liv: Composite image of Han Solo and Princess Leia, labelled Hen Solo (gender)
This is liable to be controversial, and I should emphasise that I'm trying to work out what to think here, not proclaiming the right answers.

So it happens that the latest Captain Awkward discussion is about loneliness and how it can be a vicious cycle, if you don't have enough fulfilling social contact you can become miserable and self-hating and push people away or think everyone's out to get you.

The Awkward Army are being very good at firmly squashing the idea that all problems are just caused by bad attitudes, and pointing out that plenty of people have disabilities or external circumstances meaning they can't "just" make more friends. But still, loneliness is one of those types of suffering that people seem to treat as mostly the sufferer's own fault; the most comparable example I can think of is physical fitness. Like somehow, if you're likeable enough, whatever likeable means, in a fallaciously just world you should have as many friends and lovers as you wish. But that means it's very common to assume that anyone who complains about being lonely must in fact be an obnoxious person. And problems which are stigmatized like that are particularly hard to tackle!

The other thing is that "lonely" means two related, but to my mind different, things. Sometimes it means not having enough social contact, but sometimes it means not having a romantic partner. Or perhaps more precisely, the feelings of sadness and inadequacy that come from not having those connections. A really striking example is the guy in the Captain Awkward comments who says
The article is bull. I am horribly lonely. I shoot pool with friends once a week. I go to church every week. I go out to a party every month. I am active in two local communities. I have hundreds of friends [...]
I mean, sure, it's possible to be lonely in a crowd, but it's clear from the rest of the comment and subsequent thread that what's eating this guy is that he's middle-aged and doesn't have and never has had a romantic partner. And being stuck without a partner but wanting one means being perceived as a failure, to an extent that really worries me.

I think loneliness is a very serious problem, and from what I can understand a pretty widespread one. Some people are lonely because they're obnoxious, yes, but it's still a problem; you have to be a lot worse than just obnoxious to deserve how miserable it can be to be deprived of meaningful contact and emotional support. Anyway, lots of entirely lovely people are lonely because they have other stuff going on making it hard to make friends, or because they're just plain unlucky. That includes the not having a spouse-type partner side of being lonely. It's easy enough to say that marriage isn't everything, that people should be able to manage without that specific type of relationship set-up, but the fact is that lots of parts of society are set up so that it's really hard to function at all if you're not in a romantic dyad. Also, it's perfectly reasonable for an individual to want that in their life, even if it's not necessarily the only road to happiness for everybody.

This issue also intersects with gender stuff; people of all genders can be lonely, and people of all genders can be excluded because they don't have a spouse or aren't romantically "successful" as society measures it. But I'm getting the strong impression that there are aspects of this problem that affect men specifically, and that there are very few sensible conversations covering male experiences of loneliness. I doubt we can magically fix this, but I'd most certainly like to start some discussion if I can.

One thing that prompted me to think about related issues is Lis Coburn's essay Anatomy of a scar, which has an original and really insightful take on what's sometimes called the Nice Guy™ phenomenon. In some ways Coburn is much more sympathetic than a lot of the folk on the internet who use the term Nice Guy™, while she also buys into the idea that Nice Guys, men who are upset because they don't have a girlfriend even though they do their best to behave decently and treat women well, are potentially dangerous misogynists.

wild speculation about gender and relationships )
liv: Table laid with teapot, scones and accoutrements (yum)
OK, I've left it really late to organize things. So, what I'm proposing is: I'm going to hang out in the Fan Village after my panel with some kind of DW sign. Anyone is welcome to stop by and chat; it will be noisy, because it's the middle of the con, but hopefully this will be inclusive to people who don't want to travel outside the convention centre.

Please feel free to spread the word:
Informal Dreamwidth meet at Worldcon

Friday 3:15 pm, Fan Village
I'll stay until 5 but it'll basically go on until people drift away
All welcome, if you've heard of Dreamwidth at all and you're going to be at Worldcon, you're invited. Bring friends.

Several people expressed interest in going out for a meal; I'm going to add a poll and do my best to organize something. Depending on numbers and requirements it might be somewhere fairly generic eg a Wagamammas or a big Weatherspoons. I'm going to suggest 1 pm Saturday unless there are strenuous objections, because finding a consensus time that suits everybody is never going to happen, so I'm just going to pick.

poll within ) If you have any suggestions for venues please do speak up! I will aim to book something by the end of this week, though I'm sure it's fine if a few extra people show up or some drop out. My plan is to simply publicize the venue and show up at the agreed time, rather than trying to organize to travel as a group.
liv: cartoon of me with long plait, teapot and purple outfit (mini-me)
I found a netbook replacement. Thank you all for helping me figure out what's out there. I ended up poking about on eBay and found a last year's model mid-range 11½'' netbook going for £100, so I snapped it up. It's an Acer V5-121, not exactly the model that's listed at that link but something pretty close to it (the processor is AMD C72 not AMD C70, but I can't imagine I'll notice the difference!)

comments and further questions )


Jul. 23rd, 2014 02:40 pm
liv: cup of tea with text from HHGttG (teeeeea)
Some of my friends have been talking about how our 14-year-old selves would think about 2014, and that's interesting enough I thought I'd put it in its own post rather than in the comments on a locked journal article.

hello, 20-years-ago Liv )

So, what do you think, what would your 14-year-old self have made of 2014?
liv: Bookshelf labelled: Caution. Hungry bookworm (bookies)
I think maybe starting from the shortest categories and working upwards was a mistake, but anyway. Thoughts:

brief reviews and voting intentions )
liv: ribbon diagram of a p53 monomer (p53)
So I'm attending a careers course at the moment. it's prompted thinky thoughts )

So, people, what shall I do with my liiiiiife? Should I try to continue in academia even though it's not looking like I'm going to get very far? Should I do something academic related but with more focus on teaching and / or management? Should I consider a totally new career, and if so what?
liv: alternating calligraphed and modern letters (letters)
One of the reasons Cambridge is such a desirable place to live is that there's always masses going on culturally, theatre, music, talks, random cool cultural and informative events. Lately nearly all our spare time has been taken up with attempting to move to Cambridge, so we haven't really been able to take advantage of most of it. Still, this week I was WFH Monday and Tuesday, so we had Monday evening free to take in a bit of Cambridge culture, and the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival is on at the moment.

We decided for no very strong reason to go for Richard II at Downing. So after I finished work I made a picnic and headed into town, and we sat on Parker's Piece in the sunshine and talked about cultural stuff and not about house-move logistics, and it was really nice. And drank bubble tea, Cambridge is getting way multicultural these days and has a proper bubble tea place.

play review )

Also, thank you to Kerry for some excellent commentary on the characters of Richard and Henry, that really helped me get more out of the play.
liv: cartoon of me with long plait, teapot and purple outfit (mini-me)
So I'm trying to move to Cambridge to live with [personal profile] jack, even though I still work in the Midlands. Today I finally managed to sell the house where I was living until February, so that's tangible progress towards the shape of life I want.

boring details )
liv: alternating calligraphed and modern letters (letters)
Reason for watching it: I was already kind of intrigued by the idea of a thriller set in more or less the real world space programme, and although I've seen some people nitpicking the science, I've also seen very positive reviews of it. Plus, it's Hugo-nominated and I am still hoping to vote in the long-form Dramatic Presentation category.

Circumstances of watching it: Was home with [personal profile] jack this weekend and we wanted to spend an evening watching a film.

Verdict: Gravity is an exciting and visually impressive blockbuster, without much depth beyond that.

detailed review )

As for the Hugos, I think I'm going to vote for Pacific Rim, which has any number flaws but is also definitely not run-of-the-mill. Gravity second and then Frozen, which are both good examples of what they are, and I rank Gravity slightly higher because what it is, a real world science based thriller with a female lead, is more interesting than what Frozen is, a Disney movie that plays to Disney's strengths and says something intelligent about love. Assuming I probably won't get round to watching Catching Fire before the end of this month, and I am not at the point where I'm going to get into the whole comic-book superheroes thing in order to appreciate Iron man.
liv: ribbon diagram of a p53 monomer (p53)
Or, what an interested lay person should know about epigenetics.

I've been promising a post about epigenetics for ages, because it's one of the most exciting things that's happened in my field in the past decade or so, and it seems like most non-biologists aren't aware of it very much.

Why is it so exciting? Well, to start with there's the older insights which led to the modern field of epigenetics: in a multicellular organism, all cells have exactly the same genome, by definition, but the cells differentiate to take on specialist structures and functions. So there must be something going on beyond (ἐπί, the Greek prefix epi) the sequence of bases forming genes and chromosomes. It turns out that something is that the cell makes a series of chemical marks on the DNA and associated proteins, which turn genes on and off. Those marks are often surprisingly long-lasting, they're not just a short-term response to circumstances, something genes can also do. So you can't take a skin cell and transplant it to the liver, its epigenetic marks make it a permanent skin cell.

It's much more recently that we started to understand that patterns of epigenetic marks don't just follow a set developmental program – they can change in response to external circumstances. And the really mind-blowing thing is that some of these changes can be inherited. This means that a female parent's life circumstances can cause measurable alterations in the genes of offspring and more distant descendants, and there's starting to be evidence for male-line transmission as well, at least in animals and probably in humans too.

The other thing that's cool about epigenetics is that we're getting to the point where we understand it well enough that we can directly manipulate the epigenetic marks. If you change epigenetics, you change the nature of the cell itself, just as much as by directly editing the gene sequence (which can be done but is massively technically difficult, and ethically questionable in humans.) Which is a possible approach for treating cancer, and that's the reason why I got into the epigenetics world, but there's an even more exciting application: we can make stem cells. We can do the thing which was regarded as paradigmatically impossible throughout the twentieth century, we can effectively reverse the direction of development. So it's become possible to take an adult's cells and turn them into the rare kind which, like the cells of an early embryo, have the potential to become any type of tissue, manipulate them more or less at will in the lab, and return them to the same person's body to repair injuries and grow new tissue. In the very last couple of years, this is actually starting to be a treatment for real humans with real diseases.

want to know more? )

OK, this post is ridiculously long, I will post it and do one on stem cells another day. Please do ask any questions, whether it's because I've assumed knowledge and explained things with too much jargon and technicalities, or because I've simplified and glossed over something and you want more detail or want to challenge me.

Skills gap

Jul. 7th, 2014 01:44 pm
liv: Composite image of Han Solo and Princess Leia, labelled Hen Solo (gender)
I'm bad at really a lot of things that women are expected to be good at. Some of them don't matter very much: clothes, make-up, fashion, personal adornment in general, for example. This doesn't matter to me because I'm cis, so people rarely challenge whether I'm "really" female, and I have a weak sense of gender identity so I don't feel hurt, weird or dysphoric if people do in fact think I'm unfeminine. And it's easy to dismiss looking pretty as just superficial; certainly my professional life doesn't depend on succeeding at it.

Lots more stuff in this category consists of valuable skills, but ones that men get away with being mediocre at, so although I would like to improve I don't worry very much that I'm below average compared to women if I'm at a level that's fairly typical for men in my society. Things like cooking and baking, housekeeping, fabric arts, domestic sphere type stuff. Being able to cook, clean and sew are in fact important, and they're devalued precisely because they're seen as "feminine". But I'm pretty sure if I were male I would be praised for keeping my living space as clean and tidy as I do, for being able to cook a decent if not extensive range of nutritious and tasty meals, for being able to sew on buttons and carry out minor clothing repairs. To some extent you could say the same thing about appearance-related stuff; in our particular society, men aren't expected to know how to put on make-up or wear a range of different clothes carefully matched to the formality of various situations, so these things are considered unimportant, not because they actually are.

The third category is where I'm more concerned about my deficiencies. I guess you could broadly call it social or communication skills. Empathy, intuition, emotional communication. I want to be better at these things primarily because I'd do better in life and be less likely to inadvertently hurt people, not really because women are "supposed" to be good at them.

more noodling )
liv: Bookshelf labelled: Caution. Hungry bookworm (bookies)
I'm really enjoying this thing with the Hugo voting where lots of people are reading the same stuff and talking about it. A lot of the time I'm jealous of people who are fans of TV series, because they have a much better chance than book fans of all their friends consuming the same media as them at the same time and wanting to talk about it. So with Worldcon coming to England, I'm getting a little taste of that.

It's especially fun to see excitement about Ancillary Justice spreading like contagion through my circles. I don't think it's the Greatest Book Evar!!! but it's really innovative and I think it's very well worthy of an award. I particularly enjoyed [personal profile] legionseagle's analysis; yes, it has something to say about gender, but it's really exciting in what it's doing with class and empire and real, solid politics. Also, I found this interview with Leckie immensely endearing.

Anyway, I'm working my way through the Hugo packet, so here I am joining in the conversation with comments on the short story and novellette slates. rankings and comments )


Jul. 4th, 2014 11:32 am
liv: alternating calligraphed and modern letters (letters)
OK, 15 year out of date Buffyfeels, so maybe everybody else has already had this conversation in comprehensive detail. Anyway, [personal profile] jack and I have been watching Buffy the vampire slayer very, very slowly, at the rate of one episode every time we have an hour or so free, which works out at as every couple of months. We're about midway through S2, and recently reached the infamous double episode at 13-14, which Wiki says is titled Surprise / Innocence.

The whole point of this post is to discuss the big reveal in that double episode so if there's anyone left on earth who cares enough about Buffy to want to see S2 but hasn't already seen it, then this is going to be spoilery. technically spoilers, but mostly rant )

So, in conclusion, if you are in love with someone who has mostly benign intentions, but is suffering under a curse which means he's fated to hurt you badly sooner or later, it's not going to end well. And the cursed person is culpable for pursuing the relationship and not being completely honest about the nature of the curse, not you for falling in love with him. You might think this is only relevant to fantasy TV shows, but it's true in real life too.
liv: Table laid with teapot, scones and accoutrements (yum)
[ profile] darcydodo, whom I hadn't seen in far far too long, had a work reason to come to Scotland. International conferences are definitely one of the major perks of academia. So anyway, I went up to Edinburgh to meet her, and we travelled back to Cambridge together, and it was brilliant.

diary )

Wow, spending extended time with [ profile] darcydodo is so very, very good for me. We caught up properly on eachother's lives and gossipped about all our mutual friends and debated religion and politics and hugged and it was just amazingly wonderful.
liv: methane on Mars, labelled "squeeee!!!" (squee)
My excellent father is 70 today. P'tite Soeur organized a very fun birthday party for him, by means of contacting all his extended family by any means she could and inviting them all to show up at the weekend. Ended up about 60 people, the descendants of about half of the 10 siblings of my grandparents' generation.

It was a little bit like a reprise of my wedding reception, with a marquee in the garden of my parents' place, and the same caterers, the ever-wonderful Shelford Deli, provided a selection of really tasty salads, an excellent cheese board, and strawberries and cream. Much better weather, though, it was gloriously sunny all day.

My sister who has only improved her baking skill since the wedding made a birthday cake, many different kinds of biscuits, profiteroles, macarons, absolutely amazing. (By the way, she's doing a pop-up restaurant event with a dinner purely made out of desserts, which I am shamelessly plugging because more people should taste my sister's amazing cakes.)

In general it was an absolutely brilliant family reunion, cousins I'm fond of but see too rarely, cousins I've never met before, eating and chatting and catching up on decades worth of family gossip. Lots of people commented that it's really nice to get the family together when it's not a funeral, and I am almost thinking I want to tell you how great my Dad is while he's still here. But he's also really modest and would probably be embarrassed at lots of public praise.

Anyway, many happy returns of the day to Dad, here's to many more decades of happiness and compassion and good food and family.
liv: A woman with a long plait drinks a cup of tea (teapot)
My mother had a theory that the best route to a good social life was to know how to swim, play tennis, dance formally, and play bridge. This turned out to reflect a society that isn't quite the one I grew up in, but still, I did learn some of these skills.

social skills and bridge geekery )

And coming full circle, [personal profile] jack has made himself very popular by making a fourth at bridge when he's visiting my parents. So far we seem to be an exception to the maxim that couples shouldn't be bridge partners! I think this is partly because we've set out very determined that we are interested in improving our game not "beating" our friends, and also because we are using bridge learning as a sandbox to practise communication. So ways for [personal profile] jack to point out that I did something wrong without turning it into a fight, and ways to come to a compromise quickly when we have incomplete information or limited time for negotiation. And generally being partners, something which we strive for in our life in general, not just at the bridge table!


Jun. 20th, 2014 10:45 am
liv: alternating calligraphed and modern letters (letters)
It seems like almost everybody I know is talking about Worldcon, so I'm getting to the point of looking forward to a gigantic party with loads of people I am excited to see in person. 7000 people in a huge convention space is going to be extrovert heaven, omg.

I actually really wanted to get properly involved, not just attend as a visitor. So I signed up for the science track and put my name down for volunteering and panels and stuff. And then I got lots of emails and didn't really have time to deal with any of them. I have to conclude that getting properly into the con scene is just not going to fit into my life, sadly. However, the good news is that someone with influence has put me on a couple of panels anyway, I suspect maybe [ profile] purplecthulhu or [personal profile] emperorzombie, so many thanks if it was you!

Namely, on Friday afternoon I'm on a panel called Scientists without borders which says:
Science may strive for objectivity, but all scientific communities are grounded in their host cultures. The panellists talk about working in different scientific cultures, working in multinational teams or transporting a team or project elsewhere.
I really like the sound of that and I think it's going to make for some cool discussion, yay. And on Sunday afternoon I'm playing giant Pandemic live in front of an audience. I've also submitted a poster for the science poster exhibit, actually one made by my excellent PhD student, but I'm waiting to hear whether that has been accepted.

So, first of all, who's coming to Worldcon and would you like to hang out? This applies equally much if I already know you in person as if we've only met online, if you're ok with connecting your DW identity to a physical body and possibly offline identity. It would be really awesome to use the event as a chance to spend time with some of you in person. If you want to show up and support and / or heckle my panels, that would be lovely too; I have plenty of experience doing this kind of thing professionally, but almost none of doing it fannishly.

Relatedly, is there anyone who can arrange to be in the same geographical location as me and has a copy of Pandemic that I could practise on? I am really bad at Pandemic, even though I am actually a scientist IRL! Board-gaming friends, if we can get a game together before August so I'm a bit more in the swing of things by the time I'm playing in public, that'd be cool, and also a good way to socialize. Generally I can be in Cambridge or London or anywhere else within a couple of hours of there or Stoke most weekends. And I'm totally happy to try several games if there are multiple groups volunteering to help out.

I am contemplating doing a DW meetup, what do people think? It would simply be advertising and time and showing up in a central area of the con. I'm not up for organizing an actual official Party, especially given that you have to order catering through the hotel and I can't be doing with that. I am also going to want to escape from the con at some points, because from past experience one thing I don't handle well is being trapped in a hotel miles from anywhere else over several days. So there will be at least a couple of expeditions into London to eat real food somewhere a bit quieter and without having to pay hotel prices for crap. If you'd like to get together in a smaller gathering of that sort, ping me and we can make plans.

oooh, I'm so excited! )
liv: alternating calligraphed and modern letters (letters)
So I have managed to kill the keyboard on my netbook, an old-school Asus Eee from about 2008 ish. I suspect that the reason why this happened is that my use-case is that I sling the netbook in my backpack and take it with me on my regular 4-hour train journeys, most of which I spend writing several thousand word emails.

It looks to me as if the niche occupied by the Eee PCs doesn't really exist any more: what I want is a portable computer with a "real" keyboard, which is also cheap because it's low-end when it comes to spec. Now it seems like there's souped-up ultrabooks, which are light and powerful but also commensurately expensive, and there's tablets, with the possibility of perhaps getting a stand with a portable keyboard, maybe. I have heard rumours that there's a new model Eee but I've never actually seen it for sale!

Does anyone have any good suggestions, recs or anti-recs?

more details )

Any opinions regarding cannibalizing old equipment versus buying new? Tablets versus netbooks? Brand recommendations?
liv: cartoon of me with long plait, teapot and purple outfit (mini-me)
I was a fairly early adopter of Gmail, back in the days when Google was the non-evil alternative to Microsoft. As a result I was able to snag an email address which is just my (common) first name plus initials. A consequence of this is that people quite frequently sign up to web services and mailing lists with my email address.

The other day I received one such email, acknowledging receipt of $500, welcoming me to a business service, and listing "my" details, including full name, address (in New York State), phone number, SSN and partially obfuscated credit card number. I'm not sure why I even opened the mail, I could tell it wasn't really intended for me. At this point I felt a bit sorry for my namesake, who had spent $500 on a service she wasn't going to get, and I was a bit concerned about all her personal details being shared with a total stranger (you would think that a competent business would verify the email address before emailing details; at least they didn't send out her password in the clear). I was also a bit unhappy at the prospect of receiving all this person's emails forever.

There was no unsubscribe link, presumably because the person had already positively opted in to receiving the emails. I went to the URL the email originated from (typing it manually, not clicking any links in the email). I saw a website that looked legitimate in the sense that I guessed it was actually selling the thing it was claiming to be selling, not just trying to install malware on my computer. But it looked pretty slimy in the sense that what it was selling was essentially some kind of multi-level marketing scheme. I could not find any useful contact details for said slimy company; the only way to contact them was through their members-only area. I tried their Twitter account, and as expected got no reply. While this was going on I received a whole bunch more emails from the company, which made me the more determined to get myself off their books.

So I tried calling the number listed in the person's details in the email. I already have a calling plan such that calls to the US are free, so it was just a nuisance, not expensive, to do this. To my surprise, it was a home number, not a business number. The person who answered made no attempt to find out who I was or what my business was, just informed me that the person I was asking for was out, would be back in an hour and would I like her cell number? So I called again an hour later, having considered what I would say to make myself sound convincing. I personally would be very suspicious if I received a call from a stranger in a foreign country claiming there had been a security breach and the foreigner had access to my personal details. In the event the person believed me straight away without needing any convincing, and was effusively grateful that I'd let her know, and promised me to get things fixed straight away.

A little later I received an email from the company with a slightly panicked tone and rather poor SpaG begging me to please delete the email with the personal details. Of course by this point they'd already sold my email address on to various even scummier "business" services, so my hope that I was going to avoid getting unwanted mailshots was in vain. But at least I helped the person whose email address is one letter away from mine to get what she paid for.

security thoughts )

I have no particular suggestions for how to fix this, but I'm annoyed.
liv: cast iron sign showing etiolated couple drinking tea together (argument)
One of the great things about the internet is that you get to meet people who are not like you. But that's also one of the problems with the internet; I live a fairly sheltered life and I am in the habit of assuming that most people I interact with generally share most of my values, to the extent of, say, holding broadly egalitarian views. Of course, this is not actually the case!

noodling )


Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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