Looking back at 2013

The boys at the Harvard Museum of Natural Science

I’ve been procrastinating on writing a year in review post for over a week now. It feels a touch overwhelming to actually think through the past year, never mind coherently present it. But I put a link to my Christmas card to my blog with a promise that you might be able to replace the stunning content of the Christmas letter with the blog, so here you go.

Thane hopes you’re doing well!

Thane at 5:
Thane is astonishingly still in preschool. With an October birthday, he’s spending more or less the maximum sentence in preschool. My youngest son is incredibly bouncy and exuberant, with flying limbs and bouncing feet. At 90th+ percentile in height, he continues to outgrow his gross motor coordination. Happily, he couples this with a durability, toughness and focus that shrug off all distractions, such as pain and parents. He is a picture in persistence. He loves Legos, and forces his fingers to make the most intricate Lego creations. I think one of my favorite things in the world is to listen to him sing to himself as he puts together a puzzle or a sculpture. He always wants to help me cook, and has laserlike-focus on understanding particular questions.

This year, Thane did swimming lessons (which he did not like), soccer (which he did), aikido, cooking classes, science classes and Lego League (he was too young, but I snuck him in anyway). He prefers unstructured time to activities, so I’m careful about how much I ask of him in terms of following rules and toe-ing the line. He has begun reading slowly – very phonetically – which he finds hard work. He loves macaroni and cheese, Scooby Doo and his dear Puppy.

Thane is sweet and funny and affectionate. He thinks hard about the world around him, and asks questions to understand it better. He is wholly a delight!

How he spends his time
The artist at work

Grey at 8:
This year has seen a great flowering of Grey’s skills and abilities. He was irate that on our Christmas cards I included my blog, but not his Wacky Wonder Comics blog. He’s arrived at the shores of an age where he can do some things better than I can. He can certainly draw better. Of all the many interests he pursues, his drawing is the most persistent and pervasive. He makes Pokemon cards, comics, doodles, sketches, etc. He spent his Christmas money on some “real” art supplies – an easel that takes up his desk. After a time playing with one of his friends, I discovered a collaborative art project the two of them had created – without my help.

BFFs at Grey’s birthday

We are still looking to see what Grey’s great abiding passion may be – perhaps art – and are exposing him to many things. He enjoys outside activities more than his brother, which makes it easier. This year we tried basketball, swimming lessons, aikido, guitar lessons (still doesn’t want to practice!), baseball camp (a surprising success), soccer (Greece had a great year!), Lego League, and a Scratch programming class. Grey had a really tough spring, but over the summer and fall he rediscovered his emotional equilibrium and grew his resilience.

Grey about to hit a baseball

Grey likes lots of things. Legos, screens in all their many capacities (especially video games), art, rough-housing with his friends, games, books (especially comic books) and some sports. He has done stop-motion-Lego movies, comic series and extended card games of collaborative creation. At afterschool, there is a complex social society of Lego Houses, where the kids have in depth discussions about proximity, gear, style, creation and welcoming.

He might have read a LITTLE too much Calvin and Hobbes

Grey is a very complex, joyful, fun kid. I find myself very interested in his thoughts, and what he has to say. I look forward to being superseded in more skills every day!

Brenda (me):

This is what I look like in my mind’s eye. A less-expertly wielded camera might disagree.

I had a really good year this year. A lot of the changes for me were at work. I got two promotions, and am in a role now which requires my full capabilities and energy – and travel. It’s actually a great feeling to have a job that needs all you have to give, but that gives you the support to do it. I was trying to remember everywhere I went in 2013. I think the list looks something like this:

New York
Chicago
Minneapolis
Ft. Lauderdale
Los Angeles
Dallas
Atlanta
Troy MI (Detroit) 2x
Montreal (for fun)

I think that’s it. Many of these trips were for only a day or two – the one-day-red-eye to California being particularly notable that way. On the home front, we also took shorter trips to New York, Connecticut and went camping three times!

Selfies while we wait

My personal life is just about as full as it can be. If I add anything (like say exercising more) it comes at the cost of something else (like socializing, sleeping or seeing my kids). There is very little optional relaxation I could cut out, so new years resolutions become like a zero sum game. I must stop an activity to add an activity. That said, I worked a lot on guitar this year, although I’m not notably better. I enjoyed cooking some pretty terrific meals. We gamed more or less weekly this year – we were a bit better than normal about it! I took a lot of pictures, but I do feel my blogging has suffered lately. I’d like to be a bit more consistent in the new year. I attempted a new blog – Technically Pretty – but it required too much research for me to keep up with it. I was less active in church than usual, which is likely to change in the coming year as we seek for an interim pastor.

I’m also taking a four week course on photography, which has already improved my skills! I can hope it will continue to do so and provide some ready-made blog fodder for the next month!

I don’t usually hike wearing a dress, but this was a special occasion.

Adam:

Adam, gaming, with boys. A perfect scene.

The biggest news of Adam’s year was the closing of the dojo. Sensei became a father. Running a dojo, being a dad and having a day job were one thing too many. Adam earned his first kyu in aikido prior to the closing of the dojo. So there was much aikido until July… and then there was none. We’ve all been enjoying having Adam around so much more, but I think the new year may bring a new activity. He wants to do ballroom dance, which I think sounds like a blast. Adam continues to run our weekly game, and is raising two very fine gamers.

If asked, Grey will inform you that he played quite a role in the building of the bar

Adam also built out an addition to our porch to make it much more usable. The windows are very high, so a person seated in a chair could not see out. Adam constructed a gorgeous maple bar (with help from Grey) to which we added some stools. Both Adam and I have loved working and gathering there! He also launched a mobile application at a company sponsored forum which was a serious success, and of which he is very proud!

My incredibly handsome husband

Data and Tiberius

Snuggly brothers

Grey spent most of the spring and summer earning 170 “Chore checks” in order to get a new cat. The house seemed empty with the death of Magic and Justice, but I wanted Grey to have ownership in a cat, and to actually do the work of pet ownership, so we set a high bar so he could actually show me that he would be capable and consistent of cat care. The moment finally came over Labor Day, when we went to a shelter and found a bonded pair of brothers we really liked. The name Data had been pre-ordained. When we met his swaggering, over-confident, rather corpulent brother, the name Tiberius suggested itself. (There are two kinds of people, the kind who automatically know why Data and Tiberius might go together and the kind who, when the relationship is explained, cannot believe that anyone knows that.)

A few weeks after we brought the boys home, we brought Tiberius in because he wasn’t looking well and discovered that he had a very serious – life-threatening – condition. It would require massive effort and outlay, but if we made it through, his prognosis was to live a full and rich life again. I wrestled considerably with the right solution to this issue, and we did end up having the procedure. After that, he had to be tube fed up to 5 times a day for about a month. He threw up a lot. It was a grim period, and he came within a day or two of me deciding that his quality of life was not worth his suffering. But he pulled through and now is a completely happy, healthy cat with some odd bald patches that are already growing in.

A very sick cat being ministered to by two loving little boys

Data and Tiberius are excellent cats. They’re outgoing, friendly, and have wonderful litter box compliance. (It’s the little things in life that make the big differences.) Tiberius is always in the middle of the action, and Data would happily reconstruct his life to be Adam’s scarf. We’re enjoying them greatly.

“This looks like a great place for a nap!”

That’s where we are at the turning of the page of the year. Where does the new year find you?

Data and Tiberius

Grey's cats Tiberius and Data
Grey’s cats Tiberius and Data

I’m sure you all remember a few weeks ago, when Grey earned the 170 required checks to prove to us he was responsible enough to get a cat, who he was going to name Data. We came home a little early from camping, and Monday morning of Labor Day we were ready to go find Data. The only shelter open on Labor Day was the Northeast Animal Shelter, so that’s where we went. It was a really lovely shelter. The cat rooms were fantastic. I almost felt badly about taking the cats away from such perfect, lovely rooms!

It was Western Day at the shelter.
It was Western Day at the shelter

Oh right. Cats. Plural.

Well, we found Data. He was this beautiful, friendly, affectionate seven year old black cat. (His original name was Salem.) He was perfect. Just one thing, he had a bonded brother, Simon. They were a team, and only went together. Now you might think that putting two cat carriers into the car was an admission on my part that I thought this might happen, and you’d be right. Simon, or Tiberius as he quickly was dubbed (for, you know, James Tiberius Kirk), is a big, outgoing, adamant orange tiger.

Data checks out the heights.

Mr. Mikstache himself
Mr. Mikstache himself

In case you were wondering, the cats’ full names are Tiberius Milkstache Flynn (seriously, check out his moustache coloring!) and Data Android Flynn.

They spent a week in Grey’s room. The cats are apparently unaware that cats should eat cat food. They have turned their noses up at the very high end wet and dry food with which they have been provided. But Tiberius especially likes to eat bran flakes and pretzels. (Not that we let him, but that’s his preference.). Neither is particularly interested in playing with cat toys, but (of course) Tiberius loves playing with computer cables. I’m hoping we can eventually convince them to eat cat food and play with laser pointers and little kitty wands, but these things take time. The two of them are finally comfortable enough to be annoying in that way that cats are uniquely skilled in. They seem to be very good with kids, although Data doesn’t like to be put into a dark room.

I have to say, it’s really nice to have cats in the house again! And Grey HAS feed them every day. Win!

Tiberius
Tiberius

The historians of the future

While I was home on my whirlwind watch-my-brother-get-ordinated trip this December, I said something about how I could take 700 pictures at the ceremony, knowing I’d keep perhaps 70 and print probably 10 (20 if you count the fact that I send my grandmother prints regularly).

What I kept
What I kept

Now, my father is a historian. A bona-fide, written a book and has a contract for another one signed historian. He specializes in historical photos and runs a business taking people’s old black and white photographs and digitizing/archiving them. As I was lauding the convenience of the digital age, he lamented how I was making the job of future historians harder by destroying this original evidence.

I thought about that for a while. (Well, if you’re counting, I thought about that for three months.) And Dad, I understand where you’re coming from, but I think you may be wrong.

I’m increasingly convinced that the historians of the future will not need to wrest a compelling narrative from charred wooden sticks and a few hieroglyphs carved on a rock. They won’t even be putting it together from a shoebox full of black and white pictures with light pencil notes on the back, like my father does. The key skill of the historian of the future will be finding some way, some algorithm, some method of sorting through the vast and vaster amounts of information we throw off. It will not be finding the needle in the stratus, it will be finding the needle in the haystack.

Consider just my blog. In this WordPress blog I have 562 posts. And I’m missing about 3 years of posts from Livejournal. I also have about 8 paper journals that I wrote as a young girl. And several boxes of letters written and received. Oh letters! I’m using 8.3 gigs of space on Google’s servers, between my letters and my pictures. 8 gigs. Do you know how many 3 1/4 in floppy disks that is? Do you know how vast we thought those floppies back in 1992? We said things like, “All the literature in the world can fit into one bookcase with these floppies.” (Just a back of the envelope calculation… those floppies help 1.44 mb. So my email and pictures would require 8000 of them. Give or take. I should mention Wikipedia has quite a long discussion on just how much they held.) I’m a one woman content creation machine! Oh, and then there are Facebook posts. And Tweets. And text messages. And – let’s be honest – I’m doing well if only 95% of my material is completely worthless.

I imagine the poor historian of the future, who sits down to write a story on some recent event – the Arab Spring perhaps. First this historian starts with the summaries of the summaries – the writings on it that have been proved by the test of time. Then this historian reads the contemporary published writings (many of which were done too quickly and too poorly edited in order to take advantage of “the market”). The historian then moves on the famous non-published writings and pictures. She must be nearly through her PhD by now… only to begin looking at the non-famous sources. Perhaps she picks a person or two. Then, for her period of interest, she reads through the gigs and gigs of material, pictures, posts, updates, emails and LOL-cat forwards for those people. How impossibly daunting.

Our historical anonymity is almost as guaranteed by our vast hordes of information as by the paucity of prior millenia… with one exception. If, for some reason, people WANT to know about you in the future they will be able to. They’ll know it all. When you were sick, and how. (Perhaps they’ll be able to access your medical records and xrays?) Who you contacted. Where you were. What you saw. Everything. But that will happen for so few of us – only the Elvises and Kennedys of the next generation (whose mothers are cheerfully documenting everything from their birth story to their potty training to what kind of trouble they’re having in school).

So what do you think? Are you careful to archive your own history? Or do you prefer to curate, and keep an edited summarized version of your life somewhere that might actually be readable? Or do you think that, as we continue to grow as a people, our descendants will have an even wider range of interest and no previous historical person will be uninteresting and banal? Do you think we might do our children’s children favors in their PhD theses not by saving everything, but by deleting most things?

I'll create terabytes of data in my lifetime!
I'll create terabytes of data in my lifetime!

When programmers work out

You might wonder why the stereotype of a programmer is a rather largish person. Here’s the real reason: we can’t stand doing hard things that don’t have data associated with them that we can measure and make pretty graphs about. So let’s say you, normal person, go for a run. You think, “Wow, I’m tired. That was a good run!”.

Here’s what a programmer thinks:
1) Calculate length of run (Google maps)
2) Calculate number of strides executed (pedometer)
3) Measure time elapsed in run (watch)
4) Take samplings of heart rate (???)
5) Calculate calories burned by run (web app)

Really intense programmers might also capture relevant variables like “Hours after eating the run occurred” or “Ounces of water consumed on day of run” or “Mean temperature and humidity during run period” or “Health on a scale of 1 to 10”.

For each run executed, one of those numbers needs to change in order to demonstrate progress. To measure that shift over time, a programmer might chart it all in a nifty spreadsheet/database. Hmmm… maybe that database needs a web front end. I think I could whip that up in jQuery pretty fast. But if there are multiple runners, I’ll need to change my data model. I bet I could turn this in to a great iPhone app….

Man, that’s a lot of work. You know what’s less work? Sitting here at my desk, eating a Snicker’s bar and making my existing data dance. Dance data! Dance!

This is why programmers have trouble exercising. And I am no exception.

Fortunately for me, I’ve found some exercises that throw off the lovely, lovely data I crave. Our elliptical machine at the gym here, for example, is a delight (if only it had some sort of wireless interface so I could download my data!). It gives me length of workout, strides per minute, resistance and heart rate. So if I do the same workout with the same strides per minute at the same resistance… if I’m getting in better shape the heart rate should go down. Mmmm… data.

Today, being an exceptionally lovely day in New England, I decided to go on a run. The last 3 times I did this run, I did not manage to run all the way. I am told it’s about 1.6 miles. I know I am out of shape. But today! Today! I ran the WHOLE WAY. Look ma! One of the variables improved! It’s satisfying to note that nicely empirically-proven improvement.

Maybe next time I’m on the elliptical I can get my peak heart-rate under 180 a minute while holding all the other variables the same. Wheeeeee!!!!!

I love data

I usually think of myself as a liberal arts kinda girl — all about poetry and language and music and history. But back in high school, I took the ASVAB (the military’s aptitude test) in order to get out of class and (this is the real reason) because I always liked taking standardized tests. (I know! I’m sorry!). Anyway, the results of this test weren’t wildly surprising except one: I aced the code-breaking section. According to the military and my fuzzy 15 year old memory, I was unusually good at translating one list to another. It indicated that I might be a capable computer programmer. I scoffed.

And here I am, a computer programmer. Go figure. I guess what I’m saying is that my image of myself as a words only person is just that: an image. I actually do have this well of unappreciated ability in the less subjective. One of the places this shows up most is in data sets.

I just cannot resist real numbers. If it can be measured, it makes me happy. For example, as you may recall, I carefully measured and calculated my milk production while pumping at work, doing my best to note and avoid problems with my data set. Why? Um, because data is cool? And of course, halfway through you think of other data you should’ve collected (time spent pumping, quality of audio book being listened to, frigidity of server room and impact on milk production).

So for Christmas my brother bought me a Wii fit. It plays exactly into my weakness. Oh, the Wii throws off fantastic data! It has charts and graphs. How much of the time I spent in my workout was done using strength training exercises? How consistent have I been? How many calories did I burn doing X activity? What is my BMI, with a precision of 2. Love! Love love! Data! It gets even better for me, because I find data highly motivational. Give me a measurable objective and watch me make it and then exceed it by a little bit because, um, that’s just how I roll. So fantastic, right?

Well…. there’s just one problem. Let’s say I have half an hour to workout (aka: a miracle has occurred). Which activity is likely to produce the best fitness results: Wii fit, or a half hour fitness workout (I have a Bollywood dance workout DVR’d I’m dying to try)? Chances are the non-Wii workout will get my heart rate higher longer. But! But but! It won’t provide me with the delicious, delicious data I crave. I’ll have to go by estimates and feelings! Bah!

Exercise isn’t the only place where I face this conflict between the measurable and the likely more effective. This happens all the time in food. For example, which one of these is probably all-over better for you: the delicious turkey-burgers my husband made for dinner last night, or a frozen Healthy Choice dinner? Right. Homemade food from actual ingredients has numerous benefits over prepackaged “food” products – not the least of which is taste. Now, which one of these is easily quantified? That would be the prepackaged one, of course. On the other hand, this “from scratch” food may have nutritional surprises. I’m pretty sure that the turkey-burgers were pretty healthy, but what about the chili that I make about once every two weeks? I think it’s pretty decent nutritionally, but I could be wrong.

So I can rigorously and accurately count calories, or I can make my food from scratch.

The last time I set about losing baby-weight, I accomplished it through rigorous calorie counting in both intake and output. I believe that I switched the way I ate from a mostly home cooked to more prepared. That’s harder now, because there are more people eating the food we cook. I don’t think I’m willing to do that again. (Also, the site I used for calorie counting is still stuck in Web 1.0 and has a painful interface. Oh, for an iPhone with a food and exercise log app!) It will be interesting to see whether I can pull this off: reduce calories and exercise regularly without constant data streams and numbers. So motivational do I find numbers, I’m actually not entirely sure I can.

What about you? Do you love data or find it irrelevant or constrictive? What pointless data sets do you obsessively maintain? What are other circumstances are there conflicts between an optimal outcome and a measurable outcome? Which one do you pick when they are in conflict: optimal or measurable?

A sucker for data

I’m not sure when this started. I think it has something to do with organizing data for a living. (How are computer programmers like librarians?) But I’m a sucker for hard, empirical data.

For example, my company has no log of hours worked. But on my own, really for my own benefit, I’ve logged my hours for roughly the last 5 years. Why? To what end? I have no idea. I just like the fact that they are bona fide real facts and I can keep track of them.

Which brings us to today. When you nurse a child, you have no idea how much they are eating. The amounts are quantified as: not enough, enough and too much. (Too much, for the curious, usually results in a return of a rather larger portion of milk than you appreciate. Usually over something that is dry clean only.) But when you go back to work and sit in a server room for half an hour a day with the Economist (this week) and a breast pump that wheezes “wax on, wax off” you end up knowing EXACTLY how much. And if you keep the variables relatively consistent (twice a day with a noontime nursing) you can, you know, keep track. With this lovely, empirical, completely pointless data.

11 ounces, in case you’re curious. Tigris appears to consistently produce half an ounce less than Euphrades.

So of course I have to start logging this data. Not because it’s important, useful or valuable in any way. No. Because it’s DATA.