1 Mar

When I was applying to the magnet program of my public high school, I had to write an essay on “My Hero.”  I’ve never been much of a hero-worshiper, so I wrote about myself (yes, I have always been this awesome and modest).  In retrospect maybe this means I didn’t have too many role models as one of two Vietnamese kids in my school, and a math nerd to boot, but of course at the time I took it as a source of pride that I only looked up to myself (and secretly my parents, but the 13-year-old who writes an essay about looking up to their parents is a far more mature one than I was).  I have always found it difficult to admire/like people that I don’t know in person, because you never know if you’ll get the feeling that someone likes to kick puppies in their spare time until you have a face-to-face conversation with them.  So Melinda Gates, for instance, will not be appearing in this blog post.

I admire all of these people, and I want you to know about them too because they are all going places or are already places.  This is a very incomplete list in no particular order, and also I count all of these people as personal friends.  This post was inspired by Mathematically Gifted and Black.

Moon Duchin– Moon has been all over the news lately because of this awesome gerrymandering workshop she’s co-organizing this summer at Tufts, to prepare mathematicians to be expert witnesses in legal cases (they’re working with lawyers).  Here’s the interview and article from Chronicles of Higher Ed [Note: yes, it’s standard in Chronicles of Higher Ed to refer to profs by Ms./Mr./Mrs. and yes, many of us skimmed several random articles to check that].  It’s so big, there’s a meta-article about it on Snopes with “geometric group theory” in the title!  So Moon Duchin is a name you should know.  She’s also extremely dedicated to mentorship-she was part of the team that started the Directed Reading Program at UChicago, which now exists in at least a dozen schools, she’s extremely approachable to Tufts students, and she goes above and beyond with research clusters, minicourses + conversations, and still manages to do lots of cool research.  I’m a big fan.  Fun fact: when I cut my hair short I didn’t know how to style it, so I texted Moon for help (she was helpful).

I didn’t want to post a pic of a friend without permission so I’m posting a pic of myself.

Piper Harron– Piper blew up the math world two years ago with her thesis, a testament to her journey through mathademia and astute observations of her own experiences.  We first started talking when I posted an emo post about that thesis, and I’ve been reading her powerful words since then, especially through the election.  Here’s her blog.  Piper’s honesty, directness, and way of wielding words like a sword to cut straight to your heart and the heart of the matter at hand all make for a nigh-poetic reading experience, but the matter at hand (often math culture, American culture, oppression) is so heavy and concrete that we are brought to earth, crashing hard.  See, I do not wield words like a sword, and Piper would’ve written that sentence way better than me.  Fun story: at IAS last year Moon and I ran a discussion on intersecting identities and I TOTALLY crashed and burned trying to explain intersectionality with a raft metaphor (I am not going to try to explain it here), and Piper rescued me.

Here’s a video (and transcript if you don’t like watching videos) with pizza as a metaphor for intersectional feminism:

My Khanh Ngo: MK is a classmate of mine from Yale, and while I’ve been spending the seven years since we graduated on this Ph.D. and making babies, she’s been tirelessly fighting for social justice through immigration law and reform.  She also introduced me to takoyaki so she obviously makes this list.  My Khanh has also been in the news lately as one of the writers of the ACLU Darweesh vs. Trump case, and she just published a piece on Feministing about another project she’s involved with, the Immigrant Bail Fund.  Just in case you aren’t sure about where to donate to benefit your LOCAL COMMUNITY (or national), she’s sent out a link to a google doc with a great list. Here’s a preview of her TV debut on Frontline:

Ellen Junn: Ellen is the president of California State University, Stanislaus (aka Stanislaus State), which is AWESOME and well-deserved.  We first met in 2006 when she was my alum interviewer for Princeton.  During the interview she told me that she always takes the students who get in out for lunch to talk about Princeton and their plans for undergrad.  I did not go to Princeton, but I emailed her anyway and she took me to lunch anyway, and has been doing so for over ten years.  She also went to University of Michigan for undergrad, which is where my best friend Denise Ding went, so she’s also mentored Denise through our journeys.  Back then she was a professor in psychology at Cal State Fullerton, then she moved to Fresno as associate provost, then to San Jose, Dominguez Hills, and finally Stanislaus as she climbed the ladder.  Throughout all of it, she’s shown dedication to mentorship, community, and students, and I can personally attest to that- she even called me in 2012 when I was freaking out about grad school to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of academia.

Brittani Nichols: B is another social-media maven (here’s her twitter, instagram, youtube of her webseries, and two podcasts and also her imdb page).  We met senior year of college and became friends pretty quickly.  I’m very enthusiastic about all the people featured in this list but I can unambigiously say that B is the coolest person I know (though my cousin, a producer of Dear White People, comes close).  I’ve watched B over the past seven years endlessly working to make it in an industry that doesn’t exactly love black lesbians.  I admire her gung-ho-ness, sharp and quick-witted sense of humor (she is a writer first, as seen by her articles on Autostraddle), and extremely strong sense of self which we all felt in college and still feel now.  She’s definitely an up and comer- I didn’t even know until going to her IMDB page that she was on Transparent!  And her film Suicide Kale has won a bevy of awards.  Once she turned down a Thanksgiving invitation from me to go to a famous person’s house, and she told me that it was for her career and she would’ve rather had my Vietnamese-American turducken instead.

Evelyn Lamb: Last but certainly not least is my fairy blogmother and friend who is a  freelance mathematical journalist.  She’s published on so many websites at this point it’s hard to keep track, but each month you can get an update from her (I do!) via email list.  I think we met via twitter, where she’s often promoting young mathematicians like me, and keeping us all up to date on math news.  Then we met in person at a math conference, and a few times since then.  I’m a big fan.  You should read Evelyn’s work if you haven’t already.  I’m tired now so she gets the worst blurb of all, but I’ve written about her before so hopefully that makes up for it.

Phew!  Eight months pregnant with a horrible cold and I still very slowly wrote a blog post!  Huzzah!  Back to bed (I am surrounded by tissues and pedialyte right now) for me.  Hope you enjoyed this list!

## Last minute Valentine’s Day idea: chocolate covered strawberries

14 Feb

You can buy chocolate covered strawberries from the store for about $3 a piece, or you could make your own POUND of chocolate covered strawberries for around$8 (strawberries were on sale at my store this week).  And it takes about 10 minutes.  So… I feel like it’s clear which of the two you should do.

Start with a bag or bar of good chocolate chips (I have Ghiradelli ones here).  Also, use good strawberries- we had a two pound box from Costco but those weren’t as yummy as the one pounder from the regular store (though they were prettier and larger).  I followed the instructions on the bag for how to melt chocolate in the microwave.  I actually prefer this to the double boiler stovetop method because you won’t accidentally get any water in them, which would cause the chocolate to seize up.

Dump a bunch of chopped up chocolate or chips into a bowl, and microwave at 50% power for a minute and a half.  While that’s going, wash your strawberries and dry them.

If your partner doesn’t do something for you for Valentine’s Day, it might be the last straw-berry confection you make for them.

When the chocolate comes out it won’t be melted yet, just melting.  Stir it vigorously for a minute or so, then pop it back in the microwave at 50% power for another 30 seconds.  Meanwhile, line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silpat.  Once the chocolate pops out, stir, stir, stir until it’s perfectly smooth (really, try to get all the lumps out).

Ironic how the more your stir, the less stir-dy the chocolate becomes.

Then take your beautiful dry strawberries and dip them in the smooth chocolate, twirling when you pull them out so you don’t get the chocolate tail.

I wonder if the writer of Trees liked chocolate covered strawberries.  It’d be SERRE-en-DIP-itous.

Alternatively you can hold them upside down if the twirling isn’t your speed, and they’ll absorb their tails.

If you gave a talk in a dark room but finagled a flashlight onto your chalk-holder, would the talk be CHALK-LIT?

So far we’ve spent 2 minutes total microwaving, 1 minute or so stirring, and 2-3 minutes dipping.

Alternate photo for this caption: infinite line of strawberries with a single endpoint.  Array of strawberries.

You might be happy with them like this and be done!  I like the look of the drizzled white chocolate, so I broke up half a bar of white chocolate and microwaved it for a minute at 50% power, stirred, and microwaved again for another 30 seconds.

Fork-ast for today: loooove is in the air

Use a fork for this part!  Then drizzle the white chocolate over the strawberries (the chocolate coating sets very quickly).

Along with drizzles of white chocolate.  And, where I am currently sitting, drizzles of rain.

You can go pretty crazy on the drizzling and they’ll still end up looking awesome.

If Jackson Pollack did this, would he make chocolate covered fish?  Gross!

.Let the berries sit while you clean your two bowls and spoon and fork.  Ten minutes!  Ta-da!  They look even fancier if you put them on a plate.

Chocolate covered strawberries

One pound strawberries (actually I ate a few so there’s less than a pound here)

Half a bar of white chocolate

A bar of dark/bittersweet/milk/your choice chocolate or 1.5 c of chocolate chips

1. Break up the chocolate bar into small pieces into a microwave safe bowl, then microwave for 1.5 minutes at 50% power.  Wash and dry strawberries.
2. Stir chocolate vigorously until the bowl no longer feels warm.  Microwave for 30 more seconds at 50% power.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
3. Stir chocolate vigorously until smooth.  If it’s still chunky, microwave for another 30 seconds and do it again.
4. Dip strawberries into chocolate and twirl as you pull them out.  Lay on the baking sheet.
5. Do steps 1-3 again but for the white chocolate, and use a fork.
6. Use the fork to drizzle white chocolate over the strawberries.

## CALL TO ACTION + I am so tired and it’s only been a week

31 Jan

I have several very cool Facebook friends and before my woe-is-me post below I thought I’d let you know about some things that they are doing.

First, you may have heard that the ACLU filed a complaint re: Trump’s executive order banning people from certain countries.  On page 18 of that complaint you’ll see my friend My Khanh’s name (so proud of her!) as one of the law interns in the suit.  Here’s what she has to say:

Thank you so much everyone for the outpouring of support. Please, in addition to donating to ACLU, PLEASE remember to support local community-based organizations and those providing direct services like the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) which has been providing heroic efforts on the ground scene at JFK to stop deportations, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) which has been tirelessly responding to calls for help from here and abroad, the National Immigrant Law Center, Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, IRIS, Make the Road…there are SO many organizations fighting the good fight out there. And it involves so much more than typing behind a computer and filing a few papers in court (although that does seem to work sometimes too!).

Next, if you’re a mathematician or know mathematicians, you might be able to help my friend, math writer extraordinaire Evelyn Lamb help us:

Mathematicians: if you or a mathematician you know are affected by the executive order on immigration and want to talk to me about it in my role as a writer, feel free to email: rootsofunityblog at gmail. I may be writing about it and would be happy to hear your story, whether you would be willing to be named in the piece or not. This post is public. Please share, either here or over email, with people who might be interested.

Speaking of math, the American Mathematical Society put out a statement condemning the EO yesterday.  But there’s more that mathematicians can do, and another friend and professor at Tufts, Moon Duchin has this 5-day gerrymandering summer school working with lawyers:

Worried about gerrymandering? This August I’ll be running a summer school to train mathematicians as expert witnesses for redistricting cases. We’re bringing together legal experts, GIS experts, and more. If there’s enough demand, we’ll run regional trainings around the country. Please spread the word… Geometry of Redistricting Summer School

Probably/hopefully many of you my readers have already been trying to call your representatives about various issues.  As a die-hard liberal I’ve been using Daily Action for what to say each day.  Also, my representatives (Ted Cruz, John Cornyn, Roger Williams) are SUPER HARD to get in touch with (voicemails always full!  Hang-ups because all staffers are already busy!) but email is not a good way to contact your rep. Inspired by a tweet from Jordan Ellenberg:

I’m trying to do an in-between and writing a page a day and faxing it in to their offices.  I can’t tell you how desperate/triumphant/sad/happy I felt when I got this:

I felt like maybe, possibly, someone in our government is having a harder time ignoring me.

Finally, for a morale boost, here’s my friend Piper Harron telling us to adapt to the new normal:

i’ve seen people say that the point of the ban was chaos. either to distract us from something shadier trump is doing now, or to fatigue (or over-stress) us against acting when trump does something shadier later. fine. but what am i supposed to do with that? am i supposed to not protest and freak out when trump is messing with people’s lives? am i supposed to not talk about it? i don’t understand. what is the advice attached to these warnings?

we were so worried about trump being normalized, but maybe our resistance needs to be. maybe we need to accept this new normal. trump is going to keep attacking us. and we have to keep responding, but we have to be in it for the long haul. we cannot allow ourselves to get fatigued. maybe that means finding a way to make the necessary calls, to make the necessary donations, to go to protests, not because we are angry or scared or fired up and ready to go, but because that is who we are now.

and maybe most of us should stop trying to figure trump out. for me personally, all i get out of worrying about where we’re headed is stress and inefficiency. i’m not in a position to get ahead of trump, and i’m not fleeing the country because of speculation. as someone who dabbles with anxiety, i can tell you that there is no benefit to living with alarm bells blaring and no mechanism for turning them off. so, time for a manual override. a recalibration. trump is not normal, but his attacks on our rights and ideals will be the norm for as long as he is president.

in other words, keep calm and defend freedom with all your might.

Do you remember when Black Lives Matter was nascent, and police killings of unarmed black people were dominating our national conversation?  I remember running into this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpVeUVcFMAU then, and realizing that I could not relate/empathize with it but I could sympathize/feel compassion for the audience (black Americans).  And that burden of feeling unvalued by society and feeling that everyone who looks like you is unvalued by society seemed so obvious and so heavy that it takes a tremendous amount of psychological energy to just exist in such a society.

So now we’re a week into the Trump presidency, and Tết was Saturday, which is the New Year for Vietnamese culture and the time that you pay your debts (before New Year’s) and clean your house and prepare for a fresh start with new hope for the new year.  Those two events are very, very at odds with each other and I am not prepared for what a psychological burden it is to have my (ethnic) culture mismatch chronologically with my (national) culture.

Also, I am more prone to anxiety when pregnant so I’ve been having nightmares about being separated from my toddler and about losing one of my kids on a boat (my mom’s family are all boat people) and about my daughter being born in March with some life-threatening condition and not being able to afford her medicine as she grows up, and the usual anxiety-nightmare of running from some evil to find and save my family but I can’t.  Here’s a story in the LA Times about Vietnamese refugees in 1975, when the U.S. did the right thing despite lack of popular support:

A Gallup poll in May 1975 showed that only 36% of Americans were in favor of Vietnamese immigration. Many feared job losses and increased public welfare. Even then-Gov. Jerry Brown sounded alarms about the toll the Vietnamese refugees would take on the state.

And on a sad dark note and what spawned this whole anxiety trip, my cousin posted this on instagram (I do not know the original source):

The picture on the right looks just like my son when he’s sleeping.

I went to a talk on Sunday and the professor said that the day we don’t allow brave, hopeful people to pack up their things and try a life somewhere new is the day we betray her:

This Dorothea Lange print of Florence Owens Thompson was from the Great Depression; she’s 32 and has just sold the tires off her car to try to get some more food for her seven kids.  Hope is gone.  She’s seeking refuge.  But where is it?

## Six principles of nonviolence (Happy MLK Jr. Day)

17 Jan

A day late but here we go anyway!  Last weekend I went to volunteer training for the Women’s March On Austin scheduled for this Saturday.  I was planning on blogging about biology today, but talking about what we went over in training seems more timely.  The Austin march is one of 616 sister marches around the world planned to coincide with the one in Washington, D.C. (so there might be one near you!)  Here’s an excerpt from the mission statement of the women’s march on Washington, emphasis added:

In the spirit of democracy and honoring the champions of human rights, dignity, and justice who have come before us, we join in diversity to show our presence in numbers too great to ignore. The Women’s March on Washington will send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women’s rights are human rights. We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us.

I was really impressed and inspired by the event coordinators- the person who trained us in nonviolent protest has been involved with protests and activism since she was 8 (Austin native) and read this excerpt aloud, stressing the end: that we need to support all marginalized groups to move forward, instead of looking only at cis, heterosexual white women (a.k.a. “white feminism”– that was a link to an article by an academic; this is a link to a HuffPo video explaining the term).

Next we went through practical things about how to march safely (link arms, use a buddy, if something happens decide as a group to stay and sit down, linked or go away very quickly, report anything suspicious to block marshalls), volunteer jobs (I’m at the check-in table!), and then the six principles of nonviolent protest.  She was careful to say that these have been used for a long time by not just MLK, Jr. (examples: suffragists, Gandhi) but he happened to write them down in a way that’s very nice for teaching activism to new people.  So here they are (in bold), plus some thoughts

1. Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.  Often not fighting back requires bravery.  You can be nonviolent and still be aggressive, just not physically aggressive.
2. Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding. The goal here is to make a community, to win over the people who are against you.  A good way to not do it: tell people “you’re wrong!”  A good way to start to do it: listen.  Also, make eye contact.  Be a human and show people that you are a human and you recognize their humanity as well.
3. Attack forces of evil, not people doing evil.  This was when our presenter reiterated that this is not an Anti-Trump march, but a pro-women, pro-LGBTQ, pro-immigrant, pro-marginalized people march.  “Trump is a symptom, not the disease.  We want to defeat the disease.”
4. Accept suffering without retaliation.  This is basically, don’t fight back.  When people see you suffering an injustice, you’ve communicated to them that this matters, and hopefully they extrapolate that you matter.
5. Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate.  Another way that people put this is to avoid internal violence as well as external violence.  Come at this with love and hope for reconciliation in your heart instead of hatred and hope for retribution.  Keep up morale in a positive manner, not a negative manner.
6. The universe is on the side of justice.  Believe this.  A volunteer said that this was the easiest principle to keep up, and another said #2 is the hardest- she wants to snap back instead of listen.

I got a little teary at the end of the nonviolence training, when we practiced chanting “HEAR OUR VOICE.”  I’m not a big crowds person so being in the middle of a room of such positive energy and solidarity really affected me.

Here’s a video of a training that happened later that day (not for volunteers), which starts with 20 minutes of Q&A and then an hour of Simone going through these principles etc.  She’s really good:

So if you’re in or near one of the cities with a sister march, consider heading over there this weekend and checking it out!  Ours will have some awesome speakers and music after (Wendy Davis!  Lizzie Velasquez!  More!) and should be really cool.  I am also not actually planning on marching the 1.5 miles in 80 degree heat with 22,000 other people (definitely a recipe for very pregnant me fainting), but I’ll be there beforehand so if you’re around come say hi!

## And now for something completely different-cognitive neuroscience!

10 Jan

I sometimes trawl arxiv.org for short math papers to read, and occasionally I even blog about them (see: curve complex I and II), though generally my math blog posts arise from interesting talks I’ve seen (see: most of the rest of my math posts).  Recently a friend sent me a job listing that would require a Ph.D. in biology or similar, but the real job requirement is an ability to read biology papers.  The only related category on arxiv is “quantitative biology,” so I thought I’d try to bring up a short paper and read it and blog about it to see how I do.  Any cognitive neuroscientists who might read this, let me know if my reading is correct!

This post is based on the paper “Deep driven fMRI decoding of visual categories” by Michele Svanera, Sergio Benini, Gal Raz, Talma Hendler, Rainer Goebel, and Giancarlo Valente.  First, here’s my schematic of the paper:

We’ll read this schematic from top to bottom, left to right.

1. On top is the experiment: they had a lot of people watch 5-10 minute movies.  The left white arrow indicates that the people were in fMRI machines (I know a fMRI machine does not look like an EEG but that’s the picture you get) and so they have a bunch of data sitting around from that.  The right white arrow indicates that they used a computer algorithm (“math!”) to extract information directly from the movies [this is the fc7 data].  So far they haven’t contributed anything new to the literature; just used existing techniques to come up with raw data.
2. The orange diagonal arrows are when things get interesting.  The fMRI data and fc7 data comes in giant matrices, and they use another math algorithm to come up with a set of “decoding” matrices.  Not pictured in schematic: they test these matrices using some of the data.
3. The goal is indicated by the green arrows: to use the brain data and these matrices they came up with to reconstruct what people are seeing and classify these things (aka are subjects seeing people’s faces on the screen, or entire human figures?)

Now for a few details on each of the steps.

0. The motivation behind the paper seems to be to link the brain imaging community (those who work the fMRI, EEG, etc. data) with the deep neural network community (computer people) to answer questions that involve both.  The main question they have is: how do people associate low-level information like colors, shapes, etc. with semantic concepts like car, person, etc.?  Here’s the picture:

Eyes see a vague shape + different colors [low-level information]; brain tells us whether it’s a person or a tree with the sun behind it [semantic concepts]

There’s a lot of work in both communities on answering this question, and this paper uses work from both sides to form a decoder model: with an input of fMRI data, the model spits out predictions about what the subjects are seeing.  Specifically, the model is supposed to tell if subjects were looking at human faces or full human figures.  This is hard!  Those are pretty similar categories.

1. The data: they grabbed a bunch of existing data from other experiments, where scientists took 5-10 minute clips from five different movies (side note I would never want to be in these studies because one of the clips was from The Ring 2) and showed them to subjects (ranging from 27 to 74 participants in each movie) and recorded all the fMRI data, which creates a huge three-dimensional datasetevery 3 seconds.  Then they threw the movie frames into a computer algorithm (called the faster R-CNN method) which detects objects in the video frames (with varying confidence levels) and spits out a 4096-dimensional vector for each frame.  They averaged these vectors over 15 frames so that the two datasets could match up (the movies were shown at 5 frames per second so this makes sense).  These vectors form the fc7 data.
2. The math: they use an algorithm called Canonical Correlation Analysis (CCA) to spit out two orthogonal matrices and which are highly correlated (hence the middle C).  Looks like linear algebra with some linear projection!  The schematic is $fMRI \cdot A = U \\ fc7 \cdot B = V$.  To do this, they took a subset (about 75%) of the fMRI data and the corresponding fc7 data and plugged it into the math.  The goal of this step (the training step) is actually to get the helper matrices and B.  To make sure these matrices are a-OK, they used the remaining fMRI data to reconstruct the fc7 data within a reasonable margin of error $fMRI \cdot A = U \rightarrow V \cdot B^{-1} = fc7$.  Remember U and V are highly (in fact maximally) correlated so that middle arrow actually makes sense in this step (the testing step).
3. The result: For one movie, they did the training math step using different subsets of data (they did it 300 times) to make sure those helper matrices and are the best possible ones.  Then to show that this whole paper does what they want it to do, they do the testing step using the other movies.  [The whole point of a decoding method is to predict what people are seeing].  They then try to classify whether subjects see faces or bodies using their method (the fancy fc7 method) and another method (some linear thing) and show that their method is way better at this discriminating task than the other method.  Fun caveat that they had to think about: it takes people a little while to react to stimuli, so they had to toss in time-shifts for the fMRI data, and also throw in another regulatory parameter to normalize the data.

Conclusion: their method works on this preliminary result (faces versus bodies)!  They want to expand to other movies and other semantic concepts in the future.

General keywords: machine learning, fMRI, linear algebra.  Also CCA, faster R-CCN, fc7 but those are keywords for specialists.

My conclusion: this was cool and fun!  I like reading new things and learning.  I hope you do too!

## 2016 Book Roundup

3 Jan

I keep track of the books I read (aside from baby books, which we read by the handful everyday), so I thought this year I’d try something new and share my thoughts on some of the books.  For a few years I’ve been trying to read more female authors, more non-American authors, and more nonfiction.  This year I read less than previous years (or did a worse job of keeping track), with 29 books over the year.  Of 19 unique authors, I had 14 women (best yet!) and 5 men; 11 Americans and 8 non-Americans.  I did a bad job of reading nonfiction this year- a paltry 3 books out of the 29.  I also got REALLY obsessed with a few scifi series, so let’s talk about those first.

SCIENCE FICTION

Books by Octavia Butler: Fledgling, Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay’s Ark, Patternmaster.  Inspired in part by the city of LA celebrating Octavia Butler during 2016, I went on a binge with this masterful fable-teller who works in race, gender, interesting power dynamics, commentary on social structures, and surprising action scenes into her imaginative worlds.  The latter four are part of a loose series; the first one is about racist vampires (Yes, you read that right).  Plus she wrote this awesome note to herself:

From the magnificent Huntington Library in Pasadena, which I recommend visiting.

I still haven’t read her most famous books, Kindred and the Parable series.  There’s plenty of Octavia Butler to explore and she’s fantastic; can’t recommend her enough.

The Expanse series: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate, Cibola Burn, Nemesis Games, Babylon’s Ashes.  This series written by two dudes in New Mexico is now a TV show on ScyFy!  I have not watched it because the books are sort of gory, tense, and scary, and I don’t handle that well in TV (despite reading stuff like The Walking Dead, Preacher, Watchmen, etc. in graphic novel format).  These pleasantly popcorn-y books hide smart literary themes and a surprisingly deep study of their characters- Nemesis Games is my favorite one because each of our protagonists goes on their own adventure and you can appreciate how much they’ve affected each other.  The characters feel fully fleshed out and fun, with lots of flaws and learning about relationships and communication.  Also, they have to constantly save all of humanity from itself/evil aliens/evil people trying to use alien technology.  So that’s a blast.  Definitely recommend for sci-fi enthusiasts.

Unrelated science fiction/fantasy books:

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Leguin is great.  Perhaps the beginning of feminist science fiction?  This is a classic that took me too long to get around to reading. Also great for non-science fiction nerds.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman was the first book I read in 2016.  Creepy classic Gaiman.  He did a reading/speaking event here in Austin near the beginning of the year and we saw him read a few of his short stories and poems; it was astonishing.

Assassin’s Apprentice and Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb: these are the first two pulpy fantasy books in a series.  The first book is super fun and includes puppies (not really a spoiler: main character can talk to dogs), but the second book drags.  My spouse read the third and said everything stops making sense.  The first one is super fun if you want a quick fantasy read with puppies in it!  I cried (in a good way).

Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card: I had read Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow and never came around to this third book.  I really enjoyed it!  The big reveal is SUPER COOL (if no one spoils it for you/you don’t read the prologue) and the pedantic self-righteousness that can plague OSC books is at a minimum (still there but not horrible).

Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois: there are 32 of these; we have maybe 25 of them.  Fantastic huge collections of the best short stories from that year in science fiction; Dozois does a really good job of including a huge array of diverse voices.  Some of these stories haunt me for years, which means they’re really good.  If you run across one of these volumes it’s worth a buy; you can read and reread these for years.

THE BEST AND MOST IMPORTANT BOOK I READ IN 2016: AMERICANAH BY CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHE.  By this point I think I’m on my fourth copy of this book- I keep giving it away to people and telling them that it’s important and that they should read it and pass it on.  Plenty of people this year read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is an important non-fiction book but I hear is a bummer (I have not read it yet and will likely not until my very strong pregnancy hormones taper away).  This book is fiction, which I think is a little bit easier to swallow and still get similar messages across.  Race, immigrant experiences, gender, education, society, and mental health are all tied in to this love story.  If you read a single book from the books I have read in 2016, make it this one.

THE SECOND BEST BUT NOT THAT IMPORTANT BOOK I READ IN 2016: OUTLINE BY RACHEL CUSK.  This is an experimental-feeling novel where not much happens but you feel a lot of feelings.  Beautiful and evocative prose; I read and reread this book and told several others to read it.  It feels like having a big glass of water while standing in a waterfall- you aren’t sure where the book (the waterfall) ends and you (glass of water) begin, but you’re enjoying a refreshing experience.

Mom books:

How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish is a great resource for humans; you could easily replace “kids” with “people” in the title and get the same result.  And it includes comic strips if you don’t want to read the whole thing (which is what my spouse did)!  Takeaways: feelings are legitimate and difficult to handle, and we need to validate each other and help each other instead of shutting each other down.  No one likes getting nagged all the time; people like having some autonomy/power/choice, and thrive off of responsibility/reasonable expectations.  The book is chock full of specific and concrete anecdotes and exercises.  It’s from 1980 but it doesn’t feel too dated (everyone in it is white though).

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin is a South Korean novel (one of two I read this year) which is haunting and sad and about the sacrifices of motherhood.  I would definitely not read it when in a heightened emotional state.  It also makes you want to call your mom

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang is the other South Korean novel I read this year.  This is GREAT.  I gave my copy to my mother-in-law.  It’s a wonderful short fable about motherhood and would make a great mother’s day gift to tell someone how much you appreciate them.  Plot synopsis: a hen really wants a baby; she adopts a duck egg and spends her life helping her baby learn to fly/fit in where he belongs. It’s adorable and wonderful.  Would also be great for adopted parents.

All other books:

An Abundance of Catherines by John Green: I adored The Fault in Our Stars as a book and movie (and blog post) but hated this book.  I’m not sure why I finished it.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova- every few years I reread this hauntingly beautiful and soft first-person novel about a neuroscientist with early onset Alzheimer’s.  That should tell you how good I think this book is.

The Devil You Know by Claire Kilroy- a satire about the housing crisis and 2008 recession as it affected Ireland.  Generally I like reading non-American authors because it feels like a dip into another culture while still celebrating the universality of the human experience; this one was pretty heavy on the “other culture” part.  Always surprising (in a good way) with an Anglophone country.  I identified far more with the South Korean novels than this one; maybe because I’m Asian or maybe because this was super Irish.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel- a very popular science fiction post-apocalyptic book by a not-science-fiction author.  Unfortunately with my delving into sci-fi over the past few years it’s become harder for me to enjoy these sorts for books, because a small voice inside me (that sounds like my spouse) is screaming “how does this make sense?!?!?!”  I read this lightly and enjoyed a lot of it, but there are a few pages which sum up what I hated about the book: at some point, several of the characters chat about how they didn’t really pay attention in science class and don’t know how things work.  Despite, you know, BOOKS and LIBRARIES and LEARNING.

The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am by Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold- talk about weird other culture experiences!  This Icelandic book is extremely sad and absurd.  I’ve enjoyed absurdist Icelandic music and movies but literature might be a bit too much for me.

So What are You Going to Do With That? by Susan Elizabeth Basalla – I wrote about this in my ‘finding a job’ blog post.

Ashley Turner by Dean Koontz- absolutely the worst thing I’ve read since that Justin Bieber book.

The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson- calming and funny and smart.

This blog post got really long!  Wow!  Happy New Year folks!  Goals for my year: survive this pregnancy, make sure my kid survives it, have a baby, get a job, keep up a every-other-week schedule on the blog (versus every week for the past two years).  Thanks to all who have contacted me about job leads- please keep them coming if you hear of anything in the Charlotte, NC area or remote work that you think I would be interested in/awesome at.

## The employers’ argument for parental leave

22 Dec
As you may be aware, I’m having a baby in three months.  My spouse’s work offers one week of parental leave to non-primary caretakers of new babies, so I decided to put an hour in of internet research to see if I could make a little report that he could send on to HR or someone who might be interested.  And then since I did that, I figured I’d post it to here!  Happy holidays dear reader!  Maybe this will be helpful to someone.
The main sources are all freely available on the internet.
Overall takeaways:
• Jobs that offer paid parental leave are increasingly important for Millennials and young workers and increase employee retention, as seen in the CWF study as well as the California experiment.
• Paid parental leave has no negative economic impact on employers, as in California experiment.
• Longer parental leave increases employee satisfaction with work-life balance, which increases worker happiness and thus productivity.
• For employees who are partners with other employees, leave for the non-gestating employee increases work-life balance satisfaction for the gestating employee and retention for that employee.
Here’s the Department of Labor briefing on paternity leave: https://www.dol.gov/asp/policy-development/paternityBrief.pdf.  Selected quotes (sources mentioned are available at the end of this short briefing:)
• “In one study of working fathers in the U.S., those who took leaves of two weeks or more were much more likely to be actively involved in their child’s care nine months after birth – including feeding, changing diapers, and getting up in the night.6 Studies from other countries have confirmed that fathers who take more paternity leave have higher satisfaction with parenting and increased engagement in caring for their children.7”
•  “Fathers are increasingly concerned about work-life balance, and nearly half of men surveyed report that the demands of work interfere with family life.11”
• “In a 2014 study of highly educated professional fathers in the U.S., nine of out ten reported that it would be important when looking for a new job that the employer offered paid parental leave, and six out of ten considered it very or extremely important. These numbers were even higher for millennial workers.23”
Here’s a 2010 California study on Paid Family Leave, which was implemented in 2004 and offered employees six weeks of leave at 55% of salary (followed by New Jersey and Washington): http://cepr.net/documents/publications/paid-family-leave-1-2011.pdf.  This offers concrete evidence of the effects of paid family leave in general.
• Most employers report that PFL had either a “positive effect” or “no noticeable effect” on productivity (89 percent), profitability/performance (91 percent), turnover (96 percent), and employee morale (99 percent).
• Relevant pages: 7-10