Geekamama


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Aunt CompSci wants YOU!

Can social media inspire more young women to explore computer science? It’s an idea Jocelyn Goldfein, a Director of Engineering at Facebook, discussed in an interview with the Seattle Times a few weeks ago. Bringing more visibility to the women who built popular features like the news feed and photo viewer could interest teenage girls in tech-related careers, she says.

I’ll admit that it’s a start, but I think it’s going to take much more than that.

Software engineering has a big strike against it right from the get-go: it’s still perceived as a guys’ world–one full of gadget-loving geeks whose idea of a good weekend is blasting their way through the latest shoot-em-up video game. Guys who are intelligent to the point of cockiness, but lacking somewhat in social awareness. Most teenage girls aren’t going to find the appeal in a world like that.

When I look back at my high-school self, I see someone who already knew what her career was going to be, and the only keyboarding involved would be writing up the news stories I’d been chasing all day. Journalism seemed like a great fit for me; I earned scholarships and assembled a good clip file. But as I learned more about the hours and workdays, the shine came off a bit. When I was a senior in college, I got interested in the potential of the World Wide Web thing–remember, this was the mid-90s, when it wasn’t the ubiquitous presence that it is today. Less than a year after I finished my Journalism degree, I was back in grad school studying computer science.

I’d like to claim that what changed my course was the foresight that we were on the edge of a paradigm shift, and I wanted to be in on the beginning. But in fact the only reason I even knew about the web was because some friends of mine had gotten me interested in Internet Relay Chat (IRC), one of the early chat networks, and people who were more tech-minded than me were starting to talk about this internet thing.

What draws people into the field that eventually becomes their career? For many of my female peers, it was because computers and programming were something they got into when they were young, and that appeal never went away entirely. But when it came time to choose a degree program, a lot of us looked elsewhere. Is that because that other career path simply seemed a better fit? Or did the idea of darkened rooms, flickering monitors, and the complete lack of a social life put us off?

These days, there are a lot more young women online than there were when I was growing up. But most of them are there to use the software, not to create it. Knowing how to use a computer isn’t anything special anymore; in fact, it’s more or less required in our day-to-day lives. And yet, the number of women studying software and systems is down from previous decades. Less than one in five computer science majors are women, says the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

To draw more women into the fields of computer science and engineering, the most important thing we need to do is change the perception that’s it’s a playground for “brogrammers.” And yes, maybe Goldfein’s idea of giving more visibility to female programmers will help with that. But I think it’s the wrong presentation. “Look at this woman who is a programmer!” is not going to do it; all it does is emphasize the rarity of women in the field. We have to get to “Look at this programmer who happens to be a woman,” before we can achieve that mental shift.


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Hashtag #momfail

I know, I know, everyone out there thinks I’m a paragon of parenting perfection. Thank you, thank you very much. But I have my MomFails just as much as anyone else does, and sometimes I even tell people about them.

There was the time we left Kiddo’s favorite stuffed animal Doggie at home when embarking on a week-long trip to California. There have been numerous occasions when we’ve gone out to dinner, only to find the diaper bag was missing some important equipment. And then… there are the ones I feel compelled to share with the Twitterverse.

Oh well. At least I’m not alone.


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Is privacy just an act?

I keep trying to write something up about the recent New York Times article on how Target gleans information from shoppers to better, well, target them as customers. I’ve swung from “that’s a little eerie” over to “yeah, but data mining can be fun! and beneficial!” to “the practice shouldn’t be banned, but customers need to be aware that it’s happening.” In the end, the one thing that I keep coming back to is this: it’s a little silly to complain about our personal data being used, when we put so much of it out there voluntarily.

Update: Here’s a better summary of the issue: How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did

 

Any time you use a credit card, sign up for a discount shopping card, or create an online account with your personal email address, you’re giving the recipient a way to keep track of the actions associated with that ID. Ever give a doctor’s office or other service your social security number? I’d put money down that they aren’t planning to use it for tax purposes.

People share personal stories on blogs, Twitter and Facebook, choosing to pull back the curtain to the world. Once it’s out there on the ‘net, it’s out there forever. People have lost their jobs because of their Facebook updates, and have been detained by TSA for what they posted on Twitter.

Personally, I’ve been an un-fan of Facebook since the update last October. For the past five months, the songs you’ve listened to and the news stories you’ve read on many websites have gotten shared automatically, rather than letting you choose for yourself. Oh, and that can happen even when you’re not signed in. Sometimes it surprises me how many people are okay with that.

Those of us who are parents have another privacy issue to consider: the privacy of our children, many of whom may not be old enough or savvy enough to realize the implications of the way their parents share (or overshare) information. I wrestled with this issue myself not long after starting this blog, when considering whether I should post pictures of my cute little Kiddo here.

I’m not deluding myself; even though I use a nickname for him here and on Twitter, it wouldn’t be that hard for someone to find out his real name. Birth certificates are public records; depending on the state, all you might need is the child’s date of birth and the full name of one or both parents. How to find those out? Marriage, divorce, and name change records are public data too. And if those don’t pan out, there’s always Spokeo, where fifteen bucks will buy you all kinds of personal information.

Oh, but there’s a much easier route. One common practice on Facebook is to tag pictures of children with the names of their parents. Look for pictures of me, and you’ll find pictures of Kiddo captioned with his real name. Many of those are in albums restricted to “Friends of friends” — which really isn’t a restriction at all, considering how most of people’s hundreds of friends also have hundreds of friends themselves.

So, given all that, isn’t it a little hypocritical to complain about the way Target collects and uses personal data about individual shoppers’ purchases? In my view, the only line that they might have overstepped is not giving customers more disclosure that by shopping at Target, the company reserves the right to track the data that they volunteer. Discount cards and internet hotspots have this buried in the fine print that people generally skip over when they sign up, but there’s no notice on the door when you walk into Target. I’m sure that Target isn’t the only retailer that does this, either. They’re just the only one that got caught at it.


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On pins and egos

Well, I’ve done it. I’ve finally gotten myself sucked into Pinterest.

I’ve known about it for a couple of years now because one of my online friends was one of the very early beta users for it. She told some of us about it, I took a look, but wasn’t convinced. It seemed like it could be great for designers, or event planners, or anyone whose job and/or interests spent a lot of time focusing on visuals. Browse around the web and save images of stuff you like? I didn’t see the appeal.

Pinterest aims to connect people through the things and images they find interesting — that’s their mission statement, loosely paraphrased. When an image on the web catches your interest, you can “pin” it to a board – think of the virtual version of tearing out pictures from magazines and pinning them to a corkboard. You can have multiple boards, grouping your pins into different areas. As you pin images, they’re immediately visible to other users, who can then repin them to their own boards. Each pin includes a link back to the site of the original image, so if you pin an image from someone’s blog, you’ll have an easy way to get back to that blog post later.

Now, since the site is driven by the idea of using images found anywhere, without necessarily obtaining permission from the owner, there are some copyright tangles the company is currently working on untangling. Someone who makes a living creating unique images likely wouldn’t appreciate a casual visitor distributing them without permission. Pinterest does provide a browser add-in that automatically links a pin’s image back to the source site, but the site doesn’t provide any way to set security on your pins. Anything you pin is immediately available to the rest of the world, regardless of whether the original image wasn’t publicly available.

I can understand and sympathize with the people and companies claiming it’s copyright infringement. On the other hand, my own stance on publishing content to the Internet is that once you let it out there, it’s out of your hands and into the wild. If I write something on this blog or post it to Twitter, I must assume that anyone in the world can–and could well be–reading it. That includes family, friends, employers, and whoever it is that you’re writing snarky notes about. Even if a web site is configured to prevent people from right-click-copying an image, or a Facebook status is privatized to a select group of people, a really determined person can simply take a screen shot.

But I digress. Pinterest. I resisted, until last week. A different online friend posted a picture of a cake resembling a basket of M&Ms, and mentioned that it was from one of her husband’s Pinterest boards. That was the tipping point; while it’s no secret that the site’s primary user base is women, there had to be something to it if both my friend and her husband were on it.

I’ll just take a look, I thought. And then, I’ll set up an account, but just to follow other people I know. I’m not going to actually use it.

(People who’ve known me for a couple years may recognize this particular thought process.)

Username? That’s an easy decision, and besides, I wouldn’t want anyone else taking this one. And what the heck, I might as well throw some content up there, just for the heck of it…

And HERE is where Pinterest really sucked me in. Because as soon as I’d pinned a handful of images, mostly books and kid-related items, people started repinning them. Within that first hour, I got 24 repins. Do you know how long it took me to get 24 comments on this blog? Or 24 retweets on Twitter? Weeks and weeks. But on Pinterest, I got immediate validation that people liked me! They really liked me! (My pins, anyway.) I was hooked.

Prospective social media sites, take note, because I doubt I’m the only person who reacted like that. Everyone wants to be liked by others. Make your site members feel like they’re immediately popular, and they’ll come back again and again to get that ego boost.

And speaking of ego boosts, my own boards are here. Just in case you’re curious… or want to help feed my ego. 😉


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Newsflash!

Just in case you haven’t been closely watching your browser’s address bar, the primary URL of this blog is now geekamama.net. Now you don’t have to remember my first name, middle initial, and last name anymore when you’re trying to construct the URL to get here. Shielding that information from the general public is probably a good idea for me as well. If you’ve got the old URL bookmarked, it will still bounce you over to the official address; they’re both managed by WordPress.

Why .net instead of .com? Oh, it probably has something to do with when I took my first Networking class, back in the fall of 1995. A year and a half before then, in March 1994, Jon Postel had published an RFC* describing the set of top-level domains**, and what each one signified. They were:

  • COM – intended for commercial entities, i.e. companies
  • EDU – intended for educational institutions
  • GOV – intended for government agencies
  • MIL – intended for use by the U.S. military
  • INT – intended for organizations established by international treaties
  • NET – intended for the administrative computers of network service providers
  • ORG – the miscellaneous TLD for organizations that don’t fall into any of the other buckets

Over the past 18 years, ORG has come to be associated with nonprofit organizations, rather than being a catch-all for all the leftovers. NET has taken over some of that, but more often seems to be picked up by organizations as a secondary address that redirects to their main site, preventing potential confusion. (It doesn’t always work; compare www.toyota.com and www.toyota.net for an example.)

And COM? Poor COM. It’s evolved into the generic top-level domain for any and almost every web site out there. Businesses, blogs, news agencies, social networking sites, you name it. Even my smartphone browser provides a shortcut key for adding “.com” to the end of whatever you’re typing. I suspect most people sending email and surfing the web don’t ever think about what that trio of letters at the end of the address even means. It’s just a piece of punctuation at the end of a domain name.

So to answer the question of why I went with geekamama.net instead of geekamama.com: I confess it was sheer pedantry. This blog represents neither a commercial entity, nor an educational institution, nor a government department, nor a military agency, nor a non-profit organization, and it certainly didn’t come about through any treaty, let alone an international one. I picked .net because I’d been under the impression that .net was meant to be the TLD for recreational-use domains, until my husband (who has even more familiarity with this networking stuff than I do) asked if I’d become an internet provider.

I’m not sure why Postel and his contemporaries didn’t include a domain specifically intended for personal or private use. But perhaps it was because back then, no one realized what the simple concept of an interconnected network of networks would become. Maybe they didn’t realize that one day, people would rely on it not only to exchange scientific theories, but also to entertain themselves by sharing LOLcats and spamming friends with email forwards.

But fear not. If your fingers have been accustomed to automatically appending “.com” at the end of an address, you won’t go astray. I now own geekamama.com as well, and it will redirect you right back here. Anything for the hit count. 😉

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* Request for Comments. It’s generally considered a specification for how pieces of the Internet or Internet-related technology. Officially, it’s a proposal for discussion, but in many cases it’s considered canon*** even if it hasn’t been formally accepted as an official internet standard.

** This is the last piece of a website’s main URL or of an address email address. Generally abbreviated as TLD.****

*** I am aware that “canon” traditionally refers to ecclesiastical matters; however, in the geek world, it’s also used informally to mean the official backstory of a particular piece of fiction, and has been expanded in casual conversation to mean “the unofficial Official Way It Is.”

**** Not to be confused with the initialism TLDR, which stands for Too Long; Didn’t Read, and is used (usually in a deprecatory manner) to indicate that a piece of writing is not concise enough and/or interesting enough that the reader reads all the way to the end. Which is what this blog post has become.


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And now, the other side of the wall

Last week I talked about some of the puzzle events I play in. I also help run them, which includes creating the puzzles. And boy oh boy, you can pick up some really strange skills and knowledge when writing puzzles.

Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve had lots of exposure to some very commonly used ciphers: Morse code, Braille, semaphore, ASCII encodings,  binary representations of numbers that correspond to letters of the alphabet. These turn up frequently in puzzles, although these days there’s been a trend to at least disguise that it’s an encoding-based puzzle. But after a time, you get to recognizing at least some of the most common letters; perhaps even being able to read them off without needing to look them up on your pocket geek card.

I’ve also had cause to look up more obscure knowledge. Do you know which words in the English language don’t use any vowel other than Y? I did at one time (at least, all the ones in my electronic dictionary.) What do the number ranges in the Dewey Decimal cataloging system mean? I needed to know that too for a puzzle I was creating a couple of years ago. Convert numbers from base-3 to base-10 without using a calculator? Yeah, I’ve got that.

While I’ve never quite gotten the hang of anagramming words in my head or deciphering cryptic crossword clues, I have picked up the habit that many authors have of seeing something unusual and thinking, there’s a puzzle in there somewhere. My personal favorite that I created using environmental data is from couple of years ago. One night I noticed that every other pillar in one of the Microsoft garages had both a row/column designator, and an arrow pointing north. I turned that into a real-life Choose Your Own Adventure game with a secret message embedded in the only successful path.

Sometimes, what we authors think is elegance falls flat with the solvers. [Note: One near-universal technique in writing puzzles is indexing, where you’re given a phrase and a number, and you take the letter from the sentence that corresponds to the number.] One year I designed a puzzle with a set of clues and answers, where the first hidden message came from indexing by the length of the answer into the clue, and then a second message came from indexing by the length of the clue into the answer. I thought it was brilliant. Everyone else… not so much. I still believe the design itself was elegant, and that the failure was just in my implementation. Well, we all have our little delusions.

It’s simultaneously much easier and much harder now that most solvers have smartphones – literally the entire internet in their pockets, as long as they stay within their carrier’s coverage area. It only takes a moment to look up the track listing for a collection of CDs, or the intersection of two particular interstate highways. I suspect that the greater availability of wireless connectivity is fostering an increase of puzzle styles that depend less on knowing (or hunting) trivia, and more on insight. To me, those are the ones that require more work to develop, but give the solver more satisfaction when they finish it.

As an author, you walk a narrow line in creating these puzzles. You want the insight to be just hidden enough so that the solvers feel smart in finding it, but not so obscure that they lose interest in looking for it. One philosophy I’ve heard is that there should be an inverse correlation between the amount of time needed to catch the insight and the amount of time required to do the rest of the puzzle. If it takes a long time to figure out what you need to do, then actually doing that work should go more quickly, and vice versa.

There are probably as many theories about how to create puzzles as there are puzzle authors. Everyone’s got a different feel for what’s “too hard” or “too easy,” and that line is also influenced by the size of the event you’re creating. For a weekend-long event, a 45-minute puzzle is considered quick. For a five-hour walking event, that same puzzle is one of the long ones. In the end, though, the best thing to hear from someone who’s solved your puzzle isn’t “That was easy!” or “Wow, that was really hard,” but rather, “That was fun.” It’s a battle of wits between author and solver; one that in the end, the author intends to lose.


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IRL vs. WWW

During the work week, I do a pretty good job of keeping on top of my online social circles. Five minutes here, fifteen minutes while eating lunch, draft a blog post on my phone while watching my test automation run. Weekends, however, are a different story.

This past weekend, for example, we were in the U-District on Saturday morning for Will Bake for Food. We loaded up on sweets and treats, then headed over near Seattle Center for lunch, meeting up with my sister and her boyfriend while we were there. We returned to the Eastside briefly, just long enough to pack up a bag for Kiddo and drop him off with the friends who were babysitting him, and then we headed right back to Seattle for an evening fondue party. Sunday found us back at Kids Quest Children’s Museum for an hour or two, then at a nearby restaurant for a late lunch/early dinner. Once home, naps all around. Not a whole lot of time in there for extended online interaction.

Not all of our weekends are quite that packed, but quite a few of them are. Between now and the end of the year, we’re got only one unscheduled weekend. So finding time for internetting is harder to do. Every year I expect this sort of thing from the summer months, but it surprised me a little bit to find our November and December just as packed and pre-planned as six months ago was.

Sunday nights are generally for getting caught up on TV that we missed during the week, and skimming my favorite sites to see what internet drama popped up while I was off in the real world.

Just kidding. I save that for my Monday mornings.


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I am a Puzzle Geek.

I do this thing, every couple months. Sometimes it’s for an entire weekend, sometimes just an afternoon. I might be in a conference room, or in a van, or sitting in front of a computer. I’ve never really come up with a good phrase to describe it, other than “competitive puzzle events,” but that doesn’t quite convey the craziness and fun and addictiveness it entails. Take one part The Amazing Race, one part Games Magazine, and one part Not Killing Your Teammates, and you’ll be pretty close.

Puzzlehunt seems to be the term Wikipedia has settled on, although that’s only one part of this… hobby, I guess. But it’s where I came in, so that where I’ll begin. A puzzlehunt is, in brief, a competition in which teams of solvers compete to solve puzzles. Think word puzzles more than jigsaw puzzles, but it’s not just a collection of crosswords. Each puzzle resolves to a single word or short phrase. So even if you’ve correctly filled in that crossword puzzle grid or sifted out all the terms in that word search, you probably aren’t finished. Keep going, as Game Control likes to say. Some examples of this type of puzzle are online at the Microsoft Puzzle Hunt 14 site, or last January’s MIT Mystery Hunt. Not all puzzlehunt puzzles are reproducible on paper. Teams have had to run around the MIT campus in the snow, recover clues from the bottom of a swimming pool, and play Ultimate Frisbee at midnight in the rain.

That there is another term that should be defined: Game Control. They’re the people behind the event, the ones who create the puzzles and manage the logistics. Odds are they’ve spent the past year planning it if it’s a weekend-long event, or at least several months for a shorter one. That’s coming out of their personal time, for the most part. Only a handful of puzzlers actually get paid for their efforts. Why, then, would anyone do it? Simple: someone’s got to, otherwise there wouldn’t be any events to play in.

The phrase “Game Control” comes from the other side of this… addiction, for lack of a better term. While puzzlehunts usually give you a lot of puzzles while you stay in one place, Games (with a capital G) feed them to you one at a time, in far-flung locations. How far-flung depends on the scope of the event. On-foot events exist and the locations are, obviously, within walking distance of each other. But the canonical form of a Game has teams driving a couple hundred miles, over the course of two days, with no rest breaks. Sometimes the route comes close to full circle, sometimes less so — the 250-mile route for The Mooncurser’s Handbook took us from Bellingham to Tacoma, WA. Puzzles are called Clues, and often take advantage of their location, either by requiring you to collect data from your surroundings, or just being thematically connected to the site. The most recent examples include Ghost Patrol and the World Henchmen Organization.

Not every event spans a full weekend, though. There are afternoon-length walking events (SNAP, DASH and BANG to name a few), there are one-day driving events (Shinteki is the most frequent of these) and there are at-your-own-pace online puzzlehunts (Intercoastal Altercations and The Puzzle Boat are two, although perhaps not the best starting point for rookies). The walking events seem to be the best place for new solvers to jump in; often the puzzles in these events, especially DASH, are targeted toward less-experienced teams. Upcoming events are listed at the Puzzle Hunt Calendar website.

And what prize awaits the winners of the battles of the brains? Bragging rights. Sometimes a themed trophy for the top couple of teams. Often, just the glee of seeing your team’s name among the top teams on the leaderboard, if there’s a leaderboard at all. It’s the chance to pit yourself against your cohorts and see who’s got the sharpest mental chops–at least for this time around.

For me, it’s not just my own love of puzzles that pulls me into this… lifestyle, let’s call it. I first met my husband while we were both working on the Microsoft Intern Puzzle Day. A few years later, he proposed during the opening clue of No More Secrets. Our wedding reception included a mini puzzlehunt for our guests: four puzzles and a final metapuzzle with individual prizes for everyone. Our son’s due date coincided with Microsoft Intern Puzzle Day 2009 (fortunately, he showed up a couple of days early). For us, it’s not just a fun time. It’s family time.


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Bizarro Boy

We’ve got a new game Kiddo has been playing recently. For lack of a better name, we’ve been referring to it as the “How About” game. Rules are simple: parental unit says “How abouuuut _______?” and Kiddo responds with either an opposite or an associated word. For example, we’ll say “How about down?” and he’ll say “How about up?” Or, from last night: “How about rice?” and his response “How about beans?” If we happen to hit one of his preferred responses, he’ll either giggle or just say “YES!”

He’s got some cute ideas of how things pair up. Many of these are reversible.

(Us) How about… (Kiddo) How about…
Up Down
Inside Outside
The Outback (aka Dad’s car)      The Prius (aka Mom’s car)
Preschool Home
Mommy Daddy
Ernie Bert
Cookie Monster Elmo
Big Bird Elmo
[Any other Muppet] Elmo
Elmo YES!
Irwin Dawn
Kenny Dana
Red Orange
Green Orange
[Any other color] Orange
Orange YES! (or occasionally Red)
Grandma Grandpa
Uncle Nick Uncle Tim

…and many other pairs.

The puzzler in me is pretty sure there’s one in there somewhere just waiting to come out.


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Destructive myths, at work and away from it

A friend of mine on Twitter shared a link recently to an article by Tony Schwartz called Four Destructive Myths Most Companies Still Live By. It’s a really interesting read; go check it out when you get a chance.

The myths Schwartz lists are:

  • Multitasking is critical in a world of infinite demand.
  • A little bit of anxiety helps us perform better.
  • Creativity is genetically inherited, and it’s impossible to teach.
  • The best way to get more work done is to work longer hours.

These sound vaguely familiar.

 

I have this habit where I’ll be working on one task, and another task catches my attention briefly, and in that moment it seems like the second task more important than what I’m doing, or that it’s something that will take “only a minute” to complete. I drop my first task to work on the second, which inevitably ends up taking longer than I thought it would, and then when I return to my first task I spend too many minutes trying to remember where I left off and what I’d been planning to do.

 

Anxiety? Yeah, I spent the first quarter of this year getting up close and personal with anxiety. Guess how that affected my performance? (Hint: Poorly.) In contrast, I’ve found that I perform best when I’m riding a wave of success. The morale boost I get from doing a project well feeds my confidence, confirming that I really do have the skills to succeed in this area, and carries me into whatever I’m doing next. But when panic and pressure start looming, I fumble and fall into what my friend Michael calls analysis paralysis: when you spend so much time trying to research, analyze and choose the “right” approach to solving a problem that you end up with no time to actually solve the problem.

 

Oh, and those longer hours? HA. Ask my family members, ask my friends (if you can find any; they’re probably still at work), ask anyone who works in an engineering field. Schwartz describes it succintly:

No single myth is more destructive to employers and employees than this one. The reason is that we’re not designed to operate like computers — at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time.

Not designed to operate like computers! No wonder this crops up so frequently in fields that spend a lot of time working with computers and software. The root of the issue is that there’s always more work to be done than there are time and resources to do it. But rather than acknowledging that people need downtime to rest and refresh* themselves, employees work late and take work home, because the expectations from above are that this project (and the three other ones you’ve been assigned) must be completed by the end of the month, come hell or high water. “Work smarter, not harder!” Uh-huh.

I fall victim to the longer-hours myth at home more than at work. I’ve been known to stay up until 2 a.m. working on a task that I feel has to be done before I go to bed or else it won’t get done before deadline. My husband urges me to go off and get some sleep. I resist, pointing out that he is still up doing work. I ignore the fact that I get up in the morning a good two hours before he does.

*Both figuratively and literally. Taking regular showers can do a lot for relations with your co-workers.

 

Obviously, these aren’t universal truths that apply to all companies. When I started at my current job, I was amazed that even though we were in crunch mode, most people actually went home at night. I tend to stick around in the office until 6:30 or 7 most nights. I’m often one of the last handful to head out. (I have an awesome job, and I can’t say enough about how happy I am that I got up the nerve to leave that last soul-sucking job and strike out on my own. But that could fill its own post; I’ll save that for a little later in the month.)

If these myths are destructive to companies, they’re also destructive to individuals who live by them. It’s often a difficult, slow process to change a company-wide attitude. But it might not be as difficult for an individual to change them in herself.