Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas, people

Merry Christmas, everyone.

I'm currently visiting my mom in SoCal for the holidays. Hating the SoCal traffic and ultra-sprawl. In a couple of days, we'll head to Arizona to see the in-laws.

One weird thing we encountered while walking around the neighborhood here was a megachurch. It was a convention center-sized campus with a huge sanctuary, twice as much parking as a Wal-Mart, and a cafe and two retail spaces. It was like a big-box store for God! It's still being built and isn't yet open for worship services.

Other recent activities:

Attended two Messiah Sings - one hosted by my choir and also the Stanford one. The one we host has a better level of audience musicianship, but the Stanford one is more like a big, festive community event. Also, Sugar Daddy can accompany me to the Stanford one because they have a pick-up orchestra for instrumentalists like him. In fact, the Stanford Messiah Sing has become quite a tradition for us - we've attended it for the past few years.

Also, Sugar Daddy and I are slowly getting over our nasty colds.

I finished another piece of my volunteer web project for New Dream.

I ended up pouring a lot of time into a homemade Christmas present this year. One of my pastimes is wild edible plants, and last year I gathered leaves from California bay laurel trees, dried them, put them into recycled jars with labels I designed, and gave them to friends and family who cook with bay leaves. Well, this year I got a little more ambitious. While we were at the Calstar weekend astronomy outing at Lake San Antonio this past October, I gathered a bunch of valley oak acorns from our campsite. I decided to prepare them by adapting a couple of traditional recipes that originally used chestnuts. The end result was jars of Ghiande al Liquore (Acorns in Spirits) and Glands Glacees (Candied Acorns), which I'll give as gifts to some friends who also have an interest in wild plant foods. It was a fun project but more messy and time-consuming than I realized...it takes a long time to shell that many acorns, and also the candying process took 4 days and involved a lot of sticky sugar syrup. Also it was kind of an experimental thing. The brandied acorns take 2 weeks to cure so I haven't sampled them yet and don't know how they turned out yet. I did try the candied acorns and they are a little bit more firm than chestnuts would be, but I like the flavor (although Sugar Daddy thinks they have a woody taste). Well, at least these gifts are going to people whom I know will appreciate the novelty and the experimentation, even if they taste weird :)

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Nonprofit Java jobs at Benetech in Palo Alto

This landed in my inbox recently - interesting. The location is ideal, and I've got the requisite skills. It just depends on whether I want to keep doing Java and if I want to work for this particular organization.

Engineering, Support, and Management positions at Benetech (Palo Alto, CA)
Please reply to: hr@benetech.org


Please see the links below for more information, and if you are interested, send a cover letter/resume to hr@benetech.org. Also, please pass this on to other folks you think might be interested...


The Benetech Initiative - Technology Serving Humanity


Benetech's Bookshare.org project just received a major five-year award from the Office of Special Education Programs of the Department of Education to fully support - for free - all schools and students with qualifying print disabilities in the United States, with access to the Bookshare.org collection of accessible electronic books and to software for reading those books.

To support this award, we are hiring for the following positions:

* Technical Project Manager (#TPM)
* Collection Development Specialist (#CDS)
* Customer Support Specialist (#CSS)
* Education Outreach Coordinator (#EOC)
* In-House Scanner Validator (#IHSV)

* Build & Release Engineer (#BRE)
* Software Engineer - Java (#SEJ)
* Web Site Engineer (#WSE)
* Web Site Developer - Intern (#WSDI)

* Director of Marketing (#DM)
* Accounting Clerk (#AC)
* Administrative Assistant (#AA)

More information is available at

More local non-profits focused on technology

When I told B. at Hands On Bay Area that I was resigning as a Project Leader in order to invest more time in a non-profit tech career, she kindly pointed me to these local organizations and offer to put me in touch with her contacts there if I wanted.

OICW - Menlo Park, CA - They assist folks with training on computer equipment to prepare them for jobs and provide ESL classes. They also work with youth to take them in for after school programs.

OTX West - Oakland, CA - They refurbish old computers and "sell" them to people who volunteer with them by providing points for volunteer hours toward refurbished computers (very interesting concept). They also provide computers for schools and do computer literacy classes.

Updates: Thanksgiving, concerts, science fiction, volunteering

An update on some of my recent exploits:

Well, the major disruption in our lives lately is that the landlord kicked us out of our apartment for the last two days to fumigate our building. We only got a week's notice, and we also had to remove all food, toiletries, houseplants, and valuables from our apartment. When we returned yesterday morning, I took a shower only to discover that the hot water had been turned off. Yikes!!! Talk about motivation to move out! Other news:

Planning a lunch get-together with some of my former co-workers; looking forward to catching up.

Spent Thanksgiving on the central coast with R. and her family. Had a delicious dinner there, spent quality time with their charming and tireless kiddies, helped them put up Christmas lights, and even got a deluxe car wash and wax by F.!

Went to a recital by mezzo-soprano Malin Fritz at Stanford.

It's been a long while since I indulged my taste for science fiction, so I picked up The Year's Best Science Fiction anthology from 2005 at the library and have been staying up late to devour its 652 pages. Great writing, but disturbingly, all of the stories are dire and gloomy. Even the one funny story I've encountered so far is black humor. Authors in 2005 don't seem to be imagining a bright future for us.

I resigned my volunteer position as a Project Leader for Hand On Bay Area. This decision has been nagging at me since last fall. In recent years, it's become a toss-up about whether the sense of reward outweighed the small frustrations and the time investment. But sometimes you receive signs about what choice to make and when to make it. The recent leadership transition and ensuing disorganization at Bread of Life where I coordinate a volunteer team was a clear sign to me that it's time to move on and reclaim that time and energy to invest in a new nonprofit career.

Conversation with CiviCRM leaders

L. is one of the leaders of CiviCRM, an open-source constituent relationship management (CRM) system for advocacy, non-profit and non-governmental groups. He contacted me after hearing that I was interested in transitioning to the nonprofit tech world, and kindly agreed to meet me for a chat over coffee last week. I'll just write up the notes from our discussion, in fast but disjointed fashion:

L. was previously at Yahoo, worked for Groundspring (nonprofit donation website), ended up heading CiviCRM. He brought along his co-leader, D., who was in social services, got into tech by way of PC consumer software development, and later on to Groundspring and CiviCRM.

Check out: PICnet, Democracy Abroad(?), CivicActions

Tech consulting for NP sector: ONE/Northwest (L. thinks highly of them), CTCnet in San Diego, others - generally geographically-based.

CiviCRM is not trying to become another Salesforce.com (sales-cycle-centric CRM).

NP sector is not as tech-savvy as for-profit sector. However, more forgiving/understanding than for-profit clients of for-profit companies: they understand about severe time and resource constraints.

Check out NetSquared (I have been...)

OSS world vs. NP software world: there's some overlap, but it's not huge. Note that a lot of software target to the NP sector is closed-source - e.g., Groundspring

One way to divide up the nptech world:
  1. Tech-focused nonprofits or for-profits whose "customers" are (mission-based) non-profits; i.e., they provide software and/or tech consulting to NP clients
  2. "End-user customer" nonprofits (i.e. mission-based) - so the tech roles in this kind of org are: volunteer techie, accidental techie, dedicated tech staff

D. recommended that I start out with an org that fits profile #1. Why? This provides exposure to a wider variety of NP orgs, and their business practices and requirements. Through learning and direct observation, I could start to absorb and formulate my own general best practices regarding NPtech.

On joining an existing consulting group:
  • Has similar advantages to option #1 above
  • Opportunities for mentorship/learning/experience
  • Often geographically distributed; members are usually contractors rather than employees, so there is more flexibility (and uncertainty???) regarding hours
Given the advantages, this might be an ideal way for me to go.

CiviCRM business model:
  • Part 501(c)3, part LLC (to help it be a financially sustainable enterprise)
  • Goal is for core functionality to meet 80% of common requirements, remaining 20% is customization that ISVs can do.
    • Try to make it fairly customizable
    • A familiar model...a lot like enterprise software in the for-profit world. That's why L. says that the distinction between NP software and for-profit software is a bit artificial (although some applications are strongly associated with the NP sector) - "it's all just software"
    • Each CiviCRM release attempts to incorporate the most commonly requested features, and also the "well, duh" features (user suggestions that make perfect sense, but weren't thought of initially)
  • When CiviCRM LLP is involved with projects, it generally acts as a subcontractor; it is not directly involved in client-facing engagements. There are a few exceptions, e.g. if a NP has a dedicated tech staffer/intern who can commit to working with CiviCRM to implement functionality in a sustainable, maintainable, best-practices way.
  • Challenges in the RFP process: the up-front cost of "doing it right" is quite a bit more than "doing it fast". Consultants who are only concerned with "doing it fast" can put in a low bid, but their solution will be less sustainable/maintainable and may in fact cost more in the long run. (Boy, isn't this a universal truth...)
  • Case in point: some ISVs using CiviCRM build their solution as a "quick hack" that solves the immediate problem but ends up being difficult to maintain--and so they eventually get tired of maintaining it in the codebase! One of CiviCRM's big challenges.

On the client mix for consultants and other NP technology providers: currently, the distribution of nonprofit clients tends to skew towards the progressive side, although more churches/religious orgs are starting to enter the mix. There is presently a BIG boom in environmental NP clients.

D. and L. were both agreeable when I asked if I could contact them later to hook me up with organizations and consultants who could give me CiviCRM experience. D. suggests that I keep an eye out on the CiviCRM community forums for the occasional "help needed" request as well as for the educational discussions. L. offered to put me in touch with TechSoup. They are actively recruiting for a Drupal/CiviCRM developer. L. thinks this could be a good introduction to the nonprofit and open-source worlds.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Voice lessons are kicking my ass

I'm on voice lesson #14. Voice lessons are kicking my ass. The Bach family is kicking my ass. Even the 24 Greatest Hits are kicking my ass.

Studying voice is difficult, more difficult than I ever imagined it to be. I'm now of the opinion that those who train to become world-class singers work every bit as hard and require as much brains, talent, and skill as those who train to become world-class baseball players, rocket scientists, businesspeople, etc.

Taking voice lessons is a little like taking violin lessons...from a blind violinist...while wearing earplugs. The teacher can't directly see your instrument or how you are using it. They can only diagnose what you're doing (or not doing) based on how you sound and a handful of other external cues, relying on their experience and intuition. Teacher and student work together to relate what the teacher sees/hears to the physical sensations and actions the student is creating or experiencing as she produces the sound. Teacher then uses abstract or concrete verbal imagery to guide the student in producing an improved sound. Add to this the fun fact that a singer doesn't really hear herself properly; she sounds different to her audience than she does to herself, so the teacher also needs to serve as a pair of "trusted ears" that can give external feedback.

For me, progress is in unpredictable fits and spurts. I'll shed blood, sweat, and tears for weeks and weeks, working on some aspect of technique, not understanding what is going awry, puzzling over what the hell I am doing, not knowing when - or if - I will ever figure it out. Then I'll have a wave of blinding insights that catapult me forward. At least that's how it's been so far. It's a roller coaster and I always pray that salvation will be right around the corner.

But the proof is in the pudding. For all the anguish and cussing and swearing that goes on in the practice room (and believe me, I can get quite profane in there), I think I'm singing better than I ever have. There's plenty of stuff I still need to work out, but I feel like I'm at least aimed in the right direction.

Other recent singing-related stuff:

Updated my repertoire list.

Performed in choir concerts this past weekend. The program was "A Bach Family Christmas". I ended up landing the first soprano part in the "Suscepit Israel" trio in the Bach Magnificat. A solo aria would have been nice, but maybe I'll be ready for it at a later time. I'll be happy if I can just gradually make some progress up the soloist food chain in my choir. Anyway, I think I did a respectable job at the concert - not my personal best, what with performance nerves and the technical things I'm sorting out, but not overly shabby for where I am.

Attended and enjoyed a recital by a student soprano at Stanford. It's so educational to me to watch fellow students perform, observe their strengths and weaknesses, and try to apply that knowledge to my own singing. Also, it's a good place for me to get repertoire ideas that are appropriate to my skill level.

Watching the recital made me think, "if she can do it, I can do it!" Also, the whole audition and solo process for the Bach choir concerts made me realize that I need to get more public performance practice under my belt. I'd like to start small-scale and low-key, though. I've been thinking about where to do this. Maybe the NATS student recitals are a place to start, and I'm curious about the Fortnightly Music Club. I should go check out the scene at both of those. Also, there's the possibility of putting together a salon recital or house concert with friends. I could also bite the bullet and probe my teacher about a studio recital or other performing opportunities...but I'm afraid that if I open that can of worms, I may bite off more than I can chew!

Started recording my lessons, auditions, and performances. I read on NFCS that a lot of voice students do this for self-evaluation purposes and also to take notes after their lessons. It's been very enlightening so far.

Recent reading:

The Inner Voice - autobiography of Renée Fleming, contemporary American soprano. I don't yet have an informed opinion on her voice, but I found the book interesting. Some parts are sugar-coated (probably a prudent move in the singing business), but there is lots of voyeuristic detail on her training and the evolution of her technique, the business side of singing (often glossed over by those who want to promote the "high-minded artist" image), and a blow-by-blow account of what it's like to perform at the Met, the backstage area and crew and etc. And no backbiting celebrity tell-all gossip.

Callas at Juilliard: The Master Classes - Transcripts of superstar soprano Maria Callas' master classes in 1971-72. Still waiting on top of my reading pile...

Recent listening:

Susan Graham - Songs of Ned Rorem - I don't have an extensive knowledge of the American art song repertoire, but I love what I've heard so far, and especially composer Ned Rorem. I wanted to hear more of his stuff and get repertoire ideas for my lessons.

Liebeslieder-Walzer - burning the music into my brain for the Fortnightly rehearsal this weekend.