Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Wink, Nudge, Scowl

I was not very pleased by the menu at Wink, where I ate with RB on Monday night. I am always turned off by phrases like "sorrel aioli" and "lobster buerre blanc" even though they are rather straightforward descriptions of what the food is... you know, if you are French. Other things were mysterious - branzini, sunchokes, salsify, e.v.o.o., cippolini, trumpets royale. (The use of "bcf" for so many of the veg refers somehow to them being locally grown and supplied, from what I overheard a waiter say to another group of people.)

The truly disturbing element was the conspicous and proud (one might say brazen) emphasis placed on the fact that you are going to be eating an animal - bison, duck, mussels, oxtail, pork belly, quail, venison, lamb, and rabbit. Braised rabbit! And they have the cruelty to pair the rabbit with baby carrots. Bastards! (They actually served a lot of different things "braised," which struck me as kind of funny, given that one of the big advantages of braising is that it "is economical, as it allows the use of tough and inexpensive cuts, and efficient, as it often employs a single pot to cook an entire meal," as Wikipedia puts it, and yet Wink charges a lot for everything. Demand side.)

Some of the other obnoxious animal items have been masked using traditional names, of course, like foie gras and sweetbreads. I was impressed (in a bad way) that they even managed to make a vegetarian salad sound disgusting by using "bulls blood beets."

RB had the snapper, which tasted yummy, though one bite was enough of that for me. (This was good, since they only appeared to serve about 6 bites of it.) Fortunately, they serve the flourless chocolate cake of the gods and I loved it.

The service was kind of sucky. They were fast to get the food out, but they did not even manage to keep me hydrated, and I had two glasses going at once (one tea, one water). The glasses were thin but not very tall - the kind that ensures that even a full glass supplies very little beverage. It was so sweet (ahem) of them to bring out a special bowl with multiple varieties of raw sugarcubes for doctoring my tea (although, hello, you do not make sweet tea by adding big-ass sugar cubes to cold tea poured over ice!) but I would have been happier if they had just brought me some more god-damn tea.

So, in short - Wink - pretentious, sadistic menu; awesome cake; BYO bottle of Evian.

Rabbit Disapproval Rating: 9/10

Phasers of Disapproval on Kill

Friday, January 25, 2008

False Alternatives in Food Stamp Discussions

I was interested in this blog post less for its actual content (that increasing food stamps money is a poor idea for a fiscal stimulus...snooze) than for the way the comments to it (which I did not read in their entirety) reminded me of a strange way that people often frame the debate on food stamps. You frequently see these two opposing arguments:

(1) The food stamps program contributes to obesity among the poor because it provides them incentives/ability to eat large amounts of crappy food.

(2) The food stamps program reduces food insecurity, which is a serious problem among the poor. ("Insecurity" is variously used to describe a subjective feeling that people have about their access to food in the future, or an actual risk of going without food, or both.)

I don't understand why these arguments are considered mutually exclusive.

Despite the fact that body fat is, in the long run, beneficial for humans needing to survive genuine starvation situations, the presence of extra fat does nothing to stop the feeling of hunger that comes with having an empty stomach or the feeling of weakness etc. that accompanies low blood sugar levels. Hunger is an unpleasant state that all animals (as far as I know) are motivated to end - it is, after all, the psychology 101 textbook example of a basic drive for a reason.

And as every single person in the world who has ever had the opportunity to eat their fill even once knows, that post-Thanksgiving lunch feast feeling of "Oh, man, I'm so full that I will never eat again!" is rarely sustained for the remainder of a single day. So it's not like food stamps users will eat a bunch of hot wings and ice cream one day and have their food needs met for the rest of the month. No matter what they eat today, or how much, they will need to eat again tomorrow.

These are obvious truths that some people do, however, selectively forget. I admit that I have been guilty of projecting different interpretations of eating situations based on the characteristics of the people involved, and it's a stupid, shitty thing to do. I have seen a very fat person eating a burger and fries in a fast food restaurant and had a ridiculous thought like, "Jeez, lady, you don't need to be eating all that food" while eating a burger and fries myself. But of course, I'm eating it because I am hungry; she is obviously just a fat cow. What the fuck, right? Fat people get hungry. Poor people get hungry. But it's so easy to make these kinds of condemnatory attributions about the reasons behind other people's behavior while rationalizing the same behavior in ourselves. It's pretty much an inescapable fact of human psychology. It's still wrong and no sort of basis for making supposedly objective judgments about human actions.

(By the way, a related thing that makes me a bit nuts, and that I do not think that I do often, is when skinny people try to deny fat people the right, on some kind of moral basis, to seek out enjoyment in food because they have already "used it up" on previous eating binges. I suppose this can be construed as a fairly straightforward application of a sin and punishment model, but I don't see many of these critical individuals lining up behind an argument like: "Hey, skinny ass person, remember that summer in high school when you slept in until 1:00 in the afternoon every day? Well, you are hereby denied 4 hours of sleep every night for the next 3 months and are no longer entitled to a pillow, top sheet, or any climate control in your bedroom because you have used up your allotment of sleep in adequate quantity and pleasurable quality.")

Anyway, it seems to me obviously true that a person can use food stamps to both:

(1) Eat too much of unhealthy things - from ignorance (a rather condescending explanation that I believe is sometimes accurate but generally over-applied), convenience, or as a means of experiencing some straightforward pleasure that is hard to get other ways due to being poor - and over time, get fat from it.

(2) Ensure that they will be able to feed themselves every day and not go hungry.

I wish that this was more frequently acknowledged as fundamental background to any discussion on the topic of food stamps.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Professor in Three Parts

I have decided that my linear algebra professor is some combination (a linear combination? ha ha) of three things:

1) The Mad Hatter as portrayed (voiced by Ed Wynn) in Disney's Alice in Wonderland;

I shall elucidate
2) Vizzini the criminal genius (played by Wallace Shawn) in The Princess Bride;

Wait until I get going! Where was I?
3) Some as yet unidentified third party (ideally from another brilliant and beloved movie of my youth). I'm missing an exuberant, but not crazy or devious, element here, also with a bit of self-deprecation. Any thoughts?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

A Random Christmas Photo Gallery

Because Christmas just isn't Christmas without snow...settling on the TV your neighbors left in the bed of their old Ford pickup truck overnight. (I sort of love the truck.)

And notice how Santa is totally passed out next to the stairs. There's some kid in Western Oklahoma whose Chia Bunny may not get delivered because Santa couldn't stay out of the hooch. Fortunately, it appears that a reindeer (anorexic to the point of being literally skeletal) is there to kick Santa around until he comes to.

Get up you fucking drunk

Fueled by Dr Pepper and obsessive-compulsive tendencies, Robert remains vigilant to the possibility a new species of bird appearing in the backyard.

The next one could be a Harris's

Bell demonstrates feline intelligence through well-heated napping, in a rare moment between instances of being the most lovely-dovey guy in the world to my mom, bouts of insane fighting with any other creature that comes near, and eating cheese.

And I match the carpet

Friday, January 18, 2008

Die Schlumpfe

When I was a young kid, my dad had a small selection of German comic books that he would read to me. One of them featured a set of small blue creatures with big feet and curly hats that were called "Die Schlumpfe." This comic had a particular linguistic oddity: variants on the word "Schlumpfe" were used throughout the dialogue in various parts of speech - adjective, adverb, verb, etc. - and my dad was unable to come up with any translation for it.

In 1981, however, the Saturday morning cartoon line-up introduced us to these characters as the Smurfs and it was a revelation to realize that "Smurf" (and hence "Schlumpfe") really was used as an all-purpose word that was indeed readily understandable in context (and with tone of voice as an additional guide) but that did not even appear to have a consistent valence - it could mean 'great' or 'awful' or anything else.

And since this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Smurfs, you will have all kinds of opportunities to get your smurf on. So smurf to it, kiddies, or you can bet your sweet white smurf you'll be smurfy.

Gender, Competition, and Patriarchy

It appears that most psychologists believe that women are less competitively inclined than are men, even when women are equally capable of successfully performing tasks.

I have seen arguments both from a nurture/socialization perspective (women are socialized to be cooperative and men are socialized to be competitive) and a nature/biological perspective (men and women are inherently different) that purport to explain this disparity.

An interesting experiment briefly described here runs counter to a purely biological argument. It refutes the idea that in any given society, men are more competitive on average than are women by finding one society in which this is not the case. What is this culture? A matrilineal and matrilocal one. (The researchers note that they originally attempted to find a matriarchal culture, but found that "the sociological literature is almost unanimous in the conclusion that truly matriarchal societies no longer exist.")

The abstract reads:

"This study uses a controlled experiment to explore whether there are gender differences in selecting into competitive environments across two distinct societies: the Maasai in Tanzania and the Khasi in India. One unique aspect of these societies is that the Maasai represent a textbook example of a patriarchal society whereas the Khasi are matrilineal. Similar to the extant evidence drawn from experiments executed in Western cultures, Maasai men opt to compete at roughly twice the rate as Maasai women. Interestingly, this result is reversed amongst the Khasi, where women choose the competitive environment more often than Khasi men, and even choose to compete weakly more often than Maasai men. We view these results as potentially providing insights into the underpinnings of the factors hypothesized to be determinants of the observed gender differences in selecting into competitive environments."

The researchers take a tentative position that gene-culture co-evolution (interaction between biology and culture) is at work:

"This process is subtly different from that outlined under the nurture hypothesis. If competitiveness has evolved (biologically or socially) over time, it is not necessary that matriliny and matrilocal marriage cause families to teach their daughters to be competitive. Rather, the prevalence of competitiveness in the society could increase over time due to the superior fitness of this personality trait within this institutional environment, whether it is learned through imitation or inherited genetically. In addition, this view suggests that current cultural features might be less important than past cultural features in explaining current preferences; evolution of socially learned behavior is not instantaneous."

They conclude:

"Viewed through the lens of extant models, our results might have import within the policy community. For example, policymakers often are searching for efficient means to reduce the gender gap [in wages and in prospects for advancement in the workplace]. If the difference in reaction to competition is based primarily on nature, then some might advocate, for example, reducing the competitiveness of the education system and labor markets in order to provide women with more chances to succeed. If the difference is based on nurture, or an interaction between nature and nurture, on the other hand, the public policy might be targeting the socialization and education at early ages as well as later in life to eliminate this asymmetric treatment of men and women with respect to competitiveness. Our study suggests that there might be some value in this second avenue. We trust that future research will refine this insight and more thoroughly explore the sources of gender preference differences."

Of course, how one would actually change the socialization process is the big question. It's not enough to create good environments for girls (e.g. single-sex schools with staff and programs that bolster their motivation to compete), though that may show some short-term effects. (I believe the literature shows that girls are more competitive with other girls than with boys.) How are we going to socialize boys to value female competitiveness? How does any real change occur when the underlying structure of our world is patriarchal?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

My Big Five Scores

I must have taken a different version of the test (I did the Twins one) from Tam because my score sheet varied a lot from hers. But this is what they told me:

Openness to experience/intellect = 68th percentile (Tam: 59th)

**You typically don't seek out new experiences.

Conscientiousness = 83rd percentile (Tam: 2nd - hah!)

**You are very well-organized, and can be relied upon.

Extraversion = 38th percentile (Tam: 53rd)

**You probably enjoy spending quiet time alone.

Agreeableness = 44th percentile (Tam: 69th)

**You find it easy to criticize others. [Indeed, it is one of my favorite pasttimes.]

Neuroticism = 91st percentile (!) (Tam: 32nd, the happy-go-lucky duck)

**You are a generally anxious person and tend to worry about things.

They also provided this additional information - The following statements tend to describe people like you:

**Be emotionally expressive at times with mood changes which were occasionally unpredictable

**Occasionally lack clarity about self, sporadically experience feelings of boredom and have goals that change occasionally altering their future plans

**Experience a moderate amount of discomfort when alone and have some difficulty coping when separated from someone they were close, at times, fearing rejection

**Rarely experience things they feel are strange, clearly see themselves and their surroundings, and experience little difficulty thinking when under stress [So, neurotic but not psychotic?]

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Nested Bags

I like a lot of things about Target, but unlike some people, I do not view them as significantly different from Wal-Mart or any of the other big discount chains. They have a slightly different product mix emphasizing design and style (though in my experience, this has not resulted in uniformly superior goods), and their store layout is nicer, but mostly I think they have benefited from brilliant positioning. (And as an aspiring marketing guru, I'll give them big kudos for that.)

In addition to positioning themselves as the inexpensive store that status-conscious yuppies can feel good shopping at, they also attempt to look more environmentally-friendly than the competition. While I can't speak to how they are doing overall in a comparative sense, I really was not impressed by this instance of waste:

Robert stopped at Target to buy 3 summer squash and in the produce section, tore off a plastic bag for them. But each squash came individually wrapped, which neither of us have ever seen before. Then when he bought them, the clerk put the plastic bag of individually wrapped squash into yet another plastic bag, a gigantic one into which a plus sized sweatsuit would fit.

It looked like this when the parts were un-nested from each other:

Untouched by human hands?

It was like the Russian Matryoshka triplet dolls of plastic wrapping.

I suppose they could have done worse by taking the individually wrapped squash out of the produce bag and putting each one in its own Target bag.

By comparison, at Wal-Mart (or HEB or any other grocery store I know of), two bags would have been used, with the outer one smaller and made from thinner plastic. At the farmers market, no plastic bags would have been used at all (too bad summer squash aren't in season in central Texas).

The rug in the photo is also from Target, bought several years ago when their rug selection did not totally suck.

(Note: I chose this post's title particularly for you math/computer science nerds to enjoy. So notice it, OK? It's not every day I can throw you guys this kind of bone.)

Mistah Nertz, He Dead

Robert took a break from playing Civilization on his computer and we played a few rounds of cards. During the game, my attention kept going back to the image on his screen, and I wondered what the dark shape reminded me of, until finally I got it:

It's the Heart of Darkness!

The volcano's opening looks like a vaginata dentata

(Robert's character was the green-sashed dude on the left, coming upon an enemy in gold and four barbarian fighters. He was not close enough to the section under the heart of darkness for the terrain to appear.)

Marketing Analysis, Achewood Style

Roast Beef reports the following exchange on his blog:

"RAY: Check it out, dude! McDonald’s is gonna wipe Starbucks off the map by havin’ baristas and fancy coffee drinks!

ME: Man that is baloney the Venn diagram of their customer bases looks like an eight"

Does Beef's contention that the customer base of these two stores does not overlap hold true for my readership? Anybody here been to either or both of these stores in, say, the last 6 months?

I am not a regular user of either, though I did eat at the McD's on the tollroad in Oklahoma this past xmas. I had their grilled chicken salad with ranch and it was surprisingly decent, with a mix of lettuces, a small amount of bacon, and grilled chicken that did not have the dreaded "hot dog" nitrate flavor of, say, the old Whataburger chicken salad. It was 490 calories, fully dressed.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sally's Closet: V2K

This is actually a variant on the "Sally's Closet" theme because it's not something I found from my stash at my parents' house.

The past two weekends, I have spent some time going through various stuff to sort things out for the Goodwill bin. For instance, I finally decided to get rid of the vast majority of my music cassette collection, some of which I have purchased on CD - I don't think there is much point in keeping music in a format that is so old that even I am no longer using it. I did keep about a dozen cassettes that I may want to get on CD at some point, that I don't even remember enough about what they are (so I want to look them up), or which have enough nostalgia value to keep for now.

In going through books, I came across a piece of paper that I had doodled on, possibly at work. The "farther... faster" nonsense was some kind of motto the company was using (possibly, hopefully, only internally), which I think dates to the era of The Bungler, who came to us after we were bought out by the Humongous Global Corporation; clearly I was struck by its similarity to the name of a sex flick. The date is clearly on or around February 14, 2000; time unknown.

All it's missing is a grocery list saying champagne, chocolate, Prozac

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Mathy Art

Check out the winners of the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest - gorgeous stuff! (Click each photo to see the large version for detail.) I loved this "Dreamtime Persistence" one especially.

(Via Virginia Postrel)

Friday, January 11, 2008

Vaccination Blues

Please be aware that this post has roughly 493% more self-pity than the average Empirical Question post. Side effects of reading this post may include: annoyance, scoffing, compassion, fear of shots, and empathetic bodily discomfort. Those with low tolerances should skip to the end "Note" for musings on inadpt-seeming usage of urban slang.

I had a Tdap vaccination (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis = whooping cough) at the doctor's office Wednesday afternoon, which I would not have done had I realized that I would have all of the side effects they warned about and that they would make me miserable and mostly non-functional for all of the next day. From the handout they gave me:

* Pain
* Fever
* Headache
* Tiredness
* Nausea
* Stomach ache
* Body aches
* Sore joints

I am not unfamiliar with any of these symptoms, which I experience on a fairly regular basis due to other maladies, but the combined impact was worse than I am used to.

Specifically, the "pain" was of a different sort. Most of my pain is of a constant, throbbing, or wave nature, and I had that this time, but I also experienced pain in my left arm (thank god I was intelligent enough to get the shot in the left arm!) that was sudden, intense, and surprising. I would get this shooting pain whenever I tried to lift or pull anything with my left arm or merely move it around much at all - enough to make me call out even when I was home alone and communicating my distress would have no effect in getting me help or sympathy, and I almost never do that. (Well, Leo was here, of course, but I did not yell so loudly that he would be able to hear me from his own room, that I could not get into because I was too weak etc. to climb over the barrier gate - anyway, he is pretty much indifferent to this kind of stuff).

It was strange how many normal things were impossible to do because I could not force myself to endure the pain to do them or could only barely manage to do them through the pain, and sometimes requiring multiple attempts or stages. Having two functional arms is really handy and highly recommended. This gave me a new appreciation of the suckitude of Tam's neck problems from last year. Pain + disability = waaaaaah.

This morning around 4:30, I realized that my entire body was no longer pulsing with pain and that I was no longer limited to lying on my back or rotated slightly onto my right side, and I feel asleep feeling hopeful. I woke up at 8:00 and was able to make and eat breakfast and, with some effort and endurance, shower and dress myself. I am now back to normal except for moderate throbbing in my left arm, the occasional burst of pain when doing too much with that arm, residual aching in the knees (which happens to me easily), and a quite stiff and sore neck and shoulders from having held myself so awkwardly to avoid pain from using my left arm. This constitutes a vast improvement that has me off the disability list.

Since it appears that adults only need to get Tdap vaccines every ten years, at least this will suffice for a grad school vaccination requirement, if it exists. I don't want to think right now about any other required vaccinations that I may still have ahead of me. Ouch.

Note: I originally wrote DL for disability list above (a baseball reference) but looking at it again, I was conscious of DL standing for being on the down low. When I was at Robert's mom's house, their local paper had a column in the fluff section in which the writer used the term "down low" in describing something that a female celebrity wanted to keep secret, which struck me as ... odd. I have never heard "down low" used outside the context of straight (usually married or partnered) men having sex with other men while not considering themselves gay or bisexual.

Counter to my expectations, this source suggests that the general secret meaning preceded the specific male-male sex meaning. I wonder if the author knows about this sexual connotation and chose to use the phrase anyway. It was overall a kind of funny thing to see in a mainstream city newspaper, given that the demographics of newspaper readers slants older and I wouldn't expect most of them to necessarily be up on this kind of slang. What do you guys think of when you see "DL" or "down low"?

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

An Unpublished Rebuttal to an Article That Enraged Me

In 2002, in the American Birding Association magazine Birding, I read an article on the increasing participation in birding written by two outdoor recreation researchers (at least one of whom is very prominent), a letter to the editor from a reader (who for the record is not just a totally random birder, but who appears to be the author of at least one book, a guide to birding in his home state) who objected to the researchers' claims, and a surprisingly disrespectful and shitty-toned response from the researchers. The exchange made me quite angry because the response to the reader was arrogant and dismissive to the point of reflecting poorly on the profession, in my opinion. I also thought that the article itself was shoddy, based on what I could glean from the methodology and results published online of the survey that underlies it.

I was sufficiently riled and offended that I wrote my own letter to the editor, but realized that I could not send it in. The world of outdoor recreation researchers is small, and though I am not a well-known person on the scene as was the author, a letter with my name and location would immediately be recognized by co-workers who read the publication and potentially remembered by others I met later on. I could not send in this letter as a "citizen" but only as a professional researcher associated with a particular organization and that didn't seem very smart for a lot of reasons.

When I first started this blog, I thought that when I was no longer working in the outdoor recreation field, it would perhaps be relatively safe to put up the letter here. I don't know, maybe it's still folly to do it (given the way things get googled), but I don't have to worry about being seen as representing any organization at this point and it's such an old issue, who really cares at this point. (Except perhaps the author I am criticizing.)

I was not able to find the letter to the editor and the researchers' response online, but the original article can be found here.

Here is my response, with some identifying information removed to minimize (I hope) the chance of this coming up on someone's web search:

Although we have heard already from the authors of the birding participation article [citation removed] again in the August issue, I believe this topic is important enough to the future of birding to merit further comments. I did not agree with all of FH’s observations, but I think some of his objections have been unfairly dismissed. Much of C’s rebuttal boiled down to an argument from authority, a rhetorical play that lacks logical force and does a disservice to those who are trying to understand the state of birding.

C & H seem to be making three main points in their article:
(1) Fact: There are 70.4 million birders in the United States.
(2) Fact: The number of birders is growing rapidly.
(3) Implication: Birders constitute a major political and economic force based on these high numbers.

Though I would not characterize these as completely untrue statements, they do not appear to have the evidence to back them up that the authors claim. I suggest that there are questions and potential problems with these claims that the authors do not address.

Measuring the number of birders in the US is a harder problem than C & H let on. I allow that a rather large percentage of respondents surveyed in the NSRE (extrapolating to 70.4 million people nationwide) said “Yes” to whether they have “during the last 12 months viewed, identified, or photographed birds.” The researchers conducting the survey are, as C strenuously reminds us, professionals who can be trusted to perform these calculations accurately. The authors freely admit that this is a loose definition, anticipating and to some degree negating FH’s objections. But despite the authors’ assurance that the survey only addresses “birding that takes place when the participant purposely goes outside or takes a trip away from home for birding and other recreational purposes” (seeing scarlet ibis at the zoo doesn’t count), I believe this definition is inadequate and allows the results of the survey to be misconstrued.

Looking at the question from the point of view of the average person, and not the outdoor recreation researcher, is instructive – technically, anyone who found herself “viewing” a bird even once in the last year would have to answer yes to this question. Not only intentional birding, be it backyard feeder-watching or visiting a NWR [national wildlife refuge], would count, but incidental and secondary birding as well. Does it make sense to call someone who went out into the yard to catch a breeze and saw a house sparrow a birder? How about someone who saw a heron fly by while she was fishing? Surely we would want to limit birding to include only that activity which occurs on an intentional trip outdoors (or viewing of backyard feeders) to view/identify/photograph birds as the primary activity.

Bird-viewing occurring as secondary to some other recreation activity would skew our understanding of birding. I suggest that this secondary birding is responsible, at least in part, for the authors’ finding that “birders” participate in more outdoor recreation activities than non-birders; people who walk outdoors, visit nature centers, picnic, etc., are more likely to engage in spurious bird-viewing than those who do not put themselves in birdy environments. The inclusion of this spurious bird-viewing activity artificially inflates the number of birders. Even those who do not find 70.4 million a prima facie implausibility have reason to question the figure based on the non-rigorous way the question was asked in the survey. (Note: the NSRE website listed a more satisfying Q139 – asking about birdwatching trips taken away from home – but does not list any module in which it was asked, nor do the authors report the results in their article. While this question is too limiting to stand alone, as it does not address backyard birding, it would present a valuable comparison.) Knowing the number of people who viewed birds in the last year because they wanted to, rather than who just came across birds as they went about their daily lives, is imperative to making any statements about the “popularity” of birding or how many people the activity of birding “attracted.”

As nearly everyone feels that birding is becoming a much more popular activity, C & H’s findings about increased participation in birding make intuitive sense. Examine their data a little more closely, however, and the findings are not quite as clear as they seem at first. The authors make much of the “dramatic growth” in participation between the 1983 NSRE and the 2001 NSRE without commenting at all on the changes in survey methodology that could undermine the trendability of the data. Survey research is very sensitive to changes in question text, methodology (including survey modality), and context, all three of which seem to have occurred in the NSRE since 1983 (based on the information I could find on the website). For instance, the 1983 NSRE was a face-to-face survey (not a telephone survey) that asked whether respondents did during the past 12 months “go birdwatching.” This wording includes an element of intent in the activity that merely “viewing birds” does not. We would expect some increase in self-reported “birding” in the latest NSRE as an artifact of this wording change alone. Although I do not think this accounts for all of the difference between the two surveys, the fact that C & H do not bother to cite any reason we should believe that the two surveys are measuring the same thing makes their findings somewhat dubious.

To some degree, all this confusion is understandable. Birding presents challenges to the researcher not posed by outdoor activities like hunting and fishing. For example, it’s hard to imagine anyone just happening to shoot a deer or catch a bass during their normal day or while taking a walk with the family in the park. Birding, by its nature, can be undertaken opportunistically, at a moment’s notice, and really, without even trying. I think this quality makes it all the more enjoyable to those of us who love it (who among us hasn’t broken the otherwise unbearable monotony of a long drive or long afternoon at work by watching whatever birds go by?) but does mean that extra vigilance is required when we attempt to quantify birdwatching behavior.

It is interesting to realize that another national survey, the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2001 National Survey of Hunting, Fishing, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation (HFWAR), found markedly different birding participation results from the NSRE. The HFWAR estimates the number of birders in the US to be 46 million (based on their preliminary report at [web address deleted]). Since the HFWAR is as statistically valid and has as long a legacy as the NSRE, the difference in findings underscores the importance of being careful about what we ask, how we ask it, and especially how we report it. 46 million birders, though still a good solid number, is not nearly as exciting as 70.4 million.

Certainly in the field of outdoor recreation participation, where funding for research is scarce, the NSRE is a valuable source of information. However, we can’t let our need for information and our desire to see our enthusiasm and hard work reflected in the lifestyle of the average American make us read more into the data than is truly there. Yes, we should applaud the very real gains in increasing interest in and access to birding, but it is easy to get a number like 70.4 million in our heads and become complacent or over-confident. Birders do not have the political clout or the economic impact that a number like that implies. I agree with FH that we do not do the birds, or ourselves, any favors by using inflated numbers.


Sally [last name removed]
[location removed]
[email removed]

Monday, January 7, 2008

Cheap Ass New Outfit

While I was in OK, my mom gave me my birthday gift: a four-piece warm-weather pajama set, two shirts, and $25 to buy super-cushy socks for walking.

Oh God, it appears that I did not tell the Anecdote of the Pajamas! While my mom was staying at her mother-in-law's house during the week of no electricity, my grandmother made all kinds of characteristically inane and unanswerable statements. Two related favorites were the observations that my mom "sure has a lot of sweaters" (my mom wore 3 different cardigans over the course of a week) and "sure has a lot of pajamas" (my grandmother apparently owns one nightgown, with holes, that she wears every night). This puts my mom in the uncomfortable position that she is supposed to justify these facts. I told her that she needs to respond to these kinds of statements with a short denial of their truth, like "Not really" or "No, I don't." You just cannot let my grandmother define the reality in which you are interacting with her.

I also did not mention how for like three straight days, my mom and sister, in independent decisions, dressed in strangely similar clothing, down to the point of each selecting one day to wear a puffy light blue coat and another to wear a lightweight white jacket on our walk. (I mean, consider the coincidence of them both owning these items, J bring these items with her, and then them both choosing to wear them at the exact same time with no knowledge of the other's intentions.) With J styling Mom's hair with her flat iron, so that they both had very straight blonde hair with bangs to the side, the overall look was a bit eerie. (Thankfully, they are different sizes and Mom's hair is much lighter than J's, so they avoided a cookie cutter look.) Christmas day, they both had red turtleneck sweaters on and I sort of fit their theme by wearing a red hoodie sweater over a white shirt. One day late in the week, all four of us kids had long sleeved grey shirts on, no doubt preparing subconsciously to be easily indentifiable as a team in the event that a spontaneous football game against the neighbor's children were to occur.

Anyway, in addition to this birthday stuff, my mom also gave me a bunch of shirts that she bought, washed, dried, and shrank to be exactly my size. Every one of the shirts fit better than the shirt I had been wearing before trying these others on.

When I finally was well enough to emerge from the apartment yesterday, Robert and I went to Academy and in addition to the socks, I bought two skirts from the clearance rack - one for $4.94 and one for $1.44. I liked how the $1.44 skirt, the freebie shirt I was wearing, and my standby $7 Wal-Mart shoes made for a Super Cheap Ass outfit. (This photo is taken at a kind of wonky angle, but for fear of dredging up the whole "Jennifer Love Hewitt responding to the bikini photos by mentioning an unflattering angle and not leaving it with the admittedly awesome remarks about how women's bodies are considered public property and fuck anybody who thinks it's their business whether she's fat" outrage, I am loathe to comment that I do not look pregnant in this skirt when my body is not twisted at the waist and observe that it is indeed very low waisted.)

Needless to say, it would be impossible for me to replicate this skirt and shirt combo for $1.44 sewing by hand, unless I got all the patterns, fabric, trim, buttons, and zippers for free and I valued my time at nothing - actually, since I haven't yet attempted to put a zipper into anything, it may be utterly impossible full stop.

By the way, reading this blog post about the whole "Frugal Purchase of Quality (Hence Expensive) Stuff" issue, and the comments in which roughly 852 people talk about how the clothing, shoes, and purses they buy at Wal-Mart type stores fall apart immediately, makes me wonder what the hell other people are doing to their clothes to destroy them so easily. Did I accidentally blunder into the Little Kid Message Board where a bunch of 8 year old boys who regularly engage in insanely rough physical activity were comparing notes? I cannot think of a single garment from my adulthood - aside from underwear, socks, and a set of 3 men's white undershirts I tie-dyed and have been wearing at least once a week (now with pj pants) for 20 years - that has fallen apart or even taken damage of that kind. The things most likely to hurt my clothes are stains, and "quality" clothing is no more resistant than any other. To the degree that I would want durable clothing that can stand up to actual rough treatment, I would find myself gravitating toward things like the $21 Dickies pants that are made to be worked in.

A few years ago I finally gave up on some cheap Kmart cotton pants ever showing any wear whatsoever after over 10 years and donated them to Goodwill because I wasn't interested in continuing to wear pleat-front pants. Despite the claims of some of those commenters and others that one should buy "quality" clothing that "lasts forever," I do not want to be locked into wearing the same pairs of pants for my entire life. Styles change, my tastes change, and god knows my body changes a lot. In many cases, it is simply untrue that I can buy a piece of clothing and wear it forever.

It's like people in the online frugality community want to avoid at all costs making what seems to me to be a real, common argument for buying "quality" clothing - that other people will notice and respect the quality (and hence the expense) of the item, giving the wearer prestige or status points. There are situations in which this is, to me, a completely valid reason; if your office/profession puts a lot of stock in having the right look, and your colleagues and bosses will note that you are wearing a cheap suit or cheap pair of shoes and evaluate you negatively, by all means invest in quality stuff and dress for success. But it's a real stretch, to me, to use this logic on things like the t-shirt and jeans you wear on the weekend, unless it is really important to you to impress your friends, neighbors, and complete strangers in the grocery store. And of course, it's the rare person (especially in the frugality community) who is willing to admit that, even though social status is a common motivation in a great many aspects of people's lives. As a student, I don't have any colleagues or clients to impress with my clothing, and dressing as well as a kid at Bobcat High is really not a challenge. But I know that I tend to believe people do things for social reasons more than people believe themselves to do, and I should not forget the prevalent heuristic that cost = quality that could be leading people to make incorrect judgments. (In other words, people could be wrong about their own thinking for reasons other than the key ones I have identified. Heh.)

As to shoes and accessories, I am lucky that my feet aren't hugely picky about what they wear in casual circumstances (exercise is different) so I don't have to invest in expensive specialty shoes. (I do have to admit that after many attempts to go cheap, I have found cheap canvas sneakers to be uncomfortable and just not shaped very well compared to somewhat costlier Keds or Rocket Dog. This difference is noticeable in the store, so I have not erred in buying.) Robert has worn belts from a variety of makers and price points and has not found Coach to actually hold up any better than the ones from Mens Wearhouse. Sure, this is only one person's experience, but it is not consistent with the theory that "quality lasts forever" or at least better than cheaper alternatives. I wonder whether people are just remembering the instances that support this theory (that one cheap Wal-Mart purse that fell apart, that one pair of expensive shoes that wore forever) and forgetting the ones that are inconsistent.

None of this should be taken as an argument that people shouldn't buy whatever the hell kind of clothes, shoes, etc., they want, if they can afford them. The best reason for buying anything, of whatever quality level, is the pleasure that you yourself get out of looking at/interacting with an item. But I get weary of the arguably bogus justifications that people use and the moral grandstanding that they sometimes engage in. Buying quality because it lasts and is thus environmentally friendlier is another questionable rationalization. If you really wanted to get green for its own sake, wouldn't you buy as much as you could second-hand? Actually, buying used can be a great way to get quality at a cheap-ass price and has much to recommend it, if you have the time and will to sort through the junk and take a chance on finding something you like. If you need something really specific, like a nice pair of black pants for work, getting them from a second-hand store can be a timewaster and ultimate failure, however.

Still Alive with Christmas Recap

No, I did not get stuck in Fort Worth for an extra week due to a freak blizzard. I've actually been back home since Dec 31 but undergoing a more harrowing than usual period of pain and the inevitable painkiller withdrawal. Yesterday was not only the first day I left the house this year, but was also the first day I did not spend 90% of my time either curled up on my recliner (which I sometimes did not actually have the strength to recline or get up from without assistance) or in bed, asleep.

Fortunately, I was feeling mostly okay while I was visiting my parents at Christmas time, although I napped a fair bit. (For instance, one day, my cousin B came over while my brother-in-law RMell was fixing the computer in my bedroom and I was there lying under the futon covers from a nap I had taken and B, himself an accomplished late sleeper, gave me major shit about "still being in bed" at 4:00 p.m. After a while, I got up and was all "See, I'm fully dressed! I am not just now getting up!" though I could not actually demonstrate that I hadn't fallen asleep in my clothes the night before.)

My visit in Oklahoma was good. I was happy that my sister J and RMell made the drive from California... in their new Prius, which freaked me out the first time I rode in it because there is no sound of an engine starting, so it appeared that the car started rolling down the steep driveway of its own accord. [Trying desperately to get a Toyota Accord joke into this sentence, but can't manage it. Damn.] They got an average of 44 mpg on their trip.

My mom had truly excellent birds at her backyard feeders, which kept Robert busy and added several new birds to her "yard list" (list of all birds seen in/from her backyard). The huge array of fallen branches in the yard, plus the dusting of snow we had, contributed to the bird-friendliness of the yard. After the other guys cut up all the branches (cause there is nothing that says Christmas like using a chain saw), Robert put up a branch structure which we hope will keep the yard attractive to birds by providing shelter near the bird feeders and bird bath.

I got a minimum of 2 miles of walking in each day, for which I was extremely thankful given my painful condition. I displayed my horrible running form to my family and found out that the memories I had of wearing weird shoes and leg braces in my early childhood were real, according to my parents.

My brother-in-law also fixed my dad's laptop so he could start streaming his favorite German radio station, which alternates German with English-language songs in a bizarre and eclectic mix. (When is the last time you heard "How Much is that Doggy in the Window?") But because he didn't have speakers for the laptop, he was listening on headphones. This allowed for several random outbursts of song from my dad who was grooving in his own little world. I got to hear again the strange German version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" I heard last year, in which all of the gifts but the 5 golden rings are weird animals; the first day brought "a highly unusual animal" that is not named. But the 12th day yielded "12 hypnotized rabbits," which begged the question of what a person does with such a gift of mesmerized lagomorphs. I thought they should build a pyramid (like a cheerleader squad would make) and someone else suggested synchronized thumping. After discussion, we determined that they could make for a hell of a circus act. My dad also reported that the dj said that "Last Christmas by Wham" (you know you want to listen to that; listening to it just now, I was struck again by how utterly perfect the songs in that Drew Barrymore/Hugh Grant movie "Music and Lyrics" was to this period) was the most commonly played Christmas song on the radio, but he didn't know what it was. RMell sang part of the song but he still didn't recognize it. A while later, my dad handed me the headphones and asked me what the song playing was, and of course, it was "Last Christmas" as we had just discussed. I incidentally discovered that adding the words "by Wham" can make many phrases funny to me.

We never managed to make it out to see "The Golden Compass" but did watch on DVD the Civil War movie "Andersonville," which managed to marry almost uniformly bad acting, sometimes terrible dialogue that rivaled "Murder by Moonlight" (at one point, a character says "We're not murderers, Jim!", which had RMell and me exchanging glances because we both had a "wtf, is this Star Trek?!" moment; the crazy prison commander's repeated refrain of "Tunnels... are useless!" took on a life of its own), and a fundamentally quite interesting plot that in important respects was historically accurate. This movie could form the basis of a great drinking game. I can't exactly recommend it, but it offers much accidental humor and teaches you something about American history. For me, it was worth watching.

We also saw the video from my sister's dance performance this past fall. I quickly found that I am too ignorant to discuss dance in any meaningful way (I sort of felt that my comments rivaled the famous philosopher conversation skit in Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life," falling just short of "Does Nietzsche begin with an S?" levels of inanity), but my primary takeaway of the number J choreographed did reflect her primary intention with the piece, so I did not feel too idiotic in the end. During one piece, I found my eye drawn to this one dancer who was much better than the others and a few minutes later, J (who usually let us know at the beginning if she was one of the dancers) told us, oh yeah, I'm that one, referring to the superior dancer I had been watching but from my distance did not recognize.

Noticing that I had no special skills to offer in fixing computers (RMell), solving problems involving items such as CD players and Christmas tree lights (J), patient birdwatching and habitat construction (Robert), shopping, cooking, and doing dishes (Dad), or doing every other necessary thing (Mom), I wondered aloud what purpose I serve in the family, considering that the need for survey research is unlikely to develop. I was told that I provide "comic relief." I am glad that no one thought to say that the purpose of my life "is only to serve as a warning to others."

Although, I have to admit, I was a real champ for the long, surreal conversation my mom and I had with my grandfather's wife, who has serious memory problems - it remains undetermined (and basically impossible to determine experimentally in an ethical manner) how much she really believes what she is saying vs. kind of knows she is making it up as she goes along vs. is just flat-out fucking with people. Most of the conversation kind of looped back on itself as I learned that an easy technique for keeping up my end without bewildering or frustrating her by asking something she could not remember was to ask questions that allowed her to repeat something she already had said. But one rambling story that only I heard (because Mom was getting on the case of the other people who were hiding in the kitchen to avoid having to participate in this thing) was truly weird - it started out about some dog that she had but morphed into a tale of her son being kidnapped by the babysitter, the FBI looking for him and taking blood samples from the scene that did not ultimately help, her husband and father and other relatives going to the hospital because they were so distraught, and her hope that some day her son will do like you see in movies and look for his real mother. (It is impossible for me to replicate the disjointed, circuitous, and confusing manner in which these story elements were expressed.) Throughout this story, she maintained the same level tone and affect she had displayed in talking repetitively about her sister's stubborn hair. O-kay.

Oh, also: I found out that soft serve vanilla ice cream eaten with fresh oatmeal cookies is a food of the gods. Even complete knowledge can be dangerous, people.