Planet Systers GSoC

March 29, 2014


Sparkfun's Arduino Day Sale: looking for inspriation!

Arduino Day 2014

Sparkfun has a bunch of Arduinos on crazy sale today, and they're allowing backorders. It's a one day sale, ending just before midnight US mountain time, so you've still got time to buy your own! Those $3 minis are amazing.

I wound up buying the maximum amount I could, since I figure if I don't use them myself, they'll make nice presents. I have plans for two of the mini ones already, as part of one of my rainy day projects that's only a little past drawing board and into "let's practice arduino coding and reading sensor data" stage. But the rest are waiting for new plans!

I feel a teensy bit guilty about buying so many arduinos when I haven't even found a good use for the Raspberry Pi I got at PyCon last year. I did buy it a pretty rainbow case and a cable, but my original plan to use it as the brains for a homemade cnc machine got scuttled when John went and bought a nice handybot cnc router.

disassembled pibow case
A pretty picture of the pibow rainbow raspberry pi case from this most excellent post about it. They're on sale today too if you order through pimoroni

I've got a few arty projects with light that might be fun, but I kind of wanted to do something a bit more useful with it. Besides, I've got some arty blinky-light etextile projects that are going to happen first and by the time I'm done those I think I'll want something different.

And then there's the Galileo, which obviously is a big deal at work right now. One of the unexpected perks of my job is the maker community -- I've been hearing all about the cool things people have tried with their dev boards and seeing cool projects, and for a while we even had a biweekly meet-up going to chat with some of the local Hillsboro makers. I joined too late to get a chance at a board from the internal program, but I'll likely be picking one up up on my own dime once I've figured out how I'm going to use it! (John already has one and the case he made for it came off the 3d printer this morning and I'm jealous!)

So... I'm looking for inspiration: what's the neatest arduino/raspberry pi/galileo/etc. project you've seen lately?

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March 29, 2014 07:45 PM

March 11, 2014


Birchbox Beauty Box February 2014

This box was oscars-themed, I guess. Not really my thing, but better than valentine's, and probably more appropriate for birchbox than olympics, I guess.

Birchbox Beauty Box February 2014

I was mostly just irked because that juicy couture stinky sample really messes up the colour scheme. ;)

Actually, if I had to describe this box in one word, that word would be stinky.

Let's start with the perfume:

Juicy Couture Couture La La Malibu - 2.5 oz

The outer package:
Juicy Couture Malibu Eau de Toilette Spray

And the inside:
Juicy Couture Malibu Eau de Toilette Spray

Does pink sugar actually smell different from other sugar? I'm not sure I can tell, since this also claims to smell like mandarins and that seems more like wishful thinking than truth to me. I find the resulting scent strangely generic, like that lingering smell of all the combined perfumes in a shopping mall. It smells a bit familiar, but not really in a good way, more in that "I think I smelled a candle like this once, in the dollar store" kind of way.

To me, this smell immediately evoked the image of a teen girl you get stuck next to on the bus on a hot day, where you spent the whole trip wishing she had a better idea of how much perfume is appropriate or at least had better taste in scents. Combine this with the marketing, and I feel like this is a scent for people who wish they were self-centered so-cal teens. I gather perfumes are more based on image and brand than actual scent, and I'm disturbed that "horribly entitled so-cal teen brat with dubious taste" was ever considered a marketing win. I want to say something vaguely positive like "maybe ok if you're trying for something youthful..." but let's be honest: I hate it.

And, on top of that, a light spritz on one wrist was enough to make my eyes slightly itchy for hours afterwards, whereupon I finally gave up and scrubbed it off as best I could. Definitely not for me, and bad enough for me that I hope it's not for *anyone*.

I'm not sure what to do with the rest of the sample -- if anyone wants it, let me know, otherwise I might dump it down the drain to do something more fun with the teensy glass spritzer bottle.

That disappointment aside, let's move on.

In fact, let's evolve through me putting on a bunch of face goop, because I took these pictures so I could compare as I went, and I might as well use them for more than one purpose.

First, the bare-faced selfie, me with no makeup whatsoever:
Me, No makeup whatsover

In case anyone's wondering, the curling of my normally straight hair is a side-effect of the way I've been coiling it up out of my way while it's wet. There's actually nothing in my hair except maybe some lingering leave-in conditioner from my shower ages before.

Also, see that camisole? Totally bought from PACT, in the same style as the cami I liked so much from my Wantable box. This subscription thing is working!

I have just picked up the smashbox try-it kit thanks to my birchbox points and a nice 20% coupon they gave me for sticking with it for 6 months.

Some underwhelming packaging:
Smashbox Try It Kit
And products inside:
Smashbox Try It Kit

So first step was primer and BB cream plus a little bit of colour corrector:
Me with primer and bb cream on

This was also my first time trying the Beautyblender sponge, also bought from Birchbox thanks to points and coupon. This is an expensive, hot pink sponge applicator that is supposedly God's gift to makeup, and I decided I wanted to try it. I think I didn't quite pat enough water out of it, so my makeup is a bit thinner than it might have been. Probably just as well, it's not like I really needed it today.

So let's look at product #2 now:

ElevenSkin Perfection Eye Creme + Concealer

Perfection Eye creme + Concealer by Eleven Skin

Can you tell I had fun photographing it?

Here it is on my face:
Now adding the eye concealer...

It's a bit hard to tell from the bad lighting, but it has a distinct but not-too-obvious effect. It came in a tube with one of those diagonal-with-a-hole applicators that I see mostly in lip balms, but since I was trying the beautyblender makeup sponge already, I used the sponge to apply it. It may have been a mistake, as I think I would have benefited from a slightly thicker application than I managed.

I like this concealer/lotion a lot, since I was having problems with my existing concealer (it went on fine, but by the end of the day it would often highlight or deepen the lines around my eyes). It seems a little wimpy as a concealer, but subtle is sometimes the order of the day for my work makeup and the smooth application and nicer all-day wear has me convinced.

That said, I haven't tried a lot of different concealers yet, so my enthusiasm might be just due to having used an incredibly bad product in the past.

I'm not sure yet if I'll buy more, because I think I'd like to test a few more before making a decision. This isn't likely to be the sort of category where I bother with more than one product long-term, and since I usually leave my eyes bare, it may take me a while to use the sample. But as of right now, this is the top of the list.

Continuing with the makeup, here's the next layer, where I added blush/lip stain and finishing powder:
Closeup on the blush and finishing powder

This is using the benetint (from my previous birchbox) as both a cheek and lip stain. And then patting my new smashbox finishing powder over it on my cheeks because it was too much. The finishing powder container is my new favourite thing, because it has little holes and then you turn it and a small amount of product comes out, allowing you to get just a bit of loose powder. I'm sure this is a totally common way to do it, but since I know jack-all about makeup, I'd never seen one before.

It's the weekend and I just bought a wet and wild eyeshadow palette that reminds me of Twilight Sparkle, and my next stop is the library, so for my own amusement I thought I'd try some eyeshadow:

Eyeshadow.  I'll go with "subtle" rather than "ineffective"

I think the eyeshadow is rather too subtle, just a hint of pink-to-purple across my eyelids, but I wasn't in the mood for eyeshadow heroics.

And that brings us to product # 3 in this review:

Beauty Protector Protect & Oil

Beauty Protector hair oil

Before we talk about the actual product, let me say that (once again) I feel like the graphic design of this product sample was not very well thought out. The clear vial of hair oil has a logo on one side and printing on the other, meaning (as you can see from the photograph) that even when I did my best to carefully position it (and even provide a strong distracting background element), it looks kind of messy. They really missed the boat here, as I think the little sample vial could have been really elegant if they'd put some thought into it. They could have removed the back printing (which really doesn't say anything useful; I got the application instructions off the birchbox card) or reduced the number of words and put it below the logo, or maybe they could have done a two-colour printing to increase legibility.

Here it is applied in my hair, a few drops into the ends while it was dry:
Now with hair oil!

In case you forgot, here's what that original bare faced picture looked like so you can compare it as a before image:
Me, No makeup whatsover

Aside from the lips, I'm not sure you see much difference for all that work, but I'm now coated in sunscreen, which is really the only part of my "makeup routine" that I consider important.

I don't think the effects of the hair oil are particularly visible on first application (although perhaps after I've been using it a week I'll feel like it's had an impact), but it's still very noticeable in person because you can *really* smell it. It smells quite strongly like all the other beauty protector things, so now I most definitely have an odor. While I generally like the scent they use, I found the hair oil a bit more stinky (err, strongly scented) than most of their products.

As a result, I feel like this is really more of a hair perfume than a hair oil (and that any oil effects may be secondary to their aim of getting their scent in your hair), so if you like the beauty protector smell and want to have it floating around your face, this might appeal to you. For me? I think the scent is too strong, and while I'll use up the sample because my ends are looking a bit frizzy from winter, I'm not even slightly tempted to buy more. Admittedly, that might be because I accidentally bought two bottles of their detangler due to not paying attention when I placed by birchbox order, so I'm currently feeling like I may OD on beauty protector scent.

So let's move on to the last two products...

Juara Candlenut Body Creme

Candlenut body creme

First, a packaging note: this was a really annoying sample to open. Although the top is perforated, it ripped off without leaving enough hole to get any product out, and I wound up having to find scissors. Even once it was open, the harder foil-lined cardboard was not a great feeling for squishing it out. It reminds me of a lube sample of the kind that kills the mood due to annoying packaging. On the bottom of the sample is says "Xela Pack &trademark" so this is apparently a package used by others.

As a body lotion, this seems pretty decent. It's a bit thicker but not overly greasy, and did a nice but not mind-blowing job on my rough, winter-dry elbows.

However, this is so strongly scented that I'd feel uncomfortable wearing it in public, let alone in places like concert venues, public spaces, and workplaces that discourage use of heavy scents. Just a small dab on my elbows was enough to make me feel like I'd overdone it on the scent. So this isn't really viable for me as a regular use thing, and I don't love the scent enough to use it on my "days off" either. It would have to have some crazy exceptional results if I were going to use it at all, and it really doesn't. Not for me!

Also, while it doesn't make my eyes itch the way the Juicy Couture perfume stinkbomb did, it's smelly enough that it made me anxious to be wearing it, wondering how long before I started having some sort of reaction. As is, it makes my nose feel a bit raw, but probably just due to the volume of scent rather than the specific elements of it.

AYRES Bar Soap

Ayres bar soap in Patagonia

This smells like something my grandmother might like. I don't mean that in a derogatory way -- she's a woman of distinct taste and much better fashion sense than I -- but she and I don't love the same scents.

The jasmine & lavender give this a slightly floral bouquet, but the fir (and possibly the ylang ylang?) gives it a slighly more husky scent that makes it kind of interesting.

But mostly, it just smells too strongly for me. I haven't really used this yet because after the array of other products, I couldn't stand any more stupid scents so I'm detoxing a bit before I try it out.

Here's one last picture to show you the size of all the samples in context:
Birchbox Beauty Box February 2014

These are all pretty small samples, which would bother me a lot more if I didn't dislike most of them anyhow.

In summary: The eye concealer is the only one of these products I'm excited about, as it replaces an eye concealer that wasn't working for me. Everything else... pretty much stank too much, even the one where I like the scent they use, and most of them I did not like.

I'm pretty disappointed with this box, because I feel like there's a clear "I dislike stronger scents" theme to all the problems I had with this one, and thus it's the sort of thing that maybe could have been captured if they'd ever asked my preferences. (Sending me perfumes was a waste of time, as I not only won't wear them but socially can't.)

Obviously, I knew the risks when I signed up and one bad box isn't going to make me cancel given that I'm usually pretty happy with the subscription, but it's still sad.

That said, I once again had a lot of fun photographing this box, so at least I feel like I had some fun with it!

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March 11, 2014 08:11 AM

March 08, 2014


Birchbox Beauty Box January 2014

For the new year, Birchbox went with an inspirational theme to their add-ins, if not so much for the products themselves.

Hello 2014

Inside is a book of inspirational cards.

Quite often, I find this sort of inspirational stuff a little vapid, and given that I regularly question the intelligence of the folk who write the copy about the products I've received, I wouldn't have been too surprised if I hated the series of inspirational cards they produced. But I don't. In fact, they've paired some cute typography with some of those "get yourself out of a rut" type tips that aren't entirely awful if you're just needing a little kick. I like these enough that I may hit up the dollar store for some cheap frames and put some of the cards out on display.

Here's the happy one, front:
happy happy happy happy

And back:
5 ways to get happier

(Sorry about my overzealously narrow depth of field there, but you can probably read some of it.)

So, let's talk products!

Klorane Gentle Dry Shampoo with Oat Milk

Klorane dry shampoo

I was quite curious to try this, as I'd heard about dry shampoos ages ago thanks to women's mags, but since I never actually bought any of the products advertised within, I'd never tried it. It's basically talcum powder you put in your hair to absorb oils so you can go a day without washing it. Birchbox put up a gif tutorial for using dry shampoo that is fairly amusing because their model has great expressions. My only complaint is "second-day = dirty" (and thus needing a product) implication seems like edging into unnecessary products based on shame marketing for a lot of adult women. My long hair, for example, does better with a day between washings lest the ends get totally dried out.

The first time I tried this product, I had terrible sneezing fits all morning and wondered if it was related. I didn't have as much trouble the second time, though. Here's some pictures:

Dry Shampoo Before
Dry Shampoo After

As you can see, it's not a huge difference, possibly because I was hesitant to use too much lest I have sneezing fits at work. But it does get rid of enough unwanted shine up top that I could go to work without feeling like an unwashed teenager.

There are two problems for me here:
1. This leaves product in your hair. As someone who rarely puts more than a miniscule dab of leave-in conditioner in, I find this makes me feel like my hair is really dirty, even if it looks cleaner.
2. Also, while it does absorb oil, it also clumps up all those dead skin cells coming off your scalp. This makes me just a little itchy. And also makes me feel gross.

As a result, I was desperate to wash my hair when I got home both times I used this product. I suspect those both might be general issues with dry shampoo and not bugs in this particular formula, so it's possible that dry shampoo is just not for me. I'll probably use the rest of this, because even though I don't love it, sometimes you're just in a hurry. Here's an "appropriate" card:


End result: This totally helps me run out the door looking less greasy in a pinch. However, it's not even slightly as good as having remembered to wash my darned hair the night before.

Whish Three Whishes Body Butter

Whish body butter in pomegranate

This claims to smell like pomegranate, but makes me think I smell kind of like a toddler has drooled red lollipop onto me somewhere. It's reasonably effective as a moisturizer I guess, but it smells like really cheap awful candy that's partially digested. It's $0.16/ml, which maybe doesn't sound so bad, but for $0.03/ml I could just use lubriderm and be moisturized and *not* smell like I might attract ants at any moment. (For those who prefer US fl oz: Whish is $4.73/oz to Lubriderm's $0.82/oz)

I'm probably over-stating it: the smell isn't *that* bad and sometimes it's fun to smell like candy. Just, maybe not candy that was abused by a 2 year old and smeared all over your pant leg with sticky fingers. What I'm getting at is it's really not the sort of scent that would inspire me personally to spend 5x as much on an otherwise equivalent product.

ORIGINS Smarty Plants™ CC SPF 20 Skin Complexion Corrector

ORIGINS Smarty Plants™ CC SPF 20 Skin Complexion Corrector

The card reads as follows
Smarty Plants CC
SPF 20 Skin complexion corrector

Instantly: Color corrects and visibly perfects so you look radiant and flawless.
On demand: Antioxidant infused formula helps neutralize skin damaging effects of city smog and pollution.
Over time: helps recycle environmental stressors into vial hydration so you keep your youthful good looks longer.

WTH does recycling environmental stressors into hydration even mean? I'm pretty sure they just told me this thing will make acid rain, fog, and also random pollutants stick to my face Or possibly that it will keep my sweat in if I stress out. Gross.

Discard the product nonsense. Here are the things you actually need to know about Smarty Plants:

1. This product smells like plants. Maybe sort of like a freshly-picked something-from-the-mint-family? I like it, since I like plant-y smells. But I was surprised about the smell since every other product I've tried in this category seems to avoid having much scent at all. (And I approve of the trend of having unscented stuff on your face!)

2. It is very sheer. So sheer that I have serious doubts about its ability to provide the stated 20 SPF in a normal application. But if you want to tone down a bit of redness without, say, covering up your freckles, that's handy. (S -- you might want to try it?)

I have no idea if the sheerness a feature of CC creams since no one seems to know if there's any difference between them and BB creams, really.

3. The people who write their product descriptions were smoking behind the bleachers instead of going to science class.

Anyhow as far as the product goes, it's nice, light, and smells like plants. I generally approve of this, but I'm not entirely sure it fits a very solid beauty niche. It is nice if you don't want to look like you've got foundation on. Here's a photo of me wearing it:

Smarty Plants CC on the human face

Their marketing, however... the best I can say is that the product detaches from the card of stupid that came with it:

ORIGINS Smarty Plants™ CC SPF 20 Skin Complexion Corrector

Although actually, they used some serious glue on that sucker, so it's not *easy* to detach.

And now, for the most inappropriate of the inspirational cards:

Benefit Benetint

The benefit sample had much better packaging:
Benefit Benetint sample box

And then, inside, it tells you how to use the product:
Benefit Benetint sample box: put this product on your face

This can be summarized as "put this product on your face and smear it around artistically" but they make me feel like I have a nice internationalized Ikea makeup package. In a nice way.

For context, this sample is really tiny:
Benefit Benetint size comparison

But given that you use a couple of drops, it's still a decent amount to use.

Benetint is a product I actually had already gone out of my way to try, since I'd been curious as to what other subtle lip stains were available after I tried Staniac in my first box.

Benetint is a teensy vial of coloured, rose-scented water. I wasn't really expecting it to be outright liquid. I find it fairly nice if I want a subtle cheek colour, because it's easy to blend in with my BB cream, doesn't dry super fast, and is not too darkly pigmented so it's hard to be heavy handed. On the other hand, sometimes I'm pretty sure I'm getting more colour from the friction on my cheeks than I am on the product.

Although the instructions suggest that you should dab it on your lips, doing so resulted in it dripping into my mouth sometimes. Gross. Instead, spread it along your lips and get a nice subtle colour change. Definitely nice if you want to hide the fact that you're wearing any makeup at all, as the water doesn't leave any of the tell-tale signs a cream lipstick would. That said, it also doesn't hydrate or protect your lips.

I like it, but I don't know that it excites me enough to go out of my to get more. However, it does come in some reasonably fun box sets, so I expect I'll wind up with more eventually. I got it with a Benefit set called "sugarbomb" which maybe sometime I'll review for you if I'm ever actually caught up on my subscription stuff.

Ahmad Teas Assorted Teas

Ahmad Tea samples

I think that these were better than the average bagged tea. The scents were really lovely, but there was a faint but noticeable bitter aftertaste that just didn't appeal to me. However, I'm particularly sensitive to bitter (as in, I'm one of those people with bonus taste buds), so it's likely that these will be perfectly lovely to someone without my sensitivities. (This isn't self-diagnosed; I took the test in high school biology. It was terribly disgusting.)

That said, rather than buying this tea, do yourself a favour and head over to Captea and get some nice loose leaf instead. (If you're near Denver, go visit the shop! The baked goods are amazing, the place is very down to earth, and the tea is absolutely lovely.)

Ahmad Tea retails at 20 teabags for $3.50. Each teabag, according to my scale, is around 2g, so that's 40g or 1.4oz of tea, or $2.5/oz. My favourite Masala Chai from Captea is $5.25/2oz or a very comparable $2.62/oz.

Since I have a pretty comprehensive tea stash and a friend in Denver who's apt to bring more when he visits, I won't be buying any more of this, but I am totally happy to have gotten this in my box, because I like trying new tea, and it really did smell nice.

Before we end this, I've saved my favourite card for last:

In summary, I enjoyed trying all these products, and was particularly glad to have finally given dry shampoo a shot even though it turns out it's not a thing I love. (But now I know, without having invested in a full-sized bottle!) I don't think any of these are things I'll be rushing out to buy, but since most of my goal in trying out a makeup box is to try new things, I feel like I got my $10 worth of entertainment out of this one.

On top of the actual time spent trying the products, I'm enjoying the time I spend doing product photography for these reviews. It's really forcing me to think about lighting in different ways, as well as getting to experiment with some new tools and new backdrops. And that actually is awesome.

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March 08, 2014 08:29 PM

March 02, 2014


Google Summer of Code: What do I do next?

Python's in as a mentoring organization again this year, and I'm running the show again this year. Exciting and exhausting!

In an attempt to cut down on the student questions that go directly to me, I made a flow chart of "what to do next" :


(there's also a more accessible version posted at the bottom of our ideas page)

I am amused to tell you all that it's already cut down significantly on the amount of "what do I do next?" emails I've gotten as an org admin compared to this time last year. I'm not sure if it's because it's more eye-catching or better placed or what makes it more effective, since those instructions could be found in the section for students before. We'll see its magical powers hold once the student application period opens, though!

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March 02, 2014 06:45 AM

February 24, 2014


Wantable Intimates Box, January 2014

This is my favourite wantable box so far!

Let's start with the boring and work our way up:

Wantable Socks - Color: Black

Wantable Socks
Wantable, your system isn't so good with colour, is it? Pretty sure that's not black.

These are a cheaped out part of the box, for me. I could buy these at the drug store for probably $3.99 or less, so the claimed $6 by stamping a wantable brand on the tag is pushing it.

That said, they're kind of cute neon socks. I'm not a huge fan of short socks since I've moved out of the desert and have discovered that short socks often result in damp ankles, and I hate damp ankles, but I'll enjoy these when I'm not leaving the house, anyhow.

Hiding the more intimate parts for those who might not want panties showing up on their feeds... )

PACT Navy Bandana Camisole

PACT camisole

I love love love this piece. It fits me perfectly, has a bit of runching in the front so it sits properly on my boobs, goes down to my hips, it's soft, and it even claims that profits of the sale went towards urban garden projects. How cool is that?

My only complaint is their flavour text about the organic cotton, which I'm too lazy to look up right now but it included something like "it's certified organic, which means no harsh pesticides" FAIL. Certified organic means a restricted set of organic pesticides, not no pesticides, and many of those organic pesticides are plenty harsh and dangerous.


Mis-information aside, PACT seems like a pretty cool company. They're a bit hippy-dippy, but they claim to be sweatshop-free and their prices are reasonable, so I'm willing to give them a bunch of money. The hard part is in deciding what I want and how many tank tops I can justify buying at once...

Claimed value: $28 (Actual value: Originally $30 on PACT's website, but currently marked down to $12)


Lots of winners in this box, and only one pair of panties that was annoying. I discovered a new brand which I like, even if they don't understand what certified organic means. I am pleased!

... which is just as well, because February's box is so underwhelming that I may return it entirely. Stay tuned for pictures!

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February 24, 2014 10:16 AM

February 18, 2014


Book review: Cress

Cress (Lunar Chronicles) by Marissa Meyer
Cress (Lunar Chronicles)
by Marissa Meyer

This is book 3 of the Lunar Chronicles, which started with Cinder and continued with Scarlet.

This is a sci-fi series with characters inspired from fairy tales. Some of the big moments are there, and the motivations (Scarlet, for example, is looking for her missing grandmother), but for the most part the characters are their own. If you like princesses who also fix androids and get covered in grease, this is a series you should be reading.

Cress is a Rapunzel who's trapped in a communications satellite being forced to hack spaceships and newsfeeds as a spy for the evil queen. I was horribly disappointed, given her repeatedly demonstrated computer skills, that unlike the other girls, she had to be the one who's sitting around dreaming of a dashing hero to rescue her from her "tower" in space. But in many ways, having her start there is giving Cress (and even the man she casts as her hero, much to his disbelief) a fair bit of room to grow. I quickly got so caught up in the adventure story that it didn't seem to matter so much that I thought she was a bit too traditional a princess.

It's hard to tell you much about the book without spoilers, but there's adventure and politics and daring rescues (more than one!) and spaceships and hacking and opera. (There's also violence, mind control, and torture. The latter is definitely not described in great detail, but it's definitely worth warning about.) If you liked the Vorkosigan series but wanted it to be mostly about women and less about women-that-Miles-totally-has-a-crush-on, this might tickle your fancy. If you like fairy tale retellings and also space ships, ditto. If you're looking for a book for your kids that isn't too heavy handed about feminism and social justice but it's still there *and* with romantic subplots, this is not the best in the series, but it's still there.

I continue to love the series, and despite my initial misgivings about Cress, I found myself caring about her along with the motley crew that's being assembled here. I am eagerly awaiting the next book!

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February 18, 2014 05:31 AM

Audiobook Review: A Wounded Name

This is a review of an audiobook I got free-in-exchange-for-review from Librarything. Flipping through reviews, it seems I'm of the minority opinion in that I thought this was brilliant despite being hard to read/listen through:

A Wounded Name by Dot Hutchison
A Wounded Name
by Dot Hutchison

When I heard about this retelling of Hamlet set in a semi-modern private high school and told from the point of view of Ophelia, I was worried that it would be like the dubious graphic novel retellings I've seen of other classic literature.

This, however, is different. It's more like a fairy tale retelling, haunting and odd, where the fairies are as terrifying as they are magical. It's a picture of madness and depression told with a modern psychology eye but in almost classical prose.

I though the audiobook narrator did an excellent job of rendering Ophelia, mad and sane at once, filled with the passions of a teenager who you know is never going to see the end of the story.

It's a beautiful rendering of the classical tale from another perspective, shining light into different smaller tragedies within the whole. It's not an easy thing to read, watching the characters spiral into oblivion, but it's definitely a unique take on the tragedy.

Note: this book is likely very triggering for depression, self-harm, suicide -- some of it is as one might expect from the source, some goes beyond.

Edit: Those local to me, feel free to ask to borrow this!

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February 18, 2014 04:31 AM

Book Review: Mara

I've been reading a lot of stuff that didn't grab me quite enough to recommend or not-recommend, but my sister's careful reviews of the novels she reads has made me feel guilty about my lazy evaluation strategy. ;)

So, here's a graphic novel I finished yesterday:

Mara TP by Brian Wood
Mara TP
by Brian Wood, Ming Doyle (Illustrator)

A quick flip through the book told me that it was dystopian sci-fi volleyball, and that was enough reason to take it home from the library. I recognized Brian Wood's name, because I've liked him on some things, but not so much on others.

The story starts by grounding title character Mara into a world of expensively-sponsored high-stakes sports in a world that drafts children for sports and war, but Mara herself seems to care more about her brother and her friend and teammate than she cares about the politics of sponsorship. I guess it's because of this solid grounding that I found the second half of the book was a bit too emotionally adrift. It's a great concept, and I can see the bones of a story in there that I would have loved, but it didn't quite come together for me.

Would I recommend it despite the ending? Yes. But I still mourn for the story it maybe could have been.

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February 18, 2014 04:02 AM

February 17, 2014


Photogenic Mailbox in Snow

The snow is gone at this point (now it's all "risk of flooding" and "high winds" out here), but I thought I'd share a photo from last weekend:

Photogenic Mailbox in snow

This mailbox has a little spotlight above it (presumably so people don't drive into it or so that the mail carrier can find it), which always amuses me. I personally refer to it as "photogenic mailbox" because of the spotlight. Photogenic mailbox is apparently also photogenic in the snow, not just the dark.

I imagine I'll use photogenic mailbox in a presentation about GNU Mailman, someday!

Note: you can actually see the spotlight, or evidence of it, if you look at the photo carefully. I should have photoshopped that out, but it turns out photoshop was installed on the hard drive that died, so I haven't sorted that out and gotten it re-installed yet.

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February 17, 2014 06:55 AM

February 11, 2014


Facebook for marketers and other humans

Late last year I signed up to get email updates from the Pew Research Center. I get an email a week from them with 4-5 quick summaries. I usually find at least one item to click on and learn more about. This week, it was Facebook, which I am continually trying to understand and use better.

Demonstrating that even the Pew folks are always trying to increase readership, the title of the piece includes a number, which is said to boost click-throughs substantially: 6 New Facts About Facebook 

It’s a quick read, so I encourage you to scan it yourself. A few of the ‘facts’ struck me to me as having implications for marketers:

  • The extent to which Facebook users prefer to see photos and videos instead of straight text updates. (Fact #2)
  • The increased network effect when using Facebook to reach younger people versus older people. At the bottom of Fact #3, there is a remarkable stat: “Younger users tend to have significantly larger friend networks than older users: 27% of 18-29 year old Facebook users have more than 500 friends in their network, while 72% of users age 65+ have 100 friends or fewer.”
  • How people prefer to like or comment-on someone else’s content versus updating their own status or, even, wanting feedback on the content they do post. Even in a Facebook world, the majority of us are still lurkers at heart. (Fact #5)

And, perhaps not useful, but certainly interesting, Fact #6: “Half of internet users who do not use Facebook themselves live with someone who does.”

by ag at February 11, 2014 04:33 PM

February 10, 2014


Wondering about the review brain-dump?

We're snowed in.

It's awesome. :)

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February 10, 2014 03:32 AM

Birchbox December 2013 Beauty Box

Birchbox really went out of their way to make the December box thematic:

Birchbox December 2013

And then you opened the outer layer....

Birchbox December 2013

As you can tell, I have a terribly feminine aesthetic, with the rose petal and the utility knife. The latter is holding the box open for the purpose of showing the inside. I'd intended to cut it out but once I started taking photos I figured I should just go all out. :)

Inside the box:

Beauty Protector Protect & Detangle

Beauty Protector Leave-in conditioner
(Sewing machine spindle for scale)

After trying a similar product in a previous box, I wasn't too excited to see this.

However, it turns out to be a really lovely leave-in conditioner. I would even say it's a slightly better detangler/conditioner than my existing brand.

Incidentally, it smells pretty much the same as the other products in the line, which is sort of plant-fresh. I like it, but I'm not sure I'd go so far as to suggest that this stuff is an effective perfume.

The one thing I don't like about it is the packaging. The logo looks great and is legible in red-on-white, but I find it looks unappealing, cheaper, and is hard to read on the red plastic. Here's the comparison:

Beauty Protector packaging: I don't love the black on red effect.

Price check: My existing brand is Herbal Essences split end protector something something, which I remember paying around $6.99 for 6oz ($1.16/oz) and currently retails on Amazon for either $1.65/oz or $1.46/oz depending on how much you buy. Anyhow, Beauty Protector retails for $21.95 for 8 oz, which is $2.74/oz. Probably around double the price, maybe even more since you can get the drugstore brand on sale.

That's a pretty big difference for a fairly minor upgrade, but given that this will probably last me years and save me a little bit of detangling time every time I use it, it might be worth it to me. Definitely within the "acceptable personal splurge" range, especially since I can use birchbox points to get it.

PS - I presume that this is vegan like their other products, but I didn't actually see that mentioned.

The Honest Company Winter Wellness Exclusive Kit

Honest healing balm

When I heard that this was made by some actress who, upon spawning, felt a need to protect her children from evil chemicals or something I was frankly pretty skeptical. But despite the whole company inception story, I actually like the product!

This is a slightly thick moisturizer. How thick? Let me show you!

Honest healing balm

Not close enough?

Honest healing balm

Okay, maybe we're getting gross here.

It's not as thick as the more intense glycerine creams, but it's definitely leaving a residue all over your hands. I don't mind this as long as the product is effective, and it totally is.

It's got a scent that reminds me of the weird herbal medicines my German neighbour was always recommending (many of which worked; he was actually a pretty skilled herbalist), so I actually like it. It strangely reminds me of juniper, which is not on the ingredients list. The scent also not too strong to use around other people, and the packaging is cute, so it will probably be my new work moisturizer this winter. Woo!

It's basically a bunch of plant oils and beeswax. That doesn't mean it's safe, of course, but none of the plants in the ingredients list set off warnings in my brain at least, and they weren't making any outrageous claims on the package I received. Even their website seems to make fairly reasonable claims about it, which is basically "this is a moisturizer that moisturizes." Incidentally, birchbox did not tout the diaper rash prevention properties. ;)

How expensive is it? It retails from the company for $12.95/3 oz ($4.32/oz). For comparison, our giant bottle of moisturizer runs around $0.73/oz according to Amazon, but that's probably not too fair because this is a much thicker moisturizer of a different stripe. My favourite thick hand creme is O'Keeffe's Working Hands Cream (or as I call it "manly hand creme" since it's so clearly marketed at men), which retails for $2.42/oz on Amazon and less in home depot the last time I checked. Either way, Honest Healing Balm is expensive compared to my existing alternatives.

Manly, manly hand cream:

However, Honest Healing Balm is a little less thick, making it more reasonable to use at work or when I'm planning to touch things fairly shortly after applying it, so it may hit a useful sweet spot of "effective when my skin is actually damaged but not inconvenient to use." I would consider picking up more, although realistically birchbox seems to be meeting my "small tubes of moisturizer" needs pretty well.

Also, this is organic if that matters to you. And it will totally help with your diaper rash, or so I'm told.

LA FRESH® Travel Lite® Makeup Remover Wipes


I haven't actually tried these, because I'm saving them for travel purposes as they are in nice little packages.

That said, I'm going to mention there that baby wipes are generally much cheaper per wipe than makeup wipes, probably much better tested/safer, plus it's easier to find in unscented varieties. Of course, a washcloth is probably better (and more exfoliating!) but there are times I don't want to have all my washcloths stained with weird lip products.

twistband™ Speciality Pack

Twistband's niche seems to be in making hair elastics don't share any of my priorities for hair ties:

My biggest concerns in hair elastics are as follows:
1. Does is stretch enough to go around my hair?
2. Does it hold my hair up for hours?
3. Does it get stuck when I try to take it out / does it pull my hair out?
4. Does it last for more than a few uses?
5. Is it cheap enough that I won't be sad when I inevitably lose it?

Twistband's big selling points seem to be:
1. This won't dent your hair.
2. It's pretty enough to wear around your wrist!

I suspect that this whole hair dent thing is a conspiracy to make people self conscious about stupid things so they will buy more stuff (see: shame marketing), but I suppose maybe this is a problem for someone? But if it was, why did I never hear people say that scrunchies were good for this in the 80's and 90's?

As for #2:



This isn't a bracelet, it's a sparkly bit of elastic you tied a knot in. Don't kid yourself. Also, it itches, so I didn't leave it on.

This is reasonably effective as a hair tie, as far as I've noticed. (It's winter so I'm not ponytailing my hair for nearly as long as I would in summer.)

Did you know it's really annoying to take a selfie of the back of your head using an SLR? I tried anyhow, just for you:

Back of head selfies with an SLR are hard.

So... yeah. Twistbands run $12 for 6 on Birchbox, or $2.00/each. My regular metal-free elastics run around $0.10/each at the grocery store, and you can often find them at the dollar store for much much less. I'm pretty sure it's not worth 20 times the price to me (let alone more), at the rate I lose or them, so unless this proves to be indestructible and somehow never gets lost it's not going to win. Plus, I'm pretty sure I can get decorative elastic and tie it in a knot myself if I liked that aesthetic.

Oh well, at least it's a thing I can use.

EDIT: I originally listed these as $0.50 each, because I guess my brain couldn't believe that these were actually $2 hair ties.

LAQA & Co. Fat Lip Pencil

Laqa & co Lil' lip

I believe the colour I received is called "Ring of Fire" which is at least awesome. The colour itself is a nice bright red. It seems to have a little bit of a fuscia undertone in this photo, but I suspect that's due to a combination of the lighting (sunlight-off-snow because Portlandia is snowed under right now in a little freak of mother nature experience) and my very chapped lips:

Laqa & co Lil' lip on the human face

Yes, I realize I am not the bestest at applying lipstick. Also, faces look weird that close. And SLR selfies are not a good idea. Whatever, I didn't feel like spending hours setting up lipstick photos today 'cause I was trying to get photos for for All The Reviews.

It applies fairly smoothly. I found it rubbed off pretty easily on glasses, my hands, etc, which was kind of annoying. It more or less feels like a lip gloss in that respect, and it might even a bit more moisturizing than most since it feels like it provides an actual barrier on my skin.

Laqa & co Lil' lip

Apparently this small size (see with sewing machine spindle above) is available as a lipstick duo. Normally I am a huge fan of small lip products since I can stick them in my pocket and re-apply when I feel like it. Unfortunately, carrying this in my pocket has a bit of a problem. I was worried the issue would be in knocking off the cap, but that seems pretty good. However, what does happen is that the product gets rolled up and squashed against the top of the lid repeatedly:

Laqa & co Lil' lip

As you can see, there's a giant smear on the top and the product is already listing to one side from being squashed all the way at the top.

So yeah, not a pocket tool for me. Perhaps LAQA & Co. needs to do a bit of testing on their packaging, as this happens every time I have put this product in my pocket, and it even happens in my bag sometimes. In contrast, I have probably half a dozen different lip balms that get the same treatment and it's fairly rare to see them smashed up against the top of the cap. Perhaps it might be time to consider the classic square lipstick base designed to not turn when the cap is closed or something:


(No, that's not lipstick, but I only started buying lipstick recently so it's the only thing I've got in that type of packaging).

I'm not going to bother pricing this out because I'm not really considering buying it. I enjoyed receiving it, but when it comes to buying there are probably better formulae out there, definitely better packaging possibilities, and bright reds aren't that hard to find.

In summary...

One last look at the box:
Birchbox December 2013

I love the conditioner, I like the hand cream, I enjoyed trying the lip pencil and hair tie even though I will purchase neither, and I imagine the makeup wipes will be fine but I haven't tried them yet. Acceptable for $10!

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February 10, 2014 02:03 AM

February 09, 2014


Wantable December 2013 intimates box

This month, the box was half the size, but apparently packed with just as much stuff!

Subscription box stuff

I approve of smaller shipping boxes in an environmental sort of way, so I like the change. Plus, I'm hoping that this means they're thinking about their shipping and won't screw it up so I owe shipping when the box arrives, because that was unclassy. (However, it hasn't happened since that first box and I've received 5 now, so it seems they've fixed the problem!)

A thing I don't love about wantable's website: Not only do they not have product links easily available (you'd think this would be something the product providers would want!), but sometimes they don't even tell me the brand of the item. Which is relevant in the December intimates box:

Short Sleeve Tee- Amethyst Heather

This is a Bella t-shirt. You know, the ones that are one of the cheap options for women's cut shirts if you want to get shirts printed? I realize these retail for something ridiculous like $30 on Bella's website (presumably to match the printed markup cost?), but if you get them blank in bulk for printing they're like $7. Threadless-type stores seem to sell them printed for $10 pretty regularly. So I feel like Wantable's claim that this is $22.00 worth of value may be sort of disingenuous.

I actually like the shirt, though. It's a nice dark maroon-purple heathered colour, and Bella shirts actually fit me reasonably well, which I know because I have a few from conferences and stuff. Here's this particular one:

Subscription box stuff: Bella t-shirt

It's a bit tight but comfy and something I will in fact actually wear. So I guess I'm pleased with the shirt itself, but feel like maybe wantable cheaped out a bit on this?

Claimed value: $22. Actual value, probably closer to $7.

Betsey Johnson Intimates Bikini Hot Pink

Subscription box stuff

Like the last time, this item demonstrates an appalling sense of taste. It looks especially bad next to the socks in this month's package. But not nearly as bad as when you look at it more closely....


Yup, leopard-print crotch on the inside of those suckers.

At this point, I have to conclude that Betsey Johnson has a brand dedicated to people with incredibly terrible taste. Or perhaps people who like to pretend to have terrible taste in a hipster-ironically sort of way? Which frankly, is just a different type of terrible taste.

But, I find these so hilariously bad that I will wear them, so what does that say about me?

As undies, they are actually pretty comfy. They are low in the front and fully cover your butt in the back, which I find a very weird choice because it basically means every time I lean over these panties are all "hi there!" which would be I guess kind of fun way to avoid showing butt-crack if they were attractive. Unfortunately, they're really not, so when I lean over you get "OMG YELLOW-ORANGE LACE" like the white "blind the dangerous thing" signal of the white tailed deer.

I leave this to your imagination.

These are hilarious in the same way that bad thrift shop clothes are hilarious, but they're not a win with me, Wantable.

Claimed value: $12, or 3 for $27. Since I can get victoria's secret panties that I know fit me for around $6, this is not a terrible bulk price, but if I chose my own panties I would never have chosen these.

OZONE Socks Basket Weave

These socks are probably actually the neatest part of the December box. I'm not in love with the colours, but they're kind of handknit-style and comfortable.

Socks from Wantable's December intimates box

There's a few textures in play here: a smooth stockinette bottom/toe/heel, textured top, and differently textured cuff. I presume from the name that the top cuff is "basket weave" stitch although it doesn't look much like it when stretch out on my strong walker calves. I don't really know my knitting stitch names well enough to tell you what the stitch on top of the sock is called. More experienced knitters, feel free to chime in.

Socks from Wantable's December intimates box

One thing that I did find interesting, especially in light of the "so strong it bruises" elastic from November's socks, is the elastic in these, which goes below the very large cuff, where the colour change starts:

Socks from December's Wantable Intimates Box

Claimed value: $13. Which is probably around what it would cost me in yarn to handknit socks, so not terribly unreasonable.

Luster Bralette Black

Last and most definitely least is the Bralette:

Subscription box stuff: Soft bra

It's not a bad shape. The cross-back straps mean it's unlikely to fall down, and I like the shaping in the front.

Their "M/L" is basically a compression bra on me. This has some usefulness for me as far as breast-binding for costumes go, and it's stretchy enough that it's comfy.

That said, it's undeniably not really my size. Unfortunately, while wantable touts that you can return individual products, it's not really worth it because of how they handle it. I have to return enough product to get my wantable-assigned value below the $36 I paid for the box. Since I actually like the shirt ($22) and the socks ($13), I'm going to get a maximum refund of $36-$35 = $1. That's not worth my time.

Oh well. I'll either keep it for crossplay costuming, or I'll see if my sister wants it, I guess.

Claimed value: $38.00. Not horrible if it were the right size, I guess. To me, actual value is around $5 to replace tensor bandages for breast binding.


Total claimed value: $85
Actual value to me: maybe $25-30

So for a $36 box, that's pretty darned disappointing, even though I liked the items.

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February 09, 2014 08:50 PM

Wantable November 2013 Intimates Box

I'm really behind on the Wantable box descriptions, which is a side-effect of really being behind on photo processing in general. But on the bright side, I can tell you how much things actually got used!

V-neck Bra Heavenly Pink

This is actually the least used of the bunch: it's a little light pink soft bra in the same style as the coobie camisole I loved in my first box. I like it, but just not quite as much as my existing soft bras, which are of this crossover style, which I find stays in place better the way I move.

It's almost identical to the cami, except shorter and pink, so it was actually kind of disappointing in that it wasn't a new thing to me. It's moderately useful since I have relatively few light-coloured bras, at least.

If I took a picture of these, I can't find it, but basically imagine the pink of the bandeau in my previous box, but the shape of the beige cami, only missing everything below the bra band. Yeah, this felt like a repeat in box 2.

Emerald Bay Socks

These are mid-length argyle socks, from the same company as the pink knee-highs I got in the first box. Here I am on box #2 and I'm already starting to wonder if Wantable actually has the deals in place to pull off this intimates box thing long-term or if I'm just going to get the same things over and over again.

I like these socks aesthetically, but they have such strong elastic at the top that they leave basically wounds on my calves after I've been wearing them all day. Good if I don't want my socks to slip while walking, but if I don't remember to shove them down to my ankles during the day, they nearly bruise. I wear them because it is awesome to have walking socks that don't slouch, but I have mixed feelings about them and look forwards to the elastic starting to stretch. Having noticed the excessive elastic problem in these, I realize that it also happens with the knee-high ones, but since they go over top of my calves, it's not so noticeable.

If I took a picture of these, I can't find it, but basically imagine the pink socks in my previous box, only green and shorter. Can you say repeat?

Betsey Johnson Intimates Sleep Shorts Houndstooth

Subscription box stuff

I actually wore this for the first time this weekend, because it's a bit too cold for shorts in the house (seriously: not a great choice for a November box, Wantable). They look... hilariously bad on me. Like cheap, ill-fitting booty shorts. I'll use them anyhow because this amuses me and they're more comfy than my existing sleep shorts, but definitely not a thing I would have bought myself.

Subscription box stuff

Seriously? Houndstooth, hot pink lace, rosettes? Teensy little ass-pocket? That is comedy gold right there, in some sort of bad taste blog. You'll understand if I don't photograph myself wearing these for those aesthetic reasons alone, but I'll tell you that they also are weirdly saggy in the front, too tight in the back, and while I'm sure J's going to appreciate the rear view because he thinks I look great no matter what, they do not make me feel attractive at all.

Edit: Nope, even he thought they looked weird on me.

Snowflaked Slipper Sock- Grey

First: I am *so* glad that wantable has put in a review system so that I can see what they'd sent me without having to pretend I want to return the package.

Second: I really wish they'd made it so there were links to places to buy the products/get more info, because I like to have such links on my own blog.

Third: The slipper socks I received weren't grey.

Subscription box stuff

That meta-discussion done, I want to say that this was the real winner of the whole box! I absolutely love these, and I have from the moment I got them:

They're warm, they're thick, they're comfy. They don't even seem to make me generate excessive amounts of static (my existing socks combine with the crappy carpeting in our house to make me zap every metal surface in the house this winter). My only complaint is that they do slide around a bit on my feet (though they have grippy bits for the floor), so I have to be careful on stairs.

I love these so much that they completely made up for the rest of the box, with its repeats and its dubious booty shorts. But I can already tell that this whole wantable intimates thing might not last for me unless they step up on the supplier front.

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February 09, 2014 07:14 PM

The naming of things

My former hackerspace, in fundraising for the new space, offered up a reward tier that let you name one of the rooms, which was a pretty fun perk. "My" room is going to be #16 on this map, the larger of the two electronics labs:


Being the sort of person I am, I named it the "Pink Fluffy Unicorn Dancing on Rainbows Laboratory" thanks to this earwormy video. (Original song here, punk version here.)

They can call it PFUDOR labs for short or something. I actually proposed it as a joke when the campaign first was getting set up, but it got so many laughs that I decided it was actually kind of fun to have a name that really didn't take itself too seriously.

A few days after I made the official declaration, I got an email from an adult male friend there, bemoaning my choice of names in a gentle, joking, but also a little bit sincere way.

He is a friend and I don't want to mock his words in public, but I saw the email and thought THIS IS HOW I KNOW I HAVE CHOSEN THE RIGHT NAME. If this even a little hurts the manhood of even someone who knows me and my sense of humour, then you know that the anti-girly sentiment often prevalent in hacklabs is going to be rankled by this for as long as the space lasts. So now not only do I get to earworm my friends, but I run the risk of affronting people who haven't quite dealt with their own minor misogyny? And maybe give the hacklab an excuse to fill a space with rainbows, with all the connotations thereof? That actually kind of sounds like a bigger social win than I was intending, but maybe, just maybe, it'll combine with the already excellent people at Quelab to help keep the space as friendly and fun as it can be.

So next up I'm going to be buying a friend's pony patterns, a bunch of stuff from adafruit, some fabric, and I'll be making a hilarious e-textile pony with glowing rainbow neopixels to go in the space. Because I am not very subtle. ;)

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February 09, 2014 06:22 PM

February 03, 2014


Pictures of knitting in sunlight (a work in progress)

This is crossposted from, my personal maker blog. If you want to link to this post, please use the original link since the formatting there is usually better.

I don’t tend to share work-in-progress shots for a few reasons:

1. I knit a lot on the go, where it’s not too convenient to take pictures.

2. I am really really bad at processing all my photos, and more of them just adds to the laod.

3. I just don’t think of it.

But I did think of it today, and it’s gotten me thinking a bit about useful general photography tips I need to remember when knitting:

Knit photography #1: Be careful of focus and depth of field

I love small depths of field in general photography and beautiful bokeh (aka the blurry bits) and all, but when taking pictures of my knitting, I need to make sure that the focus is where I want to be, and covers enough of the area around where I’m trying to draw the eye:

My very sparkly stitch marker

So here, I’m taking a picture of my pretty little stitch marker, and I’ve only left a small row of knitting in focus.

Since this is a maker blog, I’ll say that I made the stitch marker myself, for values of “made” that include “I bought a bunch of beads that had rings through them and separated them then re-closed the circles.” My project *sparkles* in the sun right now thanks to the beads, which is fun when I’m actually knitting in the sunbeam.

The narrow depth of field actually works well for something that small, but when I’m showing a series of stitches, I have to remember to adjust my photography style so that people can see the stitches well.

That can mean making sure the section is really flat:

Triangle lace stitch thing

Or it can mean just making sure the depth of field is big enough for the area in question:

Sweater Neckline with simple lace holes

Knit photography #2: Yarn has weird light properties

Colour Whorl

When you look up close at yarn, you can usually see that it’s at least a little bit fuzzy. This helps make it warm and soft, but also means it has some weird light properties where it will seriously glow given enough light. This can be awesome, or it can be really irritating, but the important thing to remember is that photographing knit/crocheted fabrics in bright light can be challenging in different ways, and each yarn is going to be a little different.

The extreme contrast isn’t always a bad thing: it can help you showcase lace. In theory. In reality, I always seem to end up with hyper-real photos, or ones with huge dark patches that just don’t look right:

Trying (and failing) to showcase some lace

And the sun is pretty bright already, so even if the yarn didn’t pick up the light so well, it could be a mess:

Demonstration of knitting photography in the sun and why it can be challenging

You can fix these things, of course, with some messing around in lightroom/photoshop, but then you lose out using the extreme contrast to show stitch definition, and you can make the project look a little dull:

Demonstration of knitting photography in the sun and why it can be challenging (2)

I suspect it’s going to take a lot more experimentation before I can quickly snap off a few photos in sunlight! But for now, I’ll be thinking critically about what I do and practicing doing it until I feel like I’ve got the kind of photos I want for matching with my patterns.

And with that, I give you one more photo where I’m proud of the light. This one showcases the rainbow nature of my stitch markers:

Rainbow stitch marker

So pretty!

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February 03, 2014 02:54 AM

January 30, 2014


Triple Play lives again through print on demand

Triple Play proof copy

The first proof copy of the Elizabeth Gunn’s re-issued Triple Play paperback arrived in the mail earlier this week.

As readers of this blog may have noticed before, I’m rather proud of my Mom-the-novelist, Elizabeth Gunn. To date she has not ‘broken out’ and become a big name the way other regional mystery authors, such as Tony Hillerman and Archer Mayer or Wyoming’s own CJ Box and Craig Johnson, have done. But she has had 13 novels, in two different mystery series, ‘traditionally published’ in the last 17 years. Her publishers have always been conservative with their print runs but we’re pretty sure they sold every copy of her books ever printed. And that’s are remarkably achievement by any standard.

Mom, with the help of my Dad, who did the technical heavy lifting, was also a pioneer of ebook self-publishing. They made her out-of-print backlist titles available in the Amazon Kindle and B&N Nook stores almost as soon as each opened for business. Since Dad’s death a couple of years ago, we here at Sherprog have taken over ebook formatting for her, cleaning up and standardizing book contents, creating new cover images, and expanding her distribution to Google Play and iBooks.

Now, with the technical and creative assistance of my colleague Bret Norwood, we’re moving up another notch on the evolutionary scale. Mom’s very first novel, Triple Play, will soon be available on Amazon or in a local book store near you, as a paperback. We’re racing to have copies available for her to sell at the big Tucson Festival of Books in mid March. Bret designed the book cover and did all the finicky sizing, formatting, and checking, checking, checking it takes to turn a ‘finished’ manuscript into the camera ready copy CreateSpace demands.

The first review copy arrived here earlier this week and it was a thrill to hold it in my hands. We’ve got a bit of line-by-line checking to do to ensure we’ve got as faithful a copy of the original hardcover as we can manage*. But right now it looks like we’ll make our deadline!

*Back in the dark ages of 1997, when Triple Play first came out, the author didn’t get back any electronic copies of publisher’s edits, so we started from the original (Lotus Ami Pro!) manuscript she had on file and re-applied the publisher’s edits one by one. Bret really deserves a medal for this one.

by ag at January 30, 2014 05:32 PM

January 27, 2014


Colour-changing Nintendo 3DS XL case

This is crossposted from, my personal maker blog. If you want to link to this post, please use the original link since the formatting there is usually better.

My brother got me a Nintendo 3DS XL for Christmas this year, and he picked out exactly the one I would have chosen for myself, a special edition with the new Mario and Luigi RPG. (Of course, he’s the one who got me hooked on those games in the first place…)

It’s a beautiful little piece of hardware, and I’ve been carrying it around incessantly not only so I can play it at lunch, but also because the 3DS has some sort of meta games where you get points for walking around and for passing other people who also have 3DSes. As I am mildly obsessed with games that involve walking (I’m working on creating one for me and my sister to play together, but that’s another story), this means that the 3ds lives in my purse or backpack and I was worried about it getting horribly abused.

Thankfully, I have a sewing machine and I’m not afraid to use it!

So here’s my new DS case:

Colour-changing Nintendo 3DS case

I was originally going to make this quick and just do two seams up the side and not finish any of the edges. But once I’d started, it seemed so easy to just put some nicer square corners in by sewing across the ends and then finish the top. The fabric’s a bit hard to keep straight because it’s thick and a bit grippy so it’s not my best machine work, but I remember learning how to square corners like this in home ec in grade 7:

Colour-changing Nintendo 3DS case

Wait, you may say, what’s with that weird yellow corner? See, here’s where it gets interesting…

Colour-changing Nintendo 3DS case

Yup, that fabric is changing colour based on temperature. (Also, check out my strangely coincidentally matching manicure!) Remember those old Hypercolor shirts from the 80s/90s?

Colour-changing Nintendo 3DS case

The fabric was part of a sampler box that Quelab got filled with weird samples of sparkly plexiglass and thin veneers and, apparently, some colour-changing industrial fabric. I think it came from instructables? It was filled with interesting materials for projects, anyhow. I am still sad I never found a use for the sparkly plexi, which I refused to take until I had a plan for it, but Adric convinced me that it was cool if I took a chunk out of the very large (and slightly damaged) piece of colour-change fabric.

I’d been trying to think of something sufficiently interesting to do with it, something that sufficiently highlighted the colour change, and maybe the fact that it’s actually sufficiently transparent that you can see a LED through it:

Colour-changing Nintendo 3DS case

But today, as I was flipping through my small fabric collection trying to find something for the 3ds case, I decided that just something I’d be using all the time is sufficiently interesting and gives me a chance to play with it and show it off regularly. Plus, I’m looking forwards to seeing the heat spots in my purse, which is filled with many power-hungry electronics like the 3DS.

It’s already fun for demonstrating how quickly evaporative cooling works:

Colour-changing Nintendo 3DS case

(Fun fact for those of you who don’t live in the desert: New Mexicans cool their houses with evaporative cooling, also known as a swamp cooler, which is a formalized version of a wet towel over a fan, ’cause mold and mildew isn’t so much of an issue in the desert. So you think a lot about evaporation when you live there for 2 years… and then move to the west coast almost-rainforest. Will my clothes ever line dry here?!)

Colour-changing Nintendo 3DS case

I don’t like being all “perfect is the enemy of good” or the sort of uncluttering fanatic who gets rid of things because there’s no immediate use for them, but there is something very satisfying about actually using an item I’d saved rather than having a never-diminishing collection of “cool things that I should use for something.”

Of course, I still have a little bit of fabric left…

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January 27, 2014 01:44 AM

January 24, 2014


Lean Startups Go Mainstream

economistLogoI’ve been talking to my colleagues, around town and around the state, about the Lean Startup movement for some time. I was delighted to see The Economist get on board this week with their Tech Startups: A Cambrian moment special section. Lean Startups, aka Agile startups, focus on using new technologies to build what customers need and will use, not just what techies think would be cool to have.

The technique has its limitations, but it aims to ground innovation in the real world. And for both self-funded startups and those looking for angel or venture-capital investors, the real world is a very, very important thing to consider.

My own summary of what’s important about this approach is a slight variation on what you’ll find in some of the books:

The product of a startup is a viable business model, not a technology or, even, a solution.

And, BTW, if you don’t already have a subscription to the Economist, you might want to buy a newstand copy of the January 18th edition or just check out some of the other articles online. It’s full of interesting and even downright alarming pieces about technology, the prospects for specific jobs/professions in the next 50 years, and the promises and perils for individual prosperity of our accelerating technology revolution.

Not every issue of the Economist is as good as this one but many are. And the special sections, especially the regular quarterly one on Technology, pretty much justify the price of a subscription for me.

by ag at January 24, 2014 05:01 PM

January 21, 2014


Vampire Sleeves (sort of a shrug?)

This is crossposted from, my personal maker blog. If you want to link to this post, please use the original link since the formatting there is usually better.

I was out shopping one day with a friend and saw this book:

Vampire Knits: Projects to Keep You Knitting…
Vampire Knits: Projects to Keep You Knitting from Twilight to Dawn
by Genevieve Miller

I didn’t buy it right then, because I didn’t know how to knit and wasn’t sure what I’d do with it, but apparently it stuck with me because I picked it up later thinking I’d give it as a present or something… but then I learned to knit. So now it’s mine, all mine!

I’m not much for making full sweaters yet, because I’ve learned that projects that don’t fit in my purse never get finished. But I figured a pair of sleeves wouldn’t be too bad… but it still took me a year to finish them because I kept getting sidetracked by other things I had to try.

I just call mine vampire sleeves because of the book they came from, even though they don’t look very vampire-y in the colour I chose!

Here I am, smugly showing them off:

Vampire sleeves

One of my pet peeves in clothes is having them too snug across the shoulders, so I’m pleased to report that the lace here is pleasantly stretchy:

Vampire sleeves

The only problem with them is that the lovely autumn browns I chose don’t really match a whole lot of my clothing. They look good with the dark blues and blacks, but not so much with the reds I don’t think and definitely not with anything that has pink tones. When I was looking for something to wear with them for these photos, I was amused to discover that they mostly matched my ereader cover:

Vampire sleeves

My favourite part is the yarn. It was Shimmer hand-dyed lace yarn from Knitpicks, which I’ve only just found out was discontinued. Sadness! It was such a joy to knit with.

The pattern is relatively simple, well-written, and the photography is lovely. It really is just a pair of sleeves, opened up at the back and grafted together. I do like that the lace pattern causes the ends of the sleeves to be a little wavy:

Vampire sleeves

Pattern: Sidhe Shrug by Ashley Fay.

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January 21, 2014 04:26 PM

Book Reviews: The Dragon Slippers Series

Dragonskin Slippers by Jessica Day GeorgeDragon Flight by Jessica Day GeorgeDragon Spear (Dragon Slippers) by Jessica…

Dragon Slippers, Dragon Flight and Dragon Spear by Jessica Day George

Creel's aunt tries to sacrifice her to a dragon in an attempt to attract a knight who will marry Creel and raise the status of her whole family (and most importantly, her aunt), but it goes awry when Creel decides that she doesn't want anyone to get hurt and decides she's going to make a deal with the dragon instead. But who'd have thought dealing with dragons could have such far-reaching consequences?

Fun! Adventure! Girls and dragons as friends! A smart and resourceful heroine! Politics, culture, embroidery, annoying little dogs and monkeys! For all that it definitely plays into archetypes, it's still clever enough in the details to warrant a read. My inner 10 year old is very pleased with this trilogy.

Note: I came at this one having read the first two of the author's Twelve Dancing Princesses books, one of which I previously reviewed.

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January 21, 2014 08:13 AM

What Terri's Playing: Puzzle Agent

The game I finished today is Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent. Despite the similarity in names, it's not very much like Puzzle Quest, the last game I mentioned.

Telltale games presents / Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent / A dark and twisted puzzler

"When White House inquiries to the Scoggins Eraser Co. are answered only with curious puzzles, Nelson Tethers from the U.S. Department of Puzzle Research is sent on the case."

If you've ever played Professor Layton and thought "you know what this needs? more inexplicable gnomes. and also screaming" then this is the game for you!

For those who haven't played the Layton games, this is similar in that it's a mystery where you wander around the game world gathering clues and solving brainteaser-type puzzles to get more clues. It's got a neat sketchy art style, entertaining voice acting and music, and a creepy little storyline. (Spooky, but not so much scary as surreal.) I found the puzzles clearly explained, and there's a hint system if you get stuck. (much to my surprise, the game told me at the end that I'd never used hints, so I can't tell you how good it is.)

I'm a pretty big fan of Telltale thanks to Monkey Island, and this fits a similar but not identical adventure game niche in my life. Less snark, more weird, but still enough clever to be fun.

According to Steam, I put in about 3h of play, which makes it a pretty short game, but it's fun and currently only $5 (plus, you know, steam sales & game bundles). If you're into brain teasers but don't have a huge amount of time for a game, it's worth checking out!

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January 21, 2014 07:41 AM

Mystery Munch: A Simple Android Game

This is crossposted from, my personal maker blog. If you want to link to this post, please use the original link since the formatting there is usually better.

I’ve been brushing up on my android skills for work, since I’ll be helping do security reviews on Android apps. Since I hadn’t written an app in ages, I thought it would be fun to take an Android 101 course on coursera just to force myself to do a couple of assignments and learn some of the things that come from actually writing the code and not just reading about it.

Some of these things-you-only-really-learn-by-doing kind of suck, like where I hit a bug in the hardware acceleration that caused me to lock up my entire computer requiring a hard reboot. Or discovering that making screenshots from the Nexus 7 emulator is apparently a Sisyphean task.

Frustrations about the fiddly bits of development aside, the assignment was ridiculously easy (although given that I used to *teach* a mostly equivalent Java course, that’s not a surprise — I’m really only in this for the deadlines, although the prof’s forays into computer history are pretty fun too.) The first part was an explicitly-defined app that I didn’t find interesting, but the second was “make an app of your choosing!”

So here’s what I chose:

Screenshot for "Mystery Munch" -- my very simple android game Screenshot for “Mystery Munch” — my very simple android game

Mystery Munch is half a battleship game: you click around to find the “food” hidden in the grid. It has no graphics, but it’s smart enough to make random layouts and notice when you won.

I always liked marking the game assignments best, back when I was a teaching assistant, so I figured I’d make a very simple game to amuse my peer reviewers.

The apk is here, if you actually want to play. I’ll get the source code up later once I figure out how I want to share it. Additions to the game will be welcome if anyone wants to make something from it!

This is the product of a Sunday afternoon of coding (I’ve been doing the course on work time, but I figured to save questions about releasing this code, I’d do it entirely on my own time), so it’s not amazing, but it’s mine and I’m amused by it! I’m thinking I might make some silly little pixel art to make it prettier and do some iterative improvement just because I can, if I don’t get sidetracked by another game I’ve been wanting to make for a while…

Incidentally, in case anyone’s wondering: I totally aced the assignment, and it seems I amused my peer reviewers. Mission accomplished!

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January 21, 2014 05:49 AM

January 20, 2014


Mystery Munch: A Simple Android Game

This is crossposted from, my personal maker blog. If you want to link to this post, please use the original link since the formatting there is usually better.

I’ve been brushing up on my android skills for work, since I’ll be helping do security reviews on Android apps. Since I hadn’t written an app in ages, I thought it would be fun to take an Android 101 course on coursera just to force myself to do a couple of assignments and learn some of the things that come from actually writing the code and not just reading about it.

Some of these things-you-only-really-learn-by-doing kind of suck, like where I hit a bug in the hardware acceleration that caused me to lock up my entire computer requiring a hard reboot. Or discovering that making screenshots from the Nexus 7 emulator is apparently a Sisyphean task.

Frustrations about the fiddly bits of development aside, the assignment was ridiculously easy (although given that I used to *teach* a mostly equivalent Java course, that’s not a surprise — I’m really only in this for the deadlines, although the prof’s forays into computer history are pretty fun too.) The first part was an explicitly-defined app that I didn’t find interesting, but the second was “make an app of your choosing!”

So here’s what I chose:

Screenshot for "Mystery Munch" -- my very simple android game Screenshot for “Mystery Munch” — my very simple android game

Mystery Munch is half a battleship game: you click around to find the “food” hidden in the grid. It has no graphics, but it’s smart enough to make random layouts and notice when you won.

I always liked marking the game assignments best, back when I was a teaching assistant, so I figured I’d make a very simple game to amuse my peer reviewers.

The apk is here, if you actually want to play. I’ll get the source code up later once I figure out how I want to share it.

This is the product of a Sunday afternoon of coding (I’ve been doing the course on work time, but I figured to save questions about releasing this code, I’d do it entirely on my own time), so it’s not amazing, but it’s mine and I’m amused by it! I’m thinking I might make some silly little pixel art to make it prettier and do some iterative improvement just because I can, if I don’t get sidetracked by another game I’ve been wanting to make for a while…

Incidentally, in case anyone’s wondering: I totally aced the assignment, and it seems I amused my peer reviewers. Mission accomplished!

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January 20, 2014 08:27 AM

Misc misplaced makeup photos

I imagine I took these before/after shots to showcase some product, but I'm no longer sure what it was:


I'm guessing maybe it was the lip colour? It looks like I'm probably wearing some blend made with one of the obsessive compulsive cosmetics lip tar sets from sephora (A discontinued set I got on sale, but here's a superficially similar set with different colours). It's entirely possible that I was trying out the Chella pencil of my previous review, but as I said in that review, the thing is so subtle that it's hard to find in a still photo (which might explain their resorting to photographic trickery rather than a true product demo).

I am a bit concerned about the orange-yellow cast in the second photo: I'm pretty sure it's a light thing, but it's possible that my current tinted moisturizer/sunscreen doesn't match my increasingly paler skin since moving out of the desert. I guess I'll go let makeup experts colour match me sometime when I'm at the mall.

Aaaanyhow, nitpicking aside, I'm posting this to show a before/after that, to the best of my ability, does not use any photo tricks to make me look better in one photo than the other; it's just a change of makeup (and possibly some light, since it's an hour later by the time I got around to doing the 2nd photo and it is sunlight). I do cheat a bit with the smile, I suppose, but I have a few unsmiling ones and it doesn't make that much difference. Do feel free to compare with the before/after I complain about in November's review.

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January 20, 2014 06:53 AM

Birchbox November 2013

Belated beauty box time!

Birchbox November 2013

Before I start the product reviews, I have to show you my terribly professional new small product photography setup:


As a photographer, I'm normally all about the natural light, and my bathroom has this beautiful frosted window that faces southwestish that provides almost exactly what I wanted. (See photo at the top of this post.) But I bought a new camera and am trying to get myself out of a photographic rut... so, after recommending this setup to my sister I thought I was overdue to try it myself. My room is not nearly as dark as that photo implies, I just didn't bother to balance it because I liked the spotlit effect.

Incidentally, you can see my sister's use of a similar setup here on her latest makeup box review. She's going with a much more neutral white backdrop which probably is better for this sort of thing, but Birchbox so kindly sent me pink tissue paper with this month's box (that's January's, not November's... I'm terribly behind) and I thought it was more fun. I expect I'm going to start developing a coloured paper collection now...

So! Photographic digressions aside, let's talk products.

Snark, science, and makeup! The abrasive/meat tenderizer/healing balm is the most amusing. )

Birchbox November 2013

Overall? Nailpolish I don't love but will use, hand cream that's at least nice at home if no good for work/travel, a highly entertaining abrasive/meat tenderizer/healing agent combo that's actually good at getting rid of flaky skin and not killing my boyfriend, an overly subtle sparkle pencil with a bad tutorial, and delicious delicious honey chocolate. Not bad. I am pleased although not amazed with November's selections.

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January 20, 2014 06:07 AM

January 17, 2014


Birchbox October 2013, revisited

So, remember that "Karuna Clarifying Treatment Mask" that I really really hated? I just found the photos I took and while they're all creepy, this is too hilarious not to share:


I believe that expression fully captures the horror I felt while using this product. MY FACE IS MELTING.

Edit: Since I crafted this much shorter version of the review for a friend on FB, I think I should share it with the class here as well:

The Karuna Clarifying Treatement Mask hurt like burning, dripped everywhere, and was generally awful. It did make my face very soft, but I think that was due to the fact that it may have been slowly eating it. I'm pretty sure it is made of facehugger digestive juices.

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January 17, 2014 08:31 AM

Baby bunny!

This is crossposted from, my personal maker blog. If you want to link to this post, please use the original link since the formatting there is usually better.

It’s after Christmas, so you’d think by now I’d be digging out the photos of all the projects that became christmas presents. But no, I’m going to dig back a little further to one I forgot from this summer…

This little amigurumi bunny was just so charming that I decided to make her for baby V:

Baby bunny for V

My favourite part is the little mohair fluffy grey tail:


This is a pattern where the details really matter, so while finishing the bunny body didn’t take very long (I think I finished most of her in an afternoon at Quelab), getting her nose and ears sewn just so took me a while. Despite the little bit of fussiness, I think this is my favourite bunny pattern yet, and maybe sometime I’ll make another with more patterned fabric as the original pattern suggests.

The pattern is free on Ravelry: Crochet Spring Bunny by Stephanie Jessica Lau

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January 17, 2014 08:08 AM

January 13, 2014


What Terri's Playing: Marvel Puzzle Quest

I've got more than a few reviews in my queue, photos to process, and grand dreams to finish.  I actually checked off a step in the latter category, making my first playable Android game.  (It was for an online course, but I'll put the apk & code up for others to poke at once the assignment is marked.)

Speaking of Android games, though, it's occurred to me that although I play games pretty frequently, I don't talk about them much here. So here's part 1 in a series of "what I've been playing lately" :

Marvel Puzzle Quest
Marvel puzzle quest

Puzzle quest was one of my favourite games for the Nintendo DS.  I played not only puzzle quest, but also puzzle quest 2 and the hexagonal Galactrix all through to the end, which is spectacular given how few games I have time to finish.  (Although to be fair, DS games are shorter so I tend to finish them more often).  It blends a simple RPG with a fight system based around the match-3 mechanic (aka Bejewelled) and makes it work.  You have characters with different powers that are fueled by the colours you match off the game board, and beyond the match-3 strategy, there's some further thinking you can do in producing combos with different character powers, and making good use of one-game powerups that you get occasionally.

Marvel Puzzle Quest is exactly what you'd expect from the name alone: same gameplay, now with snarky comments from Marvel characters between games.  That's pretty much the sequel I never knew to want!

The base game is free, but like many such games you can pay for upgrades to do things like level faster or buy extra character slots.  You do acquire the same types of points within the game, so there's no need to pay if you're patient and willing to blitz your way through the odd tournament or event.  I don't really see the point in paying to go through the game faster, but it is really quite nice to have a few extra character slots.  It has optional Facebook integration, which periodically allows you to send random in-game items to your facebook friends.  I don't have many facebook friends playing, alas, but I do send stuff to John, and I'd be happy to send stuff to other folk!

I have only 2 complaints: 
1. It requires you to be online, so no playing when you have no data (this was very sad when I was on the airplane and would have loved to get my puzzle quest fix!).
2. It's *very* big and thus didn't fit on my sister's older phone, which is very sad 'cause I totally wanted to send her in-game items!

I've been playing this game in frequent little spurts since November or so, and I expect I'll be playing it for quite some time to come, since I'm enjoying getting new characters and learning to combine their various skills.  It's a few minutes per match, so perfect for train rides and waiting for my toast to pop in the morning.

Link: Marvel Puzzle Quest: Dark Reign

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January 13, 2014 09:43 AM

January 06, 2014



Went for a hike today. This was at the top of the hill we climbed:

Definitely a day for "OMG, I can't believe we live here now" moments. I left a cold snap behind in Ottawa, and came to a land of moss and... well, okay, it's still below freezing, but not quite so far below.

Also, look, new year, new camera, new computer to handle processing! I've got a huge backlog but for now, I'm just going to go like I've declared photo bankruptcy and start trying to keep up with the new. Today, however, the setup took long enough that I'll be stopping at 2 photos (for my AAW submissions) so that I actually get some sleep before work tomorrow.

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January 06, 2014 08:56 AM

December 16, 2013



Just a quick note: if you aren't following the #NotYourAsianSidekick hashtag on twitter, you're sort of missing out. It started as a discussion on Asian feminism, but has branched out to be a bigger discussion focused around race.

I'm just gonna put this comic here while I try to remember how to log in to tumblr...

And a note to self that perhaps I should write a public version of the "not f'ing docile" post.

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December 16, 2013 07:14 AM

December 09, 2013


Warthog9's blue gloves

This is crossposted from, my personal maker blog. If you want to link to this post, please use the original link since the formatting there is usually better.

John and I have been playing an augmented reality game called Ingress for some time. The reason this is relevant to this post is twofold:

1. We spend a lot of time walking around outside in the cold using our smart phones

2. We’re on the blue team.

I have some lovely purple gloves I made myself ages ago that I use for being out and about, but John couldn’t find his “hobo gloves” (aka smoker’s gloves, aka convertible mitt-glove things) in the chaos of our move, so I set about making him some new ones. Of course, he totally found the hobo gloves before I finished (by *hours* I might add. I was so close!) but in the rainy northwest, I expect having more than one set of gloves is advised.

John's blue gloves

The pattern is Twisty Sister Cabled Handwarmers

by Kate Gondwana
. I was drawn to the nice cable pattern on the back:

John's blue gloves

Since John has wide but not very long hands and likely would just be annoyed by longer gloves going well under his long coat sleeves, I used the “large” size guidelines but took out a repeat so that they’re a bit shorter, as recommended in the pattern as a way to adjust. Horray for well-written patterns! I particularly liked that this one had both charts *and* written instructions, as while I prefer charts sometimes I find it easier to understand the written if I’m not sure where something should start.

John's blue gloves

And finally, since someone complained that I didn’t have any pictures of people wearing the fox hat of my last post, here’s a few more pictures of John:

In this one, he is telling me that I need to photoshop in some Wolverine claws for appropriate effect. I leave this as an exercise to the reader.

John's blue gloves

And in this one, I think he looks amazed that he has fingers. Let it never be said that he’s too jaded to enjoy the mysteries of the universe!

John's blue gloves

PS – In case you were also wondering about the dearth of baby photos in the last post (a) the hat was waaaaay too big so I don’t think she’ll be trying it on for a while yet unless daddy decides hilarious oversized hat would make for adorable photos (b) baby V’s parents have been sharing photos of her with select family and friends, not the entire internet, so there may not be photos of her available to the rest of you even when she grows into it, unless she grows up to want to share them herself much much later. Sorry!

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December 09, 2013 06:41 AM

December 08, 2013


Wantable October intimates box

When I was trying to decide which makeup box I was going to try, I looked at Wantable (again, thanks to the most excellent blog Brightest Bulb In the Box: Beauty for Critical Minds). Unfortunately, since their big thing is that they give full-sized products, something I actually didn't want given my minimal makeup needs, I wasn't even tempted by them. However, I found out that they also did an intimates subscription box. I had just done a big cull on my underwear and socks and discovered that once I'd gotten rid of anything showing its age, I didn't have much left, so I figured I'd give it a shot! Plus, wantable promises that you can return any box didn't love, so it wasn't as huge a risk as it might have been.

Box 1 was October:

Wantable October Box

Unfortunately, Wantable doesn't give me a nice list on the website of what I got with product links and stuff. Missed opportunity, guys: I would probably be ordering more of those socks if you'd made it easy for me!

In the interest of just Writing The Darned Review, here's what I had, without product links:

Thing #1: Pink argyle socks, knee high.

I love these and wear them all the time. So cute!

Thing #2: Little plastic clips for converting your bra to a more racerback style.

I own a set of these, pretty much identical, that I got at the dollar store for a buck, so I can't say I was thrilled that this was part of a $36 subscription box. Also, since I already own them, I know they are useless to me: my shoulders are so broad that there's not enough give in my bra straps to use these without everything becoming too tight. I gave them to my sister to try out, though, and she says they were ok for her, so not a total loss.

Thing #3: Coobie bandeau top, pink and lace-y

I've never worn a bandeau, so I was glad to try this out. It's actually a nice addition to my wardrobe in that it can be layered with a low-cut shirt, and the colour works with a bunch of the things I own. It does feel a bit like I'm intentionally binding my breasts, though, and it doesn't always stay in place on me, so it's not like I'm a sudden bandeau top convert, but I like having the option!

Thing #4: Coobie camisole, beige

I had just been thinking that I could use some camisoles (again, to deal with the slightly-too-low-cut shirts that I got from threadless and a few other places) and this fits the bill nicely, although the beige colour is perhaps a little too close to skin-tone to get a nicer layering effect. It's also nicer than a bra under certain types of sheer shirts. I do wish the bra cups were a bit bigger (they're little triangles that don't quite fit the natural curve of my breasts), but they're removable so I can always fix that later. I actually liked this so much that I bought another one on Amazon, in bright pink (since it was the only colour they had).

Thing #5: Jockey panties, brown and beige lace

These are... really not my style. I actively dislike peekaboo lace on my butt, and if my boyfriend likes it, I don't want to know. They may get put in rotation simply because I'm low on underwear, but they don't fit well, they ride up, and I think they're ugly, so... anyone want a pair of panties I've only worn once? You should probably have a smaller butt than me, since these ran smaller than the label would have implied.


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December 08, 2013 02:35 AM

Birchbox October Box

This is the second makeup box I received. I'm a little behind as I'm actually already on box 3, but sometimes it's more fun to live your life than document it, eh?

Anyhow, October's box:

Birchbox October Box

I really wish Birchbox had a "box history" link of sorts in my profile page, as that's where I look for it first before I finally remember that history is hidden where I would have expected to go to order another box. Oh well; I don't quite care enough to write a script to add one myself, but hopefully the process of writing this comment will help me remember for next time.

Product #1: 12 Benefits™ Instant Healthy Hair Treatment - 6 oz

This is supposed to be some sort of magical hair treatment that protects you from styling and swimming and life. As I don't torture my hair and haven't had an excuse to go swimming since the box arrived in October, I can't really tell you how it works on that front. However, it *also* claims to be a detangler, which I could test.

Unfortunately, it is awful as a detangler. It's messy and sprays on a bit too thick so you have to rub it all in yourself. At this point, the spray is basically just an extra step that makes it harder for me to control how much product goes in my hair. Even worked in, though, it's a mediocre detangler. I have, in fact, gotten better results from taking a dab of hotel conditioner and working it into the ends of my hair as if it were a leave-in conditioner.

So... as far as I can tell, this product is basically a waste of my time right now. I'll keep it around to see if it helps with swimming, maybe in the summer when my hair is taking more serious abuse, but it's definitely not useful right now. Which makes me wonder if perhaps this was not a great thing to put in October's box if they really wanted this product to shine. Oh well.

End verdict: Will save to try again later for the main intended use.

Product #2: DDF® Wrinkle Resist Plus Pore Minimizer Moisturizing Serum

DDF moisturizing serum

Frankly, every time I look at this product, I'm reminded of that scene in Cloud Atlas that is pretty much all "soylent green is people." So yeah, while this is a totally visually striking product package, it also creeps me out because I feel like it's a product made up of ground up people in some sci-fi world. It does not help that every pump of the product comes out as flesh-coloured slime.

My mental damage aside, the product itself is kind of weird. It's kind of like spreading silicone lube on your face, or at least what I imagine it might be like if I felt a need to use bike grease as a cosmetic. Perhaps all moisturizing serums are like this?

It's meant to be applied as the first layer in your cosmetics, and it behaves kind of like you might expect magical face lube to behave in such a situation: it makes it easier to blend things on your face. That's actually kind of awesome, and it seems keep makeup from clumping quite so much if you have acne or a scab or something on your face.

Interestingly, it seems like there's less colour on my face at the end of the day when I use magical face lube. I've been using a white-coloured wipe to remove makeup, so what I'm saying here is that the stains are less dark. I'm not sure if this results in more coming off on my hands during the day, or whether it's just diluting the tinted moisturizer I use such that it leaves less dark stains on the cloth. I can't really tell the difference visually on my face from day to day, though. I'm too lazy to check my makeup and take selfies multiple times a day to check if the progressing is different, but I guess I could try that if I really want to know exactly what's going on here.

End verdict: Despite my initial impressions, I actually like the product. Unfortunately, it's expensive and the appearance weirds me out. I might try to buy something similar when I run out, but it's a huge sample and I may get another product to try before I need to make a decision on replacing this.

Product #3: theBalm® cosmetics Stainiac

Stainiac lip tint

This is labelled as a "hint of tint" and it really is. I found it utterly underwhelming on my cheeks (which are already quite pink) but fun on my lips. It's very subtle, though:



My boyfriend claims he can tell the difference, but I'm never sure if he's buying into the horrible delusion that one must lie to one's significant other about such things lest she fly into a rage. Or possibly just deluding himself, since it's not like I did a double blind test with him or anything. ;)

You can tell I'm not a "real" beauty blogger 'cause I'm wearing no other makeup in those photos and not expecting you all to tell me how brave I am to show my face to the world. (This is one of many reasons I can't stand reading most beauty blogs.) Anyhow, my laziness for photos does let you see that my cheeks are naturally "hint of pink" though.

Incidentally, this is a lot more fuchsia/day glo hot pink than red when it comes out of the tube. I find this amusing, but it did make me nervous that it would be a lot more than a "hint" of colour.


Robyn from Brightest Bulb says, "Unfortunately, when I use it on my lips, I can find zero qualities that distinguishes this product from a tube of jello." And I agree, but I consider this a benefit because it makes me feel like I'm a kid.

Actually, it led me to mentally design an entire marketing campaign around my new cosmetic idea: the popsicle lip spa treatment.

Sit back and relax with our rejuvenating lip treatment. It's filled with natural fruit extracts, and is guaranteed to hydrate you as well as provide a little energy boost. This lip stain lasts for hours, and helps curb food cravings!

Yeah, I'm not quitting my day job. But I do want one of those fruity popsicles from our freezer now.

End Verdict: I like this product a lot. It's fun and nearly un-noticeable, so I'm not going to get any flack from my engineer colleagues who might be put off if I was wearing heavy lipstick. I do wish it was sold in the little sample sizes because it's perfect to have in my pocket at work, so I may keep an eye out to see if they do some sort of smaller holiday pack. I may also experiment with stronger tints to see if I can get a work-appropriate look that amuses me without making me too "girly" for my office.

Product #4: Karuna Clarifying Treatment Mask

I hated this product:

- it's very goopy so it's a huge mess to put on
- it actually hurt to use

It's weird, because I don't really think of myself as having sensitive skin, but applying this caused serious pain across my cheekbones and upper lip. I almost didn't leave it on for the full recommended time and just pitched the whole thing, but I wanted to know what it was like and figured I could tough it out. It didn't get better.

On the bright side, it didn't cause any breakouts or leave horrible red burn welts across my face (which I was actually concerned about given the amount of pain), and it did leave my skin feeling smooth and soft after. But yeah, I'll stick to moisturizer for that, thanks. Even magical face lube has the same effect with less awful.

I took a picture of me wearing the mask mostly to distract me from the act of actually wearing it, but my poor little mac is still copying pictures off the camera and I'm hesitant to leave so much open in a browser window without saving it. The mask looked like creepy whiteface anyhow, though, so maybe the review is better off without it.

End verdict: OW. NEVER AGAIN.

Bonus Product: ChapStick® Hydration Lock

According to the insert, this is an "extra" product and not part of my samples. I guess the insert is to prevent people from being underwhelmed by getting Chapstick, which is hardly glamourous. It works as expected and has a sort of vanilla-creme thing going that makes me think of the 90s.

What's interesting is that they included it to use as a lipstick primer. This whole concept of makeup primers is a new one to me, so I was interested to see that Robyn from birchbox thought this worked pretty well. (I'd have tested it myself but I do not actually own lipstick, just two tinted lip balms which I can't find right now, which probably tells you why I thought a beauty box subscription would be a good idea.)

I don't love the scent, but I'll enjoy experimenting with it as a primer, so I count it a win. Plus, they gave me a coupon for more chapstick, which if I don't use I'm sure my boyfriend will, as he goes through as much of it as I do.

End Verdict: It's chapstick. I am pleased to know I can use it as a lip primer, though.

In summary: I tried some new things and didn't hate all of them! Seriously, though, I like the lip products a lot, the magical face lube is a surprisingly effective product that I would never have tried on my own, the hair protector might be useful in the future even though it's an awful detangler, and I never have to use one of those awful face masks again. Win!

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December 08, 2013 01:34 AM

December 07, 2013


Book reviews: two very unusual retellings of Cinderella

Princess of Glass (Twelve Dancing…
Princess of Glass (Twelve Dancing Princesses)
by Jessica Day George

This is book 2 in the series, following princess Poppy, one of the twelve sisters from the previous book. Somewhat sideways to Poppy's own story, there's a highly unusual and modern retelling of Cinderella in there that throws a completely different light on the tale. Fairy godmothers, it seems, don't have to be quite so one-dimensionally benevolent. I think even those who aren't drawn to reworked fairy tales would find something to love in this story, which is an adventure tale of saving friends and defeating evil. It's both funny and clever, and I highly recommend it!

Ash by Malinda Lo
by Malinda Lo

This is a subtle retelling of Cinderella, where author Malinda Lo has taken the backstory and bones of the traditional tale and woven them into an entirely different cautionary tale about fairies, and about a girl who loses her mother and then her father entirely too soon and who wants to retreat into the forest forever, but by the time she finds a way to do that, she has finally moved beyond her loss and is starting to want to live again. That makes it sound dark, and in many ways it is, but it's also a tale of finding love and moving into the light.

Incidentally, I picked this up because I heard it was a finalist for some LGBT award (and many other young adult awards besides [1]), so I was expecting there to be some social strife regarding relationships in there as well, but actually relationships just were relationships, regardless of gender, and the strife came from other sources. I found it kind of refreshing.


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December 07, 2013 10:52 PM

December 02, 2013


Back from Iowa!

Spent US thanksgiving in Iowa visiting John's family.

Of course, I got this song stuck in my head on the way there, and it's been stuck there for days. Here's a youtube embed:

Let me tell you, it is a terribly awkward song to have in your head while hanging out with your boyfriend's parents, his brother, and his brother's fiancee.

So you can all be proud of me for not breaking out into excellent lines like "What is love/Where did it get me?/Whoever thought of love is no friend of mine."

I did not, however, manage to conceal my outright disgust at the diamond commercials on TV.

"But I'm sure you wouldn't object if someone bought you a diamond."
"Well, actually, given the dubious human rights practices of the diamond industry..."

Anyhow, had a lovely time in Iowa, but I am glad to be back home where I can sing songs that aren't entirely hot on the subject of love and not accidentally cause an international incident. ;)

That makes it sound like I spent all weekend trying to not be me, but that's totally not true. There was also moments like an entirely hilariously awesome whole family dinnertime conversation about fecal transplants. They are fun people. :)

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December 02, 2013 06:29 AM

November 10, 2013


Self publishing: a flawed but useful overview

Guy Kawasaki's new book on self publishing#APETheBook: Buy the ebook not the softcover. Pick your chapters. Enough value to justify the price but some silly stuff to ignore.

Last month I gave a short talk to the Arizona Mystery Writers group in Tucson, Arizona. The presentation was supposed to be an overview of ebook production for self-published authors. But I ended up broadening the topic to attempt an overview of the larger process of self publishing, that is, how to target, produce, sell, and promote your own book.

One of my main themes was that authors who self-publish embark on an adventure that is much more like being a software entrepreneur than it is like being a writer. Both the technology and the markets are changing out from under you. Every day is full of too many good-ideas-that-should-be-done-right-away. The technology entrepreneur’s life is a sea of hard choices and risky trade-offs.

I thought that was a fairly original, clever idea until, late in my preparations, I came across a reference to Guy Kawasaki’s new book, APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur-How to Publish a Book. Kawasaki and his co-author Shawn Welch not only made the same connection I did, before I did, he wrote a whole book on the topic. How’s that for embarrassing and affirming at the same time?

I didn’t have a chance to read the book before my presentation, but I did toss a reference to it into my hand-out. And I placed an order for the print edition so it would be waiting for me when I got back from Tucson. When a master entrepreneur and author arrives somewhere before you do, the only thing to do is stand back, bow respectfully, listen and learn what you can.

I bought the print edition because I was pretty sure I’d want to share the book. And, indeed, I ended up ceding right-of-first-read to Bret, who was on the cusp of publishing his own book of short stories. But now I’ve read the book, thrown the book across the room a couple of times, re-read and digested some of the good parts, stomped across the hall to Bret’s office to rant more than once, and, finally, am ready to recommend it, with reservations.

Kawasaki’s basic premise is spot on.

A successful self-publisher must fill three roles: Author, Publisher, and Entrepreneur — or APE. These roles are challenging, but they are not impossible — especially if people who have done it before explain it to you.

. . . publishing is a parallel, not a serial, process that requires simultaneous progress along multiple fronts. A traditional publisher has the luxury of throwing multiple people at these parallel activities. A self-publisher doesn’t . . .

Self-publishing is akin to launching a start-up. Entrepreneurs must create a product, test it, raise money, recruit talent, and find customers at the same time.

Some reviewers have criticized the Author section of the book as “throat clearing” — which I guess implies it contains little meaningful content. I sure don’t agree. You may, personally, have no use for Kawasaki’s discussion of the good and bad reasons why you might want to write a book, Chapter 1. But the high-level perspective offered in Chapters 3, The Self-Publishing Revolution, and Chapter 4, The Ascent of Ebooks, is likely to be useful for anyone weighing the benefits of, or even already embarked upon, the journey from writer to self-published author.

I would say your mileage will vary from chapter to chapter throughout the book, so be prepared to skim in some places, dive deep and ponder in others.

You can buy the Kindle version of APE from Amazon. Oddly Kawasaki, who is so closely associated with Apple, Inc., has chosen to not publish an iBook version, yet. But remember that you can read Kindle books on just about any device simply by installing one of the free Kindle reader apps

Picks and Pans:

Here’s a quick overview of my Picks and Pans, click a link if you are interested in the details.

Pick: Buy the ebook, not the print edition
Pick: Most of the Publisher and Entrepreneur chapters are pretty good.
Pan:  You do NOT need a MacBook Air to write your book
Pan: Book conversion — no great choices, but InDesign?, really?
Pan: How to upload your book

Pick: Buy the ebook, not the print edition

It’s not about money, it is about currency — the timeliness kind. Even though the ebook is only $9.99 and I paid almost twice that for the print edition, I got enough out of my copy to justify the purchase. But a printed book is just too static a container for this content.

As I have pointed out before, ebook technology and marketplaces are in a state of continual flux. Kawasaki Welch promise to keep the ebook version updated with new material. And with Amazon’s new opt-in Automatic Book Updates feature you can get new content whenever they upload a new version of the book. The print version, of course, will not update itself.

However, take this e-promise with a grain of salt. My print version says it is Version 1.2 (Baldacci). It was printed in October of 2013 but, as I write, it’s the same version as the one available for Kindle, which was uploaded on March 5th, 2013. That means that both versions will tell you that the Calibre ebook conversion tool does NOT work with Word docx files and that has been not-true for a few months now. The content getting out of date is no surprise. Even the best laid plans of authors to keep up with current technology can be scuttled by the speed of change and their own busy lives. There’s no guarantee the ebook will be updated, but at least it CAN be.

Also, the print version has a glossary but no index. Grrrr. An index is often one of the big benefits of a print edition; a good index can put you miles ahead of an ebook search tool. But with no index, you had better have search available.

Pick: Most of the Publisher and Entrepreneur chapters are pretty good.

With the couple of exceptions listed below, I learned a lot from these chapters. I don’t agree with it all and a lot of details will change. But, given all the chaos in the industry right now, I think Kawasaki has done a really honorable survey of the state of the self-publishing. Chapters 11, Understanding Book Distribution, and 12, How to Sell Your Ebook, seemed particularly strong to me.

Pan:  You do NOT need a MacBook Air to write your book

I’d like to think the Computer section at the start of Chapter 5, Tools for Writers, was written tongue-in-cheek. But I can find no contextual evidence that is true. It certainly does a disservice to the fairly decent advice in the rest of the chapter.

Kawasaki asserts that, while you may not definitely need a MacBook Air, you do definitely need a computer that

  • weighs less than three pounds,
  • lasts more than five hours on batteries, and
  • enables you to “take it with your wherever you go” and “write all the time”

Oh for pity’s sake. Which is my mom-the-author’s phrase. And she is appropriate to invoke here. In the last 15 years, she’s produced 15 full length novels, 13 published, one currently in production, and one poor thrice-rewritten stand-alone that is still waiting for a publisher to love it. While she has sometimes used a laptop, she has never had a Mac.

APE’s reader would have been much better served if Kawasaki had opened this chapter with a more practical overview of the importance of tools.  Something more like what Andy Hunt and Dave Thomas wrote in the classic The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master:

Every craftsman starts his or her journey with a basic set of good quality tools. . . . Then begins a process of learning and adaptation. . . Tools amplify your talent. The better your tools, and the better you know how to use them, the more productive you can be. Start with a basic set of generally applicable tools. . . . expect to add to your toolbox regularly. Always be on the lookout for better ways to do things.

So, here’s my own, more pragmatic Author list:

  • You need a place to write where you can be productive. (Yes, Virginia, this is STILL an issue for a lot of people.)
  • You need a computer in good working order with which you are comfortable.
  • Buy Word if you can afford it. If you can’t, be prepared to invest a certain amount of your time and energy accommodating the Word-using world around you, and then get on with your writing.

Pan: Book conversion — no great choices, but InDesign?, really?

Kawasaki writes in the book’s Preface that he “asked five knowledgeable people about the best way to self-publish an ebook, and I got eight answers — two of which directly conflicted with each other.” He mentions this again, at the start of Chapter 13, How to Convert Your File, just before he plunges into a multi-page, click-by-click set of instructions on how to use Adobe InDesign to convert your Word manuscript into either of the two standard ebook formats.

This was a book-throwing section for me. (Another reason I was glad I bought the print edition.) InDesign is clearly the tool of choice for small publishers, who routinely use it to produce their print editions. But, in my opinion, it’s never been a good choice for the self-publishing author. Now that Calibre can convert Word docx files, I think Calibre should be an even more obvious candidate than it has been. Granted, Calibre is an overly complicated tool and was originally built for a completely different purpose, but both those problems are even more true of InDesign. And Calibre is really, truly free, not just has-a-free-trial. I don’t expect Kawasaki to change his recommendation; he has co-author Shawn Welch to do his InDesign work for him. And, with a free trial, you may want to give InDesign a try yourself. But don’t let problems with learning InDesign hold you back; keep looking for a tool that will work for you.

Pan: How to upload your book

Another click-by-click set of instructions, this time for an Amazon-only process subject to change at any moment. The help pages on the Amazon site or someone’s recent blog post HAVE to be better sources for this info, by definition. A good generic diagram with some pointers on what the different marketplaces are doing under the covers would have been much more useful and timeless.


APE has its own website with pointers to additional information and resources.

And, remember you can buy the book in either format from anywhere you like as long as it is Amazon.

by ag at November 10, 2013 10:16 PM

November 07, 2013


Birchbox September Box

I'm not much of a makeup wearer, so it may surprise you to hear that I've signed up for a makeup subscription. But I promise you, it makes perfect sense! Little samples are enough for my sporadic and costume needs, and they're consumable so I can have the fun of a surprise subscription box without wondering where I'm going to put everything.

Plus, makeup is a social engineering tool that I haven't perfected, and being a security geek, how could I pass up the excuse to play around?

So... makeup box! I first heard of these through Brightest Bulb In the Box: Beauty for Critical Minds which is smart and not afraid to apply science to beauty claims. Flipping through some of her posts about what she'd gotten, I decided Birchbox was the one for me: $10/month, points system for discounts if I like anything, and no full-sized samples that I'd never finish. Plus, my sister said she was considering trying one of the other boxes available, so this way we'd be able to trade notes.

I got my first box at the end of September:

Birchbox Packaging

My first thought was "Rather pink, isn't it?" They also have a men's box which I presume comes in blue. You can't really tell how big it is because I didn't think to put anything in for context, but this is a pretty small box. Think small enough to fit perfectly and comfortably into a mail slot or thin group mailbox thingamy.

Inside, there's a classy little brown box:

Birchbox Packaging

And inside that is the good stuff with some pretty packaging details. Here's what I got in September:

Birchbox September Box

Left to right: a card detailing all the things, a slightly smug and self-congratulatory card congratulating me on my brilliant purchasing choices, vegan shampoo and conditioner, orange nail polish, a face "peel" and lip & nipple balm.

Product #1-2: Beauty Protector: Protect & Shampoo and Beauty Protector: Protect & Condition

These are nice, vegan shampoos. Being not a serious devotee of all things vegan (I'm more of a sporadic "that's cool" level of caring), I don't know if vegan shampoo and conditioner are usually hard to come by or tend towards being ineffective or weird or smelly or anything. It's possible that these are exceptional for vegan hair products. But I can only compare this to regular shampoo and conditioner, and by that standard all I can say is that they're nice. They smell nice enough, they clean well. But they're not nice enough that I'd want to splurge on them myself as a treat, so at $20/8oz I don't think I'll be buying more. Still, if I'm ever looking for shampoo for a vegan friend, I'll remember this one.

Product #3: RUFFIAN Nail Lacquer: Fox Hunt

I might have been underwhelmed by this colour, which is very orange, if it had arrived at any other time of the year. But just before October is clearly the perfect time to have orange nails, so I got to revel in these quite a bit.

RUFFIAN Nail Lacquer in Fox Hunt

The colour is a fun orange with a hint of pink and sparkle. I dressed mine up with a nail sticker because I had just gotten some and wanted to play. You might be able to tell if you look closely at the photo that it does have a tendency to chip around the edge, but a top coat got that mostly under control, and since I prefer topcoats most of the time, that's not a dealbreaker for me.

What I really love about this is the bottle, though. It is just amazingly pleasant to open with that big round head on it, especially if you're used to skinny, slick, tall bottle handles. I realize those are probably better for applying nail polish if you're used to working with sticks, but I am not a devotee of sticks for all fine control tasks, so I found this bottle's lid surprisingly satisfying. I'd consider buying more nail polish from RUFFIAN, but none of their other colours has grabbed me enough to justify an order by itself. I'm kind of hoping they'll do some little sample-size packs sometime; that would be fun.

Product #4: Juice Beauty: Green Apple Peel Sensitive

Okay, right off the bat, I have to admit I had no idea what a face peel was. It sounded horrible to me, which is probably a sign that I Do Not Care Enough About Beauty Regimens. But I'm ok with that. And I got this box to learn, right?

My first guess was that this this might be one of those peel-off face masks, which are at least amusing in that "peeling glue off your fingers" kind of way. But no, apparently this is magical acid goo that is somehow good for your face. I felt rather like I might need some facepalm photos for this review:

I put it on my face for the first time today. It made it look shiny and smell vaguely like... milk candy? I can't really explain that from the ingredients. It did hurt where it touched a small cut I had on my face, so, uh, don't try this stuff if you've got one.

This stuff has a warning that says it will make you more vulnerable to sunlight (and thus, more of the wrinkles and blemishes it purports to remove. And probably also skin cancer.), so it's just as well I waited 'till the Portland rains had started before I tried it out, and it's just as well I already got that facepalm meme out of the way. Good for me that my entire morning "makeup routine" is "apply moisturizer with sunscreen" (a habit that came out of living in Albuquerque, since high altitude desert makes both sunscreen and moisturizer good habits to get into) since they recommend I do that for a week while my skin recovers from this beauty treatment.

Incidentally, they also recommend doing this once a week. I wonder if that's because applying chemicals that make you more vulnerable to sun more frequently would be problematic in an over-the-counter beauty product? Or because it would hurt? Or because burning your face with acid shouldn't be done too often lest you cause permanent damage? I've certainly only seen the sun vulnerability on prescription medical creams before. I may have to look that up.

Does it do anything for my face besides make it vulnerable to sunlight? I suppose maybe it feels a bit softer, but I could have accomplished that with moisturizer. Maybe I need more time to encourage it to banish my wrinkles. Or maybe I need to care about banishing wrinkles enough to risk sun damage? I guess I can try it a few more times since there's lots left and the Portlandians tell me I shouldn't expect to see the sun for months anyhow, but I'm betting I'm not going to be particularly more impressed. Certainly not enough to spend $40 on a full-sized product. And now I'm creeped out by the knowledge that there may be a whole industry based around women wanting to peel layers off their face with chemicals. Yuck. I guess exfoliating is exfoliating and I shouldn't judge, but I can't help but imagine the cautionary sci-fi short story that could be written starting with this face goo.

Product #5: Dr. Lipp Original Nipple Balm for Lips

This stuff was apparently developed for nursing moms, hence the name. It's thick and I love it, especially in the teensy tiny sample size, which fits perfectly in the little coin pocket of my jeans. (Although I *do* wish there were more in the sample: the tube is mostly air with a small dab of product in it.) It leaves a heavy sticky goo on my lips for ages afterwards, which is pretty effective, but be warned: it's heavier than Vasoline or any lip balm I've ever tried before. Having gotten this while my lips were still recovering from Albuquerque, though, this seemed like a win to me.

I'm not sure if it's really worth it given that Vasoline is nearly as effective and costs practically nothing, but I may buy more in part because the name makes me laugh. I'd consider buying it as a present due to the intersection of effective and hilarious, which probably tells you more about me as a gift-giver than it does about the product. (I am the sort of person who buys Hot Guys and Baby Animals the book instead of a card, because it was on sale and was funnier than any of the birthday cards I saw in Powell's that day.)

Birchbox September Box: Closer

So that's September's box! Two products I loved enough to consider buying more, two that were pleasant to try even if I don't think I'll be splurging on them, and one product which I find to be an entirely questionable part of anyone's beauty routine and got to make fun of on the internet. I'd say I got my $10 worth for September.

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November 07, 2013 09:59 AM

Little Fox Tail

This is crossposted from, my personal maker blog. If you want to link to this post, please use the original link since the formatting there is usually better.

When my friend K announced that he and his wife were expecting their first child, I threatened to make an inordinate number of animal hats for the kid. The first of these turned out to be a Failynn Fox Cowl, which while adorable, is also much too big for a newborn no matter what the pattern said. See the picture? Those are my full-sized adult glasses. In a pinch, I could wear this hat, and while I’m a smaller adult, I’m not that tiny.

Failynn Fox Cowl + Fox Tail

In for a penny in for a pound: I figured if it wasn’t going to be a newborn sized present, I should make it more toddler-friendly an add a tail so it could be more of a costume. Unfortunately, there weren’t any tail patterns around that matched what I wanted, so I had to make my own.

Toddler Friendly Tail

Little Fox Tail

- Extra Bulky Yarn in two colours (I used orange and white)

- 9mm needles, either two circulars or a set of DPNs

Row 0: Cast on 16 and join ends, being careful not to twist

(I cast 8 on each circular, but whatever works for you.)

Row 1-2: k16 (all the way around)

3: {k1, increase, k3} 4 times (20)

4: k20 (all the way around)

5: {k1, increase, k2} 6 times, k2 (26)

6-11: k26 (all the way around)

12: {k2tog, k3} 6 times, k2 (22)

13: k26 (all the way around)

14: {k2tog, k9} 2 times (20)

15: k20 (all the way around)

16 {k2tog, k4} 4 times (16)

17: Change to second colour (white in my case), k16

18: {k2tog, k3} 4 times (12)

19: k12

20: {k2tog, k2} 4 times (8)

21: k8

22: {k2tog, k1} 4 times (4)

tie off to make a nice little point on the tail

I also made a seed stitch belt to attach the tail to, but for some reason I never took a picture of that. It’ll be a while before baby V gets big enough to want to play with this, but hopefully it’ll be fun when she grows into it!

Failynn Fox Cowl + Toddler Tail

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November 07, 2013 08:00 AM

November 03, 2013


Clean HTML from Word: a Hack

We’ve been exploring ebook production here at Sherprog, and it seems like the best way to produce a high-quality EPUB or MOBI ebook using consumer tools involves starting from HTML. I’ve written about the inadequacies of InDesign’s export to HTML and EPUB, which is a problem many small publishers undoubtedly face. But individuals who publish or self publish ebooks are probably working from Microsoft Word or another common word processor. Unfortunately, Word also tends to produce messy HTML via its native save-as HTML function. So how do you get clean HTML from Word? I would like to present a life hack.

The Problem

Not very clean HTML from Word

Classes and spans and styles oh MY

When you export HTML from Microsoft Word, what you tend to get is a class and a span with styling info for every paragraph. This is highly unnecessary, and frustrating if you are trying to control your text’s formatting for web or ebook publication. In order to clean up this HTML to any web developer’s reasonable standards, you would have to remove all these tiresome span tags and CSS declarations just so you could do the same work with a handful of human-designed CSS declarations for paragraph style. I have done this before, and manually. It took several hours to work through a novel-sized manuscript using search and replace to knock out these span tags one related group at a time in a text/code editor.

Necessity is the mother of hack.

That is when I noticed that I routinely pasted Microsoft Word content into WordPress and could hit publish and magically get a reasonable webpage every time. I went to a blog post and used my browser’s “view source” option to take a look at exactly what was happening and, bingo-automattico, there was beautiful, simple HTML with every paragraph in a nice <p> tag and not a lot else going on!

Go ahead: try it. Try “view source” on this very post. Some of this text was pasted right from Word.

Of course, WordPress and most other online text editors will allow you the option to view the HTML as you are composing. In WP, this is the “Text” tab. Unfortunately, you cannot just use this to get your HTML, because it omits p tags and divs. You could go ahead and scrape from here and get all your <b> and <i>, but you would have to go in and add all the paragraph tags. So here is the process I uncovered based on these observations.

Do This:

Use WordPress to get clean html from Word!

  1. Select your whole text in Word. Hit cntl/cmmd+c.
  2. With your cursor in the WordPress composition window, press cntl/cmmd+v.*
  3. Save draft.
  4. Preview.**
  5. While looking at the post preview, use your browser’s “view source” option. In Safari, this is under “View” and brings up a pop-up with the page’s code.  In Chrome, this is under View>Developer. In Firefox, you are looking for Tools>Web Developer>Page Source.
  6. You will likely have to scroll down beyond all sorts of styling, header, and script information to find the content. You can use cntl/cmmd+f to search for a line you expect in the text.  Select all of the desired content including enclosing p tags. Use cntl/cmmd+c.
  7. Go to your text/code editor and paste into your working file. You will need to have your HTML document head in place, and you will need to add your own CSS to control the appearance. Make sure your content is enclosed in body tags, of course.
  8. Format and style as normal HTML according to your intended use. Like I said, I used this process for ebook creation, but you could conceivably use it for any HTML application.

I already had admin access to several WordPress accounts, so that is what I used, but I imagine that this technique can work in other platforms as well. While I didn’t test the process all the way through in any other editor, I used view source on a Google Sites web page and verified that the WYZIWYG editor there had produced clean HTML. But I also tried scraping from a random Blogger page and found it used div tags and <br /> in place of actual paragraph formatting, which is not optimal but may work for your purposes, I don’t know.

  • Will work: WordPress
  • Will probably work: Google Sites***
  • Will not work, or will not work very well: Blogger, Google Docs, Medium, MailChimp (Email Previewer)
The longest text I have tried this with is an 80,000-word novel. As far as I know there is no size constraint on WordPress posts.


*I have found that using “paste from Word” will carry over some of the unnecessary markup we are trying to strip. On the other hand, using “paste plain text” will strip all of your formatting–italics, bold, etc. So use a regular paste from clipboard right into the editor.

**This way you don’t have to publish the content on your blog unless you intend to.

***I have a suspicion you might have to strip out an empty paragraph between each paragraph of content. Google Sites seems to use empty paragraphs to create line spaces for block paragraph formatting. Other than this drawback, I think Google Sites will work. I suppose you don’t necessarily have to strip out the blank lines, either; it depends on your purposes.

by Bret Norwood at November 03, 2013 04:13 PM

October 30, 2013


(audio)Book reviews: Catching Fire and Waterfall (what a combo...)

Catching Fire (The Second Book of the Hunger…
Catching Fire (The Second Book of the Hunger Games)
by Suzanne Collins

I'm not sure what I can tell you about this book that you haven't already heard, or will soon hear with the movie coming out. It's popular enough that you've probably already heard way too much about it. So I'll just add that I thought the audiobook was nicely done, I liked that this focused more on the political weaving and less on the action, and that this book made my excessive amount of travel in October much nicer.

Waterfall: A Novel (River of Time Series) by…
Waterfall: A Novel (River of Time Series)
by Lisa T. Bergren

I got this out of the library because I needed another audiobook and it was available the day before one of my many flights. An archeology/time travel romp seemed like some nice escapism for my own travel. And by and large, it was... Up until halfway through the book when the main character's constant thoughts about God and sudden desire to pray in a meaningful way started to intrude upon my enjoyment of the story and constantly worrying that the whole thing was going to turn into a heavy-handed parable rather destroyed my enjoying of the ending.

To be fair to the author, it never did get *that* heavy-handed, but I felt miffed by the bait-and-switch because rather than letting the character's faith develop in a natural way (as it seemed it might at the beginning), the cases where she thought about God seemed to be less and less connected to what was actually happening to her, and more grafted in to the story as it went on. Not the worst I've ever read, but I certainly wouldn't recommend it, and it's a real shame because it's a nicely acted audiobook and I think with a lighter hand and better editing, it might have worked.

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October 30, 2013 07:39 AM

October 29, 2013


Testing and Tweaking Your Ebook Using Calibre Conversion

In the previous post, we talked about choosing the right Calibre conversion settings for a general-purpose, reasonably-formatted ebook. In this continuation, I present a time-saving tip for using Calibre to reconvert your ebook during testing and tweaking. In programmer lingo, you might call it iterative testing. The publisher’s translation could be galley proofing, I guess.

Chapter Three: Reconverting Using Merge Book Records 

In which the protagonist saves time and frustration while device testing and tweaking his ebook, including how to use the Calibre merge function without screwing @*#( up. 

In my experience, when you first bring a book into Calibre to convert it, you should consider yourself squarely in the testing/tweaking phase and not in the publishing phase. You know that the moment you open your converted book you will find that typo that’s been there staring at you the whole time but which has somehow eluded your editorial eye until now. Or you will try the ebook on various devices and find it’s not working like you want. Whatever the case is, odds are you will have to change a few things and put it through Calibre conversion again–probably more than once.

You will quickly note that if you delete a book from your library and then re-import your source HTML/CSS, you will need to enter all of the metadata and settings over again. This can grow very aggravating if you have to re-convert your book more than a few times. By the fifteenth attempt, you may find yourself staring at the metadata fields glassy-eyed and wondering just what you named that book again.

But there is a better way.

Calibre Merge Book Records

The “merge book records” function is your friend. With it, you shall preserve your brain from being whipped into repetitive-task-pudding. The only concern is that you must pay attention, or you risk accidentally deleting your book, which isn’t a big deal since you have the original HTML/CSS, but still you’d have to re-enter the metadata and settings again, which is exactly what we’re trying to avoid.

Before you start, go ahead and right-click your entry in Calibre. Look for “Remove books” and “Remove books of a specific format.” Choose this and remove only the ZIP format.

Then, drag your working HTML back into the Calibre library, creating a new entry. If you get a warning about already having a book with this name, just hit okay and ignore it.

Now, the way it works is that you must select the book record you are merging into first. This is the old entry. Then you must control- or command-click the record you are merging. This is the new entry. Order is important. With both selected, you right-click on one of the highlighted titles and select the option shown in the screenshot above. This warning dialogue will come up.

Screen shot 2013-10-24 at 4.19.37 PM

If the publishable title and the HTML filename are different, you can tell them apart and make sure in this warning message that the “first selected book” is the old entry, the one that still has your converted ebook(s) in it. To be clear: first selected book should not be the new, ZIP/HTML-only record. If, on the other hand, your title and filename are the same…well, you’ll just have to trust you clicked what you meant to click, cross your fingers, and hit OK.

Of course, if that trust is not there, you can use “Merge into first selected book – keep others,” but then you have the extra step of manually removing the unnecessary book record after you are certain that the keeper turned out okay.

This accomplished, you can just select the title and convert again with ZIP as your input and EPUB or whatever you want as your output. Your previous conversions will be overwritten, but your metadata will be preserved. The only settings you might have to enter again are the format-specific ones, depending on what the last format you converted was.

Return to:

by Bret Norwood at October 29, 2013 10:55 PM

HTML to EPUB: Calibre Conversion Settings and How to Preserve Indents

Chapter One: HTML

In which the protagonist prepares an HTML document for Calibre conversion to EPUB format. Our story begins as the hero has completed the treacherous journey from InDesign, which is not designed to design ebooks at all, to clean, ebook-worthy HTML and CSS. And what a journey it has been, with action and romance and stylesheet declarations and dragons.

The first step to any good ebook is a clean, well-formatted source document. In my previous post, which was specifically about creating an EPUB from InDesign, I make the argument that the best way to generate an ebook is from HTML. This is because EPUB files are, at the core, HTML, and Kindle MOBI markup is supposedly not far removed from HTML either. This facilitates good, clean conversions, and when you do find formatting problems, they are easy to troubleshoot–if you know just a little HTML/CSS.

Here we will use Calibre to create an ebook from an HTML document and its resources. Calibre is a free tool and you can get it from Though Calibre was designed primarily for personal use, I think it is very handy for professional ebook creation when it is not being done in-bulk. (However, Calibre does offer command-line tools for automated conversions–but we’re not getting into that today.)

Chapter Two: Calibre Settings

In which the protagonist fights to preserve his friggin indents, etc.

Having bulldozed my way through numerous Calibre ebook conversions, I’ve picked up a few tricks to make a better product and/or to streamline the process.

The Conversion Settings, pt. 1

There are some general settings you will want for most ebooks designed for distribution. If I don’t mention a setting, take the default value unless you know that you need otherwise. You may only figure this out through repeated conversion and testing (see chapter three, next post).

The Metadata

  • Attach the cover in the form of a high-quality jpg at least 1400 px wide. See our prior post solely on the topic of the ebook cover. 
  • Enter the exact, publishable metadata. Information must match what is on the cover, what is inside the book, and what will be listed in online marketplaces.
  • “Book 1.00″ means first in a series, not version 1.0.

Look & Feel

  • Settings here are very situation-dependent. In general I don’t have to do much here, but it depends largely on the quality and specificity of your CSS. You may or may not have to tinker with these settings, and I cannot tell you what to do until you try it yourself. But there is one counter-intuitive issue I want to give its own section:

Preserving Indents

Want to preserve the indents from your source without removing blank lines between the paragraphs? Calibre is set up so that the option to set the paragraph indents is disabled until you check “Remove blank lines between paragraphs.” This makes sense normally, because with indented paragraphs, you don’t usually want blank spaces. Alternatively, with block paragraphs, you want spaces but not indents.

But what do you do when you have a manuscript that mixes the two, or that uses indented paragraphs but also uses line spaces for formatting? If only it weren’t an either-or decision! Fortunately, it’s not–Calibre just makes it seem like it is. You can check “Remove spacing between paragraphs” just to change the indent size to “No change.”

Screen shot 2013-10-24 at 4.19.00 PM

To set it to “No change,” you must hit the down arrow until it goes past 0.0, past -0.0 (it actually says this), until it says “No change.” This is a little counter-intuitive. I, at least, didn’t know you could do this until I stumbled upon it in frustration.

Having set the indents to “No change,” you can then uncheck “Remove spacing,” and it should still honor your specification for indents. Hurray!

The Conversion Settings, pt. 2

Page Setup

  • Generally, you will want to select “Default Output Profile.” This is because it optimizes images for larger screens. In this way, your ebook images will be good enough for large displays as well as mobile devices. It ensures the widest range of compatibility. Of course, this is only possible if your images are starting out at a sufficiently high quality. If the are too small to start off, this setting won’t help you, but it won’t hurt either.

Structure Detection

  • If you know that you want all level-one headers to be chapterbreaks, you have it easy. Use //h:h1 for “Detect chapters at (XPath expression).” If not, use the magic wizard wand to figure out what you need, and consult Calibre’s documentation.
  • If all your desired pagebreaks are taken care of between your CSS declarations and your Calibre chapter-detection, disable “Insert page breaks before” by entering just a forward slash in the field.

Table of Contents

  • Set “Number of links to add to the Table of Contents” to 0.

EPUB Output

  • It is important that you select “Preserve cover aspect ratio” every time unless you particularly want your cover to suffer an unflattering funhouse mirror effect every time someone opens your book.

MOBI Output

  • Delete the PDOC tag. Leaving it will cause your book to appear under “documents” on Kindle devices, rather than in “books.”

This is where you hit “Okay.” Then comes the first viewing of the book. Good luck. Odds are you aren’t done yet, my friend.

See our next post: Chapter Three: Reconverting Using Merge Book Records (Testing and Tweaking with Calibre)

by Bret Norwood at October 29, 2013 10:42 PM

October 24, 2013


The Science of Household Tips: Does vinegar actually set dye in jeans?

When I bought my latest pair of jeans, the nice lady who helped me find them advised me to wash them with a cup of vinegar the first time, to better set the dye. I didn't think much of it, until I wore the jeans before washing them and ended up with mildly blue thighs. So clearly pre-washing would have been a good idea, but.. does vinegar actually set dye?

Googling this mostly turned up a bunch of people parroting the same tip. Which would be reassuring if I didn't know that the internet is a sucker for feasible-sounding tips regardless of they make sense or work. (Witness: Pinterest vs Pinstrosity)

My research turned up the following claims, from the ever-reputable source of "people on the internet"

1. Vinegar totally helps set dye in jeans
2. Vinegar totally helps set dye... but not in cotton, so you're wasting your time with jeans.
3. For jeans, you should really use salt, not vinegar
4. Actually, you shouldn't wash jeans at all
5. It doesn't matter, but for the love of all that is blue, wash your jeans in cold water
6. You need to wash your jeans inside-out
7. Mine totally leaked dye so I gave them away and bought new ones!

But 0% of these came with sources that gave me any indication if these were really legit or just old wives tales. I don't need scientific journal papers, but you'd think there'd at least be a science fair project or tests from some sort of cross between consumer reports and good housekeeping.

So where do you go for figuring out if there's actually any proof behind household tips like this?

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October 24, 2013 07:40 AM

October 22, 2013


InDesign EPUB Export Sucks (and How to Get Around It)

The Mystery of Ebooks

VertigoEbooks are still frequently a quandary to the small-to-mid-sized publisher. But with rising sales of ebooks and the popularity of mobile devices, there comes a time when you must look the ebook in the eye and face the future–or face the fad, at least. (I don’t know if ebooks as we know them will be around in ten years. I just know they’re around now so we better deal with them.) Anyway, realizing this, maybe you give in and poke the InDesign EPUB export button, just to see. InDesign chugs and spurts and gurtles a little bit and then spits out an ebook. You think, “Oh! How easy was that?” But then…the book is opened and the nightmare begins.

The nightmare is the slow-learned revelation that ebooks are not necessarily easy, despite the existence of tools that claim to be able to produce them from other file types at the push of a button. Only if your page layout is like that of a straightforward novel with no illustrations or special formatting is there a blessed chance in heck that any automated ebook export will produce a book that looks halfway good with no additional labor. This is especially true of many InDesign layouts, because you will have layers and graphic frames and fonts and style overrides up the wazoo. All this fancy formatting that is great for print will not translate. Here is why in a nutshell: Ebooks are basically HTML, and not advanced web2.0/webapp/skynet HTML, but stripped-down, carved in a stone slab as Cuneiform kind of HTML–no layers, limited positioning, tricky-to-non-existent font embedding…It’s barbarian by web design standards.

However, there is a solution to this, and that is to make it TAO. EPUB books don’t allow a full array of styling control, and so you must relinquish control. The solution to the issue is “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” Thoroughly simplify–or Thoreau-ly simplify, as in Henry David Thoreau-ly, since I believe that is his quote. In simplicity, your document will find the elegance of ebook beauty. Embrace white space, embrace the inability to layer or position, and embrace the fact that ereaders may or may not substitute their plain defaults for your special fonts. Most of all, you must embrace the concept of flowing text. You have almost no control over how any given page will look.

The solution comes by facing this fact: that an ebook is basically an HTML document, and to produce a really great EPUB, you must treat it as such. Rather than going straight for the ebook with an InDesign EPUB export, I recommend exporting HTML as a middle step and getting hands-on with it. If HTML is not your bag, you don’t have to dread it necessarily. This might, in fact, be a great way to learn a little. Please suspend judgment until you read what I suggest, and then decide whether to run in terror.

To answer the objection possibly forming in your mind: yes, this is more work than pushing a button, but it is more work in just the same way that picking up the dog doo out of your yard is more work than leaving it be. It’s the right way to do it.

Step 1: Export to HTML

So the key is not to fight to preserve the hard-won formatting of the print version in the ebook. Instead, you will want to strip out as much as you can. Relinquish it. Let go.

  1. Start by saving a new working copy and consecrate it solely to the HTML export.
  2. In this copy, take out page numbers.
  3. Export the cover as a static jpeg (high quality of course) and then delete the cover from InDesign. You will reattach this severed head later, when you convert to EPUB.
  4. Delete the back cover. Make it so all you have in front of you is the body of the book.
  5. Deal with layered or multi-object images/diagrams/graphic ads/etc, in the following manner:

Layered and vector images aren’t going to come out right unless you have the right settings. For each instance, e.g. a full page graphic ad, you’re going to want to group all the elements of the image/page together (select them all at once and do Object>Group) and then set the object export options for that group. Under the “EPUB and HTML” tab you want setting like those below. Use the same options I used in the example of this very legit-looking book cover.


Having done that, you are ready to export some HTML.

HTML Export Options

The first step of the export is a save dialog. Choose the filetype HTML, duh, and the drop location. Hit save but don’t worry: it will have questions for you to answer before it finishes the deed.

When confronted with this array of choices, remember simplicity. Don’t choose to ‘preserve the appearance’ of your images from layout. Don’t choose to preserve overrides. Select ‘generate CSS’ so that some of the work will be done for you, but we want it as minimal as possible.




InDesign will now drop not only an HTML doc but a “web-resources” folder containing your optimized images and CSS in your chosen location.

Step 2: Clean Up HTML and Un-InDesign the CSS

You don’t need to be a web-design savant to pull this off. The HTML and CSS compatible with current common ebook technology is a limited set, and I can tell you a few of the important things you will have to UnDesign from the InDesign outpoop–er, output.

I enjoy digging into HTML and CSS using a good text editor with a browser window open alongside so that I can refresh frequently to observe my changes in action. I use Text Wrangler on my Mac; Notepad++ is a safe bet for Windows. Both are free. Open both your HTML and your CSS in your text editor.

If you open up your HTML doc in your browser before you do anything else, you can see just what’s wrong. Use this to target your attack on the markup. Although not identical, the final ebook will look a lot like how your browser renders it. Expect the ebook reader to add in margins and page-breaks.

Aboard the CSS Enterprise

You will likely see bunches of <div class=”Basic-Graphics-Frame”> and <p class=”Normal”>. Now all you are going to need to do to accomplish most of your re-formatting is simply replace these default style names with new ones that make the right declarations.

For example, first of all, you might go ahead and drop new paragraph styles into your CSS. Just overwrite what’s there for p tags unless you know there’s something you want to save. Select and replace ‘em with something like:

font-family: sans-serif;

Then you can just work through each section of your book replacing “Normal” with, say, “center” for a caption, or “initial” for a section-initial paragraph where you don’t want an indent. Because we inserted declarations for a naked p tag, all your paragraphs should already take on the new style even if they are called “Normal” or anything else. So you don’t need to change the style of all or, hopefully, even most of your paragraphs.

We can do the same maneuver on the “Basic-Graphics-Frame”, or whatever default div popped out in your case. Toss some div styles into your stylesheet. I.E. if you know you have sidenotes to deal with (which will have to fall into the flow of the body text in an ebook), give ‘em background color to stand out from the regular content:

div.sidenote {

And, as you work through your sections, just give that class to any sidenote div you find. Savvy? You can actually progress at a pretty brisk clip through a document this way. It’s a lot more work than push-button conversion, yeah, but this way you’re doing it right. This way you control what your readers see, rather than leaving that up to an inhuman algorithm with the aesthetic IQ of a TI-89. Is that the name of a calculator or a model of terminator? I can’t remember. Either way, neither one of those machines is much renowned for its artistic talent.

Where was I? Oh yes. If you are preparing several similar books as ebooks, you can even come up with a standard set of CSS to paste into every new InDesign export. No need to reinvent the book every time.


One thing you’ll quickly notice about your exported HTML is that things have been plopped down in weird places. In fact, it may almost seem like InDesign has maliciously searched for the least appropriate places in the flow of the document to place images, captions, footers, sidenotes, etc. Let it not surprise you to find a footnote breaking into the middle of a regular sentence half a page removed from the footnote’s print location.

As you work through the document it will just be a matter of cutting and re-pasting these errant <div>s into more sensible locations.

Similarly, you might have to join together bits of text that belong together but which have been cut into multiple div and/or p tags. You should be able to catch these by scanning in the browser for paragraphs starting with lowercase letters. Most of these seem to come from pagebreaks in the print layout.

InDesign does this:


<p>This is a se</p>





Just delete from the first </p> to the second <p> and you’re golden.

When the book looks good in your browser and you are getting ready to compile an ebook, always be sure to validate your HTML. If you validate the CSS too, you can expect InDesign to have violated a few CSS3 standards, but fix them or not, they shouldn’t break your book.

Step 3: Convert HTML to EPUB

I use Calibre for most of my ebook conversion tasks and recommend it. We’ve blogged about this process before in terms of Calibre’s touted ability to convert straight from DOCX files. The process here should be similar, but better because we are working with HTML, which is basically the heart of the EPUB already.

Stay tuned for an walk-thru of Calibre conversion from HTML, which, I think, deserves a post of its own. I’ll include a couple of counter-intuitive tricks you might not know about.

by Bret Norwood at October 22, 2013 09:50 PM

October 18, 2013


I'm joining Intel's Open Source Technology Center!

I'm pleased to announce that I will be joining Intel's Open Source Technology Center (OTC), starting October 21st.

This is a big transition for me: not only have I physically moved to the Portland area from Albuquerque, but I'm also moving from academia to industry. However, I'm not moving away from either security or research: my official job title is "Security Researcher - Software Security Engineer."

There are lots of crazy smart people at Intel, especially at OTC, and I'm really excited (and a little scared!) about joining their ranks. This is exactly the job I wanted: I'll be doing security in an open source context (not only behind closed doors!), working with interesting people on interesting projects, and I'll be positioned such that my work can have an impact on the state of computer security in a global sense. It sounds like I'll be working primarily on web and Android security, which is challenging, fascinating, intimidating, and highly important. Wish me luck!

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October 18, 2013 06:08 AM

Book reviews: Rampant and Renegade X

And now that I've got the new book review code, here's two book reviews! These are more young adult fiction, because I find it easier to have some shorter fiction when I'm traveling so much. At least this way I'm pretty sure I'll finish before the library reclaims my ebooks!

Rampant by Diana Peterfreund
by Diana Peterfreund

This is a story about poisonous killer unicorns, and the virgin unicorn hunters who protect the human race from these monsters. If that's not enough hook to get you curious, I'm not sure you and I have even remotely the same taste so you're probably wasting your time reading a review from me.

This unusual concept brings you into a fairly typical young adult reluctant-hero narrative, something along the lines of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, only it's Astrid the Unicorn Hunter, whose mother is thrilled when a supposedly extinct unicorn shows up and gores Astrid's boyfriend, because she just knew her little girl had a destiny.

I enjoyed it, but I'm going to warn you right now that the series should be rated the same as Buffy: there's plenty of monster hunting violence as one would expect, but also much more intimate violence. No graphic glorifying descriptions and I don't think the treatment is awful, but I'm kind of sick of rape in half the fantasy I read, so consider yourself warned.

Overall, I didn't love this the way I loved "For the Darkness Shows the Stars" which is the novel that introduced me to author Diana Peterfreund, but "Rampant" was probably good enough for me to give the others in the series a try.

The Rise of Renegade X by Chelsea M.…
The Rise of Renegade X
by Chelsea M. Campbell

Damien is planning his life as a supervillain when his life is turned upside down by discovering that maybe he's not nearly as villainous as he thought...

Like a few other superhero/villain YA stories I've read, this focuses more on the characters and less on the powers. It's got snarky dialog, hijinks, sidekicks, gadgets, and some kind of dubious romance. Looking fowards to the next book!

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October 18, 2013 12:20 AM

October 17, 2013


Book review code

One of the things that bugs me when I'm doing book reviews is that I prefer it when reviews have a picture of the cover and link to the book of some sort, but I didn't love the output from Amazon's referal link generator, which would have been the easiest solution. I've been doing it manually, but that's a lot of cut and pasting and I kind of abhor doing tasks that are easy to automate.

Thankfully, I'm a coder and a user of greasemonkey, so I have all the skills I need to automate it. Seriously, being able to tweak web pages to suit my own needs is the greatest thing.

In the spirit of sharing, here's the script I'm using to generate the code I wanted for my reviews using the book page on LibraryThing:

// ==UserScript==
// @name        Book review header generator
// @namespace   tko-bookreview
// @description Takes any librarything book page and gives me a nice link to the book with cover and author details
// @include*
// @version     1
// @grant       none
// ==/UserScript==

// Get all the data we'd like to display at the top of a review
var coverimage = document.getElementById('mainCover').outerHTML;
var title = document.getElementsByTagName('h1')[0].innerHTML;
var author = document.getElementsByTagName('h2')[0].innerHTML;
var librarythinglink = document.URL; 

// Trim down the title and author info
title = title.replace(/ *<span .*<\/span>/, '');

author = author.replace(/href="/, 'href="');
author = author.replace(/<hr>/, '');

// Generate the code for this book
var reviewheader = '<a href="' + librarythinglink + '">' + 
   coverimage + '<br />' +
   '<b>' + title + '</b></a> ' +
   '<em>' + author + '</em>';

// Add code around this for embedding it into the page
var textbox = '<h4>Review Code</h4>' +
	'<textarea name="embedHTML" onFocus=";" rows="5" ' + 
	'style="width: 250px;" wrap="virtual">' + reviewheader + '</textarea>';

// Find a good spot and add it to the page
var insert = document.getElementsByClassName('gap')[0];
insert.outerHTML =  textbox + insert.outerHTML;

Please feel free to consider this open sourced and free for any type of use: alter it to suit your needs as you will!

Edit: Github link, for those so inclined.

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October 17, 2013 11:33 PM

Book Review: Shift

You know what I haven't done in ages? Book reviews. That's not entirely true since I still review on librarything for their early reviewers program, but I haven't been posting much to this blog.

So here's a short one that I finished a few moments ago:

by Em Baily

This one's worth reading, but explaining why would spoil the twist of it all. It skirts the edge of the paranormal and the standard teen drama with popular girls and mental health all in there... but it's how the mysterious pieces click together that makes it just a bit more.

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October 17, 2013 05:07 AM

October 15, 2013


Ada Lovelace Day 2013

Ada_Lovelace_Chalon_portraitThis is Ada Lovelace Day. I got the best possible reminder of that, this morning, from my dear friend Catherine Tuxbury. The folks who organize and promote this celebration encourage all of us to post today “about a woman in science, technology, engineering or maths whose achievements you admire.” And Cathy chose me for her contribution this year. I am flattered beyond belief.

This got me thinking about my own technology mentors and realizing that none of them were female.

Don’t get me wrong. I certainly have had strong female role models in my life including my mom, Elizabeth Gunn. And I have learned many lessons from the women with whom I have worked over the years.

But when it comes to mentors in the field of technology, the most influential ones happen to have been men.

Lee Holtz taught my drafting class when I was a senior in high school. He was a fun and encouraging teacher. It wasn’t until many years later that he admitted to me I was the very first female student he had ever had. I would never have guessed. He made me welcome in class and even on the big multi-day field trip we all took to Havre, just like I was a regular person.

Darryl Hagan was my second boss out of college. (Pity the poor first boss, for whom I lasted a total of three weeks.) I was back in Montana, trying to figure out what to do with myself. I wanted to try being a short-order cook; the aura of controlled chaos really appealed to me. Hagan managed a group of programmers at the Montana Highway Department. Some friend of his at the Department of Workforce Services sent him my resume and Hagan sweet-talked me into working for him as a programmer. I didn’t like working for a state agency; I did like working for Hagan, who was smart and funny and a straight shooter who always did his best for each person working for him. And he gave me my very first opportunity to work on a big database design project. I probably owe it to him that I have spent my whole adult life in the software industry.

But my most important technical mentor and role model has been my good friend Tom Lahey.

I first got to know Tom when I worked at DTSS, one of the pioneer computer timesharing companies. I was the junior tech support person, working the phones in New Hampshire. Tom was the veteran Fortran developer, living in California, with sons almost my age. The customer was a subsidiary of the French telephone monopoly. They were rolling out the pilot deployment of a consumer-focused video and information sharing service that foreshadowed the world wide web but predated it by a full decade. We all worked together, but remotely, off and on for months trying to diagnose and correct some serious but intermittent performance problems. Tom had a brave, honest approach to technical problem solving: Don’t waste time and energy pointing fingers. Keep trying. Own the problem and assume the defect is in your own part of the system until proved otherwise. Keep on trying. Laugh once in a while. This approach has paid dividends for me in every year of my career, on problems technical and not.

Tom’s also been a huge role model for me as a software developer and entrepreneur. He spotted and took seriously the emerging personal computer trend much earlier than a lot of mainframe developers did. He bet his very small company on publishing the first Fortran compiler for the IBM PC. His company got much bigger after that. And he generously shared parts of the whole remarkable journey with a group of friends and advisors in which I was included.

I truly support the aim of Ada Lovelace Day. We should, indeed, give our heroines the credit they deserve. We should, indeed, do what we can to build up the next generation of heroines.

But I do want to point out that mentors and role models come in all shapes, sizes, and genders. And so do their mentees. The gifts my mentors gave me:

  • taking me seriously when it would have been easy not to,
  • seeing the potential for work and achievement I had not yet begun to consider, and
  • putting in the effort to be demanding and hard-nosed when it would have been easier to let things slide

need to be passed along generously and evenhandedly. As potential mentors, we need to make sure aren’t just looking for the young ones who look or seem like us. Thank goodness my mentors did not.

by ag at October 15, 2013 10:11 PM

September 27, 2013


FYI: GSoC midterm emails

FYI: Google summer of code emails from midterms are being re-sent right now due to a bug in melange. It's safe to ignore these. These ARE NOT typoed final evaluation emails: final evaluations close in an hour and Google will be sending those emails on Oct 1st.

(Edit: Apparently the final eval emails went out early too, so you may have the correct emails now, a few days early by Google's original schedule. Congrats and condolences to all!)

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September 27, 2013 06:08 PM

September 17, 2013


Brownie in a Mug (or Chocolate Lava Cake in a Mug)

This is crossposted from, my personal maker blog. If you want to link to this post, please use the original link since the formatting there is usually better.

My sister introduced me to this brownie in a mug recipe because she is the bestest sister ever. I tried it out today and it’s everything I imagined, even if I did it “wrong.”

Here’s some pictures:

Almost everything you need for brownie in a mug

Almost everything you need for brownie in a mug

That’s everything you need for brownie in the mug, well, almost:

1/4 cup flour

1/4 cup sugar

2 Tbsp cocoa

Pinch of salt (not pictured ’cause I usually don’t bother with it)

Pinch of cinnamon (original calls for a tiny pinch but I was a lot more generous.)

1/4 cup water

2 Tbsp oil (not strong flavoured, according to the original recipe)

1 to 2 drops vanilla extract

Basically, put it in the mug and mix, then stick the whole thing in the microwave.

I mixed the dry up first, since my sugar is pretty lumpy at the moment (apparently no one ever told my boyfriend that one must actually keep the sugar container sealed…).

Mixing the dry ingredients

Mixing the dry ingredients

Then added the wet. If you’re like me and use a pipette to handle “1 or 2 drops” lest there be a vanilla disaster (yummy but expensive), you can rinse it out using the water that’s going into the cupcakes anyhow.

Rising out the pipette

Rising out the pipette

And mix. Bubble bubble, toil and trouble, eh?

Bubbling uncooked mug o' brownie

Bubbling uncooked mug o’ brownie

Since there’s no egg in this recipe, you can lick the spoon (well, fork in my case). This is a good way to test if the pinch of cinnamon was really enough. In my case, it was, but I’m thinking next time it’ll be cinnamon and cayenne for a mexican mug o’ brownie. Can take the gal out of New Mexico, but you can’t take the New Mexico out of the gal, eh?

So from there, you stick it in the microwave and cook it. The original recipe says 1 min 40 sec worked for them. I decided to try 40s to start (since my new microwave is huge) and got this:

Partially cooked brownie in a mug

Partially cooked brownie in a mug

Now if I was sensible, I’d have put it back in and finished “baking” my brownie in the mug. But instead, I thought, “hey, there’s no egg, and that looks like it’d be delicious…”

And thus was born “chocolate lava cake in a mug”

Chocolate lava cake in a mug

Chocolate lava cake in a mug

Warning: even at 40s cook time, this was crazy hot. So hot that I wrote most of this post waiting for it to cool.

Now, while this brownie/lava cake was everything I wanted right now, I’m apparently not capable of making anything without contemplating ways to make it different, so here’s a list…

Other things I’d like to try:

There’s no reason you have to stick with vanilla extract. I’m going to try a few others since I have them: mint, cherry, banana, maybe root beer since it’s one of the many extracts we have in the house.

As I said, I think this would be really excellent with a bit of cayenne to make a Mexican-style chocolate. I’ll bet it’d be nice with a bit of ground ginger, too.

Chopped peanuts (or other nuts) would probably be amazing on top. Why not make a whole sundae out of it? The original recipe recommends ice cream, even if I didn’t have any on hand, having just moved. I bet sprinkles would be fun if you’re doing it with kids, just don’t add them ’till after the brownie is cooked.

Chocolate chips might work in the mix. I’m worried it might be overkill, but there are days where overkill chocolate brownie sounds like exactly what I need.

Finally, my sister had warned me, and she’s right: this makes about twice as much brownie as I actually want. So next time, I’ll also be cutting the recipe in half. For reference, here’s what my next attempt will look like:

2 Tbsp flour

2 Tbsp sugar

1 Tbsp cocoa

Pinch of salt

Pinch of spice (cinnamon, cinnamon+cayenne, ginger, etc. Optional.)

2 Tbsp water

1 Tbsp oil (canola or veggie oil, not olive)

1 to 2 drops extract (vanilla, cherry, whatever)

Cook time will decrease accordingly.

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September 17, 2013 12:42 AM

September 13, 2013


Goal setting: update on picking five things

Goal setting progress monitoring in action!In June, I kicked off my Summer of Product with a post describing how I intended to use the Zig Ziglar / Seth Godin Pick Four goal setting program as a framework for making the transition from mostly-freelance-programming to full-time startup founder.

This was a bit of a risk, making a public declaration. I’m just not a methodical, program-following sort of person. I was afraid of embarrassing myself by having to report, about now, that I’d filled out the workbook pages for a week or so and then just let the whole thing fade away. That’s has certainly been the fate of every attempt at journalling I’ve ever made.

Surprisingly, my goal setting experiment worked out fairly well

I was able to stick with the program. I had a rough few weeks at the beginning, when I was using the wrong tools for recording my progress (more about that below). And the last week in this 12-week cycle corresponded with a half-personal/half-business driving trip out of town. I hauled the workbook along with me but didn’t jot so much as a note in it. That’s ok, though, because both segments of that trip were “culminating experiences” for two of the five goals I was working on. I was working the program the whole time, just not using the workbook to do it. Since the important thing is making incremental progress on the goals, I’m perfectly happy to grant myself a bye for recording that week.

I’m also giving myself the whole month of September off before I decide whether or not to pick up the program again in October. I’d like to pretend that was just because I’m taking a rare two-week vacation which is also the culminating experience for three of my personal goals. But there’s also the embarrassing fact that I did my arithmetic wrong and thought the first workbook would get me through till the first of October. But it’s a 12-week book, not a 16-week book, and that means it only covers three months, not four. Math majors don’t generally shine at arithmetic but, even for a math major, that’s a pretty dumb mistake.

Right now, I’m thinking that when I get back at the start of October, I will return to the program and probably even to using the workbook. I learned a lot from my first pass. Despite the problems I have with the workbook itself and some mistakes I made in goal setting, I think the experience was quite productive. I feel as if both I and my company made real progress this summer and am pleased.

What worked:

  • When I start each day by writing down my priorities, it really does affect how I choose to spend my time. When working for oneself, especially in the context of a startup, making choices about what to do next feels a lot like throwing darts blindfolded and hoping they stick to some wall, somewhere. With a written reminder of my priorities sitting right in front of me, I am able, fairly often, to get myself to set aside the next interesting task and focus instead on the next important one. I really am motivated to have something of substance to write down in each column each day.
  • Actions speak louder than lists. I had one product idea / project that kept working its way back into my week, despite it not being one of my stated goals. I had one personal goal for which I almost never made time; that column was empty more often than any other. At the end of three months, it’s clear which should be in the goal list for the next cycle and which should not.
  • It’s not about how much time I spend; it’s about picking the right things to spend time on. Sure, working on my writing is, by definition, labor intensive. But one day, for my productization goal, I had one great 10-minute phone call with just-the-right-person. I jotted it down in the notebook, called it a win for the day, and got on to something else.
  • The inspiring quotes on each day page. This is a guilty-pleasure admission. I’m am such a sucker for the inspirational thought. I found myself opening each new day page in the morning looking forward to the quote. How silly is that? (My husband would be happy to tell you that I’m a complete push-over for a good “atta girl”, too. Tell me I’m doing a good job, once in a while, and make me your slave for life.)

What didn’t work:

  • I wasted a bunch of time using anything-but the workbook itself. I frankly thought that the workbook was a bit dumb and limited (see below) and would be tedious to use. I do not, voluntarily, write things down by hand any more. I thought having to re-write the goals at the top of each column for each day was silly. So I tried to find an automated solution for my recordkeeping. We use Harvest for all our time tracking. It’s great and has become essential to my business. So I created a Personal Development client and added my Zig goals as tasks. But see paragraph three above. Recording your progress on a Zig goal isn’t about hours spent. It’s more binary. It’s more like counting coup; either you’ve earned the right to put a notch on your stick or you haven’t. So I abandoned Harvest. I briefly considered making a Google spreadsheet and just leaving the window open on my machine all day. But I’m having enough trouble with my hands that I really don’t need more windows to click between. So starting Week 4, I opened the workbook up on my desk, jotted my Goals at the tops of the columns for Day 1 and was off to the races. It turns out that writing the goals down each day is a small but important reinforcement. Having the book open where you can see it no matter what screens are open is important. And hand-writing short notes is not THAT tedious; I just live with the fact I can’t always read what I’ve written.
  • Two of my personal goals shared a column. They were the two I had the least success in pursuing and I’ll probably drop both for my next cycle. Maybe I intuitively chose the correct pair to share; they were less important to me and ended up getting less effort. Or did their sharing a column doom them? Probably not, but if I use the workbook for my next cycle, then I’m definitely choosing just four goals so there’s no sharing.
  • I could never figure out how to answer the “Is this enough?” question at the bottom of each column. This may well be related to my original big concern about my goals. They really weren’t very specific and measurable. So there was no good way to measure enough-ness.
  • I was also terrible about doing the week-in-review sections. But then, I thought the questions were not very useful (see below).

Issues with the workbook:

  • Only five days per week. I don’t think anyone should work seven days a week. But the Zig goal setting process explicitly encourages setting non-work goals to help you build a well-rounded life. If my goals are supposed to encompass family, friends, hobbies, fitness, and even spiritual growth, what happened to Saturday and Sunday in the workbook? For my fitness goal, it was easy to just jot a weekend bike ride down on Monday but my two other personal goals definitely suffered from the work-day-centric record keeping.
  • The Week in Review questions are primarily negative. There are three sections to write in: Highlights from the last week, What got in the way/What didn’t work, What I learned from what didn’t work. “Highlights” is ok. But why focus on “didn’t: for the other two? Sure, I need to analyze what I did wrong. But I think recording/affirming what I did right is at least as important. For me, anyway.

Oh, wait, you want to know how the actual work went, don’t you?

Briefly, since there is enough to say to fill a whole ‘nother post:

  • We completed our Emergency Response Guidebook in all three languages and have published them in the Amazon/Kindle and iTunes/iBooks marketplaces. (What happened to Barnes & Noble Nook? Check out this post.)
  • Sales are slow but we’ve had a fair amount of success with a promotional campaign where we are placing free copies with volunteer firefighters.
  • The ERG subgoal for understanding more about ebook production fed nicely into my ‘writing habit’ goal. I’ve gotten nine posts up so far under my own byline and Bret contributed three. I think we’ve got enough material for several more posts and I’m pleased with my personal rate of a post every couple of weeks.
  • The ERG didn’t, itself, generate a SaaS product idea but that other project that just kept creeping back into my week, has produced a promising candidate.
  • As for fitness, connectedness, and Spanish? Well, I rode my bike quite a bit and I’m about to head out on a walking tour in Spain with my husband and two dear friends from our college days. I feel ready; I’ll know in a week how much I’ve actually accomplished.

And what’s next?

I’m off tomorrow for a couple of weeks of pure vacation. No work, no keyboards. But certainly a chance to reflect and think about the big picture. When I get back, I expect I will establish a new set of Zig goals. And I’ll probably open up a fresh workbook on a Monday early in October and just start writing my goals at the top of each column. I can see how I could generate a different format with seven days and some modified Week In Review questions that might, eventually, work better for me. But I think I’ll  work the Zig/Seth program, using the notebook, for at least one more cycle with just a few tweaks: set  four workweek goals, try hard to make them more specific and measurable, and try harder to get myself to actually do the week-in-review step even as I pay a bit less attention to the labels on the page.



by ag at September 13, 2013 07:38 PM

September 09, 2013


Ata tala varnam::Viriboni

A varnam is one of the hardest phase of the learning process in the shishya-parampara (student learning process) within the Karnatic classical school, a grounding in fundamentals of sorts. In my opinion, that intricacy makes them more soulful and complete as compared to. say, a kriti.

Varnam's are further classified into "pada" varnam and "ata-tala" varnams.  "Viriboni" is one such Ata-tala varnam set to Bhairavi ragam by Pacchimirium Sri Adiyappaiyer

Composition: Viriboni
Composer: Pacchimiriyam Adiyappa
Raga:  Bhairavi                 
Mela: Natabhairavi - 20

Type:  Varnam                  
Tala :  Khandajathi Ata

Arohana:    S G1 R2 G1 M1 P D2 N1 S || S Gi Ri Gi Ma Pa Dhi Ni S
Avarohana:S N1 D1 P M1 G1 R2 S      || S Ni Dha Pa Ma Gi Ri S
Bhashanga Raga: Chatusruti dhaivata

viribōṇi ninnē kōri ||
marulu konnadi-rā ||

sarasuḍau dakṣiṇa dwāraka ||
sāmi śrī rājagōpāla dēva ||

chirunavvu mōmuna ||

If you are thinking this is just five lines, dont. Ata-tala varanams are very complex pada-varnams and we usually take 25 minutes to finish it. Yeah 25 minutes to practise five lines of lyrics!

Ata-tala varnam, as the name suggests, are set to a 14-beat cycle, far different as compared to a varnam set to Adi tala. That complexity in beats makes it complex and yet soulful, thanks to the complex svara structures.

They are also used for the Bharatnatyam dance recitals, where the ragam-tanam-pallavi is more intricate as compared to a regular varnam and it could go on for as long as 35-45 minutes, depending on the choreography and the visual story-telling the artiste-dancer indulges in.

by SVAKSHA at September 09, 2013 05:19 PM


Nothing to do: yeay!

After all the chaos of surgery, recovery, job offers and moving, today's the first day I don't have anything planned. Which sadly, is not the same as not having a todo list, but at least most of it's not urgent?

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September 09, 2013 04:46 PM

September 08, 2013


An iBook achievement

Screen shot 2013-09-05 at 2.30.27 PMApple Inc has such a gift for making small incremental achievements seem like huge victories. Our latest victory? All three of our ERG editions (English, French, and Spanish) are now for sale in the iTunes iBook marketplace.  It’s really just a small huzzah but it feels like a big deal to me.

Frankly, each of the ebook marketplaces presents its own set of challenges to the small publisher or self-published author.

Apple makes everything hard. Or, at least, it sure seems that way as you get started.  Only part of the toolset you must use to create and administer your ebooks in the iTunes marketplace is browser based.  The other part has to be installed on a local machine and that machine has to run OsX. So you have to own and use a Mac in order to publish an iBook. Doesn’t that seem just a bit narrow minded and self-serving to you? It does to me.

Most folks also have some trouble with the very strict epub validation step that Apple puts each epub file through. We did. But I have to say that the work we did to clean up the three ERGs so they would pass validation — and there was rather a lot of — also made the books more readable. I try not to complain, even about Apple, when the result is an improved product for our mutual customers.

Perhaps the oddest and most unexpected obstacle that Apple throws in your way is their review process and how long, in calendar days, a book takes to pass through it. I don’t know how review works for music — what would Apple review after all? — but for iPhone/iPad apps and for iBooks there is a manual review step for each submission. Right now, the review time for iBooks seems to be running about a week.  Apps take a bit longer, more like 10-14 days. The app author at least gets progress emails her product moves through the process: accepted and waiting for review, in review, published (or, glack, rejected). The iBook publisher gets nothing, no email, no blinding flash of light. You just have to keep checking back and eventually, the book gets through the review step and is on sale.

Oddly, for iBooks, Apple apparently also has a human being review each change to the description text.  When we finally got our French ERG edition finished and published as a Kindle book, we ran a two week ‘celebration sale’ for the English ebook and dropped the price from $3.99 to $.99. We had no trouble changing the iBook price from our iTunesConnect console. But we made the mistake of trying to add a line to the top of the book’s description text that said something like “Special temporary price of 99 cents will return to regular price $3.99 on <date>.”  It took at least a week for the new description to make it through review and show up in the marketplace.  And then, when we changed the text back, the line about the special price kept showing up for week after the price was back to $3.99.  Slightly embarrassing for us.  But, worse, think about Apple’s cost structure if they really are paying people to read each change in market text and decide if it is ok or not. It boggles the mind.

Amazon’s tools for publishing Kindle ebooks have their own idiosyncrasies. For example, a simple edit of the market description text will change your published book’s status, in your Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) Console, from Live to In Review. And while it is In Review, you can’t  get back in to view that books ‘details’, much less re-edit them. So you’d better hope you didn’t make a mistake. And, thank goodness, being In Review for this reason doesn’t actually take your book off sale; it stays on sale with the old description till the change gets rolled out.

Also, now that Amazon provides the ability to make and maintain an Author Page, which which is a great help in managing your brand, some odd things happen.  For example, if you’ve written a description for your book on the Author page, that take precedence over what you can see or edit from your KDP Console. If you forget that rule and edit your market text over in the Console, you may wait a long time for the new text to show up before you start trying to figure out what happened to your change.

But any complaints I have about Amazon’s tools these days pale in comparison to how awful they used to be.  Seriously, the unpredictable behavior of Amazon’s Console used to be enough to make strong women cry.  Slowly, over the years, they’ve invested in their tools and, to a large degree, there has been what one of my mathematically inclined colleagues enjoys describing as a “monotonically increasing“ trend towards improved functionality.

The same cannot be said for poor benighted Barnes and Noble.  Their old publishing interface, Pubit!, certainly had its weaknesses. An awful name to start with. Some dumbness: you had to enter your (hopefully the same) author description text into the book details for each book separately. A weak implementation for the online-viewer they gave you to review your book one last time before publication. But, really, Pubit! was an ok tool.

Then the B&N technologists seem to have fallen prey to the second system effect and created a replacement for Pubit! called Nook Press.  It is intended to not just replace the old console for managing your B&N ebook titles but also provide true ‘authoring platform’ like . . . what? MS Word with collaboration features? iBooks Author in the cloud? Maybe what they really had in mind was a better epub editing tool than the open source Sigil project.  While testing with a simple manuscript, we did observe some nice features for direct editing of the epub version of your book.

For too short a while, B&N ran the two systems in parallel.  We tried Nook Press for publishing the English ERG and weren’t surprised to see a young tool have trouble digesting such a big and complex book. So we happily fell back to using Pubit! and figured we’d give NP a few months to mature and then find another reason to try it.  The Pubit! site said the two would be merged ‘some day’ but we thought that meant B&N would give NP time to complete a shakedown cruise and was ready for prime time. Disastrously for them, they did not do so.

Within just a few weeks, any attempt to visit the Pubit! website was redirected to the Nook Press site and we were being forced to try to use the new toolset. Or, more precisely, B&N made it clear to us, for the time being, that it would be a waste of our time to try to publish the Spanish and French versions of the ERG as Nook books. Will we try again sometime? Probably.

But first I need to wrap my head around the Google Play console for ebook publishing. That’s the next toolset mountain to climb for us. And it looks as if it has some tricky pitches of its own.

by ag at September 08, 2013 10:14 PM

September 06, 2013


Settling in

John and I have made it to the Portland area, after a lovely long weekend in Denver and a few audiobooks to keep us from going crazy driving across the more boring bits of America. We picked up the keys to the new house yesterday morning, unpacked the car, found some pho, bought groceries, got internet as a surprise (their techs showed up several days early, but we're not complaining!) and hit up ikea for some bar chairs so that we have a place to sit other than the floor. Since we're basically in an empty house with internet and bar stools up against a tall kitchen island, I feel like I should make some coffee to complete the Bridgehead/Starbucks/whatever effect. I've settled for cookies and milk instead.

Our stuff arrives on the 10th, the heavy stuff gets unloaded on the 11th, and the containers get moved off our driveway on the 12th.

I'm still waiting for a work visa before I count on a work start date and make a public announcement of my new job. We're hoping for Sept 16th as a start date, but there's always risk of delays. Or outright refusal on the part of the government, which would send me back to Canada indefinitely. Not that it's a terrible fate to go home, but I am really looking forwards to this new job, as anyone who's interacted with me offline lately knows! In theory, I'm expecting an email from the law firm on the 13th, which doesn't give me much time to leave the country and re-enter on the correct visa, even if I am a lot closer to the Canadian border than I used to be.

Still, even with nervousness over work, I'm confident enough in this working out that I'm feeling like we can start settling in. Meeting hpa for lunch and then maybe I'll go check out the library and see if we can get library cards so I really feel like I belong here.

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September 06, 2013 05:52 PM

September 03, 2013


Ebook production: chaos and opportunity

Chaotic_mixingAugust was a busy month both in and out of the office. In house, we published the French Kindle edition of the ERG 2012, GMU 2012 : Guide Facile, and we successfully shepherded the English iBook edition through Apple’s tedious review process. We also learned, surprise!, that it takes at least as long for a change in the product description to get through Apple’s review process as it does the for the actual book to be reviewed. No quick fixes with Apple, ever.

Out on the road, I had the opportunity to meet face-to-face with a few specialty publishers who are either currently publishing ebook editions or are evaluating that option. Along with the phone conversations I had earlier, I’ve now had a whirlwind tour of the current state-of-the-art for small publishing houses.

The good news, for readers, is that most publishers are either on-board the ebook train or making their reservations as we speak. They know their readers want ebook editions. They are finding ways to supply those editions.  And they aren’t letting marketplace or technical uncertainties hold them back.

The bad news, for publishers, is that there’s no consensus yet on a best practice for producing those ebooks.  Each publishing house has had to, essentially, put together a DIY ebook production process

In my notes from the last five specialty publishers I’ve talked with at any length, I count a total of six separate production strategies. One house has experimented with two different processes and isn’t particularly satisfied with either yet.  Another has a ‘single’ strategy but it involves separate, parallel processes for producing their Kindle and Google Play editions.

Of course, here at Sherprog, we use two completely different processes but we produce two quite different types of ebooks.  The ERG is a reference book built up primarily from files of raw data.  For it we have a customized, highly automated process that lets us do most of our review and quality assurance while the ‘book’ is formatted as HTML.  The novels and short stories we publish for my mom, Elizabeth Gunn, are much more straightforward.  We’ve been using a process that starts with exporting the Word doc to HTML.  But we will probably switch to using Calibre’s new ability to accept docx files now that it is available. However, the two processes do share their final step: using Calibre to produce the final mobi (Kindle) and epub (every other marketplace) files

On the other hand, the publishers I’ve interviewed share a starting point: they are converting books that were originally laid out for print in Adobe InDesign. That’s why I find the lack of a consistent process so surprising. Why doesn’t Adobe just bake a good ebook conversion capability into InDesign and put folks out of their misery? I’m sure that’s what publishers want and are hoping for.

To be fair, InDesign does supply a variety of options that should assist in ebook conversions. And the marketplaces are contributing their own tools, too.  Among the combinations I found in my small survey are:

  • InDesign -> export to HTML -> Dreamweaver (for reformatting and corrections) -> Calibre to produce final epub and mobi files
  • InDesign -> export to epub -> Sigil (for reformatting and corrections) -> final epub -> conversion to mobi via an Amazon-supplied commandline tool
  • Make an InDesign clone of print version -> reformat and correct selected sections to deal with known ebook formatting problems -> export via the Amazon-supplied InDesign plugin (to produce just the Kindle version)
  • InDesign -> generate low resolution version of the print PDF -> send to Google Play (for conversion by Google to epub)

I bet everyone involved, on the technology side, is hard at work trying to produce better, more capable tools to make ebook production more of a push-button process.  But there are serious obstacles to that actually happening any time soon:

  • The technology  and market targets are moving in three dimensions at once.
    • The Adobe toolset continues to evolve in ways that have nothing to do with ebooks.  As I write, InDesign is in the midst of its ascension to the Creative Cloud, along with the rest of the Creative Suite tools.  But I know for a fact there are publishers out there who have backlist content they are considering for ebook conversion that still lives in PageMaker files.  The switch from PageMaker to InDesign happened a decade ago for Adobe.  User habits and re-usable content change much more gradually and always will.
    • The eReader marketplace is not a stable one.  New vendors with new readers enter the market (Kobo).  Existing vendors adopt new file formats (Amazon).  And, even for a single vendor such as Amazon, the use of eReader apps, implemented for a variety of different hardware platforms, is great for expanding sales opportunities and awful for ensuring a consistent reading experience.
    • eReaders exist as just one part of a larger electronic publishing ecosystem and that landscape is being carved anew all the time.  One big issue facing the whole electronic publishing industry now is adoption of the EPUB 3.0 standard. Although the final specification was approved almost two years ago, adoption has been, as it always is with these things, slow and uneven. Toolmakers, from the well-funded Adobe to the all-volunteer Sigil and Calibre projects, have to balance support for new, much wanted features with the burden of backward compatibility.
  • So much of the problem isn’t about technology, it’s about design. Ebooks are different from paper books, from PDFs, from web pages. They present huge opportunities for the reader (I can control the size of the type and make it bigger when my eyes are tired) and huge obstacles for the designer. Note the recurring manual step in the list of DIY processes above: reformat and correct. Trust me, ebook conversions don’t introduce spelling errors, they introduce design problems.  Some of these will have straightforward technical solutions. Some won’t.  It will take a person, with design skills, to work through the trade-offs.  How should pictures and text be ordered when you can’t guarantee they will be viewed side-by-side or even on the same page? Where and how can I break up this big table into smaller units that still convey the information in a useful way?

My money is on ebook conversion turning out to be a classic ‘semi-structured task’. That’s a programming distinction so fundamental I’m not even able to find a reasonable citation for it. While the difference between a structured task and a semi-structured one is easy to understand in theory, it is also painfully easy for technologists to overlook in practice.

Whenever you have a process where parts of it are so tedious or so overwhelmingly technical that they just can’t be done fast enough or reliably enough with a manual process, you clearly have a need for automation.  The question is, can you automate the whole process and make it truly push-button? If so, it’s a structured task. Think large scale inter-bank transaction processing.  Or do you need to focus on automating parts of the process but leave other parts open to human intervention/judgement/creativity? Think business planning with a spreadsheet.

In practice, the distinction is anti-fractal — that it, the answer changes depending on the scale you are looking at.  You can bet that somewhere, in the deep, dark recesses of a bank data processing center, there sits and waits a very human, if not green-eyeshaded, financial analyst to whom problem cases are brought for sleuthing and reconciliation.

And programmers like me can find useful and interesting structured tasks to work on in and around every semi-structured task we encounter in the real world, including ebook conversions.  There is a huge opportunity to contribute to the tool sets as long as we don’t have the hubris to think our code can replace that person who needs to make those critical design decisions along the way.

Back here in the office, we’ve got a small project coming up where we will get a chance to try out a couple of variants on the ebook conversion processes for ourselves. I think we’ll check out, for one option, the InDesign -> epub -> Sigil process.  I dismissed Sigil a while ago because it doesn’t support automation in the same way Calibre does. But it does seem to offer the design-oriented professional some nice features, so I’m eager to try it out on a real project. We’re still trying to decide on the other variant we want to work with although the InDesign export to HTML process seems to make sense for this particular client.

If you have a process to recommend, based on your own experience, please let me know.


by ag at September 03, 2013 09:14 PM

August 23, 2013



To go with this, I give you the song Freefloating Anxiety. Which is apparently on myspace, which apparently needs cookies before it will play, but I'm linking it anyhow.

I'll skip the details and just say that the job stuff is all coming to a head, which means the moving stuff is coming to a head, and wouldn't it be nice if this weren't also maker faire weekend? Crazy times here!

But the good news is that I walked uphill, in the heat, to work today and I was absolutely fine. Still need a lot of extra sleep and my leg still hurts some, but I think I've made it over the main hump of recovery and it'll all be small mostly un-noticeable getting better.

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August 23, 2013 08:39 PM

August 21, 2013


My Little Robot

This is crossposted from, my personal maker blog. If you want to link to this post, please use the original link since the formatting there is usually better.

A number of weeks back, it occurred to me that as an adult with disposable income, I could buy a robot anytime I wanted to. So I did. Or rather, I bought a kit to build my own robot. I haven’t had as much time to play with as I’d like (the downside to being an adult with a job), but I’m hoping to take it out to Albuquerque Mini Maker Faire this weekend, so I’ve been experimenting with programs to show it off.

Here’s a video:

Cute, eh? That was just me making sure that the sensor “whiskers” work, but it’s kind of a convenient program because I don’t have to worry about it falling off the table. Right now, I know how to make it flash lights, move the wheels, and make noise with the little speaker on top, so either I should make a box for it to play in and teach it to do basic collision avoidance, or maybe work on a program where people can touch it and have it react, much like the one it’s running now. I’ve only got a couple of days to finish: Maker Faire is the 24th and 25th!

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August 21, 2013 09:35 PM