Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Favorite Movies

Ginger at Ramble Ramble is running weekly writing prompts. I haven't participated much, mostly because I have a backlog of things I want to write about and a shortage of blogging time. But this week, she posted a prompt that sort of wormed its way into my subconscious, and I feel compelled to write about- namely, to list my top ten favorite movies of all time.

Anyone who knows me in real life is probably surprised that this prompt is the one that I felt compelled to write about. To say I am not a big movie-goer is a monumental understatement. I almost never watch a movie, either in the theater or on TV. Last week, I told Mr. Snarky I wanted to see Pacific Rim, and I think he seriously suspected I'd been kidnapped by aliens, not so much for the particular movie I wanted to see (although that was a little out of character for me), but for the fact that I wanted to go see a movie at all.

(We went and saw it, and it was fun. So there.)

But I couldn't stop trying to come up with a list of my top ten favorites movies, so here it is. I've organized it into three sections: the obvious ones (things I've seen multiple times and clearly love), the ones I had to think about but that once I thought of were obvious, and the ones I had to rationalize before I'd put them on the list. Within each section, the movies are in no particular order.

The Obvious Ones

The Almost Obvious Ones
  • Star Wars
    - Episode IV, of course. I'm just of the right age that this movie is part of my childhood.
  • Notorious
    - the 1946 one, with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman
  • The Secret of Roan Inish - this is a really great kids' movie that I have loved since well before I had kids. My kids aren't old enough for it yet, but I look forward to showing it to them. (A different sort of 6 year old could watch it- but mine is particularly sensitive to anything even remotely scary.)
  • Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
    - it is just too much fun. And he's a professor at my alma mater!

The Ones That Need a Reason
  • Sense & Sensibility
    -  Jane Austen is my favorite author, and this is Jane Austen brought to the big screen by someone who clearly loves her, too (Emma Thompson)
  • The Matrix
    - I can't help it. The computer geek jokes delight me, and the concept is just cool.
The last spot was surprisingly tough. I almost went with Gattaca.But I decided I like The Matrix a little more.

What about you? You should play along! You can leave your list in the comments, or write a post and join Ginger's link up.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Trip Story: Taupo

This is the third trip story about or recent family vacation in New Zealand. The first and second stories were about our time in Auckland.

After spending several days in Auckland, we headed south. Our ultimate destination was Wellington, where my in laws live. It is possible to make the drive in one day, but it would have been a long, unpleasant day, so we chose instead to split the drive into two, and spend a couple of days in Taupo.

Taupo is a small town on the shores of Lake Taupo, the largest lake in New Zealand. I spent a night there during my very first visit to New Zealand, so this was another stop that induced some nostalgia.

The drive down to Taupo from Auckland takes you through Hamilton. Hamilton is the only major New Zealand city that isn't on the coast, and is subject to much abuse because of this. On my first trip, we stopped in Hamilton for lunch, and I thought that it looked to have a nice riverside walk. I'm sure it is actually a very nice city. But we didn't stop to explore this time, either, preferring to drive on to the town of Cambridge for lunch.

Cambridge is an excellent example of the small Kiwi town. It had a couple of main shopping streets, with a few restaurants and cafes. Everything was clean and everyone was friendly. We had lunch at a Robert Harris- I was still wanting my caramel slice fix after our failure to visit one in Auckland. Their caramel slices were as good as I remembered, but again, there is probably a healthy dose of nostalgia in that assessment. A Robert Harris caramel slice was the first distinctively Kiwi thing I ate on my first day in New Zealand. Unless you count the pancakes with bananas on top, which I don't. New Zealanders do seem determined to put bananas on top of any pancakes they find, but you can get that a lot of places. The caramel slice is one of the gifts New Zealand has given the world.

Anyway, the nice lady at the Robert Harris directed us to an awesome playground that we would never have found on our own, and the girls had a blast burning off their excess energy before we loaded them back into the car and drove on towards Taupo.

Mr. Snarky made us stop at Lake Karapiro on our way out of town, because his father used to stop there on their family drives. Or something like that. It was pretty.

Not shown: the Ferrari that sped across the bridge. Apparently, the houses on the other side are quite pricey!

We made decent time, and got to the Taupo area by 4:30. We thought that would give us enough time to visit Craters of the Moon, a geothermal site, but the people who run that site disagreed, and were closing up when we got there. So we went across the highway to Huka Falls, which you absolutely must visit if you ever go to Taupo. This is another site Mr. Snarky and I visited on my first NZ tour, so we always knew we'd be returning on this trip. We did not expect to return at sunset, though, and were pleasantly surprised by how beautiful the area was at that time of day.
The rapids before the falls
After leaving the falls, we drove on to our hotel, which was on the far side of Taupo, in a section that has grown quite a bit since our last visit. We'd picked the Comfort Inn for the details of the room, but the location turned out to be great, too.  It was right on the lake. Although our room was near the road, we could walk through the property out onto a nice lakeside path. We even saw some ducks out there. which delighted the kids.
Ducks rule
There was also frost on the ground, which delighted the kids even more. They had lots of fun stomping around in the frost making footprints.

We went back to Craters of the Moon after morning snack (which we had at a shop that specialized in honey... yum. The grownups and Petunia enjoyed some honey tasting. Pumpkin was too suspicious to partake.) I worried that the kids might not appreciate the scenery at Craters of the Moon, but they did. We were perhaps helped out by the fact that there was a lot of boiling mud at the time we visited, but the kids also seemed impressed by the steam just rising out of the ground.
Steaming ground
After lunch, we let the kids enjoy the large central playground in Taupo, then we headed back to the hotel and Mr. Snarky took them down to jump on the trampoline by the office while I had a rest.

That evening we went to the hot pools, which are thermally heated fresh water swimming pools. I was skeptical of the idea of going for a swim at night in the middle of winter, but I am glad I let Mr. Snarky win this argument. We had a great time, and it really was one of the highlights of the trip for all of us. It was the perfect way to wind up our visit to Taupo- the next morning we packed up the car again and headed on to Wellington.

Our last stop in the Taupo area was to drive up to Chateau Tongariro on Mt. Ruapehu, a ski resort that dates from 1929. Mr. Snarky had never visited and insisted we detour to see it. The lounge was grand. I cannot report on the quality of the high tea, since we were too early to sample it.
On a different sort of trip, I might have waited for it to be tea time

The highlight for the girls was undoubtedly the chance to build a small snowman and throw some snowballs.
Our snowball throwing technique needs work.
I grudgingly admitted it was worth the extra hour or two it added to our drive, if only because now I can say I've been to Whakapapa, which is (in)famous for the careful way in which Kiwi weather announcers must pronounce it. (In Maori, "wh" = f, and the a is said a bit like "uh"... sound it out.)

And on that note, I'll close this installment, and will pick up the rest of the drive to Wellington next time!

Friday, July 26, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Need to Decompress Edition

This week, I've had a far too close for comfort view of the project management problem of people working too many hours. The person in question doesn't report to me and there isn't much I can do about the problem. So I am watching the fallout happen, and trying to mitigate its damage on my own projects (and protect my own team).

Needless to say, this is frustrating, and has left me with more than the usual need to decompress tonight.

So, instead of the interesting and thought-provoking links I intended to share, I'll give you things that have cheered me up this week.

Rands had a great post about project management, in which he writes many great things. I think my favorite is when he writes that project managers "are chaos destroying machines, and each new person you bring onto your team, each dependency you create, adds hard to measure entropy to your team. A good project manager thrives on measuring, controlling, and crushing entropy."

I am in the midst of reworking my team's title structure (one of those things that doesn't matter unless it is really wrong, and then it becomes a staff retention risk), so I started joking that I was going to ask for the title of "Entropy Crusher." But Mr. Snarky heard that as "Ensign Crusher," and with all due respect to Wil Wheaton and the character of Wesley Crusher, that sort of changed the joke. I just consider myself lucky that no one on my team has started making "make it so..." jokes.

A post at Scalzi's place lead me to this awesome song and video:

And Mr. Snarky sent me this video:

Anyone have any other fun, heartwarming, or otherwise smile-inducing things to share? Put a link in the comments.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Solving the Right Problems

I just finished reading Ready Player One,by Ernest Cline. (Yeah, I pretty much never update my "What I'm Reading" sidebar. I am only marginally better about updating GoodReads...) If you haven't read it, I recommend it highly. It was great fun, particularly for someone who grew up in the 80s, but it also raised some interesting things to ponder.

I don't think I am giving anything away by saying that one of the themes of the book is the risk of having people devote all of their time and problem-solving skills to imaginary worlds in the computer while the real world crumbles around them.

That theme intertwines with some things I have been thinking about recently, prompted in part by Cal Newport's recent post about how so many of Dartmouth's valedictorians became investment bankers. He argues that it is due to our shallow vocabulary around career aspirations, but I wonder if it might be something more, similar to the issue raised in Ready Player One, in which people have disengaged from trying to solve important problems to chase something else- in this case, money.

I think we have lost sight of the purpose of money. So many people seem to use money as a kind of score-keeping system, to track who is "winning" at life. I think that is wrong-headed, to say the least. To me, money is just a tool, a way to secure the lifestyle I want. Once I get that lifestyle, I hope I'll have the sense to realize I don't need more money. (I have a pretty nice lifestyle already- all that is missing right now is the flexibility to travel more. I'm working on that.)

It is not all about having a nice car
Which is not to say that I'd turn down more money if it came my way, just that I hope I'd stop chasing it. And I hope I'd then take the excess money and use it to work on some of the really big problems out there.

This is not intended to criticize everyone who has made a bucket of money and chosen to do differently. Who knows? Perhaps they haven't reached the lifestyle they want, or perhaps they just haven't made the time to use their riches for good yet. But I do wish we'd stop lionizing the super wealthy as the people whose lives we should most want to emulate. Getting rich should not be the sole goal in life.

While we're at it, I wish we'd stop holding up tech entrepreneurs who created a company on their own as embodying the one true way to start a company (and get rich, of course, it is always about getting rich). It is just one way to do it.

I am not criticizing the lone techie entrepreneur, either. I am in fact considering trying to start a company that way! But it is not the only way, and it creates serious limitations in the types of problems the company can tackle. Some undertakings inherently require a large team and a lot of capital: drug discovery and energy innovations are two fields that spring to mind. Companies tackling these sorts of problems need people with technical brilliance, but they need people who know how to organize the work and make sure the team works together to get it done, too. No single technical genius is going to bring a drug to market or fix our dependence on fossil fuels. This realization is one of the things keeping me from abandoning my current career. In some ways, I can work on more important problems as an employee in a company than I can as an entrepreneur out on my own.

Since not all companies can be started by a lone techie in his or her garage, the world definitely does need investment bankers. But maybe we don't need quite so many- and we definitely don't need the attitude that the most important thing you can do with your life is make more and more money. If that's the goal we're all chasing, I can almost guarantee that we're not solving the right problems.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Nostaligic in Advance

Recently, the "You Might Also Like" links at the bottom of one of my posts led me to an old post I'd titled "Beach Days, Early Days, These Days." Sometimes, I wince a little when I read an old post, but I rather liked this one. It still rings true to me, although perhaps that is not surprising since it was only written a year ago.

I was struck in particular by the part where I say that I'd tell the me of now six and a bit years ago to "Give up. She isn't going to sleep. And so what if she screams- she'll scream at home, too. Just go out and try to do things." I find myself wondering what the me of six and a bit years from now would tell me to do. I don't know, of course, because if I did, I'd be doing it. That's the way with parenting: you're always just muddling through, sure that you're making grave mistakes. In fact, maybe that's the way with life in general.

I may not know what thing I'm stressing about now that future me will shake her head about and wonder why I couldn't just chill the heck out, but I have a pretty good guess about some of the memories that will bring nostalgic smiles to my face.

I am, for instance, a sucker for a good kid-ism, and both my kids had good ones this weekend. Petunia told me she was putting on her "clapping shoes." I was very puzzled until she started dancing, doing her impression of what a tap dance would look like (she has never taken dance, so she only knows what her friends at day care tell her in this regard). And Pumpkin pointed at a house as we drove past, and asked if it was a "hunted house." She was right: it looked like a classic haunted house.

And then there is gymnastics. I take both girls to gymnastics most Saturdays. They have overlapping but not perfectly aligned classes. Mostly I take the 30 minutes or so during which both girls are in class as a chance to read, but this week I found myself spending most of the time watching their classes.  It takes my breath away to look at Pumpkin and see a full-fledged girl, not a hint of baby left in her. She's lost all four of her front teeth now. The bottom two are growing back in, but her smile is charmingly gap-toothed right now, and somehow that makes her look even older than she looked when only one top tooth was missing.

I'm also a bit amazed by what she can do. Her favorite part of gymnastics is when they get to work on the bars. She loves the high bar in particular, even though (or perhaps because) it used to terrify her. She is confident and strong on it now, able to work her way across, her long, thin legs still dangling awkwardly- they haven't started working on the gymnast's legs together, toes pointed pose. She can also turn herself around six times in a row. She is proud of how strong she has gotten, and I am proud of how she kept with it even when she couldn't make a single turn and was scared she would fall (despite the fact that the coach was standing right there, with his hands up ready to catch her).

Petunia loves gymnastics, too. She loves the trampoline and rings the most, but my favorite is watching her on the balance beam. She is so careful and deliberate, looking at her feet and inching along the beam. She is slower than any other child in her class, but unlike her classmates, she never falls off or loses her balance. Her classmates happily lose their balance, step down, and run around her, so that no matter where she starts in the line, she is always last at the end, and the others have usually lapped her at least twice. If she cares about this, she never shows it- in fact, I'm not even sure she notices them going around her. Her focus is entirely on her own performance. I'm a bit jealous of that. Maybe, in fact, that is the advice that future-me would give me: stop paying attention to what everyone around you is doing, and just do what you need to do, in the way you need to do it.

And spend more time snuggling your girls. They are growing up fast.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Weekend Reading: Good Things You Should Read Edition

I'm still making my way through a bunch of production deployments at work, so my lack of spare brain power continues. I think that with a little more thought, I could have organized this week's links into a "things that make me mad/sad/frustrated" theme or something like that. But that just isn't going to happen this weekend. My main goal for tonight is to make it through until Friday Night Beers without dissolving into a puddle of goo or yelling at anyone. It is touch and go....

Anyway, on to the links.

Anil Dash posted some pretty good rules of the internet, which led me to his even more awesome post about how it is your fault if your website is overrun by assholes.  

I forget who tweeted the link to this explanation of the fact that yes, clinical trials do work, but it is a good post. I had not realized the utility of clinical trials was in question. From what I can gather, people are confusing poor use of statistics and/or our incomplete understanding of human physiology with "clinical trials don't work."

I really liked this father's take down of people lionizing him for... being a dad.

You've probably already seen something about how McDonald's made a budget for its workers. And how it assumes a second job. But did you see the part about it not including any money for heating? I guess you can just go to work and huddle around the fryer if you're cold.

And do you remember how I wrote that the lack of diversity in tech probably hurts companies' bottom lines? Neil Ungerleider, writing in Fast Company, agrees.

This New Yorker blog post from Amy Davidson captures what may be breaking my heart the most about the Trayvon Martin case.

This tweet captures the point even more succinctly:

I'd say that pondering this question would help the people who are defending Zimmerman's actions understand why so many people are so upset... but then I made the mistake of reading some of the comments under Davidson's post, and no, it doesn't seem to be helping people understand. Sigh.

But let's end on a more hopeful note... Jennifer Zobair shares a story of an incident at her book reading that could have been ugly but turned into something better.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Trip Story: Auckland (Part II)

In my last post, I started to write the trip story for our time in Auckland on our recent New Zealand vacation. I only covered the first two days in that post, and we were in Auckland for four days. Here's the rest of the story:

Our third day in Auckland was sunny and a little warmer- which was lucky, since we'd planned to take the ferry across to Devonport. We thought the kids might enjoy the boat ride, and we were right- although there was some disagreement about whether we should sit inside or outside. (In the end, we split up.)

Once in Devonport, we did a little shopping- there was a toy store, and we needed to get some toys to entertain the kids in hotel rooms. We usually buy a new toy or two on vacation, because we find that this keeps the kids happier, and the toys make somewhat useful souvenirs (as opposed the the pack of 10 cheap souvenir keychains Petunia picked out at the Sky Tower... I have no idea what she intended to do with them, but she was adamant that they were what she wanted, and we had said they could each pick something.) Mr. Snarky and the girls checked out the local playground, too, while I did a little shopping without distraction. It was a good one, and the kids had a lot of fun.

Swings with a view
I didn't buy much shopping on my own, but ended up going into a shop on our way to lunch, with kids and Mr. Snarky in tow, and bought a dress from a New Zealand designer that is probably more expensive than any other piece of clothing I have ever bought, except my wedding dress- but I love it and can't wait to wear it on our next date night. Or, if I get the right shoes at some point, I could even wear it to work, which would surprise my colleagues used to seeing me in casual pants and t-shirts! (Here's the dress, if you're curious.)

After a so-so lunch whose highlight was the fact that Petunia briefly liked pies- she was all smiles eating her mince pie until she got to the mince- we headed back to our hotel for a rest. After nap and rest time, we went to the Lumsden Free House for afternoon snack and drinks with some good friends of ours and their two kids. The kids loved running around the grassy area and fountain in front of the pub, and Mr. Snarky loved the generous tasting flight of local beers.

It was so generous that I had to drive the next leg of our outing, which was to our friends' place for dinner.

The next day, I got to pick what we did, and I gambled on doing what I actually wanted to do- which was stroll down Queen Street. When Mr. Snarky and I were first getting together, I flew to New Zealand to see if the relationship would work out. I stayed in a hotel at the top of Queen Street, and Queen Street was the first part of New Zealand I felt I sort of knew. When I came back to work for a month (Mr. Snarky and I met through work, and that is all of that story I'm telling here), I stayed just a little bit away from Queen Street, and again spent a fair amount of time in its shops. So I have a lot of fond memories of strolling that street, and wanted to do it again.

Unfortunately, my plan of starting with a nice morning snack in the Robert Harris on Queen Street enjoying the second story view out over the street was ruined by the fact that it appears to be gone. We had to find another place for snack, and that took a little too long. And then Pumpkin ate nothing but sugar (a rather yummy cookie), and that set her up for a meltdown later.

But the day was not a complete wash. We ended up walking up to Albert Park, another location of which I have fond memories. An Island dance troupe practicing in the park, and we enjoyed watching that for awhile. Petunia was even inspired to put on a dance show of her own, which was unbelievably cute. She also collected a bouquet of leaves, as she is wont to do, and carried that around for the rest of the outing, much to the amusement of many passers-by. Pumpkin liked the park until Mr. Snarky didn't want to walk back to the far end of the park after we'd started to leave so that we could get a particular picture she wanted to take... and then the meltdown occurred. In retrospect, we should have gone and taken the picture she wanted- there was no real reason not to other than laziness and the fact that we'd already started to leave. She didn't get to dictate much on the trip, and we should have let her dictate this. But we didn't, and so she was pretty angry with us for awhile.

We'd walked up to the park past the Auckland Art Gallery, and through the windows, had glimpsed the gigantic flower chandelier/installation currently on display. Pumpkin had seemed excited by it, so we headed there, hoping for a recovery from the meltdown. That was not to be, but the rest of us enjoyed looking at the chandelier, which is a piece by Choi Jeong Hwa.

Do you see me? I'm on the balcony for scale.
Pumpkin secretly enjoyed it, too. We know this because she was quite animated when she later told her grandparents how it moved. But at the time, she pouted, which, I suppose, was an improvement over the loud crying we had in the park.

We tried to rescue things by getting the kids a familiar lunch. Auckland now has a Carls Jr, right on Queen St. That helped... and I realized that we needed to carry healthy snacks with us at all times. Pumpkin is not an adventurous eater at home- it was probably a bit much to expect her to happily try new things on the trip, even if those new things were very similar to things she likes at home. So from then on, I kept snacks we knew she'd eat in my purse, and that helped keep outings fun.

(Pumpkin and I had a talk about this incident the next day, when we were discussing what snacks to buy for my purse, and she was quite surprised to discover that I have had my share of meltdowns while traveling, too, and that the root causes were usually pretty similar- I was hungry or tired or feeling just a little too far out of my comfort zone. I had a spectacular meltdown at that botanic gardens in Penang that still makes me a bit embarrassed to think about!)

We did a little bit of shopping after lunch, as we walked down Queen Street towards our hotel. Then we had a short rest- but not a nap- before loading everyone into the car for a "nap drive" around Titirangi and out to Kumeu, where another good friend of ours has bought a house. His house came with some cows, which Pumpkin enjoyed visiting. Unfortunately, it had gotten quite a bit colder, and Petunia found it a bit too cold to walk out to see the cows and the horses that they also own, so only saw a hedgehog. She thought the hedgehog was pretty cool, though, and made me run and get Pumpkin to see it, too.
Small, but cool
We had a nice visit and dinner with our friends, and then drove back to our hotel, reasonably happy with how our first stop on the trip had gone. We got up the next morning, packed up, and headed out for Taupo... and I'll pick up the trip story there some other time.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Trip Story: Auckland (Part I)

I feel like going to a happy place right now, so I'm going to write the trip story about Auckland, the first stop on our recent New Zealand trip.

I've been to Auckland many times before, so there wasn't a lot of novelty on this visit. Still, it was fun showing some of our old favorites to the kids, and also checking out some things that we might not have visited without the kids- like the playgrounds. It turns out, visiting playgrounds was one of my favorite things about this trip. It was fun to see the different equipment, and how our kids reacted to it. Every playground we visited had something new, and they are still talking about their favorites.

The first place we headed after getting our rental car was One Tree Hill. We dragged the kids up to the top of the hill to admire the view, but the true highlight (and reason for the stop) was the playground.
Not particularly impressed.
We thought they might enjoy running around a bit after the long flight, and they did. The playground had an awesome train on a concrete track, powered by push. Petunia loved it. All in all, heading to a park first thing was a good move- it got the trip off to a good start for the kids.

We went from the park to our hotel, which was basically at the foot of Queen St., the main shopping street in the Central Business District. We had a serviced apartment at the Waldorf Celestion, so the kids had their own room AND we had a living room/kitchen area. (I love favorable exchange rates....) The room reminded me of the serviced apartment I stayed in when I visited Mr. Snarky's department for work back in the early days of our relationship, so my opinion may be a bit clouded by happy memories, but it was a nice apartment. The location, while not as perfect as it seemed when we booked, was still pretty convenient. I think that next time we might try staying in Newmarket or some area other than the CBD, though.

Anyway, the first day was taken up by things like buying groceries and getting a proper warm coat for Petunia. We had one on loan for Pumpkin, but the one we brought for Petunia was quickly found to be inadequate. We finished the day with a trip to another playground- this one in Victoria Park. The kids loved the bus ride we took to the park, and again enjoyed the new equipment. Petunia was particularly impressed with the swing that was low enough to the ground that she could swing on it herself. Mr. Snarky particularly enjoyed the good view of the Sky Tower.

One of about 800 pictures taken
After a dinner of pizza (for us) and plain pasta (for the kids), we headed to bed early, feeling pretty good about our first day.

The next day we headed to the zoo. The day started off well- we stopped by Mr. Snarky's old "local" mall and got a snack at a muffin place (Petunia, it turns out, rather likes cheese scones). I bought my magic red purse, and it was even on sale. We left the mall and drove to the zoo confident that the kids would love it. Alas, it was not to be. The adults were pretty impressed with the zoo- they've got a great native New Zealand section, with a particularly cool the nocturnal room with simulated glow worms on the ceiling- but the kids were not.

Perhaps the jet lag and the weirdness of having everything be almost right but just a little bit different got to Pumpkin, but she didn't really enjoy looking at the animals. Then at lunch, the girls both decided to be scared of the chickens that roam free (perhaps in a nod to the Pacific Island heritage? I'm not sure) and the seagulls. The mood was partially rescued by some ice cream, but then spoiled again when I couldn't be patient enough with the "show" Petunia wanted to put on in the little amphitheater seating area they had near the dining area.  Regardless, the grown ups definitely enjoyed the zoo more than the kids- although there were things the kids liked, such as the rope bridge in the New Zealand fauna section.

I have better pictures but they show the smiling faces...
We were feeling a bit beaten after the zoo experience, but a rest in the hotel perked everyone up- except for Pumpkin, who took an uncharacteristic nap and really did not want to wake up from it. I finally convinced her to eat something, and she eventually also perked up enough to head out for our next outing, which was to the Sky Tower.

If you had asked me ahead of time, I would have predicted the kids would love the zoo and be unimpressed by the Sky Tower, but I got that exactly backwards. They loved the Sky Tower. If we'd had another hour to sit there, they probably would have been happy. They liked looking at the view from such an unusual perspective. And they really liked watching the occasional adventurous person doing the "Sky Jump," which is a basically an controlled free fall that takes the jumper right past the observation deck, facing in, so that the folks in the lounge can see their grin/scream/grimace/whatever. To each their own.

Perhaps I had better prepare myself for the day when one of the kids tells me they're going bungee jumping, though, because their favorite thing in the Sky Tower was standing on the glass section of the floor, looking down. This is not something I choose to spend much time doing. 
Even the picture makes me a bit woozy
We had to leave the Sky Tower after less time than the kids really wanted because we'd arranged to meet some friends for dinner in Wynyard Quarter, a relatively recently revamped part of the waterfront. We enjoyed it, and could tell that it would be even nicer on a nice sunny day, as opposed the to drizzly evening we chose to visit it.

The view back to from whence we came....
Despite the less than ideal weather, I'm glad we checked this area out. I always thought that Auckland could do more with the waterfront nearest to its CBD. I guess hosting the Rugby World Cup gave them the impetus to do it, and they did a nice job of it.

I'll pick up the rest of the Auckland story some other night- this post is long enough, and it is late enough. Stay tuned....

Sunday, July 14, 2013

It Is Our Responsibility to Fix This

I was in New Zealand when the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act came down. I sat in our hotel room in Auckland after the kids had gone to sleep, and struggled to explain to my Kiwi husband why I was so saddened by that ruling.

Last night, I was sitting in my backyard with friends, finishing up a dinner of New Zealand meat pies, which I'd spent hours making as a treat for my husband and our friends, who are also New Zealanders. It was a beautiful evening, the sort of evening that makes me love living here. One of our friends heard his phone's news alert, and checked, and told us the verdict. We all stared glumly at our empty plates for awhile, and then Petunia came out of the tent Mr. Snarky had set up for them to play in (his plan to keep them out of my way in the kitchen). She was pretending to be a robot, and was so cute that we all laughed. And then our evening went on as if nothing had happened.

That is white privilege. I can be saddened and even sickened by the verdict, but I can, in the end, go on with my life as if nothing has changed, because for me, nothing has.

I do not for a minute think I have anything to say about the Trayvon Martin case that hasn't been said better and more eloquently by others. But I feel I must acknowledge my privilege.

Here are some of the things others have said that you should read:

Jelani Cobb at The New Yorker.

"The familiarity dulled the sharp edges of the tragedy. The decision the six jurors reached on Saturday evening will inspire anger, frustration, and despair, but little surprise, and this is the most deeply saddening aspect of the entire affair. From the outset— throughout the forty-four days it took for there to be an arrest, and then in the sixteen months it took to for the case to come to trial—there was a nagging suspicion that it would culminate in disappointment. Call this historical profiling."

Cord Jefferson at Gawker:

"If you’re a black man and you don’t remain vigilant of and obsequious to white people’s panic in your presence...then you must be prepared to be arrested, be beaten, be shot through the heart and lung and die on the way home to watch a basketball game with your family. And after you are dead, other blacks should be prepared for people to say you are a vicious thug who deserved it." 

Greg Younge at The Guardian:

"Zimmerman's not guilty verdict will be contested for years to come. But he passed judgement on Trayvon that night summarily.
"Fucking punks," Zimmerman told the police dispatcher that night. "These assholes. They always get away."
So true it's painful. And so predictable it hurts."

There is also this post spelling out the hypothetical case with the races reversed.

 And this tweet:

This is wrong. And white America needs to fix it. Much like we cannot expect women alone to fix the problem of our absence from positions of power, we cannot expect African-Americans to fix the problem of how white people view and treat them. The people with the power have to own the problem and address it. It is uncomfortable and difficult and we have the privilege of being able to ignore the problem most of the time if we want to. But we need to fight the discomfort and fear and work to fix the problem. Ultimately, we're the only ones who can change this.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Not Quite Back to Normal Edition

I'm still trying to get back into my usual routine, so I have links but haven't had the spare mental capacity to organize them into a topic or write much commentary this week.

Also- if you have any advice on navigating the two-body problem, particularly if one of the two bodies is not American, please go to yesterday's post and leave a comment.

Here are the links:

Jeff Eaton has a great post about why we need things like anti-harassment policies at conferences. I really like the analogy to coding standards.

The Wired profile of Melody Meckfessel, a lead engineer at Google, commits the cardinal sin of discussing a powerful woman's wardrobe, but at least this time it is in support of a more general point. And it is an interesting profile- worth a read.
I almost don't believe it- a New York Times article about motherhood that doesn't make me want to scream. I like this quote:

"Women and men slip into these gender roles easily, however egalitarian we think we are. After pregnancy comes maternity leave, and before we know it we mothers are the resident experts on child care, thus boxing ourselves into a responsibility that is so much lighter if truly shared and also depriving fathers of a deeper relationship with their children than many can imagine."

And think it is something we should bear in mind as we think about how parental leaves should be handled. I really credit the early sharing of child care responsibility (we split the work week during our kids' 4th months) with helping establish our egalitarian child care patterns. But I'm too brain-fried to say anything more about that right now.

Whitney Johnson writes about the fallacy of the idea that only young people make good entrepreneurs:

"Twice as many successful entrepreneurs are over 50 as under 25."

 Kim O'Grady writes about discovering gender discrimination when making it clear that he is a man completely changed his job search luck.

And let's end with some sweetness and light. The We Are The 15 Percent tumblr with pictures of inter-racial couple is awesome.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Ask Cloud: Handling the Two-Body Problem

I have been way too slow writing up my answer to my latest Ask Cloud query. But better late than never! Here it is:

A grad student (I forgot to check if she wants to be anonymous, so I'll err on the side of anonymity) writes:

"As a dual-career tech-oriented couple, particularly one with one member not originating in the US, did you and Mr. Snarky ever run into the dreaded "two-body problem", and if so, how did you deal with it? Was there a point before you settled in your current location when you were both looking for jobs in different places and faced a potential geographical conflict? Did you ever have to give preference to one person's career choices?

I'm an American Ph.D. student in the UK, and I'll be finishing up in about a year and half (hopefully). My boyfriend, who is French and also finishing his Ph.D., and I are both interested in moving (back in my case) to the U.S. after we're done, and we're both potentially looking for biotech-y jobs. Leaving aside for now the issues of job specifics and the possibility of marriage, I'm starting to get nervous about how we go about our job hunt. Do we both look for jobs all over the country and hope that we get offers in the same places? Do we narrow our search from the outset? Should one person look first (in this case he'll be finishing his degree before I do) and then the other just follow along? I guess there is no one right answer, but I would love to hear any thoughts you have or anything you've learned from experience."

I have to admit: I have had an unusually easy run of things with respect to the two-body problem. Mr. Snarky is a software engineer, which is a fairly portable career. And he was happy to move to the city in which I landed after we got together. Therefore, I don't have much advice to offer on negotiating the basic two-body problem, beyond the general observation that if you both want to do something biotech-related, you are probably best served to focus your search on biotech hubs, such as San Francisco, San Diego, and Boston. Basically, you want to look for a place that has a lot of potential employers, so that you maximize your chances to have both of you land jobs you like- over and over, because if you are going into biotech, chances are you will each be laid off from time to time.

Now obviously, if you both land great jobs in Outer Podunk, that is great. I would just recommend doing your financial planning under the assumption that you may either both need to relocate if one of you gets laid off, or the laid off partner may need to accept a long period of unemployment looking in a place without a lot of biotech jobs. And if both jobs are at the same company, definitely plan for the possibility of both being laid off on the same day. I know people who have had this happen. In some cases, it worked out great- there were no kids or other financial complications, and they took the severance checks and went traveling. In other cases, it was a seriously stressful situation.

Mr. Snarky and I did at one point consider relocating- given his particular citizenship situation, we could easily work in the US, New Zealand, or the EU. I think Australia would be fairly easy, too. We were both unhappy at work, and considered moving to London, something he's always wanted to do. We ended up rejecting it as not having enough viable options for me. And then we went on our four month "big trip" and came back and had kids... and now we consider ourselves very much settled in San Diego.

Maybe some of my readers have more to say about the general two-body problem- if so, please do so in the comments.

But I do have some advice on the other aspect of Grad Student's question- the part about handling a two body American job search when one partner is not an American. First of all, I am not an immigration lawyer. I do not even play one on TV. I think it would be a great idea to find an immigration lawyer to talk to about this situation, because the immigration situation in the US is nowhere near as easy as you may remember from earlier times (like the 90s). Everything that follows is based partially on the experiences Mr. Snarky and I had (now at least 8 years out of date) and partially on conjecture based on what I'm seeing in terms of employers sponsoring visas right now.

Basically, getting an H1 visa has gotten really, really hard. The number available has shrunk, and from what I hear, the big tech firms pretty much slurp all of the quota up as soon as the window for applications open. Most of the people I've watch get sponsored for visas recently have ended up coming in on the visa that is used for rock stars- basically, your employer argues that you are so uniquely qualified for the position that only you can do it. Or something like that. I've seen people do it, but it has taken a fairly long period of time and required a lot of letters of recommendation. To be frank, few companies are going to undertake this effort for a candidate unless a hiring manager makes a really strong case- and hiring managers know this and will probably not consider a resume from someone who requires sponsorship unless there is some sort of personal connection or that person really is a scientific rock star.

In other words, to get someone to sponsor you, your best bet is to have networked to them and have them really want you. But that is hard to do remotely.

So, I'd recommend that the non-American partner seriously consider academic options as a stepping stone into the US (assuming that you guys don't want to get married, which would solve the work visa problem very quickly).

I think the J visas that most postdocs and even some academic staff positions use are still relatively easy to acquire for people from countries not caught up in the "war on terror" and accompanying issues. Also, back when Mr. Snarky converted from a J visa to an H1 visa, he did so via an academic institution, and at that time, there was a separate pool of H1 visas for academics.

So one possible strategy would be for the American grad student to conduct an industry job search in a city/region with both a lot of industry and at least a few academic options. Luckily, all of the biotech centers also have academic options- which isn't surprising since a lot of biotechs spin out of academia. Once she lands a job, the non-American boyfriend initiates a postdoc and/or academic staff job search in the same area. Or, since the boyfriend is finishing first, he could do the postdoc search but limit himself to biotech centers. Or perhaps you do these two steps together, with the idea that if one of you gets a job offer, the other will focus in that region. The boyfriend then works in academia for a few years, networking with industry types. Eventually, he will probably find a position that is such a good fit that the company is willing to sponsor him for a work visa. Or perhaps the couple decides that they want to get married, and marriage provides the work visa.

I also have to add: even an American trying to get her first industry position from a remote location may find it challenging- so I'd recommend she being open to doing a shortish postdoc, too. At my company, we have recently hired a couple of people who did really good academic postdocs that made them particularly strong candidates- so even though I usually say that there is nothing that prepares you for an industry job as well as an industry job, there are exceptions. And with the job market as tight as it is, I'm seeing more and more resumes with slightly circuitous routes into industry. You have to eat, after all, and hiring managers know that. The old rules about the transition from academia to industry are fraying. I've even seen people who had industry positions, got laid off, went back and did another postdoc, and then transitioned back to another industry position- which used to be considered an extremely unlikely career path.

I'm not sure if this was helpful, or what Grad Student was looking for. Please, everyone, add your advice and/or additional questions in the comments.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Family New Zealand Vacation 2013: The Awards Show Version

We're just back from two weeks in New Zealand. I've got trip stories and a couple of other posts planned about the trip, but since I had fun writing awards show summaries of my 2011 and 2012 family vacations, I decided to call it a tradition and do the same for the New Zealand trip.

We drove to LAX and flew to Auckland- the commuter flight between San Diego and LA adds quite a bit of expense when there are four tickets to buy, saves only a bit of time, and increases the risk of lost luggage. We paid the extra to get the "Sky Couch" section on the flight, and that was worth every penny- the kids were able to lay flat and got a full night's sleep. Next time, we may pay for two Sky Couch rows so that the adults can stretch out a bit, too.

We spent four days in Auckland, then drove to Taupo for a couple of nights, then drove on to Wellington for 5.5 days with my in laws. I'll cover the details in the trip story posts... on to the awards!

Best hotel: Comfort Inn, Taupo. We were upstairs, with a loft, which the kids loved. And there was a trampoline and a kids' play house. Also, we could walk right out of the parking lot to the lakefront path, and the people who ran the place were very nice.

Best playground: Botanic Garden playground, Wellington. This is on a hill (like most everything else in Wellington), and they did a great job of incorporating the slope into the playground. There were great long slides that did not require great long ladders, for instance. The park had a flying fox (for my American readers: this is like a zipline), which is a classic New Zealand playground toy that we don't have in the US. They also had a Rocktopus, which is a cool new New Zealand playground toy that we don't have in the US. The kids loved this park so much that when we offered them a chance to pick what we'd do one day, they picked to go back to the Botanic Gardens so we could visit the park again.

Best parenting moment (Mommy): Replacing my so-so purse with a new, big purse. After one day walking around with my purse falling off my shoulder, I decided to buy a new one. For some reason, this largeish red purse caught my fancy- and I am glad it did. It was big enough to hold food for the kids (Pumpkin often had a hard time finding something she'd eat on menus, so I always carried snacks), hats, gloves, and coloring supplies. Many meltdowns were averted because I could pull the right thing out of that bag.
It holds more than you think it will.
Best parenting moment (Daddy): Singing "Old MacDonald" with Petunia so that she would finish the walk at the Craters of the Moon. Craters of the Moon is a thermal area that you can walk through and see steam rising from the ground and craters with boiling mud. The kids liked it... but the walk got a bit long for Petunia. 

Biggest parenting mistake: Not taking jetlag seriously enough on the return trip and letting the kids nap in the car all the way home from LAX. They slept well on the plane, so we really should have stopped at least once, possibly twice, and insisted they wake up and run around at a park or something. We couldn't get them to bed until midnight on Saturday night, our first night back. The grown ups, meanwhile, hadn't slept that well on the plane and didn't nap in the car and were exhausted and ready for by 8. We're all still trying to get back in the right time zone, and I think that mistake on the first day is why. Oh well- we'll do better next time!

Best kid moment (Pumpkin): Riding the flying fox at the Botanic Gardens playground in Wellington. She was too afraid to ride the first flying fox we saw, at the park at One Tree Hill in Auckland. I figured she would never get on one, but Mr. Snarky talked her onto the one at the Botanic Gardens park and she loved it, riding it over and over. It was great to watch.

Best kid moment (Petunia): Drawing a picture of a ferry and explaining how the circles in the middle of it were the tires on the side. We rode a ferry to Devonport in Auckland, and saw another ferry there that had tires on the side to protect it from hitting the dock. Apparently, that made quite an impression on Petunia, because when she drew her fairly abstract representation of a ferry later in Wellington, she included the tires. We were all blown away when she described the picture to us.

Best "Only in NZ" Activity: Night time swim at the hot pools in Taupo. Mr. Snarky gets full credit for this one- I thought it was too cold to go swimming outdoors at night (there was ice on our car in the morning!) but Mr. Snarky said it was something he remembered from his childhood visits to Taupo, and the kids were excited by the idea, so we did it. And it was awesome.

Best Tourist Trap Activity: Visiting the Skytower in Auckland. The kids thought it was cool to be up so high, and Pumpkin really got into figuring out where other things we had visited (or were about to visit) were. Also, we saw some people do their controlled free fall bungee jump thing past the observation deck, which was amusing.
The kids look out towards Rangitoto.
Best Random Stop: Hot chicken and chips at the playground on the beach in Paraparaumu. I had been hoping for a little cafe where I could get some of the wonderful Kapiti cheese, but it was Sunday evening and most things were closed. So we got chicken and chips from what was essentially a bar, and took them to the playground by the beach. We snagged a table with an awesome view of the beach, and watched the sun go down behind Kapiti Island while the fishermen pulled their boats out of the water with their tractors and the kids played on a pretty nice playground.
Just about perfect
Best Pie: Patrisha's in Island Bay, Wellington. I had a scrumptious classic steak and cheese pie. Yummmmm.

Best Local Beer Sampled: Yeastie Boys' Pot Kettle Black (Mommy), 8 Wired's Hopwired (Daddy). But there was some stiff competition. We were impressed with the range of NZ craft brews available.

Best meal: Lamb medallions cooked to perfection by my in laws. The first time I've ever actually enjoyed eating lamb! 

Best breakfast: Maranui Cafe in the Surf Lifesaver's club, Lyall Bay, Wellington. OK, this was our only breakfast out, but it was a great one! Good view, yummy food, fluffies (warm frothed milk with sprinkles on top and marshmallows on the side) for the kids, and even a camel ride that only cost 50 cents.

Best chill out: Drinks with good friends at the Lumsden Freehouse in Newmarket, Auckland. Good beer and snacks and a grassy area for the kids to run around on.

Biggest bummer: Pulling a muscle (or something) in my ribcage during a massive coughing fit on the first day (I was just getting over a bad cough/cold when we left). I spent the next 3 days or so wincing whenever I coughed or sneezed, several more days wincing if I tried to lift something heavy (like, say, a child) and am still a bit sore.

Runner up: The fact that I only had three pies during the entire trip, and one was at the airport in Auckland on our way out. Pumpkin didn't like any of the food available at the bakeries that sell the best pies- so mostly we had to eat at fancier cafes that could do plain pasta or had cheese scones or at food courts that had a fast food place that sold chicken nuggets. On the bright side, I got some really good Indian food at a food court in Auckland and had a lot of nice cafe food.

Most unexpected cool thing: The toys on the wall in the Auckland airport departures lounge.
A great last impression

Friday, July 05, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Changing Entertainment Landscape Edition

I've been thinking recently about the changing entertainment landscape, and what it means for people who create the things other people read, watch, look at and listen to as entertainment.

This is a topic I think about a lot. I don't necessarily want to make my living from writing things (although, I won't rule that out as a future option!) but I want it to be a viable career choice for other peopl, just like I want musician and artist to be a viable career choice. And I suppose I want filmmaker to be a viable career choice, although I personally am less drawn to that art form for my own entertainment.

I think the career landscape for creative types is changing right now, and I can't decide if I think the changes will ultimately increase or decrease the viability of being a creative type as a career choice. To be fair, the career landscape is changing for a lot of us right now, but it seems the changes are particularly profound in entertainment. Or maybe they are just particularly public.

Anyway, I came across an article on TechCrunch about a talk Lucas and Spielberg gave at USC about how they think the current business model of the film industry is unsustainable. Part of me thinks "Good! The current model is sexist and it is time for it to change." (See my recent weekend links post for more from that part of me.)  But part of me feels a little sorry for the people trying to make a go of it in the film industry- not the people on the top, but the average people who just want to make a living working in film, and are probably having a heck of a time figuring out how to guide their careers right now.

The TechCrunch article says that Lucas and Speilberg "suggest the marketplace will contract because there isn’t enough time in the week for us to go to the movies anymore. With Netflix producing top quality content, and video games cutting into weekends, it leaves little room for date night out at the cineplex. It’s getting so bad that Lucas complains about how hard it is even for him to get a film in a theater. This should probably make producers of films nervous."

That came to mind again when I followed a link from @Scalzi to a post his agent Evan Gregory wrote about changes in the book industry

Gregory writes about how all companies selling media are competing in a battle for people's attention, which he calls the Battle for the Pile of Eyeballs, and then he makes some interesting observations about the consequences of how that battle is currently impacting books and reading:

"Amazon, Google and Apple can tell you what you might like based on what you do like, but they can't tell what you should like based on what you feel like. In short, there isn't an App for that."

"If you remove accidental discovery from the picture, what kind of book culture do you create?  If most content must be accessed through a device, utilizing software, delivered by a digital distribution platform, to what extent are we yielding a part of the experience of discovery to the proprietary marketing algorithms of giant conglomerates?"

"There ought to be room for physical books, bookstores, and even independent e-book publishers and online stores.  A lush and diverse media marketplace benefits everyone, and as consumers we ought to be aware of how we consume media, and to what extent we are feeding systems of proprietary control. Book culture should be determined by people who read books, not by device manufacturers, or online retailing conglomerates, or anyone whose primary interest is separate from the interest of readers."

All good points, and the rest of the post is interesting, too. Go read it!

Obviously, I am not anti-Amazon. But I have been thinking about how the big algorithms don't necessarily have a goal of steering me to what I really want- they have a goal of steering me to something that I'll want enough to buy. I'm still thinking, but I may start adding some more variety into how I find my books. I don't currently have a lot of time to visit physical bookstores, but I can buy my eBooks from other sources in addition to Amazon, and maybe I'll start doing that.

But as I said, I'm not sure all of these changes are necessarily bad for creative types. As an example of how they can be good, I point you to this blog post from author Alex Schvartsman about his Great Short Story EBook Experiment. There is no denying that the digital marketplace gives authors options they didn't have before. The trick is figuring out how to take advantage of those options. Amazon does not necessarily have the authors' backs- for instance, despite the fact that I have repeatedly searched on Amazon for short eBooks to buy, I have never found Mr. Schvartsman's short stories. Now that I know what to look for, I went and found one and bought it. So maybe the system is working... but I suspect Mr. Schvartsman would have preferred I find his stories in my earlier searches.

So that's one great unsolved question of this new entertainment era we're in: how to help interested consumers find the entertainment on offer? The search engines and recommendation algorithms aren't quite there yet- and maybe, like Evan Gregory argues, they'll never be there. Maybe we really can't search our way out of this conundrum, and need to build up better systems for purposeful browsing and even serendipitous discoveries.

And of course, if we find the answer to that question, there is a second, even thornier one to answer: how to convince people to pay for their entertainment when so much is out there for free? One of my current favorite bits of media is this:

And I honestly have no idea at all how the people who created it get paid. None. Maybe they get a cut of the advertising revenues? I just don't know. (They've done two more videos in the series, but the first is still my favorite.)

How about you. How do you find your entertainment? Do you know how the people who made it get paid?

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Dinner during Dora: Cuban Chicken Tacos

It has been a long, long time since I wrote a Dinner during Dora post. Sadly, this is because we have gotten in a bit of a rut for dinners, so I haven't had any new recipes to share. I finally got tired enough of the rut to go looking for new recipes, and this recipe for "Cuban" chicken is one of the best and easiest I found.

The original recipe suggests serving the chicken with coconut rice, which would be yummy- but doesn't work so well with our menu plan. My kids both really like a predictable dinner schedule, and since that also makes my life easier, we follow a schedule. Early in the school year, Pumpkin decreed that Wednesdays should be "tortilla night," so we have soft tacos every Wednesday. A couple of months ago, I realized that I could add some variety to our menu while still having our schedule by introducing more variety in our taco fillings. I'd already added Fish Hater's Fish Tacos to our rotation. Why not add more different fillings? Regardless of what I make for filling, Pumpkin only eats the tortillas with cheese. Petunia will eat some fillings- eggs, teriyaki chicken (if she's in the mood).

So, I decided to take the recipe I had for chicken with Cuban garlic sauce and make Cuban Chicken Tacos. I am still experimenting to find the perfect toppings for the tacos, but it is already a quick and yummy meal.

Cuban Chicken Tacos



~1lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized chunks
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 tbs vegetable oil


2 cloves garlic
1/2 medium onion, sliced
3/4 cup orange juice
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cumin

Make the garlic sauce by putting all the ingredients in a blender and pureeing just until smooth.

Messy counters optional

Mix the flour and cayenne in a bowl. Add the chicken pieces and toss them gently so that they are all coated with the flour mix.

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat, and add the oil. When the oil is hot, add the chicken and cook until browned (about 3 minutes).  Turn the chicken pieces and cook another 3-5 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. Add the garlic sauce and cook a few minutes more.

 Stir to coat all of the chicken pieces, and then transfer the chicken to a bowl to serve.

Dish the chicken into the tortillas, top with chopped greens, and eat!

Source: The base recipe comes from an old cookbook I have, called The Working Stiff Cookbook.  (It is a good cookbook- full of good, fast recipes.)

Who eats it: Just the grown ups. But that's OK.