Friday, December 19, 2014

Weekend Reading: The Concise Edition

Today's been a busy day with home and work things and the school holiday show... so my links post is going to be unusually concise. It should give you more time to read the links themselves, right?

Funny: Ayn Rand Reviews Children's Movies, by Mallory Ortberg.

Sad: Three female MIT computer scientists do a Reddit AMA... and it goes exactly how you think it would. If you wonder how it would go, just read the comments on the Wired article! Otherwise, don't. They are depressing.

Finally: A big name tech guy tells of GamerGaters

Thougt-provoking: I Don't Know What to Do With Good White People, by Brit Bennett.

Honest: Men Just Don't Trust Women. And This Is a Problem, by Damon Young.

Eye-opening: A design flaw in the criminal justice syste, by Sarah Lustbader. The problem is probably not the one you're thinking of.

Insightful: Torture should not be a partisan issue, by Jamelle Bouie.

Nifty: Volvo created a bike helmet that warns drivers about nearby cyclists.

Case study in unintended consequences of incentives:  Pennywise and pound-foolish: misidentified cells and competitive pressures in scientific knowledge-building, by Janet D. Stemwedl

True: the problem with "just be yourself," by Charlie Bink.

Smart: Interview with Shani O. Hilton on building the BuzzFeed newsroom. "The fun thing has been in practice that means that the more diversity that you get in your office, the easier it is to get more diversity, because you hire people, you trust them.

You say, “Hey, I’m looking for this position to be filled.” Then their networks open up to you in a way that is really great. It’s been really nice, because we’ve seen this kind of accelerated growth, in terms of diversity on staff, and it’s just really rewarding."

Good: an essay on science, art, and life... and three mice at the Smithsonian, by E. A. Farro.

Happy weekend, everyone! And maybe Merry Christmas, too... it remains to be seen if I'll post again before Christmas.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Books Make Great Last Minute Gifts

I am uncharacteristically on top of my Christmas shopping this year, so for once, I am not clicking through gift guide after gift guide with an ever increasing sense of panic. I hope you are in an equally good place, but in case you are not... I have another set of gift ideas for you, this time all books. (If you want some non-book gift ideas, check out my earlier post.)

I'll divide this post into categories, because I love organizing things.


I think the trick to buying books for kids is to make sure you are picking fun but somewhat obscure titles. Fun because then the kid is more likely to like the book, and somewhat obscure because that increase your chances that the kid doesn't already have the book. The only downside is that implementing this approach for last minute gifts requires that you have either Amazon Prime or a bookstore with a really good children's section.

Obviously, I think my own books fit this description nicely. Petunia, the Girl who was NOT A Princess would be good for a preschooler or early grade schooler, and The Zebra Said Shhh would be good for a toddler or preschooler.

But this post is not just another chance to plug my own books! I have some other suggestions, too.

 I Kissed the Baby! is a good choice for the board book set. It is fun for the grown up to read, and you get to kiss you baby at the end.

For the picture book set, take a look at A Mammoth in the Fridge, which has a great twist at the end that still makes Petunia giggle. Another good option is The Beasties, which both of my kids have loved. It would be a particularly good gift for a kid who has had to move house or is afraid of the dark. Neither of those describe my kids, though, and they still really liked it.

Chapter book readers who can handle a little bit of tension and a lot of adventure will probably love The Monster in the Mudball. Pumpkin does not like tension, and found this book a little scary- but she liked it so much that she finished it anyway, which is high praise from her. We've abandoned a lot of books due to tension!

Grown Ups

Giving books to grown ups is harder than giving them to kids, I find, because grown ups are pickier. But here are some ideas to consider.

Oomph: A Little Super Goes a Long Way is a hugely fun book, and might be a good option for a sci-fi fan or even a comic book fan (although it is not a comic book or graphic novel).

If you know a feminist who hasn't read Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist yet, consider it as a gift- particularly if your friend is someone who enjoys a lot of pop culture.

Biomedical scientists, particularly ones who have worked in drug discovery, might really like Breakthrough: Elizabeth Hughes, the Discovery of Insulin, and the Making of a Medical Miracle. It was fascinating and frankly a little fun to compare the free-wheeling development of insulin into a drug with the much more regulated processes I know today.

Grown Ups You Know Really, Really Well

These books are "useful" books, and as such can backfire terribly if given to someone who takes the gift as a subtle dig and not a "here's something useful!" But, for people who you know really well, useful books can be great options. I, for instance, love getting useful books. One Christmas, before Mr. Snarky and I got married, we were in Arizona with my family for Christmas. I opened my gift from Mr. Snarky to find a practical book about personal finance and a new trackball. I was delighted- I needed and wanted both things. But it definitely raised the eyebrows of one or two members of my extended family!

Cookbooks are probably the safest of the useful book gifts. If your recipient is someone who needs tasty, quick options for weeknights, Robin Miller's Quick Fix Meals is a good option.  Another nice one is Fast, Fresh & Green, which I keep checking out from the library in my quest to find good vegetable recipes that I can make in the time I have and that I might actually like. I've liked the recipes I've tried from it so far, but I only get through one or two each time I check it out, so I haven't vetted it extensively.

Of course, Navigating the Path to Industry is an option if you know someone who has decided to leave academia and needs some practical tips. You're definitely on shaky ground with a gift like this, though- you want to be sure the recipient has already expressed an interest in job searching!

The ground gets even shakier with Playing Big, but if you know a woman who is trying to figure out how to reach for her most ambitious goals and/or who would be open to a gift that nudges her in that direction, this is a good book. I plan to write up a full review soon. The only caveat I'll give now is that the book contains some things like guided visualizations, which might be too new age-y for some people. It is easy to skip them, though. I mostly did, and still found the book useful. I wish I'd read it about five years ago- I found my way to a lot of the same insights, but I think that process would have been faster and easier if I'd read this book.

All of those options are ones for which a physical version of the book exists. If you're open to ebook gifts, you can always check out Tungsten Hippo for more ideas.

Your turn: share you book gift ideas in the comments!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Getting Organized: Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference

I've seen a lot of tweets recently about people feeling disorganized and like they've tipped over to a chaos level they are not OK with. I completely understand why- the holidays dump a bunch of things on our already full to do lists and calendars, and a lot of companies compound the mess with year end goals reviews and the like.

People don't generally want advice when they are venting about being disorganized on Twitter, so I usually don't reply. It gets my organization problem solving impulse twitching, though, so I'm going to indulge myself here.

The fact that I have an organizing impulse is amusing to people who have known me a long time and remember what my room looked like as a child (hint: not neat and tidy). For that matter, people who know me now and see my desk could be forgiven for thinking I am hopelessly disorganized.

But here's the thing: I have accepted that I cannot keep everything organized, and so I focus on the most important things. It took me an embarrassingly long amount of time to arrive at this insight, but now that I've had it, I embrace it. I don't have to be all the way organized. I just have to be organized enough. It doesn't matter if my desk is a cluttered mess as long as I can find my important documents. It doesn't matter if I haven't cleaned out the kids' outgrown clothes as long as I remember to check the hand me downs from Pumpkin BEFORE I go out and buy Petunia new shoes.

I won't claim to have applied this approach everywhere I could, but I'm making progress. I am much more zen than I used to be about the clutter that remains. That is what really matters to me. The goal isn't to have a perfectly organized house and life. It is to be happy. I just need to be organized enough to keep the inevitable chaos from causing me to be unhappy.

My other hard-earned insight about getting organized is that it is OK to focus on just one area at a time. When I'm feeling overwhelmed by the chaos, I try to figure out what specific chaos is driving me crazy right now and address that. For me, feeling like I might let someone down  and forget to do something I've said I'll do is a big trigger for feeling overwhelmed by chaos, so it often makes sense for me to look at our scheduling methods and try to improve them. The most recent improvement there was the decision to print out monthly calendar pages (I use the monthly horizontal calendars on and stick them to the fridge. We write all non-routine events on this calendar, and since it is right in front of our eyes when we get into the fridge, it helps us remember things. We've been using this method for a couple of years now and I can't really fathom how we managed before we implemented it.

Now that my work schedule is less regular, I have also ramped up my use of my Google calendar. I would LOVE to get Mr. Snarky more on board with online calendaring, but he can't seem to stick to using it, so I've given up.  I just put important things in my Google calendar, but treat it as a back up to the "master" calendar on the fridge. Again, my goal is to be happy, not to be optimally organized. Constantly harping on Mr. Snarky to do something that obviously is not natural to him does not advance me towards my goal, particularly since the printed calendar is an easy workaround that he will use.

There are lots of other little enhancements I've made based on stopping and trying to figure out what chaos is actually causing me stress at the moment that I tip over to the "too much chaos!!!!" feeling. For instance, we added a small whiteboard to our fridge where we write things we need to buy, divided up by the stores we visit regularly. This one was based on a suggestion in a comment from a reader on a post I wrote right after one of my "too much chaos!!!" meltdowns. (Here's a follow up to that post, about stress-busting and mental unloading.)

Fridge, with calendar, shopping lists, and menu plan.
Plus a lot of magnets.
More recently, it was my email that was making me feel overwhelmed. Turning on all of the built in categories and adding a few labels of my own ("attention needed," "save for later," and "biz receipt") ratcheted down my email stress significantly. I no longer worry if I'm going to forget to respond to an email, because I can now just flip over to the "attention needed" list and see what emails still need me to do something (usually respond). And when I do my monthly accounting update, I can more easily find any receipts I forgot to download and save.

I love getting new ideas for how to organize things- even if I don't implement an idea right away, I might come back to it at my next "too much chaos!!!" moment. Give me your organization tricks and the seemingly small optimizations that have made a big difference in the comments!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Weekend Reading: The Don't Let It Get You Down Edition

Today has been an object lesson in pulling out of a funk. I was in a funk for a variety of reasons.

I settled into a funk last night, after concluding that the t-shirt printing place I found doesn't seem to respond to customer queries. I like their quality and prices, but I sorta need them to fix it if they make a mistake, so it was back to the drawing board on the t-shirt front, all while Mr. Snarky pointed out that t-shirts are a crowded market and selling t-shirts is unlikely to ever make me much money.

I agree, but the market isn't crowded with things I want to wear, so I figure I can make t-shirts I'll wear and maybe a few other people will buy them, too, and it will be grand. Also, designing t-shirts turns out to be a lot of fun.

But the setback almost had me convinced to just ditch the idea, despite the fact that I've finally figured out the technical side of the design process and really like my latest design (it involves dragonflies).

Then there was the rain, which is done now, but was coming down pretty hard this morning, and part of me just wanted to curl up in a chair and sip tea and read a book.

But I'd just done a deep dive into my corporate finances on Wednesday, and that told me I shouldn't get too lazy.

So, I fell back on my productivity tricks and kicked myself in the pants and actually got quite a lot done today- including submitting my latest t-shirt design as a test order at a new print shop.

I still sipped a lot of tea.

Anyway, to the links! Looking at them, I think the theme is, yeah, sometimes things are suboptimal or downright sucky, but it won't do anyone any good if I let that get me down. So, another object lesson in pulling out of a funk, if you will. The links are a mix of things that depress me and things that give me hope- I'll let you sort out which are in each category.

First up, women in tech. Sue Gardner had an op-ed in the LA Times that is a pretty concise summary of how sucky that situation is right now.

But! Here is something nice, from our history- Margaret Hamilton was the lead software engineer 
on the Apollo Project. Wikipedia has a short entry about her.

Ta-Nehisi Coates' piece about the New Republic is characteristically great.

Shonda Rhimes delivered a hell of a speech.

Decreasing implicit racism may be as simple- and as hard- as having more diverse children's literature.

Doing little things to make other people happier always makes me happier, too, so I liked Laura Vanderkam's 12 Days of Microphilanthropy.

And of course, I have a couple of random fun things at the end.

First, I've finally found a podcast that I love as much as the BBC's History of the World in 100 Objects. It is A History of the English Language, and as far as I can tell it is delivered by a hobbyist- but wow, I'm learning a lot. I just finished listening to an entire episode on the history of the letter C, and it was awesome.

I sort of want to hire someone to make some cool moss art on my house. I'm sure there are good reasons not to do that, though.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Looking for a Literature Crunching Tool

Yesterday one of the librarians I follow on Twitter asked whether a specific technical tool exists. Here are the tweets:

I replied that I'm not in lib tech, but I think that such a tool could be written. I said that I suspect it will be a 90-10 problem: i.e., a tool that handles 90% of the cases can be created with a reasonable amount of effort, but if you really need that last 10%, it will get expensive.

I'm basing my opinion on the fact that I know Mr. Snarky wrote a similar tool at an old job, because I remember answering questions about scientific literature for him. However, he does not have that code, it is not in the public domain, and it was focused on a subset of the biomedical literature, so is not as broad as what @mchris4duke is after.

I promised to ask my bioinformatics and computational bio/chem friends, though, because I suspect people have written similar tools. So... does anyone have public domain code that does something like this? Or lessons learned from writing such a tool they want to share?

My only additional advice is that if she hires an undergrad to do this (she's currently at Stanford and is moving soon to MIT, so suitable undergrads should be available), she should keep an eye on that 10% problem, and be sure to keep the amount of time/money spent on the tool in line with the value delivered. When I've written or managed the writing of tools with the 90-10 problem, I've usually ended up stopping development somewhere in the 90-95% of cases handled range, and just handled the remaining cases by hand. Deciding when to stop tool development is a project-specific thing, though. It is all about the cost vs. the return vs. how hard it is to do the analysis of the remaining cases by hand.

So- does anyone have anything useful to add? Put it in the comments or tweet it in reply to the tweet I use to share this post.

(P.S., I am FINALLY about to notify the winner from this giveaway. So, if you don't hear from me by the end of the day, you didn't win. Sorry for the delay. Holiday season, blah blah blah.)
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