A Sanguine Neurastheniac

Week three is the new Tuesday

January 28, 2013 · Leave a Comment

Last week I was chatting with one of the GNOME internship program mentors who asked how the internship was going for me. I said that I felt pretty good, but that I was in a little bit of a lull. I’d learned about all I needed to know to get my feet wet with the technical end of my project, and now I needed to get better clarity on the question I am asking/problem I am solving to be able to really dig my heels in. I was floundering a little, but also having open-ended conversations with people who might be interested in the work. I didn’t know at that moment that those conversations would lead to a significant breakthrough the next day, resulting in a much clearer goal for my internship term.

It was nice to hear, then, that apparently a bunch of the interns in my cohort were at just about the same point. And so, if this internship were a week, last week would have been Tuesday!

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Deepest Condolences

January 14, 2013 · Leave a Comment

Aaron Swartz at Boston Wikipedia Meetup, 2009. Photo by Sage Ross.

I’m taking a moment to offer my sympathies to the friends and family of Aaron Swartz, who died on Friday.  I didn’t know him, but he was a friend to at least one of my friends and his passing is a blow to many, many people.  He was a dynamic, passionate, and creative defender of information freedom, and he will be missed.  Here are remembrances from people around the Internet:

Cory Doctorow

Peter Eckersly of the Electronic Frontier Foundation

Quinn Norton


New York Times


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OPW Internship: Organizing My Thoughts

January 11, 2013 · Leave a Comment

As I wrote previously, I started a work-from-home internship with the Open Technology Institute last Wednesday. The project I was placed with has me working on boosting privacy and anonymity in wireless mesh networks. I spent some time orienting myself with the task and organizing my thoughts.

The stated goal of the project is to integrate Tor with Commotion. More specifically:

Tor Integration:

Commotion mesh nodes are capable of being configured to enter directly into the Tor network. We need an intern to configure, package, and document the process of making a tor-entry node. If the intern completes this task within the time frame they will have the opportunity to tackle custom configurations that will allow for Tor exit nodes on the mesh that allow small bandwidth Tor traffic from elsewhere to be run over the network to further obfuscate it.

Great! So….what does that mean? This was a good exercise in self-management and breaking a project apart into achievable bits. I started with some clarifying questions.

  • What is Commotion and what does it do? For whom?
  • What is Tor and what does it do? For whom?
  • What is the advantage of combining them and who would be interested in using such a tool?

Keep reading →

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Doing It Right: The GNOME Foundation Outreach Program for Women

December 12, 2012 · 1 Comment

opw-poster-USLetter-2013-littleYesterday I got news that I was accepted into a super cool internship program. For the first quarter of 2013, I’ll be working with the Open Technology Institute to help them integrate Tor with their mesh networking platform called Commotion.

The internship is part of the GNOME Foundation‘s Outreach Program for WomenGNOME is an open source desktop environment, and my preferred desktop on Linux.  In 2006 they ran an internship program whose goal was to get more women contributing to Free and Open Source Software (FOSS).  People loved it and in 2010 they revived the effort and started running it twice a year.

For this iteration, they’ve partnered with a slew of FOSS projects to offer some pretty diverse opportunities in cloud computing, security, and tools for privacy and fighting censorship.  The internships are set up as full-time work from home, making them accessible for women of many geographic areas and income levels.

The application process was a little unusual. When I first read through it, it sounded awfully onerous. But the more I thought about it and stepped through it, the more I was convinced that it was cleverly designed to have several positive “unintended” consequences that would result in women engaging with FOSS projects regardless of whether they were selected.

Applicants were asked to look through the available programs, dig into the ones that looked most interesting, get in touch with people working on the project, take on a small assignment (typically a bug fix), submit it for feedback and make any requested fixes, THEN fill out an application. So even before you apply, you can say you’re a contributor to a FOSS project. That’s pretty neat.

All of that had to happen in less than three weeks. Applications opened on Nov. 14 and were due on Dec. 3, making the application period feel more like a sprint than a waiting game. I’m one of those always-busy people so I assumed I wouldn’t be able to get to it, but the compressed schedule actually made me work more efficiently.  I didn’t have time to get stressed out or expand the scope of my contribution, and in fact I had to focus on paring it down to something very doable. It was nice to have this out of the way well before the holidays, and I suspect the organizers felt similarly.

Where this application process really shines, though, is in the human contact that it requires. Each organization has a few ways for applicants to jump into the community, like IRC, mailing lists, and individual mentors. Additionally, there is an IRC channel and mailing list specifically for the program where applicants can ask questions or even coach and encourage each other. I was fortunate that Dan Staples, the coordinator for the project I had my eye on, was very responsive both by email and on IRC. I did see some people in IRC who were frustrated that their emails went unanswered or they had other communication issues that hurt their applications. But I think the idea was to put candidates and projects in touch with each other in ways that might persist beyond the application. Several surveys have indicated that people often feel like open source projects have a high barrier to entry. Simply being invited to jump in and say hello was really helpful to me. Now I feel like I have a way to connect with a range of awesome projects and make myself useful.

Why was this so much more effective for me than simply finding a contact email address on a project’s website?  Well, for one, because it spoke to me, personally.  In fact, the person who spoke to me, personally, was Marina Zhurakhinskaya, one of the organizers.  I had some questions about whether the program was a good fit for my skills and goals, and she explained what the program was going for and how to make a strong application.  That was super useful and friendly. Further, reading a page that says, we are looking for PEOPLE LIKE YOU to help us with this specific thing, and here’s the helpful person who can get you going, breaks through the awkwardness of emailing a project cold with little sense of what they need or if they are able to get people up to speed. For me it opened up a wormhole into an organization that I’d been sort of quietly checking out for a while. Three weeks later I’ve tripled the number of contacts I have at OTI and gotten a feel for their collective sense of humor. Without this invitation, I don’t know if I would have done that.

So, kudos go out to the people behind this program for their work, clever design, time spent getting new folks up to speed, and friendliness throughout a very tight timeline. Can’t wait to dig in and send some packets through the air!

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O Hai, World

November 11, 2012 · 1 Comment

Chestnut mid-yawn


When I last checked in with this lonely blog I was OMG-pregnant, and I’ve left everyone in suspense.  But as expected, in late August my pregnancy resulted in a tiny person with whom I share an emotionally potent chemical co-dependency.

More simply, I HAZ A CUTE BAYBEE!

Please welcome our tiny new friend–codename Chestnut–our toothless, elfen, smiley learning machine.  This picture is from his first full day on the outside, when he still had an anti-theft device attached to his cord stump.  It’s true, they make them for babies.  Apparently, the idea is that if you try to abscond from a hospital with a kiddo, it beeps like a shoplifted dress from Ross.  But if you try to remove it or tamper with it, it’s a felony because messing with the cord stump can potentially endanger the kid’s health.

So what’s it like on the other side of the rainbow?  As an old colleague of mine described it the other day, “Don’t worry, Stockholm Syndrome sets in really fast!”  It’s pretty awesome, more than I expected. What struck me early on is that it isn’t a little bit of anything.  It’s deeply calming, deeply exhilarating, deeply terrifying, deeply satisfying.  It’s equally frustrating, maddening, rewarding, and squee-inducing.

It hasn’t been as shocking as I expected.  It’s true that what I’m experiencing is a different kind of love than I’ve had before.  But it’s familiar.  I have the muscle memory of feeling intensely attached, nurturing, and protective of siblings, nieces and nephews, partners, friends, even pets.  In fact, the experience of being attached to animals has a lot in common with being attached to a baby in that the pets I’ve rescued have been tiny, vulnerable, and adorable.  Over the past few weeks I’ve noticed that a kindness shown to my little one feels tantamount to a kindness shown to me.  I recognize that this could be experienced as a novel kind of selflessness, but I don’t experience it that way.  To me, it’s that his needs are more pressing and his smiles more rewarding than mine.  I experience it as a palpable connection, that what’s good for my kid is good for me.

And in fact that’s true on a basic, biochemical level.  The hormonal chain of events that links us is very powerful.  When he smiles, the joy it gives me makes me want to keep creating conditions that make him smile.  When he cries, I can’t think straight and it creates a type of panic that drives me to find a solution.  When he breastfeeds, he ingests chemicals that calm him and help him sleep, while triggering a release of drowsy-ing oxytocin in me.  Helping him sleep helps me to sleep.

What this actually feels like is that I mostly feel like myself, but with a snuggly sidekick who is my biggest priority.  The biggest compliment I’ve gotten is from a friend of mine who said I seem like the same person pre- and post-kid.  I have plenty of moments of “Crap, what do I do now?” and the first two weeks were tough, but generally I’m really happy and pretty calm.  This is helped by the fact that we got ridiculously lucky with a very easy kid who communicates clearly and doesn’t cry much.  But even when he screams it’s been really important to me to try to give him a sense of calm.  I want to be a safe touchstone for him when he’s upset, and not freaking out is the best way I can think of to provide that.  I’m also really lucky to have a partner who is a champion baby whisperer.  It makes it possible for me to get the breaks I need so I can come back fresh and ready for the work of being a parent.

I’ve also found it really important to have myself together.  From very early on I found that I was prioritizing taking a shower, getting dressed in non-sweatpants, going for walks, visiting people, keeping up with the laundry.  I’m not sure why this was so important.  Maybe it’s just an extension of nesting.  But knowing that I have clean socks, that Chestnut has plenty of clean diapers, and that everything I need is easy to find, makes it easier to deal with the curve balls that come our way.  For example, there was the time it took 4 hours to get to a park 10 blocks from our house because of multiple delays, emergency feedings, and diaper changes.  At least I knew I was coming home to a place with plenty of groceries and toilet paper.

Honestly, what I’ve found most life-changing is maternity leave, which ended last Friday.  For a whole twelve weeks, taking care of Chestnut was the only thing I absolutely had to do all day.  I slept as much as I needed, napping between feedings if I’d had a rough night.  We walked around the neighborhood checking out flowers and friends and overstuffed burritos.  I sorted boxes of old crap and threw half of it away.  There were frustrating days when I felt like I didn’t get anything accomplished between his fitful naps, but for the most part, that was ok.  I got to know my kid, his cries, his likes and pet peeves, his expressive hands, his quickly changing, adorable face.  For once, I felt like my priorities were crystal clear, and while I had days when I felt like I was pedalling backward, over the course of a week I had enough time to do everything that absolutely needed doing.  The feeling of efficacy and clear purpose has been very satisfying.

So what’s it like on the other side?  At times it’s hard, uncertain, scary, exhausting.  But by a mixture of luck, preparation, and loving support from the people around us, it’s more often really, really good.


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What Pregnancy Has Taught Me About Other Body Types

August 8, 2012 · 1 Comment

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:  Pregnancy brings on remarkable physical changes.  I’ve experienced a good number of them.  I had the classic early pregnancy nausea, some select cravings, and my torso widened before my belly, indicating a higher blood volume, lung capacity, and overall expanded infrastructure that’s required to support another person.

But plenty of people have griped about swollen feet and an intensified sense of smell.  What I have found really interesting and novel is that my physical changes have helped me identify with people who have very different body types from mine.

By nature I’m a sturdy but healthy weight for my modest-to-diminutive height, I’m more sensitive to cold and more welcoming of heat than most people around me, I have a high-efficiency metabolism so I can do a lot with a little bit of food, and while I wouldn’t consider myself an athlete, I have decent coordination, strength, and endurance.  All in all, my body does just about everything I ask of it and we have a very copacetic relationship.

In other words, I’m spoiled all to hell.  Being pregnant has put me into the meatspace–and a little of the headspace–of people with different physical realities.  Here are some examples.


Wow, suddenly I understand what people are complaining about when it gets to be 95 F outside.  In general, I bask in broiling summer heat and I’m not truly comfortable until it hits about 85.  Pre-pregnancy, I was almost always the coldest person in the room and figured that I suffered enough through other people’s air conditioning whimsies that I really didn’t need to waste any sympathy on their complaints that it was “too hot”.  Cry me a river while I shiver all winter AND all A/C-infested summer in 2 sweaters while drinking hot tea.

So, ok, now that I’m metabolizing for two, I get it.  I can finally admit that it really sucks to not be able to sleep because your bed is soaked with sweat and there’s nothing you can do about it.  This is the first summer since childhood that I’ve used air conditioning in my bedroom, and that was by central air decree, not by choice.  I haven’t used it a lot, but a few of those nights when it barely got below 100, I capitulated.  Nay, I blissfully surrendered.

On the other hand, it’s been pretty lovely to gallivant around town, riding public transit, popping into stores, office, and cafes, without giving a thought to donning cold weather gear.  Normally, I ALWAYS carry something warm to wear in the summer lest I have to sit still in an artificially cooled room, and find myself constantly pulling sweaters and jackets on and off for the transition from outdoors to indoors.  So, elevated core temp.  I get it now.  I’ll sort of miss it when it’s gone.

Emotion-mangling hunger

Speaking of metabolizing for two, the first trimester helped me understand my friends who have much faster metabolisms than I do, and/or have significant brain crashes if their sugar crashes.  Before the placenta matures and takes on a lot of the most important maintenance tasks, the rest of the body struggles to keep up with the increased demand.  It’s thought that the placenta “taking over” is what helps calm early nausea and fatigue.

For me, a pre-placenta effect was that I would get very hungry very suddenly, and not having food quickly made me totally sad and irritable.  Usually I can go quite a while before lack of food impacts my ability to think clearly, but early on this change would happen incredibly fast.  Within 10 minutes I’d go from realizing that I should eat, to being very hungry, to reaching a state of resigned, existential despair about the state of the world, a world in which there was no food worth eating so I might as well take a nap.  Fortunately I usually recognized what was going on and got some calories in me, and that fixed the problem as quickly as it had come on.

I was astounded at how easily I was manipulated by my blood sugar.  Bonking is something I’ve experienced before with distance cycling when I’ve ridden too far without getting some nutrients in me and suddenly felt completely lazy and unmotivated, but not really hungry.  This was similar in that the mental/emotional effect seemed disconnected from the physical need.  Now I better understand people who get really grumpy or sad if they go too long without eating.

Cardio-vascular stress

Remember that expanded blood volume and lung capacity?  The way the overtaxed cardio-vascular system actually feels is breathless.  Walking up 2 flights of stairs is much harder.  Early on when I was still biking, I found myself nonplussed as more and more cyclists flitted by me.  Anyone who has biked with me knows that I like to go VERY FAST and will chuckle smugly at the thought of my eating the dust of fair-weather riders on janky big-box store mountain bikes.  But pregnancy made me a mellow rider and an even mellower walker and stair-climber.  Now I hug the right side of the steps out of the subway to let people whisk by me.  I understand getting winded more easily, and it’s helped me understand what it’s like to have breathing and blood flow that’s taxed.

High mass torso

Pregnancy has made me bigger overall, but obviously the biggest change is in my abdomen.  A pregnant belly is quite firm to the touch, with an inner atmospheric pressure of anywhere from 5-50 mmHg or higher during strong contractions.  This makes it especially awkward to maneuver around, like having a watermelon strapped to your front, but it shares some characteristics with non-pregnant large bellies.

Namely, it takes up space.  It’s hard to bend over it.  Its weight puts stress on the neck and back.  It doesn’t fit on top of ladylike closed or crossed legs.  I find that my sitting posture more and more often resembles that of people with bigger overall body types.  I lean forward in chairs with legs rather wide and it helps me manage the weight and volume of my middle.  I better understand the strained back muscles that I’ve noticed in my bigger friends when I’ve offered a shoulder rub.  Those muscles simply work harder.

Chronic pain

Let me start by saying that this pregnancy has treated me extremely well overall.  I feel that I have a fraction of the complaints that I hear from a lot of other people who have been through this.  But it’s hard work.  The added weight and strain are such that I get unreasonably sore after modest muscular exertion, like moving a few boxes out of the basement.  My feet ache much more readily than I’m used to.  And there are days or weeks when I have a near constant pain in my middle back or the bottom of my right ribs, where the baby’s butt and/or feet are.  Let me tell you, it’ll harsh your mellow!  It’s really hard to be cheerful or even personable with constant pain.  Even if I can pull off being nice, it makes it harder to focus so I’m a little out of it and slow with witty retorts or I just sit and grin distractedly.  It’s easier now to understand the mental wear and tear of constant pain, even before any potentially mind-fuzzying medications come into the picture.

Temporary disability

Recently I overheard someone telling a story about the irritated and dirty looks she got as someone who walked with a brace or crutch.  That is, until she shaved her head.  Then suddenly people assumed she was a cancer victim and her social status instantly elevated.  Being pregnant on public transit has been quite an education in how people view others’ hardships.  The bigger I get, the more likely it is that someone will offer me a seat, but I’ve been surprised by who does and doesn’t extend this kindness.  It’s been interesting to see it offered to me but not to people who need it more, like people with small children or people with more serious physical difficulties.  And frankly, while it is very nice to be able to sit down while I’m carrying around an extra 33 pounds, I really needed it in the first trimester when I was nauseous and exhausted all the time, but didn’t look like there was anything wrong with me.

There’s no doubt that people make constant judgements and calibrations about how much others are worthy of kindness or deference.  I find myself doing the same.  If a man gets on the bus who has a limp, does he need to sit down more than I do?  Would he find it insulting to be offered a seat by a woman who is obviously about to give birth any day?  What causes one teenage boy to cooly insist that I take a seat while others stubbornly spread their legs so wide that they effectively take up two seats?  When so many women smile sympathetically and hold the door for me or give up a seat, what causes other women to blatantly cut in front of me in line?  It’s a fascinating study in who gets over and why.

I have to say, I’m really looking forward to getting my abdominal cavity back, and more abstractly, to going back to the freedom to not wear a particular identity if I don’t want to (a convenient tool in the invisible knapsack of white privilege).  At the moment, anyone who sees me first sees “pregnant”, and then if I’m lucky, might be able to see a few of the many other things that I am if they look closely past the social glare of my belly.  I’ve been The Other plenty of times, but this experience has given me a glancing appreciation of what it must be like to be “the one in the wheelchair” or “the one who walks really slowly” or just someone who is big.

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“Uterine Invader! I mean, happy breeding to you!”

July 18, 2012 · 6 Comments

With thanks to JJ for the quote!

Folks, somehow this ended up in my uterus:
Uterine invader!

I KNOW, RIGHT? I’m as confused as you are, but I suspect that project partner, housemate, and special friend Far McKon may have had some involvement. I raise my eyebrow at you, sir.

Here’s a FAQ about my spawn.

Basic stats?
Due mid-August. Sex unknown. Name TBD. Proto-baby was not planned, per se, but also not a surprise. Anticipated delivery at The Birth Center. Using a doula who has a special interest in this birth, as she also acts as my sister when she’s not applying counterpressure or advising on the latest research on perineal massage.

I’m your friend. Why did you tell the Internet before you told me?
Erm, it’s complicated? I’m really sorry if my failure to disclose is annoying or hurtful.  Parts of the Internet already know and it’s public knowledge to anyone who has seen me in the last couple months. But this is a life milestone that is difficult for me to share spontaneously because, what? I call someone up and say, “Woot, I’m spawning!” and they’re like, “Ok? Should I buy you something now that your normal life is essentially over and the nature of our friendship may fundamentally change?” “Erm, no, in fact I don’t think there’s any action for you to take. Huh, this is awkward. K, I’m gonna go and not drink a beer. Later.”

If you didn’t know before now, it’s not because I don’t care about you. On the contrary, it may be because I wanted to put off changing the perception of our relationship for as long as possible. This is a game-changer, sure, but it’s not a personal philosophy reverser. Chances are that I’ll be a sleep-deprived, hormone-soaked zombie for about 4 months, then start to re-enter the world with a steadily returning ability to consider and converse. I hope that I’ll be as good a friend with-kid as I was without.

Ok, so this is on the Internet now. Are you going to change your profile picture to creepy 3D ultrasound copies or baby pics?
At the moment, this is not an anticipated action. However, all predictions come with the caveat that one never knows what might happen after a major life change. To paraphrase Rick James, oxytocin is a hell of a drug.

Breeding, i.e., the act of promulgating your genetics forward in time and space, is an inherently egotistical act. How do you justify this, particularly from an environmental perspective?
Not particularly well, I admit. The original idea arose from thinking about the kind of household/immediate community I want to live in. I wanted to share resources (done), share ideas and project activities (done), wanted to live in a low-conflict, high-functioning group (done), and I hoped to have inter-generational energy around (pending). It’s true that pre-fab children are available through the foster care and adoption systems and that’s something that’s still on the table. But I figured that maybe it would be better to make stupid first-time parent mistakes on an individual who didn’t come to us already saddled with identity issues that would require care and experience to help with.

Neat! Do you need anything? What can I do or give to show support and/or delight in your reproductive viability?
You know what I would love? Write a note or letter to the spawn about your life now, the spawn’s weird parents, your most encouraging hopes and advice. And cat pictures.

As far as baby-industrial complex crap, we’re mostly set with newborn stuff and storage space is at a premium. There’s a short list of things we haven’t gotten, but mostly we’re in good shape. I wouldn’t turn down frozen food in preparation for the first weeks with Babycakes. There’s a scheduling site that lets people sign up for food and housework shifts, and that would be appreciated for sure. I’ll post the sign-up info later. Used children’s books are always a winner, especially if you sign it or add a note! Also, come visit. Continue to be part of our lives. It’s ok to invite me out for drinks, too. For the moment I’ll just stick with seltzer, but it’s awesome to see you, even without alcohol!

What else? Tell me! Tell me!
Sure! I have some stored up thoughts about the process that I’ll consider pulling out and posting as the weeks go by. Mostly, this pregnancy is absolutely textbook-normal, to the point of being boring. I’ve never been so happy to be so average. I don’t feel controlled by hormonal wildfires, but I am looking forward to being able to tie my shoes without a massive effort sometime soon. Kiddo naps a lot but gets really active a couple times a day. It feels really neat like a lava lamp in my abdominal cavity, despite it being truly reminiscent of Alien.

So…There you go, I’m out! Which is more than I can say for Baby, at least for the next 4-6 weeks.

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How to Survive Your Capstone in 10 Easy (HA!) Steps

April 27, 2012 · Leave a Comment

Here’s a quick thesis/capstone survival guide I put together for a talk at Penn last fall. It’s close to graduation time so hopefully it will come in handy to someone!


1. Capstones scare everybody.  Face it together.

You might think you are the worst procrastinator in the world, that no one has ever been as scared of a stupid paper, and that everybody else is doing way better.


Everybody suffers when they’re working on the magnum opus of their education thus far, the document that could propel them to greatness or banish them to mediocrity FOREVER.  It helps to have a cadre of friends or colleagues for venting, study dates, and plain old empathy.  You often get tips and insights when you talk through whatever you’re stuck on, that you wouldn’t get plugging away on your own.  So even if it seems like some of your classmates have hit their stride before you, don’t be shy about working together.

2. Heed your inner procrastinator.

You know that moment when you’re staring at a blinking cursor, trying to attack a concept or a chapter and all you can think about is how much you want to clean the toilet?  Maybe there’s a reason you’re stuck.  It could be that while you beat yourself up for not buckling down and writing the thing, that what’s really going on is that your intuition says something isn’t quite right.  Maybe you don’t feel like you have a convincing argument, or one of your sources doesn’t feel authoritative, or you’re not sure you’re asking the right question.  When you find yourself procrastinating, take some time to peel back the layers of why you’re stuck.  There might be a breakthrough at the center.

3. Work on what you want; the flow will come.  Or, don’t fall down the rabbit hole.

You just want to get through this one idea, then you can work on the fun stuff.  But every time you start the sentence, you feel like you need a better statistic.  Then you find another fact that leads you down another path.  Next thing you know, you’ve spent 6 hours chasing shadows and your sentence still isn’t working.

Forget it.  Work on what’s on your mind.  You do better work when an idea is fresh.  If you wait a day or a week or a month, you might lose that momentum.  Research writing is an iterative process and skipping around to topics you enjoy could give you better perspective on the less fun parts.  You might find that they are less relevant than you originally thought, or maybe when you go back you’ll find it more interesting.  Either way, it will be easier to tackle in the context of your other work.

4. Can you cut your concept in half?

This is super helpful for maximalists like me.  It’s tempting to expand your project to make it really relevant or erudite, but the key to finishing is setting attainable goals.  You might get two-thirds through your project and realize that you just won’t be able to do an entire component.

That’s when it’s helpful to have thought about your project in sections.  Take your concepts and chop them in half until you’re down to atomic chunks which lose their meaning if chopped again.  Those are your building blocks.  If you think of them as modular pieces, you have the option of dropping one or more without maiming your project if you can’t realistically finish them all.

5. Pick readers you trust, then trust them.

 Since I wrote my capstone I’ve referred to it several times to compose a talk, to check a fact, or just to marvel at having finished the damn thing.  Often, I run across a sentence that makes me hyperventilate.  That argument isn’t convincing!  That statement is controversial!  That fact is insufficiently cited!  And I panic and think that anyone who reads my paper will know I’m a fraud

Then I remember who I chose to read my capstone.  Both my formal and informal readers are people I trust and respect.  They come from diverse professional, personal, and even political backgrounds.  They all had insightful comments that I incorporated, and they liked my paper.  This has talked me down from several ledges.  If my work was respected by people I respect, I must have done something right.


6. Be kind to your audience.

This is a lesson I learned from my readers and from the absolutely wonderful book The Craft of Research.  It’s a classic for scholars of many levels and fields, and what I love about it is that it breaks down the mystical process of making a convincing argument and feeling sure that it’s convincing.  If you don’t have it, get it.

But it also discusses how to be in dialogue with your readers, how to anticipate their questions, how to neither assume they know everything you do nor that they are ignorant, and how to introduce them to your point of view.  Even if your audience are experts in your field, they aren’t experts in your perspective.  I wrote a section that I feared was simplistic and pandering, but my readers liked it because it introduced them to the totality of my topic in the form of a readable narrative.  After that, the audience felt prepared for the heady statistics and policy arguments that followed.  It’s safe to assume that your readers are people like you, and that they will appreciate rigorous arguments in readable language over spurious scholarship that assumes your readers already know everything you’re talking about.  They don’t.  It’s your job to engage them and convince them.


7. Let the robots manage your references.

If you’re not already using a citation manager like Refworks, EndNote or Zotero, run don’t walk and get signed up!  I used Refworks which was fine for my needs, and I wish I had used it for all my courses.  Sometimes I found that a reference I’d used for one paper would come in handy for another and it would have been easier to search for it in a citation tool than to look it up in the paper itself.  And there are few joys more palpable than switching from tweaking your commas and semi-colons by hand, to clicking a checkbox and having your references output in any citation style you like!  This is nerd paradise! 

Every tool has its pros and cons, (here are some comparisons from Penn, Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison, and a very rich one from Wikipedia) but it’s better to start using something than to fret over which one to choose.  Your best bet for getting help picking one is to talk to a reference librarian.

8. For the poster, bribe a designer friend with cookies.

Everyone, including me, treats the poster as an afterthought.  When I started mine I suddenly realized, crap, I don’t know anything about data visualization, color theory, layout, even font size for large format printing!  The poster help in the MES program’s Capstone guide (available on Blackboard, talk to the department if you can’t find it) is a good start, but there are some baaaaad posters out there.  If you can get some face time with a designer, you’ll come out with inspiration for organizing and illustrating your biggest ideas.  I’m ok with how mine came out (even if it’s pretty text-heavy) but I wish I’d thought about it sooner and gotten help.  I do feel strongly about 2 things, though:  70%-80% gray is almost always better than black for large format stuff unless you’re only using a very few, very bold colors, and serif fonts are ugly.  Yeah, I said it.

9. Consider your licensing options.

At Penn, the default publishing option is to have your paper entered into Scholarly Commons.  There’s a lot to be said for automatically being published in at least one place, especially if that place is the library of a major research institution.  The author agreement isn’t at all onerous.  It gives Penn the right to copy your paper to keep it available online, and publish parts of it in its own publications, giving you attribution.  In fact, the works are published with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license, which means anyone who wants to use it can do so if they give you credit, don’t make money, and don’t remix it.  You retain the right to re-publish or do whatever you want with your work.  That’s actually pretty good.  I did not submit to Scholarly Commons and slapped a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Sharealike license on the copy that I keep on my website.  But I may actually go back and submit to Scholarly Commons.  I’ve read horror stories of academic authors trying to publish their dissertations using a Creative Commons license and getting crazy pushback from their departments, and it’s nice that Penn is ahead of the curve on that. 

But it’s worth noting that if you  are sure you want to publish elsewhere, many publications frown upon being second to the party.  The dilemma is weighing a guaranteed publication versus possibly harming your chances of publishing in a journal or elsewhere.

10. Pace yourself.  It works!

I’m the kind of person who sees a big project as a monolith.  I have a hard time believing that working on a bit at a time will get the job done.  But I’ll repeat that this kind of project is iterative.  Working on a section at a time or a set number of hours at a time really will get the job done.  You might still have to cram at the end, but any work you do, even if it doesn’t feel finished, gets you closer to the goal.  Making mistakes and doing very rough writing is part of the process.  Putting your head down and doing nothing but work in every free hour for a semester may not result in more or better work than committing to a certain number of hours or pages per week.  And if you pace yourself you can give yourself permission to get a beer, go for a bike ride, celebrate your friend’s birthday, and still know that you’re making progress. 


Listen, I’m not going to pretend that writing a capstone is easy.  But it’s a dragon you can slay if you can keep it from overwhelming you.  Remember that it’s a finite amount of work and it will get done.  If you need help defining the scope, you can get feedback from your advisor, classmates, and alums.  And the sooner you finish, the sooner you can experience the sublime freedom of having it off your mind.  (Of course, I took fooooreeeeeverrrr to finish mine, so do as I say, not as I do.)  Good luck!


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Be Your Own Puppet: Miwa Matreyek’s stunning video shadow puppetry

April 27, 2012 · Leave a Comment

In mid-March I went to Baltimore’s Quest Fest to see a performance by Miwa Matreyek, an animator who I hadn’t heard of even a couple of months ago. I stumbled across her work on some internet afternoon stroll and was captivated by the clips that I saw.  Lucky for me, other people from the Pricess Grace Foundation to TED had heard of her.

Her work is heavily inspired by shadow puppetry, and in fact when I first looked at her work my mind immediately went to this exquisite video for the Little Dragon song “Twice” by Johannes Nyholm.

But in her work, she is the puppet. She performed two pieces at Quest Fest, “Dreaming of Lucid Living”, and “Myth and Infrastructure”. In each, she projects an original animation on a screen, but uses a second projector in back of the screen to throw the shadow of her figure into the animation.

The result is whimsical and stunning. She has perfected the timing of each piece such that as she moves her body, it is perfectly in sync with animations happening on the screen. In Myth and Infrastructure, for example, there is an extended section where the main shadow character is moving her arms while the animation from the front projects fanciful images into the hands of the shadow. Being just a little bit off would break the magic.

The interaction was so precise that for quite a while I assumed that she was using some gesture sensing and image creation setup. In a recent project that The Hacktory and Hive76 did with the PA Academy of the Fine Arts, the team used a Kinect to sense people’s motions and sent the output to a program written with Processing running on a laptop.  The program manipulated the movement and created a silhouette out of it. We projected the output onto a screen that we made from photographic background paper.

But Matreyek doesn’t do that. There’s just enough subtle imperfection in the performance to both reference traditional puppetry, and to ensure the viewer that what she’s doing is made of mastery, not software. During the Q&A I asked if she’d ever used motion sensing tech in her animations. She said that the group she collaborates with, Cloud Eye Control, has used it but her preference is to have total control over the animation.

For me, the choice of virtuosity over technology in her work is really attractive. Knowing how much preparation goes into making a precise performance look like whimsy just makes me like it more.  Check out a performance if she comes to a town near you.

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Hacking the Gender Gap at the Women In Tech Summit

April 20, 2012 · Leave a Comment

TechGirlzTomorrow, The Hacktory is excited to present a workshop at the Women In Tech Summit called Hacking the Gender Gap: A Hands-On Workshop for Boosting Gender Diversity in Tech. Georgia, Sarah, and Steph will facilitate activities to pull from people’s positive and negative experiences in tech as well as some of the research on the gender gap in STEM. We’ll work through strategies for combating sexist behavior and building a more diverse tech community. We hope to use this workshop as a first step in gathering data and stories that women, girls, and their allies can use in their organizations.

Check back here for a resource list and some of the outcomes from the session. And if you haven’t signed up for the summit they may still be taking some last minute registrations!

Happy Tech Week, everyone!

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