Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Cost of Snark

I am not a snarky person. I get that snark can be funny. I don't even really dislike snark, at least in moderation- after all, I married a man whom I have christened "Mr. Snarky" on my blog. I laugh at many snarky things. But I do not normally feel inclined to be snarky about people or events, even people with whom I disagree and events that I dislike.

I've never really given much thought to why that is until a couple of recent things got me thinking.

First, Laura Vanderkam had a post about the recent Stephanie Coontz article about gender equality. One of the comments was about how there is a lack of "how" information out there for ambitious young women looking to combine career and motherhood. Long time readers will probably remember that I've written some posts on the topic. But I find myself steering away from such posts these days. As  I commented on Laura's post, I find that dealing with the negative comments that these posts occasionally attract is a drain on my energy. I'd rather spend that energy on making my life successful (by my definition), and not on defending my life online. So I just don't write those posts as often as I used to.

I kept thinking about this after I wrote the comment, because it is sort of a contradiction. In real life, I'm pretty passionate about mentoring younger people and helping them navigate from school to career, and on. I am willing to take time off work to do this. I am willing to take some risks to speak out. But here, on my anonymous blog, I'm not willing to put up with a few snarky comments?

And that's when it hit me. I don't really mind the people who write straightforward comments telling me that they disagree with my post, even if those comments are a bit sharp. I've learned things from those comments, and consider the chance to have an honest discussion about topics we usually skirt in conversation one of the advantages of blogging.

But I really, really dislike the snarky comments. I apparently have a hard time being held up to ridicule. And gee, when I put it like that, I guess it is no surprise. So then the bigger question is, why do some commenters feel the need to ridicule me and other women like me? I do not know the answer to that one, but they have succeeded in silencing me on some topics, and now that I've realized that, maybe I am not OK with it.


Around the same time, there was a lot of discussion about the Oscars, and Quvenzhané Wallis and the disgusting tweet someone at The Onion wrote about her. If you have somehow missed that story, here is a good summary. I actually do believe that The Onion staffer was trying to make a fair and useful point about the way our culture- including the man hosting the Oscars- talks about women and girls. But oh my God, this was not the way to do it. That tweet really bothered me, and I couldn't really explain why (beyond the obvious "what a horrible thing to say about a 9 year old girl, even in jest" sort of thing).

Then I read this article on the subject by Sabrina James, and the sick, angry feeling I had about that tweet made more sense to me. I was angry because of the way the snark that is so pervasive in our culture right now was reaching out to touch a child who had done nothing at all to deserve it. And I realized that we're using snark to police people, to put them back in the places we expect them to occupy. I've become enured to it as an adult woman, but seeing this applied to a 9 year old snapped me out of my complaisance.

We should encourage all of our children- boys and girls- to shine in whatever way is right for them. We should applaud their accomplishments and lift them up, not tear them down. We should give them a chance to grow their confidence before we ask them to hold their heads up and face down the uglier aspects of the culture into which they were born. We cannot- and should not- protect them from criticism. But I think that it is fair to expect the adults in the world to pitch that criticism gently, and to aim it at helping our children reach to even greater heights, not at putting them back in whatever place our preconceptions have made for them.

I know that tweet was not actually about Quvenzhané Wallis at all. But by using her for comedic effect, that Onion staffer caught her in the snark. By all means, critique the misogyny in our society, and the cruel way in which female celebrities are discussed. Don't do it by ridiculing a 9 year old girl, though.  Let her have her big night unsullied by our grown up issues. In fact, don't do it by ridiculing any female celebrity. They are not to blame for the misogyny, and do not deserve to feel the sting of that ridicule. Aim the ridicule where it belongs. If that is too hard to do, then find a different way to make the statement. 


I am not saying that someone writing a snarky comment on the blog of a fairly privileged working mother is in the same league as the person who wrote that tweet. Not by a long shot. But they are playing the same game. They are hiding behind humor while pushing people back into their predefined boxes. Personally, I don't want to be part of that. I think snark and satire have their place in our discourse, but I don't trust myself to come down on the right side of the line between helpful commentary and policing other people's place in society, so I guess I'll stick with my hopelessly unhip earnest style of commentary. And maybe I'll start writing about the "hows" of working motherhood again. I don't like being told my place.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Advice for a Grad Student

Thank you all for the nice comments on my post about feeling lost in the labyrinth.  Upon rereading that post, I realized it comes across as more morose than I actually feel, and that the situation at work perhaps sounds more dire than it actually is. This is one of those cases where the limitations on what I'm willing to write in a public blog hamper useful discourse. I'm neither going to lose nor quit my job anytime soon, but I do have some new things to think about as I ponder how I want to try to steer my career.

But enough about me and my career angst! Let's talk about someone else's career angst. I got an email from someone who signs herself "a pessimistic grad student." Here's the letter:


I’m a female PhD student in a natural science.  I originally entered graduate school because I wanted to teach and conduct research.  I knew the job market wasn’t great, and that women still had mountains to climb, but it seemed scalable.  Now, the further along I get, the more insurmountable the challenges appear to be.

I’m also frustrated that gender/ motherhood still seem to hold so much sway in career prospects:  women receive about half the PhDs, but rapidly drop off in the postdoc ranks and have a low representation in tenure track jobs (the well-referenced leaky pipeline).  Part of me wants to pursue academia and fight the good fight at a liberal arts college (not R01) type school and not contribute to that leaky pipeline.  The other part is more jaded—with such low job availability (and even if you land a job, terrible grant odds), it seems like the more realistic and practical option is to pursue a non-academic path—either after a postdoc, or just dispensing with the post-doc altogether—instead of 5+ years of frequent moves/ low job security/ lack of guaranteed retirement benefits/ maternity leave.  The other factor is that non-academic jobs may offer better ‘balance’, and be more portable.   I’m also trying to balance the desire to be close to my spouse—I draw the line at long term long distance, after doing it before—and my desire to have kids sooner rather than later.   

Non-academic jobs for my skill set tend to involve government work (also less hiring these days) or non-profits—there isn’t really a traditional industry option in my area (without extensive retraining), otherwise I’d love to consider it.  I could potentially also look at teaching only (community college or non-tenure track lectureship) jobs if I avoided the adjuncting dead-end.

I’m conflicted.  I’ve planned to pursue academia since high school (!), with no deviations along the way.  Abandoning that career path feels like giving up on a dream.  I also don’t want to give up before I’ve really started, particularly with the ‘lean in’ mindset of Sheryl Sandberg and others.  However, I’ve met enough older, jaded post-docs, with no career prospects in sight (at a very highly ranked department) to make me wary of following their footsteps. 

The most logical step is likely to reconsider my direction after a post-doc.  But, I’m finding that my pessimism is harming my enthusiasm for my work, and I’m wondering if that’s a sign I should strike out in a different direction sooner rather than later.
Any words of wisdom are much appreciated,
Pessimistic grad student


I'm not sure I have words of wisdom, but I do have some thoughts. In the interest of actually answering this letter before the writer graduates, I have decided to write them as a list rather than trying to make a well-crafted post.

1. First, a question: Are you a third year grad student? The tone of this letter is very similar to what I might have written in my third year, although the specific content is quite different. I found third year to be the peak of my angst in graduate school. I have always attributed that to the fact that I was far enough into my graduate career that the reality of the work ahead of me had sunk in, but I wasn't far enough in yet to see how it would all come together. The analogy I use is that it is like being in a tunnel and you are far enough in that you can't see the light behind you, but not far enough along to see the light at the other end. I found it very discouraging. Clearly, I decided to soldier on and eventually got my PhD and I am glad I did. But at the time, I had serious doubts.

2. Next, a general comment: It is OK to get a PhD just to get a PhD, even if you suspect that you will eventually go a different direction with your career. As I've written before, I've had jobs that required the PhD and jobs that didn't. I have never once regretted finishing my PhD, and I won't regret getting my PhD even if I decide to leave science altogether at some point. The PhD gave me confidence in my ability to learn just about anything, and that confidence is a truly awesome thing to have. It gave me the experience of tackling a hard problem with an uncertain outcome and no real roadmap, and seeing it through to completion. No matter what else happens, I will not regret having that experience. A PhD is more than just job training.

3. Now, about your specific question: I would approach your dilemma by thinking about what you would regret more, staying on the current path and having it not work out, or not knowing if you could have made it to a professorship. Try to imagine how each of those things would feel, and then pursue the course that feels better. No one can figure this out except you, unfortunately.

4.  Personally, I think you should aim for what you really want, but pursue your dreams in such a way that the journey itself is enjoyable. That way, if you find you can't get a prof job that works for you, or you get that prof job but then have kids and realize that you don't want to do that particular juggle, the years pursuing that dream aren't wasted, because you were doing good, interesting, and enjoyable things along the way. Note that this advice may or may not be the best advice for landing the prof job- I don't know about that. But I think it is good advice for not feeling bad about your choices.

I can look back over the course of my career and pretend that it is the culmination of a series of carefully planned out steps, but that would be a complete and utter lie. In fact, at each step along the way, I made choices based on what sounded enjoyable. Of course, I thought about long term outcomes, too, and they did factor into my decision making along the way. But I never chose to do something I really disliked just to get through to something I'd like better. (Except for when I chose to keep going in the third year of graduate school, and even then it wasn't like I hated what I was doing- I just felt overwhelmed by it.)

5. If you are nervous that you will chase the dream too long, set some limits and tell yourself that you will have an honest re-evaluation if you pass them. And don't let anyone tell you that walking away and finding something else to do is "giving up," no matter when you do that. The odds of landing a professorship are pretty crappy right now, so it isn't so much "giving up" as "failing to win the lottery."

6. Along those lines, it is probably a good idea to have a solid plan B. And possibly even some ideas about a plan C. As I've written before, I'm on at least plan C, and I am seriously contemplating chucking it all in and going for plan D. But I may not chuck it in and switch to plan D- just thinking about what plan D would be and what it would take to switch to it doesn't mean I am not committed to my current career path. It just means I am a curious person with a lot of interests, and that is OK.

If I had tried to imagine either plan C (what I am doing now) or plan D (the alternate path that is tempting me) when I was in graduate school, though, I would not have been able to do it. So don't try to think too far ahead. Options appear to you as you move through your career that would have been inconceivable just a few years earlier.

7.  Whatever you decided to do, work smart. I don't just mean that in terms of learning how to be efficient and productive in a reasonable number of hours per week, but also in terms of figuring out what skills and qualifications you need to go for your goals, and then arranging your work to help you get them. Check out Cal Newport's ideas on this. I also like Laura Vanderkam's ideas about broadening your scope. Particularly if you're thinking seriously about leaving the academic path, it is hard to know what skills will turn out to be important, so there is a lot to be said for just doing things to broaden your knowledgebase. The PhD gives you the deep dive into one area, but broadening your scope can lead you to see unexpected connections or opportunities.

8.  Finally, on the sexism/leaning in angle: It is not your responsibility to fix this sexist world. It just isn't. You don't owe the rest of us anything but fair treatment. No one else gets to say which battles you have to fight. If at any point your heart says walk away, do so, with a clear conscience. Deciding to pursue a different career path isn't "not leaning in." It is deciding to pursue a different career path.

However, I agree with Sheryl Sandberg that it doesn't make much sense to scale back your career goals just in the expectation that kids will hamper you, or that your chosen career won't be compatible with kids. You don't know how your fertility will be until you try to have kids. You don't really know how you'll feel about being a mother and being anything else at the same time until you have kids. You don't know what having kids while pursuing any given career will be like until you try. Given this many unknowns, I think it is best just to act like a man and assume it will all work out. If it doesn't, adjust at that point. If you've been enjoying the journey along the way, it shouldn't feel like you "wasted" any time.

Nicoleandmaggie's advice on this is spot on, in my opinion- separate your family planning decisions  from your career decisions as much as you can. There is no easy way to be a mother. You can't game that system, so don't even bother trying. All you can do is try to pick the difficulties that bother you the least- and the fates don't even always let you do that. As hard as this is for analysis driven people like scientists to accept, your optimal path through the motherhood/career quandary is not something you can analyze and discover ahead of time. So just strike out in the direction that looks best to you and adjust your path as you go.

I think that covers all of my thoughts. I apologize for the disjointed nature of the advice, but I hope it is helpful. Feel free to leave questions or your own opinions in the comments!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

My Work Here is Done

Yesterday, Petunia insisted on coming with me to Pumpkin's gymnastics class. So instead of an hour to sit and read (or write!) I had an hour of trying to keep a 3 year old entertained while also occasionally checking in on Pumpkin's progress in the class.

Luckily, I remembered to bring my Kindle Fire this time. Unfortunately, some of Petunia's favorite apps are ad-supported and wouldn't work without network. (Note to self: make sure to pay for the ad-free versions in the future.) She enjoyed playing a matching game for awhile, and also had fun with an app called Slice It (which, incidentally, can also amuse Pumpkin and Mr. Snarky for long periods- I recommend it.) But she got bored with the games, and so I suggested we look at a book- we have quite a few kids books loaded on the Fire.

We picked Secret Agent Josephine's ABC's because Petunia is in a letter-noticing phase right now.

The picture on the "V" page is of a vacuum cleaner. Petunia looked at it and said "V! For vacuum! Daddy has one of those!"

Friday, February 22, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Cool Things Edition

I have a growing group of links about entrepreneurship, but I'm in the mood for something more lightweight tonight. I need to remind myself of some cool things, since I've had a rough week with the whole labyrinth thing and then this morning I got email from some jerk spammer spoofing UNICEF (for some reason, this really infuriates me- using kids in need of help to try to trick me into giving out my personal info just seems like a new low, even for spammers). AND I think I'm going to have to turn CAPTCHAs back on here because I'm getting 10-20 spam comments per day. Only about 30-50% are getting past the spam filter, but I can't tell which are getting through without going and looking, and that is sucking time. So... CAPTCHAs go back on. Sorry for the eye strain, everyone. Blame the spammers.

And to restore my faith in humanity, you get a bunch of links to things I thought were cool. Entrepreneurship can wait until next week.

First of all, I cannot even say how much I love this story about the hairdresser who wrote a scholarly article on ancient hairstyles. There are so many layers of cool in this one, it makes me happy just to think about it.

Next, this story about how Diageo drastically reduced its carbon footprint reminds me of the good things that people can accomplish as part of a large company. Big companies get vilified a lot in our culture, but they can do some cool things.

Finally, this statistical analysis of the fate of different shirt colors in Star Trek is just all around awesome. (Thanks to @betzsteve for finding this one.)

Got anymore cool stuff for me? Leave it in the comments. Assuming you can read the CAPTCHA, of course.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Lost in the Labryinth

Recently, a reader sent me a link to an article in the Harvard Business Review by Alice Eagly and Linda Carli, called Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership. She said it was one of the best articles on women in leadership that she'd read in awhile, and I have to agree. It argues that the "glass ceiling" metaphor that is so often used to describe the lack of women at the very top levels of leadership is misleading:

"Times have changed, however, and the glass ceiling metaphor is now more wrong than right. For one thing, it describes an absolute barrier at a specific high level in organizations. The fact that there have been female chief executives, university presidents, state governors, and presidents of nations gives the lie to that charge. At the same time, the metaphor implies that women and men have equal access to entry- and midlevel positions. They do not. The image of a transparent obstruction also suggests that women are being misled about their opportunities, because the impediment is not easy for them to see from a distance. But some impediments are not subtle. Worst of all, by depicting a single, unvarying obstacle, the glass ceiling fails to incorporate the complexity and variety of challenges that women can face in their leadership journeys. In truth, women are not turned away only as they reach the penultimate stage of a distinguished career. They disappear in various numbers at many points leading up to that stage."

The authors advance an alternative metaphor, that of a labyrinth:

"Passage through a labyrinth is not simple or direct, but requires persistence, awareness of one’s progress, and a careful analysis of the puzzles that lie ahead. It is this meaning that we intend to convey. For women who aspire to top leadership, routes exist but are full of twists and turns, both unexpected and expected."

I think this is a very powerful metaphor that aptly captures the experience of being a woman trying to work up to positions of leadership. It is not a perfect metaphor, of course. For instance, it does not capture the fact that everyone who aspires to a position of leadership faces a labyrinth. No one has a direct path. Some people face extra challenges and different people are handed maps of differing quality at the outset, though.

Imperfect or not, this article and its metaphor showed up at an apt time in my life. I've recently realized that I'm lost in the labyrinth. For the first time in my career, I face a gender-related obstacle that I have no idea how to navigate past. Specifically, I am caught in what the article refers to as the "double bind" in which behaving in traditionally female ways ("communal" behaviors, such as being compassionate, sensitive to others, and helpful) are seen as weak and not leader-like while behaving in more traditionally male ways ("agentic" behaviors, such as being aggressive, ambitious, and forceful) are seen as damaging in women, and therefore also not leader-like.

I have been well aware of the double bind for many years. I have watched other women navigate it, some more successfully than others. I have developed strategies for navigating it myself, balancing on the razor thin line between being overly communal and overly agentic.

I cannot go into the details here, but I am 100% sure that I have stumbled in this attempt recently, and my effectiveness in my current position is compromised. It almost goes without saying that I think my potential for future advancement is also compromised.

I am utterly unsure of what to do next. None of the articles I have ever read on the subject present a viable solution to the double bind. They just note that it exists and causes problems for ambitious women.

(As an aside: I also really enjoyed the recent New York Times article by Stephanie Coontz about why gender equality has stalled, but wished it would have more thoroughly addressed the extent to which having to deal with crap like the double bind leads women to decide that pushing to stay in the workforce after having children just isn't worth the effort, and also the extent to which the subtle drain on self-confidence that this and other double standards create helps tip mothers away from the workforce.)

At this point, I find myself wondering what I even want. Do I want a map showing the way past this obstacle? Or do I instead want a labyrinth escape plan? That is, should I try to find a way to navigate through the double bind, at least temporarily, and continue on my current path, or should I listen to the little voice in my head that is telling me that the prize at the end of this particular labyrinth isn't worth the struggle, and work on finding a way to opt out and forge a new path to a different prize?

I honestly don't know which option to choose. On one hand, the double bind angers me, and I somewhat stubbornly do not want to let it block my progress. But recently, I've started to wonder if that stubbornness might be keeping me from taking the risks that could lead me to a better path. It is not an easy decision, but it is one I can no longer ignore.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Surprising San Pedro

Last weekend, my parents came over and watched the kids so that Mr. Snarky and I could take a little break. We only decided to do this a couple of weeks ago, so we didn't have much time to plan the getaway- and since I'd been out sick so much of January, I was super busy at work and behind on my to do list at home. Therefore, it fell to Mr. Snarky to plan this two night trip. We weren't sure where we wanted to go, but we knew we wanted to explore some place new. He Googled and he Google Earthed and he eventually decided on San Pedro.

Whenever we told someone where we were going, they had one of two reactions: (1) Where is that? or (2) Why in the world are you going there?

San Pedro is the Port of Los Angeles and it is very much a working port, not a picturesque marina (although there is, in fact, a marina there). We went there because it looked interesting and we could find a decent hotel that was walking distance to bars and restaurants. I think the deciding factor for Mr. Snarky was the fact that there was a British pub walking distance from our hotel, and it had steak and mushroom pie on the menu. I have to admit, I was skeptical, too. We even discussed the possibility of cancelling our reservation and moving for the second night if it was terrible.

But in fact, we had a wonderful time. This was one of our favorite getaways to date. San Pedro is not as swanky as most of the places we've gone for our getaways. There were fewer tourists around and occasionally the streets felt a bit deserted. But we still felt safe and it was definitely interesting, and made us feel more like we were exploring than we've felt for awhile. And we like exploring.

We arrived on Saturday late afternoon, and decided we needed an adult beverage to get into the getaway mood. We briefly considered just having a drink at our hotel bar (we stayed at the Crowne Plaza, which was just a couple of blocks from the water), but though better of it, and instead walked over to the port, thinking we'd check out the touristy Ports O'Call village. We did eventually make it there, but we found a much better place for our drinks. The first thing we passed was an Acapulco Mexican restaurant. We considered stopping in for drinks on their waterfront patio, but it was packed and we thought maybe we could do better than a chain restaurant for our drinks, so we kept going.

We passed an outdoor stage area, with a bunch of people watching, and laughing uproariously to, a transvestite comedian perform in Spanish. This was our first inkling that something interesting awaited, but we don't speak Spanish well enough to appreciate such an act, so we kept going, and stumbled into something awesome. There were a series of fish markets/food courts with bars. They were absolutely packed full of people. I'd guess that almost all of them were locals. 90% were Hispanic- there was a lot of Spanish being spoken. There were families, and groups of friends out for happy hour, and people clearly out on dates. It was a crowded, boisterous scene unlike anything else I've seen in the US. The closest comparison we could come up with was the food courts we ate at in Singapore and Malaysia.

The view from our table
We weren't hungry yet, and we had other plans for dinner, so we passed on the food (which looked good, if a bit greasy) but headed to one of the bars. We ended up at Cafe International, but there were other options, too. Most people were getting a red concoction with what looked like chili powder on the rim. Mr. Snarky was intrigued and wanted to know what they were. Just as he was asking the man behind the counter, I figured it out- they were micheladas. Very big micheladas. Mr. Snarky had seen beer going into glasses with red stuff at the bottom, so he had a rough idea of what he was ordering, and decided to give it a try. I decided to stick with a margarita, but I tried a sip of Mr. Snarky's michelada. It was not bad. I still prefer margaritas, though.

We enjoyed our drinks and wandered through the rest of the food court area- which had at least two mariachi bands and one other entertainment area with what might have been bilingual karaoke. Then we headed over to our original destination, and confirmed that Ports O'Call is a typical seaside tourist trap. It had the usual shops and some restaurants, but we walked back to our hotel confident that we'd had our drinks at the best spot at the port.

We had dinner at the English pub, as planned. The Whale and Ale is a pleasant pub, and my husband enjoyed his steak and mushroom pie, even if it was not a canonical pie in his eyes. I am not a huge fan of English pub food, but found a pasta dish that I liked and thought the soda bread was wonderful. Plus I had a wonderful sticky toffee pudding for dessert. Whenever I hear someone say that traditional English food is all terrible, I refer them to sticky toffee pudding. Also thick cut pub chips with salt and vinegar. Really, English cuisine gets unfairly maligned.

We also enjoyed fine pints of Boddingtons and an unexpected musical program: the Welsh Choir of Southern California led the pub in a sing-a-long. We were seated a little far from the action (and next to a loud man telling his date about his opinions on "Hindu reincarnation theory"), but we still enjoyed the show.
One of these things was unexpected

After dinner, we headed over to the nearby San Pedro Brewing Company for a couple of pints and some live music before heading back to the hotel. I had a quite drinkable Shanghai Red. Mr. Snarky was disappointed to find that their IPA wasn't on tap, so he had their pilsner, but then found the allure of Green Flash Black IPA on tap too much to resist and switched to that.

Amazingly, I slept until 9 a.m. the next day. The hotel's blinds were quite effective. Or maybe it was the lack of children. I can never sleep past 7:30 at home, even when Mr. Snarky is trying to let me sleep in. Sleeping in late felt wonderfully decadent, but I didn't want to sleep the day away, so we got up and headed to breakfast, and then we drove to the Palos Verdes peninsula for a little hiking. Palos Verdes is a very wealthy part of L.A.- we drove past horse riders on dedicated horse paths on our way in, and on the way out we passed a sign that said "Seaside Second Homes - From $1.25 Million." I really wanted to know why those homes were advertised specifically as second homes, but didn't think we'd be able to pull off a visit to the sales office to find out.

Palos Verdes is certainly a beautiful area. The hike we took started at Del Cerro Park, which had a spectacular view of its own.

Sea vista #1

But we hiked down to a grassy hill for a different spectacular view of the ocean. It was a very nice hike.

I admire sea vista #2
After the hike, we stopped at a lookout near the Point Vicente Lighthouse and enjoyed a view that included a pod of dolphins frolicking in the distance. We unfortunately did not have our binoculars with us, but even from afar, a pod of frolicking dolphins is a cool sight.

Sea vista #3, with lighthouse
We also stopped off at Wayfarers Chapel, which I only discovered thanks to the guest guide in our hotel room. It was amazing. I feel completely vindicated in my habit of reading hotel guest guides now.

Pictures do not do it justice
The chapel was designed by Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright, and is constructed of glass with wooden beams, surrounded by redwoods. I am not a religious person, and neither is my husband, but we both remarked on the feeling of reverence this chapel invoked. This is not so unusual for me- I often feel the reverence that I think the church builders must have had. But it is unusual for my husband. I think the last time we both remarked on this feeling in a church was in Christopher Wren's Church of St. Stephen Wallbrook, which we visited during a walking tour of London. So perhaps we have a mutual appreciation for beautiful but obscure churches. Regardless, if you are ever in the area, I recommend a visit to Wayfarers Chapel. It is free, and well worth the small investment in time to visit.

We headed back to the hotel after leaving the chapel, stopping off briefly in the Pt. Fermin area of San Pedro to take a picture of the truly impressive pier and breakwater at the port. It was partially obscured by the clouds rolling in, but was still an impressive sight.

Sea vista #4, with pier, breakwater, and incoming low clouds
Then we called it quits on sightseeing, and just enjoyed the rest of our time away from the kids, returning to that Acapulco restaurant we'd spurned the night before for margaritas and chips and salsa with a view, followed a little later by a leisurely Italian meal at Neil's Pasta and Seafood, which appears to be something of a local institution (and indeed served good food).

All in all, it was an excellent little getaway, and I found myself again amazing my colleagues at work by wholeheartedly recommending a visit to San Pedro. If you're flying in from a landlocked locale looking for an idyllic beach vacation, this spot may not be for you (although I think there may be some idyllic beaches in Palos Verdes), but as Southern Californians looking for a local spot to explore, San Pedro is among the best we've found.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Weirdness that is Parenthood Edition

We've had a vendor in at work this week installing a bunch of upgrades, which always makes for an intense week, and one in which I cannot take any time off. So of course Petunia started getting a fever on Wednesday. She had been so looking forward to her class Valentine's party (and her fever wasn't technically high enough to require day care to send her home, and she has a history of non-contagious fevers), so day care worked with us to make sure she could go to the party. Our day care is awesome like that. Mr. Snarky had to go get her and take her home not long after it was over, though. Luckily, my parents were already on their way over for the weekend. They'll be watching the kids tomorrow, and also while Mr. Snarky and I escape for a couple of nights of uninterrupted sleep, dinners with adult beverages and adult conversation, and some exploration of an area of SoCal we haven't seen before.

I was struck by how crushed I was for Petunia when I thought she might not be able to take the cookies she'd picked out for her class party in to day care on Thursday. She'd been talking about doing that ever since we bought the cookies on our way home on Monday. Rationally, I knew it would be no big deal. We'd send the cookies some other day, and she'd get to share them with her friends (the key component of this experience, according to her). But it still made my heart hurt because it made her sad, and while I found that amusing, my heart still hurt.

So I was probably as happy as she was that she made it through the party on Thursday. And then I got home and saw the Valentine's card Pumpkin made at school. It has a heart on the front listing all of her family, including both sets of grandparents and both aunts. And two of my uncles who have visited relatively frequently. Names were spelled with the usual charming kindergartner spelling. And the rest of the card is in Spanish- and the first sentence is "Yo quiero a mi hermana." ("I love my sister.") The entire thing just made my heart melt.

Parenting is like that.

But I suck at writing about parenting, so lets read some posts from people who do a better job of capturing how it feels.

First up, Meagan Francis has a good post about why it is OK to look forward to the time when your kids' demands on you are a little less all-encompassing. I like this reminder: "Life holds so much living beyond the years of babies and toddlers."

Next, a post from Renegade Mothering about what it means to "become a mother." It is a very honest and raw post, and I don't think I can really explain which parts resonate with me and which don't, except to say that yes, it wasn't just that my life was turned inside out when I became a mother, it was that my entire concept of who I was had to be torn down and built back up, and I had to figure out which parts from before were essential and which I could jettison- had to jettison, even- now that I had this baby demanding so much from me. I know that the experience is not so jarring for everyone, but it was certainly jarring for me. (However, my husband's sleep patterns did change, and are still changed, although not exactly like mine, and yes, the middle of the night work falls more on me than him for a lot of complicated reasons that neither of us like and both of us wish we could change, and try to change. A full discussion of that is too much for a links post.)

Let's end on a lighthearted note, though. Scalzi is taking a break and posting some really old things to amuse us in his absence. The flaming diaper story is pretty funny, although I doubt his mother thought so at the time.

Happy weekend, everyone! I hope no one manages to reproduce the conditions that lead to flaming diapers.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Three Really Cool Things

As you may or may not remember, I have a children's book coming out soon. I can now give you some more details: my book "The Zebra Said Shh" will come out on March 5. It will be available as an eBook from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Apple and also as a physical book, which you can order from Amazon. I think it may also be available in some physical bookstores, but I don't have those details yet. (And if you are involved in purchasing books for a bookstore and are interested... let me know, and I'll put you in contact with my publisher!)

I've seen the proofs for both the eBook and hard copy versions, and they look great. Tamia Sheldon, the illustrator, did a great job, and the illustrations are just awesome. Here is the eBook cover art, as an example of how great the illustrations look:

I won't lie- it is pretty cool to see my story with these wonderful illustrations. And the coolest thing is that I'll be able to get a copy in time to surprise Pumpkin for her birthday (which is in early April). So anyway, I am pretty excited. That is really cool thing #1.

But I am also excited to finally announce that I have another book coming out soon. This one is for grown ups. It is a short eBook about productivity called "Taming the Work Week: Work Smarter Not Longer." It had its genesis in some of the blog posts I've written here (such as the work limit post or my post about a project manager's view on long hours), but when I started working on the eBook, I realized that I needed to write more, so there is a lot of new stuff in there, too. It will be out in April, and I'll definitely give you more details as I get them. I feel strongly that we're developing a counterproductive and unhealthy culture about work in this country, as we brag about the number of hours we work without regard to whether or not those hours were actually productive. It is exciting to have an eBook about this topic coming out. So that is really cool thing #2.

And finally, really cool thing #3: I needed a picture for the "about the author" pages and the like. At first, I was really stuck trying to figure out what to do about that. I want to be able to discuss the books here on my blog, and I am not ready to associate this blog with a picture of me- or at least not one showing my face. I also suspected that a picture of clouds in the sky with the hint of me in the corner wouldn't fly as an author picture. But then the answer came to me. I need an avatar! I turned to Brenda Ponnay, whose Secret Agent Josephine books my kids and I had enjoyed so much, and she made me a great avatar:

Would you buy a book from this woman?
So there you have it. If you meet me in TuneTown, you'll be able to recognize me!

And that is enough cool things from me. What cool things are going on in your life these days?

Monday, February 11, 2013

Project Planning 101

I've run into several people lately who have told me that you can't make a project plan for a research project. This always amuses me, because I've made lots of project plans for research projects, and found them to be very useful. In fact, one of my pipe dream job ideas is to go around helping people figure out how to write useful project plans for their research projects. (You can tell it is a pipe dream because I am writing about it here, under a pseudonym, rather than starting up a "professional blog" and trying to turn myself into a project management guru. Given the number of people who confidently tell me that it is impossible to make a project plan for a research project, I don't think this would be a very lucrative line of work, so I'll leave it in the pipe dream bucket. I'm not big on tilting against windmills.)

There might be a few people out there who are open to the idea, though, so I thought I'd write a blog post about how to write a useful project plan for a research project. Then I realized I'd want to reference a lot of basic concepts about project planning that I have never discussed here. Therefore, instead of the post that might actually interest some of you, I'm writing a post about the basics of project planning. Consider it a down payment on the interesting post.

First of all, we need to discuss what makes a project plan useful. To me, a useful project plan is one that helps you get more work done faster, without burning your project team to crispy toast in the process. It also produces credible timelines that you can communicate to other people interested in your project ("stakeholders" in the jargon- this could be upper management or a funding agency, for instance). Note the emphasis on credible- we don't want to just pull milestone dates out of thin air. We want dates we actually have some chance of coming close to hitting.

Given that definition, you can probably guess why I think research projects are plannable. I think almost everything is plannable. Basically, if I want to get it done and don't want it to consume my life while I am doing it, I make a plan for it. The exception may be parenting, but given the lists and calendars I keep around parenting, I'm not even sure that is an exception. I'll have to think about that.

A good project plan lets team members plan their time better. It reduces the "dead time" when one team member is waiting for another team member to finish a task. And it helps the entire team avoid those horrible moments when you realize you've forgotten to do something essential and you are all now doomed.

So, without further ado, here is my basic workflow for developing a project plan, in seven steps. I won't pretend they are always easy, but a lot of things that are worth doing aren't easy.

Step 1: Determine the overall goal of the project. 
When will you call this project "done"? I aim for projects that will run for 3-6 months, although I have occasionally written plans for year long projects. I think that detailed plans get less and less useful as they reach further into the future, though.

If my true overall goal will take longer than ~6 months to accomplish, I subdivide it and work on a plan for the first subgoal. Sometimes, figuring out how to break the work into 6 month chunks is a major planning undertaking in its own right, and I will end up with a high level plan showing the big subgoals as well as detailed plans for each subgoal.

An example might make this more clear. I recently needed to roll out a new intranet site. I broke this into three projects: (1) an administrative site with things like travel expense forms and human resources information, (2) an exemplar departmental site, with other departmental sites to come later as departments requested them, and (3) project sites.

My overall plan looked like this:
I planned the first two projects (the administrative site and the exemplar departmental site) out in detail, and left the project to create project site nebulous until the first project finished.

Only you can define what your overall goal is, and if you can't define your overall goal you should probably stop and fix that problem before you do anything else.

Step 2: Break the goal down into tasks
There is more than a little art to getting the right level of detail on the tasks. If they are too broad, the plan won't really help you much. If they are too detailed, you'll spend way too much time tweaking the timelines in your plan. There is no magic formula I can give you for this- you'll just have to try and see what works best for you and the type of projects you run.

Remember, though, that the plan is not necessarily your only project management tool. For instance, for most of my software development projects, the plan shows the length of the development iterations ("sprints" in the agile development jargon), how many iterations we'll do in a given project, and the testing, training, and other release steps for each iteration. It doesn't, however, list the specific features we'll develop. Those are tracked in our bug tracking software.

Step 3: Note the dependencies between tasks
Put your list of tasks in rough chronological order, and then start noting which tasks must be completed before the next task can begin. An example of this type of dependency is the protein production and purification cascade- you can't purify protein until you've created the biomass, and you can't create the biomass until you've created the clone, etc., etc. Also look for tasks that can start before the predecessor task finishes, but can't finish before it does. An example of this type of dependency is the fact that training plans can (and probably should) be started before software development completes, but they usually can't be considered complete until the code is at least feature-complete.

Do not, under any circumstances, be tempted to skip this step. I personally find the dependency analysis to be the most valuable part of the planning process. Managing dependencies is in fact the entire reason I continue to use Microsoft Project, even though no one else in my company looks at my MS Project files. (You don't have to use MS Project to manage your dependencies, though. There are other tools to manage dependencies- I'm just too lazy to learn them, since Project is working fine for me.)

Step 4: Assign people to tasks
Who will do the work? If you don't have names, just list roles. But try to get names. There is no generic "scientist" or "developer" who is going to show up and start working on your project. You're going to need an actual person, with a name. And if you don't know who that person is, that's a major risk to your project and one that I would start trying to resolve right away.

Step 5: Add the durations to your tasks
How long will each task take to complete? You can get super fancy here, and try to have your tool help you determine this based on the other tasks assigned to the people doing the work, but I find that to be more trouble than it is worth. I just make an estimate based on how long I think the task should take (or how long the person doing the work tells me it will take) and how many other things that person is working on.

Note that the durations are always estimates. They will be wrong. The goal isn't to get them exactly right, it is to get them in the right ballpark. Since you took the time to figure out the dependencies in your project, you will be able to tell when you need to really fight a slip and when you can just let a task slip because it won't make much difference to the overall timeline.

Also, this is one aspect of project planning that definitely gets easier with practice. The durations in my early project plans were laughably wrong. Now I can get them so close to right that it sometimes frightens me.

Step 6: Add some risk reserve
Things go wrong. Schedules slip. So add in some time to account for the inevitable problems before you communicate your plan to others.

How much risk reserve to add will depend on who cares about your timelines, how much they care, and the relative cost of missing a milestone versus making a too laid back plan. Again, there is quite a bit of art in this, and it gets easier with practice.

Step 7: Discuss the plan with others and iterate
Everyone on your team should have a chance to tell you that it will be impossible to hit your milestones. You don't necessarily have to incorporate their feedback into your plan, but you should listen to their concerns and make a conscious decision about whether or not to add more time. Your team members can also help you identify missing tasks or forgotten dependencies. I have never, ever, ever written a plan and had it be completely correct in the first iteration. It is worth the time and effort to improve the plan up front so that you will spend less time at panic stations later in the project.

And that's it! That's what I do when I need to plan out a new project. Anyone have any questions? Any project managers out there want to tell me what they do differently?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Quotable: Freedom

"He'd tasted freedom, life outside the fence, with no owner, answerable to nobody and nothing save his heart, and it tasted like apples, and he was far from ready to risk giving it up."

-George Berger, in Midnight's Tale

I aspire to that sort of freedom.

Honestly, this is a really thought-provoking book about a goat. As I suspected might happen, it is a story that has stayed with me more than most, and it is still bouncing around in my head.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Emotional Roller Coaster Edition

I've got a bunch of great links for you this week, but I have to admit, they are all over the emotional map.

I'll start with a thought-provoking and angering post from Women Under Siege about the differences in how Western press covers rape in India, versus, for instance, Ohio. I'm embarrassed to admit that I hadn't noticed this difference before I read the piece. It poses some very good questions.

This next post is about something I have not only noticed, but experienced: the double standards for women in leadership. The advice in the post isn't really very helpful (in my opinion), but I will share the article anyway, for the quotes from and about powerful women, particularly this one:

"For instance, in a recent interview with members of Hillary Clinton's press corps, a veteran reporter said: "The story is never what she says, as much as we want it to be. The story is always how she looked when she said it." Clinton says she doesn't fight it anymore; she focuses on getting the job done. "

I have to say, it would be awesome to have the chance to get honest, off the record advice from Hillary Clinton about how to deal with the patriarchy.

I know that I mostly keep the discussion about guns to my other location, but this article by Walter Kim, a gun owner, is just wonderful.  I think people on all sides of the current debate would benefit from reading it.

Speaking of wonderful articles that help you understand how someone else thinks, this post by Michael Simpson on living, and almost dying, with bipolar disorder, is one of the best descriptions of mental illness and its impact that I've ever read.

Brothers Michael and Jonathan Eisen both have really good posts about their father's suicide and how Aaron Swartz's recent suicide stirred up old memories.

Mommyshorts has a post (with a giveaway that is still open) about a sweet little girl with a terrible rare disease, and the fundraiser to fund a clinical trial. There's been a lot of discussion in the science part of my online world lately about the idea of crowdfunding science. This would be a good place to try that, I think. 

And now for the happier portion of this list:

Kate at One Tired Ema has a great post about parenting, and the lack of good indicators of success. I love Kate's writing about parenting, and this post shows why.

The WTF, Evolution tumblr showed up in my Twitter feed, I forget how, and I have wasted heaps of time on it already. So I thought I'd share.

Finally, this video about a 7th grader's science project is just all around awesome, particularly if you have a little girl who loves Hello Kitty:

(I found it on Boing Boing.)

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Stitch Fix Report

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my plans to try out Stitch Fix, a new online shopping/personal styling service. I promised to report back with how the process went.

The sign up process is easy and quick- they have an online form you fill out giving details of your size and style. Their method for assessing your style is pretty smart- they show pictures of collections of outfits and ask you what you think of them. You get to give a preferred price range, but be warned, this service is not for the super budget-conscious: the lowest range is what I'd call "Nordstrom level."  That's fine with me, though, so I went ahead.

I got my first box on Monday night, and I was pleasantly surprised by how well the first fix turned out. There were five items in my box: one pair of earrings, one jacket, and three tops. There was also a page with the prices of the items and a personal note from my stylist, which indicated that she had checked out my blog (I'd provided my Twitter handle). She had read my post about my de facto uniform, and had used the information in it to help guide her selections.

I know you're curious, so, I'll show you what came in my box. I'll include pictures, but it will quickly become obvious that I have not missed a calling as a fashion model, and my husband has not missed a calling as a fashion photographer. Also, pictures without my head are just going to look a little weird. Sorry! Several people have commented here and on other posts wondering about the price, so I'll also include the cost of each item in my box.

I didn't take a picture of the earrings. They were pretty fleur-de-lis silver studs ($33). If I had decided to keep the other items, I would have kept these, too, and I would probably wear them. However, as we'll see, one of the other items didn't work for me, so I decided to send the earrings back. I have quite a few earrings already, and I tend to favor low key dangling earrings over studs.

The first piece of clothing I tried on was a jean jacket ($78).

I had no prior desire to own a jean jacket. To be honest, I associate them with my high school days, when I was never without one in my closet. So I was a little skeptical when I tried this one on, but I loved it. It is a flattering fit, I think it is a nice updated version of a classic look, and it is the perfect weight for San Diego. It was an obvious keeper.

Next, I tried on a black blouse ($65).

This is not a style I would ever have picked off the rack to try on, but I ended up loving how it looks with a favorite old skirt of mine. (The skirt, incidentally, dates from my graduate school days. I have tried many times to find a skirt I love as much as it, but have never succeeded.) The style card that came with the blouse indicates that I should wear it with a "statement necklace." I do not have such a thing! I tried it with one of my favorite necklaces (the rabbit necklace I described in an earlier post), but I don't think it is quite right. I still liked the blouse, so I decided to keep it, too.

I really wanted to love the next shirt in my box, a gauzy green top with very subtle, almost invisible purple stripes ($58). I loved the color and the fabric.

Sadly, the boxy cut was absolutely not flattering on me. So I reluctantly decided to send it back. As you can see from the style tag that came with the top, though, it would have been really cute on a different body type:

My final shirt ended the box on an up note, though. It was a plum-colored jersey top ($48).

The color isn't one that is super flattering on me, but it isn't a bad color for me, either. I absolutely love the way this shirt fits, and I like the detail at the neckline:

So I kept this shirt, too.

I checked out online last night, and put the rejects into the prepaid return envelope and dropped them in the postbox today. Overall, I liked the Stitch Fix experience- it was fun to get the box and go through it, and the hit-to-miss ratio was better than I expected. It was definitely less annoying than going shopping at the mall. My only complaint is that all of the shirts I got were dry clean only, which is suboptimal for me. I can live with that, though, so I went ahead and scheduled my next fix to come in a few weeks, and requested they send some bottoms this time. I suspect the hit ratio will be lower with bottoms than tops, because they are harder to fit, but I have the same problem when I go to the mall, so why not see what my stylist comes up with?

Ginger at Ramble, Ramble tried Stitch Fix, too, and liked it even though her hit ratio was lower than mine. Also, if you're tempted to try it out and want to give me credit for referring you, you can use this link:

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Diaper Delivery #1

Towards the end of last year, when I was feeling especially worn down by the ugliness in the world, I decided I should pick one thing and make it better. The thing I picked was the fact that there are parents in this country who cannot afford to buy sufficient diapers for their kids. I picked that because the thought of a parent choosing between food and diapers is heartbreaking, and also because I suck at potty training, and having monetary stress added to the cosmic stress of that situation just seems like adding insult to injury. So I decided that the proceeds from this blog (which come from Amazon Affiliate links and ads) should go to buying diapers for other people's kids.

I wrote to one of my favorite local charities and asked if they'd be interested in getting sporadic diaper deliveries. They were, and specifically requested newborn, size 1, and size 2 diapers.

And then I had to wait until I accumulated enough credit on Amazon to get a gift card from them, and then wait three months for them to pay out that gift card.

I got my gift card on Sunday, so last night, I bought a pack of 76 newborn diapers, and told Amazon to deliver them to my chosen charity. I was going to make a cute graphic showing the number of baby bum- months I'd contributed to keeping clean and dry, but by my calculations, the average newborn goes through roughly 10 diapers per day, so my contribution last night is responsible only for one quarter of one clean and dry baby bum-month.

But that's better that nothing. One thing, made a tiny bit better.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

What Does Success Look Like?

A couple of weeks ago, my sister brought over a section of our local newspaper for me. I don't subscribe, and I've mostly ignored my local paper since it went behind a paywall online. She correctly guessed, though, that I'd be interested in this article- it was a big write-up, complete with a cool 3/4 page picture, of one of my graduate school classmates. This classmate has gone on to a solid academic career, working on interesting science that may eventually be medically useful. It was a very flattering article, and I have no doubt it was well deserved.

A small part of me felt a bit of a sting upon seeing this article- no one is likely to write a big, flattering article about me in my local paper, after all.

But mostly, I didn't care, beyond being happy for my classmate. And since I'm the introspective type, I immediately started wondering about why I didn't care, particularly since I've been full of career-related angst lately.

I think it is related to the career advice I've found myself giving a lot recently: know what success looks like for you. My classmate is very successful, but that life is not what success looks like for me.

So what does success look like for me? I think that if I really had that figured out, my career angst would solve itself. Despite the fact that I tell other people that figuring out what success looks like to them is an important first step to figuring out what sort of career options will be viable, I can't fully describe what success looks like for me. I have the broad outlines, though. Success for me is to be always learning new things. I am starting to suspect it also involves creating things, which surprises me. It is having the recognized expertise in some field to make other people want to learn things from me. It is feeling like I'm doing something useful for other people. It is having a lot of autonomy in my work, and feeling like I can make the decisions that matter to me. And it is having a job that provides both the funds and the flexibility to live the lifestyle I want.

The reason my classmate's success is not the success I want is in that last bit- that particular type of academic career path doesn't provide enough flexibility for my tastes, and doesn't offer a reasonably likely path to that flexibility until quite late in the career, if at all.

But the more important questions of whether some aspect of my definition of success is missing from my current career path, and if so, which aspect is missing? Those still elude me. I'm working on that.

What does success look like for you? Are you on the path to achieving it?

Quotable: Conspiracy

"Conspiracy theories and the occult comfort us because they present models of the world that more easily make sense than the world itself, and, regardless of how dark or threatening, are inherently less frightening."

-William Gibson, in Metrophagy, and essay in Distrust That Particular Flavor

I'm finding this explanation of conspiracy theories helpful right now, when so much ugliness in my country is traceable back to people who believe the most unbelievable things.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Good Stuff from My Blog Reader Edition

January's been a bit of a loss. I think there were 5 days in there when I wasn't sick. The first cold I had turned into a secondary infection and required two days off work, one at the start, and one at the end, with antibiotics. The latest cold I've had has lingered and lingered. And then I had to stay home Tuesday this week with a tummy bug Petunia brought home- and I almost never get tummy bugs. (On the bright side, we seem to have stopped the spread with me. A large amount of bleach has been used in this house this week.) I feel OK now, but tire easily and my voice is still a wreck. I alternate between husky and wispy, with the occasional croaking frog or complete loss of sound thrown in. I have no idea what is going on with my voice, and will probably have to take another trip to the doctor if it doesn't sort itself out soon.

So, if I seem to have disappeared from blogs I usually comment on, this is why. I am, to put it mildly, behind in almost all aspects of my life. Also, since I haven't had time to read widely, I don't have the usual thematic collection of links for you this week. Instead, I thought I'd link to some posts that just showed up in my blog reader and that I liked.

First of all, Antropologa has a really thought-provoking post about refugees settled in rural Sweden.

Nicoleandmaggie had an interesting post about gazingus pins. I'm still trying to figure out what mine is. At one point, it was probably shoes, but it isn't anymore.

Laura Vanderkam had a good post about things to think about if you're considering starting a home-based business. If I ever do try to go out on my own, I would be starting a home-based business. So it was interesting to read and think about, even though right now I am a corporate drone and likely to stay one.

Speaking of being a corporate drone, this HBR article about when to quit your job brought me up short. I do not, in fact, want my boss' job, at least not at this particular company. I don't think that means I should quit, though. I'm still learning useful things.

Scalzi had a really nice memoriam for Richard Stern. I like the idea of not being a good enough student for some teachers you meet in college- I know I can look back on some of the classes I had at the U of C and recognize that I'd get a heck of a lot more out of them now. I also laughed out loud at his description of his classmates.

This post from Wil Wheaton is just nice... and a nice reminder that even people the rest of us think of as famous have career ups and downs.  The commercial in question came out today. I was watching for Wil Wheaton and I still had to watch the thing twice to catch him. He's right where it makes sense for him to be. I must have blinked at an inopportune time the first time through!

That's all I have this week. I'm sure there are more great posts waiting in my blog reader- I am not at all caught up. Happy weekend, everyone!


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