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What could I do if I showed up in a bigger way?

I’m reading Ben Arment’s Dream Year: Make the Leap From a Job You Hate to a Life You Love (2014), and there’s a reminder in here about the choice between the fear of failure and the fear of insignificance. “Choose the fear of insignificance,” the author says. And I think: Hmm, actually, I’m okay with insignificance (or minor minor minor significance, in any case). Stoicism reminds us that after thousands of years, very little of this will matter. But maybe I should care a little bit. Since I’ve done all this work to minimize the fear of failure anyway. I might as well play on that side of the equation.

I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’m wondering whether I should take this experience in social business and make something bigger out of it. I could probably negotiate something with my main consulting clients so that we could get ideas or even code out in the wider world, or I could independently develop something that they and other people would be welcome to use. I haven’t quite sorted out what that would be like yet, but I imagine it would start off as open source components, then possibly consulting and product development once I’ve established a reputation in that community.

Of social business, Emacs, and blogging, though, I like Emacs the most. There’s something about it. I like the community a lot: interesting people doing interesting things, and a remarkably flexible platform that has kept me curious and fascinated for years. If I were to show up in a bigger way, I suppose that would involve writing more guides, and maybe understanding enough of the core of complex things like Org and Emacs itself so that I could contribute to the codebase. I tend to focus on workflow more than bugfixes or new features, though… I think there’s something interesting in how people use the same things in such different ways. Maybe I’ll write more about my evolving workflow, using that and personal projects as excuses to keep tweaking.

As for blogging, there are bucketloads of people who are happy to give other people advice on what to do and how to do it. I’m interested in keeping it unintimidating and useful for personal learning, but I’m more excited about and curious about those other two causes. Still, I can show by example, and I can offer advice and encouragement when people ask.

What are the differences between this slightly bigger life and my current one? I think part of it is related to the way that I’ve been minimizing my commitments during this 5-year experiment, being very careful about what I say yes to and what I promise my time towards. Part of it is taking the initiative instead of waiting for requests or sparks of inspiration. Part of it is working more deliberately towards a goal. It’s not going to be a big big life, but it might be interesting to experiment with.

Dealing with uncertainty one step at a time

Sometimes it’s hard to plan ahead because there are just too many factors to consider, too many things I don’t know, too many divergent paths. I can come up with different scenarios, but I can’t figure out a lot of things that would make sense in all the likely scenarios. Some of the scenarios are exciting, but some of them are also scary. They’re hard to hold in my mind. They fight my imagination. I can’t plan straight for these. I can’t come up with step 1, step 2, step 3. At best, I can come up with if-then-elses, but I still have to wait and see how things turn out.

Sometimes it’s easier to take life one day at a time, because if I think about too large a chunk, I start getting lost. Sometimes it’s better to not focus on everything that’s needed, just what’s needed right now.

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It rattles me a little bit because I’m more used to seeing clearer paths. Or do I only think that I’m used to that?

Let me try to remember when I felt that sense of clarity and certainty. I was certain about taking computer science; I loved programming even as a kid. I was certain about teaching after graduation; I loved helping people learn. I was certain about taking a technical internship in Japan; it was an interesting thing to do. I was certain about taking my master’s degree; it was a logical next step, necessary for teaching, and the research was interesting.

I was not certain about being in Canada, and I was often homesick during my studies. But I was certain about W-, and now this place also feels like home. I was certain about IBM and about the people and ideas I wanted to work with. I was certain about saving up an opportunity fund so that I could explore other things someday. I was certain about starting this 5-year experiment with semi-retirement.

So I’m familiar with what it’s like to plan for a chunk of certainty – half a year, four years, decades. It feels good when a plan comes together, when I can see how each step leads to a future I’ve already lived in my head.

I am certain, now, that I’m going in roughly the right direction. I don’t know exactly how it will work out, but I know that it will be interesting.

Ah! There it is, I think, the thing I’m trying to grasp. The future Sacha of this five-year experiment is fuzzy in my head. That evaluation point is only two years away now, and I should be able to imagine her more clearly. But aside from a few abstract characteristics (future Sacha is a better developer and writer, future Sacha continues to be happy, future Sacha gets to work on what she wants), I don’t have a good sense of her yet – not with the same solidity of past futures. I’m not sure what to put on that Conveyor Belt of Time (as Mr. Money Mustache puts it) aside from generically-useful gifts to my future self: decent finances, relationships, skills.

Circling back to the metaphor that emerged while I was drawing and writing my way through this question, I suppose this is like the difference between hiking along a trail with a view – or even unmarked ground, but with landmarks for orienting yourself – versus exploring the woods. Not that I know much of the latter; I’ve never been lost in the woods before, never strayed from the safety of a trail or the sight of a road. (Well, except maybe that one time we were hiking along the Bruce Trail and got turned around a little bit, and we ended up scrambling up a slope to find the trail we really wanted to be on.)

I can learn to enjoy exploring, knowing that in the worst-case scenario, I’ve got the figurative equivalent of supplies, a GPS, emergency contacts, backup batteries and so on. I can learn to enjoy observing the world, turning questions and ideas over, noticing what’s interesting about them, perhaps cracking things open in order to learn more. I can learn to take notes, make maps, tidy up trails, and leave other gifts for people who happen to wander by that way.

Ah. That might be it. Let’s give that a try.

Cooking at Hacklab: Coconut barfi

It took me an hour to get from downtown to Hacklab on a stop-and-go Queen streetcar. Next time, I should probably take the King streetcar instead, or even go all the way north to Bloor and then south on the Dufferin bus. Anyway, I’d given myself enough of a buffer to not feel horribly guilty about being late meeting people who were expecting me there around 6-ish anyway, and that was when I made it. Max was already there when I arrived, and Gabriel joined us when we were at the supermarket picking up groceries.

Chris and Alaina were busy making two courses (korma and hot-and-sour soup), so I figured we’d go with an Indian vegan dessert to accompany the korma. Some rapid Googling turned up this Coconut Barfi recipe from Diwali Sweets (by way of Veg Recipes of India’s review). We made a triple batch of the following recipe:

  • 1/2 cup semolina flour (we used medium, but this might be better with fine)
  • 1/2 cup dry coconut flakes (we used shredded)
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cashew pieces (got roasted cashews from the bulk bin so that we could snack on them while cooking)
  • pinch of salt

For the sugar syrup:

  • 1/2 cup ground raw sugar (we used turbinado sugar, couldn’t find anything raw)
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cardamom powder (we ended up grinding our own, since the nearby supermarket doesn’t stock powdered cardamom)

It took longer to make the sugar syrup than expected, but then again, I’m pretty new to syrup making, so I wasn’t quite sure what “one thread consistency” meant. Anyway, it still turned out as nicely cardamom-scented nibble, crunchy without being jaw-breaking.

Gabriel generously remarked that the amount of salt I added made it remind him of salted caramels. I think perhaps a smaller pinch would do next time.

It was lots of fun cooking with both old friends and new acquaintances, and the kitchen at Hacklab supports having multiple people quite nicely (aside from a bit of stove coordination when we had three things on the go). Yay cooking!

Coconut Barfi recipe

Planning for winter – tweaking my layers

It’s getting cooler here in Toronto, with possible snow showers and scattered flurries this weekend. Time to think about how I can make this winter even better!

The Scott Quest Vest is working out really well, allowing me to leave my belt bag behind. I haven’t quite gotten the hang of all the pockets, but I can generally find the most frequent things I use. One of the earphone loops has worked loose and gotten frayed by nearby Velcro, though. I’ll check with the manufacturer, since I haven’t figured out how to securely hand-sew elastic loops like that.

I’ve started wearing my thermals again. With that, the vest, and maybe a sweater, I’m pretty okay with the 5-10C temperatures these days. A rain jacket is handy, too. A hoodie and maybe gloves will take me down to 3C or so.

Here are some notes I put together while thinking about what kind of coat I wanted to get this year:

I ended up deciding on a waterproof jacket with an interchangable lining that’s compatible with a down jacket. I’m still keeping an eye out for a large, warm hat, but I can probably get by with a nice warm scarf and my winter hats. It turns out that I’m somewhat picky about hats, so I haven’t quite found the one I like the most yet.

The new office my clients have moved to is directly connected to the PATH, so my winter exposure during consulting days will just be the 10-20 minute walk to the subway station. I plan to be at Hacklab more often, though, so that will still involve a bit of waiting. The new Hacklab has nicely vivid accent colours, so I’ll probably head over there if I feel colour-deprived.

I probably need to get new winter boots. I noticed last year that my insulated boots were no longer waterproof. The shoe stores don’t seem to have brought in their winter boot selections yet, but I’ll check again in a few months. I tried looking for winter boots at end-of-season sales earlier this year, but since I have small feet and a preference for simple styles, the sizes tend to be sold out quickly. I had the same problem with coats, too, which is why I decided to get a new coat early in the season instead of waiting to see what the rest of the options were.

Compared to last year, I’m even more comfortable with cooking and baking, and I’m looking forward to keeping the house warm and the fridge full.

Bring it on!

Hacklab Cooking: Thai curry from scratch, and coconut tapioca pudding too

It feels a little odd to post two cooking-related entries in a row, but I wanted to take notes on this (and share it with y’all!). =) Yesterday at Hacklab, Eric, Abtin, and I made Thai curry from scratch, and I made coconut tapioca pudding too. We (mostly) followed this recipe for the Thai curry, tripling the proportions:

Paste (we prepared this in a blender instead of a food processor, and we thinned it with a little coconut milk to make it blendable)

  • 3 Thai chilies
  • 1 stalk lemongrass
  • 3 shallots
  • 1/2 red pepper, deseeded
  • zest of 1 lime
  • stalks from a third of a bunch of coriander
  • thumb-size piece of ginger – we didn’t grate this, we just blended it
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tsp ground coriander

Curry

  • Tofu, marinated in soy sauce, chopped chili, and the juice of 1 lime
  • 400ml coconut milk
  • eggplant
  • zucchini
  • green beans
  • mushrooms
  • half a red pepper, deseeded
  • 1 tsp brown sugar
  • basil

Coconut tapioca pudding

  • Tapioca
  • Coconut milk
  • Sugar
  • Maple syrup

The Fresh.co near Hacklab didn’t carry the kind of tapioca I wanted for the coconut tapioca pudding, so I made do with the minute tapioca that they sell in the instant snacks area (along with Jello and custard powder). I couldn’t figure out how to translate either the coconut tapioca recipe (which specifically tells you to avoid minute tapioca) or the instructions on the back of the tapioca package, so I made something up instead. I used the entire package of minute tapioca, added the remainder of the carton of coconut milk, whisked it to dissolve the tapioca, and cooked it over medium heat (constantly stirring) until the tapioca was no longer crunchy. I added sugar to taste, and I followed the original recipe’s suggestion to top it with maple syrup (… which happened to be the maple syrup that had boiled over during last week’s icing experiment). You’re supposed to let it cool down, but it was yummy while warm anyway. =)

So, more experience points earned and achievements unlocked!

  • First time to make Thai curry from scratch instead of using the canned curry paste
  • First time to cook something with lemongrass
  • First time to make tapioca pudding
  • First time to make up dessert as I went along
  • … First time I’d gone through that much coconut milk

Also, Monday, I made chicken pot pie with a biscuit crust. Technically, I made most of it on Sunday, and then I made a quick biscuit crust after we came back from the polling station (I voted in Canada for the first time, yay!). It was wonderfully chicken-y, not at all like the frozen pot pies you can get at the supermarket. Mmm.

I really like this cooking thing. It’s fun to be able to turn simple ingredients into good tastes, decent food, and shared experiences, even though there’s a lot of figuring things out and adjusting and occasionally making the wrong decisions. =) So far, things have been working out really well.

Cupcake challenge: accepted!

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For the Hacklab grand re-opening party, I made 58 vegan chocolate cupcakes using about four batches of this Basic Vegan Chocolate Cupcake. Each batch called for:

  • 1 cup soy milk
  • 1 tsp apple cider vinegar
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup canola oil
  • 1.5 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup cocoa powder
  • 3/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt

mixed and baked in a 350F oven for 18-20 minutes (20 minutes at Hacklab). Once cooled, we decorated them with this Vegan Fluffy Buttercream Frosting, which called for:

  • 1/2 cup vegetable shortening
  • 1/2 cup vegan margarine
  • 3.5 cups icing sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup soy milk

Fortunately, Eric had donated an electric mixer (hand), so whipping up the frosting was easy. The cupcakes were not too sweet, so the frosting was a nice balance.

I also made 12 non-chocolate, non-vegan, gluten-free cupcakes from a boxed mix, since some Hacklab members have those dietary restrictions. Eric iced those with a different recipe.

It was actually pretty fun making dozens of cupcakes. Because they’re in liners, it’s easy to make large batches of them and set them cooling on whatever surfaces are handy. I started at 4ish and spent the whole afternoon cooking. I also had fun using the simple cake decoration kit to pipe letters and icing on it, although my hands were a smidge shaky. I actually forgot to add the soy milk and extract the first time around, but I caught it after icing the first ten cupcakes with something that was mostly sugar. After I beat in the soy milk, icing was a lot easier.

We don’t really make a lot of desserts at home because we’d like to eat more healthily, but since J-‘s friends are often over, maybe I should look into making more snacks to keep around the house. Probably not chocolate cupcakes – maybe something healthier? – but it’s definitely baking season, so some kind of baked good. Then again, W- reminds me that a box of cookies on sale is pretty cheap, so we might as well use the time for other things.

I don’t quite remember making cupcakes before the party. Maybe I’ve made cupcakes before, but just forgot about it? Anyway, they’re not intimidating after all. =) And with vegan recipes, I can taste the batter a little to see if I’m on the right track!