Tuesday, June 30, 2009

On the Lack of Larger Sizes

This article about Ann Taylor eliminating size 16 clothing from their stores despite the fact that the average American woman is larger than ever (mean: 164 pounds in 2002) offers several rationales for this decision:

(1) Plus-size clothing sales have dropped more than smaller-size clothing sales in the last year (8% vs. 2%, March 2008 to March 2009). I wonder if this is because the recession has hit a segment of the population who happens to be fatter harder than other segments? Or are larger women more likely to deal with tighter finances by reducing clothing purchases compared to smaller women, who may cut back elsewhere?

(2) It costs more to make larger clothing and since materials are the primary cost of clothing (since labor is cheap), this erodes profitability on these garments. While this may seem a bit off, given that an item in one size may not contain that much more fabric than the next size, anyone who has spent any time looking at clothing patterns knows that the issue is not just the fabric in the item, but the entire amount of fabric needed, including the waste. I have definitely seen patterns in which the jump in necessary fabric purchase between one size and the next is quite large since the bigger pattern pieces do not fit on a piece of fabric (which has a given width) in the same way, making much more waste.

(3) The distribution of women's body weights is such that although there are a lot of women who are, say, 200 pounds or more, there are fewer women in any one given high-weight category than in any given lower-weight category. So to capture all of the larger women, you need to offer a lot of different sizes. This is also offered as an explanation for the counter-intuitive fact that larger women, who could benefit greatly from more closely-tailored clothing, often are faced with less flattering but looser clothing options; garments made to fit loosely that incorporate stretch in the fabric can be worn by a wider range of large women. All I can say is it helps to learn to do some basic sewing; to create a more streamlined silhouette, darts are your friend. And larger women may just have to buck it up and spend more on items from specialty stores that cater to their size range.

One thing that isn't mentioned in the article is whether larger women are just less into buying clothes than smaller women and thus even if there were the same number of women who wear a size 16 as wear a size 8, the size 16's shop less and spend less on clothing. I know from personal experience that I enjoy clothes shopping a lot more at 135 pounds than at 155.

It's also a rather sad situation that body politics has pitted plus-sized and extra-small women against each other, with the former sometimes raging against the mere existence of the size 0 or size 00 as a personal insult. Finding clothes that fit can be a challenge for anybody, no matter the weight or size. Even a woman with an utterly enviable weight and size has her own difficulties finding garments that match up with her personal shape.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Sally's Closet: The Cat of Time Hill

Going through my closets has turned up some dubious treasures, including selections of my childhood storytelling. I wrote a few books about the same two characters, Strawly the cat and his friend Rit the rat, "who live in Talaperosicy, somewhere in the south."

The best of the series is The Cat of Time Hill, in which our protagonists are captured by an alien (the unicorn figure) and taken by rocket to meet his ruler (the bull figure - the gaudy necklace denotes his status) on Time Hill, leading to this dramatic encounter:

No, 'Prisoner' fans, Rit is also not a number.
The ruler asks "What value do you things have?" prompting the rejoinder from Rit, "We are not 'things,' we are animals, and we want to get out of here."

The ruler remains unmoved by this brave display and instructs his henchman to put them in a cell. Rit observes, "We will have a hard time getting out of this one."

The next day the ruler and his minion meet with Rit and Strawly to discuss "some of the facts on what was going to happen" to them...but, through some freak occurrence, the ruler falls into a conveniently located pool. And because he cannot swim (despite having chosen to have this conversation next to this pool), he starts to drown. Strawly rescues the ruler from certain death, and the ruler offers to give him anything he wants. Strawly wants Rit and himself to be taken home. As the henchman walks them toward the rocket for the return journey, the story closes as an unspecified "everyone cheered and yelled 'Strawly is the Cat of Time Hill!'" (It is unclear what "everyone" was doing while the ruler was drowning. Perhaps none of these aliens could swim.)

I believe this was the central Rit and Strawly plot: the animals gain their liberty from a villain through some kind of courageous, generous act. But the first story, The Adventures of Strawly and Rit, instead relates the introduction of Rit to Strawly's good friends, a hound named Ronald (who wields an eerily phallic baseball bat) and a bird named Susie (who, incidentally, appears to be the only one with a job), and the party-turned-sleepover-in-the-woods that ensues.

That is NOT a condom on Susie's head

Despite the amiability of Ronald and Susie, Rit is clear to become Strawly's BFF and it is no surprise to the reader that he is the sidekick who is featured in later stories.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Idiotic Offer

Bank of America sent me junk mail exhorting me: "If you're going to spend, spend smart."(tm)

Their extra-special offer is that between now and Sept. 1, all "restaurant and entertainment" purchases on my credit card will qualify for a promotional APR of 1.99% rather than 10.99%.

So basically, if I spend money on restaurants, resorts, etc., that I cannot afford and hence am going to have to pay interest on, I can save a tiny amount of money on the interest. What an amazingly generous offer. "Why wait?" indeed. I should forget about staying home this summer. Clearly, I should take an expensive vacation to Hawaii or something so that I can "take advantage of the lower rate." At least, I assume that this is what they have in mind.

Alternatively, I can save even more by not spending money I don't even have on something as frivolous and optional as a summer vacation or local restaurant meals.

Ecru Threads

It's always a nice thing when I can use laziness to work to my advantage (see: "God, I want a bowl of popcorn...nah, not willing to go to the store to get any").

Yesterday, I used the fact that I always feel a sense of reluctance about changing the thread in my sewing machine (which doesn't take much time, but is one of those tiny barriers that can derail a person) to motivate myself to find things to sew that use the ecru thread I still had in the machine from the organic Anthem tank.

Item 1: 20+ year old pants become semi-billowy shorts

It seems almost incredible that I could be wearing a pair of pants that I purchased prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, but there it is. Actually, I haven't worn them much for a couple of years because they were too short even by my standards, but I really liked them. I don't think this is due to some kind of sentimental attachment but more just the simple fact that they are unusual in style, cool for summer (literally - thin cotton), and have a nice loose fit in the legs that is very comfortable. They always make me feel like I'm on an island vacation (which is, frankly, pretty weird when I articulate it). They are also rather high-waisted, which would look funny if I were to tuck something into them, but there's no risk of that happening.

I didn't seem to be able to take a photo that didn't make one leg or the other look longer than its partner (because I can't manage to stand up straight), but in reality, they are the same length.

3Cs: cool casual comfort
I'm pretty pleased that I will be able to get continued wear out of these old favorites.

Item 2: Unwearable free t-shirt becomes custom-fitted shirt

Honestly, a lot of the free t-shirts a person accumulates are not very attractive (I mean, given away free, not "free to me" shirts that someone paid for but you were given). Mine tend to be advertising some company or organization that I may not want to pimp for, commemorate an event that I don't care much about (often with sponsor logos also), ugly, or all three. (A possible exception: the Salon t-shirts that Tam gave me that I remade into two tanks, but I don't know whether Tam paid for them or not.)

So when I got this free event t-shirt, that had no logos but a really nice design, I was quite happy. Unfortunately, it had the problems all true "T"-shirts have - its shape did not at all match mine. Fortunately, while my sewing skills are rudimentary at best, I am able to fix this kind of problem. In this case, after having made so many sleeveless shirts recently, I decided to remake it into a short-sleeved shirt.

My favorite t-shirts to refashion are huge - the bigger, the better. This one was a size medium, which made it a bit tricky since to get the length I wanted, it would be tighter around the hips than I prefer, and I generally had less room getting my desired shape with a reasonable seam allowance.

I used my youth birding (Roughwings) t-shirt refashion as the basis for the new shirt. What? I can't find a photo of this shirt on my blog, so here it is. (This was one of many shirts I purchased super-cheap from my previous employer.) I have forgotten what store-bought shirt of my own I used as the original model for the Roughwings shirt, which has become one of my favorite shirts to wear, esp. birding because (1) it's a birding event shirt and (2) cream and green match my typical birding gear.

Those kids would kick my ass in a birding competition
The flare of the Roughwings shirt was too wide to work within the confines of a size medium t-shirt, so I did a planned-out version of something I faked after-the-fact with another refashion: I incorporated a cut-away at the side of the shirt.

Super-tight stitches unintended
I surprised myself at how well I did with resizing and attaching the sleeves. It had been so long since I'd done that, I had to figure it all out as if for the first time. (It's actually more challenging than you might think to determine how to orient the body and the sleeve to sew the sleeve on from the inside.) The sleeves are, basically, perfect.

I managed to make this photo look weird by having the shirt a bit off-center at the shoulder but you can see the shape and most importantly, the design.

Male and female belted kingfishers! I am so glad I didn't screw this one up. Kingfishers are my favorite. I love them. I don't even care about the semi-hokey "Soaring to New Heights" motto underneath the event information.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

North Carolina Zoo: A Photo Tour

Toward the end of our trip to NC, we went to the North Carolina Zoo (which is run by the state). The zoo is located in the Uwharrie Mountains, one of the oldest mountain ranges in North America and thus somewhat more eroded than most. Nevertheless, the terrain in the zoo was rather hilly, and walking the trails in their entirety (including doubling back over a lot of them) was good exercise; there are over 5 miles of trail. Fortunately, the weather was pleasant - warm, but with a nice breeze - and there was excellent shade because the landscaping of the zoo left a lot of trees. They definitely went for "natural" in their habitats too, rather than cages and bars, and everything looked great. The zoo contains two areas - Africa and North America - connected by a trail (and mini-train service).

We started in the Africa Forest Edge area with giraffes. I thought the landscaping here was particularly nice.

The male lion in the African Bushlands area was sleepy and seemed content to let us get great, close views and photographs of him in his glory.

I was surprised how much I liked the tropical plant area of the African pavilion, especially the orchids. (I would have spent more time in there but it was really warm and muggy, as one might expect of an indoor tropical plant exhibit.)

One type of orchid:

Many types of orchid all together:

I also finally saw what a tamarind tree looks like (though sorry, no photo - it wasn't very photogenic) and learned a bit about it:

Tamarindis indica
Family: Fabaceae—Pea family
Origin: Tropical Africa
Native to tropical Africa, the tamarind tree grows wild throughout the Sudan. The fruit was well known to Egyptians and Greeks in the 4th Century B.C. The pulp from the fruit is an important ingredient in chutneys, curries and sauces, including some brands of Worcestershire and barbeque sauces. Sugared tamarind pulp is often prepared as a confection and tamarind ade has long been a popular drink in the tropics.

Of course, I was struck by this African eagle...well, not literally. I don't want to think about how much damage this guy could do if he decided to attack me.

The Watani Grasslands exhibit was really nice - a very large, open area visible in its entirety from a high vista but with a pathway system (outside the grasslands area) that allowed you to get close to various of the animals.

It's rather amusing to watch an African elephant, the world's largest land mammal, eating grass. (Apparently an adult elephant consumes 300-600 lb. of plant matter a day.)

The Chilean flamingo can be distinguished from other species by its pink knees.

I don't know what kind of flower this is, but I liked its waxy appearance.

Possibly my favorite part of the zoo was (predictably) the aviary. Robert had been extremely smart to suggest that we bring our binoculars into the zoo, and we used them everywhere (sometimes to the visible or audible envy of other visitors), but they were particularly useful for identifying birds.

My absolute favorite was the grey-headed kingfisher, of course; the guide described this specific bird: "This friendly kingfisher was hatched in 1986. He is usually easy to find, being very comfortable around visitors." And indeed, he was, but unfortunately, my photos did not turn out very well despite repeated efforts; you can at least see his wonderful bill in this photo.

I was also charmed by this extremely cooperative fairy bluebird (of Southeast Asia) with the bright red eye.

I could have stayed in the aviary all day, but we needed to move on to the North America exhibits.

In the Cypress Swamp, there were many lazy alligators lying about.

Also this beautiful big cat, a cougar, who posed magnificently. (Look at those paws, *swoon*)

At this point, my energy and interest levels were beginning to flag and my knee was not very happy with me, so I did not bother taking photos of any of the many, many North American animals that remained in the various exhibits. I did enjoy our sojourn in the Sonora Desert, where we saw all kinds of familiar things - cactus, birds, lizards, and so on. The arctic fox is also really pretty.

But...no rabbits! What?! It was a disappointment. But we did not lack for seeing rabbits during our time in NC. We saw wild rabbits a few times, including once on a residential street in Charlotte the day we left town.

The funniest animal sighting was at the SciWorks science museum in W-S. There was a section of animal exhibits, predominantly reptiles, and at the end of it, I was watching a large iguana make a mess with his salad lunch when Robert said, "Sally, turn around." Now Robert and I have a checkered history with these kinds of exhibits (including the infamous flying cockroach incident at the Fort Worth Zoo) so I was a bit hesitant and, okay, almost scared to see what monstrous reptile he was looking at. I turned and saw...a lop rabbit. "Oh god, what kind of horrible creature are they feeding this sweet bunny to!" I briefly wondered. I looked at the sign. It said: Domestic Rabbit. Oh, the bunny is the horrible creature! He was a cutie (though, in all honesty, not quite as lovely as my own Leo).

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Applicant Credentials

Yesterday, I discovered yet another grad school application forum, and I've been looking through the posts for anything relevant to my situation. (This has distracted me from other things I planned to do today, but oh well.)

One thing I have come away with from looking at these various discussions over the past 2 years is that applicant credentials are more impressive today than when I graduated from college, and was first contemplating grad school, in 1996. (We've already seen evidence that successful business PhD applicants today have higher GMAT scores than those of only a couple years ago.)

Overall, GPA's of 3.5 are discussed as though they are merely OK but not very good. In the humanities, GPA of 3.8 or higher is considered solid. But this is consistent with what we've already heard about grade inflation from various sources, including the TAMU data that showed significant grade inflation for humanities subjects as well as moderate inflation among the social sciences. So it's unclear whether today's grad school applicants have "better" grades when adjusting for this inflation problem.

In the research sciences (including fields such as biology, chemistry, psychology, and sociology), there is an increasing expectation that applicants will already have extensive research experience. For example, psychology students with "merely" a couple of years experience working in a professor's lab are considered borderline for application. Science students are counseled to do a couple years post-bach lab work to be competitive for PhD programs, as are clinical psychology hopefuls. Publications by undergrads are much more common than they were in 1996; while some of these are in undergraduate journals or student conferences, others are in "real" journals.

Comparing current advice to psychology applicants (such as these forums but also on university web pages) to that from the 1990's and early 2000's shows a much greater emphasis on the amount and quality of research experience. It used to be that letters of recommendation noting a student's "aptitude" for research was sufficient, but today, those letters need to demonstrate that the student has already undertaken research and excelled at it.

Successful economics grad applicants are, to a greater extent than ever, those with the highest level of math ability and background (though this is a valid criterion, given that the discipline has been moving in a consistently mathier direction, perhaps for lack of other ideas, I cannot help but snarkily observe).

And while it isn't true, it seems that every serious grad school hopeful and their dog (or cat or both) has done at least one undergraduate thesis.

I can't speak to what applicants to math PhD programs used to look like, but I've been sort of blown away by how precocious many of today's students are. Many people seem to be on extremely accelerated tracks. One student made me laugh when she said she took Calc 2 as a sophomore...in high school. I was amazed to read threads on topics such as "Is it OK that I continue taking undergrad math courses through my sophomore year and only start graduate classes as a junior? I know this puts me behind, but I think I would benefit from it" in which nobody accuses the original poster of being a troll - rather, they discuss this as though it's a serious issue. Who are these people? Where do they come from? Are they the forerunners of Uber-Geek Wesley Crusher?

Obviously, the people who post to these sites are not representative of all applicants. I'm sure these forums attract a lot of highly qualified people, some of whom may post questions about their stats as a form of bragging or because they are afraid that they will not reach the goal they've had since they were 6 of getting into the #1 PhD program in their field. The more clueless applicants may not even be on top of things enough to be reading the boards, let alone posting on them. Also, foreign students seem over-represented on some forums (as many people have observed), and the common wisdom I have heard is that they tend to have slightly better stats on paper (e.g. GRE scores) than American students (but may have weaker statements, recommendations, and other "soft" stuff) - I have no idea whether this is accurate or not.

But it sort of makes sense that today's PhD applicants (or at least, the top X% of today's applicants, who are the serious contenders) would have more impressive qualifications than those of years past. Just as parents appear to start grooming their children for successful undergraduate acceptance to Harvard at the age of 4 with placement in a "good" pre-school and keep up the focus on impressive achievement through high school, there's been an arms race in graduate admissions as well. More people are applying for the same number of (or in some cases, like business PhD, fewer) slots and more is known about what are the characteristics of a successful applicant in a given field. Who knows - maybe 10 years from now, humanities students will be expected to speak 6 languages prior to their acceptance to PhD programs.

I have heard (personally) and read many times current grad students or professors comment that they believe they themselves (or various of their colleagues, usually left un-named) would have a much harder time being competitive against today's applicants. I know I wouldn't particularly like to move my 1996 self up to fight for a spot in a social psychology PhD program today (2nd only to clinical in competitiveness among psych programs).

Of course, many of us oldsters would probably have the honors thesis, the publications, the grades, etc., if we were actually part of today's cohort because those things would be expected and encouraged by our undergrad advisors; it's not that I think that these young kids are necessarily actually smarter or more talented, but that they have certain kinds of experiences at an earlier point and may be better prepared for grad school.

Sadly, despite this superior preparation, it doesn't seem to be taking any less time for people to get their PhD, and even at the conference I attended a couple weeks ago, current professors were talking about how the expectations have changed in terms of having publications during one's doctoral program (something that used to be rare in the field of academic marketing) in order to be a serious job applicant.

High school juniors - I hope you are spending this summer working your way through a real analysis textbook if you want to have any chance of ever getting a PhD in a quantitative field.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Government Debt: Boomer Edition

The Economist has an excellent article about government debt, a subject increasingly worthy of attention given that "by next year the gross public debt of the ten richest countries attending the summits of the G20 club of big economies will reach 106% of GDP, up from 78% in 2007."

Obviously, the finance meltdown is a big problem, but perhaps not the largest one:

"In America, for instance, Barack Obama’s administration has ambitious plans for broader health-care coverage, though it promises to pay for it. Worse, the biggest peacetime jump in the rich world’s public debt is taking place just before a slow, secular collapse in most countries’ public finances as workers age and the costs of health care rise. According to the IMF’s calculations, the present value of the fiscal cost of an ageing population is, on average, ten times that of the financial crisis. Left unchecked, demographic pressures will send the combined public debt of the big rich economies towards 200% of GDP by 2030....The present value of the increase in America’s future age-related budget obligations is about five times its GDP."

If Barack Obama actually manages to pull off that frequently-mentioned yet never-realized fantasy of financing more government stuff through amazing cost savings, I'll eat your hat. But that aside, what is being done about the known serious problem of the aging US population? Jack all. However, the writers at The Economist are singing the same tune I am (and no, it doesn't involve enactment of a Logan's Run type scheme):

"The best way out is to tackle the costs of ageing head-on by, for instance, raising retirement ages further. That would brighten the medium-term fiscal outlook without damaging demand now. Broadly, spending cuts should be preferred to tax increases. And rather than raise tax rates, governments would do better to improve their tax codes, broadening the base and eliminating distortive loopholes (such as preferential treatment of housing). Other priorities will vary from one country to the next. But after today’s borrowing binge, doing nothing is no longer an option."

To me, it is unconscionable that the retirement age is so low, given the impending bust of Social Security and the increases in life expectancy. I also think that the tax deductions for people with mortgages is blatantly unfair (esp. given that I feel confident that poor people are less likely to own a home than richer people). I'd love to see both of these things fixed.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Organic T

Some years ago, Robert had received a huge, unbleached organic cotton T-shirt from Slate magazine that had various things written on it in green - Treehugger, Slate, "I lost 5,000 pounds," etc. - that I found unwearable even if it hadn't been so large.

I turned it into a tank top using my easiest method: lining up a tank top to the bottom (already nicely-hemmed) of the shirt, cutting around, and sewing together. (I also added darts at the bust.) With careful positioning and scooping the neck, I was able to lose the writing on the front...except for the letter "I" at the shoulder that you can barely make out in the photo underneath the hand holding the camera. I jokingly called this the Anthem tank since "I" was the Unspeakable Word in the Ayn Rand story.

The Golden One models new shirt

I was not so lucky as to avoid the writing on the other side of the shirt, but I was not displeased with the message that was left, though it is true only of the shirt and not myself. I would not qualify as organic food under the USDA rules. (I wish it weren't off-center, but whatever. I'm rather off-center myself. The message positioning suggests that I am skewed a bit to the right.)

What's that cellular-looking blob?

Friday, June 19, 2009

5 Star Books: General Fiction, Part 1

Guarantee of satisfaction not promised or implied, but I thought these were all excellent books.

All He Ever Wanted - Anita Shreve
Academic satire and one-sided love story. (Warning: protagonist is not likable.)

All is Vanity - Christina Schwartz
Cruel, funny story of two childhood friends grown up.

The Ax - Donald Westlake
Extremely dark comedy about a man's career and the lengths he will go to save it. Amazingly funny and sort of scarily plausible. It is a rare book that deals in any real way with the centrality of work in people's lives (unless those people are college professors or writers...or cops/soldiers/etc. in genre fiction). Maybe this book should get 6 stars on a 0 to 5 scale or maybe Donald Westlake just totally hits the sweet spot for me in his non-crime-caper novels.

Black Mountain Breakdown - Lee Smith
Smith has written many excellent books set in Appalachia. This one concerns a sexually troubled woman returning to her hometown.

Body Surfing - Anita Shreve
A woman working as a tutor is caught in a weird rivalry between two brothers in the family.

Outlander series - Diana Gabaldon
An outlandish (ahem) time-traveling historical romance on a grand scale that is hella fun if you just go with the premise. The girl sitting beside me in diff. eq. class had just started reading the first one and was totally blown away; I sort of envied her for not having read this series yet. Our gorgeous, smart, brave, sarcastic, wonderful, etc., hero is not just the kind of man every woman wants and every man wants to be; some men want him, too. Recommended even for those who are not typically into the "romance" genre.

The Cornish Trilogy - Robertson Davies
Absolutely my favorite R.D. series, which is saying a lot. Of course, I die for the context of the three books - the university, the art world, and the music world. This is one of those rare books (or 3) that I do not own but frequently wish I did because I'm often in just the right mood to read them. (The Rebel Angels, What's Bred in the Bone, The Lyre of Orpheus)

The Emperor's Children - Claire Messud
3 college friends, years later. I don't remember why I rated this one 5 stars - it's definitely not one of the great books of all time - but it was a lot of fun and a rather compulsive read and as such, was very satisfying. Maybe I should add "story about school friends grown up" as another Sally favored theme or setting. (Warning: characters can be very annoying)

Horse Heaven - Jane Smiley
A delightful satirical novel about horse-racing. (See also Moo, a delightful satirical novel about academia, set in an ag college.)

Humans - Donald Westlake
An angel is sent to earth to bring about the end of the world. It is quite possible that I have re-read this book more times than any other that I read for the first time after the age of, say, 16. I admit that it hit super-hard at my "heaven as bureacracy" and "hierarchy of angels" interests, but I think it would be amusing to many people.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Serendipitous Stripes

Here is my new striped shirt:

93% serendipity

While this one is not as fitted as I usually make them, I liked the somewhat mod look of the looser styling. Of course, it's made from soft cotton knit and not polyester fabric. My original sources were a grey Expo t-shirt and an old black cardigan that RB found on the Rice campus around 1992.

I cut long strips of t-shirt and sewed them together to make large two pieces of fabric. (I totally winged the cutting, eyeballing for width, height, and straightness; fortunately, the pieces within each color were similar in width.) I have never seen anyone do this before in a t-shirt refashion, but I thought it would be a good way to use the grey fabric of which I did not have enough for an entire shirt once the logo was removed. And anyway, I love stripes. I fiddled around for a while until I decided to just make a straightforward shirt and cut the fabric around an existing tank top.

Everything went great until it was time to hem the bottom (which was a bit scraggly due to some stripes being longer than others). I quickly found that I did not have enough length to turn the fabric over and put in a seam. Eventually I decided to make what I guess you could call bias tape out of the black fabric to trim the bottom. (I didn't actually cut the fabric on the bias, but it was cut free-hand and rather wonky, which turned out fine.) Experimenting (with scraps) on the sewing machine, I decided that it would be hard to control sewing it on that way with my skill level, so I hand-stitched it instead, which was time-consuming but safer. The hand stitches are not very noticeable from a normal distance and are not too bad up close.

Not terrible for totally faking it

So essentially, this re-fashion was like making an easy sleeveless top from scratch, only first quilting together my own fabric. Thankfully, I have gotten pretty fast at the cutting out and sewing up stages. In the future, I will probably mostly stick with the quick turn up and machine sew hem method, but it was a nice change of pace to do the small band at the bottom for this one. I think the bias tape method has the potential to look "smarter" than my usual lazy hem, esp. if I can do it on the sewing machine without screwing up. These bands could be used for necklines and armholes, too.

Screwing up is a pretty big issue because machine sewing knits means using the "straight stretch" stitch, in which the machine automatically makes forward-then-back overlapping stitches. These are an utter bitch to remove at best, impossible at worst; I am almost as likely to just puncture the fabric as to successfully remove the stitches once they're embedded.

Sewing this shirt was made possible by the Great Bedroom Reorganization of 2009, in which we divided the second bedroom into a Leo area with cage and futon and a Sally area, which has access to the sewing machine, the freezer, the closet, and an ironing board I have put up for the duration. With one rabbit (instead of two), and him being less active now that he's reached elderbun status, he wasn't really using all the space anyway. I've been able to sew much more easily with the new set up because I don't have to spend 30 minutes setting up a bunny blocker around the sewing machine and I get to leave all my toys out! The big pile o' fabric there is the stash that I have declared Use or Lose by our move in August. We need to attach the Attack Rabbit sign onto the outside of our new "rabbit proof fence."

If only the fur would stay on the Leo side!

I would like to experiment more with the stripe idea. Actually, I wish I had some brightly colored t-shirts so I could make a shirt with Mondrian-style blocks of color. I could buy some cheap at Goodwill or wherever, but that kind of goes against the spirit of my current sewing plan. Maybe I need to identify a red, a blue, and a yellow shirt that I already own and am willing to sacrifice for the creation of such a shirt...or I need to wait until after I move.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Maps for Social Good

The Economist had an interesting article about the increasing use of maps by non-profits and other socially-oriented organizations. These maps are used as a more intuitive way to put across data than the more typical charts, graphs, and spreadsheets of numbers.

While this is cool and has many advantages, I do wonder about this kind of thing:

“I remember the first supermarket-commission meeting,” says Jennifer Kozlowski, special assistant for the environment to David Paterson, the governor of New York. “Some of the maps in the report mapped obesity-related deaths and access to produce markets. It was as clear as day that something needed to be done.” In January Mr Paterson announced the Healthy Food/Healthy Communities Initiative, including $10m in grants and loans for supermarket projects in under-served communities.

Maps that show the coincidence of two variables (such as obesity-related deaths and produce access) may be powerful yet misleading if viewers interpret the data as causal. For instance, the produce-obesity link could go in another direction: people have food preferences such that they want and are willing to buy junk food, but not fresh vegetables; this makes them obese and also means there is not sufficient demand for produce markets in their area. I'm not saying I believe this alternative explanation, but merely showing that alternatives do exist and that the policy implications differ depending on which is true. If it's an issue of preferences, not only availability, simply making fruit & veg more accessible will not lead to a big increase in their consumption. While it feels quite logical to assume that lack of produce availability leads to obesity, the map can't demonstrate that. However, the map can be a strong persuasive tool to convince others of the legitimacy of a particular interpretation of the data.

This isn't a new phenomenon, or unique to maps; data used for political purposes is generally spun in some fashion. But it's funny (in a grim way) that statistical analyses have the reputation of being manipulable ("lies, damned lies, and statistics") while something like a map is more or less believed to be objective truth. Just looking at the example map in the article, clearly somebody had to decide what constitutes "higher rates of childhood obesity" to create those orange circles. (The gradations for number of parks, or park density, or whatever is meant by more or fewer parks also were chosen by someone, although that's at least not a dichotomous variable.) How do we know that the cut-offs weren't rigged to produce the most dramatic possible map? How do we know that other important variables aren't creating a spurious relationship? Are the mapped obesity rates adjusted for demographic variables?

It's possible as maps become more used in making political arguments, people will become more skeptical about what they represent and sophisticated in their thinking about them. But it seems like the better maps are at making things look obvious and concrete, the lazier people will be in analyzing what the data are and more importantly are not saying.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Mooch of a Muchness

In this commentary on an article about difficulties that arise between friends when somebody's economic situation changes (e.g. with a layoff), MM notes that when she lost her job:

"Some of them [business school friends] just didn't understand that a Chinese food dinner with a couple of beers wasn't a discount treat, but an unaffordable luxury--and when they figured it out, offered to pay, which seemed like a quick route to life as a permanent sponge. "

I guess I'm not seeing this direct, inevitable progression from letting a friend buy you a meal in a restaurant to becoming Queen Mooch. And if this process really exists, well, I guess I'm going to need to have all my towels monogrammed with QM (on someone else's dime, of course) because friends buy me meals a couple of times per month lately.

Now, it's one thing to put your friends in a position where they begrudgingly feel obligated to stand for you all the time or when you clearly abuse someone's generosity by ordering something really expensive or when you ask for money or whatever; that stuff's clearly not good. But a lot of times, when you're broke or living on an Operation Cheap Ass type budget, your friends would rather pay your way than not see you or do something that you can afford (which may be Taco Bell's $1 menu rather than a normal restaurant, for example). To refuse to let them pay your way in this kind of situation seems kind of shitty, actually. I recognize that the unemployed/broke person's pride can be involved, and people don't like to feel like a charity case, but it seems like a person should be able to accept something like this from a friend in the spirit in which it's given (assuming your friend is not being a demonstrative jerk about it, which she's probably not) and not be a dick about what it symbolizes.

But I've noticed before that I don't seem to have quite the same feelings about money that many other people do when it comes to equating buying power with independence. And who knows, maybe deep down I feel entitled to being treated to dinner (since obviously my company is so valuable or whatever). So maybe it's a bit easier for me to see that choosing a lifestyle of defiant poverty (or frugality) is a major drag for the other people in one's life.

Of course, these issues arise not only when your circumstances change for the worse; a lot of times, you'll have at least some friends who are pretty much permanently richer than you are. If they want to share the wealth, why not let them? Sure, some people can try to use money to control you, but your friend isn't your parent or your boss or any other authority figure who is in some sense your "superior." Your friend's just another person who has more money than you do.

I admit that I do sometimes have issues with my low income, and this past weekend, it felt like every single person I know has tons of money for cool vacations and things I too would like to have, so it's not like I am completely rational and objective about money. But I am glad that I haven't let Operation Cheap Ass turn me into a person who feels unworthy or inferior and that I am not forcing my levels of unwillingness to spend on my friends. Maybe I'm just really naive, but when a friend calls and says let's go out, my treat, I really don't interpret that as an attack on my autonomy, a snide way of putting me in my place, or any other weird, un-friend-like act. I just assume they want to get together, realize my budget for non-necessary expenditures is nil, and that the money isn't a big deal to them.

This isn't to say that there aren't boundaries on my willingness to accept things from other people, but I haven't really run into the kinds of situations that would make me feel weird. I also really do plan to avoid permanent sponge-hood by eventually finishing my degree and getting a job that earns me a better salary than I have had thus far. Once I have something resembling discretionary income again, I will be in a position to reciprocate.

And I do think that in many cases, a policy of reciprocation, or taking turns treating the other person, is a nice way to deal with the money issue even when both people have jobs. One person may earn a lot more, or be less frugal, than the other, so it allows the more spendy one to get to pick nicer restaurants (or whatever) than the tightwad may choose.

All this said, I do basically concur with the advice that the best way to deal with this situation is to just be honest about what you can afford to do. Then depending on the particulars, you may do free-to-inexpensive things with your friends, let them pay your way, or whatever seems to make sense.

5 Star Books: SF and Fantasy

Tam is in the market for books (make that: boooooooks*) to read. Got any ideas? Drop by her place and let her know. (Note: I think we can safely assume that she's through with the Dark Materials trilogy, though.)

* Yes, I did count the number of o's so that it would match. Of course I did.

While I'm not sure that I have so many recommendations that would fit her particular tastes, I thought her zombie call was a good reason to go into my book-logging software (BookBag Plus) and dig out the books I gave the highest rating (5 stars) to. This doesn't really mean that I think all of these books are of the same, absolutely superior level of quality, but these are all books that I enjoyed reading quite a lot and/or thought were pretty much excellent.

Since the main purpose of the software is to keep a list of books I want to read, it mostly contains ratings of books I checked out from the library in the last couple years. A lot of great books won't be in this software, so an omission should be taken neither as evidence for my having not read any specific book nor finding a non-mentioned book wanting in any way.

If a book you would recommend is not on the list (and there will be a lot of them), feel free to add to the list in the comments.

Since the SF and fantasy list is the shortest (and probably the most Tam-compatible), I thought I'd start there. Some of this may overlap previous discussion of favorite SF and fantasy.

Alas, Babylon - Pat Frank
The Cold War goes hot when the USSR attacks the US with nuclear weapons. It is a straightforward post-apocalyptic novel, but very engrossing.

A Fire Upon the Deep / A Deepness in the Sky - Vernor Vinge
He is a brilliant developer of alien culture and characters.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - Susanna Clark
Old-school storytelling of two English magicians during the Napoleanic Wars.

Perdido Street Station / The Scar - China Mieville
A haunting and bizarre universe with monsters, dark magic, and weird technology.

Waking the Moon - Elizabeth Hand
Makes you re-think all that moon goddess stuff.

A couple other notable (5 star-worthy) selections:

The Gap Series - Stephen Donaldson
This is a controversial choice, particularly given that the first book of the series is pretty weak. Seriously intense, unpleasant, but ultimately very powerful despite the author's long-windedness and inordinate love of the word "exigency." I just re-read the series on my NC vacation and yeah, it kicks some ass.

Tuf Voyaging - George R. R. Martin
It is basically impossible for me to imagine a person who likes SF who would not enjoy this book: the delightful, clever doings of the large, bald, reclusive, intelligent, cat-loving trader Haviland Tuf as he wins a formidable "seedship" and uses it to solve all kinds of problems. (Haviland Tuf is one of the most enjoyable SF characters ever.) If you find a copy, you should keep it forever; it's a great book to dip into over and over again. Man, despite just getting a bunch of appealing books at the library this weekend, I'm tempted to read this book again right now.

4-star books:

Anansi Boys - Neil Gaiman

Candle - John Barnes

Cassini Division, Stone Canal - Ken MacLeod

China Mountain Zhang - Maureen McHugh

Confidence Game - Michelle Welch

Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog, Uncharted Territory - Connie Willis

Girl in Landscape - Jonathan Letham

Iron Council - China Mieville

Island in the Sea of Time - S. M. Sterling (probably a real 3 but bumped up for hitting my personal buttons)

Nemesis - Bill Napier

Plowing the Dark - Richard Powers

Quicksilver - Neal Stephenson (controversial)

Raising the Stones, True Game - Sherri Tepper

Reflex (sequel to 5-star Jumper), Wildside - Steven Gould

Revelation Space - Alastair Reynolds

Sea Came in at Midnight - Steve Erickson

Snow Queen - Joan D. Vinge

Sphere - Michael Crichton

Trader - Charles DeLint

Windhave - George R. R. Martin & Lisa Tuttle

Winter Rose - Patricia McKillip

Wooden Sea - Jonathan Carroll

World Without End - Molly Cochran

Years of Rice and Salt - Kim Robinson

Friday, June 12, 2009

Homemaker Morning

I did two loads of laundry, washed dishes, took down several bags of trash, and cooked the following:

Blueberry oat muffins (12) [would have been 24 but I ran out of oats, of all things]

Tam's red beans and rice (6)

Chicken sesame noodles (6) [a new recipe]

Now I need to wash dishes again, naturally.

I also took care of other trivial but necessary business like paying bills and responding to some school email.

And I am making progress sorting stuff in Leo's closet into keep, Goodwill, and trash piles. For example, two boxes of craft supplies have been consolidated down to one after deciding to give away some of it. (I really don't need to hold on to my 5th-10th favorite sets of cross-stitch Christmas ornament patterns, for instance.) Fortunately, Robert and I re-arranged Leo's room so that the bun now has access to only half of the room. This lets me use the other side without worrying that Leo will get under my feet, eat cords and other attractive things, etc.

Oh, and a Leo update: Robert experimented with stopping Leo's painkiller (that he's been given for his arthritis) to see if his activity level would go back up, and it worked. I guess the painkiller had been drowsing him out in a big way. He's much friskier now than he had been of late. We've been monitoring him for signs of pain but so far, so good. We also suspect that part of the not eating much problem has stemmed from the transition from the bunny-sitter's feeding schedule back to ours; we feed Leo about 5 hours earlier for breakfast and dinner than she does. He definitely was eating more normally yesterday than he was earlier in the week.

But fear not - I am not letting this work stand in the way of more important things. I played about half a dozen games of Biotronic on Facebook this morning, too.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Washington DC Photos, Part 1

The conference hotel where I was staying is located at 15th and M streets, right near the Mall, but I didn't have any time for sightseeing while the conference was underway. On the last evening of the conference, Robert & I went to dinner with the two professors from my school (at a really good southern-style restaurant) and then he and I went to check out the sights.

After walking about half a mile, we ran into a large white house. What? Oh yeah.

Weird to see this in person
The photo is off-center because I was not interested in capturing the camera crew who were filming close shots of the flowers around the fountain. Unfortunately, Obama was not outside playing with his dog on the lawn.

The Treasury Building is old-looking in a stereotypical way. The statue is a random important dude that nobody but Robert has ever even heard of. (OK, it's Albert Gallatin, 4th Secretary of the Treasury, who served from 1801-1814, the longest tenure for any Treasury Secretary.)

Alexander Hamilton in on another side
I think this was a Civil War statue, but I'm not sure. A dude on a horse with various allegorical images around the base (see the bare-breasted chick on the left?).

Statues at intersections made navigation tricky
The Washington Memorial looked pretty cool from a nice vantage point at the end of the reflecting pool, which did, incidentally, reflect the image of the memorial quite well. I had heard of the "reflecting pool" before but hadn't given any thought to what that was supposed to mean. Duh. See how the memorial is made from two different colors of stone? That's even more obvious up close, I think.

Pool not included
The reflecting pool had ducks and geese, and bats and swallows swooped overhead. A woman stepped into an almost knee-deep hole in the muddy ground next to the pool but surprisingly, did not seem to injure herself (though the $300 insoles for her shoes were ruined).

Apparently we were in town on the same day they did a rededication of the Lincoln Memorial, and he was looking pretty spiffy. The text above his head reads:

In this temple
As in the hearts of the people
For whom he saved the union
The memory of Abraham Lincoln
Is enshrined forever.

Don't fuck with this guy
At the start of the path toward the Vietnam Memorial there was a statue that Robert called the memorial's photo op because the wall itself is not very photogenic from a distance.

We didn't see the other statues
I admit that I hadn't expected to have much reaction to the wall itself, but was hugely taken aback by its power. (I do not know how this works during the day, but seeing it at night was very moving.) The wall itself is the same height above ground for the entirety of its length, but the path/ground dips down in a shallow, elongated U so that when you start looking at it, you see only a small number of names, but as you walk along, the wall of names grows larger and larger. It's a very different kind of memorial as it really hits you when you look at it intimately rather than from a distance. I started crying about 20% of the way down the path.

There were several people there looking for specific names and photographing them and/or leaving flowers. There were a lot of names. Outside the wall area are a series of huge books that list alphabetically every person who died with the location on the wall so people can find them. There were a lot of books. I do not personally know anyone who died in the Vietnam War, but seeing the wall made me think about how easily my uncle J. could have died. (Surviving that war was bad enough.)

Walking back to the hotel, we passed this lion statue outside some building, perhaps a museum.

We also passed the headquarters of the Defenders of Wildlife group. Inside their place is a nifty four-pane stained glass window. (I am a sucker for stained glass.) I could only get a good shot of the middle two panes, though.

Pileated woodpecker, 1 o'clock
And so ended our evening in Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Muffin Mania

Before I left town, I made two kinds of muffins.

One batch turned these ugly bananas...

Too far gone for smoothies

into this array of lovely banana-oat bran muffins.

The un-nibbled set

One of the great things about this recipe is that it is totally wheat-free. As you may know, I have historically been sensitive to a lot of foods, and wheat was a major problem. Lately, I have been having more stomach ache than usual, and the most obvious cause is that I have slowly allowed my wheat consumption to increase beyond where it really should be. I have decided that I need to start monitoring my wheat intake again, and I am trying to limit myself to one meal with significant wheat content per day. By this I mean that if I have wheat pasta for lunch, I won't have a sandwich on wheat bread at dinner, not that I will be scrutinizing the wheat content in say a Boca Chick'n patty that I eat with rice and veg for dinner.

Fortunately, I seem to be able to eat as much oat as I could possibly want without setting my system off, so oatmeal or oat-based muffins make a nice part of my breakfast.

Banana Nut-Oat Bran Muffins
(Based on Quaker recipe)

2 ½ c. oat bran cereal
¼ c. brown sugar
1/8 c. white sugar or Splenda
2 t. baking powder
1 t. cinnamon (or more)
2 bananas, mashed
2/3 c. skim milk
2 egg whites
1/8 c. honey
1 T. vegetable oil
¼ c. chopped walnuts

1. Heat oven to 425˚. Mix oat bran, sugar/Splenda, baking powder, and cinnamon in large bowl.
2. In medium bowl, mix bananas, milk, egg whites, honey, and oil. Add to flour mixture and stir until moistened. Add walnuts and stir.
3. Spoon into muffin tins sprayed with Pam.
4. Bake 15 minutes.

Makes 12 muffins (at 120 calories each with Splenda).

The other muffin recipe I made following LivingDeb's Strawberry Muffins, with slight modifications. I don't like nutmeg (except in noodle recipes) so I used some cloves instead. I used Splenda instead of sugar and ground oats for part of the flour (perhaps about half of it). I used the entire pound of strawberries. I lowered the amount of nuts (and I may have used pecans instead of walnuts because that's what I happened to have.) I found the 1 c. of puree to be slightly too little, so I added in a bit of water to the mix until it reached my desired consistency.

I didn't find any serious sog problem around the berries, and I didn't cook the muffins to the deep brown that she showed on her post.

Verdict? Delicious.

Whee I'm sideways

Sally’s Debbie’s Strawberry Muffins

2 cups flour and/or ground oats
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup Splenda or sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 pound strawberries
2/3 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease muffin tins.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, spices, and sugar.

Puree enough strawberries to get one cup (about 13 strawberries). Dice the rest of the strawberries.

In a medium bowl, beat the eggs and vanilla together. Add the pureed strawberries. Stir this wet mixture into the flour mixture, mixing until a batter forms. (If too dry, add a bit of water until desired texture is attained.) When all but a few grains of flour have been mixed in, add the diced strawberries and chopped walnuts.

Add batter to prepared muffin tins, filling each cup to 3/4 full. Top lightly with sugar. Bake for about 20 minutes or until inserted fork comes out clean.

Nutrition information: 12 muffins @ 131 calories each (Splenda version)

Also, in the strawberry photo, you can sort of see my feet in the picture. These are the shoes that I bought in Denver on my next-to-last visit to Tam; the store was having a sale, hence an employee-to-customer ratio such that it took approximately 372 days to actually complete this purchase. But I love them.

Happy (sedentary) feet

Business Wardrobe

I took a couple of strikingly bad photographs of the clothes I bought for my conference (shakiness plus mirror shot plus black clothes against a black background yielded fuzzy, hard-to-see photos). I ended up getting a pair of pants at Kohl's (using a gift card, so free to me) and a skirt at Dress Barn (which was $40 but is the quintessential plain black suit skirt so it should remain suitable for a long time - get it, suitable? okay). Both of these items matched well with the black suit jacket I already owned.

My outfits put me in about the top 30% of dressiness among the women at the conference, which was a very safe-feeling place to be.

So I present:

(1) the world's most proper and boring black skirt suit (which I did wear with hose at the actual conference but not in this photo reconstruction):

(2) a pair of black pants with a somewhat flared leg that were actually long enough on me for once, I think - about one inch from the floor - and that felt kind of wooshy and very nice.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Coming Soon!

OK, we got back to Austin, aka WTF It's Summer or Something Land, this afternoon and I finally responded to the comments on my new apartment and the amazingly confusing streets of W-S, NC.

Posts to come include:

* Notes on my conference in general, the hotel experience, my restaurant experiences, the psychology/economics smackdown that almost was, the organic presentation, my wardrobe, plus as an extra-special bonus, two Sally jokes made at the expense of marketing academics

* Photos of Washington, DC

* Flora and fauna of North Carolina

* Photos of NC

* Finding Nemo and G-Force movies (and Cars shorts)

* Review of LivingDeb's Strawberry Muffin recipe (with photo)

* Also, I plan to revisit the two-stage birding trip to South Texas with updates on new bird species added to my list, since I shared my hopes in a January post but never followed through with the results.

* And since the obesity paper (and hence my job) and the organic paper are both finished with (at least for now), what the hell am I going to do between now and August 7, besides write all these blog posts and bitch/moan about the Texas heat? Story developing...

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Apartment Search and Street Layouts

Yesterday, we put in our application and made a deposit on an apartment in W-S, NC. The apartment complex is about a 2 mile walk (or bike ride) from the door of the psychology building on campus, which is about as close as we could find. (There was a set of somewhat seedier apartments that were about 1 mile out.) It is a 2-bedroom apartment, 1200 square feet with an open-feeling floor plan, and is $800 per month, including water/sewer/etc. (This is almost $300 less per month than our current apartment.) It is on the top floor (second) and is also rabbit-compatible if/when Leo moves to NC. I'm quite pleased with it. Our move-in date is August 7th.

One thing that we are discovering from driving around is that the road layout of this city is insane. Perhaps it does not reach San Antonio levels of laid out by a drunk man on a blind mule in a sandstorm crazy, but it seems pretty bad. It lacks the useful access road system that is so common on Texas highways, but I was expecting that. I was also expecting that the street name system wouldn't make any sense (as, e.g., Tulsa's system does).

What I was not expecting was that the street layout would diverge so extremely from any kind of grid pattern, that streets would change names so frequently, that so many streets would just curve back on themselves and not really go anywhere (as in a housing subdivision), and, worst of all, that major streets simply do not intersect each other. Our first attempts to drive places while looking at a city map failed because the map does not accurately indicate when two streets that cross each other actually intersect.

In the area right near campus/our new apartment/our current hotel, the map shows Street A and Street B to intersect, but they don't in reality, while Street A and Street C do, while the map shows the opposite. The Google map isn't any better because it gives the impression that all the streets intersect where they meet.

By "do not intersect," I mean that Street A passes under Street B. This means that you have to learn how to navigate on two different vertical levels of streets. In some cases, to turn left from Street A onto Street B, you take a right exit on Street C, which curves around and dips up or down to intersect with Street B. Sometimes there simply is no easy way to get from one street to the other.

In general, I get this sort of feeling about it: Typically, I think of roads as providing a network of pathways by which a person can get from Point A to Point B. Sometimes this is on an easier-to-understand grid system and sometimes on a more curving and winding set of passageways, but basically the streets intersect each other and allow for a good deal of variety in what particular route you take. But so far, this area of town feels very different - it's like there are a given number of set paths that you can take, and it's up to you to figure out how to navigate your way to the entrance onto one of these paths to get where you ultimately want to go.

Divided streets also mean that you frequently can't turn left and instead have to figure out some way to get back going the other direction. This is harder than it seems like it should be. There is no such thing as "going around the block," for example. I'm guessing that U-turns must be common (I hope!) or people just end up driving well out of their way to meet up with the One Path that takes you to your destination.

Oh, and of course, they aren't always that great about labeling the streets, either.

I know that any different city seems hard to get around in at first. But I do have a stronger sense of this being random and screwed up than I did with Houston or Austin when I first moved there, for example, and Tulsa seems like the most rational city in the world in comparison if you consider only the streets and not the confusing conjunction of streets and the highway system.

The area of Washington, D.C. near the Mall should have been easy to navigate since the streets were on a grid with letter streets in one direction and numerical streets in another. (Our hotel was at 15th and M.) I even made the classic mistake of commenting to the other (also navigationally-challenged) people the first night we went to dinner that it would be hard to get lost as long as we could recite the alphabet, count, and remember where we started. But on top of and intersecting the grid is another set of streets named after states (e.g. Pennsylvania Avenue), and the intersections, which usually featured some gigantic statue in the middle with a traffic circle surrounding it, were poorly marked. The number and letter streets also would sometimes be interrupted by a state street for a block or so; for instance, you might be on 15th St, then need to turn to go down a state street for a block, then turn again to continue on 15th St. This was particularly confusing at night on foot.

Other things to get used to in this town include:

There are approximately 876.3 gazillion trees. I am starting to recognize stretches of road by the particular combination of trees along side it. We know from the Gram Parsons song that in South Carolina, there are many tall pines; I can now confirm that this is true of North Carolina as well. In general, the town is much of a greenness. I'm beginning to understand what is meant by the phrase "the forests of eastern North America."

If you order "iced tea" in a restaurant, they might just bring you sweet tea by default. Also, restaurants do not regularly stock Dr. Pepper (for Robert). The ubiquitous Food Lion grocery stores do carry it, however.

According to the 2000 US Census, the population is 34.4% African-American and 12.2% Hispanic. Austin is 8.5% African-American and 34.2% Hispanic. This difference is immediately noticeable. Welcome to the South.

The bird life is very different. The most obvious aspect of this is the lesser diversity (e.g. only one kind of kingfisher instead of the 3 in the Austin area), but there are other more pleasant differences, too. American robins are everywhere right now. I heard a singing wood thrush for the first time, and it was lovely. Eastern towhees, which I basically never see in Austin, breed here also and have already taught me their distinctive "drink your tea" song. I have a chance at a life scarlet tanager or brown-headed nuthatch this week (or later) if I can see my way into all that damn foliage.

A 7-degree lower temperature in June makes a huge difference in one's comfort level.