Yes woman

January 16, 2011

2009 had been pretty much a smoking crater for me — I lost my mind, almost died, closed my startup, totaled my car, lost friends, and tried dating — but I made no resolutions towards self-improvement in 2010. Instead I decided to re-engage with joyful life through the inspiration of a movie I never even saw: the Jim Carrey comedy Yes Man.

Basically I forced myself to act on anything that was sincerely suggested to me and not obviously shady. Join a football pool despite my utter ignorance of the sport? Yes! Give good wingman for my girlfriends? Yes! Drive the breadth of the nation from LAX to JAX in an ’89 Toyota? Yes! Volunteer to be a brain-research guinea pig? Yes! Watch World Cup every day for weeks? Yes! Re-activate 106 Miles bigger than ever? Yes! Attend a massive roots-music concert in Golden Gate Park? Yes! I didn’t have any money, but I didn’t have a job either so the two factors probably balanced out.

The main way I grew though was less about fun activities, and more about getting to know new people. It’s natural and normal to gradually narrow your social circle as you get older… but one day you wake up and realize you’re only hanging out with those who are essentially just like you. I think the problem can be especially bad in Silicon Valley because it’s pretty easy to convince yourself that “diversity” means you have work buddies who are geeky overachievers from Shanghai, Mumbai AND Caltech. But slowly you’re depriving yourself of getting to know sick old men, military servicepeople, the townie kids who make your sandwiches, bitter middle-aged types with drinking problems, witty Southerners, Marina blondes, stubborn Midwesterners, birdwatchers, and former college athletes. And if you’re like me, you’ll start to maybe treat these groups as stereotypes rather than individuals… and they’ll do the same to your geeky overachievers… and pretty soon America will suck just a little bit more for everyone.

This year, I am actually inclined to do something self-improving. I’m still not making resolutions, but I have a goal: to work on eradicating some mental habits that I think are holding me back. I think the key for me might lie in the realm of sports psychology — an idea that formerly would have made me roll my eyes in derision. I’m sincerely grateful to everyone who gave me some perspective on my own blind spots and lazy assumptions… and I can sincerely recommend the Yes Man technique to anyone who wants to shake up his or her own mind.

36 hours in my Silicon Valley

September 30, 2010

The NYT travel section featured Silicon Valley in its “36 hours in…” column recently, and wow did the article make us sound duller than dirt. It was a combination of stuff no one ever does (hanging out in Los Gatos boutiques??!), factually incorrect statements (Antonio’s Nut House is anything but “low-key” according to the police blotter), and ideas that are right but for the wrong reasons (Friday afternoon at the Rosewood bar is allegedly “cougar happy hour”, the VCs are getting pitched but not the way the NYT thinks). But the piece did get me thinking that maybe I should write down some of the things my out-of-town guests like to do when they visit.

First off, there’s no way you want to stay all the way out in Santa Clara unless you’re at a convention there; also neg the Rosewood unless you’re on a fatty expense account and love the idea of being in the middle of nowhere next to the freeway. Dinah’s in Palo Alto is the spot: it’s historic, centrally located just off a bike route, and includes a rather upscale tiki bar called Trader Vic’s with pupu platters and zombies in case you need a handy refuge.

After you check in on Friday afternoon, I’d personally start on University Avenue in Palo Alto to see some entrepreneurs right away. Head straight to the University Coffee Cafe (the sign just says University Cafe, but everyone adds the “Coffee”), where you want to sit next to a table of two men — one of them preferably nerdy-looking and/or saying “value proposition” a lot. Note how shiny are the eyes of the entrepreneur… although whether the glaze is optimism or desperation is never quite clear. The coffee is nothing special here, the floor is unsettlingly tilted, and the reserved seating policy is baffling… but it probably has a higher density of entrepreneur-funder meetings than any other place in the world.

After that, you’ll need a drink. Cougar Happy Hour at the Rosewood actually sounds mighty entertaining, so I’d head up there for a fancy cocktail before returning to California Ave for dinner. If you’re feeling flush, two ex-Nobu chefs serve excellent sushi at Jin Sho; or Palo Alto Sol offers yummy “cocina poblana” (food in the style of Puebla, Mexico). Antonio’s Nut House on a Friday night will be filled with Facebookers and grad students, giving you the opportunity to marvel firsthand at Silicon Valley’s infatuation with youth and novelty. I would not personally eat anything there, or drink anything without wiping down the lip of the glass, or use the bathroom if at all possible.

On Saturday morning you will definitely want to see redwoods. The best spot in my opinion is Purisima Creek Redwoods in Woodside, the town where all the venture capitalists live (VPs prefer Los Altos, while CTOs for some reason lurk in Portola Valley). Eat breakfast at Buck’s, to get the full flavor of Woodside’s old-California small-town facade; then CAREFULLY thread your way up Woodside Road to Highway 35 (Skyline). On Saturday mornings this road belongs to packs of road cyclists, because Silicon Valley is the capital of the sport. A lot of these guys put more miles on their bikes every year than you do your car, and they don’t even necessarily commute or race… they just love hammering up the hills.

The awesome thing about Purisima Creek Redwoods is that you can hike for hours… or visitors of any age and ability can simply enjoy the deliciously scented Redwood Trail. Sequoia Sempervirens, the Coast Redwood, can be identified by a flat needle with a groove down the center; and the cones are only about the size of a nut. At the right times of year, this forest is filled with naughty mushroom-hunting Russian immigrants who seek out delicious fungi in blithe disregard of your silly American laws.

One oddball tip for finding Saturday afternoon activities in Silicon Valley is to check the calendar of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition. Their members (I am one) provide “bike valet parking” at Stanford football games, art festivals, and other major happenings along the “Caltrain corridor”. If you like to ride bikes, you can rent or borrow a bike easily and use the newish “bike directions” feature on Google Maps to tap into the network of bike lanes and trails in the area. Even if you don’t feel like mingling with the masses at an art festival, you can easily pedal over to a bookstore — Rasputin in Mountain View for used, or Kepler’s in Menlo Park for new — and pleasantly while away the afternoon.

No one can possibly say they have visited Silicon Valley without gorging on Indian food. My visitors always enjoy the South Indian specialties called vada (savory chickpea donuts) and dosa (paper-thin crepes) at Udupi Palace in Sunnyvale, where the food is delicious, super cheap, vegetarian, filling, and probably different from the Indian food you can get at home. Before dinner, I like to take my friends to watch the sun set over the decades-old apricot trees at the Sunnyvale heritage orchard. Before it was called Silicon Valley, this area was known as the Valley of Heart’s Delight, and it was a famous fruit-growing region… of which this small plot of Blenheim apricots is the last vestige. If you are extra-eco, you might also enjoy a quick trip to nearby Full Circle Farm, an 11-acre working CSA on the grounds of a public middle school.

After parking back at Dinah’s, walk over to Dan Brown’s Sports Lounge to meet the forgotten townies of Palo Alto — the restaurant managers, schoolteachers, bookkeepers, and carpenters who constitute the “normal” part of the population. On a Saturday night you’re unlikely to run into very many high-tech workers here… but you can get quite the education on the middle-class squeeze in a part of the world where the median income is in the six figures. Or you can just enjoy a shot and a beer, televised sports (hockey season is the best because you can see how successful the Sharks have been at bringing their icy sport to the area), and a little dancing.

Sunday morning means dim sum brunch. The best place to go is Cupertino, one of the increasing number of high-achieving California towns run by Asian immigrants. The mayor of Cupertino is Chinese-American, as is the entire city council and most of the residents. Unsurprisingly, the Cupertino school district is so renowned that houses located within its borders command a substantial premium over those in neighboring Sunnyvale. You want to get to Joy Luck in Cupertino Village before it opens at 10AM, and be sure to get the pan-fried shrimp and chive dumplings. Afterwards, a little stroll through Ranch 99 supermarket next door is always fun and reinforces how much Asian immigration there has been to this area.

If you have time left, the NYT’s suggestion of a quick visit to the Mountain View farmers market is definitely a good one. Unlike most such markets, this one operates year-round although there are more vendors in mid-summer. The quality and variety of fruits, veggies, meats and prepared foods are pretty dazzling, especially considering that every little town in Silicon Valley has a farmers market like this. Take special note of the Asian vegetables, and the amazing variety of baby greens — and pick up a picnic lunch for your plane ride home, after your weekend in Troutgirl’s Silicon Valley.

I am a lab rat!

June 15, 2010

Everyone likes to read about people who have had brain injuries, and what those pathologies have revealed about normal brain function. I mean, you can’t exactly go around tinkering inside people’s skulls to see what the various headmeats and glands do, can you? So the scientists have no choice but to lay in wait for people to have brain problems, and then snatch them up and take them back to the lab. Eventually the results of the study may help healthy people too, if they lead to better understanding of how the wetware works.

Today I got to make my own little contribution to Science [say Science in that Thomas Dolby voice!] by being part of a Stanford-Veterans Administration study of pituitary function after head trauma (including subarachnoid hemorrhage, I guess the blood leaking into your brainstem does your pituitary no good). The pituitary programs the other glands, and therefore controls a lot of stuff related to growth, metabolism, hydration, sex, and reproduction. People who have had brain traumas can experience subtle changes in their ability to grow muscle and burn fat, because the brain-body connection expresses itself through hormones as well as electrical impulses.

Which is where your humble lab rat comes in. It seemed like a noble goal to serve Science by volunteering, and besides I owe Stanford Hospital a lot so helping them out with their research seemed like a small downpayment. Even after a night of fasting, early morning appointment, mandatory pregnancy test, an hour of multiple attempts to slam a catheter into my scarred veins, and the drawing of approximately 40 vials of blood at half-hour intervals… still good. I reminded myself that I was also helping soldiers with brain injuries, and even “normal” people having trouble losing weight due to subtle hormonal problems.

But then I got to sample the joy of drug-induced hyperglycemia, and it’s not as much fun as it sounds. To measure Human Growth Hormone production, they gave me a common medication which also forces your liver to dump glucose into the bloodstream really fast — in fact, the stuff they give you if you’re in a diabetic coma from too much insulin. Not only were the symptoms unpleasant — vomiting, dizziness, feeling like my legs weren’t working, headache, sweats — but the whole experience was just a bit too reminiscent of my hemorrhage. The doctor did hold my hair back while I puked, which I thought was a nice improvement from last time. I reassured everyone that it was OK because I was suffering for Science… I think that nonplussed them :).

Somewhat to my surprise, I made it through the whole day of testing! The last bit was the most fun since it involved a full-body composition scan — e.g. lying on a moving table, lightly taped down, for 6 minutes — rather than blood draws. But I’m glad I gutted it out for Science! Not that I’d wish a brain injury on anyone, but it’s consoling to know that from the misfortune of a few can come knowledge for all.

OSBridge 2010

June 6, 2010

Portland’s OpenSourceBridge just finished up its second annual conference, and although I had to leave early I just wanted to join the chorus of rave reviewers who claim it was even better this year than last. I dunno how much of it was luck and how much was planning, but it sure felt like the whole event was sprinkled with serendipity. The Portland Art Museum venue was not as inhumanely huge (or air-conditioned!) as the convention center and it was surprisingly pleasant to be surrounded by art, there was a farmer’s market just outside on Wednesday with yummy food stalls, and attendance was mysteriously the perfect size.

There’s no point in hating on OSCON or any other large conference for having become the victims of their own success… but that doesn’t mean I enjoy the corporate gigantism aspect. As always Rasmus put his finger on it when he noted that OSCON is now so huge that you can’t process much except dealing with the people you already know — so the big dogs just end up drinking beer with the other big dogs. OSBridge had a spirit that was much closer to the OSCON of years ago — everyone was just so open and relaxed and genuinely interested in sharing. Corporate interest was minimal, amounting to little more than Facebook sponsoring a bar-hop… in fact, one happy-hour event was open-bar only for the first $250 worth of drinkies! :)

I suspect that there’s a little bit of development-cycle luck involved in the era of good feeling too. All the excitement this year was around new datastores and server-side JavaScript engines… which maybe haven’t yet reached the stage where people feel compelled to champion one product at the expense of another. In the years where the new hotness is a programming language or toolkit, things can be more prickly or at least awkward if you don’t happen to be personally interested in the hot thing of the moment. Also, the inevitable demise of MySQL under Oracle seems to have resolved a lot of ambivalence and freed a bunch of people to wholeheartedly pour their energy into alternatives. And finally the extremely low cost of OSBridge — $300! — meant that people could kind of relax and follow their true bliss, instead of feeling like they had to justify some big conference fee by learning stuff relevant to their enterprise.

I don’t want to make it sound like a candy-coated paradise, cause that is not Troutgirl’s style :). It wouldn’t be Open Source without big egos, small social skills, and the dude in the Utilikilt standing around holding a pole with a parrot puppet impaled on it. Also Portland in early June seems to alternate between rain and humidity, unlike Portland in early August where every balmy evening invites an outing to an al fresco beergarden. To be fair, hotels and restaurants were bizarrely cheap and not very crowded in the “shoulder season” before the festivals of summer.

Lots of other OSBridge-lovers have mentioned the other unique aspects of this con — the perfect blend of proposed talks and unconference, the relatively large number of female speakers, the utter lack of vendors (I think Mozilla sent a dude to give away stickers, but that’s it) — but I just wanted to give one last shout-out to the volunteer army that puts on the conference. Selena, Christie, everyone who stayed up all night to man the 24-hour hacker lounge — I really appreciate all the hard work you put in, and I heard so many raves about the conference from others too. Thanks for giving us a space to revive our faith in what Open Source should be all about.

For a long time I’ve had a life goal to visit all the National Parks… but lately that’s come to seem a bit shallow. For what profits a woman if she gains the whole National Parks list and loses sight of its soul? So this year I wanted to focus less on quantity and more on expanding the quality of outdoor experiences on my park visits… although ironically quantity increased substantially too.

Through 20% good planning and 80% dumb luck, I got to spend a whole month roaming around to national parks in the southernmost tier of the US, mostly just off Interstate 10. And due to the unusually cold rainy spring of 2010, all of these notoriously heatstroke-inducing spots were on the (relatively) cool side when I visited. I even saw a small patch of snow on the ground at one!

My warmup trip in early April was Death Valley. I’m not gonna lie: I’ve been there several times before, but like most visitors I was driving to Las Vegas and barely got out of the car. And let’s face it, it’s one of the least inviting parks of all time: huge, broiling hot or rainy all the time, strange, and just hard to wrap your head around.

But due to El Niño, spring was late and full of wildflowers this year in Death Valley. My mom and octagenarian aunt packed up some Korean rice cakes and Auntie’s Golden Age Pass and we actually managed a short but intense hike this time. I had been skeptical that a flat two-mile out-and-back would feel worthwhile, but the heat and frequent sandstorms in those canyons are no joke! It also makes me a tiny bit nervous to stand around in what is obviously a flash-flood path, which always makes me step a bit more lively.

Then in mid-April I took a road-trip across the nation via Interstate 10, giving me the opportunity to visit Saguaro, Everglades, and Biscayne National Parks. They’re very different from each other, and from the Pacific coast parks that I grew up with — Sonoran desert, river of sawgrass, shallow marine — but what they have in common is unrelenting heat and lack of hiking… you never really touch the ground in any of them.

Saguaro, in my opinion, does not meet the standard for a National Park and frankly smells like a John McCain boondoggle. It is not unique at all, and its functions seem to have been met perfectly well already by the state parks and Desert Museum next door. That said, the Sonoran desert was amazingly full of life, with the saguaro cactus blossoms just on the point of bursting open and being pollinated by bats. Everglades irresistibly reminded me of a giant coffee filter through which all of South Florida drains… after driving through the whole state to get there, one can’t imagine how polluted and foul the surrounding bays would be without the Everglades. Biscayne, unique in being almost entirely water-based, is pretty hard to visit if you get seasick (note to self: the middle of a bay in a 2-person kayak riding VERY low in the water is probably not the optimal time to find out your paddling buddy can’t swim). Do I love these parks and itch to return? Nope, can’t say that I do… but I’m glad I got the opportunity to see them.

Troutgirl National Parks Month was capped off by a Mother’s Day trip to Grand Canyon NP with my family. This was the very first national park we’d ever visited, when I was age 4; but I’d never returned as an adult, frankly because I thought the Grand Canyon was the most overrated, overexposed, cliched, touristy hellhole in the entire system. Luckily my parents had somehow conceived a desire to take the famous mule trek to the bottom of the canyon, giving their offspring the opportunity to tag along. My plan was basically to pick the most difficult major hiking trail and go until my shaky ankles gave out; then attend as many lectures and exhibits about geology as possible — sort of a Rocks for Jocks weekend. Not only did that turn out to be an eminently sensible plan, but there really is no better way to learn about rocks than walking through layers of them… it’s much easier to “read” them underfoot (“those light-colored rocks with the lizards”) than on the page (“Paleozoic limestone”).

I was so intimidated by all the warnings of DEATH, INJURY, and HUMILIATION scattered everywhere in Grand Canyon NP, that I grossly overprepared for what amounted to a fast, hard dayhike. My family relentlessly mocked my special snacks (Tanka bars, made by Native Americans from bison!), my six-packs of Gatorade, my hideously unflattering wicking baselayers (although in my defense I’m wearing a couple layers under there so it’s not ALL pudge), and of course my iPood hand-trowel. They pretty much showed up with a bag of flaming hot Cheetos, some gorp, and a liter of water apiece… but let’s just say that in the end she who has wet-naps on the trail wins all arguments.

Ever since getting back from Grand Canyon, I read books about southwest geology at bedtime and drift off to sleep dreaming of ancient seabeds. Along with Crater Lake and Redwood, which I visited last year, I’m now up to 17 national parks on my life list. But more importantly, I really ENJOYED my outdoor adventures and pushed myself a little past my comfort zone in terms of appreciating the beauty of a park… and that’s what Troutgirl National Parks Month is all about.

There’s a lot of actual scientific info out there about hemorrhagic strokes for anyone with a working web browser; but based on a sample of my acquaintance, the stuff that everyone REALLY wants to know goes unasked and even more unanswered online. So here’s the straight dope on brain bleeds from one exceptionally stupid but unbelievably lucky survivor.

Does a subarachnoid hemorrhage hurt?

Maybe an 8 on a scale of 1 – 10, right behind the eyes. (I’m not saying 10 on principle to give myself some headroom; and I’ve only had a 9 “hope to die” pain once in my life, this wasn’t it.)

In the months before the aneurysm burst though, I had a long series of almost continuous bad headaches — which may or may not have been connected to the event! — and in hindsight I wonder if perhaps this oddly enough helped me because I was so used to stabbing pain in the headmeats. I think if you suddenly and without any warning experienced pain like that, most people would be flooded with adrenaline and stress hormones that would make a brain bleed much worse; but I was pretty calm (and exceptionally stupid, let me reiterate) about the whole thing.

When did you know you’d had a brain aneurysm?

Not till two and a half days later, in the ER. l thought I had super bad food poisoning for the first couple days, and just did what anyone would do in that case: laid in bed trying to drink water and take aspirin (which luckily I puked right up, cause aspirin thins the blood and thus is one of the worst things you can do for any kind of hemorrhage… although puking isn’t so wonderful in these cases either).

In hindsight it occurs to me that perhaps my dreamy two-day slide in and out of consciousness alone was, you know, not a sign of high intelligence. So here’s my public service announcement, kids: if you EVER pass out suddenly, go straight to the ER and get checked out instead of laying in bed trying to nibble saltines!

Did they vacuum up the blood in your brain during surgery?

Do people think they have tiny little shopvacs for brains or what? My aneurysm was on a bifurcation point of the middle cerebral artery, which you can find on this picture — pretty deep in there, right? — and the blood (a couple Tablespoons worth) had spread out pretty good by the time they operated. The brain is as soft as tofu and all convoluted, not suitable for vacuuming.

Does brain surgery hurt?

Not at all. The part that hurt the most was having a big-ass catheter called a central line inserted into an artery in my neck by someone who had never done it before.

Do you set off the metal detector at the airport?

Nope. I have two clips in my head (aneurysm burst twice), and I think maybe some screws from the craniotomy… but they’re tiny and made out of titanium, so I’ve never had a problem.

Did you think you could die?

Never occurred to me that I would not get 100% better. The rule of thumb seems to me that the higher your odds of going out, the less they mention it to you. So if your doctor is telling you that your cholesterol is a little elevated and you could die… the risk is purely theoretical. But if everyone is super cheerful and keeps assuring you that everything will be OK, you might want to make sure your will is up to date. I had no real idea of the odds until 2 weeks after my surgery when I finally spoke to the lead neurosurgeon.

Did you see god or get religion?

Nope, although I really wanted to. In fact one of my relatives came to pray over me and declared in prayer that I had promised to become a Christian if I got better — I did no such thing, I can assure you — and I almost blurted out, “You think your god doesn’t know you’re lying?” The closest I got to a Higher Power was lying there in the hospital for a week with nothing but science and the love of others to sustain me.

Do you have a bad-ass scar?

Yes but it doesn’t photograph well because it’s pale and about an inch back from my hairline. Ask me in person and I’ll show it to you.

How much does brain surgery cost?

$300,000 más o menos. Did I mention I was unemployed and had no health insurance when all this went down? I avoided bankruptcy almost entirely due to the charity of Stanford Hospitals — in addition to avoiding actual death and disability by their hard work.

Have you had any personality or sensory changes?

I might not be the best judge of this one, but I think not. Certainly I seem to have avoided the “gross neural deficit” that afflicts 35% of aneurysm patients.

Did you do something that made an aneurysm happen? Did you have any warning? Did you do anything that improved your outcome? Are you likely to have another one? Does it count as a pre-existing condition?

Don’t know, don’t know, don’t know, don’t know, and don’t know. I was quite amazed at how little they know about the whole thing… but part of it unfortunately is that so few hemorrhagic stroke sufferers seem to make a full recovery. Plus you can’t efficiently screen people for aneurysms before they burst… so the only way you can find out is the hard way.

Have your priorities in life changed? Are you less prone to do startups for instance?

Ummmm… that’s probably a whole separate blog post.

Now that everyone I know seems to be flooding every corner of the Interwebs with tweets, I can’t help but notice some well-nigh universal annoying habits that make my teeth grind with ire every time I see them. The top offenders:

Tweeting about coffee. I score high in my devotion to coffee in all its forms, and yet I have no interest whatsoever in your efforts to make it, order it, drink it, or hang around in places where it is made, ordered, or drunk. Even YOU probably don’t care that you’re going out to the cafe on the corner to get a latte this morning, if you think about it. (Oddly enough, I quite like hearing about what people are eating and drinking otherwise.)

Bitching about transportation. I don’t care if your plane is late. I don’t care if your commute is shite today. I don’t care where you are on the freeway. This goes double if you’re en route to some major geek confab like SXSW — because if your plane is delayed, rest assured two dozen other morons on the same flight have already so informed me. Obviously this constraint does not apply to Twitter accounts that were explicitly set up to pass along transit info, like the fabulous @bikecar.

Song lyrics. This went out in junior high. It’s especially irritating when someone starts quoting song lyrics that sound alarming but have nothing to do with anything that’s happening in their real life. If you put a song lyric out there about breaking up with your boyfriend or something, it’s lame to then say, “Oh I didn’t mean anything, I was just listening to the song on the radio.”

Cryptic statements. You’re trying too hard to seem misterioso and intriguing and yet discreet. If you don’t have the balls to plainly state what’s happening, it didn’t happen in a broadcast medium. Call up an actual friend if you have one, and discuss the matter privately.

Automated location notifications, especially cutesy ones. I guess in theory I can see why someone would want to broadcast that they’re sitting in a Borders right now, although I think people tend to overestimate (or want others to overestimate) how much they function as social beacons. But what’s up with being the MAYOR of Borders? It’s infantile without being in the slightest bit adorable.

Bonus: Unrecognizable headshots. This is a universal gripe of mine, but it’s especially bad on Twitter because of the small image sizes, over-fancy background designs, and wacky usernames. Use a photo that gives people a fighting chance of differentiating you from the other 1,724 users they’re following. And seriously you’re not fooling anyone if you use a photo taken more than a year ago. You look fine, just get over the vanity and use a current pic.

Next time you’re tempted to pull one of these maneuvers, please stop yourself — because if you have to resort to this crapola, it means you actually have ABSOLUTELY NOTHING worth saying… not even 140 characters worth. Lie down and chill until the urge to tweet passes or inspiration strikes.

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