Friday, June 26, 2009

Toronto Nautical Festival

This is how I spent my Sunday: photographing R. photographing boats.
It was the Toronto Nautical Festival. We witnessed the lovely Empire Sandy cruise around and shoot her cannons twice. (The first time, I joked: "As she passes that ship, they open fire on each other and the crews swing from rigging to rigging brandishing cutlasses." Then the cannons fired. It was eerie and neat. No swordplay ensued, though, to everyone's great disappointment.)

We also managed to sign up for a free 45 minute ride on a sailboat (R., please correct me if that is the wrong boat-term), which was nice and breezy. The day was hot and sunny, words too simple to explain the discomfort of the weather. We got sunburned on all of R. and a tiny corner of me that didn't have enough sunscreen.

This post's theme word: reeve, "to pass a rope through."

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Official documents

I picked up my diploma today. Now I have a fancy piece of paper labelling me a master of science. Should it join my other fancy piece of paper labelling me a bachelor (in a closet), or be displayed?

Amusingly enough, I also received a letter from the department congratulating me... on receiving my Ph.D. (That was so easy! And fast!) The letter accompanied a nice metal Department of Computer Science, University of Toronto business card holder, which I first thought was a cigarette case. I wonder if it will set off metal detectors at the airport.

This post's theme comic illustrates the research degree hierarchy: MSc < PhD < black belt.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Internet identity and anonymity

I had a nightmare recently that I had accidentally written something not bland-as-paste here, and then someone confronted me with angry violence. Yikes! Neither of those things has actually happened.

I can see the appeal of an anonymous I'm-a-woman-in-science blog. I read many of them (e.g., Ambivalent Academic, YoungFemaleScientist, unbalanced-reaction, See Jane Compute, Professor in Training, Average Professor, FemaleScienceProfessor, and the memorably-named BitchPhD). They seem to be an opportunity to vent anger and frustration, and receive support, without repercussions. They also provide a forum to voice one's own doubts, distance oneself from them, and laugh soundly at them, then proceed with surmounting those barriers that stand in our way. We are women in science! We stand in the breeze and let our capes and hair blow in the winds of change!

Reading these women's accounts of their graduate school, faculty, industry, and personal trials and tribulations is heartening. It makes me feel like I'm not alone, as stereotypical and silly as that may sound. (There are many women in my program and female faculty in the department!) It gives them a chance to vent about colleagues, departmental politics, funding problems, research techniques, and a thousand daily annoyances, large and small. (I vent vicariously, and covet their freedom to rage, rage against the dying of the light.)

It also gives them a chance to provide, and receive, social support. How to deal with a biased supervisor? It's in the blogosphere, discussed in detail. A blow-by-blow account of the two-body problem? It's out there, covered in the US and abroad. It has been reassuring to discover from these anonymous women (and many non-anonymous senior faculty/students at conferences) that everyone suffers from impostor syndrome. And though I am loathe to admit it, I too doubt my own abilities and deserving placement in graduate school every so often.

But blogging anonymity is a fickle thing (see also). Even the anonymous can face sudden recognition; ironically, the more popular an anonymous blog becomes, the more likely it is that the anonymity will be compromised (more readers, better odds that someone who knows you in real life is among them; also, more incentive for someone to "unmask" you).

Although I appreciate the women out there blogging anonymously/pseudonymously, and occasionally envy their ability to rant against the barriers that block their way, I don't want to be one of them. Because the internet is too public a place to write my major failures and frustrations. I would not put them on my resume, and I will not put them here. What I have gleaned from many conference sessions on success as-a-woman/in-graduate-school/both is that, although we all appear successful and inwardly feel like impostors, we're somewhere in-between. Ultimately, I don't mind disclosing my research hang-ups and daily aggravations, but you have to earn that right in face-to-face combat. If I can't be anonymous, neither can you.

At least we can be sure that we won't misinterpret each other's tones that way.

This post's theme word: pseudandry, "the use of a male pseudonym by a woman."

This post comes a week after that great internet non-anonymizer: there are now pictures of me, with face clearly identifiable, available publicly online. I had tried to avoid that for as long as I could, but I suppose it's inevitable.


I've been calling M. about once a week to get a beloved recipe from my childhood and figure out how to make it on my own. I made trifle, which was surprisingly easy, though mine was much less picturesque than the ones I remember, mostly because I don't own an enormous glass dish to make it in. Plastic tupperware for the grad student version!

This post's theme word: deckle, "the ragged edge of paper" or the machine that makes it. Cool. There's another large, messy project I'd love to have a backyard to perform: recycling my own paper. I remember doing it in second grade, and having it be very messy and unsatisfactory paper. I bet I could do better now -- I have better hand-eye coordination and planning skills.

Goals this week

This week will be incredibly productive. I have many dangling projects -- research and personal -- that are nearly done. This week I will finish them all, clearing my work and home desks. I'm committing that to you, o impersonal internet witnesses. Partly this is just a good thing to do, and partly this is necessary: I'm a little bored with my current research projectlet and need to move on to stay interested. Plus, I leave my home projects "out" and cluttering up my room, so finishing them will mean my room is clean again. (Indeed, this self-knowledge that an untidy room irks me is the very reason I leave unfinished projects out.)

This might even mean you get a bunch more posts here, but since draft blog posts are all very tidy -- stored away on the computer -- I might not get to them until after I patch my clothes, prove some theorems, and vacuum.

I hope you have a productive week, too.

This post's theme word: sirocco, "hot wind." It's been hot and humid here, except in my cold, arid cave of a windowless office.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Good progress

I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth. And by "mirth," I mean "enthusiasm for my current research project." And it is a slight lie to claim that wherefore I know not. I have some musings on "wherefore."

My advisor tells me I am making "good progress," but I am doubtful. (Note: advisor's word = pronouncement of truth, and can be accepted as true axiomatically in every model. I AM MAKING GOOD PROGRESS.)

My project is insubstantial, as so much theoretical computer science is. I'm not building anything real: I'm not gluing or sawing or constructing anything that can be held in the hands, passed around in a circle, plugged into a socket, or brought in for show-and-tell. The only sense in which I'm building is a metaphorical one: I'm building mathematical tools. I'm holding theories in my hands and passing them around for comment. I plug one logical system into another. I write on blackboards and tell people about this mathematical project I'm constructing. It's exceedingly abstract, even in metaphor.

If I were to wink out of existence, little of my research would endure. Some papers, some files. But most of my project is in my brain: the motivations, the way each little mathematical tendril wraps around another thing to root my project in the context of significance to computer science.

I think I need to get some Lego robotics kits and spend some time outside. Maybe find a pottery studio -- that kinetic therapy improved my abstracted, mathematical senior[thesis!] year. This frigidly air-conditioned cinderblock cell where I work is responsible for this funk. It's beautiful outside. Maybe next summer I'll get a job as a bike messenger. I'll deliver your messages promptly, with a quick side-dish of context-appropriate Shakespeare. ("News from Verona! How now, Balthasar? How doth my lady?")

This post's theme word: recondite, "abstruse." (That is, "difficult to understand.") Abstruse is the 13th most-looked-up word on the New York Times website (via MetaFilter).

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


You wouldn't know it to look at me, but I am graduating right now. The graduation is being webcast here, but you won't see me. I'm not there. My parents couldn't come; I didn't want to be forced to rent graduation regalia from the university; I'm still all graduated-out from the week-long immersion in history and ceremony that was H-bomb graduation; and I don't feel like anything has changed. I'm still in the same department, the same university, the same country, the same funding, the same area of research.

I'll go next week and pick up my diploma. I have only seen Ph. D.s from U of T, but if the M. Sc.s are anything like them (plain paper, simple typeface, no Latin) then I expect my diploma to be underwhelming.

This post's theme word: flummafiddle, "nonsense, something worthless."

Sunday, June 7, 2009

I endeavor to grow basil and blog

I purchased some cute little basil plants and potted them in old jam jars that had been accumulating, waiting for a purpose.I like basil and hope it grows. It can certainly get lots of light on my windowsill and I've set my [digital] calendar to remind me to water it. If it dies from my (admittedly) black thumb, oh well. Maybe there's some kind of edible cactus I can grow.

I have a lot of drafts of blog posts that are finished, but unpublished. I hesitate to publish them because they are not bland life-updates (food, plants, pictures of cute things) but actual statements of my opinions and thoughts. I recently suffered (endured?) an unpleasant attack on (criticism of) my personality and it's made me doubt my ability to judge how offensive/appropriate I am at any given moment. I know who reads this. So maybe I'll keep stringing you along with these insubstantial posts. Maybe I'll work up the courage to get over it. We'll see.

This post's theme word: bromide, "a trite or obvious remark; a platitude."

Bean salad

I made some delicious summer food: bean salad. There are five kinds of beans, so this volume of bean salad will easily last me through this week. Easily. (Why make so much? you might ask. Because it's hard to buy a quarter-cup each of 5 types of beans. Cooking for one person is not really possible; I usually have at least a full meal of leftovers for the next day.)A few weeks ago I made a similarly large vat of tabouli, another food with strong summer associations for me. Both foods are also garlic-filled and delicious.

This post is dedicated to M., who gave me the "recipe" and said, "Will you blog about it?" Yes. Yes, I will.

This post's theme word: seriatim, "one after another; in a series." It is an adverb, as in "I ate the beans seriatim: first the red one, then a green one, then a chickpea, then another red one..."