Sunday, May 26, 2013

How My Time Vanishes

It's not that I'm unaware there are other things I should be doing, it's just that I'd rather be doing something with immediate, tangible results. Presumably this has been part of the appeal of manual labor for this generation that feels stuck and, well, flail-y. So instead of working toward long-term goals, I often find myself taking solace in some small projects around the house and yard.

You're familiar by now with my gardening tribulations, and some of my more notable baking incidents. I also sew, knit, crochet, and macrame, not to mention bind custom books, rewire light fixtures, weave beadwork, and probably a bunch of other stuff I'm forgetting right now. Sometime last year (!) I picked up a pile of various twines from the hardware store to make a few more plant hangers with. After staring at my old project-to-do list for all that time I finally got fed up with myself and have started crossing things off. (First to be crossed-off was the dress I bought at the vintage shop and modified to fit and bit a little more modern (ruffles had to go)).

The next easiest project was the following collection of macrame plant hangers. When my apartments in Vermont and Arlandria lacked window ledges or sufficient sunlight, I started hanging plants in front of every decent sun-source I could. Phototropic, indeed. Some of these are from years ago when I made my first batch. The more recent ones are more awesome, I think. They're labelled on mouseover...

macrame, plant, hanger, basket. craft, spider plant macrame, plant, hanger, basket. craft, mint geranium
macrame, plant, hanger, basket. craft, philodendron macrame, plant, hanger, basket. craft, job's tears, jade tree
macrame, plant, hanger, basket. craft, arum macrame, plant, hanger, basket. craft, spider plant
macrame, plant, hanger, basket. craft, marigold, alyssum Next on my macrame list is a hammock. Anyone have a pattern for a two person cotton twine hammock? I only have a single person sized pattern, not confident about load-bearing capabilities if I double it...
ps. Don't question the table I used to lay these out. It was fast. ish.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Art of French Baking: Strawberry Frangipane

he Art of French Baking, published by Phaidon, is a beautiful book. The covers are padded and sparkling white, the pages thick and smooth, the photographs well shot and printed, and any cookbook with bookmark ribbons gets a lot of points from me. However, the recipes seem to leave a little something to be desired.

I am an experienced baker. Not an expert, not experimental, and not a chemist, but my pie crusts are tender and flaky, my bread rises and my batters are light and fluffy. Therefore I was somewhat surprised when several recipes from this book did not come together or bake in the way I expected. The instructions are quite brief, which is fine if one already has some technique, but I repeatedly found myself with a dough that didn't hold together despite extra liquid, or choux puffs that simply wouldn't rise (I tried twice in one day), or worse, cookies that burned but didn't bake through.
strawberries, pie, cake, baking, frangipane

So now I've determined that I'll just need to reinterpret and double check the recipe for logic before I start anything. Make sure the oven temperature doesn't seem oddly high, that the wet and dry proportions make sense and that I can adjust here and there. Or at least I can make the recipes with frosting and cover up all the little problems!

Today I needed to use up the last of a flat of strawberries from market, and the Strawberry Frangipane looked pretty easy. It's just egg yolks, sugar, ground almonds and strawberries. Nothing can go wrong! Well, nothing except my being short an egg. Sigh. So I just eased back on the other ingredients. The batter was thicker than I was expected and didn't exactly pour between the strawberries, but it did melt around them once in the oven. Then it was just a matter of keeping an eye on it until the top was the perfect shade of done... except when I cut into it, the inside was not at all done. Not even a little. Back into the oven it goes.

I'm fairly fed up at this point, having never had so much trouble with recipes before. Perhaps it's partially my fault, but with every recipe coming from the same book it seems unlikely that this is entirely on me. I really want to love The Art of French Baking, but it's not living up to my expectations. You all know what the lesson is here, right?

strawberry, frangipane, pie, cake, eggs, simple
Here's a quick list of the things I've made from this book:
  • Sweet orange croquettes- excellent
  • Babas au rhum- pretty good, not as fluffy as I'd like.
  • Pate a choux puffs with pastry creme- total fail, no puff to be had, more like cookies. I have done these successfully in the past with a Martha Stewart recipe!
  • Petit fours with chocolate ganache and sprinkles- worked well in mini muffin tins
  • Duchesse petits fours- Dough didn't even slightly hold together and overcooked too quickly
  • Orange gateau, I think- I have a vague memory of using a pineapple, too. dunno.
  • Sweet slices- basically sugar cookies, oven temp was also too high
  • Strawberry Frangipane- Ha. Maybe once it's baked for three times the suggested time!

Book review: Gaining Ground by Forrest Pritchard

efore I begin my review of Gaining Ground, allow to me to make a quick disclaimer: I am not an objective reader. In fact, I have worked for Forrest at farm markets every weekend for over a year now, in rain, snow, wind, thunder and tourist season. Before Smith Meadows came into my life I was largely vegetarian in order to avoid sponsoring the horror stories I read about the papers and books like Omnivore's Dilemma and Deep Economy. Then, through a boyfriend's friend's sister's best friend I found Smith Meadows, the perfect local farm with all the practices and principles an idealist could hope for.

Forrest Pritchard is Smith Meadows' farmer, its steward and practically a part of the soil he has worked so hard to nourish from the sad state it was in after years of overuse. As it turns out, lush pasture is easily achieved through a combination of patience and well planned herd rotation, switching between cattle, pigs, chickens and sheep, letting each fertilize and refresh the soil in turn. "Easily," of course, is a relative term when one is reading about it all from a comfy chair with a nice cup of tea.

In truth, it took not only years of hard work but decades of failure for the Pritchard family farm to turn around and produce a profit (as well as valuable land, animals and a sterling example of good farming practices). Gaining Ground recounts the journey Forrest took his entire family on when he realized that farming might be more of a calling for him than teaching (though writing is clearly still in his repertoire). As a bit of a book connoisseur, I did note that the book itself has a good looking, glossy cover, the text is printed clearly on nice feeling paper and the photos are incredibly helpful in placing the reader right there on the farm.

Gaining Ground has a good flow that kept me impatient to turn the page for the next adventure or roadblock, even though I knew exactly how it turned out. Forrest's anecdotes are sometimes touching, often hilarious, and range from rampant hogs to very confused market customers to a couple of completely baffling exchanges with a butcher. Pedro the goat, for instance, accompanied by Travis the humming farmhand, has a highly amusing adventure with some marigolds, in true goat-style.
Book cover, plaid-clad farm in field with cows. moooo.
As somewhat of an insider, I also know that there is a lot left out of this 317 page book. There were more adventures with goats, some ducks, more about Nancy's pasta business, a food truck and many more humorous stories from market and the farm. One hopes there will be a second book in the works... I, for one, would have enjoyed the inclusion of Forrest's other writing, perhaps the poetry he mentions sending off to literary magazines early on. The book stands at the right length and breadth to be a reasonable and fun read (One of Publishers Weekly's top 10 summer reads in nonfiction), though the prose could have dug a little deeper into the emotional underpinnings here and there.

The other members of the family receive occasional mentions, but the elder Mr. Pritchard has a fair share of the spotlight as he does his best to support his harebrained son through the snafus and disappointments of starting his free-range, grass-fed meat business. Mr. Pritchard's declining health provides a backdrop that Forrest puts to use in framing the problems with the commercial food industry and how we think about food in terms of cost, taste and enjoyment. On the whole, Gaining Ground is a good story, not an essay on farming practices, and it is this difference that will help readers to understand on a personal level what it means to buy local and why they too should work to save the family farm.

I did have one customer at market ask if Gaining Ground was a collection of recipes from Smith Meadows Kitchen, and when I passed this along to Forrest he said, "Sure, it's a recipe book. There's a real important recipe in there, they'll just have to read all the way to the end."

Gaining Ground is available on, in hardcopy and Kindle editions, and on IndieBound, as well as at your friendly local DC farm markets listed here. If you bring your copy to Smith Meadows farm day on June 1, Forrest will be happy to sign it for you. He may even sign copies brought to the Arlington and Takoma Park markets where he usually can be found on weekends. I will be putting my signed review copy in the Little Free Library for which I am co-steward. Pass it on!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Web Design Process: Yet More Lists

ll right, first things first. Before I go trying to put my website together willy nilly, I need a plan, a master list of desired components and functionality, and a general idea of how to get from here to there. Disclaimer: I have not actually done this before! I've worked on sites designed by someone else, I've done some super basic HTML/CSS work (like my pesky resume and my placeholder website), and I've certainly spent plenty of time thinking about it and reading and researching. So here goes:

Things I'd like from my site:
  • A Gallery of photos: no commenting, prints for sale, easily populated (Lightroom export?), cataloged by keyword, location, highly searchable, and someday I'd like it to include interactive collaging
  • About/info page: bio 
  • Contact: email, links to me elsewhere like twitter etc, RSS for photos and blog?
  • Blog: old posts from blogger + new posts, shiny layout, browseable, comments, share buttons
  • Portfolio: other design work, samples, articles, projects, certificates, whatever else
  • Someday: a sandbox area near the portfolio for projects in progress, something to do with Github? 
  • Aesthetic: simple, lots of white space (or black space), nice OFL (Open Font License) fonts and thin lines, simple image display, good navigation, one animation/movement/interactive element on top page. 
The basic steps outlined below are a combination of my notes from several sources. I learned most of the prototyping and user-testing steps from a class called Human Computer Interaction taught online by Scott Klemmer from Stanford. Not my favorite class on Coursera due to some frustration with the peer-grading setup, but nonetheless informative.

I also discovered that a local web design etc firm called Clikzy Creative posted their entire design process to their site so that clients will know what they're getting into. My process will be a bit different, of course, but it's good to know how a more formal environment would handle the same task.
  • Essentially: "Discovery, Site Map, Content, Wireframe, Mockup, Revise, Develop, SEO, Launch."
The Moxie Design Studio also has their process up on their website. They do a bunch of websites for local Alexandria businesses, so I had seen their work quite a few places already. They also list a general set of project prices on their site, which is somewhat unusual, but very helpful since I had no idea what I should be charging for my work.
  • So again, an essential process looks like: "Discussion, Goals, Mockups, Revisions, Development and Programming, Soft Launch and Client Training, Full Launch and two weeks included Support." 
It's really hard being independent and not letting clients take advantage of you by asking "just a quick question" that actually takes half an hour and is billable. And that's just one reason I'd rather not work for myself!

Back to my own website. A few basic steps to get there:
  1. Define required elements - site map (above)
  2. Find appropriate platform
  3. Wireframing, prototypes, mockups - grids?
  4. Testing it on unsuspecting potential users - feedback and revision
  5. Build, develop, whatever you want to call it
  6. Design details/ illustrations? Finishing touches
  7. Later additions: animation, better databases? E-commerce... 
Each step along the way will probably be a bit more involved, but that should give me a good starting framework to go on. Don't mind me if both my website and blog suddenly disappear while I'm shuffling things around...

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Sketchy resume design

The most important thing to me right now is keeping my perspective. If my goals aren't in clear sight, I get massive scope creep and wind up trying to learn Unix instead of just working on my HTML project (see hereabouts). However, at this stage it's also important for me to be exploring, dabbling, learning everything I can, and even when projects don't work out or seem unreasonable in some way, I do still learn something from the experience.

Take the newfangled resume I created, for instance. It didn't come out quite as responsive as I hoped, largely because of some finicky elements and my avoidance of media breakpoints. What was interesting, however, was talking to a friend who is familiar with hiring processes at a very prominent tech company. He indicated that a good looking resume is nice and all, but what's most important is a) contact info and b) recent experience. The rest is just noise.

In all fairness, programmers are not necessarily interested in shmancy presentation and part of my goal was showing web design skills. However that was pretty irrelevant when I realized I didn't really want to host my resume publicly on my website.

The process was kind of interesting. I had a basic idea what I wanted to do, drew up some rough sketches (above) with actual pencil and paper (I can't handle initial sketching on a screen, sort of like how I just can't stand e-books. I'm a holdover, I know.) Then I entered my content in an HTML document, put it into sections and got the basic structure marked up. From there it was all about CSS, I barely touched the HTML document again except to add some id attributes. Below are some screencaps of the layout along the way, shown with boxes and dotted borders so I could keep track of what element was where. I admit I went a little crazy with the colors...

And yes, I blurred them, because the text isn't the point here. Some of my original ideas were even more abstract, but it became clear that I did need to say something about what skills came from which job. I considered doing this with some sort of clever mouseover thing, where a line from skill to experience would pop up, but decided that was definitely too fussy.

Anywho, one important question that came up in the process was how relative placement communicated relationship and meaning of each element. Elements next to each other would speak to each other in some way and have some relationship. I think I may just go back to my old, boring resume (though with less hideous layout, at least).

... After all that, I'm very done with this stage. Anyone have experience with designed v. functional resumes? Does a different layout affect your opinion of identical content?

EDIT: on structure, I leaned on the HTML outline concept, but didn't include this link here, I don't think.