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 year...so 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!).