Catherine Gracey

Living Life, One Misadventure At A Time.

The Crystal Ball of Hindsight

I firmly believe that hindsight is the most powerful teaching tool that we have. Paths and possibilities that are hard to see now become so obvious when they move to the unchangeable safety of the past. Decisions can be reassessed, playing what if becomes easier because so much more information is available, and what was known at the time is simpler to weigh up and properly measure.

The past year has been very educational. Not a day has gone by that I haven’t looked back and wanted to kick myself for what is obvious today that I didn’t do yesterday. Every time I let my thoughts drift to the past it shows me another strategy that I didn’t use. Time is blurring into a frustrating sequence of could have, would have, should have.

It would be easy to berate myself and get negative about this process, but I also understand that it is something I need to be doing. No matter how I view this time in my life one year from now, I will not regret the lessons I am drawing from my mistakes, some of which have been spectacular. This reflection has shown me options that are still available, options that I might otherwise have missed entirely. Life will be very different in another 12 months.

Today I had my first session with a German tutor. We discussed the problems I have with the language, the strategies that I tried in the past, and what my capabilities with the language are. At the end of the session she told me that she doesn’t often have students who are as motivated as I am, and that I am clearly prepared. In that moment I paused, reflected, and decided she was right. I am incredibly motivated, and I am incredibly prepared. Then I quipped that preparation doesn’t do much good if you never get past the preparing and into the doing.

Things derailed for me a long time ago, and I have spent years since then preparing to make things better. I put an incredible amount of effort into the preparation, and I burn out just before I would achieve what I set up. There is always a new problem, something more urgent to take care of, and I hope that the old things I have prepared for will sort themselves out. Sometimes they don’t, but they do with enough frequency that I never notice my pattern unfolding again. The only thing that is guaranteed as things are is a life cluttered with half-finished projects.

The solution to resolving the tension in my life is to follow the path that allows me to finally and consistently act. Progress inspires progress; it becomes a habit that is harder to break with each passing day. Progressing defines you as someone who can, rather than someone who wants. It soothes regret and erases bitterness.

I should take all of this wisdom and do something great with it. I could work through the grammar exercises that I have. I could finish the pair of pants I am making for my daughter. I could work on my coding project. There are dozens of paths available to me. They all look equally promising; they all look equally terrifying. I just need to start walking and remember what I’ve learned.

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How Much Is My Resume Worth?

The best part of learning to code is that I don’t need someone else to give me permission. It is not dependent on getting a certain grade at school, applying to attend a university, waiting until a time that is convenient for them to learn, and then paying course fees that cost more than a new car. I do not need to pay professional registration fees, sit final exams, or answer to anyone about my skill level. With the proliferation of online training I just need to do a Google search and whatever I want to learn is a mouse click away.

Training courses can provide structure for learning, and I have definitely progressed faster with online courses than I might have done alone, but now I am focusing on a new type of structure: job advertisements. For me, this is perfect gamification of the learning process.

Each week I do a search for IT jobs in my area. I filter the ads based on my primary language – JavaScript – and see which accompanying skills are listed. HTML5, CSS3 and jQuery are high on the list, and after that the skills tend to diversify significantly. I have begun tracking the frequency of the required skills, and I am starting to dabble with the most frequent languages and libraries.

Comparing my existing skills to what is in the ads lets me ask two important questions:

  1. If I needed to find a job tomorrow, what should I learn today to make that easier?
  2. If I needed to find a job today, what are my skills worth?

The first question is easy to answer because I am tracking skill frequency. I can look at these languages and spend a few hours experimenting with each of them. If I suddenly need to apply for work I can say that I have limited experience rather than no experience. It probably won’t be enough to get me the hypothetical job, but it might be the difference between getting a telephone interview and a standard rejection letter.

The second question is where the gamification comes into this. A salary is nothing more than a socially agreed points system. Whenever I can tick off all of the skills on a job advertisement, I check the salary on offer. I make a note in my tracking data, and mentally assign myself the corresponding points. Each time I find an ad with a higher salary that I match, I update the points I am giving myself.

There will obviously be a gap between how I perceive my skills and how the rest of the world perceives them, but for now this process is leaves me feeling empowered and in control of my market value. I am consciously playing the game, and my reward is learning things that I might otherwise have put off learning. And who knows? I might even be right.

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Passive Aggressive Fossilisation

Last year, when I began learning JavaScript, I decided to dust off my language learning ideas and turn them into a computer program. This isn’t the first time I have tried to do this, but it is definitely the most successful so far. My various failed attempts over the last three years have taught me a lot, and that understanding is finally coming together.

This project consists of two main parts: a range of modules to learn the language through, and a database that supports the modules with language data. In the past I have been most excited about building the database, carefully reading grammar books, and making sure that the exercise to write a program teaches me more about the German language than the programming language of choice.

Since beginning the project last year, I have noticed a dramatic shift in my priorities. This time I took a database that I had already started, converted it into a form that would be useful for the current project, and have barely touched it since. I am enjoying the programming far more than the language, which seems odd since learning the language is the ultimate goal of the project.

I decided to take a few days off from the project last week, to explore my emotional state with German. I felt no hesitation playing games in German, talking to my partner and child in German, or browsing through German books. I simply resisted when it came to the point where casual interactions might have turned into focused study.

It has bothered me for months that my language skills have fossilised, but this week showed me why: it isn’t that I have reached my natural limit for German, that my study skills are ineffective, or anything else on a long list of possible failings. The problem is that I no longer want to improve.

Emotionally, I have the perfect level of German skill. I understand more of the language than my daughter does. I can make my way through Germany without too many issues as a tourist, and I am skilled enough that I can use German as a lingua franca in other countries. I already get as much social credit for trying to learn as I am going to. But, most importantly, I have stopped at a level where I am incapable of communicating about anything beyond pleasantries with certain people I know in Germany.

My last trip to Germany was difficult for me. I understood enough German that I knew when people were being rude or unkind, but not enough to respond. There were dozens of times when I found myself at the centre of a highly critical discussion about various failings that I was perceived to have, but I did not have the ability to answer those criticisms. If I learn more of the language then I will need to do something about these little attacks, because I won’t be able to hide behind the defence of hoping that I simply misunderstood what was said.

Defending myself verbally is going to require a very different vocabulary to the one that I have been trying to learn. Calling someone out on their behaviour requires very particular phrases if you don’t want to cause even more offence. Broken German won’t be sufficient; it has to be fluent or nothing at all. Learning to talk like that isn’t a philosophical problem for me, but focusing on it feels like waiting for the next run in that I don’t want to have.

If I am going to keep working on my program then I need to deal with my current reluctance to learn more. There is still a lot for me to improve with German, and I can always pick up additional languages. I have a wealth of available options, I just need to get past the fear and get back to enjoying the process.

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An Identity Walked Into an Abyss

I was recently discussing the concept of an abyss and chronic illness, and I have been asked to write down what I was talking about. The conversation started with one of my favourite quotes from Nietzsche:

Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird. Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein.

It translates into the well known:

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.

Our identity is a fluid, continually evolving thing. The different components of our identity rise and fall in importance depending on the context and their relevance, and the roles those components play vary accordingly. There are aspects of our identity that do not change, and there are aspects that come and go. For instance, I have always been and will always be a woman. This is an aspect of my identity that doesn’t have much importance if I am reading a book or playing with the dog, but it becomes critically important if I decide to bring a new life into the world. On the other hand, my identity as someone who writes computer code is relatively new, and will only remain for as long as I continue to write code.

Illness is something that attaches to our identity. If we are infected with a cold, we do not express it in that way; instead we say “I am sick”. It has become an attribute of who we are, with the same phrasing as saying “I am blonde” or “I am hungry”. For most people in most instances, this addition to our identity is removed in a few days, perhaps after a week, and our identity changes again. We say “I am better” or something similar, and are able to replace the negative identifier with a new, positive one.

When illness is not cured, however, we don’t go through the process of restoring our former identity as someone who is not sick. The longer we wear that negative badge, the deeper it presses on us, into us. We are used to shaking off illness in a negligible amount of time, and so this new aspect rises in importance. “I am sick” is a statement that needs to be dealt with now, not in a day, a week, a month or a year. It is more important than identifying statements such as “I play tennis on Tuesdays” or “each year I go hiking through the mountains for a week”.

As illness continues it becomes chronic illness. This is the place where identity begins to suffer. It has been at the top of your awareness for so long that other aspects of your identity are stripped away. How can you call yourself someone who plays tennis on Tuesdays when you haven’t stepped onto the court in six months? Are you really someone who goes hiking through the mountains every year when you’ve told your friends that you will sit this one out?

With every realisation of what we have lost, we step closer to our personal abyss. “Who am I?” is a question that has to be asked. If the only way you can answer this question is to say “I am someone who is sick” then you are staring into the abyss. You have given it too much attention, too much importance, and now it is consuming you.

None of us want to stare into that abyss. It means seeing all we have lost, all that has been sacrificed, and all that might never be again. You realise that “hitting rock bottom” is a myth spread by people who think they were there only because they have no idea of the many things they still have left to lose. But you know, and if you stare into the abyss then you find yourself wondering what else will be sucked into it. As long as you keep breathing, there is still more to lose.

Stepping back from the abyss is the most obvious thing to do, and it is the focus of many programs that are designed to help people with chronic conditions. You might not be able to say that you play tennis on Tuesdays ever again, but you can still say that you enjoy listening to Mozart during dinner or reading XKCD cartoons. It is a conscious process to push the illness down your list of priorities, to see all of the things that remain, and to embrace what is left.

The problem with this type of therapy is that it will never solve the real problem, which is being sick. Life becomes a carefully constructed series of behaviours and habits that provide equilibrium. We hold the stories that we tell ourselves like a talisman to ward off further evil. “If I do all of these things, I can get through the day.” We have stopped fighting the monster, and instead we have struck a deal with it. Consciously ignoring the abyss saves us from its return gaze, but the price is to accept it as an unchangeable part of who we are. For good or ill, we have become the monster.

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Coding Adventures: The Mood Checker

I started to teach myself JavaScript on 20 October 2014. After much careful research and self study, I present to you the following to determine how well your coding session is going. Feel free to use it as you see fit.

function moodChecker(hoursSpentCoding, numberOfBugs, numberOfBugsSolved){
    if (numberOfBugs <= numberOfBugsSolved && hoursSpentCoding <= 8){
        alert("Quit while you're ahead!");
        return "150%";
    } else if (numberOfBugs <= numberOfBugsSolved && hoursSpentCoding > 8) {
        alert("Shouldn't you be curing cancer?");
        return "150%";
    } else if (numberOfBugs > (numberOfBugsSolved * 10)){
        alert("Just give up and log into Stack Overflow. You know you want to.");
        return "0%";
    } else if (numberOfBugs > (numberOfBugsSolved * 5)){
        alert("You deserve a lot of cookies. Soak them in rum.");
        return "5%";
    } else if (numberOfBugs > (numberOfBugsSolved * 2)){
        alert("You deserve a lot of cookies.");
        return "25%";
    } else {
        console.log("Sounds legit.");
        return "100%";
    }
}

Agree? Disagree? Concerned that I’m now blogging code snippets?

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Winding Back The Years

This morning I went to the hairdresser for the first time since I was pregnant. It was a bit exciting to sit back and let myself be pampered while my child was off having adventures without me. The cut was quick, but it was half an hour that seemed long because it came without interruption.

My hair isn’t high on my priority list. When the hairdresser asked me how I wanted it cut, I described the lowest maintenance style that I could think of, she asked a lot of questions that I didn’t understand, and I replied with “sounds great” while hoping none of the terms she used were secret code for a fringe. Her interpretation of my vague description was exactly the style I had when I was in my late teens.

Since starting the paleo diet, I’ve lost 18kg. I now weigh what I did in my late teens. My new jeans are almost the same style that I had in my late teens, and most of the clothes that fit me are ones that I retrieved from the back of the wardrobe (last seen in my late teens). Visually I only need a bit of acne to complete the transformation, but I’m happy to skip that step.

Since moving back to Melbourne we’re living with my parents, so I spend most of my time in the same room that I did during my late teens. When I’m not looking after Shroomi I tend to do a lot of work on the computer. I’m relearning how to program, which is something that I abandoned in my early 20s, and I’m picking up other hobbies that have been neglected for years.

It feels as if I am returning to a path that I regret leaving. Each tiny change is a small readjustment, almost insignificant in itself, but collectively they feel like shedding baggage and rejecting past mistakes. In my late 20s I was told that I could never unwind the clock and I could never regain who I had once been. That might be correct in the details, but I am learning now that it is not correct in the emotional landscape.

As I return to the point where my path deviated from where I wanted to go, I wonder how walking this road will be different now compared to then. I have the added wisdom of over a decade of hard learning to draw on. Will I be able to conquer the challenges that thwarted me in my youth, or will they be just as difficult now as they were then? Will I be hindered by what I have learned, or will it benefit me? Will I be comfortable with all the things that make me authentically me? Only time will tell, but now I feel as if I once again have all the time in the world to find out.

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My New Standing Desk

After years of discussion and general procrastination, I finally took the plunge and bought myself a standing desk. Today is the first day that I am using it, and I’m already convinced it was the right thing to do.

My original plan for a standing desk had been one built around a treadmill. Standing still isn’t much better than sitting still, and the treadmill would have given me the incidental exercise during the day that I generally lack when I am working. Since the arrival of Shroomi, however, my incidental exercise has risen enormously and my desire for moving objects that little fingers could get stuck in has plummeted. The old standing desk design was out, and I needed something new.

For the last few months I have been working from the back of a tallboy. It has been a nice alternative to my regular desk, but the height on it was a compromise between the height I needed for the keyboard and the height I needed for the monitor. My shoulders were always slightly too high and my neck was always slightly too bent. I couldn’t use the setup for very long before fatiguing.

During the week my partner found the dimensions for the proper setup of a standing desk at iamnotaprogrammer.com. We got out the tape measure and worked out what the numbers would be for my body. He was keen to go with the suggested Ikea solution, but I wasn’t thrilled about it. It’s not that I don’t like Ikea’s products, it’s just that I hate their store design so much that it tends to influence my opinion of what they sell. I kept looking for an alternative that didn’t require going to Ikea.

I went through a few local furniture stores to find pieces I could combine with each other. My initial idea was that I could put one piece on top of the other and bolt them together. Nothing I found fitted this plan, so I changed tactics and decided to look for pieces that I could put beside each other.

Yesterday we realised that my mother’s old filing cabinet was the perfect height for the keyboard component. I’ve wanted to buy a filing cabinet for years, so I decided this was the time. After a quick search online I found the Stilford range. The three drawer cabinet is slightly lower than what I need for the keyboard, but it’s so comfortable that I’m not too concerned about the angle of my wrists. The four drawer cabinet is slightly higher than what I need for the monitor, but this height is also so comfortable that I’m not concerned. Here’s what my new setup looks like:

Standing desk image

Red, because you always want your desk to go faster.

The pair of cabinets cost me $659 at Officeworks, which I was happy to pay since these are bright red and totally hot. No assembly was required, and when I rang the store to tell them I was coming they had them ready at the front door for me to collect. The boxes that they came in are quite sturdy, and my Ikea loving partner has decided that he might use them to make a standing desk of his own. Shroomi has had a great time thumping them, so I need to fill them quickly with something to kill the noise, but they are lockable so I don’t need to worry about her getting her fingers stuck in the drawers or tipping anything onto herself.

Has anyone else tried a standing desk? What worked for you and what did you need to change?

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Where Is This Female Programmer?

I have been reading a lot of articles recently about women in IT, sent to me by various people. They all relate to the same general question: why aren’t there many female computer science students? It is a question that is getting closer to home with every day, and I have spent a fair number of hours pondering this question as it relates to me.

In high school I picked classes that were highly specialised according to my teachers. My final year was an intense blend of mathematics and computing. I learned to program in several languages and I learned enough high level mathematical skills that there is very little in my life that I am not able to calculate if I need to.

After finishing school, I went on to complete a BA with a major in creative writing. My other units were in literature, linguistics and philosophy. I took this further a few years later and completed an Honours year, also in writing. Aside from coding a basic website for myself over a few weeks one summer, I haven’t touched programming since.

Looking back with the vantage point of a few years, I am surprised that I didn’t complete a double degree in computer science and art. It would have been the logical choice given my interest and skills. My two main interests would have been combined, and I would have been able to follow a very different career path where I suspect I would have excelled in both fields.

The problem with retrospective insight, such as this, is that the awareness now was not available then. My first round university selections were all in various business fields: accounting, economics, marketing, etc. The only reason I enrolled in the degree that I did was because on the final day to change our preferences my former drama teacher mentioned her surprise that I had not selected a creative writing degree. I didn’t realise such things even existed, so I went home and put down the first one I could find as my first preference. I didn’t have the time to research degrees, because I literally had a deadline of two hours to do the work and the website was prone to crashing. My academic future changed instantly as a result of a 3 minute conversation.

I didn’t understand what the options were that I could follow. Computer science had always been an area that I saw as hardware, not software. I could build a computer from component parts without help, but it wasn’t something I wanted to do all day. I didn’t see a future career that involved cutting myself open on circuit boards. Programming was absent from my mental list of possibilities.

Now that I am in my early 30s, and I am aware of how many women are making choices similar to my own, I question if it was the right choice. I am certainly young enough that I could go back to university – I’ve done it a few times before – and correct the career mistake that I made. It would be an opportunity to gain a qualification that makes sense, I could complete my family with no time out of the workforce, and I would be young enough that I would still have a long career ahead of me.

I am also old enough to understand that there is more than one way to achieve a goal. Programming tutorials abound on the internet, and I know enough programmers that I could get help with any problems I encounter if I teach myself. Do I want to learn this to balance the numbers in a grand feminist statement, or do I want to learn this for myself? I’m all for promoting the sisterhood, but I’m just as happy to live my life and save a ton of money in the process.

This week I decided to follow the path and see where it takes me. I relearned HTML on Monday and I picked up CSS on Tuesday. Wednesday saw me move onto JavaScript, and that will probably take me the rest of the week to nail, possibly part of next week too. I will have picked up three coding languages before applications for next year’s computer science degrees close. Am I missing an opportunity by leaving the degree to the boys? Possibly, but I don’t have three spare years to waste while I get ready to start something new.

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Say Goodbye And Then Hang Up

For the first time in years I am living in a house that has a working telephone. There are probably benefits to this beyond a discount on the internet, but I am at a loss as to what those benefits might be. It is constantly ringing with incredibly rude and obnoxious sales people who just don’t get it.

I’ve spent enough years working in customer service to appreciate that it can be a demeaning and thankless job. I’ve had my share of hostile customers who don’t understand that I have a job to do and have not woken up in the morning with the specific goal of ruining their lives and general happiness. I’ve had to keep my cool when I want to tell someone my opinion because I also understand that when I am a customer service representative I am the face and voice of my employer in that moment.

Because I understand that customer service jobs aren’t as fun as the employment advertisements make them out to be, I try to be compassionate when I am dealing with customer service people. No matter what I am doing when they call me, I make sure I treat them like people. When they ask in their script how I am, I also ask how they are. This is a rare response, because almost every customer service representative I speak to is surprised and I am often told that I am the first person in the day to ask them. It costs me nothing to offer basic courtesies, but seems to make them happier.

Because I understand that customer service jobs aren’t always easy, I try to be polite when I reject their sales pitch. I don’t just tell them that I am uninterested in their product or service; I also take them time to tell them why. I understand that they have sales targets, and I understand that my call is going to be recorded for “quality and training purposes” so I want their managers to know that the lead was too cold to kindle.

Unfortunately there aren’t too many customer service representatives who call that understand this. This afternoon I had a call from a representative at Simply Energy. He asked for me by name, which means his company has bought my details from somewhere since I have never heard of his company before. He pushed his pitch, followed the script in detail, and came unstuck when I said “but I don’t have an electricity account with anyone at the moment.”

If I was the customer service representative at this point, I would have thanked the customer for their time and said goodbye. It is a polite way to end the call that does not alienate someone who has been polite to me. Instead there was just the sound of my phone beeping to indicate that he had hung up on me.

Clearly I was a dead lead for him today. But, just as clearly, I am a customer who has had an electricity account in the past, and I am probably a customer who will have an electricity account again in the future. And will I consider Simply Energy for my future electricity needs? Of course not, because they just interrupted my day and took the opportunity to be gratuitously rude.

I get hung up on a lot by customer service representatives that I make an effort to be polite to, and this time it got to me, so I decided to take the direct approach and I rang the company back. Their response was to leave me on hold for eight minutes before I got bored and hung up. To put that in perspective, their sales manager could have hung up on eight other customers in that time based on the length of my first call.

I’m not able to disconnect the phone in this house because the account isn’t in my name – although a few telemarketers seem to think it is – and I’m unable to add it to the Do Not Call register for the same reason. For now I am stuck taking these annoying calls, adding business after business to the list that I will make sure I never work with. I’d ask them to take me off their marketing list, but unfortunately they’ve already hung up.

Does this keep happening to anyone else, or is it just me? Which businesses haven’t taught their employees how to be polite while cold calling?

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Old Environment New Pace

The past three months have gone so quickly that it has been difficult to keep up. We left Canberra at the end of June and moved to Melbourne. For me it was just going home, but for my partner and daughter it marked the start of a new chapter in their lives.

Before we had a chance to settle in we were on a plane bound for Germany. Shroomi was seven months old when we landed, and she learned to sit up by herself on the flight. Before we knew it she was crawling and pulling herself up to stand. Two more teeth made an appearance, and a third began emerging when we were in Frankfurt preparing to go home again seven weeks later. She met most of her extended family, attended her first wedding, attended her first funeral, and learned how to form friendships on the streets of France, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Austria and Denmark.

My partner and I broke the paleo diet more often than we could count, and each instance reinforced our decision to begin it in the first place. I was on a rollercoaster of health symptoms that came and vanished as we switched between meals we could control and meals we could not. One day I could run up a flight of stairs while carrying Shroomi and 20kg of luggage, the next I could barely walk along a flat street without puffing.

Our attention turned towards career while we were away, and we began to ask ourselves what type of life we wanted to live and provide for our daughter. Which country did we want to live in? What type of work did we want to pursue? Would particular opportunities be open or closed to us with different choices? How important is extended family when making these decisions?

We came home in August, exhausted from our holiday, and immediately caught a series of nasty winter colds. After a few rough weeks of looking after a sick baby while we weren’t feeling so good ourselves, we began settling down to life in Melbourne. Job applications were written and sent, employers were called, and business plans were written. Shroomi has developed strong bonds with her grandparents and our days are now filled with a different energy to what we knew in Canberra. For the first time as parents we have genuine support, and we are able to turn our attention to things that are much more satisfying than just making it through the day.

It is difficult to comprehend how much has changed. Memories of Canberra are fading quickly and losing their emotional power. So many of our questions have been answered that we can start asking deeper ones. We are once again able to be more than just parents. We have been in Melbourne for a month, and there is a strong feeling of having arrived. There is so much left to do, but for now I am content to rediscover who I am when I don’t have to spend each day worried about the future.

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