Monday, November 16, 2009

Racism Is Not a Family Value

My daughter, a recent graduate in Cultural Anthropology, praised in
particular a course on Zora Neale Hurston, an American folklorist,
novelist, and authority on black culture, taught by Professor Lorecia
Kaifa Roland of the University of Colorado Boulder.

Raised as I was in lily-white suburbia, I had never heard of Zora.
She was "rediscovered" by Alice Walker. But it turns out that one of
Zora's best friends was Fanny Hurst, another famous black
novelist. Fanny Hurst's novel, "Imitation of Life," was one of the
defining "experiences" of my life, even though I never read the book.

During your life, if you have children, you try to share your values
and reasons for those values. I had shared the story with my daughter
that I had joined the YWCA, one of the oldest women's organizations in
the United States, not because I was a Christian, but because one of
their basic tenets was to get rid of racism. Somewhere along the way,
the YWCA felt this goal was no longer necessary and dropped it from
their principles and practices. At the time, I was very upset about
this and felt it was premature. I'm happy to say that it is now back
(http://www.ywca.org/site/pp.asp?c=djISI6PIKpG&b=284783).

My daughter and I didn't know we had these inspirational novelists in
common, but for me it was exciting to see her discover and internalize
an experience so different from her own privileged upbringing yet so
important to our society today.

"Imitation of Life" was made into two films, one in the late 1930s and
another in the 1950s. I saw the 1950s version first. The story
involves a black woman raising her light-skinned daughter while
working as a servant for a strong white woman entrepreneur. The
daughter, even as a young child, wants to be white and denies that she
is "colored." When she grows up, she abandons her mother and gets as
far away from her as possible, passing herself as white. She lives in
constant fear of being discovered. Her mother is resigned, even
comfortable, with her identity and never understands why her daughter
rejects her race and her mother's love.

There have been many other fantastic stories about mother/daughter
betrayal, notably "Mildred Pierce" and "The Piano," but "Imitation"
contained the double edges of blood kin betrayal and racism, a potent
combination that I found life-changing.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

I Am Woman, Hear Me Geek

The number of women majoring in Computer Science made some gains in
the 1980s, but began a precipitous slide in the 1990s. And in today's tough
job market, it is not an easy ride, even if you're a female.

Although my computer science education began as a "nontraditional"
(meaning: older) student, I immediately became aware that it was
highly competitive, and the number of females in class was low. In
order to succeed, you needed to survive classes intended to "separate
the men from the boys." I had a good academic track record and was
used to competing scholastically.

What I didn't have was the sporting mentality. The idea was not only
to get to the goal (and get your praise), but also to run over the
competition. The guys all seemed to get this, as did the male
instructors. If you asked a fellow student what yesterday's
assignment was, you were likely to get a smirk for an answer.

What about the few female students and instructors? Were their faces
being pushed into the muck? Were they indignantly spluttering as they
flung mud aside like GI Jane? Nope, 'fraid not. They were generally
helpful and supportive. What's with that, women? Are you a man or a
mouse? I think the answer is that they are women first and geeks
second. If called upon to act like a rodent, they tend to lose
interest.

How can you keep your hard-won female or minority geeks from scurrying
away? The following advice applies to both men and women:

1. Get or be a mentor. Although I eventually completed my master's
degree, I suffered many moments of self-doubt. What made the moments
bearable was having a mentor, who empathized and provided suggestions
for survival strategies. The same self-doubt happens to male students,
but they are conditioned to tough it out. Females do better if they
have someone to share the suffering with. Whether male or female, the
INTJ/Green personality geek wants friends, preferably smart ones.

Having a mentor makes you feel valued.

Mentors commonly feel that they learn as much by mentoring as they
teach. It is gratifying to feel appreciated.

2. At work, let females get a word in edgewise at meetings. You might
find they have some good ideas if encouraged to express them. The
stereotype that women will chatter aimlessly about their feelings at
meetings is bogus, because they are rarely given a chance to chatter
at all.

3. When bonding with fellows, allow females to participate in
conversations about sports and technical issues. Female geeks like
these topics. What they don't like are long discussions about
people you used to work with that they never met. Notice the new
friends sitting in front of you.

4. Keep stretching your geek's comfort level. If she has never led a
quality assurance team, rotate the leadership among the team
members. The rest of the team may see that they are safe with your
geek as both leader and co-worker.

5. Be scrupulously fair in handing out promotions and raises. Trust is
crucial, and once lost causes the geek to seek other
opportunities. When justifying why a raise was given to someone
else, the logically minded geek must find nothing to argue with.
Do not let your female geek think she might be worth less than a
male geek.

6. Encourage "showing your stuff." This can be done on the job via
plum assignments, or it could be by giving back to the
community. This is a two-way street. Just as you enjoy mentoring,
your female or minority protege will enjoy being able to show
others how they got where they are and what they do. The community
in turn will see that being a geek is not all about being alone in
a cubicle and that science and IT offer interesting and relevant
career opportunities.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Taking Care of Yourself and Managing Stress

I have been in the working world a long time. Every so often your boss
will suggest that you attend a half-day or whole-day seminar on "time
management" or "stress management." When I first took such courses,
they typically emphasized some practical time-saving tips. Over time,
however, these have evolved into sessions about how the press of overwork
isn't your fault, but you can't get angry--you just need to take care
of yourself better. "Relax, sing, soak your feet, buy yourself
something." {ref}

I am here to advocate a return to the former style. As a judging (and
judgmental) geek, I can readily see that it is illogical to try to
avoid stress by ignoring it. It does me no good to hear "Stress is
bad for you, so get rid of it!" There is, of course, concern that if
you aren't "nice" you may lose your job or your friendships or your
spouse. But, if you need to report a problem or stressful situation to
the significant people in your life, they had better be able to take
it. We just have to work on our ability to "break it to them gently."
Because geeks naturally do such a good job of time management, they
may need to be clued in that one can only keep so many plates in the
air at once (now known as "simultaneous multithreading").

It has been suggested that jobs that do not allow you any control are
the most stressful. For example, a secretary's job is more stressful
than a senior software engineer's. Some seminars suggest being
"proactive," implying that your company doesn't know what it wants you
to do, so you need to step forward and tell them. Your bosses will
know whether they like what you do or not, but they won't provide much
guidance. If you find yourself in such a situation, get out of
there. Your boss's job is to be the boss. If you want to be the boss,
start your own company. If you like working for a stovepipe
organization with several levels of management, by all means do
so. Work your way to the level that makes you happy and
satisfied. Find bosses (mentors) who will help you get there.

Suggestions:

1. Try to maintain a cool head in a crisis. Well, try to emulate those
people you admire who can keep a cool head in a crisis.

2. Apologize (sincerely) if you have to. False apologies are worse
than none.

3. Although it takes time, keep significant people in the loop of what
is going on. This can be difficult for a person who would rather
work than communicate. Speaking from experience, frequent verbal
updates and progress reports can do wonders for your career. You
could be doing an incredible amount of work, but if the boss
doesn't know it, you won't be recognized.

5. Relax, sing, soak your feet, buy yourself something. (Maybe a nice single malt?)


Ref: "I'm Juggling as Fast as I Can," Denny Kercher, Chrysalis
Publishing, Lafayette, CO 2004

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Two Geeks

A month or so after starting this blog, I was curious whether it would
be indexed by Google. The settings indicated it would.

A bit to my surprise, I discovered there are *two* sites called the
well-rounded geek on blogspot.com. The only difference is that the
other one isn't hyphenated. Not my grammatical preference, but by
today's standards, acceptable usage.

Kind of a shock, there, blogspot. I've signed up with lots of other
services, sites, vendors, etc., and they never let me take a name that
was already taken. Guess I just assumed the same would apply to the
title I gave my blog.

My daughter took a light-hearted poke at the other geek, saying,
"Don't worry mom, his idea of being well rounded is probably something
like knowing *both* C and Java."

At any rate, I apologize abjectly to the other geek for treading on
his territory. Hopefully we will complement each other and do our best
to raise all geeks to well roundedness.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Geeks and Sports

Our society values sports. There are a lot of good reasons. Sports
teach teamwork. It is fun to be a member of a team or to root for one.
Sports help keep you physically active and healthy. They teach you
to follow rules and to play fairly. They give you an avenue for
competition. People who excel at sports become role models.

It is also obvious that many see sports as a civilized form of
warfare. When well played, a game has all the advantages given
above. When played badly, bodies and egos get bruised. Many geeks have
experienced the shame of being picked last for the team because they
are viewed as less physically "talented" than their mates.

What is physical talent, and is it really important? For any given
game, certain skills or physical attributes are useful. For example,
in baseball, it is ability to throw a fastball, to sprint, and to
catch fly balls. In basketball, being tall is an advantage, because
the basket is 10 feet from the ground. But people have been getting
taller, so perhaps that advantage is shrinking. In Tae Kwon Do, the
flexibility to kick somebody in the head is pretty important. A fifth
dan black belt who breaks five bricks just doesn't seem human! For
sports, physical talent seems important. Hard work goes a way toward
physical improvement, but talent is just something you're born with.

We don't really need physical talent to be physically healthy. Average
flexibility is plenty for routine tasks, and you are rarely called
upon to do the splits at work. Your body stays happy if you just walk
half an hour a day. In fact, working your body too hard leads to
untimely wear and tear, stress, and injuries. Any Pilates teacher will
emphasize that you should build a strong "core" but teaches you to
move about as effortlessly as possible. Pilates was originally
developed for rehabilitating injured dancers but is widely popular for
maintaining general fitness. Competition is discouraged.
So, we see this disconnect between physical talent and physical
health. We want both, of course. But if we want to participate in
sports, what's to be done if we don't have the former? Enquiring geeks
want to know.

Recommendations

1. Consider a sport that can be done either alone or on a team. A good
example is bicycling. You can start out by riding to work alone and
then work your way up to riding a multiday tour. Or, if you want to
try racing, you can enter time trials, where the competition is
against the clock or against your personal best. If your personal
best looks competitive, you can try a triathlon. If to your
surprise you find that you actually have some talent (and a good
VO2max ratio), you can try team racing.

2. If you want to take up a sport, first find out what the average
timeline is for reaching the desired level. You might have more
patience if you knew that high-level karate black belts have been
working on their technique for 15 years or more. It is likely they
weren't born with talent but with much work, perseverance, and five
years, they learned how to kick. Or, you may decide to pursue
another sport that requires a lower learning curve.

3. Balance your sport with some "healthy lifestyle"-enhancing
activities such as hiking, yoga, Pilates, vegetarian cooking, or
meditation. These will help improve your ability to focus on your
vision for yourself (both on the field and at work) as well as to
relax and recondition you. Don't forget to stretch. Hey, keep
breathing!

4. Don't spread yourself too thin. Professional golfers know they get
better by swinging a golf club. Bikers have to put in the
miles. Most don't try to do three sports in hopes of making
themselves better bikers. Weight lifting may be complementary, but
I'd put it in the category of item #3.

5. Cut yourself some slack in the self-esteem department. Many geeks
are actually in very good shape; they've just never had the
opportunity to compete either in a team or solo sport. If you've
been bullied or just don't like the war-like aspects of sports,
note that seeking some sort of success in sports will be rewarded
in our society. It's called "looking for love in all the wrong
places."

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Geek Personality

If you work for a company of any size, the day will come when you have
to go to a "retreat." Uh, oh. A session of touchy-feely and bonding?
There's wa-ay too much work to get done without having to attend one
of these.

I've attended retreats of various kinds: (1) the one where the big
boss wants to show off his superstars (yawn), (2) the kind where you
try to map out your plans for the next six months (useful), and (3)
the kind where you engage in "exercises" aimed at improving your
teamwork.

One of the latter that I attended administered the Meyers-Briggs
personality test. I found this somewhat eye-opening. I work for a
large government-sponsored research lab. The scientists are top dog
here, and computer types do their best to support the noble
research. The scientists had taken the Meyers-Briggs earlier and had a
large preponderance of one personality type: INTJ. When the computing
division took the same test, surprisingly we had a similar ratio of
the same type.

Well, I guess this makes us all compatible. Of course every
personality type has its strengths and weaknesses. INTJ stands for
Introverted-iNtuitive-Thinking-Judging. [See article by Marina
Margaret Heiss at http://typelogic.com/intj.html.]

My spouse, who is also a software engineer, is innately suspicious of
these personality tests, putting them in the same category as
horoscopes. Admittedly, there are only 16 personality types in the
Meyers-Briggs, not many more choices than the 12 signs of the
Zodiac. However, the fact that 65% of my company's scientists and
engineers are INTJs seems to warrant a look.

INTJs apparently project an air of certainty and are
perfectionists. They are logical and creative. So what's not to like?
Apparently they can be ruthlessly critical of people they think aren't
pulling their weight and don't respect authority. So, it sounds like
people respect them but they don't necessarily like them. Sort of rings
true when the science budget hits Congress, doesn't it?

Luckily (or unluckily), I'm not an INTJ. I'm an ENTJ. So, my
introversion component skews a bit to the extroversion side. I think
that means I care what people think of me. Snap!

But it also means I share a lot with the INTJs at work and can hold my
own. One of my goals will be to help educate geeks so they can be more
ENTJ. After all, this is the perfect personality type. [joke]

Seriously, my personality type wants to lead the world to a better
place. But, unlike Jean-Luc Picard, I know it takes more than to just
say to the INTJs, "Make it so." I think INTJs have everything they
need to succeed, but they just need to work at being
well-rounded. Then, they will have the tools and techniques they need
to communicate effectively with everyone, and together we can help
make a difference.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Renaissance Geekiness

The ideal of the "Renaissance Man" has been around since, well, the
Renaissance. As recently as 25 years ago, college students were
encouraged (and required) to take a mixture of arts and sciences
electives so that their education would produce well-rounded
individuals prepared to learn almost any profession. As the world
grows increasingly complex, however, particularly in the area of
technology and science, the tendency has been to specialize in a
particular area and to do it at an earlier age. Few can claim to be
Jack of All Trades. On the artistic side, the number of choices has
exploded in areas such as music, television, and the Internet. Thus,
it becomes less likely at the office that you and a co-worker share
many experiences or tastes in common. Your best friend may be someone
you've never met, although you converse daily electronically.

While technically savvy people are admired for their brains, they are
often labelled as "geeks." Being called a geek can be taken as a
source of personal pride, marked with a high level of individual
achievement. Sure, Albert Einstein had some problems, but his genius
was celebrated. The stereotypical geek is used to figuring out things
on his or her own, not as a team member.

Yet an appreciation for varied interests and values is crucial in
advancing social justice and economic prosperity. The ability to
empathize and communicate with people from all walks of life is a
valuable asset. Cultivating the ability to learn from history and to
plan together for our children's future is enlightening.

I hope to expose our beloved geeks to some wholesome
character-building virtues, recognizing and minimizing weaknesses, and
reminding them of their already formidable strengths. Whether you are
a geek or you are mentoring a geek-in-the-making, effort spent on
becoming more well-rounded and on teaching others how to do it can
lead to personal benefits as well as increasing the degree to which
society values your contributions.

Of course, I will also post about events that are impacting my life,
plus reviews of music, movies, heroes, and books. Gotta stay
well-rounded.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Swallow Hill Rootsfest

Friends, I do software by day, but I try to be well-rounded.

Last night I went to the Swallow Hill Rootsfest, which had 7
bands. This was the first time I'd seen the newly refurbished
Auditorium Theatre (frequently renamed over the years depending on who
paid for remodels). It's now the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. Very
pretty and still has a good view from every seat.

The first band, the Boulder Acoustic Society, was one of my key
draws. Unfortunately, they got a late start and only got to play 3
songs. Great gyspy sound, wild violinist. Have to make do by buying
their record. I especially like their Gothic-sounding cover of Dylan's
"Maggie's Farm."

Second band, Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams,
didn't live up to their extravagant name, but did have a few good
points. They have relatives in Denver and their music often referenced
British rock. Did enjoy the slide mandolin interval, which made me want
to try a few new licks on my mando. No particularly great songs, but
were voted "best hats" of the festival.

Third band was a guy named Joe Pug, who has also been invited to the
Mile High Music Festival this coming summer. Not a super guitar
player, but a talented and earnest singer/songwriter/carpenter (yep,
he had a day job and was wearing his Timberlands). One song in
particular, "Bury Me Far from My Uniform," was fantastic. The
protagonist says he didn't ask to be killed, and he tells his mother
not to save a place for him at the dinner table and asks not to be
buried in his uniform so that God can tell him apart from all the
other soldiers. Very cool anti-war sentiment. Made me think of
Wagner's Die Valkyrie, where it's Brunhilde's job to escort heroic
soldiers to Valhalla. This guy won't get to meet Brunhilde and doesn't
want to. He seems to only have an EP out, so will look for this song on
iTunes.

Fourth band was a Swedish singer-songer, calling himself "The Tallest
Man on Earth." Great guitar player (and great setup for Leo
Kottke). His emotive voice reminded me of Steve Forbert. Loved his
lace-up Chelsea boots and the way he ran all over the stage. At the
end, he hastily ditched his guitar so he could do a full bow for the
audience. He should go far.

At the intermission, while looking at the "merch" the talent was
providing (tees and CDs), I spotted a Denver-based (but really French)
singer I'd seen on You Tube, Nicolas Busquet. His cover of 16
Horsepower's "Coal Black Horses" on mandolin is fabulous. He and his
wife(?) seemed delighted that anyone had seen the video.

Band-change interludes were filled by the hosts, Mollie O'Brien, her
guitarist husband Rich Moore, and festival organizer Harry Tuft.
Standouts were a Utah Phillips song, "Starlight on the Rails," and
"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime." Believe it or not, this was the first
time I have seen Mollie or Tim O'Brien. She sings as well as Alison
Krauss, but Mollie's more versatile.

Last came the big-time stars, Leo Kottke, Ricki Lee Jones (filling in
for Shawn Colvin), and Hot Rize. Kottke was up to his old trick of
telling hilarious stories while tuning his guitars. Get him to tell
you about the Ant Book. Ricki Lee was also in fine voice, and an
excellent guitar player. Her song about heartbreak is
heartbreaking. What can you say about Hot Rize? Well, I guess you can
say that a person can get hoarse from cheering too much. Tim O'Brien's
mandolin is unspeakably delicious.