jeweled platypus


saturday, july 20, 2013
Leveling up conferences

view from AdaCamp reception at Google SF

Last month I went to AdaCamp and learned a ton partly because the Ada Initiative runs it both as a place to discuss solving problems and as a testbed for better ways to hold conferences. Lots of conferences try to encourage a diverse group of participants and speakers, but making conferences better is specifically part of the Ada Initiative’s mission, and this was especially fun because a bunch of the participants were community organizers/managers/coordinators like me. Among topics such as running real-life meetups for open source projects and the ramifications of using gender-neutral usernames, we talked a lot about AdaCamp itself!

I’m in Portland for Community Leadership Summit this weekend, I’ll be at Defcon soon, and I’m going to XOXO in September, so I’ve been thinking about things AdaCamp did that I’d like to see more conference organizers consider. Of course I like the idea of making tech events better for women, but this stuff is especially interesting to me because worthwhile efforts to make a tech event more welcoming to women also make the event more welcoming to other non-majority types of people (for example, including women means not just including able-bodied women). It’s the magic of intersectionality! Some of these ideas are conveniently compiled on the page of resources for conference organizers on the Geek Feminism Wiki, but here’s my list too:

I haven’t been to WisCon, but its “Universal Design” accessibility policies and details go into more depth than I learned about at AdaCamp…a mind-boggling level of depth.

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thursday, june 28, 2012
The neighborhood crude oil tanks

tanks in the distance

I grew up in Los Angeles where there are a lot of oil wells, usually somewhere out along a freeway. (I always liked the wells you can see on the way to LAX, ones that look like dinosaurs eating from the ground.) In Santa Barbara, our oil wells are out in the ocean, and the university-owned nature preserve leases some space to an oil company to store crude oil drained from the ocean floor. This nature preserve is next to the neighborhoods around the university, and you can just walk out into the fields and look at the tanks with their coded markings and geodesic dome tops.

oil tank closeup

Nobody really tells you that the tanks are there, since most people either don’t find them particularly spectacular or haven’t been to the nature preserve. You hear about them when you acquire a boyfriend who lives next to them; he shows them to you because you both like infrastructure. (From his apartment we listened together to trains whistling, the coastal fog horn, and airplanes headed to and from the little airport next to the university.) We found out about a historic gas station down the road, built as a showcase by one of the oil companies in the 1920s, now picturesquely defunct and a favorite of everybody in town with a fancy camera. On a few Saturdays we took long driving trips to visit other oil fields — he’d tell me we were going on an adventure, and a couple hours later I’d look out to see more oil pumps than I’d ever seen in one place before.

water tank closeup

The native Chumash people used the natural tar on the beaches here to caulk their canoes, and the tar still comes up and caulks the bottoms of your feet if you’re not careful while walking on the sand. There was even an asphalt mine for a couple years in the late 1800s where the Art Department building is now; there are a few surprising pictures of very grimy-looking men hauling things around the campus lagoon.

tanks from another angle

I’ve read that the oil company’s lease on this nature preserve land ends in 2016 and the university doesn’t plan to let them renew it, which makes sense, but I like living in a place where its history is so close to the surface. By looking you can find clues that this land was once a slough, then ranches, then explored for oil, then a small WWII marine base, then a university nature preserve. It’s not heavily developed enough yet to obscure the origins of the place, unlike where I grew up in LA — where old underground oil developments sometimes come back to bite people in the form of gas explosions, and where the remaining active oil wells are carefully hidden.

tanks with venoco sign

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monday, may 09, 2011
Other people’s photos of places

I like making essays with Flickr galleries. Finding a set of photos on a theme is easy with the quality of work on Flickr, and it’s fun to write a little bit about an idea when you have that kind of visual structure to work with. Here are some galleries I’ve made since my last list of them a couple years ago.

Alien Los Angeles

After college I started watching a lot of Star Trek, which turns out to have been filmed mostly in the Los Angeles area, where I grew up. What does it feel like to watch imaginary characters stomp around familiar parks? Even stranger, how do the landscapes of Southern California manage to serve as alien planets for an audience around the world? I don’t know, but it’s interesting enough just to look more closely at some filming locations.

San Francisco’s Shoe Garden

I like this spot in Alamo Square Park, a nice example of public art and local character.

The Castle of Santa Barbara

Knapp’s Castle is another favorite semi-obscure local landmark, a photogenic ruined mansion in the mountains above Santa Barbara. It’s everyone’s secret to share, everyone’s excuse to go drive up into the mountains for the afternoon.

The Fanciest Gas Station

These are some detail views of another landmark ruined building near where I live, this one working as a physical reminder of how Santa Barbara’s rich oil fields helped fund our fancy architectural style.

Coal Oil Point Jail

A third ruined landmark in Santa Barbara County, slightly less glamorous — an unofficial collaborative art project within walking distance of UCSB.

Fountain, Mission, Reflection

Many people take the same postcard photo of the Santa Barbara Mission, a building that has been carefully (and sometimes imaginatively) restored every time it’s fallen apart over the past couple hundred years. I like the variations on the same shot.

Sidewalk Compasses

Hey look, a literal metaphor for directions and pathmaking! This might be a good place to explain that in 2010 I moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco to New York City, which was a great adventure, but this year I listened to Isla Vista calling me back home. I wake up to sunshine and ocean air and eucalyptus trees, and I work with my friends on something incredibly exciting, and we watch the prettiest sunsets and sunrises together.

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thursday, february 03, 2011
Observational math

I like learning geometry and topology terms that make you notice and describe patterns out in the wild:

The wires hanging between those pylons form catenary curves, which describe what happens when you hang an ideal string between two points. The word is also used for catenary wires (which power trains).

These shiny light shapes are caustics generated by a spotlight shining on a curved piece of plastic (Untitled, 1967, Giovanni Anselmo, Museum of Modern Art). You can see a typical caustic by taking a mug of tea into the sunlight and looking at the curvy, pointy light on the tea surface. This is also what you call the light patterns in the shadow of a glass and wavering at the bottom of a pool.

reaction diffusion
These wiggly lines are a reaction-diffusion system of air bubbles between two panes of glass in a layered piece of art by Dustin Yellin. This type of wiggly pattern also happens in places like bird feathers, rabbitfish scales, and shriveled paint.

Angle of repose
in the Bay Area
The dirt in this pile is showing off its angle of repose: the slope that a pile of granules forms when it is “at rest”. You can watch for the angle of repose when you shovel snow and throw it in a pile, or when you build sandcastles, depending on where you happen to live right now.

Read more

My friend Dan is writing about geometrical curiosities on his blog. My favorite post so far is an introduction to pseudospheres and tractrices.

Vi Hart makes lots of related projects including looking at the hyperbolic shriveling of dried apple slices.

Bonus words

Non-geometry-related things to find and name: bollards, wall ties, ghost signs, perforated screen walls, former Fotomats, benchmarks (find some near you), manicules, telephone exchange buildings, skeuomorphs in general. And obsolete technologies that are still in use or still visible: sidewalk prisms, Quonset huts, civil defense air sirens, glass insulators, old-style phone numbers.

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sunday, october 10, 2010
Drawings and ceramics

From art classes for fun a few months ago at Glendale Community College. Charcoal and ink:

Zombie apocalypse survivor. Another zombie apocalypse survivor.

Slab-built box in Arts and Crafts style and carved sugar box with spoon (see for scale):

A green box. It can hold odds and ends, but it's more for decoration. A strawberry after the style of one my mom made a long time ago.

Slab-built mug with linocut-style sgraffito California poppies, indoors and outdoors:

A mug made as a gift. A view of the glaze outdoors.

I loved my ceramics class, which was just hand-building, no wheel-throwing. It’s good exercise for people who read The Design of Everyday Things back in high school — turns out it’s not that easy to make a bowl that works even as well as the mass-produced one you can get for a dollar down the street, much less one that works better.

You learn to make preliminary sketches and small models, because if you don’t have a strong concept before you spend hours making a mug, you get an ugly cup with an awkward handle. This happens when designing web pages and writing blog posts too, but a pile of smushed clay on your table makes a point. The same goes for close attention at every step: a rough edge, weak join, bad choice of glaze, or a dozen other lazy mistakes can ruin how the thing works and feels. So you have to make lots of pieces before you come up with anything decent, but most of the efforts along the way are nice to keep around too.

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I’m Britta Gustafson.

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