Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Thoughts on a Course on Presenting Data and Information

I spent my day today at a course on Presenting Data and Information, given by Edward Tufte. Tufte is one of those people who is selectively famous- just about everyone in my little professional world has heard of him, whereas just about no one else I know recognizes his name. I was delighted to get the chance to see his course, and as a bonus, I am now the owner of four of his books (they came with the class registration): The Visual Display of Quantitative InformationEnvisioning Information, Visual Explanations, and Beautiful Evidence. I look forward to reading them all, but I think the class added a dimension I would not have gotten from just reading his books.

I won't attempt to summarize the entire course here- if you're curious check out Tufte's website or one of his books. Besides, I am still assimilating what I learned. The older I get, the more I find that really interesting ideas take awhile to digest and incorporate into my thinking. So right now, I just have a pastiche of ideas, and not a unified narrative. But I want to share a few thoughts from the day:

1. A lot of the discussion in Tufte's books and in the class is about how to create a truly great graphical display of data. (He points to Minard's graph showing Napolean's march into and retreat out of Russia as a particularly effective graphic.) One of his fundamental points is that "the purpose of an information display is to assist thinking about the content." I found myself thinking back to the book Soundings, about Marie Tharp, the amazing maps she produced, and how the intellectual contribution of figuring out how to organize and present data so that its meaning can be understood is often under-appreciated.

2. I have just finished reading Distrust That Particular Flavor, a collection of essays by William Gibson. One theme Gibson returns to in several essays is the idea that the internet is a sort of collective external memory for humankind. That idea popped into my head a couple of times during today's class, but I haven't really sorted out what, exactly, I think the link is. Maybe just that if the internet is our collective memory, it would be good if we had better ways to organize and present the data in it. But maybe something more... I think this is an example of how it takes time for me to assimilate new ideas into my thinking.

3. Tufte did discuss the internet, and specifically Tim Berners-Lee's original proposal for an information "mesh" at CERN, which led eventually to the internet. Watching that part of the class, I was struck by how many times we have had to rediscover the fundamental unsuitability of hierarchical data models for representing most real world data. The first "discovery" of this of which I am aware was in Codd's work on relational databases. And then Berners-Lee founded the internet because he was dissatisfied with the limitations of the hierarchical information stores available to him at CERN. But then XML came around, and we all had the argument again. And now NoSQL databases have come around, and we're discussing it yet again. I don't know if this is sad, funny, or telling us something profound about how we humans like to think about data. (And for the record, I've made extensive use of XML, and think NoSQL databases are interesting and have advanced our capabilities in important ways- but there are fundamental limitations in representing data as a hierarchy, and some subset of the IT world seems to periodically forget that.)

I will certainly continue thinking about the course- after all, I have always liked to organize information. It is a unifying theme for a lot of my interests. I may or may not write more about Tufte's ideas in the future, but if you are at all interested in the topic of how to present data and you get a chance to attend his course, definitely take it.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

No Escaping Biology

"We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget."

- Mary Roach, in Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

I am also reminded of this when I am sick. And yes, I'm sick again, and so is Petunia. January has been a tough month at Chez Cloud. I'm hoping for an easier (or at least healthier) February!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Hooray for Learning Edition

This week's links are all about how learning things is good:

First, Bad Mom Good Mom has an awesome post about using thermodynamics to heat your home, which I loved. We've also been known to let the kids' bathwater hang out in the tub all evening, to help keep the house warm.

I also really enjoyed Laura Vanderkam's article about self help books. I am not a huge consumer of self help books, but I don't completely avoid the genre, either. I don't think I would ever adopt the "program" advocated by a self help book completely and uncritically, but they do sometimes have helpful ideas, which I can incorporate into my life.

Changing gears completely, Dan McKinley has a post about the dangers of thinking that correlation implies causation and overinterpreting A/B tests.

Despite the risk over overinterpretation, it is still good to gather and analyze data... as this article about Google HR makes clear. I think this is the only article that has ever made me think a job in HR would be cool.

Finally, I could try to invent some link with my theme this week, but it would be a lie. I just think that this building is really cool.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Management is Always Having to Care about Other People's Issues

Mr. Snarky and I went out to lunch yesterday. We both had to work, but we work literally 5 minutes from each other, so I just picked him up and we went out for a nice lunch. We don't do this very often- we both have other preferred lunchtime routines. We really should try to do it more, though, because it gives us a chance to talk about our days in ways we can't over dinner, when the kids are also eager to share their days (Petunia, in particular, likes to tell us her day was "great!" and Pumpkin usually wants to tell some long and complicated story that I only have a 50% chance of following) or after the kids are in bed, when other priorities crowd in.

Anyway, on Monday, we found ourselves talking about our respective work issues, and since we are both managers, most of our issues involve fixing other people's problems, or fixing problems caused by other people's quirks. We do still occasionally discuss technical issues we are solving, but really, the technical issues are the easy ones. Dealing effectively with other people- that's the hardest part of my job, and I would suspect most managers' jobs.

This is not news, at least not to anyone who has spent any amount of time as a manager, but still, I sometimes manage to forget it. Remembering it yesterday- and getting ample opportunity to really live it today- clarified another reason for my recent career funk: I'm tired of dealing with other people's issues. And I don't just mean the "I have a problem, can you help me solve it?" sort of issues. Those are actually the easy ones. I mean the issues where I know that person A has a quirk that makes topic X a sore topic for him, but oops! Person B just sent an email about topic X and cc'ed not just person A but person A's boss. And oh, I need to get Person A to help me solve a problem related to topic X in order to finish one of my projects. Or the issues where Person C really wants to do something on one of my other projects, but doesn't really know how to do it yet, so either I have to say no and make Person C mad at me or figure out how to train/mentor without impacting any timelines. Or the issues where Persons D and E are having a long running and rather pointless technical argument, and I just need to get a decision made already, but neither really wants to budge because it has become a technical holy war of sorts, so I have to find some credible third party to break the stalemate and settle the issue.*

I could go on and  on, but you get the idea. People come with quirks and baggage and pet topics and the like. That is one of the things that makes people interesting, but it is also one of the things that makes management hard. Sadly for me, dealing with other people's issues is a large part not just of my current job, but of just about any job I can envision on anything looking like my current career path.

This was a bit depressing, and I said so to Mr. Snarky. But then he said something that made us remember the time we went to one of those Texas Roadhouse type chains and were surprised to discover that when a particular song comes on the jukebox, the waitstaff all have to stop what they are doing and do some stupid dance. And I decided that maybe my job isn't so bad, after all.**

*These are not actual examples from this week. They are all fictional examples, culled from years of being a manager.

**Although... maybe next time I've got two developers locked in a technical standoff I'll tell them that they can do a dance off to settle the issue. That should go over really well.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Monkey Wrenches in My Career Plans

Fair warning: this is one of those posts I write to sort things out in my own head, and is therefore very navel-gazey. If that's going to both you, click away now.

One of the things making me feel less than 100% at home in my own skin lately has been some ongoing uncertainty about what I should be doing with my career. I've been feeling a bit bogged down, but it is hard to know if that is a sign of a problem, a side effect of the subtle sexism that still exists in my field, a symptom of my scanner nature not getting what it wants, or just a sign that I'm mid-career and the novelty has worn off.

Also, last yer was a difficult one at work, with lots of projects and not enough help managing them, so not much time to do anything but manage (I'm happiest when I get to do some hands on techie or science work, too). We've hired me some help this year, which should make things much better. Once I get the work load rebalanced, I suspect I'll go back to being pretty happy in my current job, which really is a good one. Petunia is sleeping through the night fairly regularly now, and we are starting to teach her to go to sleep without company. The kids play on their own more, too. All of these things together have given me more time for my hobbies and non-work projects, which will probably keep the scanner part of me happy.

So why I am angsty? Well, I still doubt that I'll be able to retire from a job similar to the one I am doing now- the biotech industry seems to moving toward more small, barely scraping by sort of companies, which means fewer companies that have the money to invest in the things I do. I think that is sad, and that good IT can make companies of all sizes more productive, but if the money isn't there, it isn't there. I have been kicking around ideas for ways to solve that problem (and also keep me employed), but nothing compelling has coalesced yet.

Given that uncertainty and the ever present possibility that my non-work projects won't keep my inner scanner happy and I'll need to move on to something different, I want to have a contingency plan. This became clear early last year, and I spent a fair amount of time thinking about things, until I came up with a plan. I was going to steer my non-work projects towards things that might either make me money or build skills for a second career. I even had a list of projects sketched out, with a plan for how I would progress through them. The fact that I don't actually know what I'd want to do for a second career made this challenging, but I think I managed to come up with some good ideas. I figured that would keep me happy for at least 5 more years at my current job (assuming the job lasts that long!) thereby giving us time to pay off our second mortgage and get both kids out of day care and into public school. Those two things would free up a lot of our income, and we would no longer need my salary quite so much- giving me the freedom to take more career risks, perhaps even do something as risky as start my own company.

Guess I just keep going
And then my company threw a big monkey wrench into all of my plans. They announced that we are moving to a new building that is in a far less convenient location for me. It will be OK once Petunia is in Kindergarten- taking my commute from an average of 20-30 minutes to approximately 30-40 minutes. Unfortunately, Petunia doesn't start Kindergarten for another 2.5 years, and while she is still in day care, the commute is much, much worse.

And then my husband's company announced they were moving, too, and one of their three possible sites was even more horrible for us than my company's new site.

My 5 year plan crumbled. Suddenly it seemed like I might need to make a decision about my current career path as early as this year. Mr. Snarky announced he'd probably change jobs rather than tolerate the commute if his company moved to the distant site. If he changed jobs, would I want to do something risky with my career before we saw how his new job went?

We talked about moving Petunia to a different day care, and while that was an option we would have considered if Mr. Snarky's company moved to our least favored site, we hated it. We love our day care, and so does Petunia.

Luckily, Mr. Snarky's company decided to move to one of our preferred sites, choosing a location that is right around the corner from where they are now. This means that Petunia can stay at her day care- instead of splitting the child shuttling duties into drop off and pick up, we'll split by child. I'll do all the Pumpkin shuttling, and Mr. Snarky will do all the Petunia shuttling. I'm still not thrilled about my company's new location, but I think we can make it work.

However, to make it work, we may need to get some more help and/or cut some new corners. I've been gathering ideas in the background, hoping to convince myself that my 5 year plan can continue. I'm nervous that the commute will be longer than I expect, and that even if it isn't, the extra time in the car will leech away so much time that I won't be able to make even the excruciatingly slow progress on my non-work projects that I make now. I won't know for certain until we're in the new building and I see how the commute really goes, but I'm not very good at "wait and see." So here is my list of ideas so far:
  1. I can get some books on CD or podcasts to make me feel like the longer commute is not completely wasted time. Or I could find some better "learn Spanish in your car" CDs. The ones I have are so dull that I stopped listening to them. (One plus of the new arrangement will be that my commutes will be child-free.)
  2. We could rejigger our evening routines and eat dinner at 6:30 instead of 6, taking some of the time pressure off my commute. (Pumpkin would still need to be picked up no later than 6, though. The "cost" of this change would be the loss of after dinner playtime and a slightly more harried feel to our evenings.)
  3. We could hire a household assistant, to do some of our errands- and also possibly to get our dinners started and/or pick up Pumpkin.
  4. We could upgrade our kitchen and get a fancy stove that we could program to start boiling water before I got home (not sure if I could convince myself to do that, though- what if I got delayed and the pan boiled dry?)
  5. We could eat even less inspired weeknight dinners than we do now. Currently, I try to make something sort of interesting twice a week. We eat leftovers once, pasta with sauce from a jar once, and frozen pizza once. We could go up to two leftovers and add in something like quesadillas (currently a weekend lunch item).
What would you do? Anyone have any other ideas to throw into the mix?

Friday, January 18, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Mixed Bag Edition

Thanks to miracle of antibiotics (and I'm not being snarky- antibiotics really are a bit of a miracle, and we shouldn't take them for granted) I am feeling much, much, MUCH better. I've still been short on energy, though, so my weekend links are a disjointed jumble of things I've saved as interesting over the past couple of months, so happy and some not so happy.

First, I found this infographic about the impact of major on career choice via @CydHarrel's twitter stream. It doesn't really have any big surprises, but I still managed to waste a lot of time looking at it.

While we're talking about careers, I really liked this post from Avivah Wittenberg-Cox arguing that we should stop asking women why women don't get ahead, and turn our attention instead to asking business leaders why women don't get ahead. Yes, even though I have argued that it is important for happy career women to speak up so that the young women coming up behind us get all the viewpoints on what it is like, I agree that we should stop asking women to take blame for the screwed up environment in which we work. I don't really think the two things are in conflict- it isn't my fault that I have to overcome sexism and I shouldn't be expected to come up with how to fix sexism. But the sexism I face also hasn't ruined my life or made me miserable and I think it would be a shame if anyone self-selected out of a career that interested her based on an incomplete view about what life is like for women in that career path.

Anyhow, moving on.... this article in Slate about parenting a child with Down Syndrome is far from perfect, but then maybe that is sort of the point. None of us is perfect, and who is to say that the author's daughter is less perfect than mine? (Certainly, I wouldn't.) I particularly liked this quote:

"All of our accomplishments are few. All of our accomplishments are minor: my scribblings, his book, the best lines of the best living poets. We embroider away at our tiny tatters of insight as though the world hung on them, when it is chiefly we ourselves who hang on them. Often a dog or cat with none of our advanced skills can offer more comfort to our neighbor than we can. (Think: Would you rather live with Shakespeare or a cute puppy?) Each of us has the ability to give only a little bit of joy to those around us. I would wager Eurydice gives as much as any person alive."

I really like the reminder that everyone has something to give, and none of us really knows whose gifts are most important.

(Incidentally, this brings to mind Cloud Atlas, which I just finished reading. I liked it, and I thought one of the themes was the unpredictable, almost stochastic, importance of individuals. But I will not do the book justice in a short aside here. Maybe I'll come back to it and write more. Regardless, I recommend it.)

OK, now things get a little darker... this is an old article by Helaina Hovitz about being a child in school near the Twin Towers on 9/11, written for the 10th anniversary of the event. It was hard to read, but good for those of us who weren't there to read her perspective, I think.

And over at Change the Debate, the results of a foray into the gun regulation debate, which is just about as depressing as you'd expect.

Finally, to end on an upbeat note, I really like this blog post from Alex Korb, a neuroscience postdoc, about yoga, and why it works. I'd never thought about the fact that the discomfort and challenge of yoga poses can be part of the point.

And I anticipate I'll waste a lot of time at Stochastic Planet. Just click through and see- it is cool! (Found via @smbaxtersd's twitter stream.)

I hope you all have a good weekend!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

2013 Personal Fun List

Let's just continue the run of fluffy posts, shall we? It is fluff or nothing right now, because I've been sick since New Year's Eve. Really. This weekend, my cough took a turn for the worse, so I booked myself a doctor's appointment (via their fancy online system- quite nice!) and headed in for a check up Monday morning. As I suspected, I probably had a secondary infection ("probably" because we didn't bother to do a definitive test). I left with a prescription for antibiotics, a cough syrup with codeine, and another day off. Between the antibiotics and the day of rest, I was feeling much better this morning, but am still a bit run down and can't face any of the more serious posts I have in mind right now.

So I'm going to write another list, because I love lists! Really, I do.

This one had its genesis in Moxie's recent posts about wanting to do 40 fun things before her 40th birthday. I am afraid I went on a little mini-rant about taking time for yourself even if you're still married to your partner and don't have shared custody to force it upon you. And then my inner conscious called me a hypocrite, because I haven't been doing such a great job of that myself lately.

I thought about it some more, and here is the metaphor I think best captures how I feel about this: little children who are too young to really understand why the adults they love might need some time to themselves, let alone recognize when Mommy is running on empty, are a powerful tug on your time and energy. This tug is so powerful that it can suck you out to sea, like a rip current, if you aren't careful. From our water safety classes, we know that rather than directly fighting a rip current, the best thing to do is to swim perpendicular to it, until it lets go and you can make your way to shore.

Similarly, I could fight and fight to swim straight back to shore and reclaim all of my pre-motherhood interests, and I suspect I would just drown. Instead, I will swim parallel to the shore for awhile, safe in the knowledge that the rip current will ease, and I will be able to return to shore.

At first, it is just survival, as any new parent can tell you. But if you're lucky, eventually you relax and start to enjoy the swim. That is what I am aiming for: enjoying the swim. I can make my way to shore later.

It occurred to me that given how successful our Summer Fun List was, and how much I'm looking forward to doing the things on our 2013 Family Fun List, maybe a 2013 Personal Fun List would be a good idea. And so I wrote one. I find that finally doing something that I need to do for myself is a type of fun- in that I can finally stop feeling bad for not doing it- so I've include a couple of those. I refuse to include "see the dentist," though- I'll just have to find the will to do that separately.

Here's the list I came up with, in no particular order. I decided to include 12 things again, with the idea that I will try to do one a month, just like our Family Fun List.
  1. Buy some new underwear, already (this would be one of the things I need to do for myself and have been putting off for a variety of not so convincing reasons)
  2. Have a weekend away without the kids or my husband (probably I'll round someone up to go with me- one of my friends and I have been talking about doing this and/or it would be fun to go somewhere with my sister. But I could also go on my own in a pinch)
  3. Catch up on William Gibson's books (seriously, I love his books. Why am I several books behind?)
  4. Clean up the top of my dresser and jewelry box, and fix the jewelry that needs fixing, so that maybe I'll start wearing my jewelry more often. (I have some things I really like. I miss wearing them.)
  5. Get a personal shopper and sort out the foundations of my wardrobe, so that I can be happy when I get dressed again
  6. Take a bubble bath (I used to do this all the time. There is no reason I can't do it now, I just don't.)
  7. Take a San Diego beer tour with Mr. Snarky
  8. Make a mix CD or playlist with new music that I like
  9. Go kayaking with Mr. Snarky
  10. Go rollerblading (this one can be on my own if necessary)
  11. Go to a classical concert
  12. Go out to brunch (heck, I can even do this one with the kids along- I just want to go out and eat yummy breakfast food cooked by someone else)
What do you do for yourself? Do you need to write a list like this, or do you take time for yourself without prompting (and good on you if you do)?

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Kid Art Display Hack

I am inordinately pleased with a recent innovation in our display method for our kids' artwork, so I thought I'd share it with you:

Our back door just got cuter...

Those are medium size 3M hooks with medium binder clips hanging off of them, clipped to the artwork. Each kid currently gets two hooks, but clearly there is room to expand. (As you might guess from the side of the refrigerator visible on the right hand side of the picture, we're not very good at just throwing the kids' art out without first displaying it for awhile.)

Credit where credit is due... this idea was Mr. Snarky's. I just implemented it.

However, the long term art storage solution was my idea- each kid has a art portfolio book, in which we store our favorite pieces of art and writing. Our not so favorite pieces either get thrown out or claimed by the kid. Both like to decorate their doors. We use blue tack for that.

Any organizational hacks you want to share? Do so in the comments.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Digital Disruption Edition

Long time readers might remember that I'm strangely interested in the way in which new digital technologies are disrupting creative industries like publishing and music. My main stake in this is as a consumer- I want to see writers and musicians make money from their efforts, because I like to read and listen to music- but I also just find this a fascinating example of how technology changes the world in unexpected ways.

Anyway, my links today are all related to this digital disruption, this time of the publishing industry.

First up, Sci-Fi author Tobias Buckell has a detailed description of how he used Kickstarter to fund the 4th installment of a series that had solid fan support but was losing ground in conventional bookstores. It is a long, but interesting read, and after finishing it I went over to Amazon and bought the first installment of the series (Crystal Rain), because it sounded like something I might enjoy. I haven't had time to start it yet, though. Maybe soon.

I found that first post via a post from Scalzi's Whatever blog. Scalzi is also experimenting with new ways of selling his work- he's got a serialized book in his popular Old Man's War universe going (here's the first installment, The Human Division #1: The B-Team). I'm interested in that one, too, but I still have one more of the "standard" books in that series to read first, so I'm not doing the installment thing, and will probably end up buying it as a complete book later (apparently, the total cost will be the same either way). I think the idea of reviving the serialized novel is intriguing, though, so I'll be interested to see how Scalzi's experiment goes.

Even authors who publish strictly traditional books via traditional publishers have been touched by the digital realm, since there is a lot of emphasis on using blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and all that to self-promote. GalleyCat had an interesting post about J.A. Konrath's advice to writers to "get over yourself" and just write. There is almost certainly some truth in that advice- similar to the advice to bloggers to stop worrying so much about stats and worry more about producing good posts. However, it is also true that some authors get a lot of business from their blogs. That is how I found John Scalzi, and I've now bought four of his books and intend to buy more. The very first link in this post is another example- without blog posts, I probably would never have heard of Tobias Buckell, much less bought one of his books. I suspect that authors who genuinely like blogging/tweeting/whatever and build up a true independent community around their online presence will find that presence helpful to their careers. Authors who don't enjoy social media are probably better served taking Konrath's advice. But I am not an expert in this area by any means, so that is just an informed gut instinct.

Moving on... I can't remember if it was a tweet or a post from Ginger at Ramble Ramble that led me to this article about how lending may be a more "natural" approach to books than ownership. I liked the article so much that I went and bought the eBook it references, Information Wants to Be Shared, by Joshua Gans. I read that book over Christmas, and it was full of interesting ideas. It takes an economics approach to the question of how information producers can get paid. I recommend it highly to anyone interested in the topic.

Over at The Guardian, Cory Doctorow has an interesting article on a different aspect of this discussion, looking at the impact of people trying to extract payment for "positive externalities."

One obvious "digital disruption" is the ease with which people can self-publish writing, music and other creative things. This is good, but perhaps it has had a less desirable side effect of making it ever easier for people to accuse creative types who actually make money from their efforts of "selling out." There was an interesting discussion about that recently, which appropriately seems to have started on Twitter. Charlie Jane Anders at i09 has a summary of the tweets and a discussion of the issue, and Scalzi followed up with a post on the topic. Interesting stuff.

And that's it for this week. As always, feel free to weigh in on any of the topics raised by these links in the comments.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

The Latest Online Shopping Thing

I had a different post in mind for tonight, but this one is based on some recent events, and is fluffy and borderline trivial, and that just feels right tonight.

So lets talk about online shopping. I've written before that I buy as much as I can online, but that I struggle with online clothes shopping. It takes me ages to find anything to buy, and then more than half of the time, the item arrives and I don't like the fit or something. I do still buy things, but only because the alternative of spending time at the mall annoys me more.

A couple of days ago, Laura Vanderkam posted about a new service she tried, called Stitch Fix. The service is an online shopping service. You fill out a questionnaire and they send you a box of five items to try. You keep what you like and send back what you don't like in a prepaid envelope that- and this is super important, because I hate having to go to the post office to send things back- you can just drop in any blue USPS mailbox.

At first I thought it was an interesting idea, but not for me. But I kept thinking about it and eventually I decided I should give it a try. I'm always saying I need more ways to turn my money into time, and if this service works out it will be brilliant. If it doesn't, I'll be out at most $20 (the fee for the item selection, which can be applied to my purchase). If it does work out, I'll probably spend more dollars per item than I usually do, but I won't have spent anywhere near as much time, and that is a good trade for me right now.

So I'm signed up on their waiting list. I'll let you know how it goes. Based on their questionnaire, I guess my preferred style is called "casual chic," whatever that means.

Then today, I followed a tweet from @codinghorror to an article about stupid things venture capitalists will fund, and the example in the article was True and Co, which has a model very similar to Stitch Fix's, but for bras. And I found that I agreed with the author that this was a bad business model.

How can I like Stitch Fix enough to actually sign up and think the True and Co idea is terrible? I think it comes down to the difference between clothes and bras. I like my clothes wardrobe to be full of various styles. I want my outfits to be relatively unique to me, maybe even interesting (not that you could tell by what I currently own, but it is true- this is one of the reasons I love buying clothes when I travel internationally). I tend to see my clothes as an expression of my personality, and I found myself drawn to the aspect of Stitch Fix that Laura aptly called "informed serendipity." My bras, on the other hand are private. I am what used to be called "well-endowed," so by necessity my first concern in a bra is structural. It is a nice plus if the bra is also attractive, but I've been burned too many times by cute bras that turned out to be so uncomfortable or unsupportive that they rarely left my drawer. I don't want surprises in my bras- I want reliable performance.

Although I will buy multiple colors of the same shirt or pants if I find something I like and would sing Hallelujah if I found a brand of pants that reliably fit and flattered me, I mostly shop for variety in clothes. In contrast, I try to find a few reliable styles of bras and then I just keep buying the same ones. There are exceptions for special occasions- but that hardly seems like a high enough volume thing to build a business around. The other problem is that while I can usually tell on the initial try on whether or not a piece of clothing will work for me, I don't really know if a bra will work until I've worn it a couple of times. So while I can easily envision figuring out which Stitch Fix selections work and sending back the ones that don't, I would worry that the True and Co selections would seem OK, I'd keep them (and pay for them), and then discover they didn't work at all. Of course, this happens with bras I buy in a store, too- but for some reason it bothers me more with the "we send you a box of stuff" method.

It seems to me that True and Co is trying to solve a problem for which there is already a fairly workable solution- I go to a store like Nordstroms and find bras that work for me. Then I go online every 3-6 months and order the same styles again. Stitch Fix, on the other hand, is solving a problem for which I have yet to find a good solution- it just takes too damn long to find clothes that I might like.

It could just be that I'm not the target market for True and Co. Maybe they are aiming at younger, single (or recently married) women, who want more variety in their undergarments. Maybe they are aiming at women who are even more adverse to going to the mall than I am. They are certainly correct that bra shopping is not something most women look forward to, so perhaps their idea will catch on. But not with me.

What about you? Do you prefer to shop online or in a physical store? Are you tempted by either Stitch Fix or True and Co?

Monday, January 07, 2013

My Last Post about Guns (Here)

As I mentioned earlier, we visited my family in Arizona for Christmas. My parents had tried to lay in enough supplies for us, but my kids have prodigious powers of milk consumption- we ran out on Christmas morning. Therefore, we stopped to buy more milk at a convenience store on our way home from our big family Christmas celebration. I pulled into the parking lot, and my husband got out to go into the store, leaving me and the kids in the car listening to the Yo Gabba Gabba CD Santa had brought us.

Not long after my husband walked into the store, another man walked in as well. He was wearing a handgun, holstered above his left hip. This is perfectly legal in Arizona and the man was not acting in a threatening manner, but I still had a strong instinctive reaction. My heart rate went up, my hand went to the key in the ignition, and then to my phone in the console next to me. My mind raced through scenarios and what the best reaction to them would be.

And then my husband bought the milk, and came back and got in our car, and we drove away. Nothing happened, but it left me sad and a little shaken.

No doubt that man felt safer with his gun strapped to his side. But he made me feel less safe, and statistically, he made my husband less safe.

That man may well have been a reasonable, careful person, with an even temper and good judgment. But I had no way of knowing that. Arizona law allows anyone who can legally own a gun to openly carry it in public places. In fact, Arizona law allows anyone who owns a gun to carry it concealed, too, without a permit. There is no requirement for licensing. There is no requirement for training. You can be a terrible shot. You can have a short temper and poor impulse control. As long as you aren't a felon, mentally ill, on parole, or an undocumented immigrant, you can own a gun and carry it openly or concealed. Basically, the rest of us just have to trust the gun owners, because we have no rights to request that they provide us with any proof that they should be trusted to carry a gun in public.

This does not make me feel safer. 

So this is the trade that gun advocates demand I make: for their right to feel safe, I trade my right to feel safe. For their right to carry a gun, I trade my right to live in a country that regulates potentially dangerous things based on data about what leads to a safer society.

I know that gun owners have various reasons for wanting to own guns, and I actually agree that most of these are legitimate and should be protected. I want people to be able to own guns so that they can hunt. I recognize the right to own a gun for self-protection, even as I personally look at the data and decide that my family is safer without a gun in our home. I even recognize the right to shoot a gun just for the fun of it- but I think that perhaps that fun can be had at a shooting range rather than in unsecured public places. 

You see, I have a reason for wanting to keep guns out of public places, too, and my reason is backed up by multiple studies showing that guns make people less safe, not more safe.  I know that guns are powerful and people are unpredictable, and that no one has perfect judgment. In fact, one study found that many of the supposed uses of guns in self-defense would actually be ruled unjustified by a judge.

And so, I prefer California's gun laws. Here, you need a permit to carry a gun. Here, you must pass a test and obtain a safety certificate before you are allowed to own a handgun. There are restrictions on the purchase of semi-automatic weapons and high capacity magazines. I feel safer here. And again, the statistics are on my side. People still have the right to own a gun. But that right no longer completely trumps my rights.

Perhaps this is an example of our federal system of government working as intended. People like me, who feel safer with more restrictive gun laws, can live in states like California. People who want more permissive laws can move to states like Arizona.

Except it seems that the gun advocates are not willing to let that stand. The NRA pushes for laxer laws everywhere, even in places where the clear majority of the population prefer stricter laws. They fight against limits on magazine size. They push to make it easier for people who have mental illnesses to regain their rights to own a gun. In 2011, they helped defeat a California-style ban on high capacity magazines in Connecticut. They fight regulations that even the majority of their members support, such as requiring a background check before every gun purchase. They claim that they are advocating for the rights of gun owners, but I suspect they are really advocating for the bottom lines of gun manufacturers. They hide behind the second amendment, but read meaning into it beyond the words. (Go read the second amendment if you haven't before. It says we have the right to keep and bear arms, not the right to keep and bear any type of arms we want, without restriction.)

And of course, I think about the children, who are so often the victims of gun violence and accidents, but have no say about where they reside. Surely there should be some national minimum standards, probably looser than California's and tighter than Arizona's.

Whenever I hear a gun advocate expounding about his rights, I wonder what he thinks about my rights, and about the rights of the victims of gun violence.  What about the rights of the people who have lost loved ones? How did our inalienable rights to life and the pursuit of happiness get overlooked based on a dubious claim to the liberty to have unrestricted gun ownership?

I have been making an effort to listen to the voices of the gun advocates, and I am trying to keep an open mind and respect their views. If you count yourself among the people opposed to stricter gun regulations, I respectfully ask that you do the same for people like me, and for the people who have been hurt by gun violence. The Campaign of Mayors Against Illegal Guns has posted a moving series of stories from people touched by gun violence on their Demand a Plan website, and Slate has posted an interactive page showing gun deaths since the Newtown massacre, using the @GunDeaths twitter feed. Go and read the stories. Keep an open mind about the studies showing the risks of guns, and join in a civil debate to help find a set of laws that protect everyone's rights. Do not let an advocacy group funded largely by gun manufacturers speak for you.

We should remember that the founding fathers were great men, but they were just men. The Bill of Rights is not the infallible word of God, it is the product of the debate and compromise the occurred in this country at the time in which the Constitution was written. It arose from the specific concerns of a specific time. The founding fathers themselves recognized their fallibility, and the fact that the challenges faced by the nation they were birthing would change. They explicitly granted us the right to amend the Constitution, and if We the People find that the second amendment no longer meets our needs, we could decide to attempt to form a more perfect union and write a new amendment that better fits the challenges we face.

Americans are rightfully respectful of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and we are loathe to make changes. But we could change it, and we could do it without resorting to the sort of violent fight against tyranny that some gun advocates argue requires they maintain their military-style weaponry- because the founding fathers provided peaceful means for us to protect our liberties.

Personally, I would hate to see it come to that. But I hate our gun violence death toll more, and I am a data driven person, so I accept that our gun death toll is higher than the toll in other similar nations because we have more guns. I find the example set by other nations' response to mass shootings instructive. The only tyrannical threat I see is the one from a vocal and well-armed minority that refuses to even discuss this issue with the rest of us. Like them, I honor our founding fathers, but my reading of that time in our history highlights compromise, not dogmatism.

I have only just started the research and soul-searching I feel this issue deserves, but my basic opinion has not changed. I have yet to find another credible solution to the problem. I find the NRA's school security proposal laughable. At a time when we're cutting and cutting education budgets, we're going to come up with the money to guard our schools in a way that would be meaningful? No, even before people started pointing out that there was an armed police officer stationed at Columbine High School on the day of the mass shooting there, it was obvious to me that this proposal was theater, meant to distract us from the debate and not to advance the discussion.

I still tear up every time I think about the children in Newtown, and their parents. The obituaries of those children are indeed beautiful and inspiring, but no parent should have to write such a thing for such a reason. I still think that we owe it to those children to figure out how to stop this madness, and then we should turn to the victims of earlier shootings and apologize for not figuring it out earlier.

And yet, there are signs that we are already returning to our complacency. Many people- probably even some of you- just want to drop this discussion and move on. It hurts to think about it, so I don't blame people for wanting to think about other things instead. I do not want to forget about this issue, but I also do not think I should continue to discuss it here. The little group of readers I have here are interested in other issues that also mean a lot to me. I want to keep this site about parenting, working, and life in general. Therefore, I've decided to move my further thoughts on guns elsewhere. If you're interested in following me there, send me an email. I've removed the direct link I had here when I first posted this, but will still provide the info on the new site if asked via email.

I hope some of you will follow me over to my new site and/or Twitter feed. Regardless, I appreciate you reading this post, and as always, am open to comments and discussion here.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Weeked Reading: More Short eBooks Edition

Judging from my Amazon sales stats*, at least some of you liked my last list of short eBooks, so I thought I'd do another. I continue to enjoy short, self-contained things to read, because I continue to struggle to have enough time to finish a full length book before I forget what the beginning was like. This situation may improve now that Petunia is (mostly) sleeping through the night, but I doubt it will seriously improve until we manage to shorten her bedtime routine. We'll start on that soon, but if she's anything like her sister, we won't actually get a short, easy bedtime until she leaves day care and is no longer napping. Which is roughly three years away... so bring on the short eBooks!

Since I last wrote about short eBooks, I have discovered that searching "Kindle single" on Amazon turns up a lot of Kindle singles. (I know! What a shock. Unfortunately, it also turns up a lot of Kindle books about singles, which is less useful.) However, I would like to find a less Amazon-centric method of locating short eBooks to read- I have nothing against Amazon, but I don't really want their algorithms to become the sole arbiter of what I read. If you have any good ideas, leave them in the comments.

Also, I've read a few other short eBooks, but I'm only including things on this list that I would actually recommend to someone.

The first eBook I'll recommend wasn't discovered via Amazon... it was emailed to me by the author. Laura Vanderkam was nice enough to email me an advance copy of her latest eBook, What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekend. I mentioned this eBook in an earlier post, and have now read the entire thing, and enjoyed it. It did indeed give me some ideas to think about for improving our weekends... but in the interest of full disclosure, I should also say that one of the things she references in passing is my own "Friday night beers" tradition, in which Mr. Snarky and I plan our weekend chores and fun over beers on Friday night. So, I think my way of thinking about weekends is fairly similar to Laura's way of thinking about weekends, and it is probably no surprise that I enjoyed reading the book. Hush and House of Peanut have full reviews of the book up, if you'd like more info.

From the supremely practical to the sublimely ridiculous... my next recommendation is a story about a goat. The fact that I read Midnight's Tale, by George Berger, is testament to the power of $0.99 pricing. I mean, really? A book about a goat? But it had a bunch of good reviews and $0.99 isn't a very big investment, so I took a chance. And it was a fun, laugh outloud funny story that probably also has some deeper meaning that will eventually become clear to me. It is one of those books that has kept bouncing around in my head long after I finished it.

I discovered The Uncertainty Principle, by John Moralee, in a search for short Sci Fi to read. This was a good find. It is a short Sci Fi detective story, and I enjoyed it.

I picked Gutenberg the Geek, by Jeff Jarvis, because I vaguely remembered seeing it discussed somewhere online. It was an interesting read- the basic proposition is that there are a lot of parallels between Gutenberg and the tech entrepreneurs of today. I'm not sure I completely buy the comparison, but it raised some good points, and made me want to learn more about Gutenberg, so I'm glad I read it.

Finally, I followed the almighty Amazon algorithm's advice and tried Beethoven's Shadow, by Jonathan Biss. Biss is a concert pianist who is embarking on a project to record all of Beethoven's piano sonata's. The eBook is about Beethoven, recording, classical music, and life. I really enjoyed it, but then, Beethoven is one of my favorite composers. I know that a lot of people think his 5th symphony is so overdone that it has become cliche, but I think they need to listen more carefully. I've played it several times (as a violist), and the transition from the third to the fourth movement is one of the most remarkable things I've ever played. The slow and steady building of tension at the end of the third, bursting out into an expression of pure joy at the start of the fourth... thinking about it almost makes me want to find an orchestra to play with again! I don't know if you will enjoy this book as much as I did if you aren't a musician, or at least very interested in classical music, but I found it fascinating and full of interesting insights. It meanders a bit, and probably could have used some more stringent editing, but I was willing to look past that because I thought what Biss was saying was so interesting.

That's all I have! If you like Sci Fi/Fantasy, Scalzi has a thread up allowing people to plug things they've written that are eligible for this year's awards, I suspect there are some good ideas of things to read in there. I'll probably go through the thread later, and see if I can pick up some new short eBooks.

And of course, if you have anything to recommend, I'd love to hear about it in the comments.

*Yes, I can see what people buy when they click through to Amazon from my links. But I can't see who bought things, nor can I see what things were bought together, so don't worry- I don't have any sensitive information about any of you!

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

2013 Family Fun List

I decided to start a new family tradition for New Year's Eve this year. We usually let the kids stay up a little late and watch the ball drop in New York live, at 9 p.m. our time- not the fake "live" of the TV programs, which actually tape delay the ball drop to be at midnight in our time zone, too. This year, while we waited for the countdown to the New York New Year, we worked on a list of 12 fun things we want to do as a family in 2013- one for each month.

Here's our list, along with who suggested each item. As you'll see, the grown ups had to do the bulk of the suggesting this year. I hope that as the tradition takes hold, the kids will make more suggestions of their own.
  1. Ride a surrey bike again (me- we had so much fun riding a surrey bike in Santa Barbara, I want to do it again!)
  2. Go to the aquarium (Pumpkin)
  3. Go to the dinosaur museum (Pumpkin- she is referring to the NAT, or the San Diego Natural History Museum, in Balboa Park)
  4. Hike to the top of a hill or mountain (Mr. Snarky- he has a likely hike already picked out)
  5. Go visit Mimi and Boppa again (Petunia)
  6. Go to New Zealand to see Nonna, Poppa, and Aunt S. (Mr. Snarky and I had to suggest it, but once the kids realized it was a possibility, they were excited. We're planning a trip during our summer school holidays.)
  7. Take a family trip to Orange County (me)
  8. Pick a day and watch TV all day long (Pumpkin, of course- I'm hoping for a rainy day to do this. It would be a shame to waste a nice day on TV!)
  9. Go to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (me)
  10. Go to Legoland (Mr. Snarky)
  11. Go camping (Mr. Snarky)
  12. Explore a new neighborhood in San Diego (me)
I think we'll make the Safari Park our January outing. That should be a nice, easy start.

We'll be doing more of this in 2013!
I decided to start this tradition because we had a lot of luck with writing a "summer fun list" last year. I also wrote a "mini list" of things I wanted to do during the holiday season, and that helped me prioritize, saying "no" to things that I didn't want to do because they would interfere with the things I had on my list. Just as we were about to start writing our list, I saw a tweet about Motherlode's list of resolutions- and that Laura Vanderkam's suggestion was to write a list like we were about to write. Great minds think alike, I guess! Or perhaps my idea grew out of some advice of hers- for instance, my first attempt at something like a fun list came from reading her book, 168 Hours. Hmm, maybe I should try to write that list of 100 dreams again, and not let myself quit early. As Laura points out in the book, as you get to the higher numbers, you're forced to pick more trivial seeming dreams- that are easier to make reality.

Regardless of what I do about the list of 100 dreams, I think I'll keep writing family fun lists. I'm hoping that as we get used to the idea of writing fun lists, our lists will get quirkier and we'll see and do things we might otherwise have missed. I'm also having a lot of fun brainstorming about things to do and planning them in, alongside the more prosaic things like "get the car serviced" (on our list for this weekend).

Have you tried writing "fun lists"? What would be on a list of family fun for you?