Monday, December 31, 2012

In My Own Skin

The cold that worked its way through my family last week has finally caught me, so we're spending a very quiet New Year's Eve in. Truth be told, though, it is unlikely we would have done things much differently if I weren't sick. Mr. Snarky is giving the kids their bath roughly on time, but then I'll dig out our New Year's Eve hats and we'll let them stay up until 9 p.m. to ring in the New York New Year's. Once we settle them into sleep (my guess is sometime around 10, given how Petunia's bedtimes have gone lately), we'll sit with our beers and try to stay up to ring in the new year in our own time zone. And really, this is perfect. I've never been a "go out and party with a big crowd of strangers" sort of person.

We spent Christmas in Arizona, with my parents and extended family. It was a wonderful visit, but the drive home is... well, it is long. We split it into two, stopping in Yuma last night. (Irrelevant aside: I can whole-heartedly recommend the Clarion Hotel to anyone needing a stopover in Yuma. It is a few blocks away from the freeway, but worth the detour. We stopped on the way over and were so impressed with the value that we stopped again on the way back. We had a full suite- with a door between the bedroom and living room and two comfortable queen beds- for roughly $80, which is at least $30 less than the hotels near the freeway charge for one of those fake suites with only a half wall separating the bedroom and living room.)

We let the kids play at the excellent playground near the river for almost an hour before we finally set out for home. It is a long drive through scenery that I find beautiful in parts, but deadly dull in others. It is, at least, conducive for staring out the window and pondering life, the universe, and everything.

Since it is New Year's Eve, I predictably thought about resolutions. I could make the usual ones to lose weight/get in shape, be more patient, etc., etc. In fact, upon reading through my resolutions post from the beginning of 2012, I must admit that all of those still apply. Whatever 2012 was, it was apparently not a year for meeting personal growth and improvement goals!

But really, I think my goals can all be boiled down to one: I want to get comfortable in my own skin again. Or maybe for the first time- I'm not sure I have ever been really comfortable in my own skin. I have certainly had better time periods, though.

A few weeks ago, I walked to the deli across the street from work to buy some lunch, and I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the glass door as I headed back. I looked behind me, to see who the older woman was. But it was me. The me in my head is 25, with the easy attractiveness of youth and a life full of dreams and goals ahead of her. The me in that glass is 40, probably in need of a makeover, and certainly in need of more exercise and some time to shop for a better wardrobe. She has some reasonable accomplishments to her name, a hodge podge of goals competing for her attention, and enough well-earned wisdom to know that she needs to choose which ones to focus on if she hopes to achieve any of them. If only she knew which ones.

I am not unhappy with my life- in fact, I have much to be happy about, and it does indeed make me happy. But I am not content. The years have snuck up on me and changed me in ways I don't really understand, leaving me feeling uncomfortable in my own skin. Maybe 2013 will be the year that I change that, learn to embrace- or at least recognize!- the woman I've become, and figure out where she's going with the rest of her life. I hope you don't mind coming along for the ride, because if I do try to sort this out in 2013, I'll almost certainly blog about it.

Not sure where this road goes.

What about you? Any resolutions you want to share? Do you recognize the person you've become?

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope your celebrations are as good a fit to you as ours are to us.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Year in Review: 2012

Last year, I wrote a year in review post, in which I recapped two or three posts from every month, chosen for whatever reasons struck me as right. I enjoyed writing that post so much that I decided to make it a tradition. So... here is the 2012 year in review post.

January started off a little rough, with a scary incident involving some unleashed dogs at our local park. Pumpkin is still dog-shy, but she's gotten a lot better over the year. I remain more cautious, though. I wrote a post I really liked about the importance of comparing things in my life to realistic alternatives and not fantasies. And the month ended with a look at LEGO Friends.

In February, we figured out a plan for how to handle the choices around where Pumpkin would go to Kindergarten. As regular readers know, she ended up getting into the Spanish immersion program in our neighborhood, and we've been really happy with it. I wrote a post about "big careers" and work-life balance that resonated with some and annoyed others, and I wrote the first in what has become a series of posts about toys that build skills, even for princess-obsessed little girls.

March found me taking advantage of a toddler sick day to slow myself down.  I also pondered the role of non-academic pursuits for kids with perfectionist streaks and thought about how the limits of our imagination can hamper our communication with other people, and feed our pointless "mommy wars."

In April, I recognized some emotional effects of having weaned Petunia, Pumpkin turned 5 (!!!), and I wrote a post about men, women, and chores that got more comments than any other post I've written.

In May, we went on a vacation in Texas, and I took a reader's advice and did some reading about scanners and renaissance souls,which has helped me understand myself a little better. I also wrote a popular post about how work-life balance is both easier and harder to achieve than a lot of people think.

June was a very work-oriented month here. I wrote a post with my project manager's view of long hours that has proven to be very popular, and I also posted my reaction to the (in)famous Atlantic article from Anne-Marie Slaughter about how women still can't "have it all." I also wrote some basic advice for people making the transition from academia to industry.

July was my most prolific month, with 21 posts, so I'm going to pick four for this review. I reacted to some negative news about the scientific job market, with a bit of navel-gazing about my own career path and how something that is probably at least my third career plan since I decided to major in science has turned out to be a great career. But clearly, my great career isn't perfect (are any of them?) because I also posted about wanting to feel closer to free. I also annoyed some people by defending Marissa Mayer. I ended the month with a look at my uniform- a post I really liked, for some reason, probably because it reminds me of what I love about blogging, namely that I get a chance to ruminate on whatever is on my mind, even if it is fairly trivial.

In August, I posted a review of Soundings, a book I really liked.  I also landed myself in urgent care with an asthma attack for the first time ever, and I wrote the first of several posts inspired by reading Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's Mother Nature, this one about how the existence of differing mothering strategies within a group might be a good thing overall. I still have more thoughts about Mother Nature that I have not explored, so you might see more posts inspired by that book in 2013.

Pumpkin started Kindergarten in September, and I wrote a post about how I was trying to enjoy parenting more, inspired in part by the fun Pumpkin and I had on her last "ditch day" before the arrival of the scheduling rigors of school and in part by reading Gretchen Rubin's Happier at Home. I wish I could say I'd really learned this lesson and was now enjoying the "long days" more... but I still need to work on this. Maybe I'll do better in 2013! I also wrote about how sexism in my life is like those stupid ankle weights people wore in the 80s. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to get better in 2013.  I was apparently feeling very navel-gazey, because I also wrote about building a meaningful and happy life, and how I am still working to figure out how best to do that.

Petunia turned 3 in October, which I didn't really write about except in passing as part of the work-life storm that hit in early October. (She had a great party at a pumpkin patch with her friends, by the way.) I read Cal Newport's So Good They Can't Ignore You and wrote a post about the book and my reaction to the career advice it gives. I also wrote another Mother Nature inspired post, this one with thoughts about how our society could be reconfigured to truly support mothers.

In November, I continued to think about Cal Newport's book and wrote about rebuilding my career capital. I had a happy election night, but still wished for a better opposition. Despite the happy election news, the troubles of the world weighed heavily on me, and I eventually decided I needed to pick one thing and make it better. My Amazon earnings were a little light recently, but I still think I'll be donating my first box of diapers soon.

December started out with me thinking about careers, and I wrote a post with some advice for college students that was largely overlooked- probably because I posted it smack in the middle of finals. Oops. If you missed it and are interested in my thoughts on careers and college majors, by all means go back and take a look. I also posted some more toy guides, including one in which I tried to think about toys that would stretch skills that get overlooked in typical toys for boys. The tragic events in Newtown really shook me, but I tried to get my anger and sadness out and move on so that I could give my kids the happy holiday season they deserve. I have mostly succeeded, but I remain convinced that we Americans need to find a way to address our gun problem. I hope we will take steps towards that in 2013.

But for now, I hope everyone is having a good holiday season, and that I'll see you here (or maybe even in real life!) in 2013. Thanks for reading!


Friday, December 21, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Gift Guides Edition

Since I've felt the need to inflict my toy recommendations on you, I thought I'd share some other gift guides with you. These are a little late for most shoppers now, but... save the ideas for next year! Or birthdays!

FeMOMhist posted two gift guides: one for a Star Wars obsessed kid and one for ideas to fight the wall of pink.

The last link from FeMOMhist led me to A Might Girl's gift guide, which has many great ideas, including some that would be as suitable for boys as girls.

Such Small Steps has a guide to picture books. I can vouch for one item on her list- both of my girls like Olivia and the Fairy Princesses.

Happy holidays, everyone!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

So. Happy Thoughts

Thank you all for your nice comments on my last post. I am doing better. I am still sad and angry, but I think that is OK. It is a sad time, and there are things about what has happened that make me angry. Whether I am sadder than is reasonable or angrier than is healthy, I do not know. I'll sort that out after the holidays. As I said in the last post, I need to find my happiness now, so that I don't ruin the holidays for my kids. So I started this post almost as soon as I finished my last one. I have no real coherent theme in mind, just a collection of things that are making me smile right now:

1. Petunia and Pumpkin love singing Jingle Bells. Except Petunia sings "Twinkle Bells." It is as cute as it sounds.

2. We're driving to the Phoenix area for Christmas. We've decided to break up the drive and stay the night in Yuma, mostly because Pumpkin is too old/big to sleep well in her car seat, and the border patrol checkpoint* spotlights are super bright and wake her up just when she's finally fallen asleep, and then she's awake for hours once we arrive.... ANYWAY. We're stopping in Yuma, and just spent ages trying to ascertain which Yuma hotels with "suites" have actual suites, with a door between the bedroom and the living room. We found one and booked it- but not before discovering that every Yuma hotel is only photographed at twilight. This, for some reason, started to really crack us up after about the third hotel.

3. Petunia has started asking me to tell her a story as part of her bedtime routine. Based on my experience with Pumpkin, I suspect this will get old fairly soon. But right now, I love it. The story I tell her is about a little girl who can't sleep, and the wonderful dreams she has once her Mommy finally gets her to sleep. It is still a bit rough around the edges, but I like how it is shaping up.

4. Pumpkin's class is going to sing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on Friday, and we're invited. They'll be singing in Spanish, of course. She is practicing a lot. It is charming, if not particularly musically pleasing.

5. I had my performance review last week and it was really good. Better than I expected, even. That was nice.

6. The story about the Abner Ravenwood's journal arriving at the University of Chicago addressed to Henry Walton Jones, Jr. I love everything about this story- the fact that someone made the journal, the fact that it ended up at the U of C (my alma mater!) and the fact that they used social media to figure out where it belonged.

7. Petunia's reaction to being asked to go potty before we leave day care these days. She pouts and says she doesn't want to go potty ever again- like she's offended she has to bother with going potty at all. I have to agree. It is a fairly serious design flaw.

8. The fact that Pumpkin's after care teachers report that she is a good friend who is kind and considerate of the other kids. One time, she even shared her sweatshirt with another little girl who had forgotten hers and was cold.

9. The way Petunia says "Mommy, I yub you." (Yub = love.) She also gives great kisses and hugs.

What's making you smile right now?

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*I'm sure this will confuse some of my international readers- and maybe even some American readers who haven't been to the border states recently. No, we don't cross the border to drive from San Diego to Phoenix. But there are checkpoints on the major highways, because... well, just because. Sorry, I just can't try to explain another one of our peculiar American policy failures. It will take me out of the happy place I'm trying to go to. You'll just have to Google it.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Moving On

I left work early today. I found myself unable to focus, unable to deal with the bickering and changing requirements in my after lunch meeting. So I canceled my other meetings, and left. Liz is right that today was a very long day, and in the end, it was too long for me. I considered going home, but I promised Petunia that I would pick her up "apper nap" today, and I do not feel inclined to break promises to my kids right now. Besides, Pumpkin has swim lessons on Mondays, and Mr. Snarky has to leave work early to take her. He needs me to pick up Petunia.

And so it has come to this: I can't even work out the logistics to have a proper break down.

I cannot explain why I have come so unglued. I was on shaky ground before this, for reasons I don't really understand and certainly can't express. I'll work on that soon. But I also know that today, the underlying cause is Sandy Hook. Rationally, there is no reason that this particular horrific tragedy should affect me more than the other horrific tragedies that have come before. But it has. I am not fine. And since I have found writing to be a very effective way of working through things, I am writing about it. This post will necessarily be a bit self-indulgent and unnecessarily a bit long, and I apologize for that. But I found Gravity Circus'  so-called "self-indulgent" post to be just the sort of thing I needed to read, so I will go ahead and share it anyway. As she says, you can click away if you don't want to read it.

I considered going to the Starbucks and typing there, but I decided that I don't trust myself to be in public. People would want to help the crying woman, but probably wouldn't know what to do with my request that they fix our gun laws, please. So I drove to Torrey Pines State Beach, and am parked above it, listening to the waves, and watching the sun sink lower over the ocean. I am writing this in Notepad and will post it later.

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Mr. Snarky and I work within a 5 minute walk from each other, so he came and walked with me for awhile, and that helped. He told me that Pumpkin's school no longer allows parents to walk their kids in to before care through an open gate. He had to take her through the office and sign in. We shared a wry chuckle at the ridiculousness of this piece of security theater- the school in Newtown had a locked single point of entrance. It was blasted open.

But what can we expect our schools to do? In the face of military-grade weapons, what can we expect them to offer except security theater? I made the mistake of engaging in conversation with some gun proponents over on Scalzi's post, and they were seriously arguing for armed teachers and fortified schools. I'm not sure what to do with people like that. Pumpkin's school already has a 7 or 8 foot high chain link fence around it (which Mr. Snarky hates- note, people, that such fences are not necessary in all countries). It would be easily scalable by an adult. Shall we add barbed wire on top? I'm sure the prison atmosphere would be very conducive to learning.

Last night, I forced myself to read the coverage of the Sandy Hook shooting, so that I could be prepared for questions Pumpkin might have in case she hears something at school- we have not told her about this, and no, I do not know if that was right or wrong. We'll find out tonight, I suppose. It was devastating reading, but I was struck by how brave those teachers and school staff were. How they did everything "right" and no doubt kept the death toll from being even higher. They truly were heroes, every last one of them. But then, teachers are heroes in other, more ordinary ways. How unfair of us to ask them to take on this, too.

So, no, I don't think the answer is more school security, or better trained teachers, or anything like that. I just don't. I hate that we spend money from already squeezed school budgets on the security we have.

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I have seen a lot of calls for better mental health services, or better access to the ones we have, too. I will not argue with those. As I said over on FeMOMhist's excellent post, we should work for better treatments and improve our mental health system because the people who suffer from mental illnesses are human beings, suffering through no fault of their own. They deserve the same chance at a full and rich life as anyone else. I agree whole-heartedly with Julie at A Little Pregnant that we failed Adam Lanza, too. As Julie points out, he was once a little boy as full of promise as any other. Something went wrong, and I doubt our society is blameless in that, if only in that we utterly failed to keep powerful guns out of such disturbed hands. Whatever his problems or illness, we had a role in making it fatal, and we're kidding ourselves if we think otherwise.

I'm all for more research and better access to mental heath help and all that, but really, let's not kid ourselves. That is not a solution to the problem of gun violence. Not all people who kill other people- even in mass shootings like this one- are mentally ill. The vast majority of mentally ill people will never hurt anyone. Our understanding of mental illness is far from complete, and many of the medications we have to offer have very unpleasant side effects.

By a strange coincidence, I had occasion to attend a seminar about translational research in schizophrenia this morning. (Translational research is the research to translate knowledge gleaned from lab experiments into medically useful treatments.) It was a good seminar, and discussed a lot of good research. But my god, this is a challenging problem. Even developing useful animal models of this one disease has taken decades, and the work is not complete.

I am humbled by people's confidence in the ability of the scientific community to tackle this problem, and we are indeed working on it. But I'll refer you back to an earlier rant- the funding is scarce. Do not expect any magic treatments, please, certainly not soon.

In the near term, if we want to tackle this problem through mental health services, what we are really talking about is involuntary commitment. I agree that we need to make it easier for concerned families to get their ill loved ones the help they need. But we should also remember why we made it harder to commit someone: the system was abused, quite badly in some cases. So, to avoid placing limits on the 2nd amendment rights of gun owners, we will trample the 5th and 8th amendment rights of people with mental illnesses. I am not saying that infringing on those rights is not sometimes a necessary and overall good thing to do, but, wow- what a huge burden we would be placing on psychiatrists and counselors, and on the friends and family of mentally ill people- to sort out which people need to be locked up against their will and which do not. What horrible guilt we force them to live with when they fail to be clairvoyant and perfectly predict who is dangerous and who is just disturbed. I do not think we have the disagnostic power to support this as our method for preventing gun violence. I just don't.

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And so I come back to the guns, in particular the semi-automatic weapons.

I was struck by the first graph in this blog post, showing the correlation between gun deaths and gun ownership in OECD countries. I was struck by how lonely the US is on the graph, with its high number of guns and high number of deaths, but that was not a surprise. I was initially surprised by the outlier that is off the line: Mexico, which has far more deaths per gun that the other countries. But I thought about it a bit, and it makes sense. Mexico is not a country with loose gun laws. If you do not live near the border, you may not know that most weapons used in the drug wars in Mexico come from the US. They are semi-automatic weapons purchased legally here and then smuggled to Mexico. It would appear that we have allowed our neuroses about our 2nd amendment to spill over into a death toll in other countries. I am deeply ashamed of that. (And yes, I know correlation != causation, so perhaps there are other reasons... but the fact remains, the guns in Mexico largely come from us.)

I stand by my statement last Friday: I have no interest in taking away people's guns. I only care that we figure out how to regulate them so that the price of one person's liberty to own a gun is not other people's right to life and the pursuit of happiness. As Scalzi pointed out, even Justice Scalia allowed that the rights granted by the 2nd ammendment were not without limit. So let's stop acting like they are, and put some limits in place.

My arguing over at Whatever did not convince any gun proponents to change their minds, but it did crystallize one thing for me. I realized that we need to change the debate. We have been trotting out statistics and studies to show that guns are dangerous, and arguing our case for new regulations in that way. I think we should turn that on its head. Guns are dangerous. Of course they are- that is sort of the point of them. Semi-automatic weapons are even more dangerous- again, that is the point of them. I see no reason that semi-automatic weapons need to be kept in homes in our communities. If you know of one, by all means, explain it to me- but if you say "self-defense," I'm going to ask who, exactly, you expect to come barging into your home, an army? And if you say "yes, an army," then I will dismiss you as either irrational or involved in some highly suspect behaviors.

So I say to the gun proponents: if you want to keep these self-evidently dangerous things in your home, then you should propose some regulations that will ensure that this can be done safely.

And if you will not do that, then you have no right to complain if the rest of us figure out the rules under which we are comfortable with your guns. At first glance, I like the idea of mandatory gun insurance, with premiums that increase with increasing risk factors (like children in the home), and I think that semi-automatic weapons should be restricted to gun clubs and shooting ranges. Shoot them there and store them there, and slap large penalties on any facility that allows you to remove them. (How would they stop you, you ask? Well, we can put security guards there or arm the staff- that was your solution for the schools, wasn't it? Or really, if there is any place that should be full of the armed private civilians that gun proponents think will stop mass shooters, it is a shooting range.)

But to be honest, I don't know what the best answer to fixing our gun problem is. I just know we have a problem that needs fixing. I cannot explain why it took a tragedy of this magnitude to shake me out of my complacency on that fact. I am ashamed that it did. We all should be. But we should be even more ashamed if we won't try to fix it even now.

Over the past few days, I have realized that my conscience requires me to try to fix this. I do not yet know what I will do, but I will have to do something. I want to do some research, and some soul-searching, before I decide what I will do. I know that some of you will disagree with me about guns, and that is fine. I do not intend to turn this into a gun control blog. I may update you occasionally on what I decide to do, but will mostly continue to write about the subjects that I have always written about. I just needed to write this post, to get my anger out in the world, so that maybe I can let my sadness out tonight, after the kids are in bed, and move on. I need some time to educate myself on an issue I have not previously bothered to fully understand before I decide what to do. I also need to leave this topic for awhile and get in the holiday spirit, for the sake of my children and the rest of my family, so I'll be turning to happier topics next.

I will move on. But I do not intend to forget.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Zenbit: Flower





















I needed to post something beautiful.

Location: Penang, Malaysia
Date: February 15, 2006

Friday, December 14, 2012

Broken Heart and Open Letters

I would normally post my weekend links post tonight, and in fact I have it all written and ready to go. But it seems almost obscene to put up a post with links to holiday gift guides when so many families in Connecticut are living one of my worst nightmares. My heart breaks into a thousand little pieces for them. There just aren't words to express my sorrow.

We do not have the full story of what happened in that school and why, so I won't jump to conclusions. But here's one thing I know for certain: the death toll would not be so high if the man who did this didn't have access to a gun, particularly one capable of firing so many rounds.

I do not normally post about politics and current events. But I am done with sitting silently on this one. It is time to stop pretending that there is nothing we can do to prevent tragedies like this. There is something we can do. We can fix our gun laws. There is no great mystery about what we might do here, just a lack of political will.

I am all for initiatives to improve mental health services. I am all for more research to help us understand and treat mental illnesses. But let's be frank: other countries have mental illness without quite so many mass shootings. There is nothing uniquely American about mental illness. There must be something unique to America that explains why we have more mass shootings than other countries, and I think it is pretty obvious what that is: our gun laws, or lack thereof.

Treating mental illness is necessarily complex, because the illnesses are themselves complex. Fixing our gun laws is only complex because we allow it to be.

I have family members who are hunters, and I work with a man who is a gun enthusiast. They are all decent, rational people who I am sure are as horrified as I am by this event. I am confident that if our society put its collective minds together and made an honest effort to find a set of gun regulations that would decrease the likelihood of events like today's while still ensuring that hunters and gun enthusiasts could safely engage in their hobbies, we could do it. I'm not sure what those regulations would be, but I know we could find them if all sides really wanted to have the conversation about how to fix this problem. But we don't have that conversation, because the extremists have taken over. The NRA has our politicians too scared to take on the topic. I think the decent, rational people outnumber the extremists. But we've kept quiet. It is time we spoke up. I am at a bit of a loss about what to do to fix things, but I've decided to at least make my opinion known. I'll be sending some letters, which I've copied below.

Dear NRA,

I was horrified by the news of the Sandy Hook school shooting today. I am sure you were, too. However, unlike me, you are in a position to help prevent such events. You have long made the argument that you oppose all gun control because it is a "slippery slope"- to what,  I don't know. People like me coming and "taking away your guns" I guess.

I think you should consider another scenario, in which people like me who own no guns get so disgusted by our inability to take even small steps to prevent tragedies like today's that we foment a landslide of change against you. We non-gun owners are currently a slim majority of Americans (a Gallup poll (http://www.gallup.com/poll/150353/self-reported-gun-ownership-highest-1993.aspx) found that 51% of Americans have no gun in their household). I'd be willing to wager that a fair number of the people who do own guns would be open to restrictions, as long as they could still pursue their hobbies, be they hunting or gun collecting. I think that all it would take would be someone with the willingness and savvy to organize us and the impetus provided by an event like today's and we might be able to come together and make you irrelevant. In fact, I think that given our current trajectory of horrifying tragedy after horrifying tragedy, it is only a matter of time until someone does find the correct formula to organize a viable force to oppose you.

It doesn't have to be that way. Let me state right now that I have absolutely no interest in "taking away your guns." I have family and friends who are hunters and gun enthusiasts, and I want them to be able to continue to enjoy their hobby. I only have an interest in keeping people from using guns to kill other people. I assume you are decent people and have the same interest, but you do us all a disservice when you pretend that the easy access to high-powered guns that we have in this country is not part of the problem. You are correct when you point out that we are not Europeans, and European solutions will not work here. But we can find an American solution to this problem if we try.

I urge you- no, I beg you- to step up and show true leadership on this issue. Let it be known that you will no longer unleash attacks on any politician who discusses gun control. Work with those politicians to craft a workable solution that would protect your members' rights without bargaining away innocent lives to do so. Then explain to your members why these regulations are a good thing, which actually help to protect their rights. I hope you will do these things. But if you won't, then I hope that people like me figure out how to successfully oppose before any more lives are lost. Change is coming. Will you play a part in shaping that change, or will you fight it every step of the way and ultimately have to accept the change that the rest of us decide on for you?

Sincerely,
(Cloud)

Dear President Obama,

Like you, I am horrified by the news of the Sandy Hook school shootings today. Like you, I have two beautiful young daughters, and I hugged them tighter tonight because of this event. However, unlike me, you are in a position to help prevent such events. I can understand why you have had to steer clear of gun control until now, but I urge you to find a way to put this issue on your second term agenda. Have faith in the American people to see through the bullying tactics used by the NRA. To be honest, I feel powerless in the face of the NRA's lobbying power, and that is wrong. Please give people like me a voice. If you take on this issue, I will do everything I can to support you and the other politicians who join with you, and I will urge my friends to do the same.

Let's not just hug our children in response to terrible events like this. Let's take action to help make all of our children safer.

Sincerely,
(Cloud)

I will send a variation on the second letter to my congresspeople, too. I also plan to give to the Brady Center.

If anyone wants to join me, here is the address for the NRA:
National Rifle Association of America
11250 Waples Mill Road
Fairfax, VA 22030

Or if you have the stomach for the follow up emails, do it online here: https://www.nraila.org/secure/contact-us.aspx.

Here is President Obama's address:
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Or you can send email via an online form: http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments 

Update:

There is a petition on WhiteHouse.gov that calls for a discussion about gun laws. If you want to sign that, it takes only a few minutes to create an account (they just need a name and an email address) and sign:
http://wh.gov/RN6U


Or if you want to try to improve mental health resources in this country, this link has a list of charities:
http://www.mhfederation.org/charities.php

Thursday, December 13, 2012

More Toys to Gently Challenge Gender Stereotypes: The Boys Edition

I've written several posts with toy recommendations now- I had no idea I had so many opinions about toys! My earlier posts have had some ideas for toys to help even the most princess-obsessed girls grow skills that will set them up for future success in math and science classes, such as spatial reasoning and logic. But what about boys? I think they are also getting hurt by the current gender-stratified toy landscape. The overtly "boy" toys usually do a great job of growing spatial reasoning, logic, and other early math skills. They don't do such a great job of encouraging verbal development, interpersonal and caring skills, and artistic creativity- skills that the "girl" toys do a good job of encouraging.

In my perfect world, all toys would be fair game for all kids, and no child would be constrained in his or her interests or skill development by gender stereotypes. But we don't live in that perfect world, and challenging the gender-stratified world reflected by toys is a heavy load to ask our children to carry. I will stand up for any boy who wants to play with a baby doll (and yes, it is possible to find a baby doll that isn't all pink and purple), but I don't think it is fair to expect that every boy will want to challenge that stereotype, and just like I don't want our princess-obsessed girls to miss out on the chance to grow their spatial reasoning and math skills, I don't want our car-obsessed boys miss out on the chance to grow their verbal and interpersonal skills.

As the mother of two girls, I am obviously not the best person to make recommendations for toys that will help boys who insist on typically boy toys (or whose toys are purchased by people who insist on typically boy toys) to grow these skills. But I have a few ideas, based on my observations of the boys in Pumpkin's class and my thoughts about some of the toys we own, and maybe some of my commenters who do have boys will chime in with some more.

First up, I think that the LeapFrog Phonics Bus that both of our girls loved should appeal to vehicle-loving boys, and although I will admit that the phonics jingle gets stuck in my head and drives me nuts, I also credit the Leap Frog DVDs (which use the same jingle) with helping Pumpkin learn to read.

To give boys who wouldn't dream of touching a baby doll a chance to practice their caring skills, I think the Dalmatian Vet Kit my sister got Petunia for her birthday would be great. There is a little dog and a bunch of plastic vet's equipment in a dog carrier. Petunia and Pumpkin both like to check up on the dog and their other stuffed animals.

I also like the Lost Puppies board game, which Pumpkin got for her 5th birthday- from one of the boyest boys in her class, who loved the game. It is a cooperative game in which the players work together to rescue lost puppies and deliver them to their homes.

We also got our Crayola spin art as a gift, and it is also something both of my kids love. I suspect it would be a good way to get some art into the life of a boy who thinks all toys must have motion.

Those are my ideas... but I'm sure some of you have better ones! Leave them in the comments. Also, I plan to make this weekend's links post all about online gift guides I like, so if you want to suggest any of those, leave them in the comments or send me an email. I've got a few picked out already, but I'm happy to find more.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Holiday Food Drives

The Food Bank is one of our usual charities- we write them a biggish check every year.  I know that this is the most efficient way to give to them... and yet, every holiday season there are the food drives. I thought I had it all figured out. Someone in our neighborhood does a food drive every year, dropping a bag off for us to fill and leave back out on our driveway. So I'd go through the cupboards and our emergency kits, and use this as an opportunity to cycle through my canned goods and the like. I see that as a win-win: the food bank gets some food (still at least 6 months from expiring), and I get to keep my emergency food supplies from expiring.

I was feeling a bit smug in how I'd solved that conundrum.

But then the other food drives started. Day care does one, and has the pre-K class sort and count the food. And now Pumpkin's school does one, too. So what to do? Ignore them and just tell myself that I don't have to feel bad because we write that check every year? Or send food for three different food drives?

So far, I've been sending food for all the drives. I tell myself that the day care and school food drives are good opportunities to start teaching my girls about how fortunate we are and how that means we should try to help other people who aren't as lucky. I have Pumpkin help pick the food for her drive, and next year, Petunia will be old enough to do the same. It is an inefficient method of giving, but it feels like the right thing to do.

I'm still trying to figure out what to do about toy drives, though....

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Weekend Fun

I'm reading an advance copy of Laura Vanderkam's upcoming eBook, What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekend. Our weekends don't suck, but they could using some optimizing, so I'll be interested to see if I decide to make any systematic changes after I finish the book.

Reading it has already made me a little more conscious of how we're spending our weekends, though. This weekend is a busy one (but not so busy that I can't sit down and write a blog post...) so I had rather low expectations of it going in. It started on Friday night with a trip to the Del Mar Holiday of Lights, which is a large lights display at the Del Mar racetrack.

Our only non-blurry picture of the lights
You can drive around the track looking at the lights or you can take a hayride. We had planned to do the hayride last weekend with a large group of Pumpkin's friends, but it was rained out. Most of the others rebooked for next weekend. We have other plans for next weekend, so we rebooked for last night. It was fun, and Petunia in particular was impressed with the lights.

I should confess: it was not actually that cold
Her highlight of the evening, though, was a chance to sit on Santa's lap and tell him what she wants for Christmas (a shopping cart with food), which surprised me, because last year she screamed at the sight of Santa and wouldn't go near him. We had planned to skip Santa this year, so this was a spur of the moment thing because Petunia insisted when she Santa.

The hay on the hayride really got my allergies going, forcing me to forgo our usual Friday night beers and just take some Benadryl and go to bed. I hate missing Friday night beers, so I was disappointed. Also, that is when Mr. Snarky and I plan out our weekend, which I find to be very useful for ensuring our weekend does not get swallowed up by chores, so I went to bed with even lower expectations for the rest of the weekend.

But today has been surprisingly good. Both girls had birthday parties to go to, so we had to split up. I took Petunia to her party while Mr. Snarky took Pumpkin to gymnastics and her party. Petunia had a lot of fun at the party, and I had fun chatting with the other parents. I don't know the parents of her classmates that well yet, and I was glad to get a chance to get to know them better.

Petunia fell asleep in the car on the way home, and refused to continue her nap once we got home. She did agree to spend roughly an hour of "quiet time" on the sofa, watching shows, allowing me to get some laundry going and do some of the work I need to do (the hayride necessitated leaving work early, so I need to catch up). But then she wanted to play. We did some easy mazes, and then she wanted to go outside for a "scooter walk". That didn't last long- we went a few houses, and then came back and got in the wagon instead, and I pulled her around the block.

We had a lot of fun, and I remembered the trick to really enjoying time with a 3 year old: just do whatever she wants to do.  (Which, incidentally, is what we're doing now- Pumpkin and Petunia are sort of playing together in Pumpkin's room, but really both of them are just doing their own thing: Pumpkin's playing school and Petunia is setting up an elaborate "Happy Birthday party." I am sitting on Pumpkin's bed with my laptop.)

Tomorrow, both kids will have a Chinese lesson at our house, and then we'll split up again, as I take Pumpkin on a promised shopping trip to buy a fancy holiday dress and Mr. Snarky will get some Petunia time. My sister will come over for dinner, which will end the weekend on a nice note.

So from such low expectations, I think we'll have a pretty nice weekend.

Come to think of it, last weekend was pretty good, too. We put up our Christmas tree, and while I stressed far more than I should have in the lead up to that, it turned out very nice, and the kids had a lot of fun decorating it.



Then, on Sunday afternoon, we did something Mr. Snarky has been wanting to do for awhile. We packed Pumpkin's scooter (actually Mr. Snarky's, but he lends it to her- she has requested her own one from Santa this year) and Petunia's tricycle into the back of our Mazda5 and drove down to the Quivera Basin section of Mission Bay for a scenic walk.



The kids had a great time, and the adults did, too. We even saw some Christmas decorations.



So maybe my weekends don't need as much help as I think they do!

What are you up to this weekend? Do you think your weekends are as rejuvenating and fun as you want them to be?

Friday, December 07, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Management Edition

This seems to be "talk about work" week here, so I might as well end with a set of links I've been gathering on management-y things.

First up, an interesting article by Kevin Oschner about how to effectively give advice and guidance without undermining the recipient

Then, an article by Daniel Isenberg about how governments should focus on policies that will help companies scale up, not just on policies to help entrepreneurs start companies.

Next, a post by Pawel Brodinski that uses an analogy with large-scale cooking to explain some fundamental issues in project management, which is sort of the inverse of how I use project management techniques to get my Thanksgiving dinner on the table on time.

That post led me to a post from the same author about why slack time is useful for improving productivity.

Finally, an article from Jackie and John Coleman about the benefits of downtime (which is different from slack time.)

In related news, my post about rebuilding my career capital has inspired a couple of interesting posts elsewhere. Oil and garlic is making 2013 the year to focus on her career and Laura Vanderkam wrote about some additional ideas for rebuilding career capital over at CBSNews MoneyWatch.

Also, I started a page of links about productivity. I'll add to it as  I find relevant articles.

And now.... it is time for me to stop thinking about work-related things for awhile! I hope you all have a good weekend. 

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Thoughts on Majors and Career Stewardship

The discussion on yesterday's rant about the scientific job market got me thinking more generally about career stewardship and job markets. I may have given the impression that I think the chaos in the scientific job market is somehow unique. I do not. I can think of many other industries that are undergoing similar upheaval. In fact, I can't really think of an industry that isn't in a bit of turmoil right now.

I think it is sad if parents are steering kids away from majoring in biology because there is no guaranteed job market for people with biology degrees. I think this not because I think we "need more biology majors" or anything like that. I think it because those parents are giving their kids a fundamentally wrong impression, namely that there is any major that results in a guaranteed career path at the end of four years.

Sure, there used to be majors that basically guaranteed their graduates jobs, but those days are gone. I'm even hearing lawyers and doctors fret about their career options now. I think it is time we all faced facts: there is no educational path you can take that guarantees you a job, let alone an awesome career. In fact, I'll make it more general: there are no magic set of steps you can follow that provide a recipe to a stable career. There just aren't.

There is absolutely no point in trying to find the "safe major" or the "secure job." Those things don't exist any more. Instead of searching fruitlessly for a relic of times past, we should accept our new reality and think about (1) what we can do as individuals to build secure and happy lives in this new reality, and (2) what we can do as a society to make this new career environment less destructive of people's lives. 

I don't feel qualified to address the second item (but I'd like to find the time to read and think about it more). I have some ideas for the first item, though:

1. Think about skills as well as specific fields
I have specialized in the drug discovery industry, but I have skills that are broadly applicable to other industries. If necessary (or if I just get tired of drug discovery), I can probably figure out how to market those skills so that I can make a lateral move into another industry. This is why the fact that I do not think I'll retire from a career that looks like the one I have now does not really depress me.

There is certainly more I can do in this area, though, and I'm starting to let the consideration of the general applicability of skills I am learning exert a fairly heavy influence on my career-related decisions. For instance, I want to take a course or two next year. Out of necessity, one course will be something to broaden my skill base withing my current industry. If I take another, though, it will be in a more generally applicable skill.

2. Let go of the idea that there is "one true job" for you
Cal Newport got this one right, I think. "Follow your bliss" is dangerous advice. There are probably a bunch of different careers that can make you happy. Newport cites the research about what makes people happy in their jobs, and it is not having found a perfect match between their interests and their job. It is in more general things, like autonomy.

3. Never stop learning and expanding your skills set
I hear that there was once a time when you could take what you'd learned early in your career and basically use that until you retired. I have never been in the workforce during such a time, and wonder if the stories of its existence are perhaps apocryphal. So maybe we should stop including the advice to keep learning on these sorts of lists. Maybe this is as obvious as "don't forget to put your pants on in the morning." But given the behavior of some of the people I know, I suspect not.

4. Be open to detours off the career path you saw for yourself
My first layoff came during a very bad time for my particular subfield. If I had insisted on finding another job in biotech, working in the exact same subfield, I probably would have been out of work for a long time. Luckily, I happened to meet someone from the contracting company I eventually joined at a networking event, and I was open to the possibility of a slight change in career path. This has worked out fairly well for me- that was the job that first gave me experience managing people and projects. When I did go back into biotech, the management skills that I had learned were crucial in getting me the new job, which was at a more senior level than the job I'd held before I left biotech.

5. Learn how to market yourself
OK, I'm going to freely admit that this is a piece of advice I need to take myself. However, I do know the basics that I'm supposed to do, thanks to my two stints at what I call "layoff school" (i.e., the outplacement services I got sent to when I was laid off). I should have a short "elevator speech" about what I do. I should go to more networking events, and focus more on networking with more senior people. I should find a "sponsor" who can help promote my career. I should talk to more people about my career goals.

Yeah, that sounds like fun.

There are also a lot of new options, with blogging and Twitter providing a way to build a reputation. Since I've chosen to blog and Tweet under a pseudonym, I can't really speak to that. I will say, though, that I've gotten some interesting "secondary" project opportunities out of my online presence- for instance, that is how I connected with the publisher of my upcoming children's book.

6. Save like crazy
Take the idea of having an emergency fund seriously. Really. When I was last laid off, the combination of our emergency fund, my severance check, and my husband's income, would have maintained our lifestyle for roughly a year without me working. That made the lay off a lot less scary.

7. Think about diversifying your skills, and maybe even your income streams 
This is one of the reasons I like to have secondary (a.k.a. non-work) projects. (The other reason is that I'm a scanner/renaissance soul and I need to explore multiple interests or I go a bit crazy.) I can use my secondary projects to build skills I don't get to build in my job, and some of them may make me a little money. The idea of diversifying my income streams is certainly theoretically appealing, but I don't know how it will work out in practice. I think I'll know more about whether or not my secondary projects is useful for anything beyond skill building at the end of next year.

-----------------------------------------

Given all of this, and my approximately 10 years experience as a hiring manager, here's what I'd tell someone starting out in college and trying to decide what classes to take and/or what major to pick:

1. Pick a subject that interests you, but keep an eye out for future uses for what you're learning
Since no major guarantees a job at the end, you might as well study something you find interesting. But if you find multiple things interesting, it would be a good idea to think a bit about which has more practical applications. Be creative and open-minded in thinking about practical uses, though. A biology degree does not necessarily have to lead to a career in a biology lab, for instance. It could lead to a career in scientific communication, science policy, or informatics, among other things.

2. Use the alumni network to learn about careers
Don't just sit back and wait for career panels and the like- most schools keep a registry of alumni who are willing to answer questions. Use it. We signed up for that registry because we want to give something back and answer questions about career options. In my experience (as a member of two alumni networks), this is a vastly underutilized resource. Either that, or my career path sounds really boring to students.

3. Focus on learning how to think clearly and analytically. Also learn how to communicate your thoughts clearly, both in writing and in speech.
Honestly, this is my number one piece of advice. When I hire someone, I know I'm going to have to train him or her in the specifics of the job. But I don't want to train in how to think or write. Your college probably has a lot of resources to help you in these areas if needed, not the least of which are the professors who want to help you learn. Take advantage of them.

4. Pick some strategic skills to learn
Regardless of what you choose as a major, you can choose electives that build generally useful skills. In my opinion, learning a foreign language, computer programming, and/or statistics is pretty much  always a good idea. Certainly, I regret not learning more about these things when I was a full time student.

5. Learn how to work hard, manage your time, and keep to your commitments
As much as I don't want to try to teach someone how to write on the job, I want to try to teach someone how to manage their time even less. Use the competing demands of your multiple classes as a chance to learn how to prioritize, beat procrastination, and get things done.

6. Use your time to make something
I know you think you're really busy in college- and maybe you are, particularly if you are putting yourself through. But if you don't have to work your way through college, consider making use of some of the free time you have (but perhaps don't realize you have) to make something. Undertake a decent size project and share the results. It will be a really good learning experience, and it may help land you a job after graduation.

That's my career stewardship advice. Add yours in the comments!

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

A Rant on the Scientific Job Market

This post is going to be part rant, part somewhat angst-ridden navel-gazing. It may also ramble a bit. You have been warned.

Last week, I clicked on a link to a CNN story about gifted kids. Or at least, that's what I thought I was clicking on. It turned out to be a summary of comments on a previous article about gifted kids, so I clicked away fairly quickly. Before I clicked away, though, I read part of the first comment, from someone identified as "K":

"So many "gifted" kids out there, yet so few intelligent adults making scientific discoveries, helping mankind move forward."

And that is when my head exploded. Even leaving aside the obvious objections that not all gifted kids are interested in science as a career and that there are many ways to move mankind forward that do not involve science, the comment was so offtrack that it took me a week to calm down enough to trust myself to write a rant on the subject. I fear that if I had attempted this rant earlier, I might have just typed "OMG! SO MUCH FAIL!" over and over. Or screamed at my computer. Or both.

Do people really think that the thing limiting scientific progress is a dearth of smart, talented scientists? REALLY?

Well, "K," from where I sit, I see plenty of smart, talented scientists. The problem is in finding the funding for their work. Let me tell you about the scientific job market, or at least the corner of it that I know well, which is biomedical research and the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. In brief, the job market sucks. Academia has turned into some sort of high stakes Ponzi scheme, in which the large number of trainees required to move science forward is so completely mismatched with the number of academic jobs for which they are putatively training that less 25% of them can hope to land a coveted tenure track position. It has become a market in which talent only buys you the initial lottery ticket, much like professional sports. At least the risk of career-ending injury is less, I suppose.

It used to be that industry absorbed most of the remaining trainees, providing good jobs and stable career paths. Those days are gone.  The pharmaceutical industry has turned itself into a basketcase trying to meet investor expectations for growth. I can't remember the last time I read a piece of positive news about the pharma industry- mostly there are just stories about site closures and mass layoffs. Much of the venture capital that funds the biotechnology industry has gone elsewhere, searching for more certain returns. The capital that remains is busy trying to force the 15-20 year drug discovery and development process into 5 year exit strategies. This is just about as painful as it sounds. Yes, it really does take that long to develop a drug. And a lot of the drugs you think you are going to develop fail. This is also just about as painful as it sounds.

I am 40, and have had a fairly lucky career. I've only been laid off twice, and my longest period of unemployment was 4 months. And still, I do not think it is likely that I will retire in 25 years from something that closely resembles my current career. I stay in my field because when things are going well it can be a huge amount of fun, and because I believe in what my industry is trying to do- namely, discover and develop new treatments to help people who are sick. There is still a lot of unmet medical need (to use the industry jargon), and despite what some people may try to tell you, drugs are overwhelmingly discovered and developed by industry. Also, I've seen the boom-bust-boom cycle in other industries, and hold onto hope that perhaps things will improve in mine someday soon. So I don't steer people away from the industry- but I am honest about what it is like right now. When I talk to students and postdocs about career paths now, I emphasize flexibility, transferable skills, and networking.

I can hardly blame someone for surveying the sorry state of the scientific job market and deciding to pursue his or her happiness elsewhere. So where are all those intelligent adults that K thinks have gone missing? Well, a bunch of them were making a fortune as "quants" on Wall Street before the latest financial crisis, and I think quite a few of them are still there. A lot of the smart people with skills similar to mine have decided to go into "big data"- helping companies analyze and learn from the large amounts of data they are now collecting on their customers. That sounds great, until you realize that most of this brain power is currently being used to optimize our shopping experience- optimize from the company's point of view, that is. Of course, it is cool to login into Amazon and have them immediately present you with things you might actually want to buy. But I'd rather have a good treatment for pancreatic cancer or schizophrenia (to pick a couple glaringly unmet medical needs).

A whole bunch of smart folks are working on internet start-ups and mobile apps and the like. This makes perfect sense when you realize that people will happily pay $600 for an iPad that they don't really need, but do not think they should have to pay anywhere near that much for most medicines. (For that matter, they will also complain if asked to spend more than roughly $0.99 for content for said iPad, so a lot of those folks working on mobile apps are likely to be in for some rough times, too.)

I do not mean to denigrate these career paths, and I certainly don't pretend to really understand all the forces at work here, let alone have answers. (Maybe that is because I wasn't really a gifted kid....) I am finding it hard to navigate this career climate, too. This is why I am a bit cynical about Cal Newport's advice to get "so good that they can't ignore you" and build career capital so that I can trade it for the lifestyle I want.  It seems that in some industries, career capital can at best be traded for the chance to stay employed. Figuring out what skills to invest in building is difficult, to say the least.

My own situation is not helped by the fact that I excel at execution in an industry that is enamored with people who have big ideas, often overlooking the fact that someone has to figure out how to break those big ideas down into manageable steps and actually get them done. My own scientific ideas rarely qualify as "big," but I am good at understanding other people's big ideas and figuring out how to make them reality. I also specialize in a field that is most useful for medium to large companies, and those are thin on the ground right now. A lot of biotechs are "virtual" these days, or are very small and trying to bootstrap their way to success with minimal funding. While small companies have data management problems, they can rarely afford to invest in solving them. I think that handling their data better might make them more likely to succeed, but I also recognize that this is similar to the argument I sometimes heard in graduate school about how I'd save a lot of money if I'd buy my toilet paper and other paper goods in bulk. This was true, but if I spent my paycheck on a year's supply toilet paper, I wouldn't have any money left to buy food for the week. Sometimes, you have to do something that is suboptimal in the long run in order to survive in the short term.

So maybe the job market is looking especially bleak to me because of my particular situation. I should also be clear: right now, my life is pretty darn good. I have a good job, paying a good salary and affording me a lot of independence and flexibility. If I could guarantee it would last, I'd have no worries. Perhaps I should just stop trying to figure out the "right" thing to do with my career, and just double down on my "save money so that job insecurity isn't financial insecurity" strategy, while trying to find ways to diversify my skills (and my income streams). But the lure of the lifestyle I wish I could have is strong and seems tantalizingly close to being within reach... and I'm a planner by nature, so I suspect I'll keeping thinking about these things. But maybe I will click away a little faster next time I find myself on a page summarizing comments on a CNN story.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Thinking Christmas Gifts


I'm slowly getting into the holiday spirit. I'd resolved to have a more joyous and less stressful holiday season this year. I swore I'd only do Christmas-y things that I actually wanted to do, and therefore declined my company party. I made a plan, mapping holiday things I actually want to do to the available weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I'd love to say it is working wonderfully, but the truth is that I still struggle to let go of the pressure I inexplicably feel to get our various Christmas things "right" and just enjoy the season. But I'm doing better this year than last year, and I am actually turning my attention to Christmas shopping with something approaching the right spirit- i.e., I'm enjoying picking out gifts that will make people happy and not thinking of each gift as just another item to cross off my to do list.

A local minimum in the ornament distribution function
This weekend, we put up the tree. This is another area in which I have to work to shut down my inner perfectionist. The tree is always secure but leaning strangely- for some reason, that doesn't bother my bona fide perfectionist husband, who got so involved in perfecting our picture sharing website this year that I finally gave up and signed up for Flikr- and the kids are at the age where the ornament distribution can only be described as lumpy. But the end result is still beautiful.

I also started my Christmas shopping. I started with our adopt-a-family, which is actually a nice way to ease into the spirit. The sometimes overwhelming toy options are narrowed down by the list provided by the parent in the family, and if you can't feel the Christmas spirit while buying toys for kids who otherwise wouldn't have any gifts then your name may be Grinch.

So, now that I'm thinking about toys, I might as well share some of the things I'm finding that I like. (If you want more toy ideas from me, you can check out my old post on the subject of toys that promote skills, which was itself a follow up to a guest post I did over at Mommy Shorts about Princess-phase friendly toys to promote skills.)

One of the items on my adopt-a-family list was a kitchen playset, for a two year old little girl. I stood on that aisle in the toy store for a very long time, trying to decide which toy to get. I know from our own experience that the sets with the cardboard boxes don't last long at all, and besides, I wanted to get this little girl a skill-building toy. The other toy on the list for her was a doll stroller. There is pretty much no way that a doll stroller is going to encourage math skills, so it was up to the kitchen set  to do that. I eventually settled on a Mix and Match Bakery Set, because it included pretend cookies to cut out from a pretend sheet of dough, and I figured that would help with spatial reasoning. Also, it looks like fun.
The mother had asked for a "princess playset" for her three year old girl. I struggled with that one, too. I do not feel it is my place to override the mother's toy requests, so I wanted to get something princess-y. But the other request for this little girl was also not a skill-building one. In the end LEGO rescued me. Did you know that Duplo now has the Disney princesses? Well, it does- in a square sort of way. I got the Snow White's Cottage. And then I felt bad because there aren't really many blocks in that set, so I bought a standard tub of blocks. (In the end, I got each of the three kids one extra toy, related to the toy on the list. I couldn't help myself.)

Later, I turned my attention to some of the other kids on my list, and also to coming up with ideas for my own kids, who are very lucky to have so many people who want to buy them things (and who usually ask us for ideas).


We've given many copies of Zingo over the years, and there is someone on my list who will get one this year. It is a fun game, and good for helping young kids build matching skills- without boring them or their older siblings. I noticed while I was looking it up that they now have a numbers Zingo and a Sight Words Zingo, too. I suspect those are fun, as well, but I've never played them.



I am tempted by Bill and Betty Bricks, which is made by the same company that makes the Castle Logix toy that our girls like. In fact, that company (SmartGames) has a lot of interesting looking toys. If you're looking for toys to promote logic and spatial reasoning and you want to go beyond LEGO and other blocks, check their options out.


Another great building toy in disguise is a train set. We have both the wooden tracks and the plastic Fisher Price Thomas the Train TrackMaster tracks. I know this is heresy, but we actually prefer the plastic set, at least for Petunia, who is the train nut right now. The plastic tracks are more forgiving of being tugged into position by a three year old who doesn't quite get the concept of making sure the two ends line up, and she likes the motorized trains. So we may be suggesting some more tracks for her for Christmas- we need at least one more expansion set, so that we can have two joins and make more complex tracks. She's been asking for Rosie, too (although she calls her "the pink one").
Even though I tend to write posts only about toys that promote math and science skills, I am in favor of kids having a wide range of toys to play with, including dolls and dress up sets and other toys that are more traditionally "girl toys." These toys promote skills, too- the good ones promote interpersonal skills and creativity. I bought a baby doll and a chef's outfit this weekend, and happily suggest dolls that my girls want when people ask for gift ideas. This post is getting a bit long, though- maybe I'll come back and write up some of our favorite dolls and "let's pretend" toys later.

What about you? What's on your toy shopping list this year? Any great finds you want to share in the comments?

Friday, November 30, 2012

Weekend Reading: Science and Tech Edition

We were supposed to go to a hay ride through a display of holiday lights tonight, but it was rained out. So we're having a "special night in" instead- a dinner picnic (with chocolate milk!) in the living room while we watch some Christmas shows via Amazon Prime... We're even skipping bath. That I came up with this idea is a bit of a miracle, given how beaten I've been feeling by work and parenting and just life in general this week. Of course, I did have a 45 minute drive from day care to Pumpkin's school in which to think about ideas....

So, given the aforementioned feeling of being beaten, it probably isn't surprising that I don't have many insightful comments to go with my links tonight. But I've gathered up some science and tech links for you over the last few weeks.

First up: the story of an epic hacking that is a cautionary tale about how intertwined our online accounts are, how much damage a determined hacker can do, and how scarily easy it is to put together the info a hacker needs to take over your online life. Also, the ultimate motivation for the hacking is a sad statement on the worst of human nature.

Next, Rands had an interesting post about how tech companies succeed and fail. There are some interesting perspectives in the comments, too.

Bad Mom, Good Mom wrote a really interesting summary of an important paper about ship tracks, with implications for the weather here in Southern California.

Finally, an article about the limits of automation in information organization.  I found this link via a site called PaidContent.org. With a tag line of "the economics of digital content," I suspect I might find a lot of interesting things on that site in the future- or at least interesting to me, with my odd interest in how people who create things online might make money from their efforts.

And now I need to go help Petunia say Good Night to the moon, and get her into bed. This weekend we're getting our tree, and starting our holiday shopping, and all that good stuff. I hope you have fun plans, too!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Makers vs. Haters

I finished off a writing project over Thanksgiving weekend. It was a small project, but it was definitely a project- as in, longer than a blog post. I have been working on it all year. Literally. (And yes, I am using that word correctly in this case- I started this project in January.) It feels great to be done with it (at least until I need to make revisions). It also feels great to have proved to myself that I can indeed get a non-work project of reasonable size done right now, even if it takes the better part of a year to do it. It gives me hope for the slightly more ambitious project I have in mind to try next. That one involves coding, and so will present different issues than a writing project, but still... I feel inordinately proud of myself for having managed to complete something.

So anyway, I finished a project. Yay me! And then, for some inexplicable reason I went and read some of the Amazon reviews on some of the other books published by Xist Publishing, the company that will be publishing my children's book. Most of the reviews were positive, or at least constructive (a good, constructive negative review is a useful thing!), but there were a few that just seemed mean-spirited. Obviously, I knew that people wrote mean reviews. Still, reading these was a reminder that not everyone will happily welcome my little projects when they head out into the world. I started to question the wisdom of opening myself up to another source of things that could make me feel crappy. Boo.

Then I remembered the recent Oatmeal cartoon about creating things. His bit at the end about destructive criticism is quite apt. We focus so much on being able to take criticism well and use it to learn and grow, and that is indeed a good thing. But we shouldn't forget that not all criticism can be used in that way. Some of it will just make us want to stop creating things, which is too bad. I may never create something as good as the average Oatmeal comic and I certainly will never create something as wonderful as the Mona Lisa, but I still might create something that has some value, and it would be a shame if I refused to let my creativity out just because some people are mean.

Cranky Internet Guy
As I pondered this, the meanest of the comments I had read started to amuse me. The guy was upset because the author had "gotten her husband to take some pictures" and then "written some captions for them" or something like that (I'm not even going to waste my time going back to get the direct quotes). Well, who does he think creates the illustrations in the books put out by the big publishing companies? Someone's wife or husband, probably. Or maybe not. Whoever it is, it is just a person, not some specially anointed creater of children's book illustrations. And the words he dismisses as mere "captions" form a story that my kids rather like and ask me to read. So he didn't like the book. My kids do like the book. Who's to say who is right? Certainly in my world, my kids' opinions matter more than those of some random cranky guy on the internet.

I can handle the cranky guys on the internet. If they don't like what I create, so what? It is unlikely that they will ever have paid more than a few dollars for whatever it is I made. It is not like I plan to set out to defraud anyone of large sums of money- I will create something and people will pay some small sum for it and they will like it or not. And if it succeeds, great. If it turns out that it sucks and it fails, well that's fine, too. I can try again on something else. I can embrace the suck. Not creating anything at all is worse than creating something that sucks.

And you know what is worse than that? Sitting around hating on the things that other people create.

The Randians have it all wrong. The conflict isn't between the Makers and the Takers. It is between the Makers and the Haters. I know which side I'd rather be on.

(Also, I've resolved to start writing more reviews on Amazon, particularly 3 and 4 star ones. Those are the ones I trust. The 5 star ones always seem suspicious- I know I don't love most things that much. And the 1 star ones are often cranky internet guys. But those 3 and 4 star reviews? I reckon they'll point you to the good stuff.)

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