Monday, April 29, 2013

Equal Opportunity

I know I said I was going to be writing about productivity over the next few weeks... and I am. But something else came across my screen today that I feel compelled to write about first. I want to write about what equal opportunity really means. Not strictly from a standpoint of gender or race- but from a standpoint of what it would mean to have a society that provides equal opportunities to people.

I think a lot of people would say that it means that two candidates- for a job, or for a spot on a college admissions list, for instance- are evaluated strictly on merit. They are given equal opportunity to prove their worth.

I don't think that goes far enough.

I think we should aim to have it mean that any two little babies would have the same chance to live up to their full potential, regardless of their race, gender, eventual sexual orientation, or how much money their parents make.

There is a lot of work to do and a lot of interesting discussion to have around the first three things on my list, but I want to talk about the last thing on the list: the role of money.

I started thinking about this today because I read Sean Reardon's NY Times Essay: "No Rich Child Left Behind." It is about the the gap in educational attainment between rich kids and lower income kids. He presents data that show the gap is widening, and not because poor kids are doing less well, but because rich kids are doing better:

"The academic gap is widening because rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students. This difference in preparation persists through elementary and high school."

His essay is food for thought, but doesn't provide a lot of answers for what we should do. As he says:

"It’s not clear what we should do about all this. Partly that’s because much of our public conversation about education is focused on the wrong culprits: we blame failing schools and the behavior of the poor for trends that are really the result of deepening income inequality and the behavior of the rich."

He clearly thinks something should be done, though:

"Meanwhile, not only are the children of the rich doing better in school than even the children of the middle class, but the changing economy means that school success is increasingly necessary to future economic success, a worrisome mutual reinforcement of trends that is making our society more socially and economically immobile.

We need to start talking about this. Strangely, the rapid growth in the rich-poor educational gap provides a ray of hope: if the relationship between family income and educational success can change this rapidly, then it is not an immutable, inevitable pattern. What changed once can change again. Policy choices matter more than we have recently been taught to think.

So how can we move toward a society in which educational success is not so strongly linked to family background? Maybe we should take a lesson from the rich and invest much more heavily as a society in our children’s educational opportunities from the day they are born."

The added emphasis is mine. I am not an expert on early education, or public policy. I know that figuring out how to give all of our kids a better chance to make the most of the educational opportunities they have will not be easy.

But I strongly believe we should try.

I think most readers of this blog will have figured out by now that my husband and I are fairly wealthy.  Pumpkin and Petunia are easily in the group Reardon labels as "rich kids." He is right: we are rich and we have given them many enrichment opportunities, and we continue to do so.

Most of you might not know, however, that I wasn't always this rich. I don't write much about my background, not because I am ashamed of it (far from it), but because it seems so mundane. We weren't rich, but we weren't particularly poor. My family did use food stamps when I was little- I remember going shopping with my Mom and needing to separate our items into things we could buy with food stamps and things we couldn't. When I got a little older, though, my Mom (a teacher) went back to work and my father (a librarian) got a promotion, and money wasn't quite so tight. I don't remember wanting for anything as a grade school kid, but I still have memories of money being an issue some times. When I tell Pumpkin that something is too expensive to buy, I am trying to teach her about the value of money. When my parents told me that, chances were it really was too expensive for them to buy.

My parents certainly wouldn't have been able to take me to a two day visit to Disneyland for my 6th birthday- not even if Disneyland had somehow been transplanted to a location 1.5 hours away from my home. We took family vacations, but not every year, and we stayed in economy motel rooms, not the business class suites my husband and I favor.

This is not to say that trips to Disneyland and business class hotels are essential enrichment opportunities. It is just to give an idea of the difference in my current socioeconomic level and the one from which I came.

You can look at stories like mine and argue that there is no problem- I worked my way up,  after all. From food stamps to top 5% of income in one generation! But I think that overlooks both the extent to which I was the beneficiary of things not generally available to other kids from modest means and the extent to which we have dismantled some of the things that helped me when I was a kid.

I was cared for as a baby and young child by an expert in early education- my mother, who had taken a break from her career as an elementary school teacher both because at that time you had to quit when you got pregnant and because she wanted to stay home with her kids. I had parents who were well aware of the free educational opportunities offered by my local library and had no logistical trouble availing themselves of them- my Dad worked there, after all, and the children's librarians were family friends. I had a loving extended family, who provided a sense of security and well-being. My family had access to food stamps when we needed them, so I never remember going to bed hungry, except when I refused to eat my dinner on grounds of it being "gross." (Yeah, Pumpkin comes by her extremely picky streak naturally.) We had access to affordable housing. Our part of town was not wealthy, but the only time I found it scary was when a guard dog from one of the nearby light industrial businesses got loose. I do not remember gangs being much of a problem, although there was some gang presence in my high school. Both my former elementary school and my former junior high have to take anti-gang measures now.

And I'm white. So no one looked at me as a kid and thought I was genetically destined to be lazy or stupid.

I look at my background and at what I have today, and I mourn the fact that so many factors have to line up for people to have the socioeconomic mobility I have had. And apparently, it is only getting harder.

We should look at our society and ask ourselves how can we help all parents provide the excellent early environment my parents provided. How can we ensure that all kids have the same high quality of day care my children have? How can we make sure no child is held back by hunger?

In essence, we need to look at our society and ask ourselves how we can stop wasting so much human potential, because make no mistake, that is what we are doing now, and that is a tragedy both for the kids whose potential we waste and for our society, which misses out on the benefits of a better educated population.

I am not hopelessly naive. I know that parents matter and that there is only so much the larger society can- or should- do to level the inequalities created by money. I know that wealthy parents like me will continue to give our kids every opportunity we can, and that there we will never truly have equal opportunities for all the little babies born in our country.

But I think we can- and should- do a hell of a lot more than we do now.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Even More Short eBooks Edition

I almost hate to post my weekly set of links, for fear of cutting the conversation short on yesterday's post. Please feel free to keep commenting on it! I'm finding everyone's thoughts about BS work and how that relates to work hours really interesting.

However, I've been wanting to do another short eBooks post for awhile, so I'm going to plow ahead.

The first short eBook is totally on topic with yesterday's post: it is Laura Vanderkam's latest eBook, What the Most Successful People Do at Work. This is the third in a set of eBooks she wrote about the habits of successful people. She said in her post about it that it is her favorite of the three. I think it might be my favorite, too. I was fascinated by the anecdotes and found several of them quite inspiring. I particularly liked the discussion about the children's book illustrator, and I liked the way she organized the book into distinct "practices." I consider myself to be pretty efficient at work, but I still found a few new things to consider. It is definitely worth the time to read.

I'll probably write more about this book in the coming weeks- I've got a bunch of productivity-related posts in mind, in an informal sort of lead up to the release of my own book about productivity (now slated to come out in May). I postponed reading Laura's book until I had finished the introduction I was writing for my book, because I didn't want to unconsciously copy any ideas. But in fact, I think our books are complementary, taking two different angles on the topic. Laura focuses more on the overall arc of a career, while I focus more on the details of tightening up productivity at the job you currently have. There are some points of overlap, of course, because we read a lot of the same research and we "talk" to each other a lot on our blogs.

Anyway, I recommend her book, particularly if you're motivated to have an interesting career as part of a full and happy life. It will give you ideas to think about.

On to my next eBook recommendation, which isn't about work at all- it is a fantasy-mystery story, which I found during one of my periodic stumbles through Amazon's Kindle Singles.  Day Breaks, by Matthew Reuther is a fun, short detective story set in a fantasy world peopled with goblins and other magical creatures. I am a bit of a sucker for the hybrid fantasy or sci-fi detective stories, but I still require them to be well-executed within both genres.This story met those requirements, and had some nice details, too.  I just noticed there are now more stories in the series... I plan to check them out. It looks like the four short stories are also  available in a single volume, called The Partners.

Do you remember the book about a goat I kept telling you to go read? Well, I decided to check out other stories by the same author, and read a story called "Grease is the Word" by George Berger. It was a fun read- not as good as the book about the goat, but still a lot of fun. Strangely, it no longer seems to be available. The author has several other works available, though- here is his Amazon author page, which links to them. Based on what I've read from him so far, you'll probably get something quirky and entertaining if you pick one to try.

Finally, the academics and scientists in my audience will probably enjoy Improving Slay Times in the Common Dragon, by Catherine Shaffer. It is a humorous story about a graduate student trying to finish up some research on dragons.

And that's all I have for you in this edition of "Cloud recommends short eBooks." If you missed the first two editions, click here and here. And as always, if you have short eBook recommendations for me, leave them in the comments!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Work hours, BS work, and The Corporate Ladder

Thank you for all the thoughtful and supportive comments on my last post I was about to start replying to them and then I realized that I had a bunch of related thoughts and- hey! This is my blog! I can just write a new post. So here it is, my reply to all your comments and some further thoughts on the topic at hand. Sorry, it will be a bit rambly.

First of all, yesterday was a better day, except for the part where Petunia peed on Pumpkin's bedroom floor, and Pumpkin melted down before our library trip, and then the library had some jazz-like music performance going on in the children's area so we were limited to picking books from the "new" shelf... and I was so wiped out by the time Petunia finally went to sleep that I went straight to bed.

So maybe I should say that yesterday was a better day at work. I made really good progress on one of my projects, and I killed off TWO meetings. When I kill a meeting, it is a sign that the project is progressing well enough that we don't need a full hour each week to check in, discuss, and keep things on track- it means that my other project management techniques are working. So hooray me.

Plus, I had a bit of an epiphany on the whole "what should I do with my life" question. I realized that I actually know how to make this decision. Clarifying options and identifying the information needed to choose among them is one of the things I do at work- and frankly, it is one of the aspects of my job I am best at. (This is an anonymous blog. If I can't brag here, where can I brag?)

Once I realized this, I quickly enumerated the options I have, and I'm ready to start the process of figuring out what I need to know to make this decision. I know how to do this!

This decision is important to me not because I think I can completely plan out my life, but because I have a little bit of time and energy to start a new project right now, and I'd like to put that time and energy towards something that is likely to fit into my long term goals. Otherwise, I don't know how I'm going to decide what project to tackle. Should I take a class relevant to my current career? Work on refreshing my coding skills? Write another book? I'm not really sure. They all sound fun.

I'd also like to clarify one thing: I absolutely believe that I am capable of doing big and important things using only "regular" work hours. Or at least I can do things that are big enough and important enough for me. I've been doing a lot of time tracking over the past 6 months or so, and I can definitively say that I tend to work ~40 hours/week, of which, 35-38 are productive by a basic measure of "I'm actually trying to do some work, not sitting at my desk surfing the internet or what not." I also put in 1 to 5 hours of work on my non-work projects (e.g., writing and publicizing books) and maybe another 1 to 5 hours on my blog. Even though the book writing has made me take my blog a little more seriously (I know... you'd never notice!) I still consider it a hobby, and do not think I could take all of those hours for work without going a little crazy.

So I have roughly 45 hours per week in which I can be productive- whether that is on my work/career or on one of my side projects. Looking back over my career, I can't think of any time in which I worked many more hours than that and been productive in them, and was able to sustain that for more than a few weeks. 45 hours per week is probably a good estimate of my true work limit.

Maybe the real "superstars" can work insane hours and stay productive- but if that is true, then I have never worked with a superstar. In all of my years managing projects, I have met many people who thought they could work really long hours effectively week after week, but I have never met one who really could. Some people might top out at 50 hours rather than 45, but I've literally never met someone who worked 60 or more hours per week and was actually productive during all of those hours. Of course, I've worked with people who spend 60 hours per week in the office- but not a single one of them has actually been working during all of those hours. There was one guy who really seemed to... but I got curious and checked the network logs (I ran IT there so could legitimately do this). He was streaming TV shows to his desk. We did not work in a media company. There was no conceivable way that was work.

However, just because I know I can do great things in a 40-45 hour work week, that doesn't mean that the world will let me. Basically, our corporate work world is largely set up to expect and reward people who take a macho approach to hours worked, and put in long hours whether or not they are all productive.

As far as I can tell, there are two ways to deal with this: (1) pretend that the corporate world is sane and judges on productivity rather than hours, be productive in sensible hours, and just trust/hope that it will all work out. (2) Opt out and go out on your own as a contractor, or start your own business. Of course, if you go with option #2, you will still have to ignore the false signals around you that tell you that the only way to succeed is to put in super long hours- but your actual success seems to be more tightly coupled to real rather than perceived productivity.  Or maybe that is just my wishful thinking.

So far, I've gone with option #1, and I've done reasonably well. I think this is at least partially because my internal drive towards always feeling like I'm learning new things has pushed me to spend more time on what Cal Newport calls "deep work" than strictly necessary to do my job, but I'm not 100% sure about that, and I know there's been a healthy dose of luck in the mix, too.

Anyway, there is nothing pushing me to change options: my current boss is more than happy with my work, and I feel like my career is reasonably "on track." I'm learning new things and growing my skills, and when I get to focus on the core of my job, I really enjoy the work. There is more non-core corporate BS than I'd like, but that is hard to avoid as you move up the corporate food chain.

Should I try to climb up there?
That last bit is precisely why I'm feeling angsty about my career lately. Jobs are always composed of core things (the things in your job description and/or things that add to your skills and advance your career- in short, the things you feel productive when you do) and non-core BS that needs to get done but that no one really credits you with doing, and that doesn't really advance your career or grow your skills.

When I was first out of graduate school, my work was mostly core things. I've seen several estimates of the amount of core work a knowledge worker can produce, and the consensus seems to be roughly 6 hours per day, tops. In my early years after graduate school, it was no problem at all to get those 30 hours of "good" work in a 40 hour work week. Now, I'm lucky if I get 20 hours of core work in an average work week,  plus another 5 or so hours of non-core things that feel really useful. The rest is BS. Of course, there is still the need to produce the core work, there are just more BS things crowding it out. So far, I've been able to use my productivity tricks to produce sufficient core work in the hours left after I've done the BS work I can't avoid. This, plus my relatively high BS tolerance has kept all well in my career.

But here's the fear that has me considering switching to option #2: as I go up the corporate ladder, the BS work keeps going up, and it gets harder and harder to do a good job on my core work in a normal work week- not because the core work can't get done in the time, but because the corporate BS grows. Some of this is inescapable- but I swear some of it is just because other people don't want to do their core jobs and so invent BS meetings for the rest of us to go to and BS work for the rest of us to do, so we can all be busy without doing anything actually challenging and meaningful.

The growth in corporate BS alone is probably manageable, but it also seems that the macho posturing about work hours goes up and up as I go up the corporate ladder. Maybe managers feel like they need to justify their higher pay and generally cushier jobs by complaining all the time about how overworked they are? Of course, they aren't really working 70 hours per week (check out this excerpt from Laura Vanderkam's new book for a review of the evidence on that)- but if they can fool their underlings into thinking they are working that many hours, maybe the underlings won't feel bad about being underlings. I don't know- that's just a guess.

Again, none of this means that I have to work long hours to succeed, it just adds to the noise that I have to ignore in order to do my job and live my life the way I want to. I could just keep pretending that I will be judged solely on the quality of my work, and keep trusting that I'll be able to keep the BS work to a manageable level, and maybe I would in fact keep advancing up the corporate ladder. I have seen nothing so far to indicate that I won't. It just feels like my chances for continuing advancement aren't what they could be. I don't know if that is actually true.

All of this is bouncing around in my head along with a summary I read this week of some research on "overwork" and the fact that mothers in male-dominated fields are more likely to leave their jobs. (I did a bad job of summarizing that link- sorry. But it is a short read, just go read it.) If this particular mother leaves her particular male-dominated career, despite her equitable split on the home front, it won't be the actual need to overwork that drives her out. It will be a combination of corporate BS and silly macho cultural things that make her decide it is time for a change.

It is worth noting, though, that what I'm thinking of changing to is entrepreneurship. It is not that I don't think I can do the work. It is that I am increasingly less certain that it is worth putting up with the background noise to keep doing the work I do now. But there are lots of things I like about my current career, and a lot of unknowns about other possible careers- so the decision is not an easy one. But at least now I know how to go about making that decision! And I know that I won't be switching to 60 hour work weeks, no matter what I do. I see no real benefit in that, and my BS tolerance doesn't extend that far.

What's the core work to BS work ratio like in your job? Have you noticed a change over the course of your career? I'd be particularly interested to hear from my academic readers- from the outside, it seems that one of the problems in an academic career is that the core work required to advance your career and the things in your job description are only partially overlapping- is that true? And if so, do you have any thoughts on how that plays into the work hours issue?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Of Two Minds

One of the fun little aliens-related details in Constellation Games was the idea of the Farang (all of the alien names are taken from various languages' words for "alien). These aliens literally have two minds in one body- one is male, and one is female. They alternate periods of wakefulness, so that the Farang never actually sleeps. Usually, the two minds are in agreement, but the story includes a description of a Farang video game in which this is not the case, and the two halves of the one character compete with each other to determine what product a factory will make.

I'm feeling a bit like that hapless Farang factory-owner right now, and just like in the game, nothing much is getting built.

Where should I steer the boat?
One half of me is feeling really ambitious, and has big ideas about my career and how to have an impact on the world. In fact, this half of me is itself conflicted and has several competing ideas about my career, but it has actually worked out a few not entirely implausible plans to handle that.

The other half of me just wants to enjoy life, maybe travel more often, definitely read more.

I have two competing guiding principles: that the purpose of life is to enjoy and appreciate it, so I should go out and do that, and that the purpose of life is to enjoy and appreciate it, so I should work to make that possible for more people.

The solution to this conundrum is of course simple to conceive but difficult to execute: find some meaningful work (which for me is work that improves other people's lives) that I enjoy doing. That used to be an accurate description of my day job- but that hasn't been the case for long enough that I suspect I have lost my way. Or that the ankle weights have tired me out.... The ambitious half of me has ideas about how to fix this, and maybe I should just let it be in charge.

Of course, the ambitious half of me isn't content with meaningful. It wants big and important, too.

Luckily, I also strongly believe that a person can do big and important things without working insane hours and while taking reasonable vacations, which should keep the itchy-footed bookworm half of me happy. Unfortunately, the rest of the world isn't so sure about that. The rest of the world seems reasonably sure that achieving big and important things requires a selfless devotion to those things, and not only will I not get to take four week vacations ever, let alone once a year, but I'll have to ditch family dinners, too. As much as I think that the rest of the world is wrong, wrong, wrong on this point, dealing with that dissonance can get tiresome, and the less ambitious half of me points out that I could just stop aiming so high and go read some nice books, already.

But sometimes, when I'm dreaming really big, I think that maybe the important thing I am meant to do is to get out there and show that a person can do big things while also working reasonable hours and taking real vacations. That ambition might be too big for even my ambitious half, though.

So here I am, of two perfectly good minds. No wonder I'm feeling a bit paralyzed on the grand plan for life front these days.

Sunday, April 21, 2013


Mr. Snarky has taken the kids to the park, with the idea that I use this alone time to do something I want to do. I finished the book I mentioned on Friday (Constellation Games, which I loved as much at the end as I did when I was halfway through on Friday night), and I don't feel like starting another book right away or reading about starting my own company (I'm roughly 3/4 of the way through Escape From Cubicle Nation: From Corporate Prisoner to Thriving Entrepreneur). So I thought I'd write a blog post.

I was initially going to write about our recent trip to Disneyland, but nothing I was about to write seemed interesting, even to me. I'll skip that post, and just give you a couple of cute pictures:

Pumpkin being a "whale watcher." The ears announce that it was her birthday, and garnered her much attention and joy.

Petunia loved the kitchen in Minnie Mouse's house. She considers meeting Mickey and Minnie highlights of the trip.

Instead, I'll tell you about something I realized during that trip. The low point of the trip was when Petunia got sick. We don't know if we let her overheat, or if her stomach was upset by her unorthodox decision to eat leftover mac-and-cheese for breakfast, or what. But she was clearly not well Friday afternoon, so I took her back to the hotel to rest in some air-conditioning. I thought she was better and went back out that evening to meet up with Mr. Snarky and Pumpkin for dinner. I won't say that doing so was a mistake- I got a couple of great margaritas, Petunia got a stuffed baby Mickey Mouse that she adores and we did see the fireworks. But Petunia threw up between dinner and the fireworks- which is why I know that the adorable stuffed baby Mickey Mouse is 100% washable.

Anyway, when we got back to the hotel that afternoon, Petunia just wanted me to hold her. I was sad and grumpy. I felt like we'd let Petunia down by letting her get sick, and I was sad to be missing out on Pumpkin's afternoon- Pumpkin was LOVING Disneyland, and it was really fun to see that. Too bad, though, this situation was what I had, and no amount of feeling sorry for myself was going to fix that. I figured I should make the best of it, and give Petunia what she wanted. I was at that point reading Zero History, which I have in paper form, so I was not able to read until Petunia calmed down enough to let me put her down on the sofa.

Instead, I just looked at Petunia. I was struck by watching her as she snuggled into me. Her eyes half-closed and I could see all the stress and unhappiness just leave her body. She snuggled in, put one thumb in her mouth, ran the other hand under my shirt- as she likes to do- and smiled.

And I realized, I am her refuge. When she is stressed or hurt or worried, she wants me, because snuggling into me makes it better.

This is both a benefit and a responsibility of motherhood*, I think. I have written before about what was lost and what was gained when I became a mother. To me, this trumps them all. The feeling I get when I can comfort my child just by being there and holding her is literally indescribable. I won't try to describe it, but I will say it is amazing. It is, without a doubt, something I experience as a benefit of motherhood.

It is also a responsibility, though. My children's physical need for me will decrease as they get older- already, Pumpkin wants these comfort hugs less than she used to. But I don't think the effect goes away. I remember reading about a study that found that kids' stress levels go down when they talk to their mother on the phone. I know that talking to my mom on the phone always makes me feel better, and I'm 40 years old. This is an average effect, though- there are some people for whom their mother does nothing but add stress. I think we are hard-wired to want that initial caregiver bond, and to want that bond to be with someone who can be a refuge. What a horrible thing it must be when that person is instead another source of trouble.

I hope I will always be a refuge for my children, in whatever way they need. I will admit that I'm looking forward to the point at which Petunia no longer needs to stick her hand under my shirt for comfort, though!


*Or more precisely, of being the caregiver a child has bonded with as comfort person- it doesn't have to be the mother, and I think even when it is the mother, other caregivers can have a similar, if perhaps a little less powerful, effect. But I don't want to get into all of that in this post. Can we please just take it as a given that I am not trying to denigrate anyone else or their parenting experience, but am writing about a benefit and responsibility I feel from motherhood?

Quotable: Laws Are Not Situational

"'A nation' he heard himself say, 'consists of its laws. A nation does not consist of its situation at a given time. If an individual's morals are situational, that individual is without morals. If a nation's laws are situational, that nation has no laws, and soon isn't a nation.'"

- William Gibson, Spook Country

Spook Country is the one of the three books in Gibson's latest trilogy that addresses our response to 9/11 most directly.

This quote seems appropriate to me today, when we have US Senators openly advocating for denying a US citizen his rights.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Holy Shit, I Need a Beer Edition

So, yeah. What a week. I'm going to keep this short because as the title says, holy shit, I need a beer.

First, thank you all for your nice and helpful comments on the last post. My awesome boss decided I should start my weekend early and therefore not have to deal with any crap today and sent me home at lunch time. I had promised Petunia I'd be the one to pick her up today, though, so I went to the mall instead. I had two margaritas with lunch, bought a few things (including an outfit that I think will work with the beautiful cardigan from Stitch Fix #2- pictures later if I'm right), and then sat in some surprisingly comfortable chairs and read my book on my Kindle, feeling incredibly grateful for many different reasons.

Even with the afternoon of decompressing, I just need happy links right now. I'm guessing maybe you do, too. So here's what I have:

First, the book I was reading is called Constellation Games, by Leonard Richardson. I'm only about halfway through, but so far I am really enjoying it, and it was just the thing to distract me this week. Also, I am really amused that I find myself thinking that the author really nails the alien voice, and makes his extraterrestrials realistic. I mean, how would I know?

Anyway, if you like Sci-Fi, I recommend it.

Next, this video from the NZ parliament after passing a bill for same-sex marriage makes me cry happy tears. Make sure you watch until at least the 1:30 mark:

For my readers who are unfamiliar with it, that is Pokarekare Ana, a Maori love song. I think it is beautiful that the speaker allowed it to be sung all the way through.

Continuing in a similar, but far more bittersweet vein- here is the video of the crowd at Yankee Stadium singing along to Sweet Caroline:

For my international readers who do not know the history here: Boston fans sing Sweet Caroline at Boston's Fenway Park during every home game. Boston and New York are huge rivals, and generally Yankee fans hate the Red Sox and Red Sox fans hate the Yankees. The best analogy I can think of for this gesture would be if the New Zealand fans sang Waltzing Matilda before an All Black game.

Edited to add: Mr. Snarky showed me two more cool things tonight:

Jump Rope Girl:

And Michael Shainblum has some cool time lapse video of San Diego.


Ginger at Ramble, Ramble put up some happy links earlier this week- check those out, too. Definitely watch the one about wringing out a washcloth in space.

Finally, I was so overwhelmed by news and work this week, that I didn't do a very good job publicizing the special Xist Publishing ran with The Zebra Said Shhh: the eBook was free for a few days. I'm sorry if you missed it! The benefit of that was that a lot more people tried it out, and reviewed it. It is up to 18 reviews now, all but one being 4 or 5 stars. The reviews are nice to read. It makes me happy to hear that other people are enjoying my little bedtime story.

The best review of all, though, was The Bean Mom's review, in which she says the book has been a great sight reading exercise for her daughter. That makes me very, very happy.

And, no doubt thanks to all the good reviews, the eBook is currently in the top ten Kindle children's eBooks about zoos and about bedtime.

This book publishing experience has been amazing. When I decided to send my story off to publishers, I had no idea how good it would feel to see other people enjoy it.

And on that happy note, I am going to sign off and go have a beer. And fold laundry.

I hope you all can find a way to release the stress of this week, and I fervently hope that next week is really, really boring.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

I Can't Complain, But I Will Anyway

Today I figured out what makes me really, really angry at work: it is when people assume I don't know what I'm talking about.

On the plus side, now that I know what it is, I can try to come up with strategies for how not to get angry when it happens.

On the negative side, given my gender and choice of career, this happens rather a lot.

And as we discussed in the comments on my post about Lean In, I'm not really allowed to get angry at work.

Also, I sure wish I'd figured this out before I almost lost my cool in a meeting about furniture. Now I have to go clean that up tomorrow- after all, there is no way that guy knew I read about productivity for fun and wasn't just pulling opinions on workspace arrangement out of thin air.

Furthermore, since people assuming I don't know what I'm talking about does happen a lot, I need to figure out why sometimes it makes me so mad that I have to leave a meeting and sometimes I can laugh it off. Every time I've been really angry at work, it has been because someone is assuming I don't know my stuff. But I don't get mad every time someone assumes I don't know my stuff, because if I did I'd walk around angry a lot.

I suspect that part of the problem today was, as the Onion so succinctly put it: Jesus, This Week

So really, I'm grateful that my biggest problem right now is figuring out how to recover from this burst of anger (only partially displayed, thankfully).

And my mood has been much improved by an extended game of tag after dinner, and the fact that Pumpkin is teaching Petunia the song from The Tiki Room in the bath right now.

Oh, and they just started singing It's a Small World.

I can't complain.

How are you all holding up this week?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Weekend Rambles

I think I've mentioned before that Petunia's class has a class stuffed animal who visits a different kid each weekend. She is in the Penguin class, so their class "pet" is a big stuffed penguin named Pete. He came home with us this weekend. Since we went to Disneyland last weekend,* we would probably have just lazed around the house this weekend. But the presence of Pete spurred us into doing something, so that we'd have something to put in his diary.

It was sort of cold (low 60s...) and almost raining, so being wimpy San Diegans we couldn't do anything outdoors. Instead, we went to the San Diego Model Railroad Museum in Balboa Park. It was cheap (total cost: $16) and the kids really liked watching the trains.

There was some sort of choir concert going on at the organ pavilion, so parking was a mess. We ended up having to park down in the "remote" lot in Gold Gulch. This was actually an unexpected treat- it wasn't all that remote at all, and we walked up to the prado on a path through fields of wildflowers instead of along a street clogged with cars trying to find  parking place.

More pleasant than walking through traffic
 And we discovered the Zoro Garden, which I've somehow never seen before.

Petunia smells the painted flowers

The real flowers were pretty, too

So in the end, Pete got some outdoor time, too.


As I mentioned on Friday, I've been reading Escape From Cubicle Nation, by Pamela Slim. It has been an interesting experience. I currently have ideas for two businesses and one non-profit. I also have a renewed respect for the difficulties I'd face in trying to make any of them reality, so they may never go any further than an entry in my ideas notebook

I have decided, though, that I should check out some of the other social media out there, in case I ever need to do some serious marketing, or just decide to make one of my ideas a serious side project. I haven't yet been able to bring myself to sign up for Facebook**, but I did get a Pinterest account. It is linked to my real name, but if you would like to connect there, send me an email (wandsci at gmail dot com) and I'll tell you how to find me. I think I will mostly use it for travel-related things. So far I have two boards, one of places I want to visit and one for ideas and tips for making travel more fun/easier. Given its focus on the visual, it isn't a completely natural fit for me, but I like the idea of being able to easily gather and organize things to come back to later. I may check out some of the other similar options out there, too, to see if there is a service that feels like a better fit for me.

I also finally got a GoodReads account a month or so ago, just in time for GoodReads to get bought buy Amazon. I'm enjoying it, too- again primarily for the lists, in particular the "to read" list. I think that over time, I'll like having a record of what I've read, too. I used to keep an old fashioned notebook for that, but keep forgetting to update it.

What other social media are you active on? Any recommendations for me?

*I'll probably post about that at some point- the short version is that the kids had fun and the grown ups were exhausted. 

**I dislike Facebook's privacy policies and they way they keep changing behavior to share more by default, so I do not have an account. This is why I am so amused by people who complain loudly about Facebook's policies or behavior. People, if you dislike it, you don't have to be on it! Unless you are a small business, in which case, it seems like you sort of do have to be on it for marketing, so complain away.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Work-Related Things Edition

It is the weekend... but my links are all work-related this week. They're good, though- so save them and read them on Monday if you can't stand to think about work on the weekend! And I have one fun link at the end...

First up, in the continuing discussion about working from home: Scott Berkun (another one of those locally famous people- he's a reasonably well known name in software project management circles) has an article at the Harvard Business Review about how Automattic, the company responsible for WordPress, thrives with a 100% remote workforce. He references a short research piece on his own blog about distributed companies, which was also interesting for having a list of such companies.

I'm reading Escape from Cubicle Nation, by Pamela Slim. Like most books of its type, there are some good ideas and some things I find less useful. I'm less than half way through, so I'll reserve judgement on the book. I may write a full review when I'm done with it. Regardless, it includes a reprint of an early blog post called An Open Letter to the CXOs of the Corporate World, which is awesome.

But ditching the relative security of the corporate world for entrepreneurship is not right for everyone (and Slim acknowledges that). I really enjoyed this rant in praise of the unremarkable, too.

Big data has been hyped all over the place lately. Kate Crawford has a good HBR piece on its limitations.

I've written a bit here about project management, but the big challenges in the project management side of my work lately have come more from portfolio or program management- which is making all the projects a group of people have to do fit together. Frankly, most of my current project management challenges are related to resource contention. So I have been intrigued by the idea of using Kanban methods for portfolio management, and am trying them out.

Joel Spolsky posts rarely these days, but when he does post, it is usually good- and his latest post on patent trolls does not disappoint.

That's all the work-related links. Here is the promised fun one: regular reader and occasional commenter The Bean Mom has recently had a short story published! It is in Issue 22 of New Myths and is called "Snow's Daughter." I really enjoyed it- I recommend you take a look, particularly if you like fantasy. And if you like it, you can donate to the eZine (which pays authors, so it is an indirect way of paying for the story).

And finally... a totally unrelated observation: it looks like the crawlers are slowly rendering my "Most Popular Posts" widget completely useless. Already the top two posts are due to crawlers, and now it looks like another post is working its way into the list due to the crawlers. I wish the widget let me exclude crawlers, but it doesn't. So I may end up either removing that widget or replacing it with a manually maintained list. What do you think? Is it a useful/interesting feature? Tell me what you think in the comments. And of course, I welcome comments on any of the other things in this post, too.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Semi-Coherent Ramblings That Will Convince You I Am More Than a Little Weird*

I often find myself composing "scenes" in my head. Usually, it starts with a sentence or phrase that comes to me, and then my imagination runs a skeletal story forward from it. Here's a recent example: "In retrospect, the rabbits should have tipped her off." Which rolled forward into a story about a semi-dystopic future in which something dire causes a severe disturbance in a local ecosystem, and the heroine's first clue was, in retrospect, the fact that there were rabbits in her parking lot, instead of in the nearby canyon where they usually lived.

My imagination is a weird place.

I can reproduce that example because I keep a notebook in my purse, and write down these snippets, for reasons that I cannot explain. (I write other things in the notebook, too- I doubt I'd keep it if the only things I wrote in it were weird story ideas.) I occasionally consider actually trying to write a story from one of these scenes, but I have yet to do it. I'm not sure what is holding me back, really, but perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I have a hard time watching or reading stories in which bad things happen to the characters- you know, things that create tension and a plot- and I suspect I would have an even harder time writing bad things happening to characters I had created.

Let's just say that it isn't really surprising that Pumpkin thinks most Disney movies are too scary. Apparently the "overly empathetic with fictional characters" thing has a genetic basis.

Maybe I'll get over my inhibitions some day, and write some fiction. But I know without a doubt that I don't want to live a life worthy of a novel or a movie. My entire life resembles the scenes of mundane happiness before the real action starts- and I like it that way.

I can't think of a single fictional character I'd really want to be. There are a lot of characters that I find appealing and/or who have personality traits I wouldn't mind emulating. But they all have too much drama in their lives for me.

I guess I like my life to be relatively plot-free. How about you? Are there any fictional characters you wouldn't mind being?

* Yeah, I couldn't come up with a good title for this one. The title is true, is it not?

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

The Big Reveal

You may remember that The Zebra Said Shhh was my birthday gift to Pumpkin. I had my copy for almost a month before I gave it to her. Despite several close calls, we actually managed to keep the secret until she opened her birthday gifts.

I was surprisingly nervous as she opened my gift- I had no idea if she'd think the book was cool, or be annoyed that it didn't have the illustrations we made together out of construction paper, or just be confused. Therefore, I was quite relieved when her reaction was positive. She looked at the book for a few seconds before she really processed what it was, and I had to explain that this book meant that other little kids were enjoying her bedtime story now, too. She thought that was pretty neat. She really likes the illustrations, and also noticed that the lion illustration looks a lot like the one she and I made together.

She didn't jump up and down excitedly when she opened the gift, but she has been doing things that make me think she is reasonably excited about the book. The night after she got it, my parents watched the kids while Mr. Snarky and I went out to eat, and they reported that Pumpkin read the book to Petunia, and explained how special it was because I had written it. She also took the book along when she returned to her old day care for a visit during spring break, and made a point to show it to all of the teachers.

Tonight, she picked Kindergarten Diary, by Antoinette Portis, for her bedtime book. We have it home from the library, and she'd already read it several times, but not with me. She gave me a little tour of the book before I started reading, and showed me the dedication page. The book is clearly dedicated to the author's daughter, and Pumpkin said that this was like her "zebra story" book (which is dedicated to her). And then we talked about how we could get a copy of "our" book in the library, too. I'd already been thinking of mimicking Scalzi's tradition of donating a copy of each of his books to his local library, so I said that I could donate a copy to them, and she really liked that idea. I might donate two copies- one physical and one eBook, because I am a huge fan of having kids' books on electronic devices. I use my Kindle Fire when we travel and also just when we're going someplace that is likely to entail a wait. It lets me bring books without weighing down my bag, and also gives the kids an alternative to playing games on the Fire.

Pumpkin has also already started telling Petunia that maybe I'll write a book for her when she turns 6, too. It is a good thing I have some ideas for more children's books!


For anyone who missed the back story about the book, here it is.


In other "zebra story" news... Nicoleandmaggie wrote a nice review of the book, in which we learn that the book stands up well to the chewing treatment children of a certain age like to give their books. Also, both Nicoleandmaggie and Hush compare the book favorably to Go the F**k to Sleep, which is the best book about sleep EVER, so I am very flattered.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Quotable: Generally Agnostic

"I don't rule it entirely out."
"Why not?"
"Never a good idea. I'm agnostic, basically. About everything."

- William Gibson, Spook Country

I rather like this idea of general agnosticism.

Also, I'm really glad I'm catching up on Gibson's books. He has a way of making even the most unlikely characters and situations seem completely plausible. He has a great eye for detail, and I find his books make me think about everyday things in new ways.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Funny Stuff Edition

I'm in the mood for a break from the serious topics, so this week's links are all things I find funny. Most links courtesy of my husband, who skips all the serious stuff on the internet all the time, and just sends me things he thinks are funny or cool. And about half the time, I agree. I will never understand why he finds the YouTube video of the dog-headed man eating peanut butter so funny, but here are some recent good ones:

The first is an April Fool's joke that will only amuse the techies and project managers out there: JIRA Jr! (For the rest of you, JIRA is a bug-tracking/project management system.)
Next, Mr. Snarky showed me the Rage of Thrones from Axis of Awesome, and I agreed it was pretty good. But their "In the Club Tonight" really lives up to their band title:

And, as a bonus, now I don't feel bad that I never go to clubs anymore.

Finally, in honor of my trip to Disneyland, I give you: What Happens to Disney Princesses After "Happily Ever After". That guy can sing.

Do you have any funny things I should watch? Leave them in the comments.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Lean In and the Feminism Wars

I didn't plan to read Lean In. I figured I was well-versed on the issues it would discuss, and not really in need of motivation, so I'd skip it in favor of my plan to finally catch up on William Gibson's books.

Then I started seeing negative "reviews" by people who hadn't read the book, and some very positive reviews by people who had. I decided I would read the book and see what all the fuss was about.

Well, I read the book. But I am still not sure I really understand what all the fuss is about. I am not going to do a comprehensive review- Laura Vanderkam and GMP both have good overviews. On the whole, I liked the book. It is well-researched- Sandberg had research assistance from Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. It is well-written- Sandberg had a professional writing partner named Nell Scovell. Despite this assistance, I am convinced that the opinions and voice are Sandberg's. She does a good job of interleaving the research with personal anecdotes, many of which highlight times when she herself exhibited one of the self-defeating behaviors she discusses or ran afoul of one of the double standards research shows women confront. She also presents some well-thought out ideas for how to handle the double standards in practice. I wish I had read the book before I had my most recent "lost in the labyrinth" moment.

In short, I liked the book and found it useful. I am glad I read it.

But still, the criticisms keep coming, and I find that I'm more interested in discussing those than in discussing the details of the book itself.

There are a lot of criticisms that focus on class- namely that Sandberg is very wealthy and in a senior position in her career, and her ideas are of little value to women in less senior positions. She is accused of neglecting her nanny and writing solely for privileged women like herself. I think that charge is factually true but utterly irrelevant to the book. Sandberg acknowledges her privilege and the limitations of her book. She has not tried to write the feminist book to end all feminist books. Instead, she wrote a business book for women, with a feminist slant. I can't really imagine how she could have written a book that would be relevant to the wide range of women her critics want her to address.

That doesn't mean someone shouldn't write a book about how women in less exalted careers can navigate the murky waters of sexism and classism. It just means that Sandberg would be an odd choice to write such a book. Honestly, I think that if she had tackled such a book, she would have come across as condescending and insulting. She has neither a relevant academic background nor relevant personal experience. She wrote the book she was qualified to write, and I think she did a decent job of acknowledging its limitations.

She does less well at acknowledging the limitations of her book for women of color, though, and I think that she missed an opportunity to extend her argument in an important way by including race. I'll come back to that in at the end of this post, and even if the rest of this post is too long and rambling for you to read, I hope you'll skip down to the end and read that part, because it is very important.

There are also a lot of criticisms about how Sandberg focuses on what individuals can do to succeed in our current environment, rather than on the structural changes that would help to make that environment more fair. She acknowledges this limitation, too, and actually includes a lot of the research about the structural changes that would help. However, the focus of her book is clearly on what she identifies as the internal obstacles women face, saying "these internal obstacles deserve a lot more attention, in part because they are under our own control. We can dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today. We can start this very moment."

I understand the limitations of this approach- and I have run afoul of those myself, most notably in discussions about men, women, and chores. But I think it is still an approach worth exploring, because those of us whose passions lie in business, science, engineering, and other male-dominated fields don't have time to wait for the structural changes. Even if a magical spell overtook all of our politicians today and they started working to dismantle the structural impediments to my success, most of those changes would not be in place in time to really change my career trajectory. The hard truth is that I'm going to have to figure out how to manage my career in the current environment.

I also think that not every woman is cut out to be an activist fighting for structural changes, and that progress is best made by having both activists fighting for change from the outside and "inside agents" working within the system to try to change it from the inside. I personally am a poor candidate for an activist on this issue, but I think I do a decent job bringing changes where I can from my position of moderate influence in my company. I've ensured that the lactation rooms have network access, nudged hiring committees to consider more female candidates, and helped to hire women back into the workforce after extended maternity leaves. I make it possible for everyone on my team to work sane hours and contradict sexist statements when I hear them.  Maybe this isn't as powerful as agitating for better laws, but I don't think it is nothing. It is what I can do while also pursuing my interests in science and technology.

So I'll admit I've been really frustrated by some of the criticisms of Sandberg's book, particularly since quite a few seemed to be coming from people who had not read the book and were instead working from Sandberg's TED talk, and because a lot of the criticisms could equally well be leveled at the business books written by men, and yet I've never seen those books subjected to such critiques.

I also think it is worth asking: if Sandberg had written a book that focused on the structural issues, would it be getting the same wide readership? Would it be read by as many techie women? I don't know- but I do know that it is a very good thing if some more techie women learn about the research her book does summarize. As the response to the Donglegate affair indicates, there are a lot of techie women who are woefully unaware of some of the double standards that even women have about women who speak out.

I've seen criticisms that Sandberg's book reads like "Women's Studies 101." That may also be factually accurate. I do not know, because I never took Women's Studies 101. I don't know if my college even offered it. I was too busy taking chemistry, biology, physics, and math courses. I had very little time to take other courses, outside of the distribution requirements of my college (which, since I went to the University of Chicago, were pretty extensive). I suspect a lot of female scientists and techies are in a similar situation. A book that summarizes Women Studies 101 in an engaging and readable way is a useful thing for us.

Now that I've had some time to reflect on the criticisms I've read and the book itself, I find myself considering the possibility that the reactions to it- including my own!- have gotten as fraught and tangled up in emotions as the reactions to discussions about stay at home mothers versus mothers in the workforce. I wonder if we are no longer responding to each others' arguments so much as our own insecurities and past injuries.

I am not yet at the point where I fully understand the insecurities and past injuries on the other side of this divide. I suspect that the feeling that women like me are arguing that anyone can succeed, regardless of the structural difficulties, plays a role. I do not ever intend to argue that, but I can see how it might sometime seem that I think that. Beyond that, I do not know- if you do, please feel free to enlighten me in the comments.

This is my blog, though, so I will put the past hurts I feel out there: that there are some in the feminist community who simultaneously demand I pay fealty to them and their priorities while also demonizing women who have achieved some success in the corporate world. They criticize Marissa Mayer for saying she is not a feminist, but then declare that Sandberg can't be a feminist leader because she is a COO. Now, there may be plenty of reasons to disagree with Sandberg and her type of feminism, but saying she is precluded from being a good feminist leader because of what she does? Well, fine. But then does this feminism exclude me, too? At what rank in the corporate structure do I need to hand in my feminist card? Or is it tied to the amount of money I have?  I get the argument for more inclusiveness of women with less power, and I want that, too, but when you start kicking women out for succeeding, then I start to suspect that I'm not welcome, either.

And when you hold only women up to this higher standard for leadership, I see yet another criteria by which I am judged but my male colleagues are not- and believe me, there are already a lot of other criteria that apply to me but not my husband. I want to be clear: I am not saying that people should not criticize Sandberg or Mayer. But when they criticize the female leaders and not Zuckerberg, Brin, and Jobs, then I cannot stop myself from extrapolating to all the criticisms I get that my husband does not. I think about how the question of how much money the workers at our day care center make is laid at my feet, but not his. I think about how people assume that the women who clean our house must be exploited, but do not seem concerned about the men who wash our car. I think about the fact that what I wear to work needs to be carefully calibrated but my husband literally went to work in flip-flops once when he forgot to change into his work shoes.

It may be that my personal reactions are preventing me from engaging with the true arguments in these pieces. Actually, I'm 99% certain that is true. I am so personally hurt and frustrated by watching these feminists hold powerful women to a different standard than they hold powerful men that even though I can understand on an intellectual level why that might be, on an emotional level I need to stop listening. It is getting in the way of me doing what I need to do: pursue my career, reach for success, try to do the "right" thing on my own microscale at work, parent my kids, and just be happy with the life I have.

One of the things I love about social media is the way that I can open myself up to a wide range of viewpoints, almost passively. Just by following people on Twitter and via blogs, I can learn about how people with different backgrounds and priorities approach issues, and I can grow from that. But I have decided I have to stop listening to the feminists who seem to disapprove of me, at least until I have more confidence in whatever power I have in the corporate world and how I use it. I have enough other sources of anti-support in my world, telling me I'm parenting wrong, or working wrong, or not spending enough time with my husband, or ignoring my friendships, or wearing the wrong clothes, or feeding my kids the wrong food, or whatever else I am doing wrong these days. All of these things, incidentally, that no one seems to tell my husband to worry about. I don't need to be told I'm being a feminist wrong, too.

None of the above means that I think Lean In is a perfect book, or that it is above criticism. In fact, as I mentioned above, I was disappointed in how it handled- or really, didn't handle- race. Sandberg barely mentions the way that things are different for white women and women of color. I don't know if she is personally clueless on this, decided she couldn't do the subject justice, or if there is some other reason for the omission. Whatever the reason, it was a huge missed opportunity. Sandberg has her audience all warmed up and ready to think about subtle inequalities and biases of which we are probably unaware. Even if she did not feel that she could adequately handle a discussion of the similar problems with racial biases, she could have given a short summary of some of the research and referred us to other books for more information. But if she does that, I managed to miss it.

Along those lines, Tressiemc has a wonderful piece up about how Lean In is not for her. I urge all of you to go read it, and really think about it.

When I read the book, I saw the problems Tressiemc raises, even though I saw them imperfectly, through my own haze of privilege. I think I have failed to make that clear at times when reacting to the critics of this book. In fact, I may well be one of the "Sandberg pushers" Tressiemc is referencing- although I honestly did not intend to do that. I was looking for someone smart to have read both the Kate Losse's piece in Dissent and Sandberg's book and tell me whether I was missing something or if the Dissent piece did in fact take quotes out of context and distort them away from their intended meaning. I saw Tressiemc and AskMoxie discussing the Dissent piece on Twitter and thought- hey, two smart, articulate women! Maybe they have read both and can tell me what I am missing. So I asked them if they'd read the book. In retrospect, I can see how tiresome my question must have been, particularly for Tressiemc who doesn't have any history with me at all. I was just yet another earnest white women trying to tell her to read this book that was not relevant to her. I am sorry for that- but also not so self-absorbed to think I was the only earnest white woman to pester her about this. And I am glad she wrote her post, so if my social awkwardness on Twitter had any role in that, I guess it is a net positive for the world.

(I never did find someone who could help me see whether or not I am being unfair in my assessment of Losse's piece, and I can't get past the gross distortions I see in her textual analysis to really engage with her argument. But I think I can live with that, and just move on.)

Sandberg may have missed the chance to teach her readers about racial biases, but that does not mean that I have to miss the chance to learn. I think that I could use a similar primer for racism in the workplace. I am confident I would recognize direct racism, but although I am aware subtle racial biases exist, I am not confident that I recognize all of the biases that might be lurking in my subconscious. So I decided to go looking for things to read on the hurdles people of color face in the workplace. This will be an ongoing project. I do not have a Stanford sociologist on staff to do my research, after all.

I started with a Google search, and found a few good things:
And Tressiemc's post references a book that I will read: Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America, by Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden.

I'll no doubt blog about what I learn. If you have other books or articles that I should read, feel free to leave them in the comments.

And now I think I am done talking about issues for women in the workplace for the time being. But before I leave the subject for awhile, I welcome your comments on any of the above.

As always when I discuss a potentially sensitive topic, I ask you to be respectful to other points of view, and remember that I have a day job and that the policy at my work precludes me commenting or moderating much during the day. You always are, so I'm not sure why I still feel the need to put this disclaimer. But I do, so here it is.


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