November 30, 2007
"Imagine the Magic" ReduxLast year I wrote about the winners of the "Imagine the Magic" contest that Microsoft ran about ten years ago. These were kids between the ages of 6 and 11 who got to meet Bill Gates as a prize in an essay-writing contest about "what the coolest computer could do."
I'm always curious about the imprint that people leave on the Internet and how locatable average people are, so I searched for the winners. The contest ran in two years, 1995 and 1996. With the information I had (name, age, and hometown for the 1996 bunch) I was able to find traces of a few of them. One of them was a girl from Spokane named Maryellen Cooley, about whom I wrote (based on her myspace account), "she seems to have veered away from computers. And, like many people you can't quite track down, she's rumored to be in Canada."
Flash forward to last month, and I'm waiting in line to attend a local theatre production with my son. The usher, somewhat unusually, walked down the line and handed us all programs before we went in. I was glancing through the list of cast members (my son knew one of the actors in the show) when I saw a name that jogged my memory: Maryellen Cooley.
It's a fairly unique first name so I figured it was probably the same person, but I wasn't really sure how to confirm it. But I really wanted to know! I quickly pondered and dismissed several plans involving waiting around after the show and then approaching her and saying...what exactly?
So I was thinking about this when I realized, based on the conversation she was having, that I was standing in line right in front of Maryellen's mother. And of course I just HAD to say something...I mean I knew it would sound really strange to say "I work at Microsoft and I recognize your daughter's name from a contest they had 11 1/2 years ago, is she the same person?"...but that's basically what I said. Her having been in the contest, and me having blogged about it, then for us to come to a show she was in, and the usher giving the programs out early, and for her mother to be right behind us in line...I couldn't not do it. And lo and behold it was the same person. I briefly discussed it with her mother; she said that Maryellen had enjoyed the bright lights and limousines, but she wasn't particularly interested in computers now.
Then they started taking tickets and we sat down to watch the show, in which Maryellen was fantastic (as was the rest of the cast). I looked for her mother afterwards just to offer my congratulations, but I didn't see her, so we left.
Then afterwards I got curious to know more about the effect of such an event happening to you at age seven. Maybe she had been inspired to pursue an acting career? Maybe it had given her the confidence to succeed? Maybe she was embarrassed about the whole thing and didn't like to talk about it? So I sent email to the person in the cast that my son knew, asking him to ask Maryellen to email me if she wanted to (and he felt OK asking her).
I did get email from Maryellen, and sent off a bunch of questions about the aftermath of the contest. In my imagination, what would have happened next was that she would respond to the email and I would write it up on this blog. Then I would send a link to Bill Gates with a "just thought you might be interested in this" intro. Bill would be amused to hear of the effect he had had on a young person, and interested to find out that she was performing in a show right near Microsoft. He would attend a performance incognito, then wait around afterwards to say hello. When she didn't come out at first, he would send the person working at the snack bar back to get her. And imagine the surprise on her face when she saw him.
That's the imaginary version. What really happened was Maryellen never answered my email. Maybe it came off as too strange, or maybe she really doesn't want to talk about it. Or maybe she just forgot to reply, but I didn't want to nag her about it. Maybe even writing this blog entry is too stalker-ish, but I like coincidences such as this one, and it was nice to see that whatever the effect of the contest had been, she appeared to have turned into a happy, functioning adult.
November 20, 2007
A Recipe: Michael Barr's BreadIf you're home for the holidays and looking to whip up a little something homemade, you could do a lot worse than this bread recipe. It's something my father came up with years ago. My parents are visiting for Thanksgiving and the family has been going through about one of these a day.
The ingredient list and instructions may seem a bit daunting, but the taste is worth it. And it's actually a very forgiving bread in terms of being able to rise for different times, have a different mix of ingredients, etc.
- 3 cups water
- 1/2 cup corn meal
- 1/2 cup Red River cereal *
- 1/3 cup powdered milk
- 1 cup oats (plain Quaker Oats is fine, don't get the 1 minute stuff)
- Heaping teaspoon salt
- Light teaspoon sugar
- 1.5 teaspoons or one packet yeast
- About 2 cups whole wheat flour
- About 2.5 cups white flour
- Enough butter for the pan and top of the bread
* Red River is a cereal containing wheat, rye, and flax, a proud child of the Canadian prairie. It's available in Canada and they also sell it at QFC in the Seattle area, and possibly elsewhere. If you can't find it, I presume you could mix wheat, rye, and flax together, although I don't know the proportion in Red River.
You also need a bread pan, a small pot (2 quarts is good), a measuring cup (2 cups is good), a teaspoon, a whisk, and something to mix the dough in. The instructions assume a KitchenAid mixer with a dough hook. The KitchenAid mixer is that one that Williams-Sonoma is constantly hocking in seasonal colors; KitchenAid's website helpfully provides a picture of a dough hook. If by some chance you don't have one of those machines, then you can use any mixing bowl, start the mixing with a strong spoon, and finish it by hand. The mixer just makes it a bit less work. Oh, and you need an oven also.
If you haven't made bread before, then you will have to experiment a bit before you get a sense of when you have added the right amount of flour--the best description is that the bread starts to feel like a bread.
Anyway, this is what you do:
- Combine 1/2 cup corn meal, 1/2 cup Red River, 1/3 cup powdered milk, 1 cup oats, and a heaping teaspoon of salt. The easiest way to do this is in a 2-cup measuring cup; the oats should fill to roughly the top of the cup (which is a bit above 2 cups).
- Boil 2.5 cups water. When it reaches a rolling boil, dump the dry ingredients you just combined into the water. Stir with a whisk for about 15 seconds, turning the heat off after about 5 seconds. You don't have to worry about mixing the dry ingredients BEFORE you put them in the water.
- Dump the mixture into the mixer bowl (or any bowl of the proper size, if you are mixing it by hand).
- Sprinkle a light teaspoon (that is, about 2/3 of a teaspoon) of sugar over the top. Let it sit for a couple of minutes, until the surface hardens somewhat, whatever that means...just wait 2 minutes.
- Add 1/2 cup cold water, trying to avoid breaking the surface of the mixture (too much). One way to do this is to pour it over the back of a spoon (the same spoon you used to add the sugar works well). The goal is that the water is sitting on top of the goop below.
- Gently distribute about 1.5 teaspoons (or one packet) of yeast over the surface of the water. It will start to foment and bubble, which is fine.
- Let the resulting heksenketel sit there for 40 minutes. Possibly, if you are going to later attempt to feed this to someone under the age of 12, you may want to keep them away from the kitchen, since it doesn't look particularly botulism-free at this point.
- Put the bowl on the mixer with the dough hook on (if your kids like to play pirate dress up, you may have to extricate the dough hook from its spot on the end of Captain Hook's arm). Add 1.5 cups whole wheat flour and 1.5 cups white flour.
- Stir for about 5 minutes on the lowest speed (which is marked "stir" on our KitchenAid, but is in the spot where "1" should be).
- Alternate adding half cups of white and wheat flour and mixing (or stirring if by hand) for a couple of minutes. Remember to only mix on the lowest setting, or the flour will spray out (it may do this anyway). Keep doing this until (in my father's words) "it has acquired the characteristics of a thing, not a mass." If that is hard to interpret, add 1.5 cups total of extra flour. But this really does depend on the humidity and whatnot. A bread dough with the right amount of flour in it will not be shiny, the surface won't be sticky, and it won't have little wavecaps. It should retain the shape of a finger poke for a while.
- At some point here, you want to preheat your oven to 150 degrees, then turn it off.
- You also want to butter the bread pan. A standard bread pan will do, we have one from Barbados which is a bit longer and skinnier than normal. The fact that it's from Barbados is not particularly germane to the discussion at hand, but my father, ever on the lookout for such things, happened to spot it in a store there.
- When the dough has the right amount of flour, you can give it a couple of minutes on the next higher speed setting ("2" on our mixer). Another attribute of the dough when it is ready is that it starts to climb out of the bowl on its own (it won't make it, but it's fun to watch; the metal circle on the top of the dough hook will eventually decapitate any 'scapers).
- When the dough is done mixing, turn it out onto a lightly floured board. You can use a bit of extra flour as a mild abrasive to separate any recalcitrant dough from the bowl.
- Knead it just a bit. 30 seconds is fine if you have the right amount of flour, but if you have to add flour then you will need to knead longer to mix in the new flour.
- Shape it to fit the pan. You can knead it into a ball and roll it like when you make a snake out of Play-Doh, or whatever technique works for you. Try to make it an even thickness along the whole length. If there is a seam in the dough from kneading, put that on the bottom.
- Place the dough in the pan and butter the top.
- Put a thin towel on the top and stick it in the oven which has been preheated but then turned off (if you have forgotten to turn the oven off, then it's fine to turn it off now). Let it rise for one hour.
- After an hour, set the oven to 400 and bake for an hour. You can let the bread sit in the oven while it heats up.
- When it is done baking, take it out of the pan and put it on a cooling rack right away.
- Ideally it will cool for an hour, but you can slice it earlier if you want, or if this is your second time baking it and you can't wait.
That's it. It looks complicated compared to your basic flour/salt/water/yeast bread, but it's really pretty easy once you have the ingredients assembled. Don't worry too much about the exact mix of ingredients, it will taste good no matter what. The amount of flour is a bit of trial and error; if the bread is too dry, then you put in too much flour.
Enjoy, and if you make one, please let me know!
November 17, 2007
I'm In the 'BookI joined Facebook this week. The level of chatter about Facebook has been increasing at Microsoft; I heard several people say that they joined after we invested in the company. And somebody else at Microsoft mentioned they were on, and a guy on my hockey team said he was on. So I signed up to check it out. I'm not planning on being a particularly active member; I'll maybe flesh out my profile and add a few people I know as friends, but I don't think I'll be posting my daily plans.
There was an interesting article I read a few months ago about the demographics of teenage MySpace vs. Facebook users. One of the points was that the more college/career-oriented kids tended to be on Facebook, and the kids at the margins were on MySpace. Closer to home I've noticed that the angst-ridden teenagers from Studio East, who started on ModBlog and briefly dipped their toes in LiveJournal, are now on Facebook (I presume the initial impetus to join was alumni who were now in college). Perhaps it's the rarefied air, or the fact that people use their real name, or general maturing of society, but they seem to spend less time cursing the fates that bind them to this strange land, and more time keeping in touch with each other and deploying nonce-y Facebook apps in each other's direction.
If you read danah boyd's article (linked to above) then you might observe that theatre kids would generally fall under the label of "other kids who didn't play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm" (which would theoretically steer them towards MySpace) but they also are definitely not "kids whose parents didn't go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school." So maybe musical theatre is a cross between the hegemonic and the subaltern, or maybe it's becoming cooler, or maybe it just happens to interact with social networks in an unusual way.
November 12, 2007
Writing About Microsoft InternalsI'll occasionally blog about stuff that is internal to Microsoft. It's nothing earth-shattering, but some of it (like the company meeting) is technically things that are not for public consumption. Nonetheless, every time I have considered whether to blog something publicly, I have been glad when I did it. Even with the alleged Monad "virus" (covered here, here, and here), at the time Lee Holmes and I got yelled at, but later Lee won an award from our Vice President for "deep customer engagement" or something, because of how he had handled it.
Still, whenever I post something that might be controversial, I have a slight nervous feeling wondering if somebody inside Microsoft is going to email me about it. My radar is actually pretty bad; usually the things I think might be risque go down without a ripple, and I get email asking "Why did you write that?" about things I thought were innocuous.
Mini-Microsoft is a good source of inbound links, and his most recent article features a comment I wrote about the way we rate employees during reviews (on his blog, so no actual linking to me). This is no knock on Mini; anything I write publicly is open fodder, and I'm glad to have the discussion. In fact I've also been posting followup comments there, but so far, nary a peep from anybody inside about what I wrote.
I continue to believe that it is good to discuss this externally; I would hate to have someone not come to work for Microsoft because of something they read on Mini which I thought was false. In the case of how we do reviews I think the way we do it is more fair than most companies, but of course if you're in college and have never worked anywhere, the possibility that not every manager has pure motivations might shock you. Even internal Microsoft people, who have other ways they can get their questions answered (Lisa Brummel, for one, always seems happy to answer emails), still may prefer to discuss it on Mini (or may have no other location they feel they can discuss it).
(Incidentally if you want some "inside Microsoft" info, the Seattle Times this weekend had a good package about our new building design; check out the "Related Links" section for maps and other info.)
The notion of the "Kim" which has evolved on Mini is great in a way, because it shows that the community there is evolved enough to come up with that kind of term and the associated connotations. What was it Jessica Shattuck wrote...soon we'll have our own method of brewing beer? It's just unfortunate that this wonderful thing has happened around a term that I don't like. Well, you can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can't pick your online community's lexicon.
November 09, 2007
Now He is Six AlsoAnd number four:
When I was one I'd just begun,
When I was two I was nearly new,
When I was three I was hardly me,
When I was four I was not much more,
When I was five I was barely alive,
But now I am six! As clever as clever!
And I think I'll stay six now for ever and ever!
November 05, 2007
Watching the Stock AgainIn the book Flynn, by Gregory McDonald, there is a scene where our hero is meeting someone and needs to pretend he has just flown in from Rome that morning. He receives a telegram telling him that the weather in Rome that day was cool and cloudy. When he meets his mark they comment on the weather in Rome being nice this time of year, and when Flynn replies that it was cloudy and cool when he left, his bona fides are proven.
Come to think of it maybe that was a coded exchange, sort of like Fred Flintstone saying "Shalom" on the ski lift. But the point is that back then, knowing the day's weather in Rome was pretty reasonable proof of having been in Rome, because unless you knew somebody in Rome, there wasn't any real way to find it out except maybe the next day when you could look it up in the paper. Nowadays it is trivial to find out the weather in Rome (it happens to be cool and cloudy as I write this).
Here's another example from my childhood. One time I was reading the sports section and noticed something highly improbable in a hockey box score--a penalty called one second after a goal, or something. I figured that one or the other time had been printed wrong, but I knew of no way to find out which it was (my father, bless his heart, called the NHL offices and confirmed that it was, in fact, a typo in one of the times). Now, of course, there are many web sites that would report such information that you could check it against.
Another piece of information that used to be hard for the general public to get was a live stock quote. When I interviewed at AT&T in 1988 I was impressed that they had TVs in the hallway showing the current value of their stock. Stockbrokers certainly had access to this information, but you couldn't just get it yourself. When I showed up at Microsoft I discovered that somebody had added a stock quote command to the email program that we used (which was called wzmail--not everybody ran wzmail, some people had Xenix terminals, but developers running OS/2, as we were back then, all ran wzmail). The program had a command line in one part of it, and if you typed "msft" (as opposed to, say, "new billg" which would create a new email message addressed to Bill) then it would report back the current price of the stock. Actually I think it was delayed 15 minutes. So we could obsessively watch the stock as it climbed up and up (which is what it did in those days).
I never really thought much about how the "msft" command worked beneath the covers. I figured that our corporate stock people had rigged up a connection to a quote feed and wzmail was somehow connecting to it. I found out much much later that it was actually an individual developer who had bought a dish that could receive stock quotes from a satellite, taken it apart and reassembled it in the ceiling of his office (above the tile ceiling), connected it to his computer via serial port, reverse-engineered the data stream to extract individual quotes, and started a program running to broadcast them over the corporate network (without getting into too much detail or mentioning the MAC address 03-00-00-00-00-01, suffice it to say that the corporate network back then was simple enough that a machine in one office could broadcast to all machines in the company at once, and it was easy to modify the wzmail program to listen for those broadcasts. It was also easy to listen to them and then immediately broadcast your own fake quote to everybody, as some joker did one April Fools Day).
I was thinking about all of this because with Microsoft's stock moving up a bit in recent weeks, people are actually watching the stock; you will occasionally hear somebody in our open space make a comment about it to nobody in particular. It flashes me back to the old days of typing "msft" in wzmail, except this is the era of ubiquitous information, so you don't need a satellite dish hidden in the ceiling and an easily hackable multicast protocol rigged up to your email client; the stock gadget that is built in to Vista will do just fine.
November 04, 2007
Japan Series Ends in a Perfect GameI didn't hear much about this stateside: the deciding game of the Japan Series, the Japanese equivalent of the World Series, was won on a perfect game, with the Chunichi Dragons beating the Nippon Ham Fighters 1-0 to win the series 4 games to 1.
The manager of the Dragons was Hiromitsu Ochiai, who readers of Robert Whiting's books about Japanese baseball may recognize; he is a semi-mythic figure in Japanese baseball for refusing to (entirely) submit to the rigorous discipline imposed on players. The manager of the Ham Fighters, meanwhile, was an American named Trey Hillman, who is now coming back to the States to manage the Kansas City Royals.
Another interesting thing about the game was that Ochiai put in his closer in the ninth inning, after his starter had thrown eight perfect innings. I suspect this was the right thing to do from a managerial perspective, but it might be culturally impossible for a U.S. major league manager to do. Anyway he did it and it worked. I was looking for a list of perfect games in Japanese baseball; it's hard to search for now because of the one last week, but luckily Wikipedia came to the rescue again. There was one about every two years from 1950 to 1978, then just one in 1994 and the one this year. Don't know why; we need a Japanese Bill James to study it.
Somewhat randomly, I had been intermittently following the Series because a Kansas City Star sports columnist named Joe Posnanski was over there, presumably because of the hiring of Hillman by the Royals (which happened a few weeks ago). And I only read the Kansas City Star sports section because they cover Chiefs quarterback Damon Huard, former Washington Husky. Small world.