Geekamama


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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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Guest appearance!

I’m guest blogging today at Tales of an Unlikely Mother.  Darlena asked me to describe what it’s been like for me this past month, changing from working a nine-to-five* job to staying home all day.  I’ve gotta admit, it wasn’t entirely what I expected!

* OK, we all know it was rarely a nine-to-five job. Software engineers in the office at nine a.m.? Leaving the office at five? Unheard of! 😉


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I’m still here

It’s been almost two weeks since I last wrote in this blog.  Since that last post, I’ve had a birthday, spent a weekend puzzling, enjoyed some time with visiting family, and oh yeah, worked worked worked.  This has been a very busy month at my job and I’ve been having a hard time finding any spare moments to write.  I’ve got plenty of ideas brewing that pull from both my “geek” side and my “mama” side; now all I need is time to make those ideas into complete sentences.

So far, I think I’ve done all right with my resolution to be less self-critical.  (I almost added “but we’re only a couple of weeks into the year, after all.”  See how automatic it is for me to take myself down?  Still needs work.)  I’ve also made some good progress on a couple personal projects, and even managed to keep the house tidier than it has been in a long while.  I’ll talk about the projects and organization in another post, because I’m really pleased with how some of it has come out.

I started this writing project as an outlet for myself, and maybe a little bit because I read friends’ blogs and thought, “Hey, I could do that too!”  I had grand ideas about how often I would write, and what kinds of topics I would cover.  Most of those grand ideas went out the window before this blog was a month old.  But maybe that’s for the best.  In the past few weeks I’ve heard from some unexpected sources that they’ve been reading and really enjoying my writing, and it’s been such a boost, right when I really needed one.

So, in spite of my recent reticence, I really am still here, and plan to be here for quite some time.  Thank you, family and friends, for still being here too.


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They don’t all have to be home runs

I’m very critical of myself and the work I do.  The bar I set to determine my own success is ten times higher than I’d ever expect from anyone else.  I know that setting this kind of expectation for myself is silly and can be self-defeating, yet I do it anyway.  At least I’m aware of it, right?

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer.  Even back then I knew my strengths (some of them, anyway) and I knew this was something I was good at.  Maybe it came from all the reading I did as a kid, and being exposed to vocabulary and wordsmithery well above my grade level.  But I knew this: I was a good writer, and I had a good imagination.  At the same time, I was practical enough to know that you have to be really, really, REALLY good to make a living as a novelist.  (As an adult, having read plenty of books by certain authors who I won’t name, I’ll add “or really, really, really prolific.”)

When I realized that there was another way to earn a living by writing, I got very excited, and I embraced the idea of becoming a journalist–specifically, a newspaper reporter.  My enthusiasm carried me through high school and through most of my undergraduate degree, except that somewhere in there I got the idea that reporters have to be on call at all hours of the day and night, not unlike doctors and firefighters.  Not to mention the fact that the journalism world, at that time, was a) highly competitive, and b) not highly paying.  In high school I’d been a big fish in a small pond; in college, I was discovering that I was not the only big fish around, and that in fact there were several who were much bigger than me, and justifiably so.

I was saved from having to wrestle with the realities of doing what I loved versus doing what paid the bills, because my senior year of college was 1994-95, and this thing called the World Wide Web was really starting to become a Big Thing, and a couple of my good friends from my hometown were working on their computer science degrees.  The year after I graduated with my journalism degree, I found myself going back to college for a few non-degree graduate courses.  Before long, my professor had talked me into studying for a master’s degree.  Apparently writing wasn’t the only thing that I was good at.  So that’s how I ended up here, at this job, rather than somewhere in a newsroom.  I’m grateful, because this path led me to many other happy things as well, such as Husband and Kiddo.

But I never lost that passion for writing, and I really enjoy putting words together to make something interesting, something that means something to me and hopefully to others as well.  Most of my blog entries take me a long time to write, and most of them don’t get published right after I finish composing them.  I like to put a composition away for a little while and then come back and see if there’s anything I can tweak to make it just a little tighter.  Any typos or miswordings that need to be fixed.  Any long sentences (I do have an unfortunate tendency to write too-long sentences) that could be shortened or broken in half for easier reading.  Any parenthetical asides that would be better left out (because I use too many of those, too.)  In short, anything that could be made better… and that’s where I get into trouble.  That intense self-critical-ness (is that even a word?) and the constant striving for perfection tend to make me very nit-picky about what I write, and sometimes will hinder me from actually publishing whatever I’ve produced.

Last night, for example, I worked on a post for quite a while.  I’d actually written most of it last month, but was trying to find a way to tie it all together and wrap everything up with a neat conclusion, and finally get the darn thing out of my drafts folder.  It just wasn’t happening, and I was getting frustrated.  This morning I got to work, re-read it, and decided I didn’t like what I’d settled on last night.  But then I spent a little of my wake-up time (that period of adjustment where I mentally change gears from being a mom to being a software tester) reading other blogs, and something I’ve been hearing for years finally worked its way through to my full attention.

They don’t all have to be home runs.  They don’t even all have to be triples, or doubles, or hell, even be hits at all.  They don’t all have to be 750-word essays full of insights, illustrated with a cute and well-framed photo, and neatly wrapped up with a witty yet thoughtful conclusion.  They should all be good efforts, and they shouldn’t be anything that I’m ashamed to attach my name to, but they don’t all have to be perfect.

(My husband would be applauding me right now, if he were reading over my shoulder, because he’s been trying to get that through to me for years.)

It’s been years since I’ve made real New Year’s resolutions, and longer since I actually published them for others to see.  But I’ll put a stake into the ground this year.  For 2011, I’m going to try to be less self-critical, and less worried about how others see me.  I don’t know how to measure that, and I don’t know whether I’ll be able to stick to it.  I do know that when I lighten up, I have more fun with what I’m doing, and feel better about the results regardless of whether they fall short of my bar.  So here’s to a new year, and a new chance, and not waiting when I have something to say, and not always looking for the perfect words to leave the proper lasting impression.  Sometimes, imperfect is an okay thing to be.


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Intersect: a fresh way to say you’ve been where and done what

Last month a friend of mine pointed me to Intersect, a new web site for sharing stories.  After I spent a little time surfing around the site, reading stories and FAQs and getting a feel for the general vibe, I posted my first story.  And just like that, I was hooked.

The idea behind Intersect is straightforward: wouldn’t it be neat to share what happened at a specific time and/or location, without needing to know who else was there or make arrangements in advance?  Stories posted are tagged with a date and time.  The ones you post are added to your storyline; if you find someone else’s story about an event that you attended, like a concert or sporting event, you can borrow that story with a click of a button and incorporate it in your own timeline.  The site makes it easy to search for stories from an intersection of place and time, as well as to create your own from text, photos, videos, or any combination of the above.

I love Intersect CEO Peter Rinearson’s description of how the concept came about:

The idea for Intersect came to me while watching my daughter play lacrosse. I was among several parents shooting photos on the sidelines, and it struck me that other parents were getting shots of my daughter that I’d never see and I was capturing images that other parents might want. Wouldn’t it be great if we could trade photos in some really easy way, even with strangers, and without prearrangement?

It was May 10, 2007 at 4 p.m. The location was Mercer Lid Park, built above Interstate 90 on Mercer Island, a suburb of Seattle. Shouldn’t that be enough information to let me share with other people who were at that same intersection of time and place?

Intersect was born that day.

Stories can be shared with the general public, restricted to circles of Intersect members that you define, or kept private.  While they do require a place, you can be as specific or as vague as you are comfortable with sharing.  As they are posted, they are added to your storyline in correct chronological order, so you don’t need to go back later and juggle dates to make them all line up correctly.  Unlike Foursquare or Facebook Places, which tell people where you are right now, Intersect lets you say that you were somewhere last week, or last year; you don’t need to reveal your current location to people who might take advantage of the fact that you’re away from home.  The Intersect staff offer some tips for walking the line between keeping personal information private and sharing stories with an interested public.  On the other hand, if you don’t mind sharing events simultaneously as they unfold, there’s an app for that too.

With an abundance of websites where we can share media and personal news, why choose Intersect?  There are a number of features that I find really appealing.

I like how it’s easy to upload photos to your photo pool and create a story from them.  I also like the flexibility around how long a story can be.  Sometimes you want to write a longer story to accompany a photo; sometimes a sentence or two will suffice.  Facebook is pretty strong in the photo sharing department, but writing anything longer than a short caption feels clunky, and most of it ends up hidden.  Intersect provides a cleaner-feeling combination of story and exposition.  You can even assign different profile pictures to different points in time, and then see how you’ve changed over the years.

The way stories can connect across time and place is a neat concept to me, and Intersect makes this happen transparently.  No need to hope your Twitter hashtag catches on, or to set up a shared folder and rely on word of mouth to get everyone invited to it.

Scanning back through a friend’s storyline is easy to do.  One thing I enjoy doing when I start following a new blog or Twitter feed is skimming back over the past several dozen entries to get some background for what’s been going on in that person’s world.  With Twitter it’s hard to get to a specific point in time.  With Intersect, it’s trivial.

Initial view of a storyline's time selector

Time selector set to a specific range

The Intersect community so far has a welcoming, friendly feel, which is also a big draw for me.  People have commented on stories I’ve posted, sharing memories of their own about the event or place.  This really helps to foster a feeling of connection, underlining the core idea behind Intersect: we are connected to many people in many ways.

Here’s a fun video by cartoonist David Horsey summarizing what Intersect is all about:


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Greetings

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.