Friday, August 31, 2012

Weekend Reading: Another Grab Bag Edition

I took Pumpkin to her Kindergarten orientation today. It went reasonably well- she was looking a little sad and scared sitting in the crowded auditorium, but then the one other little kid we know who will be at this school showed up, also looking a little scared and sad. They grabbed hands and stood next to each other for awhile, and then settled in for the orientation. We got to meet her teacher, who only spoke Spanish to Pumpkin, as promised. Pumpkin handled that OK, but later asked if we could listen to our "teach yourself Spanish" CD. I think the reality of having a teacher who only speaks Spanish to you finally sunk in. I guess it is better that happened to her today rather than Tuesday, so that's good. The teacher seems nice. I'm sure Pumpkin will do OK.

I actually took the entire the day off today and had a "special day" with Pumpkin. I'm a bit exhausted from that... and I have to solo bedtime tonight because some friends of Hubby's are in town from New Zealand. So I think I'll just sit here and let Pumpkin watch Team Umizoomi while I write up some links for y'all to read this weekend.

I have another mishmash of links:

First, @TreeKt tweeted a link to an article in Harvard Business Review at me, about the rising number of family responsibility bias lawsuits. It is a longish article, but worth the time. There is some interesting information about maternal bias, and case stories of women who successfully sued their employers for exhibiting that bias. It is too bad that some mothers are having to resort to lawsuits to get employers to treat them fairly, but I am glad that they are winning. Perhaps enough of these suits will happen to start changing the business climate- it seems that we often need fear of a lawsuit to force a change, and then people's attitudes (partially) catch up.

I came across another good HBR article, this one via @TheMamaBee (and my own RSS reader), about how our focus on perfection and finding "the perfect X" may be undermining our search for work-life balance. Since my current favorite saying is "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good" (from the Voltaire quote that translates to "the perfect is the enemy of the good"), this post really resonated with me.

Switching gears to the intersection of science, technology and business (one of my favorite intersections!), the San Diego Zoo has set up a new center for bioinspiration, which is taking inspiration for new technologies from biological systems. I found the article via Slashdot.

And finally, if you have somehow not seen the Google Street View screenshots artist Jon Rafman is posting, you should take a look. Fair warning, though- if you click through to his tumblr, you will waste a lot of time.

Updated to add:

Ginger's awesome post about the corrosive effect of what some people consider political discourse. The post made me glad I'm not on Facebook. Some of the comments remind me of Monty Python's famous argument sketch. Except they never look up from their computer and say, "Oh! You wanted an argument? Sorry, this is abuse." They seem to genuinely believe that hurling insults at someone is the same as arguing with them.

For anyone who hasn't seen the argument sketch, you must rectify the situation! Here, I'll help:



Also, Bad Mom Good Mom does an excellent job of explaining why it is NOT a 100 year flood.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Tracking Time: A Brief How-To Guide

Anytime I write about tracking time, I get a comment or two with questions about the details of how I do it, and whether it takes a lot of time to track time. I've decided to write up the details of my method, so that I can just refer people back to this post when they have questions. If you are completely uninterested in time tracking, you should click away now. But if you want to know the gory details.... here you go!

I currently use a spreadsheet to track time. When I first tracked time- as a contractor billed out by the hour, this was called charging time- I had a custom application that I used to do it. There are apps to do this on your smartphone or tablet, and now that I have a smartphone I may eventually get around to finding one I like. If you want to go looking for one, I'd suggest searching on "time charging" rather than "time tracking" because I suspect that the best apps have been written by contractors who need to charge their time in order to get paid.

No matter how you capture the data, the key parts of the process are to identify your categories ("charge codes' in contractor parlance) and then keep track of which category each specified chunk of time belongs in. I track my time in 15 minute increments. This is what I did when I was a contractor, and I continue to find it a good increment to use. It keeps the spreadsheet a manageable size, and it seems like the right period of time for how I work.

Here are the step by step instructions for my method:

1. Decide on your categories. 

I find it most helpful to aim for categories in a middle level of detail- "work" is not detailed enough for my purposes, and "writing meeting agendas" is too detailed. I also find it useful to group some categories for later analysis- however, this only becomes important when I'm analyzing my results. It has no impact on the actual time tracking.

My current categories(organized by my groups) are:
  • Personal upkeep
    • Sleep
    • Eating
    • Personal care
    • Exercise
  • Kids
    • Child care
    • Playing with/reading to kids
  • Chores
    • Food chores
    • Housecleaning chores
    • Laundry
    • Organizational chores
  • Work
    • Project management - meetings
    • Project management - meeting prep and follow up
    • Project management - other
    • Group management - meetings
    • Group management - other
    • Technical - support
    • Technical - other
    • Work email/communication
    • Work - other
  • Leisure
    • Reading
    • Internet/blogging
    • TV
    • Time with Hubby
    • Time with Friends/family
  • Other
    • Commuting
    • Work/career socializing
    • Other
I think I may add a category for "non-work projects" in the Other group, but so far I haven't had time to work on any of those, so I haven't gotten around to doing that. I also think I should have put in two "time with friends/family" categories- one for when my kids are present and one for when I'm off without the kids. The vast majority of my time with friends and family also involves my kids, but it would be interesting to capture the amount of time that doesn't.

You can see the categories I used the last time I did this exercise in my post about that exercise. That post also contains a link to the spreadsheet format I used, which is in Google Docs.  And of course, there is a post describing the outcome of my last time tracking exercise.

If you look at both of my lists of categories, you'll notice that I'm using more detailed work categories this time. This is because I am doing this exercise in part to learn more about how I manage to be efficient at work. There is no one right set of categories to use, or right level of detail to use. You have to figure out why you're doing the exercise and what questions you want to answer. Then you pick categories at just a low enough level of detail to answer those questions.

2. Set up your system

Pick your app and enter your categories into it or set up your spreadsheets. This will be the most time-consuming part of the exercise, in my experience. Even when I had the custom application to use, I spent more time finding the correct charge codes and getting them loaded into my account than actually tracking time. I spent about 30 minutes setting up my spreadsheets this time. I made a template that I just reuse each week, so this is a one time cost, with a little tweaking after the first week. However, I had last time's template to use as a starting point. I think that if I had started from scratch, it might have taken me an hour to get set up.

3. Track your time

Your data will be most accurate if you track your time as you go. Counter-intuitively, this is also the least time-consuming and least intrusive method. When I was a contractor, I thought this would be a pain, and tried just entering my hours once a day (the minimum frequency required by my company). Within a month or two, I was tracking time as I went, and almost all of the contractors I know eventually settle on entering this method as well.

Tracking time as you go does not mean switching over to your app or spreadsheet every 15 minutes and entering what you were doing. It means bringing up your app or spreadsheet every time you change tasks, and entering what you were doing. Some days my schedule gets crazy with meetings, and I have to enter my time a little bit later- but I always do it as soon as I can, and on those days, I can refer back to my calendar to help me remember what I was doing when if necessary. It literally takes just a few seconds to enter my time each time I do it. I do not find it disruptive at all.

I, of course, have a computer-centric job, so I just leave Google Docs open all day, and switch over when appropriate to enter time. If I had a job where you are almost never at a computer, I'd print out paper copies of the spreadsheet and mark my time there, then enter the data into my spreadsheet at night. This would obviously increase the time spent on tracking. Or, if I could use a smartphone at work, I'd find a time charging app and use that.

At home, I go to my computer (which is always on in the office), and mark what I've been doing every couple of hours. I don't find it hard to glance at a clock and notice when I'm switching categories of tasks, but I also find that the fact that we have fairly set routines in the morning and evening makes it very easy to catch up if I don't get a chance to enter time.

Handling odd amounts of time

I track my time in 15 minute increments, but I don't watch the clock and make sure to only switch tasks on the quarter hours. I just do what I always do, and I round to the nearest 15 minutes. If I switch tasks and it is 10:40, I round to 10:45. If I switch at 10:35, I round to 10:30. And so on.

I know some contractors who have an app open on their desktop at all time, and essentially clock in and out as they switch projects. This obviously gives you very precise data, but only works if you have that app available at all times that you want to be tracking your time. Since I want to track at home and at work, I don't find that practical.

What about little 2 minute "brain cleansing" breaks to read Twitter, or what not? I find these little breaks to be incredibly valuable as long as I keep a tight rein on them, but that is a topic of another post. For now, all that matters is that I don't count those in my time tracking. Nor do I worry about chats with colleagues, time spent going to the bathroom or getting a drink of water... unless any of these activities ends up taking 5 minutes or more. Then I categorize them appropriately. This means that I do sometimes have 15 minutes of "internet/blogging" or "other" in the middle of the work day. And that is OK!

Handling time spent on more than one category

My earlier post on my current time tracking exercise mentioned that I often find myself doing a task that can be considered to belong to more than one category. I handle this in one of two ways: either I split the time between the two categories, or I pick the "dominant" category and assign all the time to that. I think these options are best explained by example.

An example of an activity I split is my lunchtime walk at work. I find the walk to be a very useful time for thinking through difficult problems, so on days when I end up thinking about work issues (as opposed to thinking through a post I'd like to write, or a home logistics issue, or whatever other problem my brain decides to tackle), I could consider this work. Thinking about work problems is part of what I'm paid to do, after all. But it is also clearly exercise, and I let my mind wander while I walk. So I split the 30 minutes between "work-other" and "exercise."

An example of an activity I assign to the "dominant" category is watching TV with my husband. As I mentioned in my earlier post, I wouldn't watch much TV if left to my own devices. I watch TV with my husband because he likes to watch TV together. So I would usually mark that time as "time with husband" not "TV."

It doesn't really matter how you decide to handle these situations- unlike when I was a government contractor, no one is going to show up and audit you! Just handle them the way that makes sense to you, and be consistent.

4. Analyze the Results

This is the most important step! The point of the entire exercise is to learn more about how you spend your time, and hopefully to get some ideas about how to optimize things. I find that the act of tracking my time tightens up my time usage, but the real benefit is in looking at a week or more's worth of data and trying to see patterns. Last time, I was horrified by the amount of time I spent on chores, and tried to improve that. So far this time, I have been struck by how fragmented my weekend days are, and am wondering if I should try to change that. I'm noticing some interesting patterns at work, too, but those are probably also best left for a later post, when I have more data and I've had time to think a bit more about what it means.

Summarizing the data for analysis is not difficult. I have a summary sheet in the spreadsheet I use, and it automatically pulls the totals into the appropriate places. That took 10-15 minutes to get set up properly, but was well worth the time, because now I don't spend any time pulling the data together to analyze it. Any time charging app worthy of the name will summarize by category, too- otherwise, the contractors would have no way to write their invoices.

And that's it. It isn't complicated. Did I leave anything out? Ask me your questions in the comments.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Tracks of Time

I mentioned before that I am doing a time tracking exercise. I want to build up several weeks- maybe even months- of data this time, to look for patterns. I am also coming into a very busy time at work, and I want to see what happens to my schedule before, during, and after that time. I am hoping the exercise will give me some ideas to improve how I handle crunch times.

I am just starting my third full week of time tracking. I took a little time last night to look over the data so far. A couple of things stood out:

1. I am not getting enough sleep.

I average about 7 hours of sleep per day (I record my time from midnight to midnight, so one day's sleep encompasses parts of two nights). That doesn't sound so bad- a little skimpy (pre kids my natural sleep needs were about 8.5 hours per night), but not so bad. However, the full data tell a different story. I sleep much less during the week. My minimum sleep time is about 6 hours. I then "make up" some of that sleep on the weekend, with a maximum sleep time of 8.5 hours one week and 9 hours the other. I do not think this is the healthiest way to do things.

The problem, of course, is that my kids have relatively low sleep needs. They go to bed between 8:30 and 9 and wake up between 6 and 7. Last night, I was in Petunia's room until 9:30. I might have been able to sneak out at 9:15, but I'd dozed off at about 9, when she was still awake, and only woke up when her bedtime music shut off. Regardless, it is normal for her bedtime to last until between 9 and 9:30. If I want to get 8 hours of sleep, I need to go to bed right then- it takes me a little bit of time reading to unwind, and then it takes me a little bit of time to actually fall asleep. I need some time in the evenings to do chores, to catch up on work, and to relax, so this is a bit of a dilemma.

I haven't found a total solution yet, but I am trying to do more of the chores while the kids are awake. The downside to this is that the time between dinner and bed is when we get to play with the kids during the week, so I'll need to balance some competing demands on that time. Last night, I tried to do the work I needed to get done during bathtime. That sort of worked- they finished bath before I finished my work. I think this will be an area I experiment with over the time tracking exercise, to see if I can find ways to get me more sleep without too much compromise on the other things I think are important.

And of course, this will get a little better when we transition Petunia to falling asleep on her own, which is something we'll probably start late this year or early next year, depending on when we think she's done with the difficult phase that started at about 2.5 years old. (My knowledge of developmental phases comes primarily from Bedtiming. We've had a lot of luck using the information in that book to guide us on when to make changes to sleep routines and other things.)

2. I really am pretty efficient at work

This wasn't a huge surprise- I know I pack a lot of work into my time in the office. But it was still interesting to see the data.

For this initial review, I looked at three parameters: the number of hours I was actually in the office, the number of hours I worked at home, and the number of hours I was actually working. For the number of hours in the office, I didn't subtract out my usual short lunch break (15-30 minutes, at my desk or out walking), but I did subtract out longer lunch breaks during which I met someone for lunch or ran an errand.

The first week, I was in the office for 39.25 hours. I worked at home for one hour, and I logged 39 hours of actual work. This means that I was working for 38 of my 39.25 hours in the office, which I think is pretty good. That week included one long lunch break, during which I met a new networking contact. I considered that a career-improving lunch, but not really work.

The second week, I was in the office for 38.75 hours. I worked at home for four hours, and I logged 41.25 hours of actual work. This means I was working for 37.25 of the 38.75 hours in the office, which is again pretty good. That week included a doctor's appointment in the middle of the day (I was out of office for 1.75 hours) and one day when I left work 1.25 hours early to go to Zoo at Night with my family.

I was pretty happy to see these numbers. The total number of hours in the second week sort of surprised me, because I'd felt like I'd shortchanged work that week. My sister in law was in town for a visit, and the focus of the week was more on fun than work. I have a lot to do to get ready for the upcoming crunch time, though, so I needed to try not to fall behind. I was somewhat successful in that- I wrote an updated to do list yesterday, and it is packed but still doable in the next month. I did not feel like I was putting in enough time, though, which is interesting. I need to think some more about what that means.

I do know that seeing that 41.25 number on my summary sheet made me feel a lot better about the amount of work I'd managed to do last week. On one level, this is silly- what should matter is what I got done, not how much time I spent doing it. On another level, though, this shows the benefits of time tracking. Even someone who really, truly believes in efficiency over face time (like me!) can fall into the trap of thinking that the reason she feels behind at work is that she's not working enough hours. Seeing the numbers that prove I am actually putting in a solid number of hours alleviated my concerns, and made me turn my focus from finding more hours to give to work to finding ways to get more done in the hours I have, including an increased focus on finding a second project manager for our department- something my boss and I have both wanted to do for awhile. Yesterday, I set aside 30 minutes at work and really hit my network looking for leads. The data had shown me that this was probably the best use of my time.

Have you ever done a time tracking exercise? What percentage of the time in the office do you spend actually working? Given what I've observed around the office over the years, I think my percentage is on the high side.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Grab Bag Edition

I have an odd mix of links for you this week.

Let's start with Oilandgarlic, who turns the usual "how to be happy" lists on their head and posts a list of how to be unhappy.

Next, Study Hacks has an interesting post in which he tracks his time- but unlike the usual timetracking exercises, he just marks the time during which he is engaged in what he considers his most important work. It is an interesting idea, and maybe I'll incorporate it into my timetracking some time. I am still tracking my time- on week 2 now. I am planning to write a post with some observations about where my time is going soon.

Finally, this summary of a study of how male academic scientists balance work and life is both encouraging and depressing. It is encouraging because approximately one-third of the men surveyed have kids and are attempting to find an equal balance with their partners. It is depressing because 22% of the men rely on the wives to do the majority of the work around the house, even if those wives are also working. Often, the wives have "downshifted" their careers to make that possible.

Athene Donald has a good response to this article. Much has been made in the blogosphere and twitterverse of the quote from one male physicist that ends the summary:

'Asked, “Do you think that having children then is difficult to manage with being a scientist?” one physicist said, “No, absolutely not. That’s why you have a wife.”'

And I agree, that attitude of casual sexism is pretty stunning. But in some ways, I'm more bothered by the men who realize that their arrangement could be seen to be unfair, and emphasize that their wives have "chosen" this arrangement. Now, I don't doubt that they believe this was a free and unforced choice of their wives. In fact, their wives may also truly believe that. And I don't for an instant want to argue that it is not a good and valid choice, regardless of the circumstances that went into making it.

But I want us to all be honest about why those choices happen. Some women probably do make that choice because they want to spend as much time as possible with their children, and would make the same choice regardless of the way society organized itself. Hooray for them- really. It is awesome that they can make the choice that they really want.

My decidedly unscientific survey of my friends and acquaintances who have chosen to downshift or leave the workforce altogether, though, reveals that for at least some women, the choice is not exactly unforced. Here are some things that go into it:
  • Exhaustion from fighting the steady drip of run-of-the-mill sexism that many women still face in their jobs. It wears you down, makes you doubt your own skills and intelligence, and makes the idea of turning your focus elsewhere more attractive. Studies show that there is anti-mother discrimination in addition to "standard" sexism, which doesn't help matters at all.
  • Exhaustion from trying to stay focused on career with a partner who assumes that the work around the home is not his responsibility, and therefore must be directed in any chores, if he'll do them at all. For these women the "mental load" of managing the home inevitably falls entirely on them, and my own experience (with a partner who is actually trying to shoulder his share of that load) indicates that too much mental load at home can flow into problems at work, and vice versa.
  • Exhaustion from dealing with the logistical hurdles our society puts in the way of dual career parents. School hours can be difficult to manage, there are random mid-day requirements, etc.
  • Internalizing the judgment of mothers in the workforce that is prevalent in our culture right now. Internalizing of the subtler forms of judgment (it is OK to work, but not if you do X, Y, and Z) doesn't help, either. This, incidentally, is why I'm relatively anti-judgment. Judgment is what humans use to enforce social norms, and is a powerful force. I think we should use it carefully.
I'm sure I'm missing some other points, too, but it is Saturday morning and time to get started on the fun we have planned for today!

I will make one final note about this, though. I know that a lot of women worry that the fact that so many of their male colleagues get a "pass" at home will mean that these men are more productive than the women can be. I don't actually think that is likely to be true, at least not in a macro sense. I'm sure there are some men who manage to be hyperproductive, but when I look at the men and women I know, I can't think of any men- even those with stay at home wives- who are hugely more productive than me and my female friends.

I think the reason for this is hinted at in the study on housework that I reference in an old post- the men who don't do much housework/child care aren't working more hours- they are getting more leisure time. That is indeed unfair, but is mostly between them and their wives. And the ones that are in the lab/office at all hours- well, I'm not convinced that is actually making them more productive.  I think those men are missing out on something real and wonderful, too. Sure, they may not have to deal with the sleep deprivation of the early years, and they may not change many diapers, but they probably also don't know the quiet pleasure of cuddling a sick  (but not too sick) child all day or the irrational joy and pride you get after watching a child finally manage to climb up to the slide, after many, many attempts. They may have more leisure time than me, but I do not necessarily think they have a better life. Except, you know, that they don't have to deal with the impediments of sexism and mother-blaming.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Summer of... Misogyny?

A day or two ago, @Scalzi tweeted asking his female followers if 2012 has been a particularly sucky year for misogynistic crap, or if he was just noticing it more now. It was an interesting question. Apparently, about 50% of the respondents said it was a particularly bad year, 30% thought he was just noticing it more, and 20% answered "both."

I'm not sure what I think. It has been a kind of crappy summer to be a woman, at least a woman who pays attention to the things I do. I thought that even before Representative Akins spewed his nonsense about female bodies being able to prevent pregnancy in cases of "legitimate" rape and Romney picked a running mate who wants to make distinctions between "forcible" rape and some mythical other type of rape that doesn't involve force (sorry, I know the DailyKos isn't exactly a neutral news venue, but the statement about forcible rape is in an actual bill Ryan co-sponsored, which is linked in that article). There have been several spasms of sexism in the geek world.  And of course, there was the whole discussion of whether or not women can "have it all" and whether Marissa Mayer should be applauded or skewered. Oh, and let's not forget the uproar over "extended breastfeeding" and more recently, the "Latch on NY" controversy. It seems everyone has an opinion on how I should be living my life, and for the most part they think I could do better. I am still waiting for similar controversies about how my husband lives his life, but none have been forthcoming.

I suppose all of this should make me angry, and it does... sort of. Mostly, it makes me feel tired and sad. I think back to my second year in college, when I had declared as a chemistry major and was therefore hanging out with a lot of men (since they were the majority of my classmates- I think the ratio was about 3:1 male to female). The Anita Hill testimony was all over the news, and I was shocked to discover how many of my classmates were sure she was lying- for some imaginary personal gain, I suppose. And then I just wished the story would go away, so I could stop hearing crass, vaguely (or not so vaguely) sexist jokes about it.

As I continued on in my major, I mostly got along well with my classmates, but I still had frequent reminders that we had different world views. I won a scholarship, and one of my best friends said that he wished he were a girl so he could win scholarships, too. He had a C average. I had an A-, but in his mind, the reason I won the scholarship (which was open to men and women) and he did not was that I was "a girl." Th3 friendship didn't really survive that comment. Later, I won another scholarship, and my then boyfriend said something similar. Amazingly, the relationship survived that remark- he was basically a good guy, and he was willing to listen and learn when I explained how unbelievably insulting that comment was.

I was not a particularly activist type of feminist in college. I was always too busy focusing on my classes to get involved in many extracurricular activities, even worthy ones like the campus rape crisis center, set up after a couple of date rapes made big campus news. I bought the t-shirt they sold for fundraising, though, and wore it. And I do remember leaving a comment on the course evaluation for my second year "Classics of Social and Political Thought" course pointing out that there were actually some books written by women that could have fit into that course (all of the books we read were by men- and white men, too). I think I called out Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex. I also argued forcefully in some class about the portrayal of women in Apocalypse Now. That might have been freshman year. So I wasn't completely meek. I guess I followed the pattern then that I follow now- I am interested, and willing to speak up from time to time, but not willing to let fighting feminist battles get in the way of accomplishing my larger life goals.

I can't really say if I think the crap going on now is worse than the crap that went on then. I notice different things, because I am at a different point in my life. I doubt it was all rainbows and unicorns for mothers in the workforce then, either, but I have only vague recollections of slightly condescending Newsweek articles about career women and the fact that they walked to work in tennis shoes and changed into their high heels at the office (shocking!) and some movie with Diane Keaton in which a career woman is schooled in what really matters in life by suddenly finding herself in charge of a baby.

So, like I say- I mostly feel tired and sad that we haven't made more progress. That is perhaps unfair, because when I look at it more carefully, I think we have made progress. It is just that we have not made as much as I'd like, and the progress that we have made feels fragile, almost as if it could be taken back from us at any time. But perhaps that is to be expected, because so much of this boils down to men trying to control women's reproduction, either directly, by limiting access to abortion or birth control, or indirectly, by limiting access to the means to earn the money and status that would enable women to support themselves and their offspring. As Sarah Hrdy points out in an early chapter of Mother Nature (it really is a very good and wide-ranging book!), men have always wanted to control female reproduction:

"Passionate debates about abortion derive from motivations to control female reproduction that are far older than any particular system of government, older than patriarchy, older even than recorded history. Male fascination with the reproductive affairs of female group members predates our species."

That is a powerful force to overcome, so perhaps instead of feeling tired and sad, I should be happy that we have made any progress at all. But I don't, possibly because reading the rest of Hrdy's book gave me some insight into how large a role culture- i.e., the inventions of our consciousness- plays in how these age old issues are solved, and how differently things like the conflict between work and parenting could be managed if only we could discuss them rationally.

Future scientists?
My husband thinks I should just disengage from the debate, since reading articles and posts on these topics tends to either depress me or make me angry, and he correctly points out that I'm not going to go out and be an activist who tries to fix the problems. But I look at my two daughters, who are bright and inquisitive, and so full of promise, and I can't just let it go. Someday soon, I'm going to have to help them navigate through all of this, and explain the risks and issues that come with being born female in our society. Even if I am not a traditional activist, I can't just ignore the issues. I want it to be better for them.

What do you think? Is 2012 a particularly misogynistic year? Or is it just the same old stuff? Are you an activist? 

Also, as usual, I'll be going to work tomorrow and therefore may not be able to reply to comments until later. I know you all will be nice to each other. I'm not so interested in debating abortion here- it seems there are other places to do that, and I can actually understand why people oppose abortion, so you don't need to explain that to me. I cannot understand why someone would try to say that some rapes aren't forcible or legitimate, and it is that aspect of Akin's and Ryan's statements that bother me most.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Posts That Make Me Smile Edition

My work week ended on a bit of a sour note- in my last meeting of the day I learned that we have a major configuration problem that probably dates to the earliest days of the company, that we must fix for software licensing reasons, that will be a major undertaking to fix requiring at least one weekend of work, and that will be completely invisible to the users, who are already asking us to do more than we can possibly finish this year.

Good times. I can't wait to explain this one to my boss!

And then I showed up to get the kids at day care, and found out that Petunia had spiked a fever in the last 30 minutes, which really screws up our plans for this weekend. Oh well.

So I don't feel like writing up any deep and thought-provoking posts tonight. Instead, I give you a few posts that made me smile:

First, Tragic Sandwich recalls the time she walloped some kid with her lunchbox. This made me smile because I also did that in first grade. I wonder if Pumpkin has that in her future? It will be less of a deal with the soft-sided lunch boxes that are popular now. I had a metal one. (No one remembers why I hit the kid, but my parents do remember that my teacher said he deserved it.)

Next, Bad Mom, Good Mom writes about two nerds driving up a mountain, followed by the equally smile-inducing post about some nerds going for a hike.

Finally, I happened across an old post of mine about Pumpkin's early fascination with ducks. This one made me smile because we still have those ducks, and the kids play with them in the bath. Well, Daddy Duck had to be swapped out for a different duck in a top hat, because the original's bottom fell off. Luckily, we're not superstitious about that sort of thing.

Happy weekend!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Strategies

I'm almost done with Mother Nature, by Sarah Hrdy. It is a great book, but also a very dense book- I almost want to go back and reread it immediately, since I'm sure I haven't fully assimilated all of the information in it. I probably won't do that, but I do want to write a few posts about the data and ideas it discusses.

One of the themes that has stood out for me is that of different strategies for success. This is a book primarily about biology, so success is primarily meant in the biological sense- i.e., passing on your genes. Hrdy draws from studies featuring a wide range of species, from insects to humans. Most of the studies Hrdy cites look strictly at individual reproductive success, looking out for two generations (i.e. to the existence of grandkids). However, I found myself extrapolating from the ideas to think about how different practices and behaviors might impact the success societies or groups of various sizes- it is hard not to! But for now, I want to limit my discussion to strict biological success, and will actually only talk about first generation effects, because the second generation (grandkid) effects are interesting enough that I want to write a separate post about them.

We only look like we're all headed towards the same goal
When we look at evolutionary control of traits involved in reproduction, there are many different individuals trying to optimize success, and while their interests overlap, they are not always completely in sync. The mother's overall reproductive success, for instance, may or may not coincide with one particular child's optimal success- which is a difficult thing to acknowledge as a mother, but still true. The father's reproductive success is not completely in sync with either the mother or the child, and if you add siblings things get even more complicated. There are biological traits that influence all of these various individuals' success, and these traits are therefore under selection pressure. But they all also interact, making it very difficult to identify the biological "best" way to do just about anything.

Take something as seemingly simple as the spacing of children. Biologically (i.e., without the help of chemical or other forms of birth control), this is controlled in large part by the length of time that the first child breastfeeds intensively. Many people assume that there is an optimal length for breastfeeding, or some natural limit that is hardcoded into our genes. But the evidence indicates that this is not true. The optimal length for breastfeeding depends on the type of society in which the mother and child live. How easy or hard is it for the mother to find food? Does the society provide allomothers (other adult individuals who care for children while the mothers obtain food)? Are there other suitable foods for an immature individual to eat? And so on.

Hrdy's discussion of birth spacing made me think about the common advice given to ambitious women: have one child if you must, but don't have more. The advice comes from looking at the statistics- on average, the more children a woman has, the less likely she is to stay in the workplace. This advice may be practical and accurate from a strictly statistical standpoint, but it ignores the individual variations that can make all the difference, and Hrdy's analysis of the biological research points us to what I think is the most important point of variation: the amount of support a mother has. The studies she cites show that when a group of animals, whether it be a species or just a breeding population within a species, makes more use of allomothers, the breeding interval drops. In other words, mothers who have more support and help from other adults can successfully rear more children with less time in between them. It shouldn't be surprising, but somehow a lot of people seem to be missing this point. Now, whether or not a society wants to encourage more kids per mother is another question. But both the extreme right wing who think that women must sacrifice all other interests in order to successfully reproduce and the extreme left wing who argue that women who reproduce are necessarily sacrificing their other interests are missing an important point. The story doesn't have to be about the mother and her child, all alone, and in other species, it rarely is. Other people can help, and that can make a big difference in success.

There are also different strategies for how to increase the odds your children will survive to produce their own children, and again, these different strategies are seen when comparing breeding groups within species as well as when comparing species. We often assume that the best thing a mother can do to increase her children's success is to selflessly devote herself to their care. In fact, that is not always true. Hrdy describes the research done on a mother chimp named Flo, who was initially seen as a prototypical devoted "martyr" mother, due to her patient and giving mothering style. Further research and analysis, though, showed Flo was also an extremely successful chimpanzee in terms of securing territory. And in fact, Flo's material success translated directly into greater reproductive success for her daughter. As Hrdy writes:

"A female's quest for status- her ambition, if you will- has become inseparable from her ability to keep her offspring and grand-offspring alive. Far from conflicting with maternity, such a female's "ambitious" tendencies are part and parcel of maternal success."

Particularly attentive readers may recall that I have posted that quote before. I will confess to feeling a certain affinity for Flo. If a chimpanzee can combine devoted motherhood with broader success in her society, then surely, so can I?

Unfortunately, though, I happen to live in a society that is deeply conflicted about my role as a mother, and in which many people do not recognize my approach (and Flo's) as a valid parenting strategy. My mistake, I guess.

I don't want to give too much weight to biology here. Once humans evolved consciousness, we changed the rules of the game, or at least increased their complexity. We are no longer limited to strictly biological definitions of success in life. I do not think we are even close to understanding how our ability to consciously act against our own reproductive success influences the evolution of other traits, let alone what all this means at a societal level.

But, like Hrdy, I think we can gain some insight from thinking about the biology of the system. The biological advantage from diversity is in handling bad times- maybe one of the diverse individuals has a trait that will allow survival where others will fail. I cannot help but think that diversity in mothering strategies functions in a similar way. In normal times, the outcomes from the different strategies may be almost indistinguishable. But when the rules change, some strategies may lead to thriving offspring while others lead to... well, less than thriving offspring, perhaps even to no offspring. Again, from the standpoint of an individual's life and happiness, this may be meaningless, because humans can choose to optimize different parameters. From the standpoint of a breeding group or a society, though, this can be a very big deal indeed.

Hmm. This post is getting rambly and it is getting late. I also find myself writing about societies when I said I was going to stick to individuals and strictly biological definitions of success. So perhaps I should end this, with a promise (or is it a threat?) that I will be writing future posts about other thoughts inspired by Hrdy's book. In the meantime, if you're at all inclined to think about the biology behind our societies, I cannot recommend the book enough. If you aren't, then I'll just advocate for keeping an open mind when you run across people with different parenting strategies than your own. The combination of traits in their little family unit may be very different than in yours, which may lead them to choose a different strategy. Or perhaps they're just following a different strategy because that is what helps them optimize all of the various types of success they want in life. And that diversity of approach- within reason, of course! I'm not advocating that we tolerate abuse or anything like that- may actually be a good thing for our overall society.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Bits of Time

One of the funnier things about my recent asthma attack was its timing. I had decided to start tracking my time again, to help me with a project I'm working on. I decided to start last Wednesday, despite the fact that I had an eye doctor appointment in the middle of the day. I figured that doctor's appointments happen, and it would be interesting to track how I absorbed that into my schedule. My plan was to add up my weekly totals from Wednesday to Wednesday, which, by a strange coincidence, is what I did the last time I did a timetracking exercise.

But then the asthma attack hit, and my week went to hell. I considered going ahead as planned, because after all, illness happens, too, and you have to absorb that into your life just like anything else. But then I discovered that I'd made a mistake in how I set up my tracking spreadsheets, and decided it wasn't worth the effort to fix that retrospectively. So I'll consider these five days of timetracking to be a trial run of sorts, and start tracking "for real" tomorrow, in a newly fixed weekly spreadsheet.

The last five days' worth of data won't be completely wasted, though. They confirmed that I have my categories essentially correct. The non-work categories were still relevant, despite the fact that I made no changes from my previous exercise, and the new work categories seemed to capture my time well. I also noticed some interesting things, particularly about my weekends. As I tracked my time this weekend, two things jumped out at me:

1. My time is very fragmented- which explains why I have plenty of time to write short blog posts, but struggle to put together the time to tackle some of my larger projects.

2. I spend a lot of time doing things that could be put in multiple categories. Some I remembered from the last exercise. Watching TV with my husband could either be "watching TV" or "spending time with my husband." (I usually categorize it as "spending time with my husband," because left to my own devices I'd probably watch very little TV- I'm watching it because he likes to watch TV together.) Others took me by surprise. For instance, on Saturday, Petunia insisted on taking a walk for nap, so I put her in her stroller and decided to push her over to pick up the dry cleaning I'd dropped off a few weeks ago and then forgotten about. I was out walking for about an hour. Was that exercise (the walk), child care (the nap), or laundry (the dry cleaning)? I decided to call it exercise, even though the only reason I headed out for a walk during the hottest part of the day was that Petunia wanted it, and I didn't want her to throw a tantrum and disrupt Pumpkin's Chinese lesson.

I'm not sure what I think about these two observations. I'd certainly like my time to be less fragmented, but some of that is just a function of the age of my children. However, I've noticed that my husband's weekend time is less fragmented than mine, so perhaps I either need to emulate his methods or negotiate some time when he's the "go to" parent for the kids. (And all of you other parents of toddlers can start laughing now at the idea that Petunia might show the slightest bit of respect for who the adults think should be the "go to" parent at any given time.)

I'm less concerned about the multitasking, although I do want to keep any eye on that and make sure that I'm not multitasking too much when I spend time with my children. I don't think I am, but discovering the actual truth of how you spend your time is why you do timetracking exercises, so I think I'll just wait and see what the data show after a few weeks.

Also, I have an advance copy of Gretchen Rubin's new book Happier at Home, and I wonder if I might have some different insights into how I'm spending my time at home after I read that book. No doubt, I'll be back to write more about this subject later.

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In other time-related news here at Chez Cloud, it appears that Petunia is now sleeping through the night. Or at least she's slept through the night for the past couple of weeks- which is about a week and a half longer than her previous record. If she is now going to sleep through the night more often than not, she arrived at this point just like her big sister did, namely, when she was ready, without any active encouragement from us, unless you count the wishes and sleepy thoughts I'd been sending her way.

She is, for the record, just two months shy of three years old. Pumpkin hit this milestone closer to two (an event I apparently failed to document at the time), but as I've mentioned before, Pumpkin's first year of sleep was far tougher on the adults in the house than Petunia's was, so I think we can consider them even in the sleep disruption department.

Now that we're here, with Petunia sleeping through the night in her own bed, I find that I'm glad we were able to wait and let her get to this place on her own terms. I remember having similar thoughts after Pumpkin finally started sleeping better, too. It fits with how I think about attachment and security in young children- another topic I think I'll come back to later, after I've had time to digest some of the stuff I've been reading in Mother Nature recently.

And of course, what I think on this is just my opinion, and is relevant mainly to my own choices, not anyone else's. I don't have a shred of judgment in me for people who decide they need to help their child learn to sleep through the night on his or her own far before three years have passed. In fact, up until Petunia just magically started sleeping through, I was frequently convinced that I should be doing just that. It is easy to be zen after the fact, and much harder to be so when you're struggling through another exhausted day thanks to a wakeful child.

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I had thought that I'd find myself with a lot of extra time once Petunia started sleeping through the night. I don't. I find myself with a lot more energy, but having been through essentially non-optional sleep deprivation, I am in no hurry to volunteer for more, so I am still going to bed earlyish.

We have gained some extra time in our evenings, though, due to a change in how we're doing bedtimes. We're reading the kids their stories together and then splitting up to get them both down at roughly the same time. We've told Pumpkin that this slightly earlier bedtime is in preparation for kindergarten, which is true. She doesn't need to know it is also a way to grab some time back for the grown ups in the house. The only downside is that we've had to put the chapter books we'd started reading to Pumpkin away for a little while, but that seems like a small price to pay for the extra 20 or so minutes one of us gains each night.

The new routine also makes soloing the bedtime routine a little easier. That will get even easier- and we'll grab back even more time- once Petunia starts going to sleep on her own. Based on the info in Bedtiming and our experience with Pumpkin, we'll probably start working on that not long after Petunia turns three.  And no, I can't explain why I am perfectly happy to "work on" teaching Petunia to go to sleep on her own and not on teaching her to sleep through the night- I'll have to think some more about that and see if I can come up with anything interesting.

But right now? It is time for bed.

Quotable: Magic

"...all the magic I have known
I've had to make myself."

- Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends

Pumpkin is really enjoying reading Where the Sidewalk Ends right now, and I find I'm enjoying it, too. I remember loving it as a kid, and it has a certain magic as an adult, too.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Weekend Reading: The You Tell Me Edition

Between the mini-vacation and the asthma drama, I didn't do much online reading this week.

So, I have a question for you instead of my usual list of links. I enjoy reading short fiction and non-fiction on my Kindle, but I am having a hard time finding short things to buy. Has anyone figured out how to reliably  stand alone short stories and non-fiction on Amazon? I'm getting a mix of short stories, collections, and full length novels in my searches, and it is annoying me.

Or... have you read any good short eBooks recently? Tell me in the comments.

If I find some good stuff, I'll write another post with recommendations.

And since I feel guilty not giving you any links, here are two reading-related ones:

First, if you live in San Diego, do you want to help Erin at Such Small Steps start a small library? I think it is a cool idea.

And then, I really liked this Big Idea post over at Whatever, by author Lara Zielin. The book sounds interesting, but what really caught my attention was this quote:

"I forced myself to admit that the magnetic attraction I felt for Bradley was less about him and more about me being desperate to find someone who would just—I don’t know, think I was cool or something. When was the last time my spouse and I had thought the other was a badass? Not in a long while, that’s for sure."

Because, that summarizes one of my favorite things about my relationship with my husband. We both think the other one really kicks ass. Sure, we argue over whether to outsource more chores or whether an extra $10 per month on a cell phone bill is worth it, but those are the disagreements of two people who really respect the others' opinions and want to build on each others' strengths to create a fabulous life together. And yes, we are sometimes a little in awe of what the other one can do. I'm not sure that always comes across in my blog, because it seems strange to write gushy posts about my marriage. But there it is, and that is why I never worry when he tells me about the cool women he works with (for a software company, his company has a lot of women, and they are mostly all really amazing) and he never worries when I talk about the men with whom I spend my days, even though some of them are pretty cool, too. We're just happy that we both like our colleagues so much.

So anyway, sorry for the link shortage this week. Here's hoping next week is back to normal!

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Personal Maintenance Fail, with Bonus Lessons Learned

I am recovering from perhaps my biggest personal maintenance fail ever.

(Don't worry Mom and Dad! I'm fine. And I don't think the recent trip to Arizona has anything to do with this story- the timing is coincidental.)

About a month ago, I noticed that the maintenance inhaler I use to keep my asthma under control was empty. It took me a few days, but I eventually dug up the box with the prescription number on it and went to call in my refill. But then I noticed that the prescription had expired in June. This meant two things: (1) either I had been inhaling nothing for several weeks or I had been missing doses (or both!) and (2) I'd have to call my doctor to get her to call in a new prescription.

It took me at least two weeks to get around to calling my doctor. I did it on a Monday. The prescription was called in for me that day and was ready by Tuesday, but I didn't pick it up until the weekend- I just couldn't make the time to get to the store. (Or so I told myself.) I had at least made a doctor's appointment for myself when I called for the prescription- but in the time that I went without making this call, I'd called and made doctor's appointments for both my kids, called and made an eye doctor appointment for myself (I wear disposable contacts and they are running low), and sorted out a billing error made by a doctor I hadn't seen in roughly 7 years (I was charged for someone else's urine test). So clearly, I had time to deal with my prescription. I just didn't prioritize it.

I have mild asthma, so what happened next crept up on me. My asthma had been slowly getting worse, but I'd blamed it on the colds I kept getting from Petunia, or the fact that I'd gone near a cat (one of my biggest triggers), or... nothing, really. I just didn't take it seriously.

Then, on Saturday, when I was sitting on the plane on my way to a much-awaited visit to my family in Arizona (I know! What kind of nut goes to Arizona in August? But the visit was worth the heat) I noticed that my asthma was actually pretty bad. I don't get the stereotypical asthmatic wheeze, at least not loud enough for anyone to hear without a stethoscope. I get a dry cough- which I'd had for weeks at this point- and my back muscles get sore, presumably because I'm working harder to breathe. If I am particularly dense, I might get a panicky feeling before I realize I'm not breathing well. This time, it was the sore back muscles and increasingly frequent cough that clued me in. I dug my rescue inhaler out of my carry on and used it, and expected that would be that.

But it wasn't. My asthma stayed noticeable for most of the visit to Arizona. I used my rescue inhaler once or twice every day. We flew home Tuesday evening, and by the time I went to bed, it was so bad that I ended up getting a second pillow so that I could sleep in a more upright position. I struggled through the day on Wednesday, using the rescue inhaler more than I can ever remember doing in the past. When I got home, I knew I couldn't wait until my doctor's appointment for help- it isn't until late August. I called the doctor's office to see if anyone could see me sooner. The earliest I could get an appointment was Friday. I knew that was too late. So I made my first really good decision in this entire story: I called my husband and informed him that as soon as he got home, I'd be going to urgent care. And then I made dinner.

Traffic was bad, and my husband got home late, just as the kids and I were finishing our dinners. I kissed the kids good-bye, grabbed my purse and my Kindle, and headed off to urgent care. I got incredibly lucky and there was almost no wait, so I was able to get a breathing treatment (not much fun- those meds made my heart race, and that is apparently normal), get a chest X-ray to rule out pneumonia, and drop by the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for a five-day course of prednisone, all before Petunia went to bed. I definitely got off lucky, timewise. As I walked out of urgent care, the waiting room was full. If I'd arrived then instead of two hours earlier, I think my visit could easily have taken 4-5 hours. Still, urgent care is far better than emergency care for this sort of thing, so I'm glad I decided to go while my situation was still urgent, and not emergent. Also, that meant I could drive myself and didn't have to drag the whole family along or call my sister or neighbor to come watch the kids.

I've had exactly one day of prednisone, and I already know that I never want to take it again. But I also know that I can breather freely for the first time in over a month. I've still got the cough, though. I suspect my doctor will adjust my maintenance meds when I see her in a couple of weeks- I'm on a less-favored inhaled steroid because it is OK to take while pregnant or nursing, and I haven't been back to my doctor since Petunia weaned back in February. I suspect she'll also lecture me about taking better care of myself, and she'll be right.

Obviously, the biggest lesson from this whole experience is that I need to take my asthma more seriously. I am used to thinking of it as a mild, no big deal condition- because it has been for me. But that can change, and one sure way to make that change is to let it get out of control. Asthma is a "cascading" illness, meaning that a flare-up can essentially feed on itself and get worse and worse rather than getting better, unless you step in and interrupt the cascade. It is also a disease that can cause damage that makes it get worse and worse. I need to stop the next cascade sooner, so that I don't allow damage to occur that makes future cascades worse.

The next big lesson is that my husband and I need to get a better handle on our non-work lives. We've both been very busy at work, and we've also not been communicating well about chores- and I include the organizational "master planner" type tasks like remembering to make doctor's appointments and the like in "chores." Traditionally, I've done most of the "home project management" work, because I am (usually) better at it. It is, after all, what I do for a living. But I've clearly maxed out my mental load again, so we need to rebalance. During the period of time in which I was failing to refill my prescription, my husband revamped our picture-sharing system and researched and bought a new voice over IP phone. The picture system work is something he convinced himself needed to be done before he could post pictures for our families to see and the new phone was prompted by the fact that our old handset stopped working, and will also save us a lot of money. But. Neither of these things are as important as making doctor's appointments for the kids (Petunia needs shots at her next visit, Pumpkin needs a form filled out for school). And they certainly aren't as important as making sure I had my asthma meds. To be fair, I did some less important thins, too. I took some dry cleaning in (and forgot about it until last night- oops). I wrote a bunch of blog posts- always after the hours in which I could call my doctor, but I could have done some work instead to free up time during the day to call. And so on.

I'm not sure how to improve this. I need to wait until I'm feeling better to discuss it with my husband. He rarely gets sick and isn't the most empathetic person when it comes to illness, and he really doesn't understand chronic things like asthma. I am relatively freaked out that I had to go to urgent care, and I am really annoyed about the prednisone. A conversation now is unlikely to go well, so we'll delay it, but have one soon. I'd like to figure out a way to outsource more around the house, but he is resistant to that, for some good reasons, some cultural reasons, and some silly reasons. He's gotten almost comically careful about spending money- arguing with me tonight about whether I should get a cell phone plan that costs $40/month when I could have one that cost $30, for instance. I understand that this difference is important for some people, but it is absolutely in the financial noise for us. Still, the expense will probably be a source of resistance to any extra outsourcing. I will point out that I spent almost $100 last night by the time I'd paid my copay and paid for the new prescriptions. So doing nothing has a cost, too.

I'm also planning to let technology help me more. My medical group has an online communication option, which will make scheduling appointments easier once I get it set up. I can switch to mail order prescriptions for my maintenance meds, so I can order those online and have them delivered to my house. I will finally get a smartphone, sync the calendar app with my Google calendar, and start using that to remind me about things like when I should get my prescriptions refilled and the like. This, in fact, is why we were discussing cell phone plans tonight. And yes, I'll get whatever plan I want!

My final lesson is less for me, and more for people who don't have chronic illnesses and often wonder about why those of us who do have them don't manage them better. I hear this most about people with mental illnesses and diabetes. I am a grown woman working in a very flexible workplace. I am well-educated about my illness- heck, I can draw you some of the pathways that go haywire when I'm having an asthma attack. I fully understand how serious the disease can be, and I know what the meds I take do, down to the molecular level. There is no stigma associated with my disease, and no one thinks it is "in my head." I have plenty of support and plenty of money, both of which make it relatively easy for me to make healthy choices. Furthermore, the healthy choices I need to make to manage my asthma are easy ones- no yummy foods to avoid, for instance.

And still, sometimes, I fail. The symptoms of chronic illnesses can sneak up on you slowly, so that you don't notice them until you're in a full blown acute attack. I don't notice that I'm struggling to  do something as essential as breathing. I can only imagine how much harder it is to recognize the symptoms when the symptoms themselves interfere with your ability to process what is happening, as is the case in many mental illnesses. I can also imagine how much harder it is to call your doctor for an appointment if you have scheduled breaks instead of flexible ones. So, cut us some slack, healthy people! Yes, some people do stubbornly refuse to take ownership of their own health. But I suspect that far more people have stories like mine, where a serious of seemingly minor suboptimal decisions land them in urgent care or the ER. I will make changes to minimize the chances that it will happen again, but I can't guarantee that it won't. No one can.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Brave New Careers Edition

Laura Vanderkam had an interesting post this week about creative destruction and what that might mean for modern careers. As I commented on her post, I have actually found the realization that I have no job security very liberating, since if no job is permanent, there is no reason to allow any job to make me unhappy- but this is only possible because I now have my financial life arranged such that my low job security does not translate directly to no financial security.  I am very sympathetic to people who are having to make the jarring transition from expecting a secure and stable to career to accepting a much less certain one, but as I recently discussed, things can sometimes work out quite well, even if you feel like you're on plan B (or C, or D....)

I mentioned in that earlier post that I would not steer my children away from science if they show and interest in it. Laura's post got me thinking again about what education I think my kids need to navigate the career landscape they are likely to face. Obviously, I am just guessing. I have no way of predicting what the world will be like in 20+ years. I will encourage my children to follow their interests, but I will also encourage them to develop some strong foundational skills that will support any career and that they can fall back on if the field that catches their interest turns out to be one without great job prospects. What are those foundational skills? Obviously, we'll emphasize the basics of strong writing skills and strong math skills. I clearly think learning a second language is important, too-we're sending Pumpkin to a Spanish immersion school in September. I am also hoping to interest our kids enough in computers to get them to learn the basics of programming, because I think computers and automated processes in general are only going to get more important, and already a lot of the best jobs require an understanding of how they work, if not actual programming expertise.

The fact that I want my kids to learn to program seems to put me a bit in opposition to Jeff Atwood of Coding Horror, who wrote a post awhile back arguing that no, not everyone needs to program. In fact, I don't really disagree with him. Not everyone needs to be able to produce production quality code. I do think, though, that everyone should be exposed to programming, preferably when relatively young, and especially if they happen to be female. This seems like the best path to overcome the stereotypes and misconceptions about what programming is and who can be a programmer, which might otherwise keep people who would actually love and excel at programming from even trying it.

Also, watching a machine misinterpret the instructions you thought were really quite clear is an excellent way to sharpen your logic skills, and that is a very good thing.

I do not write code these days, and even when I did, I was more of a scripter than a coder. My technical "home" is in database design and management. But I know enough about coding to help me understand what might and might not be possible to achieve, and to have some idea about what is hard and what is easy. Those are excellent skills to have, and are also skills that I think will serve my kids well in almost any profession, given the fact that software is showing up just about everywhere these days and seems unlikely to start retreating. (See, for instance, a recent Derek Lowe post about work to automate the development and refinement of organic chemistry reactions.) In fact, the programming world has moved on so far from what I once knew that I am considering assigning myself a little coding project as a hobby, just to freshen up my knowledge.

Of course, I have no way to guarantee that I can get my kids interested in coding. They are already showing clear interests in learning other languages, which is great. We think that happened because we made it available and we let it stay fun. Also, we got lucky. We're planning to try the same thing with computers, and hope for some more good luck. We'll see how it goes.

(We are also, by the way, planning to introduce our kids to music and/or other arts, with similar hopes for that "taking"- I just don't see as direct a path to marketability in such a wide range of careers from having some music skills as I do for languages and software.)

What skills do you think the next generation should learn to prepare themselves for success? Are there any skills you wish you'd learned as a kid? Are you, like us, trying to "fix" that for your children (if you have them)?

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Recommended Reading: Soundings

Awhile back, I was contacted by someone working publicity for Soundings, a book about Marie Tharp, the scientist who had mapped the ocean floor and discovered the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The book met my requirements for agreeing to accept a copy for review- namely, it sounded like something I'd like to read- so I checked that they were OK with my review policy and then accepted the advance review copy to read.

Regular readers might remember my earlier review of The Discovery of Jeanne Baret and think that I risk developing a bit of a niche in book reviews: forgotten female scientists. They'd be right, but it is a risk I don't mind taking. As niches go, it isn't bad. (For the record, I enjoy reading books about a lot of different subjects and would, in general, agree to review any book that sounded interesting if I had the time to do it.)

But anyway... back to Soundings. I really liked this book! Hali Felt does a great job of bringing Marie Tharp and the other main characters in the book to life, and I liked how she wove in descriptions of geoscience and its progress during Tharp's life. It is a very engaging book. Felt writes fluidly, and has a talent for descriptions that are vivid without being overbearing. The book is written in a style that recalls a novel, in which Felt fills in details from her imagination where the primary sources are lacking. At the beginning of the book, she compares this to the interpolating and extrapolating that Tharp and her colleagues used to create their maps in the face of incomplete data, and that is a compelling comparison.

However, the downside of this narrative style is that it can be hard for the reader to get a firm footing, and evaluate what is known and what is hypothesized. At the end of the book, there is a note that explains the "imagined" scenes are in the present tense, whereas the solid history is in the past tense. Perhaps this should have been obvious to me while I was reading, but it was not, and at times I was distracted by my desire to ground myself in a knowledge of what was real and what was extrapolated. I wish the note had been put at the front of the book.

My other quibble with the book is the fact that there are no pictures. Felt does an excellent job of describing both Tharp and her maps, but I kept wondering why she didn't include a few pictures. Perhaps she wanted to focus on the written word and not distract the reader with pictures, but I found the lack of pictures more distracting. (A little Googling solved my problems, though- there are a few pictures of Marie Tharp and her maps available online.)

I could not stop myself from comparing this book to The Discovery of Jeanne Baret. Soundings dances far more lightly over the clearly extensive research the author did, putting most discussion of sources and other notes at the end, with no anchor in the main text. In The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, not only the sources, but also the lines of reasoning that led to the author's conclusions are detailed in the main text. This difference probably derives from the fact that Felt holds a Masters of Fine Arts and teaches writing and Glynis Ridley (the author of The Discovery of Jeanne Baret) holds a PhD and teaches English. Where Felt focuses on the story, Ridley focuses more on the scholarship and her discoveries and reinterpretations of history. Neither approach is better than the other, and I enjoyed both books. The lighter approach probably makes Soundings the more generally accessible book, though.

Although the two books are quite different, there is a thread that connects them. It is the same thread assigns them to my putative book review niche: both books are about extraordinary women who ignored the role they were assigned by their society, and found a way to participate in- and make significant contributions to- science. Both Jeanne Baret and Marie Tharp had to make sacrifices and compromises to live the life they wanted. Both had to essentially ride the coattails of a man to gain admission into the world they wanted to inhabit.

Since I was finishing up Soundings at the time that the Marissa Mayer story was all over my blog reader, I was struck by the difference in the response women have to stories like Tharp's and the discussion that was raging about Mayer. It seems to me that we have a much easier time forgiving women in the past for the compromises they had to make to work in science than we have forgiving other women living in our own time for the compromises they make in order to have access to the professional life they want. We do this even though we know, from the evidence of our own lives, that sexism is alive and well, and that the unspoken rules that govern most professions are still written by men. Women in science and technology have come a long way since Tharp's time, but we have not reached a point where we can reasonably expect to just stride into careers in male-dominated fields without having to adjust ourselves to the rules the men have in place. We have broken down barriers, but the wreckage of those barriers still remains and can be treacherous.

We should read books like Soundings and be inspired by what women like Tharp achieved in the face of huge obstacles, for sure. But I think we should also read them and be reminded of the fact that the women who broke through barriers and the women who are still breaking through barriers are people and not just role models. Hali Felt does a terrific job of portraying Marie Tharp as a person as well as a scientist, with quirks and faults as well as strengths. We are all a mix of strengths and weaknesses. We will never find our perfect feminist heroine, who never compromises to the patriarchal society in which she lives and works. But by rescuing Marie Tharp from obscurity, Felt has given us another imperfect heroine, who can perhaps remind us that we don't have to be perfect to accomplish great things.
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