Thistles

Since it’s my first summer in the house I wanted to see what would come up on its own, so I haven’t been weeding or cutting down plants. As a result some thistles grew up near the path to the front door.

At first I didn’t cut them because I had vague notions of looking up the leaves to see if it was milk thistle, which is good for the liver. I didn’t get around to looking, though, and they kept growing. They’re just about as tall as me now, protruding into the walkway.

a. Sorry, mail carrier.
b. It’s ridiculous that we get free home delivery of mail these days.

Last night I finally looked up the thistles I have, and they’re not the helpful milk thistle, but rather a common invasive species. So I suppose I will cut them down and toss them in the compost.

a. You are welcome, mail carrier.
b. Sorry, Eyeore.

I will say, though, that for all the sharp and spiny stabbery that thistles bring, they have a pretty flower, and pollinators love them, as I saw today.

20140706-124406-45846195.jpg

So maybe I’ll wait a little longer to chop down the thistles. Sorry, mail carrier.

Uses of String

I used to have dozens of houseplants, but certain felines like to eat them, so it has come about that I can only have plants if they are hanging up. I don’t much like most plant hangers though, so I’ve just been plantless for longer than I’d like.

Today I took a page from Tiffany Aching and decided to see if I could rig something simple with a bit of cotton string.
20140608-173158-63118572.jpg
Apparently certain felines like string as much as plants.

I just did two sets of winding knots, but I like the end result:
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Plant: Maidenhair fern
Pot: Recycled bamboo

Little Free Library

I don’t take nearly enough walks, but when I do I usually take a picture of something that catches my eye. On recent walk around the SE Division and 50th neighborhood (taken only because my Ethiopian takeout was going to be another 15 minutes), I came upon this:

A Little Free Library box in Southeast Portland

A Little Free Library box in Southeast Portland

Something about the way it’s painted was just so cheerful, that was the picture I took for the walk.

I remember backing a kickstarter project in Brooklyn a few year years ago for a tiny free library project, and certainly I’ve seen little book boxes like this one scattered throughout Portland, but I never really thought about there being an overarching organization. There is, though! Little Free Library is a whole network of people putting book boxes on posts, with around 15,000 in place today. You can buy a pre-assembled box, but boy are they spendy — you could buy a used car for the price of some of them. They also have free plans for some of the models they sell, and you’re free to build a box in whatever style you like, as long as it keeps the rain off the books.

I’m not letting myself start any more projects until I finish unpacking my house and build a driveway ramp so that I can park my car near the house (low-slung hybrids and steep driveways don’t mix well), but I’m thinking that at some point maybe I’ll make a box and join the Little Free Library network in memory of my grandmother, who was the one who taught me to love reading. She went to the library every week and maxed out her card until the day she died, which was about a week after she told my mom that she was ready to die because there was nothing left to read. She hated her name, which was Myrtle, but maybe I could plant some crepe myrtles around the box.

And then I’ll start the book club I’ve always wanted. Not a lively intellectual discussion group, debating the subtext of the imagery inherent in author x’s description of y. No, I would start a Sit Around and Read Book Club, and it would be just like it sounds. Bring a book (or grab one from the box, once it exists!) and sit around and read it. Company + time to just read. The introvert’s party. :)

Blogging; also, Oregon Wine Month

“You never blog about stuff.”

“I blog multiple times per day, it’s just all on work-related sites instead of my own.”

“I mean like you used to back in the janeforshort days. We met through your blog!”

“We totally did!”

“So you should go back to blogging regular life stuff so I can keep up with you.”

“Or just, you know, call me.”

“Or just start blogging again.”

“I didn’t like it when I blogged my name change and talked pretty openly about my reasons, then read ‘JANE WELLS WAS AN ABUSED CHILD!!’ (paraphrased) on a WordPress news site. Made me not want to post anything.”

“Fuck them. Start writing explicit sex stories so they unfollow you. At least they’re unlikely to publish them.”

“Why don’t we talk anymore? I should put calling you on my to-do list. “

“And you should blog more. :)”


So I guess I’ll try blogging again. If it’s not about WordPress, please don’t report it on a wp-related site. Thanks.

It’s Oregon Wine Month!

Follow the link to all kinds of events at Oregon wineries. You can also buy Oregon wines at most Trader Joe’s. One of the nice things about Oregon wines is that a history of legislation and leanings toward green practices in the state have led to just under 50% of Oregon wines being produced sustainably, compared to 12% of California wines. Vineyards and winemaking can being pretty high impact environmentally, so this is pretty great.

For anyone coming to one of the many open source conferences in Portland this summer (AdaCamp, Open Source Bridge, OSCON, etc.) it’s worth noting that Alaska Airlines is doing an Oregon-wines-fly-free offer if you are bringing back a case from an Oregon airport. So plan to stay an extra day or two and hit the wine country!

The World’s Best Lawn Mower: the GreenWorks 25142

Q. What’s green and has wheels?
A. Grass. I was kidding about the wheels.
 - Evan Williams, Joke #2

It’s not often I’m moved to write a review of a product, but if I don’t tell the world how great my lawn mower is, I’ll feel like a criminal for hoarding information. That’s how good it is.

I don’t really like lawns — I think spending so much effort, time, money, and water on a non-native ground cover that requires constant cutting is ridiculous. Don’t even get me started on golf courses. Still, grass is what it is, and until the movement to replace lawns with gardens and native plant ground covers gains more momentum, we’re stuck with cutting the grass.

I moved into a house in Portland in November that has some lawn. I wasn’t excited about it; I wanted to dig up the backyard and put in a pond and turn the front yard into a combination of garden and moss, but my ambivalence about keeping the house has slowed me down. Also because my wrists aren’t in great condition and I hate hiring someone to do work I feel like I should be able to do myself. Which brings me to lawn mowers.

If I were being sensible, I’d just hire a lawn service to come and cut the grass every couple of weeks — that’s what a lot of the neighbors do. Instead I researched the current crop of eco-friendly lawn mowers, compared the reviews to my past mowing experiences, and made a choice to buy the GreenWorks 25142 10 Amp Corded 16 Inch Mower.

The best lawn mover ever.

The best lawn mower ever.

Here’s what I had it to compare to:

  • Gas-powered, Old-school. As a kid, I didn’t have to mow any lawns until I was around 10 or 11, when brothers moved out and on and were no longer available. My grandparents’ lawn wasn’t huge, but the front yard had a hill from house to sidewalk that made it tough on a scrawny sixth grader to push the gas-powered mover around. Up and down or side to side, no matter which way you attacked the hill, your arms would be spaghetti when you were done. My parents’ house had a larger yard, but was blessedly flat, and with a little momentum, I could get through it without wanting to collapse.
  • Gas-powered, Self-propelled. At some point in my adolescence, my stepfather bought a new mower, a self-propelled model that required much less strength to use. You mostly just had to aim it and make sure you didn’t run over any big sticks or rocks, and only needed to push hard if you were going over a little hill. When we had this mower I liked to mow the lawn in specific patterns, like diagonal stripes or decreasing boxes, so that the stripes of directional cut marks would show up and look cool (to me).
  • Rotary. When I moved into a rambling old house in Bellingham around age 25, it was the first time I’d had a lawn to mow (having mostly lived in the mountains until then, where lawns were just forest). Both I and my then-boyfriend were pretty dedicated environmentalists who would have preferred to replace the grass with ground cover, but as renters we had to mow. We bought a dark green rotary push mower and for the time we were in that house we took turns mowing the lawn. Between that and being a bike commuter, I had really strong arms that year.
  • Riding. In my teens, my stepfather had bought a riding mower, but as he was very protective of this feat of machinery — both it and the snowblower occupied a special platform in the garage and were deemed too much for a girl to handle — I wasn’t allowed to use it until I was in my early 30s. I had scoffed at the riding mower for years as the worst combination of laziness, consumption, and pollution, but I have to admit that riding around on a little tractor is kind of fun, especially if you gun it. That said, I still think they’re outrageous overkill.

Enter the modern electric mower. Here were my assumptions before I bought one:

Pros — No gas to refill, low energy profile in terms of electricity usage, quieter, no air pollution, lighter, easier to start.

Cons — Really long and annoying extension cord, not self-propelled, doubt about performance due to the low energy use, doubt about just how much quieter it would be.

The one I chose had a bunch of good reviews around the web, so I ordered it on amazon and waited for it to arrive.

The box was light enough for me to lift, even with my crappy grip. Unboxing was as simple as lifting it out, tightening the handle fasteners, and putting on the collection bag.

At this point, the grass in my backyard had achieved meadow status, with a height ranging from six inches to about a foot, so I thought I might have waited too long and that the mower wouldn’t cut through it based on the manufacturer recommendations.

The backyard pseudo-meadow: this is how tall the grass was.

The backyard pseudo-meadow: this is how tall the grass was.

I figured I might as well try it and see, so I plugged in a 50′ extension cord, set it to the highest setting (5″) and went to town.

overgrown lawn with a cut swath down the middle

The first cut stripe through the backyard meadow, with blade set to 5″.

lawn with stripe of cut grass down the middle

The first cut stripe through the backyard meadow, seen from above.

Wow. It cut right through the meadow. It cut going forward and backward, which was great.

Backyard progress at 5" blade height.

Backyard progress at 5″ blade height.

After seeing that, I was ready to test it on an even tougher patch — the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street.

The best lawn mower in the tall grass that was its greatest challenge.

The best lawn mower in the tall grass that was its greatest challenge.

Before I moved in, they had needed to replace the sewer line, and a segment of sidewalk and lawn had been dug up. The realtor had promised it would be put back to the previous condition, and reseeded with grass. The rest of the strip has a slow-growing grass that even without being cut for 6 months was barely more than a few inches high (though it was starting to get dandelions in the last month). The section that the realtor re-seeded (to the left  in the picture below) was apparently planted with some kind of haying grass, because it didn’t start really growing until the warm weather got here, but then it shot up super fast.

The sidewalk strip. Note that the newly planted grass at the end is much taller than the rest.

The sidewalk strip. Note that the newly planted grass at the end is much taller than the rest.

When I took the mower down to the strip, the grass in this section came up to my hip. My hip!

That front strip grass came up to my HIP.

That front strip grass came up to my HIP.

I was pretty sure this would be too much for the electric motor. Plus, in addition to being tall, there were clumps and thicker stalks instead of lovely, thin, pliable blades of grass.

The tall grass in the sidewalk strip. Tall, clumps, stalks not blades.

The tall grass in the sidewalk strip. Tall, clumps, stalks not blades.

Holy cow. It mowed it down. If that’s not a testimonial to the power of this mower, I don’t know what is.

The strip when it was half-mowed.

The strip in progress.

The best lawn mower defeating it's greatest challenger to date.

The best lawn mower defeating its greatest challenger to date.

What about my pro/con assumptions? Here are my observations based on mowing the meadows.

  • The collection bag filled up ridiculously fast, but I can’t really blame the mower given the amount of grass it was cutting down. Taking the bag off and on is very easy, it just drops right onto a couple of notches and a plastic flap rests down on top of it.
  • Dealing with the cord was a little annoying, as expected. It made cutting in patterns less fun, as I kept having to fling the cord out of the way like I was playing double dutch. I expect this is just something I’ll get used to. It says not to use a cord longer than 100′. I used a 50′ 14-gauge cord on the backyard and an 80′ 16-gauge on the front yard/strip (plugged into an outlet inside my house) and had more than enough leeway.
  • The lightness of the mower was great in that it didn’t feel like too much work for my bad hands/wrists. At the same time, without the weight of a heavy metal body and motor (the mower has a plastic body), it doesn’t really keep momentum, so in the absence of self-propelled motion or momentum from a big push, it does require a steady pressure to keep it moving forward. Not too much, though. A child could push this around easily.
  • The cutting swath is pretty good, and it cuts right up to the edge of the plastic housing, it seems like. About the only way it could cut more with this footprint would be if the wheels were replaced with levitating magnets or something.
  • Starting it didn’t require multiple attempts at pulling on a cord with all my strength and speed, I just pushed a button and pressed down on the handle and it started instantly.
  • It’s super compact, and the handle folds down so that it stores in very little space. I could even toss it in the backseat of my car if I wanted to loan it to a friend.
  • It sounds like a lawn mower. Definitely a lot quieter than gas-powered, but still a lawn mower, and louder than, say, a microwave. I have pretty bad tinnitus, so sustained noise like that (or airplanes, highway noise, etc) will usually mean I can’t hear well for the rest of the day. I was pleasantly surprised that the mower didn’t really trigger the tinnitus, and I could hear just fine. I would say it was maybe about as loud as a coffee grinder.
  • There were no fumes.
  • When I used to mow the lawn for my parents and grandparents, it was a big deal to be wearing shoes and pants in case something came flying out and cut you. I pushed this around in flip flops comfortably and nothing went flying.

I am seriously amazed at the power of this thing. I still want to replace the lawns someday with a pond and gardens and moss, but in the meantime, thanks to my electric mower I’m less likely to be “that neighbor,” as Mika put it. Even though meadows are way cooler than cut grass. :)

Coming Soon: I bought a weed whacker by the same manufacturer for the tiny areas around trees and planters, so I’ll be interested to see if it performs as well as the mower did when I try it out next week.

Easter, Epilepsy, and Trying to Cure a Broken Brain

Today is Easter. When I was a little girl, Easter meant a white dress, dinner at 2pm and featuring ham or something like that, and looking for hidden dyed hard-boiled eggs. There was always one hidden in the base of the ceramic little man — dwarf? troll? leprechaun? elf? It just looked like a miniature man with exaggerated craggy features. My mom made it in a class in the late ’60s, I think.

When I was old enough to understand the religious connotations/significance of the holiday, I mostly shrugged. Though I had a period of searching for religious/spiritual meaning like many people, my views on the Bible solidified after reading Live from Golgotha by Gore Vidal when I was 19, and I realized that if videocameras and DNA testing had been around in the biblical era, there would be no Christianity. It’s all about timing.

This isn’t a post about my religious beliefs, however. It’s about one specific Easter, and how broken brains suck.

Many people who follow this blog know that for about 5 years, from 2008 – 2013, my life centered on trying to help my brother’s kids recover from the degradation of their mother’s mental condition and the traumatic things that marked their childhoods as a result. The Easter right before I went to stay with them, my now-ex-sister-in-law gave one of her adolescent twin daughters an elaborate Easter basket filled with goodies. She gave the other a hard-boiled egg. In years that followed, I made the coolest Easter baskets possible, trying to make up for that slight.

This woman started as a ridiculously doting mother. Lived for her children to a degree I personally found vomit-inducing. Built her entire life on being a mom. Over time, her brain burned out from a combination of epileptic seizures and the hardcore drugs that were used to control her condition, and she went from a socially-acceptable doting mother to a bipolar/schizophrenic mess ranging from terror-inducing tormentor to pathetic blob.

My life went from urban web worker with a social life to suburban goodaunt/fakemom/niecerescuer on a day in spring 2008 when my brother called and asked me to come to Georgia immediately to take my oldest niece out of the house and bring her up to my mother’s in upstate New York (where she would be living to go to college that coming fall) because he’d been sleeping on the floor outside this niece’s bedroom at night, and was afraid his wife was going to kill their oldest daughter in the night.

I flew down immediately and took all three girls on a road trip up the east coast, stopping in DC for some educational tourism and with documents in my bag granting me the legal right to have the girls with me because everyone was pretty sure my then-still-sister-in-law would call the police and report me as a kidnapper. The details of her decline, as I learned them in dribs and drabs, were horrifying. That these girls were emotionally abused is unassailable. The fact that they couldn’t even remember a version of their mother who wasn’t this crazed monster, beyond sad. The oldest asked me if I’d ever seen her mother smile. “I’ve seen it in old pictures, but not in real life.” She wasn’t counting the evil leery grin that occasionally still made an appearance when her mom was being cruel.

How do you tell a teenage girl that not only had you seen her mother smile for many years, you’d seen her so in love with her daughter that nothing else in the world mattered, when now that girl is literally running away from her mother because her life depends on it? How do you reconcile the person before you, who retains almost nothing of who they once were, and can never hope to regain it because this isn’t just a mental illness, this is a brain that has been so physically degraded that it cannot be reclaimed? And if we are going to talk about God on this Easter Sunday, how does anyone believe (and oh, that sister-in-law was a massive believer) that an omniscient, omnipotent deity exists in love, yet allows these things to happen — nay, makes them happen? But I’ll leave that argument to Jaquith. :)

The other horrible effect of the epilepsy was that all three girls were exposed to high doses of barbiturates in the womb. Doctors stopped giving these drugs to pregnant epileptic women shortly after the twins were born, as studies started showing learning disorders, especially those that involved sensory-processing issues. For anyone who followed my attempts to get a decent education for the twins in spite of their various sensory-processing disorders, you know they drew the short straw on the in utero lottery.

So. Epilepsy. Unless you know an epileptic, chances are you don’t think much about it. But epilepsy is one of the most common neurological problems in the US, behind only migraines, strokes, and Alzheimer’s disease. More than 2 million people in the US currently have active epilepsy (vs one-off or periodic seizure activity). That’s more people than watched The Mindy Project last week (side note: that’s just wrong, that show is so funny). And for every person who has epilepsy, there are people around them who may be affected, like children who learn how to call 911 before they learn how to tie their shoes, or whose mothers’ brains get so fried that they lose all the maternal love and compassion that once ruled them. More religion: Is the ‘soul’ separate from the brain? And if there is a soul, is her soul fried, or trapped in a broken brain? Either way it’s ridiculously awful.

So. Epilepsy treatment. DRUGS. MOAR DRUGS. DRUGS THAT MAKE YOU A ZOMBIE. Then there’s surgery to split the brain in half, but there are cognitive and other side effects (I know this thing sets things on fire, but I have no idea what it’s called!). Then there are the clinical trials for microchips to help control seizures, kind of like pacemakers for the brain. But there’s no magic bullet, and mostly they keep using drugs.

The big problem with current medications is precisely that the medication is everywhere in the brain. It’s affecting virtually all the cells all the time.
- Ivan Soltesz, quoted by NPR

This guy, Ivan Soltesz. Fancy research with light and mice and seizures and brains and trying to affect only the misfiring neurons when they’re going nuts rather than flooding all of the brain with treatment all the time. Ooh, do I like him.

It’s too late to undo the damage epilepsy caused in my ex-sister-in-law’s brain, or the damage that her post-damage condition caused her children, and that really sucks. Not being able to save someone is just plain terrible. But wow is it exciting to think that someone may finally be on the right track to making epilepsy nothing more than an inconvenience to be disclosed on a health form. Keep it up, Ivan!

WordCamp Atlanta 2014

I’ll be heading to WordCamp Atlanta next weekend. It’s a sold out event, so no more tickets are available, but the videos of the sessions will all be posted to wordpress.tv afterward. I have fond feelings for WCATL after living in Georgia for the last 4 years, and am looking forward to seeing everyone again (and hopefully, finally getting all the meetups figured out this year for the chapter program). Will you be there? If so, say hi! Heads up, my hair is different again this year (in case you don’t recognize me) — it’s longish and light brown. See you there!

Inspectlet on wordpress.com

This is a personal blog post, not “WordPress News” to be reported. I hate having to make that clear, but I really mean it. WP-related blog stalkers/scrapers, you know who you are.

Okay, so I have this problem where I keep trying to sign up for email subscriptions to WP blogs and instead it subscribes me through the wordpress.com reader, which I don’t use (it’s fine, just not my workflow). Every few months or so I try to investigate settings to get it to send me emails instead of sending things to the reader, and every time I eventually give up because those settings are still really hard to find and/or get your head around and/or change successfully. So I miss a lot of blog posts, sorry. If it’s important for me specifically to see something, ping me to make sure I saw it.

Consider the scene set: early-rising worker bee trying to navigate the bowels of wordpress.com settings at 5am looking for a way to change post subscriptions from going to the reader to being sent by email.

Today I tried again and I noticed something I hadn’t seen before. This doesn’t mean it’s new or noteworthy, just that I never noticed it, and if there was an announcement about it in the past* I missed it. Here’s what I saw on the wordpress.com account settings screen:

Screenshot from settings page with privacy notice

I’m a weird mix of rabidly pro-privacy in theory and carelessly blasé when it comes to guarding my own information (3-time victim of identity theft!). But I do have strong feelings about unauthorized tracking of online behavior.

  • I think these types of things should be opt-in, not opt-out.
  • I also think the opting should be done via checkbox or other selector on the site I have the relationship with, not by forcing me to go to an external site that I don’t want to visit and I assume just cookied the crap out of me as a visitor to their site separately from the cookies they already had because of the automatic inclusion.
  • At the very least, if a policy changes or a new tracking service is added, I want to be informed in advance and allowed to opt out before the new tracking happens.

I have always known that wordpress.com does some stats tracking (hello, little pixel smilie pace in the margin of our sites), but I was not aware that we’d started using a service called Inspectlet.

That said, a lot of work news does kind of slip right by me unless someone tells me about it — subscription woes aside, I stopped following the other Automattic team blogs at Matt’s suggestion when I made that big effort to stop working 16-hour days a year or two ago — so I wasn’t too upset, figuring there must have been an email with a note about it offering me an opt-out link that I’d missed. I’d just opt out now, and all would be well.

Except that when I went to their site to opt out and looked on their home page to see what Inspectlet actually does, it freaked me right the [expletive] out:

Screenshot of Inspectlet service description

Dude.

That’s like… even creepier than Woopra was, and wow, what an invasion of privacy to do something that invasive as opt-out rather than opt-in. It records all the keystrokes? So if I write (for example) a long rant about how x does y and doesn’t need z (or whatever) but think better of it and erase it rather than publish (the number of times per day I hit Cancel Reply instead of Publish has a direct relationship to my productivity and mental health), there’s a recording of it out there anyway, on a third-party service I never signed up for? THAT. IS. CREEPY. AND. WRONG. If a site wants to record that kind of live usage, then not only should the user have to opt-in, but maybe they should even get rewarded somehow for their willingness to participate. How much do we pay each person that lets us watch them use wordpress.com via usertesting.com? How many airline miles does someone earn for filling out surveys? We could at least send these people a t-shirt in exchange for recording their every (heretofore assumed to be private-ish) move.

Trust me, I get it that this is not with malicious intent. I truly believe that Automattic — and every Automattician — has good intentions, or I wouldn’t work there.** I get the concepts of aggregate data, real-time usage data, real users in real situations vs simulated experiences in usability testing setups. I really, really, really do. I’m still not down with it being opt-out. So if you missed this like I did, and you use wordpress.com, and you just feel weird about your actions being recorded, head on over to https://wordpress.com/settings/account/ to access the opt-out link.

I hope I don’t get in trouble for posting this, but if I do, maybe one of you will buy me a mocha to cheer me up as a reward for bringing this to your attention? :)

*Investigation shows that opt-out links were added in May 2013 and posted about on internal blogs. Didn’t see a post on the wordpress.com news blog, nor an email in my email archives. That said, it’s possible I may have deleted such an email without reading it, so I have asked the folks who set up the Inspectlet stuff if there was one.

**I’ve quit jobs in the past over moral disagreement with things as minor as how they spent their advertising dollars (cough, Vermont Teddy Bear), so I’m pretty serious when I say that I won’t work for a company that I think has bad intentions.

WordPress.com on Jeopardy

Jen Mylo:

Not as good as old-school SNL celebrity jeopardy, but still… Fancy!

Originally posted on Matt Miklic:

Alex Trebek said the name of the thing I make. My life, it is complete.

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