Friday, December 30, 2005

Hawkeye and me

I've always liked Alan Alda, although more now than I used to--a little of that M*A*S*H*/Groucho Marx/mugging schtick goes a real long way, and he's gotten much more interesting as an actor over the years since--but I just learned we have something in common (besides being a smart-ass, I mean).

I was in an observatory, in in a remote part of Chile, interviewing astronomers for a science program called Scientific American Frontiers. The show often called for me to do dangerous things in far-off places, and I was always a reluctant adventurer because I’m a cautious person. This wasn’t dangerous; it was just talk, but suddenly something inside me literally started to die. My intestine had become crimped and its blood supply was choked off. Every few minutes more and more of it was going bad, and within a few hours, so would the rest of me.

I can't even begin to describe how bad the pain was as my small intestine was dying. Mr. Raven drove me to the hospital, and even hitting small bumps in the road just about tore me open in agony. Mercifully, the ER staff knew how to take care of that kind of pain; but as a result, a lot of that whole experience is a blur. All in all, I was in the hospital an entire month while they established what the problem was and what the extent of the damage was, took care of it, and then took care of a complication that developed with my left lung.

I could have lost enough of my intestine to end up eating from a tube the rest of my life; I was fortunate enough and had a good enough surgeon to end up being able to manage it so that I only lost 3 feet in the end--sounds like a lot, maybe, but in the context of the small intestine, not enough to seriously affect my quality of life.

The reason my small intestine began to die was a clot in my superior mesenteric artery. These are notoriously hard to diagnose, and as my surgeon informed me, "What you had is usually diagnosed on autopsy.". As sucky as the whole experience was, the fact that they were telling me my diagnosis, instead of writing it on my autopsy report, made it a whole lot more bearable in context.

I woke up a few hours later with a deep understanding that this surgeon had given me my life. I was grateful to him in a way I had never been grateful to anyone before; I was grateful to the nurses and to the painkillers; I was grateful to the soft Chilean cheese they gave me to break my fast. The first bite of that bland cheese, because it was the first taste of food I had in my new life, was gloriously complex and delicious. Everything about life tasted good to me now. Everything was new and bright and shining.

When Mr. Raven took me home after a month in the hospital, I burst into tears at my first sight of sunlight in a month. After all that fluorescent light, I had forgotten how sweet something as ordinary as sunshine could be.

It’s only been two years since that night in Chile. Maybe this will all go away, and maybe I’ll take life more for granted again. But I hope not. I like the way it tastes.

He's held on to that feeling better than I have in the meantime. I had it for a while after returning to my life, but then the routines of life started to obscure it again. Sometimes I get glimpses of it and recognize it, but it fades in the light of responsibilities and deadlines.

This year, though, I plan to make some changes to my life that will, I hope, open more opportunities for that feeling to not only peek in intermittently, but to actually stay for a while.

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It's a start, anyway

Well, it doesn't make up for that whole Intelligent Design stupidity he started (discussion here and here), but I can't call Scott Adams a "one-joke wonder" anymore. I liked this one that a friend sent Mr. Raven:

More cartoons about pandas and other bears, and I just might start reading "Dilbert" again.

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Monday, December 26, 2005


About a year and a half ago, our cat Diana was clearly dying. She abruptly lost a lot of weight, looked absolutely miserable, and gave up interacting with her environment. Naturally, we were very upset, and rushed her to the vet, expecting the worst. It didn't seem like diabetes (we've maintained two diabetic cats before); it seemed to resemble more closely the kidney failure that had claimed her sister Sasha.

However, her prognosis turned out not to be quite as dire as Sasha's--according to our vet, elderly cats are prone to hyperthyroidism, and if you can get it under control (which she later confessed she didn't think we were going to, as badly off as Diana was, but happily, we did), they can actually be maintained with decent quality of life. Diana currently seems to be doing fairly well on Methimazole (applied, interestingly, as a topical cream to the inside of her ear; apparently not an option available to human thyroid patients) since she was diagnosed. Radiation remains an option, but up until now, she has been reasonably well-maintained on the topical cream, so we haven't opted for the additional absence from home, and constraints on mixing in person and in the litter box with our other cats that radiation would require.

Lately, though, Diana is slowing down more, and I've noticed a dynamic developing between us that has occurred with our other elderly animals as well--Momo and Shaman the cats; and Dorothy, Dorothy, and Dorothy the hamsters, among others.

It goes like this--the animal, who is older and slowing down, starts sleeping more and more soundly, getting much more deeply relaxed, and--not to put a fine point on it--looking like it might be lying there dead, since it's often very hard to see its breathing. I come along, see it lying there, watch it for a while trying to see it breathe, get more and more concerned as I can't be sure, and finally, I can't resist--I have to touch it to make sure it's still alive.

The animal, who's been sleeping very soundly, jerks awake in terror at this unexpected stimulus--and that burst of adrenaline just can't be good for it, I know it. So in trying to reassure myself that the animal is still alive, I hope I'm not actually shortening its life. :P

There's got to be a better way for both of us than this cycle.

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Tsunami help, a year later

WWH Remembrance Week

A year after the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, people still need help. You and I can help them, by donating money and/or time to organizations that are working on the ground to help survivors, or by getting information out about those needs, or both.

The icon above links to The South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog, a clearinghouse for information about the current situation and efforts to help. (CORRECTION: The icon links to The WorldWide Help Blog; The South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog is here.) The Tsunami Help Wiki and Google's Tsunami Relief Resource Page also point to lots of ways to help tsunami survivors, and ReliefWeb has resources for tsunami help, along with more generalized humanitarian information and links.

In addition to helping by donating money, I have a particular humanitarian challenge that I will be addressing in this upcoming new year, one that grows directly out of the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and the earthquake in Pakistan, just to name a few. While I finish my dissertation research, I will also be TA-ing by developing a public health informatics course. My goal is to make this not just another theoretical course whose materials are put aside and forgotten after the quarter is over, but rather, make this a useful resource in real-life. I want to make the material and the information delivery not only interesting, but highly relevant and useful--something that people can continue to use and reuse, and that makes a difference in putting people together with the information they can use. There are already some amazing grass-roots information efforts that have grown out of the tsunami and Katrina; part of what I plan to do is to make my students aware of those efforts, and to think about how those could be built upon and kept up.

I'll keep you updated on that goal; I am looking forward myself to seeing how I figure that one out. In the meantime, please join me in giving what you can to organizations helping the tsunami survivors--the need doesn't stop, just because it's not so prominently on the media's radar anymore.

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That's what the kanji (Japanese adaptation of Chinese characters) look like for "tsunami", if you've ever wondered. Literally a "harbor wave", rather than the popular "tidal wave" (which would be a wave caused by the tidal activity of the moon, rather than an earthquake), it seems to have entered the English language as a word in its own right at some point, and to have obtained critical mass by virtue of the tsunami which struck South and Southeast Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa, and Indian Ocean islands a year ago today.

Enough linguistics, though--although I find them enjoyable, that's not what's important right now. What's important is that today is the one-year anniversary of the devastating tsunami, and people still need a lot of help. I'll blog about that in a separate post, coming right up.

(UPDATE: replaced kanji with JPG and retitled, after learning the kanji weren't universally viewable, 1-15-06)

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Ahror the author

My friend Ahror Rahmedov has just published a memoir, Finding Face and Faith in America.

I haven't read it yet, but plan to do so over the holidays. I've blogged about Ahror some before, most notably when he graduated from the computer science program at the University of Washington.

Ahror is a remarkable young man, who has overcome more challenges in his 32 years than most of us do in a lifetime. And, as I have been since I met him, I am struck by his total lack of bitterness. So much was unjustly taken away from him, and yet, there is not a trace of anger or self-pity that I can see.

As he tells it:

My parents had six daughters after me. I was the oldest child. My sisters are all grown up by now, the youngest one having graduated from high school this year in 2005.

After going to elementary and middle schools in Zangiota, my mom took me to a special high school for talented young kids in Toshkent City so I could study math thoroughly. I passed the entrance exams with high scores and eventually became good at math (not that I am now though).

My mother died from cancer when I was just about to graduate. It hit me hard seeing my mother helpless in the face of a horrible disease, so I decided to be a doctor. I didn't pass the exam to a medical school in Toshkent the first year, so I had to prepare one more year, this time focusing on Chemistry and Biology. Preparation was good and I passed the exam next year.

By this time the former Soviet Union had broken up, and Uzbekistan gotten its independence from Russia. I had been working at a butcher shop and learning how to survive in a corrupted soviet society witnessing firsthand all the scams at the store.

I continued my studies at Toshkent State Medical Institute and worked part time in one of the research labs operating on rats most of the time. It was a good experience. In the fourth year of my school, my dad got unjustly thrown into prison where he was persecuted by communists for the crimes he hadn't committed. (I will tell all about it in my book).

I had to take care of my sisters so I worked extra hours at a main train station selling produce with my classmates from youth. It wasn't easy studying full time and then working two part time jobs after school hours.

As if it wasn't enough, I got hit by a signal rocket in my face while attending a friend's wedding. It blew my face off and knocked me unconscious. I found myself in a hospital when I regained my senses. The injury was massive and there was no hope for my recovery. A miracle had to happen to get me out of that hopeless situation.

After two years in local hospitals, two Americans discovered me and helped me to come to United States to have reconstructive surgeries in Seattle. I met many great people in Seattle, most of whom were the members of the Seattle Toshkent Sister City Association. They helped me with fundraisers to cover hospital expenses and my doctors offered their services free of charge (I will tell all about it in my book). It was quite an ordeal in itself.

I was able to get started at Seattle Central Community College with the help of my friends to continue my once interrupted education. After a year and a half there, I transferred to the University of Washington where I got accepted into their computer science and engineering program. While at the UW I worked part time in the Speech and Hearing Sciences department as a technical support specialist.

Then I applied to UCLA graduate school after getting my BS degree in Computer Science from the UW. I now study Biomedical Engineering at the UCLA and live in Los Angeles going to the beaches every chance I get.

Ahror has a real talent for physics and math--I had hoped he would become a scientist, but he has taken a different path, one which I do not totally understand, but I see that it makes him happy. That he could come back from such a devastating injury to return to school, make a career and an independent life for himself, and tell his own story in his third language, pleases me no end for him.

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When the student surpasses the teacher

Today I saw a webpage designed and implemented by a friend of mine. He has gotten quite proficient with CSS, XML, PHP, and other web tools.

The funny thing is, as he reminded me, a couple of years ago, he didn't even know HTML. I gave a brown bag session in our lab where I taught the basics (linking, inserting an image), and he took that introduction and just ran with it.

Maybe now I can get him to teach me how to make that Flash map that lights up the particular state you cursor over :). But seriously, it's very gratifying; often you don't know what effect you have on others--but with Richard, I can remember when he didn't know what an HREF was, and now he's a better Web developer than I am.

I've had that experience with Ahror, too--I started teaching him Visual Basic, and he quickly became a much better programmer than I am. In fact, I have some news about Ahror, but it deserves its own post next.

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Well, I won't be buying a Kia next year

2006 is going to be my year to buy a new car, but Kia's latest ad campaign has convinced me that it won't be one of theirs. If that's the regard they hold efforts to save endangered species in, then they've just saved themselves from a bunch of my greenbacks.

I'd rather have a hybrid, anyway--and a talking one, like my boss' boss has. When his daughter picked me up for Thanksgiving dinner, it navigated between our towns, only speaking up when it needed to tell her to make a turn or something. And if she didn't do what it said, it just readjusted to the new situation, and began giving directions from there. I half-expected it to reproach her, saying "I told you to turn back there--you never listen to me", but I guess the technology isn't there just quite yet.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A very good day for science

The ruling in the Dover intelligent design case is out, and Judge Jones came out unequivocally on the side of science.

In a 139-page decision, he declared the teaching of ID to violate the establishment clause. Right now, I'm in the throes of dissertation research, and don't have time to go through it in detail, although on breaks I've been going over to PZ's blog to watch the merriment. You can read about it in more detail there, but briefly, Judge Jones detailed the unconstitutionality of the previous Dover School Board's policy, pointed out their lies and their waste of resources in instituting it, and wrote a detailed and cogent opinion that should stand up against any (unlikely) attempt to appeal it. He also anticipated the spin that's already coming out about "activist judges" and censorship. It's great to see the good guys win in this case.

It was doubly good in light of another initiative for teaching research literacy in the complementary medicine community I just learned about. More about that if and when I am at liberty to disclose it (I don't think it's public-domain knowledge yet), but following quickly in sequence like that, these two latest events make me more optimistic for the future of science teaching in America.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Drinking Liberally, Philadelphia

Well, I got to do something tonight I have been looking forward to for a very long time--I got to Philadelphia's Drinking Liberally for the first time (hopefully, not for the last).

I had a very good seat between Atrios and BooMan, both of whom I was introduced to for the first time, and got to meet several nice, friendly, smart and interesting people from outside blogspace as well, including a sociologist and a political consultant. Good drink, good people, good conversation--it's a shame not to have been coming to this all along, but the transportation gods have not smiled upon me for most of my stay here. Tonight, though, was a very nice way of wrapping it up, and meeting people I'd like to see again when I come back to Philly.

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Last night, LL and I finished out the semester at the last film in the foreign film series at Ursinus College. We saw Mediterraneo, an Italian film from 1991, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1992.

It was a sweet little film, nothing especially profound--I notice the local film snob didn't even bother attending this one; LL and I joked about how it must not be high-concept enough for him. But what it does set out to do, I thought it succeeded well at.

The plot in brief: The crew members of an Italian ship are assigned to take a small Greek island and to keep a look out for the enemy. When they get there, it appears the island is abandoned, yet they are stranded after their boat is blown up and they lose their radio. Gradually, they begin to learn that the island is not really abandoned, and the Greek inhabitants emerge and make contact when they figure out that the Italians aren't going to attack them.

As the blurb in the Grizzly says:

The film tells the story of eight Italian soldiers who are cut off from their superiors and encounter a liberated magical community of beautiful women, sad-hearted prostitutes, a sympathetic priest and no resistance. Directed by Gabriele Salvatores, “Mediterraneo” received the 1992 Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film.

But things are not always what they time wears on, who the enemy is and isn't becomes less clear, and each man has to figure out for himself what to do and how to act. In the process, they learn more about themselves and about how to live their lives.

The pacing, dialogue, and sense of humor are very different from standard Hollywood fare, plus it's subtitled, which may make this movie inaccessible to the mass American audience. Personally, I like trying to match subtitles to dialogue, and I found the humor (visual as well as verbal) laugh-out-loud funny at times, although I noticed sometimes I was the only one in the theatre laughing. Like when they first arrived, and found a Greek graffito (something like "Η Ελλάδα θα είναι ο τάφος των Ιταλών" [I'm not exactly sure], meaning "Greece will be the tomb of the Italians".), and one of the soldiers didn't quite get it and had to have it explained a couple of times. It was funny and ironic, because of the shared history of the Romans and the Greeks, as well as the fact that Greek history predates the Roman one by centuries, yet this soldier (and others)--clearly no intellectual--was not aware of that common past. Another funny visual was the contrast between the assimilated Italians, and the very formal British when they finally arrived. I found moments like that to be funny little treats all through the movie.

There is a recurring line throughout the film: "una faccia, una razza" ("one face, one race"), which emphasizes that Italian and Greek common history, culture, and humanity. By contrast, the sordidness of the war and of Italian politics seem so, I don't know, misplaced in terms of priorities. There is some pointed commentary on Italian politics, both during and after the war.

The evolution of the character of Farina is especially interesting; he starts out as little more than an Italian Radar O'Reilly, but by the end of the film, he stands up to make consequential decisions about what he truly wants for himself out of life--it would have been hard to see that coming from his character in the first part.

The film is dedicated to all those who run away, and while I'm no longer in that phase of my life anymore, I very much understand the sentiment. It is a nice little movie, perfect as an escapist film, because it is exactly about escape.

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Monday, December 05, 2005

Road trip, part 1: Delaware Water Gap, New Jersey

As I mentioned earlier, Mr. Raven is a treasury of cartographic knowledge. When I told him I wanted to take a road trip to Morristown, NJ, and to New York City, and that I didn't know how to choose among so many different options of things to see and places to go, he applied himself to the problem, and came up with a wonderful itinerary, full of sights and experiences to look forward to.

And then it snowed, and I ended up hacking his carefully-planned, thoughtful, and detailed plan to pieces as a result.

As he wrote on the Morristown leg, "NOTE: not an interstate route, but Bucks County and New Hope are nice, you should see them", and I was looking forward to seeing what he meant. But when I awoke to 3 inches of snow on the ground, it looked like at first the trip might be off. However, it was just snow, not ice, and if I didn't do the trip Sunday, I wouldn't get to at all this time, because I'm flying back to Seattle next week, and I'm totally booked all the days in between, what with getting ready. So I set out, but because of the snowy roads, I decided to stick to freeways. That made the driving better, but I missed out on New Hope. As it was, by the time I got the ferals fed and set out, it was after 8:30, long after my planned 7:00 start, so the weather cost me time on setting out as well as on driving more slowly.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike is unremarkable; however I have to say, though, the Lehigh Valley, past Allentown and Bethlehem was quite nice. And then when I crossed over into New Jersey, I got quite a delightful surprise.

If, like me, all you know about New Jersey comes from reports of syringes washing up on beaches, you may not be expecting much from the state. Like me, then, you would be surprised at how nice the northern part of the state is. There are rolling hills and valleys, with farmland.

I stopped at a farm in Pittsville to get a snack at a farmer's market. Outside in a pen, they have some spoiled-rotten sheep and goats whose jobs appear to be just to look cute and snarf down the feed people buy for them inside.

After a very nice break in unexpectedly pleasant countryside, it was on to Morristown!

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I learned something yesterday (don't worry, not the hard way or anything)--you can drive in Manhattan, OR you can sight-see in Manhattan, but you can't do both at the same time. Even just driving around Manhattan is exciting, though.

I had a really good trip yesterday, and got some pictures which I'll post later today.

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So collecting prostates is enough to get you called "weird" these days

Who knew?

I just heard secondhand that someone I met recently thinks I am "nice and smart, but weird", because I collect prostates. But I am modeling them in my computer system, so I study them in order to make sure my model (concept) is faithful to the entity (referent). After all, anthropomorphic projection of human anatomy into terminology of various species has caused enough problems already (how can someone who doesn't have bones have femurs or tibiae, for example?: Zumstein N, Forman O, Nongthomba U, Sparrow JC, Elliott CJ. Distance and force production during jumping in wild-type and mutant Drosophila melanogaster. J Exp Biol. 2004 Sep;207(Pt 20):3515-22. "The peak force is not affected significantly by altering the leg angle (femur-tibia joint angle) in the range of 75-120 degrees, but the peak force declines as the leg is extended further."). So I consider studying and knowing the different forms the prostate can assume across species essential to my research.

Maybe I shouldn't have brought my collection up at Thanksgiving dinner, though. But the conversation led naturally in that direction--people were asking me about my going home, and I had just solved the problem of shipping a biological sample in formalin home (a non-trivial issue), which I was quite happy about. You know how it is when something goes right, and you're happy about it.

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Sunday, December 04, 2005

Road trip!

With my remaining time in the Northeast growing short, and my finally having access to a car, the plan today is to make a trip to New York City. It's not going to be an in-depth visit, more of a fly-by, but I will get out and do a couple of things while I'm there.

If I go, that is. There is snow on the ground, and it is sticking, but the sun is not up yet, so that could change as the morning goes on. I'm going to catch a little traffic on the TV and the Internet, and see how things go. If it's at all possible, though, I do want to do it, since this will be my last chance to go before returning--after today, I'm booked solid for the next week.

Mr. Raven (who has an almost scary eidetic memory for cartography) has gone to the effort to sketch out an interesting itinerary, map it, mark it up for my navigating pleasure, and mail it to me. I'm very much looking forward to seeing some of the places he's highlighted. Here's hoping I have something more interesting to blog about this trip than just "I made it almost to the freeway before having to turn around and come home.".

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Saturday, December 03, 2005


One of my concerns about my return to Seattle next week has been (partly) put to rest.

On the walk home from my bus route, behind a strip mall, there is a colony of feral cats. Feral cats aren't wild; they are the domesticated species Felis cattus--they are merely homeless cats, who have lost the ability to socialize to humans, through lack of opportunity. Strictly speaking, a stray is not necessarily feral--three of my supposedly "feral" adoptions turned out to bond just fine, meaning that as kittens, they had somehow been exposed to human contact during a crucial developmental period. True ferals don't know how to respond to humans except in self-defense, and, more than anything, just hide if possible. Most ferals make sure they're never seen, if they can help it.

I first noticed two adolescents, one of which looks like Cat (although LL assures me that he can't be the father, due to his having misplaced his testicles on a visit to the veterinarian years ago). Amusingly, the other one looks like the other cat I was taking care of this summer, so it's like the old summer household in miniature. As the summer wore on into fall, I saw more and more cats on different occasions. I have counted ten different cats, although given how good ferals are at hiding, I certainly don't believe I've seen the whole colony.

Since the ferals are no longer kittens, it's pretty clear they've missed the optimal window for bonding to humans (they flee when I approach with food), although my Cleo demonstrates that despite the orthodoxy that if you don't acclimate them to humans by 6-8 weeks, they'll never bond, that's not an absolute, by any means. I got Cleo as an email kitty when I used to work at Microsoft. She was a feral kitten about the age of these adolescents when she was captured on the grounds, and the cat people network emailed around to find a home for her. She was totally avoidant when she arrived, but gradually developed enough trust over the years to let me and Mr. Raven pet her from time to time--strictly on her terms, of course. It took 12 years to get her this far, and she'll never be a snuggle-kitty, but it means that missing that window doesn't necesarily mean that you have to just write them off, either. It just takes a lot longer, though.

Not that I'm in a position to humanely trap these kids and take them home with me to try a similar program with them--we are fully-staffed, and in fact have instituted a hiring freeze--all six of the current felines have tenure, so they don't have to worry about being downsized, but neither are we accepting any more applications at the moment. I wish I could, but it's not realistic right now.

So that is what I was worried about--feral cats have a shorter life span than pets; they are at risk of disease, attacks from wild animals, dogs, humans, and other cats, being run over by cars, and other dangers. If I am to believe Darby Conley--and to my knowledge, he has never lied to me before--only 20% of cats born in the US find permanent homes. The rest don't have happy endings; their lives are Hobbesian in quality: nasty, brutish, and short.

I fed this colony on my way home from work, but knew that I was running the risk of making them dependent on me. After I returned home, and didn't feed them anymore, maybe they would be the worse off, for all I knew. Now I have learned that there are other people who feed them, and will continue to do so after I have left. Additionally, one of them is working with a local spay-and-release program, so maybe the cycle of kittens being born into the colony will be somewhat slowed. It's not the fairy-tale happy ending, but maybe it will turn out to be better than the status quo.

I hope so, anyway.

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Women in Science and Engineering conference at the University of Washington in January

Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE), a University of Washington program to increase the recruitment and retainment of women in the science and engineering disciplines, is having its annual conference on Saturday, January 28, 2006.

From their announcement:

The 2006 WISE Conference is designed to appeal to high school, community college, and undergraduate and graduate university students. The conference empowers women in engineering, science, and technology fields to discover new opportunities, identify personal strengths, and to increase overall their confidence to embark on new academic and professional ventures. The annual conference is well-attended by high school and college students from around the region. Students will have the opportunity to network with both industry and academia professionals.

High-school and college students from around the region are invited to attend. For more information, visit the websites above, or contact the WISE Office at or 206-543-1770.

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Thursday, December 01, 2005

Thank you, sir

I owe a debt I can never repay to a man whose name and story I will never know.

I don't think there is any way to find out, either--all the people I know who would know where to start looking are dead, and he probably is, as well. For years, I have wondered how I can tell him I am grateful, and have found no clear answer. I think that the only way is to pay it forward, both by trying to pass on the kindness and courage he showed, and by telling the story.

First, you need a little context about me and my family--I was born in Alabama in 1958; in other words, pre-Civil Rights Act. My family was complex--my mother fought hard and bravely against institutionalized sexism to become one of the first female physicians in Alabama. In medical school, she had a biology teacher who refused to teach a female. Despite overcoming obstacles like that, she could not see any parallel with the civil rights movement, and to the end of her days, remained a staunch racist. I regret that failing in the remarkable woman that was my mother.

My father was an alcoholic, and an abusive one at that. There is not a lot to say on that score; I have made my peace with that fact, but I mention it here because it plays a role in the story. I think that he needed to feel superior to a whole group of people by definition, because otherwise, he would have to be evaluated for himself, and he was unable to face that fact head-on. Like my mother, he was very racist.

In radical honesty, I cannot say that I never, ever have had a racist thought myself--I had the poison poured in my ear at a very early age, when I was extremely susceptible to programming for good or for evil. I can't control random words or thoughts that pop into my head; as an adult, what I can do is control my actions, regardless of what thoughts may or may not pop unwelcome and unbidden into my head. I decided long ago, as early as sixth grade, that my parents were just wrong on the subject of race, and that I would not listen to their advice, and I have tried ever since to live that way.

I am not sure how I managed to figure that out at that age, but it is true that I have been influenced by many good people for whom I am grateful. One person I did not learn about until much later in life, and then, only indirectly.

My Aunt Helen owned a furniture store in Birmingham, and she told me this story. She employed an older black man, although she didn't tell me what he worked at. One day, according to Aunt Helen, when I must have been 2 or 3 (I have no conscious memory of this story, myself), my father was typically whaling on me for something or other, when this man dropped what he was doing, walked over and got up in my father's face, and told him, "If I ever see you hit that little girl again, so help me, you will have me to deal with, too." After that, my father did not fundamentally change his ways, but he did not hit me in the furniture store ever again, either.

I believe that for a black man, in pre-Civil Rights Act Alabama, to publicly get up in a white man's face and openly confront him for wrong-doing (especially considering that no one in my family ever defended me against him) just well may be the single bravest and kindest act I have ever been a witness to, even indirectly.

The years have eroded any connections to the place, and all the principals whom I know are dead, so I don't know how I could ever find the man and tell him how grateful I am for his courage. The best I can do is tell the story, and try to act with a similar degree of bravery, if I am ever confronted with standing up directly to a wrong act.

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