Sunday, June 29, 2008

Late in the Season

I finally got the vegetable garden set today. About three weeks ago, I dug up the sod in a triangle bed just outside our back fence, along one edge of the driveway leading into our detached garage. It seemed a useless patch of grass, too small to play in, good for little more than an extra four minutes of weekly mowing. Silly, I thought... but it has a nice warm micro-climate, sheltered and insulated by the wood plank fence, and warmed by the concrete driveway, with a full-sun westward facing. Today, I finally finished with separating the soil from the roots, tossing the dying grass in a pile by the worm-bin, and tilling up the soil in the now vegetable patch.

We had bought a bunch of seeds to start the garden (along with some still languishing bulbs and tubers) that populate our back stairwell. I decided at this late stage in the season, it'd be better to plant some seedlings than to start seeds. The Inventor and I headed out to a couple garden centers. Tomatoes we found in abundance, but sweet peppers were hard to come by. Many varieties of hot pepper, but I could only locate two types of sweet (both oddly enough purple). So, we have a half dozen tomato plants, five hot peppers, four sweet (purple!) peppers, one bean plant, and three strawberries. I also bought a few packs of lettuce seedlings (which it's certainly too late to start from seed) in hopes that they'll provide us with a month or two of baby salad greens. I'll plant them along the inside of the fence tomorrow.

Still a little room in the triangle patch. Maybe I'll put in some seeds, or purchase a couple other plants (eggplant? more beans?) Not really enough room for cucumbers or zucchini there. I might find another spot (though I'm not sure it'll be this season). There's a lot to do in the garden besides. I was also planning on starting a small bed or two inside the fence, and have half a notion to plant some corn in the greenway along the street. We'll see. Anything that doesn't get done tomorrow will have to wait.

We'll be taking off for a few days starting on Tuesday. My wife's grandparents own a remote house near the Wisconsin Dells, on a dirt road, alongside a pond ("the lake house"), which is the venue for occasional family gatherings, most traditionally for the Fourth of July. We'll be heading up a couple days early, and staying on a couple days past.

No computer. It'll be five days without email, or internet. RocketMom promised she'd try to plan enough activities and outings so we wouldn't get bored. And I promise, I'll try to just be in the moment. Vacations are good... I'm just not always so good at being there.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Slow & Steady

The choice I face today as an entrepreneur is how far/how fast. What are my requirements, my needs, my hopes, my expectations? I'm at a pause. Not that I'm standing still. It's more like I've hiked to a vantage; I'm taking a few deep breaths to survey the scape around me.

We made this choice as a family to leave behind HELL.A. (the "hel" is silent), to find a nice place in the midwest, where we could afford to be home owners again, near family (at least my inlaws), near the water (so we could go sailing again sometime), where the air is cleaner than we had, where the pace is gentler, where neighborhoods have sidewalks, and neighbors say "hello" to each other, and lend out garden tools just because. We've found that place. We're very happy here, enjoying the spring (despite the frequent heavy rains).

But where to, and when, and how? A week ago, I submitted a grant proposal for funding to support the work I'm already doing. I've been honing and focusing my efforts. If I get the grant, that buys us another year or two (at least for us alone, though it won't allow me to hire employees). I'm working on my patent application. Patents are like diplomas, they're nice to have but relatively meaningless in themselves.

What I need is a product. What I need is a plan. I remind myself of a debate that I've summed up before as the opposition in outlooks between the composers Haydn and Dvořák. Haydn for his part viewed the essential task of music, its mark of genius, to reside in devising a fine melody. Dvořák considered the melody the easy part, believing rather that musical genius was in the treatment of a melody, not its creation.

Both of these masters were abundantly skilled at producing memorable melodies. I find myself more in the latter camp however. It's interesting to note the differences of their circumstances. Haydn spent a career as a court composer, sustained, supported, directed by a wealthy patron. His freedom to compose derived from his relative lack of worries. Dvořák toiled. He picked up temporary and part-time gigs, applied for grants and stipends to permit his continued efforts.

They present not only a difference in philosophy, but a difference as models for an entrepreneur. Do I wish to seek the comfort and stability that comes from raising capital (or taking a job), in exchange for releasing some of my creative direction, or do I wish to continue along a path of great freedom, in exchange for releasing financial comfort and stability? In the end I may reach the same point. Both masters' music lives on.

There are as many journeys as there are feet to tread them. For now my path lies before me. RocketMom is here to hold my hand, join the discussion at times, offer her advice. She begins to say we rather than you (as in "maybe we're not ready to hire someone full-time" or "we can wait a couple months to see if we get this grant"). I like that.

Perhaps I'm a bit afraid that if I leap too fast (by seeking investors now), the research and its applications will get away from me. It's not so much that I fear delegating, that I'm afraid to share decisions, that I don't recognize that others may be better qualified or equipped than I to make certain sorts of decisions. It's more that I don't wish to be hasty. It's just not yet time. There is no rush.

Ah... I think I'll take that path over there down the mountain. I like the way it looks.

Friday, June 20, 2008


It was a rather intense three weeks, preparing the grant proposal. Then, it was done. What might happen?

I explained to RocketMom that I feel like I'm in my old darkroom. Once you select the frame, and adjust the cropping, place and expose the paper, burn and dodge as you like, then gently glide it in the alkaline developer tray, you catch your breath until that moment when the image in silver halides begins magically to appear.

I'm caught in that moment. I'm in a Groundhog Day dream, terminating just before that crucial event. What might happen?

No... I don't need this. But what next? I have a new priority now: my patent application. Deadline set by the end of the summer. That's three long months. According to Gaisma, we're in the summer solstice locally.
Date Sunrise Sunset Length Change
Today 05:13 20:33 15:20
+1 day 05:13 20:33 15:20 00:00 equal length

More intense effort. Don't get me wrong: this is what I wish to be doing at this point in my life. But there are times when the path weighs heavily on me.

I mentioned the other day that I'm reading about the making of Pixar as inspiration. Long time readers will recall that a bit more than a year ago I read part of the story in Droidmaker, by Michael Rubin. Problem is, I'm not sure just whom I'm emulating.

See, the folks who made computer animated films a reality (Ed Catmull, Alvy Ray Smith, John Lasseter, et al) were not exactly entrepreneurs. They had the spirit, the commitment, the ideas, but... they also had that rare and wonderful commodity: wealthy sponsors. First, it was Alexander Schure, then George Lucas, and finally Steve Jobs. They... those last three, they were the entrepreneurs. But, I can't say they're my role models.

David Price, in The Pixar Touch, writes (p. 62): "The trouble at Lucasfilm was that Lucas wanted his computer graphics experts to be Isaacs, the inventor, while they wanted to be Muybridge, the artist...". My problem is, I wish to be the inventor and the entrepreneur.

It's not that the thought of a rich patron doesn't at times appeal to me. It's mostly that I've given up holding my breath. I look at job listings, wondering if there isn't somewhere a position just right for me (like there was for Catmull and Smith and Lasseter). But that phone has yet to ring out of the blue, inviting me to head a new lab. For now, and likely for good, I'm on my own.

I just hope, someday soon, to have the resources to hire some others to join me. Even the best climbers wouldn't tackle a mountain alone.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Painter: Mommy, does daddy really sneak in here every night and give us extra kisses?

Mommy: Yes, he does... well, maybe not every night.

Painter: Daddy, when I'm a daddy, you'll have to... you'll have to remind me to kiss my boys, too.
I don't think I'll have to.

Seared Ahi Tuna with Mango-Pepper salad

  • ~1 lb. of Ahi Tuna steaks
  • ~1 cup of minced peppers (use several kinds)
  • ~1/2 cup of diced fresh fruit (mangoes, peaches, apricots)
  • 2 tbs. thinly sliced green onions or chives
  • 1/4 c. olive oil
  • 1 tbs sesame oil
  • 1 tsp. sesame seeds
  • juice of half a lemon, half a lime, half an orange
  • 1 tsp. fresh minced garlic
  • 1 tbs. fresh grated ginger
  • 2 tbs. soy sauce
  • 2 tbs. rice wine vinegar (or apple cider vinegar)
  • 1/8 tsp. wasabi powder
  • fresh greens (lettuce, arugula, radicchio)
  • fresh sprouts
  • cherry tomatoes
Mince & chop peppers, green onions, & fruit. Mix in bowl with oils, seeds, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, vinegar, wasabi, and citrus juices. Stir well. Gently Sear tuna about 3 minutes per side (don't overcook it). Arrange leaves, sprouts and tomatoes on plate. Set tuna steaks on leaves, spoon mango-pepper sauce on top. Serve with rice. Enjoy.

The mango-pepper chutney was devoured by our pepper-loving (won't touch most other fruits and vegetables) Painter. Chalk that up as success.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


This morning, at around 4:00am local time, while I slept soundly, my previously uploaded and complete application silently became a submitted proposal. All told, it's worth about $150,000 and 12 months of effort... that is, if it's funded. Now it's on to the next project.

I spent a few hours the past couple days in the garden, getting a bed ready for vegetables, though it's already late in the season to get started.

The next priority is preparing and filing a patent application. Simultaneous with that, I need to start investigating other grant opportunities to support research and development.

This has been a good process for me, clarifying my ideas, specifying applications. The more I have delved into current efforts, the more I become convinced of the value of my own ideas. The trick is figuring out a way to realize them in practical applications.

I picked up a copy of The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company, by David A. Price, for inspiration. It's a model for me. There are similarities in what I'm trying to do, in a different domain. Can I do it on my own? No way of telling just yet. But shy of making friends with the next Steve Jobs, or giving up, I haven't a choice.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Darned if I didn't think I'd shut that door!

[Door knocks]


Hi, AD... it's Tasse Plein. I got a call from June Strawberry. They're looking to hire someone to cover some classes. It's a one-year appointment. Don't know if it's long term, but they've got an overflow of students. If they continue to have an overflow... well, you were the first person I thought of. I know you said you'd had enough, and I respect that. I just still think you'd do a great job.
Ain't it always that way? The call came during the entrepreneurship conference. Actually there was a voice mail that I returned. The school is 7 hours' drive from here. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) there are no direct flights, so travel by plane would likely still take 5 hours or more, what with travel to and from regional airports and arriving early for departure.

It's hard to say, still hard to say, but it's not really what I'm seeking now. I just don't want to burn any bridges. It's not that I'm no longer interested in the academy. In some ways, I'm irredeemably connected. "One foot in/one foot out". I may shut the door, but it's ever in sight. You never know when the knock will come, or when I'll choose to open it up, to see if the courtyard appears at all changed.

I've been doing more and more searches on the internet, mostly "prior art" searches, trying to uncover the known universe of research in my area. People are looking at the geography for sure. They're just not using my tools. I am increasingly assured of that. There's a patent to be had, with little problem I'm sure.

But, as was hammered home at this conference: patents don't make sales... products make sales. "And why are sales important?" you may ask. Fair enough question. I mean it's all about the research, about asking interesting questions, finding answers, right? Why climb the mountain? Because it's there, right?

Ah, yes... but you can't climb a mountain without the necessary equipment and resources. Years ago, foolishly convinced by a friend, I entered a bicycle race. I hadn't trained. Not a bit. I rode my bike daily, wasn't that enough. Humiliation. You need to have the resources and the stamina. What gives a researcher resources and stamina? Ah... there's the rub.

See, as you will recall, I have no institutional affiliation, no academic support network. I have no foundation, no trust, no lab. I have my trusty "Moose" and my home office. And I've got ideas. Oh have I got ideas. But ideas alone won't pay the mortgage. And I've got a limited time to live off savings.

I met a lot of investors at the conference. What's your 30-second commercial? Do you have an "elevator speech"? Repeatedly I heard something along the lines of "it's not the technology, it's the revenue". The trick, the real trick is to make us both happy. What they want desperately to give me is the resources to succeed, so long as they get what they want in return. We may differ on how we define success... but that doesn't mean our definitions are mutually exclusive. To the contrary, by making them happy, I'm more likely to ensure I've got the resources to keep it all going for thirty years.

See, that's my goal. Get me to 70! Then I'll reassess. But how to get there? Everyone who got where they are... started where they were. Indeed! I've no aversion to success, even financial or business success. I'm fine with that. It's just not my motivation. What I want is to remain true to what I hold dear. Knowledge, inquiry. Ask important and interesting questions. Propel human understanding forward.

Now, from the investor's standpoint: so what? Fine, they've different motivations. But I still have to answer that so what. What problems are you solving? That's a good question for us researchers. It's fine to climb a mountain because it's there. But if one particular mountain lies between my cache of food and a starving village, there's a bit more impetus to the project. Nice thing is: I get to climb the mountain either way. So I begin to ask myself these questions. In finding the answers to them, I'll discover the best paths to take at this stage of the journey.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Brief hiatus

Friday afternoon, I took a brief hiatus (about an hour) from grant writing, so I could prime the walls in the basement family room (and pantry wall). Today, we took advantage of a break in the rains, to head over to a local building supply store, and pick up the baseboards, quarter rounds, and shelving hardware. We never got around to putting on the first coat of paint. My mother-in-law will be coming up tomorrow, and my father-in-law on Tuesday (they have conflicting schedules -- though they're both retired now).

I'll be away at an entrepreneurs' conference both days. It'll be my first of that variety. I'm looking forward to it, though I have no idea whether I'll find much interesting, or much tedious. I certainly wouldn't be terribly interested in hearing about how one fellow got rich building laundromats, or some gal learned how to buy and flip rental properties. That's not exactly my kind of entrepreneurship. But then, maybe it's not most people's. I couldn't really say. I'm feeling like an outsider again.

But for me, being an outsider is a good feeling. I like being on the edge, listening in, taking my view from a different place, having something unusual to contribute to the conversation. I learned that in junior high school, those many years ago. I had had a rough time in elementary school... a really rough time. I was small, always the smallest. And I was young, younger than all but one very sweet (and very smart) Korean-American girl (I hear in Korea you're considered 1 at birth -- apparently counting gestation as a first year -- any insight, Soo? -- so there may have been some discrepancy in translation).

In any case, I joined the group in second grade, having missed two years of socializing with my cohorts. Somehow, that lead to my becoming an outcast. I had three or four friends until fifth grade. Mostly, I was known as it and thing. I learned self-reliance, self-respect, self-confidence. I had to. In junior high, I learned to blend, to be a chameleon, always to be almost a part of many cliques, never quite a member of any of them, but never fully excluded. I think that's lived with me until now.

I suppose that has contributed to my comfort with interdisciplinarity. Who wants to be fully entrenched in one discipline, when you can find a territory to lay claim to that lies between several? I wrote a lot about the dangers and challenges of this approach, and also its benefits, on my old blog. And now, I've left academia. I'm an outsider there, and an outsider in business.

I like being a researcher/entrepreneur. I like the prospects that appear on my horizon. This just may work. I may be able to carve this territory for myself, find a way to make a living at it, keep it self-sustaining, and fully regain my dignity, which has been creeping back after the relentless suction of four years wandering a zombie among the forgotten and abandoned PhDs.

I'm looking forward now. Enjoying every way station. Enjoying my time. Enjoying my life. Enjoying the rains and the storms. Enjoying my house. Enjoying my family. Life really is good.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The never-ending proposal

I feel I'm making progress. I know I am. But this whole endeavor is quite exhausting. More than 6000 words on the page. (I've probably edited out more than twice that already). I'm putting my best foot forward. The deeper I get into the process, not only of preparing this federal grant proposal, but of building the business, the more I believe in it. I've been doing almost daily searches, including multiple keyword searches of issued patents and published applications. Mostly, I'm on my own in the research domain, and that's exciting. I feel like I've entered a massive field of stones, and all have been turned over... but one! When there is something remotely similar to what I'm doing, it's not too hard for me to see through a lacuna in that work. I remain convinced that what I'm proposing is indeed novel and valuable. And yet, I remain on the cusp.

The proposal I've been putting together would be a first step, giving me a real salary for conducting the research I've been doing for free for most of the past two years, and in part for the two preceding ones. That ... would be heaven. But it's just a start. If I'm right... If I really can accomplish the things I'm setting out to do, it should be little problem moving to the next phase and beyond. All told, this could mean more than a million dollars for my firm, just on one project... and that's before commercialization. That should be enough to hire a staff. Instant colleagues. If I deliver, I've got a product to propel me forward.

My goal is not to get rich (though I certainly won't cast it off). My goal is simple: to find a way to make enough with my research to keep it going for the next thirty years. I simply want it to become self-sustaining. And the thing is, though this proposal is sapping all my energies at the moment, I don't really need this one to come through. I'm utterly convinced that the right opportunity will arise one way or another.

Most likely I'll submit just one of these two proposals I've been planning. It's simply too much work (if I do it right) to get both done. But there are two more cycles coming up with other agencies in August and October. And there are many opportunities beyond these federal grants as well.

Next step after this grant submission is working on the patent filing. I've spent a lot of time lately reading patents on related work. Some are well written, some work interesting, others so badly written I haven't the slightest idea what they're about. I want my patent application to be clear, patently clear. Will I hire an attorney? Perhaps. I haven't decided for sure, though I suspect I'll at least want to hire one to look over my wording, even if I file it on my own. I suspect part of what makes some patents and applications so poorly written is that the attorneys at times have no idea what the invention is all about, so they fill in the filing with words words words. On the other hand, there's a strategy I believe to presenting just the facts, ma'am, without providing all the pith, in the nomenclature--without making the description enabling. Properly, I believe a patent is supposed to be enabling... but in practice it most often isn't.

First off, I complete and submit this grant proposal. Next, I find my Nolo's Patents for Beginners, and get cracking. We'll see. It just might be worth paying that $5-10k for an attorney.

Enjoying the storm

I want the Earth to talk to me,
to listen to its call,
to hear its winds awhispery,
even a stormy squall.

I'm glad for weather's vibrancy,
a living Earth for me,
no more the quiet sight
of rainless day and windless night.

The past few nights we've had rain, and thunder, and lightning. Our bully black cat, Jeda, curls up on our bed in the throes of it, raowing his concern. This morning, a tornado watch and flood advisory were issued for the area... take shelter inside, move away from windows.

The Earth speaks to me again. I hadn't realized quite how much I missed her capricious ways. In Southern California the weather is mostly predictably boring. I'm sure many of you will think me odd; who wouldn't want the regularity of sunshine? But there is something charming and delightful, something worldly, gritty, real about weeds cropping up where wind or bird dropped their seeds, rather than only where irrigation nourishes. Fickle rains for me!

Monday, June 2, 2008

Been Quiet

I've been quiet here for a few days I see. I'm busy. Friday, I had a morning meeting (followed by lunch) with a nearby professor to consult about possible future collaborative projects. I had first met him a couple weeks ago, but finally with a non-disclosure agreement in place, we were free to talk more openly. After lunch, I had another meeting with the local coordinator for the entrepreneurs network, who agreed to help me out a bit with my grantwriting.

I feel really good off of those meetings. On the one hand, local prof (let's call him Mark Johns) was supportive, but cautious. He's an engineer, trained in one domain of the discipline in which a large part of my current efforts infringe. He validated my view both that what I'm trying is novel and valuable. Next, it actually pleases me a bit his skepticism on some points. The reality is standard practices in Applied Research Field were established long ago when different problems appeared. Those problems led to certain directions in the research. Generations of researchers have tweaked and plumped those techniques, but a few of the fundamental assumptions (in large part determined by the needs of those original questions) fail to go challenged.

I believe the skepticism on Mark's part derives from those assumptions. I fully expect there may be greater complications to what I'm attempting. But I see them as hurdles to climb over, rather than roadblocks. I think, from the vantage of his training and experience, he simply can't see that. It's a good feeling to be so confident in what I'm doing, knowing full well that there is much in his knowledge base that I lack, having not been trained in that discipline. But I'm on to something, I know it, I feel it, I'm validated in that when I get someone like Mark excited about the novelty of it.

And I also know that my ideas are not all that complicated, not all that inspired, not all that spectacular. It's simply, coming at this field from a new direction, with new eyes, I've noticed a stone left unturned. When I turn it off, it's marvelous to see [--I suppose if I were a real academic I'd have written mirabile dictu--] that there are creatures under that stone yet to be catalogued.

The afternoon meeting was exciting as well. Let's call my local entrepreneur coordinator Dick Lindt. Dick's another engineer, but from a quite different area. I've met with him twice now, and talked on the phone and emailed numerous times. He's got great energy, and seems to really believe in what I'm doing. He thinks this first grant should be in the bag. We'll see.

Coming off those two meetings, I honed a bit of the proposal on Friday. The weekend was mostly for the family and the garden. We've gotten a good start on that. I've been edging the yard, setting off small planting areas along the walkways. Hopefully this week we'll decide where the vegetable garden will be, and get started on that. Saturday night we joined some neighbors for a camp fire, to drink and talk. That was really nice as well. It's a good place for us to be, all around. It feels like HOME!