Julia Lipman

Julia Lipman, PhD
computer scientist, author of Ann Arbor is Overrated
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tottered on: 10 May 2008
Temperature: 53 F
Ceiling: sunny
Ground: not-yet-mowed grass; ferns!
Wind: E at 12 mph

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TT with HD: Julia Lipman

[Ed. note: Since 2002, Julia has authored the blog Ann Arbor is Overrated.]

HD: So, let's actually get this thing going. Is this going to work out for you?

JL: Mm hmm.

HD: You don't have motion sickness or anything?

JL: Not usually.

HD: Okay. So is this an adequate thrill for you, though? Because Dale Winling, he was unabashedly disappointed.

JL: Oh, really?!

HD: Yeah, disappointed in the thrill factor.

JL: Well, that's Dale for you.

HD: He has high standards, I guess.

JL: You know, Dale and I used to room together.

HD: Yes, right, so what's he like as a roommate?

JL: Oh, he's great!

HD: Yeah?

JL: The first time I met him, I thought he was the most hilarious guy I had ever met !

HD: But hilarious people are not necessarily the best roommates!

JL: No, he is, though. He is totally considerate, and he has lots of maps of Michigan and stuff that he puts on the walls, that's always nice.

HD: Okay, well you know I can't argue with you, because I have never roomed with the guy. [laugh] I have to say that I'm in a generally cranky mood these days on account of my next-door neighbors.

JL: Really?

HD: They are actively campaigning against backyard chickens.

JL: Oh!

HD: And have told me that they will not sign any kind of waiver or permission to allow chickens in my backyard. So I am actively plotting to come up with ways to annoy them. Legally, of course, within legal bounds. And in the e-mail I sent to you, I suggested that advice on this would be welcome. I considered that sort of homework for the totter. Did you come up with anything?

JL: Homework for the totter?

HD: Well, that was kind of your homework, to come up with creative ways to annoy my neighbors.

JL: Oh, yes. Wow, no, I totally didn't. Other than, starting a blog is always really good.

HD: Starting a blog?

JL: Yeah.

HD: [laugh] You mean like a blog specifically dedicated to promoting chickens, or?

JL: You know like 'the people at this address and this address are overrated dot com'.

HD: I dunno. Seems like a lot of effort just to focus on that. I was thinking blog-wise I would just write about it and talk about it on the blog that I've already got going here. Just interleave it.

JL: That's a good way. Or threaten to support Dale for City Council!

HD: Well, he doesn't even live here anymore, right?

JL: Yeah, that's true.

HD: Well, speaking of living here anymore, and this ties right into ways to annoy my next-door neighbors--at some point you might be changing your living accommodations, right?

JL: Yeah, I'm moving this summer.

HD: Okay. If you're moving within town I could offer the accommodations above my garage.

JL: Oh, that would be a great way! A granny flat and a hostile blogger! Two in one!

HD: Right. Right next door! Dead serious now, is that the kind of arrangement that you might entertain living in?

JL: I'm actually moving to Maryland. But if I were living here I would be totally up for that. Especially as a political statement. You know, when I moved to my most recent apartment, I really wanted to get a sublet in--what's it called--University Towers, just because that's the one building that was built before all these regulations, and I thought there is no more appropriate place for me to live that than a big tower.

HD: The tallest building in downtown right?

JL: Yeah.

HD: Thinking about this specifically, a this-sized dwelling in somebody's backyard--and you can even just imagine it's a guy like me who's the landlord--is that an arrangement you would consider living in?

JL: Yeah, definitely. Apart from the pro-density political statement.

HD: I mean, you haven't seen what it's like up there. It would require some work.

JL: Yeah, I would have to see it.

HD: Yeah, it's bare stud walls, there is no insulation in the walls, there's no insulation to the roof, there's electrical, but no plumbing. And we did that, because we wanted it to sail through city inspections when we built it. So we didn't want there to be any question whatever, that we weren't really going to plan to live there or to rent it out. But if I put a composting toilet, that I could do in like a week. I could set it up with a composting toilet, sheet-rock it, insulate it. If it didn't actually have plumbing, and you had to have bottled water and a composting toilet, is that something you would still entertain as an idea?

JL: I think I would need plumbing.

HD: Yeah well, I guess a bath, you'd need a way to take a bath, right?

JL: Yeah, well, a shower.

HD: A shower. Well, would it have to be a shower? Because you know I do have a rain barrel.

JL: I don't think that--yeah, I don't know, I'm kind of spoiled, I would probably need a shower.

HD: But in terms of neighbor annoyance, I can't think of anything more annoying than to have a hostile blogger who's living in a granny flat actually taking a bath right out there in plain view of the entire neighborhood.

JL: I'd have to think hard about, you know, What am I willing to do for my political beliefs!

HD: What if it was really cheap?

JL: Maybe then.

HD: What if I said you live here for free as long as you take your baths in a rain barrel, you do all the things that are necessary to annoy my neighbors.

JL: I can't shower at NCRB or something, if I don't like the rain barrel?!

HD: Yeah well, you know in the wintertime, I think that would be a fair compromise. In the winter time you could do that.

JL: I would think about it.

HD: Well actually, your chosen field of computer science, as I understand it, your specific discipline is related to this theme of neighbors. So if you're a processor, and your next neighbor is another processor in a network, then if you coordinate with just that neighbor, you can actually get a lot of mileage out of that.

JL: Yes! Yes, that's my research. Yeah, so if you just coordinate with the neighbor on your left, and say we're going to ignore the neighbor on the right at a stochastic rate, it would be much faster than if we waited for both of them to come around ...

HD: ... so it's not necessary to coordinate with every single processor and the entire system, just the ones immediately to your left or right, and or local vicinity?

JL: Yeah, and depending on what you're doing. But yeah, if you coordinate with your neighbor on your left, he might say to the neighbor on his left, Hey, I think we need more chickens and hostile bloggers in this neighborhood, and then it will come full circle.

HD: But I guess to me, as a metaphor I don't like it. Because the overall spirit of this seems to be, it's a good thing to ask your neighbor. And to coordinate when your neighbor. And I want to say, It's not a good thing. I want a metaphor that says, See, it's beautiful when everybody just does their stuff independently without talking to their neighbor, and peace and harmony results.

JL: Well, you know, that would be the absolute fastest mode of synchronization. No synchronization.

HD: Oh, right so you lose no processing time in coordinating.

JL: Yes.

HD: Everybody just does what they're supposed to magically.

JL: Exactly.

HD: So I don't know. It's not the kind of metaphor you can really appeal to and convince a city council person, because they'll say, Processors, Dave, what, huh? This is not computer science!

So is computer science one of those deals where basically you get your degree, and you've got to go where there is a job, as opposed to being able to say, I'd like to go to San Francisco, so I'm going to go to San Francisco and figure out how to get a job in computer science there.

JL: You know, apparently it is more like that than I ever realized.

HD: Really!

JL: Yeah. I used to be a journalist before I started here. I had a technical degree, and I thought, Well, I'm never going to get a real job in journalism as a stable way of making a living, so I should go to computer science grad school. And also because I was a technology journalist at the time, and I felt like, I am out of my depth here, I really wish I knew more about technology. So then of course I became a theorist, so I still feel like I don't know that much about technology. Yeah, but theorists have the worst job market.

HD: So basically those are academic jobs?

JL: Yeah.

HD: So is it fair question to ask, the job you've got in Maryland, is this an academic job?

JL: It's a quasi-academic job.

HD: 'Quasi' in the sense that they are like not paying you, or what?

JL: Quasi-government, quasi-academic.

HD: Okay. Let me ask you, on your blog--this was several months back--I think Parking Structure Dude! offered you accommodations?

JL: Oh, I don't remember that.

HD: You were looking for a new place to live, you were moving out of Madison House ...

JL: ... oh, yeah.

HD: And Parking Structure Dude! suggested that there might be something that he could work out. Did you wind up rooming with or living with Parking Structure Dude! ?

JL: No. And in fact at the time I don't think I knew that I was staying in Ann Arbor. So I graduated in May ...

HD: ... I thought you graduated back in February?

JL: No, in May. So about a year ago. And then I stayed on as a lecturer, but I didn't know that I was going to do that until mid-August of last year.

HD: So you didn't wind up renting a space from Parking Structure Dude!

JL: No. In fact at the time that I realized I was going to stay here, I went through all the listings--I actually used the U of M faculty site, which kind of goes against my principles, using a site that is closed off.

HD: Really! So if you are U of M faculty you have access to a special set of listings?

JL: Oh, yeah!

HD: How do landlords get their stuff listed there?

JL: I don't know. But my landlords were faculty. And this kind of goes against everything I say, because there's like one market for students and one for everyone else. But I had two weeks to find a place, I thought I was only staying until December, so I wanted a four-month lease.

HD: Speaking of the difference between students and everybody else, this student from the School of Art and Design who had a huge hand in putting together the show down the street here at that empty space, he was saying on the totter that when he made the phone call to the people who are trying to fill that space--Colliers or whatever the name is--he said he made a point of not saying, I am a student! He said, Hi, I'm calling from the University of Michigan School of Art and Design and we have 16 thesis students who'd like to show their work. So it wasn't like he lied and said that he was faculty, or that he was a dean or something, but he definitely did not lead with the fact that he was a graduating senior.

JL: Oh, yeah.

HD: And he felt like that that was the thing that basically ensured success.

JL: You know, I knew somebody who was moving to town and she had me scout out apartments for her a couple years ago. She was an incoming faculty on a temporary--basically like a visiting professor. So I found this really great house--well, I mean, she found it, she just had me go to them, because she wasn't in Ann Arbor. So I was like, Yeah this is great! And it was really cheap, it was maybe $1000 for this two-bedroom house. And I was looking for a place to move, and she said, Why don't you come and be my roommate! That would be great! So at first the landlord was all for it, I'm not sure if he knew that I was a student at the time.

HD: Let me make sure that I understand, she was going to room with you?

JL: Yeah, she invited me to be her roommate.

HD: Oh, okay so she had the space that at that point.

JL: Yeah. And so I talked the landlord, and at first he was all for it. And then he called me--I was out of town--and it was a really weird conversation. He said that his manager had basically decided it would be better to have only one person there. And he was like, And so we understand each other, right? And I thought, Well, this sounds really creepy, I'm glad I escaped that! Then later he told her that this conversation had never happened when she asked about it.

HD: Well, of course not. Because that's the way those conversations work. [laugh] So back to this listing, then. So there is this magic listing that the University maintains? It's like University servers that they maintain this on?

JL: Yeah. And you know, you're not allowed to discriminate on the basis of source of income when you rent, I wouldn't think. So I don't know how that works. [Ed. note: Neither HD nor JL were aware of the policies of the UM Faculty Referral Service, which are explained on the Off-Campus Housing website.]

HD: Interesting. Hmm. Let me think, you know, the whole reason I brought up Parking Structure Dude! is not something I've ever talked about on the teeter totter before, but there is teeter tottering swag that people receive as a reward for not falling off the teeter totter.

JL: Oh, really?!

HD: [??]

JL: Just checking to make sure I'm stable here.

HD: Oh. You don't want to fall off and ruin the safety record, and lose out on your chance at cool teeter tottering swag, okay. The typical swag is a T-shirt. But Parking Structure Dude! felt like I ought to offer you a cut of our cargo that we hauled down from Plymouth a couple of weeks ago in the bicycle trailer, which was bunny shit. So I made up a bag of bunny shit, so I could offer you some bunny shit in a bag ...

JL: ... wait, he said this about me specifically?!

HD: Yeah.

JL: Okay. [laugh]

HD: And he seemed to think you might enjoy it. So choosing between a Teeter Talk T-shirt and a bag of bunny shit, if you had to choose, you can't have both.

JL: Oh, I can't?

HD: No.

JL: I don't know, maybe I will be conventional and go with the T-shirt then.

HD: Yeah, well, the bunny shit, unless you have a place to use it, I mean you're renting still, now right through your time in Ann Arbor, and then when you go to Maryland you're going to be renting again?

JL: Yeah.

HD: So you're not going to have a place to compost and fertilize stuff, I'm guessing. So this May marks what, six or is it seven years of blogging for Ann Arbor is Overrated? Or is it eight?

JL: Six.

HD: Six okay. That's a long time.

JL: Yeah, I know!

HD: You're bound to be at least a little bit proud of actually just maintaining anything online for six years. The internet is littered with stuff that people have the best of intentions for, and they do it for three weeks and then it disappears.

JL: Yeah, no, definitely.

HD: And the I-hate-Ann Arbor, or Ann-Arbor-I-hate-you, or whatever that was, that began and they haven't posted anything new in like two months. [Ed. note: To be fair, there was, in fact, a new entry on that blog a few days after this teeter totter ride.] Let me ask you--I enjoy the rant as a genre, which seems to be their chosen mode of discourse--but the energy level that takes to maintain, it's like they started off in a sprint for what really is a marathon.

JL: Yeah, I make a point, I often don't look at new sites until they've been around for at least a month. Maybe if everybody does that it would discourage new bloggers, but I don't know, you can only look at so much.

HD: So do you use a feed reader or some such device to monitor stuff, or do you have a set of bookmarks you use, or you just sit down and sort of say, What do I want to read today?

JL: I have Bloglines.

HD: Okay. You know it was frustrating to me, because I thought I need to get on board with this whole feed business, which I then did, and then I started noticing nowadays there's a bit of a backlash against feed readers, that you know, You ought to junk your feed reader! Don't be a slave to your feed reader! and just go and read whatever. I figure I'll keep producing the feed. And if people read it, okay. Is there anything that you wanted to make sure that we covered on the totter?

JL: Not really.

HD: So do you have plans later today?

JL: Yeah, I'm meeting my advisor and some of my friends from the department for dinner.

HD: So are you planning to go to the performance of Dale Winling's wife's group, The Assemblywomen?

JL: Oh! you know, I just saw him, and he didn't even mention it. I saw it mentioned on your interview with her. But is it here [in Ann Arbor, as opposed to Chicago]?

HD: Yeah, it's here. It's like 4:45, it's an oddball time, it's not an even hour or half-hour time, but I think it's at the Michigan Union Ballroom. Could that be right, is there a ballroom at the Michigan Union?

JL: Yes.

HD: Yeah, so I think it's going be there. It actually reminds me--well, anyway you should go [to the Assemblywomen]. I can't believe that Dale did not plug it!

JL: No, I just saw him last week at the Great Lakes Myths Society show.

HD: And he didn't mention The Assemblywoman performance.

JL: No.

HD: What that reminded me of--that piece is about women taking over the City Council or what-have-you--and one of the rides I did recently was with a woman who's working with this group of women business people. Is there a sense in which computer science is a field where you feel like, God, I've got a find other women in this field and then we've got a band together, because we talk differently about computer science, or there's discrimination issues that need to be addressed? I mean, is there any sense of that at all?

JL: There's definitely discrimination issues. I mean, I haven't really experienced much firsthand. It's hard to say. I mean, they'll do studies where they send out identical resumes and the women's names will do worse. But if I'm looking for a job, I can't send out identical resumes with a male name just to see what happens. So in terms of overt discrimination it's very little. But I don't know, when Larry Summers made those comments--and maybe most of it was not that outrageous in itself ...

HD: ... this was the president of Harvard.

JL: Yeah. But a lot of people who defended him, I thought, Wow, they really do not see me as an equal! And I hope that these are just some cranks on the internet and not representative of my colleagues and their views that they don't air in public.

HD: Do you think that that's a problem that computer science has as a field in contrast to other fields? Say, like history, or? Because I mean I think traditionally computer science has been probably exclusively a male-dominated field. Although, there's some woman here in Ann Arbor locally who is one of the--I'm trying to remember her name--it was like one of the leading figures in computer science in the early days?

JL: Fran Allen? [Ed. note: HD was thinking specifically of a woman who was involved somehow in teaching FORTRAN to IBM programmers, and that's probably a close match to Frances Allen.]

HD: Mm, I don't know. My point is I guess it's not like there haven't been any. But certainly statistically it's been a male-dominated field, I would guess. So any sense on your part that there's a special problem with computer science as compared to history or literature?

JL: Not in academic computer science so much. I think definitely the startup geek culture is a lot worse than maybe the established company culture--when you're talking about industry. But I've been in journalism briefly and I think journalism is worse.

HD: Really?

JL: Because there are a lot more women in journalism school, there's a lot more women who want to be in journalism, at least over 50 percent. In computer science it's tiny numbers, but look at the masthead of any publication, look at the New Yorker's bylines. So computer science actually does a better job I think.

HD: So as a percentage of the people who are in the field looking for a job or are training in the field, reflecting that percentage at least in the number of people who get jobs?

JL: [affirmative]

HD: Yeah, okay. I'm trying to think if the local newspaper, for top-level management ...

JL: ... local newspapers are better, certainly, than the New Yorker or something.

HD: Yeah, well I'm kind of thinking for the local paper here in Ann Arbor, whether they are better or not. And I think maybe they are not? I don't have the numbers at my disposal, but. Well, listen, we haven't fallen off, yet, which is good. Thanks for coming!

JL: Thanks for having me!