Saturday, May 31, 2008

Being open to learning

On the plane ride home from my recent trip, a woman with a child about one year old was sitting behind me. The little girl periodically kicked my chair, which brought up many memories of my own chair kicking days. Many roadtrips, over many years.

Looking back, it's amazing to me that the idea that kicking a chair might bother anyone took so long to sink in. The fact that my parents complained when I kicked their chair didn't make sense to me; I think I was around ten before it registered that they could actually feel it when I kicked their chair.

I tend to think of the 'normal' way of learning as being exposed to new concepts, or concepts presented in a novel way. That sometimes I learn things by just seeing familiar things (like parents' complaints) in a different way (such as, they might actually be bothered by what they were complaining about) feels very strange every time. Often I think the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit is a useful way to relate these kinds of experiences.

Unfortunately, it seems to be easy to shut out that kind of learning, becoming very attached to a particular way of thinking. It was nice to have that little girl remind me to be open to that kind of new understanding. The happy baby noises she made for much of the trip were wonderful, too.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

"That's a really horny oak tree."

"What is it, 150 years old?" asks my partner.

I had just returned from visiting family. He was explaining why my car and driveway were covered in brown, stringy flowers: they had fallen from the massive oak tree near our house.

Our weather has been more plant-friendly than usual this spring, and I've noticed many plants being especially lush. It looks like this oak tree decided to join in the fun. When the acorns start falling, we might need umbrellas to leave our house.

Is it weird that I think that would be really cool?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Getting further in life

My grandmother told me recently that you get farther in life by being nice. That didn't quite sound right to me. What immediately came to mind was a college friend who worked in a one-hour film development booth. She would develop in just a few minutes the film of people who were mean to her. To do this, she imposed on the good nature of her pleasant customers, sometimes making them wait past the one hour limit of company policy.

Also in college, I vividly remember writing maintenance request after maintenance request about the dryers not working. I'm sure at least a few of the couple hundred other women in that hall did the same. Finally, after several months, I put in a rather nasty phone call to the management. Within a week, I got a personal response, polite almost to the point of sucking up. They had asked the service company to come out: turned out the dryer vents were completely clogged with lent.

At my work, too, our polite customers have their work put on the bottom of our to-do list. The assumption driving these situations is that if a person is mean, what they are talking about must be important to them; if a person is nice, they must not really care about receiving whatever service they requested. My grandmother's sentiment seems like it should be true, but I just could not bring to mind a place where being nice got you ahead in life.

Then I got online and visited Wikipedia. Where long-term rudeness often results in an editor being banned. While good-faith negotiation may get controversial text accepted in an article, failure to be polite is the best way to have one's edits removed. I've seen several apparently successful owners of online publications attempt to bully their way into adding to or changing an article. Apparently surprised at the failure of this approach, they fall back to the publication they own in order to write about how awful a place Wikipedia is. My grandmother was right after all.

Of the situations discussed here, I think Wikipedia is different because the editors have no monetary transactions with each other. Giving nice people the short end of the stick seems to be driven by an environment of paid services. Unfortunately, that is how most of my days are spent: either at work, being paid for what I do, or outside of work paying others as I purchase food or clothing or pay bills. Although I'm hardly the first person to make this observation, I find it interesting that money leads to deterioration of social mores. If only we could figure out a way to get away from it.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Bronze monkey

For a semester in college, I assisted one of my department's professors for an hour a week. He specialized in powdered metals, and one week he demonstrated for me how a part is made from powders. Bronze powder and a monkey mold were what was laying around the lab, so we filled up the mold. Before it went into the compression machine, the filled mold needed to be sealed to protect it from liquid. Looking extremely embarrassed, the professor pulled a condom from a drawer, opened the package, and wrapped up the mold.

Demonstrating isostatic compression does not seem like something a person should be embarrassed about. But our society's attitude toward sex seems to be that it's "bad", and that "good" people avoid anything even associated with sex. I think it's actually a negative attitude about intimate relations, not simply a matter of keeping private matters separate from public ones: bowel movements are private issues, but toilet paper doesn't have the stigma associated with it that condoms do.

I encountered this attitude again recently: I'm working on the "condom" article on Wikipedia, and requested a history book through interlibrary loan. When the book came in, a librarian called and left a message on my answering machine. She was very careful to not mention the name of the book.

I have wondered if this idea that all things related to sex are "bad" has come about because of some unconscious realization that much of the intimacy in our society really is unhealthy. Unable to articulate the negative effects of certain behaviors, everything related to them gets caught up in the sense that these things wouldn't happen in a healthy society.

The broad brush does seem to be getting more specific, though. More than one of the stories in The Girls Who Went Away (a book I read recently) recounted how "pregnant" was a dirty word. One woman said her parents' avoidance of the word was so extreme she never even knew her mother was pregnant until her baby brother was brought home from the hospital. I believe it's good that the stigma associated with pregnancy has faded; perhaps someday using a condom to help make a bronze monkey won't seem so dirty, either.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Being tired all the time

I surprise myself with how reluctant I am to get a sufficient amount of sleep. I know how much better I feel and how much more productive I am when well-rested. But when I'm tired, especially several days in a row, I want to attribute it to some nutritional deficiency or undiagnosed disease: it's difficult to admit to myself that I just stay up too late. It's especially ironic when I stay up late because I want to do things I'm too tired to do.

I have some jealousy of others who don't seem to need as much sleep. To feel good, I need to be in bed for over eight hours a day; this is normal, from everything I've read. But somehow it doesn't feel normal. I keep thinking, and acting on the though, that I should be able to stay up and suffer no ill effects. Just an extra half hour, that's all I want. Or so I tell myself.

Writing this, and reading over it, brings to mind a post from a blog I read by Jen, about attachment to sin. Hm. More food for thought.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Laminar flow

Since I first saw the advertisements in college, I have been enchanted by (and covetous of) laminar bathroom fixtures. The water that comes out of them doesn't splash: not even when it falls from the ceiling!
Ceiling-mounted laminar faucetWall-mounted laminar faucet

I may never have those fixtures in my bathroom. But, thanks to my local grocery store having a major expansion, I now get the next best thing. The filtered water station has a laminar faucet! Every jug I fill, I'm fascinated by the silent and completely splash-free movement of the liquid. And all I have to do is go grocery shopping. I am a lucky woman.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Affirmation of self

I recently finished a knitting project. I wore it to a knitting group I attend, and it was much oohed and aahed over. I'm particularly happy with how my work turned out (it's rather difficult to tell if something will actually fit while it's still on the needles), but I don't credit all the positive attention to any particular skill. This group admires everyone's work, and all finished objects (FOs) are displayed proudly on their blog page. Having something one invested significant thought and time into be so flatteringly admired is very affirming of the decision to spend time on knitting. Receiving this affirmation is, I think, an important motivator for being a member in such a group. And offering such affirmation to other group members is an unspoken expectation of the group's membership.

I see the same dynamic on the long hair message boards I read. When anyone starts a thread with pictures of their hair, a flood of comments appears with all the same theme: "How beautiful!", "So lovely!", "Gorgeous hair!" Negative comments never appear. Not even constructive criticism (unless it is specifically asked for). Again, I'm sure affirmation of the decision to have a less-common hair length is an important motivator for being a member of those boards.

I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with seeking groups where this kind of affirmation is given and received. But demanding affirmation of lifestyle decisions from the government seems a little over the top. And I believe that's what is behind the movement to force legal recognition of gay marriage: the recent ruling in California was not based any legal obstacles faced by legally registered domestic partners in that state, but on the lack of "dignity and respect" caused by the State's refusal to call their relationship a "marriage". I'm not convinced the court has found the best solution to the question presented to them. Instead of marriage licenses for same-sex couples, I'd like to advocate that our government get out of the marriage business.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Can you talk?

In middle school, I started taking books with me to school: in any free time, I would read my book. I participated in my classes and was in band, which required communicating with fellow band members, but in general I did not pursue social interactions. There were several occasions where children I did not know came up to me (while I was reading) and asked, "Can you talk?" I always thought it was a very odd question.

In high school I started making a conscious effort to be more outgoing. Whether it was my efforts or the different school format, the rumors about me being mute apparently died down. Moving over a thousand miles away to college, and now employment, surely separated them from me for good.

Last year, at my current job, another employee was using the photocopier. I watched what he was doing for a minute, then tried to be helpful by explaining how he could photocopy his papers more quickly. He looked at me in surprise, then said, "You can talk?" Geez. I guess some things you just can't get away from.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A blessing of greeting

At Bible study yesterday, the passage we discussed included Joseph introducing his father to Pharoah:

Genesis 47:7 Then Joseph brought his father Jacob in and presented him before Pharaoh. After Jacob gave Pharaoh a blessing of greeting...

Genesis 47:10 Then Jacob gave Pharaoh a blessing of farewell and went out from his presence.*

My partner and I have been studying Genesis with this group for the past two years (the group started at the beginning, but when we came in they were just beginning the story of Abraham). I am unaware of anywhere else in Genesis where it describes people giving "blessings of greeting" or "blessings of farewell", and that really struck me.

One of the footnotes mentioned the English phrase "Godspeed", and one of the group members pointed out the "May God be with you" is also a common blessing of farewell. This started a discussion how language can help incorporate a relationship to God into everyday life, and avoid confining religion to a certain building. Even in times of hardship, God may be incorporated into our language patterns ("accepting God's will", for example).

To me, these phrases carry a lot of meaning. In some ways, I believe they express sentiments secular language just can't. But as an agnostic, I don't use them. It's one of those things that's been niggling around my brain for a while, in a way that sometimes results in meaningful changes happening in my thinking. Nothing's really "happened" yet, though, so for now I'm just keeping an eye on the niggling.

*Translation by Everett Fox, as best I can remember. All the other translations I've seen rendered either "blessing" or "greeting/farewell" but not both, although some had footnotes discussing both meanings of the Hebrew.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Activation energy

In physics, things "want" to be in a lower energy state. Given the chance, most things will on their own move to a lower-energy state, and things in lower-energy states are more stable than things in higher-energy states.

Top of hillExample: a ball on top of a hill has a lot of gravitational potential energy.

Bottom of hillA ball on top of a hill will probably not stay there for long. Rather, it will release some of its gravitational potential energy by rolling down the hill. Then, the ball will be where it "wants" to be.

Bottom of small hillThings become more complicated when there are multiple low energy spots.

Now, the ball is in a stable place, but it's not in the "best" place. It has to find the energy to go uphill before it can get to the lowest-energy place it "wants" to be.

Bottom of large hillThe energy needed to go up that hill, to gain access to the next stable location, is called "activation energy". Not a term in most people's everyday vocabulary, but I think it can describe experiences most people have frequently. We want to do something, we know it will move our life in a desired direction. Once started, it's easy to continue down(hill) on the path toward this goal. But getting started (up that first hill) takes a good amount of energy: activation energy.

Whether it's doing an exercise routine, or making new friends, or initiating a new religious practice: once started, these are activities that come naturally. Once in the midst of this kind of thing, I've sometimes wondered why I had any hesitation at the beginning. I find some comfort in relating my experience to the laws of physics, and this perspective has sometimes helped me gather the "activation energy" needed to add things I want into my life.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Should work/chores smell like food?

I had several tangentially related thoughts while cleaning my toilet this morning:

I have heard that cutting oils are available in scented varieties (cinnamon, for example), marketed to machine shops where the smell of oil pervades the work environment. I can see where reducing the smell of industrial fluids would be desirable, but a)I'm skeptical that adding scent to an oil makes the base petroleum smell less unpleasant, and b)I'm not sure industrial fluids should smell like food.

Partly because of the aversion my partner has to vinegar. I love vinegar as a food flavoring, but all of my attempts at dishes that include vinegar have been rejected. He explains this comes from his family's use of vinegar to clean up dog housebreaking incidents (so smelling vinegar makes him think of dog feces), and has been exacerbated by my using vinegar to disinfect my menstrual cup.

These things came to mind while cleaning my toilet because of this new "green" product from Clorox. It's the same price and size as their regular toilet cleaner, and I'm fairly crunchy (apparently people who would have been called "hippies" thirty years ago are now called "crunchy"), so I bought it recently. It smells absolutely delicious. I'm fairly pleased with its performance, and less worried about my birds being affected by the chemical fumes when I clean, so overall it's a positive. But I have to say the degree to which the odor is pleasant is a little disconcerting.

Monday, May 5, 2008

One thing leads to another

There's a saying that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it. Some things, it's important to remember.

In late 1930s Germany, certain groups were required to wear identifying marks. Jews, communists, homosexuals... it was a long list. Well, one thing led to another, and next thing you know soldiers are stripping these people naked and tattooing serial numbers on their arms while taking delight in telling them that their daughters and sons and mothers and fathers they were just separated from were being gassed to death as they spoke.

In America in 2006, a radio host suggested requiring all Muslims to wear armbands (at the end of the show he revealed the suggestion to be a hoax). Not all, but many of his callers agreed with the suggestion. The incident was posted for debate on a message board I read, with a number of outraged responses. And then... a couple of posters who said, well, of course it was a bad idea, but they didn't understand all this outrage. After all, they were just armbands. What would it really matter?

They really had no idea.

Last night I attended my community's Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance) service. The speaker commented that she had never seen a community come together to observe Yom HaShoah as ours did, that it was more commonly limited to the Jewish congregants. I was very proud of the ecumenical group that put together such a moving event. One of the things I came away with was a renewed sense of the importance of remembering the horrors of the Holocaust: not understanding how one thing leads to another enables a few twisted souls to lead an entire society down a dark, dark path.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

"Don't hire the pretty ones"

Last week, my coworkers were lamenting a string of attractive young women that have held one of the positions at my company (it's a round-the-clock position, so there may be up to three people at one time in this job, one for each shift). The advice they wish the hiring manager would take was to find the ugliest woman possible for this job, that pretty women just caused trouble.

Now, it's true that there have been significant personnel issues that have involved most of the attractive young women who have held this position, but never the middle-aged woman who works on first shift. Everything from job duties being neglected while men find every excuse to go hang out where these women work, to outright fistfights. And I can see where the most expedient policy would be to remove attractive females from the shop floor.

But I got impression that my coworkers believed the women were the problem. It's not the women neglecting their job duties (they can paint protective coatings on while holding a conversation just fine). The supervisor should have been disciplining his employees for neglecting job duties, not joining them in fawning over these women. And to whatever extent these women enjoyed the male attention and encouraged it: attractiveness is a poor measure of the personality characteristics that lead to that behavior. Viewing attractive women as a problem in and of themselves (rather than as an unwilling part of a problem situation) is such an anti-feminist position I wish I had tried to modify this belief my coworkers apparently hold.

But it took me several days to reason out why their conversation bothered me so much; I felt it was wrong at the time, but on the spot could not articulate any objections. And even if I had been quicker to think, I'm not sure I would have had the courage to challenge my boss and two employees with decades of seniority over me. All I can do, I suppose, is store up my arguments for the next time, if it comes.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Computer resurrection

About a week ago, there was a power outage at my house. A few minutes later, the power came back on. Minus my computer.

Power irregularities can damage both power supplies and motherboards. In my case, I didn't have to try to figure out which one was gone: my power supply was integrated into the motherboard. Whichever connection had gotten zapped, the whole assembly was toast. So we bought me a new computer. And a more expensive surge protector, with battery backup.

My new computer is similar to the old one, and it mostly worked when we just swapped out the hard drives (so I have my old operating system and all my files). My partner also salvaged the RAM from the old computer to add onto the new one, so I now have super duper amounts of RAM.

Finding drivers for the new hardware did take a little bit of research. I still don't know what a chipset is, just that I now have a working driver for it. But only after finding that the manufacturer's chipset driver utilities, advertised to automatically detect my hardware and operating system and install the correct driver, did not work. The list of hardware made it fairly simple to find the chipset and video drivers, but my ethernet card was not listed. I tried opening up the computer to examine the ethernet bits, but there are no labels there, either. Windows suggested that I connect to the internet so it could automatically find the correct driver. Which was somewhat amusing, but not helpful.

Anyway, everything works now. Spare parts:
*Hard drive with Windows Vista
*CD/DVD player
*Compact desktop case (approx. 12" x 8" x 2")
*and possibly an AMD 64 Athlon processor, although this might have been fried in the power outage