Still Alive

This basil plant has survived for about six weeks longer than any other basil plant I’ve ever had. Probably because I kept it inside (fewer snails) and it hid behind the mixer so I forgot about it for awhile. (This worked until my husband started watering it and so it regained notice.)

After I snipped about six leaves off this evening (garnishing yummy fresh tomato pasta sauce), my husband asked why I’d left it on the counter instead of putting in the trash. I don’t understand what he’s talking about.


The Moral of Thor (a movie commentary)

Thor is a comic book movie, a link in the chain to get to the Avengers movie. If what you want is good special effects and a two dimensional comic book story, Thor is a very good movie. I thoroughly enjoyed it and not only because we played hooky on a weekday to see it in an empty theater. On a scale of similar comic book movies, it was better than the last XMen but not quite as good as the last Iron Man.

However, as we were driving home, I realized there is a moral to this story, one I didn’t find comfortable. I suppose some of this counts as spoilers- if you were interested in the mystery of the plot, maybe you want to find a different movie anyway.

In the beginning, Thor is happy. He’s hanging out in Asgard, beloved by the people, surrounded by true friends who would do anything for and with him. He’s really good at fighting and does it with a passion and joy that is transcendent. He thinks fighting is the most important thing he can be good at so the joy of smashing is unadulterated. He isn’t a psychotic killer, he just likes to hit things.

This leads him to trouble and he gets sent to Earth without his powers. It wasn’t that contrived. Much. On Earth, he falls in love, is lied to by his power grubbing brother, saves his new love and becomes worthy of being who he was before. Essentially, it is a coming of age story. We watch Thor grow up and accept the responsibilities of his power (having already enjoyed the privileges). At the end, separated from his love and aware of the betrayal of his brother, he’s grown a little wiser. Everything is set for the sequel.

But the thing that struck me is that Thor wasn’t happy anymore. He was burdened. He’d probably never experience the joy he had at the beginning of the movie. The sweet world was tinged with an inescapable bitterness. Is that all growing up is?

I’m afraid that the moral of the story can be summed up thusly:

It is better to be wise than happy

In my book, that kind of sucks.

I was young and stupid

In many of my book’s chapters, I start with an anecdote, write what needs to be written and then delete the anecdote as irrelevant.

This anecdote is getting deleted from the hardware/software integration section because it is just too cringe-worthy.

For my first embedded systems job, I had no idea what I was getting into. I’d been a pure software engineer for a couple years, getting ever deeper into the system but never really touching hardware.

My first or second day on the job I was sent down to the lab to test a board in a big oven. I set the unenclosed board flat on the metal cage floor of the oven, powered the board on, shut the door and pushed the buttons to make heat the oven to temperature. It was much like working a microwave. Not great engineering but it was an interesting application.

It turned out to be an interesting task because in a few moments I had a small fire. It wasn’t my first (though I hadn’t caused the other one). Anyway, I was pretty handy with the stop all button and the fire extinguisher.

My team rushed down and looked at the smoking ruins of my independence. The hardware engineer was particularly stressed and wanted to know what had gone wrong. I assured him repeatedly that it wasn’t his fault but I didn’t tell him that I’d laid the board on the metal wire floor of the oven, thereby shorting out all of the pins. I didn’t know any better. I mean, I had book learning to tell that was idiotic but not enough hands on experience to know what I was doing.

It was a terrible introduction to embedded systems, convincing me that I’d overreached by taking the job. However my first programming project for that job was to control a motor (a small one, from the relative safety of my cubical, overseen by a senior engineer across the hall).

The first time the motor moved because my code told it to, I felt like a god. Instead of pushing bits around, I was moving things. Real things. I may have overreached but I was hooked and never looked back.


I’m writing a book. That should have gotten its own post a long time ago but, hey, I’m writing a book. It is a technical book for O’Reilly, my favorite technical book publisher.

No, I don’t know what my animal is.*

Anyway, I started to write in the section about handling errors gracefully and realized that while I enjoyed what I was writing, there was no way I was going to leave it in the book.

Knowing that I’ve completely neglected my blog, I thought I’d put it here.

When I went to by 15th college reunion, I spoke to a chemist from my year that I didn’t know very well (it was a small school, nearly impossible not to know everyone in my class). But it was a reunion and so we chatted like old friends (until our actual old friends got there and we scattered into our normal groups).

He mentioned he was working on developing new drugs and we talked about the mechanics of doing that. He was talking about breaking things down into smaller pieces and measuring chemical properties about the smaller pieces. I asked whether hydrophobicity was one of the properties. He looked surprised that a computer dork remembered the word and nodded. I asked if they still used BioByte. He said they just phased it out recently.

I worked on BioByte while I was in school. It was written in FORTRAN on a VAX. I really enjoyed working on it though I only did it for a year.

I loved it when I optimized some code (my job was mostly to make it run faster) and then realized that the optimization may not be kosher with the chemistry. When I went to Professor Leo (one of the founders of BioByte), I asked about my optimization. I’d taken a list of about 20 case statements in four nested switch blocks and made it into about 4 nested if statements. (This is somewhat cool but not completely awesome. I was happy but not exceedingly proud.)

Professor Leo didn’t speak code, he spoke chemistry. My background had enough chemistry that I could frame the question but if the answer was beyond “no, that doesn’t work”, I wouldn’t understand why. But I’d put the code back the way it was and take out my optimization.

Leo’s answer wasn’t “no”. His response was to ask me if I would like to write a joint paper on this interesting discovery.

I demurred (I was a senior and The End was in sight) but it has always stuck with me as a incident where interdisciplinary knowledge is better than staying in my own world. Even though I only worked at BioByte part time for a year, it was a job that stuck with me more than many of the others I’ve had.

Anyway, the chemist at the reunion didn’t know any of this. I couldn’t believe that he had been using some part of my code after 15 years. I mean, FORTRAN! On a VAX!

The moral of the story is that code lives much, much longer than anyone expects. So testing is important. But I’ll find a way to say that in the book that is much shorter than this tangent. For example, I could leave out the part where I try to explain how smart I was. 🙂

* As for my animal… a friend mocked up a O’Reilly cover with an angry wet cat on the cover and wished me the fortune of having something horribly awesome. That mockup is now my phone’s lock screen because it cracks me up every time I see it.

Lackwit bread

Emma came over to watch over me while recovering from my month of suckitude. I cooked lunch, vegetable soup reduced down as sauce over spaghetti. It was kind of chicken soup-esque. Despite my slacktastic effort and the fact she was really doing me a great favor, she thanked me saying she appreciated the warm food. (We both work from home so I totally understand eating a sandwich in one hand, typing with the other.) We decided to meet for a hot lunch every week.

I felt pretty guilty for bailing on lunch when she had the sniffles last week (and bailing because she had the sniffles). She had made soup and I was to bring bread. Since I got some rye flour to actually follow the recipe for pizza dough in the Green’s cookbook instead of just hoping it didn’t matter, I decided on rye bread, maybe pumpernickel. I had some trouble but it came out pretty yummy, at least to me, so I wasn’t entirely surprised when she said she liked it. But she really gushed and then said:

So, now the effusiveness is over, are you willing to share the recipe
(too polite to say share more bread 😉 )

Of course, to tell her the recipe, I had to admit how the bread came together… it requires that you be somewhat of a lackwit when you do it. It just isn’t one of my recipes unless you forget something or run out of a key ingredient in the middle.

Anyway, I did a smash on of the no-knead bread method and the pumpernickel on the rye flour package. I’ll give those first and then my recipe.

No-Knead Bread (From Cooking for Geeks though really I’d seen it before here)
3-3.25 c flour, all purpose white
1.25 c water
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp yeast*

*If using active dry yeast, the water needs to be warm and the 1/2 tsp needs to be a bit heaping. If using other yeasts, this doesn’t matter.

Mix all ingredients until moistened (with your fingers), about 30s. Let sit for 12-20 hours (your convenience). Fold out 3-4 times, let rest for 15-20 minutes, shape into a ball, let rise until doubled (30-40 min).

Preheat oven and med cast iron pot to 450F. (I don’t preheat the lid.) Place bread in oven in cast iron pot with lid on for 30 min, then 15 min with lid off.

And now… the other proper recipe:

Pumpernickel bread from rye flour package
1pkg active
1.25 c warm water
1/3 c molasses
2 c flour
1.5 c rye flour
1 tbsp wheat gluten
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp veg oil
2 tbsp cocoa powder
1 tbsp caraway seeds
Mix, knead, wait awhile, punch down, wait until doubled, bake 350F for 40-50 min.

(Ok, they wrote more but, really, do you need the detail?) And now, my recipe, with entirely too much detail:

Lackwit but yummy recipe molasses bread recipe:

1 tsp active dry yeast
1.25 c warm water
1/3 c molasses but have trouble making it stop so maybe almost 1/2c
2 c flour but unexpectedly ran out so not really quite 2c, more than 1.75c
1.75c rye flour (but later extra because the you do still have to knead,
maybe 1/2 c extra)
1 tsp salt

Start ~7pm. Mix with hands. Leave covered with Saran wrap in microwave overnight.

Mean to cook it for breakfast but get interested in work and forget until 9:30am and realize it won’t be ready for lunch unless you get to it.

Work for another 15 min. Knead a few times. Dough is sticky, keep adding rye flour until it is barely workable. Put pizza stone (or baking dish or cookie sheet) in oven and preheat to 450F. Split dough in half and make two loaf-lets.

They look flat and sad but don’t lose hope. Try to convince them from sticking by jamming more rye flour under their edges. Go back to work until oven is preheated. Work a little more.

Finally put them in at 10:45am, first oiling the tops so they don’t get crusty (olive oil spread with fingers) then trying to get them unstuck from the peel. Put in to bake for 25 min. Realize they are starting to burn after 20 min so get them out (smell was very good but starting to get that caramel-ly overtone that means burning).

Take them off the pizza stone and tell them they look nice. Wait. Cutting too early will ruin the crumb though it is imperative to know if they turned out ok. Barely make it until 30 minutes before slicing. Yes. Yum. Gobble almost half of one loaf. Let husband make a sandwich with some but hover anxiously over the rest of your loaf.

Take other loaf to sick friend. Admonish her not to eat it all at one time. Go home and eat the rest of yours.

So, tomorrow is hot lunch day. I decided I’d take cookies this time. But after having omelets for dinner, we were out of eggs. And even though I had just finished dinner, I forgot that important fact. So, there I was, a bowl of creamed butter and sugar with the last of the vanilla, a husband who’d been promised cookies and no eggs. Sigh. I wonder if a 1/4c of peanut butter will work…

Forget-me-not thumbprints

I had a bad time of it in November (that is a blog entry I’ll probably never post) and it made me very, very forgetful. Sadly, I forgot the recipe for the scrumptious pancake cookies. I know, it doesn’t sound glamorous but they were like the best bite of a whole plateful of pancakes: light, fluffy, buttery and maple delicious. And I forgot how to make them. Trauma sucks.

So gardening has been fairly non-existent. Last weekend I trimmed some scented geraniums and stuck the good ones in the ground to root but then we got a pretty heavy frost (brrr!) so not expecting much.

Just before Christmas I went on a baking spree so I could give things to the neighbors (they tend to give us stuff and I feel bad not reciprocating). I tried my hand at thumbprint cookies. I’d never tasted them before but I’d seen them around (this turned out to be good, having since purchased some at a bakery, I got it wrong and that was good).

With the use of almond flour, I thought they’d taste like peanut butter and jelly cookies but they came out way classier. I did take some over to a friend when I went for lunch. We talked about the ratio method (these are 1-2-3 cookies).

1/2 c melted butter (one stick)
1 c sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 egg
1 c flour
1/2 c almond flour
1 tbsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1/4 jar of the best jam you can find (though I’m thinking of trying honey…)

Cream sugar and butter well, mix in vanilla and egg. Add both flours. Before mixing, add in baking soda and salt. Then mix top (dry layers only). Then mix it all together (yes, I only use one bowl, some call this lazy, I prefer efficient). Dough should be mostly dry. Make balls of the dough, use thumb to make a dimple, put in jam (I did strawberry and apricot, both excellent). Bake 10-12 minutes in 350F oven.

I meant to take a picture but the neighbors never brought gifts which was good because we ate all the cookies.

Writers write

Almost half a decade ago last August, my office mate walked in and gave me this mournful tale about wanting to write a book. Deep in the cyborg mind of pair programming (over IM!), I nodded along at what seemed to be the correct times. I might even have taken my headphones off.

At the end of the tale of the great American novel, Phil said that said that November is National Novel Writing Month. Opening my mouth to say something (not sure what), out came, “I will if you will.” I was surprised as anyone in the room.

However, having taken on the commitment, I started outlining my thriller-romance-mystery-scifi book. I started researching spy craft, space hardening electronics and the missile defense system. Once November came, I worked hard to keep up 2000 words a day. I even contributed to NaNoWriMo (good charity), read the encouragement emails they sent (good idea) and went to some of their events (not as good an idea).

Phil didn’t quite get off the ground. He’s got a family and dogs and a job and just didn’t quite follow through. I have hassled him about it endlessly.

Anyway, I got my short novel written. A year later, it was edited and self published. A little time after that, much to my horror and amusement, was on Amazon. Phil, good sport that he is, gave it a five star review. I mean, my mom only gave it four stars.

Now Phil is making a concentrated effort to do more writing. I’ve been watching his blog grow and say things in a voice I’d grown accustomed to during the many days we spent in the office together. I kinda miss the office and I’m happy to hear the voice.

Keep writing Phil!