Thursday, March 30, 2006

maybe he was just baiting me

Tuesday night I attended a 10-course dinner with chinese reporters who flew in from Beijing on Google's dime to interview the company. There were around 15 reporters, and 7 Googlers accompanying them for dinner.

Over a meal of lobster, peking duck, and jellyfish, the reporter to my left turns to me. He looks a little like this Hong Kong action film star.



"So you've been an engineer for so many years?" he asks. "Do you think you'll keep at it forever?"

I pause. One day I'd like to found my own startup, and if takes off, my main focus would no longer be writing code. "Maybe not," I say.

"Okay, because women aren't very suitable for engineering."

I sigh inwardly. "You should read my Google China blog article on this topic."

"Women are .. not logical enough. If they're debugging code with a lot of bugs, they'll get frustrated, whereas a man will be more calm."

I resist the urge to say, "Is that because it was the man who created the bugs in the first place???"

Instead I say sweetly, "I haven't found that to be the case."

"Let me tell you, I used to work as an engineer," he declares in a this-will-explain-it voice. "We had a few female engineers come into the company, and they quickly found a bunch of men to do all of their programming for them. Then they would get married to one of the best programmers, and quit their job to stay home as a housewife."

I double-sigh inwardly. "That may have been your experience, but if you worked at Google, I think the reality would change your mind."

That having failed, he tries a new tactic. "I'm sure you must do presentations for execs. And they're usually men. If they do something overstepping professional boundaries, then the women will get uncomfortable."

"Uh... That's illegal in the US," I answer.

"It is?" He seems disconcerted. "Well, women just aren't analytical enough to be engineers."

In the ensuing silence floats an unspoken "QED."

Kai-fu said to me last October that the first step to combating discrimination is making it socially unacceptable to voice it openly. People will still think it, but they will no longer be comfortable saying it. After enough time passes in this manner, the discrimination will be eliminated gradually from the minds as well.

China has a lot further to go on this first step than the US.

...

Or he could've just been baiting me, hoping to write an article headlined "GOOGLER EXPLODES WITH RAGE, HITS REPORTER IN FACE WITH CURRIED JELLYFISH."

you know you're considered an ancient relic when ...

Today I receive an email from Tom, my darling brother (pictured below in a state of embarrassment over being in Starbucks with his camera-toting sister):



He asks if I'd like to receive this T-shirt for my birthday:



"Of course not," I say. "Why would I wear such a mean shirt?"

His reply:

The inside joke is that the founder of myspace.com (a blog site),
automatically forces everyone who uses myspace to be his friend.
Thus, people were angry, and wore shirts such as: "Tom is NOT my
friend."


My answer to him:

I KNOW WHAT MYSPACE IS, TOM. You don't need to define it. I am not that out of touch with today's youth. I don't yet look like this:


Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Ballmer joke

It isn't every day that a slashdot comment actually makes me burst out laughing. The post said:

"In a recent Fortune interview with Steve Ballmer, the newer kinder Microsoft CEO is not only ready to take on the videogaming, search, music download and mobile markets - but he's also laying down the law in his own house. Steve says that his kids are not allowed to use Google or have an iPod."


The first comment said:

I'd take the other approach - if they choose rival manufacturers then study first hand why they do so.

I can hardly quote the follow-up comment, as my hands are shaking with laughter.

Whoa, study? It's Steve Ballmer we're talking about, if he as much as SEEs his kids anywhere near iPods or within 20m of a computer displaying a Google page it'll be Chair Throwing time, he'll Fucking Bury(TM) them. He's done it before and he'll do it again. He's going to Fucking Kill(TM) his children.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Saturday, March 25, 2006

This is so hot.

I LOVE the Windows Disk Defragmenter. I sit there and watch it for minutes at a time, as it increases the performance of my machine.



But today I learned of something even more magnificent: Mac OS X on-the-fly defragmentation.

That's so hot.

Nannies and gigolos.

[driving to the city to have dinner with my coworkers]

Me: "Why do you suppose my coworker Sandra puts up with so much crap in her relationship?"

Stella: "Because she's getting older. As you get older, it becomes harder to find a decent guy."

Me: "Even if that's true, it's no reason to stay in an unhappy relationship."

Stella: "How old are you?"

Me: "26."

Stella: "Okay, what are you going to do if you get to your 30s and you're not married?"

Me: "Not get married."

Stella: "What about kids?"

Me: "I'll still have them. At 34, if I'm not married, I'm going to get artificially inseminated. Meanwhile I'll focus all my time on making money, and then I'll use the money to hire nannies and gigolos."

Breaking my stereotype.

I was picking up takeout from Queen House last week, my favorite local chinese restaurant. Since I got there just before closing, I overheard the tall angular-featured male cashier talking to the lanky squinty-eyed waitress.

"... don't think I'm going to go with you," he said. "There's nothing there good to look at except the show itself."

I immediately cast him as the stereotypical Asian guy who is critical of every physical flaw in women.

"Oh, and of course you," he added as an afterthought to this waitress who could not be described as beautiful.

My heart was warmed.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Xbox party (edited)

This week is GDC (Game Developers Conference), and much of the party grapevine centered around getting tickets for the Thursday night Xbox party. Tickets were so difficult to score that one bitter conference attendee printed out orange fliers for his "Official 'F*** the Microsoft Party' Party".

Even engineers from Microsoft Games had difficulty getting tickets, since games and Xbox are separate divisions within Microsoft.

Last night, I and a few Google ex-games-industry coworkers were standing around the Sony party, when we recognized a few Xbox engineers that we had worked with. As we chatted with them, the Xbox guys told me, "You should come by our booth tomorrow, and we'll give you a party ticket."

"Aren't these tickets more valuable than gold?" I replied, suspicious why Microsoft would be more eager to give a ticket to a Google employee over one of their own.

What they said next gave me serious doubts about their party: "It'll be great to have a woman there, especially one who actually has a reason to be there and is a former GDC speaker, instead of a hired dancer or model for the event."

Tonight I originally planned to go home and skip the party, but my 7pm meeting at the hotel next door ran long. I found myself 2 blocks from the party 15 minutes prior to its start.

"I'll just go and check it out," I thought.

Since I got there early, I was at the head of the line, which quickly wrapped all the way around the block. At 9pm, a string of women in tight black dresses walked by, followed by dancers in pink bikinis with white sashes hanging off their thigh-high boots.

I got inside, and it felt ... sexist. Unwelcoming. Monitors displayed Microsoft's Xbox games, where big breasts bounced around, rendered in 3-d detail. The dancers in pink bikinis strutted their stuff on podiums, and male conference attendees watched silently in clumps of two or three, sipping beers. The dancers had disappointingly protruding abs and mountainous thighs. What does it say when the Google employees I see everyday around campus are hotter than the hired dancers at a Microsoft party?

As foretold, I was the only woman not hired to be there. This produced a subtle sapping of my spirit, as I was bombarded with the sight of all other women at the party serving the male attendees food, giving them little gizmos, being paid to flirt with them, to dance for them, to smile. The men had judging, patronizing expressions, which didn't change when their gaze flickered from the dancers briefly onto me as I moved about the party. Rarely have I encountered so many instances of men openly looking me up and down.

It was 9:15pm, and I made for the door. When I got outside, I saw Jon, my first manager from Microsoft, now a product unit manager on Xbox tools, standing on his tiptoes peering in, trying to get a ticket.

I walked down the street and ran into the Xbox engineer who had invited me. "What? You're leaving? It's just getting started!" he exclaimed.

"Yeah, it's not my thing," I said.

"You're not much of a party person, huh?"

"I am, but --" I saw his look bordering on bruised ego, and changed my tune. "That's right, I'm super lame like that." I finished.

As I walked to my car and then drove away, I felt my heart lightening. It is like the time when Bob (name changed) went to interview with Microsoft.

"The closer I got to the Redmond campus, the worse I felt," Bob said. "I actually felt physically ill!"

"Just like Mordor!" replied my brother when he heard the story.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

"add salt now!"

My mother called me urgently yesterday.

Mom: "Did you meet with your accountant yet?"

Me: "Yes, I gave him all the paperwork."

Mom: "Did you tell him that he can deduct the 27-year depreciation of your rental property against the rental income?"

Me: "I mentioned it, but I'm sure he knows about it."

Mom: "Maybe he's just a Silicon Valley accountant who knows about stock options, but not about rental properties."

Me: "He asked for my mortgage closing statement and knew he could deduct the points, and he talked about 27-year depreciation. He's been a tax accountant for over 20 years, so I think he knows what he's doing."

Mom: "But you should still go and show him the 1040 form where on line 17 --"

Me: "Okay, what you're suggesting now is equivalent to going to a 4-star restaurant and then insisting on going back to the kitchen. Then we stand behind the chef and give him orders, 'Put in a little more oil.' 'Add salt now!'"

She laughed heartily and to my pleasant astonishment, dropped the issue.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Over-optimization.

In December of 2004, my brother figured out the source of most of my parents' arguments.

We were at the Wuxi train sation during our southern China tour, and my mother bought a packet of tofu curd marinated in chili oil. It cost 2 RMB, the equivalent of 25 US cents.

She ate half of the tofu curd, and offered the rest to my dad, my brother, and me. We passed on the pungent snack, preferring the sweet red bean rolls and lotus buns sold at a cart vendor in the train station.

It was time to board the train, and my mother carefully folded over the top of the 8-inch plastic bag containing the remaining tofu curd.

"Throw that thing away!" my dad urged impatiently. "We're not going to carry it with us on the train."

"No, it's mine, and I'm going to eat the rest later."

I could see the anger rush into my dad's face. "After the train, we're going to have to walk with all of our luggage to the tourist van. Then they're taking us to the hotel, and there's not even going to be a fridge. That bag is going to stink up the whole room. Throw it away!"

"I'm not going to waste food."

This went on for 5 minutes, after which my mom got up, with the bag in her hand, and boarded the train. My dad followed, fuming. The marinated tofu stank up their hotel room for the next 2 days.

I inherited a frustrating mix of optimization. Recently I bought a computer desk from Bombay Company -- elegant tapered legs, wide table surface with dark wood.



After I put it together, I realized that the computer is in full view, with all of its cables dangling behind the mahogany Victorian tabletop. I then thought that perhaps I should sell it and buy this desk instead:



Bombay has a $75 flat fee for all deliveries -- whether you have one item delivered or ten, it's the same fee. This is incentive for consolidating purchases.

Furthermore, this weekend is a 2-day-only sale of 10% off their items. So I am self-inflicting pressure to decide on a new desk, chairs, wall clocks, and dining table, and do it all today!

Stress.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Plant war.

Yesterday, I noticed a houseplant on Alipé's desk, with long green leaves surrounding a pretty red core. I inteded to compliment him on it, but it slipped my mind.

Around noon, he and I got into a debate over a particular detail in C++ style. A couple of hours later, he told me, "I emailed the C style mailing list."

"Good Lord!" I said, "How did that go?" The C style mailing list has its share of style enthusiastics who will happily spend hours debating indentation and naming.

Alipé revealed that he garnered staunch support but eventually the decision stalemated.

Me: [unsurprised] I see. [pause] ... By the way, I like your plant.

Alipé: Oh, do you? I got it from Safeway last night. ... [muttering] Perhaps I can talk to it about C style.

Me: You can say to it, 'If you agree with me, DO NOTHING.'

Alipé: [chuckling]

Alipé: ... Or 'If you disagree with me, prepare to face imminent death."

Me: That's what you should have said to the C style mailing list.

...

Later I told the story about Alipé's plant to Peter.

Me: Then I told him that he can say to the plant, 'If you agree with me, DO NOTHING.'

Peter: Imagine if just at that moment, a single leaf falls silently off the plant.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Alcatraz indignation

Darryl's family is visiting him for the week, and he's taking them to Alcatraz on Friday.

I told him about my favorite part of the Alcatraz tour: standing in the prison cells and listening to an audio tape about the prisoners. One sequence took place outside a cramped cell with a hole in the base of the wall, and the tape described how 3 men managed to escape in the 60s:

"The theory is that they hid away spoons and chipped every night for hours against the wall. After ten years, they managed to dig a tunnel beneath their cells using these spoons, and they slipped out into the duct and escaped."

It's likely that they froze to death swimming to San Francisco, or were eaten by sharks, but there's also a good chance that they have managed to survive. Since this only happened in the 60s, it's quite possible for them to still be alive today.

When I heard this, I knew that it would be undeniably tempting for those escaped prisoners to come back and take the Alcatraz tour, so they can hear themselves described as the only successful escape.

So, there in the dim prison hall, when it got to the part about the spoons, I fully expected one of the white-haired old men standing in the tourist crowd next to me to blurt out,

"Spoons?! That's not how I did it at all!"

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Brunch with Tommyknockers.

I drove over to my brother's Stanford dorm room at noon to pick him up for brunch. Several rounds of knocks on his door went unanswered. Where was he?

After searching for him fruitlessly throughout the dorm and dining hall, I got back in my Honda and began heading home. Just as I pulled out of the parking lot, my phone rang.

Me: Hello?

Tom: [very groggy] Ohhh, I'm sorry, I just woke up. Are you still around?

Me: Yes. [straining not to ask whose room he spent the night in, since it wasn't in his own room]

Tom: Okay, I'm going to shower and then bike over. Just stay put.

Ten minutes later, Tom emerges, laden down with a heavy backpack.

Tom: I worked for 16 hours yesterday and it was raining hard, so I just slept in the computer science building.

So my brother's secret lover turned out to be ... the computer lab.




We eat at California Cafe, a high-ceilinged restaurant with delightful bread and eggs.

Tom: I saw that video you had about the coffee commercial. I watched it five times in a row.

Me: Yeah! Me too.

Tom: It's so much like our parents. I can just imagine one day, my kid will be in the World Cyber Games tournament. Dad will show up and say, "He's better than you, Tom." I'll say "How would you know?" and he'll pull out a faded photo of me playing Counter-Strike: "You used rail gun."

Hallejuah

If you asked me last week, "What are you worst at in the world?", I would answer singing. Singing is a skill that everyone else seems to magically possess since birth, and yet I just can't do it. My singing gives William Hung a run for his money.

The last time I sang in public was 5 years ago, when Szechuan Chinese Restaurant held a karaoke night. I was a regular there, so I happened to be around when they began the event. "Go on and sing," the restaurant staff urged me.

"No, I'm terrible," I said, truthfully.

"Stop being modest and just go! We're all amateurs."

When I finished slaughtering Yesterday by the Beatles, no one would meet my gaze. I had to leave the restaurant shortly after, out of discomfort.

It all changed tonight! X.M. invited a group of us out to karaoke, and I agreed to go. The first song, Eternal Flame, was as bad as I expected. I didn't even realize for the first 30 seconds that my microphone was off. It didn't make much difference, because I could barely get my voice to come out. Other people picked up the second microphone and sang with me, to help take me out of my misery.

When I sat down, Feng's wife tried to comfort me by saying, "That song is really strange."

"No, just my rendition of it," I said.

"You can still continue to pick songs," she said, and I laughed.

"Don't worry, this is about what I expected."

I've tried to fix this incurable problem before. I sang in the Caltech Women's Glee Club for a year. I sang in Microtones (Microsoft's glee club) for 2 years. I took a singing class in the evening at a nearby community college. I've played the piano and sung along to it one note at a time.

None of it made any difference.

Tom told me recently that he took a singing class at Stanford. "You must stand up to sing," he said. "That way your lungs can expand fully. Don't think about fixing your notes. Just sing, and it'll sound like the way it does in your head."

So tonight, I stood up for my next karaoke song, I Do It For You, even though everyone else was sitting. I had to bump their knees aside in order to stand, towering over them. I opened my mouth and ... a clear singing voice filled the room.

"They forgot to turn off the guiding audio track," I thought, and looked around for the remote control in order to shut it off. I found it, picked it up, and then realized ... that was my voice. I almost went slack-jawed at the realization that from my throat was somehow emerging the beautiful singing voice that I've always wanted.

But my jaw had taken on a life of its own. No slack-jawedness for it! It went on to hit the high notes, the low notes, belt out the chorus, soften up for the tender refrain. When I paused during the instrumental section, my friends gave me a rousing ovation.

"And you said you were bad!" X.M. said, and I hugged her out of sheer delight.

When we left two hours later, I took a map of the karaoke place. It's all I can do right now not to get back in the car and drive over to sing some more. It's open until 3am!

I am going to turn into one of those freaks that sings at all sorts of inappropriate moments, to show off their singing voices. People at work will ask me "Where do I find the code for X?" and I'll loudly perform I Can Show You the World in response. Why? Because now I can.

Psuedonyms.

Eating with coworkers. During a lull in the conversation:

Alipe: So ... Niniane, I discovered your blog.

Me: [mentally thinking] Heavens! The inevitable has come to pass! [out loud] I see. Did you notice you have a psuedonym?

Alipe: Yes! I'm Alipé (ah-lee-pay).

Me: Oh. In my head, it was pronounced Alipe (ah-leap).

Alipe: I like Alipé.

Me: Okay, Alipé then.

Alipé: You know, my friends also discovered your blog. They said to me, "[suspicious look] You're not mentioned in this! Do you really work for Google??" I had to say, "Yes, yes! I'm Alipé!"

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Women's Day

I finally did some work that my mother can appreciate.

For March 8, International Women's Day, the Google Beijing office asked me to write an article for the Google China Blog in Mandarin. It's about my perspective as a female software engineer.

In it, I mention an incident at Nanjing Univ. last October, when a girl came to me after my tech talk and asked, "I'm studying computer science, and I like it. But women are not so suitable for studying programming. Should I switch majors now before I go further down this path?"

"Why would you think women are not suitable for computer science?" I inquired.

"After we reach 30 years old, our physical energy and mental abilities deteriorate, so we won't be able to keep up with the men."

My article states that the greatest threat of these "predictions" is letting them sap one's self-confidence.

I sent the article to my mother, and after reading it, she phoned me with an especially delighted tone of voice. "It's great! Great!! Very great."

This is undoubtedly influenced by the fact that she's mentioned in the article. I described how as a female engineer, and also having skipped 3 grades, I encountered many a skeptic growing up, who protested that I was too young or not suitable for my field. In the article, I mentioned how fortunate it was that my parents never took them seriously.

I dearly hope that the Nanjing girl will stick to her interests and prove her naysayers wrong too.

What I told her at the time was, "There have been many discriminations throughout the ages that are now proven wrong. There was prejudice against the ability of black people as professionals, and we now know that was wrong. Now there is prejudice against gay people, which has been overthrown too."

Those may not have been the most convincing examples, since many Chinese people are still quite prejudiced against black people and gay people. But might as well aim for 3 birds with 1 stone.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Best commercial

Thank you Diego for introducing us to this Tim Horton's commercial, which I watched four times back-to-back (more than I can say for any movie). Ladies and gentleman, this is the real Best Movie of the Year:

Best Movie.

Oscars.

We foolishly missed the first half hour of the Oscars, including monologue. Last year's speech by Chris Rock had me in stitches: "When Nicole Kidman lost for Best Actress, she had such the biggest gracious smile. She should've won an Emmy for her performance at the Oscars! Nicole, if you'd acted that well in your movie, you would've won the Oscar!"

Markus, Diego, Peter, and I are watching from our living room. Best Costume is announced, and a tuxedoed man grabs the hand of the woman next to him, and they dash up to the stage.

As the man drones his acceptance speech, the camera cuts to a scene of two women, the right one in a red evening gown and trails of tears on her cheeks.

Me: Wow, she's so happy that her coworker won! Look at her crying! [struck by a thought] ... Or maybe she's just a good actress.

Markus: Or that could be a shot of the losers.

Asimov.

I'm reading Asimov Laughs Again, in which he shares his favorite jokes and short treatises on his beliefs.

One story that combined both:

I was carefully decanting liquid from one vessel into another in the Navy Yard, and in so doing, my abdomen protruded rather more than usual. A young, very thin woman in the lab lifted a long piece of glass tubing, and said, "I think I'll let the air out of your belly so that you'll look more like a man."

"Good idea," I said, still decanting. "Then you can take the air and use it to puff up your chest so that you'll look more like a woman."

Asimov liked to flirt with pretty girls. For example:

I once came to Boston University to take Robyn [Asimov's daughter] out to a steak house for dinner. She asked me if it would be all right to take her roommate. I said sure, and she brought along five roommates.

Every one of them was twenty-one years old, every one of them was beautiful, and I kissed every one of them.

One of the young ladies said, "Oh, Dr. Asimov, you behave just as Robyn said you would."

"What do you mean?" I said.

"Well, you kissed us all."

I said, "Don't the other daddies kiss you all, too?"

"No," they all chorused. "Robyn said you would be the only one."

His first wife reputedly looked just like Olivia de Havilland:



I couldn't find a picture of her, but it's probably true, because they produced a breathtaking daughter Robyn:



However, Asimov was deeply unhappy with his first wife. She criticized him frequently, and was reputedly frigid.

After twenty-odd years, he divorced her and remarried a sweet, tender woman named Janet:



Asimov writes, "Now, my dear wife, Janet, considers herself plain and, every once in a while, feels sad about that. To me, however, she is the most beautiful woman in the world, and my heart invariably leaps up when I see her unexpectedly, and she knows this."

I am very touched by this, considering his numerous discourses on his appreciation of cute girls. His love for Janet is clear through the small details, for he always refers to her as "my dear Janet", whereas his first wife is described as "Gertrude, who loved enumerating my faults" or "Gertrude, with whom I don't have many happy memories".

Friday, March 03, 2006

Offended

My Chinese American friends sometimes protest, "There are so few Chinese stars in US pop culture! Zhang Ziyi, Jackie Chan, and who else?"

I don't perceive this as a problem. Why should the US promote Chinese stars as avidly as Caucasian stars? There's no one crying foul that the top stars in China are Chinese, or that the top stars in India are Indian, so why shouldn't the same apply to US stars?

But, my turn to be deeply offended came three weeks ago, when I was reading my email.

In my inbox, the Gmail web clips showed a clip from the "Ask Yahoo" RSS feed. These questions can be quite catchy, such as "Do eyelashes grow back?" or "How often does a blue moon occur?" Unfortunately the answers are less interesting, often in the form of "We don't know either." The question on this day asked:


"Why are all babies born with blue eyes?"


I clicked through to the answer, expecting that it would start with, "Now, now, that's not the case for many of our friends: the Chinese, Indians, Africans, ..."

However, the answer instead describes melanin, cites an doctor, and leaves this travesty unaddressed.

Not to worry, I think, soon this will be noticed and addressed. Today I chanced upon it again. The answer has been posted for weeks now, in original form.

Ah, Yahoo. The same disregard that they show for users by giving them crappy UI (interstitial ads for sending email? extraordinarily slow file upload? giant animated ads everywhere?) shines through again.