Archive for June, 2012


Coloring in the lines

June 28, 2012

I don’t color in the lines very well. I often want to. I look at other people and think that what they’ve done is pretty and neat, so much tidier than I could manage.

And by coloring in the lines I mean all the idiomatic meanings… I run my own business. People can hire me, pay for my time, and tell me what to do. But I can always say no. They aren’t the boss of me; I am the boss of me. And, by the way, I don’t want to be the boss of you either.

Let’s take a trivial example… I’ve already mentioned that I use a haphazard ratiometric approach to baking cookies, never able to reproduce a particular baked good unless it it yummy enough to write down the recipe. And then I never consider following the recipe that I wrote down, always tweaking it here and there.

So it was a little odd that last week, having agreed to bring dessert to a potluck, I baked two kinds of cookies, following the recipes as best as I was able. And they both worked out really, really well.

The first was a chocolate chip cookie. Now, it is hard to have a bad chocolate chip cookie. I think the only disastrous ones were when I used old fashion oatmeal that was a little too old fashioned. The oat husks stuck out at odd angles from the top of the cookie and bit back when I tried to eat them. But the cookies from Cooks Illustrated were fantastic.

Loads and loads of butter but they were crunchy and chewy at the same time. Really yummy.

The other cookies were odd: 2 egg whites whipped to stiff peaks, 2 cups brown sugar (chunks broken up) and 2 cups pecans folded gently in then baked at 350F for 20 min. Given the recipe, I expected them to taste like pecan candy. Instead, they were like chunky macaron outer cookies.

In fact, mixed one a plate with the chocolate chip cookies, both brown and chunky, my husband thought the pecan cookies were the chocolate chip cookies and said there were good but only subtly chocolatey. The pecan meringues were very cookie like and the texture was right for the chips. They were odd but really good; nice to remember when you need gluten-free, lactose-free cookies.

Both cookies went over well at the potluck. I felt like an integrated member of society. Having colored in the lines actually turned out well. On the other hand, the potluck was a cross section of software engineers, ballet dancers and motorcycle riders; possibly conforming to regular societal norms was the most nonconformist thing I could have done at that particular party. Sheesh, I didn’t think of that but I also wore a pretty linen skirt…

I tweeted recently about having left the keys to social interaction on the table at home. I’d had an incident at work where I misread the cues, thought it was time to work when it was time to chat and I felt hideously awkward. Hence the tweet. The response was amusing, clearly I am not the only one who feels like everyone else has a key and I’m trying to pick the lock.

Coloring in the lines is my response to that feeling. Except… well, except I can only keep it up for a limited time before I burn out. Yes, now I can make two really good cookies from recipe. So? Anyone can make these cookies. It wasn’t even hard let alone creative. No one but me can wander around my kitchen, picking herbs from the garden, fruit about to go bad, and ingredients on hand and say, “You know what we need? Lavender-blueberry muffins!” (My husband squawked and then later admitted the sweet/spice of lavender went really well with the blueberries.)

I feel like I should start singing “I gotta be meeeeeee!” but I waver. A lot. The confidence is usually an act. I want to be confident in who and what I am, hideous disasters and all (I swear the goal was not mint extract in the strawberry crepes, it was supposed to be vanilla!). But I’m not. I used to think that this feeling would go away when I grew up. But I think that already happened when I wasn’t watching.

Today at work, I’ll be refusing to color in the lines. I had a minor meltdown yesterday after trying too hard to do what they want, even though it is wrong (and stupid and untestable and a poor user experience). I shouldn’t have tried so hard but I want them to like me; every time I ventured outside the lines, the manager hit my knuckles with a ruler (metaphorically, of course). Getting frustrated doesn’t help. And I am the boss of me! So if this is a product I think is going to hell because of poor vision, well, I can take my ball of talent and go elsewhere (eek!). Or they can watch the picture I create, if they simply tell me what they want and let the lines fall naturally.



What does a second grader know anyway?

June 25, 2012

I have a friend with two elementary school boys. They are both extraordinarily bright. The older one is quiet about it, the younger is noisier with less self control (though he’s younger so I don’t think the comparison is reasonable except that it is only possible for me to compare them in the now).

Anyway, the younger one just finished second grade. However, on the standardized tests, he scored at twelfth grade reading level. 12. Seriously, the boys have excellent vocabularies and they enjoy reading. I love that sometimes they don’t want to obey because they are too busy reading or want to bring their books to the table. This is awesome.

But what do you give a second grader to read when he’s reading at high school level? What has interesting, complicated vocabulary and structure but doesn’t have sex, drugs, death and violence?

I immediately said Encyclopedia Brown. I have fond memories of no longer being the nerdiest nerd ever while reading those book. My husband immediately suggested The Hobbit.

I think the boys have both read Harry Potter but I’m not sure the younger read all of them. So let’s set the bar at Harry Potter 3 and consider what else might be good.

Many of the books I can think of I read as an adult… Lemony Snicket was fun, up to about book five where it started to go off the rails. Very nice vocab, engaging but convoluted plots. The Chronicles of Narnia were pretty spiffy though I’m not sure how far I got.

I suppose anything published before 1950 has a good chance of mild themes. Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew. Oh, and Mark Twain, Sherlock Holmes are free in ebooks. But those feel a little like school books. How to get them to stay fun?

There are some new books that are supposed to be good (at least according to my Goodreads recommendations)- Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, How to Train Your Dragon. This is such an interesting problem. And I love books so much. But I kind of have a lousy memory for details about them. I thought The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would be good but my husband says no, really no. And yet I cannot recall what about it would be in appropriate to an eight year old. Sure the whole Earth buys it but that is incidental to the story. (And Lemony Snicket is way more macabre.)

Speaking of macabre, Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book was fantastic. Not too scary, really a great book. It won an award… The Newbery Medal. I bet all those are fantastic. Everything on that list that I’ve read has been pretty amazing.

I also mentioned to my friend that nonfiction wouldn’t have theme issues. And if they can get addicted to reading facts, well, they will start acing everything else real soon. I don’t remember when I read Flatworld but I recall thinking it must be a secret book that would change the way everyone thought of mathematics once it was discovered. Stephen and Lucy Hawking just put out some children’s books about physics, modern physics. I bet those are neat. I kinda want to read them myself.

Back to fiction, though. I read Among Others last year. It is up for a Hugo award now and will be my choice for winner. I joined the Hugo voting partially so I could vote for that, partially because the number of excellent books I got for $75 was so very worth it.

Anyway, Among Others is a book about a girl adjusting to the loss of her twin sister, dealing with a dysfunctional family, and finding solace in sci-fi books. Trust me when I say the Hugo folks like the last bit the best. The book was written by someone who clearly loves books. That was my favorite part. I kept wanting to ask the heroine whether she’d considered this book or that one.

I like to talk about books, compare notes. But I’m not part of a book club as I don’t like having to read something, it just sucks the fun from it. And I’m only an intermittent GoodReads user because I don’t like how it totals up the book, making me look addicted to the written word. There is no truth in that, I very seldom go through more than a book a day.

Maybe I should volunteer to read the books for my friend’s kids. I wouldn’t mind a summer spent reading children’s books. At least I can save them from Where the Red Fern Grows (bait and switch!) and Bridge to Terabithia (ditto) and Little Women (just ugh).

I bet Emma wishes she’d never mentioned it. She was probably (rightfully) bragging about her brilliant children and never intended that I “help”. Snicker. I wonder if they’d like… hmm… so many options…

PS. There are some nice places to look for books: blogs about children’s books, with reviews and sites that order by age and reviews.



Oh! They love me! They really love me!

June 14, 2012

One of my first reviews for Making Embedded System came on the O’Reilly site and it was a not a good review. I mean, it was a bad review (and it wasn’t particularly well written).

It was somewhat heartbreaking to have put all that work into a book and then have someone bash it. And he hadn’t really read it (one of the things he said was terrible was, funny enough, something I was saying was terrible if only he’d done more than flip through it).

Ouch. But I try (try really, really hard sometimes) to learn from mistakes and to be as mature as possible about such things. I totally agree with this author’s posting: “The biggest enemy of our careers is not bad reviews, but obscurity.” As with my view on ebook pirating, I may not like bad reviews but I do want my book to make ripples. I am not yet to Scalzi’s delighting in one star reviews but I’d almost (almost, maybe) have bad reviews than nothing. Of course, Scalzi’s examples are much funnier than mine. And he’s got a thicker skin from years of doing this.

But as we were gone on our cross country trip, two more reviews were added to my book on Amazon, heaping my collection of 5-star reviews there to a lucky 7.  (Which isn’t to say that 8 or 9 or 53 would be unlucky, feel free to add more, I won’t mind.)

Now, I will admit that I know Ken Brown, one of the Amazon reviewers. And when he said, “Well, is there anything else I could do?” after tech reviewing it (and doing an awesome job with the review), I immediately asked if he could pretty please write a review.

Still, seven people like my book enough to take the time to write a review in Amazon. I’m sometimes surprised by what they liked most about it. I mean, check this out from James Langbridge, a guy I’ve never met (though we exchanged emails after he entered some errata):

This book is full of technical detail, but more importantly, it is full of wisdom. I had fun reading this, and to the question would I recommend this book to a friend? I already have, to junior members of my team.

I like “I had fun reading this”… such a wonderful thing to say about a technical book. And this:

I would say that the most valuable contribution this book makes is in explaining the design integration of hardware components and basic EE-technologies to a software developer who has not yet experienced the design of a sophisticated embedded system. – Ira Laefsky

And then on Goodreads, someone said exactly what I could have wished for:

I wish this book was around when I started working.

Because that is the book I wrote: the one I wish I had when I started.





Universities of the future

June 11, 2012

Going to college is expensive, really hideously expensive. And the price keeps rising. Student mortgage themselves in hopes of future income. And if they choose a major that doesn’t pay off, well, too bad, you still have to pay the loans

I don’t think this trend can continue. I’m excited (amazed, thrilled) by the online universities. Some of these are traditional universities offering their course material for free, often without a grade. Standford’s Machine Learning course by Professor Ng was awesome, I think every week I learned something that I applied to my job’s gnarly data analysis problem. And last fall, Stanford opened its Artificial Intelligence class for free to all comers. More than a hundred thousand people took them up on it. A hundred thousand people taking an upper level CS course. Wow!

The professor (Sebastian Thrun) touched all those minds. Amazing. And apparently addictive as he went off to co-found a startup to teach the masses. Udacity offers courses free to anyone and they range from intro to CS (no programming required) to building a robotic car. And the now-almost-legendary AI course is there. They even give you a grade (well, certificate with different levels of distinction).

Udacity isn’t alone. ITunes U has just a slew of videos and course materials on every topic under the sun. The photography ones are worth watching just for the pictures. And  Courseara has partnered with Stanford, Princeton, Penn and U of Michigan to offer an amazing selection.

See, every time someone makes a better course on topic X, you could watch that one instead. You could get the best education money can buy (and never have a boring, droning professor whose lecture leaves the material all in a muddle in your head). And it would be free.

Hey, I’m flabbergasted by that. I remember the day I paid off my student loans, what huge weight it was off my shoulders. Why would you pay to go to college when you could just suck this all down for free? For free!!!!!!!!!

How can it stay free? Well, I heard Udacity’s strategy yesterday (but I don’t know if it was said in confidence so you can search online to find it out yourself). It was interesting. I don’t know if it was viable but close enough that, yes, they can probably stay free to the student. Which is awesome (amazing, thrilling, exciting).

Grading become a problem but everyone is working on that. At Udacity, they build courses that have exams and homework that can be automatically graded (with some teaching assistant involvement). For many of the sciences, points can be based on the right answer (though it leaves style and partial credit to be solved).

Let’s say they fix that; natural language processing is getting better. Computers can read essays already, they don’t have too far to go to grade them. And multiple choice is evil but easy to grade.

Once you have grades, the next step is accreditation. Colleges already have it so they know how to do it. Some places may not go down that road, instead offering non-accredited transcripts. As long as they maintain an excellent reputation, it will work. For awhile. And then they’ll get accredited though maybe not by the body that does it now.

So, sweeping aside the problems that University of Phoenix has already surmounted, let’s think about where we go from here. Online colleges don’t have to turn anyone away to keep class sizes small. They can scale. Infinitely.

But what about labs? Physically doing the work in science? And then there is the issue that one of the main points to college is meeting everyone else in your college. The people I met in college are still my best friends, the people I trust to “get me” when no one else does. And I’ve heard the main point of business school is making contacts to help you work in business.

(Note: wild prognostication ahead.)

I think that college will go mostly online as the only affordable choice. And then students will realize they need each other, beyond the forums, in person. So they’ll co-locate. But not to an expensive university town, instead to an apartment in some cheap place where they can find part time jobs. And then, when four people are living nearby, a few more will come because is makes sense. And then a few more, until the whole building is mostly college students, studying together, helping each other, sharing physical space and physical materials.

Their degree will be from Accredited Online University  with a note that the student was from Apartment Building 12. Some of the apartments will be frat houses. Some will have chem labs in the basement. (Oh, save us from those that are both.) And some people won’t have that, they won’t afford the apartment or won’t get in (will you have to send your SAT scores so you can live with these people?). That’s ok, though it may be like going to a lower tier college so they’ll need to get good marks. Or maybe the students will take online courses from a dormitory at a traditional college as they augment that degree with courses that aren’t taught locally (or at the time needed or are taught poorly).

One of the tenets of society right now is that information wants to be free. If you are older than 35, can you imagine having Wikipedia in high school? I’m constantly stunned by the depth and breadth of what I can find online. Adding courses, designed to help people learn, well, now we are getting somewhere awesome. It isn’t just information, it is education.

Another tenet is that of self organization. Flash mobs are amusing; SOPA legislation squashing was more amazing. They used to call it grassroots. Now they call it the internet.

So, I think the universities of the future will be partially self organized. Where the senior, getting ready for a job, tells his sophomore neighbor that if she takes Penn’s archaeology course before Stanford’s paleobiology, it will make more sense. Since her transcript is going to be a set of courses and grades, well, her “degree” comes from when she’s ready to get a job or pass a certification exam. He does this because he wants his apartment building to stay ranked and maybe because he gets some “mentoring score”.

I don’t have it all planned out. But if I start buying apartment buildings, well, you’ll know why.



Writing is hard

June 7, 2012

If you ever think “I want to be a writer” or “I want to write a book” then I have the giant secret that everyone is keeping from you that will enable you do to just that.


Um, yeah. That is it. I hear other authors talk about “butt in chair” time. Sometimes what you write is not awesome. If you wanted to play a piano sonata in front of your friends and family, do you think you’d expect to walk up there and do it? Or do you think you’d have to practice and practice? Writing is the same. Get over it. You put your time in and eventually (eventually!) you get something out of it.

Unfortunately, I find that I get tired of writing. Oh, I know, you think I program computers and that is totally different. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to phrase something when I’m programming, how to make the comments instructive and useful while still being short, and how to build from detail to big picture.

For me, the skills are similar to writing. Which is why after working all day, I’m not blogging. During the trip, it was extremely relaxing to write. Now, it is kind of a chore. I don’t plan to give up my blog but I’ve got exciting new things happening and contract job that has a crazy deadline. Between them (and the update to Plants vs Zombies), I’m not getting any writing done here on the blog.

It isn’t a lack of ideas, just a lack of oomph.

To distract you, let me show you what C has been up to:

Those great photos of the venus transit (and the awesome eclipse one!) also represent hours and hours of work. And it isn’t only the work of setting the telescope up and pushing the button every few minutes to get a new shot while sitting in the sun. Each picture needs to be evaluated and some of them need adjustments to highlight the cool stuff.

With butt in chair, he’s doing photography. As well as programming. Which also has an oddly large crossover with photography.