Thursday, July 30, 2009

Obesity Epidemic is the New Climate Change

By this I mean, an extremely important issue that can only be discussed meaningfully with information gathered at a high level of scientific rigor and analyzed objectively but that people all along the political spectrum are behaving in quite silly fashion about.

And like climate change, obesity appears to pose such serious problems for the libertarian commentariat (as well as, in this case, strange bedfellows like radical left-wing fat acceptance types) that the approach appears to be this:

* If obesity is increasingly common among Americans, and fat poses serious health risks, this is an area which will receive increasing attention from government interventionists and the population at (ahem) large.

* Government interventionists will want to spend a lot of money determining how to reduce / prevent obesity and then executing plans to do so. Most people will be supportive of programs and policies that help, even on the margin.

* Since government intervention in the area of obesity is morally / philosophically / personally offensive and unacceptable to me, and because the empirical evidence that Americans are getting fatter is undeniable, it is important to fight this in the public arena by saying:

** There's nothing wrong with being fat. In fact, being fat may be healthier than being of normal weight!

** Even if fat is unhealthy, there is no way we can reduce obesity, so we shouldn't try. In fact, trying to reduce obesity may be unhealthier than letting people just get really fat!

You can see this stuff in action on these two recent blog posts on Megan McArdle's site. (I am quite happy to see her focusing on this issue, even if I think her views are rather whack and she's letting politics color her logic. I also wonder if "Thining Thin" is supposed to be "Thinking Thin.")

To pick an easy target:

"[W]e don't know how to lose weight. Some of the things Paul Campos is saying about obesity are controversial, but this isn't. Every single study which has attempted to make overweight people get thin without very risky surgery has failed completely and utterly. Fewer than 1% of patients ever keep the weight off."

One, her "proof" on this discusses people's lack of success in keeping weight off for whatever very long period of time, not losing it.

Two, one reason that it's so hard to maintain weight loss (and there are many) is that it is a challenge long-term to continue behavior patterns that are so different from that of other people and that run counter to one's environment, especially when one isn't getting the reward/feedback of seeing "improvement" in one's weight or body fat percentage. (One of my favorite weight-destructive comments is when a co-worker says to someone who is of a normal weight, "Oh, but you're so thin, you can have one measly donut!")

A lot of the suggested government interventions that she (apparently) opposes would involve making changes to the environment. It seems quite plausible to me that some of those environmental changes could have an impact on behavior, and that there may be a ... well, business people would say "synergy" and social scientists would say "interaction" such that several applied together work more effectively than the sum of their parts. It doesn't seem proof of much to say "People can't keep weight off now [in this obesity-promoting environment] so no intervention [including changing the environment to be less obesity-promoting] will make a different on people's weight." This is especially weird when you consider that people in the not-very-distant past have been able to maintain normal body weights.

And ultimately, it may easily be the case that once people get fat, it is hard (for physical reasons) for them to become thin again. This simply moves the policy discussion more seriously into the realm of obesity prevention, another area that MM and her ilk do not want to go.

I also think that she and Paul Campos, the author she fawningly interviews, are smoking crack to say that the only helpful weight loss is when a very heavy person loses enough weight to fall into the normal weight category. Everything else I have ever read - admittedly, from scientific researchers and doctors, who are clearly suspect in their understanding of health issues relative to a lawyer and an MBA-turned-blogger - suggests that as little as a 10% reduction in your weight can have a significant impact on health and longevity. OK, those digs at the source were kind of mean, and I am not saying that I blindly assume that every doctor knows what he's talking about, and every non-expert is a moron, but I would like to see the evidence for these claims that run counter to the bulk of scientific opinion.

Their arguments are clearly weaker when it comes to the welfare of children (always such a thorn in the libertarian side), so the rhetoric gets stronger: "The current stigmitization of fat kids is essentially child abuse as government policy, and the people behind it are, as far as I'm concerned, either incredibly stupid or very evil or in some cases both."

Ah, yes, doctors and public health experts are the bad guys here. I actually believe it could be stated, with greater accuracy, that letting children become obese is child abuse, but I don't see the need to invoke evil motives on the part of parents, schools, and society in general.

And what does he mean by "current stigmitization"? In comparison to some previous era in which that one fat kid in the class was not referred to as Fatty McFat or Lard Ass or picked last for the baseball team in gym or any of that? If anything, it seems to me that being a fat kid has become more acceptable through sheer numbers. Is it still terrible? Absolutely.

I also would like to ask, in response to a commenter's claim that junk food offers the greatest pleasure for your money: Is McDonald's really cheaper than sex or is he just doing it wrong?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Nutrition Information Only For the Obsessed?

Contra Megan McArdle, I don't think a person must be prone to "obsessing about the calorie content in [their] food" for nutrition information supplied at restaurant point-of-purchase to have some effect on what they order.

We've seen that people underestimate the calorie content of restaurant foods, by as much as 55%. (McMann 2004). And research has shown that people underestimate the calorie and fat content more drastically for the largest restaurant meals than the smallest ones:

* Kozup, Creyer and Burton (2003) discovered that giving nutrition information in a menu context has a greater influence on purchase intention than on a packaged food product, perhaps because consumers are less aware of the nutritional profile of restaurant foods.

* Burton et al. (2006) provide additional evidence for consumers’ tendency to underestimate the calorie and fat values of restaurant items; “less healthy” entrees averaging 1336 calories were reported by consumers to contain an average of 642 calories (48% of the real value), and entrees averaging 76 fat grams were estimated to have 32 g (42% of the real value). Consumers did much better with healthier items, estimating calories at 92% of their real value (500 vs. 543) and fat grams at 65% of their real value (8 vs. 15).

* In a mail survey associated with this study, participants looked at one of four individual menu items with full nutrition information, calories only, or no information; purchase intent and choice for the “less healthy” items was reduced when given nutrition data, as these options were even worse than participants had expected.

* These results support prior work finding that the presentation of accurate but unfavorable nutrition information on a mock menu leads consumers to rate the food as unhealthier, the negative health consequences of eating the food higher, and purchase intention lower than when no information is given (Burton and Creyer 2004).

So it's those people who are looking to eat something moderately indulgent who suffer the most from the lack of information because they can so easily end up with a meal that is much more insanely unhealthy than they want and never know the difference. I would expect most people, no matter how blase they may seem about their eating, do have a point at which they would look at a menu and say, "Holy crap, that's a lot of calories and fat!" I suspect that restaurant food crosses that line more often than people know.

The post and comments make for interesting reading. You can see my comment (which is mostly a response to other commenters) posted as Sally, July 28, 2009, 4:19 PM. This is the first time I have bothered registering to comment on that site, but I was just overcome with this feeling that "someone is being stupid on the Internet!" and had to offer some data to the wild speculation going on.

My Gussets Aren't Rubbish

I made a reusable grocery bag using this tutorial, with some modifications.

The first was to make the bag a bit smaller across, since I feared it would be a bit floppy and unwieldy in the full size. I also couldn't understand the instructions for lining up dots so that my gusset (the strip of fabric that attaches to the front and back pieces so that it has a flattish bottom) didn't become twisted and "rubbish" but my gussets turned out perfectly anyway since I took it slow and smoothed the fabric compulsively. For me, the warning was enough to avoid the problem, I guess. (I increased the width of the gusset slightly, too.) I did not have, nor did I want to purchase, fusible fleece to make the padded handles, but I was able to chop into a pair of black fleece pants that were destined for the Goodwill pile and make super-comfy handle lining with it. I made the bag itself from leftover fabric from the blue clown pants and a surplus dark blue sheet. Total cost of materials: pennies for the thread.


I am pleased with how it turned out. I like the fact that it is lined; this makes it look more finished and makes the bag stronger.

Open wide, say aaaaaah

Testing in the kitchen, I found I could put a bunch of cans, bottles, and generally heavy stuff into it without problem (and the padded handles come into their own with the weight). I think this style of bag is well-suited for farmers market trips, drug store trips, and other non-grocery usage also. Obviously it also has a general "tote bag" thing going, except for the lack of a zipper or other top enclosure.

I would (will) make more bags of this type, though I think for large-scale grocery shopping, I will create some simpler bags that are faster to put together - that don't have the lining (which doubles the work of sewing the body of the bag), for instance. I inherited from Robert a set of boring-looking but sturdy flannel sheets that would make a less attractive but utilitarian group of plain bags.

But not this week. I promised Robert that with the successful completion of this bag that I would pack up my sewing room today so we have more room to get the various packed boxes into it. The impending move is starting to feel very real to me now that all my kitchen stuff is boxed away, pictures are starting to come off the walls, etc.

Last night, I was so inspired by the Alice content on Facebook that I wanted to read some of it last night before bed, but realized that my Annotated Alice was already packed. (And since Robert was going to sleep in the same room as my computer, looking it up online, a much inferior substitute, was also a no-go.) But Robert came through with two old, slim volumes from, I believe, his grandfather's childhood.

Many of my favorites of the John Tenniel drawings are the Cheshire Cat ones, and I always grin myself when I see the picture that accompanies this amusing argument among the executioner, the King, and the Queen:

The cat confounds

"When she [Alice] got back to the Cheshire Cat, she was surprised to find quite a large crowd collected round it: there was a dispute going on between the executioner, the King, and the Queen, who were all talking at once, while all the rest were quite silent, and looked very uncomfortable.

The moment Alice appeared, she was appealed to by all three to settle the question, and they repeated their arguments to her, though, as they all spoke at once, she found it very hard indeed to make out exactly what they said.

The executioner's argument was, that you couldn't cut off a head unless there was a body to cut it off from: that he had never had to do such a thing before, and he wasn't going to begin at his time of life.

The King's argument was, that anything that had a head could be beheaded, and that you weren't to talk nonsense.

The Queen's argument was, that if something wasn't done about it in less than no time she'd have everybody executed, all round. (It was this last remark that had made the whole party look so grave and anxious.)"

I absolutely love the Cat, but as an adult with a good sense of impossible job situations, I do empathize with the poor executioner in this scene.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Scared of a What?

OK, you have to admit that it's pretty much insane to discover that the dog on my parents' block who is so terrorizing the mail carrier (even from inside the house, since the infernal creature throws itself at screen doors with insane fury) that she refuses to deliver the mail on the entire street until something is done with the beast is a...miniature dachshund.

A what?

I didn't even know that dachshunds came in yet smaller sizes.

He's a killer, that one

Upon hearing this news, Robert observed that the only time he has been attacked by a dog, it was a dachshund that bit him on the ear.

I was not clever enough at the time to pose the obvious question: "Did you bring it on yourself by badgering the little dog?"

Get it? Badgering? Wikipedia tells us: "The standard size was developed to scent, chase, and flush badgers and other burrow-dwelling animals, while the miniature was developed to hunt smaller prey, like rabbits."

Miniature dachshunds are rabbit killers?! I was willing to be amused by this whole situation until now, but with this additional information it becomes clear - that fucking dog has to die.

Joys of Apartment Rentalship

While packing in the kitchen yesterday afternoon/evening, I could not believe how warm I was getting, considering that the physical work involved wasn't that intense. Eventually, even Robert got over-heated and determined that the A/C was blowing warm air.

One phone call and well less than an hour later, some guy had come by, fixed the A/C, and left without any money exchanging hands.

We've also determined that the new-ish thermometer that was put in when the apartment complex put everyone on Austin Energy's programmable thermostat thing is, indeed, on crack. Setting Leo's clock/thermometer next to the thermostat, we found that Leo's indicated 87 degrees while the thermostat claimed it was 76. There is no freaking way it was 76. No wonder we found ourselves unable to continue leaving the thermostat at 79 when the new one was put in. And for extra screwedupness, the thermostat continued to read 76 as Leo's thermometer went down to 83, etc.

Leo himself spent the period of time when it was in the mid-to-high 80s in the apartment passed out (perhaps almost literally) underneath the futon. Poor bunny. We were quite happy that the A/C got fixed quickly and we didn't have to put Leo into T's bunny hotel for the night.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sleep, Eat

I'm on my third day of being underslept. Nothing major going on; just staying up too late and then waking up by 7:30 every morning. I think both the sunniness in the room and a sense of excitement towards my move are waking me up and making it difficult to go back to sleep. The pillow-over-the-head sunblock method works less well in these situations in which it is warm (like, you know, the 6 months of Texas summer) and I am feverish (as I have been, probably allergy-related). It occurs to me it would be the work of a moment to make an eyeshade from the super-comfy black fleece I have. Hmm. Oh, I am also dealing with pain that my dosing of Tylenol is not doing nearly enough to counteract but I am not yet willing to break out the big (prescription) drugs, and that can both wake me up and keep me awake.

Anyway, I have noticed that being underslept leads me to eat more calories. For me, this is not really about using snacking as a way of staying awake, though. It seems that I have a tendency to make poorer decisions (or exercise less willpower or however you want to couch that sort of thing that results in worse behaviors) and that I am physically hungrier. (The latter seems questionable, but I have read things that suggest it does occur on a physiological level.) Since I tend to eat more and yet exercise about the same amount on underslept days, this leads to a higher net calorie intake.

While lying in bed and not sleeping between 7:15 and 8:00 this morning, I thought about different strategies I might use to deal with this problem. Obviously, getting enough sleep is the easiest (in the sense of being the most direct approach and most straightforward to identify, not necessarily accomplish) and most important thing, but for those days that for whatever reason I did not do that, it would be helpful to have some ideas in place for avoiding eating much more than usual.

(1) Avoid Tempting Situations and Environments

This is a cornerstone for my eating style anyway, but it seems even more critical when I'm tired (and often have a headache as a result) and my judgment is impaired / my discipline is weak / I go with the most immediately attractive option. Eating at a restaurant (unless it falls under point 2 and does not tempt me to order an appetizer, dessert, etc.) or having any kind of hyperpalatable food could be even worse than usual. Mildly indulgent treats that I can generally handle eating on an irregular basis may be too difficult to deal with effectively. Being tired and hungry shouldn't be license to eat hedonically; I have to fight any sense that feeling somewhat bad physically means that I "deserve" to indulge in unhealthy food or any of that rot. Anyway, being genuinely hungry makes food taste better than usual, so I don't really need to eat that chocolate Chex Mix bar or stack of pancakes to tempt my appetite. (By the way, I am pancake-free since June.)

(2) Stick with the Familiar / Acceptable Foods

Eating things that have known calorie counts, selecting items that I have demonstrated are satisfying for their calorie cost, and just generally marshalling the behavioral power of habit in my favor seem like good ideas. My poor tired brain will be happier if I "indulge" in a bit of good mindless eating - having my normal breakfast; eating my typical foods that I don't have to gather information on, calculate calories on, and evaluate for reasonableness; taking the fact that I have finished a normal meal as a cue that it's time to stop eating rather than questioning whether I want to have more.

(3) Respect My Hunger in a Calorie-Wise Fashion

I don't see any point in trying to convince myself that I'm not as hungry as I think I am. This is hard when my brain is functioning well and my reason has a greater influence on my behavior, let alone when I am so tired and the hunger is "real" at a physical level. Among my familiar/acceptable options, it probably makes sense to look for the greatest fillingness-to-calorie ratio that is consistent with an adequate level of other sources of satisfaction (e.g. taste). I have room to downgrade my normal level of other satisfaction for a day or two and still remain in the acceptable range.

As every single person with any knowledge on the subject will say, vegetables are the king of filling foods. I have observed from my tracking of my food intake that the days I eat more vegetables, I do eat fewer calories without a hunger cost or a serious degration of eating satisfaction. (Eating more vegetables in lieu of other foods may lead to lower pleasure long-term - I haven't tried it personally or seen any data on the matter - but doesn't appear to make much of a difference to me over a couple of days.) This is obviously totally non-scientific, though it does have a sense of quasi natural experiment, since I often eat combinations of foods at meals that have been determined at a previous point in time and do not reflect as much as for most people what I want / am willing to eat at a given eating occasion. Some planned meals have more vegetables than others.

I have also noticed that for me, vegetable preparation method seems to make a difference. In order of fillingness-to-calorie ratio:

Steamed > Roasted > Raw

I have difficulty eating enough raw vegetables to make a difference unless (and sometimes even when) I eat them with salad dressing. I am somewhat better with raw cauliflower than other veg, but I don't usually have raw, cut-up cauliflower available since it's even better cooked, and there are some (like broccoli) that I won't eat raw at all. In practice, I find eating salad (or my favored relatively decadent blend of raw baby carrots, light ranch dressing, and salad toppins, which I tend to eat as a snack or as a second course to a meal) to be a way to get more veg in, which is good, but it's not a great calorie-controlling strategy for me. Raw veg is pretty easy and quick to fix, assuming you have the veg already on hand and are not committed to a salad/blend with a dozen different components. Baby cut carrots and packaged salad blends are the bomb, convenience-wise.

Roasted veg taste the best: I like the way that I season them (light coating of olive oil and herbs/spices - not bad on the added calorie front) and the roasting brings out the sweetness. I can eat roasted veg in large quantities because they are delicious and they are less volumetric than other veg, which is great from a nutrient perspective but not as much from a calorie perspective (esp. when I put something like white potato or sweet potato into the mix). This is also the least convenient of my methods because it requires much more advanced preparation to cut all the raw veg up and put them in the oven for 45 minutes.

A bag of frozen, microwavable steam-in-bag vegetables is the best for my purposes. You can buy a bunch and store them (esp. if you have a huge freezer like I do), preparation involves sticking bag in microwave and pushing a button, and they cook in less than 7 minutes (less than 1.5 if you do a single serving pouch). They turn out soft enough to be easy to eat, are perfectly dressed with a minimum of added calories (I always pepper, typically salt, and often add a small amount of Brummel and Brown), and are nicely volumetric. This can be a somewhat costlier option than buying fresh (non-organic) veg (and, yeah, means more trash in the form of the bag you cook them in), but I definitely feel that it's worth it.

I would like to reach the point where I can view a bowl of (lightly dressed) steamed veg as a reasonable snack / second course option as I do now with a bowl of fruit or carrots & salad dressing, but frankly, I find them much more attractive to be eaten as part of a meal - e.g. eaten along with a Boca chick'n patty and some basmati rice or along with a piece of casserole / one dish meal. I would thrilled if I could more often choose to turn three casserole servings into four and make up the volume with more vegetables. (The casserole usually contains veg already, of course, but not always).

Have you noticed the amount/quantity of sleep to affect your hunger level or eating habits? Do you have strategies that you use? How do you make vegetables more hedonically pleasing and/or a more habitual, go-to food?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Many Boxes

Last night, Robert and I bought a bunch of moving boxes (40+) for $50 from someone on Craigslist, a very sweet deal. The six wardrobe boxes alone would retail for more than that; the cheapest I have seen new is $8 per box. I don't know that I will need all of these boxes, but since Robert is moving also (to a smaller apartment closer to his job here in Austin if not NC immediately), I think it's a reasonable number.

Now most of the living room floor is covered with this huge stack of (broken-down) boxes. All I need is some bubblewrap and more boxing tape. I historically have hated packing, but it's been easier to think about and get started on this time; I suspect that the rush I'm getting from purging as I go has been a major motivator/reward. It's interesting that I have not experienced this merely as a sense of satisfaction driven by pragmatic concerns ("oh good, that's another set of stuff I won't have to deal with again in NC") but also the emotional state encapsulated in all those metaphors about lightness and freedom.

We'll see how I feel about it 20-something boxes from now.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Let's Get a Physical

Yesterday, I finally got my health information in the mail to the university. I had to get a physical and submit health insurance and vaccination history.

The physical was fine. They didn't discover a heart murmur or any other surprises. My vision with the current prescription seems a bit poor to me - 10/12.5 using both eyes but my left eye is 10/20. My BMI is below that magic number 22 (20-22 is the ideal range according to things I have been reading recently).

The problem came with drawing the blood. I told the woman doing it that I'm pretty phobic about it so I wasn't going to watch. She said OK. After she was done, though, I started feeling light-headed almost immediately and my vision did that television snow-static thing that happens right before I pass out. Before I actually did pass out, two nurses came in and helped me lie down on the floor with my legs elevated. After some length of time (several minutes, I think) during which I felt bad but was still conscious, I felt back to normal, got up, and continued with the physical without incident. It was weird because I have not had this happen before, and I hadn't been fasting before the appointment. About 3 different people told me that in the future I should have them situate me on the floor before drawing the blood, so I guess I will do that as a precaution.

Remember how I had that awful Tdap shot last year that made me so ill, but I figured it would at least fulfill any immunization requirements for grad school? It actually did work out that way, though it was a long road that required making 3 phone calls to the doctor's office (since it turned out that it wasn't my primary care doctor but my gynecologist who had given the shot), turning in paperwork, and sending them $15 for the record. But I call this cheap at the price since it meant not having to get a shot this month, while I am trying to get ready to move.

This week I have started packing using boxes we already had and some we picked up from someone on craigslist. I have also successfully consolidated my clothes so that I was able to move all the things that were in bins in the closet and my sweaters hanging in the closet into the chest of drawers. (I still have too much, but, eh.)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Rich People's Stuff

Jen linked to "The Story of Stuff," which is a pretty interesting video about the production/consumption/disposal process of the material economy. (And while I found the woman's presentation style a bit reminiscent of a kind of over-earnest 8th grade teacher, that's not necessarily a bad thing.) She makes good points about the amount of resources that goes into extraction of materials and the production of consumer goods - it's a lot.

As I watched, I waited for the inevitable - the image of consumption as something that occurs in a big Wal-Mart type store with underpaid workers who do not have employer-paid health care when people buy cheap stuff. It's irksome to me since this simply reinforces this self-protecting notion held by too many people with money that it's those other (poorer, fatter, stupider, generally less cool) people buying crappy junk at Wal-Mart that ruins the environment. Well, guess what Upper Middle Class Person with your expensive designer jeans, new car, new cell phone, and $3000 patio furniture: your crap stinks, too. The virtue or demerit of your consumption is not dictated by the quality or the price point of the objects you buy, the social desiribility of your fellow shoppers, or the education level of the person who sells it to you.

I think the video touches on this a bit, with the discussion of perceived obsolescence and fashion, but she talks about it in weird language: that people will be less valued since they are not contributing to the golden arrow of consumption. That is not what is going on in anybody's head when they see a person, say, in dorky, unfashionable clothes or carrying a clunky old cell phone. What teenager checks out a girl and says to her friend, "man, that chick is like totally not doing her part to keep the process of the material economy going"? They think, "that girl is uncool." And the fashion-as-obsolescence argument does not explain the situation of a person wearing last year's cool shoes, this year's cool shoes, or shoes that are just not ever really going to look cool. People judge others' material goods as a signal of (at a minimum) taste, up-to-dateness, and wealth. (That the wealth in question may exist only in the sense of having access to a credit card is not generally considered. If the person is black, it may be assumed that he or she has nice clothes and a nice car but lives in a hovel.)

She also finesses the leisure time issue by stating that "some" analysts say we have less leisure time now than at any point since feudal society. I am sure that there are "some" people who will say any damn thing, but that doesn't make it true. This claim goes against the data I have seen. I also totally have to call bullshit on her claim that the timing of peak happiness of the American people occurring in the 1950's must relate to the fact that that era was just as we turned into a nation of consumers. It is just as obvious (which is to say, not at all) that Americans have become less happy after the cultural upheaval of the civil rights movement in the mid-50's, but she ain't blaming Rosa Parks.

On a related note, I also must confess that I put little stock in the pronouncements of moneyed people who are in favor of internalizing some of the externalized costs of production in the form of fair trade, etc., because I have difficulty getting past the obvious truth that they can, you know, easily afford the higher price without it making much dent whatsoever in their actual consumption habits. It's easy to be in favor of things that are viewed as altruistic but that don't require any actual sacrifice. It seems to me (and I'm feeling my way toward this as I write) that for these people, money is less the scarce resource than is time, so to put their money where their mouth is (so to speak), I would need to see a higher expenditure (or willingness to spend) of time before I believe that they are willing to make sacrifices for these values of environmental protection, equity, and so on. Of course, some people who actually do have more limited incomes and budgets favor these things, too, and I am generally more convinced that their attitudes and behaviors say something meaningful about their values.

You know what I would like to see? More people with this general sustainability value orientation saying and living the message: "It's good to do things that are good for the environment/your fellow man even if they could possibly make you appear to be cheap or poor." Perhaps it's Operation Cheap Ass that has made it so salient to me that many people only want to do the kinds of things that are not available to a person of little means. Is this because they are motivated by impression management concerns and want to unambiguously signal that the purchase/action is about their ecological values (and definitely not about being poor)? Or in part because it's a lot more fun and socially and personally desirable to buy a new green product than to buy a second-hand product or just keep using the one you already have, so if you have the money, why not? (And hey, nobody else sees all that stuff you put in the trash, thereby tarnishing your green credibility.) The most environmentally-friendly purchase you make is often going to be the one you don't make at all.

...Oh, and on the note about Wal-Mart and the health insurance issue: I was amused to note recently that this company simply cannot get a break no matter what they do. The Economist notes in an article about health care reform: "So it came as a shock when Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer and bete noire of the political left, sent a letter to the White House on June 30th supporting an employer mandate (if accompanied by cost-control measures). Cynics pointed out that Wal-Mart pays more for employee health cover than weaker or stingier rivals, so any such mandate would raise costs for its competition." Actually, I think the employer mandate is a horrible idea. We need insurance to be less dependent on employment, not more.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Mondrian

OK, that sounds like the name of a mid-priced Washington, D.C. hotel, but it's actually the realization of my vision of a Mondrian-influenced color block shirt, which I will now describe in semi-excruciating detail.

Step 1: Design

I had a very clear view of what I wanted the completed shirt to look like, so I quickly drew it up in crayon.

A collector's item in its own right, no doubt

Step 2: Selecting materials

I had two freebie t-shirts to incorporate: a black one from a grad school that accepted me but which I chose not to attend (and pay for) and a white one from a previous employer, which was very large and only had a small logo on the front. The red and blue were harder to find. I decided to use a long-sleeved red shirt made from a very soft red knit that I rarely wear and another soft blue knit shirt that came with a pajama set but that always felt a little bit too short for my taste anyway. I washed and dried them all to ensure that they had already done whatever shrinking they had in them. So yeah, I intended to turn four shirts into one with this project. Since I already own too many shirts, this was arguably a good thing.

Initially, I had thought to only do the block design on the front and have a solid black back; however, I didn't have nearly enough fabric for this, so I decided to do the same design on the back only mirror-image flipped so the red pieces touched, etc.

All four one, one four all

Step 3: Making the pattern

On a piece of newspaper, I traced around my model tank. I then put on the model and experimented with folding and placing a vertical band of dark fabric against myself to select the desired width and positioning of the vertical black stripe. I liked the 1.5" width and marked the position on the model with pins. I transferred the positioning onto the pattern, then drew in the top stripe to divide the shirt in half and the bottom stripe to divide it 3/4 to 1/4. I took measurements of the length of the various stripes.

Step 4: Cutting the pieces and making the design

I intentionally cut all the fabric pieces (14 total) larger than I needed to give me room for error. Then I sewed them together to create two large patchwork pieces. This was fairly time-consuming but not too challenging. I started by sewing together the blue and black for the top of the shirt. I then measured the black to 1.5" and ironed in a crease. I marked the crease with a white quilter's crayon (that doesn't show up as easily as tailor's chalk, but is less messy) then sewed the white piece to it.

Ooh, an action shot

I did the same on the bottom, then added both pieces to the middle black stripe, creating a single large "piece." I made two of these large pieces to be the new fabric from which to cut out the pattern.

Yep, it's kind of huge

Step 5: Cutting the pattern and sewing the shirt

I lined up the two pieces of fabric so the design matched perfectly, then traced and cut around the model tank, making sure the stripe corresponded to the area marked with pins on the model. Because my model shirt is at least one generation removed from the original storebought shirt it is based on, I had noticed last time I used it that it was slightly different on one side from the other. So this time, I folded the fabric and the model in half and cut through four layers of fabric so that there would be lateral symmetry.

Then it was a reasonably simple matter of sewing the shirt as usual, but with one problem that arose from my decision that I needed to do a foldover hem to maintain the purity of the design. (In other words, it wouldn't do to add a separate band of fabric at the neck, arms, or bottom.) I chose to do these hems all in white thread.

I alluded earlier to the two "t-shirt" knits and the two "soft" knits. I have previously been using t-shirt knits of the typical Hefty T fabric, which is tighter and sturdier than these soft knits. Thankfully, I was sensible enough to realize this might pose difficulties. When I tested stitching on a piece of the soft blue knit, mimicking a hem job, using the normal "stretch stitch" caused the fabric to become wavy. Using a normal stitch was better, but the fabric was still not sturdy enough to avoid the waviness problem.

However, I pretty quickly had an idea - using a piece of very sturdy woven fabric "inside" the hem. I cut a narrow strip so that it would go between the two layers of knit fabric on the inside; sewing on this caused much less waviness, though it was still a bit different from the look of the stitches on the t-shirt fabric. It looked good enough, so I proceeded to use the woven fabric for the blue section of the neckline and the blue arm. I was less concerned about the red knit since the only hemline would be hanging down.

Once the shirt was made up, I tried it on and was disappointed that I had made it too wide in places; the folding of the fabric made it so thick I was not able to get as close to the model as I would have liked. So I laid out the shirt inside out, put the model on top, and drew in stitch lines along the sides with a blue quilter's pen. This is really the first time I have made use of the crayon and pen, and god, it's so useful. I was able to bring in the sides of the shirt by stitching right along the line I'd drawn instead of having to remember / fake it. I admit, I had been sort of scared of the pen, but the ink washed out immediately on contact with water, as the packaging promised it would.

Step 6: Modeling the Mondrian

So, here we have it. The front view:

It was hard to make myself stand at all straight

Also side views, where you can see that I was successful in lining up the front and back to match almost perfectly:

Lots of red here

Robert's becoming a fashion photographer

I have to admit that I am basically insanely proud of this project, and not just because it demonstrated that I was able to design something I think is very attractive and execute it with a reasonable level of accuracy and competence. (I don't think anyone would mistake this for couture, but neither does it look obviously homemade by an utterly unskilled 8th grade home ec student.) I am learning patience, care (measure twice, cut once), how to use my tools, and an ability to anticipate and solve problems without freaking out.

And the shirt looks damn smart. If it weren't already mine, I would want it, bad. The shape might look purer on someone with a Twiggier figure than mine, but I don't care. This is probably the last t-shirt refashion I'll be making for a while.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Birthday Party Reflection

Having a nasty headache and not being able to eat the strawberries because the 15 of them were covered in, I swear, at least 1.5 cups of repulsively over-sweetened brandy sauce (which La Madeleine calls their "signature brandy sour cream sauce") was not much fun, but it could have been worse: I could have been the person going home with an Electronic Yodelling Pickle that has the appearance of a vibrator but little of the functionality.

Insert your own sex joke here. You know you have one. Or 69.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Microwave Oven

(It's important that you read the title as the line from Dire Strait's "Money for Nothing." This is a significant cultural touchstone for us MTV brats.)

One sort of odd thing my new apartment doesn't have is a built-in microwave oven. The newer property owned by the same company does, but not the complex I am going to be living in. I got very spoiled having the microwave in this apartment that is over the stove and doesn't take up counter space (though this kitchen has counter space to spare, really).

Fortunately, I never actually managed to do anything with my old microwave that I had in my previous apartment and that has been riding in the trunk of my car for, like, years now. I mean, several years. It's pretty much insane, but yeah, an amazing percentage of my total trunk space has been used to store an unnecessary kitchen appliance.

Today, we got the microwave out of the trunk and tried it out. It appears to still be in good working condition, so I already have a microwave for my new apartment. While I'm kind of chuffed not to have to purchase a new one, at the same time, it's completely stupid that I still have the thing. It's just a normal microwave.

I seriously do not recommend that you try this yourself because even when holding on to some old thing like this ends up working in your favor, which is rare enough, it still makes you feel like an idiot.

Surprisingly, it hasn't been in the trunk because I planned to give it away at Goodwill and was too lazy to ever go there. Or at least, that wasn't the case at first. Initially, I had intended to take it into my office at my job I quit two years ago because the microwave in our area had died. But I was too lazy to bring it up from the car into the office for a while and somebody purchased and brought in a newer, fancier microwave.

What's the weirdest thing that ever lived in your car for a silly length of time?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Final US Stamp Book

I have spent the last few days getting my US stamp collection into shape, and it has taken a lot more time than I had expected. But I'm glad to report that my stamp book is now finalized. I have the pages through 2007, at which point my book officially ends. While I am still interested in filling in the missing stamps, I do not plan to continue collecting stamps of a vintage past 2007 (I already have a few that I have put on blank pages at the end of the book and can add to this), and in general, will not be actively seeking out the stamps I do not have, though obviously I will be happy to add in missing stamps when it's easy to do so. I have always been especially fond of collecting stamps that I (or someone I know) has gotten in the mail as actual postage.

Like many collectors, I long ago gave up on the idea of purchasing new US stamps each year as they are released. This was doable for a time, but with the ridiculous increase in the number of stamp releases each year, it became too expensive a proposition. It has been many years since I even bothered purchasing from the post office a selective subset of the available stamps for collection purposes because there are just too damn many.

I estimated the number of different stamps released each year by looking at the number of fillable spaces for individual stamps in my stamp book. Note that this may not reflect what most people think of as being "different stamps" because a single stamp design may be issued in multiple ways, all of which a person needs to collect in order for their collection to be complete. In recent years, one normal-looking flag stamp may come in nearly a dozen different flavors based on the number of perforations on the side of the stamp, booklet versus sheet versus single stamp, etc.

I was rather pissed when I realized that the 2002 "Greetings from [State]" series came out that year in both 34 and 37 cent versions. So that was 100 stamps right there.

I know the Internet has been hard on the postal service revenues, and it's natural that they would turn toward the idea of making more money off collectors, who will not, after all, even be requiring them to make good on the promise to ship stuff across the country. But we're bordering on Duchy of Grand Fenwick territory here.

All this being said, I really do wish I had the Star Wars stamps. That souvenir sheet is pretty cool-looking.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Robert's Closet: Soda Cans

The first time I visited Robert at his mother's house, I went to the fridge for a Dr Pepper, started to drink it, and was surprised by how good it tasted. This was an odd sensation, since I drank DP regularly at that time, but I figured I must have really been in the mood for a soda or something. Whatever, I drank it straight down.

Turns out I had accidentally taken Robert's last (I think it was the very last) can of highly-prized and difficult-to-acquire Dublin Dr Pepper, made from pure cane sugar instead of corn syrup. He had been holding on to this glorious elixir for some time, waiting for the right moment to quaff it, as one might save a spectacular wine for a special occasion.

Somehow, our relationship survived this event.

I love the DP Fat Cat

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Not My Kind of Saturday

A couple of days ago, I abandoned Ian McEwan's Saturday on page 57. I simply couldn't stomach the idea of spending a day in the life of the neurosurgeon protagonist and his lawyer wife, his high school dropout but brilliant jazz musician 18-year-old son, and his early-20's poet daughter whose upcoming first book has already been described as "rapturous" or some such rot. The hero is obviously very intelligent but the internal dialogue of this guy is just...boring. The Iraq War angle promised to be very boring. The son was dull in the extreme. The wife was lying there asleep, but when she woke up, snooze.

I liked reading the 1-star Amazon reviews to find out that this tedium is momentarily relieved by a ridiculous scene with a criminal: "His manipulation of the scene in which the neurosurgeon, completely unbelievably, is able to control a potentially dangerous individual by diagnosing him with a congenital disease at the scene of the accident, simply by observing his hand tremors, is simply not plausible." Move over, House! (I've never actually seen House, but this sort of deductive work is in line with my perception of the character.)

And wait, in between the chapters of seemingly endless rumination, there's another scene with a criminal: "I cared even less when the lead hood makes the daughter strip naked by holding a knife to the mother. He then (and this is rich) orders the daughter to read aloud from her recently-published book of poetry, and when she does, the miscreant is so overwhelmed by its profound beauty and truth, that he decides not to ransack the home! Ah! The power of poetry!" WTF? It's even sillier given that the only glimpse of her poetry that I saw in the first 57 pages was pretty unimpressive (e.g. describing some lover's penis as an "excited watering can") and that this book is not intended to be satirical.

When I saw the opening quote of the book was from Saul Bellow's Herzog, I should have known this book wouldn't do it for me.

But on the Sally-Fiction Watch: Sally appears on page 5 in the form of one of his two neurosurgical registrars (who we do not meet, of course, but is noted in the context of an interminable description of surgical procedures).

(Note: Amazon is now recommending I buy a book on materials science, All New Square Foot Gardening, and a Vegetarian Times Mexican cookbook. Hmmm. At least it's not a pre-order recommendation for Sunday, the even slower and more boring sequel.)

Sesame Noodles

I liked this recipe, which I believe should be vegan-friendly if made with tofu.

Sesame Noodles
Adapted from Nutrition Action Newsletter, June 2008

14.5 oz whole wheat spaghetti
1 T. sesame oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
¼ t. ground ginger (or use fresh ginger root)
3 T. balsamic vinegar
6 T. low sodium soy sauce
3 T. brown sugar
1 T. canola oil
19 oz. raw chicken breast, cut into bite-sized chunks
(or: 14 oz. extra-firm tofu, drained)
4 scallions, sliced
Red pepper flakes, to taste
½ c. peanut butter
1 bag fresh broccoli florets
4 c. shredded romaine lettuce

1. Cook spaghetti until firm; retain 1/3 c. pasta water. Toss pasta with sesame oil.

2. Mix garlic, ginger, vinegar, soy sauce, and brown sugar.

3. Heat canola oil in large non-stick skillet. Cook chicken chunks; add scallions and pepper flakes at the end of cooking time.

4. (If using tofu, slice tofu into 6 slabs, then cut diagonally to make 12 triangles. Blot with paper towel. Heat canola oil in large non-stick skillet over medium heat. Sauté tofu until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Turn tofu over and add 3 T. of soy sauce mixture to span. Sauté until sauce is absorbed; add scallions and pepper flakes at the end of cooking time.)

5. Remove chicken (or tofu) and sauté broccoli florets.

6. Whisk peanut butter and pasta water into soy sauce mixture.

7. Stack on plate: lettuce, pasta, chicken/tofu, broccoli, and sauce.

Serves 6.

Calories per serving for chicken version: 425


Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Not Just a Shirt This Time

But I am going to start with a shirt. This is (I think) going to be the penultimate t-shirt refashion with my current stash. I still have one doozy of a refashion planned that I have not yet worked out in sufficient detail to execute.

I started with two men's polo shirts of the same kind of fabric knit: a black one from my stint at the Colorado State program and a greyish-olive one of Robert's that had developed a hole next to the buttons. Since neither one had enough usable fabric to make a shirt on its own, I combined the two using a block style since I can't get enough of that mod era-ish look:

Fade against background
The greenish part is only on the front; the back is entirely black. I like how it works when wearing black shorts (or pants or skirt). Because the shirts were not very wide, I added vents to the bottom yet again. I also added darts for better fit.

Obligatory boob shot?
Now for something a bit different. Some time ago, I had purchased a set of acrylic coasters to put cocktail napkins in. Robert's grandmother always had these in her house and I liked the way that she used different napkin designs seasonally, etc. I purchased a few sets of napkins at the same time as the coasters. However, I went through those napkins relatively quickly and hadn't seen more to buy, nor did I really want to, since it seemed rather wasteful to be going through paper napkins this way.

Then I realized: duh, I could sew cocktail napkin inserts for these coasters instead. Not only is this much more environmentally friendly (since I will be recycling fabric and then washing the inserts instead of trashing them), it's much cheaper, allows me to make good use of fabric scraps, and (theoretically) could give me the chance to do something more creative than make a "which set of napkins am I going to buy" decision.

So this afternoon, I whipped up a set of inserts as proof of concept. I made these extremely plain - matching top and bottom fabric, sewn right sides together, turned right-side out (like an empty pillow), then top stitched around the edge (in part to close the opening) in white. Iron flat and insert in coaster. Voila! A set of 6 super-blurry fabric coasters! (Which had already been scattered throughout the house by the time I saw how bad this photo turned out.) I didn't make the effort required to ensure that each insert was very square, but inside the coasters, it doesn't matter.

Psychedelic, dude

The provenance of the fabric, from top left:

* Swirly blue and purple - from Wal-Mart $1 rack; still have a yard of it

* Grey and black plaid - shirt of Robert's, damaged; used for the trim on the black linen pants-to-skirt refashion

* Pink and purple batik - the first pants I sewed myself in about 1990 (my sister the future engineer had to help me figure out how the pockets were attached)

* Green with pink splotches - leftover Wal-Mart fabric from making pants

* Hot pink with dots - also leftover Wal-Mart fabric from making pants

* Grey and green plaid - men's shirt purchased from the Harold's annual sale circa 1989; later given to Robert until he wore it out in places

I have now also tested the coasters for absorbency and they work very well. Much better than the set of black plastic coasters I bought at Target many years ago and continue to use despite the fact that the condensation just pools on the plastic and drips off the end of the glass when you pick it up, splattering you and everything around you. (I don't know about you, but my two-bedroom apartment requires approximately 3,105 coasters to ensure that there will always be one available when and where I need it.)

I plan to buy more of these holders, sew more inserts, and get rid of the stupid non-absorbing coasters that I own. I look forward to playing with the design of the inserts. Likely choices: patchwork designs, Christmas fabric.

Oh. My. God.

Tim Burton is making an Alice in Wonderland movie, coming out next spring.

I am dying.

...He better not screw this up.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Camo T-Shirt

I wanted to do another of the shirts with the v-neck band across the front, but I have run out of t-shirts large enough for the pattern to fit while avoiding undesirable logos. I did, however, have two camo Expo t-shirts of identical camo design (Mossy Oaks Forest Floor) with enough fabric between them. I was able to fit the large front pattern piece on the largest clear area of one of the shirts, but not the back pattern piece, so I sewed two pieces of fabric together (top and bottom, not side by side) and cut the back from that. I also didn't have any good fabric for the contrasting bands, so, in the spirit of camo, I made the bands from the same fabric.

And because I have more than enough sleeveless shirts already, I decided to try the short-sleeved version. I also modified the pattern to add an extra inch of fabric at the waistline. That worked great, but I cut the shirt too long and had to put in my own hem - not a big deal, but more work.

Tada! (Sorry for the blurry photo)

Yes, I am ready for fall

It wasn't until I was completely done with the shirt that I noticed something that slayed me:

Can't believe I positioned the weird sleeves correctly
I don't know how well you can tell, but by utter accident (or fate), the seam on the back where I sewed the two pieces of fabric together lines up perfectly with the edge of the sleeve just before the cuff. I think this makes my cobbled-together version actually spiffier than if I had cut the back from a single piece of fabric.

Overall, I like how the different pieces of camo look sewn together. It's subtle but visually interesting. Of course, this is genuinely the best woodland birding shirt I have.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Volunteer "Muslin"

In dressmaking, a "muslin" is a practice garment, generally made out of inexpensive fabric (sometimes actually muslin, a cotton fabric), in which a person tests and adjusts the pattern to achieve a good/perfect fit prior to making the real garment out of costlier fabric.

A few years ago, I bought a t-shirt pattern (New Look 6405) with the idea that I could use it to upcycle some of the too-large shirts I have to refashion, but somehow, I never quite had the combination of confidence and willingness to put in the time to try it (working with a pattern is more time-consuming than my super-easy trace-and-sew method). Now that I have more experience working with knits, I decided to test-drive the pattern on a shirt I cared very little about - a free, cream-and-black XL volunteer t-shirt from Expo.

I diverged from the pattern immediately by lengthening the shirt and making use of the already-existent t-shirt hem. I used part of the remainder of that hard-working black knit jacket to make the contrasting bands. The pattern was not hard to follow except for one step that did the instructions did not make sense to me (attaching the two front pieces). However, I am so used to having to figure out how to put stuff together without a pattern that it was easy for me to simply determine what the step needed to accomplish and then do it. This was totally successful.

Overall, I was pleased with the result.

Not enough fabric to jettison the front logo

Next time, I might lengthen the shirt differently, though. This time, I just added to the bottom of the shirt, but really, I probably could stand to add length at both the bottom and the torso, since the narrowest point of the shirt hits me a bit higher than my body's thinnest spot. But this is a minor issue. The fit is very good if not perfect. I used the US Standard Size 16 pattern and found no need to adjust any of the other dimensions since I didn't want the shirt as tight as it might have been. I prefer the shirts to be fitted, but not tight, if you get what I mean.

I learned a couple of things from using this pattern:

(1) As you might expect, the front and back pieces were not exactly the same. The back was a bit smaller and was eased to fit (stretched a small amount) when sewing it to the front. This makes sense given that the front is where all the action is, volume-wise.

(2) The bands were also a bit smaller than the openings and eased to fit when attaching. I would definitely have simply cut the bands to be the very same size. I think their method probably does do a better job of keeping the bands taut.

(3) Top-stitching (the row of stitches added to the cream fabric just below where it attaches to the black bands) does look good.

In the back, to make use of the existing hem, I sacrificed some of the t-shirt logo, but I actually sort of like it. Perhaps there's something goofy feeling about making too professional-looking a shirt out of a stupid event t-shirt and this sort of slapdash, homemade element feels funkier. Or maybe I'm just making the best of the situation, I don't know.

Am I in prayer or what

I would love to make a long-sleeved version of the shirt, but don't have anything like the necessary fabric. Even with more t-shirts, I may have to settle for a Frankenshirt (that's my term for an item made from bits of many other items) unless I find a source of cheap knit fabric. But all in good time. I still have other shirts to use or lose this month and I cannot justify buying anything new (fabric or patterns) until I get through this (increasingly smaller) stash.

But when I am in the market for stuff, I look forward to spending time on some of the pattern review sites, which I've never done before. I really liked seeing what other people did with this pattern, and the variation in body shapes would give me a better feel for what the final product might look like. The skinny-minnies on the pattern cover (photographed or drawn) are certainly not very representative of my body shape.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

US Standard Sizes vs. Today's Sizes

To follow up the earlier post about larger sizes, if you go toward the bottom of this page, headed "US Standard Sizes: (sort of a rant.)," there is a comparison of US standard sizes and today's (2004) catalog or "real" sizes for women (misses) that Robert sent me.

There is a chart showing standard sizes (which used to cover both clothes bought in stores as well as pattern sizes but is now only seen on patterns) and what that size would be today. So we can see that the old "Marilyn Monroe wore a size 12" story is actually saying that if M. M. were alive today, she would wear a size 6. OK, that's not an ultra-tiny size, but it's small. As anyone would be able to tell from looking at the damn photos of her, M. M. was not a fat woman by the standards of the 1960's or the 2000's.

Sorry, I feel the need to emphatically reject that idiotic chestnut about M. M.'s size at every available opportunity.

Pursuant to Jen's observation, this means that the "size 16" that Ann Taylor is eliminating from stores is a standard size 18-20.

Sally's Closet: Sonic Menu

While I was working there, our local Sonic franchise replaced their signs at the drive-in spots, and for whatever reason, I kept one of the old ones.

Tater tots + mustard = yum
What's most surprising to me looking at this menu now is remembering the era before every fast-food chain in the world organized their menu around the combo meal concept. This sign dates to some time before 1992, I expect.

Huh, I didn't know that the original Sonic Drive-In was in Stillwater, OK.