Older blog entries for hypatia (starting at number 377)

Sunday spam: muesli bars and gummy snakes

Muesli bars and gummy snakes are what I ate at about 7am before my recent 9am childbirth… thus thematically appropriate for this small collection of links, some of which I’ve had sitting around for a while.

Using WOC in the Natural Childbirth Debate: A How-To Guide.

If you are a progressive in the Natural Childbirth Movement (or any other, for that matter), use Africa City women to promote the idea that “natural is better.” Talk about women who toil in the fields, squat down to give birth and return to picking rice. Or peanuts. Or anything else that can be picked. After all, the women of Africa City are resilient! Strong. So strong that they do not even require support from the other women of Africa City. Or medication. Or comfort. This example–of giving birth in the field–illustrates how over-reliant “we” have become on useless technology. Of course, you don’t expect “us” to be quite that strong. We are not beasts of burden, after all…

If you oppose the Natural Childbirth Movement (or any other, for that matter), use Africa City women to remind “us” of how bad “we” used to have it, before all of our live-saving medical advances. If women die in childbirth in Africa City, it is only because they lack the Modern Technology we should be grateful that every last one of “us” has unfettered access to. Use infant mortality statistics from the most war-torn countries to argue why a healthy woman from Portland shouldn’t give birth in her bathtub with a midwife who carries oxygen and a cell phone. Redact all mentions of Africa City women who are not hopelessly impoverished. Ignore those who are systematically abused with Modern Technology, sacrificed as Guinea pigs on its altar. All bad outcomes in Africa City are due to the lack of Medical Technology, never unrelated to it, and certainly never caused by it.

Early Labour and Mixed Messages

The emphasis on hospital as a place of safety whilst also encouraging women to stay away results in some very contradictory messages and ideas (please note these statements do not represent my own views)[…] We are the experts in your labour progress, our clinical assessments can predict your future labour progress… we will send you home if you are found to be in early labour… if you then birth your baby in the car park it is not our fault as birth is unpredictable[…] This is a safe place to labour…. but you can only access this safety when you reach a particular point in your labour… preferably close to the end of your labour i.e. you should do most of it on your own away from safety.

Warning for discussion of pregnancy loss. The Peculiar Case of Miscarriage in Pop Culture

Miscarriage is a tricky cultural thing, pop culture or not. It’s a deeply forbidden subject, much like many other things deemed ‘mysteries of womanhood,’ like menstruation, like pregnancy itself. People don’t talk about miscarriages and that discouragement means that many people aren’t aware of how common they are, let alone how devastating they can be. When people lose a child, they can reach out to their community for help and they are given space and time for healing. When they lose a fetus, they’re expected to keep it to themselves.

Sadly, sometimes pro-choice people can be the most vehement about this, concerned about blurring the lines between fetus and child, and saying that claiming a fetus is morally or ethically equivalent to a fully-developed, extrauterine human being could be dangerous. This makes the mistake of applying broad strokes to the issue, though. Legally, of course, a fetus should not be equivalent to a child. Personally, however, losing a wanted pregnancy is an intensely emotional experience and it can feel on some level to the parents like losing a child, with the added burden of not being allowed to acknowledge it, talk about it, or ask for help.

Syndicated 2014-01-19 01:18:38 from lecta

A year with orthokeratology

A year ago, I did something that’s very rare for me, I made an expensive impulse purchase. Specifically, I was fitted for orthokeratology lenses. These are a vision correction technique: hard contact lens you wear while you sleep, that mold your cornea into a corrected shape so that you don’t need to use vision correction while you’re awake.

I have mild myopia (-1.75 left and -0.75 right, I think) and very mild right-eye astigmatism and I’ve had vision correction since I was about ten (initially only for my left eye, my right eye only became measurably myopic about 5 years after that). I’ve worn glasses and contact lens each about half the time. I like contacts better than glasses but still find them annoying when they are dry or one gets stuck to the wrong part of my eye. I have enough medical and surgical anxiety that I’m not going to be interested in surgical correction any time soon. So that was the appeal of orthokeratology.

To cut to the chase, while I’ll keep wearing them now I have a good fit, my recommendation is mixed at best.

The first few days and weeks were not promising. The problem with anything that’s supposed to be “uncomfortable” or “take some getting used to” is determining when something is actually wrong. So when I first put my lenses in in the optometrist’s office and my eyelids slammed shut in agony over the top, I figured it was par for the adjustment course. In addition, it took a while to achieve good correction, I think a week or more to be reasonable and another week or two until I tested as having an acceptably negligible prescription. During this time, in transition, I couldn’t use my glasses either. So in the evening, it was a question of putting them in and then immediately staggering upstairs feeling my way to bed while my husband probably cooed lovingly at his loyal un-painful glasses. It’s also, as you would think, not especially easy to get to sleep when your eyes are trying to alert you to their imminent death, although once I was asleep I tended to sleep well and wake up with them adhered to my eyeballs (once they seal on, it hurts less). The crisis in the mornings seemed to be more that they adhered too well, and the force required to get them off tended to flick them around the bathroom at random and I’d get stressed and need to get Andrew downstairs to help me find the lenses (replacement cost is multiple hundreds of dollars).

Which reminds me, these require touching your eyes a lot more than soft contact lenses do. Getting them on involves applying them straight to your pupil, and getting them off is done (most easily) with a little suction device, again, more or less applied to the lens over the pupil. Getting them off sounds like it should hurt, but it doesn’t, it’s just a slight pulling sensation. But a large number of people cannot bear to touch their eyes, or at least not very much. That is, at least, a caution to many people. This wasn’t something I was asked about or warned about at all; luckily I am very able to touch my eyes, but it seems like I should have been asked.

Once the teething pains, as it were, were over, I had a nice few weeks of naked daytime eyes. Even Andrew briefly expressed envy, swimming at Waikiki, that I could see everything and also not have to worry about losing a lens in the water. It wasn’t to last long, as on that same trip, one morning I woke up with my eyes in agony. The only relief I could get, even slight, was to keep them open behind very dark glasses for most of the morning. I put it down to bad cleaning and made a note to be extra careful.

But it kept happening, with increasing frequency. On the fourth or fifth time, back in Australia, I ended up at the optometrist. He couldn’t find anything wrong other than dryness… and that my vision correction was weakening badly to boot, so I wasn’t even getting much for the pain. He wanted me to stop wearing them. He doesn’t seem to be a terribly good communicator; all I could get out of him was a vague promise that I wouldn’t be out of pocket. I got a call a few weeks later to come and pick up new lenses. He wasn’t even around so I didn’t really know what the deal was until my next check up: it emerged he’d actually done a fair bit of work phoning different suppliers trying to find lenses big enough to cover my (of course) enormous corneas, thinking that probably the fit was actually the issue.

Sure enough, the bigger set of lenses have solved the problem of the mornings of extreme pain and dryness. They were also never as painful as the first set, despite several weeks break before starting to use them, which makes me wonder if the level of pain inserting the first set was always a bad sign. (But then, “may take some adjusting” and “may be uncomfortable” means “don’t complain for a while”, so they’ll never know.) The correction is pretty good; I actually have to be careful with the right eye not to wear a lens every night because it’s easy to overcorrect. I wear the left one about three nights in four and the right one one or two nights in four. It’s more of an artform than I’d like, to be honest.

Given the initial pain and the lengthy adjustment period, I think with hindsight that I wouldn’t choose to start the process, which is why I am hesitant to recommend it to others. Most reviews I’ve read have had better experiences, although the only other person I know who tried it had to give it up entirely because it caused such bad night blindness it wasn’t safe for her to drive (not a problem I’ve had). Proceed with care.

Syndicated 2014-01-07 22:07:18 from lecta

The Alphabet Sufficiency: brief reflections

At the beginning of the year, I was indirectly responsible for the creation of the formidable Alphabet Supremacy project, which has just wrapped up. Jono and Bice have a few reflections on it at mid-year (Jono, Bice) and end-of-year (Jono).

I was frankly jealous, and, trying to know my limits, created a more limited project, the intended six week Alphabet Sufficiency. This resulted in five weeks worth of posts from me, and I think four from Martin Pool (who shared them in a non-public forum). Mine were:

Of these, my favourite by far is the acceleration one. I can remember writing it: well past the deadline, from a hotel room in Honolulu, while experiencing the second-worst case of jetlag I’ve ever had, with Andrew no doubt wondering about my priorities in reconstructing the web walks I’d been detailing to him for the month prior, rather than sleeping.

As expected, priorities were a problem. At the beginning, I wrote:

If the amount of personal change and variability of energy levels I experienced in 2012 continues I will be living in a leper colony on the Moon by December 2013.

Not as it happens, but I will be wrapping up the year with one more degree and one more child than I started it with. Those entries are over February, March and April this year, during which time (on top of my job) I made the “minor corrections” needed to complete my PhD thesis (this resulted in 20 pages of additional text, about 10% of the length of the final document), took my hopefully one-and-only overnight long haul flight in sole charge of a distressed toddler, and visited California for a long and intense week of planning for the Ada Initiative. If Martin had given a prompt for the final week, it would have been due the week I found out I was pregnant again (a week which involved, I think, three sudden medical appointments to plan my pregnancy care in light of a pretty weird medical history).

If I recall, Martin suggested that we start the project ASAP because neither of us was going to get less busy. While this was perfectly true, from my end this probably suggested not starting the project at all, because I really didn’t have time for it.

I began the year feeling like “write more” was the resolution least suited to me of anything I could possibly resolve. I’m ending it feeling the opposite. The most obvious thing that founding a business, study, illness, pregnancy and parenting have taken from me in the last two years is writing. On the other hand, I don’t think that for me personally, resolutions or competition are the way to get it back. The only way out is through. When I have stability, I will pause for breath, and I will write. Ursula Le Guin says:

What inspired you to be a writer?

Learning to write, at five.

That is not quite true for me (in no respect do I claim to be comparable to Ursula Le Guin, which as a small benefit makes me a less testy interview subject) but my relationship with writing is something like that. If there is time and energy, writing is something I will do.

As for the specifics of the project, one-word prompts are surprisingly difficult. Over on Dreamwidth at the moment, some people are taking a prompt a day for the entire month (I am not, for reasons you can infer), and, looking at the prompts, I can easily imagine it would be easier by far for me to write a response to “tell me about a day you spent in your favourite city” than “City”. I found this just as bad for a words I chose: “Kin” was by far the hardest prompt. Having stumbled at the gate, “Acceleration” and “Favourite” were very deliberate pitches to something I was thinking a lot about at the time anyway (general relativity and the plot of Toy Story, respectively), in an attempt to construct a gimme for myself. Despite the superficial difficulty of never having been to Montreal, that was the easiest entry to write: I suspect that the more concrete the word, the easier the writing.

If I was to take on such a project again, it would be more like the interview meme or the December meme, with far more detailed prompting. One word prompts are a very hard place between writing about whatever the hell I feel like, and writing to a prompt. I’m waiting to see what the next baby is like before committing, but there’s always the possibility of the “parent to newborn pretends to be well-rounded” meme (results: one, two, three, four, five). Stand by.

Syndicated 2013-12-17 05:00:43 from lecta

Now brought to you by Fedora*

I’ve been an Ubuntu user since about September or October 2004. I bought my first up-to-date laptop hardware in New York City (a Fujitsu Lifebook, still my favourite of my laptops), replacing a Toshiba Libretto I’d bought in late 2002 or early 2003 at more than five years of age and which I’d managed to squeeze Debian onto against its will. In 2004 my husband was working for the company later to be known as Canonical and so I became a beta tester (I think not a highly contributing one) for the distribution soon after revealed to be Ubuntu. And that was pretty great for me, basically Debian with a regular release schedule centered around up-to-date GNOME.

In January this year I appeared on My Linux Rig and you can see I was still an Ubuntu desktop user. I wrote:

I am curious about how Fedora is doing these days, but realistically switching distributions is more work than upgrading Ubuntu so I am likely to stick with the path of least resistance.

But rumblings were changing my mind. Late last year I made a belated upgrade to Ubuntu 12.04 (after I submitted my PhD in May), at which point for reasons I now forget it became impossible to use GNOME 2/Metacity. I wasn’t particularly enamoured of GNOME 2 by that point in any event, but I’d resisted switching because my husband has been using Unity for considerably longer (he is a fan; he may have been dogfooding for Canonical fairly early, although he’s worked for Google since mid-2011 and I am not sure of Unity’s timeline there) and I really struggled with it when I used his machine. Much later it emerged that he doesn’t use workspaces at all in Unity, so that may be responsible for his desktop being a bit Mary-hostile.

I gave Unity and GNOME Shell about two hours each on my desktop and decided that I liked the latter better. GNOME Shell wasn’t ideally supported in Ubuntu 12.04 and 12.10 but it worked well enough to keep me from the pain of re-installing. But then I upgraded to 13.04, and GNOME Shell crashed about every half an hour on my hardware and graphics seemed unstable in general. Unity was rather better, needing a restart “only” a few times a week. But I really missed GNOME Shell. I was tempted to move to a distro that follows mainline GNOME at that point, but the decision was sealed when I began to learn about Canonical’s plans for the desktop stack. I don’t actually have a strongly held opinion on a lot of the issues: the value or otherwise of collaborating with upstream in general or with GNOME or Wayland or Xorg in particular, the relative technical merits of any current proposal, the risks of splitting the Linux desktop and so on. I just have a preference for vanilla GNOME 3 and Canonical’s development direction suggested Ubuntu was increasingly less likely to cater to me as time went on. And less likely looked pretty bad when 13.04 already rendered it nearly unusable.

Well, I guess I do have a preference in a way, I’m using Fedora — rather than any other distro with a good GNOME 3 stack — to support Red Hat (in a small way), in that they are active in developing the software I like at the moment.

In terms of work, I really didn’t want to switch. Reinstalling my machine and setting up my work environment has been exactly as annoying and boring as I expected it would be, I have a whole second post coming with notes on all the gotchas I encountered configuring Fedora. There is nothing fun about installing or configuring Linux, and FedUp better do what it says on the tin and take me to Fedora 20 and so on when the time comes. (Ubuntu’s preferred upgrade path, by the by, hadn’t worked for me for at least five releases, I was therefore still using apt-get dist-upgrade.) It took me a month to get from “I want to switch to Fedora” to actually installing it, and it probably would have been at least another month if Unity hadn’t crashed on me about three times in an hour last week.

So here we are. Initial signs are promising. My install, while boring, went cleanly. GNOME 3 on Fedora is much more stable than GNOME 3 or Unity on Ubuntu 13.04 on my hardware.

Hopefully I won’t be doing this again before 2022.

* Not really, my servers are still Ubuntu LTS and will likely stay Ubuntu LTS or, if there’s some Unity-equivalent disruption in the Ubuntu server experience, which I can’t imagine, Debian.

Syndicated 2013-07-24 23:20:32 from lecta

Fending off stamp collectors

I don’t collect stamps, but I do always have them on my person.

It started back in 2001, when I first received Youth Allowance as a university student. Youth Allowance requires fortnightly income reporting, and this couldn’t be done online until 2004 or so, so for some time I was used to walking to Centrelink with my form and waiting in line for up to 45 minutes with everyone else dropping off their form and/or asking questions about their payments. After a few months, I realised that it would be better to invest in a book of stamps and post it to them instead, even though this put me out 45c or so and resulted in the payment being a day later.

Ever since then I’ve still found myself posting just enough things that I still buy a new book of 20 stamps every time I run out. It’s admittedly a little bit self-perpetrating; I usually prefer email, but already owning stamps and envelopes occasionally means that it’s easier to post something than to scan and track down an email address, and it’s always easier to post than to fax.

So over the years I’ve had and farewelled numerous Australian stamps. There was a tropical fish one around for a long long time that I was quite fond of. However, in the last year or so I’ve wondered if Australian stamps are undergoing a boringness challenge or something. It started a year or 18 months ago with Tourist Precints of Australia, featuring pictures of The Rocks in Sydney and South Bank in Brisbane and such. I think I went through two or three books of that before it finally vanished from sale. That was followed fairly recently by Agricultural Products of Australia, which had the benefit of nice simple colours (oranges for example, or the creamy merino staring out of the stamp) and I used to preferentially send my parents, who farm beef cattle, cattle stamps, but otherwise didn’t do much for me.

But I think it’s reached a new low, frankly. I’m down to my last few oranges and merinos and popped in to get a new book the other day. This year, if you get mail from me, watch out for Government Houses of Australia. You’re welcome.

Syndicated 2013-07-24 04:17:55 from lecta

Filling a car: user interface commentary thereon

I don’t own a car, so while I’m a bit late in life for this tradition, I’ve nevertheless been driving my father’s car while my parents are overseas. They’re back today, so last night I decided to fill the tank for them before they got back.

I wasn’t coming into this in the best of states. I had a three year old child in the car. It was evening peak hour in Sydney, and although I was yet to realise that events in Moore Park were slowing traffic even more than usual back as far as the Lane Cove tunnel (for reference, Moore Park and the Lane Cove tunnel are 15km apart on entirely different sides of Sydney Harbour), I had already had to turn from Lane Cove Road onto Epping Road, which has to be one of the worst designed intersections of all time, except for all other intersections of major arterial roads in Sydney, which are also awful in peak hour. (For example, it was often considerably faster to get off my bus on the Pacific Highway, walk 1km around onto Epping Road, and catch an entirely new bus further ahead in the queue than it used to be to wait for the bus to turn that same corner.) But Lane Cove and Epping is my especial enemy after most of a decade at Macquarie University, I can’t even go into it now. And finally, I was late to meet my sister, who was sitting on the front step of my house in the dark.

Then I pull up to a pump, which is also (I knew) on the wrong side of the vehicle, run back and forth between the drivers seat and the fuel hatch (on opposite sides of the vehicle) until I find the latch for it, unhook the hose from the bowser, drape it over the top of the car, and get a good look at the fuel cap for the first time. “DIESEL”.

Before everyone reaches for smelling salts, all that happened here is I said “oh for real?”, put the ULP hose away, got back in the car, moved it, hunted around on foot for the diesel pump, found it, moved the car there, filled the car, spilled big splotches of diesel all over my dress (that made for a fun drive home, ugh, sorry your car interior smells of diesel Dad, but I also note it smelled strongly of cattle before that), paid for the fuel, got back in the car, apologised profusely to my 3 year old — who is very well behaved in cars, those of you who’ve heard my story about him in planes will be surprised to hear, and who hadn’t peeped the whole time other than to say “oh no Mama diesel” sympathetically — and drove home in infuriating traffic, about 45 minutes late to hand over the car to my sister.

So far so good right? But my point is this. That label “DIESEL” was in a nice elegant thin font in white letters on the fuel cap. It was big but it didn’t look so terribly important, I can imagine “TOYOTA”, say, being lettered much the same (or “NO SMOKING” which is important in general, but less so to me in particular). I probably only would have needed to have been in about a 10% worse mood to have just missed it entirely and filled the tank with ULP, which I just now confirmed is as expensive a mistake as I thought it was, and this morning my parents would be flying into the country in order to find that I’d wrecked the engine. Good grief.

My point is this: it would be nice if that cap was, say, all in red, and burned to the touch in the close proximity of ULP or something (yeah yeah, not really). In order to avoid a mistake that would cost weeks and ten thousand dollars to rectify, and moreover would be at the expense of my father’s very car reliant job too, there’s elegant white lettering on black? There aren’t even differently sized or shaped interfaces? At least I can take a UI design lesson from it: I will always in future imagine evening peak hour, a toddler, running late, and how to help that person not spend ten thousand dollars on a momentary oversight.

And if you have a diesel vehicle and want to loan it to your frazzled adult daughter (or frazzled adults of your acquaintance in general) I see that there are after market mis-fuelling prevention devices. Good to know someone stepped in. Although at this particular service station, I would have had to pull it off again because it was a high flow bowser. So, you know, not exactly ideal still.

Syndicated 2013-04-19 23:12:42 from lecta

Team Sid: why the antagonist became my favourite

Week 5 of the Alphabet Sufficiency: F.

A few years ago, a friend’s children were in the target age range for the Toy Story franchise, and he told me with some shock that his eldest had “missed the entire point” of Toy Story in being Team Buzz Lightyear rather than Team Woody. And I nodded sagely, having only ever seen Toy Story 2 and that on its cinematic release. I knew only that Woody is the old faithful toy and Buzz Lightyear the new advertising pushed successor toy.

Well, now I’ve seen Toy Story, and frankly, I’m not Team Woody, and that’s putting it mildly. In fact, Woody horrifies me so much it’s part of the reason I’m Team Sid.

A brief recap of Toy Story for those of you who don’t have children or aren’t playing along with Pixar at home. First, concept: toys are alive and sentient, but only when no one is looking. Andy, child, loves cowboy toy Woody the best of all, but for his birthday he receives space ranger Buzz Lightyear who becomes at least co-equal in his affections. Meanwhile, when Andy is absent Buzz also usurps Woody in the affection of the actual toys. His main weakness is that he is utterly unaware he is a toy, giving Woody an opening to trick him into travelling to a “space port” (a space-themed pizza place). Both toys become separated from Andy’s family and end up in one of those arcade claw machines, and are acquired by Sid, an older boy who is Andy’s next-door neighbour and who mistreats toys. After various mishaps, Sid is about to launch a small rocket with Buzz attached into the sky, when Woody raises all Sid’s other toys in rebellion. Woody and Buzz then pursue the moving van containing Andy’s family’s possessions and eventually rocket into Andy’s car where he finds them as if they’d been left there all along. Aww.

And what I’ve tried and failed to hide in that summary is that Woody is an utter jerk for most of the movie. Before Buzz’s arrival he’s portrayed as the patronising father-figure of the toy room, running it like a corporate office, surrounded by bemused toys and a small number of uncertain sycophants. Really appealing. He displays some real fear and loneliness after Buzz arrives and he’s swept from his prime position on Andy’s bed, but only in complete privacy. Once he discovers Buzz’s weakness he is triumphant and merciless, mocking him to his face. “You think you’re a real spaceman? Oh all along I thought it was an act.” He then proceeds to manipulate every one of Buzz’s resulting traits — singlemindedness, a belief that his mission requires him to return to space — at first trying and failing to get other toys to join the mockery and then realising that he can get Buzz to act based on his beliefs. Sure there’s a sort of redemption arc in which Woody saves Buzz from Sid and turns down a few opportunities to leave him, but by then his fate was sealed. Even Mr Potato Head isn’t as anti-Woody as me.

Meanwhile, Buzz is pretty appealing, as long as all-American (all-Galatican?) hero works for you. He manages the other toys in a loose military model rather than a corporate model, where at least there’s room for improvement rather than the system being set up to manage their (presumed) static inadequacies. He treats Woody as more-or-less an equal (admittedly based on rank; he believes Woody to be the local sheriff) and trusts without question that Woody is transparent and honest; at least it doesn’t make me want to spit in his face. He’s easily manipulated, but his view of the world is very far from consensus reality: if I am actually a sentient child’s toy, I’ve probably been easily manipulated too in my time.

I am not unsympathetic to my friend’s child here. Given a choice between a Woody doll and a Buzz doll, I know which I’d choose. But the narrative point of view, which positions Woody’s behaviour as understandable and forgivable, bugs me so much that I ended up naturally sympathetic to the antagonist.

Let’s re-evaluate Sid. First, to be fair, even from my point of view, he has some serious failings. The most serious is that he’s not at all kind to his younger sister. Which is grave indeed, but I do notice that his sister doesn’t seem to be frightened of him, and when Sid displays weakness (extreme fear of toys, not unreasonable given he’s just discovered they’re sentient and dislike him) she immediately and thoroughly takes advantage. He doesn’t seem to have decisively established dominance in the family and it’s implied that his mother has the final say outside of his bedroom. His other failing (to me) is the scene where he’s shown being pretty brutal with the arcade equipment. He does also do a couple of villain-marked things, like cackling while thunder rolls, but that’s not actually an immoral act. The Doylist explanation for this is pretty obvious — he’s being positioned as the villain — but my Watsonian explanation is that he is playing at being the villain, the bad-boy toy torturer. A lot of his other “failings” from the narrative point-of-view are the atmospherics surrounding him, which look like Pixar straight-out buying into dubious cultural tropes about people who listen to metal. Skull on your t-shirt, evil, not the same thing.

And see the thing is, except when they’re his sister’s toys, what Sid does to toys isn’t actually wrong. He has no reason to begin to suspect they’re sentient. (And the movie does something really annoying here: it’s OK to reveal this to Sid to save Buzz in particular… why? It wasn’t OK to reveal it to save Hannah’s doll, for example.) And what he does with them is frankly rather cool and inventive. A baby doll’s head with mechanical spider-legs? If my kid does that I’ll take photos and puff about it in my parenting blog. He’s also a pretty good actor, what with the thunderclap cackle, and the different voices he used to enact his surgical scenes, in which he appears to be a mash-up of Dr Frankenstein and standard medical dramas.

Consider it this way: Andy’s play is pretty conventional. There’s a stick-up. The woman gasps in fear. The brave sheriff saves the day. Hooray! Sid’s play is more transformative, both physically transforming the toys and mashing together whatever tropes suit him: medical drama, medical horror, ground control, meteorological reports, generic Evil Overlord cackling. Sid is the fan and the hacker. Really Sid’s main mistake in my book was not sending Woody on a one-way rocket ship. It’s OK Sid, you weren’t to know. I’m still Team Sid.

Syndicated 2013-04-07 22:42:29 from lecta

Valuing my PhD

Week 4 of the Alphabet Sufficiency: V.

I’ve circled on ‘value’ for a long time; this is the prompt of this essay series for which I’ve started writing four times. My relationship with value is ongoing, and I’ve got hidden writings now on how I try and tell if other people value me, on my relationship with the sunk cost fallacy, on the epistemological problems with measurement (that is, a measurement and reality are not the same thing), and even on irritating probability mind tricks that depend on weird phrasings.

But the sunk cost fallacy suggests I should pick something bite-sized and be done with it, so here it is: I am coming to value my PhD work. (Status of that: I’ve finished writing and been examined and done my required corrections. I’m waiting for university sign-off and eventual graduation. So, I’m not a PhD holder, but I will be. I’m a PhD finisher already.)

This has been a while coming. There are lots of things wrong with the PhD process, maybe less so in Australia than in some other countries and maybe less so in computer science than in some other disciplines, if only because for some computing employers outside the academy it’s seen as a positive signal rather than a negative one, as is the stereotype of how a PhD is seen in some other fields. (Note, stereotype; I know nothing of the reality.)

Nepal - Sagamartha Trek - 110 - Everest, Nuptse and Lhotse close-up from Gokyo Ri

Everest, Nuptse and Lhotse (from Gokyo Ri) by McKay Savage

And it’s much easier to feel warm and fuzzy about something when the hard bit is nearly a year in the past, too. Somewhere in my photo collection there’s a self-portrait of me late last May, at 11pm, eating the spag bol my sister dropped off in a care package, alone in darkness. You know you’re at a peak life-stress when Steph drops off food: the other time last year was when I was unexpectedly hospitalised for a week last year. It was a cold evening, I remember taking the photo to email my family and I don’t know that I felt that was I was doing was valuable at the time so much as simply wanting it to be in the past. And also wanting to warm up. I did two things last May: write stuff, and learned a whole lot about climbing Everest (mostly from Alan Arnette’s blog). Not metaphorically, literally, because May is the end of the Everest climbing season. The Everest climbers and I were both cold, and both working hard. I felt we had a lot in common. Even if they got better photos than I did.

So, we need to allow for rose-coloured glasses, very much so. And I’ll also note that I don’t think a PhD is the only, or the best, or a better, way to obtain a lot of what I value from it. But it comes down to this: I wrote about 100 pages in 2 months. In that time, I did a small amount of experimental work (obviously most of it was done by then), I evaluated a lot of sources, and I did a lot of work in explaining things. I can tell you (but won’t, here) how I could re-do the whole thing, much better. And I did so much work independently — not always well in hindsight, but work — that every other project in my life pales in terms of sheer clinging onto the side of the mountain trying not to fall down it.

It will be a long time before I can decide if I did any of this well even in the (frankly unlikely) event that I read it end-to-end ever again. But the value I’m deriving from simply having done it is not negligible. It takes a lot of written material to intimidate me now, for one thing. I can read scientific literature outside my field and have some idea of how to scale the mountain. I feel much happier about having done it than I did at any time in 2012, including the day after handing it in. Its value probably still doesn’t come to seven years of opportunity cost, but it has some.

Bonus value: this blog entry has caused me to go back over my journals of last May, which include a few hilarious (entirely to me) moments:

May 19th:

[The thesis] also probably going to be longer than I expected: probably 150 pages or so in terms of sheets of paper, around 100 to 110 pages of non-appendix content.

Amusing or horrifying, your call: I sent it to the printers ten days after writing that, with 140 pages of non-appendix content and 201 total, so I blew my own projected page estimate by over 30 pages of prose in a week and a half. (I added a lot this year in response to my examiners too: the final version hasn’t been printed but is around 155 pages of non-appendix content and 230 total.)

Full disclosure: like many theses, it is double-spaced. It’s difficult to word-count accurately when you write in LaTeX, but it’s about 65000–70000 words, give or take, including appendices, which is a bit long for a science thesis, but that’s not unusual in computational linguistics.

May 29th (the day I ordered the printing of my examination copies):

I said to [my supervisor] that some people do all the training for a black belt and then don’t take the test (actually I don’t even know if this is true, but I said it) because they know within themselves that they are worthy and so…

He said “No. No no no no no. No way.”

The ‘f’ word for next week is ‘favourite’.

Syndicated 2013-04-01 10:37:44 from lecta

Remembering Malcolm Tredinnick

I flew home from the US yesterday and when I arrived in Sydney I got a message from my husband saying that Malcolm Tredinnick had died. According to this piece by Simon Dulhunty, he was found on Monday to died at home in Sydney, possibly after a seizure, while I was at PyCon 2013.

Malcolm Tredinnick speaking to an audience

Malcolm Tredinnick speaking at DjangoCon 2008 (by Sebastian Hilling CC BY-NC)

I’ve known Malcolm slightly since my first linux.conf.au in Sydney 2001. In late 2004 I interviewed for a job at CommSecure (since closed) where he was then working, having been a lead developer of and continuing to maintain and develop a real-time data delivery system for the Hong Kong stock exchange. (The eventual end of that contract was the reason CommSecure later closed.) He was also my boss for about half of 2005 until I left to begin my PhD in early 2006.

I still caught up with him at technical events, the last long conversation I remember with him was at PyCon AU 2011 where my husband Andrew and I had a very Malcolm conversation with Malcolm, which roved over the paperwork hassles of having no fixed address (Malcolm travelled a lot and went through periods where he housesat or lived in serviced apartments for a while), the Australasian chess community, and some gentle mutual trolling between him and Andrew over narrative testing.

What I will remember most about Malcolm is that he was a teacher at heart. I never personally had this relationship with him, but I knew several people at CommSecure and elsewhere who Malcolm had tutored or mentored in programming, often over a very long period of time. Elsewhere I know he had taught mathematics (long before I knew him, he very nearly completed a PhD in mathematics when his area suddenly became fashionable and about 50 years of work was done in 6 months by incoming mathematicians) and chess. I will also remember his dry and sadonic approach to nearly everything (for a very recent example, Malcolm gives useful parenting advice), combined with “really, how hard could it be?” used both straightforwardly and distinctly otherwise. Goodbye Malcolm.

If anyone knows of plans for a funeral or memorial service in Sydney, please let me know as I would like to attend. I’ll update this entry if I hear of anything.

Update: Ray Loyzaga is tweeting about tentative funeral plans for April 4th but says there is nothing firm yet. (Ray, the long-time founder-CEO of CommSecure, was a close friend of Malcolm’s.)

Other memorials:

Malcolm online:

Syndicated 2013-03-20 23:41:32 from lecta

Acceleration, or my general relativity binge

Week 3 of the Alphabet Sufficiency: A. I’m just late this week. I’ll probably have some commentary on that at some point.

I saw the solar eclipse in November, or at least the right half of it, and thus began a six month dabbling in general relativity. It all started innocently enough, looking at astronomy websites to learn about, eg, why there isn’t a solar eclipse every month, which isn’t a relativity question at all..

Since New Moon occurs every 29 1/2 days, you might think that we should have a solar eclipse about once a month. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen because the Moon’s orbit around Earth is tilted 5 degrees to Earth’s orbit around the Sun. As a result, the Moon’s shadow usually misses Earth as it passes above or below our planet at New Moon. At least twice a year, the geometry lines up just right so that some part of the Moon’s shadow falls on Earth’s surface and an eclipse of the Sun is seen from that region.

Solar Eclipses for Beginners

Well that’s that answered, but I’d made the mistake of visiting Wikipedia, and we all know how Wikipedia works:


xkcd: The Problem With Wikipedia

Or actually, we don’t quite, because Randall Munroe apparently uses Wikipedia differently from me. If I end up on Wikipedia, I won’t be spread out among William Howard Taft and wet t-shirt contests, I will be in one of two places: poisons, or black holes. I can’t explain the poisons thing either, but black holes are pretty self-explanatory: relativity! spacetime! breaks down! infinite density! spagettification! gamma ray jets!

Or you can get your poisons and your black holes in the one place:

A supernova or hypernova produced by Eta Carinae would probably eject a gamma ray burst (GRB) out from both polar areas of its rotational axis. Calculations show that the deposited energy of such a GRB striking the Earth’s atmosphere would be equivalent to one kiloton of TNT per square kilometer over the entire hemisphere facing the star, with ionizing radiation depositing ten times the lethal whole body dose to the surface.

Wikipedia: Eta Carinae

Eta Carinae, one of the most massive star systems in the Milky Way, is 7500 light years away. So, imagine that: a radiation jet so powerful that it would deliver lethal radiation doses to us across thousands of light years, if we happened to lie in the path of the axis of rotation at the time of a supernova. Which, luckily, we probably don’t.

I thought, in high school, that I’d be a physicist one day. I read the popular works of Stephen Hawking and Richard Feynman and Paul Davies. In Year 11 and 12, when NSW high school students only take English as a compulsory subject and all else is elective, I loaded up with maths, physics and chemistry. When I went to National Youth Science Forum, I asked to be placed in one of the groups for students most interested in physics. I went to the International Science School for high school students (not especially international, I might add) and poured over the pictures of physics PhDs and postdocs imagining myself among them.

And then various things happened and I’m not a physicist. I didn’t even take university physics in my first year. One of those things was a poor assignment of teacher in Year 11 physics: it was hard to dent my academic performance in high school but possible to dent my academic enthusiasms. Another of those things were that I had a lot of trouble with the intuitions of classical mechanics, especially of tension, and found myself regurgitating definitions by rote to get the right answer, and I had a lot of choices of subjects where I didn’t have to do that. (I hit similar walls with chemistry in first year university and mathematics in second and third year. Probably, like with physics, a break of a decade or two would have helped a lot: I revisited classical mechanics over a few hours with Andrew’s help about four years ago and now I know that in the idealised situations we were dealing with, the ropes and strings are rigid. Such simple things. I might be a scientist now if I’d had more age-peers.)

I don’t even especially regret this, I think my passion for physics was more a passion for strange phenomena than a passion for making novel discoveries of strange phenomena. I’m still not especially good at telling the difference between things I want to research and things I want to read about.

I imagine this isn’t an uncommon way to view one’s personal history, but I feel like I straddled two major technological transitions just as I reached adulthood. The first is the ubiquity of mobile phones: when I started university in 1999, rich kids had them. When I returned for my second year, everyone had them. The second is the Web. I remember writing reports in primary school—if allowed to choose my topic, they’d either be on astronomy or on the human brain—relying on the local library. Which to be fair, was information dense enough for me at the time.

But that’s not how I answer my questions now. Seeing the solar eclipse, meant lots of wiki walks and Google queries that ended in black holes, or at least quite near them. And frankly, for the first time ever, I started to feel like the Internet might be too close to being my mind, externalised, only with more answers. I don’t need to exert effort, I can just mainline facts. I am generally suspicious of “information diet” kind of sentiments: I usually analyse them as in part an aesthetic or moral preference for having to do labour, which I don’t think is justifiable in and of itself. Neither simplicity nor labour are in my opinion a good thing, they’re just means to ends. But… obviously I partake of the culture that creates these ideas and frankly, it’s a little spooky that there’s entire sections of the Internet set up to teach people who are apparently just like me in terms of background knowledge (some) and willingness to do work (little) about black holes and general relativity.

I had better justify the use of the ‘acceleration’ topic first:

In the physics of general relativity, the equivalence principle is any of several related concepts dealing with the equivalence of gravitational and inertial mass, and to Albert Einstein’s observation that the gravitational “force” as experienced locally while standing on a massive body (such as the Earth) is actually the same as the pseudo-force experienced by an observer in a non-inertial (accelerated) frame of reference.

Wikipedia: Equivalence principle

And so I will spend my acceleration efforts on general relativity and gravity. You see why you need to be comfortable in your own intellectual laziness on the Internet these days, don’t you?

It’s probably fairly obvious how one gets from solar eclipses to black holes, but for the record, I believe it was via a bunch of reading about solar astronomy, with a detour through Wikipedia: Health threat from cosmic rays. You don’t spend long on cosmic rays before you end up considering this baby:

The Oh-My-God particle was an ultra-high-energy cosmic ray (most likely a proton) detected on the evening of 15 October 1991… Its observation was a shock to astrophysicists, who estimated its energy to be approximately 300 exa-electron volts (3×1020 eV or 50 J)[1]—in other words, a subatomic particle with kinetic energy equal to that of a 5-ounce (142 g) baseball traveling at about 100 kilometers per hour (60 mph).

Wikipedia: Oh-My-God particle (see also xkcd what-if?)

And from there, you’re pretty much considering what happens if Eta Carinae goes supernova. And secretly worrying that whatever the quantum gravity prediction is is less cool than general relativity. Which it probably will be. I own my aesthetic preferences, and they are on Einstein’s side.

After that the true recognition that there are thousands and thousands of people on the Internet really established itself. Every time I thought of a question about black holes, there was some ancient FAQ (1995? dawww) that answered them.

First, ones that had puzzled me for a while. There’s extreme time dilation around black holes from the point of view of a sufficiently distant observer: do they therefore see me hovering around the black hole forever? Do I see the entire universe flash before my eyes before my time is up?

I had assumed the answers were yes and yes, but they’re actually no and no, at least if you stick to Schwarzschild black holes as more ore less everyone does. Matt McIrvin sorts this out pretty much back-to-back in his FAQ:

Won’t it take forever for you to fall in? Won’t it take forever for the black hole to even form?

Not in any useful sense. The time I experience before I hit the event horizon, and even until I hit the singularity—the “proper time” calculated by using Schwarzschild’s metric on my worldline—is finite. The same goes for the collapsing star; if I somehow stood on the surface of the star as it became a black hole, I would experience the star’s demise in a finite time…

Now, this led early on to an image of a black hole as a strange sort of suspended-animation object, a “frozen star” with immobilized falling debris and gedankenexperiment astronauts hanging above it in eternally slowing precipitation. This is, however, not what you’d see. The reason is that as things get closer to the event horizon, they also get dimmer. Light from them is redshifted and dimmed, and if one considers that light is actually made up of discrete photons, the time of escape of the last photon is actually finite, and not very large. So things would wink out as they got close, including the dying star, and the name “black hole” is justified.

As an example, take [an] eight-solar-mass black hole… If you start timing from the moment the you see the object half a Schwarzschild radius away from the event horizon, the light will dim exponentially from that point on with a characteristic time of about 0.2 milliseconds, and the time of the last photon is about a hundredth of a second later. The times scale proportionally to the mass of the black hole. If I jump into a black hole, I don’t remain visible for long…

Will you see the universe end?

If an external observer sees me slow down asymptotically as I fall, it might seem reasonable that I’d see the universe speed up asymptotically—that I’d see the universe end in a spectacular flash as I went through the horizon. This isn’t the case, though. What an external observer sees depends on what light does after I emit it. What I see, however, depends on what light does before it gets to me. And there’s no way that light from future events far away can get to me. Faraway events in the arbitrarily distant future never end up on my “past light-cone,” the surface made of light rays that get to me at a given time.

Physics FAQ

Fine then, answer all my questions. After reading that I huffed over to Google and typed in “does gravity move at the speed of light?” just to see whether the Internet is all it is cracked up to be. And a different section of the same damned FAQ actually answers this more or less in that form. Actually the answer is kind of cool: general relativity predicts that the distortions that gravity creates in spacetime propagate at the speed of light, yes, but in such a way that in most cases the source appears to be the instantaneous location of the massive object. Which is in turn super-lucky because otherwise you don’t get remotely stable orbits. Which as I recall resulted in a breather at Wikipedia: Anthropic principle but I was willing to fight on for a bit.

I wasn’t done, because I had encountered brief mentions of an interesting property of black hole event horizons, which is that inside the event horizon, one dimension of space becomes timelike, which can be informally considered as “the singularity is in your future”. I kept talking excitedly to Andrew about this late at night, I think when I was supposed to be working on something else (often cooking dinner) and the more I talked, the more I realised that I had absolutely no idea what this really meant. This required actual work on my part in terms of poking at Google queries, but luckily for this project, not very much, and it wasn’t long before I ended up at Jim Haldenwang’s Spacetime Geometry Inside a Black Hole which breaks out mathematics, and is worth a read in full. In addition to some of the mathematics, including that property of event horizons, it talks a bit about the historical development of the understanding of black holes, including the fact that the event horizon was also a singularity in the original coordinate system and it took more than thirty years to show that in some coordinate systems, it isn’t.

Frankly, I remain a little horrified at how little work I had to do to find any of this out. No overdue library books? No interacting with knowledgeable humans in real time? Some time in my 20s the future appears to have arrived with a vengeance, as it so often does. Outside of black holes, anyway.

Syndicated 2013-03-05 08:04:48 from lecta

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