Recent blog entries for hypatia

The Sydney Project: Powerhouse Museum

This year is my son’s last year before he begins full time schooling in 2015. Welcome to our year of child-focussed activities in Sydney.

This was our second visit to the Powerhouse Museum, both times on a Monday, a day on which it is extremely quiet.

Bendy mirror

The Powerhouse seems so promising. It’s a tech museum, and we’re nerd parents, which ought to make this a family paradise. But not so. Partly, it’s that V is not really a nerdy child. His favourite activities involve things like riding his bike downhill at considerable speeds and dancing. He is not especially interested in machinery, intricate steps of causation, or whimsy, which removes a lot of the interest of the Powerhouse. Museums are also a surprising challenge in conveying one fundamental fact about recent history: that the past was not like the present in significant ways. V doesn’t really seem to know this, nor is he especially interested in it, which removes a lot of the hooks one could use in explaining, eg, the steam powered machines exhibit.

We started at The Oopsatoreum, a fictional exhibition by Shaun Tan about the works of failed inventor Henry Mintox. This didn’t last long; given that V doesn’t understand the fundamental conceit of museums and is not especially interested in technology, an exhibit that relies on understanding museums and having affection for technology and tinkering was not going to hold his attention. He enjoyed the bendy mirrors and that’s about it.

V v train

I was hoping to spend a moment in The Oopsatoreum, but he dragged me straight back out to his single favourite exhibit: the steam train parked on the entrance level. But it quickly palled too, because he wanted to climb on and in it, and all the carriages have perspex covering their doors so you can see it but not get in. There’s a bigger exhibit of vehicles on the bottom floor, including — most interestingly to me — an old-fashioned departures board showing trains departing to places that don’t even have lines any more, but we didn’t spend long there because V’s seen it before. He also sped through the steam machines exhibit pretty quickly, mostly hitting the buttons that set off the machines and then getting grumpy at the amount of noise they make.

Gaming, old-style

He was much more favourably struck with the old game tables that are near the steam train. He can’t read yet, and parenting him recently has been a constant exercise in learning exactly how many user interfaces assume literacy (TV remote controls, for example, and their UIs now as well). The games were like this to an extent too; he can’t read “Press 2 to start” and so forth, so I kept having to start the games for him. He didn’t do so well as he didn’t learn to operate the joystick and press a button to fire at the same time. He could only do one or the other. And whatever I was hoping V would get out of this visit, I don’t think marginally improved gaming skills were it, much as I think they’re probably going to be useful to him soon.

Big red car

We spent the most time in the sinkhole of the Powerhouse, the long-running Wiggles exhibition. This begins with the annoying feature that prams must be left outside, presumably because on popular days one could hardly move in there for prams. But we were the only people in there and it was pretty irritating to pick up my two month old baby and all of V’s and her various assorted possessions and lump them all inside with me. I’m glad V is not much younger, or I would have been fruitlessly chasing him around in there with all that stuff in my arms.

Car fixing

It’s also, again, not really the stereotypical educational museum experience. There’s a lot of memorabilia that’s uninteresting to children, such as their (huge) collection of gold and platinum records and early cassette tapes and such. There’s also several screens showing Wiggles videos, which is what V gravitates to. If I wanted him to spend an hour watching TV, I can organise that without leaving my house. He did briefly “repair” a Wiggles car by holding a machine wrench against it.

Overall, I think we’re done with the Powerhouse for a few years.

Cost: $12 adults, $6 children 4 and over, younger children free.

Recommended: for my rather grounded four year old, no. Possibly more suited to somewhat older children, or children who have an interest in a specific exhibit. (If that interest is steam trains, I think Train Works at Thirlmere is a better bet, although we cheated last year by going to a Thomas-franchise focussed day.)

More information: Powerhouse website.

Syndicated 2014-04-16 03:41:59 from lecta

The Sydney Project: Art Baby

This year is my son’s last year before he begins full time schooling in 2015. I’ve therefore decided to embark on a self-imposed challenge to go and do different child-focussed activities in Sydney and review them!

Art Baby is a preliminary Sydney Project entry, because it wasn’t an activity for preschoolers! Instead, it’s an activity for carers of babies, who tour the Museum of Contempoary Art with their babies.

Entrance to the Museum of Contemporary Art, nighttime

by Robert Montgomery

Mostly, it’s a short (45 minute) tour of one of the exhibitions (it was Volume One today), and the fact of having babies in tow is largely irrelevant. (Most of the babies today were two or three months old, much too young to do much touching or exploring.) I very much enjoyed our tour guide, who significantly contributed to the artworks with some background about each artist, and with her personal reactions to the art works. Fine art has really grown on me in recent years, as I’ve come to understand many genres — fine art in this case, but not it alone — as a conversation, and that you need to come at it with a cheat sheet that brings you up to speed on the conversation. A good tour or audio guide is the way to go with fine art museums, given that I’m unlikely to ever follow the conversation as a practitioner or serious student. Today’s tour, by an art educator and artist, was an excellent insider briefing.

The baby-relevant part of the tour is the conclusion in the Creative Learning room where the older children would do the Art Play (3yo and under) and Art Safari sessions (3–5yo). This includes a piece specifically commissioned for the children’s room, a child-safe and welcoming artwork for them to interact with. (Much of the museum is an attractive nuisance for children, with many bright, changing objects that they must not touch. It’s a shame. This adult would like a museum of fine art you can beat upon.) Afterwards, everyone has coffee (included in the price) and goes their separate way.

I’m keen to trial Art Safari with my 4yo now.

Cost: $20 plus booking fee.

Recommended: yes. It’s a good introduction to the MCA collection, and the timing is suitable for people with babies in tow. You could also just attend a normal tour, of course, but sometimes it’s fun to be part of a WITH BABY market segment.

More information: Art Baby website.

Syndicated 2014-03-18 23:24:13 from lecta

Sunday spam: muesli bars and gummy snakes

Muesli bars and gummy snakes are what I ate at about 7am before my recent 9am childbirth… thus thematically appropriate for this small collection of links, some of which I’ve had sitting around for a while.

Using WOC in the Natural Childbirth Debate: A How-To Guide.

If you are a progressive in the Natural Childbirth Movement (or any other, for that matter), use Africa City women to promote the idea that “natural is better.” Talk about women who toil in the fields, squat down to give birth and return to picking rice. Or peanuts. Or anything else that can be picked. After all, the women of Africa City are resilient! Strong. So strong that they do not even require support from the other women of Africa City. Or medication. Or comfort. This example–of giving birth in the field–illustrates how over-reliant “we” have become on useless technology. Of course, you don’t expect “us” to be quite that strong. We are not beasts of burden, after all…

If you oppose the Natural Childbirth Movement (or any other, for that matter), use Africa City women to remind “us” of how bad “we” used to have it, before all of our live-saving medical advances. If women die in childbirth in Africa City, it is only because they lack the Modern Technology we should be grateful that every last one of “us” has unfettered access to. Use infant mortality statistics from the most war-torn countries to argue why a healthy woman from Portland shouldn’t give birth in her bathtub with a midwife who carries oxygen and a cell phone. Redact all mentions of Africa City women who are not hopelessly impoverished. Ignore those who are systematically abused with Modern Technology, sacrificed as Guinea pigs on its altar. All bad outcomes in Africa City are due to the lack of Medical Technology, never unrelated to it, and certainly never caused by it.

Early Labour and Mixed Messages

The emphasis on hospital as a place of safety whilst also encouraging women to stay away results in some very contradictory messages and ideas (please note these statements do not represent my own views)[…] We are the experts in your labour progress, our clinical assessments can predict your future labour progress… we will send you home if you are found to be in early labour… if you then birth your baby in the car park it is not our fault as birth is unpredictable[…] This is a safe place to labour…. but you can only access this safety when you reach a particular point in your labour… preferably close to the end of your labour i.e. you should do most of it on your own away from safety.

Warning for discussion of pregnancy loss. The Peculiar Case of Miscarriage in Pop Culture

Miscarriage is a tricky cultural thing, pop culture or not. It’s a deeply forbidden subject, much like many other things deemed ‘mysteries of womanhood,’ like menstruation, like pregnancy itself. People don’t talk about miscarriages and that discouragement means that many people aren’t aware of how common they are, let alone how devastating they can be. When people lose a child, they can reach out to their community for help and they are given space and time for healing. When they lose a fetus, they’re expected to keep it to themselves.

Sadly, sometimes pro-choice people can be the most vehement about this, concerned about blurring the lines between fetus and child, and saying that claiming a fetus is morally or ethically equivalent to a fully-developed, extrauterine human being could be dangerous. This makes the mistake of applying broad strokes to the issue, though. Legally, of course, a fetus should not be equivalent to a child. Personally, however, losing a wanted pregnancy is an intensely emotional experience and it can feel on some level to the parents like losing a child, with the added burden of not being allowed to acknowledge it, talk about it, or ask for help.

Syndicated 2014-01-19 01:18:38 from lecta

A year with orthokeratology

A year ago, I did something that’s very rare for me, I made an expensive impulse purchase. Specifically, I was fitted for orthokeratology lenses. These are a vision correction technique: hard contact lens you wear while you sleep, that mold your cornea into a corrected shape so that you don’t need to use vision correction while you’re awake.

I have mild myopia (-1.75 left and -0.75 right, I think) and very mild right-eye astigmatism and I’ve had vision correction since I was about ten (initially only for my left eye, my right eye only became measurably myopic about 5 years after that). I’ve worn glasses and contact lens each about half the time. I like contacts better than glasses but still find them annoying when they are dry or one gets stuck to the wrong part of my eye. I have enough medical and surgical anxiety that I’m not going to be interested in surgical correction any time soon. So that was the appeal of orthokeratology.

To cut to the chase, while I’ll keep wearing them now I have a good fit, my recommendation is mixed at best.

The first few days and weeks were not promising. The problem with anything that’s supposed to be “uncomfortable” or “take some getting used to” is determining when something is actually wrong. So when I first put my lenses in in the optometrist’s office and my eyelids slammed shut in agony over the top, I figured it was par for the adjustment course. In addition, it took a while to achieve good correction, I think a week or more to be reasonable and another week or two until I tested as having an acceptably negligible prescription. During this time, in transition, I couldn’t use my glasses either. So in the evening, it was a question of putting them in and then immediately staggering upstairs feeling my way to bed while my husband probably cooed lovingly at his loyal un-painful glasses. It’s also, as you would think, not especially easy to get to sleep when your eyes are trying to alert you to their imminent death, although once I was asleep I tended to sleep well and wake up with them adhered to my eyeballs (once they seal on, it hurts less). The crisis in the mornings seemed to be more that they adhered too well, and the force required to get them off tended to flick them around the bathroom at random and I’d get stressed and need to get Andrew downstairs to help me find the lenses (replacement cost is multiple hundreds of dollars).

Which reminds me, these require touching your eyes a lot more than soft contact lenses do. Getting them on involves applying them straight to your pupil, and getting them off is done (most easily) with a little suction device, again, more or less applied to the lens over the pupil. Getting them off sounds like it should hurt, but it doesn’t, it’s just a slight pulling sensation. But a large number of people cannot bear to touch their eyes, or at least not very much. That is, at least, a caution to many people. This wasn’t something I was asked about or warned about at all; luckily I am very able to touch my eyes, but it seems like I should have been asked.

Once the teething pains, as it were, were over, I had a nice few weeks of naked daytime eyes. Even Andrew briefly expressed envy, swimming at Waikiki, that I could see everything and also not have to worry about losing a lens in the water. It wasn’t to last long, as on that same trip, one morning I woke up with my eyes in agony. The only relief I could get, even slight, was to keep them open behind very dark glasses for most of the morning. I put it down to bad cleaning and made a note to be extra careful.

But it kept happening, with increasing frequency. On the fourth or fifth time, back in Australia, I ended up at the optometrist. He couldn’t find anything wrong other than dryness… and that my vision correction was weakening badly to boot, so I wasn’t even getting much for the pain. He wanted me to stop wearing them. He doesn’t seem to be a terribly good communicator; all I could get out of him was a vague promise that I wouldn’t be out of pocket. I got a call a few weeks later to come and pick up new lenses. He wasn’t even around so I didn’t really know what the deal was until my next check up: it emerged he’d actually done a fair bit of work phoning different suppliers trying to find lenses big enough to cover my (of course) enormous corneas, thinking that probably the fit was actually the issue.

Sure enough, the bigger set of lenses have solved the problem of the mornings of extreme pain and dryness. They were also never as painful as the first set, despite several weeks break before starting to use them, which makes me wonder if the level of pain inserting the first set was always a bad sign. (But then, “may take some adjusting” and “may be uncomfortable” means “don’t complain for a while”, so they’ll never know.) The correction is pretty good; I actually have to be careful with the right eye not to wear a lens every night because it’s easy to overcorrect. I wear the left one about three nights in four and the right one one or two nights in four. It’s more of an artform than I’d like, to be honest.

Given the initial pain and the lengthy adjustment period, I think with hindsight that I wouldn’t choose to start the process, which is why I am hesitant to recommend it to others. Most reviews I’ve read have had better experiences, although the only other person I know who tried it had to give it up entirely because it caused such bad night blindness it wasn’t safe for her to drive (not a problem I’ve had). Proceed with care.

Syndicated 2014-01-07 22:07:18 from lecta

The Alphabet Sufficiency: brief reflections

At the beginning of the year, I was indirectly responsible for the creation of the formidable Alphabet Supremacy project, which has just wrapped up. Jono and Bice have a few reflections on it at mid-year (Jono, Bice) and end-of-year (Jono).

I was frankly jealous, and, trying to know my limits, created a more limited project, the intended six week Alphabet Sufficiency. This resulted in five weeks worth of posts from me, and I think four from Martin Pool (who shared them in a non-public forum). Mine were:

Of these, my favourite by far is the acceleration one. I can remember writing it: well past the deadline, from a hotel room in Honolulu, while experiencing the second-worst case of jetlag I’ve ever had, with Andrew no doubt wondering about my priorities in reconstructing the web walks I’d been detailing to him for the month prior, rather than sleeping.

As expected, priorities were a problem. At the beginning, I wrote:

If the amount of personal change and variability of energy levels I experienced in 2012 continues I will be living in a leper colony on the Moon by December 2013.

Not as it happens, but I will be wrapping up the year with one more degree and one more child than I started it with. Those entries are over February, March and April this year, during which time (on top of my job) I made the “minor corrections” needed to complete my PhD thesis (this resulted in 20 pages of additional text, about 10% of the length of the final document), took my hopefully one-and-only overnight long haul flight in sole charge of a distressed toddler, and visited California for a long and intense week of planning for the Ada Initiative. If Martin had given a prompt for the final week, it would have been due the week I found out I was pregnant again (a week which involved, I think, three sudden medical appointments to plan my pregnancy care in light of a pretty weird medical history).

If I recall, Martin suggested that we start the project ASAP because neither of us was going to get less busy. While this was perfectly true, from my end this probably suggested not starting the project at all, because I really didn’t have time for it.

I began the year feeling like “write more” was the resolution least suited to me of anything I could possibly resolve. I’m ending it feeling the opposite. The most obvious thing that founding a business, study, illness, pregnancy and parenting have taken from me in the last two years is writing. On the other hand, I don’t think that for me personally, resolutions or competition are the way to get it back. The only way out is through. When I have stability, I will pause for breath, and I will write. Ursula Le Guin says:

What inspired you to be a writer?

Learning to write, at five.

That is not quite true for me (in no respect do I claim to be comparable to Ursula Le Guin, which as a small benefit makes me a less testy interview subject) but my relationship with writing is something like that. If there is time and energy, writing is something I will do.

As for the specifics of the project, one-word prompts are surprisingly difficult. Over on Dreamwidth at the moment, some people are taking a prompt a day for the entire month (I am not, for reasons you can infer), and, looking at the prompts, I can easily imagine it would be easier by far for me to write a response to “tell me about a day you spent in your favourite city” than “City”. I found this just as bad for a words I chose: “Kin” was by far the hardest prompt. Having stumbled at the gate, “Acceleration” and “Favourite” were very deliberate pitches to something I was thinking a lot about at the time anyway (general relativity and the plot of Toy Story, respectively), in an attempt to construct a gimme for myself. Despite the superficial difficulty of never having been to Montreal, that was the easiest entry to write: I suspect that the more concrete the word, the easier the writing.

If I was to take on such a project again, it would be more like the interview meme or the December meme, with far more detailed prompting. One word prompts are a very hard place between writing about whatever the hell I feel like, and writing to a prompt. I’m waiting to see what the next baby is like before committing, but there’s always the possibility of the “parent to newborn pretends to be well-rounded” meme (results: one, two, three, four, five). Stand by.

Syndicated 2013-12-17 05:00:43 from lecta

Now brought to you by Fedora*

I’ve been an Ubuntu user since about September or October 2004. I bought my first up-to-date laptop hardware in New York City (a Fujitsu Lifebook, still my favourite of my laptops), replacing a Toshiba Libretto I’d bought in late 2002 or early 2003 at more than five years of age and which I’d managed to squeeze Debian onto against its will. In 2004 my husband was working for the company later to be known as Canonical and so I became a beta tester (I think not a highly contributing one) for the distribution soon after revealed to be Ubuntu. And that was pretty great for me, basically Debian with a regular release schedule centered around up-to-date GNOME.

In January this year I appeared on My Linux Rig and you can see I was still an Ubuntu desktop user. I wrote:

I am curious about how Fedora is doing these days, but realistically switching distributions is more work than upgrading Ubuntu so I am likely to stick with the path of least resistance.

But rumblings were changing my mind. Late last year I made a belated upgrade to Ubuntu 12.04 (after I submitted my PhD in May), at which point for reasons I now forget it became impossible to use GNOME 2/Metacity. I wasn’t particularly enamoured of GNOME 2 by that point in any event, but I’d resisted switching because my husband has been using Unity for considerably longer (he is a fan; he may have been dogfooding for Canonical fairly early, although he’s worked for Google since mid-2011 and I am not sure of Unity’s timeline there) and I really struggled with it when I used his machine. Much later it emerged that he doesn’t use workspaces at all in Unity, so that may be responsible for his desktop being a bit Mary-hostile.

I gave Unity and GNOME Shell about two hours each on my desktop and decided that I liked the latter better. GNOME Shell wasn’t ideally supported in Ubuntu 12.04 and 12.10 but it worked well enough to keep me from the pain of re-installing. But then I upgraded to 13.04, and GNOME Shell crashed about every half an hour on my hardware and graphics seemed unstable in general. Unity was rather better, needing a restart “only” a few times a week. But I really missed GNOME Shell. I was tempted to move to a distro that follows mainline GNOME at that point, but the decision was sealed when I began to learn about Canonical’s plans for the desktop stack. I don’t actually have a strongly held opinion on a lot of the issues: the value or otherwise of collaborating with upstream in general or with GNOME or Wayland or Xorg in particular, the relative technical merits of any current proposal, the risks of splitting the Linux desktop and so on. I just have a preference for vanilla GNOME 3 and Canonical’s development direction suggested Ubuntu was increasingly less likely to cater to me as time went on. And less likely looked pretty bad when 13.04 already rendered it nearly unusable.

Well, I guess I do have a preference in a way, I’m using Fedora — rather than any other distro with a good GNOME 3 stack — to support Red Hat (in a small way), in that they are active in developing the software I like at the moment.

In terms of work, I really didn’t want to switch. Reinstalling my machine and setting up my work environment has been exactly as annoying and boring as I expected it would be, I have a whole second post coming with notes on all the gotchas I encountered configuring Fedora. There is nothing fun about installing or configuring Linux, and FedUp better do what it says on the tin and take me to Fedora 20 and so on when the time comes. (Ubuntu’s preferred upgrade path, by the by, hadn’t worked for me for at least five releases, I was therefore still using apt-get dist-upgrade.) It took me a month to get from “I want to switch to Fedora” to actually installing it, and it probably would have been at least another month if Unity hadn’t crashed on me about three times in an hour last week.

So here we are. Initial signs are promising. My install, while boring, went cleanly. GNOME 3 on Fedora is much more stable than GNOME 3 or Unity on Ubuntu 13.04 on my hardware.

Hopefully I won’t be doing this again before 2022.

* Not really, my servers are still Ubuntu LTS and will likely stay Ubuntu LTS or, if there’s some Unity-equivalent disruption in the Ubuntu server experience, which I can’t imagine, Debian.

Syndicated 2013-07-24 23:20:32 from lecta

Fending off stamp collectors

I don’t collect stamps, but I do always have them on my person.

It started back in 2001, when I first received Youth Allowance as a university student. Youth Allowance requires fortnightly income reporting, and this couldn’t be done online until 2004 or so, so for some time I was used to walking to Centrelink with my form and waiting in line for up to 45 minutes with everyone else dropping off their form and/or asking questions about their payments. After a few months, I realised that it would be better to invest in a book of stamps and post it to them instead, even though this put me out 45c or so and resulted in the payment being a day later.

Ever since then I’ve still found myself posting just enough things that I still buy a new book of 20 stamps every time I run out. It’s admittedly a little bit self-perpetrating; I usually prefer email, but already owning stamps and envelopes occasionally means that it’s easier to post something than to scan and track down an email address, and it’s always easier to post than to fax.

So over the years I’ve had and farewelled numerous Australian stamps. There was a tropical fish one around for a long long time that I was quite fond of. However, in the last year or so I’ve wondered if Australian stamps are undergoing a boringness challenge or something. It started a year or 18 months ago with Tourist Precints of Australia, featuring pictures of The Rocks in Sydney and South Bank in Brisbane and such. I think I went through two or three books of that before it finally vanished from sale. That was followed fairly recently by Agricultural Products of Australia, which had the benefit of nice simple colours (oranges for example, or the creamy merino staring out of the stamp) and I used to preferentially send my parents, who farm beef cattle, cattle stamps, but otherwise didn’t do much for me.

But I think it’s reached a new low, frankly. I’m down to my last few oranges and merinos and popped in to get a new book the other day. This year, if you get mail from me, watch out for Government Houses of Australia. You’re welcome.

Syndicated 2013-07-24 04:17:55 from lecta

Filling a car: user interface commentary thereon

I don’t own a car, so while I’m a bit late in life for this tradition, I’ve nevertheless been driving my father’s car while my parents are overseas. They’re back today, so last night I decided to fill the tank for them before they got back.

I wasn’t coming into this in the best of states. I had a three year old child in the car. It was evening peak hour in Sydney, and although I was yet to realise that events in Moore Park were slowing traffic even more than usual back as far as the Lane Cove tunnel (for reference, Moore Park and the Lane Cove tunnel are 15km apart on entirely different sides of Sydney Harbour), I had already had to turn from Lane Cove Road onto Epping Road, which has to be one of the worst designed intersections of all time, except for all other intersections of major arterial roads in Sydney, which are also awful in peak hour. (For example, it was often considerably faster to get off my bus on the Pacific Highway, walk 1km around onto Epping Road, and catch an entirely new bus further ahead in the queue than it used to be to wait for the bus to turn that same corner.) But Lane Cove and Epping is my especial enemy after most of a decade at Macquarie University, I can’t even go into it now. And finally, I was late to meet my sister, who was sitting on the front step of my house in the dark.

Then I pull up to a pump, which is also (I knew) on the wrong side of the vehicle, run back and forth between the drivers seat and the fuel hatch (on opposite sides of the vehicle) until I find the latch for it, unhook the hose from the bowser, drape it over the top of the car, and get a good look at the fuel cap for the first time. “DIESEL”.

Before everyone reaches for smelling salts, all that happened here is I said “oh for real?”, put the ULP hose away, got back in the car, moved it, hunted around on foot for the diesel pump, found it, moved the car there, filled the car, spilled big splotches of diesel all over my dress (that made for a fun drive home, ugh, sorry your car interior smells of diesel Dad, but I also note it smelled strongly of cattle before that), paid for the fuel, got back in the car, apologised profusely to my 3 year old — who is very well behaved in cars, those of you who’ve heard my story about him in planes will be surprised to hear, and who hadn’t peeped the whole time other than to say “oh no Mama diesel” sympathetically — and drove home in infuriating traffic, about 45 minutes late to hand over the car to my sister.

So far so good right? But my point is this. That label “DIESEL” was in a nice elegant thin font in white letters on the fuel cap. It was big but it didn’t look so terribly important, I can imagine “TOYOTA”, say, being lettered much the same (or “NO SMOKING” which is important in general, but less so to me in particular). I probably only would have needed to have been in about a 10% worse mood to have just missed it entirely and filled the tank with ULP, which I just now confirmed is as expensive a mistake as I thought it was, and this morning my parents would be flying into the country in order to find that I’d wrecked the engine. Good grief.

My point is this: it would be nice if that cap was, say, all in red, and burned to the touch in the close proximity of ULP or something (yeah yeah, not really). In order to avoid a mistake that would cost weeks and ten thousand dollars to rectify, and moreover would be at the expense of my father’s very car reliant job too, there’s elegant white lettering on black? There aren’t even differently sized or shaped interfaces? At least I can take a UI design lesson from it: I will always in future imagine evening peak hour, a toddler, running late, and how to help that person not spend ten thousand dollars on a momentary oversight.

And if you have a diesel vehicle and want to loan it to your frazzled adult daughter (or frazzled adults of your acquaintance in general) I see that there are after market mis-fuelling prevention devices. Good to know someone stepped in. Although at this particular service station, I would have had to pull it off again because it was a high flow bowser. So, you know, not exactly ideal still.

Syndicated 2013-04-19 23:12:42 from lecta

Team Sid: why the antagonist became my favourite

Week 5 of the Alphabet Sufficiency: F.

A few years ago, a friend’s children were in the target age range for the Toy Story franchise, and he told me with some shock that his eldest had “missed the entire point” of Toy Story in being Team Buzz Lightyear rather than Team Woody. And I nodded sagely, having only ever seen Toy Story 2 and that on its cinematic release. I knew only that Woody is the old faithful toy and Buzz Lightyear the new advertising pushed successor toy.

Well, now I’ve seen Toy Story, and frankly, I’m not Team Woody, and that’s putting it mildly. In fact, Woody horrifies me so much it’s part of the reason I’m Team Sid.

A brief recap of Toy Story for those of you who don’t have children or aren’t playing along with Pixar at home. First, concept: toys are alive and sentient, but only when no one is looking. Andy, child, loves cowboy toy Woody the best of all, but for his birthday he receives space ranger Buzz Lightyear who becomes at least co-equal in his affections. Meanwhile, when Andy is absent Buzz also usurps Woody in the affection of the actual toys. His main weakness is that he is utterly unaware he is a toy, giving Woody an opening to trick him into travelling to a “space port” (a space-themed pizza place). Both toys become separated from Andy’s family and end up in one of those arcade claw machines, and are acquired by Sid, an older boy who is Andy’s next-door neighbour and who mistreats toys. After various mishaps, Sid is about to launch a small rocket with Buzz attached into the sky, when Woody raises all Sid’s other toys in rebellion. Woody and Buzz then pursue the moving van containing Andy’s family’s possessions and eventually rocket into Andy’s car where he finds them as if they’d been left there all along. Aww.

And what I’ve tried and failed to hide in that summary is that Woody is an utter jerk for most of the movie. Before Buzz’s arrival he’s portrayed as the patronising father-figure of the toy room, running it like a corporate office, surrounded by bemused toys and a small number of uncertain sycophants. Really appealing. He displays some real fear and loneliness after Buzz arrives and he’s swept from his prime position on Andy’s bed, but only in complete privacy. Once he discovers Buzz’s weakness he is triumphant and merciless, mocking him to his face. “You think you’re a real spaceman? Oh all along I thought it was an act.” He then proceeds to manipulate every one of Buzz’s resulting traits — singlemindedness, a belief that his mission requires him to return to space — at first trying and failing to get other toys to join the mockery and then realising that he can get Buzz to act based on his beliefs. Sure there’s a sort of redemption arc in which Woody saves Buzz from Sid and turns down a few opportunities to leave him, but by then his fate was sealed. Even Mr Potato Head isn’t as anti-Woody as me.

Meanwhile, Buzz is pretty appealing, as long as all-American (all-Galatican?) hero works for you. He manages the other toys in a loose military model rather than a corporate model, where at least there’s room for improvement rather than the system being set up to manage their (presumed) static inadequacies. He treats Woody as more-or-less an equal (admittedly based on rank; he believes Woody to be the local sheriff) and trusts without question that Woody is transparent and honest; at least it doesn’t make me want to spit in his face. He’s easily manipulated, but his view of the world is very far from consensus reality: if I am actually a sentient child’s toy, I’ve probably been easily manipulated too in my time.

I am not unsympathetic to my friend’s child here. Given a choice between a Woody doll and a Buzz doll, I know which I’d choose. But the narrative point of view, which positions Woody’s behaviour as understandable and forgivable, bugs me so much that I ended up naturally sympathetic to the antagonist.

Let’s re-evaluate Sid. First, to be fair, even from my point of view, he has some serious failings. The most serious is that he’s not at all kind to his younger sister. Which is grave indeed, but I do notice that his sister doesn’t seem to be frightened of him, and when Sid displays weakness (extreme fear of toys, not unreasonable given he’s just discovered they’re sentient and dislike him) she immediately and thoroughly takes advantage. He doesn’t seem to have decisively established dominance in the family and it’s implied that his mother has the final say outside of his bedroom. His other failing (to me) is the scene where he’s shown being pretty brutal with the arcade equipment. He does also do a couple of villain-marked things, like cackling while thunder rolls, but that’s not actually an immoral act. The Doylist explanation for this is pretty obvious — he’s being positioned as the villain — but my Watsonian explanation is that he is playing at being the villain, the bad-boy toy torturer. A lot of his other “failings” from the narrative point-of-view are the atmospherics surrounding him, which look like Pixar straight-out buying into dubious cultural tropes about people who listen to metal. Skull on your t-shirt, evil, not the same thing.

And see the thing is, except when they’re his sister’s toys, what Sid does to toys isn’t actually wrong. He has no reason to begin to suspect they’re sentient. (And the movie does something really annoying here: it’s OK to reveal this to Sid to save Buzz in particular… why? It wasn’t OK to reveal it to save Hannah’s doll, for example.) And what he does with them is frankly rather cool and inventive. A baby doll’s head with mechanical spider-legs? If my kid does that I’ll take photos and puff about it in my parenting blog. He’s also a pretty good actor, what with the thunderclap cackle, and the different voices he used to enact his surgical scenes, in which he appears to be a mash-up of Dr Frankenstein and standard medical dramas.

Consider it this way: Andy’s play is pretty conventional. There’s a stick-up. The woman gasps in fear. The brave sheriff saves the day. Hooray! Sid’s play is more transformative, both physically transforming the toys and mashing together whatever tropes suit him: medical drama, medical horror, ground control, meteorological reports, generic Evil Overlord cackling. Sid is the fan and the hacker. Really Sid’s main mistake in my book was not sending Woody on a one-way rocket ship. It’s OK Sid, you weren’t to know. I’m still Team Sid.

Syndicated 2013-04-07 22:42:29 from lecta

Valuing my PhD

Week 4 of the Alphabet Sufficiency: V.

I’ve circled on ‘value’ for a long time; this is the prompt of this essay series for which I’ve started writing four times. My relationship with value is ongoing, and I’ve got hidden writings now on how I try and tell if other people value me, on my relationship with the sunk cost fallacy, on the epistemological problems with measurement (that is, a measurement and reality are not the same thing), and even on irritating probability mind tricks that depend on weird phrasings.

But the sunk cost fallacy suggests I should pick something bite-sized and be done with it, so here it is: I am coming to value my PhD work. (Status of that: I’ve finished writing and been examined and done my required corrections. I’m waiting for university sign-off and eventual graduation. So, I’m not a PhD holder, but I will be. I’m a PhD finisher already.)

This has been a while coming. There are lots of things wrong with the PhD process, maybe less so in Australia than in some other countries and maybe less so in computer science than in some other disciplines, if only because for some computing employers outside the academy it’s seen as a positive signal rather than a negative one, as is the stereotype of how a PhD is seen in some other fields. (Note, stereotype; I know nothing of the reality.)

Nepal - Sagamartha Trek - 110 - Everest, Nuptse and Lhotse close-up from Gokyo Ri

Everest, Nuptse and Lhotse (from Gokyo Ri) by McKay Savage

And it’s much easier to feel warm and fuzzy about something when the hard bit is nearly a year in the past, too. Somewhere in my photo collection there’s a self-portrait of me late last May, at 11pm, eating the spag bol my sister dropped off in a care package, alone in darkness. You know you’re at a peak life-stress when Steph drops off food: the other time last year was when I was unexpectedly hospitalised for a week last year. It was a cold evening, I remember taking the photo to email my family and I don’t know that I felt that was I was doing was valuable at the time so much as simply wanting it to be in the past. And also wanting to warm up. I did two things last May: write stuff, and learned a whole lot about climbing Everest (mostly from Alan Arnette’s blog). Not metaphorically, literally, because May is the end of the Everest climbing season. The Everest climbers and I were both cold, and both working hard. I felt we had a lot in common. Even if they got better photos than I did.

So, we need to allow for rose-coloured glasses, very much so. And I’ll also note that I don’t think a PhD is the only, or the best, or a better, way to obtain a lot of what I value from it. But it comes down to this: I wrote about 100 pages in 2 months. In that time, I did a small amount of experimental work (obviously most of it was done by then), I evaluated a lot of sources, and I did a lot of work in explaining things. I can tell you (but won’t, here) how I could re-do the whole thing, much better. And I did so much work independently — not always well in hindsight, but work — that every other project in my life pales in terms of sheer clinging onto the side of the mountain trying not to fall down it.

It will be a long time before I can decide if I did any of this well even in the (frankly unlikely) event that I read it end-to-end ever again. But the value I’m deriving from simply having done it is not negligible. It takes a lot of written material to intimidate me now, for one thing. I can read scientific literature outside my field and have some idea of how to scale the mountain. I feel much happier about having done it than I did at any time in 2012, including the day after handing it in. Its value probably still doesn’t come to seven years of opportunity cost, but it has some.

Bonus value: this blog entry has caused me to go back over my journals of last May, which include a few hilarious (entirely to me) moments:

May 19th:

[The thesis] also probably going to be longer than I expected: probably 150 pages or so in terms of sheets of paper, around 100 to 110 pages of non-appendix content.

Amusing or horrifying, your call: I sent it to the printers ten days after writing that, with 140 pages of non-appendix content and 201 total, so I blew my own projected page estimate by over 30 pages of prose in a week and a half. (I added a lot this year in response to my examiners too: the final version hasn’t been printed but is around 155 pages of non-appendix content and 230 total.)

Full disclosure: like many theses, it is double-spaced. It’s difficult to word-count accurately when you write in LaTeX, but it’s about 65000–70000 words, give or take, including appendices, which is a bit long for a science thesis, but that’s not unusual in computational linguistics.

May 29th (the day I ordered the printing of my examination copies):

I said to [my supervisor] that some people do all the training for a black belt and then don’t take the test (actually I don’t even know if this is true, but I said it) because they know within themselves that they are worthy and so…

He said “No. No no no no no. No way.”

The ‘f’ word for next week is ‘favourite’.

Syndicated 2013-04-01 10:37:44 from lecta

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