Sunday, May 22, 2022

State of the Schafer: Breaking Silence (Again)

I've been pretty silent on the internet the last few months, not just here but on social media as well. That is mostly because I've been very busy! In March, I started a full-time remote job as the lead data scientist and algorithm designer for a New Zealand start-up called Narrative Muse. The company's mission is to help people discover books, movies, and TV shows by or about women and gender-diverse folks. They've developed a recommendation engine called "Matchmaker" which is based solely on the content of books and movies, not sales or rankings or number of reviews or anything else driven by the amount of money spent on publicity. 

This is hugely exciting to me, because I've long been aware of how many excellent books slip through the cracks and never reach the readers who'll love them. I've written posts over on r/Fantasy about the hidden biases and echo chambers of publishing, and I've tried to draw attention where and when I could to books that deserve more love. But that felt like building sandcastles constantly washed away by the tide.  

Maybe the trick is to build from rocks, not sand. 

I'd been thinking for a while that a better way to address the root issues would be to develop content-based recommendation systems--and lo and behold, Narrative Muse has built one! And I get to upgrade and expand their algorithm and apply all my technical engineering skills toward helping people find new authors to love (and movies, and TV shows)! Woo hoo! I love my job, y'all. My co-workers are likewise passionate about the company mission, and fun to work with, and it's just a really neat environment. 

(If what Narrative Muse is doing sounds cool to you, then come join the fun! The algorithm depends (for now) on human curation of book and movie content, and we're seeking more folks to join the curator community. We're also seeking someone with full stack developer experience for a Head of Technology position, so software engineering friends, go check out the job description.)

If you want to see what recs the Matchmaker will give you, go sign up and check out the platform--it's free to use. And let me know your thoughts! Over the next months, I'll be working on a big update of the "taste" questions and the algorithm, so I'm all ears for more feedback on what needs improving.  

It's definitely been an adjustment to work full time again. Fitting work and parenting and dog-exercising and chores into a day is a challenge in and of itself, let alone trying to squeeze in writing and skating and other hobbies. 

If the pupster gets a full hour of off-lead exercise, then he snoozes while I work. For a while. Then we repeat the process again. 

Yet the scant free time isn't all bad. Weirdly, I find I'm more productive now with writing than I was before. I guess when I know I have very little time, I am more motivated to make the most of it. At the same time as I started my job, I also started a Wednesday night "write club" for SpecFicNZ members, where we get together on Wed night via Zoom and chat, then write for an hour, and chat again. That helps make sure I get some writing time in the thick of the work week. 

So, more good news: I've completed the draft of The White Serpent, a.k.a. the Cara novella, which, um, is no longer a novella but a short novel at 60,000 words. (Yikes! Longest "short story" ever.) I'm tweaking a few things about the ending and then it'll go off to beta readers while I work on the Lena and Ruslan stories that I hope will accompany it. Then it'll be back to The Dreaming Sea, which I hope will be better for the time spent percolating in my subconscious. 

I want to keep up my writing momentum, plus it's skating season and will soon be ski season, so I expect I'll remain pretty quiet online. I'd like to keep sharing all my New Zealand scenery pics somewhere where friends can see them, though. Twitter no longer seems like a good place for that, so I'm thinking I'll fire up my long-neglected Instagram account and see how that goes. If you want to de-stress with mountain and puppy pics, I'm happy to provide. 

Autumn brings calm, clear days

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

State of the Schafer: Summer Adventures

I was going to write a proper "2021 in review" post, but I kept putting it off because I am so, SO close to finally completing the revised draft of The White Serpent. This is the Cara novella, except right now it's more like a short novel at 52,000 words, yikes. Maybe since Cara never got a POV in the Shattered Sigil trilogy, my subconscious wanted to be sure she got a solid chance to shine! 

I haven't been neglecting brand new novel The Dreaming Sea, either; I'm chugging along at 500 words per day on that draft, even as I fix up the last few scenes of The White Serpent. Yet as time is flying and it's nearly the end of January, I figured I'd better stop waiting to catch up on the blog. 

I have to say, the end of 2021 didn't go like I thought it would. When I last posted in October, the Delta variant of COVID had finally popped up in the South Island, and I was braced for it to spread.

Yet it didn't. Amazing what high vaccination rates can do! Many areas in NZ reached over 95% double-vaxxed for the 12+ population, and that seemed to stop Delta cold. Our local area hasn't seen a single case. (Our last recorded case of COVID was way back in April 2020.) Even in Auckland, the heart of the outbreak, cases never really took off. Numbers plateaued around 100 a day, and then slowly decreased to teens and even single-digits. People began to wonder if we'd accidentally eliminate COVID again, though everyone knew such a fortunate state wouldn't last, given the planned reopening of the borders.

Then came Omicron. After watching supply chains struggle and hospitals get swamped overseas, even in highly vaccinated areas like New South Wales in Australia, it seems certain that NZ has a rough few weeks in store. Yes, Omicron is milder than Delta, and vaccinated people have a very small risk of hospitalization and death. But when everyone gets sick at once, NZ is too small of a country to easily absorb huge disruptions to staffing and supply chains. 

On a personal level, our family has done what we can to prepare. My husband and I both got our booster shots, our son is double-vaxxed, and we've got the food and supplies we need if we're all sick and needing to isolate, or if the supermarkets struggle. It helps to know NZ's government has a plan, and they'll continue acting on the best scientific advice. 

Yet I'm sure I'm not the only one feeling a little nervous, as the wave begins to break. I am deeply grateful, however, that NZ held out as long it has. 2021 finished off for my son and husband and I with a glorious summer. We savored gorgeous days at the lake and on the trails; if the pandemic has taught us anything, it's never to take adventures for granted. Seize the day while you can. 

So that's what we did. I finally climbed Corner Peak, monarch of Lake Hawea, whose majesty I had been eyeing ever since we moved here in 2017. I mean, just look at it:

Corner Peak looming over Lake Hawea on a calm winter's day

The climb is hella steep, 1,683m in only 7.75km--that's 5,521ft in 4.8 miles, for any Americans. Locals had told me it's best to do the peak with someone who's climbed it before, as finding the right route is important, and even the right route has some "sketchy bits." 

The Department of Conservation has helpfully placed a warning sign at the beginning of the route.

Given the Kiwi talent for understatement, I wasn't sure just what "sketchy" might mean. I had visions of peak routes I've seen in the Sierra that are deceptively labeled "third class" (meaning no rope or technical climbing gear is required), when in truth, as a gobsmacked friend once announced, "That isn't third class, that's DEATH CLASS."

So, I dutifully waited until I could join some experienced trampers on a trip up the mountain. Routefinding is indeed key, but turns out the sketchy bits are brief and not bad at all. Nowhere near death class, thank goodness. More the sort of thing where you mutter either a little prayer or a curse under your breath as you negotiate a tricky step. ("Please, please, no earthquakes right now.") 

I'll have to do a proper trip report some day to show off all the awesome scenery from the climb, but for now, I'll just say the views from the summit were absolutely worth the effort.

Looking up the Hunter Valley from Corner Peak's summit

The next adventure was a family trip on the Milford Track, on which we enjoyed a very rare blessing: clear skies and sunshine for the entire 4-day trek. Fiordland is known for mist and rain; I'd heard of people doing the Milford multiple times before ever getting a clear view of the stunning peaks surrounding Mackinnon Pass. I'm so glad we lucked into great weather, because just look at these:

The waterfalls were also incredible, but again, I'd best save more pics for a proper trip report (lest this post grow to be even longer than The White Serpent!). Okay, but I have to show one sneak peak:

Cooling off at Sutherland Falls

We didn't just stick to adventures in the mountains, though. NZ's beaches are also beautiful, so just before Christmas, we took a road trip up the South Island's wild West Coast, soaking in plenty of ocean scenery along the way.

Shipwreck Beach, near Haast

Beach near Punakaiki

Sea stacks at Motukiekie

The adventures continued in January, when we headed down to Riverton on NZ's southern coast, and I tried surfing for the first time. I had done plenty of boogie boarding and general playing in the waves in my younger years, but never real stand-up surfing. Oh goodness, it's so much fun. Hello, new hobby! 

Surfing at Monkey Island beach. Small waves and soft sand made it perfect for beginners like us.

Granted, the closest beach is a 3 hour drive away from where we live, so I don't know if I'll ever get good enough to ride serious waves. That's okay, I'll have fun trying, whenever we next head to the coast. In the meantime, at least we can cool off from summer heat in Hawea's lake. 

Nothing like glacial lakewater on a hot summer day

The pupster's accomplishment for the summer is that he's finally learned to chill out a lot more in between daily walks and playtime, which sure makes it easier for me to work and write!

Don't worry, he still gets plenty of cuddles:

My son heads back to school next week, which always feels like summer's end, even if there's still another month of hot weather. 2022 looks to have plenty of challenges in store, but at least I can face them knowing I've had a good start. I'm lucky in that, I know. For everyone who's not starting the year off well, my heart goes out to you. My main goal for 2022 is to find ways I can help make the world a little better, whether on a personal or professional level. Maybe that sounds facile, especially in the face of the sheer scope and size of the problems looming over us all. Yet I cling to the belief that every act of kindness matters, especially in difficult times. I don't know if humanity can reach a brighter future, but I still want to strive for one.

Wishing for the dawn of a better year for everyone.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

State of the Schafer: Milestones

It's spring in NZ, and boy is it a gorgeous one. Usually in spring, Hawea is ferociously windy, but this October we've enjoyed a lot of calm sunny days. Perfect for walking the pup and enjoying other outdoor fun.
Hiking with the kiddo

Spring skiing

Perfectly still day at the lake

Blue-green waters of the Clutha River
Family walk

Bluebells by the trail

Speaking of the pupster, he's officially passed his first birthday. 

One year old! Hard to believe.

We're still dealing with various adolescent behaviors, particularly a surge of alert barking. ("What's this? The neighbors are working in their garden? I must warn everyone! BORK BORK BORK!") But oh goodness, it's so much easier than the crocodile landshark teething puppy stage. Spoodles are seriously high energy dogs, so he still needs two long walks per day, but after each walk, he's happy to chill for a few hours. I'm finally making real progress in writing again, woo! 

Writing while the puppy naps

(Mini writing update: four more scenes to go in my revision of The White Serpent, the Cara novella. They are tricky scenes though…the end of a story often takes the longest for me to write, because it’s so important to get the character arc and sense of resolution to feel right.) 

On the same day the pupster turned 1, we achieved another family milestone: my son got his 2nd Pfizer dose, which means all of us (the humans, anyway!) are now fully vaccinated against COVID. I’m deeply relieved, as the virus has begun leaking out of Auckland. Lockdowns only work if people obey the rules, and unfortunately the virus managed to spread into segments of the community (drug dealers, gangs) who don’t care about rules. But Auckland’s long weeks in L4 and L3 lockdown haven’t been in vain; it’s given everyone in NZ more time to get vaccinated. That’s especially important for those like my kiddo who were only recently eligible. 

Today, the South Island reported its first case, up in Blenheim. This is the first community case of COVID on the South Island in well over a year, but we all know it won’t be the last. I am so glad that NZ will now be facing Delta with decent vaccination rates. In our local district, I believe we’re currently at 95% of people over 12 with their first dose, and 78% with their second (with that number rising fast). 

I suppose now NZ’s South Island will be a living laboratory: one of the few places in the world where Delta will hit a population with no prior exposure to COVID and therefore no native immunity at all, only vaccine-generated immunity. As I understand it, the Pfizer vaccine is not tremendously effective against symptomatic infection with Delta, especially after a few months, but it does remain extremely effective at preventing hospitalization and death. So, case numbers here may skyrocket, but hospital numbers should remain low, which is vital given that the South Island (and NZ in general) doesn’t have much hospital capacity. 

NZ has only had 28 deaths so far from COVID since the start of the pandemic. Boy do I hope that number stays low. The government is pushing hard for a target of 90+% of all eligible people in all areas of NZ to be fully vaxxed, offering the carrot of no more lockdowns and (eventually) border reopening. I hope we can reach 90% everywhere; I hope it’s enough. Nothing to do now but wait and see. 

Wish I could be as relaxed about the future as the pupster

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Catching up

 Welp, I've set a new record for silence on the blog, and it's mostly thanks to this adorable little demon:

Comet's mischievous grin and love of muddy paws captured in a pic by Yvonne of Queensberry Dogs

Comet is almost a year old now, and becoming a very good dog, but that's required a LOT of time and training. (He's very high energy, not keen on being alone, and loves to eat things he shouldn't. Good thing he's so cute and loves to cuddle!)

Favorite nap position

Perfect pillow mode: engaged

Adolescent puppies certainly keep you humble. Just the other morning, I was out for an off-trail, off-leash walk with him, feeling all smugly self-congratulatory on how well he's responding to his recall command. As I strolled along enjoying the spring sunshine, Comet abruptly dove into a bush. A mother duck flapped out of the spiky foliage, leaving behind a chorus of frantic cheeping.

Me: Oh no, he's found a duck nest! (This has never happened before. Most ducks aren't so dumb as to build their nests in an area frequented by dogs and far from any water.)

I yelled his recall command, but Comet was far, FAR too excited to listen. A horde of ducklings burst out of the bush, waddling at high speed and cheeping at the top of their little lungs. Squeak toys that move!!! Comet could not believe his luck. He bounced around chasing ducklings in an ecstasy of joy, ignoring every treat I offered and tricks I tried to entice him away.

When I gave up and grabbed for him, that only added to the game. He was dodging me, panicked ducklings running everywhere, while I tried not to stomp on them while snatching for my lightning-fast juvenile delinquent. The whole circus went on for a seemingly endless interval before I managed to grab the trailing lead on Comet's harness and drag him away. To my great relief, all the ducklings appeared unharmed--Comet wasn't trying to eat them, just play with them. But obviously we've still got a ways to go before his recall is duckling-proof.

Working on his hiking skills (note my boot placed firmly on the trailing lead, ha)

This year hasn't been All Puppy All the Time, even if it sometimes feels like it. In April, my son had his final operation relating to last year's broken arms. The surgeon removed the titanium rods, everything went well, and after another 6-week recovery period, I'm delighted to report the kiddo is fully healed and 100% back to normal. He’s got some impressive scars, but otherwise you’d never know he suffered such an awful injury. Thank goodness for modern medicine, and all the doctors and nurses and physiotherapists who took such good care of him.

Recovering after surgery

Now he's back running around without a care

After watching what the kiddo went through—and knowing the outcome might not have been so good, were he adult and not so readily able to heal—I was reminded all over again of how precious good health is, and how important it is to enjoy active adventures while I can. I’m in my 40s; hopefully I still have several decades of activity left, but you just never know.  

So, I took a break from puppy chasing to hike the Kepler Track with my husband. The Kepler is one of New Zealand's "Great Walks" (which are indeed great!). It’s a 4-day, 3-night tramp through the Fiordland wilderness near Te Anau. The scenery is varied and spectacular, from Lothlorien-style beech forests to rocky alpine views (plus a cool cave to explore!).

Tussock highlands over Lake Te Anau

Alpine crossing

Forested valleys

The trail goes ever on and on

Kepler Track trampers stay in Department of Conservation huts with toilets and kitchens and bunks, so not exactly roughing it. I admit I have mixed feelings about NZ's love affair with backcountry huts. The huts are certainly nice in bad weather, and the social aspect is fun. But it's hard on light sleepers like myself--even with earplugs, the snoring can be deafening--and sometimes I miss the solitude and flexibility of tent camping. 

Iris Burn Hut (as you can see, it's pretty fancy for a "hut")

Common room in Luxmore Hut

That said, we enjoyed the Kepler so much that we decided to do two more of the Great Walk trails as a family this summer. I managed to book spots on NZ’s most famous and popular trip, the Milford Track, and for our second adventure, the Routeburn Track. I did the Routeburn with my husband many years ago on our first ever trip to NZ, long before our son was born, and loved it. We’re looking forward to sharing the experience with our kiddo.

In more local adventures, I made a couple trips to Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park, which is only two hours away and one of my favorite areas of New Zealand. I mean, just look!

Mighty Aoraki

Along the route to Mueller Hut

Lake Tasman

We also visited some new spots, like Moeraki on the southeast coast, where bizarrely round boulders lie scattered like marbles on the beach.

Plus I returned to competitive skating, which was fun but required a lot of special exercises for my aging back to keep it from breaking down. Getting older sucks.

Gold medal in Adult Gold Lades II at the South Island Champs in Christchurch. This would be more impressive if there had been anyone else in my category. But I scored a personal best for the year, so hooray for that!

What about writing, you may ask? Yes, I am still working on The White Serpent (the Cara novella) and The Dreaming Sea (the completely new novel). Progress has been slow, but now the puppy is finally learning to chill out while I’m on the computer, I hope my writing pace will increase. Assuming I can tear myself away from the internet, which has become a bit harder since COVID returned to NZ in August.

For those not aware, ever since NZ's original lockdown ended last June, the South Island has been COVID-free and living life without any restrictions or masking or anything. That felt very weird sometimes, looking at scenes from overseas. Like we were living in some alternate reality, compared to everyone else. 

Our fortunate existence did come with a cost. All this time, NZ’s borders have remained closed to everyone but returning citizens and permanent residents, who must quarantine for 2 weeks upon arrival. At first everyone was concerned about the economic cost of long-term border closure, as tourism is a big chunk of NZ business. Yet after NZ's original lockdown in March & April last year, the economy rebounded surprisingly well. Kiwis like to travel, and with international travel off limits, instead everyone jumped into campervans and traveled domestically.

Crowds at the yearly cardboard boat race in Wanaka

We live in an area heavily dependent on tourism, and what we’ve seen is that restaurants and businesses catering to families have done very well. (The ski areas have had some of their highest traffic in years! So much for my dreams of untracked powder, heh.) Higher-end outfits like heli-ski operators are struggling, as are bars who catered to the young single backpacker crowd, but the overall impact is far less than I would have guessed.   

Yet quarantine systems are never perfect, and after watching Australia struggle with super contagious Delta, we all knew the risk of a new outbreak in NZ was rising fast. NZ's government was hoping to get everyone vaccinated before Delta could leak into the community, but alas, we didn’t quite make it.

(NZ's rollout of the vaccine has been slower than other countries, because the government waited until one vaccine (Pfizer) made it through the full MedSafe approval process before ordering. This caution wasn’t unwarranted; Australia didn't wait, gambled big on AstraZeneca, and when the news of blood clots came out, their rollout plan hit a huge roadblock. But a wait to order did mean a wait for shipments; large quantities of the vaccine didn't arrive in NZ until mid-year. Border workers went first, then people with health conditions, then everyone else by age groups. The first case of Delta was detected in the community on 17 August 2021, when NZ was about halfway through the age group rollout.)

Happily, the government was prepared. The instant that first Delta case got detected, all of NZ locked down into Level 4, our strictest level. Everything closes except supermarkets and medical facilities, while the government provides financial support so people can afford to stay home. But could even a strict lockdown still work, given Delta's contagiousness? I was far from the only one anxiously refreshing news sites on my phone and watching the daily COVID briefings.

Thanks goodness for gorgeous weather during Second Lockdown. When not supervising the kiddo's remote schooling, I spent a lot of time walking the puppy in vain hopes of getting his energy out. Deprived of his usual doggy playdates and off-lead walks, Comet was climbing the walls.

To my huge relief, after two weeks of level 4, the case numbers in Auckland peaked and diminished, and the virus did not spread beyond the North Island. NZ began easing out of lockdown again. At the moment, Auckland is in Level 3 (takeaway food & other contact-less business allowed) and the rest of us are in Level 2, in which everything is open but indoor venues have capacity limits and masks are required inside. Auckland is still getting anywhere from 8 to 40 new cases every day; I suspect Level 3 won't be enough to achieve full elimination again. Assuming L3 is enough to keep the virus from spreading beyond Auckland, I'd guess the rest of us will stay in Level 2 until the population reaches a high vaccination percentage. The plan is to complete vaccination of everyone over 12 by the end of the year, after which point the government intends to stage a slow re-opening of the border. Fingers crossed.

I talked back in January about how hard I found it to have hope for the future of humanity. I still struggle with this. Yet it’s helped me to see NZ pull together as a community throughout this pandemic. It IS possible to have a government that cares about the health and welfare of its citizens, and for the citizens to have faith in the government’s decisions. (One huge help to the trust, IMHO, is clarity in communication. The govt has been excellent about saying, “Here is the current data. Here is what the scientists tell us. Here are the decisions we’ve made based on that scientific advice, and why we have made them. Here is our goal, and here’s the support we’ll provide so together we can reach it.”)

If only climate change could be tackled so easily. Or even entrenched economic issues like runaway housing markets and long-neglected infrastructure. But I am still grateful for the reminder that humans can unite to achieve good things, not just tear each other apart.