Saturday, December 31, 2011

Weekend Reading: The Privilege and Poverty Edition

I considered making my year in review post my weekend reading post for the week, but that seemed a bit narcissistic, even for a blogger. So here are some other things to read:

First, via the Harvard Business Review, of all places, I came across this post about male privilege in geek fandom. It is a pretty good explanation of privilege, particularly as it applies to the "chilly climate" issue.

Then, Nicoleandmaggie wrote a post about how (and whether) they should help a young niece of theirs overcome some bad decisions, bad luck, and lack of money to get to college. They linked to an old post of John Scalzi's about poverty, which you should go read if you haven't read it before. And if you have read it before, it will stand up to a re-reading. (Incidentally, thanks to a more recent post of his that I came across after reading the old one on poverty, I finally figured out why his name sounded so familiar to me- he was the editor of my college newspaper for part of the time I was in college. You have no idea how glad I am to have finally figured this out. His 20 year old self even looks familiar.)

Finally, my friend Stevil wrote a great post about an encounter in a CVS store that helped remind me what is special about Christmas and pull me out of my pre-Christmas funk.

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope 2012 brings you happiness and good fortune.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011 in Review

For some reason I can't really explain, I feel the need to do a "year in review" post, even though anyone who is interested in reviewing my year could just as easily use the archives in the right hand column. But it is my blog, so I get to do the post, even if it is not at all necessary.

I've decided to pick two or three posts from each month, and link to them here with a little bit of commentary. My criteria for inclusion in this list are arbitrary in the extreme- some posts are here because a lot of people read them and/or commented on them, some posts are here because they cover things that seem important to include in a year in review post, and some posts are here just because I like them.

Without further ado...

January opened with me weeding in my garden, and thinking of it as a metaphor for making self-improving changes. I failed utterly at starting a meaningful yoga practice, but I do still enjoy chocolate. So its a wash, right? Then a mentally ill young man shot a bunch of people in my home state, and the events leading up to the event and the reactions to it reduced me to feeling glad that at least we're no longer flinging live children at castle walls, which is obviously a rather low bar. But, on the bright side, the book I read about Genghis Khan (which included the story about people flinging live children at castle walls- and note, Khan was not the one doing the flinging) was really interesting. I truly am a history major who has wandered far, far afield. And, um, only took a few history classes in college, and knows nothing about doing real history research. I enjoy reading history, though! The month ended with a post that could be viewed as the first Weekend Reading post, but I called it Friday Links. It was about the Tiger Mom furor (remember that?) and included a hilarious beat poem (no, that is not an oxymoron) about "alternative medicine". If you missed that the first time around, you should go watch it now. Unless you're into homeopathy, in which case you are likely to be offended.

In February, I wrote a post that I really liked but no one else really noticed called Obscurity and Success. The seeds of that post were planted way back in 2003, when I came across a statue honoring the men who made sure that Shakespeare's works were published after his death. Later in the month,  I was surprised to find myself agreeing with an article about parenting and food in the New York Times. Usually, food articles in the New York Times seem to be written primarily for serious gourmands who take food far, far more seriously than I do, and the parenting articles seem to be written about a different species altogether.

March saw me musing about the transitions in my kids' lives and what they mean for my own identity. It was quite a lot of navel-gazing considering that it was sparked by the sight of a crayon from The Olive Garden (don't tell the NYT food people, but I really like The Olive Garden's Zuppa Toscana). I am happy to report, though, that Petunia still lets me kiss her on the head, and it is still very sweet. March also saw my first real Weekend Reading post, which you should go look at if only to follow the link to Bad Mom, Good Mom's post about the life lessons of calculus. And I posted about an argument Hubby and I had about chores, which really resonated with some people, proving that I have no idea which posts will be interesting to anyone else- I thought that one was pretty dull.

In April, Pumpkin turned four and had some really good cupcakes at her party. I posted about how I buy time and compared the tension of balancing time with kids, time for other things, and money with the time-honored project management adage about how a project cannot be done cheaply, well, and fast- you have to choose two of the three. Finally, I had a weekend reading post that was really more rant about race, privilege, and education, which may (or may not) make the slew of posts I will undoubtedly write about choosing a kindergarten for Pumpkin make more sense. I will emphasize again, though, that I don't think there is anything wrong with people choosing private schools for their kids- I just want us all to remember how important public schools are.

May might have been the peak of our worries about Petunia's health. She still gets sick a lot, but it feels a lot more like normal day care stuff now. I also suspect that she's going to end up diagnosed with allergies eventually, but given my history with allergies, that won't be a big surprise. I also wrote a post about the conflict between our society's (and our own) parenting ideals and reality. I rather liked that one, because it bugs me how parents, and mothers in particular, get caught in a bit of a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" bind in terms of how society judges them.

I turned 39 in May, but I wrote about it in June. I also posted my "Don't Lean Back Ahead of Time" rant,one of my most popular posts of all time, which was actually a series of comments on other people's posts, stitched together. I ended the month with a post about my "work limit"- i.e., how sometimes, trying to do more work is counter-productive. I like that one because it is a topic I really care about. I think we're a bit nutso about work hours in this country. Why in the world do people brag about working really long hours?

I followed up in July with my Work-Life Balance for Everyone Manifesto. I also reconstructed my first ever rant post, which was actually written in a paper journal. It makes me more happy than it should that even now, with two kids in my house, I still think my former coworker was a bit of a prat. I was also forced to admit that we were turning into "those parents" as we started Pumpkin on soccer lessons. Pumpkin loved those lessons, though, and has been asking to start them up again. So maybe "those parents" aren't so bad, after all.

I started August with a post that summarizes my parenting philosophy, and also explains why I can't talk about parenting with a lot of people in real life- namely, that I inhabit a different parenting universe than many of the people I know, because my kids don't sleep anywhere near as much as many of their peers. I also gazed deep into my linty navel and wrote about why I blog. You all wrote some really nice comments on that post, which is why I really like that post now. And just to prove that I still do sometimes post "mommyblog" things, I wrote a post about a walk with my daughters and their baby dolls. It was the first of many double stroller walks which I never really got tired of taking.

September brought the Great San Diego Blackout, which prompted me to write about emergency preparedness. We also went on a California road trip, which prompted me to write about how I travel with a toddler and a preschooler and enjoy it. That last post brought me a little good-natured flak from a commenter who thought that our brand of travel is unrealistic. I see her point, but stand by my post, and point out that we have made the road trip between San Diego and Phoenix enough times to have some experience with long days driving through scenery that bores the adults, let alone the kids.

In October, Petunia turned two. She had yummy cupcakes, too- not that she cared. I wrote a post about the phrase "working mom guilt" in which I think I offended Liz at Mom101, although that definitely wasn't my intent.  And a twitter conversation with Fishscientist prompted me to draw a graph showing my post-partum productivity curve.

In November, I argued that I am not married to a unicorn, which is another one of my top posts if you judge by the number of hits it got. The follow up to that post eventually led me to post about being a feminist mother, which is a post that I thought sucked when I wrote it but that I now rather like, proving that not only do I not know what my readers will like, I don't even know what I'll like the next day. I also wrote the first post about our impending school decision. I'm sure there are more of those coming in January- we visit the two magnet schools we are considering on January 9.  

Given how much I had to do in December, it would have been smart to be relatively quiet on the internet. I was not, however. I got in a prolonged discussion on someone else's blog that ended poorly, but made me think about why I get involved in online discussion in the first place. Despite what the other person on that other blog probably thinks, I don't set out to antagonize people! I held my first ever giveaway, as part of a review of the Secret Agent Josephine eBooks (and my new Kindle Fire). Pumpkin and I just read the Colors book tonight, so I wasn't lying just to get myself some free eBooks. My opinion cannot be bought that cheaply. I ended the month with a multi-part discussion about gendered toys, princesses, and how we handle the issue in our house. (Yes, I just broke my rule and linked to five posts in December. My blog, my rules, my exceptions, I guess.) I think the last post is the best, but also think that I probably beat that topic to death.

So... on to 2012. I enjoyed going through all my posts for this year and picking out the ones to include here. Who knows? This may become a tradition.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Different Genders, Gender Differences and How We Handle the Princesses

I recently came across a post by a teacher about how she handled a little girl in her class who didn't have the typical girl behaviors and preferences. You've probably seen it, too- it was linked to from lots of blogs.

It is a great post, written by a teacher who sounds wonderful. I am glad our society is getting more accepting of little girls who want to dress and act more like we expect little boys to. It made me think about the furor over the little baby in Canada whose gender was being kept a secret and the baby's older brother, Jazz- and my reaction to that.

And this clarified some of my thoughts on the recent discussions about the "girl" LEGO sets, the Princess phase, and all that.

It has become clear to me that the reason that I'm uncomfortable with a lot of the discussions about gender specific toys is that they include an implicit judgment of the typically girl toys and of typically female pursuits. It is a fine line between advocating for little girls to have a wide open field when dreaming about their future careers and instilling an idea that being a hair stylist or a nurse is somehow less than being a mechanic or a scientist, and frankly, it seems like we're coming down on the wrong side of that line sometimes. And, as I wrote in those earlier posts, I am deeply uncomfortable with the message our culture sends that being into princesses (or, for the older girls and women, fashion and makeup) is somehow incompatible with an interest in building things or studying science. As I described in the gender bender post, I came up against that stereotype in college, and it was harmful. In fact, it may have been the source of my most serious doubts about pursuing a degree and eventual career in science.

The really disturbing thing about these issues is that they are coming from both sides of the political spectrum. I expect this nonsense from conservative traditionalists who think that women's place is in the kitchen, but it comes from people who consider themselves progressive, too. The same people who were defending Jazz's right to wear purple dresses and put his hair in braids wrote comments that said I was raising my children in a "pink ghetto" because we haven't banned the Disney princesses from our house. I don't want Jazz or the little girl in the post I linked to at the top to be bullied for being themselves. But I also don't want Pumpkin to be pre-judged based on her interest in princesses. I realize that the former is more vicious and harmful, but that doesn't mean that the latter is entirely benign.

We need to get to a place where anyone of either gender can be into anything, and not be judged, where we all recognize that the presence of one stereotypically female trait doesn't equal the presence of all stereotypically female traits, and where we don't denigrate those traits, regardless of who is exhibiting them. I want more women in STEM, but I want more male nurses and preschool teachers, too. And I want equal respect for all careers- even for that bogey-woman of the Lego girls discussions, hair stylists. (I mean really, what is up with the disdain for hair stylists? Where would we be without good hair stylists? Given how I feel right now, when I'm past due for a haircut- not a happy place.)

Pumpkin is fairly ignorant of all this nonsense so far. She doesn't see a problem with liking princesses and LEGO. She doesn't think that a love of purple is incompatible with a love of math. She doesn't know that strong language skills and strong spatial reasoning skills aren't supposed to go together (and you know what? She's actually pretty strong in both right now). It breaks my heart to think that soon, our culture is going to tell her that she's wrong. She is going to realize that people- even people who say that they are for equal rights for all- look down on some of her interests, while other people tell her that she is innately inferior at other things that she is actually quite good at, like spatial reasoning, while citing (incomplete and/or over-interpreted) science.

I hate that my culture is going to tear down my little girl's confidence. I want to protect her from that as long as I can, at least until I can start explaining this all to her and help her learn how to make her way through this mess of bullshit with her self-confidence intact.  And I'm certainly not going to be the one who tears her down. Princesses are OK in our house, and I've told the adults who visit us that their joking references to gender stereotypes are not acceptable while my daughters are young.

I've also been making conscious decisions about toys and activities- but my decisions are driven primarily by a desire to make sure that her environment stretches all of her skills. I've been heavily influenced by Pink Brain, Blue Brain, by Lise Eliot. I recommend this book highly to anyone who is interested in gender differences, specifically as they impact parenting. Dr. Eliot, a neuroscientist with three kids of her own (one girl, two boys), surveys the literature and finds "surprisingly little solid evidence of sex differences in children's brains." She makes a convincing case for the role of plasticity (or the fact that our brains change in response to its environment) in the gender differences observed in adults. (She also points out that the gender differences in cognitive skills are much smaller than one would think from the popular literature.) As she says, "the male-female differences that have the most impact- cognitive skills, such as speaking, reading, math, and mechanical ability; and interpersonal skills, such as aggression, empathy, risk taking, and competitveness- are heavily shaped by learning. Yes, they germinate from basic instincts and initial biases in brain function, but each of these traits is massively amplified by the different sorts of practice, role models, and reinforcement that boys and girls are exposed to from birth onward."

I won't try to summarize her entire argument here- if you are interested, really, go read the book. But I will explain what it has meant to our parenting. We focus heavily on ensuring that our girls get experiences, via toys and other routes, that will let them grow all of their skills. Dolls are great for practicing empathy. Puzzles and LEGO are great for spatial reasoning. Trucks and cars are great for instilling an instinctive understanding of the laws of physics.  Princess dresses are great for stretching the imagination. Etc., etc.

I think that we all start from a somewhat blank slate- evidence indicates that intelligence is only about 50% genetics. From the starting point provided by genetics and prenatal environment, we grow to achieve our potential based on the experiences we have. So my husband and I aim to make our daughters' experiences rich and varied, and to make sure that they get the chance to practice all of their skills. This does not mean that I think it is my job to make sure that their environment is optimal, as defined as "no iota of the potential on that not quite blank slate is squandered."  Rather, I think my job is just to make sure that a strong foundation is laid to ensure that they have the skills to pursue their future interests, whatever they may be.

This is why we have Pumpkin taking Chinese lessons- the window of opportunity for language learning is too good to pass up (and she likes them). This is why I didn't just shrug my shoulders and put the puzzles away when Petunia didn't show the same early enthusiasm for them that her sister did. We kept trying different things and found ones she'll play with. Eventually, we figured out that her fine motor development isn't as advanced as Pumpkin's was. The puzzles that she was physically able to do were boring to her. After much experimentation, we discovered that she likes mix and match puzzles (like mix and match fix puzzle) and puzzles that make sounds (like this animal sounds one). We also give her stickers and freely indulge her love of coloring, which will eventually help her fine motor skills come up to speed. And this is why I care that the "starter" LEGO castle didn't have a princess- because I want toys that encourage spatial reasoning AND that will get played with by my princess loving daughter.

To me, the most pernicious thing about the princess phase and other gender specific toys is that they deprive kids of the chance to grow all of their skills. Don't get me wrong- I care about the gender-based career stereotypes in the toys, too. But my (probably naive and arrogant) assumption is that the living example I provide will be more important to my daughters' opinions of their career options that whatever Barbie or LEGO show them. I realize that it isn't all about me and my family, and that most little girls don't have mothers whose career is a traditionally male-dominated one. However, I somehow became a scientist despite the lack of any scientist in my family, male or female, and the abundance of Barbie dolls in my toy chest. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be  carpenter, and then a country and western singer, and then a doctor, and then an anthropologist. Of those, only the carpenter had precedence in my family. My parents encouraged my ever changing interests. They contradicted the gender stereotypes when I came up against them, and always told me that I could do whatever I wanted. I'll do the same for my girls, and I think they will be OK.

What do you think about all of this? Tell me in the comments. It may be your last chance to discuss this topic here for awhile- I think I need to move on!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Cookies

Can you stand one more Christmas post? If not, click away.

One of my favorite things about Christmas is the baking, specifically the cookies. When I was younger, I would bake multiple batches of cookies: sugar cookies, gingerbread cookies (mine were bunnies and teapots and various things more interesting than plain old people), two types of shortbread, chocolate chip cookies, and random other recipes that sounded good to me.

The arrival of children in my life has changed that tradition a bit. A lot, actually. So much that this year, I struggled to find time to bake at all. But baking at Christmas is important to me, so somehow, time was made to produce a few batches. We leave a plate of cookies out for Santa, you know, and perhaps he reads the New York Times and would be offended by store bought cookies.

So, we baked some cookies for Santa's plate. And our tummies. I am a bit of a cookie monster- I can easily skip cake, brownies, and all other types of treats, but it takes a great deal of willpower for me to turn down a good cookie! Particularly a sugar cookie.

In fact, we left a plate of cookies, a glass of milk, a note, and a picture for Santa.

 Here's a close up of the cookies:

They are, from the top left: a caramel-oat bar (made by me and Petunia), a sugar cookie (made by me and Pumpkin, decorated by Pumpkin), a piece of chocolate shortbread (made by me), and a slice of ginger crunch (a New Zealand delicacy, made by Hubby and Pumpkin).

Hubby uses the Edmond's ginger crunch recipe, but doubles or triples the amount of icing. I use the sugar cookie and butter frosting recipes from the The Fannie Farmer Baking Book (a great cookbook to have on hand if you like to bake).

The caramel-oat squares are from an old copy of Betty Crocker's Cookie Book- the same book that provided the sort of dairy free brownies that got me through the dairy prohibition while nursing Pumpkin. These bars are super easy and fun for a toddler to help with- Petunia enjoyed mixing the ingredients and helping to spread the chocolate chips on top. The Google search for these turns up a bunch of things using some new Betty Crocker mix, so here is the recipe:

Caramel-Oat Bars

2 cups oats
1/2 cup packed brown sugar (Petunia loved packing the brown sugar. I had to help, of course)
1/2 cup melted butter
1/4 cup dark corn syrup (eh, I only had light, and it worked fine)
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp salt
6 oz semisweet chocolate chips (I probably use closer to 9 oz. Note that the bag you buy at the store is 12 oz. We had an accidental but fortuitous innovation here this year. I bought mini chocolate chips. As you'd expect, they melt faster, which makes the step that uses them faster and more satisfying for a toddler)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Grease a 9x9x2 inches baking pan. I grease even a non-stick pan. What's a little more butter?

Mix oats, brown sugar, melted butter, corn syrup, vanilla and salt. Spread in greased baking pan and bake until bubbly, about 8 minutes. (Nice and short- good for toddler attention spans!)

Immediately sprinkle with chocolate chips. Let stand until soft (very quick if you're using mini chips!) and spread evenly. A rubber spatula works best.

Refrigerate at least an hour. Cut into bars. If you wait too long, this will require some muscle. Store in fridge.

The chocolate shortbread recipe is from The Cookie Jar Cookbook, which I no longer have. But I had copied the recipe out into my recipe notebook. I couldn't find it on Google (OK, I didn't look that hard), so here it is. You can thank the 15 years ago me for the lack of detail- but my batch turned out well.

Chocolate Shortbread

2 cups flour
1/2 cup cocoa
pinch salt
1 cup butter softened
2/3 cup powdered sugar
1 1/4 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

Sift flour, cocoa, and salt together and set aside. Cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy. Add vanilla and bat. Add dry ingredients and mix (I had to finish this with my hands- basically squishing the dough together until it all mixed).

Press dough into ungreased 10x10xwhatever pan. (This recipe is fairly forgiving of pan size, actually- my notes say that I sued to make it in two round cake pans. They were on the small side, though, and my current ones are bigger, so I used a 10x10 baking pan and it worked well.)

Bake ~35 minutes, until it is firm to the touch and the center springs back when gently pressed. The edges shouldn't darken.

Cut while still warm.

Santa must have liked our cookies, because he left both a camera (real, not a toy! Hooray for cheap electronics from China) and a Ken doll (in the stocking) for Pumpkin. He did not bring the Barbie princess castle she had asked for. We suspect it wouldn't fit in his sleigh- which is a good thing, because it also wouldn't fit in our house. My mom had the brilliant idea of repurposing her toy shelves, which are cubby shelves from Target), into a castle. Pumpkin loves this. They even built a moat with her train tracks.

Petunia got a CD player/karaoke machine, which she seems to like, but not as much as the hand pump operated owl flashlight that her aunt in NZ sent to her.

We gave Pumpkin a "My first LEGO" house set, which she used a bit, with help. We gave Petunia some play doh of her own (she had been sharing her sister's) and some toys to stamp letters, numbers, and various patterns into play doh. She loves the play doh, but hasn't seen the point of the stamps yet. Both girls got many more toys and books and clothes from various extended family members, all of which were appreciated. Petunia even let me read one of her new books tonight, which is a remarkably fast uptake for her. It usually takes months to introduce a new book. I wish I were exaggerating.

I gave Hubby a home brew starter's kit. My idea is that if he has a hobby like that he'll stop hassling me about how much time I spend blogging.

Hubby gave me some CDs and a fancy case for my Kindle Fire. So I won this round. (He won last year with a surprise gift of a Kindle. Overall, we're probably about even.)

My parents and my sister went together to get me something with which to work off the effects of all those Christmas cookies:

It is awesome and way more fun than that stupid dance exercise DVD I've been using.

Christmas was almost completely tear free, although Petunia did insist on wearing butterfly wings and antennae for most of the day.

All and all, it was a good Christmas. We are very fortunate to be able to celebrate in the way that we do. I hope Christmas was also good to you, if you celebrate. We'll be back to rants and other such posts soon!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Weekend Reading: The Christmas Edition

So, the gifts are (mostly) wrapped, despite the fact that Petunia got sick and had to stay home today. Hubby and I are (mostly) over the fact that our much-anticipated kid-free day turned into a "take turns snuggling Petunia on the sofa" day. Chocolate shortbread is in the oven, and I only cursed my 15 years ago self two or three times for writing such sparse instructions when I copied out that recipe. I can see myself writing it out, skipping all the detail, because surely I would never forget how to make something I made several times a year. Let me be a lesson to all of you people who don't have kids yet but plan to have them sometime- you will remember almost nothing of your pre-kid life. You certainly won't remember how to make the chocolate shortbread that you haven't made since before your first child was born.

But anyway. My Christmas spirit never fully appeared, but I think I'm doing a decent job of faking it. Our Christmas festivities start tonight, with our annual pilgrimage to see the house in my sister's neighborhood that has about 500 times the number of lights a sane person would put on his or her house. We'll load Petunia up on Tylenol and take her along. Incidentally, we discovered today "Tylenol" is one of the words she can say. Poor kid.

My parents come into town tomorrow night, and we will all gather for a tradition that I've carried over from my youth- the opening by the children of Christmas Eve presents containing ornaments. When I was growing up, we went out to see a movie on Christmas Eve, too. In my house now, we'll watch some recording Christmas specials. Since Petunia is inexplicably displeased with the Dora Christmas Special (she normally loves Dora), this will probably be the Grinch and- God help me- the approximately 800th viewing of the Bubble Guppie Christmas Special, which I agreed to record for Petunia in a fit of early December good cheer.

Posting is likely to be light for the next week or so. Or maybe the fact that my parents are here to entertain the kids will mean that I have time to write some of the posts I've got queued up. Either way, I couldn't NOT post this video my husband found, which covers the history of Santa:

Also, if you're looking for a last minute gift for someone who has everything... this superhydrophobic spray is unfortunately not yet available commercially. But it is pretty awesome.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Joyous Solstice... Happy whatever you celebrate. Don't be Mr. Grumpfish! (See, if you'd watched the Bubble Guppies special, you'd know what that means....)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Princesses Are Not The Problem

I shouldn't really be writing a post tonight. I should be working on getting ready for Christmas. But I had a rough day. First, I wasted half of the day tracking down a bug in a data loading script that turned out to be a "feature" of the vendor-supplied database into which we were loading- a feature that the vendor damn well should have told me about when they suggested I load my data in this particular way. Then my day ended with a contentious meeting that ran 30 minutes late and made me late to pick up the girls at day care, which made me late to get home, which made me have to change my dinner plans. Then both girls had spectacular meltdowns around bath time- Petunia because she wanted to wear her (cloth, not water safe) butterfly wings in the bath and Pumpkin because she didn't want to take a bath for some reason.

So anyway, I'm thinking that maybe ranting some more about toys will be therapeutic. Or maybe not- but these thoughts have been bouncing around in my head and they are distracting me from the things I should be doing, so maybe by writing them down and asking you all what you think I can get on with finishing my #&%$! project at work and getting organized for Christmas at home. As usual with this sort of post, I make no guarantees for a coherent argument. This is a dump of my thoughts on the topic, and I am very interested to read what you think in the comments.

I continue to see reactions to the new "girl" Lego sets I wrote about in my last weekend reading post, and so I continue to think about them. I may not have made this clear in my last post, but I am not exactly thrilled by the idea of gender specific Lego sets. However, I think that the decision to have gender specific sets was made several years ago, when Lego decided to start making a lot of battle-themed sets. Now, I didn't have kids then, so maybe there was an outcry similar to what we're seeing now about the "girl" sets, but I doubt it- which I think is interesting, and says a lot about our culture.

I also think it is worth remembering that Lego started bringing out those "aggressively boy" sets not because they are an evil company intent on reinforcing gender stereotypes, but because they were fighting to survive, and those sets were part of the strategy that brought them back to profitability.

I think that sometimes we forget that toys are mostly made by companies, which exist to make money. They sell us what we will buy. Toys are an interesting consumer item, though, because they are simultaneously a mirror for our culture, showing us through our children's eyes what we are, and a tool by which our culture indoctrinates its newest members.

I am surprised to find myself concluding that princesses aren't the problem, and neither are "girl" Lego sets. The problem is a culture whose norms stratify interests into "boy" and "girl" and thereby work to push girls away from toys that will help grow skills that will help them with math and science in the future (and for that matter, push boys away from toys that will help them practice their nurturing skills).

The frustrating thing about cultural norms is that they are incredibly pervasive and hard to avoid. You would never know it from looking at the amount of Disney Princess crap we now own, but those Princesses were not invited into our lives by me or my husband- or any other adult, really. They came in because of day care. Specifically, because of what the other little girls at day care were talking about. Pumpkin knew all the stories from her friends, and she wanted Princess underwear and Princess bandaids because those are what her friends had. She could show the other little girls her Princess bandaid and they would be impressed, in their three year old way. I didn't really see the point of having a huge fight over bandaids- or underwear, for that matter- and so the Princesses came into our house.

Eventually, I felt bad that Pumpkin seemed so left out of the mainstream of her day care culture, and we decided to get a Disney Princess movie for her to watch. We settled on Cinderella, because it is the least scary- and she is still a child who would prefer her entertainment to be largely free of any tension. We had to talk her through the scene in which Cinderella gets locked in the tower, but once she made it through, she loved that movie, and we made peace with it. 

And now Petunia asks for "Rella" and knows the names of the main mice in the movie. This is not something I ever expected to have happen in my household.

Given all of that, I certainly don't expect parents to fight the cultural norms all on their own. I think it is reasonable to ask for some help from the rest of society. In fact, if I were making the rules, I would require that every ad for a toy show an equal number of boys and girls. There would be girls in the ads for the latest battle toy and boys in the ads for that Barbie head that you use to practice doing hair and putting on makeup. And the toy packaging would have to do the same.

But I'm not making the rules, so I have to navigate the current environment as best as I can. It would be easy to despair, but I think that would be both wrong and defeatist. Our culture is pervasive, but I, as a parent, have a huge role to play in helping my daughters learn how to navigate it. To that end, I try to remember that my end goal is not to raise daughters who hate princesses, but to raise daughters who have the skills and confidence to pursue their interests, whatever they may be.

I will not tell my daughters not to like the Disney Princesses, but I also will not roll over and let Disney tell them what it means to be a princess (or, for that matter, a girl) and I will not let their interest in princesses and other "girl" things deprive them of the chance to play with toys that help them build all their skills.

I will confront the stereotypes, by doing things like reading them The Paper Bag Princess.

And I can subvert the stereotypes, by finding toys that fit their interests and stretch their skills. This isn't as easy as I want it to be- but it also isn't as impossible as some people make out. We adopted a family for Christmas this year, and one of the kids was a six year old girl. She asked for a "flying unicorn toy." As I expected, My Little Pony makes one of those. I was pleasantly surprised, though, to find that they also make a radio-controlled car (which is another great toy for stretching spatial reasoning).

I think it is a stroke of genius that the radio controller looks a bit like a magic wand, which is another thing that princess-obsessed girls love. The store I was at had a two-for-one sale on My Little Pony toys, so the little girl got the car as well as the (to my eyes) less interesting flying unicorn toy.

I love the look of the Castle Logix set, and will probably get that for Pumpkin or Petunia eventually.

(Thanks to FeMOMhist for bringing it to my attention.)

And yes, I may well buy Pumpkin a "girl" Lego set when they come out- it will depend on what the set actually looks like.

If I have to work a little harder than I'd like to find toys that stretch my girls' spatial reasoning and math skills- well, I think it is worth it. And I think that I can I do that with the imperfect toys available today, even while I also speak out to try to change our cultural expectations about what boys and girls like and are good at. In fact, I think that I owe it to my girls to do both of those things. They can't wait for our culture to change, but wouldn't it be great if they don't have to work so hard at this when they have kids of their own?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

An Open Letter to Job Applicants

Dear job applicant,

If all of your training and experience is in a research heavy field related to mine, and you are applying for the job I have posted for an entry-level position in my more applied field, it would be a good idea to write a cover letter explaining why you want to go into my field. Perhaps you have discovered that you would like to apply your love of science to a different type of work. Perhaps you have always wanted to work in my industry, and have only suffered through your more general training with this goal in mind. Perhaps you are desperate for a job and are just applying to anything that seems vaguely relevant. Perhaps you lack basic reading comprehension skills and are completely unaware of the requirements of the job for which you have just applied. Really, your resume doesn't make it clear which possibility is most likely, and I do not have the time to call everyone who applies to painstakingly extract this information.

However, if you are only applying for my job because you can't get a job in your research field, and are willing to settle for my job until you can find the job you really want, you are probably wasting both of our time. I am happy to train someone into this position- my job posting makes that clear, I think- but I am not interested in training you if you are not actually interested in pursuing a career in my field. Or, more accurately, if you can't even be bothered to hide your disdain for my field long enough to get through the job application.

You get bonus points on your cover letter if you point out the things in your background that make you think you can meet the job requirements I posted.

I deduct points if you tell me about your deep interest in your research field and desire to spend your life researching a topic that, while no doubt interesting, has nothing whatsoever to do with the position I posted.

If you don't know much about my applied field and think you might be interested, please go ahead and apply, but this is a case where it is not necessarily wise to be completely honest. You do not need to tell me in your cover letter that you don't actually know whether or not you are interested in my field. You are interested enough to apply, so just write me a cover letter saying that you are interested in my field and highlighting the aspects of your background that make you qualified for my job.

If you can find a connection to me, you can email me and ask for an informational interview (a meeting in which you ask me questions about my field). As I have discussed before, I am happy to do these, and will almost certainly buy you lunch if you are student or a postdoc. I'll be impressed with your initiative, and you'll have a boost over any other applicants, because I will already have met you and gotten to see what a sane, well-spoken, thoughtful person you are.

I will not, however, be impressed by a cover letter that says you are a brilliant jack of all trades who can pick up any field effortlessly. I will doubt that this is true, and think that you are probably an arrogant jackass with whom I do not want to work, let alone manage.

Sincerely, A Very Tired Hiring Manager

Friday, December 16, 2011

Weekend Reading: The Subtle Sexism Edition

As promised, I have a "real" weekend reading post this week. This week's links are all about how men and women (and boys and girls) are treated differently, even when they're doing the same things.

First, in the adult world, here is a really good column about something I missed entirely (because it was in England)- but which makes a general point (that Nicoleandmaggie had also made in their post about the Womanspace fiasco) about how men making a feminist point are treated more respectfully than women making the exact same point.

Next, do you remember the little girl who was bullied at school because she was really into Star Wars, which was supposedly a "boy thing", and how a bunch of adult geeks rallied to her defense? CNN had a follow up on her. She's doing great. Her school has a new anti-bullying policy, and she recently came to the defense of a little boy at a birthday party who wanted his nails painted like the girls. She sounds like an awesome girl.

Finally, those of you who follow me on Twitter already know how I feel about Lego's new initiative to make more "girl-friendly" sets. If your initial reaction is similar to that of the tweet that brought it to my attention- i.e., that all Lego is for girls, I encourage you to (1) read the article before you judge Lego, (2) go look at the Lego sets aimed at ages 5 and up, and (3) wonder why no one raised an eyebrow when Lego decided to skew so "boy" awhile back. Why, when no one questions the existence of the umpteen-million warrior themed Lego sets, are so many people are bothered by the idea of sets with pastel colors and traditionally "girly" things?

Personally, I'm glad they are going to bring out some sets that aren't so aggressively "boy"- otherwise, I am afraid I'll struggle to keep Pumpkin interested in Lego, which is a great toy for stretching spatial reasoning skills and problem solving skills.

To give you an idea of why I think there is a problem now, look at this castle set, which we considered buying for Pumpkin for Christmas:

And tell me what is missing.

The princess.

In the article, it says that Lego's research showed that boys around the world think that a castle without a dragon is worse than no castle at all. Well, Pumpkin would think that a castle without a princess is not really a castle, and I suspect a lot of other little girls would agree with her.

(Sorry for the Amazon picture above- it was the easiest way to get the picture in, and this month, I'm all about easy.)

We bought her a house set instead. I was annoyed, because she wants a castle for Christmas, but I knew that the Lego one would not be acceptable to her. If that toy was really "unisex" it would have the knight and the dragon and a princess.

I've written before about how I am annoyed by the feeling amongst some feminists that pink and princesses are necessarily bad. My opinion is a bit more subtle. I wouldn't want my daughter to be into princesses to the exclusion of all else, and I'm not thrilled by the fact that Disney seems to be the sole arbiter of what it means to be a princess these days, but I don't think the fact that my daughter is going through a princess phase is a sign of doom, particularly if I can find Lego sets and other "good" toys that work with that interest while also letting her stretch some of the skills that are considered traditionally male (like spatial reasoning). I think this quote from my earlier post sums up my thoughts nicely:

So I guess what I really want is for people to start standing up for the right of people to be a little bit "male" and a little bit "female"- mixing things however their interests take them. Let the boys wear pink and purple if they want, and don't assume that a girl who loves princesses is not going to kick the world's butt some day.

And, as I said in that earlier post, parents of boys don't get a free pass, either- in some ways, it is harder to let a boy explore all of his interests than it is too let a girl do so. It is far more acceptable for a girl to be a tomboy than for a boy to be viewed as... what? There isn't even a non-perjorative term for a boy who is into feminine things!

Micro Dr.O had a good post about this issue this week- go check it out. As I said in my comment there, I think boys today are missing out on arts and crafts. I don't just mean the fancy stuff from Oriental Trading that shows up at almost every girl's birthday party we go to- I mean the basics, like coloring, and cutting and taping papers. All of the art supplies seem to be marketed at girls, and I have heard the little boys at Pumpkin's day care say things like "stickers are for girls". Maybe Crayola needs to take a page from Lego's book and go study how to get boys interested in coloring again!

Update: I wrote some more thoughts on gender specific toys.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Updates on Things You Probably Haven't Been Wondering About

I have a long list of "real" posts lined up, waiting for me to write them. Among other things, I want to talk about ambition and my goals in life. I've promised Fishscientist that I will write a post about project management and becoming a project manager. And I want to write about how to keep pervasive sexism in your chosen line of work from getting you down.

But I can't find the time or the head space to write any of those things right now. It is all I can do to stay sort of caught up at work and semi on top of Christmas preparations at home. The month of December: brought to you by the letter C, the number 25, and the feeling of doing everything half-assed. It doesn't help that Petunia has brought several colds home to me since mid-November- I feel like I am constantly a little bit under the weather. Still, this is a huge improvement over last year, when Petunia and I spent most of December feeling really miserable.

So, I'll give you some updates on things I've written about recently, in no particular order. But don't worry- I'll have a "real" weekend reading post this week. In fact, I think I have three possible themes to choose between.


The ornaments on our tree are far more clustered than you can tell from the picture I posted. Maybe these two photos will give a better flavor for our ornament distribution:

Some have been moved since they were originally hung, but we're discouraging that, for the sake of my sanity.


The giveaway on my post about the Secret Agent Jo books is still open. I'll choose the winner on Saturday. I actually may have another giveaway post soon. I've been sent a copy of The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, by Glynis Ridley to review, and I think I get a second copy to give away. (Incidentally, I've started the book and like it so far- so, if you're stuck for a gift idea for someone who likes biographies of obscure but interesting historical figures, this would be a good gamble. However, I'm only about one chapter in, so I can't promise it doesn't suck in the end. And yes, if you're wondering, that description does fit me pretty well- which is why I agreed to do the review.)

Long time readers know that I don't do this sort of thing often- it is just random luck that I'll have two giveaways so close together. I've never done a giveaway before, and as far as I can recall, there are only two other freebies that I've reviewed on this blog- Baby Signing Time volumes 3 and 4 and 168 Hours, which I didn't so much review as use as a starting point for a series of posts. So never fear- this isn't turning into a blog where I'll write about anything someone will send me for free! I only accept things that I'm interested in, and I'll never sell my opinion. Still, if the occasional giveaway and/or review bothers you, feel free to tell me why in the comments. I don't promise to change my mind about doing them, though.

I also find it interesting to look at the readership stats. That Secret Agent Jo post has more hits than either my recent rant about women and negotiation or the post about being a feminist mother- two of my more popular recent posts. Clearly, Brenda's book tour is sending a lot of new people my way. I wonder if any of them are sticking around? (Any new readers out there who want to say hi?)

However, because Blogger isn't smart enough to filter out hits from crawlers, none of these are as popular as a random post I wrote about Petunia starting day care, which Blogger thinks 50,903 people have read. I am quite confident that there aren't that many people on this planet who are interested in Petunia's first days at day care.


I called the schools we're considering for Pumpkin to arrange tours, and discovered that the two magnet schools will have tours on Monday, January 9. My husband and I decided to take the day off work and do both tours on one day. When I called our neighborhood school, they said that they would probably have tours sometime in January, and I should call back then. At first I was a little bit annoyed with this answer, but then I figured that we don't have to decide whether or not we're going to our neighborhood school by February 15- just whether or not we want to try to get into one of the magnets. So I've calmed down on that front. If you have any additional questions I should ask, there is still time to tell me about them!


Pumpkin's reading skills continue to improve, and she's still enjoying learning to read. I am fascinated by the learning process. Watching my kid learn to read is one of the cooler aspects of parenthood so far. But I have to admit, I sometimes have a hard time sitting still and listening to her slow progress through a book. Our most recent book was Harry and the Lady Next Door, by Gene Zion, and Pumpkin was sooo proud when she finished it. I was just glad it was done- and that is not an indictment of the book, which is actually a good story.


Progress on weaning Petunia continues, albeit slowly. We're down to nursing before bed, mostly. Some nights, she forgets. And sometimes she really, really wants to nurse at some other random time. I decided to ease off on my self-imposed deadline of the end of the year. It didn't seem smart to add forced weaning into our mix this month. We'll be done when we're done, I suppose.

She is also still as clingy and mommy-centered as ever. I'm beginning to think that the approach I used to get through these phases with Pumpkin- namely, give her all the mommy she wants and just wait it out- might not be the right approach with Petunia. But I don't really have any other bright ideas that seem consistent with our parenting philosophy, so I continue to spend half of each night snuggling with Petunia in her bed. We definitely should have bought her a nicer mattress.

Her language skills continue to improve, though. She is now very clear when she tells her Daddy to go away if he tries to come to her when she wakes up in the middle of the night. "No, Daddy! 'Way!"


I think that'll do it for tonight. But if I've forgotten to update you on something that you've been curious about, ask in the comments.

Monday, December 12, 2011

In Which I Find a Little Christmas Spirit

I've been struggling to find my Christmas spirit this year. Our December weekends are so full that we had to write "buy Christmas tree" on our calendar, and our initial weekend plan doesn't have me doing any Christmas baking until Dec. 24th. We still haven't figured out when we'll take the girls out to see the Christmas lights in our neighborhood. To be honest, the season has felt more like a forced march through a list of things I have to do than like a celebration of peace, love, and all that.

Yesterday, as our calendar dictated, Hubby went out and bought our Christmas tree. He came home with a tree that seemed far too big to me. We had to rearrange our entire living room to find it a place to stand, and even so, the only place it fits is right next to our front door. This is our first year with a full size tree- previous years, we have bought a small tree and perched it on top of an up-ended trunk full of books. We figured this would keep curious little hands from breaking any ornaments or pulling the tree over. But this year, we decided that the girls are big enough to handle a big tree.

So a big tree we have. It is so much bigger than previous years' trees that I had to go out and buy more lights for it. I bought a light up star for the top, too, in an attempt to buy myself a little Christmas spirit. That attempt failed, but tonight we decorated our tree, and a little bit of magic happened.

It started out poorly, with the girls chasing each other around the house giggling, and us almost yelling to get them to listen to us and calm down enough to start decorating.

But then, they started hanging ornaments on the tree, and it was wonderful. Pumpkin pronounced every ornament she picked up to be "beautiful" and was eager to help her little sister figure out the ornament hanging thing- maybe a little too eager, but Petunia didn't complain, so neither did we.

Petunia kept saying "I help" as she went between the table with the ornaments and the tree. She was so proud of herself every time she managed to hang an ornament that we didn't have the heart to tell her that the ornaments were meant to hang on tree branches, not light bulbs, and just surreptitiously moved them to safer locations nearby when her back was turned.

My sister had come to help us decorate, and brought a box of cheap but festive ornaments from Target to fill in the inevitable gaps caused by going from a 4 foot tree to a 7 foot one. The girls let us lift them up from time to time to put ornaments higher on the tree, but there is a definite local minimum for ornaments in the front and at the bottom, giving the tree a charmingly uneven look. But I think it is beautiful.

I'm sitting on the (rearranged) sofa typing this, enjoying the view of the tree and some newly discovered Christmas spirit. The only thing missing is a good Christmas cookie- the ones I bought turned out to be pretty dreadful. I think that if I go ahead and bake this weekend, even if there isn't really time, my Christmas spirit may turn out to be intact this year, after all.

How about you? How's your holiday spirit this year? What makes it feel like the holidays at your house?

The giveaway on the Secret Agent Jo post is still open. I'll pick the winner Saturday night, maybe over some nice Christmas cookies.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Secret Agent Josephine and the Kindle Fire

In lieu of a weekend reading post this weekend, I bring you a special event! A review post with giveaway.  And a title that sounds a bit like a Nancy Drew book. I even have a cool Nancy Drewish image.

As I've mentioned before, I recently bought a Kindle Fire. In fact, I ordered one on the first day that you could place an order, and therefore, got my Fire on the first day that they were shipping.

I bought the Fire for a couple of reasons. I have been a slow-adopter on the smartphone front, and still don't have one. In fact, I still don't really want one, although I do think it is nice that we can use my husband's smartphone to check traffic on the go and look up restaurants, etc., while we're out and about. But I was curious about apps, both because I wonder if the current boom in app programming has legs (or if I'm going to suddenly find it a lot easier to hire programmers at some point in the future when the app bubble bursts) and because I am interested in their potential as a way for people to make money in the "new economy".

I also wanted to let the kids try it out. OK, if I'm completely honest, I want it to help us through difficult situations, like waiting at restaurants. And the price was right for those purposes- I couldn't see buying a $500 iPad just because I was curious, and I doubted that I had the fortitude to hand such a thing over to my 2 year old at a restaurant, no matter how badly I wanted to not have to do laps around the place.

I wasn't planning to do much reading on my Kindle Fire. I have an "old" (I only got it last Christmas!) black and white Kindle, and I like reading on that. Actually, I love reading on that. I had checked out the iPad as a potential eReader and decided that I prefer eInk to an LCD for reading. (I also thought the iPad was too large and heavy to use one handed, which is a key requirement in an eReader for me, since I do a lot of reading while pinned on the sofa with a sick or sleeping toddler.)

Then, my Twitter friend Calee offered me review copies of some children's eBooks. Calee has founded Xist publishing, which has the tagline: "books for the touchscreen generation." Her goal is to create eBooks for kids. I love the fact that she has started her own publishing company (here is some of the back story on that). And I was curious to see what my kids would think of eBooks, so I agreed to take the review copies... and write this post.

So here's the disclosure: the three Secret Agent Jo books I am going to review were free. I am also going to receive two free prints from the Secret Agent Jo Alphabet book (one for each kid), and I get a print to give away- more on that at the bottom. Any other book I mention, I paid for (or downloaded for free as part of a general promotion). I paid for my own Kindle Fire, of course, but the links to books are referral links, as always. And I will confess that I am rooting for Xist Publishing to succeed. But I have tried very hard not to let any of that change the opinions you are about to read.

First up: my impressions of the Kindle Fire. I like it. For what I wanted, it is great. It is the right size to fit easily into my purse, and it is a good size for my kids to hold comfortably while sitting on the sofa.

It is reasonably responsive and fast. The picture quality is gorgeous. Really. We've watched some Sesame Street songs on YouTube, and the picture quality is top notch. I haven't tried the streaming movies yet, but I suspect they'll be good, too. As you might expect, shopping on Amazon is a breeze, but I don't find that I do that much on the Fire. Typing text is a pain- but that is a universal feature of the touchscreens, I think. No doubt, I'll get better at it. There were enough apps to satisfy me so far- and I'm sure more will be coming along. I got a memory matching game and a puzzle game for the girls, and they like those. I also got Angry Birds and made the mistake of letting them see it. Petunia still signs and asks for "birds" when she sees the Fire. My husband doesn't think they should be playing that game yet (a subject for another post, I think), so I regret letting them see it. But he has taken the Fire and played something like 20 levels o f Angry Birds, so I guess it works well. I got some Spanish flashcards for Pumpkin, and she loves those. She sounds out the English word, then taps to get the Spanish word and thinks that is great. Petunia struggles a bit with the dragging required for some games, but got the tapping action figured out quickly.

So all and all- I think the Fire is a great tablet for kids to use. Really, the only thing it lacks that I wish it had is 3G. I knew that was missing when I bought it, though, so I have no complaints.

Next: my impressions of the books. Calee was kind enough to send me review copies of all three books: Secret Agent Josephine's ABC's, Secret Agent Josephine's Colors, and Secret Agent Josephine's Numbers, all by Brenda Ponnay.  I downloaded all three onto my Kindle Fire and my old black and white Kindle. I put them on the black and white Kindle because I was curious what they'd look like (and because my review copies came before my Kindle Fire did). Of the three, the ABC's book works best in black and white- I like it better in color, but the illustrations are still cute in black and white. The numbers book is a bit hard to read in black and white, and the colors book just doesn't make much sense without, well, color. I think Calee's own Caterpillars Don't Check Email is actually the kids book that works best on the black and white Kindle- the photograph illustrations work well in black and white and the story is charming. Incidentally, this one is also free at Amazon right now.

I read all three Secret Agent Jo books to both girls on the Kindle Fire. Pumpkin (who is 4.5 years old, and learning how to read), liked all three. She could easily read the ABC book, because the pictures help. She likes to try to read the colors book, even though there are a lot of words that are well beyond her current skill level (like patisserie)- I think the pictures are engaging enough to hold her attention even though she is struggling a bit with some of the words. They are cute illustrations. But I think her favorite is the numbers book. She loves the detail, and the way that all of the items illustrated are labeled.

This is where the eBook format shines- the labels on the items are a bit small, but we can tap on the screen and zoom in, which Pumpkin thinks is pretty darn cool. I'd actually recommend that Calee consider adding more zooming features in future books- Pumpkin likes "exploring" the page.

Anyway, if I sit down with her and the Fire and say that she can't play a game but can read a book, she'll usually pick the numbers book.

Petunia (who is 2 years old and still has a tendency to wander away sometimes when you're trying to read to her) likes the colors book the best. The bright illustrations capture her attention, and she likes the alliteration in the text. She also loves to listen to the ABCs book... especially if her sister is reading it to her. The numbers book is a bit too detailed for her right now.

So, my verdict is that if you have a color tablet, you should get some eBooks for the kids on it, and you could do a lot worse than the three Secret Agent Jo books. They are all charming and engaging for the kids. Furthermore, they are formatted with an eReader in mind. This is actually reasonably important. At Pumpkin's urging, I bought her one of the Step into Reading books on the Fire. We bought Cat Traps, by Molly Coxe. It is a cute story, and I'd actually recommend it... in paper format. It was clearly a quick conversion to the Kindle format, and it shows. The pages do not take full advantage of the Kindle screen:

Whereas the Xist Publishing books do not have that problem:

(Apologies for the crappy photos. I am too lazy to figure out if I can do a screen capture on the Fire. Honestly, I don't know how I can call myself a techie.)

The books come in a variety of formats- Kindle eBook, Nook eBook, iBook, and old school paper. You can see the list on Calee's stealthy book tour page. Or you can order the Kindle or paper versions from Amazon, via the links I put above.

And finally... Calee and Brenda were kind enough to offer me a print to give away to my readers. I get the S print, for Scientist... and Snake. So maybe a herpetologist out there wants this? Just kidding- it is open to anyone. Here is the print I'm giving away:

If you want to try to win the print, just leave me a comment that says somewhere in it that you want the print, and I will do a random drawing... um, I'm not sure when. I need to check with Calee and see if I'm supposed to wait until the end of their stealthy book tour or do it now. So soon, anyway.

And of course, as always, I'd love to hear what you think. Do you let your kid play with your iPad or other expensive electronic gadget? What do you think of eBooks, for kids or adults?

Updated to add: Brenda has an etsy shop, and she says that if you like that S is for Scientist picture at the top of the post, she could add it to her shop. Also, the pheasant has no agenda. And if you want to know what that means, I think you need to poke around on her blog for more details of her book tour.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Why Do You Get Involved in Online Discussions?

I had an interesting experience in the comments section of someone else's post recently. I don't want to link to that post, because I can almost guarantee that doing so would derail the conversation I hope to have here, so I will try to use a metaphor. I'll make it ridiculous, but try to capture the flavor of what happened.

It was a post about how our society stigmatizes people who have elephants for pets, and how even if we are uncomfortable with the idea of having elephants for pets, we should recognize the humanity of the people who have them for pets, and treat them better than we do now.

I had never thought much about the issue of elephants as pets, and I for some reason decided that I would wade into the comments and see if I could learn something. In fact, I thought I might learn enough to actually formulate a somewhat informed opinion on the topic, because this site has a smart, articulate readership, and I figured some of them probably had thought a lot about elephants as pets.

But what actually happened is that I would write a comment, and then someone who actually kept an elephant as pet would write back arguing against something I hadn't said. Or at least something I hadn't thought I had said.

This went on for awhile, and I eventually gave up and went away.

But it occurred to me later that the problem was that the elephant owners and I were there for different reasons.

I was sort of interested in the topic, and thought I might learn something. So, while I didn't set out to write anything mean or inflammatory, I probably didn't take as much care in my comments as I could have.

Meanwhile, the elephant owners were there arguing for their right to choose the pet that they wanted, and came with a lot of history of having this argument with a lot of people- so they thought they knew what I was arguing, because they probably felt like they had heard it all before. And they came with a history that would understandably make them sensitive to comments such as the ones I was writing.

In the ensuing failure to communicate we both lost out. I lost out on the chance to learn something. And the elephant owners lost out on the chance to bring me closer to their way of thinking about the topic.

I felt pretty bad when I realized what had happened, and went back and tried to apologize. But this was actually better than some conversations I've been in. At least in this case, the elephant owners were making reasoned arguments, and not just saying "you're wrong" and calling people who disagreed with them names or writing snarky, condescending comments implying that anyone who disagreed with their opinion must be an idiot. I've actually banned myself from one blog whose main posts I found interesting and thought-provoking because whenever I engaged in the comments section I was likely to be treated in this way, and I decided that the blog, as good as it is, wasn't worth that aggravation. (Incidentally, the blog-writer in question and most of the commenters were academics, which made the experience even more disappointing. I expected academics to be more open to other points of view, and willing to discus things in a reasoned manner.)

All of this got me thinking about the various reasons I have for commenting on controversial posts.

I've been in various positions: sometimes I'm the elephant owner, sometimes I'm someone with a strong, well-thought out opinion against elephant owning, and sometimes I'm the person who has never thought about elephant owning and is trying to learn. I hope I'm never in the position of someone who has never thought about elephant owning and is just spouting off uninformed nonsense- but I can't swear that the elephant owners on the post in question didn't think that of me.

In thinking about it, I think I am less likely to comment when I'm the elephant owner, particularly if other elephant owners are doing a good job of presenting my opinions. I find that role to be a bit emotionally draining and very time consuming, and so will only do it on issues I feel strongly about- or sometimes on other issues, but then I just comment once or twice and go away.

So what about you? Do you comment on controversial threads? And when you do, which role are you playing?

Friday, December 02, 2011

Weekend Reading: The Rise of the Coders Edition

I've just finished a 2.5 day stint of solo parenting- Hubby had a meeting up in Northern California, and flew out after dinner Wednesday night. He came back tonight right before bed time. The girls and I made it through OK, although I think that if Petunia ever goes to one of Pumpkin's swim lessons again, we had better be prepared to get in the water with her. Not even my new Kindle Fire could distract her for long.

So anyway, I'll keep this post short, since I want to go have Friday Night Beers with Hubby as soon as I'm sure Pumpkin won't be needing any monster repellent sprayed in her room tonight. (Note to other parents in this phase: don't be lazy like I was and just grab the can of Febreeze to use as monster repellent. Go get a spray bottle of water. Unless you are really fond of the smell of Febreeze.)

My links this week are all software related.

First up, an article arguing that Apple has done the seemingly impossible, and made software developers cool.  And made some of them very rich. I feel a bit vindicated in reading this post, since I once got excoriated in someone's comments section for arguing that Steve Jobs created jobs here in the US, because he created a whole new class of programs that needed someone to write them- the apps. (And yes, I know, the article is from the UK, but trust me, there are app developers here, too.)

This thread on Slashdot argues the opposite- saying that a data center that went into one economically depressed area hasn't brought as many jobs as locals expected. But it is actually also consistent with the argument I was making on that other site: namely that we aren't aiming high enough in our worker retraining efforts. We shouldn't be retraining everyone as data center operators. We should try to retrain people into actual software development jobs. Unlike a lot of fields, you don't need a degree from a "name" school to have a good, solid career in software. I've hired people from Podunk U and from Ivy League U, and even from For Profit U, and I can honestly say that the source of the degree is not a good predictor of the quality of the code.

And finding good coders remains a challenge for me and just about everyone I know who is trying to hire them. From what I have been told by the good candidates we've lost, we have Apple (and the app boom) and Google (who are hiring like crazy) to thank for that.

Maybe we wouldn't be facing such a talent shortage if more women considered careers in tech. Which brings me to this post, about how to get more women in tech. Don't be put off by the website name or dating service ads on the site- it is an honest, interesting talk from a woman in tech. Credit to Hubby for finding this one.

Women may not be prevalent in tech, but after the Womanspace debacle and Nature's crappy handling of it, it was refreshing to come across this story demonstrating how a company should respond when a customer points out that their product is sexist.

Happy weekend, everyone!