Mar 08

why the symphony needs a progress bar

(photo courtesy of Santa Barbara Choral Society)

About three years ago, my work-life balance started to improve – start-up sleep deprivation was no longer a constant norm. I didn’t have enough time to restart violin lessons but season tickets to the San Francisco Symphony? Yup, I could swing that.

I bought tickets for myself and my husband, Todd, a relatively new concert-goer. But after a few shaky experiences, I was worried that Todd would back out of a subsequent season subscription. I started doing anything I could to avoid the, “Oh my god – is this only the first movement?” mid-concert terror. Seeing the experience from a newbie’s perspective, my UX instincts kicked in and I started jotting down the, “If only the symphony had…” moments. Three years later, here’s my list:


If Only the Symphony Had…

1. A Progress Bar

Even the most devout classical music listener has, “OMG is this over yet?” moments. When you’re not responding to a performance, the experience becomes torturous if you don’t know whether you’ve endured 5% or 95% of the piece. A progress bar would make a world of difference. Nearly every other performance genre has accompanying scoreboards, screens, tickers, or subtitles to track the event’s progress. A JumboTron might be inappropriate but a few progress lights on the conductor’s podium would really help.


MTT Talks

2. People Who Talk

Half of the fun of following a sports team is getting to know the players. At the symphony, you regularly have a two-hour experience with over a hundred performers with absolutely no words exchanged. I love encores because the artist announces the piece they are about to play and I can suddenly match a voice to a performer. Then they become real. I’d love for the conductor or soloist to provide a 3-4 sentence introduction, “Thank you for joining us this evening. Tonight we will be performing…” It’s only natural that the audience feels more engaged when they hear a performer’s voice. In the three years I’ve attended the San Francisco Symphony, I’ve never heard Michael Tilson Thomas talk!


quiet candy

3. Quiet Candy

The symphony season is almost perfectly aligned with head cold season – fall through spring. No one wants to cough during a performance but when that annoying tickle happens, you can only hold your breath and writhe in agony. I’m sure Ms. Stewart would endorse a hospitable offering of wax paper-wrapped candy in the entryway as both a welcoming gesture and a potential quick-fix to hold you over until you can make a mad dash to the water fountain.


4. A tl;dr opener

My typical symphony experience started with leaving Meebo a little early without dinner and finding myself starving in a 101-N traffic jam with a spouse who is thinking, “Wait a second, if we miss the symphony, we can skip the concert and get pizza instead!” We have never missed a performance but we sprinted from the parking lot on a few occasions. With seconds to spare, I’d see Todd crack open his program to find a dense Ph.D. thesis on the first piece. Two-three sentences in, the lights would dim and suddenly Todd was grasping his dark, useless program notes with no idea of what he was listening to.

Here’s a San Francisco Symphony program written for Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques (click to read the 11-page version):

In all of the 2,000 words, the title, “Exotic Birds”, is never translated! Assuming Todd made it through the first paragraph before the music began, he’d know the commissioner, dedication, and all of the locations and conductors who have played this piece of work since 1956. This is not helpful information for someone who is going to listen to Messiaen for the first time!

The first paragraph needs to be oriented to a 30-second, the-lights-are-dimming panic scan. Here’s what I wish preceded the lengthy write-up:

Oiseaux Exotiques (“Exotic birds”), 1956
Duration: 16 minutes (no movements)
Composer: Oliver Messiaen (1908-1992), France
Period: 20th century
Influences: Roman Catholicism, birds, colors, Japanese music, landscapes
Instruments: Piano and small orchestra
Listening notes: Forty-eight birdsongs are played throughout this piece. Messiaen was not familiar with American birds so many of the birdsongs such as the Cardinal, Wood Thrush, Prairie Chicken, Oriole, and Finch were exotic to his ear.


concert notes

5. Program notes on the fold

While I’m harping about program notes, I’ll also mention a personal pet peeve. I dread the moment when I accidentally close my program and realize that I’ve lost the position to the concert notes. I’ll need to carefully open and flip through pages to locate the notes again without squeaking a chair or elbowing my neighbor. I know that it might make economical sense to bury the program notes amidst diamond cocktail ring advertisements but I’d really appreciate a program that naturally falls open to the concert details. If the advertising dollars can’t be missed, then offer a lightweight $.99 iPhone app that has white-on-black text (to avoid glowing screens) that can be flicked in the dark.


6. Programming for beginners

When you launch a new product, you inevitably have a few crazy, very vocal early adopters (why don’t you support Opera’s browser yet?) that you have to selectively ignore if you want a product that appeals to a wider audience. The symphony is the same. About half of the audience attends for a pleasant symphony-going experience. A small minority will be hard-core educated symphony folks who needle, “Why haven’t we heard more atonal music by post-Ján Valašťan Dolinský Slavic composers this season?” The remainder are the musically tepid spouses and children who have been dragged to the hall and are just trying to stay awake and to clap at the right times.

To sustain the symphony, there needs to be beginner programming at every concert – even if it’s just a 3-minute warm-up to perk up newbie ears with a, “Oooh – I’ve heard of this!” moment. Pre-concert talks are fantastic but I’m battling hectic schedules and a seatmate who (though he’d graciously never admit it) probably wants to spend less, not more, time at the symphony. However, it’s these seat-mates who determine whether I repurchase symphony season tickets and who will probably determine whether the symphony thrives longterm.


I can imagine that in two hundred years people will attend rock concerts performed by historical cover bands and wonder, “Why do they require that we stand for the entire concert?” Or, “If the concert really begins at 11pm, why do they print 10pm on the tickets?” The symphony was intended for entertainment and our rigid adherence to its nineteenth century form has made it increasingly difficult to appreciate. A progress bar is long overdue!

Feb 23

happy and fun in silicon valley

Last week, I posted Armed and Dangerous in Silicon Valley – a list of design, programming, and biotech classes in Silicon Valley to keep you armed and dangerous regardless of your background.

However, when you’re burnt out of pixels, bugs, and pantone colors, it’s helpful to balance it all out with some computer-free classes to get your hands dirty, see some sun, and expand your palette beyond what’s available for take-out. Plus, there are some absolute gems available in the Bay Area that you can’t find elsewhere:

  1. Forage SF – Learn how to forage and identify edibles like fungi, nettles, herbs, and other wild ingredients depending upon the season. The Wild Kitchen dinners are amazing too.
  2. Bay Area Glass Instituteglass blowing is the antithesis of coding – it’s organic, unpredictable, and dangerous (and I love it). We’re lucky to have BAGI in San Jose (they’re the folks behind the Great Glass Pumpkin Patch). Treg Silkwood is one of the best instructors I’ve ever seen.
  3. San Francisco Baking Institute – If you’ve read Tartine and wondered why your lump of dough doesn’t look as smooth and springy as their pictures, you’re in luck. I showed up to SFBI’s breadmaking workshop with zero experience while all of my professional peers wore weathered, monogrammed chef aprons and traded bread war. However, it is a ground-up class and on your first day, you will come home with a dozen baguettes. No experience is necessary though their weekend courses are specifically geared to home bakers. It’s an impressive resource that most Bay Area natives don’t know about – the instructors even compete in the equivalent of the Bread Olympics every four years and SFBI has a hotline for sending starter to bakeries across the country when an unfortunate yeast emergency strikes.
  4. 4505 Meats – these sausage making and butchery classes sell out instantly so it’s better to sign up for their e-mail list and pounce when a new class is announced. However, it’s worth the hassle – you’ll have a freezer filled with amazing sausage and meats for months.
  5. SF Center for the Book – has revived the art of handmade books. If you’ve oohed and awed over those fashionable letterpress cards, now you can make them yourself on vintage Heidelberg presses. In November, they also offer Christmas card and gift tag making workshops.
  6. The Bike Kitchen – is run by a community of cycling enthusiasts who teach in-depth bicycle maintenance courses. They even offer a unique program where you can build a bike from the spare parts they have lying around.
  7. 18 Reasons – spend an hour or two with a local Bay Area foodie who wants to share their love of peanut butter, home brewing, or urban gardening with the community. 18 reasons offers casual evening classes nearly daily and even has some availability on short notice. It’s a great community-oriented alternative to dinner and a movie.
  8. San Francisco School of Massage and Bodywork – aside from their professional programs, they also offer occasional beginner weekend workshops for couple massage classes. If you spend 40-60 hours in front of a computer each week, you may need some extra help getting those knots out of your uber-tight upper back muscles.
  9. College of the Redwoods – Fine Furniture Program – this requires at least two weeks of free time and is 4 hours away but it is worth knowing about. The program was originally started by the legendary furniture maker and design philosopher James Krenov who resurrected the appreciation for fine furniture making in the 1970’s. I took the summer workshop when Krenov was still at the center and the class was taught by Jim Budlong. It was transformative – you’ll want to rethink the way all of your furniture has been built and designed. When I attended, our class had seasoned carpenters, students from RISD, and other craftsman hoping to try a new direction. Jim Budlong is still teaching the curriculum that Krenov started years ago. The two-week programs are subsidized by in-state tuition and are absurdly popular. Some prospective students drive to Fort Bragg and camp out at the school’s doorstep to be first to submit their application on March 1st. I faxed my application a few minutes after submissions opened and was wait-listed (though eventually admitted). It’s a crazy and worthwhile adventure.

Tuck your phone away, disconnect from that bug or release, and refresh yourself with something totally new. We’re lucky to be surrounded by so many extraordinary communities who are excited to share their passions.

Enjoy!
-Elaine

Feb 16

armed and dangerous in silicon valley

Last weekend I took an Adobe InDesign course at BAVC and was surrounded by Sales & Marketing start-up folks taking classes so they didn’t have to bother their busy design and engineering teams with small requests. I had to restrain myself from recruiting every single one of them (especially the one who brought donuts in the morning).

Becoming armed and dangerous in Silicon Valley is easier than most people realize. There are amazing tech classes in the Bay Area that don’t require technical degrees or taking a sabbatical – they are just a little hard to find:

  1. BAVC – offers an exhaustive selection of video production courses as well as Adobe, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Flash, color, and typography workshops. If you’re a start-up, you might even qualify to take classes for free.
  2. TechShop – offers electronics, machining, and other workshop classes. Right now, Autodesk provides Autodesk Inventor workshops for free (for members). Or prototype that electric gizmo you’ve been dreaming about with the Arduino series. The TechShop’s laser cutting and etching course is far and away their most popular course. The TechShop also has three locations in San Francisco, Menlo Park, and Mountain View.
  3. Stanford Continuing Studies – offers nearly everything from language development, liberal arts courses, writing workshops, lecture series, to professional development. The Personal & Professional Development Series offers financing, leadership, PHP, entrepreneurial, public speaking, and Web design courses. I took a public speaking course with Matt Abrahams. The writing workshops are also highly regarded. It’s also worth mentioning that many of the Art and Archaeology instructors offer international trips to excavate or study art in-person.
  4. UC Berkeley Extension – offers back-end computer science courses such as System Administration and Networking as well as front-end classes like Web development and graphic design. Some classes are available online.
  5. California College of the Arts – offers Web and graphic design classes such as Adobe Creative Suite bootcamps plus other hard-to-find courses such as creating interactive ePubs for your iPad, Cocoa Touch programming, or a how to use a Wacom tablet.
  6. BioCurious – this up-and-coming Biotech workspace in Sunnyvale offers a complete working laboratory. Learn how to do genome sequencing and cloning with their weekend workshops and then start your own genomic experiment – no prerequisite experience necessary!
  7. SFSU Extension – SFSU’s quarterly programming and design classes include jQuery, HTML5, Mobile UI design, ActionScript, and WordPress. Many of the classes are available in weekend workshops.
  8. Digital Media Playground – teaches digital photography and video production so you’ll no longer feel guilty about carrying around a camera you don’t know how to use. It’s also one of the few places that regularly teaches food photography.
  9. The Crucible – prep for Burning Man in no time. These friendly folks offer every Industrial Arts class you can dream of including welding, hula hooping with fire, neon sign making, blacksmithing, and electronics.

If someone’s snickered at your purple comic sans e-mail signature, consider a typography classes. If you are a Project or Product Manager who isn’t totally fluent in geekspeak, look at the Berkeley, SFSU, and Stanford computer science courses. If you are a Sales or Marketing professional who wants to tweak brochures for conferences or start a company blog, take a WordPress, HTML, Photoshop, or InDesign classes. And if you’re a hardcore computer geek, maybe you crave working with something tangible – you’ll love the TechShop and Crucible.

Enjoy!
-Elaine

Feb 08

the first idea

When I ask folks why there aren’t more funded females entrepreneurs, I typically hear one of two responses: 1) the ideas from female teams aren’t good – they are all beauty review sites or 2) females lack the technical expertise to get things going.

I don’t have an answer for #2. I certainly wish there were more females in tech – especially when engineering talent is so scarce.

However, I think that reason #1 – female ideas aren’t good – is misleading. It’s true – if you attend a women’s entrepreneurial event, there’s a 99% likelihood that someone is launching a beauty review site within the week. It’s only natural that people are excited by their personal interests and until the male beauty sector catches up (Men Pen or Man Glaze anyone?), females are likely to dominate this category.

However, I also remember my days as an engineering student and hopeful entrepreneur coding for project classes. Though we were given freedom to build nearly anything we wanted, I was always surprised when nearly all group projects fell into one of a few categories (woah – someone else thought of building a dating app too?). Years later, I judged a few HCI events, and even then, the same ideas were circulating.

Now I believe that there are a few ideas that every engineer needs to get out of their system before they can move on to more promising ideas. Those include:

  1. Organizer & list-maker: develop a better to-do list, create group calendars, or make it easier to find available meeting times with busy calendars.
  2. Fitness tracking: track your diet or fitness plan and get encouragement from a health-oriented community.
  3. Recipe creator & grocery planner: create a consolidated shopping list based upon your planned meals or find recipes using the existing ingredients in your fridge.
  4. Review sites: a social network dedicated to providing expert reviews for business, car, food, beauty supply, pharmaceutical, bike, etc. categories.
  5. Dating: online matchmaking with a twist like requiring videos, community exclusivity (religion, location, occupation, education, etc), or maybe even allowing your friends to choose whom you date.
  6. Finding places to eat: review daily lunch options, find new dining pals, get daily deals, or locate the shortest lines.
  7. Real-time location: track your running route, find your lost parked car, find someone at the coffee shop whom you should network with, or look at tweets that are happening in your vicinity.
  8. Drink mixer: get the 101 on how to make any drink like a pro. This category is my favorite because it usually has the best student project names.
  9. Campus party finder: Stanford CS147 wouldn’t be complete without a campus report-a-party app. Bonus points if it’s combined with #1 so you can stay on top of your busy party calendar.

Having an idea on this list doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a bad idea. However, if you want your beauty product review site to grow into something beyond a fun side project, you need a competitive edge and wide appeal. Instead of a beauty article on warm and cool skin tones, perhaps you can consistently deliver expert insights such as how hemoglobin and melanin govern skin tones or you have novel image recognition technology that accurately assesses skin color regardless of the lighting condition.

It takes skill to generate and evaluate ideas. In school, design classes made us practice generating 100 solutions to a problem in 15 minutes which helped avoid the habit of falling in love with your first idea. It might seem like females are always gravitating towards the same beauty review site concept but I think it’s more likely that we all gravitate towards certain problems.

And, full confessional, I’ve been guilty of #1, #3, #4, #5, and #6 🙂

Jan 04

New Year & New Beginnings


Meebo in 2005

 


Meebo in 2011

It’s a New Year and I’m looking ahead to new beginnings. In 2011, I found myself with a set of Meebo responsibilities that no longer comprised a 40-hour work-week and a nagging feeling that this was the right point to start gracefully unwinding from my formal tasks. In October, I started transitioning into an advisory role. It was a difficult decision but nothing makes you prouder than seeing the next generation of leaders take the company to new heights and witnessing the company grow from three people to seven offices, tens of millions in revenue, and billions of monthly page views. While it’s exciting to think about what lies ahead, it’s also hard to leave the best group of people I will ever work with. I take my advisory role seriously and as the team needs me, I’ll be back at 215 Castro Street in a heartbeat.

Looking back, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. I am grateful to our angel investors and to Sequoia for taking a risk on us when we were just a few kids toying around with two servers in an apartment. I am grateful to have been a part of a team that genuinely cares and respects each other. And, I am grateful for the opportunity to realize a product that has touched so many people and for the kind support of our users. These have been the best six years of my life and I wouldn’t trade a single Meebo day for anything.

But most of all, I am grateful to Seth & Sandy. I challenge anyone to find a better set of co-founders. If you don’t know them, Seth is the most savvy business strategist you’ll ever encounter and Sandy will out-execute anyone with her gosh-darned-cute charm. When you work with someone for so long, you learn a lot about a person’s true character. After working with Seth & Sandy for eight years, I know that they are two of the most selfless, fiercely loyal, and talented people you’ll ever meet – much less have the extraordinary good fortune to work beside. I can’t thank them enough for their support and understanding.

As for what’s next, I have an idea or two but before diving into something new, I am finishing projects with Meebo and taking a few months to recharge and reconnect with people I’ve long neglected. The Bay Area consists of an extraordinary entrepreneurial community with tremendous goodwill. After benefitting from the ideas and advice from others for so many years, I’m more than willing to return the favor. Please feel free to connect if you’re looking for an outside opinion.

Looking ahead to 2012, it’s exciting to have a blank slate and the opportunity to start anew. Thanks again for everyone’s support and for believing that passionate people really can make a difference.

Jan 01

News Round-Up

Todd and I had two holidays goals that couldn’t be more different. After a month of late nights at the chocolate factory, Todd wanted to zone out on a beach. However, beach chairs make me twitchy. We ended up relaxing on Vieques Island during the day and then kayaking around the BioBay at night – perfect. I charged my mobile batteries to 100% before donning flip flops and then headed to the beach where Todd plugged in his headphones and got to his sunny meditation. Occasionally, the beach surf sounds were interrupted by Todd’s iPhone buzz. He’d pull his iPhone out of his pocket only to say, “Wait a second… this email is from you!” as I’d just sent him all of the news articles that I thought he was missing. Needless to say I had a lot of reading time this week. Here are some of the interesting articles I want to share for anyone interested. Happy reading!

1. The Touchy-Feely Future of Technology (NPR)

If you haven’t heard of Bill Buxton, read the above. And then, head over to see all of Buxton’s papers and research here: Bill Buxton Papers. Buxton is one of the most prolific HCI researchers out there and has been a pivotal figure since the 80’s. Looking through his research is like looking into the future and waiting for technology to catch up.

2. What Does Your Brand Say About You (Washington Post)

A brand is more than Marketing veneer. It’s felt throughout the entire culture and operation.

  • Long lines = “They don’t care about my time”
  • Rush off the phone = “They rush product dev too”
  • Strict policies = “Inflexible”
  • Outdated website = “Outdated ideas”
  • Unexciting messaging = “Boring product”

3. Volkswagen Silences Work Email After Hours (Washington Post)

To help employees maintain a better work/life balance, Volkswagen and others have agreed to stop sending company emails outside work hours.

I love this. There are definitely people who handle their email best at midnight or 5am which means that it’s inevitable that some unlucky recipient is going to feel stressed before falling to sleep or while getting ready to head out the door. Most of the time an email isn’t even that stressful in the longrun but receiving the email in a setting where you can’t do anything immediately makes it worse. There are always exceptions but I love the idea of preventing email after normal work hours so team members can officially decompress out of the office.

4. Online Shopping: Better for the Environment? (LA Times)

Whew – I feel a tinge better about ordering my recent fix of gummy bears via Amazon prime now. Just make sure you recycle the box.

5. Outsourcing Resolutions (WSJ)

“Having someone you love tell you how to become a better person could be terrifying… Who better to tell us how to improve than someone who knows us well?”

Years ago, Todd floored me when November 1st rolled around and he said, “It’s November? I only have 60 more days to complete my resolutions!” I’ve kept New Years resolutions ever since. This year, inspired by this article, we wrote each other’s New Years resolutions to share on December 31st. Then, I decided I wanted to jot down what I would have said for my own New Years resolutions to compare with Todd. It resulted in good dialogue and further goal refinement.

In the end, I realized that this is how performance reviews and personal annual goals should feel. A boss/mentor/trusted peer thinks about their three goals for you based upon their perspective, you come up with your three, and then there’s a conversation to reconcile and brainstorm together. Which leads me to the next article…

6. Everything That’s Wrong with Performance Reviews (Washington Post)

Performance reviews fail because they are heavy-handed, bureaucratic, and a “dysfunctional pretense” that is an obstacle to having a real conversation. (Also see WSJ’s Get Rid of the Performance Review from 2008). By pairing performance reviews with pay, the employee thinks their review determines their pay when it is likely governed more by the market and internal budgets. In addition, performance reviews reinforce the manager and subordinate relationship and focus on past mistakes instead of planning for performance in the future.

7. How To Have a Tough Conversation (Chicago Tribune)

Just a few good tips on having hard conversations: reverse your thinking, help the conversation feel safe, define goals for conversation. It’s intended for the professional setting but I probably need it most for coping with phone chains. AT&T and airlines customer service bring out the very worst in me. If they can’t locate my lost luggage or understand my issue within five minutes, oh! my blood boils!

8. Haters Are Going To Hate This Story (NPR)

Quick rundown of haters online and in music including, “if you have haters, you’re doing something right” and advocating for a “don’t like” button.

9. Creating Magic Moments for Customers (Washington Post)

Craft the story you want users to tell that differentiates you from your competitors. Unexpected + delight = magic.

Oct 27

Praline Etymology

I’m visiting my father in Durango, Colorado on the first leg of a 10-day Midwest family tour. I haven’t visited my father since 1999 and am long, long overdue.

My father knows I like to collect family recipes and he found a dusty recipe catalog with my grandmother’s favorite recipes. The recipes were written down on index cards and given to my mother as a wedding present forty years ago. I enjoy recipes not only for cooking but also for their history. My grandmother’s spartan recipe for hot water cornbread comes from the Great Depression. After the Great Depression, hot water cornbread recipes have more eggs, sugar, and other luxury ingredients. Todd’s family history is limited but based upon his family recipe for macaroni salad, I can see that the recipe originated from Poland as a sweeter version of the Jewish Kugel before his grandparents immigrated to the U.S. Like DNA, recipes are passed down from each generation. But unlike tracing bloodlines, recipes provide a glimpse into the cultural and historical background of relatives – something that is hard to see through last names and ancestry charts. For any linguists out there, it’s essentially recipe etymology.

My grandmother’s recipe box had WWII favorites like Miracle Whip and canned pineapple cakes. However, I was most curious about the praline recipe. Like biscuits and barbecue sauces, you can see when and where a praline recipe originated based upon whether it favors almonds vs. pecans, brown sugar vs. white sugar, cream vs. buttermilk, and even whether the nuts are halved or ground. However, my grandmother’s pralines index card was water-stained and one of the ingredients, baking soda, appeared to have been jotted down after-the-fact. The damage and side-note were bothersome. My grandmother moved 44 times while she raised my father so even with something as simple as baking soda, it was hard to know whether she picked up a more modern recipe that was about to veer into a praline crunch (popcorn balls and crunches add baking soda near the end), whether the side-note indicated that the baking soda was optional, or whether the baking soda was a critical part of an authentic praline recipe.

To add to my confusion, I didn’t understand why a praline recipe would use baking soda in the first step. From experimenting with brownies, I understood that baking soda affected a dough’s texture and stability. Without baking soda, brownies become molten cake. One of the greatest difficulties preparing pralines is the texture. To achieve a perfectly smooth, golden praline, you whip and aerate very hot caramel furiously in the last 2-3 minutes. However, baking soda reacts to heat and by the time the sugar has heated and caramelized, the effects of the baking soda should have worn off long before that critical whipping step.

It rained all day in Durango today – a perfect excuse to do a culinary experiment and unravel the praline baking soda mystery. I made two batches of pralines: 1) adding baking soda before caramelizing the sugar and 2) adding baking soda after caramelizing the sugar. All of the ingredients and temperatures – about 235°F (or 222 degrees if you’re at Durango’s 6500 foot elevation) – were the same. I hypothesized that the second version would have a better texture than the first.

The difference was dramatic and I was wrong. But, surprisingly, the difference was in the color and taste, not the texture. The recipe with the baking soda added at the beginning turned a lovely golden brown. The recipe with the baking soda added in the final step was paler. The taste was also different – the browner praline was much sweeter. My father validated that the sweeter version, the recipe with the baking soda at the beginning, was the family favorite. I was thrilled to have confidence in the recipe but it was also clear that I did not understand baking soda as well as I thought I did!

I know my praline whipping and spooning technique is not perfect. I whipped these a little bit too long – bear with me!

In an online search, I stumbled across Khymos.org’s baking soda article by Martin Lersch which pointed out the holes in my knowledge. Baking soda is not just a leavener. It also increases the pH level and accelerates caramelization (the Maillard reaction). By adding the baking soda at the beginning, the sugary mixture caramelized more quickly and reached a sweeter brown. When the baking soda was added near the end, the baking soda just foamed and sputtered out quickly without a chance to improve the caramelization. Though the ingredients were the same, the ordering of the baking soda made a huge difference. In this recipe, the baking soda was a caramelizing agent, not a leavening agent.

Praline history is murky but some research helps narrow down when and where my grandmother’s recipe originated:

  • The first praline recipe originated in France and is believed to be a distant cousin of the Jordan almond. It spread throughout England, Belgium, and crossed the Atlantic when French settlers came to Louisiana in the 1700’s.
  • Baking soda was popularized a hundred years after the first French praline in the 1850’s
  • Milk was added to pralines after 1880 (pre-milk recipe I pre-milk recipe II
  • Buttermilk was commercialized in the 1900’s
  • Other praline recipes call for evaporated milk which wasn’t popularized until the 1920’s & 1930’s
  • Geographically, brown sugar is preferred in New Orleans. In the late 1800’s, Louisiana produced sugar but lacked the refineries to process white sugar. As a result, Louisiana had more brown sugar than the East Coast and Midwest.
  • Praline recipes with brown sugar rarely call for baking soda

From the above, I’d guess that someone outside Louisiana discovered that New Orleans pralines could be replicated with a more abundant white sugar if baking soda was added to accelerate the caramelization. My grandmother was born in 1919 in Colorado City, Texas. However, a Google search for “Texan buttermilk praline recipe” doesn’t yield anything similar. However, after a little bit of research, I discovered that my great-grandmother’s family was from Alabama. A Google search for “Alabama praline recipe” yields this very similar recipe. I’d hypothesize that this recipe is almost a hundred years old and there’s enough evidence to suggest that this is probably a recipe from my great-grandmother who died long before I was born.

What my grandmother and great-grandmother did not know is that baking soda is not just a magical ingredient for caramel confections. Martin Lersch’s blog also demonstrates how savory caramelized onions benefit from a pinch of baking soda. Amazingly, Martin Lersch was not able to find anyone adding baking soda to their caramelized onions prior to 2008! From a recipe etymology perspective, perhaps this means that future generations may date themselves with their more modern baking soda caramelized onion technique? It also makes one wonder what other baking soda applications we haven’t discovered.

I’m leaving my father tomorrow with lots of pralines as I head to Kansas City to visit my mother. The oldest recipe uncovered from that side of that family comes from the 1934 edition of the Fannie Farmer Cook Book for Cranberry Ice which is comically terse: “Cook cranberries and water 8 minutes then force through a sieve. Add sugar and lemon juice, and freeze.” Anyone who has attempted to force cranberries through a sieve will appreciate this recipe’s ridiculousness. Fortunately, food mills started reappearing in cooking stores in the 1990’s and this recipe has seen a resurgence on my family’s Thanksgiving table.

Mar 06

funniest app reviews i’ve ever read

Around 2 am, I thought of a book that Andrew might find interesting for his upcoming UX-LX skeuomorph talk. However, it was dark, I was pretty sure the book was on the highest shelf, I didn’t want to wake up Todd, and I thought I would forget if I fell back asleep.

I decided to download an iPhone flashlight app so I could scan my bookshelves.

I launched the app store and saw a free app in the Entertainment category with nearly 30,000 reviews but an average rating of 2.5 stars. How was this possible? Who keeps downloading a 2.5 star app?

I started scanning the “Mood Finger Scan” reviews. It probably helped that one of the first reviews I read was particularly funny (plus everything’s funnier at 2 am)…

This became my guilty pleasure of the week. I eventually downloaded Mood Finger Scan and it’s a very simple mood ring app. The majority of the reviews are right – it’s loaded with advertisements for games that presumably make money or aren’t free. There are 5 star ratings from suspicious CheckPoint promoters promising free iTunes gift that help keep the app’s rating suspended at 2.5 stars instead of 1.5.

Even if this is a 1 star app, some of the reviews should be rated 4-5 stars. I’ve compiled the best below. And yes, I did remember to get the book the next morning.

Cat test

People really say that?

Okay, I get it. You’re not relaxed!!!

On love…

This app represents everything that’s wrong with the perception of America?

I agree, what kind of mood app messes up cheesecake?

One word…

Uhhh…

Life changing

I’m so sorry! I’d rate this app 1 star too!

I’m not bipolar!

Sigh…

Works every time. 2 stars?

Mar 04

design survey for south by southwest

I’m preparing for a South by Southwest panel I’m moderating next week: Design across Disciplines (March 12th at 3:30). We’ll be comparing the creative processes and design guidelines across different design disciplines (speech writing, architecture, event planning, to interaction design) to see what Interaction Design can learn from other fields. I’m joined by four brilliant designers including: Matthew Robbins, Ben Yarrow, Brett Lider, and Stephen Atkinson.

I originally wrote the survey just for the five panelists. But if you are a speech writer, architect, event planner, interaction designer, or from another creative field, feel free to participate in our creative process survey. It’s a short five-minute survey (via Zoomerang). It’s not especially scientific but I’m happy to share the results later and I’m sure it will lead to some interesting discussions next Saturday!

Creative Process Survey

Thanks!

Jan 16

chicken checker

Over the holidays, I stumbled across a picture taken just after showing my prize-winning goat, Victoria, at a local fair. This was the inspiration I needed to post a story I’ve been working on for a while. Hopefully my father will forgive me for retelling it here!

Chicken Checker

“Are you hungry?” my father asked as we coasted down the Oklahoma interstate in our beaten-down farm truck. Our truck had no radio or air-conditioning and, oh, those woolly bench seats scratched in summer! But the prospect of joining my father, an over enthusiastic Renaissance man, on a road trip outweighed every inconvenience. When we weren’t counting hawks on telephone poles or singing television jingles, I peered through the holes of the rusted-out floorboard where sun-bleached road rolled underneath my feet. I could entertain myself for hours in this small cabin.

We were still hours away from meeting my mother. While judging a goat show in Oklahoma, she had stumbled across a prospective buyer for a spring doe from our Missouri goat dairy. Now my father was generously driving hundred mile stretches of wheat fields with a talkative five-year old and the almost-sold goat in tow. It was a noble deed.

“McDonalds?” I replied instinctively, ready for fast food billboard scouting.

“Ah no, I’ve got a better idea!” This was not typical Happy Meal excitement, “Let’s barbecue some chicken!”

Though we were separated by thirty years, I would always relate to my father’s thirst for adventure. I didn’t fully grasp his proposal but I was already an eager accomplice.

A few exits later, we pulled into a parking lot and my father launched into action. He sprung onto the truck bed with our goat and brushed away straw and feed sacks to reveal his secret stash of barbecuing supplies including an iron cooking pit, coal, chicken, and a few cooking utensils. He spoke aloud as he tore open bags, hypothesized how to pile the briquettes, and speculated on our feasting time. The details were lost on me but I was mesmerized at the thought of cooking while driving… genius!

We stopped one or two more times to adjust the coals. When my father deemed that we had achieved optimal barbecuing conditions, he rested the chicken gingerly on the grill and promoted me from “daughter” to “chicken checker” which entailed keeping tabs on our dinner by occasionally glancing back into the truck bed through the cabin window. I accepted the title and responsibility with pride.

While our dinner was cooking, my father teased me by pretending to drive with his eyes closed while I squealed in horror and delight. I asked if there were other children at the fairgrounds. Perhaps the Mennonite twins would be up for playing some games in the show-ring sawdust later? In our conversation lulls, I diligently looked back and reported that all was well in the truck bed.

It was hard to imagine a better August evening, driving carefree with my father with the windows rolled down and a few lightning bugs dotting the fields. Even the Oklahomans seemed to get friendlier as daylight waned. Our dairy goats always attracted attention on the road and tonight was no exception. Drivers and their companions waved as they passed. “That’s so nice!” He nudged me to wave back to our highway friends.

A few more vehicles passed us and waved. We waved too. And then a few more. In hindsight, we should have become suspicious of our well-wishers sooner. And then a startled elderly couple passed while mouthing an unintelligible message to us. My father’s smile waivered.

“Elaine… I think it’s time to check the chicken.”

Sensing urgency, I spun around and pressed my hands and face to the window. The glass was warm against my fingertips and nose. A split-second later I discovered why. Our situation was dire. Flames spewed from our truck bed and smoke billowed down the road. Our show goat pawed frantically at the spreading flames. Cars were swerving to avoid our sparks and debris. We were a 50 mile-per-hour bonfire on wheels.

Within seconds of hearing my “uh oh,” my father swung the steering wheel and made an emergency halt. He ran around the truck while I struggled to keep up, pushing open the heavy door and jumping down from the cab. He passed me the goat and shooed me a safe distance away. From afar, I watched as he tossed our gear from the truck and stomped down the flames with a plank of wood.

The seriousness of the situation eluded me entirely. We were isolated on the road with a flaming truck and no water. Many years later, my father would reveal that his gravest concern was the gas cap he had lost a few weeks prior and the fear that the tank would explode at any second. I turned my attention to teaching our goat to sit like a dog as onlookers streamed by.

After some time, my exhausted father emerged, wiping his hands with a rag. The soot had gathered in his forehead creases making him appear years older. Our belongings were scattered on the side of the road and charred straw still blew from the truck bed on the evening breeze. He started scooping our belongings back into the truck. Approaching me, he eyed the scorched hair on the goat’s hooves. I saw a troubled “your mother is not going to be happy” thought cross his brow but he didn’t say anything aloud.

After all of our gear was accounted for, we continued down the road again. When the adrenaline had subsided, my father pulled off again and found a payphone to relay a message to my mother that he was going to be late as “something had come up” on the road.

When he returned from the payphone, his head had cleared enough to remember our original mission – the chicken was still in the iron pit and we were both very hungry. After inspection, he returned triumphant with a tough, dry, but still salvageable chicken, especially with a generous smothering of barbecue sauce. He presented our winnings wrapped in aluminum foil, a trophy of our gourmet ingenuity and absolute proof that I had the best father in the world. And with miles to go, we sat on the tailgate eating in rare silence.