Power and Prince

Power and Prince


MyLife, MyRamblings

by Maria on 11 Mar 2017 - 23:51  

I was in the US Army in Korea working as a truck mechanic when I was just 18 years old. It was one of the most difficult years of my life. My roommate used to say, I must have looked like an ex-girlfriend of my commander (that he hated). I spent one-third of my tour in Korea on restriction. I was not an angel, by any means, but I was also just a kid, and clearly being made an example of. But, I was also lucky. My roommate befriended me, took me under her wing, and when she had to leave Korea before me, made sure there would be someone else looking out for me after she left. I honestly don't know how I would have survived that year without her. She was my best friend for that year, and I learned so much from her. But, the three most important things that I learned were:

  1. Prince is awesome.
  2. Women have to look out for each other.
  3. There is always someone whose life sucks more than mine.

Aletha never complained about her situation. But I could easily see, that as much as my life sucked while I was in Korea, and it did, Aletha was in a worse position. She had young children that she couldn't see while in she was in Korea, which was a year assignment. I can't even imagine how hard this was for her. This was in the days of no internet, just very expensive long distance phone calls, across many time zones. While in Korea, she realized that she didn't love her husband, that he didn't respect her, and that she was in love with a man she met in Korea, whom she would have to say goodbye forever to, when she left at the end of her tour. Lame.

It is so hard for me to listen to Prince now. It makes me happy, because Prince. And it makes me sad, because he is no longer with us, and it takes me back in time to visit a person I have lost track of, but after decades, still has a big place in my heart. Wherever you are Aletha, I hope you are having a great life, and that you know how much I appreciate you looking out for me all of those years ago. I do my best to pay it forward. :)

I still work in a male-dominated industry (software), and I still try to reach out and help other women. And I still listen to Prince.

Prince On Arsenio Hall

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MyLife, MyRamblings, Tech

by Maria on 28 Feb 2015 - 23:37  

The other day I was at a meetup, and the subject of allies came up. Specifically, how white males can be allies for women and minorities in tech. I was reminded of an incident that happened to me while I was in the Army, and I thought it might be a useful story to a larger audience.

Many years ago, I was a truck mechanic in the Army National Guard. By coincidence, my motor pool was losing its Motor Sergeant at the same time that our unit was being consolidated with another unit. I was next in line to be Motor Sergeant. So, I was taking over at the same time that our motor pool was more than doubling in size, and, of course, the new mechanics were all male, and did not know me. The first weekend was rough. The new guys were clearly reluctant to take orders from me, and things weren't going so well. Weirdly, the next weekend was completely different, and I couldn't figure out what had happened that I had suddenly gained their respect. I was talking to a guy in the motor pool that I had known for years, and mentioned how much better things were going, and I didn't understand what had happened. He was a big, charismatic guy. The kind of guy that people intuitively look up to and respect. He told me he had seen what was going on, and the next time the new guys were hanging out and talking, he had joined their conversation. When my name had come up, he had told them, "Nah, man, she's alright. She knows her shit, and she's cool." And that was literally all it took. One person, alert enough to see that someone was being undermined, simply because of their sex, and stepping up to defend. It would have taken me months to get to that place of respect without him, assuming I ever could have.

That respect, is given by default to members of the majority, but must be earned by someone not seen as already 'in'. There are, of course, exceptions in both directions to this, but I think it is an excellent rule of thumb. It is so much easier and effective for someone of the majority to point out this imbalance, then it is for the person being disrespected, or anyone else in the minority, to do it. This is truly one of the best examples of how allies can help.

If you see someone that you think is not being taken seriously simply because of their race, sex, orientation, or whatever, step up, and say something. A simple, "hey, let's hear her out", can do wonders in making people realize their unconscious biases are showing through. Just asking a question that shows that you are taking her seriously, can make others realize that they may have been overlooking something. 'What did you say? That sounded like a pretty good idea, can you explain it again, I'm not sure everyone heard it."

Pay attention when a woman/minority says something. How are people reacting? Listen, observe, speak up. This is stuff that allies have to look for, because it is very easy to not see it, if you are not in the minority, and especially if you also feel like you are fighting to have your voice heard. (Cause, yeah, life is hard for those in the majority too. Word.) Members of the majority can shout down others, and generally lose no respect from the majority because of it. Women and minorities can lose respect, simply by fighting to have their voice heard. Allies amplifying their voices is absolutely critical to getting more women and minorities to stay in tech.

Some humor, which somehow feels appropriate. XKCD awesomeness.

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Busy, Shmizzy


MyLife, MyRamblings, Tech, Code

by Maria on 21 Oct 2014 - 06:43  

So, last post, I had been told by someone at a user group that I could not become a great programmer working by myself. I really love my job, so I set out to find a way to do exactly that.

As I thought about my predicament, I thought, sheesh there must be hundreds of people just like me at the university in exactly the same pickle, all of us working mostly by ourselves in research labs all over campus, and probably a good percentage of us self-taught. I started poking around the UW website, and was surprised to find no sort of network of developers. So, I started one. In May of this year, I began tying to figure out how to track down fellow developers at the UW, and it turns out this is no easy task. But, as of October there are 87 subscribers, so I'm making progress. If you know any software developers at the UW, please send them to this site:


to subscribe to my mailing list.

We have started having regular meetings as well. It has been a lot of fun. We have been looking at code, and talking about research and software development. I started my list at an opportune time, because others were also feeling there was a void. There is now an organization at the UW called eScience, and they are very interested in improving coding practices in science at the UW. When they found out about our group, they volunteered to help out. Currently they help with organization and bring snacks to our meetings, total win! Additionally, as a community we are receiving many awesome opportunities. For example, in November, I and many others on the list will be attending a Software Carpentry Instructors training.


Which I am really looking forward to. Science and coding, why not do both well? Plus, we get to do this:

09:15: Teaching as a performance art (2)

So we can share the love.

I have been looking for ways for our group to meet on a regular basis to do some live coding, and I am contemplating starting a coding series of sorts. My current idea is that I'd like to take this book:

Head First Design Patterns

By Eric Freeman, Elisabeth Robson, Bert Bates, Kathy Sierra

and go through it as a group. Each time we meet we would talk about one or more patterns, and talk about how it translates into the various languages that people in the group know, and hopefully do some group or pair coding and share it.

So, if you have tried something similar, I'd love to hear how it went! Or if you have ideas of other things that have worked with your group, I'd like to hear that too. Finally, we are always looking for speakers that have experience in the juncture of code and science, especially with incorporating best practices, so feel free to drop me a line if you want to help or come talk!

In addition to this group I have formed, I have just started TAing for an Introductory Python Course, because there is no better way to really learn material, then to teach it!

I don't know if I am becoming a great programmer, but I am learning a lot. Maybe not as quickly as if I were working daily with other developers, but I get to keep my cool job, and still learn more about best practices and about coding from other developers, so I'm pretty sure this is the appropriate response:

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So sue me, I've been busy


MyLife, MyRamblings, Tech, JobHunting

by Maria on 20 Oct 2014 - 06:56  

This is a longish rambling essay, I mean a super interesting essay, explaining why I haven't posted in so long (I've been very busy!), what I've been up to (talking to people, ye gads!), and some advice for job hunting, especially if you aren't currently worried about employment (cause job hunting sucks and you should worry, er I mean, prepare before you're out there!).

I want to tell you a story. A few years ago, I found myself pregnant fairly soon after receiving word that I would be losing my job. The only reason I mention that I was pregnant is because that meant I really couldn't spend much time job hunting before I lost my job, even though I had quite a few months warning. I would be getting decent severance, so I wasn't too panicked. Yes, the economy still sucked, but it was starting to recover, and tech jobs were the first returning. Other people staying in Seattle from my lab had managed to find new employment before my boss moved, which I also took as a good sign. The last time I had been out looking for work was during the dot com bust, and while it had taken a few months, I had more experience this time. So, a few months after my boy was born, my job went away and I received a rude awakening. The job market had changed.

I've already done a rant about tech interviews, so I won't rant about that again. And of course, the job market had changed in quite a few ways in 12 years, but one of the biggest lessons I learned was the importance of networking in today's market, and how when you find yourself unemployed, that is not the ideal time to start networking. We have all heard about how important networking is, but what does that mean? Well, I think the bottom line is, it means getting to know lots of people that are willing to recommend you for a job. Yes, someone you meet once or twice at a networking event may tell you that their company is looking for someone that has your skills, and they may even get your resume in front of the hiring manager, which is definitely a step up from applying through a website, don't get me wrong, but it is not your most likely route to a job. What you really want is for someone who knows you, your work ethic, your personality, and your skills and also know the hiring manager pretty well, to recommend you. Someone you met at a networking event a few times, just can't do that. So, the way to effectively network is to get to know as many people as well as possible. Not just any people, but people that understand the skills needed to do your job, iow people doing your job or a pretty similar one. You need to get to know them as well as possible by talking shop, and a lot of it, and not just about your favorite movie or whatever. You know you have probably reached that with someone when you would be completely comfortable recommending them for a job, so yeah, this takes a while, and if you can do joint projects, all the better. And then, when you are looking for a job, you should personally hit up every one of those connections, and ask them if they have heard of any job openings you may be interested in. And remind them you are looking on a regular basis, but somehow strike that balance of not being a pest, but keeping your name in their thoughts. I'm afraid I don't have much advice on that last one, and I suspect it depends on the person and the method as much as anything.

So now I can finish my story. The reason I had lost my job was because my boss had moved to NYC, and I was unable to move to NYC. After months of hitting total dead-ends looking for work, my old work called me back in to take down some servers that my former boss had left running. Someone new was taking over his old space, so all of his old stuff needed to be taken care of. I went in and dealt with everything, and started to walk out the door. And then I stopped and went back, because I thought, well I should probably introduce myself to the new person and let her know who I was so she could contact me if she found more stuff or had questions about anything. When I went in and introduced myself, she started asking me about what I had done for Mike, my old boss, and it turned out she was in the same boat Mike was, she had moved across the country and left her programmer behind. Neuroscience research with primates is a small field, so of course, she knew Mike, and so Mike's recommendation was valuable, and skills needed for both jobs greatly overlapped. So, when I finally found employment, it was a combination of serendipity and because of someone I knew well. Yeah, n of 1, I know, but, heh, the internet.

So, when I looked back on my 12 years of being a sysadmin and a software dev, I realized that I could pretty much count on one hand the number of other software developers I knew in the Seattle area. So, if I didn't know very many people who could recommend me, and I suck at interviews, it is no wonder I had such a hard time finding a job in the tech market! Why did I know so few other developers? This was for many reasons, but the main one was that I was in academia in a fairly secure job the whole time, and wasn't really thinking enough about life after my current gig. My ways of improving myself had always been books, mailing lists, and classes, which doesn't get you out in the community much. Plus, I had been working as both a sysadmin and a developer, but quite frankly the sysadmin required much more constant learning and tended to hog my learning time, because it involved so many different technologies and programs. I decided during my period of unemployment I wanted to focus on software development, and clearly, if I was going to continue to be a coder and be able to deal with any future unemployment or career moves, I was going to have to change how and what I was learning drastically. And so, the introvert starts the slow task of reaching out.

I started going to various meetups, and other local meetings of coders and learning more about how to become a better developer, figuring it would be good to kill two birds with one stone. And, while it has never been clear to me why I would want to kill two birds with stones, it was abundantly clear why I needed to both network and become a better developer. Since I was a self-taught developer, who had spent all my time in academia, I knew there were some holes in my skills and knowledge. In the meantime, I was really loving my new work at the University, but I was a little worried, because I was once again working by myself in a science lab with a bunch of primarily science researchers who knew a little about coding. One day at an event I was talking to people about becoming a better programmer. They were emphasizing pair coding, code reviews, working in a team, etc. and so I asked how I could improve when I worked by myself. One of the developers I was talking to told me that he didn't think anyone could become a great programmer working by themselves. Not the answer I was looking for.

Next post: How I responded

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The Elephant in the Room


MyRamblings, MyLife, Tech, JobHunting

by Maria on 21 Sep 2013 - 06:27  

Elephant, not in a room

For about 13 years, I have worked in a neuroscience lab as a programmer and a sysadmin. The last time I was interviewing for a job, I had to convince my potential employers that I was smart, dedicated, easy to work with, and would get the job done. Fortunately, I'm pretty good at that. I knew very little about how to program, but I convinced my future boss that I had a plan, the dedication, and the smarts, to teach myself how to program, so I was hired as a programmer.

And now I have 13 years experience as a programmer and a system administrator, so theoretically, it should be easier to get a job. Unfortunately, the interview has changed. It is no longer enough to tell the interviewer what I have done, what I can do, and how I work. The amount of information about me that is available to a potential employer is way more than it was 13 years ago. But, this time around, what potential employers really want to know, is can I solve a toy programming problem, while they watch me and evaluate me (or worse, evaluate me over the phone using a shared doc), under more or less a timed condition. These are the worst possible conditions for me to perform under, and this test has nothing to do with how I will perform as an employee. Seriously. It doesn't reflect how well I program or how much I know about programming or what kind of an employee I am.

I understand that everyone gets nervous about interviews. But, clearly, some people do not become as brain dead as I do. I have been working hard to overcome this. I practice as much as I can, but the situation is frustrating. I know that if I continue to practice, I will get better at it, and eventually I will be able to finish an interview without feeling like I can no longer even recite the alphabet. (I find practice interviews help only a little bit, since most of the pressure is missing.) Eventually, with enough time and practice, I'll get lucky, and the interview will consist of questions that don't put me in panic mode. But, why should I have to do this? Why have we settled on this as the process, when it has so little to do with what candidates need to succeed at work? Interestingly, the process favors people who job hop a lot, and therefore get more practice with real interviewing. That, and showoffs.

And why are interviews a particular problem for me?

It isn't the male environment. I've been living in a mostly male world since I started playing tackle football with the neighborhood boys at age 8.

When I was in the Army, I attended a school to learn large diesel truck mechanics. At one point in the school, one of the instructors had me take over the class, because he felt I knew the material better and was a better instructor. As an undergrad, I was fine with teaching the first year physics lab series, even enjoyed it. For years, I taught weight training. Clearly, the problem isn't speaking in front of people.

It is not the white board. As someone who has been in academia for a very long time, I am very intimate with the white board, and even its predecessor, the black board. It is a very useful tool for sharing ideas with others, and I am more than happy to write code on it, if I feel like we are collaborating and/or learning, and not like I am being judged and timed.

It is not the pressure, per se. Pressure I can deal with, and can thrive in. I ran a mail server for years, and there is nothing quite like the pressure of the mail server going down while your colleagues are at an important conference and very dependent on email. This sort of pressure can energize me.

It isn't even that I don't like these sorts of coding problems, I actually do, as long as I'm doing them in my living room in my pajamas for fun.

So, what is it then? I first noticed this problem of my brain shutting down when I was an undergrad in the physics department. I knew the material. I did well on the assignments. And then, I looked at the test and my brain stopped functioning. What was different about physics and auto mechanics? Well, physics is definitely more difficult (unless you're engineering the auto, or troubleshooting the electrical system, and not just replacing the cv boot). But, that certainly can't explain all of it, because I was doing fine on assignments, and even quite a few of the tests, even though I sometimes felt like I was working at half brain capacity. So, it wasn't simply the difficulty of the material.

Instead, I think it was the structure of the testing. In the physics department, the tests were usually designed so that most people wouldn't finish the tests, and so that no one would get a perfect score. They didn't always succeed in their design plan, going in both directions. I remember tests where the mean was 25 out of 100, and I remember tests where a couple of people managed to get perfect scores. But, usually the mean was right around 50%. This was much different from the auto mechanic courses, and quite frankly, different from most of my other college subjects. And it was demoralizing and scary. And it didn't help that instructors often said things like, 'It should be obvious that...', for things I didn't find obvious at all. Fortunately, none of them were patronizing. Oh, wait. And the more I became insecure about my abilities, the more difficult the tests became. I saw this happening, but could not find a way to stop it. I nearly switched majors because of it. I feel the same kind of pressure now in interviews, but there are different factors.

1. As many geeks are, I am an introvert. I have a hard time talking to strangers, especially small talk. I've mostly gotten over this, but when combined with the other three factors, I think it still plays a role.

2. I think before I speak. So, sometimes there are those long pauses that interviewers hate, because they want to know what is going on in your brain. I try to go back, and say this is what I thought of, and why I rejected it, but it is very difficult for me to speak while I am thinking. Weird, I know. Apparently, this is a thing. And, when I realize I have been silent for a while, I get nervous about that, and we start another cycle of brain freeze.

3. I sometimes experience Impostor Syndrome. I am hyper-aware of how much I do not know. I love learning, and am constantly learning and growing, but sometimes the awareness of how much I don't know makes me feel inadequate, hence, an impostor. And admitting that I sometimes experience Impostor Syndrome makes me feel inadequate. Totally kidding, the recursion is not infinite.

4. I do not have formal CS training.

All of this means is that I become particularly terrified during interviews, but NONE of these things has ever had any bearing on my actual work. Impostor Syndrome seems to particularly affect women, and so I have to wonder if it is the confluence of some of these factors: introversion, impostor syndrome and awful tech interviews that discourage geeky women in particular from staying in the tech industry. Of course, it is more complicated than this, but I do believe the interview structure sure can't be helping the numbers of women. If I, and I am stubborn, and I love making my life as difficult as all hell, sometimes wonder if I should bail because of interviews alone, then it must also be a factor for others.

So, what can be done? What is it that employers really need to know about an applicant before they hire them?

1. Will they get the job done? If they don't know something they need to solve the problem, do they know how to figure it out in a reasonable time? Do they know how to google (seriously, this is an art), and regularly use IRC and/or mailing lists? Are they organized, and do they approach problems reasonably systematically? Do they know how to troubleshoot? Are they tenacious? Do they know when to ask a mentor/colleague for help? Are they willing to try new things?

2. Are they reasonably easy to work with?

3. Do they fit in with company culture and the particular team?

Is there anything about the current popular tech interview format that answers these questions?

My best experience with an interview was one in which the interviewer described what the group was working on, and specifically what I would be working on. We discussed ways to move forward on the current project. We discussed existing problems, my ideas on what to do, and their ideas on what to do. We discussed which technologies I had worked with before, how deep my understanding of them was, which ones were new, and how I would get up to speed on the new ones. At the end, I think we both felt pretty comfortable about what we were getting. I understand that sometimes companies don't want to divulge this much information about what they are working on. But, they can certainly say something like, on day 1 when/if you start here, you will be using technologies, A, B, and C. Which of these are you comfortable with, and which do need to get up to speed on? How would you go about getting up to speed? Which combinations of technologies have you used before, and what were the challenges in how they worked together?

Ideas on other ways to understand applicants:

In that interview, we did not sit down and look at any code, but I could imagine sitting down and looking at a bug in some code and discussing how to solve the bug. Since most of a programmers time is spent debugging, refactoring, optimizing, and testing, and often you are dealing with an existing code base, it seems that talking about refactoring and troubleshooting are way better ways to learn how a person thinks, in a way that is relevant to how they will perform on the job. And I do mean talking, not testing their coding ability. In all of the interviews I have had so far, absolutely no one has asked about troubleshooting and refactoring code. Try some pair programming. Have a candidate look at some code and describe to you what they think the code is doing. If the company is sensitive about its code base, maybe they can fork some open source code that is close to a realistic problem they might face, and the interviewer and interviewee could discuss the merits of the code, maybe even hack on it a little, on an actual computer. Yes, if you feel a deep need for the candidate to write some code, at least have them work on a computer, preferably their own, without someone looking over their shoulder. How about some pair programming or or pair troubleshooting so it feels collaborative, and more like what actually working with this person will feel like? Who says you can only discover how someone thinks by talking to them while they are thinking? Why not wait until they are done, and then you can talk about why they made the choices they did, and what other things they thought of and rejected? I have had companies ask me to write sample code, and then bring me in for an interview, and never bring up the sample code at all. That makes no sense to me. Ask them why they made the choices they made, if they have thought of any ways to improve it, etc. Try to help the candidate feel more comfortable, because that is more realistic for how they will work. For coding, stick with computers. Whiteboards are really awesome for discussing concepts, illustrating (literally) what code is doing, and designing, and can be used for these things during interviews, but despite what I said above, they kind of suck for actually writing code.

Recently I was talking to a recruiter at a large company, and he mentioned how this company was going to start offering tech interview classes. Really?!?!?! This is ridiculous. If your interview process is not screening for what you need it to screen for, and if you know there are qualified people out there, that you want to hire, and you find yourself starting to offer them training on how to get through your interview process, then it seems that it is the process that is screwed up, and not all of the qualified applicants who can't seem to jump through your hoops. Think out of the box, employers!

The bottom line is this, if I am treated as if I am an expert, and you are inviting me in to see if I can help you to solve a problem, you are going to get a much better idea of how I work and how I am to work with, than if you give me a random problem to solve and ask me to solve it on the whiteboard while you watch me and your watch.


Other people complaining about tech interviews in interesting ways:

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PyCon 2013


Python, Code, MyRamblings, Tech

by maria on 29 Mar 2013 - 05:40  

I went to Pycon in Santa Clara this year, and really enjoyed it. I learned a lot, and made quite a few connections. First the unpleasantness, the Adria Richards debacle. Much has been written already, so I'll make this brief. Adria Richards tweeted a picture of two men who were making sexual jokes behind her during a talk at the conference. Whether or not Adria chose the 'best' course of action for pointing out inappropriate behavior at a tech conference is an open question, and quite frankly beside the point. She chose what she thought was the best tool at the time, and there is no way she could have predicted what followed. What followed was a massive onslaught of threats and insults that was completely beyond the pale and speaks miles about how much sexism exists in the tech community. The reaction of the tech community shows that this community can be a very uncomfortable and often downright hostile place for women, and when incidents like this happen, it makes me incredulous that some people still wonder why women leave the IT community. If you would like to read more, I recommend these articles:

If you want to be depressed about the general state of conditions for women in IT, check out geekfeminism.

And, now onto much better things. My favorite talk was 'The Naming of Ducks: Where Dynamic Types Meet Smart Conventions' by Brandon Rhodes. It was very informative, and done with humor and great slides. My biggest pet peeve about technical talks is the slides containing huge swaths of programs. Most of the room can't even read it all, and all of that code usually distracts from the speakers point, anyway. These were nice, small bits of code, stripped down to the bare essentials to make the point. His talk is up on the awesome pyvideo site:


And you can see the slides here:


Another favorite talk, which was just chock-full of useful tidbits was 'Transforming Code into Beautiful, Idiomatic Python' by Raymond Hettinger. Another engaging, humorous speaker. His talk can also be seen on the pyvideo site:


and his slides are also available:


I also participated in a couple of days of sprints, and based on my experience, I have some unsolicited advice for anyone wanting to run a sprint. The purpose of a sprint is two-fold. The current software developers on the project want to get a piece of software out there, and the new software developers want to help. That is the basic. It is hoped that everyone will learn something and have some fun as well. So, to accomplish this, the current software developers should do some homework before the sprint. If you actually want the new software developers to be able to help you, you must be able to get them up and running as soon as possible. Here are the most important steps, as I see it:

  • make development environment for your project easy to set up
  • document how to set up the development environment
  • Follow your documentation and seriously spend time installing on new computers and/or wipe out your environment and re-install a couple of times. Simplify the procedure, make instructions clearer, re-iterate
  • create documentation on how group uses versioning and software used
  • list out some tasks that need to be done, rate tasks by complexity and size
  • have an example of a test(s) to ensure that the nothing has been broken by the new code

I repeat, the more time you spend making sure collaborators can hit the ground running, the more help they can give you. This not only helps for the sprint, but will make your project more welcoming to potential contributors in general.

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Thanks Mike!


Tech, MyRamblings, MyLife, Kids

by Maria on 28 Feb 2013 - 01:38  

I thought about waiting another couple of weeks before posting, so it wouldn't be so obvious that I have been seriously delinquent with posting, but heh, life happens. And lots of life has happened. For starters, my son was born last April. Insert requisite photo here:

Attach:bash.jpg Δ

So, for a while I chose sleep over blogging. So goes it.

Another life that happened is that my boss moved to Columbia University in NY. We decided not to follow him, so I have been slowly beginning the job hunt process. I'm nervous and excited. Looking forward to the new challenge. I've learned so much working for Mike. It has given me a sampling of all kinds of stuff, and allowed me to recognize what I am truly interested in, programming, while giving me a broad base of skills that complement coding.

Mike, thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to work in your lab. It has been a great adventure. I was given freedom to build what I thought was needed. A diverse and awesome team to work with. Guidance when it was needed. Fun and interesting projects to work on. I loved making movies for your talks. Creating movies that were a truly accurate representation of the lab experiments was challenging and intriguing. Working in neuroscience, I practiced the scientific method. As a system administrator, I gained awesome problem solving and troubleshooting skills. Working on projects while being responsible for the day to day running of the servers and being a consultant to others in the lab (and in the neuroscience community in general) taught me organizational skills and improved my communication. Not to mention the value of good documentation and testing, testing, testing. And, of course, a greater appreciation of soccer and jazz.

As this job ends, I have also decided to combine my tech writing and my blog writing more, instead of having a separate part of my website for "work", which often just ended up being "anything tech I ran into and found interesting or hard to figure out and wanted to document". I was reluctant to write tech stuff in my blog, because that is often a work in progress, and I was trying not to edit my blog entries (much), once they were written. But, heh, this is my blog, so I can make the rules, and I'd rather start using the blog for tech stuff as well as life ramblings so that I can take advantage of keywords and stuff. So, there you go, some blog entries are going to evolve over time as I learn.

And, for some inspiration:

To me, coding is writing stuff that makes computers come to life. In the Wizard of Oz the wizard is seen as a fraud, creating smoke and mirrors to hide that he is an ordinary man, but I like to think of it as being the ordinary person that is proud to be the wizard that by just writing "stuff" makes wondrous things happen.

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More Education


MyRamblings, Kids by maria on 16 Mar 2011 - 03:45  

Just watched a couple more TED Talks regarding education, and they wonderfully reinforce what I've been thinking about, and wrote about in yesterday's Blog Post. The first one is by Sugata Mitra, and he speaks about his "hole in the wall" experiments, where he shows that you can set a computer in front of a group of kids, who have never seen a computer before, and who don't know English, and they will teach themselves how to use it, and often start to teach themselves English as well. His website is http://www.hole-in-the-wall.com/ and there is some interesting stuff there. Again, fuel kids curiosity, allow them to make mistakes, and they will learn. His most recent Ted Talk is pretty amusing, and he has some amazing stories of children teaching themselves.

The second TED Talk I watched was by Sir Ken Robinson. Actually, I watched two by him. He is a wonderfully entertaining speaker, and I recommend watching both talks. His first talk ties in very well with my post yesterday. He believes that we stifle creativity when we teach kids to always be correct. When we are very young, we are not afraid of being wrong. We say the darndest things. As we get older, we learn in school that different is often wrong, and that there is a single correct answer for all important questions. And, as wrong becomes more stigmatized, we become more afraid of being wrong, and less creative. The talk on creativity and the more recent TED Talk, Bring on the learning revolution! also criticize our current educational system for essentially educating for just a single sort of vocation, and a single sort of learning, and a single sort of individual. His idea is to have a less linear system, but I wish he had spoken a bit more about what that would look like. It did made me think about how I would like to change how progression in school works. I don't believe it is useful to have grades which are sorted by age. I would be very interested to see a school where children move to a new grade when they want to, and feel they are ready, and the teacher agrees. I wonder what that would look like? I would love to see a school try that. Anyone know of a school that has tried that? To facilitate that, I would make school more of a continuum, with a shorter break in the summer, so that there wasn't a specific time that was set aside for changing grades. In yet a different TED talk, Seth Priebatsch explains the power of games, and discusses how this might be used in education. Instead of having a traditional grading system, students could level up when they master a concept. Brilliant.

UPDATE: Check out the animated version of Sir Ken Robinson's Changing Education Paradigms. So well done.
Sir Ken Robinson

If you're not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original. ~Sir Ken Robinson

Okay, one more. This talk by Salman Kahn has a couple of innovations for education that are pretty brilliant. It combines the ideas of self-pace learning, kids learning together, and using technology to make education more human and personal to present a beautiful idea of what a classroom can look like. His great insite is to give kids videos of lectures so they can follow the lecture at their own pace, and then doing the homework in the classroom, so they can get personal help from the teacher, or another student who is already proficient in that area. I remember thinking how brilliant it was to have lectures on line when one of my math class professors started doing it. Not only could I then sleep in and miss the lecture, but I could pause and rewind my professor as I tried to parse what he was telling me. One thing that was very interesting about this talk, was some data he presented on how kids learn. Sometimes kids get stuck on a concept, and seem to be stagnating. If you let the kids continue to work on it, get help from other kids and/or the teacher, they will eventually figure it out. And once they do figure it out, they will then jump through more concepts at an much higher pace, giving a progression that looks like someone who is slow or a troubled learner at first, but then suddenly is performing like a gifted child, until they get stuck again. So in a traditional school, depending on what teacher they had what time, they may get labeled as brilliant or slow, and we all know what happens when kids receive labels...

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Sparkling Lies



by maria on 15 Mar 2011 - 03:07  

Attach:sparklingice.jpg Δ

A few weeks back I bought a drink called Sparkling Ice. It looked to be one of those flavored carbonated water drinks, and it said "Naturally Flavored" on the bottle. I took that to meant that it didn't have any artificial sweeteners in it. Silly me. I took one swig of the drink, and knew I had been fooled. Apparently sweet is not a flavor? I was irritated enough to find an email address for the company and complain. Someone from the company, let's call her Jess, emailed me back, and told me she would tell upper level management, and offered to send me "a sample of an all natural (organic) beverage we make that might be in keeping with what you prefer to drink". I thought that sounded nice, so I gave her my address and thanked her for listening to me.

About a week and a half later, I received a box of about six bottles of the Sparkling Ice product that I had complained about. With a note on the top from Jess, the customer relations person who had sent me the email.

I sent a thank you note to Jess and mentioned that she had sent me the same product I had been complaining about. She said, "I'm so sorry, I had a temp helping me and I didn't check her work. I'll personally resend product without sucralose." Which struck me as a little lame. Like my friend said, blaming the temp is pretty low. Own your mistakes. She did send me better drinks the second time. I am a fan of Talking Rain Sparkling Water, which doesn't have any sweeteners in it. She sent me that and some Twist, which is pretty good. So, I'd say mixed bag when it comes to Talking Rain Customer Service and Marketing Depts. Clearly making an effort, and I really appreciate my free drinks, but it was kind of like pulling teeth, more uncomfortable than you really want it to be. I still think one shouldn't be able to put "Naturally Flavored" on a beverage that has artificial sweeteners in it. She claimed that my "comments weigh very heavy into the decision making process", but I'm thinking probably not heavy enough to change their "Naturally Flavored" claim.

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MyRamblings, Kids by maria on 15 Mar 2011 - 01:55  

I've been thinking quite a bit about education lately. I read a wonderful editorial about some high school students that designed and ran their own education for a semester. These high school students did some amazing things. They were using techniques that are presented very well by Diana Laufenberg in her TED Talk. What it comes down to is giving students the opportunity to use their voice and to fail. We are living in a world where information is everywhere. We do not need teachers to give students information. We need teachers to help students to filter the information that is everywhere, to teach kids to think critically, and fuel kids curiosity. We need teachers to guide them so that they learn how to ask questions, how to figure out what went wrong, and to learn that, despite what they are taught by standardized tests, in life there is no one right answer. The 3 ways to teach that she advocates are:

  • experiential learning
  • student voice
  • embracing failure

I think she is on to something.

Something else that I have been thinking about is the importance of networking and social interactions in general in the grown up world. Seems like we should be trying to teach kids about the importance of learning how to interact productively with others, especially people that are different from themselves. Some of this is learned by team sports, but short of that, nothing really. Being social is so important at this age, it seems like there should be ways to harness their interest in it to help them become more effective at communication and team work. Social interactions as usually practiced by teenagers if pretty much the opposite of what you want to learn to be effective in the adult world. When you sit down at a table to solve a problem as a group, you just can't tell by looking who at the table may have some key bit of knowledge or insight to share. It is so important to understand and believe that if you want to solve a problem as a group. Giving everyone a voice and listening to what everyone has to say is so key to effective problem solving. And knowing when to shut up. More teenagers need to learn that one. Probably more adults as well. Okay, I'll shut up now. But first, a gratuitous picture of my daughter, since this blog post seems to be lacking a visual.

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Health, MyRamblings, Videos

by maria on 28 Oct 2010 - 14:11  

Wow. Check out this performance for a poetry slam. I tried to find out more about Katie Makkai, but didn't get anywhere. I'm hoping we will be hearing more from her.

I'm not sure that we are any more obsessed with beauty now then when I was in high school, but it doesn't seem to be getting any better. But, I do have hope that with more people having access to more real people all over the world via the internet, rather than only seeing a window to the rest of the world that was filtered by mass media like when I was a kid, that more people will realize how damaging our limited view of beauty is. One can hope. In the meantime, remember, you are beautiful.

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Health, MyRamblings, Science

by maria on 25 Oct 2010 - 18:06  

Our brains have to sort out a lot of stuff. We aren't consciously aware of most of the stuff going on, which is a good thing, since just walking across the room would be a serious challenge if we had to think about every bit of muscle movement. There was a bit on npr recently about a guy who had a stroke that wiped out his ability to read. English suddenly looked like some foreign language that he didn't know. But, his motor memory of writing was still in tact, so if he pretended to write the letters that he saw, he was now able to recognize the letters. But, that is a lot of effort, and if you had to think like that for everything you did, it would be difficult to get anything done. Fortunately, our brain takes care of lots of stuff behind the scenes, and we are unaware of it even happening. However, now we are discovering that some things our brains do without our realizing it may be causing us problems. I recently ran across an old article by Gavin Mandel, published in Science magazine in 2005, which was fascinating, and I hope people that missed it when it came out will take a look at it now. The basic finding is that we are profoundly influenced by our environment, but completely unaware of this influence. Not only that, but even when people/researchers try to make us aware when we have been influenced, we do not believe it, and our mind makes up stories to otherwise explain the influenced behavior. So, I guess when we sound like we are making something up to justify our actions after the fact, rather than explaining why we decided to do something, we may be doing just that. It does put an interesting light on our gut feelings.

The majority of the time, our unconscious does a stellar job picking out the relevant information, and making decisions based on that, but unsurprisingly, it doesn't always get it correct. It seems likely that the more we are bombarded by media trying to influence our decisions, the less reliable it may become. It is hard to imagine how our unconscious deals with such a large amount of, often conflicting, data, but scientists are starting to figure this out. It appears that there are certain rules that our unconsciousness uses to guide it. One is exemplified by a pantyhose experiment summarized in the 'Introspective Essay', and it points to a bias for the first thing the brain sees. One of the best studied biases is race. I am trying to find a source of various biases that our brains have constructed, because I think this would be useful knowledge for everyone to have when they are making decisions. Because intuition is not always correct, it is sometimes based on rules that we may not consciously agree with, but have internalized. I will close with a quote from cognitive neuroscientist Itiel Dror,

"Take what you believe is an absolute truth with a grain of salt," Dorr suggested. "Question yourself, and understand that we're all locked in our own brain, in our own perceptions, with our own experiences that paint the world. We may have a better understanding of the world if we know that what we see is not 100 percent the world itself, it iw us interacting with the world around us." *

* From the article, Experts Live and Die With Mental Shortcuts, from Miller-McCune.

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False Confession?


Politics, MyRamblings, Science

by maria on 21 Sep 2010 - 14:00  

I have recently started reading a blog with a bit of a narcissistic byline, "What the smartest people on the net read." Fortunately, they seem to be living up to their name. I found the blog post, What would you do? to be especially interesting. The post is discussing an article by Professor Garrett that is about the surprising amount of detail that can be found in false confessions gathered by police officers, and how this detail is most likely being disclosed to them during the interrogation process. People seem to instinctively believe that false confessions would be weak, but the detail included in most of these confessions makes them seem substantial. The blog post recommends making changes to the criminal procedures to take into account the reliability of confessions and their content.

It seems that many people think that most people are not likely to confess to crimes they did not commit. I wonder if this is because most people believe that they themselves would not give in. After all, we are talking about situations where physical torture is not involved. I have always thought of myself as pretty strong, but have recently found myself in a situation where I allowed myself to be psychologically manipulated, and did not even realize it until a few hours later. I'm not trying to say that people offering false confessions do not realize they are giving false confessions, but that our ability to resist may be very dependent on the situation. If there is one thing I have learned about myself during my life, it is that I don't know myself as well as I thought I did. I am capable of surprising myself when I find myself in a novel situation, and being falsely accused of a crime would fall into that category. From the post, "According to one person who (falsely) committed to a crime, "You've never been in a situation so intense, and you're naive about your rights,' he said. 'You don't know what you'll say to get out of that situation.'"

Changing criminal procedures to take into account the reliability of confessions and their content seems especially important, because according to another article Farnam Street Blog did a post about, jurors don't even discount evidence obtained from rough treatment. It therefor seems really unlikely that they would take into consideration the validity of a confession full of detail and taken when rough treatment isn't involved. The Garrett article recommends "a series of reforms that focus on the insidious problem of contamination, particularly videotaping interrogations in their entirety, but also reframing police procedures, trial practice, and judicial review." I concur.

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Adobe, A rant


MyRamblings, Tech

by Maria on 03 May 2010 - 15:53  

I have enjoyed using Flash for quite a while. Mostly I use it to make movies for work, but have been playing around with it lately to make more creative animations. So, when I heard the news that Microsoft Agrees With Apple And Google: "The Future Of The Web Is HTML5", I was a bit dismayed. Now I have long believed that flash was wrong for creating websites, but thought it would remain the standard for video and games. And, I believe that will still be true for a while. if you look at the demo page for html5, you will see that most of the demos are using things useful for building interactive websites, but not any of them demonstrate animation created by HTML5. Even the stuff that will eventually be used to create online games is pretty crude yet. Not sure what the Canvas demo does, since I couldn't get it to load with any of the 3 browsers I tried. So, I think we are a ways yet from animation and online games with HTML5. However, given my recent experiences with Adobe, I am thinking about learning HTML5 now anyway, even though I will be much more limited in what I can do, because I am sick of Adobe. Adobe Tech Support sucks! Not to mention their programs are getting to be so bulky and buggy they are painful to use.

My Adobe saga:

Part 1:

Saving a pdf without comments.

I thought this was pretty straightforward, but I had to repeat what I was trying to do 4 times before they gave me a solution. All I was trying to do was to hide/get rid of the comments in a pdf that was being sent in an email. They gave me solutions for how to use comments for an email review, told me how to hide comments from my current view, etc. They even wanted me to send a pdf with comments in it, because that was somehow going to help them understand what I wanted. Hello, you are Adobe, surely you have a pdf with comments in it laying around on your desktop?!? Finally, after 6 emails from Adobe, they gave me the solution. For those curious, here is the highly intuitive solution:

Go To Advanced-> PDF Optomizer->Discard User Data->Check the Tab Discard All Comments , forms and multimedia.-> Click Ok.

Now save this pdf with a different name, and you can send your pdf itinerary to your boss, without your comments about meeting your colleagues after the meeting for drinks. Are we really the only people who find this useful?

Part 2:

Upgrading the Organizer in Acrobat

My boss upgraded from Acrobat 8 to Acrobat 9. When he tried to open the organizer in Acrobat 9, the window was missing, and it was apparent from the menu that nothing from Acrobat 8 had been moved over. I sent in an email request for help, but was told this was not an installation issue, and I needed to have bronze support. I tried calling them, spent eons on hold, just to have them tell me, once again, that this was not an installation issue so I needed to pay for support. Not an installation issue? I installed the software, and it didn't work, and didn't import stuff from the last version. How can this be anything except an installation issue?!? So, I went off in search of paid support. Buying support from Adobe is convoluted, especially if you have a volume license. Supposedly there are support packages, where you get so many support calls per year, or maybe some number of support calls, but I never did figure this out. Nor did I figure out what bronze support is. Since there is a new version of Adobe products coming out, I decided it was probably best to just buy one support instance, especially since given the cost of my time doing research trying to figure this shit out, it would probably be cheaper to pay by the instance anyway. So, I spent another 2 hours on the phone, mostly on hold, during which I solved the missing Organizer window problem without any help from Adobe. When they told me the import problem wasn't an installation issue, I said fine, I'll pay. They ended up not charging me, although they lectured me on how this was an Acrobat 8 issue (since I was trying to export from Acrobat 8), so next time they would charge me. Like what, I didn't buy Acrobat 8 from them, and the reason I was trying to export was to have a WORKING INSTALLATION of Acrobat 9? WTF? But then, in the end, they told me it was impossible. You cannot get your Organizer settings from Acrobat 8 to Acrobat 9. I filed a bug report. I had already sent a letter to the CEO complaining about their tech support, but maybe I should send him an addendum?

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More disbelief in Science


Health, MyRamblings, Science

by maria on 21 Apr 2010 - 21:20  

Just read a very good article Convincing the Public to Accept New Medical Guidelines. It has me thinking about how to convince people to change their beliefs. It has long been obvious to me that people often discount or don't believe scientific studies if they conflict with their pre-conceived notions. Now we have research to back up that claim, not that it would matter to people who don't believe me. Plus, apparently people are more likely to believe what everyone else believes, regardless, or apparently in spite of, scientific evidence to the contrary, according to this article. Ugh. Not sure where this puts us. A very uphill battle, but says a lot about why people still believe that there is a connection between immunizations and autism. So, how can we take current scientific understanding and translate it into something that is popular? How can we use our understanding of why/how people believe things to get them to believe in scientific evidence, and to be willing to change those beliefs when new evidence surfaces? Tough questions.

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Red Herrings


Health, Politics, MyRamblings, Tech, Science

by Maria on 13 Apr 2010 - 21:10  

Herring (Kippered)

I very much enjoyed the TED talk by Michael Specter on the danger of science denial. His main point is that we will continue to do real damage to our planet and our communities, if we continue to ignore what science tells us. His two main examples are the trend to not immunize because of the supposed link between autism and immunizations, and frankofoods, iow, genetically modified foods. I think both of these cases demonstrate the publics tendency to take a scary finding, latch onto the first thing that comes along to blame, and then ignoring science and facts and beat the hell out of the red herring. In the case of the autism and immunizations, study after study has shown there is no link. But the original study, however misguided, did demonstrate that we need to continue to put pressure on manufacturers and the government to ensure that vaccines are safe to use, as some things were brought up that were questionable. We need to learn to accept science and facts when they become undoubtable, stop beating a dead horse, and look to new places for answers. That second point is very important. There is much money and time now being spent trying to convince parents that autism is caused by immunizations, money that should be spent on coming up with the actual causes and cures to autism. Not to mention this misguidedness is causing a crisis in immunization that could cause many diseases that we have not seen in decades to return to the United States. If you are unconvinced that immunizations do not cause autism, check out this pdf from immunize.org.

The second issue, genetically modified foods, is very interesting. In this case, the red herring is GMO's themselves. Although more research is needed, so far, it appears that the insertion of new genes does not, by itself, change the plant in a negative way. In Specter's talk he mentioned the noble ideas about adding vitamin A in rice and adding protein and vitamins in cassava, using genetic modification. He did not mention anything about adding resistance to pesticides or insecticides. These are the truly scary things, the things we should be up in arms about. The movie Monsanto's World is extremely interesting, and brings to mind the things we need to be extremely concerned about. First and foremost, are the ties between government and corporations. Monsanto has become a scary monopoly because the US government let it happen, and, in fact, encouraged it to happen. And, it can, and probably has, happened in other industries as well. It is the ties between industry and government that has caused the scientific data to not be scrutinized as it should be. Check out the wikipedia article about Monsanto, under Public officials formerly employed by Monsanto. Which brings up and interesting question. Who should be in charge of government agencies that oversee industries? In many cases, it seems the government decides that people from industry are the best choice, since they would presumably know the most about that particular industry. But, they also have the hardest time separating themselves from the corporations they use to be a part of, and present a real conflict of interest. Time after time, in many different industries, government has failed to enforce or enact the regulations it should in the interest of public safety, because of the ties with corporations. The other thing that we should be up in arms about is the abuse of patent law by Monsanto. Monsanto has used patent law to bully farmers, so that it now controls most of the U.S. corn and soy seed market, according to the non-profit Center for Food Safety. And there is no doubt that Monsanto and its connections in government have worked hard to suppress scientific evidence that its products are not as harmless as it claims. But, you shouldn't take my word on this, do your research. So, while I agree with Specter about there being good that can come from genetic modification, and while at its root, it is not much different from the modifications we have been making to animals and plants for hundreds of thousands of years by breeding, there is still some very scary stuff going on in the genetic modification industry, and most of it has to do with the corporation that controls a very large portion of the seed market, Monsanto, and allows farmers to completely douse their fields with herbicides and/or insecticides. And regardless of whether the food that has been modified to survive such dowsing is harmful, we already know that dowsing fields with herbicides and/or pesticides is terrible for the soil and the nature/people surrounding the fields. For the most common of these herbicides, Roundup, check out the wikipedia article.

Which brings me to another interesting article I have read recently. In the article Is it okay to ignore results from people you don't trust? by Ben Goldacre on badscience.net. He gives a nice example of industry scientists getting the results you would expect them to want, which was different from what non-industry scientists found. Repeated experiences like this makes it is easy for us to ignore results from people we don't trust. We have come to expect scientists from industry to get results more favorable to their industry (which is why the government should have been more critical of the data from Monsanto), but then he goes on to give an example of researchers you may not normally trust, publishing a study with a result that was both accurate and earlier then any other researchers. So, it appears that it is not enough that the public pay attention to scientific data, the public must learn to think critically about the data that they are given. Consider the source, but also consider the data itself. Ask questions. Be skeptical, but do not reject science simply because you want to believe in voodoo. And above all, do not look for studies to validate your opinion, because you will find them no matter how crazy your opinion is. Instead, look at everything you can find that examines the question with an open mind, consider the sources, the methods, the number of studies, and ask questions until you are satisfied. But when some new piece of evidence comes up, be willing to look anew at the question, and to reconsider your position. Yup, it is a lot of work, but it is so very important to our health and the health of our planet.

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