Update about Makeba

 Remember that malnourished, burned, and weakened little snake we adopted back in May? Yes, Makeba.

So in three months he went from looking like this:

to this:

Gone are the seeping burn wounds, and even the scars are getting less noticeable with every shed. On the outside, he has developed quite a bit of iridescence, and on the inside, he has filled in his formerly baggy skin with muscle and a healthy layer of subcutaneous fat.

In the time that he's been with us, Makeba has been to the vet twice. The first time, we found out that he had abnormal bacteria growing in his throat, so he received three weeks' worth of oral antibiotics. The second time, he was found clear of infection and has been thriving since.

He has been living in a 100-quart Sterilite tub for all this time, waiting for his Animal Plastics T8 cage to arrive. They have pretty long lead times on the cages, to the tune of 8-10 weeks during peak demand times, but the new palatial enclosures for Makeba, Coil, and Leeloo should be arriving here the week after next.

I am so proud of my little survivor! He's fought so hard to make a recovery from the very sorry state we've found him in.

Also, he's entirely adorable.


About Rocky

 Meet Rocky.

Rocky is a Boa Constrictor Imperator, and this salmon pink that you're seeing in the photo is what he really looks like. Also, this is one of the natural colorations that these snakes can have in the wild! It's amazing that something like this can exist in nature, and I get the exquisite privilege of having this little guy hang out at my house!

We got Rocky at the Serpentarium in Lodi. Rather, J got it for me, because for a while I've been obsessing over giant snakes, and almost adopted a Burmese Python off Craigslist (someone got to it before me). We went to the Serpentarium and to the East Bay Vivarium on a weekend so that we could see how big adult Burmese really get.

Both these places are selling reptiles, but they have a number of animals there that are not for sale and you can have a look at them in their cages. Once I saw what a 20 ft (6m) snake really looks like, I realized that keeping one is beyond what we can safely handle at home. The Burmese pythons are completely and utterly stunning though, and I do hope that I'll get to handle one some day.

So I asked the guy at the Serpentarium, what a safe one-person snake would be, as in -- which snakes grow big, but not too big for a single person to handle. Because let's face it, a pet that you can't handle without a second adult present for safety is not practical.

Turns out, they just recently had a clutch of adorable Boa c. Imperator hatch (or rather get born; erm, they kind of hatch from their eggs inside their mother but come out alive and ready to take on the world). The store associate brought out a couple younglings in their little boxes, and we settled on this tiny dude.

The reason behind picking a male was that they don't grow quite as bit as females, so that he can always be safely handled by either one of us, even if the other isn't there for safety.

We called him Rocky BalBoa. Because he is a boa.

He's started his life with us in a plastic bin, but has since upgraded to a large glass enclosure with a climbing branch. With any luck, this will last him a year, but likely now.

I'm amazed at how inquisitive and mostly chill the little guy is. He's been a bit shy eating, but whenever I leave the mouse with him overnight, it's gone in the morning, and he's got a little bump in his belly. That works. We feed him frozen and warmed-up mice, so we can safely leave the food with him.

Anyways, he's an awesome little dude, and we adore him, and look forward to seeing him grow!


Revised snake breeding screed

I've been thinking and talking with friends about the current snake trade situation, and have come to amend, and dare I say, refine, my views on the matter. Last week, I posted a rather lengthy article about why I won't by a fancy-colored snake (and neither should you). My views on selectively breeding snakes for color, inbreeding, and producing sick or non-viable animals remain unchanged. I honestly don't think this sort of thing should be supported.

However, a huge number of animals on the pet snake market are still imported. A great many die in transit, and many again die in the first year as pets due to mishandling and neglect.

It appears that the root cause of snakes (and other exotic pets) being so plentiful and affordable is this unending stream of wild-caught animals imported into the US every year. Being cheap and readily available at any pet store makes snakes prime candidates for impulse purchases, resulting in death of the animal or its abandonment.

I've now come to change my view of the breeders' place in this market situation: As long as they responsibly produce healthy animals and offer education and support, they can help satisfy the demand for reptiles on the market and contribute to the improvement of the pets' overall condition.

What I still believe needs to stop is capture of wild animals for pet trade and any kind of import of them. There are plenty of them already in the country, and the breeders should be able to satisfy the demand; even if not, the rising prices will help prevent people from buying a snake only to find out that they can't (or don't want to) take care of it.

Either way, guess I'm no longer thinking that all breeders are evil, even though I'd wish not everyone with a pair of snakes would just breed them if they only felt like it. But regulating breeders is a whole 'nother can of worms, and I'm not even going to get into that here.

Anyways, that's what I currently think on this matter, but I do reserve the right to change my view somewhat again if I learn something relevant. One thing I will always stand on is the welfare of the animals. We are the ones who decide we want a pet, and we should jolly well be responsible for that pet's well-being. Anything less is just shitty.



Why I won't buy a fancy-colored snake (and neither should you)

The reason why I won't buy a fancy-colored snake bred for a particular color mutation (morph) is the same why I won't buy any more snakes, period. The reason is, that there already are more captive snakes than we as a society have the ability (and/or desire) to care for, and I don't want to encourage breeding even more of them still.

To their chagrin and mine, snakes can have a wide variety of color mutations, which make them quite pretty to look at, and thus quite expensive. Some of the rarer Ball Pythons morphs can cost tens of thousands per animal. This makes breeding exotic snakes seem like a lucrative thing to do, and since it's relatively easy, many people do breed them.

Selective breeding for desirable patterns and color mutations results in inbreeding: snakes come out blind, deformed, or non-viable. But look at all the pretty colors!

To breed snakes on industrial scale, people set up racks where hundreds, and even thousands of animals live in small plastic tubs, in conditions that are just good enough for snakes to continue to eat and breed. I would not necessarily call this animal cruelty, but it certainly doesn't seem like the animals are afforded any kind of quality of life in these conditions. They are kept healthy, and that's about it.

From these snake factories, young snakes go to pet stores, or are sold directly on the internet. They get shipped in little deli cups, and not all of them make it to their destination alive. Sometimes their new owners realize that the snake they bought is going to be too much of a commitment: it is either growing too large (like a Reticulated Python or a Burmese Python), or they just live too long for some new snake owners who discover that a snake, unlike a gerbil, will live to age 30 or more. These snakes end up on Craigslist or at a local shelter if they are lucky, or in a nearby park or someone's back yard if they aren't.

The breeders of course are interested in selling the animals they produce, so there isn't any sort of education or checks going on prior to the purchase. To make matters worse, more exotic snakes are being caught in the wild every day, and brought in to satisfy the demand on the market, at the same time as already existing animals end up abandoned or mistreated. If you want your heart broken, have a look at how many snakes need new homes in SF Bay Area alone.

Since I got my three snakes, Lasso, Coil, and Makeba, I have done a lot of research and come to the conclusion that buying a snake from a pet store or a breeder would be unconscionable. I regret that I purchased Lasso from a store. Knowing what I know now, I wouldn't have done it, but rather adopted an abandoned pet. I'm stopping at three for now, but once I'm confident that I can provide good care for them, I think I may try my hand at fostering and rehoming of the existing snakes who need love and a new home.

UPDATE: After conversations with friends and more research into the topic, I have revised my opinion on breeders. TLDR is that not all breeders are evil, and more evil happens from importing and trading wild-caught animals, so ideally we should stop imports and let the existing breeders take care of the demand. Rising prices can only help weed out impulse buyers who would have dumped the animal anyway.


About Makeba

 This is Makeba.

Makeba is a juvenile ball python (python regius), who we adopted a week ago.

When he came to live with us, Makeba was severely underweight, dehydrated, and covered in burns from a heat lamp half the length of his back.

We first met him a week before that. He was at an animal rescue that wasn't specialized in reptiles, and his living conditions were dire. Despite seeping burn wounds on his back, he was kept in an enclosure bedded with wood shavings, in low humidity, and the only heat available was from overhead lamps that burned him to begin with.

He was lethargic, his skin loose, dull, and shedding in chunks. The spectacles on his eyes were so cracked and scratched up that he could no longer see through. He'd soak in his water dish to try and rehydrate, and drag the wood shavings and his own filth into it.

Later we learned that the whole time he lived at the shelter – 6 months! – he was receiving about 1/5th the amount of food that would be appropriate for his age and size.

I tried to take him home right away, but the folks at the rescue weren't going to let me. They said they wanted to keep him there until he fully healed in a month or two (which given his condition was questionable). If I wanted him sooner, they said, I should talk to their reptile specialist, who'd be back next week. But I should be prepared to wait some more, because they have application paperwork, and I would need to fill it out and prove that I will have appropriate living conditions for the snake.

My heart was breaking to leave him there for a whole extra week, but I was hoping that snakes' natural tendency to conserve energy will allow him to hang on.

Seven days later, I marched into the rescue shelter determined to walk out with the poor python, whatever it took. I had brought a plastic tub to transport him home in, and wore my "lucky snake jacket" which coincidentally I wore every single time I adopted a snake before.

Universe sided with me this time.

I was greeted by their reptile lady: "Hi, how can I help you."

"I'm here for the ball python that you have."

"Okay. Did you see him before? He's got burned a little while back."

"Yes, I was here last week, but your colleagues told me I should wait till you're back. I would really like to give him a good home."


And that was that. 

No waiting, no pleading, no discussion of the size of his new enclosure. No adoption form even.

As if I suddenly had Jedi powers and was able to exercise mind control, I walked out of the rescue shelter with the sick snake hanging on to me under my jacket.

I hope he will make it. I'm bathing him in Betadine solution to keep his wounds clean, and keeping his enclosure at elevated humidity while he heals his wounds. He ate on Monday and went into shed the next day. I hope he'll reemerge with clear eyes from this one.

Every single snake owner manual I read advised against adopting sick and mishandled snakes, but to hell with that advice. He needs a shot at getting better, and we're going to provide him with the best care we can so he has that shot. 


About Lasso

Meet Lasso.

She's a corn snake. A very very young corn snake.

The lady at the pet store said that it was a "fancy corn snake" and charged me an extra 20 dollars. I don't know about how fancy Lasso is on the scale from "not at all fancy" to "highly fancypants," but what I know for a fact is that she's totally adorable.

We've had her for just over six weeks now, and she's already grown from 10 grams to almost 12.

I've always liked reptiles, and in retrospect I wonder why I didn't get a pet snake sooner. Well, in any case, now that I did, I'm totally in love.

The surprising bit to find out was just how gentle and shy the snakes are.

I guess if you hatch from an egg and are so small that anything can hurt you, and then you're expected to fend for yourself in the wild, it makes sense to be a scaredy-cat. But even as they grow, corn snakes remain quite reclusive.

In general it looks like the vast majority, and maybe all snakes prefer flight to confrontation unless they're hunting. Wonder why people are so afraid of them?

Anyways, Lasso spends most of the time hiding.

During the day she sleeps, and in the evening she comes out and "hunts" around her enclosure if she's hungry.

She's rarely hungry. We feed her every 5th day, if she's been hunting for a day already. If she's been sleeping on day 4, we let her work up some appetite until she's hungry enough to get active. Once she's eaten, she disappears into one of her hiding places for three days or so.

We feed her little frozen mice. Thawed, of course, and even warmed up to body temperature, to make the food more enticing to the snake.

That's another thing about them: they're not always going to feed readily, even if they've been hungry for a while, but at least corn snakes are among the least picky eaters.

We set her up with a nice glass tank, and a warming pad on one side, so she can thermoregulate.

When you think about it, nature did a great job optimizing snakes. The design is akin to a race car: if it's not essential, they don't have it.

Say, why would you waste energy and maintain your own body temperature when you can go and warm yourself on a rock, or hide out in a cool spot if you're too toasty?

Snakes live on a completely different time than we mammals do. To them, it would probably appear quite tedious to find food and water several times a day, constantly on the move, we have complex systems in place to keep our body temperatures within the very narrow operating range, and we have all these confusing limbs.

I imagine Lasso is feeling somewhat superior to us with her slow zen-like pace.


About Windows OS

Last time I owned or used a Windows machine for any serious amount of time was in 2003. I spent some time as a full-time Linux user, both on desktop and laptop, and bought a used Mac laptop for home use in 2007, and a new one in 2009.

Today, I have successfully converted my home machine to run Windows OS.

I know. I am kind of perplexed myself. But honey, let me explain.

I've always believed in using open source software and supporting F(L)OSS projects. Stuff like that is what any community manager's dreams are made of. Mac OS has always felt like a poor compromise, but it had some Linux roots, and I could use the command line to get stuff working if something broke, and it wasn't Windows. Which was quite relevant back in the day when your choices basically were Windows, Linux, or Mac if you wanted to use a computer.

Today, most of my non-work computing needs are served by my Android mobile devices. I have a Nexus 5 and a Nexus 7, and a Nexus 10, and between them, they get me about 80 percent there. The only times I need an actual computer (like a laptop or a workstation) is when I need to input a bunch of text, do graphics editing, manage my music collection, or when I need to process orders from my racing numbers business.

With the limited use cases, comes higher pickiness about the tools. I can deal with slow when it's on a mobile device on a poor network. When my laptop slowed down to molasses speed following the Mavericks upgrade, I couldn't tolerate it. Something had to change.

Naturally, my first instinct was to install Fedora on the almost five-year-old MacBook Pro. Given the old hardware, I anticipated no real difficulties getting it to work, and hoped to get a couple more years out of the aging box.

My adventure lasted just a touch over four months and went about like this:
  1. Install Fedora 20, discover that the ideologically-pure distro has no support for my WiFi card (among other things)
  2. Spend an hour tethered to a wall with an Ethernet cable, find and install packages to run WiFi card
  3. Relocate back to comfy couch, realize the following things don't work right:
    1. graphics card (fuzzy screen, Steam games don't run)
    2. keyboard backlight (set to max, no way to reduce)
    3. screen backlight (set to max, no way to reduce)
    4. sound (microphone disabled each time after suspend)
    5. battery (system sees the percent charge, but suspends due to "critically low battery" at 80 percent anyway)
  4. Find and install Nvidia drivers, computer fails to boot into graphics mode. Rage-quit.
  5. Research why this is happening to me using my Nexus devices, boot into init3, remove conflicting Bumblebee packages, remove Nvidia packages, reinstall fresh from command line
  6. Enjoy brief victory
  7. Since I mostly do this after work, it's dark outside, and the screen set to maximum brightness starts bugging my eyes quickly. I try to find solutions for more than three weeks, while staring into a blinding whiteness of the screen.
  8. Stumble on solution to the screen brightness control after three weeks of running various Google searches and following links and leads from friends.
  9. Enjoy brief victory.
  10. Realize that keyboard backlight control still doesn't work.
  11. Get into the habit of keeping the "Sound" preferences window open somewhere at all times, so as to re-enable the microphone immediately after resuming after suspend. I use my laptop to answer Google Voice phone calls, so it can be challenging to have a conversation if you mic doesn't work.
  12. Strategically position power supplies around the house and only use laptop when connected to power. Get into habit of never using the laptop from battery power for more than 5 minutes.
  13. Realize that music management software won't work
    1. Banshee crashes self (and sometimes whole system) when I plug in my phone to sync music
    2. Rhythmbox doesn't crash consistently and throws an error for every single song synced via USB -- which is a lot of errors to acknowledge when you sync 600 songs.
  14. Endure ridicule from J. for putting up with all this. Somehow hold on to Linux love for another two months.
  15. Run one of the many system and software upgrades that Fedora provides, system will hang trying to boot into graphics
  16. One of later updates fixes that issue.
  17. Enjoy brief victory.
  18. Very next update kills WiFi drivers.
  19. Spend hours sitting on the floor tethered to the wall with an Ethernet cable trying to fix this. Fail.
  20. Wait for the next update for 3+ weeks. It doesn't come.
  21. Manually run yum update which fails to complete with no error.
  22. Rerun yum update and now  it says it needs to clean up. Run cleanup and attempt to update again, now it throws an error and says that any number of things could be causing it. Doesn't offer guesses as to what is wrong or how I could troubleshoot.
  23. All the while, sitting on the floor next to an Ethernet jack because WiFi doesn't work.
  24. Lose patience and install Windows 7. Have it up and running with native hardware drivers within one day. 
    1. Battery, WiFi, suspend/resume, screen and keyboard brightness, graphics card, all work, and...
    2. I can sync my playlists to my phone via WiFi again using a combination of iTunes and iSyncr.
  25. Sigh.
 So there you have it.

My logic is, if you have to compromise and use a proprietary operating system, might as well have one that works, which for given hardware neither Mavericks nor Fedora 20 could do. After my idealism has been tested for four months, I'm finding out that I'm a pragmatist after all.


About my Grandfather

Alexey Mikhailovich Shtanko 
2-Apr-1928 – 18-Mar-2012
Алексей Михайлович Штанько

My grandfather would have turned 86 today.

He was a doctor, and a dapper gent. He had a bum leg and walked with a cane.

That was back when people wore top hats non-ironically. And everybody smoked much more.

He was born in a village in Kazakhstan into a large Ukrainian family and was the first in his family to get a higher education. He started out as a nurse practitioner, because the local medical school did not offer an M.D.

So he worked in a small town while preparing for the entry exams to the university. That's when he met my grandmother. They married and had a daughter, my mother, shortly after.

Grandfather was accepted into the medical school, and they had to move to the city, where they had to live in a shared apartment with other families, because that's how it used to be in the Soviet Union in the 1950s.

When he graduated, he was offered a position in the town of Kustanay in northern Kazakhstan, and the small family moved again.

He was put in charge of organizing the town's first emergency medical service, and rode in the ambulance when someone dialed "03" – the Soviet emergency phone number for the ambulance. Their ambulance was t-boned at an intersection, and he broke both his legs in the accident. They didn't have seat belt laws and cars weren't yet all they could be safety-wise, so when they had a crash, it pretty much always hurt.

He had a car. First a Zaporozhetz, and then a VAZ 2101, which you can see in the picture. This was the first car I ever rode in. He had it modified with a lever, so that he could press the clutch in with his left arm, because of his injury.

In that car, he took the family to the forest to pick mushrooms and berries, or to the river to fish. He taught me how to make my own fishing rod out of a long branch, and I caught my first fish with it.

When I was born, he quit smoking cold, and never picked up a cigarette again.

He would read books aloud to me, over and over, and never get bored. He'd play every kind of pretend game I'd invent as a kid. He was the trusty Watson to my Holmes, and I was First Officer Lom to his Captain Vrungel. We solved puzzles together and he'd listen to my made-up stories as long as I kept on telling them.

He loved me very much, and I loved him back.

I miss him.

Danica Patrick autographed my helmet


That's all.


2013 year in review (photos)

Because there aren't enough year-end review blog posts out there, here, have mine. This year I decided to do it in pictures. Because I have tons of pictures from last year. Not significantly more than any other year (and maybe fewer than some other years), but they are many, and they've asked me to share them with the world.

1. We've lived in the new house for a full year now, and are slowly hacking the life in the mountains. If you look carefully, you will see a teeny-tiny man in the Douglas Fir on the right. The man is actually normally-sized, the fir is just really really big. We had a few trees trimmed, for fire clearance, to keep critters from climbing into the attic, and such.

2. Tasted a lot of wine, and drank some really good bottles. Didn't do any sub-10-bucks wine reviews on my blog, even though I drank plenty of that kind. The photo is from a wine tasting class at Cinnabar winery, who make some really nice reds. Do yourself a favour and try their Malbec.

3. Drove on track. Didn't race any, but did some time trials, and some open track days. My car's been mostly holding up, only needing a new alternator.

4. Instructed beginning drivers with several clubs, and got this nifty recognition from NASA (no, the other NASA).

5. Designed some furniture for my office: industrial shelving with ply-boo inlays, and a standing workstation, also made with bamboo ply and metal. The workstation I assembled myself, and got some help with the shelving from a professional.

6. Got back into role playing. The kind with dice and character sheets. I almost forgot how fun it can be! Glad I didn't.

7. Worked with some brilliant people to launch Nebula One.

8. Finally got my green card.

9. Went on an epic road trip across the USA. Saw the Andy Warhol museum, the Fallingwater house, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse memorial, the famous Bonneville Salt Flats, drove on the salt until I was giddy, and generally had a good time.

10. Totally geeked out on cooking, and got pretty good at it.

11. Got a new job.

12. Went to Berlin and London, for the first time in almost five years. That was good. Saw many of my good friends, drove on the autobahn, visited the Sherlock Holmes museum.

13. Did some digital art. Still figuring it out, but it seems like I can adapt to creating directly on a screen.

So that's about it for the year. Turned out pretty good, considering that I mostly winged it. Here's to the new one.

Recruiter spam that pretends to be creative

Most of you will know Linkedin, the professional network. I won't complain about it too much, because it got me two out of three jobs in the past five years. Most recruiter in-mail is even coherent, if not always targeted.

Last month however, I got this highly spammy message in my inbox.

Admittedly, I was biased by the double exclamation points and the "3 reasons" subject, ever before I opened the message. However, I invite you to judge for yourself.

3 reasons to open this in-mail!!
Recruiter, Marketing Division at SPAM Recruiting
December 2, 2013 4:57 PM
Hi Alex,

I hope all is well! I have no idea how happy you are in your current job - maybe all is well. If so, congrats!

If you are actively looking or just started your job search, we're both in luck.

My client is a full service ad agency that promotes global brands targeted towards a young adult market. They are looking for a Social Media Manager in San Francisco to own the social and community strategy for a division of one of their newest clients. Your background at Google in Social Media and Community Management could be a great match based on what they are looking for.

Below are 3 reasons you might be interested in talking to them:
- They have a very solid client base of well-known brands
- Opportunity to work with other members on the same account
- Great culture and leadership - everyone who works there loves it and they are about to move to a brand new office in SF!

If you aren't a good fit, do you know anyone who would want to hear about this opportunity?


Considering that at the time I got this message, I've only had my new job at Google for 4 months, and it is fairly widely known that Google is not a sucky place to work; knowing all this, you'd think the spammer would be able to make an assumption about "how happy I am in [my] job." I mean, how bad does it have to be for someone to want to jump ship mere four months into a new role?

I felt waves of snark wash over me, and could not resist. Here is what I wrote back.

Here are top 3 reasons I will neither work with you to find my next job nor forward your request further: 

3. The position is with an agency, and I have no experience (or desire) to work for one. 
2. The position you are recruiting for is significantly below my qualification, and also not quite aligned with my current specialization in community building. 
1. You sent me a generic email, not personalized in any way, which tells me that I will not get any individualized treatment as your client, and neither will my qualified friends. 

I'd like to say that I appreciate the thought, but I'm afraid you wasted no such thing on me. 


Men act and think. Women are pretty.

Was stocking up on vitamins yesterday, and saw this wonder of modern marketing in the store. Behold:

See? They're for women and men, because they're different. Purple! Blue! One gives you "physical/mental energy" and the other "supports bones/skin/nails!" OMG! Are you sure the two sexes are even from the same solar system? Because men DO shit that requires physical and mental energy, and women just stand around looking good with their healthy skin and nails.

Our physiologies are sooooo different! The one sex' gummy vitamin is probably so radically different as to be harmful to the other?

Welp, no. There are some minor differences in dosages of a few elements, and two or three elements are completely different, but the rest is pretty much exactly the same.

After admiring the display for a few moments and snapping this picture, I went and got a non-gendered vitamin D. In a white bottle.

Algorithm red wine

Meet 2011 Algorithm Red Blend. The bottle is empty because of how yummy it is. Erm, was.

From the label:

Algorithm balances the equation between your digital world and the tangible one. A common denominator between friends, it enables you to step beyond life's virtual parentheses and appreciate the absolute value of true friendships. Algorithm red blend creates a network of dark cherries and plums, interlaced with rich notes of chocolate and vanilla. Mature tannins create a silky backbone is linked together with ripe concentrated fruit flavors.

I must confess that I bought this wine primarily for its label and the clever, if somewhat cheesy word play. But cheese goes well with wine, so hey, have another bad joke.

We were entertaining last night, and I opened this bottle to enjoy while we waited for the dinner to be ready. I was pleasantly surprised by the richness and complexity of the flavor. They didn't lie on the label about the rich dark fruit: cherries and plums were there in abundance, and I would even venture to say I tasted halfzware tobacco or dark cigar notes. The wine was well-balanced and left a nice lingering flavour when I drank it.

Whoever authored Algorithm, didn't make it elegant, but I think we should not judge them too strictly for creating liquid indulgence. We're in California after all. Oh, and true to my cheap wine tasting tradition, it was just $8.99 at Nob Hill.