And More on Women Speakers at Tech Conferences

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It is starting to feel like every time a conference is announced, we as a technical community have to revisit the topic of speaker diversity.  I've tried to stay out of all but the most flagrantly sexist of these conversations, but we don't appear to be making real progress.


And that is sad.


It's sad for us, it's unfortunate for the products we work on, and it certainly doesn't benefit the companies we work for.


I think enough people have addressed that this is a problem, and really is a symptom of a deeper dysfunction in our industry. I have no answers around getting more minorities into technology; growing up in a rural area, I didn't get to use computers much until college. What I can give some suggestions about is increasing participation of women in particular in technical conferences. I've given talks at a number of conferences over the years, and have been involved in the planning of a couple of conferences as well.


This year we're planning our second ChefConf, and it's important to me and the rest of our team that we reflect our community in our speaker line up. We have some amazing, diverse peeps in the Chef community, and we want everyone who attends to have a great experience at our conference. We all learn from each other, no matter what our environments look like.  As Operations practitioners, we know that every individual infrastructure is a snowflake, but there is a lot we can share with each other around what we know about atmospheric water at temperatures near freezing.


Before the holidays, I offered up a couple of hours of my time in a Google Hangout with women who have questions or are reluctant to speak at technical conferences. The event was set up by the amazing Suzanne Axtell at O'Reilly.  Suzanne is a Technology Evangelist at O'Reilly and helps O'Reilly's conference teams think about and work toward building more diverse conference communities. She's got a tough job.


We didn't record this first outing, for reasons of privacy to the participants.  In all, about 20 women participated, coming from diverse technical backgrounds.  Many had spoken at conferences of various sizes. Some had been on the planning side of conferences, too, so we had a really good discussion about different approaches for increasing the diversity of speakers at technical conferences.


One of the basic questions I answered was how I got started giving talks at conferences. That first step, putting in a proposal, is often the most challenging for minority speakers.


The very first professional conference I ever spoke at was HPWorld, in 1999, a few months after graduation. I'm not even going to admit that I gave a talk about a project I worked on at school, prepping Linux workstations for desktop use in a Windows LAN environment (laugh it up, fuzzballs). I gave a couple other talks in 2000 and 2001 that were alternately awesome and terrifying, including a mishap with a borrowed laptop that didn't work with the projector.


It was years before I had the opportunity or interest to speak at a conference again. In early 2008, a manager of mine at AOL was busy plotting whatever kind of world takeover he was after and posted a list of conferences on the internal wiki. There was an O'Reilly conference launching for web operations and performance called Velocity. Being on the east coast, in the DC area specifically, I didn't know anyone involved in the conference, and had never been to an O'Reilly conference. I asked him if I could go if I got a talk accepted, and he said sure. So I proposed a talk about speeding recovery from problems in web applications by improving the application logging. My talk was accepted and I was off to everyone's favorite airport Marriott in Burlingame.


I had no idea what to expect, wasn't sure anyone would like my talk, but everything went really well. Actually, it was pretty awesome. The first Velocity was tiny compared to the 2012 conference, but it was full of people with issues and problems so similar to mine. I started thinking about a talk topic for 2009 almost before the 2008 conference was over.


On September 17, 2008, I got an email from Jesse Robbins asking me to join the Velocity 2009 programming committee.  I still have the email, obviously, and I think I wet myself when I read it. I served on the Velocity committee for the 2009, 2010, and 2011 conferences, which was such an incredible experience. It's also an insane amount of work. As the conference grew, so too did the number of submissions that had to be read, rated, and discussed.  The community that sprung essentially out of nothing is amazing, full of smart, fun people who gladly share their stories with us every year.


What the Velocity community isn't full of is diversity. Gender diversity, racial diversity, even age diversity, especially on the Operations side. The internet is basically run by a bunch of white dudes in their mid 30s. I totally love you all like brothers, but getting people outside of that demographic to speak at Velocity is tough. Marissa Mayer keynoted in 2009. In 2012 no women addressed the conference from the plenary stage, which was disappointing.


There is a two-part problem at the base of this. One is on the shoulders of conference planners, and the other on the participants. The issues these two groups face are different.


Planning a conference is an interesting process.  You start with a premise:


We think all people who love widgets would like to come to a conference about widgets, so we're planning WidgetCon2013!


Then you either hang out a Call For Papers or start inviting people who are awesome at widgeting to come give a talk. You discuss what kinds of talks the widgeting community would be interested in hearing. You look for the people on widget forums and mailing lists who seem cool, because no one wants an asshole on stage at their new conference (unless you're planning AssholeCon2013, of course).  If you've put out an open CFP, you'll probably get people you know and people you don't know, and it can be scary to take a gamble with an unknown speaker at your conference.


Not every conference planning committee has the self-awareness to look at their speaker list and recognize that everyone on it looks alike, especially if they all happen to look like the dudes working in your office. Big conferences have people like Suzanne to help them with that. Putting your speaker list together with no diversity sends a strong message to the minorities in your community:


There is NOT A SINGLE ONE OF YOU who is WORTHY of OUR conference.


This creates fission in our communities. It makes minorities feel even more excluded, even shunned. Hopefully it isn't the message the organizers actually wanted to send. Conferences made up entirely of invited talks seem to suffer more often from speaker homogeneity, though it's certainly possible to build a non-diverse roster from an open call for papers.


The situation is self-replicating. Year after year, the less diversity you show in your speaker list, the less likely you'll be to get talk submissions from diverse candidates. When I look at conferences I might want to speak at or even just attend, I look at the speaker lists from past years. Obviously I want to know that the conference is worth my time and money, but I also want to know about the community represented by the conference speaker list.  A homogenous speaker list, year after year, tells me that the community could be insular, hostile to diversity, and maybe made up of people I don't want to be around. There have been multiple accounts of harassment of women and other minorities at technical conferences over the years, so sometimes even attending a conference feels like sticking your neck out if the committee running the event isn't explicit about supporting diversity and not supporting harassment.


Being a diverse speaker is fraught with another set of challenges. We held the hangout to talk about the things that make women, in particular, hesitant to speak at technical conferences.  Some of the topics were gender neutral, like not really knowing what to talk about. That's not an unusual feeling, and not limited to diverse speakers, though for various reasons women tend to struggle with these issues more than men.  


There were a couple of other messy topics that came up. One of which I had never thought about before:


How do I write my topic proposal for a male audience?


That's a loaded question, so let's unpack it a little bit.  There's an assumption here that the committee is all male, and that being male means that the expectations for talk proposals needs to be presented in a way that dudes will dig. What it says about your conference, though, if you're on the planning side, is that part of your audience doesn't think you're picking talks on their technical merit or topic interest in the community. There is always some editorializing in the job of choosing topics for a conference. The committee is telling the audience "here's the stuff we think you will think is interesting". If your potential speakers feel they have to tune their proposals for a male point of view, you're shooting diversity right in the foot. You can imagine what it would mean to your speakers if they were expected to present for a white audience, or an upper-middle class audience. Some people are obviously going to be at a disadvantage if they represent other demographics.


Another topic was one that I have thought about, as it pertains directly to an Operations conference and audience, and that was the topic of "disaster porn". It's not the "porn" that people were concerned about, but the ability to get up in front of an audience of strangers and say "hey, I did this and it failed" or "I fucked up at this". For myself, I can say this is not something I can do. Someone on the hangout put some terminology to it, "stereotype threat", which is the threat of affirming a negative stereotype about one's group. Being a woman technologist, and having faced a few assholes along the way who were convinced that women could not, in any way, be successful technologists, it's really just not in me to stand up on stage and confess to screwing something up, even if I then put on my superhero cape and fixed it. Someone in that audience will think


That woman screwed up that project, all women will screw up technical projects.


I don't want to feel responsible for putting credence to that stereotype.


I would love to see more diversity in the speaker lineups for all sorts of technical conferences.  I've been the diversity enough times to know that it's tough to get over that initial fear of speaking, the hesitancy around potentially being a token, or the belief that what I have to say isn't interesting or technical enough for the audience. I realized after a while that I needed to stop looking for women speakers to be my role models and concentrate on making myself a better role model for other women.


They best way to get over all of those fears is to just get out there. Speak at meetups and user groups. Give lightning talks. Join toastmasters if you want more structured practice.  Give brownbags or other more informal talks at work. Reach out to diverse speakers from past conferences if you have questions about a specific conference. Join Suzanne's G+ group, "Technical Women Speak Too"[1].  If you're not ready to speak yourself, you can help conference organizers find diverse speakers.  You can also be a supportive audience member by attending technical talks by women and giving constructive feedback.


Don't wait until next year or until you think you have the perfect topic. You don't have to be the world's foremost widgeter to talk about your experience with widgets; not every Python talk is given by Guido van Rossum. 


Big Data? Let's Do Little Data Better, Too

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I get weird commercial snail mail.

Not "fun" weird mail, but mail that is so far off base, it's more of a waste of resources than normal mail.  A lot of it revolves around mailmerge programs or datasets that aren't being used in a smart way.  Tonight I got two examples:

  • A solicitation to apply for a credit card account, with my correct address, but "Gerald Walls" as the addressee.  There is no Gerald at this address; I don't even know a Gerald Walls. It looks suspiciously like an off-by-one error in someone's data. I can only imagine who might have received the envelope with my name and their address on it.  This happens surprisingly often.
  • My former gym in Dulles, VA, offering me a discount to re-join.  Addressed to me here, in New York City, 250 miles away. When I closed my account there, I even checked the box "moving out of area" in their survey.
Both of these vendors are wasting their resources on an audience that isn't there.  A credit card application with incorrect addressing doesn't really make me want to sign up. I can assume that both myself and the other individual were "pre-approved", and that both names were in a fairly homogenous dataset. It doesn't instill confidence in the institution which sent the mailing, or its ability to find competent subcontractors to send mail on the company's behalf.

The gym membership is a little different, in that the company is significantly smaller than a large multinational bank. It's even a chain; when I enter my zipcode in their locations tool, the page tells me there are no locations near me.  Yet they are spending money to send me mail.

Neither one of these cases would have a dataset even approaching what might be considered "big data". The bank probably ran a mailing targeting a few hundred thousand potential customers. The gym, maybe a few hundred. Datasets that don't need map reduce or inventive visualization, but are essential to businesses, are managed sloppily or neglected entirely.

I find banks are terrible at this. I get a lot of mail for weird people with my address.  Sometimes the items are like this one, were the name is obviously proximal to mine in an alphabetical list. Other times it's completely nonsensical.  

The gym probably manages data using common desktop office tools, one or two people are tasked with pulling the data from the membership database to use for mailings. It's possible that the tools aren't sophisticated enough to run "zipcodes for all former members" against "zipcodes in proximity to our locations", a change that would allow the company to increase the potential return on their mailings, by focusing on people who actually have a gym nearby. Maybe even people who, like me, moved, but, unlike me, into an area with a gym location and weren't aware of it.  

Maybe with the spotlight on big data, the message will get across that data of many sizes has value and can be used to help, or misused to hurt, the entity that holds it.

P.S. To say nothing of how many ways my last name gets spelled wrong in mail. "Walls" is not:

  • Wallace
  • Waller
  • Wallis
  • Willis
  • Wills
  • Wells
  • Malls
That's a whole other issue with fun things like transcription, and maybe my own handwriting. :D

My Shortest Job Ever

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Last week I left my job at AOL for the wilds of New York City's startup community. It seems like there are hundreds of companies here in various stages of being startupy, from being two people in a Starbucks to steadily growing organizations with actual business plans.

A lot of these places aren't looking for, or ready to look for, operations people.  And while I am fairly proficient with PHP, the idea of taking a full-time development position with a company whose future might rest squarely on my ability to crank out code that doesn't suck didn't seem like a good idea. For me or for any of the companies I talked to. ;)

I was fortunate enough to end up with two offers in hand within a few days of each other.  The process of making a decision between these two companies was pretty arduous.  I wasn't planning to spend another 7 years at a company, but I also wanted to go somewhere with good growth opportunity, a solid business plan, and a team I could jive with, and both of these places fit the bill. I eventually picked the smaller company because I felt like the opportunity to make a positive impact would be greater.

March 28th was my last day as an "AOLer", whatever the f that means.  March 30th was my first day at my new job.

There's a lot of things that go into getting acclimated to a new environment, meeting the people, learning the social structure, in addition to then getting acquainted with the technologies in place and figuring out how to have an impact.  I was mentally prepared for the sort of change that I was looking at, on the face of it. While I spent a lot of time at AOL, I changed projects every 12 to 18 months, bouncing in and out of all kinds of proprietary and open source-based platforms, trying to assimilate the business goals and long-term plans of whatever I was working on, working with new development and product teams, and trying to make sense of whatever might have been done in the past.

So Wednesday I was excited, ready to get started with a new challenge.  But by Friday I could tell something wasn't right.  I really didn't feel comfortable with one of the key people I would be working elbow-to-elbow with, and I spent the weekend freaking out, unable to figure out what was going on.  I'm past the point in my life where I was completely incapable of interacting with new people; 20 months in an MBA program with a global student body will eventually smooth those spots over.  And several people in the company were totally freaking awesome, so it wasn't that the whole place was bad.

So, Tuesday I resigned.  I hadn't been able to sleep for four days.  Every interaction I had with this one person left me feeling agitated and unsettled.  If the circumstances of how we would be working together had been different, I would have gladly worked on my issues to stay with this company.  They are carving an amazing opportunity and have put together an incredible team to deliver on their goals.

To me, this one person comes across as an aggressive "fixer" (I'm not a psychologist, so I'm not sure what the clinical term might be), someone who has multiple answers before you've finished your question, who has the solution before the discussion is finished. Someone who makes a list, has action items, wants to know right now what to do.  I felt like I couldn't think, didn't have time to process information.  There's nothing inherently wrong with a fixer.  I'd actually argue that in a small startup environment, under conditions of limited resources, trying to get things done, a fixer is a great asset. 

For me, personally, I don't have the tools to cope with a fixer in close quarters; I find them intimidating, like a used car salesman, who talks over your questions and concerns, not really to assuage your doubts, but to make you doubt those doubts.  But like with a sales discussion that doesn't feel right, you can walk out.  And that is what I decided to do.  Before I had anything invested in the environment or got really attached.  I was very conscious of being the new person in an established team, and there is no way in hell I could expect anything to be changed for me, that would be completely insane.  I know what my limitations are for certain kinds of new situations, what I can handle and what I can't, and the added stress of a personality mismatch on top of a complete 180-degree environment change pushed me way over my limit. It was much better to acknowledge that this was a "fail fast" situation and walk away.

Am I disappointed?  Yes.  Do I feel like a failure?  Fuck Yes.  But do I know that this is unfortunately the right solution for me?  Absolutely. After resigning I felt like I'd had an emotional massage, I had been so keyed up and stressed out.

So now I have called a couple recruiters back, have fired up the job hunt process again, and go back into the fray with another datapoint to keep an eye out for.  While the whole experience was stressful, draining, and kind of bizarre, it was also kind of awesome.  The process of learning about yourself is of course messy.

shutdown -r now

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As is obvious from the archives here, I haven't used this blog much since it was installed.

It's not that I didn't have things I wanted to document in this sort of forum, particularly because deliberating knotty problems or subjects and distilling them into words is, if not therapeutic, at least a method for clearing a cluttered mind.

Now my mind is sufficiently cluttered as to need some kind of method to compartmentalize the chaos a bit.  I'm even worse as a journaler than a blogger.  Taking the time to write something out by hand seems like a gargantuan task in a digital world.  Additionally, there's a level of commitment with putting pen to paper in meatspace, a different kind of permanence.  I can fuss with the wording of this post for hours, decide not to post it, give up on the idea completely, and all evidence disappears into the bits. :D

I also just left my job at AOL, which I had for six years, nine months, and seven days... So it seems like a good time to revisit who I am and what it means to be me.

And if that isn't a prime piece of 21st century pretentiousness, I don't know what is. ;)
It's easy to lose momentum during a change process.  I've only been at this company for five years (I'd be the most recent hire in some groups), but the entire time I have been here there have been discussions on how we have to change to meet the evolution of the marketplace and the strength of the Internet over a walled garden.

Our new CEO is really the first person to take the helm who actually seems capable of doing it.  But along with the promise and excitement that builds around putting new things together is the question of who gets left behind to support the old stuff.

When we migrated my project from a proprietary platform to something new last year, the development team made a conscious decision not to leave anyone to solely support fixes and tweaks to the old system.  It's important to give everyone a place at the new table when migrating and evolving a business or product model.

We don't have any specifics for how any plans might be implemented yet to drag the company kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.  But I fear that there will be people who get left behind, whether by their own desire to continue working on legacy projects or through some consensus that we "need" them on this old product.  We don't "need" anyone to continue to waste 100% of their time on an old project that isn't evolving.  Our company loses a lot of enthusiastic, talented employees who want to move on, learn new things, and innovate. They should be encouraged to do so, pushed off of, and uncoupled from their old projects. 

If a project is important enough to leave running, it's important enough to train a new person on before the subject matter expert leaves out of boredom or frustration.

Where we run into problems is through the natural attrition that occurs in a large company.  We have a huge installed base using products that no one fully understands anymore.  It's one thing to continue to enhance the customer UI of a product, or add features to modernize and compete in a product space.  However, the sad truth of what devastation lies behind that mask has the power to damage the company's reputation with some of its core customers.  Services can be broken or unusable for far longer than they should be if the support structure isn't cohesively and actively managed.  For many of our products, it might be too late to resurrect what once was - the brain drain has been heavy for several years.

 We have to be able to balance dedication and loyalty to the classic brands with the enthusiasm necessary to really move forward, not just pay lip service to the idea.  For some people that means making a difficult decision: 

Do you work here because of the project you are assigned to, or do you work here to do your part to make the company great?  Will you stay and continue to contribute if your product isn't part of the future vision?

There are a lot of brains in the company.  People are a huge resource, but they have to be deployed in a smart way to reap the most benefits.  I don't have any answers.  I know I've lost many of my smartest coworkers to other companies through bad management, frustration, and boredom, and that's sad when we need them to help us be great.

The Curse of Proprietary Software

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I've been at AOL for four and a half years now.  When I started in this job, I had no expectation of staying for any length of time; my longest prior employment was just over two years.  I wasn't intentionally bouncing around or anything, I just hadn't found the right thing yet.

By AOL standards, I'm a newbie.  There are more people who've been there longer than I have than have joined since I did, or at least it seems from my vantage point at the bottom of the well.  Being that the employee demographics tend to skew under-40, that means a lot of folks have spent most of their careers at AOL.

There's nothing inherently wrong with sticking around when you have a good thing going.  And AOL can be a lot of things to a lot of people.  There have been opportunities for technical training, academics and schooling, moving to management, some number of ex-pat assignments, and various other doors for interested parties to open.  Or, if you prefer, AOL will allow you to sit in the corner and only do the minimum amount required to not make your teammates' lives a living hell.  Your choice, and it's largely up to you to ask for what you want.

One thing AOL has always traditionally been is a home-grown shop.  There's a reason for that; when AOL put up the systems and infrastructure that run the products, there were few options for COTS software to solve the necessary problems.  Over  the years, many of these systems haven't matured, they've simply aged.  Reinvestment and refresh is key to keeping up, let alone getting ahead, and many systems at AOL just weren't getting the time and resources needed to stay modern.  So, too, the employees tasked with taking care of those systems.

I spent three years running systems based on AOLserver with some proprietary modules baked in.  When I got some of the first projects transferred over to me, I was pissed.  What the hell was I going to get out of running crappy AOLserver with some half-baked, proprietary extensions in it?!?

There were some number of learning experiences to be had; AOL still managed to run some gigantic sites on AOLserver, regardless of how infuriating it can be, and the lack of new builds, and the politics of the publishing department in 2006.


It's not the proprietary aspects of the projects that make a job into a career, its the ancilliary topics that are transferrable to new platforms that give you an edge when it's time to move on.  I don't expect anyone to hire me for my AOLserver knowledge, and I wouldn't want them to. 

But step back, and look at the project you're working on.  Would you be able to take that project and run it somewhere else?  Somewhere that doesn't have whatever random tool XYZ that you rely on at company ABC?  What would you do, even if you stayed at ABC, and all the people who knew the inner workings of XYZ quit? (it's more likely than you think)  Do you know enough about your tools and platforms, and what they give you, to go looking for a replacement?

It's a hard question to look at objectively.  It takes some truth-finding and self-awareness to look at what you do and address your weaknesses from an environmentally-agnostic point of view.  Can you look at whatever you're working on, and say "We're using Weblogic.  We know we're dependent on feature A, feature B, and feature D.  Feature C we only use a little bit.  If we had to convert to another Java server, we'd need similar features" rather than "We have to use Weblogic because we've always used Weblogic and it's the only thing we know so you have to use it"?

Homegrown stuff has the added bonus of being horrific to teach to someone from outside the organization.  Honestly, nothing looks stupider to a new employee than a gigantic infrastructure built around a central system that could be replaced with some well-chosen OSS package. Inbreeding happens in technology.  Without a reason to go looking for a new solution, old projects will sit and fester, becoming more and more expensive year after year.  New projects will look like the old ones.  They'll all be susceptible to the same health issues, as modern demands outstrip what the old systems can provide.  The incumbent employees are caught up in the status quo, and any dissatisfaction on the part of a newcomer is simply chalked up to not understanding just how awesome the homegrown system is.

If only.

If Wal-Mart suddenly became a software dev shop it might have enough employees to match the number of people looking at and working on open source software projects every day.

Your engineering team is likely much smaller than that.  What are you missing out on that someone else in another part of the world has thought about?  You don't even know.  Your proprietary platform becomes an anchor instead of the solid foundation you told yourself it was.

O'Reilly Velocity 2009 CFP is Up!

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In June, I participated in O'Reilly's inaugural Velocity Conference.  My slides from last year are here on my site,

Velocity 2009 will be held in San Jose, California in June, 2009.  We're looking for presentations from folks in all areas of web operations and performance. 

  • Are you the person who gets paged when your company's site is slow or has gone down?
  • Do you know how to improve performance and balance efficiency and availability?
  • Have you overcome a major scaling challenge?
  • Have you been slashdotted, dugg, or techcrunched...and lived to tell the tale?

We want to hear about it!  Share your stories, best practices, lessons learned at Velocity 2009! 

Read the full Call for Participation here:

Deadline is midnight, January 5, 2009. 

I'm a fire hazard.

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My apartment is a mess, i freely admit that.  Martha Stewart and I don't really have much in common.  One thing that is really getting out of hand now, though, is my books.  They're everywhere.  The place is starting to resemble the office of the crazy professor in the English department who did his PhD thesis on the impact of science fiction on hippies or something.

There's sort of a system.  I have "incoming" books, which I gotten through various methods but haven't yet read.  Some of these I've purchased, some I've gotten from, some are from my mom, who reads all the freaking time.  Then there are the "outbound" books, which are anything from old novels, to textbooks, to stuff that's come in from bookins and is listed to go back out again.  Some of these are listed on, some on bookins, and they are all sitting in boxes in my living room. 

On the two massive Ikea bookshelves are what I call "the permanent collection".  In what is generously referred to as the "dining room" in my apartment is fiction, and non-fiction that doesn't relate to computers.  Here I have stuff from my favorite authors, things I re-read from time to time, and some series like Stephen King's Gunslinger.  Also Calvin & Hobbes, Sandman, important stuff like that.  There's also some wine, my martini set, the box my camera came in...

In the spare bedroom is the "technical library", my out of control collection of technical books.  I've culled this herd several times over the years, and I don't buy many tech books anymore since I have a Safari subscription.  But every now and then something makes its way home with me.

In my bedroom are about two dozen books that i'm in various phases of pretending to read.  They're fairly well contained in a bookshelf, thankfully.

Then, there is the METRIC TON of stuff for my current classes.  Right now, I'm not entirely certain how many classes I'm taking.  I have books for a statistics class, a management class, accounting, operations and supply chain, and business writing.  Additionally, there are two personal-development packets that go with the management class, and binders for business strategy, accounting, management, and the stats class.  I don't know what to do with all of this yet.   Sure, there's probably room on my bookshelves for it, but i'd have to move my wine.  Or candles.  Or the various rabbit and penguin knicknacks that i receive all the time from my mom.

So, right now there is a leaning tower of MBA materials on the sofa table.  Beside a foot-high stack of unread magazines.  Which is beside a pile of additional office supplies and notepads for school.

I bet I could do a PhD thesis of the impact of having a lot of unorganized books on the psyche of the borderline OCD 21st century woman.  And no, I don't burn the candles while they're on the bookshelf.  That's just where the stash lives. 

I just finished installing Movable Type 4!

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Welcome to my new blog powered by Movable Type. This is the first post on my blog and was created for me automatically when I finished the installation process. But that is ok, because I will soon be creating posts of my own!