Shortbread Shopping

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As the world goes up in flames, we carry on. This week’s hyperfocus on minutiae had us contemplating the grocery store…

One of the joys (?) of moving is finding all new everything – dentist, chiropractor, doctor, community… and it’s never an easy transition. We’ve been flailing, trying to find a decent place for groceries. We love the Farmer’s Market, but skipped during last weekend’s Journey to the Center of the Volcano, in no mood to brave the bowels of hell just for fresh peaches. One good thing is that we have great options for produce here – those peaches are a regular feature this summer at the market, and there’s usually decent produce at most stores, including the big box like Costco. However, Costco here is ridiculous – we were spoiled, living where we had access to one in Vallejo, one in Vacaville, and one in Fairfield, within close proximity. Now, we’re down to one SUPER busy one, and unless you like to play Cart Derby, it’s a lot to ask. We had known the staff of our local Raley’s since before we moved to Scotland and had our house in Benicia, and knowing the staff by name (hello, Bernadette at the pharmacy) made everything easier. The Raley’s here, though is downtown, which means that it’s busier, has a city-type population, and our first day there including a clerk dragging a homeless man out of the store, castigating him loudly for shoplifting. Um. Maybe not.

With a much greater Asian and South Asian population, there are tons of Indian groceries in the area, as well as a Ranch 99, which was pretty neat but probably only for occasional shopping, as it was super crowded and full of what we term “field trip” food, as in we buy it just because we want to try it. This past weekend we tried Trader Joe’s which was kind of a relief, as it always seems to be the same store, no matter its location. We laughed that they both stocked Walkers Shortbread – both Ranch 99 and Trader Joe’s. Just in case, you know, you felt the need for imported Scottish Shortbread with your bitter melon or two-buck-chuck.

We’ve been bemused by Sprouts (with their “vegan sugar” and bizarre layout), amused by Whole Paycheck which, now that it’s owned by Amazon, we’re not sure it’s going to be any better than it’s always been, and spooked and stunned by the Safeway which is OK but came with an overly inquisitive checker who wanted to know a.)if we were married, b.)how long we’d been married, c.) if we lived at home (?!) and d.) to tell us that her son had married a colored girl… Y’know, if it wasn’t a total lazy cop-out and basically unnecessary, we’d get groceries delivered.

The world continues strange. How are you?

-D & T

Planning Ahead

When you have a deep-freeze, you can plan ahead. For us, that means we can make up four casseroles and about four loaves of bread (one pan is double-length and is really for making angel-food-cake, but who does that?).

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Three of the casseroles went into the deep freeze, where they’ll stay until we’re not feeling like cooking dinner. The fourth was baked immediately after the bread came out of the oven. The bread will, likewise, mostly be put into the deep freeze, where it will stay until we’re in dire need of raisin bread

We’re really enjoying that there’s a tortilla factory about a mile down the road from us, and have been experimenting with making “enchilada casseroles.” This batch contains several layers of crookneck squash, as well as beans, cheese, TVP, corn tortillas, and green or red enchilada sauce.

The raisin bread contains a heap of raisins and currants, plus our spice blend, some whole rye-berries (steamed), and a few whole fennel seeds to add that random element of surprise to things.

Now that we’ve figured out that the oven needs to be preheated for about 30 minutes, we’re happy to be able to plan ahead for the week (and beyond).

-D & T

Living Life

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We have survived the heat wave, despite not having air conditioning. We’ve been in this house now for six weeks or so and are feeling more settled. Tomorrow we audition for a local choir – the first choir we’ve thought would at all compare to the choir in Glasgow… which means that it’s been over five years since we’ve been on a regular rehearsal schedule!

Today is a day to relax before the week – to put together casseroles, to make a batch of raisin bread, to read. Now that the heat has gone, it’s a day to sit with the door open and listen to the hummingbirds complain about the world. In awhile we’ll maybe sit out in our lounge chairs and listen to the fountain splash.

Enjoy your week and find time to listen to the ducks, geese, and other wild things!

-D & T

Nearly Settled

Another week! Another pile of collapsed boxes! As of today, all we have left to unpack are the art supplies and to hang what mirrors and paintings are going to go up. Everything else is unpacked and has a permanent home and/or is sorted into donation boxes, awaiting pickup on Wednesday. Less clutter = more peace, and that’s really helpful to T getting creative work done. This is a very quiet neighborhood (except when someone gets the odd urge to mow something, or the train blows its whistle), even on the weekends, and the wind whistling through the house works as natural white noise. It makes for good napping conditions – and we are still exhausted enough to take advantage of them. Well, we think about it, anyway…

On D’s work front, his first week at the new job was immensely enjoyable – so much so that he neglected to come home until after seven, occasionally. There’s much to be done, and much chaos to organize, and he’s enjoying the challenge (or the chaos, one or the other. Not clear which just yet).

To those who’ve complained we’ve gone radio silent and feel as far away as we did when we lived in Scotland: apologies! You’ve asked what the house looks like. Here’s part of downstairs. A glimpse of upstairs to come next time.

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Above is what we’ll call “the den,” simply because the living room / dining room is the next space over. As you can see, we’re still sorting a few things, organizing the kitchen space, using a folding table. That table will get tucked away until holidays or some other need, soon.

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If you’re in the den, you’re looking into the kitchen. Yes, those are sticky notes on the cupboards – we had to decide what went where, and haven’t quite gotten it down to memory yet. Things are still shifting around (the flour moved all the way across the kitchen, just last night, to find a home in a cabinet next to the sink, rather than next to the fridge). We’re still trying to get the cupboard space to work well, which is odd, since they’re so narrow and some of them are so deep. As large as the ones next to the fridge are, they’re still too narrow for our largest mixing bowls, so those have had to relocate to the closet next to the garage door.

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We have done our first proper baking here, though, 10 days after moving in (the quiche last weekend doesn’t count, really). A gas oven is miles off from an electric, and there’s an adjustment of all the senses, especially sound (that whoomp as the pilot lights), and smell (that little whiff of gas). Touch is the one sense that doesn’t fare quite as well here… because the oven thermostat is so far off, we had to order an external thermometer. It takes about 45 minutes to get up to close to full heat (set it at 390°F and it’ll get to 350°F in that time), and then gradually slides even hotter, so you have to adjust the temperature down when you put your baking in. We notified the invisible property management people, who report that the owner insists that this is what an oven is supposed to do, and we’re just going to live with it until it falls over.

We are not amused.

At least the bread turned out superbly.

Onward into the new week, with its goals of placing the last mirrors, rugs, and artwork, figuring out the irrigation system and finding a home for the last odds & ends. Until next time,

-D & T

More On Tech Hiring

Technical interviews have fairly infinite ways of going wrong. The tweets above reminded me of a few interviews I’ve had over the past seven months of job search, looking for a position that will keep me busy and happy for the next several years. I’ve interviewed with some of the big guys, even going so far as to go up to Amazon in Seattle. I’ve interviewed with startups. I’ve interviewed with a variety of different industries, from retail data services to biotech, from health-care to nuclear cleanup. I’ve interviewed in rural Washington State, Seattle, San Francisco, and Reykjavik, Iceland.

Over the course of all of these interviews (and literally hundreds of phone interviews), I’ve seen the extremes, in terms of technical interviews. I’ve had companies try to rattle me into getting angry (the Santa Barbara company – if you’re interviewing for a database company in SB, hit me up for the name, ’cause you don’t wanna work there) and be unable to answer the question they asked me (some vague mumblings about there being a “math” answer doesn’t cut it). I’ve had companies not ask me a single tech question (Reykjavik: I think they’re so desperate for programmers that they’re willing to believe you have the skills you say you do). I’ve had hours of algorithm and data-structure questions (Amazon, and what a waste of all of our time that interview process was, when I told them up front that I basically do everything with a database if I can, and have no interest in the things they do there).

All of these companies did some things better than others, and none of them was what I would call perfect.

I think the thing they all missed out on, or could have emphasized more, was the human dimension. Would I be happy there? Would they have enough meaningful work for me to do? Were they interested in any of the same things in which I’m interested? Would I feel happy in a huge company, or in retail systems, or building parking solutions (cool company, that one – but they’re in down-town SF, and walking over human excrement on the way to work just doesn’t do it for me)? These are things which I had to know about myself, but which they didn’t seem to think were important.

If you’re going to sink $100K into a new hire (when you figure hiring bonus, travel, relocation, training, and the first however-many months it takes them to come up to speed, this is maybe even a low estimate), you should figure out whether that person is going to be happy. Yes, their technical skills matter somewhat, but they’re the least of the factors you should be examining. You should be looking at whether they can learn, and whether they want to learn. You should be getting a feel for them as a person, and what they’re looking for from the deal.

Tech companies tend to focus on either computer-science fundamentals, or they focus on their own narrow set of coding gewgaws. They don’t tend to get the actual human aspects in there except as an afterthought. The problem is, this just isn’t how you build good teams, it isn’t how you get happy employees, and it isn’t how you get people who will stick with you beyond the next project.

The people who form a meaningful connection during the interview process, who feel valued and as if they’d continue to be valued, those are the ones you want to keep. Sure, there may be some phenomenally bright programmer out there – so what? If they can’t be part of the team, contribute towards the team’s goals, support their other team members, then you’ve got nothing worth having. If you want good teams, you have to find good people whose goals align with those of your group. You won’t find out about those goals unless you know your own goals and ask about theirs.

-D

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All Over The Place

Things have been a bit quiet, here at Hobbits. T. has been writing, D. has been continuing his various wee contracts … and also looking for something a bit more than just wee contracts. After much casting about, many false starts (we’re looking at you, Washington State), and lots of places that just weren’t right for whatever reason, D. has taken a position with Revance Therapeutics as “Senior Technical Lead, Enterprise Applications” to start the end of this month.

Which means, The Hobbits are leaving Hobbiton and moving to … well, somewhere not that far outside of The Shire, and not anyplace truly distant, but it’s far enough that we thought Rivendell would be an appropriate name for it. IRL, we’re moving to Newark (no – not New jersey – there’s one right near Silicon Valley). D. will have a 2-minute commute, unless he decides to walk, in which case he might have a 15-minute walk to work – we’ll see whether there’s proper pedestrian access along the way, or if he’ll need to cycle instead.

So, next week, the movers come, and we’re off on another sort-of-adventure!


While things have been quiet here, though, they haven’t been idle

Fresh Turmeric

We ran across some fresh turmeric in the grocery store and thought, “hey, we made a South-Asian kind of Sauerkraut once – let’s use this for it!” So, we duly shredded all the things (cabbage, carrots, turmeric) and added all the spices and salt, packed it into the fermentation crock, and waited a few weeks. Then we found out we were moving, so decided to pull it out to taste, and maybe to give away … and, wow, fresh turmeric Takes Over ALL the things. We ended up throwing the whole batch out, it’s so incredibly not-tasty. All we can conclude is that we used about 10 times too much fresh turmeric, and that you don’t really get a feeling for how it penetrates just by tasting it fresh and raw – turmeric was all we could taste, other than maybe a hint of pickle and some salt. Boo.

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We also made up a nice wee spice blend, using spices from our local bulk herb company plus some orange peels we’d harvested and dried (peel your orange with a vegetable peeler before peeling it to eat & let the peels dry somewhere). Truly yummy spice blend, though we’ll add a bit more black pepper next time, so our spiced tea (aka chai) is a bit spicier. It’s a great all-purpose blend that we end up mixing into banana bread or zucchini bread – very yummy, and handy to have.

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In the past few weeks we had company, so of course broke out the touristy trips. Among other places, we dropped by the Cornerstone Garden Center on our way to visit Sonoma itself – it’s often overlooked (we overlooked it for years) but it’s definitely worth visiting along the way, if only for a wee break. Try it in early spring when everything is gray – even then, beauty. Some imaginative sculpture, a few restaurants, ponds, and of course places to sell you expensive things that you don’t need and would hate yourself for buying (we saw a distressed lawn chair for $450 – not kidding, and that wasn’t a typo, that was four hundred and fifty United States Dollars for a broken-down-looking wooden chair). Aside from the things to trick tourists out of their money, it’s a great place to spend a half hour or so.

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We also made a pilgrimage out to Santa Rosa, to the Charles M. Schulz Museum (a.k.a. the Snoopy Museum). It’s on the smaller size, for museums, but also has a bunch of comics for those who are fans of Snoopy. Definitely worth spending an hour or so, seeing some of the history behind the comics and behind Schulz himself. He was a local resident, there in Santa Rosa, and there’s a fair bit about his life as part of the community. The Empire Ice Arena is across the way with its own mini-museum (Schultz was an avid ice hockey player, and played there for years), and a fab way to pass a sticky summer afternoon is pretending you can figure skate.

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Finally, we visited Vallejo’s Petaluma Adobe. For those who don’t know, Vallejo was an early governor of California, when California was still part of Mexico. We’d driven past Petaluma Adobe literally hundreds of times – every time we came from Santa Rosa to the East Bay area, we drove past it. We’d never stopped in, though, and since we were in the area and had read it was a primo state park and once the home of General Vallejo, we figured we should check it out.

The Adobe itself is basically a mud-brick building in the shape of a squared C, with the only doors being on the inside of the C. The entire structure, on the ground floor, is an extended series of workshops, with looms, a saddlery, food storage and preparation, etc. The structure, on the second floor, is a series of living and sleeping quarters. This is basically an outpost, where people would come for a particular purpose (cattle slaughter, meat and hide preparation) for part of the year only. This is the early-California version of a meat-packing plant / factory except that it operated for months at a time and nobody could leave. What must it have smelled like? The park ranger said that the packed dirt floors were described as being “spotless,” so there were a lot of hands making the place work.

Petaluma Adobe is a California State Park and is in need of visitors. If any of you out there are teachers, they also do an overnight environmental living program for fourth-graders.

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And now, we must be off to take care of the irritating things like electronics recycling, which have been put off for too long.

-D & T

Buying Spices

So, we watched this youtube video the other day on how to make “tuna” sliders out of unripe jackfruit (go – watch it – then come back and let’s talk). It really is an awesome recipe, and we’re nearly ready to make an attempt at it (it’s too hot, and we don’t have Old Bay Seasoning). That’s not what this post is about today, though.

Today, I want to talk about choice. Like, if you go to Amazon, and try to buy Old Bay Seasoning. Go ahead, go over there and drop it into the search box, then come back here and tell me how you found the experience. Did you locate what looked like the best deal? That would be the 24-ounce item that shows up first on the list. Do notice, though, that it is a “Fresh” item (so, you have to join some program or other in order to buy it) or an “add-on” item (which means you have to play grocery-cart bingo and put enough in your cart to actually get it delivered). Also notice that there are just about 100 different things from which to choose.

There’s a thing going on here that I think is important: I think that there is a payoff here on the part of Amazon in that you’re going to have to 1) join some program of theirs (which makes them money) or 2) add more things to your cart than you want to buy or 3) troll through literally 100+ items to figure out which one you can and should buy. I think that this level of product chaos is found in a few different places, and I suspect that there’s some degree of psychological testing going on here, to figure out what drives the most profit. Or perhaps this level of chaos actually accomplishes that, and this is simply the new normal when shopping on Amazon.

In my case, I decided that I really didn’t need the Old Bay and that I’d spend the couple dollars at the grocery store, rather than suffer through the buying process on Amazon. I emptied my cart (including the slippery add-on item which put itself on my “buy later” list, repeatedly) and went to buy the other things I wanted elsewhere. I’m sure I’ll use them for other dishes, and Amazon is perfectly prepared to drive a certain amount of business away in order to maximize revenue. They’re a store – that’s what they do.

This jumble of bad choices is what’s known as a dark pattern: something which drives the user to do something they do not want to do. Once you become familiar with dark patterns, you start to see them, and then start to look for them. In this case, I’m sure that I’ll continue to use Amazon. But I’m also sure that I’ll start paying attention and, if I find myself struggling to actually find the thing that I want, I’ll go elsewhere.

I ended up spending way more money than I’d intended to spend just then, but also bought a whole bunch of things that we needed: I went to the SF Herb Company’s culinary herbs page and simply went down the list, adding 1 of everything on there that we do use and have run out of. Those spices and a stop at the Asian market and we’re done. And some time today we’ll get our delivery and will have the joy of unboxing bulk spices! (below is a previous order)

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-D

Technology Hiring Practices and Diversity

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I would like to talk about hiring practices in the technology field, in particular as those have an impact upon who does and does not get hired to work in technology. This is important because the tech industry talks a lot about limiting racism and sexism in their hiring processes (they’re ignoring age bias for the moment), but then the tech industry also talks about systems designed for interviewing candidates which are designed to result in high rates of false negatives. By “false negatives” they mean that more good candidates will be told that they don’t meet the needs or the requirements of the position – that they will err on the side of not hiring.

There’s fairly solid mathematical reasoning for why hiring this way does not make sense (read the extensive and geeky discussion on Hacker News). So, we have to ask, Why maintain this type of a hiring process if it results in poor organizational outcomes? And, if they’re maintaining this in the face of poor outcomes, we must further ask, What outcomes does this system actually have and are those outcomes the real reason for maintaining this type of a system?

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I believe that this type of a system is designed to allow the bias (“culture”) of the organization to perpetuate. I believe that these hiring practices are designed to systemically discriminate, while pretending to be based upon merit. [side note: People are quite attached to the idea of meritocracy even in the face of proof that meritocracy actually results in worse outcomes for the organization (here’s a paper which proves that random promotions yield better organizational outcomes than merit-based promotions).]

When you design a system which yields false negatives, what you actually accomplish is to normalize the practice of making hiring decisions based upon gut feel and bias rather than upon objective criteria such as whether the applicant is really interested in the position or whether the applicant can do the job. That’s a big statement to make, but I think it’s proved out by the psychology.

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We can evaluate this in terms of prospect theory and the framing effect, which pretty much describes the landscape of this decision. The framing effect plays a role here because the decision makers approach the interview having been told that it is better to mistakenly pass up a good candidate than it is to mistakenly hire a bad candidate. This framing puts the decision maker into the mindset of loss / risk aversion, which tends to be vastly more conservative than does a mindset of possible gains. When evaluating problems in a risk-averse or uncertain mindset, people attempt to reduce that risk or uncertainty however possible. In this mindset, hiring someone of the same general profile as oneself provides an immediate reduction in risk, so basically guarantees that candidates who are different (diverse) will be excluded.

This is not limited to the tech industry, by any means – I’m certain that these same problems are pervasive in other hiring systems. In tech, though, the big players have all made noises about diversity, and yet have maintained a system of hiring which continues to yield the same problematic hiring decisions. The tech industry is supposed to be the best and brightest – they certainly tell us that they are – yet it cannot seem to figure out how to hire women or blacks or Hispanics (or people aged over 35). This tells me that the noises made by tech are basic cover for not really wanting to solve the problem.

Tech companies are happy being pretty much white (and a few Asian) dudes and do not want to change. Tech companies want to mouth the right words about diversity, to maybe hire diversity officers, but they do not really have any interest in being diverse. They have designed hiring systems which are systematically discriminatory, but subtly so, which is problematic because it is the systemic problems which are hardest to fight.

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I’m sure some of my reasoning in here isn’t as thorough as it could be. I don’t think that my reasoning is wrong, though – I think that the hiring systems of big tech companies essentially guarantee a lack of diversity, and that the companies are either uniformly ignorant of this or are happy for it to remain this way. Before you think that they’re ignorant of this, think about where psychology graduates go if they don’t become professors (hint: big technology companies, which is why everything tech is designed to be addictive).

Glasgow Botanical Gardens – Happy Birthday!

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Glasgow Botanic Gardens is turning 200 years old! It certainly looks like they had a fabulous day for it (their Twitter feed has some video and pictures). On a day like today is supposed to be here in California, we’d probably not have visited the Botanics, as they tend to be much warmer inside than out. In Glasgow’s fog and dreich, though, we’ve loved being inside, looking at all the flowers and statuary.

Enjoy your weekend!

-D & T