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Project Sunset

I’ve got a project for someone.  You’ll need a camera and a computer, and some programming skills, and a web site that can host about 400 photos.

A couple weeks ago I was driving from my office to downtown Bellevue shortly after sunset.  The sky and the buildings looked like a typical autumn evening around here.  And that got me wondering what exactly it was, other than my knowledge of the calendar and my view of the trees, that made me think it’s an autumn evening as opposed to any other season?  I figured it was probably something about the angle or quality of the light that did it, but since the sun had crossed the horizon a little while earlier it wasn’t direct light or shadows.  Whatever it was, it looked cold.  I was glad I had a warm car and gloves.

We take a lot of very subtle cues from the environment that help us determine where we are in the daily or yearly cycle.  Go take a nap in the park on some nice summer day.  When you wake up, don’t look at your watch, just look around you at the shadows.  Odds are, you’ll probably have a rough idea of how long you were napping based on how they’ve changed.  Most of us don’t deliberately try to learn this, but you see the world every day, and after several years of living year-round in the same place, you get an innate feeling for when the leaves will sprout or change color, and how long it takes shadows to crawl across the floor.

I didn’t think about this very much until about ten years ago, when I visited South Africa for a week in June.  We got off the plane around 10 a.m. local time, but as we drove out of the city into the more rural areas, something felt really off.  Logically I knew it was morning, but my brain was convinced it was six or eight hours later.  I’m sure part of it was jet lag and the unfamiliar countryside, but there was something different about the way the light was hitting in the Southern Hemisphere that just looked out of whack.  I was aware that we were in a different season and therefore the length of the days and nights would not be the same as what I’d just traveled from.  But I couldn’t figure out why I’d have the sensation that east and west were opposite of what I was used to, or that we were a couple hours away from sunset rather than a couple hours past sunrise.  Over the years since that visit, I’ve tried a couple times to work out the geometry of the problem in my head but I only end up confusing myself, convinced both ways at once.

Anyway, the project.  Set up a camera pointed at a fixed location outside–preferably one without too many natural cues like trees and grass.  Find the sunset tables for the next 12 months.  Program your camera to take a picture a set interval after sunset every day, say something in the range of 15 to 30 minutes.  It needs to be after sunset so that ambient light is reflected rather than direct, but I think the priciple would also work if you take a picture a set number of minutes prior to sunrise, just as long as the sun is below the horizon.  Then upload that daily picture to a web site where I (and anyone else who’s curious) can compare pictures taken several weeks or months apart, and see whether there really is a difference between the look of a spring evening and a fall evening.


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Less planning, more playing

If you were compiling a list of Useful Traits for Parents, you might include “makes detailed plans for the long term” as a desirable characteristic.  After all, there’s tuition to pay for, and vacations to juggle, and who wants to eat the same dinner three times in a week?  But as a long-term planner myself, I’ve discovered that trying to plan the finer details of the future often backfires in the parenting department.

It starts innocently enough.  I’ll imagine some scenario that seems reasonably likely to happen, and then try to plan how I’ll handle it when it arises.  Sometimes this works out well.  More often, I get stressed out as I realize that I have no idea how to handle the situation, and from there it’s a downward slide into whimpering and pounding my head against the table.  The epitomic episode of this happened one morning while I was still pregnant, pondering how I’d talk to my still-unborn son about drug use.  In my imagination, the situation I had to talk him through got more and more convoluted with all kinds of soap-operatic details, until I found myself thinking OH CRAP I SUCK AS A PARENT I DON’T KNOW HOW TO HANDLE THIS!!  Of course I didn’t consider that I didn’t actually need an answer right at that moment; we’d have a dozen years or so (we hope) to figure that one out.

Usually, my future-worries center around more immediate milestones, and several of them have already come to pass.  Yet most of my “I don’t know how I’ll handle it when…” scenarios have turned out to be less of a Big Deal than I anticipated.  For example:

I don’t know how I’ll handle it when he starts eating table food.  The mess!  The stubbornness!  And how on earth am I going to teach him not to be picky about certain foods like I am?
Reality: We’ve been fortunate that Kiddo is an eager eater who loves to try anything off Mom and Dad’s plates.  The baby food was messy at first, but not what I’d dreaded, and he’s doing a great job now with regular food.  He loves things I never tried until I was an adult, like hummus on pita bread.  Now that we’ve taught him some simple sign language, he can tell us when he’s hungry, thirsty or all done eating, which eliminates a lot of potential frustration on both sides.

I don’t know how I’ll handle it when he starts crawling and walking.  Our house isn’t kid-safe yet, and we don’t do a great job of keeping it picked up.  We don’t have the time to do all the babyproofing we need to do.  He’ll get into everything!
Reality: We intentionally chose not to bubblewrap the world.  Instead, we did just a little bit of advance childproofing (baby gate on the stairs, some padding on the fireplace) and then waited to see what mischief Kiddo chose to get into.  A lot of it has been handled with a simple “No” and redirection.  In some cases we did need to do a little additional work (outlet covers, magnetic cabinet locks).  A few things required mental adjustment on our part (gating off the seldom-used wood stove was impractical, and letting him pound on it really isn’t that bad).  So far we’ve had only one major mishap, and to be honest, it was probably time to upgrade that lamp anyway.

I don’t know how I’ll handle it when he throws a tantrum in public, and everyone is staring at us!
Reality: I confess, I cheated did research for this one, with more on the schedule.  I’ve gleaned some good suggestions so far and have been able to head off a couple tantrums before they got out of control.  Experience has found that I get better results if I start by empathizing with my toddler-raging Kiddo and acknowledging what he’s upset about, before trying to calm him down.  And if anyone has given us the stink-eye during a meltdown, I haven’t noticed it.  I’ve been too busy focusing on my child to look around at how the bystanders are taking it.

Still brewing in the queue are situations that we haven’t gotten to yet, including:
I don’t know how I’ll handle it when he tries to run off on his own in public.  How will I control him and keep him safe?
I don’t know how I’ll handle it when he’s ready for potty training.  Does he really need to learn how to pee standing up?
I don’t know how I’ll handle it when we have another child, and I have to divide my attention between the two of them.  Will Kiddo #1 feel like we don’t love him as much?  Will I be able to give Kiddo #2 all the attention he or she needs?  When will I sleep?

Reality: Just as my husband and I have learned to trust our parenting instincts in the present, I need to trust that those instincts will continue to develop in lockstep with Kiddo.  I don’t know right now how to calm a tantrumming three-year-old or talk to a teenager about drug use because I don’t have a three-year-old or a teenager.  But one day I will, and I’ll known him as well as I know the toddler I’ve got now.  I’ll be able to draw on that knowledge to figure out how to handle the situation in a way best suited for him as an individual.  That instinct has been there for me so far; it’ll be there for me in the future.  It had better be, because I’m planning on it.


Good Job: bad parenting?

I’ve seen a handful of articles recently on the perils of praise addiction.  Most of them have been around for a while, but really, before I became a mom I was unaware of all the potential pitfalls of parenting.  But the other day someone tossed out a couple links in an online discussion and it got me thinking about the concept.

If you’re unfamilair with the topic of praise addiction, the idea is that too much praise can have a negative impact on a child’s emotional development, just as too much punishment can.  Over-praising allegedly teaches children to do things primarily because it pleases their parents, rather than because it’s enjoyable for the child.  Heaping praise on a child for simply picking up his blocks grooms him to expect over-the-top accolades, and leads to depression later when he no longer gets mad props for doing everyday tasks.  It may have long-term effects on his self-esteem, the activities he chooses or avoids, and his relationships.  It denies him the chance to evaluate himself and determine his own worthiness.  There’s even a school of thought called Unconditional Parenting that would like us to expunge the phrase “Good job!” from all interactions with our children.

While I’m no praise junkie, I did identify with some of the articles’ descriptions of adult behaviors of over-praised kids.  I frequently mentally measure myself against my friends and co-workers, and feel inadequate when their performance is objectively or subjectively better than mine.  Trying new things is really tough for me–what if I don’t do well?  What if I don’t like it?  Why can’t I just stay right here in my happy safe comfort zone?

These traits and others I know all too well were called out in The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids.  The article describes what happened when psychologist Carol Dweck and her team at Columbia compared praising fifth-graders for their intelligence to praising them for their efforts.  Turns out, telling a child that she’s “really smart!” sends the message that it’s her IQ that is valued most.  If she’s asked to do a task at which she’s less skilled, she might balk at it, because by not doing well, she reveals a lack of the intelligence that she was lauded for before.

In contrast, praising her for trying hard or putting in good effort sends the message that it’s less important whether she’s good at something; what matters is that she took on the challenge.   The students in Dweck’s study who got props for their efforts took on harder tasks and enjoyed them more, even when they didn’t do well.

Clearly, I’d like to send my own children a better message.  But though it sounds straightforward when presented as a study of hundreds of children, it’s murkier when it’s your own child whom you’re trying not to emotionally mangle.  Right around the time I first read about the Dweck study, my then-infant son learned how to operate a light switch.   He would turn to me with a look of delight and pride–isn’t this great? I do this and the room gets dark!–and seriously, how could I not respond to that?  I was proud of him!  Why shouldn’t I tell him so?   He wasn’t merely learning how to flip a switch, he was learning that he could control elements of his environment, and he was inviting me to share the joy of this discovery.  It just felt right to respond the way I did.

Fortunately, there are parenting experts out there to fit everyone, and the last article I found gave me some hope that I wasn’t completely beyond redemption.   Ruth Peters’ take on it is, Make Praise Appropriate, Not Addictive.  In a nutshell, exercise moderation in doling out praise, and be sure to compliment their efforts as well as their results.  I do wonder, though, whether we might be in danger of swinging too far the other way–of raising a generation where kids feel they should be merited solely for making an effort, even if it doesn’t pan out.  Because in the real world, that’s not what happens. Jobs, raises, and promotions aren’t handed out just because you showed up and took a swipe at it.  The real world rewards Results.  “I tried” may score some points, but “I tried and succeeded” scores more.  Perhaps the key is to teach our children that it’s not just the trying, but rather the trying to do better, that ultimately reaps the benefits.

By now, turning off the lights in the hallway and bedroom is just part of our going-to-bed routine, and flipping a light switch is old hat for my Kiddo.   Now our response is more of an acknowledgement than an accolade.  Now, I’ve got a 15-month-old who just this past weekend got the confidence to let go of the couch and walk across the room on his own.   The look on his face as he free-toddles over to me is almost beyond words.  He’s beaming like this walking business is one of the best things he’s ever stumbled across, and he laughs and throws himself into my lap for a hug.  I can’t help it; the words just tumble out.  “Look at you, walking all the way across the room!” I exclaim, squeezing him tightly.   “You did that without holding on to anything!  GOOD JOB!”


Becoming (Silver)enlightened, Part 1

We’re in a sort of in-between time at work, so I’ve decided to learn Silverlight programming.  I’ve got programming experience but I wouldn’t call myself an experienced developer by any stretch.  It’s kind of like being just fluent enough in a foreign language that I can read or listen to it and get the gist of the conversation, but if I had to jump in to add my own thoughts, I’d be stumbling a lot and needing help with some of the translations.  I understand programming concepts backwards and forwards, I just need a little help at times converting them from the theoretical to the practical.

I have a project in mind that I’ve been toying with for a while, and decided to take a shot at programming it myself, rather than relying on someone else to implement my ideas.  While I do have some friends who could probably teach me, I’m going to see how far I get trying to learn it on my own.  I thought it might be fun to document the process as I go.

My first step was to hit the Internet.  I launched Bing and typed “learn silverlight” into the window.  Voila, a bunch of handy resources, the first of which was Learn : The Official Microsoft Silverlight Site.  Right in the middle of the screen was a handy box that said “New to Silverlight?  Visit the Get Started section to get up and running quickly.” Hey-o, and away we go!  I had already installed Visual Studio 2010, but needed to install the Silverlight 4 Tools for Visual Studio.  For some reason this didn’t go smoothly the first couple times.  The first time I had to cancel the installation altogether.  The second time, the installation completed, but reported errors.  Third time was the charm and I was good to go.  I started up the video.  Got partway in, and realized I’d learn this best if I worked on it along with the video.

Tangent: I’ve heard there are different types of learners: visual learners who need to see things written out to understand them best, auditory learners who grasp concepts more quickly when they hear them explained, tactile learners who need that hands-on experience to really take it in, and logical learners for whom the “why we do it this way” is equally as vital as the “how to do it” itself.  (In parallel with that, there are different types of teachers, and it’s not uncommon for a person’s learning style and teaching style to be different.  But I’ll save that discussion for another post.)  I feel that I’m primarily a hands-on learner, but at the same time I like to have someone explaining things so that I know I’m hands-on-ing correctly.  So doing this on my own without a guiding authority is something a little outside my comfort zone.

However, this video was playing right to my preferred learning styles because it was telling me, showing me, and letting me get some hands-on time by working right alongside it.  Oh, wait.  Did I say “alongside?”  Actually no; I was trying to watch the video and walk through the tutorials on the same computer.  Flipping back and forth between them wasn’t working out for me.  I tried installing Visual Studio 2010 on my laptop, thinking that I’d want it there anyway so that I could take my work home, but the installer doesn’t seem to be working right.  (In fact, it’s trying again even as I type this, but the progress bar isn’t showing even a single pixel of advancement.)  As a final resort I copied the video to the laptop so that I could run it from there while doing the tutorial on my desktop computer.

Once I got everything set up for smooth productivity, I re-started the video and got to coding.  When you create a new Silverlight application, it automatically give you a working mockup, so you can run it like a real web page right out of the box.  I ran into a few confusing steps where what was shown in the tutorial didn’t quite match what I was actually seeing in Visual Studio, but that’s likely because something had changed since the tutorial was published — not an uncommon occurrence in the software world.  I was able to follow along and create my little Hello World web page and application, even if I did have to stop and rewind a couple times to make sure I’d typed things correctly.  Oh, and I kept trying to scroll around inside the video itself.  Kind of like trying to interact with a TV show from the couch side of the screen.  Yeah, good one, me.

The tutorial doesn’t just show how to lay out buttons and text fields and get them to interact with each other.  It even includes a demo for connecting your web application to a database on a web server.  I didn’t try coding that part because I’d neglected to download the sample database, but it looked straightforward enough that I think I’ll be able to finish it out later (with help from the video again, I’m sure.)  For the moment, I feel like I now have the skills to lay out the user interface for the project I’ve got in mind and possibly get started on hooking up the various elements to each other.


Infancy 1, Engineers 0

I’m an engineer.  My husband is an engineer.   We have business cards and job titles that confirm this, so it must be true.

As such, we approach problem solving like many other engineers do: Define the problem in clear terms.   Set expectations of what ought to be happening instead.   Drill down and observe closely.  Pay attention to your gut instinct, but find solid evidence to back it up.   Research possible solutions and look at what others have done in similar situations.  And especially, make sure you have a reliable, repeatable way to reproduce the problem, so that when you come up with a solution you can be sure it’s working as expected.

It didn’t take very long to discover that this approach goes right out the window when it comes to solving parenting problems.  Especially parenting problems that pertain to brand-new infants fresh from the cabbage patch.

Our son, like all babies, fussed and cried.  We’d try something.  It wouldn’t work.  We’d try something else.  Aha!  Problem solved.  But before long he’d be fussy again.   No worries, we know how to solve that one now, right?  Ha!  Frequently, what had worked the night before no longer worked tonight.  We’d run through the standard checklist of Hungry? Tired? Needs changing? Needs cuddling? and more often than we liked, we’d run right off the end of the list into the abyss of What The Heck Do We Do NOW?

Oh, I did plenty of research.  I had a few oft-recommended parenting books that I flipped through when I had moments of free time.  I was used to solving problems by paging through documentation online and in hard-copy form, so I reverted to what had worked for me in the past.  There’s just one small problem to this approach: unlike software programs, babies aren’t consistent.  They don’t roll out from a factory all identically stamped with a verified set of bits.  What works to solve one family’s problem doesn’t necessarily apply to the next-door neighbor; heck, what works for one sibling might just be anathema to the next!  Our little nubbins didn’t care what those books said was supposed to please babies.  After all, he wasn’t some hypothetical book baby; he was HIMSELF.

When our son was 4 weeks old, I got a NursingKnowHow email with the subject line “Why does your baby cry?”  I clicked that one so fast I could have broken my mouse button.  The first line of the email simply said, “Your baby cries because he’s a baby.”  It was a vague non-answer designed to lead into the rest of the article, but something in that sentence resonated with us.  Maybe it was the confirmation that it wasn’t user error on the part of us parents; maybe the reassurance that what seemed like inexplicable behavior was, in fact, perfectly within design parameters.  It didn’t matter, because at last we had a reason (of sorts) behind the randomness.  For two sleep-deprived people stumbling into the wilds of parenting after spending decades in safe, predictable engineering environments, a reason was as good as a multi-volume reference set.

In the months that followed, an amazing thing happened.  We learned to trust ourselves and our parenting instincts.  We discovered that there are lots of books out there written by child-rearing experts, but there are only two people who are experts on how to raise this particular Kiddo.  And while I still do research for particularly perplexing problems, I’ve found that a better approach is to read the books once or twice, then set them aside and cherry-pick the advice that makes most sense for our family and our situation.  It makes for an interesting mishmash at times, but so far it seems to be working out for all three of us.  Soft science for the win!

Back in those early months, we coped by finding a new catch phrase: “You can’t debug a baby.”  It didn’t solve the problem of why our son was crying, but it did remind us that this child was not just another software engineering problem, and that the processes we were accustomed to using weren’t necessarily the best fit for this situation.  We’ve held onto that phrase as Kiddo has grown into a toddler and started down the tedious path of temper tantrums and nonsensical (to us) whims.  Sometimes we’ll ask, “What are you, ONE?” as a way of reminding ourselves that what he’s doing is perfectly age-appropriate.  It’s our job as parents to figure out how to handle it, even if that means scrapping the previous tried-and-true fix and starting over – something not often recommended in our day jobs.

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I’m not entirely sure why I’m starting this blog.  Do I have something to say that I think the world would be interested in?  Do I have some specialized niche knowledge that others are looking for?  Do I have nifty hobbies that photograph well?  Not really, nope.

I’m just a mom, and a software geek, and a wife, and a woman.  I have the same daily struggles that I’m sure many others do: what are we going to make for dinner tonight?  Will there be time to finish this project before I have to leave for daycare pickup?  Does my new boss have expectations that I’m not sure I can meet?

Apparently I’m also an Asker of Many Questions.

I grew up in Montana and studied journalism, eventually completing my degree in 1995.  I like to put words together in just the right way.  After graduating, I took a good look around at the opportunities available and realized that hey, this is a pretty competitive field, and I’m not sure I really want to be a reporter after all.  What I really wanted to be was an editor.  Proper grammar and spelling make me happy.  Words have meanings, y’know!  Funny thing, there aren’t a lot of entry-level postions for editors. 

However, this was in the mid-1990s, and there was something huge on the horizon: the World Wide Web.  The summer after I graduated was when URLs first started showing up in television commercials.  I had the luxury of a little time to play with, and decided what the heck, I’ll take some nondegree graduate courses in computer science.  Next thing I know, the department head was strongly encouraging me to turn that into an actual graduate degree.  Me?  The girl with the journalism degree?  Yeah, me. 

I didn’t set out to become a software tester.  I sort of fell into it when I didn’t quite fit the other disciplines for which I was interviewed.  In 1999 when I entered the real world, I was convinced that I’d been miscategorized and after a year or two I’d steer myself into where I through I really belonged.  Except something happened.  I discovered that a lot of the editing skills I’d polished in J-School could also be applied to software.  In a way, I’m an editor of not just text, but of how you, the customer, interact with an application.  The same gut feeling that told me that an article was clunky and difficult to understand can also be used to tell me that a program is uninviting and non-intuitive to work with.  The nit-pickiness that helped me place commas correctly also helps me line up buttons and pixels according to standards.

Meanwhile, my life outside work was going through some changes.  I divorced one husband and eventually married another.  As often happens, that marriage of two people morphed into a family of three people.  Now I have a toddler whose smile can light up my morning as well as a partner whose hugs can round out my evenings.

I also have a messy house.  I’m told this happens with toddlers.  And husbands.

I want to talk about the challenges of dealing with managing a family and a full-time job.  I like to write, and while I have other outlets for sharing with close friends, there’s something in me craving a more public audience.  So, here I am and here I go.  Still not entirely sure what I’m about, but open to the challenge of figuring that out as we go.