Monday, April 28, 2008

German engineering

I have spent almost three years as a Wikipedia editor. In that time, one thing that has surprised me is the strength of the German Wikipedia: out of proportion to its number of native speakers, it is the second largest Wikipedia (after English). More impressively, several technical features were originated on the German project and then adopted by the English version. To my knowledge, no other language besides English has contributed to the administrative development of the Wikipedia project.

In my editorial work with Wikipedia, I have done some research on the history of birth control methods. One thing that stands out in my mind from this research is the huge influence of German-speaking countries to the development of modern birth control methods. The cervical cap: invented by a German. Ditto the diaphragm. The Rhythm Method: invented by a Dutch man (OK, they don't speak German in Holland, but it's a closely related language). Using records of basal body temperature to avoid pregnancy: first done by a German. The IUD: invented independently by a Japanese man... and a German. The condom: a bicycle-tire like version was developed by an American, a German invented the modern thin, disposable version. The pill: one of the major contributors was a naturalized American... from Austria.

They don't just engineer methods of avoiding conception, they are highly skilled at using them. From p. 150 of The Art of Natural Family Planning by John and Sheila Kippley:

The extremely low actual-use surprise pregnancy rates... suggest... the Austrians and Germans must be among the world's best rules-keepers.
The latest large study of German users of fertility awareness (BBC article) found that even women who slipped up and had intercourse on fertile days only had a pregnancy rate of 7.5% per year. A large survey by the CDC found that comparable American users had a pregnancy rate of 25% per year.

It makes me think there's more to the reputation of "German engineering" than a marketing campaign.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Division of labor

My partner and I help each other with chores as needed, but in general we practice a division of labor. I clean the bathrooms, he vacuums the rest of the house. I wash the dishes, he takes out the trash. I trim bushes and remove fallen branches, he mows the lawn and does minor treework.

We have a bush near our driveway. I believe this bush is encroaching on my driving space. My partner likes the bush (and the birds it attracts) where it is and does not want me to trim it. I once attempted to complain about the situation to my coworkers: but they totally misunderstood.

In their minds, trimming bushes is a man's job, and the only reason a man would not trim a bush is out of laziness. The wife may direct the man in trimming bushes, but she will only take up pruners herself if she is really, really angry at her husband for failing to do his job. The concepts that a)in our household trimming bushes is my job, and b)that my partner actually enjoys the bush and isn't just reluctant to do yardwork, were not grasped.

I not only completely failed to get the kind of sympathy I was looking for, but inadvertently portrayed my husband as lazy. Ouch.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The importance of food

I have been following the effects of the global grain price spikes with interest. The protests, some of which have turned violent, are occurring all around the world: a good summary is here. The World Bank has called the situation an "emergency."

I've tried to bring the subject up with my coworkers. They don't really seem to care that hundreds of thousands of people may starve to death this year. But several are up in arms that Costco stores in America are rationing rice.

Their response is somewhat distressing to me. It doesn't seem to be just my coworkers, either: the World Bank call for action made of point of explaining that instability in developing countries would affect trade and drag down the economies of developed nations; apparently famine is not a reason by itself to provide aid. But, perhaps I'm more invested in this issue than the average American or even government official: I donate money to charities that have been trying to prevent and mitigate this situation, and send occasional emails on the topic to my Congressmen. Perhaps I should not expect that level of involvement from everyone.

Nevertheless, it was comforting to see that the writers on the Daily Show seem to be equally distressed over these views of the typical American: C'rice'is in the U.S.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Changing seasons

We keep it cool in our house in the winter. I wear socks and often house shoes. The seasons are changing now, though, and it's warming up here. Today, I walked around my house barefoot.

I sat on my couch and pulled my feet up. In proximity to my bare feet for the first time in several months, I noticed my toenails needed to be clipped. I got the clippers. As I unwrapped my pinky toenail from the end of my toe, I discovered the white portion was longer than the pink portion. I clipped it off, went to the next nail - it was a little longer. Only my big toes had anything close to a proportionate white/pink ratio. Yikes. I'm glad it's spring.

I'm not sure about the effect on our birds, however. Early Monday morning (our clock said 12:44am) I again awoke to terrified flapping. I didn't notice anything unusual - like normal with the night frights. Fortunately for my beauty sleep, they only occur every few months.

But it turns out this was not a normal night fright. It seems one or both birds was responding to another earthquake. Did I mention I'm unsettled by this whole earthquake business?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Prayer in song

The Jewish Reform movement recently issued a new official prayer book. This new book, the rabbi tells us, is closer to the traditional Jewish worship form. Compared to the previous service guide, it is less influenced by American Protestant Christianity. Major differences with the Orthodox movement remain reflected in the worship service, but the shift is an interesting one.

When following the new service, I was most struck me by the emphasis on sung prayers. There aren't that many new songs, but there is also less spoken text: the result is that the service is now primarily singing. My understanding of the importance of song to Jewish worship and rituals was aided this weekend: my partner and I attended the congregational seder (Passover celebration) on Saturday. Again, the important role of the songs stood out to me.

I like singing, so it's nice to have such opportunities. But not everyone likes to sing; such a worship format seems like it would be an imposition on some people. To be sure, the benefits must outweigh such disadvantages for this to have become the traditional worship form. What are these benefits? It's an interesting question to ponder.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Night fright

Cockatiels (a parrot species about 8-10 inches long) are notorious for night frights. Sometimes I wake up to the desperate flapping and can go turn the light on. Other times I just get up in the morning and find the broken and sometimes bloody feathers in and around the cage.

Last night I woke up. I leap out of bed, go into the next room and flip the light switch. A few seconds later, another episode of flapping breaks out, puzzling me. Sometimes it takes a few seconds for the birds to settle down, but once they can see it's safe they don't resume beating against the cage.

The birds settled down again quickly, though. I hear a sound from outside the house, a muffled thud-thud-thud-thud-thud, the flapping starts again, then from close to me clink-clink-clink-clink. I move my houseplants away from the edge of the shelf, the birds settle down.

Then again, the muffled thud-thud-thud-thud and the birds flapping and the clink-clink-clink of my ceramic pots shaking. "Do you feel that?" asks my partner from the bedroom (he later told me he thought one of his muscles was spasming).

Well. My first earthquake. The epicenter was 300 miles away from me. But still, what an unsettling way to start my day.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Separating treads

The staircase in my house is hardwood. The treads on the staircase are coming apart, and some have gaps up to 1/8" wide.

These gaps are not noticeable during the day. But at night, any light in the basement shines right through. A convenient reminder that light needs turned out when we head upstairs for bed.

One could consider it an energy-saving feature. It may not completely compensate for having one room of the house with holes to the outside, but every little bit counts.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Can we talk about this?

During my senior year of high school, my English class spent some time studying poetry. One day in class, we were reading a poem about a woman's husband. He was a hunter, and the poem described the reaction in the natural world as he walked toward his house - rabbits hiding from him in fear and such. When he came into the house, his wife (the narrator) died.

The teacher asked what the poem meant when it said this woman experienced death. Well, I had read romance novels. I raise my hand. The teacher calls on me. "Death is a metaphor for orgasm."

"What!?" sputters the guy sitting behind me.

The teacher gives me a strange look. "That's correct... how do you know that?" How embarrassing. I don't even remember what noncommittal mumbled answer I gave. I guess it's always the quiet ones that surprise people.

Later that week, after a band practice, I overhear this conversation:
Flute player: "Did you know that death is a metaphor for orgasm?"
Clarinet player, blankly: "What's an orgasm?"
Awkward silence from the flute player.

I quickly scurried away, mortified my English class incident had made it all the way around the school gossip line. Looking back on it, though, I'm not sure embarrassment was an appropriate feeling in either of these situations. I've long wondered how that conversation in the band hall turned out.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Being strong for coworkers

I have always been reluctant to have men carry things for me, whether items in a grocery or retail store or books at school. This has continued into the workplace; if I feel I can safely lift something, I will do it myself. The job description for my position requires the employee to handle up to 70 pounds alone, so obviously they are making a concession for me. But I believe my willingness to regularly handle 25 to 30 pound parts has helped me be viewed as a more productive employee.

I have, for the first time since college, been exercising regularly for over six months now. One of the motivators for finally staying on the exercise bandwagon has been the disappearance of backaches: better muscle tone makes it easier to maintain good posture, and also better equips me to safely handle parts at work. (I have noticed some psychosomatic back pain, but making an effort to think happy thoughts banishes that fairly quickly.)

Nevertheless, I managed to injure my back this week. I didn't handle anything heavier than usual, but I did handle those 25 pound parts more frequently than usual. By Friday I was reduced to asking my coworkers to carry things for me (usually, I can just ignore the few jobs I can't handle).

I think emasculated would be a good word to describe how I felt. Everyone was very understanding and helpful, probably because they don't view me as masculine. Not that I think of myself as masculine. But it's difficult to not value strength in an environment where, first, one's ability to do the job one is paid to do is directly related to ability to handle parts, and second, feminine characteristics do not directly relate to paid job duties. So how is a feminist supposed to feel?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Would you drive that car?

Recently, I was talking with a supervisor about some parts that didn't meet the letter of their specification. He thought he had a funny story to tell me about finding an operator running the parts incorrectly. After pointing out the problem, the supervisor told the operator, "Would you want to buy a car with this part in it?" Wide-eyed operator shakes his head no. "You don't know what car this piece is going into. It could be your kid who buys that car!" The supervisor thought he had straightened that operator out, very funny.

I just looked at him blankly and said, "But that's all true." We don't know the application for these parts, but they look automotive and they could, for all we know, be safety-critical. As a third- or fourth-tier supplier, even important information like that often doesn't make it down to us. That negligence or miscommunication on our part could kill somebody or their child isn't funny. But working with it everyday, it's so easy to take that for granted.

Oh, and we decided that the out of specification issue with the parts would not affect their function. After all, we've run ten thousand of them like that, if it were a problem our customer would have complained by now, right?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Reading about adoption

I recently finished reading the book The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fesler. It has historical information on birthmothers from the end of World War II through the end of the 1960s. During this time period, both the teen pregnancy rate and the stigma of having a child out of wedlock went way, way up. The result was an unprecedented number of infants placed for adoption. Most of the book is interviews the author conducted with women who surrendered their children for adoption. They were all, to a greater or lesser extent, coerced into that decision.

Family, schoolmates, priests, social workers, school administrators: I was amazed at how these people acted together to remove infants from unmarried women and place them with married couples. Marriage is a social good, especially for children. But that an entire class of society could, in the name of marriage, forcibly separate infants from their mothers amazes me.

The role infant formula played in this surprised me. In the time period covered by the interviews, homes for unwed mothers only allowed the mothers to feed formula to their infants, and they exerted large psychological and financial pressures on the mothers to coerce them to surrender their infants for adoption. Just a few decades prior, before infant formulas became popular, these same homes required mothers to breastfeed and provided educational and job opportunities to help the women support both themselves and their child.

I was also surprised by the depth of the effect this had on the women who surrendered their children. I thought the women in the first few stories might have been unusually emotional: being a birthmother dramatically affected their career and relationships for the rest of their lives. But then the author described the many studies that had found these reactions in almost all women who went through this. And provided her own anecdotal evidence from the over one hundred interviews she conducted. The interview chapters (sixteen in all) just got more intensely emotional from there. The writing is captivating, of the type that I could normally read in one sitting. But the emotional intensity meant I could only handle one or two chapters at a time.

It really opened my eyes to how profoundly social forces can affect members of a society. We all affect the society we live in to some degree. I hope that the knowledge gained from this book will help me be more aware of, and positive in, my own small impact on society.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

My plants are growing, but my compost is not done

I took a tour around my yard today, and found many plants coming up. The onions and garlic I planted in the fall I expected. I was happy to see a couple of strawberry plants looking healthy already; I'm doubtful they'll make any berries, but they're pretty plants. My chives are looking sickly already; this might be their last year. Chives must need more sunlight than strawberries.

I was especially excited to see a lot of belladonna lilies coming up. These do better than any other flower in my yard because their leaves come up now - when it's still sunny before the trees leaf out and shade everything - and make and store all their energy for the year. The flowers come up by themselves in the fall ("Naked Ladies" since it's just the flower stalk, no leaves then). I divided a huge clump of them last fall: over thirty bulbs, about ten pounds worth! Only about eight plants had bloomed the last two years we lived here, so I was quite surprised to find so many bulbs there. I mailed half to my mother, but am still hoping to at least double the number of flowers I get this year.

I planted cuttings from my indoor Wandering Jew plant in two containers between our door and driveway. I really enjoy coming home to that bright splash of purple on the path between my car and house.

I was disappointed to see that my compost pile from last year was not finished. I didn't turn it at all; previous successful piles I had turned once in the fall. This is what I get for being lazy. I'll probably pick out some finished soil for my houseplants; the apple trees will just have to do without until the fall. My new plan is to start a third compost pile; this way each pile will have eighteen months to finish, and I'll get a finished pile every six months instead of once a year. So hopefully it will work out to be better in the long run.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Wow, you really are vegetarian

I became a lacto-ovo-vegetarian seven years ago. I'd been dating my partner for about a year, and before that we had cooked meat-containing meals together. And of course I'd helped my mom cook some while growing up. As part of becoming vegetarian, though, I generally don't cook meat anymore.

My partner sometimes cooks something for himself, although I'm usually not in the kitchen at the time. I happened to be there a few nights ago, and was half paying attention as he put together a soup based on a package of ramen noodles.

One of the things he added to the soup caught my attention: it was an orangey-color, and he had added quite a bit of it to the soup. It looked kind of fatty. Was it a kind of cheese or spread I didn't recognize? I poked it: pretty firm. Getting a better idea of the texture still wasn't ringing any bells for me. I turn to my partner and ask him what it was. He gives me a blank look, then says, "Chicken."

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

I miss being musical

As far back as I can remember, playing the piano, singing in a choir, playing in a band or ensemble, and taking music lessons have been a big part of my life. Through church, middle school, high school, and college.

Well, I graduated five years ago. The congregation I attend now doesn't have a choir. I have felt like I can't possibly fit music lessons into my schedule. Many of the prayers in our worship service are sung, I enjoy participating in that, and have mostly avoided anything other than an occasional wistful thought that it would be nice to do more.

For a few months now, the cantor at our synagogue has had me playing djembe (a kind of drum) in some of the worship services. It has really awakened a desire in me to make playing and performing music a bigger part of my life. This reaction snuck up on me over these months, and has reached a surprising strength. So I'll be putting a lot of thought into making being musical a part of my life again.