what few of you there are). You can see my Pandora profile here, my username is vtmegan.

Happy Listening!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Getting a "good job" -- advice for the graduating PhD student

A graduate student that I considered to be very smart and toward the top of her field recently graduated with her PhD (I won't say from what university or what year, given that there are only but so many of us). I've always wanted my research to be as exceptional as hers. Well, I found out a few weeks ago that she had only received 2 job offers (for academic positions) after she had interviewed! At the time she was interviewing I knew that she had received an offer from an overseas institution that she had decided to turn down due to distance; but I had assumed that she must have had many offers in the US! Turns out she only had 1 other offer, at a relatively unknown school (I assume university, but it may be a college).

This revelation was quite shocking for me (despite the fact of how out-of-the-loop I have been to have only recently learned about this)! Here is this great researcher and student, who ends up accepting a position much below her capabilities. Do any of the rest of us even stand a chance at being hired when we graduate??

Well, talking to others that knew her better, I found out that there is a very likely reason for why this happened: letters of recommendation. Apparently, she defended her thesis AFTER she completed her job search. At the end of her defense her committee were all pleasantly surprised at how astounding her contribution was to her field. From what I hear, it is likely that the letters were not as strong as they would have been had she defended before they were written.

So, the lesson of the day: Defend your thesis BEFORE you go on the job search, even if it could mean 1 more year in grad school. You may get better letters of recommendation, which can make your final set of employment choices much better!

(Although I tagged this as pertaining to women, it pertains to ALL graduate students)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

GOP proves the point that Obama was trying to make

I watched the DNC on primetime last night, which basically covered Michelle Obama's speech and not much more. I enjoyed the speech though, and I think she got across a lot of what she supposedly wanted to: that they are normal people living the American dream, that they can relate to the average American, and will make changes in Washington for the better.

I read through a few commentaries about the speech this morning online, and one of the articles on CNN caught my eye. In this article, we basically read excerpts from comments made by GOP members about the first day of the DNC. Ironically, their criticisms actually brought out the points Michelle Obama was trying to make. For one, Ben Stein said that she was nothing special in the fact that she's a mother, and had a sick father. Exactly the point! She wanted people to realize that she understands their struggles because they are her struggles as well.

Other Republicans commented that the theme of change is the same one the Democrats have been spouting since the 1960's. Well, I do believe that progress is a main focus for the Democratic party. We don't believe in the status quo as being the right way by default, especially because there are so many people that struggle to make ends meet, or to get their fair chance. Once we make it possible for everyone to live a decent life, and break down racism, sexism, homophobia, and all other ways that Americans try to make others sub-human, then maybe change won't be necessary. But there are still so many major changes that need to be made, of course it is still a major theme!

I suspect the fact that the Republicans are saying that the American people should "rely on more than convention speeches" is a good sign: it shows that so far the speeches have been strong, and well done. I'm looking forward to the rest of them this week!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Goodbye, Olympics!

I'm so sad to see the Olympics end; I really enjoyed watching so many sports! Fortunately I had the mental strength to avoid watching all day long and mainly watched prime time coverage (except for watching fencing online, indoor volleyball during the day, and some other online clips)! If you didn't see the Opening Ceremony, you must find a copy of it somewhere! It was gorgeous, much as one would expect from Zhang Yimou, who directed both the opening and closing ceremonies. I love his movies for their artistic elements, so seeing his creative genius in a live performance was fantastic (I wish I had been there!).

The Closing Ceremony was equally pretty, but obviously not as elaborate as it was shorter. I have to say I was a bit disappointed in the British part of the closing ceremony though. It wasn't as pleasant to watch or hear, although I think that may partially be due to the television feed. I thought the hand-off to the Brits was done in an interesting way, but the level of artistry seemed much lower than we've seen in the rest of the Beijing performances. I hope that London has a more artsy opening/closing ceremony in 2012 than it appears they will; I won't bother to watch if it's just music celebrities performing.

The good thing about the Olympics ending is now I can be a better grad student and spend more time doing work! I was definitely not the only one here who spent extra time in front of the TV (even some of my grad student housemates that rarely if ever watch TV watched much of the Olympics), but that doesn't help the work get finished. To my credit though, I did do some mindless research-related tasks while watching some of the primetime coverage!

Well, good job athletes, I look forward to seeing you on TV again in 4 years!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Dr. Horrible, fencing champion!

Have you seen Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog? If not, you really must! You can watch it for free at that website, or you can download it from iTunes for $5. It's a show created during the writer's strike as an alternative to using the big name studios, and has only been released on the internet. The main character is played by Neil Patrick Harris, with other major characters played by Felicia Day and Nathan Fillion.

The plot revolves around Dr. Horrible's attempt to join the Evil League of Evil, his love for Penny, and his nemesis Captain Hammer. Much of the plot occurs via song, as it is indeed a musical. Very entertaining!

So why do I call him a fencing champion in my title? Well, I swear that his outfit looks much like fencing gear! For the first few minutes of the show you only see the top half of him, and his jacket looks almost identical to a fencing jacket. Similar material, similar fastening, and similar fit. Once you see a full length shot you can tell that it's a much longer jacket than would be worn in fencing, but it seems vaguely inspired by it. His gloves however, are definitely fencing gloves. They look exactly like a very commonly used brand of glove (similar to ones seen here, with a blue "grippy" material on the hand. I hear many people have been trying to replicate the costume; use fencing gear! The gloves especially are quite cheap, the jacket not so much....but if you're like me and have it lying around under your bed, it could be a good use for it!

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Tornado in MA??

Although we've had a lot of crazy weather lately, I was definitely not expecting to hear of a tornado warning here in Massachusetts. I actually missed the warning as I was on vacation in Maine (posts about that soon!), but my housemate told me about it when I got back last night. Tornado warning! That is definitely not something I have ever expected to experience anywhere that I've lived, much less here.

Apparently, however, MA ranks number 35 in states for tornado frequency, according to the Disaster Center website. This website also states that MA has an average of 3 tornadoes per year, based on data from 1950-1995. Since this was my first tornado warning since moving here (at least that I'm aware of), I supposed that means many of these tornadoes do not happen in this area (we are in a mountainous region, after all).

Finding the Virginia webpage from the same site, however, shows that it has an average of 6 tornadoes a year and is ranked number 29. I remember one tornado/strong storm from when I was in middle school. The other storms I remember were not quite tornado strength, although we did have to go into the basement for many of them.

Well, I suppose tornadoes are not exactly something I should fret about, considering that I've moved to a state with fewer of them, and I've only really experienced 1 in VA. Still, I hope we don't have any more tornado watches or warnings any time soon, especially since our only real warning system is

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Olympics are almost here!!!

I'm so excited about the Olympics!! I love playing sports, watching sports, and wishing I was to that level in sports! This year they are showing TONS of events online, so even if your favorite sport isn't shown on TV you can still watch!

This momentous change is great for me, as my favorite sport is fencing. I fenced in college, and ever since have been frustrated with how little we see on TV. During the last Olympics they did at least show the semifinal and final rounds in sabre (which was my weapon), which is better than nothing. This year it appears that is all they are showing as well, but at least now I can watch more of it online anyway!

Of course, the bummer is that I'm out of town during the sabre final, which will be shown at 2AM! What horrible luck. Last time I believe it was at least shown at a decent time (although then it wasn't live). I wonder if my friends will want to stay up until 2AM to watch fencing on TV? Somehow I doubt it.

But still, I'm excited. I suspect I will be able to find the events online somewhere after they happen, even if it's not via the NBC website. I noticed via Windows Media Center that they will have channels that allow you to watch Olympic events after they have happened (so not live). I don't how much it costs (or if it costs) to subscribe to that, but it may end up being worth it. I don't understand how other people can not care about the Olympics at all, I'm already giddy with excitement and it's still a week away!

Another big problem is the Olympic opening is during a concert I was planning to attend. I think I might still go to the concert, but it's actually a hard decision!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Lauren's Wedding

me, lighting the candles

A month after Jaclyn's wedding we had Lauren's wedding. It's been a busy summer! I was not, however, in this wedding until about a week before when I was asked to be the candle lighter. That's a job I've never had before!

bride and groom listening to speeches, while wearing their paper crowns

recently wedded couple wearing their crowns as well

The first activity of the weekend was of course the rehearsal and the rehearsal dinner. Fabulous speeches were given by family and friends, hilarious and adorable photos were shown, and delicious food was served. We were also given fun favors, including paper crowns we were expected to wear for the duration of the event.

some of the delectable food at the brunch

the aunts, mending the dress

The next morning we had a bridal luncheon for all of the female relatives and bridal party. It was hosted by my grandmother, aunt, and cousin (who was a bridesmaid) at Lauren's parents' house. The food was all fabulous, with a nice variety of cold, hot, salty, and sweet. Probably the most exciting event of the morning was the hemming of my cousin's dress (the very pregnant maid-of-honor), as it had only come in from the store a few days before the wedding. Luckily it was finished in time!

bride and groom kissing

The wedding was great, partially because the minister joked some about Lauren and Alex (the groom), and thus the overall feeling was light-hearted. Yes, it was a serious wedding in the fact that they are serious about their devotion to each other and God, but it was not as serious feeling as many of the other weddings I've been to the past few years. It probably didn't hurt either that the "Imperial March" from Star Wars was played after they were introduced as "Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong" at the end of the ceremony.

bride and groom reacting to the Thriller dance by the bride's family

groom has just removed the garter!

After the wedding, the reception was held at a local museum. There was delicious food, and very entertaining dancing. For instance, many of my relatives danced to Thriller as a surprise for the bride, which they practiced for about a month. Did I mention that the garter retrieval was also done to music from Jaws?

bride and groom drinking their champagne

Lauren and Alex are both very expressive people, and thus help us take many great photos. They can be quite a pair of goofs, which is one of the reasons it was so fun to be at their wedding!

bride and groom

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Thunderstorms -- one of my favorite things

I love thunderstorms, I think they are fun to watch. I've never lived anywhere that had frequent thunderstorms, so they have always been a treat. Ironically, we have had thunderstorms almost every night for the past week. Actually, this entire summer has given us more thunderstorms than I've experienced since moving to MA three years ago. It seems that almost every day the Weather Channel calls for thunderstorms, although they don't always happen.

Friday I enjoyed a thunderstorm from the covered balcony of a restaurant, Saturday a thunderstorm ruined the outdoor plans for my party, and Tuesday it canceled our playoff softball game against the #1 seed. It looks as though storms will also cancel volleyball practice today (we play outside), and quite possibly the re-scheduled softball game tomorrow.

The heavy rain we received last night actually flooded our department's first floor! The atrium, the conference rooms, and classrooms all had an inch or two of water in them. There is a single lab on the first floor, but they were far enough away from the water entry-point that they were spared. However, we are expected an afternoon and evening full of rain again today, so they may not be OK this time! It's rather scary to think that your research or electronics could be ruined due to rain in an area that is not prone to floods.

Hopefully I can continue to enjoy thunderstorms this summer without it causing too much damage. I don't know if it's global warming or some other phenomena that's screwing with our weather, but for the moment I mostly enjoy it. If we're lucky no more problems will come from it all.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Why the outrage?

According to, people are outraged that there will be pro-Islam posters on New York City subway trains in September. The ads are very simple black and white ads with a simple phrase related to Islam, and a web address where you can find out more about the religion. The dates were chosen to correspond with one of their holy holidays.

Why are people so against this idea? One man claimed it was due to the fact that one of the backers may have been involved in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. This man has not been sent to trial or convicted, however. Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? It seems that as long as the website is promoting the religion and not extremism then the ads should be fine.

The point that the ads would be up during the anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy was also used. Does that really matter though? Extremists and terrorists were behind that event. Granted, many (or all?) of them can be linked to Islam. But does that mean that all Muslims are terrorists? NO! If people get worried during the anniversary because there is a simple add asking you to learn more about Islam, then that is their own narrow-minded problem. I see no reason for the city of New York to keep a religious group from simple advertising. They should keep the ads up specifically for this reason, to make people think twice about stereotyping and fearing an entire religion.

Computer Problems

Back in June, my Dell Inspiron E1405 stopped working. Just plain wouldn't turn on. No whirring of the fan, no starting of the harddrive, no sound at all when the power button was pushed. As some of you may remember, I am absolutely in love with that laptop. I loved the media buttons and speaker on the front edge, I loved the gray and white combination that so many other people hate, and I loved the photo sticker I put on the cover.

So, of course, we spent a good deal of time taking it apart and trying to figure out what was wrong. We tried so many things, including trying with and without battery and A/C power, pushing the button below the button you see on the laptop, taking RAM out and putting it back in, using a multimeter to test if power was being sent, etc. It was fun to take the thing apart, so I had to share some pictures. Unfortunately I don't have any pictures from when it was completely apart. All pictures were taken with the camera on my phone, but I think they came out rather well anyway.

detached screen

main part of laptop without keyboard

In the end, we were not able to fix it. It appears that the motherboard is dead. How annoying! Luckily, my officemate has a harddrive dock that lets you plug it in to another computer via USB. So at least I had all of my files at my fingertips, which is the more important thing.

I searched for awhile for another laptop of the same model that I could just stick my harddrive in and call it a day. The cheapest I could find was $600, but for all I knew that motherboard would die in the next year as well! So that entire search was quite frustrating. I tried to get people to sell the laptop to me without most of the pieces (like no memory, harddrive, optical drive) since I already had those and they worked, but no one was interested.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Happy Birthday to me!

I just celebrated by 25th birthday this weekend! Although we had planned an outdoor event, a short thunderstorm managed to soak everything enough to halt those plans. It was still fun though! We made some stuffed mushrooms; bought some fruit, hummus, chips, and salsa; and mixed up a few delicious sangrias!

cake in progress

I also made myself a chocolate cake, with raspberry filling between the layers. I cooked two layers but cut them in half to make four shorter ones.

finished cake, after the candles are taken out

The real frustration was icing the cake. It was so hot and humid all day, that the icing would just fall off! I ended up freezing both the cake and the icing (thank goodness our freezer was only half full) so that the icing would be thick enough to stay in place. This did, however, mean that I had to ice in batches, as the icing warmed up rather quickly. Usually no A/C is not a huge problem, but for decorating this cake it was a big issue!

me, cutting the first slice of cake

The cake turned out well enough though, I finished decorating it about 30 minutes before everyone was supposed to arrive. Everyone was impressed with the decorations (I just used a piping tip, and sprinkles for the blue inside flowers), and said it tasted delicious. I think the tartness of the raspberry really did give a nice contrast to the chocolate. yum!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Powerful and Energy Efficient go Hand in Hand

There is apparently a list called "Green500" that ranks supercomputers based on their energy efficiency, as I read about in this article: The Green500 List: Good things come in threes. According to the article, the world's current fasted super computer named Roadrunner is also the third most energy efficient!

It's really great to see that we are making progressing in decreasing the energy consumption of computing. These energy savings are apparently due at least in some part to IBM's BladeCenter QS22.

Hopefully technology can continue to become more environmentally friendly, but this success seems like a great step in the right direction.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Stimulus Package

Someone I know recently received her economic stimulus check from the government. She is married, and they have a 1 year old daughter. They are currently living off of the husband's salary only, use WIC to help pay for groceries and their daughter's needs (diapers, food), and have debts they are trying to pay down (he brought credit card debt to the marriage, she brought student loan debt).

One would think that the stimulus payment was really meant for them; they need it more than most people I know. That money would go to bills and debt payments. But when they received the check, it was not for the full amount! They were given the full $300 for their daughter, but because they don't make enough money they were not given the full $600 each.

This knowledge makes me think about the point of this stimulus package. Obviously, it's not meant to help people who really need it, who are struggling even though they do their best. They always worry about money like this not being used; but of course people with low incomes will use it! They can't afford to save money, everything has to go to something. It's so sad that people who need it aren't getting as much as those who could easily live without.

I know that people who make over a certain amount receive a smaller check, but I still find it shocking that low income families also receive less money than the middle class.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Jaclyn's Wedding

Over the past 3 months, I have attended 3 weddings each of which have been 4 weeks apart. The first of these weddings was the Harmon-Bell wedding, for my cousin Jaclyn to marry her high school sweetheart Jon. He proposed to her right before they graduated from college in 2007, but that's a story for her to tell herself.

my sister, niece, and I with the bride

I was lucky enough to be asked to be a bridesmaid in her wedding, along with my sister, our other two female cousins, and two of Jaclyn's friends. I love the color green she chose for our dresses; it was a great color for a spring wedding in the South!

bride and groom's first dance

Jaclyn and Jon of course are a very adorable couple, even if my housemates think they look like kids on their engagement announcement picture (sorry Jaclyn!). Of course, the differing opinions between the Northeast and Southeast on the right age to get married is a topic for an entirely different post.

wedding cake

Their rehearsal, wedding, and reception were quite beautiful though. Everyone had a great time, even those in the "under 5 years old" category. There was the electric slide which has been played at every family wedding in my generation, a delicious buffet, a chocolate fountain, wine punch (my aunt made them add extra wine), and the joy of celebration. Not to mention the wonderfully warm April weather.

One down, two more to go!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Early bird catches the worm

This morning was not exactly my favorite of mornings. I returned last night from the last of the 3 weddings of early summer, then had the alarm set for 6AM to take Tim to the bus stop for a ride to Boston for a conference this week. Mother Nature, however, decided that 6:00 was much too late for waking up, and thus sent a very loud thunderstorm from 5:00 - 5:45. Needless to say, not much sleeping happened after 5:00.

When we left the house a bit before 7, we noticed that there were a bunch of little white worms that looked like larvae climbing up the stairs to our door. I wish I had taken a picture, but we were in too much of a rush to think about it. It was a bit freaky though; they were climbing vertically up the stairs, the railing, and were even ringing the top of the trash can. It looked like they were mounting war against us!

When I returned a bit after 7, I expected to see them covering the front door as well. However, I instead saw a robin standing on our trash can, and then leaping on to the railing when I parked. There were no worms in sight except for the one in its beak. After I registered what had just happened, the robin flew away.

Thank you, early bird.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Jane Austen -- finally I understand the hype!

I've been hearing for years how much everyone loves Jane Austen's books, but I had never read them. Now, I have still not read them, but I have finally watched three related movies: Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, and Becoming Jane.

I absolutely loved these movies, although I loved Becoming Jane the least. Since that movie is about a fictional version of her life, I guess it shows that she was better at creating good stories than the writers for her pseudo-biography. For Sense & Sensibility though, I watched it twice in 2 days, which is something I very rarely do with movies. I would have happily done the same with Pride & Prejudice if I had the time when I rented it.

These movies really entertain me because they are not only interesting, but they also create a tangled mess of relationships that is slowly sorted out by the end. Of course I had my suspicions on how everyone would end up, but I could not have guessed the paths that would lead them there. The characters were extremely engaging, most likely due to how different they were from each other (both female and male characters). There were also strong female characters, who always keep me engaged. As far as movies based on love lives of a group of people go, these are much deeper than most newer movies.

If you haven't seen these movies, I definitely recommend that you at least see Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility. After you have watched them, if you are hungry for the same type of movie, then by all means watch Becoming Jane, but don't expect as intertwined of a plot as exists with the other two.

Monday, June 16, 2008

JK Rowling Gives Harvard Commencement Speech

Sorry, I'm a little behind on the news it seems! But perhaps not all of you have seen this speech yet.

Both the video and transcript of her speech

Today I ran across a link to the speech that J.K. Rowling gave at Harvard's commencement this spring. Among other things, this speech gives insight into why her characters are the way that they are, and why the evil characters are evil in the ways that they are. It seems that she values empathy and compassion above many things, mostly due to her experiences working at Amnesty International while in college. It was great to see the speech that she gave, both because it echoed many of the thoughts I have had over the past few years and because it helped give insight into who she is besides the author of the Harry Potter books.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Movie: Sex and the City

Last week I went with a few female friends to see the Sex and the City movie. I was never a big fan of the show, mostly because I have never had HBO, although one of Tim's housemates used to watch it regularly so I watched a few episodes with him the last few years. Thanks to that I at least knew the characters and what the show is about.

One of the people I went to the movie with was an avid fan of the show when it was on originally, so she explained much of the backstory after the movie. However, I was never lost throughout the entire movie and actually enjoyed it! Although knowing the backstory made the movie a little more rich in plot, I think it stands fine by itself. Granted, it was not one of the best movies I have ever seen, but it was not the worst either. It was entertaining despite some cliche lines and the obsession with certain clothing brands, especially as it really hit home on the fact that strong independent women sometimes do want what less career driven women desire as well (such as marriage, a nice wedding, etc).

One of my favorite aspects of the movie is that the personal assistant Louise the main character hires halfway through is an African-American female Computer Scientist (played by Jennifer Hudson)!! Not only is she portrayed as smart (she fixes the main character's website, is able to organize her life, and gets the main character back on her feet), but she is also beautiful, and interested in "girly" things like fashion. With so few women and African American computer scientists, I hope that this character helps to subconsciously remind girls and women that they too can succeed in our field. Too bad she wasn't doing something stronger computer-wise (websites can be fairly basic when compared to other types of computer work). It's also sad that she was one of the few non-white characters in the entire movie, but I suppose that is something for someone else to write about.

Overall, it was entertaining and fun to watch, even if it was a weakly done chic flick.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

College Kid, hmmm?

I was recently reminded that it is typical for people who understand the reality of some experience to view it much differently than those who merely look in on it. Although after living in some world (such as grad school) for many years, it can be easy to forget how others view one's own world.

To me, graduate school (for computer science at least) is defined by learning and working at the same time, although those two parts can be both symbiotic and in conflict. Graduate school is mostly about research, with the most useful learning not coming from classes but from reading papers, interacting with other researchers, and working. Not only are graduate students learning some small part of their field in detail, they are also beginning their careers by publishing their work, attending conferences, and networking. In a sense, graduate school is almost an apprenticeship where in the end no job is guaranteed, but is still likely to be found. Graduate students are often living their lives as normal adults, sometimes with families but often without, participating in their community, taking vacations, etc. The only main differences between graduate school and an industry job are that graduate school pays substantially less, expects you to work longer hours more frequently, and has more flexibility overall. We don't even pay tuition at many schools, but instead it is waived.

I have recently been reminded however, that many people who have not attended graduate school themselves view it more as "being in college again." As far as I can tell, it is viewed as following the college/university model very closely with just harder classes than are taken at the undergraduate level. As you have hopefully gathered from my previous paragraph, this is very far from the truth in Computer Science! Yes, it can be close to the truth in other disciplines, but even in liberal arts programs the graduate students still take fewer classes than undergraduates, have some form of stipend that pays them to work for the department in some capacity, and usually do some form of research at some point in the program. For instance, I know in Mathematics graduate students generally focus on classes for the first few years and are only then ready to actively participate in research.

I think it's also important to note that there is a different focus in graduate school than in undergraduate education. As an undergrad, one usually learns a very broad range of information including general education requirements. Students learn a large amount of background knowledge that could be necessary in their future careers. In graduate school, this background knowledge is of course assumed, and thus graduate students focus on the area they are most interested in pursuing. More is expected of students overall, as only truly interested and motivated students ttend graduate school (although of course many people who are as interested and motivated in the field choose not to attend).

The department's building is the graduate student's place of work, their work community, and often practically seems like a second home (as sad as that is). Graduate students are generally on a first-name basis with professors, and their opinions are generally valued. Graduate students are often the mentors or teachers for undergraduate students, which may be why grad students often call undergraduates "kids" when talking with other graduate students, even when they are almost the same age. Or maybe we call them "kids" because after a few years of graduate school it's hard to remember being "so juvenile" or "so lost."

Personally, I think at my school the biggest difference is that many undergraduate kids are noisy, obnoxious, and inconsiderate of other people. But then again, I suspect the graduate students at my alma mater probably feel the same about their undergrads.

But either way, do try to remember when talking to graduate students that they have done their time in college and have moved on. They are usually no longer living the college lifestyle except for the fact that they may live in a college town and don't make very much money. They are career focused, independent, and soon to be college/university professors teaching "those pesky college kids."

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Richland WA - Desert or Not?

I spent last summer in Richland, WA. For the record, this is not near Seattle! It is actually across the mountains in the eastern part of the state, where it is much more arid. From what I understand, it was originally desert but has been irrigated enough over the years to now be able to support plants (such as trees and grass). It is part of the Tri-Cities area, which also includes Pasco and Kennewick.


There are many great reasons to go to Richland, besides working at PNNL (my reason for moving there). Many of the roads are extra wide so there is plenty of room for bikes, making it very easy to bike around town. There is also a fabulous (paved) bike path down the Columbia river that has just enough hills to make it interesting without being too tiring. Downtown there is a place that serves afternoon tea in a Victorian setting, there are craft fairs during the summer, and cherries are both very cheap and very tasty for most of the summer. Not to mention that there are many local wineries, at least one of which has a very delicious restaurant with homemade cheese (among other foods).

birds flying over the Columbia river

deer relaxing near the Columbia river

Richland is also fabulous for its wildlife. There are birds, deer, and coyotes (supposedly they were around PNNL in the evening but I never saw one) to name a few. In July I went on an afternoon river tour, where I saw most of the wildlife in the area. We also saw a few orchards and farms growing on the slopes near the river. The tour was fabulous as it started in the afternoon (bright sun) allowing us to see great scenery, and then ended around sunset, allowing us to see that same scenery become transformed into another beautiful setting.


In the summer it rarely rains in Richland; it rained twice while I was there, once was a light sprinkling and the other was actual rain for less than a day in August. Despite the incredibly hot temperatures, this makes the summer quite enjoyable as long as you believe in sunscreen, drinking water, and A/C. If you get a chance to go there, I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

A new writer to keep in mind

A friend of mine from undergraduate is about to finish her MFA degree (Masters of Fine Arts) in children's literature. I've had the pleasure to "beta-read" what is likely to be her first young adult fiction book, which is also part of her Masters thesis. The current title of the book is Arion, and I have to say that it is absolutely fabulous. This book is in the fantasy genre, so she has created her own world in addition to her own characters, plot, etc. It's so amazing reading a book that is so well done when I personally know the author!

I would love to share a link with you, but she is still in progress on making her website. However, I can tell you that her name is Kathleen Foucart, and as soon as she has a published book I will be posting again to let you know! She is definitely going to be a great writer if you can appreciate YA books, and I'm not just saying that because I know her!

Monday, June 02, 2008


On May 17th we threw a great double-layered surprise party for a fellow graduate student (her boyfriend, another graduate student, actually organized it). Her birthday was that day, but as both her and her boyfriend were traveling to a conference the next day, they decided to just celebrate the following weekend (or so she thought). However, her boyfriend had actually organized a group of us to meet them at a local restaurant for dinner (her favorite restaurant that they frequently eat at). The eight of us managed to get there about 10 minutes before they arrived, and they managed to get into the restaurant before it started pouring rain. When they walked in and saw us, she was so surprised I don't think it registered for a few seconds that we were eating with them. Before they got to our table though she was all smiles and saying how she couldn't believe it. She was actually very surprised, which is amazing because many of our friends have had surprise birthday parties/dinners organized by their significant others in the past year. According to her, her boyfriend is very bad at planning this type of thing, which made it even more surprising for her as she'd never expect it.

I had also posted on her facebook wall earlier that day wishing her a happy birthday and asking if she had any plans. I also suggested that we go to one of the local bars if she didn't have plans to celebrate. Right before they left for dinner she responded to me (I found this out at dinner as I had already left at that point) saying that they were not celebrating until the following weekend. I wish I had a picture of her face when she remembered this wall post during dinner, she was both amused and mad all at the same time. I think she said something like "YOU!!!" while pointing at me (I was sitting right across from her). It was so hilarious seeing her so mad at being duped so well.

The best part of the entire thing though is that dinner was only a decoy. The ACTUAL surprise was karaoke after dinner (as discussed in my previous post). Her boyfriend had organized us so that less than half of the group came to dinner, and everyone else went straight to karaoke. So of course the next challenge was to get her to the karaoke place. Luckily we are all conniving individuals, and through suggesting and shooting down other ideas for awhile toward the end of dinner we actually tricked her into suggesting karaoke herself! As I am not a fan of karaoke I protested at first (otherwise it would have been way too suspicious!), but was eventually "convinced" by her that we should go there.

When we arrived at the karaoke place, she waited for my car to get there as we were the last ones out of the restaurant parking lot and I had told her we didn't know where to go (only partially true). This gave everyone else a chance to get inside and find out what room the rest of our group was hiding in. My labmate's wife stayed out front and pointed us to which room we were going to have, and my labmate opened the door so that the birthday girl could enter before him. The lights were out and two birthday cakes had candles lit on them. She just stood in the doorway so I gently pushed her in since I was right behind her, and everyone started singing "Happy Birthday." She then blew out her candles, and we told the people there that we had managed to make her suggest karaoke at dinner, which then again caused her to be "mad" at us one more time. Although everyone knew she was really just incredibly delighted.

She sent us all an e-mail a few days later, here is a shortened and edited (names removed) version:

Dear friends,
...I want to thank you all for being a part of what may have been the most awesome birthday party ever. I had an amazing time! Special thanks go to [her boyfriend] for being a sweetheart and planning such an incredible evening, those of you who helped him organize it (for some reason I don't really know who did what :p), and all of you for coming!

It would be understatement to say I was surprised. If I looked annoyed, it was simply because I couldn't believe how [her boyfriend] managed to keep it all a secret and how you all tricked me, but it was a good annoyed :). ...

Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you so much!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


I've been against karaoke basically my entire life. I don't consider myself a good singer, and rarely if ever sing around other people. The one time I sang karaoke was at my high school after-graduation party, and it wasn't exactly my best performance ever.

However, last Saturday was a friend's birthday and she wanted to go to karaoke. So I gave in since it was her celebration and not mine. The karaoke place in town gives each group their own room, so you aren't singing in front of strangers. At first I was a little hesitant, but everyone was basically singing along with the people who had the mikes so I joined in as well. I even sang 2 songs with the mike, because they were songs I knew really well and most other people didn't know them! So I'm patting myself on the back for getting over my dislike of karaoke and having a good time. I'm actually a little excited about going again! Guess that goes to show that you should give things you don't like at least two chances.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Wow, I never thought that would happen to ME!

So I just experienced one of life's little ironies for the first time: I started being healthier and gained weight. I now weigh 10lb more than I ever have before; yes, 10lb is not that much, but it's a start to something I don't want to continue.

It's ironic because it coincides with the academic year where I've been trying to cut out corn syrup (especially high-fructose corn syrup) by not buying foods with it in the ingredients, eat more organic and natural foods, eat fewer unhealthy snacks (replaced with fruit), and actually exercise. In fact, since January I have been exercising exponentially more than I have since coming to grad school.

Of course despite my good intentions there were weeks where we were just so busy that there was no time to cook dinner and instead we ate out or ate processed food (although we did try to buy processed food that was less bad than most processed food). I was also so stressed out for a month or so that I probably ate when I wasn't hungry. But these types of events have been occurring since I started undergrad so they can't by themselves explain the sudden weight gain.

The good thing is that the weight is not particularly noticeable to anyone else (in fact, someone asked me about a month ago if I had lost weight). This gives me hope that at least some of it is muscle mass from my increased exercise (softball, volleyball, tennis). But although it annoys me, it amuses me as well since I always hear women complain about gaining weight despite their good eating or exercising habits (and sometimes both), and I could never relate....until now!

I guess this summer will be a good one to test my theories on healthier living occurring during the summer instead of the school year for graduate students.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Legacy of the Block of Wood in my Car Door

"I'm sure someone my landlady knows has a table saw..."

Or at least something similar to the above statement is how the "fixing the car window" adventure of last summer began. The breaking of the car window occurred earlier that afternoon, when my officemate put down the rear right window on our way to lunch. As usual, the window hadn't worked well for a few months and I had put tape over the window switch to keep passengers from putting it down. By "hadn't worked well" I mean that you could put it down, but it would take at least a day or two until the motor would agree that the window should be allowed to go back up.

Of course it was entirely my fault that it happened: I didn't warn her not to put the window down, and when the problem had last happened I hadn't unplugged the switch from the window so that no amount of pushing the button would make it go down.

On the way back from lunch we stopped at 2 gas stations to get some WD-40 to try to lubricate the motor (the first gas station had NOTHING useful, and the second one only had a "WD-40 pen"). Richland apparently doesn't believe in these sorts of products.

We then worked on the window in our building's parking lot. I'm sure multiple people looked out their windows at some point and wondered what the heck we were doing taking a car door apart, but no one bothered us (hmm... is it a problem that no one cared about suspicious/odd behavior in the middle of a government lab's land?). We tried again later at my officemate's house.

Unfortunately, our efforts failed completely. Not to be out-smarted by a door, we came up with a plan: prop up the window with something. Our something became a piece of wood, but we needed a saw (and some wood). I bought some scrap wood for about a dollar at the home improvement store, and my officemate talked to the lady she was staying with about who she knew that might have a saw. Turns out someone just down the road did, so we went there after I returned with wood.

Well, the man down the street with a saw didn't like the block of wood I bought as it was a bit too big and needed to be cut (but a bit too big I mean about 5 times too wide). Luckily he had some other scraps and quickly cut them to size for me, along with a notch at the top to hold the window in place. We needed two separate pieces to be able to get it in the door, so I held the window up while he screwed them together. We then zip-tied the wood to the metal rod in the door. To put the inside of the door back on we had to trim the Styrofoam blocks attacked to it to fit around the wood.

This was supposed to be a temporary fix, since it was near the end of the summer and I would soon be driving across country to get back to New England. Well, until this morning the block of wood was still there, working every day and night to keep my window appearing to be normal.

About a month ago the window started to noticeably move down, such that a small opening appeared at the top of it. I opened up the door to check on my trusty block of wood. It was moldy! How gross. I assume the mold was eating up the wood enough to make it shrink or shift at the bottom of the door. Not having much time and a headache, I closed it all back up.

Today it was still relatively chilly in the morning, so I thought I'd see if I could get the motor to work. It has been finicky since around the time I bought the car (5 years ago...), so there is always a 50/50 chance on whether or not it will work on any given day. Amazingly, after plugging it back in the actual window support moved up when I tried the switch! Thus began about 20 minutes of taking out the moldy wood (with gloves) and putting the window back on its originally intended support. Another try, and window moved all the way up!

This time I unplugged the switch from the motor so that no one can put the window down. I left the tape on to help remind people not to bother trying, but at least now no one will erroneously feel bad about putting down the window.

You may want to ask why I just don't take it to a repair shop to get it fixed; well, I did that about 4 years ago when it first became a big problem, and about 6 months later it broke again. So I'd rather not waste my money.