Friday, August 30, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Happy Things Edition

It is a long holiday weekend here, and I'm not in the mood to think about any of the serious topics that have been all over my various feeds this week. So let's just have some happy things.

First up, Mr. Snarky found this sweet animated short just a little too late to include in last week's post.

I found this post from Parisienne Mas Presque charming. However, it brought a funny incident from my time in Sweden back to me. There was one older gentleman who was determined to have me prove his pet theory about how ignorant Americans are. I was torn- he was right that we Americans are often ignorant of things that happened in older countries, but I dislike being used as a patronizing object lesson. So when he was going on and on about how America doesn't have any buildings as old as some church in his home town I couldn't help but remark: "oh, but we do! There are buildings in my home state of Arizona that date from 1300 or before." He spluttered something incredibly offensive about those not being "real" but then left me alone.

This is a much nicer story than mine, of how Marilyn Monroe helped Ella Fitzgerald get her career established.

I found this short advice post oddly compelling. Perhaps because I love to fall down internet rabbit holes?

But this advice from Bill Watterson is better (and perfectly illustrated by Gavin Aung Than).

And on that note, I'll close this post. Enjoy your weekend, everyone!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Reclaiming Time to Do

My little corner of the internet has been suffering through another of its periodic outbreaks of earnest male contemplation about the relative dearth of women in the tech world, and as before, the diagnosis is a problem with the women. We're just not interested, see. We didn't evolve the patience and focus required to code.

I won't link to the latest outcropping of this, because really, you've read it all before. And I won't waste my time debunking that nonsense, because you've probably read all of that before, too.

OK, I'll allow myself one indignant splutter about how men who think women haven't evolved the ability to focus and be patient know as little about traditionally female work as they do about evolutionary biology, but then I'll move on.

I've decided that instead of spending energy defending the idea that I might be capable of doing awesome tech work, I'm just going to try to do some awesome tech work. This is not to belittle the work other women are doing of swatting this nonsense down. I think that is vital, useful work. I just need a little break to focus on the things that drew me to computers in the first place.

Namely, the fact that I love organizing information and computers are really good at that.

Also, I like creating things, and computers let me do that despite my relatively poor hand-eye coordination.

My paid work is mostly management these days, so I have to turn to my personal project for some tech joy. The problem, of course, is how to make time to work on my project when I am expected to be at my paying job roughly 40 hours per week, and I also want to spend time with my family.

I've been squeezing project work in around the edges, tinkering with it during "quiet time" on the weekends, or while the kids watch a show after bath (they're both pretty wiped out after full screen-free days at day care and camp, so I refuse to care if they ask for a Sid the Science Kid before bed). I have made really good progress, but have been dancing around the edge of a deeper technical issue I need to solve. The issue needs some uninterrupted quiet time to really tackle, as opposed to the constantly interrupted noisy time that is more the norm in my life.

So I decided to try something different. After dinner on Tuesday, I packed my project laptop, project notebook, and a couple of relevant books into my bag and drove to our local library. I set up at one of the work tables, availed myself of their free wi-fi, and tried to solve my problem.

I intended to stay for one and a half hours, but I left after an hour, convinced that the experiment had failed. I hadn't been able to solve my problem, I had just read a bunch of websites that seemed to be about a similar topic, but not quite the topic I was trying to address. I was starting to feel a bit lost, like I'd bit off a bigger problem than I could solve. The guy across from me was streaming something with a lot of crashes and screaming, and despite his headphones, it was getting on my nerves. The woman across from me kept getting phone calls, and her ringtone was some annoying pop song. So I drove home before I yelled at anyone at the library, accepted the happy hugs of my kids, and figured I'd have to try again some other night.

But an interesting thing happened later that night. I finished reading Pumpkin her bedtime stories, and did the dishes. Since it was only about 9 p.m., I got out my laptop again, and poked some more and my problem. And at some point, the answer came into focus. I didn't have time to implement it, but I am pretty sure I know what I need to do now. I just need to carve out another hour or so in which to do it.

Where to get that hour, though? I don't want to miss too many after dinner play sessions with the kids, even though Mr. Snarky is perfectly happy to let me do so.

I probably also know the answer to this time management project, but haven't figured out how to get there, yet. About a year ago, I instituted a routine of getting up 30 minutes earlier than I "had" to and spending that time on me- exercising and writing, mainly. It was a great thing, while it lasted, which was about 9 months. I've unfortunately let that habit die out this summer. Petunia's bedtimes stretch to 9:30, if I do anything at all after that, I don't get to bed in time to get a full 8 hours of sleep before my alarm goes off at 6, and I am someone who really does better on 8 hours of sleep. I envy people like my husband, who are perfectly happy with 6 hours! But that is not me, and there is no way I know of to change that, so I have to work with the constraints I've been given.

I could try to do my project work at night, after the kids are in bed, but I'm usually done with mental heavy lifting by that point. I can type out rambling blog posts like this one, but not work through technical conundrums.

I think I need to reclaim my "before breakfast" time. My initial experiment with getting up early was inspired by reading Laura Vanderkam's "What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast" ebook. It has just recently come out paperback form, bundled with the other two "time makeover" ebooks she wrote and some extras just for the paperback. Perhaps I should take that as a sign from the universe that it is time to figure out a better routine for myself, get to bed earlier, and get up in the morning for some project work time.

Which means that I should stop writing this post and go to bed!

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Method to My Meals

Tragic Sandwich has been doing a series of posts on "Mom-friendly meals" around the premise that we all have to eat, but dammit, what a pain in the ass that's become.

I can sympathize. And did sympathize, in a tweet about the PITA that is meal-planning, which prompted me to say I'd post my meal planning method at some point.  (Is anyone surprised that I have a meal planning method? I thought not. Although the fact that I have a plan for how to make a plan is perhaps a new level of optimization, even for me.)

The method has evolved over my 6+ years as a mother, and continues to evolve. In fact, one of the best parts of it only came to me in the last few months. Part of that is because as my kids get older, this is one thing that actually is getting easier. But the insight that came in the last few months? As you'll see, that was just me suddenly getting a clue.

Basically, my method boils down to having a pattern (because the kids like predictability) with variation at every point in the pattern (so that the adults don't become catatonic from the boredom of the same damn meals, over and over). I should say upfront that we prioritize having family dinners, not because I think that is The One True Way to Eat but because we like to eat together and there is no way I'd get multiple different meals on the table in time for that. Also, it seems to increase the likelihood of the kids trying new things. The actual trying of a new thing remains a completely unpredictable stochastic event, but these events seem to occur more frequently when we are all having a "family meal." Of course, this is just my kids. Your kids might be more likely to try something new if it is presented to them as a special, cool, kids only thing. Kids are annoying like that.

Also, I am only responsible for dinners Monday - Friday. Mr. Snarky does weekend dinners, and for the most part I happily accept whatever he wants to cook, even though that usually means that the kids get either plain pasta (because he's including a pasta salad) or chicken nuggets (because nothing else he is cooking stands an iota of a chance of being consumed by one of our children). The exception was when he served grilled lamb with an asparagus-goat cheese pasta salad two weekends in a row. I will eat lamb, asparagus, and goat cheese, but I'm not particularly enthused about any of them, and having all three in one dinner two Saturday nights running was just too much for me. I mostly ate bread, just like Ellyn Sater says picky eaters should.

Anyway. My pattern is:

Monday: Baked good + healthy liquid

In the cooler months, this is soup + pumpkin parmesan scones, with the variety for the grown ups provided by varying the soup. Sometimes the soup is homemade (that cream-free Cream of Zucchini soup I keep threatening to post, a great crock pot potato and carrot soup, a curried butternut squash soup I love) and sometimes it is from a box/can/jar/whatever (Trader Joes has some good options).

In the warmer months, this is more likely to be waffles or scones with smoothies. Tonight, I tried out popovers.

Easily produced honey substrate

Popovers are ridiculously fast and easy, so they'll probably become part of the rotation. Also, Pumpkin liked them so much that she ate three. Petunia wouldn't try them. This was exactly the reverse of what I expected. Kids are annoying like that.

If the baked good is something light like popovers or waffles, I will sometimes make bacon, too. Everyone in our house likes bacon, except for Pumpkin.

Tuesday: Leftovers

Tuesday nights are workout nights, so I don't cook, I heat up leftovers from the freezer. Mr. Snarky generally produces the adult's leftovers on one of his nights cooking. I periodically have to make mac and cheese for the kids, and that is usually the kids' leftovers. Petunia also likes to eat leftover pancakes. Pumpkin, for some reason, doesn't eat pancakes, even though she'll eat waffles, and now popovers. Kids are annoying like that.

Wednesday: Tortilla Night

The kids love tortillas with butter and cheese, and refuse to try even a nibble of any other filling I have produced to date. So I let them eat the tortillas and cheese, and make a wide range of fillings for our tacos. If I am feeling guilty for not eating fish, I make Fish Hater's Fish Tacos. Or I do sloppy joe filling. Or- and here is my recent flash of insight- I brown bite sized chicken pieces and dump any number of jarred sauces on top of them.

So far, I have found two jarred sauces I really like: Iron Chef Orange-Ginger glaze (I dust the chicken with seasoning salt and five spice before browning, and add enough soy sauce to about 1/3 of a jar of the Iron Chef glaze to make a nice sauce) and Pace Garlic-Lime Verde Restaurant Style salsa (I dust the chicken with seasoning salt and cumin before browning, and use roughly 1/2 of the jar of salsa).

Easy fusion tacos
My current seasoning salt is a grinder with sea salt, some black pepper, and some red pepper flakes in it- so nothing fancy.

I serve the Orange-Ginger tacos with feta, cilantro, and chopped up mixed greens, and the Garlic-Lime Verde salsa tacos with Mexican-style preshredded cheese (which I am reasonably sure is nothing like what you get in Mexico, but makes great quesadillas, so we always have this on hand), diced tomatoes, chopped mixed greens, and cilantro if I have it.

So far, I have had one failure, which was a lemongrass sauce that wasn't bad, but was sort of bland, and I couldn't really figure out how to spice it up. I'll be trying more, though, as this feels like a magic "eat something different!" option for the adults.

If it is not too hot and I don't forget to turn the oven on when I get home, I serve the tacos with sweet potato fries, so that I can pretend my kids ate a vegetable.

Thursday: Pasta Night

I rotate through plain pasta, gnocchi, and cheese tortellini. The kids will eat all of those. Pumpkin likes them plain, with just butter and cheese (Italian style preshredded cheese. I have no shame.) Petunia likes plain to be like her sister, but then always asks for some with red sauce, too. The red sauce comes from a jar. I read the ingredients on the Classico jar and realized they were essentially what I'd use to make the sauce from scratch, so I buy it. Sometimes I get wild and divide the pasta three ways and put pesto on the grown ups' pasta. But usually not, because that seems a bit ridiculous. If we're having plain pasta, I often microwave some meatballs, too. I found a brand with reasonable ingredients, so I just buy frozen. When the kids get older, maybe I'll try making them. Pumpkin won't eat meatballs, but Petunia loves them.

Sometimes I get really adventurous and try a new pasta recipe. As long as I save plain pasta out for Pumpkin (and Petunia, if she doesn't like the look of the recipe I make),  I can get away with this. I like Cooking Light and an old cookbook of mine called While the Pasta Cooks for pasta recipe ideas.

Pasta is served with either a green salad or a veggie, usually sauteed zucchini, but occasionally Picky Eater's Green Beans.

Friday: Pizza Night

Either we order in, eat leftovers from the last time we ordered in, or eat a frozen pizza.  Basically, by Friday night, I don't care enough to worry about the source of the pizza. I do make a green salad (mixed greens + cherry tomatoes + walnuts + parmesan + (sometimes) carrot sticks + balsamic vinaigrette) to go with the pizza, though.

That's the plan. The variety afforded by tortilla night in particular keeps me and Mr. Snarky reasonably happy with this plan, but it is predictable enough that I don't have to spend heaps of time pouring over recipe books on Sunday morning, which is generally when I write the menu plan and the grocery list.

What's your meal planning system? Or do you just wing it?

Friday, August 23, 2013

Weekend Edition: The Why Do We Have to Make Life So Unfair Edition

I've got a bunch of links about the various way we make life unfair.

Note: I updated this post a few hours after I posted it. We've instituted a new bedtime routine with Petunia that involves snuggling for three songs and then sitting next to her bed while she goes to sleep and reading on my Kindle. Tonight, I caught up on links in tweets I favorited, and found some additional links relevant to the topics in this post, so I added them.

First up, Jordan Weissmann had an interesting blog post at the Atlantic about the characteristics that correlate with successful entrepreneurship, and whether these characteristics might be tolerated more by society when they are exhibited by white men.

Perhaps women and minorities are underrepresented as entrepreneurs because when we exhibit traits like rule breaking we're more heavily sanctioned for it... but I suspect plain old fashioned bias has something to do with it, too, and this post by Lisa Suennen about what the lack of a handshake means is a good example of the bias that persists, even in people who don't necessarily think of themselves as biased.

Another way we might be creating an environment that leads to under-representation of people of color and people from less wealthy backgrounds in top positions is by short changing their educational opportunities. Bad Mom, Good Mom has another one of her excellent posts looking behind the test scores that I really wish all education reformers would read and really think about.

This post from Simply Statistics is quite suggestive on the role of poverty in educational problems. Just think how many other problems we might find solved if we ever truly tackled poverty in this country.

And then, of course, there is just the tiring accumulation of bullshit. I agree with Allison Wright: I want to live in a world with less of it.

Some of the bullshit that accumulates is the way characters who are not white men are portrayed in films, and they way they are just not there. You may have heard of the Bechdel test for films, but I really like the Mako Mori test the Tumblr user Chaila proposes. I found her post via this post, which I think was tweeted out by William Gibson. I sent both of these to Mr. Snarky to help him understand why I wanted to see Pacific Rim but refused to see Elysium. I'd heard that in Pacific Rim the world-saving was inclusive. Elysium, on the other hand, is a bit like a film implementation of the white savior mythology.

Roxane Gay makes a similar argument at Salon about how we set the bar for diversity on TV too low.

I am not a big consumer of either TV or movies. Maybe that is because I rarely feel like they expand my horizons, whereas I can easily find books that do so.

Finally, Lindy West has a really good post up about fat shaming and thin shaming and just the policing of women's bodies in general. She is responding to a problematic post by a thin woman who feels shamed, and acknowledges that slogans like "real women have curves" are misguided and hurtful, but does a good job of explaining where they come from. And she says this, which I think is a good rule to live by in general:

"When people act out against their own marginalization (even in unhealthy, hurtful, misguided ways), I try as hard as I can to react with empathy and not defensiveness."

In case you aren't familiar with fat shaming as a problem, this post from Ragen Chastain gives a suitably horrifying example.

So, that's a lot of frustrating things. Let's end on a bittersweet but uplifting note, with a post from Jay Lake, a Sci-Fi writer who has cancer, giving us his special dying person wisdom.

" I have been thinking a lot about what life means to me, and what I see it meaning to people who seem to enjoy their own life the most. I come down to two basic concepts.

Be kind, and don’t miss your opportunities."

It is good advice. I think I'll try to take it.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Innovation, Growth, and Hackable Pacemakers (among Other Things)

Awhile back, a NY Magazine article about the ideas of Robert Gordon, an economist who thinks that the growth experienced for the majority of American history is a historical anomaly.

It is a long read, but an interesting one. The basic premise is that the economic growth that has fueled what we consider to be the "American dream" was an anomaly, caused by a huge boost in productivity from the back-to-back industrial revolutions in Europe and America, and that no such productivity boost is on the horizon. He argues, in essence, that our boom is over for good, and our current anemic recovery is actually our new normal.

I am no economist,  so I can't really delve into his methods and judge his data. But I am inclined to think he undersells the potential productivity gains from our current information revolution. He seems to be arguing that because we haven't had huge gains from the advent of computers, the information age can't deliver such gains.

I disagree with both parts of that statement. I think we have had a lot of gains from the information revolution- it is just that a lot of them are focused more on leisure than productivity. Think about the huge difference in how you do things like find a restaurant. Mr. Snarky and I were up in Orange County for a little break last weekend, and he found us two excellent breakfasts just by using Google Maps and the online ratings, all accessed from his phone. Ten years ago, we would have either asked at the hotel (and been directed to their own restaurant), had breakfast at a chain, or just driven around and taken our chances. (Or maybe I would have pulled out my HandSpring and used the Vindigo app I loved back then.)

So it isn't that information technology isn't capable of transforming the way we do things. Maybe we just haven't aimed it at the right problems yet.

I'm not sure how to change that. I, after all, work in a corner of information technology that is far removed from things like finding good breakfast spots in an new city. I work to use IT to make scientists more efficient and productive, and I think my team does a pretty good job at this. But there is still a lot of room for improvement. Why don't we improve faster? Well, we don't have the budget to do as many projects as we've identified, and there are probably quite a few other projects out there that we haven't even identified. There are almost certainly scientists at my company who are working through problems with no inkling that computers could help solve those problems. And there are definitely scientists putting up with a manual process just because we haven't had time to come automate it yet.

And that is at a company full of scientists, with a higher than average amount of money.

Imagine how many other corners of the work world are even worse off, while we meanwhile expend vast sums of money and programmer effort optimizing our shopping experiences and making it easier to find restaurants.

Don't get me wrong. I am happy with my better shopping experiences and easy to find good breakfasts. And I think a lot of those innovations have done genuine good in the world- think, for instance, about how many small entrepreneurs flourish in the ecosystems Etsy and Amazon have created.

I just think that we could also apply some of that same technology to less flashy areas.

Maybe we need more people to get a handle on what computers can do.  It seems like there is too much of a disconnect between the people who understand the problems and the people who understand what is possible with computers. I've been thinking about this a lot recently, after reading Noah Veltman's post about his imposter syndrome, and how the world is not divided into Coders and Muggles.

I don't think everyone needs to be a professional level coder, or even that everyone needs to know how to code at any level... but maybe we'd be better off if a lot more people were exposed to coding, and learned to understand what sorts of problems computers are good at solving, and what is involved in solving them.

For instance, I heard a story on NPR a few weeks ago about the fact that someone has discovered that a lot of medical devices, like pacemakers and insulin pumps, are hackable. (I couldn't find the NPR story, but here is a Forbes story on the same topic.) This was a completely avoidable problem. All that was required was for the people involved in developing and regulating these devices to recognize the risk. They didn't have to understand how to protect against the risk, but it sure would have been better if they had understood computers well enough to know to hire someone who did understand how to protect against that risk.

I also think we need to work for more tech diversity. I've blogged on this before- I firmly believe that if we had a more diverse group of techies, we would see technology applied to a more diverse set of problems. No matter what white men on the internet tell you, there is no reason to think that white and Asian men are uniquely suited for understanding STEM. There just isn't. In all the capabilities that matter for this, the difference within each sex is bigger than the difference between the sexes, and that is even when we measure after years of conditioning in differences. (Lise Eliot does a good job of summarizing the available research in her book Pink Brain, Blue Brain, which I discuss a bit here and here.) Roughly the same is true of the various races, although I don't have that data at hand. As long as STEM fields remain so completely dominated by white men, I am confident in saying that we are wasting a lot of talent in these areas.

And no, I'm not worried about a glut of STEM trained folks in the job market. For one thing, I think that is an acceptable cost to pay for having not just a more fair society but more diversity in problems tackled. Also, I just argued that maybe we should expand that job market. But more importantly, I really, truly, think we need to stop equating studying STEM fields with having to have a career in STEM.

I've linked before to Shawn Lent's post arguing for the importance of having artists in a wide variety of fields. I agree with her argument, and think it also applies to scientists and techies. The skills and ways of approaching problems that you learn by studying these fields would bring a lot to other areas of endeavor.

Yes, I know- people are frustrated to spend so many years training for one career only to discover they need to go find another career. But how much of that is due to the expectations we set going in and the lack of respect we accord to people who have left science and pursued other options? Would we ring our hands so much about "wasting" the time to get a PhD if instead of seeing it as a track that leads to only one destination, we saw it as a chance to get paid (albeit not a lot) to work on some really interesting things and pick up some skills that could be used to steer a person to a lot of different destinations?

Of course, I am fundamentally an optimist, and that colors my opinions. However, I don't ridicule or dismiss the pessimists. As I mentioned back when I wrote about reading the  Rational Optimist, I think pessimists do society a great service by pointing out things on which we need to focus problem solving resources.

I am also fascinated by the irrefutable fact that societies sometimes collapse. One of my favorite books is The Dream of Scipio,by Iain Pears, which explores what happens when a society collapses, and how individuals find their way through the chaos and upheaval.

So I do not discount the possibility that Robert Gordon is right, and that we will never return to the growth levels to which we have become accustomed, and that if this is true, our society faces some grave problems that could in fact bring it down around our ears.
We're not to this stage yet.

However, even if we really are at end of productivity growth from innovation, we could probably still save our society. We have a lot of wealth now. Truly, we do. It is just incredibly unequally distributed. If we can no longer rely on a rising tide to raise all ships, maybe we need a blossoming of innovation in politics and in our thinking about how we organize our society. Maybe we need a period of increased productivity in ideas.

And maybe this is actually something that the information revolution is already helping to bring about- think of all the people (like me! But also a host of really smart academics and industry types) whose ideas you would never have read even 10 years ago. Sure, there is a downside to the fact that anyone can publish their thoughts on the internet (e.g., The Birthers) but maybe there is a big upside yet to be realized, too. I don't think we are there yet. It is too hard to find the useful ideas in amongst all of the crazies, and it is too hard for the people who produce the ideas and take the time to write about them to get paid for their efforts. We cannot hope to have a big boost in the generation and discussion of ideas if we expect people to produce and explain ideas for free. But- here's my fundamental optimism again!- I think we could solve those problems, and I think we could come up with the ideas we need to either innovate our way to growth or innovate our way to a method of handling the lack of growth.

Maybe I'm wrong. But I think we should try.

This turned into a long, rambly post. Bonus points for anyone who stuck with it to the end! And I'd love to read your comments on any of the topics I touched on.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Glory of Great Content Edition

I just have a few links for you this week. Quality over quantity.

In fact, that is one of the messages of my first link, which is an open letter from Amanda Peyton to Bryan Goldberg, the guy who founded Bustle. If you somehow missed the discussion around that, there are links in her post.

I like Peyton's post because I miss the long articles that would educate me about random topics that I used to read in the Smithsonian magazine, before they switched format and also got my subscriptions so thoroughly merged with my mother's subscription that we ended up cancelling our irretrievably merged subscription in disgust.  I guess this is what the whole "longreads" thing is trying to bring back. I haven't explored that much. It is also probably why I enjoy short non-fiction eBooks so much. I love a good, long article length read about a topic I had never considered before. For example, I am currently reading a short eBook about The Fearless Mrs. Goodwin, a early 20th century police matron turned detective.

It doesn't sound like Goldberg's new venture is going to bring me things like that, and I don't really need another source of articles telling me how to lose my belly fat or whatever, so, like Peyton, I am not enthused.

Next, I love this post by AnnMaria De Mars about what she's learned in 55 years. There is much awesomeness in it, but I particularly like the last line: "There isn’t an age limit for having a good life." (I clicked over to her "about" page, and honestly, she sounds pretty cool, and I want the sort of retirement she is having.)

This post about a little boy who likes pink and is learning that he'll have to hide that just about broke my heart. We have had to correct Pumpkin a few times about "boys don't wear pink." She got this idea entirely from her peers- and the wider culture that pretty much never shows a boy wearing pink, or liking sparkly things. Gah.

And let's go out on something fun. Or fun-ish. Mr. Snarky thinks this would have been the best Star Trek episode ever. I am not sure I agree, but I will let you make your own decisions.

And, also from Mr. Snarky, a video that gives new meaning to the term "sheeple"

Happy weekend, everyone!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Power of Leisure

I took a half day off work today. I left at lunchtime and drove to the mall. I had a nice lunch with two margaritas, and then I sat in a comfy chair at the mall and read. I did a little non-power shopping, then I bought a diet Coke and sat down and read some more.

In all, I spent four hours at the mall, with no one to answer to but myself, and it was delightful.

I have wanted to do this for several weeks, ever since a giant problem exploded the day after I got back from vacation and sucked away any vestiges of relaxation I'd accumulated. To be honest, I needed this half day even before the giant problem exploded at work. I genuinely love traveling with my family, but vacationing with kids is not the same as really taking a break. My vacations don't look like the recent Onion satire of a mother's vacation, but they are also not a break from responsibility. I know this, so I also try to take some true breaks. The weekends away that my husband and I take are one example of this, but I've discovered that a mall mini-break is pretty good, too.

I discovered the mini-break formula by chance, when my boss suggested I disappear for an afternoon to avoid a meeting that we both knew had a high probability of making me quit my job. He said I should go home, but I had promised Petunia I'd pick her up from day care that day. So I went to the mall instead. I happened to have my Kindle with me and I had an amazingly relaxing few hours reading.

I think we underestimate the importance of true leisure in this country. I will return to work tomorrow refreshed and better able to find solutions to problems and handle the annoyances of the corporate world. That a break from work makes me more effective and efficient when I return is so obvious to me that I struggle to understand why some people do not see it. But to be fair, even I don't always recognize when I need a break. That first time I took my mini-break at the mall? I was running on far too much stress, but had to be convinced to leave instead of steeling myself for an unpleasant and pointless meeting that was just going to add more stress and resolve no problems. I have written an eBook about how to keep your work hours at bay, and I still haven't managed to arrange my work and life to give me the amount of leisure time I think is optimal.

I came across an article by Sarah Jaffe that argues that true leisure time is the piece missing from all of our discussions around work-life balance for women. I think she has a point. When we talk about work-life balance, the "life" side of the equation often has a heck of a lot of labor in it, it is just unpaid. We need real leisure. Playing with my kids can rejuvenate me, but scrubbing the toilets never has, not even once. And sometimes, real leisure means being free from anyone else putting demands on me- it means time on my own, like I took today.

I look at my own life, and I have it better than most. But it is not what I really want. I don't want to quit working. I am glad I have children.  I don't want to opt out of any part of what I have except for our broken way of working. I want to opt out of the facetime culture around work. I want to opt out of a work culture that makes it hard for me to take a half day to sit and read even when it is abundantly clear that I would be more effective if I took a break. Even more scandalous: I want the freedom to work from a different location- maybe even a different country!- now and then. In short, I want to be treated like the responsible adult that I am, free to optimize my time across all of the different things I want to do with it.

And you know what? I'll probably find a way to get what I want eventually. I'm close to seeing the path to my goal now. I'm lucky. But what I really want is for this not to be something reserved for the privileged few who manage to engineer an escape. I want to tear down how we organize work and build up a better system. I am not a policy wonk, so I really have no idea how to do that. Anyway, grand campaigns aren't really my thing. But maybe, just maybe, I can find a way to build a company that that shows work doesn't have to be the way it is now. Maybe I can provide an example of another way.

Or maybe I can't... but I think I would have a lot of fun trying.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Trip Story: Wellington (Part II)

I've been writing up posts about our recent trip to New Zealand. Last time, I started telling about our time in Wellington, which was our last stop after Auckland and Taupo.

We did not go out all that much in Wellington, because the main goal of our time there was to see family. We spent a lot of time at my in-law's house. Petunia invented a new game called "Balloon Bop," which involves hitting a balloon back and forth. If it hits the sofa, you win. If it hits the floor, you have to say "oh, man!" sort of like Swiper does. In the initial rules, this meant you lost, but Pumpkin got involved and the rules evolved to include scorekeeping, and letting the balloon touch the floor just deducts points. I think. To be honest, I still don't fully understand the rules. I suspect they continue to evolve.

My mother-in-law is an excellent cook, so we ate in a lot. However, our third day in Wellington was an exception. We went out to brunch at the Maranui Cafe at the surf lifesaver's club in Lyall Bay. I described it in my "awards show" post, so I won't go into details here. After brunch, we let the kids play for awhile on the nearby playground, but eventually the wind got too much for us, and we took them back to my in laws' house... and left them there while Mr. Snarky and I went downtown for some drinks and shopping. Mr. Snarky and I both got some new clothes, and enjoyed the chance to linger over a couple of beers.

That evening, the entire family went out for Mexican food at La Boca Loca, a taqueria in the next suburb over from my in law's. The food and the margaritas were good- I definitely recommend this place.

The next day, we gave the kids their choice of what to do, and they chose to go back to the Botanic Gardens. We had lunch at the cafe, and then walked over to the duck pond and fed the ducks.
The ducks get a feast.
I took the kids back up to the playground while Mr. Snarky moved the car, then we all took the cable car back down the hill.
Watching the cable car arrive
We drove back to our home base at my in-law's house, and had a bit of a rest. Then we walked down to the park by the water in Seatoun.
A swing set with a view
My in-laws offered to take the kids back to the house for us, so Mr. Snarky and I enjoyed a stroll along the recently developed section of the waterfront that his family have christened "millionaire's walk."  They are skeptical of the wind turbine one of the millionaires has installed, but I think it is graceful enough to be more of a functional sculpture than an eyesore.
Sculpture or turbine?

The next morning, the kids went to a local story hour with their grandparents, and Mr. Snarky and I drove over to meet his sister for lunch. On our way over, we spotted a moai, and had to stop and take a look.
Maybe this is why they don't have hair?
As you can see, it was pretty windy. The moai turned out to be a replica given to the city as a gift from Chile.

We had pies at Patrishas and they were awesome. Then we headed back into the city center to check out a beer bar his mother wanted us to visit and report back on. We thought that Hashigo Zake was pretty nice, although since we were stuffed from the pies we did not sample their food. Also, their beer selection was slanted heavily toward California beer, since they had just had a big Fourth of July party. As amusing as it was to find Frogsbreath IPA in plentiful supply (it sells out quickly here in San Diego), we stuck to our goal of sampling local beers, and they had enough options on tap and in the bottle to keep us happy.

We returned to Te Papa to see a few things the kids had prevented us from seeing on our first visit, and wandered around downtown a bit more. Then we drove back to my in-law's house for our final dinner in New Zealand.

The next morning, we packed up and loaded into our rental car for the last time. We said good-bye to my in-laws at the Wellington airport, then flew to Auckland, and from there to LAX. Then we drove home, glad to be back in the warmth, but sad that our vacation was over.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Too Exhausted to Find a Theme Edition

I am completely wiped out for some reason. The beer I had with dinner didn't help. I am now less stressed-exhausted but more sleepy.

But I won't let that stop me from giving you some good things to read! I just won't try to find the unifying theme. To be fair, perhaps there isn't one.

First of all, Tragic Sandwich interviewed me about some of the ideas in my Taming the Work Weekbook.  She asked good questions. I'll let you judge whether I gave good answers!

I really liked this blog post from Shawn Lent about being a dancer whose dreams grew to include more than dance. I think there is wisdom in it for people in a lot of different fields. We can get so caught up in proving we can succeed in exactly the field in which we trained that we can lose sight of the chance to bring the insights and tools we gained in our training to other fields. She argues persuasively that doing so isn't giving up on the dream, it is growing the dream.

George Saunders gave a rather nice version of the traditional graduation speech. I like his reminder that the actions we regret are often the times when we could have been more kind than we were.

This a really nice post about how to stay friends with people who have kids. The only thing I'd add is that lunch times during the work week can be an excellent way to keep in touch, since I already have child care sorted during that time! Mr. Snarky and I have several friends who do not have kids, and we do make an effort to invite people over, but not nearly as much as we should. I found it via Blue Milk.

Tressiemc posted a really interesting article about the marriage of Hip Hop and country music. Getting to read random thoughtful analyses like this is one of the joys of the internet.

I loved this essay from Roxane Gay about how women journalists should get to write about topics other than women. (You'll notice I am not linking to any articles about the "women's topic" du jour, the opt out article- I have seen some good articles and posts about the article, but I am resolved to stay away from that topic, so you'll have to go find them on your own. I just don't have the emotional bandwidth to deal with that topic right now.)

I found this book excerpt about the starvation required to be a model infuriating. I do not buy fashion magazines and I do not buy designer clothes. But I suspect I am still complicit in this in some way. It is disgusting. If your clothes only look good on someone who has starved herself to emaciation, then you are not a good designer. Full stop.

I've recently discovered eShakti, and they seem to have a better approach. I am, however, really annoyed that the act of clothing myself requires so many ethical considerations. It is ridiculous that I have to think about whether the people who made my clothes were paid fairly and provided safe working conditions, but at least that is a consideration that men have to make, too. It is extra ridiculous that I have to think about whether my clothing purchases are supporting a system that encourages young women to starve themselves. Why do we still have to fight to have an industry that our money supports make products for us, not someone's impossible and unhealthy image of what they wish we were?

Ahem. Let's end on a happy note. This story about My Little Pony Dungeons and Dragons delights me. I particularly love the picture of the little girl ready for battle.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

A Project of One's Own

Work has been unbloggably tough lately, which has been hard on my self-confidence. This led to the following tweets last night:

And then I went off to work on my personal project. That project is in far too nascent of a state to share, but I will say that it is a Drupal-based project and I am really enjoying it. Working on it is good for me for many reasons, but the most important is that it is all mine, so whatever progress I make is also all mine, and the self-deprecating voice that lives in my head can't diminish the achievement by assigning credit to someone else.

Having a way to quiet the self-deprecating voice in my head is essential for me. People often think that the hardest part of being a woman in tech is having to put up with sexist comments, or having to represent all of womanhood as the sole woman on the team, or even having to fit in to a culture in which all the in jokes reference a geek culture that often excludes women. But for me, it is none of these things. I don't enjoy sexist comments, to be sure, and I have been known to reply tartly that I'll need to tune in to the sisterhood to answer some clueless question about "what women think," but I can usually shrug those things off. I don't get all of the geek culture jokes, but I get enough of them to fit in just fine, and since I enjoy sci-fi and geeky comics like xkcd, this has never been a problem for me.

No, for me, the hardest part is the way that the subtle (and not so subtle) reminders that I am not the same as everyone else undermine my confidence. I did not grow up programming in the way that my colleagues did- although I did have one programming experience in junior high. I was given a Texas Instruments computer as a hand me down from a cousin who no longer wanted it. I plugged it into the (also hand me down) black and white TV I had, and picked up the manual to try to figure out what I should do with it. There were some instructions on BASIC, so I wrote a program to play "Ode to Joy." And then I didn't do anything else, really, because I didn't have any other ideas.

When I told that story at a work lunch, the other people at the table were clearly surprised I'd coded as a kid. They had the grace to recover relatively quickly and try to hide their surprise, but their surprise didn't surprise me. I am so completely used to having people underestimate my technical skills and background that I am actually surprised when a new team member doesn't do that. Whatever the reason for this underestimation- my gender, the fact that I am primarily seen as a project manager now, or something else entirely- the effect is the same. Couple that chronic underestimation by others with weeks like the last few I've had at work, and it is far too easy to start underestimating my own capabilities.

My personal projects are antidotes for that, and that is why I make time for them, even when my work and family responsibilities try to squeeze them out. I will cut back on exercise, time with friends, even sleep before I drop my projects, because the projects are quite literally essential to my sanity. They are the only way I have found to tell that annoying self-deprecating voice in my head to shut up and let me work.

Do you have a self-deprecating voice in your head? How do you shut it up?

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Trip Story: Wellington (Part I)

In many ways, the entire reason we took our family vacation in New Zealand this year was to go to Wellington. Mr. Snarky and I both really like Auckland, and were glad to have the chance to visit some friends there. We had fun showing the girls Taupo. But the purpose of the trip was really to see my in laws in Wellington.

Luckily, Wellington is a pretty nice destination.

The day we drove to Wellington was the rainiest day of our trip. This made it hard to burn off steam at a playground after our lunch. We made up for that by stopping for afternoon snack at a great seaside playground in Paraparaumu, with several cool toys for the kids, including a huge climbing tower that Mr. Snarky also enjoyed.

Mr. Snarky climbed up first
I loved the view down to the beach through the flax- quintessential New Zealand.

The tractors are there to pull fishing boats out of the water

After we left the playground, it was only another hour or so to my in law's house in the Seatoun section of Wellington. We had a nice evening starting the process of catching up with my husband's family, but we were all pretty tired, so we went to bed early. Which means we woke up early- or at least the kids did, and they woke me and Mr. Snarky up, too. At least we got to see a beautiful sunrise.

Mr. Snarky took the picture from his parent's back garden. The view was just as good from their dining room and living room. They have a beautiful view.

Our first day in Wellington was chilly, but sunny and not terribly windy, so we headed out for some sightseeing. We found lunch at a mall food court, which allowed the kids to eat cheese scones while the grown ups tried more interesting things, and then we rode the cable car up to the Botanic Gardens. Wellington is an extremely hilly town, so there is a cable car that runs from the main business district up through the university to the Gardens. We thought the kids might enjoy the cable car, and we were right. But they really loved the playground at the Botanic Gardens. I talked about this playground in my "awards show" post on the trip, so I won't describe it again. I'll just show you the view from the cable car stop, which is pretty awesome.

After the outing to the park, we rested at my in law's house for awhile, and then decided to go for a stroll along the beach. The wind had picked up, so it was more of a determined march than a stroll, but the kids enjoyed looking for sea shells- the big storm that blew through the week before we came had left a bunch on the beach. Pumpkin also liked the jetty, which reminded her of the jetty in The Fierce Little Woman and the Wicked Pirate, a book by Joy Cowley that my in laws gave her a couple of years ago.

The next day was even windier, so we made our outing an indoor one, and headed to Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand. The kids were mostly interested in the play areas, but there were several of those interspersed among the exhibits, and we had enough adults along that we could take turns nipping out to look at other things. If you are ever in Wellington, be sure to stop by Te Papa. Like most museums in New Zealand it is free (donations are welcome), and it has a lot of cool things to see, including a giant animatronic baby made by Weta Studios (the folks responsible for The Lord of the Rings).

Creepy, but fun
We saw and did a lot more things in Wellington, but this post is long enough, so I'll pick up the story in a later post.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Weekend Reading: The More Thoughts about Publishing Edition

Work continues to be a bit of a mess... but I can't ignore my list of links about the state of publishing forever, so I'm going to make an attempt at a somewhat substantive weekend links post, all about how the publishing industry is evolving.

I don't know if you've been following the saga of Apple vs. Amazon, by way of the big publishing companies, but I largely agree with this post from Matthew Ingram: the publishers could probably solve their Amazon problem by doing away with DRM.

If you haven't been following it and are curious, The Battle of $9.99, by Andrew Richard Albanese is an excellent overview. (This is link is to an eBook, which will cost you $1.99.)

Right now, Amazon looks dominant in the publishing realm, but Evan Hughes argues in Salon that Amazon is cannibalizing its own success. I don't know that I agree with his entire argument, but I think that he has a point about the fact that the online world hasn't found a satisfactory replacement for browsing in a bookstore- at least not yet.

Kobo seems to be coming on strong as a competitor to Amazon, but they are not the only ones. A company called Zola wants to take them on, too. I'm watching both with interest.

I'm also intrigued by the idea of a Groupon-like business model for eBooks. But I'm not holding my breath for it to happen.

I'm also intrigued by the idea of bringing print on demand to bookstores. I hope it succeeds, actually. Between this and the way that a lot of indies are partnering with Kobo, maybe it is too soon to declare independent bookstores dead.

One reason I care about all of this churn is that I want to see more authors reach more people. Some people are arguing that the new age is just making it harder for an author to get noticed... but Bob Greene's recent CNN piece would seem to provide an object lesson in the fact that it has always been hard for an author to get noticed.

Another reason I care is that I want a nice variety of things to read. Right now, I particularly like to read short eBooks, so I found the opinions of authors C.D. Reimer and Lindsay Buroker on short fiction eBooks interesting. (Quite coincidentally, I stumbled across Buroker's Flash Gold steampunk novella, and quite enjoyed it.)

Magazines used to be another source of solid short reads, and I've been watching The Atlantic's foray into providing eBook content that with interest. Apparently, this is just one of many revenue streams they have been pursuing.

The app companies are also trying to get into the "long reads" (which are really short reads) game. I don't have an iPad, so I can't check this particular app out. Maybe they'll come to Android.

I continue to be fascinated by how we find the things we read. In my case, it is largely by word of mouth (or more properly, word of links...) online, and largely by search on my eReader. I'm not 100% satisfied with either method. In both cases, other methods leak in. I sometimes hear about a book (or follow a link about it) and go find it to read. And I sometimes find interesting things to read from searching on a topic.

What about you? How do you find things to read?