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random musings of a crazy cat lady

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Cranky Feminist Biddy*: WTF Smurf Edition

Dear Missy and Lee,
Please forgive me for subjecting Kadin to a little bit of extra feminist commentary on the Smurfs bedtime story. I apologize for any delays in the onset of sleep but stand by my message.
Old Biddy

For the rest of you who haven't been paying attention to the upcoming Smurf movie and marketing onslaught, count your blessings. Anyway, Missy and Kadin are visiting. Kadin got some new story books tonight, including the Smurfette book. I happened to read it to Kadin tonight, thinking it would be mellow nightime fare full of blue gnome like creatures bumbling around. But no, it's more like a Smurfized version of Adam and Eve, with a few extra Adams, more sexism and a makeover thrown in for good measure. The (male) Smurfs were living in a state of grace, getting ready for winter. It was a veritable sausage fest. The evil wizard created a female pseudo-Smurf (aka Smurfette) to make them fall in love with her and lure them all out so he can catch them. Smurfette looks like the other smurfs but has frizzy black hair. They let her live in their village and even help her paint her house purple but she doesn't really fit in and they think she is too bold. After her various plans to lure them to the evil wizard fail, she tries to flood the Smurf village but gets trapped in the deluge. The Smurfs save her and she begs their forgiveness. They magically transform her into a real smurf and give her a major makeover in the process. She becomes sexy and blond, with Barbie hair and a cuter dress and some kickin' heels. Then they all fall in love with her and the senior Smurf comments that maybe the solution is worse than the problem. Do 4 year olds really need messages like that? Upon some advanced interwebz surfing I verified that this is indeed the same plotline in the older version of the Smurfs, and it even resulted in the term "the Smurfette Principle" being coined. That was 20 years ago. Not much has changed. It's not like the Smurfs are some classic tale, or Hollywood never rewrites plot lines to make their product more marketable. A little modernization would've been in order here. How about approximately equal numbers of male and female smurfs, or even genderless Smurfs, doing their thing and outsmarting the evil wizard?
Prior to that, we had watched some stupid cartoon show in which the main plotline was the evil villain was ruining guys' reputations by saying they really had female names or wore pink socks. I apologize for the non-age appropriate show choice - I should have stuck with shows I recognized.
Anyway, I'm always an outspoken feminist old biddy, but I just finished reading "Delusions Of Gender" by Cordelia Fine so I was still fired up from that. I won't do a book review here, but one of the issues that she addressed is that we don't live in a gender neutral society, and little kids are exposed to a lot of messages about the differences between men and women, and what is expected for each gender, and that influences their behavior and personality from a very early age. With this non-controlled environment, it is hard to know what is hardwired and what is programmed. This is of interest to me, partly because I have had to deal with a lot of veiled sexism during my career, and partly because it seems like the world that little kids are exposed to is even more gendered than it was when I was a little biddy. Meanwhile, us adults are bombarded with books like "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" and scores of neurological studies ("neurosexism") which may or may not be any more predictive than measuring someone's brain size and using that to predict intelligence, but are nonetheless hyped by the media and used to justify all sort of things.
I won't claim to be free of gender bias - like all of us, I am a product of the times as well as my upbringing and experiences. Hell, I probably even talk to my cats slightly differently since they are females and not males. I'm not a neuroscientist and do not know if men's and women's brains are really all that different or not. However, I do know that I have no patience for shitty sexist drivel like the tale of Smurfette.

* First in a series of many

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Gang of Three

While I was out of town last week, the cats bonded with each other quite a bit. The older two, especially Rugrat, will even initiate playing with Lucy. Rugrat has copied Luna's habit of pretending to be annoyed but then coming back for more tormenting. As for Lucy, much of the time she prefers their company to mine. In this and other regards she is more similar to Luna than Rugrat. I'm not entirely surprised - at the SPCA they predicted this would happen, based on their observations.
I'm still the wrestling buddy, though, since the older cats don't really want to roughhouse. This is entertaining when I am awake, less so when it's 5 AM and am awakened by Lucy chewing on my elbow.

Better living through chemistry: corked wine edition

What to do about wine that had got that musty bad cork odor? In the Old Biddy household, this is rarely a problem, since I only drink box wine and wine with screwcaps, and even when I don't, the quality control on "Two Buck Chuck" is pretty good, at least with regards to the cork problem.
However, if by chance you have a pricy bottle of wine that has gotten corked but you really want to get your drink on instead of returning it to the store, you can take advantage of some simple chemistry.
Take about a square foot of saran wrap and ball it up. Shove it down into the wine bottle. Let it sit for a while while you drink a different bottle of wine. The saran wrap is polyethylene, which is got a huge affinity for trichloroanisole, which is what causes the corky smell/flavor. The trichloroanisole will get absorbed into the polyethylene. Then, pour the wine out and drink it. It may not be perfect, but it will usually taste a lot better, especially since you've already started drinking.
I like this trick, mainly because for a large part of my career I have been making polyolefins such as polyethylene, and spend a lot of time thinking about them.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Naked math dreams

I had that dream again last night, the one where I'm out in public doing something completely normal, like getting coffee with a coworker, and I am completely naked. Sometimes there is a reason for it in the dream, like it is too hot outside, but other times I am just naked for no apparent reason and belatedly realize that I have no clothes on and this is not a good thing. The ending is always the same - I just act like nothing is out of the ordinary and hope that people don't notice, and then I wake up.
Another recurring dream is the college math class dream. This is the one where I have signed up for some advanced math class and either don't go and don't do the homework, or, more commonly, I don't even realize I am supposed to be taking it. Once in a while the dream varies and it is some class other than math.
I never made the connection until now. It's not about math, or nudity. I don't have particular hangups about either. I suspect it has something to do with worrying about being caught unprepared.
I feel like my brain moves slowly sometimes, and I have forgotten a lot of what I learned in college or grad school. Perhaps this is the reason for the dreams. I felt it acutely last week at the conference, although it was more in my head than in reality.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Lucy update, 5 weeks

I've had Lucy for 5 weeks now, including the week that I was off at the Gordon Conference. Luna and Rugrat are pretty much used to her by now. They gang up on me to get them to feed them, eat from the same bowl and sleep on the same bed, not get too bent out of shape if Lucy runs up to them at full speed or sniffs their butt, and Rugrat and Lucy will play together occasionally.
When I got back from the conference, it seemed like Luna and Rugrat were less clingy than they usually are after I travel. What's more, it seemed like they had bonded in my absence.
I think they have benefitted from having a buddy. Rugrat is a lot less bored, and has stopped watching TV in favor of watching Lucy. That is good - although soccer games are good healthy entertainment for a cat, I can't say the same about "The Real Housewives of New Jersey." Luna is more active now, and her digestive issues and eczema have cleared up.
Lucy is a very high energy cat, and is fond of racing around the house at full speed, doing the spiderman walk along the sides of my bed, playing with her cat toys, jumping up in the air, chasing flies, play fighting with me, and going outside. All this exercise has left her a lot more muscular than when I first got her. She's pretty smart, and has figured out how to open the screen door quickly, no matter how tightly I shut it. She is affectionate, and will lick my hands when I am petting her or sleep next to me, but is not a total snuggle fiend like Rugrat.
I am very glad that I got her.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Old Biddy Speaks: Gordon Conference Etiquette

Dear graduate students and postdocs,
If by chance you are fortunate enough to attend a gordon conference and there are lots of other grad students from your own school there, do not spend all your time hanging out with them. It's not the ACS meeting. Make an effort to meet students from other schools and the more senior scientists who are attending. You don't have to hang out with them very much, but it is a valuable networking opportunity and you should make the most of it. You will be seeing these people at conferences for the rest of your career, and who knows when they will be interviewing you, reviewing one of your papers or proposals, etc. A little chit-chat will go a long way, even if you don't think it's someone influential or interesting.
While we're on the subject of etiquette, it's also bad form to skip some of the talks, even if you're hungover and would really rather sleep in. Exceptions will be made for work-related things like phone conferences, but if you're a grad student you may not have too many of those. Again, this is not ACS. People do notice if you're not there. Look around - your more senior colleagues are staying out as late as you and are still going to the talks. Believe me, it takes much longer to get over a hangover and sleep deprivation when you are an old biddy.
I know these things are kind of non-obvious and very different from the ACS meeting. I'm not sure I would've known them as a grad student, which is why I am giving you the benefit of my wisdom.
-Old Biddy

I'm back from the Gordon Conference now. For those of you who aren't scientists, the Gordon Conferences (GRC) are small, subject specific conferences. To foster discussion and interaction, attendance is limited and there is only one session going on at any time. Typically, there are talks in the mornings and evenings, and you have the afternoon free to sleep, do other work, get exercise, or socialize. Regardless of the subject matter, GRC's are a great place to meet new people and catch up with people you already know.
Over the years, my favorite GRC (FGRC) conference has changed somewhat. It used to be very difficult to get in as a grad student or postdoc. There might be only one or two students at the meeting. Other GRC's had more space, so some senior grad students or postdocs could attend. Usually only one or two people per group would attend. I went to one as a senior grad student and it was a very valuable experience. A friend from another group went, and we managed to meet most people there, even though we did mainly hang out with the other students. In recent years FGRC has been able to include a few more students and postdocs.
To give more students a GRC experience, a few years ago the GRS's were started. These have a similar format but are geared towards students and postdocs. They typically take place before or after the main GRC, and some of the students attend both.
This year, there was only one GRC going on at the conference site in Newport, so the organizers could let in more people. So the conference had twice as many people as the last time I was there, which was the year with the lowest attendence. They let in a lot of the people from the GRS, which is fine in theory. However, they did not take this into account when budgeting for beer and pizza, so all of us old biddies and fogies didn't get enough and that made us cranky and start reminiscing about the good old days.
Seriously, my liver and my waistline are grateful for the fact that, unlike in previous years, I did not get unlimited pizza and booze. And the good old days were not perfect - it's nice to have students there and not just see the same people every year. However, I did feel like there was something lacking. At first I thought that maybe the conference had just gotten too big, which is probably true, and that I had gotten antisocial in my old age, which is probably also true. But I was doing a better than average job of meeting new people and networking, so it wasn't completely pervasive. Upon talking to other attendees (including students) about it, I realized that it was mostly a problem of critical mass. So many of the student attendees knew each other, either from grad school or the GRS, that they tended to stick together in larger groups into which it was hard to make headway if by chance you sat down at their table at lunch or were hanging out at the poster session. Students who were there by themselves or with one or two of their compatriots tended to mingle a lot more than those who were there with a whole contingient of their buddies. If I were in their shoes, I'm sure I would do the same thing.
Although I did notice the students swooping in and taking all the beer and pizza, I actually didn't notice whether they were all there for the talks, especially since there were whole herds of them I didn't meet and hardly saw, but one of the students (who'd been helping the conference chairs with the cleanup, organization for next year, etc) mentionned it.
Yes, I do realize this whole post makes me sound like a cranky old biddy!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Sauteed Corn and Cherry Tomatoes with Balsamic Vinegar

Tonight I had some corn and cherry tomatoes that I needed to use up, so I made my favorite summertime corn recipe. I found it in the newspaper a few years ago and make it frequently.

Sauteed Corn and Cherry Tomatoes with Balsamic Vinegar
3 or 4 ears of corn
1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, cut in half if they're big
1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbs olive oil
1 tbs balsamic vinegar
salt (to taste)

Cut the corn kernels off the cobs and cut up tomatoes, if necessary. Saute corn in olive oil, stirring frequently, until it is slightly browned. Add tomatoes and sautee for a few more minutes. Add garlic and saute briefly until it's aromatic (maybe 30 seconds) and then add balsamic vinegar. Stir until mixture is coated and liquid has mostly boiled off and then remove from heat. Serve warm or cold.