The Mutton War

(warning, long)

The war has gone on for so long that we almost cannot remember a time in which we were at peace. We start awake at night at the slightest noise, ready to charge outside shouting with guns drawn, only to find we are hurling our fury at shadows, and there is nothing there. Sometimes we awaken in the morning to find they have silently raided us in the night and left nothing but rubble and torn ground in their wake.

We have greater resources, but they have more numbers, and they are relentless. They have worn us down over the years, our rampaging enemy with the floppy ears and the big, round, soft eyes.

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Happy Ada Lovelace Day

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, where we honor women in technology. Research has shown that women need mentors and role models, more than men do, to succeed. But because there are so few women in tech to start with, it can be exceptionally hard for women to find the role models that they need. Suw Charman-Anderson created Ada Lovelace Day as an international day of blogging where we talk about our role models, the women in science and technology who have inspired us. (you don’t have to be female to contribute)

I hadn’t been planning to contribute to ALD, just because my blogging has been totally moribund over the last year (twitter: addicting). But I woke up today and read a few posts was so inspired that I suddenly felt compelled to write anyhow. I’m not precisely following the theme, but I hope that can be forgiven.

My first job right out of college in the late 80’s was at Sun Microsystems. It’s hard to imagine it now, but at the time Sun was one of the top companies in Silicon Valley, one of the best places to work, and where there was huge amounts of innovation in both hardware and software. When I mentioned to my friends that I worked at Sun, they all said “oh, that’s so cool.” I felt very lucky to have ended up there.

After drifting through a few projects and after a few reorgs at Sun, I settled into a small division called SunPICS, which stood for Printing and Imaging and two other things that I’ve forgotten. We wrote the software for Sun’s printer, which was actually harder than it sounds, because with Sun’s printers the PostScript rendering engine was on the computer and not in the printer (there were advantages to this at the time). We also did fonts, color management, printer device drivers, multi-user and multi-system printer queue management — all kinds of things are are boring now because they’re built into any computer or printer in the world and completely hidden from view, but at the time they were all new.

SunPICS was not a sexy group at Sun. We were not developing SPARC processors, creating high-end UNIX workstations, working on the guts of UNIX itself or writing an X11 windows server. We didn’t get much attention in the news, or make zillions of dollars for the company. We did printers. But we were kind of unique within the company because we had lots of women engineers. Even within Sun, which was known for being a good place for women to work, we were special. We were a magnet for women. In the group I worked directly with there were five women and just one guy. In the larger division we were more than half women. We were an extremely close group; we were smart and technical and we got stuff done. We shipped product. We did good work. Even ten years after the group disbanded we were still getting together for reunion lunches.

Because I was young, and so inexperienced, I didn’t realize how special this was at the time. I thought it was totally normal to be working right in the epicenter of the high tech universe, and to be surrounded by outstanding women of all ages, nationalities, and backgrounds.

I’ve often wondered if the experience of working in this group was one of the reasons I had the confidence, after I left Sun, to strike out on my own, to write books, to do consulting, to teach web tech to others. Because of Sun, because of the SunPICS group, being a woman in technology, being a smart geek woman just wasn’t all that unusual. For a long time I simply couldn’t comprehend questions people asked me about how I overcame the barriers or discrimination of being a woman in tech. Barriers? There are barriers?

It was only later, after I moved onto other companies, that I realized how unique this situation was. Most of the time today I am the *only* woman in the engineering groups I work with. I see the barriers for women in tech now, and I think there are more barriers — if only the barrier of being so much more alone. There are fewer women in tech now to begin with, and fewer big tech company environments where a group of women can comfortably organically build the way it did for me at Sun. I feel tremendously honored to have had that opportunity.

So for Ada Lovelace Day, I salute my SunPICS co-workers, for helping make me into the woman I am today. To Liane, Frances, Lorraine, Penny, Leila, Pan, Margaret, Brenda, Deborah, and any of you I may have forgotten. Thank you.

the root canal and the overactive imagination

It is apparently root canal season. I had one a few weeks back, and two co-workers have either had one or are just about to have one. This coincidence sparked a conversation yesterday over (yes) coffee.

First Co-Worker: You’d think with medical technology the way it is that they’d be able to just grow new teeth by now. Just pull the bad tooth and put in a new one. None of this painful root canal stuff.

Second Co-Worker: Yeah but teeth have nerves and stuff. You’d have to like grow it inside your mouth and that’s a lot harder. I don’t think we have the technology to regenerate body parts yet.

Laura: Its the side effects that are a problem. You know, the part where the new tooth grows its own brain and tells you to kill your family with an axe.

(long silence)

Laura: what? you didn’t see that movie?

o western wind

You may have heard we had some rain last week out here in California. At our house, it was ten inches of rain and 50MPH sustained winds. On hummingbird mountain nearby they had wind gusts at 127MPH before the meter apparently blew down. Big storm. Big one.

When Eric and I got up on Friday morning last week the rain wasn’t so bad but our internet connection was out. So we made the incredibly stupid decision to leave the house and go to work. Because, you know, having access to your email is so much more important than knowing that your house and your pets are safe and dry or having a familiar place to sleep that night.

The day turned out to be full of incredibly stupid decisions. My second stupidest decision was choosing to wear a long wool coat to work, rather than a nylon waterproof rain jacket. My logic at the time went thusly: the wool coat is just so much more attractive than the nylon rain jacket; I only have to go from my car to get coffee and back, and then from my car into my building at work; and I have an umbrella. How wet could I possibly get?

I contemplated that question for a good long while as I sat in my car in the parking lot outside the coffee shop near work, as my car rocked back and forth on its suspension while the wind tried to blow it right over. I was parked four cars away from the door but the rain was coming down so hard I couldn’t actually tell if the coffeeshop was still there. I bravely picked up my umbrella, pushed the car door open and the wind forced it closed again, nearly taking off my fingers. I put down my umbrella, which was now quailing in fear, and had another long contemplative moment. While I contemplated the wind pushed my car another parking space away from the coffeeshop, leaving grooves in the pavement like the rocks in Death Valley. Did I really need coffee that bad? I took a deep breath and kicked my way out into the storm.

So the answer to how wet can one possibly get in a wool coat in a rainstorm is quite wet indeed, and the third stupidest thing I did on friday was wear tennis shoes. When you are dashing across the parking lot in a storm with your wool coat up over your head it is hard to tell that the wide puddle you are about to splash across is actually eight inches deep. And cold. Very cold. Did I mention the cold?

No, actually, I did not need coffee that bad. That was definitely the line right there.

But I got my coffee. And I got to work. Later on, my group went out to lunch. The wool coat was well and thoroughly soaked through after still more trips running to and from the car, and here’s something I never realized: a soaking wet wool coat smells kind of like a big wet dog.

It was such a peachy day.

return, reflect, resolve, reboot

I have a clean office, a new computer, and a big pot of coffee. It’s the new year, a bright new day and it’s time to get back to work.

First of all, thanks to everyone who sent me mail (and mail to my sister!) wondering where I was and if everything was OK. All this time I was thinking my readers (both of you) might be disappointed that I had stopped writing but that there were five trillion other blogs that could take my place. Little did I know that I had FOUR readers and that they did indeed miss me. Wow! 🙂

What I’ve Been Up To, the Short Version

I am fine. My health is fine. My head is fine. It’s all good.

I have been running, and swimming. If I start bicycling again I will end up accidentally training for a triathalon. I have acquired a small flock of chickens, and a piano. I cleaned my office (this is is a big deal). I lost eight pounds (this is not a big deal; I have lost them before but they keep coming back). I have read something like three dozen books in the last six months. I got my hair cut short. I gave up caffeine again, three times. I sleep ten hours or more a night, but I have strange dreams where tiny espresso shots cruelly laugh at me.

Most importantly, I successfully survived turning 40.

Unplugging…Sort of

I did get a big ugly case of Deep Thoughts at 40, and a whole series of those Deep Thoughts concerned the amount of time I spend on the internet every day. I really did not want to have “successfully maintained her social network” carved on my gravestone. I still don’t.

In August I was reading hundreds of blogs a day, keeping up on dozens of mailing lists, web forums and old-style BBSes, reading and (um, sometimes) replying to personal email, and regularly posting to this blog as well. All of this in my spare time, on top of my normal daily workload. I didn’t have to get this involved in the internet, but I had built it up over time, slowly abandoning my own writing and my other interests and feeling like I was behind if I didn’t keep up on my email and my feeds. Even when I did sit down and write or draw or play music on my own I felt lost and blocked, as if there was nothing there in my head to draw on.

This was also a time when twitter and facebook were very popular amongst many of my friends. I was having a hard time imagining signing up for more internet time-sucks when I already felt so stretched for time and attention, and so creatively empty.

I’d like to say I unplugged from the net in August and that I feel much better, but I’m not that virtuous. I have cut tremendously back on the amount of net reading I do, I turn off my IM most of the time, and I am not on either twitter nor facebook if you’ve been looking for me there. I feel like I’m wasting less of my life on the net, but I still don’t feel good. I still feel like I have a lot of work to do to pull away.

A Bad Case of Why

Another Deep Thought I had this fall I did was wondering why I blog at all. I suspect this is a phase that every blogger goes through, a nobody-cares-why-bother-its-all-pointless phase. It just took me a while to get here and probably lasted for far longer than it should have, given that I’ve been a writer my entire life and writing a blog should come easily to me.

I think I have been unconsciously influenced by the so-called A-list bloggers, who are blogging as a business and who have a single-minded focus on attracting readers so that they can pull in advertising dollars and thus get rich and famous and quit their jobs. I’ve never really viewed this blog as anything more than a hobby and a place to write once in a while, but I still find myself feeling guilty that I violate every major business blogging rule. Thou Shalt Not Write a Journal Blog. Thou Shalt Write About What Everyone Else is Writing About and Cultivate Pagerank. Thou Shalt Not Post Cat Pictures. I’ve been guilty that I can’t seem to follow the rules and thus I’m not rich and famous like the business bloggers. Never mind that not even the business bloggers seem to be doing all that well at the rich-and-famous-quitting-the-job strategy. I can find a whole lot to be guilty about if I try.

But looking over my archives it does seem like I’ve been trying to do too many things and imitate too many other sites. I have a focus problem. I’m not kottke or boingboing or engadget but it is like I’m trying to be all these sites and a half dozen others, in addition to posting my own stuff. What I do notice from my stats is that the most popular posts on this blog, the ones that are linked the most and commented on the most, are consistently the longer posts, the more personal posts, the opinions or essays or reviews or stories about cooking or gardening or tech. The funny posts are usually a big hit.

What a surprise: my best posts are the ones where I actually write like me.

2008 Blog Resolutions

It’s time for a blog reboot. (for the content, at least. I want to do a new design and move the blog to wordpress, too, but that will have to wait for when I have more time.)

In 2008 I want to stop trying to be other people’s blogs, and be more creative on this one. What this means, I hope, is longer posts and more personal stuff. Fewer link-log posts and more funny essays (or at least attempts at being funny). I’m probably going to talk more about gardening and cooking. I’m going to post about work (not so much “my co-worker is an asshole and the coffee here sucks” type of things but more about technology and teaching and writing and publishing, which is what I do). I would really like to post more fiction. There will be cat pictures.

What I’m aiming for is an unpopular blog that is nonetheless richer for me to write. And, I hope, if all four of you stick around, richer for you too.

thoughts on thoughts on turning 40

Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood. – Dante, Inferno (Ciardi, trans.)

Ten years ago I wrote an essay called Thoughts on Turning 30. It was a very personal essay, for me. One of the big reasons I wrote it was because I don’t keep a journal (kind of unusual, for a writer). I had talked in that essay about how I had spent time at every significant birthday up to that point moping about my life and about what I had learned. But I had never written any of it down. Part of my intent in that essay was to capture a moment in time, to explain how I was feeling at that moment so that Future Me would know.

I am Future Me now. Today is my 40th birthday. I joked in that essay that Future Me would look back on 30 me and laugh about how naive I was. I read that essay now and I don’t think that I was all that naive. I’m not laughing. I am, however, struck at how self-confident 30 me was. Self-confident, and optimistic. I was a bright young woman with a big attitude, at the top of my game, with big ideas and a whole lot of years to accomplish them stretching ahead of me. 30 me had so much to look forward to. 30 me was, frankly, really cool.

30 me, unfortunately, didn’t know how quickly things could unravel, didn’t know how dark the next ten years would actually be. How easily things could change with a few health problems and a lot of worry. Life sometimes jumps up and stands in the way of one’s big fabulous plans.

I’m not here to write thoughts on turning 40 and moan about how terrible things have turned out for me. They’re not terrible. I’m healthier than I’ve ever been, I have a good career, a terrific marriage, and a very comfortable life. But things are much different now than they were for 30 me — quieter, more settled, more introspective, more routine, more boring. Which would be fine, if I was happy. But there’s a lingering, nagging doubt in the back of my mind, and sometimes the front, that I could be, should be, more than I am. There’s a doubt that is only underlined when I read 30 me excitedly talking about what she has learned and how much more she’s looking forward to. I find myself at 40 envying the overwhelming energy of 30 me, and wondering when it was I lost the drive to change the world. Is this just what happens when you get older, or did I make a wrong turn somewhere? Am I, like Dante, lost in the dark wood? And if I am, what I do I need to do to get out again?

panoply of updates, part 2

More updates. I had planned to post this immediately after a panoply of updates (part 1) but I got distracted by the arrival of really large book. Perhaps you heard of it? Harry Potter and the Weekend of Accomplishing Absolutely Nothing?

The Return of the Cold-Brewed Coffee

My iPhone post was exceptionally popular the week I posted it, what with frenzy being at its peak just before the phone was released. But then as I watched my stats I noticed something funny: there was another post that was consistently getting better hits. A post I wrote almost exactly two years ago about cold-brewed coffee was by far the most popular post on this blog, even more popular than the iPhone post.

What the hell? I thought. It didn’t take long to figure out what was going on: the New York Times had done an article about cold-brewed coffee, and it had sparked a fad. Suddenly my review was in great demand from the curious. (the same thing happened when I wrote about no-knead bread; perhaps if I want to be a more popular blogger I should just always write about what the New York Times writes about.)

I panned cold-brew coffee in that original post. I had nothing good to say about it. “Tastes like ass” was the term I used, and I stand by that assertion. (“assertion,” ha ha ha. I’m sorry. I am 12.) I have a bunch of friends who have glommed onto the fad recently and they insist that my method was flawed, that you need to make smaller amounts than the full pound at a time I was making, and you don’t need to dilute it.

I am still dubious. But perhaps I will try it just to update that post and keep my stats up.

Death and Camping

An update for the happy camper (1 and 2)

A couple weekends back we drove out to the Sierras for the Death Ride, one of Eric’s two big bicycle events of the year. I’ve written about the Death Ride before, here and here. Eric wrote up his Death Ride story on his blog.

Normally for the death ride we get a motel room some distance from the ride, wake up at 3AM, and drive in a panic for an hour to the start of the ride in hopes of finding a good parking spot. At 5:30AM when Eric leaves I go back to sleep in the back of the car and wait for him to get back.

This year we have the VW camper van. This year we could camp along with a zillion other bicyclists in the park next to the start line. This year there would be no parking spot worry. And best of all, we could sleep in. All the way through to 4AM, when the Death Ride organizers turned the loudspeakers on, put the volume up to 11 and woke us all up with rousing music. The Mission Impossible theme. Appropriate.

This was our first big camping experience with the Eurovan and I am happy to proclaim it a success, mostly. On the one hand, sleeping in the poptop is comfortable and spacious. The windows in the side of the poptop are right at eye-height, which means as you’re dozing off in the wilderness you can look out at the stars (and the night sky in the sierras without any urban light pollution: tremendous). On the other hand given that the poptop is canvas it is very noisy up there. If you’re not used to a lot of noise — and we’re not, we live in the country — normal outdoorsy noise from other people can keep you up at night. We didn’t get a lot of sleep. I’m thinking earplugs.

Hanging out in the Eurovan is awesome. All the windows have curtains and there are accessory curtains for the windshield so you can make it entirely private if you, um, want to do private things. With all the doors and windows open it’s airy and comfortable, and sitting on the rear bench seat with a lemon soda out of the fridge and a bowl of blueberries on the table, reading a book, is almost decadent.

On the other hand if you really want to have the genuine sweaty and uncomfortable camping experience you can shut all the windows and does get really hot and stuffy inside fairly quickly. If you’re really lucky you can trap a couple really angry yellowjackets inside. Your choice.

a panoply of updates

Yeah, I’m being scarce again. I’m midway through a long tech writing contract and in that “OMG I can’t stand to do any more writing” frame of mind when I get home every night. My head has grooved deep into tech writing and its hard to think about anything else. I think in dotnet. I dream in dotnet. Pray for me.

I’m feeling a bit less dotnet right now so I can catch up with a few updates on past posts and maybe post a link or two.

Still Not Buying an iPhone

An update for why I am not buying an iPhone

So, the Jesus Phone is out, and other than the expected AT&T horrorshow, people seem to love it. Apparently I have no cool friends because none of them have bought one, and I haven’t managed to get to an Apple store. Yes, that’s right, it’s been weeks and I have yet to lay eyes on an iPhone in person. Sob. There is a possibility that once I actually get one in my hands I will be consumed with gadget lust and insist on buying one, but so far from the actual hands on reviews I’m actually even less inclined to buy an iPhone than I was before. No one really likes the keyboard. The email client is only meh (no spam filter? aiieee!). Support for iCal calendars isn’t that great, and To Dos don’t sync (arrrgghhh! I live in my calendars and to dos!) There’s no bluetooth sync or file sytem browse. As fabulous as the multitouch interface is, it’s implemented inconsistently across applications.

Right now I’m thinking I’ll wait for iPhone 2.0 or 3.0 — or more likely, I’ll buy a nice widescreen multitouch iPod when they ship those, which Apple most obviously will.

Awash in Apricots

An update for greed and apricots

So, the apricot tree fell down a month or so ago with a zillion unripe apricots on it. And I cut down a few of the branches that were blocking my path through the garden and crushing the squash. But I left up a good portion of the tree in place — although the branches were broken they were mostly still attached and I figured that maybe they were connected enough that
the apricots would turn ripe anyhow.

I was right. The apricots left on the tree are slowly ripening up. The tree is dying so they aren’t going to get as ripe as they would on a healthy tree, but I am getting ripe and sweet apricots. I harvest them when they’re a little soft and let them ripen the rest of the way on the kitchen counter.

My only problem now is that there’s so many of them. If they had all ripened up at once I’d bring bagfulls of them into work and give them away. I’d can them and jam them and dry them. But instead now I only get a small number ripe apricots every day.

I’ve never tried to eat an entire tree full of apricots all by myself. Its, um, kind of hard on the body. And even worse: the peach tree, also totally full of fruit this year, is just about to come ripe. whimper.


An update for i hate water. hate, hate, hate water.

We bought a front-load washer and matching dryer, a Kenmore set from a local Sears subsidiary called Orchard Supply Hardware. They’re nice people, and they deliver.

I should point out here that It took me six months to research and order a new coffeemaker. It was eighteen months before I found the perfect toaster. I’ve been planning a kitchen remodel for close to ten years and that doesn’t even include moving anything around. But I spent perhaps twenty minutes researching washers and dryers on the internet and only an hour and half driving around shopping. The Kenmore washer and dryer are just fine. Perhaps I have some sort of appliance OCD and I need an emergency so that I can actually make a decision.

The new washer is worth gushing over for just a moment. It it one of these spiffy front-loading washers; it senses the size of the load you put into it and figures out how much water you need, which is almost none at all. It is nearly silent when it runs, except when it is spinning the almost no water out of the laundry at insanely high speed. And yet it gets the clothes way cleaner than the old washer ever did, and uses almost no electricity. I think I am in love with this washing machine.

The dryer was a bit of an adventure because we use propane at our house and I could only buy a gas dryer. The salesperson assured me that the conversion kit was easy to find and trivial to install; the installation people would put it in for me. The conversion kit was not easy to find now that my appliance guy is gone, and the installation guy laughed at me when I asked if he would put it in. I ended up putting it in myself and it was somewhat less than trivial thanks to somewhat awkward access. Although I can handle a lot of appliance repair myself I admit that rejetting a gas mechanism is a bit more intimidating than your usual repair. If you screw up you can blow up the house. We haven’t blown up the house yet, so I must have done it right.

From my original story you may remember I had two sets of old washers and dryers. The installation people were instructed to pick up my old set and I asked if they would take away the extra too. They looked dubious until I suggested that since pickup of the first cost me $20 I would be happy to contribute another $20, in cash. Suddenly, magically, there was room on the truck.

They pulled the old washer and dryer out of the barn and just before the dryer got loaded up into the truck a big fat brown mouse ran out of it. There was an exchange of dark looks and I thought for a moment I was going to have to offer another $20. But after banging on the side of the dryer for a while with no further rodent appearances all was good and all my old, bad, leaky, stinky, mouse-infested appliances went away down the hill.

More updates later.