Christmas at home

This year we celebrated Christmas without much fanfare.  We didn't travel, we didn't have a tree, and we didn't even bake cookies.  I did make two nice dinners for Christmas eve and Christmas day, but they were still low-maintenance as far as holiday dinners go.  I missed seeing family, of course, but it was a very relaxing way to spend the holiday.

We did go see the reenactment of Washington's crossing of the Delaware, which was cute, though the actors might shudder to have that word applied to them.  When the first boat crossed, it looked like they were struggling for a bit against the current, but they made it.  One of the highlights was an actor not wearing any pants, which was hilarious.

We bullied this guy into taking a picture with us.
Can you see the fear in his eyes?

The struggle.

Mr. Nopants has disembarked.

The Saturday before Christmas, we went to the mall briefly.  It was a very bad idea; never go to the mall between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Never.  It was very crowded, bustling with people walking everywhere.  In the midst of this, I heard a violin.  I thought I was going a little mad as I stopped in place and turned to NWC and started muttering about how it sounded like there was a live violinist in the mall.  As we kept walking, it got louder and I kept alternating between jabbering about it and enjoying the calming peace it brought amidst the swarms of people.  Eventually, we made it to some kind of indoor central plaza, and there he was, playing along with a subtle recording.  It was very sentimental to listen, as my father plays his violin much more during the holidays.  I got a little teary and just stood there for a minute, like calm in the eye of a storm.  Eventually we moved on to decide that we didn't want to deal with the lines, but we got to pass him again on the way out.  I was glad to have experienced his music, and oddly enough, the contrasting unpleasantness of the mall probably made it all the more memorable.


WiML 2014 workshop

Yesterday was the culmination of many months of planning for the annual Women in Machine Learning workshop.  I think it will easily be my favorite part of being up in Montreal for the duration of NIPS 2014.

We had an amazing program; our invited speakers were Carla BrodleyTina Eliassi-Rad, Diane Hu, and Claudia Perlich with Finale Doshi-Velez giving our opening remarks.  Our student oral presentations were thought provoking, and the breadth of our poster session was immense.  Corporate sponsors sent great representatives, and the round table mentoring session enabled some amazing discussions.  I feel like I can through positive adjectives at basically any aspect of the event, from our volunteers to the food.

I loved working with my fellow organizers Marzyeh Ghassemi, Sarah Brown, and Jessica Thompson.  It was an amazing experience and I'm very glad to have had this opportunity.

Thanks to @kmkinnaird for her photography!


the danger of open mindedness

Being open minded is generally a good thing.  It is, in essence, being willing to accept new ideas.  Having an open mind allows us to learn about the world, to enjoy new experiences, and to connect with people outside our usual sphere.  All of these improve our lives or the world as a whole.

It can, however, be a cop-out.  Sometimes people fail to stand up for themselves and their beliefs in the name of open mindedness.   If we believe in morality, or in some kind of goodness (divine or otherwise), then we believe that there are lines to be drawn.

The extreme example that we often use in discussing morality is murder.  Just to push these extremes: if a group of people is killing others without justification beyond enjoyment, and someone has the ability to stop them without great cost, would it be okay for that person to shrug it off and say, I'm just trying to have an open mind?  I hope not.

So if we accept that open mindedness is dangerous in the extreme, what about the more nuanced occurrences in our daily lives?  If you suspect your friend is cheating on an exam, is accepting that behavior okay?  It seems like the right first step would be to confront your friend, find out the truth, and if thy are cheating then tell them that their behavior is unacceptable—taking action in this way is the exact opposite of open-mindedness.

In the religious world, this is often called righteousness, or adherence to a moral code.  If morality is important, then so is standing up for morality when others violate it.  This gets a little tricky, however, as certain aspects of morality are highly personal.

I believe that we should each have our own moral code—rules that govern our personal behavior—and that we should righteously adhere to it.  This doesn't mean that we need to proselytize our morality, but it does mean that when friends ask for advice, that we should actually give it to them according to our own morals, instead of saying what we think they want to hear.

It also means that we should kindly stand up against behavior that makes us feel uncomfortable.  In doing so, we have the opportunity to learn—if our morality can be improved, then this gives the other people involved a chance to respond.  In fact, open mindedness is essential to this paradigm: as we consult with friends, we improve our morality.  The crux of the problem is: when do we know that we are actually improving our morality, as opposed to degrading it?

2014/12/1 update
  Vaguely related: a NYT opinions piece entitled The Trick to Being More Virtuous.


onion startups

I've thought and talked a lot about startups—this shouldn't be that surprising giving my field.  In doing so, I've crafted a theory for making startups successful, though I have no practical experience in testing it.

We know that every startup has its core: the minimal viable product that can start getting the attention of investors or consumers.  But after this core, they need to grow, or add another layer of product that builds on the core.  And then they need another layer, and an onion.

The idea is that startups need a road map for progress.  The minimum viable product is essential, but they also need to know each stage of production.  As in, what comes immediately after the MVP?  And what about after that?  Do we waste time floundering around looking at our motley of ideas?  Does each developer work on a different improvement until one takes?

If your idea doesn't have multiple stages beyond the MVP, it might not have long-term value.  On the other hand, the final product should be substantial, but not bloated.  Make sure each layer depends on the previous one so that it's not a branching of random ideas.  We are not a broccoli.

In the end the goal should be to solve a single problem well, and each layer hones expands and generalizes the solution.  I think that people in the startup world already know this—it's the people who are toying with the idea of doing a startup for the first time that need this perspective.


a pass at focaccia

For my birthday this month, we went out to an amazing dinner at The Pass.   I love fixed price menus because they usually involve making fewer decisions while trying more things.  I was able to try some things I had never had before: escargot (as meatballs) and foie gras.  It was interesting to battle some of my instincts (snail?! liver?! yuck!), but I was over to get over them and enjoy the meal.

The very first thing that they served us was a wonderful focaccia, the likes of which I have never had before.  It had a texture halfway between the typical sponge of focaccia and the open crumb of rustic breads.  Its crust was also more chewy and flakey, and the shape was as if it had been cut from a tall round loaf instead of a short, rectangular one.  The main meal I have no hopes of duplicating, but mimicking this bread is now a project.

I started with the basic recipe in The Bread Baker's Apprentice, my favorite bread baking book.  I also bought a new pack of Saf instant yeast, and hunkered down to my first attempt.

I opted for baking longer under lower heat for a stronger crust, as recommended by the book.  In general, it turned out a little too oily for my taste, but was a respectable focaccia.  To match the Pass focaccia, it needs to have more developed gluten for an airier crumb, and the crust should be less chewy and more flakey.  I may try baking a non-focaccia bread next, just to explore those other characteristics, and then combine them in a third batch.


when kale freezes over

I was wondering when my kale would stop producing, and tonight I got my answer: when the plant freezes solid.  We're having our last garden kale meal of the season tonight, with nature-wilted kale.  After two continuous days of where the afternoon high was in the low 30s, I can't say I'm surprised.


October books

A genetically engineered apocalypse, a half dragon half human child, and necromancy. Perfect Halloween reading.

Oryx and Crake ★★★
This book left me reeling.  There were eerie similarities to the world surrounding me, one of which was the decaying nature of autumn, but I think the most compelling aspect of this book was the uncertainty.  On the one hand, we have god-like orchestration of plants and animals through genetic engineering, but the human motivations are left ambiguous.  The contrast between scientific precision and human enigmaty [1] was the major contributor to my stupor, but another culprit was the discouraging resemblance between the fictional society and our contemporary one, which raised apprehension about our own future.

Seraphina ★★
A curious YA novel about a dragon-human hybrid girl who has a strange way of walking around inside her own head.  While plot elements like murder, deception, and love abound, the core of this book addresses two main topics: prejudice and the balance between emotion and reason.  These subjects are addressed in the context of fantasy, however, and it is left to the reader to interpret them (or not) to apply to reality.

Clariel ★★
This YA book just came out on October 14.  I identified with Clariel immediately; she was a wilderness girl recently brought to a big city for her mother's work, and complained about the lack of trees.  I love the wilderness but commute weekly into New York, and have been known to complain extensively about the condition of trees in various cities.  Reading her complaints was like reading a transcript of my own diatribes.  And then her incessant whining got tedious.  And then she was stupid.  It is an interesting addition to the Abhorsen series, but probably my least favorite—I'll read the original three over again on occasion, but once is enough for this one.  It was also hard to tell when this happened relative to the other books—the resolution of this question was interesting, but I wish it was in the content of the novel itself instead of the author's note at the very end.

Next up: the newly released The Slow Regard of Silent Things.

[1] Yes, I did "make this up," but it's a word that should really exist.  The only word that means the quality of being enigmatic according to the OED is the obscure enigmaticalness from 1684, which was probably "made up" then as well.  Enigmaticness could also work, and is parallel to words like frantic and franticness, or enigmaticity could do, but I like brevity and enigmaty was the first thing that came to mind.


meaningful service

Within my church community, we frequently emphasize service as a good thing that we should seek perform for others.  As such, we often organize service activities, in which we come together as a community to perform larger scale service that we might not otherwise be able to do as individuals. While I think this is a great idea, I think that there's one major aspect that can often be improved.  More on that soon.

There are roughly four objectives in performing service:
  • Help  This is the most important objective: to fill the needs of others.  Needs can range from the physical, like hunger, to social needs, like loneliness.
  • Feed the Fire  Individuals need to feel compassion for others; part of the goal of service is to kindle that desire in individuals so that they will be better people in their daily lives.
  • Community building  Whether individuals are working side by side in an activity or one person is helping another, service forges connections within a community.
  • Be an example  Here, the goal is to inspire people outside our community, either by welcoming them to join us or reminding them to do good independently.

The last objective is difficult in many contexts because it often gets conflated with getting good press, which is not the goal.  If we want to take pictures for our own memories, that's fine, but taking picture for the explicit purpose of handing them to a reporter seems disingenuous.  When we're trying to be an example, we should always be inclusive, which is to say, we should never isolate the people we are talking to. We should try to make them feel like they were there with us so that next time maybe they will be.

What I really want to talk about is the first objective: actually helping people.  We have a responsibility to be effective in our choices of service.  We need to ask ourselves: what are real needs? and not what is easy to do in the hour we have on Wednesday night with the youth?  Certainly we aren't always ready to ask these questions—there are weeks when easy is all I can handle.  When we have extra time and energy, however, this is where we should put the effort.

What are common service projects?
  • tie the ends of felt quilts
  • local disaster relief (e.g. hurricane cleanup)
  • writing letters to missionaries
  • yard work / housecleaning for members
  • visiting with seniors or disabled individuals
  • baking things for people
  • making sanitation or relief kits

Take an honest look at the list.  Which of these have you done?  What has been your mindset for each one?  What mindset has the activity encouraged?  The winners for impact are local disaster relief and visiting with seniors or disabled individuals; not coincidentally, they almost always are accompanied with a sincere charitable mindset.  Other tasks are more about the secondary objectives.  When writing generic one-time letters to missionaries that you don't really know, who is really benefiting?  What about tying the ends of piece of felt that's just as effective as a blanket without your effort? Often it's more about performing the service than the actual impact of the service itself.

What else can we do that's effective?
  • We can  develop long lasting relationships with lonely or outlier individuals. These are not just one-time visits.  My brother used to go play chess with a retired man in our neighborhood; I don't think either of them even thought of it as service, but it brought effortless joy to both sides.  This could be a simple as going to watch a fun TV show with someone.
  • Fundraising  I think we shrink away from fundraising too much; there are a lot of fun, creative ways to fundraise, especially if we reach outside the church community.  Dessert auctions, hunger banquets, craft bazaars, yard sales, by-donation dancing lessons—the possibilities are endless.  If the proceeds go to an effective charity, this seems like a great option.
  • Tutoring or reading to underprivileged kids.  I was a reading buddy at an old workplace which was walking distance from an elementary school with lots of low-income ESL students. A group of us would go over and read to the kids and play word games like hangman.  It was fun, easy, and effective.  Some kids just aren't getting enough individual attention to learn as best they can, and you can help.

What's the take home message?  We need to think about the people we're trying to serve first: what are real needs that exist in the world?  Maybe we need to do more research, or maybe we just need to think outside of our usual sphere of influence.  Regardless, we need to stop worrying as much about the secondary objectives.  You should know that something is wrong when you have the idea for a service project and then ask: so who could we give this quilt to?  All of the objectives I've listed are good; it's just a question of good vs. better.  


hanging the unhangable

I have a collection of Russian lacquer boxes that depict fairy tales (in the Kholuy style, for those that care).  I originally saw these in a hotel while traveling in my family state-side.  For whatever reason, I became obsessed.  I love miniatures, boxes, and art generally, so I suppose it's not terribly surprising.  I found a the Tradestone Gallery sometime in college and honed my bartering skills as I purchases boxes over time. I've since become less fixated on acquiring boxes, but I still love the ones that I have.

For the past four years, however, they've remained in boxes because there hasn't been a good way to display them; we don't have much in the way of surface space.  I've considered various was of hanging them on the wall, but it is a difficult task to do so while not harming the boxes.  I've mused about using strong magnets to photo ledges, but nothing seemed to be both economically reasonable and aesthetically pleasing.

Finally, I stumbled upon tool hooks, which are cheap, stable, and don't get too much in the way of the boxes. This weekend, I picked up one for each box and mounted them on the wall.  NWC is worried about them rotating, and so I'm thinking of gluing them in place where they intersect the wall.

Aside from one wrong hole (the screw wouldn't go in), I think it went very well. 


onion maggots

I recently brought in my herbs from the garden and planted them in a cedar planter box under our living room window.  My rosemary was too dead to bring in, but my thyme and chives are doing alright after a week or so, or so I thought until today.

I was grooming my chives by pulling away dead leaves when I accidentally brought up a bunch of live ones.  After doing so, I noticed that the base looked a little bit like the green onions you buy at the store with stubby white roots, and thought Huh. I didn't know that.  And then the roots started moving.  For a moment I thought I was hallucinating, but quickly realized that there was something living in my chives and it looked like maggots.

After inspecting and disposing of the chive saboteurs that I had uprooted, I went to the internet to identify them as onion maggots.  My current approach is going to be keeping the chives warm and dry, but I'm curious to hear if other people have more direct remedies for this pest.

Worst case, my chives die off and I start new ones; they're easy to grow, so I won't be heartbroken.  If something like this happened to my beautiful little thyme plant, however, I would be very agitated.


In favor of "BigLaw"

Last Friday, my amazing little brother published an article in the Harvard Law Record entitled Want to Save the World? Do BigLaw! which has had mixed reception, including a rebuttal that was published in conjunction with it.

My brother has an intentionally inflammatory style for humor (see also: our childhood), but his point was this: if you can withstand the indulgent aspects of corporate culture, then you can do more good by making lots of money and donating it to effective charities than you can by donating your career to particular causes.

While I think that there always individual exceptions, I agree with his analysis.  The market has greater capacity for corporate lawyers than for public interest or government positions.  Additionally, the scope of influence for the latter two is usually limited to the nation in which the individual practices.  In the case of American public interest lawyers, the people benefiting from their services are usually American citizens or residents (legal or otherwise).

In all countries there are marginalized populations; these people deserve advocacy and legal protection.  However, if citizens of a nation wait until all of their fellow residents are happy and healthy before they look outside their own country to do good, then they will likely be waiting indefinitely.

The US is incredibly privileged.  We still have problems, but citizens of many, many other countries have it much, much worse off than even the poorest among us here.  We can choose to pay $3 for someone's lunch in America, or spend that same money on a Malaria net that saves a child's life [1].  It simply comes down to the most effective allotment of resources.  (And requires thinking globally instead of nationally.)

In the case of law, I think the numbers work out in favor of practicing corporate law and donating a percentage of your income.  Everyone must make their own choices, but I think if more people took this path, it wouldn't only be good for the recipients: lawyers practicing this lifestyle might begin to change corporate society, steering it away from consumerism and self-indulgence.

Press for his original article:
Above the Law: What Harvard Law Students Tell Themselves When The Demon Come

[1] Probabilistically, it actually takes more than that to save a life, since not everyone is guaranteed to get malaria; the AMF puts the figure at about $2,500/life.  In the US, that could be used for a fancy computer or a vacation.  It's also less than four month's net income for the average US food stamp recipient household.  The average food stamp recipient is gets $133.85/month, or less than $1.50/person/meal.  So the real comparison is helping to feed a family of four (in the US) for a little over a year vs. saving a life.  It's not so cut and dry, but I think the life still wins.


white keyboards (little moment of compulsion #7)

I have one of them fancy-pantsy mac keyboards at my office, and it bothers me beyond belief when the pristine white keys start to build up a border of brown.  When this happens on my keyboard, I generally just clean the one key that's particularly problematic, but today I broke down and meticulously worked over each key and the metal in between.

I took out the batteries so that I wouldn't end up with a terminal full of nonsense, but I'm still finding spots that need a bit more work like nhghjhgf that one.  It makes me shudder to think about the cleanliness of non-white keyboard keys, like the ones on my laptop.

professional face

I just redid my academic website, and I'm proud of the changes.  I stole design elements from Jaan, who used a modified Jekyll theme.  Before/after screenshots below, with old on the left and new on the right.  The CS web servers are going through a transition to a more secure system, so the changes won't be live for a bit.  I've debated getting a url for my academic webpage, or integrating it somehow with this blog, but I'm still not certain about what I want to do; it's nice to keep my personal rants and hijinks away from my professional front.


9/11 in NY

Today I was up in New York on regular business—reading group and my lab's group meeting.  When I arrived at Columbia, the main walk was covered in hundreds if not thousands of small American flags, and I remembered the date.  Throughout the day, it got lots of attention: people took pictures and there was even a pro-Palestine rally of some kind.

I was safely in California thirteen years ago, but I still remember waking up to the news and sitting on my parent's bed watching the smoke.  When a peer said that there was another attack at the Pentagon, I thought he was just trying to get attention.  So I was a little solemn today, as it made things a little more real, knowing that some percentage of the people around me had lived through the event in the city.

But then I witnessed something bizarre during the afternoon: a young woman plucking a handful of flags and then tossing them in the garbage with apparent distain.  I didn't know what to make of it.  Was she anti-American?  Was she an American citizen?  Was her family or her home country harmed by the US?  Was she somehow against the display of flags?  Did she lose family in 9/11 and was frustrated by the reminder?  It remains a mystery.


Sourland Spectacular

This morning NWC and I participated in the Sourland Spectacular road biking event, doing the 36 mile route.  It's the best biking in the area, and there are also a lot of small farms nearby, so several rest stops featured delicious local produce.  It was the longest bike route I've done, and the first athletic event I've ever done as an adult, though I wouldn't call it a race.

To make things more challenging, my front derailleur (part that shifts the gears) is broken, which meant I could only shift within the middle three gears.  It kept me from going to fast on the flats and downhills, but there were a couple uphills that were brutal because of it.

I finished in about 3 hours 45 minutes, including all four rest stops.  It wasn't great timing, but it wasn't embarrassing either.

People were very nice and encouraging, although one lady was a little unintentionally condescending in her encouragement.  Overall, it was very enjoyable and I wouldn't mind getting in shape for a proper race.


a motley of summer photos

I took a bunch of photos this summer, but I didn't post a lot, so here they are now.


This was my favorite shot.


Food & Garden

A bird made a nest in my dying peas.
Picked a bunch of wild raspberries (turned them into sorbet).
We're still getting okra from the garden.
A happy family of peppers.


Hanging with Sister Missionaries!
Wedding anniversary flowers.
Lots of Jenga.

YW Camp

Mah girls.
Lots of silly.


Summer Books

I read surprisingly little this summer, perhaps because the outdoors was too tempting with continuously mild weather.

The Cruelest Month ★★
The third volume in the Chief Inspector Gamache mystery series.  My tree hugger self was agitated that the Ginkgo tree was supposed to be in the same "family" as Ephedra genus, which produces Ephedra.  Yes, both of them are from China, but the Ginkgo has no living relatives.  Gah!  Aside from these botanical issues, it was a light, fun read, with the dual mystery of the murder and police politics.

The Wrinkle in Time Quintet ★★
A classic series of children's books that blend science fiction with a touch of religious mysticism.  It's been a while since I read them, and I had never finished the last two (Many Waters and An Acceptable Time).  Light, fun reads.

Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling ★★
A biography of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith.  I started this ages ago, but finally dug into it this summer.  Bushman balanced respect for faith with historical facts, often citing contemporary believers for their perspectives on events.  Not much was surprising, but it was nice to absorb the details.  I'd recommend it for folks outside Mormonism if they're interested in the origins of the church.


forever learning

Last week I was a leader for my church's summer girls' camp.  In addition to getting to know the girls better, I felt that I learned a few lessons myself.

As a leader, I needed to ask the girls to do lots of stuff, from cleaning latrines to going on hikes, practicing our skit to heading to dinner. There were times that I dealt out tough love and there were times that I was a softie.  It's a spectrum, of course, and each situation needed to be handled in its own particular way. I usually didn't give it much thought and just went with my gut.

Oblivious me: braiding clover
instead of paying attention.
It was reinforced—and it might be an obvious lesson to other people—that not only is every situation different, but every individual is unique as well.  I'm not just talking about people having a variety of personalities (I'm not that obtuse), but that every person has their own history of experiences and circumstances that shapes them. People might react differently due to physical or mental illness, or traumatic experiences that they have had in their lives.  These are obviously extreme examples, but even a relatively common situation, like a break-up with a boyfriend or bad grades in school, can cause a shift in a person's mind and attitude.

A difficult thing with teenagers is that they're starting to be affected by longer-term problems pretty consistently—it seems like they carry their emotions and memories for longer periods of time. Additionally, teenagers are mature enough to keep bigger secrets, and so leaders don't necessarily know what's going on in their lives behind-the-scenes. These things wouldn't be an issue for me if I wasn't expected to keep them on track in various ways. They aren't mature enough to take care of themselves and their responsibilities completely.

Even when I'm not coaxing people to do things, I often judge them without knowing their situation.  She's buying that for her kids?  Did he really just say that?  I know it's not right, but I try not to let it show.  I also try not to be judgmental in the first place, but not letting it show is the first step.  It's harder when you need to take action in conjunction with your judgements.  For guiding people to action, it's about finding the right set point between sympathetic and severe, and it's rarely in the same place twice, even for the same person.

I didn't make any horrific mistakes at camp, but I felt like I made lots of small ones. I can't imagine what it's like to be a parent. Thankfully, the girls were incredibly forgiving, and taught me to be a little bit better all around.


I don't need data

We got a mailer from T-mobile this month saying that our plan was going to be upgraded and giving us a broken link to info about the upgrade.  Very helpful.  NWC is also on the market for a new phone; he wants "anything without a big screen," a.k.a. not a smartphone.  Thus, I've been looking at cell provider websites lately and I've been really sad that there are basically no plans without data.

So far this month, I've talked for 12 minutes and used 8 text messages; NWC is beating me at 48 minutes and 46 text messages.  1000 minutes is the minimum we can get with T-mobile; it used to be 500, but all we really need is 200.  Our monthly bill for this pittance of use?  $73.13.  It's a complete rip off, but I haven't been able to find anything cheaper with the main providers.  Cell phone plans are increasingly including things that I don't want or need as part of their cheapest plans, raising their rates on the low-end products and forcing people into using smartphones.  You have to hunt for alternatives.

I'm seriously considering changing to Consumer Cellular, where our monthly bill would be reduced to $35 for 600 minutes and 1000 text messages.  There are other obscure phone plan providers, but theirs seems to be a good match for us.  I'm also amused that their target demographic is elderly and retired persons.  We won't get in-network benefits, but we weren't really using them anyway as we make our long calls via Google Hangouts.

Do you know anyone that uses a non-mainstream cellular provider?  How are they?


Daft for probabilistic graphical models

probabilistic graphical model rendered with Daft
Daft is python package used to render graphical models. Its renders are indeed lovely (see right), but the pipeline leaves something to be desired, and there's still a lot of functionality missing.

To try it out, I decided to draw one of the simplest PGMs possible: N points drawn from a mean μ.  It was frustrating to enter coordinates to place the nodes and plate boundaries. It would be preferable to specify which nodes the plates should surround, just as the edges specify which nodes they connect.  It would also be nice to not specify coordinates at all for the nodes, and instead have the system determine placement (but still allow manual override).

There are no options to control the alignment or scale of plate labels, and the concept of specifying an origin was a little strange, even if it makes sense.  The aspect ratio of the graphical model should be fit to the contents, and you should be able to set margins; the only time we should specify a size is when rendering.

While it seems promising, the learning curve is too steep for me.  I've entrenched myself in Inkscape, where it's easy for me to center things quickly.  Churning out the variant below took me about two minutes, whereas the Daft variant took closer to ten, and it still needs work.  That said, Daft does match fonts better with LaTex documents.  I could see it being powerful once you know how to handle its quirks.

probabilistic graphical model hand-drawn with Inkscape


having it all

What is "having it all"?  This is typically understood to mean being a women with children and a happy family life while also having a successful career.

Not only does this phrasing focus the life-balance discussion on privileged women (ignoring those struggling with multiple jobs, etc.), it also isolates women as distinct from men.  There are sacrifices no matter who you are and what choices you make, but we don't talk about men having it all or not.  As far as I can tell, no man or woman is perfect at everything.

We want each individual or family to be able to choose to balance their life or lives as they see fit.  We want them to be able to choose their family structure, domestic responsibilities, social obligations, career paths, and hobbies.  Just like we budget money between housing, food, clothing, and any number of things, each individual budgets their time and efforts.

Having it all is a useless metric, not to mention that it's incredibly ambiguous.  No matter your choice, using this terminology can appear as a judgement to those who allocate their time and efforts differently, which is basically everyone else.


not allergic to bees

While running this morning, I noticed that the wild raspberries were out, and I took a break to pick a few.  While rummaging in the bushes, I received my very first bee sting. When it happened, I felt pain in the skin over my achilles tendon, and looked down to see a striped insect flying toward my face.  I flailed like a child and took off running, four raspberries cradled in one hand.  After getting some distance behind me, I inspected my heel and removed the stinger and remnants of bee abdomen.

I received two wasp bites as a child, and was always afraid of being allergic to bee stings.  It hurt much more than I had anticipated, but the pain had mostly subsided by the time I returned home.  I was a little anxious, and N commented that for someone who likes bugs, I wasn't doing very well.  But once it seemed clear that I was having no allergic reaction, I became a bit giddy: I was never really afraid of being stung, but the potential allergic reaction.  Liberated from that fear, I may now begin a career in beekeeping.


life with bass

I've noticed that nowadays we mostly listen to music with terrible speakers.  Laptops aren't that great, and mobile devices are also pretty bad in that neither have a decent bass range.  Music has become background to life, and in the process it's lost some of its original artistry, both in terms of range of expression and in terms of how we treat it. It's more like food now than like visual art hung on a wall.

I usually don't like to listen to music while I work since I find it distracting, but there are certain more mundane tasks that it helps speed along.  I was working from home today and hooked up music to our little Bose speaker, and songs that had just played idly before suddenly commanded my attention with their richness.

Even with quality over-ear headphones, the sound just isn't the same for me—it feels restricted.  And when I do use headphones, I almost always only use one ear at a time, switching to let each ear "breathe" in turn.

There seems to be something off about music consumption habits, but I can't put my finger on it.  Part of it is the isolation: we're regularly giving up the abundance of the physical world for the confines of digital one with its poor audio and tiny screens.  Even on subways with their abhorrent screeching, there's an incredible amount to be seen and heard.

Isolation aside, there's also the monster of indulgent consumption.  In stuffing ourselves with whatever we fancy at the moment, we whittle away our patience and attention to detail.  In some sense, we lose the ability to hear the bass in the first place.

I can't make overarching conclusions about what we as a society should do, or if this should even be viewed as a problem.  For me personally, however, I don't like being surprised by the bass in a familiar song.

All this talk of bass makes me want to squirrel up in a basement coffee shop with a live jazz band.



Today, it's been six years since I started blogging.  To celebrate, I decided to do some text analysis of the 455 posts I've published here, prior to this one.  In curating the corpus, I learned that I write words like totally and amazing far too much.  Moving past my bad mannerisms, there's some fun stuff to see.

I ran the topic model LDA with 50 topics.  It captured the things I like to do: gardening, cooking, and travel. (I'm showing the top 10 terms associated with each topic, and top 5 documents.)

topic 008 chocolate butter egg cup add cream sugar mixture potato lime
two tarts
potato shallot souffle
Nearly Rotten Apples
chocolate festival!
chocolate cake for two

topic 037 seeds plants garden seed tomatoes tomato plant garlic planted plot
starting my heirloom garden
the hard way
So it begins...
frost vs. freeze
bring out yer dead

topic 048 car trip beach drive night friends road visited nwc park
East Coast Australia
up for air: a beautiful, but messy, life
Adventures in Israel, the Epic Saga, Chapter IV - By Day and by Night
Come, come, ye students!

It also found some things that I geek out about: software designbooks, and teaching.

topic 009 computer password system name history users physical person book month
accounts - what's the point?
designing everyday things and computer interactions
What should computers be able to do?
retina displays and serif fonts

topic 012 books book digital library kindle true screen already order libraries
paper and pixels
the Birth Order Book
fiction or nonfiction?
minimally problematic
Kindle review

topic 046 kids science school computer does mean taught put true teach
incorporating computer science into K-12 curriculums
welcome to the system
sorting concept game
switching places
the things we don't clean (little moment of compulsion #5)

And, unsurprisingly, it found the things about which I blather extensively: gender and sexuality, religion, mormon feminism, and morality in general.

topic 039 gender school roles boys girls children grad changed turn transgender
don't compete with the boys
redefining ambition
a blast from the past
gender identity in young children

topic 034 god atonement christ believe belief post faith negative self comfortable
Answering the Temple Recommend Interview Questions
inner light
just on belief (a follow up)
The Atonement
knowledge vs. belief

topic 035 women church priesthood mother holy gender father roles ghost heavenly
General Conference Sentence Generator
teaching young women
Boys and Girls and God
seeing change, or fruit and dirt
The Holy Ghost and Heavenly Mother

topic 047 marriage morality laws society child believe different parents moral gay
on the mercuriality of moral caliber in our beloved republic
forgiving vs. condoning
morality in a governed society, emotional premises, and same-sex marriage
on belief and expressing ideas
can't touch this

Because we have the time aspect, I was tempted to run Sean Gerrish's dynamic topics + influence model to see how topics shifted over time and what posts were prescient of change, but I was too lazy.

We can still, however, track page views over time (Blogger messes up the x-axis labels; it really starts at June 2008) and the number of post over time.

Other tidbits:
  • my most popular post is The Holy Ghost and Heavenly Mother
  • my cs webpage refers the most traffic
  • I have 145 unpublished drafts, ranging from short notes to fully-fledged posts. Some of these I'm still working on, but others I've decided not to publish, but don't want to delete.
  • To date, I've earned $4.13 via Amazon ads.  More on my ad policy here.


looking outward

There's been a lot of discussion in the wake of potential Mormon activist excommunications. There are those that defend Kate Kelly and John Dehlin, and there are those that defend the LDS church.  And then there are the few that abstain from defending, advocating both love and faith without judgement.  In my eagerness to have a well-crafted opinion on everything, sometimes I forget that it's not my place.  As my cousin pointed out, we can't possibly know the nuances of the situation.  We should not forget that this is a story about individuals, albeit in the context of various causes.  It makes me wonder if a variant of the Ring Theory of Kvetching needs to be applied here.

Complaint, judgement, discussion, and action all have their places, but it's hard to define their boundaries.  In the church context, they help us work toward things like gender equality and finding a place for alternative families.  But, I must remind myself: these are not the biggest issues in the world, nor in the church.  In some ways they're indulgent. They're centered around my feelings and experiences.  It's easy to see what's wrong and suggest changes: I'm proposing changes to my world to make life better for me and people like me.

We need to work on the things close to home in order to be more functional people.  If I'm struggling with mental health issues, I may not be able to focus on my family's needs.  If my family is having problems, I'm probably not going to prioritize my community.  If I don't have a strong support network, I may not be able to think about global issues. That's normal.  Certainly we must take time to heal and strengthen ourselves, our families, and our communities at each stage before we can look outward, but that should be our goal; we should try to move our thoughts and actions to be as far out on the ring of influence as possible.

I'm lucky enough to feel that there are people out there that need the time and attention much more than I do. That doesn't mean that the gender and social issues that impact me aren't important—they certainly are—but it does mean that I should probably spend proportionally less time and effort on them.  For instance, instead of talking about gender policies in the church, we could discuss how to make sure that all the children of the church are well-nourished.  Or we could move past the church to talk about how many people need to be dewormed.

It's harder to fuel discussion about these things because it's further from home.  What can I possibly say that's helpful?  Many people have the perspective that they can just give money as they feel motivated and then go back to talking about their own hot issues.  (Or they waste money on inefficient service projects to feel good.)  But what if we put as much time and effort into these issues as we have to ordaining women?  What is the church going to say?  No, we can't.  We need to build malls and support legislation on traditional marriage.  Probably not; I think they would actually listen, and it'd be really nice for the Relief Society to live up to its name more fully.

I'm blessed right now with a phase of life where I can look outward.  I don't expect everyone to be there, and I certainly won't be able to stay there continually, but I think everyone should want to be there.  I gave a talk at church recently that ended with the following idea.
Es fácil pasarse el tiempo trabajando en las cosas pequeñas, pero eso es como recoger granos de arena una a una para despejar el camino. Les recomiendo que en vez de eso, encuentren el obstáculo más grande [...] y deshágase de él.
Roughly translated: It's easy to spend our time working on the little things, but that's like picking up grains of sand one by one to clear the road. I recommend that instead, we find the biggest obstacle and dispose of it.  There, I was talking about becoming a better person, but it applies to activism as well.  This means thinking beyond ourselves, and thinking beyond the church.

So, what's the biggest obstacle on the road to a better world?


garden photos

A pair of shell pea blossoms.

Snap pea blossoms.  I love the veins.

More snap peas.  I munch on the pods now when I'm in the garden.

Water droplets on my black Barlow columbine.

I bought seeds for the others from the Seed Savers Exchange, but the columbine I bought spontaneously at a farmer's market when I heard that it was a Barlow variety.  It must be destiny, I thought. Plus, I had wanted to try columbines for a while, but they don't flower their first year.  Solution for my lazy self: buy a year-old plant.


Excommunication of Mormon Activists

Two prominent Mormons are facing the possibility of excommunication.

I'm saddened, but not terribly surprised.  Kate Kelly, one of the members facing church discipline, is the founder of Ordain Women.  While I'd love to see women get ordained, either to the traditional patriarchal priesthood or to a separate matriarchal one, there's a huge problem with Ordain Women: it seeks female ordination regardless of God's will.

I'm happy advocating for the Prophet to seek answers on questions and for the Apostles to consider these issues, but at the end of the day, they lead the church.  No matter how I feel about the issue personally, I cannot receive revelation for the entire church. Promoting a substantial change unconditionally, like ordaining women, is not respecting the authority of the Prophet to speak for God.  We can suggest, discuss, and critique, but we must respect that authority, or else the entire premise of the church collapses.

The irony is that it's exactly this Priesthood authority that the Ordain Women movement seeks.  I think the request is reasonable, and worth, say, a church-wide fast.  It's a really important issue, and deserving of attention, but it cannot be demanded.  We need to have faith in our leaders, not just in the religious sense, but also in a human sense.  We need to hope that they're trying their best and want to guide us to the more perfect world we seek.

The biggest problem is that even the name of Ordain Women is a demand, or could be framed as such.  The start of their mission statement:
The fundamental tenets of Mormonism support gender equality: God is male and female, father and mother, and all of us can progress to be like them someday. Priesthood, we are taught, is essential to this process. Ordain Women believes women must be ordained in order for our faith to reflect the equity and expansiveness of these teachings.
Perhaps I am too docile, but I think a softer approach would be more impactful. I believe that the earthly ordination of women could be very good, but I do not believe it is the only way to work towards gender equality, nor do I believe that it is unquestionably God's will.

Having worked in the temple and performed priesthood ordinances (the only place where in our church women do), I can say that those experiences are certainly special.  I can say that we need more female leadership and that there are some cultural practices that should be changed.  But while I can say what I think and feel, I must acknowledge that in my limited scope of experience, I cannot say what is right for the whole church.

So, I'm not surprised that Kate Kelly is facing excommunication; even from my sympathetic perspective, I feel that the Ordain Women movement is too sure of its initiatives, as any movement needs to be.  I'm saddened that the church didn't use this as an opportunity to discuss the issues, and took a more cowardly approach, but I hope that those involved on all sides can take the time to be introspective rather than defensive so that they can take advantage of the true purpose of church disciplinary counsels: to help us acknowledge our failings and become better people.

I've focused on Kate Kelly and Ordain Women, because I know less about John Dehlin and his Mormon Stories Podcasts.  I'm imagining that the "cause for concern" in his case is LGBT rights, but I haven't researched it thoroughly.

I am hoping that this results in a fruitful exchange between the church and its more liberal members about how to express concerns and suggest ideas.  Currently, our only recourse is to either limit ourselves to local impact or go incredibly public online.  There needs to be a way to faithfully express concerns in a way that it doesn't get stuck either at a local level or in a traffic jam to the top.


use vs. utilize for scientific writing

Earlier this year, NWC pointed out that lots of people employ the word utilize when use would do just fine.  It stuck in my brain and now bothers me on par with folks using less instead of fewer (thanks for that one, Bryce).

I took a look at what Grammar Girl had to say on the subject and I didn't find the results compelling:
So if you're a science writer, you might find yourself using the word “utilize.” If you’re just a regular person writing a regular sentence, you should probably just stick with the word “use.”
That's all fine and dandy, but I happen to do a bit of science reading and writing, and we need some guidance.  Science doesn't get free reign with unnecessarily pretentious words; in fact, scientists should probably take greater care than regular folks to make sure their writing is clear and accessible.  So, no.  No, free pass for you.

Not able to find free access to the only source that granted this ambiguous exception, I turned to the trusty OED on the matter.  Honestly, though, looking up use is overwhelming. Taking a gander at utilize, however, the distinction starts to become clear: to convert to use.  I might be reading too much into it, but I'm interpreting this as: things that are changed somehow by their use are utilized.

(An aside: I find it thoroughly ironic that the first written usage of the term utilize in English, at least per the OED, was by Joel Barlow, who is probably some distant relation.)

While this hypothesis explains the chemistry example given by Grammar Girl, it also allows for other instances that I find objectionable, such as: Do we need to utilize flour in this recipe? or The printer utilizes ink very efficiently.  No, thank you.

Thus, unless your editor, advisor, or colleague can provide a substantive reason for employing utilize instead of use for your discipline, I appeal to Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, 4th edition, page 63 (Words and Expressions Commonly Misused):

"Utilize. Prefer use."