Finally, a rap that I can sing without guilt, given my afforementioned disposition. Thanks Flight of the Conchords!
Monthly Archives: March 2008
This morning my science communication class had breakfast with Mr. William Nye. We sat in a small classroom and for the most part, he spent the time asking us questions about what we do and why we’re in the class. When he got to me, and I explained my research on the minimal gene set (the smallest possible set of genes that can still support bacterial life), he asked me how large such a set would be. I said something like “well, we know there are bacterial species that have around 400 genes, so the smallest set is obviously smaller than that.” Bill called me out for that, firing back “it’s not obvious!!” He was just kidding around, but it was a good reminder that I shouldn’t use presumptive language when describing science.
It was impressive how kind and engaged Bill Nye is. As soon as he got to breakfast, he immediately hugged the instructor of our class, and another student in the class who he recognized. He really strikes me as a genuinely caring individual, who got into his business because he wanted to talk to people about important problems. Definitely an inspiration for how I’d like to behave as a scientist.
Note: I was holding off on this post because I wanted to post some pictures from the breakfast, but I haven’t gotten them yet. I’ll try to get them up in the next couple days.
I had an MRI this morning (two MRIs, technically) to help my doctor figure out why I still get headaches as often, or as easily, as I do. I know the headaches originate in my upper back or neck, and some ergonomic fixes and physical therapy took care of a lot of them about a year ago. However, they still come a couple times a week, and often I wake up with them, or with the neck aches that lead to them, which is almost as bad a start to the day as when the cat is licking your face and telling you you missed the bus. The goal of the MRI was to see if there is anything structurally off that might be predisposing me to neck problems.
If you have never had an MRI, they are very loud, and can tend to be unpleasant, unless you like hearing the sound of a jackhammer right above your head while you’re strapped into a confined space and told to remain absolutely motionless for an hour and a half. The first one this morning wasn’t too bad. I think the repetitive nature of the ear-splitting noises actually put me into a sort of trance. During the second image, however, I started to have a sharp stinging pain at the back of my head, near where the ridge of my skull came in contact with the pad I was laying on. This pain got worse and worse throughout the exam, and a few times I considered calling the technician back in, but decided that would only prolong my discomfort and just toughed it out. I couldn’t ignore the pain, it just hurt too much, so I started trying to figure out what its source was. The best explanation I could think of involved me being secretly tagged with a micro RF transmitter by the shadow government so they could track me quickly, you know, in case I went rogue. That tag was being ripped through my cranial flesh by the powerful magnets in the MRI. If that infernal machine hadn’t been banging so loud I probably could have figured out exactly why they felt I was such a threat.
When I was finally wheeled out of the MRI, I asked the technician if that pain was normal, and she said it was not. We came to the conclusion that it was just due to putting pressure on a pointy part of my head for so long, but I think I like my origin story better.
I just got out of a job talk by Bungie; I know what you’re thinking, and the answer is no, I did not win a free copy of Halo 3.
Generally, I’m looking for a new job starting sometime anywhere from 18-20 months from now. Tentatively, I’m going to go into academia in applied math or something along those lines. Realistically, I’m not a prime candidate for a position in a software or gaming company, because my training and experience are in a field that’s only tangentially related (it wouldn’t be impossible, but I assume it’s unusual). I just went to the talk for fun and to think outside of the standard job box a little.
The talk was fun. More technical than I expected. I never thought I’d hear the term “spherical harmonics” come up in a context where I was actually interested. Bungie sounds like a fun and creative place. When I asked if one of the three projects they’re working on now was called “Marathon”, they all looked at the floor. It’s not a “no”, and I’d like to interpret it as a “yes”, but in truth it’s probably just their default response when someone asks a question they aren’t allowed to answer. In all I learned a bit about what goes into making a game like Halo 3 look the way it does, and how some bits and pieces of the things I’ve learned at school are relevant outside of the bubble in which I apply them.
I was struck, however, when they showed a “life at Bungie” video, and only one female employee was shown in the whole company. The flick showed maybe 50 employees in their element (out of more than 200), and they were all guys. I’m sure Bungie is an equal opportunity employer, so I don’t fault them for this. It was just surprising from the perspective of someone in an engineering program with a high proportion of women (50/50 in the undergraduate part of my department). Looking around the job talk it seemed like 20-30% of the attendees were women, and I’m curious why the numbers I see here haven’t trickled down into a prominent company like Bungie. Perhaps after the Jade Raymond controversy, this shouldn’t be a surprise. After getting some press during promotion for Assassins Creed, Raymond was subjected to a myriad of disgusting attacks, and some of the coverage was just outright creepy. That story revealed a lot of prejudice in the gaming community, and perhaps yields a better perspective on the low gender ratio I noticed in the Bungie video than my sheltered University lifestyle.
I don’t really know anything about industry wide stats on this issue, so I’d welcome more information if anyone has it.
At sushi dinner Friday Night, one of my peers heard that some other students in the department had been up until 4AM playing Axis and Allies last night, and gratuitously rolled her eyes, adding “they may as well have been playing Dungeons and Dragons”. I gave some retort that I resented her remark, and that it was insensitive to say that a few days after Gary Gygax’s death (I was sort of joking). Of course, nobody at the table knew who Gygax was anyways [editorial update – one person at the table has informed me that they knew who Gygax was].
This launched a conversation about role playing games that somehow became a conversation about Second Life. I actually wasn’t the one to bring Second Life up, but I heard someone talking about a “game like The Sims where you can build a house and chat with other people”, so I jumped into the fray. Once I mentioned that I had a Second Life account and had used it, I had to field many, many questions about what it is, how it works, why people do it, and most strangely (to me), what it looks like, both in terms of what you see…
… and how the world is laid out geographically,
(This is just a small section of the Second Life world map).
Some of the other questions that came up, for example, were:
Do you have to pay for it?
What does it look like?
What do people do on it?
Who is connected? Does someone have to be connected for you to “play”?
Can you have sex?
If you have sex, what does it looks like? Is it pixelated?
How do you travel around the world? Is it geographically like Earth?
How do people make money from it?
What if someone tries to have sex with you and you don’t want to?
Are there political groups?
- Do you have to write code to use it?
Who writes the sex code?
How do you go from place to place?
Are there countries?
How do you know you’re not chatting with minors?
If you pay for your account, do you get more sex?
A lot of these seemed to be inspired by things they had read or heard from short news stories, and I had to ask for clarification about a lot of the questions (pixelated sex? wtf?). Also, I don’t know why people were so interested in sex on Second Life (well, maybe I do know why), but I ended up telling my BDSM story. The discussion revealed some interesting aspects of how the people at the table viewed Second Life (and similar online activities – World of Warcraft came up a few times).
They really had no idea what a chat room with avatars would look like. The whole mechanic was foreign to them. Strange, for me, since that was sort of the “goal” of the internet as long as I can remember it. They were curious and very interested in seeing Second Life, but not so interested that they would try it themselves. Several times I was asked “could you show it to me?”, but there was a lot of resistance when I suggesting installing it on their computers (I wasn’t pushing for this by any means… I just suggested it because it made more sense). Some had a big stigma against adults playing pretend. They would ask, “why would you spend time doing this when you can do it in real life?” I tried to make a case for it being OK for adults to pretend too, and I think we came to the consensus that pretending is fine if it’s not adversely affecting other parts of your life. There was definitely a perception that sex and Second Life are equivalent. I gave some examples of other things that happen there (movies, lectures, arts, the Nature Publishing Group’s Second Life island, a.k.a. “Second Nature“, etc.), but in the end their perception might be somewhat true.
The most striking part of the conversation to me was the coupling of interest and disgust… There’s this other world of “stuff” to do, and they were fascinated with it, but the extreme distaste for actually being personally associated with it, coupled with the view that it’s a waste of time, feels odd. It reminds me of something from a Geekstudies post on a book by David Anderegg. Jason explains that part of Anderegg’s argument boils down to “[geek/nerd identity] is something kids mostly grow out of… before they go on to make tons of money”. Because Second Life is on the computer, I definetely got the sense that people felt they had “grown out” of trying something like that (never mind that Second Life is inappropriate for minors, let alone children). However, it’s nice to see that the press Second Life is getting is attracting people’s attention, and perhaps, interest.
A couple weeks after I wrote a post about my lack of swearing, South Passadena became the first city to sponsor a no-cussing week (no causation implied there). The initiative, conceived by a local 14 y.o. boy, has temporarily derailed my plans to start swearing more. Interestingly, the photo accompanying the story is of someone flipping the reader off.
“… voters are finally focused on who they think will be the best commander-in-chief…
… Now that senator McCain is clearly the nominee, democratic voters are taking their decision very seriously…”
– Hillary Clinton on Today, this morning
It’s a bit tiring to hear everyone (McCain, Clinton, Obama, the media, everyone) constantly explain why people voted for who they voted for. I believe many people have unpredictable reasons for voting the way they do, and to say that they voted for the candidate they did for a particular reason trivializes the complex set of issues underlying these elections. Furthermore, statements like this seem to imply that before, voters were not focused on who will be the best C.I.C., or taking their decision seriously. This isn’t directed in particular at Senator Clinton, rather I’m just bored of seeing this filter constantly applied to election results.
I know that candidates have to do this – it’s to their advantage to interpret their success as a portent of something larger, and then to project that interpretation onto our monitors and our brains.
But the media doesn’t have to do it (do they?). They don’t have to interpret every single voting block’s majority as a swing for a particular reason. When CNN tells me that voters chose experience over change yesterday in Texas and Ohio, I don’t want to believe them. It may be true that Clinton is correlated with experience, and Obama is correlated with change, but that doesn’t mean that votes for one or the other correlate the same way; and if they do correlate that way, there’s no way to deconvolute that from the affect of the media. Does this make sense?
Anyways, I’m often a big fan of controversy, so I’m not unhappy to see the nomination process carry on a bit longer.