Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Happy thoughts

I haven't had time recently to write anything apart from thesis chapters, but I thought I'd take the time to record something that made me very happy today.

It's a nice thing when someone read thesis chapters and says, not just "that's good" or "that was well-written", but "I really enjoyed reading that". About a thesis chapter!

It would be nice to hear from anyone, but to get that from my remote supervisor, who knows the field and whose opinion I value highly, it was a real confidence boost.

Monday, May 18, 2009


Well, so much for posting twice a week. On the other hand, the point of that challenge was to force me to write, and I have spent most of the last two weeks actually writing thesis stuff. I did think about posting, but I knew that was just as much procrastination as reading blogs, trying to finish that cardigan I am knitting, baking cakes and cleaning up my bibtex file. (The last may not seem such a waste of time, except that I noticed I was finding page numbers for references I used in my Masters thesis, which have no relevance now...)

I started making a serious attempt at writing my main background chapter 2 weeks ago. After 2 hours I changed my IM status from writing to staring at the screen because it seemed a more accurate description. I'm not really sure what else I can do to make the writing go faster. I have a fairly detailed outline, I know the concepts and motivations I want people to understand from this background, I have a lot of the references and their major points already summarised from earlier write-ups, I have specific points waiting to be turned into sentences, I'm not that much of a perfectionist since I know I always revise multiple times. Why does it still take 3 hours to write one paragraph? I started celebrating if I had more words by lunchtime than when I started in the morning (I seem to go backwards a lot). After 2 weeks, I have about 9 pages of reasonable text with two more sections to go, plus some examples to add to a previous section. The final chapter will be between 15 and 20 pages, depending on how many diagrams I end up with. This is a very frustrating process.

Friday, May 1, 2009


This month's Scientiae theme is A Snapshot and I have been thinking for the last week what I wanted to write on this theme. What would I want to look back to in years ahead? I played with a few ideas, but then I realised I had already written it a few weeks back (triggered by the start of the sunny weather).
I know that I am in the right place for me. The excitement, the mental stimulation of discussing research with others, the ever changing nature of my day-to-day activities, the flexibility of the life style, the challenges I can find - these things all make it worth the negatives.
This is the talisman idea that I carry with me, which surfaces naturally when I am struggling and which I hope as the years go on will continue to be true.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Woman in a non-traditional study area

I am a "woman in a non-traditional study area". In fact, I had a scholarship that said so during undergrad. In truth, that scholarship always made me a bit uncomfortable. It was one of a collection that came under the auspices of the Targeted Access Program, a program designed to attract under-represented groups (racial minorities, people from low socio-economic backgrounds etc) to university. I felt a bit like I had it under false pretences, since I would have attended university with or without it, I was applying for courses with cut-off scores well below my high school score so I would get in regardless, and I was actually much more comfortable in a male dominated group than a female dominated one. I wasn't about to turn down very welcome financial support though.

I had similiarly ambivalent thoughts about whether any of my blog should focus on this particular aspect of my life. Many of the blogs I read and enjoy are Women in Science/Academia blogs and by definition I am one. And yet... I am one of the lucky ones that has not really had to deal with explicit sexual discrimination. As such, again I feel like I am operating under false pretences to play up that aspect of my identity which has more often been an advantage than a disadvantage. I often enjoy being in the minority, my personality is such that I don't get spoken over, ignored or mistaken for the secretary and my technical credentials have generally made it very difficut for any of the males in my various groups to lord it over me. I can recognise the female-unfriendly aspects of my field, but I feel fake trying to pose as the part of the offended group, because most of the time these aspects are not turn-offs to me.

Something happened this week though that I could relate to without pretence. There's been a story going around about a presentation at a Ruby on Rails conference. The best summary I have read is at but the basic story is that one of the technical presentations (about a database) had a subtitle Perform like a pr0n star and contained many slides with sexually suggestive pictures of women. When there were complaints, the reactions from some prominent people in the community were "I'm sorry if you were offended, don't be so thin-skinned" and "We should have more of this, not less. We are an edgy community". There has been a lot of talk on this story on the tech sites that I read, so I got curious and had a look at the slides. Wow. This is not something horrific but quite specifically aimed like the Kathy Sierra incident, nor the every day things that could happen to woman in tech but either don't happen to me, or don't affect me. This is a situation I could very easily see myself in and one that would make me very uncomfortable. I like being in the minority in situations like conferences where attracting attention is generally a good thing, but being one of very few women watching that presentation would not have been good attention.

There's been lots of comments on the affair, some sickening but also some insightful comments that helped me understand my own reaction. My take is that one of the complications to the discussion is that there are two ways this presentation is wrong, but people aren't making the distinction. The first is that it is inappropriate to have those sort of images in a professional context. This is the aspect that has been most often discussed which is probably why it has been so controversial because this statement is debatable. There's no doubt these slides would be inappropriate in a business context, but this wasn't a business context. Whether it was appropriate in that particular conference is not so clear-cut. Personally, I'd say no, but I am not part of the Rails community and don't claim to understand the atmosphere. The second way that presentation was wrong was best expressed by one of the commenters:

It’s not about whether it’s porn or not porn. Those commenting on people’s supposed hypersensitivity to nudity or bodies are completely missing the point.

It’s about presenting women as ‘the other,’ not ‘us.’ It would have been just as offensive if all the women shown were domineering mothers in aprons, shaking their fingers and threatening with rolling pins.

This to me was the important point that I had been struggling towards. These slides said very clearly that women were not the intended audience. I have been involved in open source communities in the past, and I would like to get more involved in the future (after PhD) but that presentation is enough to make me think that I wouldn't be welcome in the Rails community.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


There's a privileges meme doing the rounds at the moment (here, here, here, here). My answers are below, but first a few random thoughts. I believe the point of the exercise is to let yourself see how privileged you are, but what it brought to my mind is how relative the idea of privilege is. I don't mean the "children in Third World countries would love to eat your broccoli" idea, but how my idea of privilege/class changed according to my surroundings.

I am the oldest of four children. Growing up, we never had a lot of spare money, but we never starved either (though I remember more than a few weeks when Mum would say "toast for dinner, I don't get paid until tomorrow"). I guess we were lower middle class. When I was at primary school, many of my classmates were from housing commission areas. As such, I considered myself quite privileged. Looking back, I'm not exactly sure what the differences I saw were, but I definitely felt lucky.

When I got to high school, I think we fit the class demographic very well. I was 'average' and so ideas of class never came up. I do remember feeling very lucky to still have two parents though, since practically all my friends' parents were separated.

Going to university was the first time I really felt a strong class difference. In the land far, far away, you don't have to be rich to go to university so that wasn't the factor. The tuition fees are quite low compared to the US, and you can defer paying them until you start working, when they are paid like an extra tax, relative to your income. My problem was that I decided I wanted to live in a residential college (think Harry Potter style dining hall) and so I managed to get scholarships, bursaries and part-time jobs to cover the fees that my parents could never have paid. Now, I just had romantic ideas of living in an ivy-covered castle, I never considered what sort of people lived there. Suddenly I was thrown in with kids from real private schools, often boarding schools. Kids who were used to an 8pm dinner (not tea) with a glass of wine. Kids who said "Just get your parents to buy a new one" as I stressed over my old computer I had taken out a $1000 loan to buy 3 years ago. Kids whose maids had sewn name tags on their clothes. Kids who had no idea of the value of money. And I am using kids here quite deliberately - for people my own age, they were incredibly sheltered. That was the first time I realised that the common idea in our country of 'classless society' only holds because most people don't associate with people outside their 'class'. It is not necessarily a limiting difference, but there are differences. (My family thought I spoke 'posh' the first time I came home from college.)

So, over my life from 5 to 23, I have been the upper class, the standard class and the lower class, and yet, our actual situation never changed. Is privilege always a function of comparison with your peers? I realise all the above relates to class rather than privilege directly, but that's how the questions seem to be directed.

As a matter of fact, I feel very privileged. My parents encourage me in everything I do (even when they don't understand it) and were always interested in my education (though they think I've had enough now and it is time I left school). I have wonderful friends and mentors scattered all over the world and I get paid to do something I love. Everyone should be this happy.

The questions:

The items that apply to me are BOLD

1. Father went to college

2. Father finished college

3. Mother went to college

4. Mother finished college - I'm not sure what college means here. Mum has some tertiary education, since she taught primary school, but it is not the equivalent of a university degree and she couldn't teach now without upgrading her qualifications.

5. Have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor

6. Were the same or higher class than your high school teachers - probably the same, but I'm not sure

7. Had more than 50 books in your childhood home

8. Had more than 500 books in your childhood home - We used to buy boxes of books at garage sales and no one in my family can walk past a second hand book shop without at least sticking their head in. We didn't have many new books, although that was the most common birthday present for me and to a slightly lesser extent my brother and sisters.

9. Were read children’s books by a parent - they say so. I don't remember, but then I was reading to myself before I hit 3 year old kinder so they must have taught me.

10. Had lessons of any kind before you turned 18 - We were all allowed one extracurricular activity. I tried dancing, singing and acting before I joined and stuck with scouts. Tomboy is a better description for me than graceful or musical :)

11. Had more than two kinds of lessons before you turned 18 - yes, just not at the same time (see above)

12. The people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively - I guess. My sisters abhor my (lack of) fashion sense, but I am assuming this question concerns race?

13. Had a credit card with your name on it before you turned 18

14. Your parents (or a trust) paid for the majority of your college costs

15. Your parents (or a trust) paid for all of your college costs

16. Went to a private high school - I went to a Catholic school, not government, since the religious aspect was important to my parents. We were not considered a private school by the 'real' private schools though. I'm not sure how they defined the difference - though I'm sure they had some sort of justification for charging 15 times as much in fees.

17. Went to summer camp

18. Had a private tutor before you turned 18

19. Family vacations involved staying at hotels - most family vacations involved long road trips, cramming 6 people into 4 person cabins at caravan parks on the way. We might have stayed in motels on Our Big Adventure? (see #30)

20. Your clothing was all bought new before you turned 18 - most being the oldest child, but school uniforms were usually second hand.

21. Your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them - my first car was older than I was - and my parents paid half (of $1000) as my 18th b'day present.

22. There was original art in your house when you were a child

23. You and your family lived in a single family house

24. Your parent(s) owned their own house or apartment before you left home - they are still paying the mortgage, 13 years after I left.

25. You had your own room as a child. - once my parents decided I was too old to share with my brother

26. You had a phone in your room before you turned 18

27. Participated in a college entrance exam (eg. SAT/ACT) prep course

28. Had your own TV in your room

29. Owned a mutual fund or IRA in High School or College

30. Flew anywhere on a commercial airline before you turned 16 - my mother had her heart set on one big family holiday together, before I was too old to take time out of school (when it was cheaper to travel), so they took out an extra mortgage and my one commercial flight before 16 (well, two counting the return) was over 10 hours - to Disneyland!

31. Went on a cruise with your family

32. Went on more than one cruise with your family

33. Your parents took you to museums and art galleries as you grew up. - Dad loves museums - tram museums, steam museums, science museums. I don't think I ever went to an art gallery though

34. You were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family. - as the oldest child I was mum and dad's confidante and was well aware of our family finances from quite a young age. (Edited because yes, I read that one backwards.)

From "What Privileges Do You Have?", based on an exercise about class and privilege developed by Will Barratt, Meagan Cahill, Angie Carlen, Minnette Huck, Drew Lurker, Stacy Ploskonka at Illinois State University. If you participate in this blog game, they ask that you please acknowledge their copyright.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Research directions

The goal of my research has been to improve Tool X so it can be used in practical situations. While I occasionally worry that this goal is too engineering based (implementation rather than research), there has been some science in the ways I try and improve Tool X, and in the ways I analyse the results. One of the ways that other people have improved their tools that do similar things to Tool X is to add Tool A into the system somehow. And so, I looked at various ways to integrate Tool A with Tool X, ran a whole lot of experiments and analysed the results. Major result: Tool A does help, but not to the same extent that others have seen.

Now, Tool X produces something slightly different to other similar tools. Something that appears to be both more difficult to produce, but also potentially more useful. (Both these claims are hard to quantify though.) It also has some differences in mechanism that might mean that the sort of assistance Tool A can provide is not so necessary in our case. All this means it is difficult to directly compare with others. In any case, I wrote up the results of my experiments and sent them off to one of the mentors I was meeting a few weeks back. At the conference, we discussed these results, and he pointed out that the standalone results I was getting with Tool A were not state of the art. He mentioned a more intelligent variant of Tool A, which I would easily be able to run now I had the infrastructure set up, and which he was sure would give better (Tool A) results since it had been used in passing in other experiments on the same sort of data. So I tried his version of Tool A when I got home, and it did slightly worse (in terms of Tool A results). I then started doing some more focussed reading on Tool A variants and tried an even more intelligent variant which gives state of the art results for others (and is completely open source) and it gives significantly worse results.

So now my quandary. Tool A was never my focus. My old results are still valid: I get an improvement using Tool A with Tool X contrasted with using Tool X alone. I can show the maximum improvement I would get in Tool X if Tool A gave perfect results. But my recent reading and exploring has suggested that the sort of data I am working on has certain properties that indicate that Tool A could be used in a different manner to that of everyone else. Now I am trying to decide if I should put more time and effort into examining how data can be fed into and extracted from Tool A in different ways. That would change my thesis focus from "ways to improve Tool X" to "how Tool A improves Tool X, and why that is different to how Tool A improves other things like Tool X". I like the second option because it is more focussed, and it is more science than engineering/implementation. And there are interesting questions involved. On the other hand, it is quite late in the game to be changing focus like that.

The new focus would be more related to the Cupcake-ology side of the field, which is exciting because I think more Cupcake-ology results should be used in our field, but also daunting because my background is strictly Computer Science. I have taken only a couple of Cupcake oriented courses, and most of the Cupcake information I have picked up has been through experimenting (as a computer scientist) with Cupcake data, and though talking with Cupcake-ologists who have moved to our field. I feel a bit imposter-ish trying to make even general claims about Cupcake theories in front of others who have actually studied the field.

So now I am trying to decide how far to take this. I will need to do more with Tool A anyway, since I agree that I need to be closer to state of the art to make any real claims. But do I try exploring these different ways of using Tool A, and why that works better in Tool X and what that tells us about different Cupcake theories, or do I just put in a reasonable amount of optimisation work and show the Tool X upper bound that a perfect Tool A would give? It actually wouldn't change the structure of my thesis much in either case, but it would change the slant of the writing and probably the conclusions I am trying to draw. In some ways (given time restrictions) it would remove some breadth from my thesis, but add some depth (in an unexpected place).

Anyhow, I really need to figure this out this week. Or at least a plan that dictates how long I try to do any particular thing, and what my fallback options are. It would be much easier to write my thesis if I could settle the direction...

Culture shock and pumpkin soup

When I first arrived in my university town Somewhere in Europe, I suffered from massive culture shock. This was somewhat unexpected, since I had fairly easily adjusted to living in Japan as an undergrad and assumed that a western European country, being much more similar to my own, would be even easier. I was very wrong. I have, 2 and a half years later, mostly adjusted though this town is still not high on my list of favourite places to live.

Last night I was reminded yet again that I am not at home. Why does no other country in the world have switches on their power points? And, given this lack of switches, why on earth would you sell appliances with no on/off switch? The blender that I bought when I moved here can only be switched on by plugging it in to the socket, a fact which strongly contributed to me covering part of the kitchen with pumpkin soup last night...