September 2010 Archives

early seeds of a new talk

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I got an email today that might result in my giving a talk at a tech conference in London later this fall, and it forced me to start thinking about what I'd like to talk about. My conference song-and-dance tends to go in cycles, and the PTI cycle is about played out (for me, at least).

When I talk to students about how to come up with ideas for research, I encourage them to read current research in the areas they're interested in, and to look not just at the obvious "further research is needed" section at the end of most articles, but also at the things that seem to them to be missing from the approach current researchers are taking. So I took that advice myself, and did some poking around at what some of the smartest and most interesting people I know are saying in their talks these days.

One of the talks I looked at was Matt Jones' on "Immaterials." Matt's a brilliant guy, and an amazing presenter, and I find that his talks almost always send my brain spinning off on interesting tangents...and this talk was no exception. That link is to images of his slides and a text version of his talk, but here's the video:

Most of what set my mind in motion is in the first five or six minutes of the talk, specifically around the areas of sociality and what's "somewhat neglected." I think he's correct in targeting the weakness of a lot of current social software (though I think Facebook is changing that on many levels). But I also think that the bulk of social software innovation "somewhat neglects" a very significant group of potential users--and that's those of us who happen to not live in major metropolitan areas.

As an example, as a social software researcher whose academic home is in an "interactive games and media" department, I'm particularly interested in how games are beginning to extend outside the box (where the box is a screen) into our day-to-day lives. "Big Games" developers like Kevin Slavin and Jane McGonigal and Elan Lee are doing amazing things in big metropolitan areas like NYC and SF and Seattle, where there's a critical mass of technologically "hip" consumers. Software like Foursquare was originally designed for urban hipsters...people who wanted to know where the party was going on at any given point in time, so they could join it.

But what about those of us who live in the smaller spaces? The small cities, towns, villages, and even (horror of horrors) the suburbs? Those of us whose lives currently revolve more around home and family than parties and friends? In my experience, these populations have not been well served by social software and game design innovations.

While it's true that 79% of the US population is defined as living in "urban" areas, many of those urban areas are relatively small. As a resident of the Rochester, NY metropolitan area, for example, I'm counted in those statistics as an urbanite...but my experience and social environment is very different from that of a Manhattan resident.

I see populations all the time that are desperately underserved when it comes to group-forming and community-maintaining tools. K-12 schools are a great example. Most school websites that I've seen are awful...and even when they're not awful, their primary purpose is generally distributing information from the schools to the parents. There are seldom mechanisms for parents to talk to back to the school (other than through an email link to a specific teacher or administrator), let alone for parents to talk to each other.

(I got excited when I heard Matt reference a project related to K-12 schools in his talk, but from what I can tell by poking around online, it's really about data visualization rather than community building.)

Other interesting innovations that focus on local community and experiences, like GroupOn and Living Social, are also primarily focused on residents of major metro areas. (Rochester has Groupon, for example, but not Living Social--at least not yet).

There's a lot of potential for these kinds of social tools--community support tools, location augmentation tools, "life as a game board" tools--to be useful in smaller scale environments, but we need to think about how to scale them (where by scaling I mean to more different locations rather than to more people in the same locations).

So, I'm going to start fleshing all of this out, to see what kind of talk begins to emerge. It's fun to have a new talk topic to wrap my head around. :)

links for 2010-09-28

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food, food, glorious food

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Yesterday, I shared a little about the changes our family has made in our eating and exercises habits--and I said I'd share some of our favorite new foods.

When we stopped buying fast food and eating out, we made a conscious choice not to replace that food with highly processed packaged foods (something we've done too often in the past). Instead, we started buying more basic ingredients, and figuring out what foods we could make ourselves that would be healthy, filling, and...most importantly...tasty.

Starting this process over the summer was ideal, because even long-time-veggie-hating-me couldn't help but be tempted by the bountiful produce at the public market and even the local supermarket. Some things were no-brainers, like fresh berries and tomatoes. Others I grew into, like zucchini and eggplant (both of which I found were quite delicious when roasted). The public market was also ideal from a financial standpoint...in fact, I've started a series of photos on what $20 can buy you at the market (besides the attitude boost that comes from being in such a happy, high energy place).

So, here are some of the key things I keep in the house now so that when I'm hungry, there's something healthy I can snack on:

  1. Wegmans Cocopop Rice Cakes
    These are not the rice cakes that you're familiar with. They're made fresh every day (in a machine that makes me laugh, because it fires the batter against a plexiglass wall to flatten the cake), and they're thin, light and surprisingly tasty. But I don't eat them plain--they've become my favorite delivery mechanism for a variety of treats, discussed below.
  2. Hummus
    Simple to make, and relatively inexpensive to buy when I'm short on time, hummus is both healthy and delicious, and makes a great filling snack when scooped up with some of those Cocopops.
  3. Homemade Pita Chips
    You can buy pita chips in the organic section of the grocery store, but they're expensive. A cheaper and still delicious option is to buy the cheapest pita pockets you can find, slice them into wedges, spray them with olive oil, shake on a little salt, and bake them until crispy. Then use them to scoop up that hummus--or just snack on them instead of potato chips.
  4. Caprese Salad Makings
    I don't actually make caprese salad, but I almost always have tomatoes (preferably cherry tomatoes), mozzarella, and either basil or pesto on hand. A particularly great and healthy treat is a Cocopop with thin-sliced mozzarella, halved cherry tomatoes, and basil leaves or a touch of pesto. It's like a delicious cold mini-pizza, at a fraction of the calories.
  5. Baked Zucchini Chips
    Yes, a green vegetable...which will amaze anyone who's known me for very long. I love these chips, and they're ridiculously healthy and easy to make. Who knew? (Don't answer that...)
  6. Reddi-Wip Fat Free Whipped Cream
    I was prepared for this to taste like a chemical disaster, but I was extremely surprised and delighted by just how good it is. Rich, creamy, decadent...and only five calories in two tablespoons! When I have a sweets craving and nobody's looking, I've been known to squirt this right into my mouth. But an even better option is to put a layer of it on one of those Cocopops, and then top it with fresh berries. Feels like an incredibly fattening dessert, but has next to no calories.
  7. Extra-Churned (or "slow churned") Strawberry Ice Cream
    I buy the Wegmans brand, but there are plenty of comparable national brands (Edy's, Breyer's, etc). At 100 calories for a half-cup serving, I can indulge my sweet tooth with very little guilt.
  8. Quaker Instant Lower-Sugar Oatmeal
    I know it would be healthier to make old-fashioned oatmeal, but in the morning I'm always in a hurry, and I love that I can make this in just one minute with minimal effort. I buy the box that has four different flavors, and I make it with 1/2 cup of 1% milk rather than water so that I get some calcium and protein. The whole bowl comes in at under 200 calories, and it's filling enough that I'm not craving a snack an hour after I get to work.
  9. Boneless Chicken
    We're regularly buying the big club packs of boneless chicken (yes, we should be buying free range/organic, but it's out of our price range for regular use right now). I like to cube it and cook up big batches--which can then be eaten as snacks, or tossed into a variety of dishes.
  10. Lean Ground Beef
    We gave up fast food, but we didn't give up hamburgers. :) Now we make our own pretty regularly, which means better portion control, lean beef (often organic, from Seven Bridges), and healthy toppings.
  11. Potatoes
    I'm a potato junkie, and now that I'm not indulging in french fries and potato chips, I've found better ways to get my fix. One of my favorites is to cut new potatoes into quarters, toss them in olive oil, sprinkle with salt and/or spices, and roast them in the oven. Yesterday I bought ten pounds of Yukon Golds at the public market, so I'm going to try roasting them using a recipe from Cook's Illustrated.
  12. Fresh Fruit
    Gerald and the boys all love to snack on fruit, so we keep whatever's currently fresh on hand--right now it's apples, plums, and pears. (We also buy bananas year round, even though they're not local.)

I'm also finding that I'm not an awful cook--much to the surprise of both me and my children. (Gerald is less surprised, but no less appreciative.) God bless the internets for providing me with an endless source of not just recipes, but also tips and tricks and techniques. I'm slowly getting better at peeling, seeding, and chopping tomatoes. And I can finally chop an onion without blubbering through the whole process. I'm doing this often enough now that the boys no longer stare in surprise when they find me taking fresh-baked muffins out of the oven in the morning, or simmering a from-scratch tomato sauce for dinner.

So...apparently you can teach an old mom new tricks. I'm living proof of it! :)

cleaning up our collective act chez lawley

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Today on Facebook I posted this image, a screen shot from my iPhone showing my weight loss since August 4 (as tracked by my fantabulous Withings wifi scale):

Weight Loss, August 4-September 25

A friend commented and asked if I'd share my "secrets", and I decided that was a good lead-in to one of the blog posts I'd promised to start writing.

This didn't exactly start out as a weight loss program. Instead, it started out with me and Gerald looking at our finances at the beginning of August, and realizing that we've been living just slightly above our means for too long...which means that we've been very gradually accumulating debt. Not something we were happy about--particularly since we're on the verge of having two kids in college! So, we spent some time thinking about how to reduce our expenses and get our debt paid down.

One obvious place to cut costs was to reduce the amount of fast food and soda we were consuming as a family. Over the summer, with me not teaching and Gerald not chauffeuring kids to and from school and activities, we've actually got enough time to shop and cook. So we started doing exactly that. And when you're cooking your own food, rather than buying it in bags from the closest drive-thru, you have more control over what's going into your body.

I started going back to the Rochester Public Market on Saturday mornings, which cut our costs and improved the quality of our food. Amazingly, it didn't take long before even the thought of fast food lost all of its appeal, and I found myself craving bizarre things like hummus and roasted zucchini (and if you know me, you know just how bizarre that last part really is).

Eating healthier saved us money, but it also made us feel better. So we decided we might as well get a clean start all around, and we started exercising--Gerald by walking, and me by either walking or using the elliptical at the RIT gym. The exercise and the healthier food made us feel more energetic, and we both saw initial weight loss that helped a lot in keeping us motivated. And the fact that my 30th high school reunion is the weekend of October 8-10 gave me a short term goal point--I decided that if I possibly could, I wanted to drop 15 pounds by then. I started at a record-high 144 pounds, which meant my goal was to drop below 130 by the reunion (as you can see, I'm almost there!).

Over the past several months, Gerald has gone from a 3mph pace on a 2-mile loop in the neighborhood to a 3.5mph pace walking 5-6 miles a day (on the treadmill, in the neighborhood, at the mall, or recently on the RIT campus). And inspired by him, I've gone from barely being able to do 30 minutes on the elliptical at a low resistance level to doing 30-40 minutes at a high intensity, usually followed by the stationary bike or walking on a treadmill. I also discovered Jillian Michaels' 30-Day Shred DVD, which allowed me to squeeze in a high-intensity 25 minute workout before I leave in the morning--helpful on days where I know I'm probably not going to be able to make it to the RIT gym. Again--easy, cheap, and sustainable.

The key for us was that these were sustainable changes. Once we'd identified foods that we all liked but that were still healthy, it became easy to just keep those regularly stocked in the house. I may actually do a separate posts on the foods that have become critical staples for us to keep around. And even on a busy day, it's hard to argue that there's not time for 30 minute walk (or jog, or DVD workout).

Because I'm a techno-junkie, I found a lot of tools that have been helping me along the way. Gerald had bought me the Withings scale in April, so I started doing a daily weigh-in. The visualizations the app and website provide are really helpful, because they show a trendline--that means even when my weight would vary up and down from day to day, I didn't get discouraged because I could see the steady downward trend.

I joined the sparkpeople.com website--mostly out of professional curiosity, since they're a remarkable example of how game mechanics can be applied to real-world activities in an effective way. But my professional curiosity turned into personal satisfaction, since their tools for nutrition and activity tracking (both on the web and on my iPhone) are really excellent. I find that my biggest problem with food is that I eat without thinking...polishing off leftovers from other people's plates, grabbing a high-calorie snack out of the vending machine, having one more martini. Once I found a tool that made it easy for me to record both input and output, and that clearly indicated where I stood on each in terms of my goals, staying on track became easier.

And I continue to adore RunKeeper, which tracks the distances that Gerald and I walk when we're outside, but also records my indoor gym activities--and lets me brag about them online, another good motivator for me.

Oh...and one other iPhone tool that's been very helpful, in a tangential way, is Grocery IQ. It allows us to all access a shared grocery list, making it easier to keep healthy foods that we like "in stock".

So the (very long) answer is...I didn't do anything particularly novel or creative. I would say probably the single biggest factor is that Gerald and I both committed to making these changes at the same time...that means nobody's sabotaging the process, intentionally or not. Getting the junk food out of the house was the first and most important step for us...and the rest has followed.

google to mamamusings: you're dead to us!

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Well, apparently it's not that I've slowly slipped down in the rankings.

For some entirely unclear reason, mamamusings.net has gone from a page rank of 6/10 to 0/10. This happened once before, and it was temporary. But it's terribly frustrating, since there's no indication of what caused this to happen.

Google-savvy friends: any ideas for how to get back in their good graces?

==

Update: I turns out that my site is returning 500 errors to the google crawler (verified through http://web-sniffer.net/). It works fine for me with a regular browser, so I've put in a ticket to my hosting provider to try to figure out what's going on.

links for 2010-09-23

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google punishes me for not blogging...

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For years I've sat squarely in the top ten results in Google for "Liz", due entirely to this blog.

But I've neglected the blog over the past year...status updates on Twitter and Facebook sucked up the "let me tell you about what I'm doing" urges that used to fuel my blogging. And as a result, it appears that I've almost completely dropped off of Google's radar now. Very sad :(

Will that be enough to push me back into a semblance of regular blogging? I don't know. It's hard to find the time for longer-form writing these days, and when I can carve out that time it typically has to be devoted to grant proposals and project writeups rather than thoughtful meanderings here.

On the other hand, part of me suspects that my intellectual productivity has been diminished by my reduced output here; perhaps I need to start putting more of what's percolating in my head into the blog, in hopes that it will jumpstart the longer-form writing that I need to be doing.

links for 2010-09-21

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links for 2010-09-15

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links for 2010-09-09

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links for 2010-09-07

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links for 2010-09-06

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links for 2010-09-04

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About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from September 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

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