Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Basement progression

Here is a progression to date of the basement family room project. The overall interior dimensions of this room when complete will be about 10' x 12'. The TV & entertainment center will be on the right in the picture below, along the southside wall. Straight ahead below (the east wall) will have two craft cabinets. The sofa will lie along the newly constructed wall to the left (wall #3 below).

The relevant quarter of the basement, as it looked when we moved in.

The first wall, framed.

The second wall framed. Note the heating/ac vents on the ceiling. We had to frame those out. We'll be putting in a drop ceiling, and a couple fluorescent light fixtures.

The third wall framed. The pillar you see on the right, will be the left edge of the door frame. We're putting in two 36" wide solid-cherry bifold doors (just ordered them today). That leaves just under 2' between the door and the southside exterior wall.

This is the view of the stairs from inside the family room under construction. To your right is the "third wall". The fourth wall is straight ahead (open in the picture). We have framed this space as well. The pillar above is now on your left in this photo. Between pillars is just under 8'. We'll be putting up three large heavy duty shelves on the stairside of this wall, to serve as pantry storage.

And here is the view from today (the white blotch on your left is the pillar): four walls framed, electrical conduit and boxes in place, moisture barrier installed, insulation up. You see the one of the ventilation chases above.

One thing leads to another

Email, phone call, followup, referral. One thing leads to another.

A good morning working on the basement. We completed the electrical boxes (all that remains is hooking them up. We've got the moisture barrier in place, and put up the insulation. The wallboard stands neatly stacked against one wall, awaiting our next assault. Ordered the doors. Another two or three sessions, and we should be ready to move in the furniture.

Then, after lunch, I followed up on some contacts and referrals. One leads to another. I'm feeling well supported in these endeavors, and confident that everything will move quickly here on, and expect to be surprised. This is a far cry from the isolation and silence of academia. Why, oh why is it this way?

The incentives are all for small businesses. I can't complain: that's the path I've chosen. But how much sweeter is the water here than what is proffered to academics. Is the work that different? Surely not. The research (at least my research) is virtually the same. The only difference is in focus, in the recognition that the research must lead to something viable from the start.

Perhaps there is greater (at least direct, measurable) value for the economy in creating new jobs, in commercializing products. --Of course, there is a danger in that... a danger that the motives for greater good may be diminished or forgotten. I think of Google's motto: do no evil... far better it had been do good, but that's another thing.--

As the head instructor for the seminar on Monday put it: one needs to remember that to do good, one must first do well. And so, I proceed.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Resources abound

I went to a seminar last night a couple hours' drive away. (Got to love it: "a couple hours' drive" in the LA area was about 40 miles... here it's over 100!). The small class was on the topic of starting a technology business. A good start I'd say.

Nice to know, for one thing, that there are Small Business Development Centers set up all over the state, with free counseling for startups and entrepreneurs. I learned about federal grants programs to small businesses for startup research and technology transfer that might be exactly up my alley. And there is assistance available for preparation of the grant applications.

I gave a call this morning to the local SBDC, to set up an initial consultation. I called my father-in-law to request he set up a meeting for me with his former co-worker, a retired corporate patent attorney. They'll be having dinner together on Friday.

It's time for some movement.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

UK teachers strike

Solidarity! America, anyone?

Here's a BBC article on the strike. Note the remark by the Schools Minister toward the end, saying the average teacher earns about £34,000. That's about US$67,000. American teachers make about 50% less (though the chart is for median salaries not average), but the cost of living is on average rather more in the UK.

Not the size of the steps that matter...

... but the sheer fact that one foot follows the other, no matter how painfully, how slowly, how begrudgingly.

I think that describes my life as an entrepreneur at the moment. I want so much to feel sorry for myself... but I won't really allow that. There's too much at stake.

When setting out to swim the English Channel, it's important not to start by counting strokes. I'm so accustomed to seeking a sign: checking my email; dashing out to the mailbox, as soon as the carrier visits.

I'm addicted to measuring change. I check my investments daily more because it affords me something to do, some change to observe. I am palpably disappointed when the markets are closed, because I'm denied that sense of activity. When I'm gardening, I check on my plants each day, to see if a new shoot has emerged, or leaf unfurled. It's not that any of it matters from one day to the next. I know that. But without these little behaviors, I feel the geologist watching an iceberg from up close, blinking, staring.

I've been keeping my schedule on a calendar, marking down my moment to moment activities (15 minutes on email; 30 minutes reading news and blogs; 1 hour reviewing and modifying documents). It keeps me accountable, honest.

I called a local college about posting a student internship for programming assistance. As much as anything, I think I just want company, an ear, someone to reflect off of. I value Rocket's input, but the opportunities are infrequent.

I signed up for a 2-hour workshop next Monday on starting a technology business at the small business development center of a major research university a couple hours drive away. I looked into joining the county's Inventors & Entrepreneurs club. Next meeting in a couple weeks. I lift my leg almost imperceptibly, and take a step, shufflingly, like someone recovering movement after paralysis. Step by step, I move, I creep, I slither toward a goal.

Bittersweet Lamb Shank

In honor of passover leftovers.

  • ~1 lb. lamb shank (bone and gristle removed, meat cubed)
  • 1-2 small carrots (diced small)
  • 1/2 medium onion (chopped small)
  • 1 c. petite diced tomatoes.
  • 1/4 c. raisins (finely chopped)
  • 1/2 c. apple sauce
  • couple dashes of paprika
  • 1-2 tsp. or to taste of garam masala (I made my own, but you can purchase it as well)
  • 1 tsp. freshly ground horseradish root (or from a jar)
Saute the onions in a large skillet with some olive oil. When translucent, add the meat and paprika. Toss until browned. Add carrots, raisins, garam masala, and horseradish. Stir for a couple minutes until well mixed. Heat over medium high heat for 5-10 minutes. Add tomatoes and apple sauce, stir, heat on medium high for 5-10 minutes, stirring frequently then lower heat to bare simmer for an additional 5-10 minutes. Serves 4.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Not to fail

Following up on yesterday's post: I recently joined an online community based around the blog OnStartups. There was a recent article there about why startups fail, which reinforced my view. It's not the cash that is the concern, it's the commitment.

Years ago, I ran a landscaping business. It started with a $60 used lawn mower which hung perilously out the trunk of my 1982 Honda Prelude. I knocked on doors and picked up some cash. But I worked to get regular contracts with customers. Each "contract" I acquired, I would go and buy another tool or piece of equipment (a hand pruner, a weed whip, a shovel). Three years later, I leased a brand new Ford F-150, and loaded it with a $3500 walk-behind lawn mower, that could cut an acre of tall grass in under an hour.

The point was, my startup (while never a million dollar business) succeeded. It succeeded because my commitment remained. It succeeded because I spent less than I brought in (though at times only barely).

Now I'm in a different sort of startup. There is much work to do before I have a marketable product. The proofs-of-concept that I'm working on will only show what's possible. With some luck, and a great heaping of ingenuity, I'll figure a way to make those kernels of possibility useful to someone, a way to make them saleable, enough to sustain the business until the next stage.

But what's important at this stage is that I maintain my passion, my excitement, my commitment. I believe in this. I believe in what I'm doing far more than I believe it worthwhile to enslave myself to an academic system that abuses its scholars and students, that overworks them, overcrowds them, underpays them. I'm still sad about that. But I have no regrets about walking away.

I keep reminding myself of why I am here, why I am on my own. This was not my first choice. I had hoped against hope that I could be hired by a university, supported by an institution to continue teaching and pursuing my research; next, I had hoped a possibility would emerge to be hired by industry to pursue research and development in the areas of my interest and expertise. But none of those panned out. Rather than abandon myself, however, I have chosen this path.

I can't say that it is any the worse for my not having chosen it first. Perhaps it's like requesting the daily special at a restaurant, only to be told it's all sold out; Returning to the menu, there's no telling the next choice won't surpassingly delight.

Now to work. My father-in-law has been called to jury duty this week, so I have a hiatus from basement finishing, which I plan to use well for diving into the research and business.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Another day: seeking ground

I had one day last week, which I could call a productive full day of work. Continuing work on the basement is a major distraction. It's Passover, so the holidays are also a distraction (which I suppose they are supposed to be).

Today I had hoped to spend the whole day "at work". It hasn't turned out that way. Finding and maintaining focus are difficult but crucial. Finding and maintaining enthusiasm and commitment for my research are essential. It's one thing to come up with an idea (or a set of ideas), and to believe in them. It's quite another to retain that confidence (and the energy that must accompany it) throughout the requisite duration of leading the idea to fruition!

I've got ideas. I talk about them excitedly. I see their usefulness, their worth, their practicality. But it takes more than that. I need to do the work. And some of that work is drudgery: coding and testing, and revising.

This is what lies before me at this juncture. Yet, living life with all its indelicacies (for a parent of young children there are many) is inevitable as well. The basement needs finishing in part because it gives the boys somewhere else to be besides the living room just on the other side of my office wall, and will provide a sound barrier.

I think perhaps the noise in my mind is the bigger issue. Patience, perseverance, a bit of pluck.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Whenever you close a door...

A couple days ago, I received an email from the director of a workshop/institute in Canada, who had initially contacted me a year ago inviting me to participate as a speaker. Because of conflicts I was unable to take part, but we left the possibility open for future collaborations. The recent letter was rather thorough, with an update on what has been happening with the institute, and with her invitations and talks in the interim. She wrote in particular to ask if I'd be available to meet for a couple days this summer with some of her colleagues to discuss possible links between my work and theirs.
I am wondering whether you might be interested in having a conversation about possible links. I continue to feel that your work and background would suit a fruitful interaction.
I wrote back to say it was nice to hear from her, to update her a bit on my status, and to say, yes, if she could arrange it, I should be available to fly in for a two-day meeting.

She wrote back immediately:
Good to read from you. Yes, it's a tough road to find the sort of position you're looking for in academe. We're in the midst of trying to make a pitch for some of that here, and [the institute] is a centrepiece of that plan. Out of curiousity - does your news about stopping the frustrating job search mean that you would not take a position if it fell into your lap? (not offering, but in a longer-term sense things may emerge here...)
And so, the saga continues. I've learned however to count on nothing (except myself, and my family). That said, of course I'm intrigued by her continuing interest in my work. Would I consider a position that fell in my lap? Surely. Would I take it? Depends on the position.

Meantime, our house is almost in order. The basement begins to look less like a city dump, and more like a work-in-progress. We've framed the entire family/entertainment room, and are ready to start putting in the electrical. Another couple weeks? My father-in-law comes over about two days a week, for us to work on it.

We're almost done with all the unpacking. We opted to keep the Painter home for the remainder of this school year, then start him in first grade in the fall. We were rather unimpressed with the next school over, where he'd need be sent for the rest of kindergarten. This will give us some chance to visit the zoned school (and possibly others in the district if that proves equally uninspiring).

I'm wishing very much that I could have a normal week of working again. But moving takes time. It's good to be here though. I can say that with confidence. It's good to have a home again, to own a home again. It's good to have a sense that we're on a solid footing, that we're taken care of for a while, that we need not worry too much about finances, and can focus on life. One step at a time.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

You ain't from around here, are you?

Seen on Smart Cookie:
What American accent do you have?
Your Result: Philadelphia

Your accent is as Philadelphian as a cheesesteak! If you're not from Philadelphia, then you're from someplace near there like south Jersey, Baltimore, or Wilmington. if you've ever journeyed to some far off place where people don't know that Philly has an accent, someone may have thought you talked a little weird even though they didn't have a clue what accent it was they heard.

The Northeast
The Midland
The Inland North
The South
The West
North Central
What American accent do you have?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz

The only thing missing from the quiz (which might have revealed the rest of my accent -- I grew up about half in Baltimore, half in NYC) would deal with the distinction between the words "have" and "halve". In my dialect, the vowels are remarkably different. The a-with-"silent l" vowel is something most of you may never have encountered, along the lines of รค-uh. Otherwise, a fair quiz.

Oh yeah... and the word "water" (in my native, though somewhat abandoned pronunciation) is along the lines of "wood-er".

Dust settling (or is that snow?)

Why yes, it has snowed, a couple times since we got here. Yesterday, flurries. Meanwhile it's touching 90F in our old haunts. I don't miss them.

I'm a chameleon, I guess. Roll with the punches. I'm still sad (and a bit bitter) about the state of affairs that pits education at the bottom rung of our societal ladder. But I recognize part of the fault lies with any of us who are willing to accept those conditions without a fight. I walked away, not simply because it allowed me to retrieve my dignity and self-respect, but also because I think it's the best thing to do for a broken system, to let it falter, then help rebuild it (when the time comes). Perhaps I'm a bit too grand, but the drama helps me through the frustration, aids me in accepting the difference between where I have power to choose, and where I do not.

Meantime, I finished our tax return, and discovered with pleasure that we'll be getting a handsome refund. I made preliminary application for some state support (in particular health care), which if it comes through will save us a pretty penny, while I work to build my research into something viable and supporting. Then, we got an apologetic call from our former landlady today, saying she's putting our security deposit refund check in the mail in the morning, and that she's returning most of it. I already got back the bulk of the security deposit on my office rental. We have two more "paid family leave" checks coming for Rocket. The moving expenses are already covered.

Looks like it'll be mid-summer before we need to take more cash out of savings for expenses. That's welcome news. We're still settling in, unpacking, organizing. My father-in-law and I are still working to finish off half the basement. We've got some more details to work out with registering the Painter for the fall, and enrolling him to finish out this year of kindergarten if we can reasonably.

Otherwise, I'm about ready to dig into my research and coding, undistracted (or at least with fewer distractions). Life is good.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

First travail: public school

Monday morning I took the Painter in for his kindergarten testing. The magnet school we'd like to get him in is all booked for this year. We can get on the waiting list for next year. The zoned school (one of the reasons we chose this neighborhood) is likewise all booked for the year. They're supported by a federal grant that mandates a maximum class size of 15. So, they'd like to bus him off to another school with class sizes around 30 (30! for kindergarten). Um... no thanks.

There are three schools in town with the mandated smaller class size. I called them both, to see if we could have him enrolled there for the remainder of this year. Apparently, the school district requires the local school to take him next year regardless. One of the other two low student/teacher ratio schools is similarly booked. I haven't heard back from the other.

We may just keep him out of kindergarten for the remainder of this year. It's upheaval enough, to move in the middle of the school year. I'd rather avoid the upheaval again, after a couple months of attending one school (crammed into an oversized classroom), of starting over at yet another school in town.

I think it's absurd the low priority my country (and compatriots) put on education. Constant headlines complain over the supposed profligacy of spending for education. Um... where? Sure, I'd be willing to accept that there is some waste, but I'd say none of it can be attributed to teacher's salaries. And it pales in comparison to the huge sums of missing or misappropriated funds in the military and foreign aid programs.

What we really need in this country is to double or triple the number of teachers (from Kindergarten through Graduate School) and significantly increase salaries along the way. Despite the arguments in this article, there is no problem with too many teachers, and there is no reason to believe that the pool of public and private funds is too low to both increase the ranks and increase their salaries. According to that article, a $10,000 across the board increase in salaries and benefits would amount to $40 billion. Put it in perspective: that's less than 10% of current annual U.S. military expenditures. That's 20% less than the "bridge funding" for Iraq & Afghanistan in the 2007 budget.

I think we could afford it. I think we have cause to shift our priorities.

If salaries and benefits (and public esteem for education) increased, there would be greater interest from a broader swath of potential teachers. There would be an increase in supply, as more and more college graduates considered teaching a worthy and rewarding profession, thereby allowing for greater competition (without cutting demand). I don't see any lack of competition or supply in higher education (if anything there is the opposite... but too little funding, too few positions).

It all comes down to this: increase funding for education. PERIOD!

Monday, April 7, 2008

Prelude to routine

Beethoven's The Creatures of Prometheus plays mildly on a portable boom box on my office desk, cluttered by random piles of papers and miscellaneia that haven't found a permanent location yet. The CD was one we had lent a friend, returned the day before we moved, so it was readily accessible.

The window shades are opened, so I can look outside, rather than at the brown walls (which I will repaint someday to brighten up this room). The door is closed. I'll have to work out a signal with the family to indicate when I'm actually working. A closed door should serve for now.

The sounds of the boys bounding up and down the stairs (just outside my office door) are only slightly muffled by Beethoven's Opus 43. Perhaps when the basement is finished, they'll spend more time down there. We shall see.

The sun shines brightly on this new week, beckoning us to invention (and reinvention).

Sunday, April 6, 2008


Ah yes. There is indeed a floor in this house. The moving truck arrived on Wednesday morning. Rocket, the Composer, and I spent the night before in an empty house on an air mattress in what is now our bedroom. Our car and van arrived Wednesday as well, at my inlaws' house. They drove them (and the two older boys) over in the afternoon. It's been a hectic more than a week, what with travelling, and waiting, and finally FINALLY unpacking.

We've a home again. It's ours. At least as much as any home is really one's own. I've realized (at least at this point in my life) the difference between renting and owning is a somewhat subtle distinction. It means we can do what we want with the house (barring local regulations to the contrary) without asking anyone's permission. Yet that subtle distinction makes a world of difference.

But we don't own it really. It's 80% owned by the bank. The window coverings are someone else's residue. The rusty or leaky pipes are someone else's neglect. We've simply inherited it, like some forgotten uncle's vineyard. The changes, the choices now, are our own.

We've heard every day the same question: So, uh, why'd you move here? And though we struggle, just a bit, to clarify our reasons (even if we simplify them), the question itself is validation somehow that we are keeping perspective, that we have prioritized our lives, that we have decided what we value. And that makes a world of difference.

I sit now, at my reassembled black-brown Ikea galant corner desk with its two extensions, in a too-darkly-painted 10'x10' room, with stacks of boxes, two large bookcases, and three printers. I type on my friend Moose, the computer that has succeeded my old laptop DI in my affections. This is my office. I've set up the wireless network. In fact, the first appliance we brought to the house was the cable modem the internet company installed on Tuesday morning.

My father-in-law and I had been working on finishing off half the basement, until unpacking became the order. We've got a 12'x10' room mostly framed, which will serve as the entertainment center/family room/playspace once its done. The living room contains two sofas, an arm chair and two large book cases. The piano is in the dining room. We removed the second fridge to the garage (in California they rent houses without most appliances, so we brought our fridge, washer and dryer with us). [Don't worry, Tracy, pictures are coming. I promise.]

Many little details still to attend to. I've our taxes to finish in the next week or so. The Painter will take his entrance testing tomorrow for the local school district. I'll talk with them to find out what our options are for the rest of this year and for next. Bit by bit. The bills come due in the next few weeks to cover our moving expenses. The last large chunk for our choice. Then we settle into a budget, and a routine.

Life is clay on a wheel, ours to spin and mold to the content of our hearts' imagination.