Monday, December 30, 2013

Year in Review: 2013

It is time for my annual year in review post. If you're new here, or just don't have the minutiae of my blog committed to memory, this is where I pick a few posts from each month to recap. I pick based on fluid and inconsistent criteria. That's just how I roll.

If you want to know more than that, you can check the 2011 and 2012 versions.

Now, to the posts:

At the start of January, I was still struggling to get over my sadness and anger at what happened in Newtown, and tried to explain my thoughts on guns. The other site and Twitter feed I introduced were active for about 6 months, at which point the venom and nastiness of a subset of gun fans drove me away. I remain committed to the issue, though, and am trying to find other ways to work towards change. In much less traumatic news, my company announced a move to a less convenient area of San Diego, and I thought about what that meant for my career plans. The move has happened, the commute is almost exactly as I expected, and I still don't know what I'm going to do about it.
I whined about management, and am still amused by the idea of having people who insist on propagating a neverending and rather pointless technical argument settle it with a dance off.

In February, I started using the Amazon Associates earnings from this blog to send diapers to a local charity. I've sent roughly one box per month every month, except for one month around the time my books came out, when I had enough earnings to send several boxes. This makes me happy. Thank you all for buying things via my affiliate links and making it possible. It makes me less happy that I stumbled off the thin line of appropriate female behavior at work, and felt lost in the labyrinth. That has worked itself out OK in the short term, but I think there has been some long term damage to my prospects at this particular company. Time will tell if that is true, and also if I find that I care. I also wrote about why I don't like snark, which seems almost prescient given the given the current back and forth on snark vs. smarm. (For the record, I do not agree that the opposite of snark is smarm. And I think there is also the option to just be polite and straightforward in stating our opinions, even negative ones.)

March was smack in the middle of the hubbub surrounding Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In" and Marissa Mayer's every decision as the newish CEO of Yahoo. I joined in and ranted about the discussions of Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer that were driving me a bit crazy. My children's book The Zebra Said Shhh was published. I have been delighted with how well it has sold. It will not, however, be funding an early retirement for me. I also expanded on my argument that weeding is an excellent metaphor for life, which remains one of my favorite posts of the year.

In April, we took the kids on their first ever trip to Disneyland. Petunia got sick, and that prompted me to realize that  I am my children's refuge. I was (and still am!) of two minds about how to best steer my life, and I mused about what equal opportunity should really mean, and how I think we're falling far short of that goal.

May saw me start my Ask Cloud series with a question about handling an annoying co-worker.I tried out kanban methods at work and at home, and that was a successful experiment. I continue to use kanban in both places. Taming the Work Weekmy short ebook about productivity, was released. It has also done fairly well. It is gratifying to read the notes from people who have liked it and found it helpful.

In June, I wrote about the joy of problem-solving, and the importance of looking away from hard problems even as you try to solve them. I also explored how I made some important decisions in my life and wrote about how much I love my Chacos.

We went to New Zealand at the end of June, and stayed through the first week of July. Not long after we got back, the verdict in George Zimmerman's trial was announced, leading me to write about how we white people need to figure out how to fix racism. Based on how the rest of the year went, I'd say we aren't making much progress on that.

August was a month for navel-gazing, in which I talked about why it is important to me to have a side project going at most times and why true leisure is also important. It wasn't all deep contemplation, though: I also wrote about the method I use to make meal planning relatively easy.

In September, Pax Dickinson said some remarkably stupid and offensive things, and I got some important things wrong in how I reacted to that. I dealt with a work dilemma (but didn't tell you the details) and named my pet peeve Pete. That work dilemma worked itself out quite nicely, and I am glad I took the time to really think (and seek out advice) before acting. The best part of the month, though, was that Tungsten Hippo went live. I'm still having fun with this project, but wish I could make more time for the next steps, both technical and content-related.

My posts in October were all over the place. I wrote about my difficult postpartum and weaning experiences. That post was hard to write, but I am really glad I finally wrote it. I also wrote one of my rare political posts, in which the madness in Washington DC called to mind the back stories of post-apocalyptic fiction. I am glad we stepped away from the brink, but can't shake the feeling that one of these times, we won't. In a much lighter vein, I wrote about how Auckland feels like a second home.

November found me musing about having multiple online identities, and why I always use a pseudonym. Early in the month, Petunia broke her arm. It was not nearly as much trouble as I thought it would be when I wrote that post. She only had to wear the cast for about 3 weeks. On the plus side of that experience, I was able to post a picture of Petunia's nails, done up by a day care teacher to match her cast, in the Manicure Monday madness that swept the corner of Twitter that I frequent. Hope Jahren got a bunch of scientists (including me!) to participate in the Manicure Monday hastag started by Seventeen Magazine. That was fun, and also prompted some more serious thoughts. People are still tweeting out Manicure Monday pictures, and I may occasionally join in, particularly if I happen to have painted nails or something more interesting than typing on my computer for my hands to do on a Monday.

In December, I discussed how I need to work on giving myself permission to fail (another post prompted by Hope Jahren! Will this be an emerging theme? Perhaps I should start a new tag in my blog....) I also found myself writing about the 23andMe mess, which truly surprised me, but ended up leading me to some interesting things to read.

I intend to keep writing in 2014, so I hope you'll keep reading. See you next year!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Exploring Alternatives

This week's Tungsten Hippo post is a list of 10 short ebooks to load on that new eReader you got for Christmas. Or to load up onto an old eReader if you just want to explore some new authors or subjects.

I've also been working on my annual year in review blog post. As went through my old posts to pick out my favorites for my roundup, I was struck by how the number of posts has tapered off toward the end of the year. I think the problem is that most of my spare cognitive cycles are currently going to unbloggable career-related decisions, so I am not coming up with topics I want to blog about.

Ironically, a tweet in my feed about careers has given me a topic I want to post about. @AstroKatie posted a link to her Storify about the advice grad students do (or do not) get about non-academic careers.

The details of the advice I got as a graduate student have receded into hazy memory- it was roughly 15 years ago, after all. But I do occasionally participate in career panels and other events set up to help grad students and postdocs find careers outside academia. I also recently hired for two junior-level positions in my group, positions that could have gone to new graduates (but did not- I'll talk about why later).

So I have a couple of thoughts on the transition to a non-academic career. Note that I did not say I have advice on non-academic careers. You could perhaps combine these thoughts with knowledge of an individual's specific background and interests to get some advice, but I will not try to do that.

Thought #1: Events organized to expose graduate students and postdocs to "alternative" careers tend to focus on a small subset of possible careers.

When I was in graduate school, a career in research in industry was presented as an "alternative," which struck me as a bit strange even then, since it was a career doing exactly what you'd trained to do, just in a different type of organization.

I still see industrial research represented in these career events, and I don't have a problem with that. There are indeed some great research jobs in industry. The people speaking about research jobs in industry also usually at least mention the lab-based jobs that are less like academic research, which is good, because those jobs can also be interesting and rewarding.

There are also a lot of great jobs in industry that are not lab-based. Sometimes, these are covered in career events, but I think their inclusion is spotty, depending primarily on what the people that can be found to participate in the event do for a living. I see project management covered more frequently these days. The events that include me on their panel have scientific informatics represented, since that is what I do. There are also careers to be had in regulatory affairs, manufacturing, alliance management, and business development. There are almost certainly additional careers that aren't coming to my mind right now, too.

And then there are the jobs that aren't in industry. Again, I think there are some "go to" careers that are usually represented on career panels. I generally see someone involved in patent law. University tech transfer offices are also well-represented. I don't often see science writers at the events, but someone always mentions that as an option in their remarks. They also mention the possibility of hiring on at one of the big management consulting firms, although I don't know a single science PhD who has done that (I do know some people with other backgrounds who have worked for those firms). Less frequently, the possibilities of working to develop science policy or doing public outreach in support of science are represented. Again, there are probably many additional careers that aren't coming to my mind right now.

My point is not to bash career events. There is no way that any one event could represent all of the possibilities. And that is my point. There are many, many things that people with science PhDs can go on to do. Almost all of the careers I've listed in this post benefit from a science background even if they do not require a science PhD. There are many, many more careers that would benefit from the other skills you develop while doing a PhD, such as critical thinking, problem solving, ability to direct your own work, but that is perhaps a topic for another post.

Many of these careers are things that your average graduate student or postdoctoral fellow will have no way of knowing about. However, there is a good chance that at least one person who graduated from one of the institutions with which you have been affiliated is working in each of these careers.  Most professionals are happy to talk about their career paths- particularly if they have, for instance, signed up with their alumni association and indicated that they are happy to talk about their career paths. If you are interested in pursuing a non-academic career but don't know what, exactly you want to do, you can use those alumni associations and your own LinkedIn network to find people who can tell you about a wide range of careers.

Oops, that sounded a lot like advice.

And professors who want to help your students and postdocs out, but don't know anything about non-academic careers? You can build up your LinkedIn network with people who have worked in your lab, and then link to your current students and let them search your network. Yes, I know that it is fashionable among academics to make fun of LinkedIn, but that is because academic networking is done in an entirely different way. Trust me, out in industry, LinkedIn can be a valuable tool.

Thought #2: People leaving academia tend to have no idea how to apply for a non-academic job

As I mentioned, I have recently hired two junior positions, either one of which could have gone to a recent graduate or a postdoc looking to make a transition away from the bench. In both cases, I wrote the job descriptions to require next to no experience and to emphasize my willingness to train. In neither case did I get many applications from people without industry backgrounds, and few of those that I did get could really be included in my "top ten" stack of resumes- the stack I use to set up phone interviews.

I received resumes with no cover letter and no indication of any interest in the field for which I was hiring. I received resumes with cover letters that plainly stated an interest in a different field. I received resumes that were strong in one of the areas I was looking for, but had no indication of any experience in the other areas (which I had called out specifically in the job listings) and which did not have cover letters noting an interest in growing in those areas.

I know that academic institutions don't always do a great job of explaining how to apply to a non-academic job, but you have emailed me your application. You presumably know how to use the internet. Avail yourself of the information available online and write a good cover letter!

In both cases, I ended up hiring people with industrial experience in a scientific field who were looking to transition into my field. They have been great additions to my team and I am happy I hired them, so it worked out well for me. But I worry about the people who did such a poor job of applying for my positions. I did not have the time to contact each and everyone and ask the obvious questions that their application materials failed to answer. Nor could I reach out to each one and offer personal advice.

I am interested in helping people navigate from academia into industry, and make it easy to network to me via the academic institutions that I attended. I go to career days and local networking events and issue blanket invitations to contact me for an informational interview. Very few people take me up on that, even though it is my policy to take the people who contact me for an informational interview out to lunch- and I say that!

So I do care about this issue- but when I am filling an open position in my group, I care more about finding a great candidate. I am almost by definition pressed for time, since I am usually hiring because we have more work to do than we can handle with our current team. When I am hiring is not when I can do outreach. That is perhaps unfortunate, but it is true.

Here again, is something that a professor who wants to help his or her students transition out of academia could do: make a list of links to posts like this one and other resources about how to apply for non-academic jobs, and share them with your students.

So, that ended up sounding a lot more like advice than I intended. Sadly, it is probably not specific enough to be truly useful. If any of that piques your interest, feel free to leave me a more detailed question in the comments, or reach out via email. I can't buy you lunch over the internet, but I will answer your questions.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Weekend Links: The End of the Year Edition

OK, so really, this is just another random collection of links, but it is the last random collection of links of 2013! Unless you could my year in review post, which I plan to write sometime next week.

Anyway, I've got an interesting mix for you this week.

First up, some science, with two stories reporting progress in two baffling diseases. Narcolepsy has been confirmed as an autoimmune disorder, which helps to explain why there was a spike in new cases associated with the 2009 swine flu outbreak. And epilepsy has been confirmed as part of the very baffling "nodding syndrome" that has been affected children in Uganda and South Sudan. When I read stories like these, I am in awe of the fact that our bodies function as well as they do, really. And I hope that these advances can be translated into treatments for the affected patients, but realistically, that may still be a long way off.

In tech news: there is now an ebook StackExchange. I plan to spend sometime checking it out soon.

Badmomgoodmom sent me a link to this video, in which someone has sorted midday traffic on one of the San Diego freeways by color. One thing I conclude from this video is that you don't want to buy a forest green car in San Diego. They all get the paint discoloration that I call the mange. (We had a forest green Subaru Outback before we bought our Mazda 5, and it did indeed have the mange by the time we sold it.)

And this video is just fun.

Finally, Mr. Snarky found these instructions on how to do contemporary dance, and find it amusing. Even if the dude can't spell hilarious.

Monday, December 23, 2013

A Post in Search of a Topic

I feel like writing a blog post, but can't seem to pull together a coherent topic.

First of all, I wanted to tell you all that this week's Tungsten Hippo post is about camels.

There's pretty much nowhere to go from that, so I'll talk about something completely different instead.

I was going to try to ask for help on my latest workplace conundrum, but it has taken such a weird turn that there is no way I can blog about it. If I'm still blogging in 10 years, I'll have some stories to tell. Until then, there is beer.

Then I thought I'd try to write about why watching Pumpkin grow up is delighting me lately, but I could not find the words. It is something to do with how I can see her gaining maturity and learning the hard lessons about when something isn't worth the fight. And also watching her learn to modulate her emotional reactions but still be unabashedly loving towards her little sister. I don't know. Like I said, I can't figure out how to describe it.

Watching her gain this maturity is heartening, though, as I come to terms with the fact that we're rapidly running out of the time that the Spanish immersion school bought us, and we'll soon have to find ways to either accelerate or augment her schooling. If she has more maturity, perhaps she will be more patient as we try to figure this out. So far, she does not complain about being bored in school, but she says she is bored in her after care program, even though the after care program seems quite good to me. We're going to add in an after school Chinese lesson once a week and see if that helps.

I haven't really processed my thoughts on Pumpkin's academic performance enough to write about that topic, though.

So maybe I'll tell you about some of the delightful things Petunia has been doing lately.

She tells me that when she grows up she's going to have a Yo Gabba Gabba bedroom, complete with Yo Gabba Gabba linens on her bed.

She's at that cute age where she's started to pick up adult mannerisms and try them out, but she wears the awkwardly. Except the "awww, dammit" phrase she still says whenever something doesn't go her way. She has that one down perfectly.

And of course, she still has a bunch of cute mispronunciations. Here are some of my favorites (or, as Pumpkin still says sometimes, "fravorites")"
"chopstick" for chapstick
"checkup" for ketchup
"lello" for yellow
"megry go round" for merry go round
"candle" for Kindle ("can I play with the candle, Mommy?")

She also does this thing where if something has a two part name, she puts the consonant of the second part at the beginning of both words, giving us "Pinnie Pooh" instead of "Winnie the Pooh" and "Gubble Guppies" instead of "Bubble Guppies."

So basically, I think my kids are awesome. Big surprise there.

Maybe I can get you guys to help me out with one of my Personal Fun List items. Not surprisingly, I am not going to make it through the entire list this year (I'll claim that if you hit 100% of your goals you aren't aiming high enough or something like that), but I am halfway to being able to create a mix CD of new to music. I have 35 minutes, and I need 70. So... tell me what music you love right now! Go ahead, I won't judge you.

To help convince you of that, I will tell you that this is one of my favorite songs right now, even though I agree it is super schmaltzy.

I think it is the line about "there's nothing but empty sheets between us" that gets me.

I'm such a sap.

So go on, give me some new songs or artists to check out in the comments.

And that probably wraps up my last post until after Christmas. Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Weekend Reading: The I'm Too Busy to Organize These Edition

Clearly, I didn't get around to writing either of the posts I wanted to write on Sunday. I am not surprised. I celebrate Christmas and I have young kids. This is a very busy time! I'm on track to get everything done- the Christmas cards are mailed (thanks to my "drink beer and then it is easier to write them" method), the gifts are all bought, and I've even wrapped a couple. The plans for this weekend include more wrapping and baking some Christmas cookies with the kids. Blogging takes a back seat this time of year.

Still, I've got lots of good links for you this week, even if I don't have the time to organize them.

So, straight to the links:

A nice reminder that not everyone can "lifehack" in the same way.

A reminder not to trash talk your body in front of your kids. I give myself a B- on this one. I try very hard, though.

Penn and Teller take down antivaxers and it is awesome:

And a woman who was raised by parents who didn't vaccinate tells her story.

I don't know if you saw the flare up in discussion about R Kelly this week. If not, you can Google and get the back story. But you might have missed this powerful piece that reminds us: it shouldn't be up to little girls to police the behavior of grown men.

Utah is on pace to end homelessness. I wonder if this policy will work elsewhere, or if it will even be tried. So I was feeling sort of happy about Utah even before their Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. Can we stop stereotyping Utahans (Utahites? Utahers?) now? It is more than Mormons, and Mormons are not all the same.

Moving on... I really liked Bill Moyers' piece about inequality. Maybe I should have called this the "reminders" edition and called this one a reminder that we get a voice in the rules of our society. We don't have to accept ever increasing inequality as "just how it is."

I don't play videogames, but I completely get this cartoon's point about being gender neutral in your online presence. I was carefully gender neutral when I set up an account to talk about gun laws, going as far as to change some of my writing style and word choice.

Slate published a piece from a software engineer arguing that the tech leaders you read about in the tech press are not representative of tech workers. It makes me think it would be interesting to see real data on the beliefs and opinions of the engineers in Silicon Valley. I suspect those data are out there, but I am too busy right now to go find them.

Sticking with the tech world for awhile.... I rather liked this piece in Wired. It reminded me of how I can agree that tech is not a meritocracy and still think that the tech world is more meritocratic than many others.

I'll say a couple more things about those last two pieces:

1. The tech world is not Silicon Valley. Sure, Silicon Valley is a large part, and is very influential, but it is not the totality. I'd go farther and say that you can work in tech and not work for a tech company.

2. The tech world is far from meritocratic, but it is more meritocratic than some other fields. For instance, in science your educational pedigree can matter more than your talent. The tech world at least has some tools that can help people hire on skills more than pedigree (or race, or gender, or any number of other things that trigger our biases). I'm thinking of things like giving prospective employees code tests, or asking for sample code. Sadly, we don't use these tools as much as we should, and we often apply them AFTER we have let our biases filter out a bunch of good candidates. But the potential is there, at least at the lower levels where people are still writing code and not managing people who write code. Think about how other industries hire and then see if maybe you might agree that the problem of embracing diversity in hiring processes is not unique to tech.

That is not to let the tech world off the hook- not in the least- but to remind people that a lot of the things people point at and hate about tech are really just reflections of our society as a whole.

Yes, I saw the whole Justine Sacco thing go past on Twitter. Some people said some smart things in amongst all the jokes and snark, but I did not think to grab them and have way too much laundry to fold tonight to go and find them now, so you're on your own.

I always like to end on a positive note, so here is What If? answering the question of when it became impossible for one person to read all the books.

And here is a functioning car made out of LEGO.

I hope those of you who celebrate Christmas aren't too far behind on the holiday to do list, and that all of you have a happy weekend!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Weekend Report

In this week's Tungsten Hippo post, a passage in a zombie story makes me think about humankind's capacity to respond change.

I also added a spam catching module so that I can open the comments on my blog posts at Tungsten Hippo. We'll see how that goes. Next, I need to add a module that lets people identify themselves via OpenID. One step at a time...

And that's all I have this weekend. We had a busy but fun weekend. It started like usual, with gymnastics. Both kids continue to love gymnastics class, and I am impressed with what they can do. Pumpkin is doing handstands and can turn a circle on the rings as well as maneuver impressively on the bars. Petunia can do forward and backward rolls and is getting less and less tentative on the beam and on the trampoline track. It is fun to watch them in class.

After gymnastics, we went to a birthday party for one of Petunia's best friends. It seems strange to talk about a four year old having best friends, but there are three other little girls she is particularly tight with at day care. Just last week, I arrived to pick Petunia up and found that all four of them had climbed onto the dinosaur climbing toy in a line and were laughing uproariously. Both kids had a good time at the party, and I was particularly happy to see Pumpkin do so well even though she was older than all the other kids. Watching her grow up is delighting me lately. There is an entire post to write about that. Maybe I'll write it later this week.

Later in the afternoon, we went to my sister's place for a tree trimming party. The kids had a lot of fun decorating another tree in their signature "local minima" style.

Petunia wanted to visit Santa to put in a personal request for the play campsite and Dora "horsie house" (stable) she wants, so we did that today. It took far too long (what were some of the people doing in there? Telling Santa their life stories???) but the resulting picture is very cute, and Petunia is happy that now Santa knows what to bring. Apparently, she does not trust the letter she wrote. Fair enough. I "delivered" it to my office, and it is now stored along with the letters from earlier years.

We went to see Santa at Seaport Village, which is a touristy shopping spot on the waterfront downtown. We had lunch and a ride on the carousel after seeing Santa, and then came home for quiet time. Or at least the kids did. I went back out to the "regular" mall to finish up some Christmas shopping. There were a couple of items that I needed and couldn't order- the Hanna Anderson tights that Pumpkin wants, for instance, were sold out in her size online, but available in store. I cannot believe how much I spent on tights today, given that we live in such a warm climate. But they are indeed very high quality tights. (Pumpkin likes them because they stay up and don't itch. I point out that the same is true of leggings, but she wants tights.) I was overcome by Christmas cheer and bought them each special tights to wear with their dresses when they go with my sister to see the live action Grinch play at the Old Globe theater next week.

Unfortunately, the longer than expected time to see Santa and the mall shopping trip combined to make it so that we could not go out to see the Parade of Lights, which is a floating parade of decorated boats on the San Diego Bay. I was very bummed by that. I like the parade, and I thought the kids would like it, too. And it was perfect weather for it- we are having beautifully warm weather right now. But the need to buy groceries trumped the desire to see decorated boats, and the kids were pretty tired already. So maybe next year. I bought myself a poinsettia at the grocery store to try to cheer myself up, which sort of worked. I'm feeling like I'm doing a B- job of parenting lately, and the disappointment over the boat parade amplified that. There's more going on there than I want to delve into tonight, though (another possible post for later this week!) so I'll focus on the good things to end:

I sorted and labeled the items I bought for our adopt-a-family this year, and have those gifts ready to deliver tomorrow or Tuesday. We work with the same charity that gets my diaper donations. Going all out for our adopt-a-family is one of my favorite things to do at Christmas.

Mr. Snarky and I also finished up the vast majority of our shopping for our own families tonight, online. Now, we just need to get our cards sent out!

But for now, I'm off to bed. I hope you all had a good weekend, and that I manage to write another post before my weekend links post this week. I miss writing more, but this is such a busy time of year that it can be hard to get the time to sit down and write something coherent.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Weekend Reading: Things You Should Read Edition

Thursday was my first day commuting to the new building after my office move. I've only tried 2 of the 3 or 4 viable routes so far, but it looks like my morning commute will now be 45 minutes (15 minutes to drop Pumpkin off, 30 minutes to drive from her school to the office) and my evening commute will be 35-40 minutes driving, followed by a 20-25 minute walk to pick Pumpkin up and bring her home. Of course, I could drive right to school like I do in the morning, but I am rather enjoying the evening walk, and so is Pumpkin.

Petunia is not at all pleased with the new routine because (1) she never gets to ride with Mommy and (2) Daddy picks her up later than Mommy did. Hopefully she will adjust.

We're probably going to hire our Chinese teacher to pick Pumpkin up one day per week and bring her home for a Chinese lesson. That will take the time pressure off of my evening commute one day, and if I like that, maybe we'll look into hiring someone else to pick her up a couple of other days. We'll see.

Once the routine settles, I'll have to update my logistics post again!

None of that has any relevance whatsoever to my links this week, which are things you should read, i.e., they were awesome and/or thought-provoking. So, without further ado, here are the links:

This new theory about what might have happened on Easter Island is at once comforting and utterly depressing.

This essay about "the other brother" is beautiful.

I don't think much about Britney Spears, but this article was still a bit chilling. How does she ever get her life back?

An interesting meditation on what working in a luxury mall does to the workers.

Two different thoughts about what is happening in San Francisco right now: is the problem zoning or insular tech companies?

A cautionary tale for those of us raising kids with the money to buy them any toy they want... also, I loved Spyro, too. It is the only videogame I've ever really, really played.

Mother Jones has a piece about the 194 children shot to death since last year's shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school. (The piece was written before today's shootings in Colorado.)

Look at those pictures. We have to fix this. I continue to write my representatives, but this does little since my representatives are already in favor of stricter gun laws. If your representative isn't, think about what changes you would support, and let your representatives know. And vote accordingly.

In the meantime, be sure to ask about guns before play dates. There was a case here in San Diego this year in which a child shot another child with an unsecured gun while they were playing after school. The owner of the gun is facing criminal charges, but that won't bring the dead child back.

And I think that is all I had better write about that topic, or this will turn into quite a rant. There may be a time when that is what I want to write, but not right now. I selfishly want to hang on to the holiday spirit I have this year.

So let's end with a couple of lighter things.

First, if you haven't seen the Pantene ad juxtaposing how the same actions are viewed differently in men and women, here it is:

Yes, it is trying to see us shampoo (the women sure have glossy hair!) but it is still a really well done visualization of the issue.

The picture in this tweet is just wonderful:

And this letter to Santa is downright hilarious.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Ask Cloud: Assessing the Risks of a Longer Leave

It is time for another Ask Cloud post! Actually, it is past time- I wanted to post this last week, but couldn't get the time to write it up. Sorry for the delay, anonymous reader!

The question comes from an anonymous reader who is doing an industry postdoc, and is pregnant and figuring out how to arrange her maternity leave:

"[My] question is related to my "hireability". Specifically, how does my potential to get hired depend on how much leave I take? As I mentioned, I am a postdoc at a company. I really like my job and there is a non-zero probability that I would get hired as a full-time employee, but that  probability is also not 100%, especially because there's quite a bit of uncertainty as to the company's budget and future so the decision about whether or not to hire me will not just be up to my boss and my team.   Right now, the plan is to not look for a job if I don't have my contract extended; the plan is to look for one 4-6 or so months after baby is born, which will leave me 4-6 months (or more) in the uncomfortable "jobless and don't know when I'll have a job" state. How much do you think that 4-6 months of unemployment will hurt my future ability to get hired? Or, put another way, how do I estimate my unemployability vs time off curve? How much time off will drop my employability to 10 % of its current value? (I'm not asking you to answer this, just maybe give me some ideas for how to think about it :). That is just how I posed the question to my husband, who said the question was unanswerable.)

The other information in all of this that may be relevant is that my husband has a stable, highly-paying job that he really enjoys, and we have quite a bit of savings, so child care and my job aren't really limited by money.  In order to maintain our current lifestyle, he would need to keep working; I don't. It also means that  I'm not really attracted by the idea of doing an academic postdoc, where between taxes and child care costs we would end up with less income than if I were to not work and take care of baby, though its something I might consider if the fear of being unable to financially support myself and my  if something happened to my husband turned out to be too debilitating for me.   We have a pretty equal division of housework at home, btw, and my husband supportive of my career and would even be ok with my taking an academic postdoc if that's what I wanted to do."

This is a tough question to answer, because a lot depends on luck. It is sad to say that, but it is true. There is luck in what the job market is like when you try to get back in, and luck in whether the managers who consider hiring you are biased against mothers (sadly, research shows that there is still a lot of anti-mother bias out there.) I'm going to answer assuming moderately good luck, but I also recommend that you have a plan in mind for what you'll do if your luck turns out to be rotten. That is, make your plans assuming that your job search will take an average amount of time and the managers you meet have their anti-mother bias under control, but also think about how you would react to a worst case scenario, and based on how much that scenario bothers you, take some steps to mitigate the risks.

In terms of how varying amounts of time off are likely to be viewed by hiring managers, my guess is that no one will raise their eyebrows at 4 months off, and that 6 months off might get noticed, but is unlikely to cause problems. Beyond 6 months, things get dicier, and my gut instinct is that you will be more likely to encounter anti-mother discrimination on your return. However, that doesn't mean you will have trouble returning, just that the the odds go up that someone is going to say/think some boneheaded thing when he or she sees the gap on your resume. That penalty will probably go away after a few years back in the workforce, though- i.e., it might hurt you when you're getting your first job back after the leave, but probably won't hurt in later job searches. (This is all my impression based on how I've seen other managers around me behave- if anyone has actual statistics or other data, please drop that in the comments.)

However, I don't think this straight-forward calculation is how you should think about the decision. I would instead think about in terms of what outcome you think you'll regret most. If you have always wanted to stay home with your baby for the first 6 months, do it, and just accept the fact that you may have to overcome a career penalty if you end up taking a year to get back into the workforce. It won't be impossible to get back in the longer you are out, it will just be harder. On the other hand, if you think you would always wonder whether your career would have taken off if you hadn't taken such a long leave, then start looking for a job earlier in your leave. Babies do fine in day care as long as it is high quality, and chances are, your kid will figure it out if you secretly blame your lackluster career on him or her. I've read comments from grown ups whose mother resented giving up opportunities for them as kids, and they sound FAR more bitter/unhappy than most comments from grown ups who were in day care. 

Of course, those are the two extremes, and your reality is probably somewhere in between. I think it is helpful to consider the two extremes, though, so that you can gauge your gut instinct on which sounds worse to you- and then err on the side of the other extreme.

If you do end up taking a longer leave, you may want to take steps to stay somewhat connected with your career while you're out, or to start reconnecting a little before you are hoping to return. This old post has some ideas for how to do that.

I have a few more practical observations:

1. If your current company does not extend your contract and you decided that you only want to be out of work for ~6 months after the baby is born, you should probably start looking for your next position no later than 3 months postpartum. I suggest that number not because I think 3 months is plenty of time to find a job (it may or may not be- it is hard to predict), but because I think that if you do get lucky and land a job within a month of starting the search, you might be able to ask them to wait 1-2 months for you. Basically, you need to figure out what your minimum and maximum acceptable time out of work is, and use that to figure out when to start a search. At your career level, I'd allow at least 3 months for the search, but not be surprised if it takes a bit longer.

2. When you're thinking about when to start your child in day care, think a bit about developmental milestones. Most (but not all!) babies have their first separation anxiety phase at 9-12 months. I personally think that starting day care before or after this phase will be a lot easier on all involved. Also, I had a big dip in milk supply at 9 months postpartum with both kids, which would have made that a tough time to start pumping.

3. Regardless of when you're going to start the baby in day care, if you are breastfeeding, you may want to try to get the baby used to taking a bottle from very early on. Here is an old post about that. There is absolutely no way to guarantee your breastfed baby will take a bottle, but the preponderance of the anecdotal evidence I've seen/heard on and offline indicates that your best odds are if you don't wait much past the 3rd week postpartum to introduce it (assuming a full term baby). 

4. It is really hard to run an intense job search without child care. If you can afford it, get some child care once you are ready to really look for a job. This could be part time, but it will really help to have some reliable daylight hours to devote to job searching. Ideally, have those hours include lunch, so you can have networking lunches with people.

OK readers, your turn. What advice do you have for our anonymous postdoc?

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Gift Guides

I am feeling very behind on my Christmas shopping this year. I've spent a fair amount of time this week browsing various gift guides and websites looking for gift ideas. So perhaps it is not surprising that this week's Tungsten Hippo post is about ideas for short eBooks to give in conjunction with an eReader. If you're giving an eReader for a gift, I recommend including a couple of books with the gift. I explain why in the post.

I thought I'd also share some of the gift ideas I've been browsing this week:

I found the Quirky website by searching for "quirky gifts" and it is indeed full of fun and quirky gift ideas.

Santa usually brings our family a new CD, and this list gives us a few ideas of what we might ask him to bring.

If you're looking for longer books to give, last year's gift guide from Book Riot is a good place to look for ideas.

I'm still browsing this guide with ideas for men, but it looks to have a good mix of things.

Have you found any really good gift guides? If so, help the rest of us out and leave them in the comments!

Friday, December 06, 2013

Weekend Reading: The 23 and Me Edition

Today, I had a Twitter conversation with @Moreandagain about 23andMe and the FDA, because I replied to this tweet:

Here was my initial answer:

And then we discussed some more from there. This discussion was mightily hampered by the fact that I have been, as I admitted in my tweets, an only mildly interested bystander to the entire story.

My basic position- which again, I admit is not as informed as it could be- is that I'd like to see the personal genomics industry succeed, but that I think they need to be subject to some sort of regulatory oversight. My reason for that second part is that I, someone with a PhD in biochemistry who has worked in genomics, do not feel qualified to evaluate 23andMe's claims, and want there to be an impartial third party who checks that their claims are legitimate. I do not want to do this myself, because doing so would be enormously time-consuming, even for people who have the necessary scientific and technical background to assess their claims.

The usual response to this is that if I want help understanding my genetic data, I can go to my doctor. I see two problems with this position:

1. I know from multiple conversations I have had with my own doctors (all of whom I like, respect, and think of as really good doctors) that I am generally more well-versed on genetics and biochemistry than they are. This is not surprising, given the details of our educational backgrounds. However, it means that I cannot generally expect my doctor to tell me anything more about a specific risk factor I might find in 23andMe's data than I already know. Perhaps the best I could hope for would be to be referred to a specialist if my data indicated something potentially concerning.

2. The aspects of 23andMe's business that I most want subjected to oversight go well beyond what a specific risk factor might mean. I want someone to check that they are accurately and straightforwardly reporting on the accuracy of their sequencing methods. I wonder how many of their customers understand that there is pretty much a statistical certainty that the genotype they received from 23 and Me has at least one incorrect SNP call.* This does not mean 23andMe is doing their sequencing wrong- far from it. It is just a consequence of the limits of our detection methods and the large number of SNP calls they are making. However, if 23andMe customers do not understand this, I blame 23andMe and I would be inclined to think that they were engaging in shady marketing practices.

I also want someone to assess the validity of the methods they are using to associate specific SNPs with specific traits. What data are they using? Are they just applying public data, or do they have some proprietary algorithms? How well do they transmit information about the inherent uncertainties in this data to their customers?

I also want 23andMe to have a documented process for preventing bugs in the software they write to assemble the data, such as the one Lukas Hartman found when he dug into his alarming 23andMe results.

I have not done my research, so I do not know how much of the above 23andMe is doing well right now. Maybe they are doing everything exactly how I would hope. However, if they are not subject to regulatory oversight, I have essentially zero trust that they will always do all the above and do it well. The necessary scientific and technical validation is expensive to do. Taking software bugs as seriously as I think they need to is also expensive.Writing clear, consumer friendly documentation of all of the limitations- and scrupulously ensuring that no marketing spin sneaks into this documentation- is very hard to do. We do not trust drug companies to do this. The packaging inserts that accompany prescription drugs are reviewed and approved by the FDA. Why should we trust a personal genomics company to do it?

None of this means I think 23andMe should close up shop. Far from it. I think there is great promise in what they are trying to do. FDA regulation is not a perfect solution, but neither, I think, is just treating this industry like any other online service and letting it run unregulated.

I promised @Moreandagain that I'd dig up some links that do a better job of describing the science and the concerns than I can do. I put a couple of the links above. Here are some more:

David Dobbs has a nuanced write up in the New Yorker.

Hank Greely, writing at the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences covers the legal basis of the FDA's actions, some of the history, and some of the concerns. One interesting tidbit I noticed in this article was the mention that the FDA has indicated it wants a risk-based method of regulating "laboratory developed tests." This sounds similar to what they do for software used in medical and other regulated circumstances (21 CFR Part 11, for those in the know- and yes, software needs to be regulated in some circumstances, because some bugs can be deadly). The risk-based method of implementing the regulations for software allows companies to perform (and document!) an assessment of the risks of the system, and then take appropriate mitigating actions based on the severity and likelihood of those risks, essentially customizing the regulation for the level of risk. Doing something similar for genetic tests seems like a reasonable thing to me.

Genotopia has a post arguing that the dispute between 23andMe and the FDA is not about access to your genetic data, but about the hype the company used to make you want that access.

Michael Eisen has a very good post about the regulation of genetic testing, arguing it should be regulated but not as a medical device.

I'm sure I've missed some great pieces about this. Feel free to rectify that in the comments.

*SNP = single nucleotide polymorphism. The SNP calls are what allow 23andMe to make any prediction about traits. Basically, a SNP is a site in the genome in which more than one nucleotide is found within the population. Some SNPs are silent, and change nothing in our phenotype (observed traits). Others cause benign differences (e.g., hair color). Others are implicated in diseases. Of the ones implicated in diseases, only a subset have a proposed mechanism for action, and only a subset of those have experimental validation for that mechanism. Our level of confidence that a SNP is related to a disease state increases as we move from a statistical correlation to a plausible proposed mechanism to experimental validation of that mechanism.The classic example of a SNP associated with a disease via a known, experimentally validated mechanism is the mutation in hemoglobin that causes sickle cell anemia.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Permission to Fail

Earlier this week, Hope Jahren posted about how she got past imposter syndrome. As she clarified later in a tweet, it is a story, not a recipe. Still, it got me thinking. I think her fourth item is particularly powerful:

" I know that what I am is separate from what I know and how I perform."

If only I could really, truly believe that myself. I have been thinking a lot about giving myself permission to fail, and how, if I could successfully do that- really do that, not just say I'm going to do that- I'd be so much more likely to take the risks I'll have to take to pursue some of my bigger ambitions.

There is a career-related thing I'm considering doing right now, and if I'm going to do it, I really need to be OK with the idea that I might try it and fail. It is a big, audacious goal, and there is absolutely no way I can guarantee I can succeed. I've thought about how to de-risk it, and everything I come up with eviscerates the goal.

That is, by the way, my usual mode of action. I'll think of something big and possibly cool I could try, and then talk myself into doing something much smaller, telling myself that the small thing might grow into the original idea. But in most cases that is a convenient lie.

In this case, at least, I think I need to either go all in or not go in at all. I can think of ways to decrease the financial risk of failure, but I cannot decrease the embarrassment risk of failure, not if I want to have a chance to succeed.

So this is interesting, particularly coupled with my raging self-doubt. I honestly cannot predict what I'll do.

The other aspect is that if I decide to do this thing I'll probably need to step far outside my comfort zone in terms of marketing/self-promotion. Previously, that alone would probably have provided my nervous subconscious with enough ammunition to kill the idea, because "I'm no good at and don't like marketing."

Recently, though, I've discovered that I can do it if forced, and maybe not even mind it (too much). This is really not surprising, given the fact that I in general learn skills best only when I actually need them, i.e., when the lack of that skill is standing in my way of accomplishing something I want to do. This is why I never really took to programming as a kid or young adult, despite having a few chances to do so. I never needed it to get something done. In graduate school, I had a project I wanted to do and the only way I was going to do it was to learn to code, and so I learned what I needed to know.

Now, I find that I need to do some marketing to make Tungsten Hippo into what I want it to be. And so I'm learning marketing. It helps that in the intervening years, marketing has gotten a lot more about experimentation and data analysis and a lot less about glad-handing (or maybe I've just grown and discovered a different aspect of marketing). Regardless, I am currently working more on marketing Tungsten Hippo than on trying out tech-related things on the site.

Don't get me wrong: I completely suck at marketing right now. But I'm reading and learning and hopefully getting better.

This leads to the next interesting question: why am I OK with sucking at marketing Tungsten Hippo, but not at possibly sucking if I try my big career-related idea?

The answer is as simple as it is unflattering: ego. I have more of my self-worth invested in my career than in Tungsten Hippo. Tungsten Hippo is a fun little side project that I specifically created as a learning environment. My career? Well, it is a lot more than that to me. It is part of my identity.

Which brings me back to Hope Jahren's point #4. I need to really embrace the idea that I am not my career, and that I will be OK if I reach high and come up short.

I talk a lot about these things with Pumpkin, who has a wide perfectionist streak and a dislike of being seen to not know things. Perhaps it is time for me to start showing her what I mean.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

More Thankfulness and a Long Drive

We spent the last week in Arizona, visiting my family for Thanksgiving. I managed to get my Tungsten Hippo book recommendation and quote up on time, but I got nothing written for my usual Sunday evening/Monday morning Tungsten Hippo post. I even got to spend the better part of Wednesday without the kids- Mr. Snarky, my Mom, my uncle, and my sister took them fishing. They didn't catch a thing but were surprisingly patient and had a great time casting their lines out, for hours. I spent the time reading and writing a post about toys and tech industry arrogance, though, and didn't write anything for Tungsten Hippo.

I thought maybe I'd write something later in the week, but I was too busy seeing family for that. Which is as it should be. Before I knew it, it was Saturday afternoon, and time to head home.

We typically split the drive between my parents' place in Mesa (a suburb of Phoenix) and home into two, driving to Yuma in the evening, spending the night, and then driving the rest of the way the next morning. The kids do better with the two shorter drives rather than one long one, and we have a favorite hotel in Yuma that has suites for under $100 per night. This feels like a fair price to not have to listen to anyone complain about how bored she is or how her car seat makes her butt hurt, particularly since I can sympathize with both of those complaints. Because of this arrangement, the drive from Yuma to San Diego is usually done during daylight. There is no denying that the scenery for most of the drive is stark, even barren. But some of it is quite beautiful, and there is something about that drive that loosens my mind. I almost always find myself with a fairly complete story idea by the time we hit Alpine. If I wrote fiction, I'd set off for Yuma whenever I lacked a story idea. As it is, I write the ideas that come to me down in my notebook, in case I ever decide to try to write fiction or come up with some other use for story ideas.

Today, we got an earlyish start from Yuma. We stopped for morning snack and some playground time in El Centro and then drove home for lunch. The kids slept most of the time between El Centro and home, making for a quiet ride, except for the steady stream of trucks hauling dune buggies and dirt bikes on the road. There is a big gathering in the dunes just West of Yuma every Thanksgiving, and the dune aficionados were heading home, too. Mr. Snarky was driving. He and I talked a bit, but I stared out the window a lot, with details of the story idea filling in around the outline that had formed earlier in the day. The line at the immigration checkpoint was long enough that I was able to jot down most of the ideas while we waited.

We got home so much earlier than we expected that even though we got a little crazy in our chores list we got through most everything before dinner. I took on most of the "regular" chores (laundry, menu planning, grocery shopping, unpacking...) so that Mr. Snarky could get our Christmas lights up. We had almost decided not to hang them this year, since the remaining weekends before Christmas are pretty full. When if became clear we'd be home for lunch, though, Mr. Snarky decided he'd do it today. While he was making dinner, I took the kids outside to appreciate his handiwork. They were so excited to see the lights, they danced around in our driveway and literally jumped up and down with joy. Then they ran back inside and thanked Mr. Snarky (at my suggestion- they're not that good). This was ample compensation for the busy afternoon we had.

But... there is still no Tungsten Hippo post.

I do, however, have a few more links that should have made it into the "thankful for the internet" link roundup.

The pseudonymous English sheep herder Herdy Shepherd (@herdyshepherd1) does an excellent job describing part of what I love about Twitter.

I rather enjoyed reading these posts about the possible economic structure of the Star Trek universe. But I have to say: I think my most recent short eBook recommendation, Chicken Little by Cory Doctorow, is a better, more believable, and more thought-provoking look at a possible economic future.

Posting might be a little light through the end of the year- as I said, we have a fairly full schedule of holiday fun- but then again, it might not be. We'll see.