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.

Oct 03

brownie bake-off

Todd claims he is an equal-opportunity brownie eater – he’ll unquestionably devour any brownie that crosses his plate. As a result, we’ve collected a lot of brownie recipes over the years, primarily from Scharffen Berger Essence of Chocolate Recipes and Cooks’ Illustrated.

A few date nights ago, Todd and I made a deal that if I measured and set out all of the ingredients, we’d do the ultimate brownie bake-off and for once, determine the best brownie recipe. There were six recipes in total including:

* Scharffen Berger New Classic Brownies
* Scharffen Berger Cakey Brownies (cookbook only)
* Scharffen Berger Robert’s Fudgy Brownies
* Scharffen Berger John’s Favorite Brownies
* Cooks Illustrated Chewy Brownies (March 2010)
* Cooks Illustrated Chewy, Fudgy, Triple Chocolate Brownies (May 2000)

We used Valrhona for the cocoa powder, 70% Scharffen Berger for the chocolate (unless otherwise specified), weighed every ingredient to the gram, double-checked our internal oven thermometer, and omitted all optional nuts to ensure the most fair home kitchen comparison as possible. After doing a taste test that evening, I took the remaining brownies to Meebo where my teams provided their own comments. Here’s a quick summary of the feedback and relative ordering.

1. Robert’s Fudgy Brownie (8 oz chocolate, 3/4 c + 2 tb sugar):
“Tastes the most chocolate-y and moist. This definitely shows off the chocolate but could use more salt.”
“I like fudgy and this one is really good. Chocolate is slightly acidic. My favorite.”
“Favorite, top crust and moist but not too much.”

2. John’s Favorite Brownie (6 oz chocolate, 1 1/2 c sugar):
“Cake’y topping. Nice texture but not as chocolate’y.”
“Moderate chocolate, it tasted like a faint but very dark chocolate. It’s good, I quite like it.”
“Best texture. Good chocolate flavor.”

3. New Classic Brownies (4 oz 99% chocolate, 1 1/4 c sugar):
“Doughy and solidly chocolate though not very complex.”
“Fine texture but weird chocolate taste.”

4. Cooks Illustrated Chewy Brownies (6 oz chocolate, 1/3 c cocoa, 2 oz unsweetened chocolate, 1 1/2 tsp instant espresso, 2 1/2 c sugar):
“A really good brownie but I can taste the oil and feel the greasiness. This tastes like a box mix but I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”

5. Scharffen Berger Cakey Brownies (4 oz chocolate, 1/3 c cocoa powder, 1 c sugar):
“Light but bland.”
“Too dry but nice crumbly top.”

6. Cooks Illustrated Chewy, Fudgy, Triple Chocolate Brownies (5 oz semisweet, 2 oz unsweetened, 3 tb cocoa powder, 1 1/4 c sugar):
“It’s moist but chalk-y tasting. My least favorite.”

Final Comments

I don’t think it’s coincidence that the favorite recipe, Robert Steinberg’s Fudgy Brownie, was the one with the most chocolate (a full 8 oz bar). The more the recipe depended upon cocoa powder, the more likely it was to sink to the bottom. John’s Favorite Brownie was a close second place and a few actually preferred it to Robert’s Fudgy Brownie.

The other recipes were good but not great. The New Classic Recipe prides itself on an amazing texture by using high heat and then an ice bath. After going through the trouble, I wouldn’t bother again. The textures in other recipes were comparable or better. Also, the 99% chocolate is going to be harder to purchase and I thought it left some off flavors.

The Scharffen Berger Cakey recipe had a beautiful, crackly top. However, that is where its charm ended. The taste was bland. One taster at Meebo said they tasted leavener and though the recipe uses egg whites for leavening (there’s no baking soda or powder), I agree that the cocoa powder gave a chalkier taste.

The Cooks Illustrated recipes’ baking times were off. I used the suggested recipe times for a fair comparison. However, I’ve made the Triple, Chewy, Fudgy Cooks Illustrated recipe before and when I have, I’ve added a few minutes more than specified and have had better texture (though not flavor) results. The Chewy Brownie recipe was new and I didn’t know to leave it in a bit longer. Both Cooks Illustrated recipes were needlessly complex – combining three different types of chocolate (semisweet, bittersweet, and cocoa powder) is not going to lead to a superior flavor (chocolate is chocolate) and is more likely to introduce variation in home kitchens.

Finally, they are all good recipes. For years, Todd’s go-to brownie recipe has been the Cooks Illustrated Chewy, Fudgy, Triple Chocolate recipe. We were primarily looking for the recipe that would show off great chocolate (more on that later) and John and Robert’s recipes seemed to do that the best. However, if you are looking for a cakey, chewy recipe, I don’t think any of these recipes would qualify.

In case anyone is inspired to do their own bake-off, I came across this amazing cookie tasting taxonomy today in Sensory Evaluation of Food: Principles and Practices by Harry T. Lawless, Hildegarde Heymann. It was a bit too late for my brownie bake-off but hopefully someone else will find it useful! – Elaine

Sep 06

the curious incident at the coffee shop

For as long as Meebo’s been on Castro Street, visiting Red Rock Coffee has been a daily ritual. I know to avoid Wednesday morning’s children story hour if I’m meeting someone, to wait at least half an hour after the first morning Caltrain arrival for a shorter line, and I recognize the half a dozen regulars who spend the majority of their daytime hours working at Red Rock from their laptops. Up until last Friday, there’s been one Red Rock regular that I’ve avoided at all costs after an incident many years ago.

Three years ago, I headed to Red Rock for an afternoon latte and lined up behind a tall man placing his order that I’d seen a few times before. I was debating between a small and medium latte when I heard the man in front of me raise his voice, “Don’t you hate it when people line up on the wrong side of the counter?”

I was taken off guard. He was facing the barista but his tone and volume could have reached anyone within ten feet of the counter. It was evident that though he was shouting to the barista in front of him, his message was really intended for the person standing behind him, me.

The Red Rock register is positioned at the intersection of two perpendicular counters and there is no sign or clear indication of which counter you should line up against. After you’ve been there a time or two, you realize that the right counter is longer, doesn’t conflict with the serving counter, and is presumably better. However, I was standing on the left side, apparently the wrong side.

I was more than a little annoyed but tried to diffuse the situation. I inserted myself into the conversation, “Sorry, would you prefer I stand along the other counter?”

The man, turned 90 degrees and eyed me from his periphery, “Why yes, yes I would.”

I moved to the right and mentally focused on letting the situation just roll away by studying the ambiguous counter situation. The baked goods and bottled drinks were lined up against the left side. I could see how I’d been trained to line up against these impulse foods. However, now safely in the right section, the crisis was averted, and my lesson was learned.

The few seconds of peace were shattered when I heard a new female voice shouting from behind me, “You are such a jerk. She didn’t know which line to stand in and you just yelled at her for practically no reason!” Both the man and I turned around to see a woman running and yelling towards us, presumably someone the man knew was coming to fight in my defense. The man stood his ground and quickly returned fire, “If you come here more than once, you should know how to line up against this counter.”

The exchange continued, voices escalated, gestures flew everywhere.

I honestly don’t remember the rest of the conversation because I was frozen in shock. I wondered what unlucky alternative reality I had just landed in. They continued to gesture and shout, still referring to me in the third person, while the entire cafe went silent to watch the confrontation unfold.

I looked to the barista for help only to see his exasperated, “Oh no, not again” look. You’ve got to be kidding – this had happened more than once? Eventually, the barista and I made eye contact. He mouthed, “Medium latte?” to which I nodded and shrunk to the waiting area while the couple continued to duke it out, not realizing that I was no longer there.

For the last three years, I’ll admit to mentally referring to that Red Rock man as just, “crazy guy” in my head. When I am forced to walk within his line of sight, I look straight ahead and make no sudden movements. If he is directly ahead of me in line, I will feign indecisiveness to let someone else pass in front of me. Our UX team does occasional ad hoc recruiting from Red Rock and in a whispered voice, I’ve instructed them, “See that guy? Under absolutely no circumstances should you ask that guy if he has fifteen minutes to look at the Meebo bar or an advertisement – he is off limits.”

Last Friday, the weather turned warm and Red Rock was exceptionally busy. I was craving an iced drink before my next meeting. The two girls behind me in line were talking about how unfair it was that their friend’s boyfriend wouldn’t allow their friend to join them that night. An elderly man at the register was debating what flavors work best in an Italian soda. The barista recommended mango and vanilla.

“Elaine, when was the last time someone bought you a drink?” a voice from the past asked.

No, no. It couldn’t be.

I turned around slowly and sure enough, there was crazy guy standing behind the two young girls. He was looking straight at me. He even knew my name. I snapped into polite defense mode, “Oh, it happens, no worries. It might not happen at Red Rock, but I’ve had my share of bought drinks.” I smiled and hoped that would be the end of our conversation.

“Well, I want to buy you a drink. You come down here a lot and I’ve never seen anyone buy you a drink.”

The two girls stopped talking. No good. This was absolutely no good.

“Oh gosh, you don’t need to do that. Really, it’s okay. I’ve got a meeting in just a few minutes.”

“No, no, I want to. I try to do at least one good deed a week and this is it. I am going to buy you a drink.”

My eyes opened wide in fear. I begged, “Oh no, please don’t squander your good deed on me.”

He continued to insist. And when I got to the counter, he was already asking the two girls if he could cut between them so he could be first to put his money on the counter. He had an iced coffee. I had already calculated the easiest, quickest drink the baristas could prepare in hopes of increasing my odds of personal safety – iced tea. He paid.

So there we were – both waiting for our drink orders. My grandmother’s Midwest charm school lessons kicked in and I realized that, even in these circumstances, I should know the name of my iced tea benefactor. I extended my hand and initiated the formalities, “I’m Elaine.” He replied, “I’m Michael.” I stood there for a second registering that crazy guy had a name. I thanked Michael, the crazy guy, for the drink.

He started, “I’ve been watching you come down here for three years and watched you and Meebo grow. You seem more at ease and confident, like you’ve really grown into your role. And from what I’ve seen, Meebo’s doing well too.” Yes, it was a little awkward and I’m horrible at taking compliments. But at that moment, I was just thankful that he was speaking, not shouting. My social skills are by no means fantastic, but I thankfully spotted the easy deflection in front of me, “That’s kind of you to say. So what do you do?”

“I work in computer hardware.” I asked him for more details about his profession, maintaining the conversation until our drinks arrived. He talked about his company, his role in the company, and how appreciative he was to have stability in the midst of an unsteady economy.

And then from out of nowhere, he inserted, “When I returned from Afghanistan, my company thankfully saw the recession coming.”

We finished the professional train of thought and I returned to the odd insertion, asking carefully, “What were you doing in Afghanistan?” He confirmed my suspicion, “I was a soldier in Afghanistan…”

I expected him to end there but he took a breath and his tenor softened, “And when I came to California, I was a little gruff and I had a lot of tension. I probably didn’t behave as well as I should have. But, thankfully, I’ve worked at it and I’m a lot better now.” And in his own way, he had just apologized.

I didn’t know how to respond, shocked, as I had been three years ago. I’d never held a grudge, I’d never expected, or even hoped for any closure from that long ago incident. I’d just accepted his presence as part of my everyday scenery. And now, I realized to what great lengths he had gone to make this apology.

Our iced drinks arrived.

“Thank you for that” I said clumsily, half referring to the drink and half referring to his brave gesture. I motioned that I should head back and said good-bye, still internalizing what had just happened.

Back at Meebo, I snapped this picture of Michael’s iced tea to remember the moment and then headed into the next meeting.

Sep 02

a design book recommendation in tomato season

When I was in senior in college, I grew tomato plants illegally from our dorm roof by climbing out the window to step to a small row of potted cherry tomatoes just out of sight. A few months later, I graduated and moved the tomatoes to my first apartment’s tiny balcony space. However, now the tomatoes were clearly in sight and the hodgepodge of plastic pots just weren’t cutting it. I headed to the nursery for a plant and pot upgrade.

I must have spent an awful amount of time deliberating over terra cotta. At some point, an observant sales person introduced herself and asked about my project. I said I wanted my balcony garden to look better. Expecting to be upsold to a premium glazed terra cotta, she instead said that my current approach was entirely wrong – my dozen pots were too small for the balcony. Instead, I should invest in one or two big, big pots. Then, I should focus on contrasting textures and colors such as pairing the pointy leaves of a yucca tree with a tall and round ceramic pot and spiky grasses.

The nursery assistant I met that day probably had decades and decades of container and landscape gardening experience and it showed in her clear-cut visual language. Since then, I’ve been surprised at how hard it is to find any resources that outline logical, systematic approaches for design evaluation — whether it’s in the garden, in art, or online.

But about six months ago, I stumbled across this book that did just that — attempted to move beyond vague, intuitive language such as “appealing” and “well-balanced” to a systematic, logical description of compositions like, “When two distinctly different objects are isolated from everything else and positioned side-by-side, the impulse to compare and contrast is almost an automatic reflex.”

Arranging Things: A Rhetoric of Object Placement by Leonard Koren is pretty niche (you probably guessed that by reading the title already). And the low Amazon ratings might scare you off a bit. However, after reading it a few months ago, I keep recommending it to product-oriented people I know and thinking about it when I’m looking at wires or mockups at Meebo. The exact premise for the book goes like this…

2,500 years ago, Greek politicians created systematic communication techniques such as style, memorability, and delivery to convey their message, get loyalty, and win votes. However, communication is not just limited to writing and speaking. Today’s florists, set designers, and visual merchandisers know that arrangements are not just about aesthetics, they are also communicating information through cultural references and symbolism (e.g. wilted flowers and rotting fruit convey deterioration, alcohol and desserts mean sensual indulgence). However, while communication has been a field of study for thousands and thousands of years, object arrangement remains a largely intuitive and untaught discipline today. Koren suggests that if arranging objects is tied to communication, then we should be able to leverage the previous knowledge and apply a tried-and-true rhetoric to object arrangement today.

Even if you aren’t entirely sold on the premise of object composition as a strong form of communication, the collection of still-life compositions is really amazing. I’m guessing that Koren spent years and years collecting the example compositions for the remaining two-thirds of his book. Each painted composition has a one-page analysis where Koren practices what he preaches — specifically dissecting each the object arrangement into eight dimensions such as metaphor, alignment, coherence, and hierarchy.

I recognize that this isn’t going to be a best-seller book any time soon, it’s not even fantastic bedside reading material. However, it is definitely one of my favorite resources on my design bookshelf and I think it is worth sharing, especially if you are working with a team of designers on a day-to-day basis.

Jul 25

scotland coast-to-coast biking trip

Before Todd headed out on his archaeological dig this month, I traveled with him to spend a week mountain biking across Scotland starting on the west coast and ending on the east coast. It was the first time we did a self-guided mountain biking trip like this. I’ve been meaning to post our pics from the trip for a while – enjoy!

our coast-to-coast bike trip across scotland starts at fort williams. we have about six days and 200 miles of dirt trails in front of us. fort williams should be an easy day. we start around 4pm and just need to bike fifteen miles to our first bed and breakfast in speanbridge.

 

within half an hour of starting, we were lost, wet, bug-bitten, trespassing through a dynamite zone, only to find ourselves accidentally biking down the course of a world-champion dirt bike derby. at the end of the day, this is what remained of our day one map. this was definitely not a tom-tom, “in one quarter mile, turn left. you are approaching your final destination” style biking trip. todd studied the day two map like crazy.

 

 

day two was a lot better. it started off raining but cleared up quickly. we circled around two lakes and enjoyed some beautiful trails.

we hardly ran into anyone the entire week except for perhaps a few hikers in the first mile or two of our trail.

unlike day one, we finished day two a bit early and walked around the small town of lagan.

a pond in laggan

so green, so many sheep

on day three, we head deep into the country.

about 10-12 miles in, there is a stream that is generally not traversible except in the dry season. after an easy day two, i begged todd to give this trail a try. thankfully, it was dry and passable. otherwise we would have had to retrace our previous 10 miles.

though we were past the streams, we faced a new challenge… absolutely no trail across miles of wet marshy bog.

it’s hard to tell from this photo how hard it was to bike this part of the trail. sometimes you would put your foot down onto the seemingly solid reedy grasses to hear the water streaming under your foot. we had no choice but to walk and push a few times. we saw a few deep ruts from stuck mountain bikers from previous days which was reassuring to know that we were at least veering in the right direction.

an old castle on the way to aviemore

just a pretty pasture at the end of day three.

a castle surrounded by a lake just before aviemore

another stream. it started lightly raining on us. at one point, todd realized there were tadpoles in our biking trail.

todd’s trying to find the trail beyond the stream and into the forest

we had some technical single-track in the later part of the day. in this picture, the track was just overgrown with summer brush. in other parts, we had some exposed track with lots of big rocks that were bouncy and fun.

the group who planned our route for us didn’t recommend bringing paneers because they tend to shake loose over the trails. we had a daily luggage transfer service that took our day clothes between our bed and breakfast stays. this trail is probaby where you are most likely to lose water bottles and gear if you haven’t strapped them down properly.

just a beautiful landscape… todd way down the trail

my perspective before heading down, more single track

we crossed this stream about a dozen times that day. you’ll notice that my bike is already across the bank. i had waterproof biking sandals while todd had biking shoes that were dried really slowly. todd managed to keep his feet dry throughout the day and seeing this stream, i offered just to walk his bike across so he could try to rock-hop across the stream and stay dry. on future days, he started bringing extra pairs of dry socks.

these little yellow flowers were so pretty

for an hour or two, it threatened but never quite rained. the wind was good for keeping the bugs away.

we stumbled across this old hunting lodge

lots of sheep grazing in the hills

todd’s assessing the map. before day four, todd managed to upgrade his iphone to 4.0, download and cache all of the scotland trail maps, and get a few navigation apps on just a single bar of sporadic bed and breakfast wifi. if we do anything similar to this again, we’re bringing our own up-to-date gps and preloading the trails in advance.

this day is only 28 miles long but because it’s more technical, it felt like the longest day of the trip. todd had his fall about 500 feet away from here just over the crest of the upcoming hill. that shook us up a bit (thank goodness for the helmet).

this was the only trail sign we ever saw. we were following a single-trail dirt path and at some point, you need to break from the trail and head around a hill to pick up another trail. however, with the stream breaking things up every 50-100 feet, this is hard to do. someone with kind mountain biker goodwill must have posted this. thank you!

some remaining cottage stones on a hill at the start of day five.

day five was longer with some headwind and rain, but the trail was a lot easier. these little guys were just waiting to greet us on the bridge.

another stream. it started lightly raining on us. at one point, todd realized there were tadpoles in our biking trail.

the biggest stream we had to cross.

better to cross the stream than to try this bridge

some sheep keeping an eye on us. todd swears he saw a sheep that was really mad at him one day, “he had horns and a look.” however, most sheep scattered as soon as they saw us.

it was still raining so we took a lunch break under this bridge. we didn’t mind the rain so much at this point. the trail (you can see it on the right), was amazing.

we had been following the river for a few hours and here we start heading up into the hills.

just before reaching town, we saw this orange rusted barn roof matched by the orange-red poppies below. ah!

washing down our bikes and getting ready for day six where we head over mount keen. this is our longest and highest climbing day. fortunately, the weather cleared up and despite the forecast, looks like it was going to hold. just in case, i’ve got lots and lots of extra dry clothes and food in my pack

a little lamb scampers away from todd

after a few easy miles, we start the climb up to mount keen.

the trail gets more and more difficult until you finally can’t bike anymore. you are expected to walk your bike the last hour until you come around the summit.

after reaching the top of the mountain, we’re starting our descent. we’re tired (more from pushing than biking) but getting on the saddle again with these trails and this view is worth it.

a view of the descent from the summit

after the descent, there are about a dozen sporadically-placed stone storm drains in the trail. apparently a lot of bikers try jumping them and damage their tires or rims. todd and i are pretty casual mountain bikers. todd even caught me walking my mountain bike over a curb in town and had to laugh. even though there was probably little risk of us jumping these storms drains anyway, after those warnings, we were scared of risking anything even resembling a jump on these guys. if you damage something here, it’s a 20-mile walk down.

todd’s heading down the descent. eventually we’ll meet the stream and follow it into town.

after a steep descent, the trails gently slope down and we enjoyed two hours of beautiful gently sloping paved roads. near the end of day six, i stopped here to buy some scottish blossom honey.

on day seven, we have just fifteen miles of easy paved road to reach the coast in the morning.

the end of our coast-to-coast journey at montrose. the taxi picked us up at 10:30am and we enjoyed the rest of the day in edinburgh. from here, i fly back to california and todd heads to a month-long archaeological dig along hadrian’s wall.

Apr 11

baroque trappings of today’s web applications

I had the unexpected opportunity to present at the February BayCHI event a few months ago. For a year, I’d been mulling on a presentation that is a mouthful to say, “What Web Applications can Learn from the Harpsichord.” It’s not the typical “What you should know about HTML5/CSS3/JavaScript” presentation and I knew I couldn’t assume it would ever find an appropriate audience. However, when Christian Crumlish asked me if I had anything I’d want to talk about at BayCHI, it felt like an extraordinary stroke of luck.

If you’re wondering how someone starts pairing harpsichords with web application design, it might help to know that I started playing the violin when I was five and continued playing throughout school. I don’t consider myself an expert in classical music (and my former music theory teacher would undoubtedly agree) but I do know that most classical music pieces can be categorized into one of about seven historical periods and that most household composer names come from the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic musical periods.

Interestingly, most of those musical period labels weren’t applied until the mid-19th century, after Beethoven’s death. It’s not often that musicians, designers, or architects have the foresight to declare the arrival of a new stylistic period. In reality, styles evolve more organically and it’s usually the duty of future historians to argue about these divisions.

Ten years ago, we talked about the Internet boom followed by the bubble. Five years ago, we started calling ourselves Web 2.0. Now we talk about social media. And in my head, I keep wondering whether these divisions will still be applicable in future Web Application Design museums hopefully 20-30 years away.

It was this thought process that led me to wonder what would happen if you compared the development of classical music with the evolution of today’s web applications. I’ve spent the last few weeks mulling on how to translate and visually represent this thought within a coherent blog post.

I’d like to propose that today’s web apps are stuck in a Baroque-like era and that by looking at the similarities between the evolution of classical music and web applications, we can break free of our Baroque trappings and progress forward to the next Internet period.

Before diving into the particulars of what a Baroque era looks like, here’s what I recall from my high school music theory classes up through the Romantic period with a few audio snippets. The most important take-away is to note the steps leading up to the Baroque music explosion fueled by public demand, an instrumental boom, and an abundance of musicians.

Classical Music between 400-1820
Medieval (400-1400)

Long period of research and development
A slow Medieval simmering of musical development primarily confined to the Church who develops the first handwritten musical notation system for Gregorian chant. Music generally consists of religious vocal chants.
Renaissance (1400-1600)
First craftsmen and instruments
The printing press makes it easier to reproduce music and instructional books for playing musical instruments. Instrumental music is no longer limited to just accompaniment and new demand develops to design instruments with a fuller range of sounds.

Baroque (1600-1750)
Mass adoption and experimentation
The Baroque period emphasizes broad experimentation with the goal of creating emotional impact through complexity, ornamentation, and textures. Baroque fugues (like Bach) and ornamented harpsichord music are characteristic compositions of this period. Formalized teaching methods arise to develop new musicians and composers.

Classical (1750-1820)
Restraint and principles, craft to art
The Classical period aims to understanding underlying order and hierarchy for compositions. Instead of the melody and harmony sharing an equal role, composers prefer a single, audible melody with a secondary harmony accompaniment.

Romantic (1820-1910)
Artistic maturity, full expression
Finally, the art form reaches full maturity in the Romantic era as more composers and musicians master how to flout Classical rules for the desired effect. More formalized compositional structures develop. The Romantic period achieves what the Baroque period sought out to do – achieve emotional impact through compositional grandeur. However, it needed the rules of the Classical period to do so.

 

With that background, here’s how the classical music timeline might parallel the development of the Internet.

Medieval – Long period of research and development
Music400-1400
Internet1940-1991
– In 400 AD, the Church is the only organization with the money and resources to support music
– In the 1970’s, the government, more specifically DARPA headquarters, is the only organization who can afford computing technology research for defense, not entertainment, purposes
– Like Medieival music was initially limited to religious devotion, the Medieval Internet was initially intended for military research
Renaissance – first craftsmen and instruments

Music1400-1600
Internet1991-2005
– During the Renaissance period, music development breaks away from the Church and as more Europeans are exposed to music, music-making becomes an industry craft. Similarly, the development of the Internet moves from academic and government institutions to predominantly industry in the 1990’s.
– Developing music becomes less expensive with the development of the printing press. Similarly, the lowering cost of personal computers provide the general public with a new opportunity to have a presence on the web. Venture capitalist fund a startup land grab.
Baroque – mass adoption and experimentation

Music1600-1750
Internet2005-current
– The Baroque musical period represents the longest and broadest period of musical experimentation in European musical history ever with an emphasis on exerting an overwhelming emotional impact through ornamentation, a texture of voices, and a variety of instrument ensembles. With the Internet, web applications see an explosion of pixel treatments, mashups, api’s, and social media widgets. In both cases, there’s a sense of doing things because you can, not necessarily because you should.
– In both genres, technology continues to develop and best practices are formalized.

 

Personally, when I listen to harpsichord music from the Baroque period, not too much time passes before I start to think, “I think this harpsichord piece is just trying to play as many notes as possible.” Similarly, after browsing the Internet for a bit today I start to think, “I’m not sure I can withstand another mashup, rounded corner, or headline announcing a breakthrough platform.”

It’s easy to think that today’s Internet baroque period is confined to the glossy Web 2.0 style. For instance, if I look at this personalized MySpace page with its glitter tags, purple background, widgets, and musical embeds, it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t have Baroque leanings. It’s not so dissimilar from this 1777 Baroque San Cristobal Cathedral where the emphasis is on the amount of ornamentation, materials, and architectural techniques for emotional effect.

However, you see the same types of mashups happening at the UI level. Consider this Amazon.com book previewing UI. In this image, you’ll see a modal litebox preview with a drop-down menu (with expandable accordions) that can be dismissed by an ‘X’ close button. All of this is encapsulated with a next/previous photo viewer. And judging by the buttons at top, you can zoom too. I’m really not sure what to expect when I click on the “Expanded View” option in the top right-hand corner.

How many more interactive elements can we fit within this UI? This montage is fairly daunting considering this UI’s primary intent is just to flip the page of a book.

In the musical Baroque period, the emphasis shifted from developing instruments to developing ensembles like the Opera and string quartet. The ultimate Internet homepage was a very Baroque endeavor that aimed to create the best one-stop-shop with stock quotes, feeds, and personalized services though not necessarily doing any one individual service particularly well.

Now, the focus has evolved from ultimate homepages to social media integrations with the aim of making sharing and communicating easier. When you click on a sharing service in your favorite news site, it’s dizzying to watch your browser load a zillion icons to display the matrix of services eager to announce you’ve read (and perhaps liked) an article. It’s amazing that copying and pasting an article is still such an attractive alternative to most of these services. Again, just because you can connect with all of these services, does that mean you should?

So where do we go from here? Personally, I want to live to see the Classical and hopefully the Romantic phase of web application design. I hope that our craft will continue to evolve and that with enough Baroque trial and learning, we will develop enough confidence to exercise restraint and present more compelling experiences to our users.

Feb 21

harley farms

By Fridays, my head is spinning. Anyone in the startup world inevitably deals with constant multi-tasking and by the end of the week, all of that mental sharding begins to take its toll.

However, holding a newborn baby goat on a weekend afternoon just makes everything better. Todd and I took this trip to Harley Farms Goat Dairy in Pescadero, CA to see their first crop of 2010 kids this weekend.

For those of you who know me, you also know that I grew up on a goat farm. I hadn’t visited a working goat dairy in 20 years. It was amazing how many things were the same (the smells) and how many things were different (milk machines have come a long, long way!).

Pics below…

Feb 21

marshmallow practice

Over the holidays, Todd and I caught one of the last flights to arrive in New York before the snowstorm. However, we weren’t as lucky on our subsequent trip. A second winter storm struck the Midwest and delayed the next leg of our trip by 24 hours.

Because of the delay, Todd and I had more time to wander around Manhattan which wasn’t such a bad thing. We stumbled across this gem, Kitchen Arts & Letters, a culinary paradise. We bought an eclectic assortment of books from canning to chocolate to menu planning. Marshmallows: Homemade Gourmet Treats was the source of inspiration for this rainy Sunday afternoon project. Enjoy the pics!

 

looking out at a snowy, marshamallowy landscape

the marshmallow product after cooling for four hours (probably the only time i’ve waited for something to cool).

the marshmallow is covered with powdered sugar and cornstarch to prevent sticking.

we didn’t have a pizza cutter the day we made this. i ran across the street to the grocery store to pick up one. the only pizza cutter they carried was $25! i was really tempted to try my hand with a knife despite all of the recommendations. however, i love the way the marshmallow reflects in the rotating blade in these pics. that made it almost worth it.

the making of a marshmallow

the dusting bowl

a marshmallow segment

15 marshmallows waiting for some hot chocolate

rainy day hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows

tada

Feb 14

evolution of the s’more shot

A few months ago, Todd and I were excited to participate in a light-hearted summer San Francisco cupcake meet-up. Todd decided he was going to make death-by-chocolate cupcakes and I opted for banana with dulce de leche frosting cupcakes. We spent the summer morning trading baking times in the oven and sampling each other’s icing.

We arrived at Dolores Park and starting scouting for the cupcake group. Todd had his chocolate cupcakes in his cupcake tins. My cupcakes were on a small dinner plate. Dolores Park is pretty big and since this was one of the first sunny days of summer, everyone was out. After walking aimlessly a little while, Todd’s frosting started to melt in the heat. I stepped in a wet swampy puddle but managed to catch myself before the cupcakes slid onto the ground. Still, the surfaces started to crack and the cupcakes stuck together a little bit. But finally, we spotted the cupcake meetup and sat down with the other sugar-toothed cupcake adventurists.

We got decimated.

We didn’t even know it was a competition but like a ten-year high school reunion, it was. We sensed we were in trouble when the other participants arrived with professional cupcake caddies. Many were professionally trained or were working in bakeries. The guy with tattoos up his arms had won the previous Iron Cupcakes. In-between introductions (“where are you from,” “how’d you hear about the meetup”), you could see the bakers counting how many cupcakes had been taken, who was opting for seconds, and small moments of envy like when one contender revealed coordinating napkins for presenting her cupcakes.

other cupcakes

very impressive

todd & me

We couldn’t give our cupcakes away. Only when we were walking away from the event and handing our remnants to appreciative 8-year olds, did we feel some satisfaction. Though there were no trophies given away, Todd and I knew where we stood in social cupcake society.

Last week the very, very informal Meebo Valentine’s Day Bake-off event crops up. Before I could even say, “Todd you’re not officially on the payroll. I’m not sure you can partici…”, Todd had his mise en place bowls lined up on the counter and snapped back, “I built your Meebo iPhone app – I get to enter!”

Though the events seem unrelated, this was the first time we were able to take the lessons from our supposedly-social cupcake meetup and apply them to the very uncompetitive Meebo bake-off. Todd was originally intending to make S’more cupcakes with a graham cracker cake, marshmallow filling, and a chocolate frosting. However, after stumbling across an amazing chocolate pudding recipe (thank you Philo Apple Farm cooking classes), he was inspired to invent this S’more shot. He took the grand judging prize and also won the category, “Most like Martha.”

 

 

Here’s the recipe:

S’more Shots (makes approximately 30 shot glass servings or 6-8 ramekins)

For the graham crackers, Todd made them into skinny strips intended to be used as edible spoons. Make sure you roll the dough very thin otherwise your crackers will be too poofy.

Homemade Graham Crackers (from Smitten Kitchen)

Adapted from Nancy Silverton’s Pastries from the La Brea Bakery, and 101 Cookbooks.

Makes 10 4 x 4.5-inch graham crackers or 48 2-inch squares

2 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons (375 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour (a swap of 1/2 cup with whole wheat flour or 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour works well here, too)
1 cup (176 grams) dark brown sugar, lightly packed
1 teaspoon (6 grams) baking soda
3/4 teaspoon kosher or coarse sea salt (4 grams)
7 tablespoons (3 1/2 ounces or 100 grams) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes and frozen
1/3 cup (114 grams) mild-flavored honey, such as clover
5 tablespoons (77 grams) milk, full-fat is best
2 tablespoons (27 grams) pure vanilla extract

Topping (optional)
3 tablespoons (43 grams) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon (5 grams) ground cinnamon

Make the dough: Combine the flour, brown sugar, baking soda, and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade or in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Pulse or mix on low to incorporate. Add the butter and pulse on and off on and off, or mix on low, until the mixture is the consistency of a coarse meal.

In a small bowl, whisk together the honey, milk, and vanilla extract. Add to the flour mixture and pulse on and off a few times or mix on low until the dough barely comes together. It will be very soft and sticky. Lay out a large piece of plastic wrap and dust it lightly with flour, then turn the dough out onto it and pat it into a rectangle about 1-inch thick. Wrap it, then chill it until firm, about 2 hours or overnight. Meanwhile, prepare the topping, if using, by combining the sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl and setting aside.

Roll out the crackers: Divide the dough in half and return one half to the refrigerator. Sift an even layer of flour onto the work surface and roll the dough into a long rectangle about 1/8 inch thick. The dough will be sticky, so flour as necessary. Trim the edges of the rectangle to 4 inches wide. Working with the shorter side of the rectangle parallel to the work surface, cut the strip every 4 1/2 inches to make 4 crackers.

Place the crackers on one or two parchment-lined baking sheets and sprinkle with the topping. Chill until firm, about 30 to 45 minutes in the fridge or 15 to 20 minutes in the freezer. Repeat with the second batch of dough. Finally, gather any scraps together into a ball, chill until firm, and re-roll.

Adjust the oven rack to the upper and lower positions and preheat the oven to 350°F.

Decorate the crackers: Mark a vertical line down the middle of each cracker, being careful not to cut through the dough (again, this is for the traditional cracker shape). Using a toothpick or skewer (Todd used a fork), prick the dough to form two dotted rows about 1/2 inch for each side of the dividing line.

Bake for 15 to 25 minutes, until browned and slightly firm to the touch, rotating the sheets halfway through to ensure even baking.

This pudding is incredibly rich. The recipe entails making a chocolate pudding and then adding even more chocolate while the mixture is still warm. For best results, make sure you use a high-quality chocolate. We used the Valrhona cocoa powder with Scharffenberger bitter-sweet chocolate. You can probably skip the sieving if you don’t have one. However, it makes a silky texture if you have one available.

Double Chocolate Pudding (from the Philo Apple Farm)

1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp sifted cocoa
2 tablespoons corn starch
Pinch of salt
1 cup of sugar

4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup milk

2 cups milk
1/2 cup heavy cream

4 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Combine cocoa, corn starch, pinch salt, and sugar in a bowl. Add 4 egg yolks and 1/2 cup milk to bowl and whisk well.

Separately, scald the milk and heavy cream.

Slowly whisk the hot scalded milk mixture into the cocoa mix. Return to heat and stir constantly with a wooden spoon until slightly thickened (about 10 minutes). Do not boil.

Push custard through fine sieve into clean bowl.

While still warm, add the chocolate in two batches to the custard. Stir until melted.

Pour into six ramekins [or shot glasses]. Cover and refrigerate or eat warm or enjoy at room temperature.

We’ve made the marshmallow meringue a few times and in a few different kitchens. If you have a very powerful Kitchen-aid mixer, you may be able to use vanilla extract instead of the vanilla bean. However, we’ve found that the vanilla extract can make the meringue runny. We’ve unsuccessfully experimented with adding more cream of tartar to compensate. However, the vanilla bean yields the most consistent toothpaste-like texture.

Toasted Marshmallow Meringue (adapted from Martha Stewart)

8 large egg whites
2 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 vanilla bean, split in half and scraped

Place egg whites, sugar, and cream of tartar in the heatproof bowl of an electric mixer. Set over a saucepan with simmering water. Whisk constantly until sugar is dissolved and mixture reads 160 degrees on a thermometer.

Transfer bowl to electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, and beat, starting on low speed, gradually increasing to high, until stiff, glossy peaks form, 5 to 7 minutes. Add vanilla, and mix until combined. Use immediately.

For assembly, use a funnel and a spatula to fill approximately 30 shot glasses 2/3 full of pudding. Place a graham cracker in each glass. Pipe the meringue using a 12 (or larger) decorating tip forming a nice billow. Use a micro butane torch to toast the marshmallow meringue. Take care not to heat the glass or use a large butane torch as the shot glasses will shatter.

Enjoy!
-Elaine

Jan 18

an ethnographic analysis of ux professionals

As a manager, you strive to see 6-12 months beyond what your team is currently working on. In addition to roadmaps, you’re also thinking about aligning projects with their professional careers. A while ago, I wanted to make sure that I was doing a service to our Meebo UX team and that I understood what career paths looked like for designers (it was also around annual review time). I started initiating coffee conversations with any design professional my schedule could withstand (it doesn’t hurt that Red Rock Coffee is just around the corner). And truthfully, I love talking about Web application design so it was a treat to break outside the technical community and meet people that I probably should have known years ago.

My take-away after 40-60 hours of caffeinated conversations is probably a bit controversial but here it goes. I would posit that:

UX professionals are some of the most professionally unhappy folks I’ve ever encountered.

Before reactionary sparks fly, I should clarify that professional unhappiness is very different than emotional happiness. Despite my upbeat and engaging conversations, it was clear that designers have fewer growth opportunities and are less valued than their engineering counterparts. If you are currently a UX professional, it’s pretty likely you work in one of these types of organizations:

“Just make it pretty“: This is the easiest organization to identify. This organization equates design with pixel eye candy. Design is the varnish that pulls everything together. Since you are the last one to touch a product, your influence is more limited, and your hours get squeezed when the engineering schedule slips. This type of organization could have contracted out its design service but perhaps it was more economical to have someone like yourself in-house. Hopefully, you’ve found yourself designing an amazing product with a team you love. However, it may be more difficult to see growth opportunities in the near future (especially outside of visual design). Or you may find yourself constantly trying to prove that it makes strategic sense to include UX earlier in the development cycle. Regardless, at some point you’ll have enough confidence and work in your portfolio to head to the next type of organization…

A Tried-and-True Monolith” Most of the largest consumer-oriented design teams in Silicon Valley were founded by engineers 10-15 years ago. At the time, HCI was just emerging as a respected industry discipline. It wasn’t until a few years after the company’s inception that the respective UX teams were inserted into the organization, well after the DNA of that company’s organizational structure and values were solidified. A decade later, these companies have the resources and millions of end-users to do amazing things. It’s a fantastic place to gain perspective and seasoning, especially in a contributor role.

However, a professional ceiling appears once someone progresses from a contributor to a lead role. To be a good leader, you need to create strategic goals to align your teams. However, there is no VP or C-level UX role at the head of these organizations. UX is frequently aligned with pre-existing Marketing or Engineering teams and as a result, there’s no place to grow strategically. As a manager or principal, you might find yourself in a lot of meetings saying, “My job is just to offer the existing data and my interpretation. It’s up to <other team> to incorporate it.” Perhaps you even create a UX board of advisors to counteract the non-UX organizational structure. However, after enough meetings, you start to realize that as much as you wish it weren’t so, UX still feels like a service instead of a strategic voice.

After a few years, you’ll most likely have the resume (maybe even a book!), professional network, and product breadth to turn to consulting where your contracting relationship presupposes that your client values what you are doing. Even though you might not be part of a long-term project or enjoy daily team camaraderie, at least your years of experience are appreciated. You might stay in consulting; you might satisfy your entrepreneurial itch to do your own start-up. Or you might find yourself craving stability but within a team that values UX. In which case, you could find yourself here…

“Team of UX Workhorses”: This UX team is building user scenarios, wire-framing, placing metrics on decisions, and participating in all levels of the development cycle. It sounds like Silicon Valley heaven. However, when the UX team is strong and talented, there is a tendency for non-UX teams to misuse its UX resources. Instead of resolving a decision at a meeting, someone might propose, “Let’s A/B test it!” and after the meeting, the UX team is off and running. Should we go with a 2-step or 3-step registration process? “Let’s run it through usability!” and now days are lost to scheduling and moderation. Someone have a new idea that just might work? “Let’s ask our ID team to spend a week or two creating new wires!”

Execs love the ability to go so quickly from idea to exploration. However, the exploration just leads to more data collection which, in turn, postpones critical thinking and decision-making. Soon, projects are canceled unexpectedly, other teams are complaining that their projects aren’t getting attention from your overtaxed UX team, and it’s hard to make gigantic strides forward when your designs are hung up in A/B testing micro-steps. Not only are you getting discouraged that only 20% of your projects see the light of day, it is especially disheartening that design issues are resolved through usability participants and other team members inaccurately interpreting data. You were hired for your expertise, it’s incredibly clear that the right answer is “the blue button,” and you can’t figure out why no one trusts you to make a call.

Experienced folks who suggest eliminating UX cycles are deemed illogical (why wouldn’t you do A/B testing?). Junior designers might suspect that an idea isn’t worth exploring but feel compelled to push forward in case perhaps the idea is good, but their creativity is lacking. Without an exec or a process to keep everything in check, the team is constantly spinning and being accused of not being strategic because their efforts are difficult to map to the bottom line.

But from my conversations, it certainly wasn’t all bad news. Almost everyone was optimistic that things were getting better. The stereotype of UX teams comprised of unapproachable design divas is being replaced by the concept of well-rounded teams that successfully partner business expectations with end-user experiences. Ten years ago, it was difficult to find someone seasoned who could step into a Director/VP of UX role. However, through my coffees alone, I met several professionals with many, many more years of experience than I have who would bring amazing perspective to a willing organization. Finally, the organizational placement of UX professionals is becoming more clear. UX folks want to be close to the action. They think about the UI and want to be beside the people who build the UI – the engineers. And finally, I’m especially excited about the somewhat controversial conversations popping up about UX hybrids and how that can influence team dynamics.

I’m still compiling my notes on UX hybridization… but more on that later.