Thursday, December 13, 2012

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Bit of Cold Weather Birding

From The Big Year, this is Al Levantin's (Steve Martin in the movie) experience in 1998 at the same location Robert and I went to this past weekend for my birthday.

He kept telling Ethel [his wife], there are a few birds that usually live in the Arctic, but drop into northern Minnesota in January.  Duluth for these birds was like a Caribbean cruise for people -- a midwinter change of scenery with decidedly warmer weather.  Big Year birders who didn't score these species in Minnesota would have to bushwhack for them in northern Canada sometime in summer.  Chasing them now meant you didn't have to battle the mosquitos.

He flew to Minneapolis -- finally, a birding hot spot with a direct flight from Aspen -- and drove north.  He hardly had the heart to tell his wife that he wasn't really aiming for Duluth.  That was just a city most people had heard of.  His true destination was another forty-five miles northwest of Duluth.  Officially, this place had no name; even the roads had only numbers.  But by driving Highway 53 to County Road 232 and then looping up 7, 28, 788, and 213, Levantin would be on cherished ground -- the place birders called Sax-Zim Bog....

By the end of his time in Sax-Zim, he had accumulated whole shot glasses full of stories.  He lucked into the Arctic's two toughest dainty birds, the sparrowlike common and hoary redpolls, gorging themselves at feeders in someone's backyard by a frozen lake.  He found a snowy owl camouflaged on the jammed ice and drifted snow of Duluth harbor.  Mostly unlikely of all, though, was the way he scored his great gray owl.  The elusive flat-faced nemesis of so many accomplished birders, the great gray owl stared at Levantin with brilliant yellow eyes atop an electric pole in the frozen bog flanking the road from Sax (a wide spot in the road discovered by Rand McNally's mapmakers) and Zim (no McNally).

So how did our trip compare?

Standing in the 11 degree cold, checking out the first bird feeder, we immediately saw the common redpoll (which was the bird we had been looking for in our last local outing, when we saw the crossbills instead).  So within minutes of hitting Sax-Zim, I got my ABA Life Bird #500.  

The tough-ass common redpoll (image from National Geographic)

Robert got #500 when a big, head-less, sort of mountain-shaped lump detached itself from a tree and sprouted massive wings.  Not just long, like a bald eagle, but but deep, too -- giant wings.  Thus were we spared the fate of "so many accomplished birders" who do not get the great gray owl... including, ironically, Sandy Komito (Owen Wilson in the movie) during his 1998 Big Year.

'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through Duluth, not a creature was stirring -- except for Sandy Komito.  He was wrapped in frustration.  From an hour before dawn to an hour after sunset, he had driven every road and glassed every tree in the Sax-Zim Bog, but he still couldn't find his great gray owl.  It was the only breeding bird of North America that still eluded him.  Wile E. Coyote and the roadrunner had nothing on Komito and his great gray owl.  He had chased it on nine different trips this year -- Minnesota in March, June, November, and two tries in December....

(Though Komito apparently is now convinced, after seeing more flying great grays, that he did see a flying great gray owl on that trip, but he still does not officially count it on his list for his Big Year.)

At a later feeder, we saw a couple of hoary redpolls mixed in with the common redpolls (and they were easier to differentiate than we expected, with brighter white chests and unstreaked white rumps) as well as the boreal chickadee, bringing my list to 503 by the end of the day.  (We also saw some birds that we had previously only seen in the Rocky Mountains, such as pine grosbeaks and gray jays; it's always a pleasure to see birds in a new location.)

So as Robert put it, Happy Bird-day to me!  Annoyingly, however, the two bird species chosen by the ABA for the 500 pins are birds I have not seen -- the northern jacana and the swallow-tailed kite.  Hmm.

Am I already thinking about 600?  You bet.

Note: I almost forgot to say, Yes, unlike Al Levantin, we did not see a snowy owl.  The snowy owl remains our nemesis!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Southeast Arizona Birding Wrap-up

I am not going to bury the lede:  We saw the trogon!

The day started unpromisingly.  It was a bit chilly and quite cloudy/foggy and there was not much bird activity.  And when we did see birds, it was very difficult to perceive any field marks; the lack of sunlight made them all look somewhat hazy and grey.  We abandoned our first location fairly quickly and went to the Nature Conservancy property where the trogon had been seen.  (We went to the other location first mostly because we were waiting for the NC place to open for visitors.)  We got pretty lucky to see a painted redstart; even though it was somewhat hard to see, silhouetted against the sky, the coloration is bright and unmistakeable.

Painted redstart (photo from Cornell Lab)

The trail up the mountainside did not yield many birds, but a Townsend's warbler landed in a tree perhaps 2 feet from my nose.  (And I was amused to notice how my Austin-based birding experience means that all of the warblers with striking yellow and black face coloration are "those ones that look kind of like a golden-cheeked warbler."  Having the golden-cheeked warbler as the reference bird for this category must be quite uncommon, given that it's an endangered species that lives only in mixed ashe-juniper and oak woodlands of central Texas.)

Townsend's warbler (photo from Cornell Lab)

Once the weather started warming up, the birds and birders became more active.  We fell in among a small flock of people who were looking at a bird that Robert identified for them as a band-tailed pigeon, immediately establishing himself as the group's Bird Guru.  I talked to an older man who had talked to a woman who had seen the elegant trogon earlier in the day.  A while after this man left the flock, and as the rest of us were looking over a tree full of yellow-rumped warblers in the hope of finding something else, I heard the sound of his distinctive voice from further down the trail.  I thought, He must have the trogon!, so Robert and I moved as quickly toward him as is consistent with not scaring the fuck out of every bird on the reserve. 

And indeed, he had the trogon, who was exceptionally cooperative, giving us great, clear views of himself both in the trees and flying about.  I turned to Robert to suggest that he get the rest of our flock to see this magnificent bird, but he was already halfway back down the trail to get them. Everybody ooohed and aaahed over the bird, and the older man got a really nice photo using his tiny point-and-shoot camera. 

Elegant trogon (photo from Wikipedia)

And thus did the elegant trogon lose its "nemesis bird" status in a big way.

The next day, it rained all morning but we managed to see a lot of birds at and around the bird feeders at San Pedro House, including a new sparrow - Baird's sparrow.

Baird's sparrow (photo from Cornell Lab)

I left Arizona with 498 species, not quite making the goal of 500, but within range of it.  We saw 18 life birds in Arizona, and 88 species altogether.  A quite satisfactory outcome.

During our trip, I was particularly sensitized to bill shape for some reason, which was helpful in sorting out the thrashers we saw.  There were several new species of thrashers available to us in SE Arizona, but unfortunately we kept seeing our old friend the curve-billed thrasher.

I was also struck by the variations of red on the various birds we saw.  The breast of the trogon glowed brightly red.  The vermilion flycatcher gleamed with an orange-red brilliance.  The wet, fluffed up feathers of the pyrrhuloxia made them look like whitish-grey birds with rosy red wounds on their chests.

A couple weeks after our trip, Robert and I went to a local nature reserve where common redpolls had been seen.  We did not see the redpolls.  We saw something even better: white-winged crossbills, bringing me up to 499 species.

This weekend, we are headed a few hours north of home in the hopes of seeing some of the birds of the boreal forest.  Come on, one more new species!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Arizona Birds

We have now been in southeastern Arizona for 4 days and are making progress toward our goal of reaching 500 ABA area species.  We spent the first 3 days in the Tucson area.  On day 1, we went to a kind of zoo/outdoor museum that had many animal exhibits, aviaries, and also a lot of wild birds on the premises (which consisted of hot Sonoran desert).  In addition to new birds, we watched a free flight raptor show (similar to what we saw at the Vogelpark that time) in which we learned about the group hunting techniques of Robert's favorite bird, the Harris's hawk.  For example, apparently rabbits (desert cottontails) like to hide underneath the prickly pear in the desert, where the hawks can't reach them, but the Harris's hawks work together -- one bird (the low bird in the hierarchy, a male; there is only one female in each group and she's large [30% larger than the males] and in charge) will stretch his scary leg and talon under the cactus, scaring the rabbit out of his hiding place, where another hawk will nab him.  (Thankfully we did not see this occur.)  A docent also had a big brown female tarantula to show us (which the docent carefully induced to climb onto her hand) and explained that females are brown and males are black, and that the males are usually the ones we see, wandering around searching for a mate, while the females tend to stay in cool comfort.  So the black tarantula my mom hit with the garage door that time, and that I took to school as my one-day pet, was a male.

Life Birds Day 1:
Gilded flicker
Gila woodpecker
Cassin's sparrow (for Robert, who missed this species on our last South Texas trip)

On day 2, we drove up a mountain, stopping every few miles to hike and look for birds. 

Life Birds Day 2:
Black-chinned sparrow
Yellow-eyed junco
Acorn woodpecker

The acorn woodpecker just looks weirder the longer I look at him.  (Photo from Cornell Lab.)

On day 3, we went hiking at a park in a canyon, and I was miserable at the beginning with a headache, stomach ache, generalized body ache, and the feeling of having breathed in half the dust/sand in the fricking desert over the previous few days.  (I was feeling so weak and achy that I literally had difficulty getting out of the car.)  But perhaps 20 minutes into our hike, I saw a shape moving under a prickly pear from the corner of my eye and before I could even think about whether it made sense or not, I thought: A bunny!  And it was a bunny, a desert cottontail, hunkered down under a prickly pear cactus just as we'd heard about at the bird show.  This cheered me up a lot.  Indeed, we ended up seeing 2 more rabbits on our hike, one under another prickly pear and one running along the ground with his white tail flashing at us.  A 3 rabbit day is a very good day.  (Of course, the tylenol I took soon after we got started probably contributed to my improvement as well, but I credit the bunnies with a lot.)  We also saw a big group of javelina - about 6 adults, 2 adolescents, and 2 very young ones.  The littlest one at the end of the line got himself (or herself - I don't know the sex) caught inbetween two rocks (that were bigger than he was) and he made a pitiful sound of distress.  His only slightly bigger sibling turned to him and started nudging at him, which did not have any effect on his ability to get out of trouble but it seemed supportive and comforting, and then mom came over and helped him out.  I was still feeling sort of crappy when we left, but a stop at a McDonald’s for a $1 large, very cold iced tea (caffeinated) did me a world of good.

Life Birds Day 3:
Black-tailed gnatcatcher (a bird we hoped to see on every South Texas trip but never did)
Magnificent hummingbird
Abert’s towhee

Yesterday we left the Tucson area and made our way southeast.  Today we hiked up a mountain covered in dry grass and scrub trees that made dreary west Austin hikes seem positively verdant in comparison.  About 3 minutes after I complained that it was hot and kind of horrible (we reached an altitude of about 6000 feet, so there was a hint of altitude sickness along with everything else), we started seeing birds.  Mom, you might want to avert your eyes – we also saw a rather small male tarantula that I was so tempted to try to pick up but was able to resist.  Afterwards, we stopped at a B&B where the owner has a bunch of feeders and spent about an hour and a half watching all kinds of birds (and squirrels and the owner's two pet African grey parrots) flying, squabbling, and being crazy.  We did not pick up any new birds there, but we got our first Anna's hummingbird of the trip, and it was extremely pleasant to sit in the shade and watch the birds close up.  We had a picnic lunch, and all was great until I put my hand down on the bench beside me and felt this sudden extremely sharp pain which I described to Robert in my acute distress as "it hurts like a motherfuck."  When I looked at my finger, I expected to see a bug biting it but instead there was just some sharp thing sticking out of it.  Oh.  It's a bee sting.  I've never been stung by a bee before (to my recollection) and now I get why people (and Winnie the Pooh, et al.) make a point of avoiding it.  After the application of Sting-Eze to my finger and the consumption of a seriously extravagant amount of dark chocolate at the hotel, I started feeling okay again.

Life Birds Day 4:
Rufous-winged sparrow
Mexican jay (Dad would like this one - large, vocal, and easy to see)
Bridled titmouse (this one freaked me out when I saw its head)
Arizona woodpecker
Sage sparrow

Look at my fancy heat! (Photo from Cornell Lab.)

 This brings me up to an ABA area list of 494 (as we can best reckon it without access to my birding journal).  Tomorrow we’re going to a place where a bunch of interesting birds were seen on Monday, including a nemesis bird, the elegant trogon.  (This place is closed on Tuesday and Wednesday, so we can only hope that the birds decided to stick around.)  Although it seems doubtful we will reach 500 by the time we leave Arizona on Saturday, we should be well-positioned to make it on our next outing into new territory (or if we ever figure out how to find owls!).

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Variable Weather

I just went upstairs to get some iced tea (brewed in my Mr Coffee tea maker, which is a $20 purchase that totally changed my life by making decaffeinated iced cheaply, readily, and consistently available - I've also worked out a blend of teas that I prefer even to the best caffeinated tea sold in the typical restaurant) with the intention of coming downstairs to report that this morning, when Robert opened the bedroom window before leaving for work and while I was still in bed, I found myself lying there with a strange sensation it took me a bit to realize was "chilly" because it has been so warm in our apartment ever since last spring, and to tell you all how happy I am with what is perhaps finally the end of summer, but my plan changed when I happened to look out the patio doors to see... snow.  So it appears that in Snow City, the onset of autumn can be determined by the first snow.  Note: it's not cold enough for the snow to stick, but it's still snow.

Thursday, October 4, 2012


The other night, I thought:

I'm really happy.  I'm happy as a clam.

Why are clams happy?

Oh, right - because clams are not in grad school.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Passing My Day

I spent most of the day today (and some of this evening) working on the online data collection for the project I am continuing to help with even though I'm on leave from my program for the semester.  You know, if I actually had to do classes, my TAship, and my other research responsibilities too, it would have been an extremely stressful day.  Instead, it felt a lot like I remember a day at work feeling like, if a day at work had taken place in my home instead of at let me instead call it a lot like a day of having a job and having a big project that you're working on that you're updating people about every hour by email and that kind of thing.  I was busy, and there were a lot of issues to deal with, and some confusion and frustration, but it was also basically awesome.

I did take a break after lunch to walk to the library.  I found that the difference between 66 degrees and 96 degrees is that even though I dress the same (shorts or short skirt with a sleeveless shirt), I sweat a lot less when it's 66 degrees.  I actually encountered one other person wearing shorts who appeared to take note of my clothing as well.  We stood out among the dozens of people wearing long pants, jackets, etc.  I was particularly struck by a guy, obviously dressed for work, wearing a long-sleeved button down shirt under a relatively tight-fitting v-neck pullover sweater.  Wearing a pullover sweater, rather than a jacket or cardigan, really indicates in my view a serious commitment to the idea that we are experiencing cool fall weather.  (It's a major pain in the ass to put on or remove a tight-fitting pullover, esp. with a stiff shirt underneath, so it's not something you wear casually with the expectation that you might get too hot for it.  Even when walking in the midday sun.  This is madness.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

West Texas Sightings

During the process of checking that all our bird lists were entered in our bird spreadsheet, I came across several non-bird-related observations/lists that I noted in the bird notebooks.  Here is one of them, titled West Texas Sightings, from 2/18/2002.

Caprock Escarpment
Mid-day flatland mirage
Pinkies liquor store
Hwy 87
Prairie dog town
Double Mt. Fork of the Brazos River
Rough-legged hawk
Windmill farm
W. TX wind
Coyote roadkill
Buddy Holly statue & W. TX Walk of Fame
Huge cotton fields
Mesquite trees
Lubbock Lake
Oil derricks
Charolois cattle


I would also like to report, for the official record, that driving fast on 87 while listening to Terry Allen's West Texas classic "Amarillo Highway" is really cool.  This being said, I hope that experience was not truly as close as I'll ever get to heaven.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Fall Warblers

The stars of this weekend's birding trip were warblers.  We did not see a lot of them, but we managed to see and identify five species overall.  The emphasis here is on "identify" because warblers in the fall are wearing their drab plumage (protective coloration for the winter) and the species look much plainer and more alike than they do in the spring (dressed up for mating season).  Peterson's field guide has a special section devoted to the field marks of these "confusing fall warblers."

But as far as fall warblers go, the ones we saw were relatively non-confusing.

We saw a Canada warbler at two different times, with Robert and me getting very good looks at the birds and not questioning its identification.  When Robert was updating our bird spreadsheet when we got home, he said, "So how confident do you feel about the Canada warbler?"  I asked, "Why, is it not supposed to be here?", and he said, "Because we usually apply a higher confidence threshold when identifying a life bird."  I said, "But the Canada isn't a life bird, is it?!"  Not until I saw the big empty space next to Canada warbler in my birder's journal did I fully believe it.  We've been looking for the Canada warbler ever since we moved up here (for example, our weekend trip up north this summer was in great part to find the Canada where it nests) and have checked so many warblers against the Canada in the book that when we finally did see it, it just looked clearly like a Canada warbler.  Even in its fall plumage, that gray/black necklace is still noticeable and distinctive.

Photo from McGill Observatory's excellent photo library

Our warblers:

Common yellowthroat
Wilson's warbler (our first state record)
Black and white warbler
Orange-crowned warbler (our first state record)
Canada warbler - Life bird #480

So, two weekends, two life birds.  Life is good.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Weekend Birding

I've been enjoying the opportunity afforded by my leave of absence from grad school to return to a favorite activity - weekend birding.

Last weekend, we went to a national wildlife refuge about an hour from home.  I had woken up with a headache, which I treated by drinking a cup of caffeinated tea.  (The best thing about not drinking caffeine regularly is that it is really effective when I do use it medicinally, generally for headaches or tiredness or both.)  I was also in a very irritable mood, and unfortunately it was exacerbated by the tea, which left me with jangled nerves.  I was so irritable that my very irritability was extremely irritating.  It took me about 10 minutes after arriving at the refuge to calm down enough to even want to look at birds.

Only a few minutes after we got underway on one of the hiking trails (with me still feeling irritable but not like murdering anyone), we saw a magpie fly past us, close enough that it was obviously a magpie without even having to think about it.  This was really cool, but ... wait, there aren't magpies around here.  Confusing.  We soon were inundated with loud, raucous blue jays (an external manifestation of my mood?) and I thought, Maybe that was a blue jay we just mistook for a magpie for some weird reason.  Whatever.

We actually saw a good number of species on the trail, and gradually the weather warmed and I switched from complaining about being slightly chilly (which I usually like, actually) to being way overheated.  The sun was fierce.  I desperately had to pee and did so on the side of the trail, managing to pee on my own shorts in the process (DUH), yet another source of irritation.  (Although I do think peeing on one's shorts is preferable to peeing in one's shorts, neither is that great.)

Just as we reached the end of the trail, there was a man and woman with two dogs standing there.  One of the dogs (a small one, of course) was barking at us like crazy, and the woman was telling him to be quiet, to no effect on the dog (though it made me feel less irritated to know that she disapproved of her dog being a maniac).  I had a strange but wonderful thought as we approached these creatures:  What, you want a piece of this, little dog?  I could totally kick your ass.  When I mentioned this to Robert, he said, Isn't he just the right shape and size to be a soccer ball?  The idea of being able to take this dog did wonders for my mood, in keeping with abundant research on social comparison theory which finds that downward social comparisons (comparing yourself to those who are inferior on a relevant dimension) leads to self-enhancement and an increase in subjective well-being.  (Interestingly, recognizing the total bogosity of comparing my bad-assedness to that which was, at best, a 10 pound dog did not appear to undo the beneficial effects of this comparison, though at this point, I was also feeling generally amused.)   The man showed us a small bull snake he had caught in his cap to photograph, and that was really cool and cheered me up, too.  I was also cheered by the fact that we were moments away from sitting in the car with the A/C cranked up.  (In the event, it felt better than I even thought it would.) 

We had brought our lunch and went to the HQ building to look for a picnic table, which they did not have.  However, on the bulletin board outside there was a poster asking people to call or email the refuge staff if they saw a magpie on the refuge.  In my strange mental state, this struck me as completely hilarious and I laughed hysterically for an overly long period of time (I noticed this as I was doing it but Robert refrained from comment).  When we got home, Robert looked it up online and found out that a magpie has been seen intermittently for the last year or so, including a couple times last month, if I recall correctly.  So, it probably was a magpie and we just got incredibly lucky to see it. 

Tam's Favorite Bird Says "Hey"

After eating our lunch in the car, we were game for seeking more birds so we went out on the other hiking trail.  Within minutes, we saw ..... American tree sparrows!  Life bird #479.

After that, we didn't see a lot of birds.  When Robert mentioned the lack of birds, I decided to surprise him with an unexpected "goose."  (He was walking in front of me, so this was an irresistible opportunity.)  In the next second after goosing Robert, I shrieked.  He turned around and said, What?  I said, Oh my god, a snake.  He looked over at the side of the trail where a striped snake was visible in the grass.  I said, No, it was in the middle of the trail and I almost stepped right on it; I must have scared it away with my shrieking.  Robert hadn't seen it at all due to being distracted by the goose.  (I'm glad he didn't step on it while distracted; the poor snake doesn't deserve this kind of treatment.)  I asked Robert what kind of snake it was, and he didn't know, and in one of those moments where you have a thought but no idea why, I said, Maybe it's some kind of garter snake.  When we got home, Robert looked it up and it was a kind of garter snake (eastern garter snake).  If you'd asked me what a garter snake looked like, or if I had ever seen a garter snake, I cannot remember this at all, but maybe I have more familiarity with a garter snake that I realize.  Or maybe garter snake just sounds like a normal kind of snake, a prototypical kind of not-obviously-dangerous snake.  It turns out there aren't many different kinds of snakes in this state and none outside the southeastern corner of the state that are poisonous.  Having grown up in the land of the rattlesnake, the cottonmouth, and the copperhead, I find this really strange.

Depressing side note:  You know how the word "decimated" means reducing something in number so only 90% of the original amount remains - what is the term for reducing something so only 0.02% remains?  This is what we've done to the tallgrass prairie, according to information they have posted about their ongoing attempts to manage land on the refuge for oak savannah (oaks with an understory of tall grass and prairie flowers).

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

It's Official

In pro-grad school news:  Tam has passed her second (and last) qualifying exam!

And in anti-grad school news:  I am taking a leave of absence from my program this semester.  The paperwork was taken care of this morning so I am officially on leave until the beginning of the spring semester in January.  It feels good.  I'm glad to have the time to recover and reconsider my next steps (which will not, I think, involve returning to my program).

Oh, come on.  That's fine as an official statement but let's be honest.  It's completely fantastic.  A celebratory dance is in order.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Summer Television: Part 2

Yep, it's happened.  I'm now addicted to Breaking Bad, available on Netflix streaming.  This is the program Tam identified in a previous post as the one that a critic described as not the best TV show ever (which is of course The Wire) but still a really great show.

A kind of idiosyncratic thing I'm loving about it is the appearance of Bob Odenkirk, of sketch comedy Mr. Show fame, as a horrible cheesy corrupt lawyer.

Better call Saul!

Bunny Viewing Ramp Up

Tomorrow we're going to the state fair to see bunnies, lots and lots of bunnies!  In preparation for this event, I've been posting photos of bunnies from last year's fair on FB.  For my very special EQ readers, though, I include this bonus state fair bunny shot.

A handsome loaf of bun

Today I had an absolutely horrible time getting home from school that involved wandering around not being able to find where the bus home now stops (it regularly changes due to construction on campus), having to walk through knee-high grass to get out of an area that was fenced off, walking home in only warm (82 degrees) but extremely humid weather after giving up on finding the bus stop (I had sweated through my clothes entirely about halfway into the 2.5 mile trek), feeling dizzy, having heart palpitations, and then with about a mile left to go, getting increasingly painful stomach cramps.  Not fun.  But there was one good thing:  in those first moments of blissful ignorance re: the bus situation, as I was walking on campus toward the bus stop, I caught a glimpse of a furry brown butt and a white cotton tail leap into some bushes.  Any day I see a bunny is a good day.  And this bunny's bun was only a promise of the bunnies to come.

Summer Reading: Part 2

If you like coming of age stories in which people attend schools of magic (I do!), I recommend the high fantasy novel The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (the first book of the Kingkiller trilogy; there are two published right now and apparently the third one is already written, so we're not facing a Game of Thrones situation here). 

It starts off really slow, with this boring inn and these boring cardboard cut-out fantasy novel characters telling boring stories about the dark times while drinking their boring drinks, and I wasn't feeling into it at all.  But then the story-within-a-story got started, and it ramped up pretty quickly from blah to interesting (but beware, the pacing remains on the slow side). 

The main character can be a very annoying adolescent of the "I am superior to all of you!" variety, but the fact is that he, you know, really is smarter than basically everyone else on the planet.  His staggering genius combined with his arrogance keeps him from being a disgustingly wholesome Wesley Crusher type, but there were definitely times I was irritated not with the character (though many reviewers on Amazon are, it turns out) but with the writer.  Writing an all-encompassing genius is kind of a cop-out, you know? 

Nevertheless, I would say that if you like this genre of fantasy, it's definitely worth giving it a shot.  Even when certain aspects of his story are somewhat predictable, and there's no big central conflict to get resolved at the end, I still just like seeing the whole magic school thing play out.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Summer Reading: Part 1

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

In this Victorian-style comedy of manners, there are complicated courtships, deathbed confessions, lawsuits, problems with servants, scheming in-laws, lost children, ambitious clergymen, endangered reputations, dinner parties, frilly hats, treasures, and blushing brides.

Oh, and dragons.

They're all dragons.

Brilliantly conceived, delightfully executed.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sunday Cooking

Robert and I made 12 servings of beef and kidney bean chili and 12 servings of chicken and broccoli casserole.  (We'll freeze half of these for later.)  It's surprising how little time and effort is required to double these recipes.  The chicken and broccoli is especially easy overall because it requires no chopping of vegetables (it uses frozen broccoli and canned mushrooms).  I pretty much made that one by myself while Robert was playing golf, though he showed up just in time to help me with the white sauce.  Having two pans into which I'm trying to pour chicken broth and milk at the same time, while whisking the sauces to get rid of lumps and not burn anything, was a bit much.

Also, I can't help but point out that it was slightly warmer in my kitchen, working over a hot stove, than it was outside today.  During the heat of the day, it was about 81 degrees in the kitchen and about 79 degrees outside.  Tomorrow the temperature is going back up to about 88, which qualifies as quite warm by local standards but which would be laughed out of town for those of you experiencing temperatures over 100 degrees.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Summer Television: Part 1

I've been watching a bit more TV than usual this summer, especially since I have signed up for streaming on Netflix.  It's been an enjoyable escape activity (that is more treadmill-compatible than other standbys, like reading, though I've been doing more of that as well).  I still don't have TV reception but the backlog of shows on Netflix will keep me going for quite a long time.  Here are some shows I've watched/been watching this summer.

The Wire:  About a month ago, I read an online review of another TV series that started out something like, "Most people think The Wire is the best television show ever.  Well, that's true, but [This Show] is also really good."  (Sorry, I don't recall the source.)  Seriously, The Wire is the best TV show ever.  If you have even a passing interest in cop/crime dramas and have not seen this yet, I envy you.  And aside from how totally awesome it is from the first episode to the last, it also introduces you to a host of actors you will see show up again on other programs (esp. other HBO ones).

Glee:  My mom got me into watching this.  In some ways, it's a natural fit - I have liked other teen shows (like Buffy, Friday Night Lights) and it's a musical.  The cheerleading coach character totally steals the show.  And it addresses important social issues in an amusing way - you know, like to what extent are hot Jews required to hook up with other hot Jews and how can we stop people from exposing others to the musical travesty that is the oeuvre* of Journey.  I've caught up with the first two seasons now and basically enjoyed it, though I was disappointed with the ending of season 2.  It seems silly to say that I had an issue with how contrived (and desperate seeming) the rationale for the outcome of their last performance was, given that being ridiculously, ludicrously contrived is a central aspect of the show, but still.  We'll see if they can get it back a bit in season 3.

*I was utterly shocked to spell this word correctly on my first attempt.  Robert and I have been playing a ton of Boggle this week; I am now looking forward to these letters showing up in a future game. 

The Killing:  I had trouble getting into this program at first, but then it hit its stride and got super-interesting.  But it suffers from the same problem as Twin Peaks: it's really hard to make solving a single murder take longer than a full season.  One reviewer nailed it by noting that what started as a novel idea for a crime drama turned into a 13-hour long episode of Law & Order.  (Why can't I relocate any of these reviews?)  There's the use of shocking, unexpected twists to keep things lively, and then there's just fucking with the viewer, and last episode definitely veered into viewer-fucking mode for me.

I watched Twin Peaks for the first time this past year, and the entirety of the uneven (especially season 2) show was justified for me by the completely unexpected revelation of Albert's path (Albert Rosenfield, the sarcastic, mocking genius/asshole forensic scientist whom is brought in by Dale Cooper to occasionally assist with the case and who constantly insults the local police to their face).  I don't think anything on TV has ever stunned then awed me into wide-eyed laughter the way this scene did.  I had to watch it about three times before I started to come out of my daze/hysteria.  (If you haven't seen the show, this clip will not have the right impact at all.)  Dale Cooper's observation that "Albert's path is a strange and difficult one" sums up how I feel about my life in graduate school some days. 

The Muppets:  OK, this was a movie, not a TV show, but I have to go on record saying that Tam's prediction that I would really like the "Man or Muppet" song (written by Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie) was correct.  "If I'm a muppet, I'm a very manly muppet" -- I love.  And the choice of actor to play the "man" version of the muppet Walter was brilliant.  At times, the movie was kind of boring and slow-paced but not in an unenjoyable way.  I don't see myself watching the entire thing again, but that "Man or Muppet" scene is an awesome 3 minutes.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Surprising Activity

This past Sunday, I woke up very sore.  At first, I thought I was just suffering a bit from having done over 8 miles on the treadmill plus having spent 2 hours playing golf the previous day.  (Well, not actually playing golf, per se.  1 hour of golf lesson in the morning plus 1 hour of putting practice in the evening.)  But as the day wore on, I became more exhausted, got a headache, got a fever, got a stomach ache, and generally felt hammered.  Although I was sick for a couple of days, it was strangely comforting to realize that I was just ill and not in fact so generally wimpy that a day with a bit of extra exercise knocked me out.  So while I recovered, I didn't play golf or use my treadmill; instead I spent time mostly kicking Robert's ass at Tri-ominoes. (Oh, and also watching a bunch of the first season of Glee, which is a crazily addictive show.  Getting me hooked on Glee is perhaps my mom's revenge for getting her hooked on Buffy.)

So what's up with the golf, right?  Well, in April, Robert took a series of beginner golf lessons and he's been playing at a 9 hole course not very far from our apartment.  It sounded like fun, so I decided to take this set of lessons this month (and Robert is retaking them with me).  We had our first lesson last week, on putting, and tomorrow we will learn chipping (whatever that is).  There is a practice green at the course where we can bring balls and practice putting and chipping for free, which is nice.

One thing I like about this golf thing so far is that because it is totally new, and I have no expectations of being "good" at it, I am able to experience it in a relatively non-evaluative way.  It's somewhat unusual in my life right now to engage in an activity where I just experience/enjoy it without having to think about whether I'm doing well at it.  Don't get me wrong -- when we did the moderate length putts in class, and I made two of them (while most people made none), I was pretty excited about it.  But I'm mostly only interested in monitoring my performance to calibrate what I'm doing.  For example, when I was practicing putting from an awkward position (relative to the slopes of the green near the whole), I didn't care if it took me 5 tries to make the putt because I was enjoying the experience, and part of that enjoyment was trying new things (e.g., what happens if I hit the ball harder and at this different angle?).

You know how on TV it looks like putting should be easy -- I mean, it's hitting a ball a short distance on a flat surface, right?  Um, yeah, no.  What seems "flat" when you're walking or riding your bicycle across it is most definitely not flat when you are trying to roll a ball across it.  Also, it's a relief to figure out that hitting the ball yourself is approximately 1.29 million times more interesting than watching Tiger Woods do it on TV.  Of course, it's possible that with enough experience, a person can look at a situation on TV and be able to see how difficult the shot is, but I kind of doubt it.  I suspect that the perspective you get from TV is weird and screwy and does not at all well give you the sense of what the golfer is facing.  But given that a lot of people watch golf on TV, I'm not sure about that.  (Note: even if I do keep playing golf in some capacity after these lessons are over, I do not plan to become a person who watches golf on TV so I will probably never know the answer to this question.)

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

She Lives!

Wow, I guess the month of May really did go by in a blur. 
  • Finished my first year of the PhD program.  "Disappointed" a professor.  Found out that disapproving professors are not as fun as disapproving rabbits.  Got my first B+.  Survived it.
  • Tam came to visit for about 4 days.  This was the first time in several years we actually spent more than a day together, and it was completely great.  
  • Got sick, got better, got sick again...etc.  Right now I am in the "got better" part of this cycle.
  • Purchased a shiny new desktop computer with two big-ass monitors.  I am right now, at this exact moment, downloading the latest Ravenhearst game, which will be the test of my computer's mojo.
Tonight I ordered a Wii console and the Wii Fit Plus game package.  I had meant to do this last summer, got busy, and forgot about it. 

I'm still trying to settle into my summer schedule.  I've got several different projects I'm working on, plus I'm trying to develop some new ideas.  And it would be really helpful to me if I got up to speed on the basics of R (the powerful free statistics software) for the regression course I'm taking in the fall and learned some HTML/Javascript so that my online surveys are easier to build.

After watching The Big Year a couple days ago, Robert was on the American Birding Association website and we remembered that we can get listed on their site/magazine once we hit 500 species.  I'm 24 species away and am feeling eager to get some new birds on my list.  We were planning to go out this past weekend to a relatively nearby park, and I went online to see if it was within walking distance or not.  Imagine my surprise when (using the Yahoo maps feature to which the park website linked) I encountered this:

Indeed, 1303 miles is a bit far to walk.  I'm not quite sure how this park ended up in Vermont, but whatever.  Google maps came through for us.

It was a gorgeous day and we saw some nice birds.  Nothing completely new, but several that were new for our state lists, including the Baltimore oriole and the indigo bunting.  Oddly enough, those same two birds were new for our NC lists exactly 3 years ago to the day (during our visit to My Masters University to find an apartment prior to my starting the program).

Monday, April 30, 2012

Schedule Rotation

I don't have class on Monday (I guess that's today now) for the first time and already my sleep and work schedule has rotated.  I went to bed last night like normal (around 10:30 p.m.), woke up at 2:30 a.m. and started to work.

More than anything else, I think this reflects the fact that before going to bed last night I truly realized for the first time how completely fucked I am trying to finish the papers and presentations I have due Wednesday, Friday, and next Monday.  Basically, I need to work every single moment that I possibly can and this morning at 2:30 a.m., working was possible. 

(Last night I also realized that I had failed to put Wed. morning's seminar on my Big Calendar of Doom, which features for April a rabbit who is surprisingly non-disapproving*; rather he seems to look more and more concerned as the month marches on.  Yeah, me too, little bun.  I have all my deadlines through next Monday laid out on this month's page, so Worried Bunny will be my companion until May 8.  Then no doubt he will be replaced by a more traditional rabbit who will disapprove of my unrealistic optimism as I plan to get a ton of work and fun accomplished over the summer break.)

* The calendar is not specifically a disapproving rabbit calendar but it's still a bit surprising to see a rabbit who looks so free of disdain for the dumb-ass-ity of humans.

Now I'm going to take a shower so that when Robert's alarm goes off, I can join him for breakfast (I am really hungry) then immediately return to the paper I'm working on.  Well, I guess before returning to work I should check that Worried Bunny has not committed suicide so as to avoid watching my academic career go up in flames...

Saturday, April 28, 2012

My Un-Facebook-Able Life

Talking to my mom on the phone this week and in my motivation seminar yesterday, the topic of relationships and Facebook came up -- and particularly, the idea of Facebook as a potential source of bad feelings.  My primary observation is that it's easy to use Facebook to make yourself feel good or, especially, bad through the process of social comparison. 

Last night, I checked in and was reminded that a friend of mine from college is dealing with cancer in his family and found out that the mom of somebody I went to school and church with as a kid has recently died -- sad news (but thank god it's not my family member with cancer or my mom who died, right?).  But once you get past the inanities (one high school friend who likes to share a million music videos in a row, people expressing a general TGIF attitude that I can't share because weekends don't mean the same thing for me at all), what's left is pretty much dozens of posts about people doing or having just done sort of or very interesting things, usually with other people. 

That's not my life.

There are some people whose life has this flavor more than others.  My sister's life especially does, since she lives in like 3 places right now (both coasts and smack in the middle), is always traveling, and her main passion in life (dance) involves collaboration and frequent performances.  She doesn't have children, but her grumpy old cat and sweet new puppy more than ably fulfill the "awwwww" niche (and personally I'm not crazy about kids anyway).  She's beautiful and her husband is a brilliant photographer, so the photographs are great.  She has a smart phone that makes it easy to share with us the strange and wonderful things she sees and does while she's out and about all over the country (and beyond). 

Do I sound envious?  Really, I'm not.  I love my own life, as un-Facebook-able as it usually is.  I spend a lot of time alone, reading and thinking and writing, or in the lab, where I have to mentally put on the white lab coat and exert self-control to deal with other people in ways that violate social norms.  I frequent the same half dozen places in this town, often on a regular schedule.  All this partly reflects my nature and my preferences, and partly is just a part of life as a grad student/academic. 

But looking at Facebook, even I occasionally get that feeling, which I understand is quite common, of being left out of some big, exciting Life that "everyone" else is having.  People don't post a photo of their desk at work with the comment, "Yep, it's a weekday so I'm at work, filling out forms."  People tend not to share, "In five minutes I'm going home from work and watching TV all night like I always do."  I have never seen anyone say, "I went to a party Saturday night but it was actually pretty boring and annoying.  I should have stayed home and organized my sock drawer again instead."

I love it that Tam sends me photographs from her daily (grad student) life - the huge white desk in the library with her especially horrifying math book, paper, pencils, and eraser laid out; lunch in the cafeteria; an undergrad wearing especially ugly shoes.  It's like seeing a somewhat different version of my own world with its little points of interest.  And of course, as with seeing my sister's life on Facebook, I do like the feeling of having a better sense of where she is and what she's doing.  But there's also something very intimate about it, which Facebook doesn't provide, and for some of us, I think the "this is all for public consumption, something I am sharing with you and my 200 other 'friends'" nature of Facebook doesn't meet our needs well at all.

So anyway, here I am:  sitting in my home office, surrounded by books and print-outs of journal articles and pieces of paper where I have jotted down research ideas, facing a wall covered with pictures of bunnies - including my own sweet buns on a homemade birthday card from Leo (I think he got help), wearing mismatched striped & floral pajamas and a pair of Texas Aquarium socks with sharks on them, hungry, thirsty, and thinking I should see if Robert is ready to wake up and have breakfast, the exact same breakfast I have every morning.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Kind of Day I'm Having

I just spent 30 seconds in confusion looking for my second sock.

It was already on my foot.

Yep, about right.

Now if only I could realize that I have already written my three papers and just forgot that I had saved them on this thumb drive... Of course, in my current state, I wouldn't be able to find the thumb drive.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Death by Walking

This week I was talking to my mom while walking home from campus, and as I was crossing over I-35, I said, Sorry, hold on, this car is trying to kill me.  It occurs to me that this kind of comment can really imply that I am taking my life into my hands every day I come home from school.  Actually, that was a very strange event.  Typically, when I'm walking, I need to remain vigilant to cars because when drivers see a person on foot heading toward an intersection (let alone already there), they will often slow down to let the pedestrian cross even if the driver clearly has the right-of-way. 

Robert recently sent me info on the most dangerous major metro areas (1 million+ population) for pedestrians.  The top five were (with "pedestrian danger index" in parentheses):

1) Orlando (255)
2) Tampa (213)
3) Jacksonville (178)
4) Miami (168)
5) Riverside, CA (139)

Nice job, Florida!  You dominate the country on pedestrian danger!  (If I were a more enterprising soul, I think this would make a nice bumper sticker sales opportunity.)

Other notable cities:

9) Houston (128)
10) Dallas-Fort Worth (119)
18) Austin (96)
24) San Antonio (88)

Way to go, Texas!

22) Oklahoma City (90)
29) Denver (74)
30) San Jose, CA (68)

And down in the bottom 10:

41) San Francisco (39)
48) Snow City (35)
50) New York City (30)

So by moving here from Austin, I've cut my pedestrian danger to a third of its previous level.  I mean, as if walking was ever really a viable option there.

Speaking of walking, I have not yet been able to visit this experience on anyone but Robert, but I look forward to this in the winters to come.  (This winter was so mild and relatively snow-less that I did not even get a chance to wear my awesome tall snow boots!)

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Maru Counteracts Ego Depletion

I've been working all day but I'm not feeling brain-dead or depleted, I think because:

(1) I'm framing this as doing "my work" rather than "coming up with a research idea for Monday's seminar" and working toward intrinsic (own) goals is less depleting than working toward extrinsic (set by someone else) goals; and

(2) I've watched this unbelievably awesome Maru video a couple of times already for replenishment (hey, it's Maru or Blue Bunny Bunny Tracks ice cream, you know?).  Note how Maru's right front foot looks around 0:32.  It's like the world's perfect furry cat foot (a white foot on a striped cat = gorgeous) mimicking the shape of an elephant foot.  Strangely, I was just last night mentioning to Robert that elephants have the best looking toenails of all animals.  Um, OK, yes that is inherently a strange thing to say.  But I don't know whether thinking of elephant toenails primed me to see an elephant-foot-like quality in Maru or what. 

Or possibly it's (3) I've used my mad psychology-magic skills to drain cognitive resources from Robert to increase my own power.  (This is a kind of mana leech spell, I think.)  Poor Robert had a bad headache for most of the day, and that was before he started working on our federal and two state income tax forms.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

City Owl

Yesterday I was in the lab collecting data all day, then Robert picked me up from campus after work.  On the way home, we saw about 800 people biking along the river trail wearing lights and/or bright neon clothing (a thing basically never seen in Austin, where bicyclists wear their Lance Armstrong aspirations on their sleeves as a badge of protection from vehicular manslaughter) and one owl: a barred owl that flew across the street right in front of our car.  It wasn't the snowy owl I was hoping for this winter, but it was satisfying nevertheless to see an owl right here in town.  At our last apartment in Austin, we took a walk around the complex one evening and had a barred owl fly over our heads.  I guess barred owls make good city owls.

Sunday, March 18, 2012


I thought the sandwich delivery tonight might take longer than usual because everybody is at home watching the basketball tournament, but I didn't think it would take 1 hour, 47 minutes.  The one delivery person working tonight (the other no doubt called in "sick" ahem) got a flat tire on her bike from riding over some of the huge amount of broken glass that's all over the streets in the aftermath of St Patrick's Day.  Apparently the city is not nearly as on the ball with broken glass removal as they are with snow removal.  She was unable to fix the flat and had to walk the bike back to the shop to get a different bike.  The delay was really annoying because we were really hungry (we didn't place the order until about 7:00 p.m., which is late for me) and the apartment is almost 90 degrees again, which is grumpifying.  But at least my evening sucked a lot less than the sandwich delivery woman's evening did.

A Surprise Treat

Despite it being crazy warm, our A/C system for the building has not been turned on, which meant it was almost 90 degrees inside yesterday evening.  When I noticed I was actually starting to sweat just sitting there, out of desperation, I decided to go out onto the balcony, where there was no breeze but the air was at least somewhat cooler.  It was only just starting to get dark, but there was something very, very bright in the sky (our balcony faces southwest), which I called Robert out to see.  He set up his telescope and voila, it's Jupiter and its 4 largest moons.  There was something just awesome and thrilling about seeing the moons of this distant planet (first identified by Galileo in 1609-1610 after he made improvements to his telescope) - they're obviously not nearly as mind-bogglingly distant as any of the stars we see, but something about the very rarity and unexpectedness of it was really great.  So I was right - it was, indeed, much cooler outside (especially with a telescope set up). 

As it got later, some of the big stars became visible.  First Sirius (the dog star), of course - though we didn't immediately know what it was until Orion became visible and gave us an orientation.  (Orion is my favorite, probably because of how big and easy to see it is, how much it really looks like what it's supposed to be, and how you can use it to orient yourself.)  Because of light cloud cover, only the lower right "foot" of Orion was bright but Orion is so distinctive that one foot and a sense that there might be a couple other stars here and here was enough for it to be identifiable.  I shocked myself by remembering (though it felt like guessing) that the lower right star is Rigel (which I confirmed when I brought out my star finder).  (Robert had to admit being impressed but clearly thinks it's related to my liking the muppet character Rygel from Farscape, which is quite possibly true).

Over the next 45 minutes or so, despite cloud cover and the fact that we were in the middle of a major city sitting on our balcony with a very limited amount of open sky available to us, we saw all of Orion (and yes, the double stars in the belt do look really cool in a telescope), Sirius, Procyon (the bright star in Canis Minor), a star in Gemini (I could never decide which one because there was only one visible), and Aldebaran (in Taurus) as well as Jupiter and a satellite that was trying to mimic a planet.

By the way, we are expected to get some relief from the heat by next Thursday or Friday, which I will welcome gladly.  The average high for yesterday's date (March 17) is 37 degrees.  We set a record yesterday of 81 degrees.  Fucking hell.  We also set record highs for the date last Friday, Wednesday, Sunday, and Saturday (and tied or came within 3 degrees the other days of the week).  Robert reminded me that the summer I moved to NC was also exceptionally hot and set records all summer long.  So perhaps this joins my other super-hero / super-villain qualities (no doubt the voice-over on my TV show would say, "They call me the Heatbringer").

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Spring Already?

Last weekend was the beginning of a string of strangely warm days - I mean, highs in the upper 60s to lower 80s.  This may not seem so odd to my southern readers, but it's quite atypical for Snow City.  Today's projected high of 77 is 26 degrees warmer than the average high for the day. 

UPDATE:  Robert says it's actually 39 degrees warmer than the average high for the day.

I almost can't believe I'm saying this, but I was promised a long winter; while I appreciate that there were only a few days I walked to school in temperatures below 0, if this is really the start of spring already, I'm feeling disappointed.

I was not feeling disappointed last weekend, when I assumed it was just a fluke couple of warm days.  On Sunday, Robert and I went hiking (with the idea that we would do some opportunistic birding, too) at a park near where he works, and like most parks in this area, it has a lake on it.  We got there mid-morning (an inappropriate time of day for Texas birding but we've found that birds seem to wake up late here and we didn't have high hopes for seeing birds anyway) and started down the trail from the parking lot.  A couple minutes later, I asked Robert if he brought any snacks and he said Yes, they're in the car.  I said, I'm not worried about starving between getting to the car and driving 5 minutes to somewhere I can get a snack; I'm more concerned that I'm going to pass out 45 minutes away from the car on this trail and you'll have to carry me back.  So we turned around to go back to the car and next to the parking lot, Robert stopped me to look at a tree, where there was a bird.  This kind.

Northern Shrike
That was life bird #476 for me.

We also saw several birds that were new for the state, including a surprisingly early Northern cardinal (they are expected here closer to April 1 than mid-March), a hairy woodpecker, cedar waxwings, eastern bluebirds, a killdeer, and (when we were driving about a block away from the park) a wild turkey.  We saw a total of 18 species but there was good variety and good numbers, especially compared to what we've seen on previous outings in this area. 

I'm increasingly convinced that people here do not trust in warm weather.  This week on my way to school, I almost never saw anyone not wearing a jacket, even though the temperatures were already warm and were expected to get warmer.  (I was wearing lightweight 3/4 length or short sleeves.)  It's like 70 something degrees out and people are wearing sweatshirts, puffy jackets, all kinds of things.  On the way home one day I saw a woman walking on the trail next to the river wearing gloves despite it being over 60 degrees.  Some girls are still wearing their Ugg boots, too.  (I have seen many girls on campus wearing shorts with Ugg boots, though with tights also.  This is sort of the Snow City equivalent of how girls in Austin would wear flip-flops in winter with coats, hats, and gloves.)  It makes sense that people here would be risk averse in that direction, but I've been trained to be worried that it will get even warmer than expected and I'll overheat, so my instincts tell me to err in the direction of being underdressed.  I've made an effort to try to correct for that bias and so this past week, I wore long pants and at least considered wearing a jacket. 

I think I've mentioned before that basically everyone here (men and women) owns and frequently wears black North Face jackets/coats.  For women, the Official Footwear (of the months September - March at least) is the Ugg boot.  In terms of our SAT/GRE analogies:

Ugg boot:Snow City::Flip flop:Austin::Crocs:Boulder

Although the Ugg boot is both ugg-ly and is actually an impractical choice for outdoor winter wear here (it is basically like a big slipper, so it is warm, I imagine, but the surface is not treated to be water resistant so they get really soggy and gross looking when people walk through slushy snow), it does have the admirable quality that it covers people's toes and is not made of neon-colored plastic, so it is preferable to the Austin and Boulder shoe choice.

This weekend, it's time to bring out the shorts (and I think I need to buy a few new pairs as well).  I hope that my getting prepared for all the warm weather spring has in store will cause the weather to turn cool again.  I'm not asking too much here.  Really, I'd be satisfied with several weeks of high temperatures below 65, I think.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Grades and Grades

I suppose it is indicative of the relative unimportance of grades in grad school that I never talked about the grades I got during the first semester of my PhD program.  (I don't know that I ever mentioned my grades at My Master U. either but those grades were boring.) 

So (cue suspenseful music): last semester I got a 3.93.  A's in all my seminars except one, in which I got an A-.  (If that math seems confusing, it's because all our department seminars are 7-week, 2 hour courses, and it's one of those I got an A- in.  But seminars in other departments are typically full semester, 3 hour courses.)

In any event, I am satisfied, my department is satisfied (I do have a minimum GPA I have to maintain), all is well.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Presentation Hump

Did my second of three presentation this morning and it went well. 

Yesterday when I was working on the presentation, it occurred to me that I don't have a laptop at school so I would need to put the PPT on a jump drive and borrow someone else's laptop in class.  One malware attack and about 90 minutes later, I had a loaner laptop in my office.  (Bizarrely, it is the same model as the laptop I got from My Masters University.)  Well, OK, that takes care of that, I guess.

So now I just have one presentation (and paper) on Friday.

I enjoyed this from a Harvard Business Review article about sustainability:

"Patagonia turned to Walmart, known for market strength but not necessarily sustainability, to help get the ball rolling on a VCI [value chain index that lets people compare environmental impacts of different products in an industry].  The two code-named their partnership David and Goliath.  Together, they had the credibility and power required to get their sector's attention.

In the fall of 2009 they sent out invitations to 12 CEOs of companies carefully vetted for their sustainability bona fides.  One recipient later said, 'When you get a letter from Mike Duke and Yvon Chouinard, with the logos for Walmart and Patagonia side by side, it's so bizarre that you have to read it.'"

Monday, March 5, 2012

Presentation Week

One down, two left to go this week.

Robert purchased me a crazy-ass looking but shockingly decent tasting type of brown rice spaghetti this week - it's a kosher rice pasta from Canada that is "Pasta Joy Ready" (tm).  But perhaps the strangest thing about it is its logo of two cartoon rabbits wearing overalls and holding up a grain of rice that is almost as big as they are, topped by the phrase "Not Mushy!"  (Is the rice in this universe gigantic or are those micro-tiny bunnies?)  I can't get a good photo of this from the package, but I can refer you to the site where the logo appears in action twice (telling us also "We bring rice-smiles!") about halfway down the page. 

I think they must use language like "Our entire factory premise and all machines" and "formed to gourmet class" on the package to make us believe that this is an authentic Asian product with language translated from the Chinese.  I also like the idea that it is "an ultimate in the enjoyment of pasta" (my emphasis).

Monday, February 20, 2012

A New Saturday Ritual

Last Saturday, I was in the mood for an iced tea (as always on Saturday) but didn't feel like going out for lunch or driving to one of our usual haunts out in the suburbs, so I put Robert on the task of finding a good, fresh-brewed iced tea near where we live.  You have to understand: the Midwest is not iced tea country.  We stopped at a Kentucky Fried Chicken for iced tea once and they did not serve it, not even the crappy Lipton out of the fountain.  I mean, seriously?  KFC does not serve iced tea up here?

But Robert came through.  There is a coffee house 2 blocks from here that serves a very nice iced tea - a blend of Earl Grey and English Breakfast tea.  They sell it in 3 sizes.  I got the largest one.  Robert got an utterly decadent and delicious mocha frappe.  There were lots of empty tables, mostly with people quietly working on their laptops but I situated us near a table with 2 kind of loud old guys trying to figure out their laptops where I didn't think we'd bother anybody by talking.  (We talked mostly about adjunct professor pay, inspired by Robert, an ex-adjunct, reading this post on the topic.)  I didn't know how the refills would work and thought they might charge the full price each time (like happens often in bars).  But instead the refills were 55 cents, so that was cool.  I think after-lunch iced tea at the coffee shop down the street is going to be our new Saturday ritual.  (They also sell some food, including a crazy-good looking fruit yogurt parfait and dark chocolate covered espresso beans, both of which are Sally-compatible but that I doubt I'll get any time soon.)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Oops, I Guess I Should Edit This To Add a Title...

I think January's two posts represents an all-time low here at EQ, and the first half of February flew by without any posts at all.  [Disapprove]

This semester I am taking two seminars that are half-semester courses (after spring break, I'll be taking two different half-semester seminars in their place) and clearly each professor thinks that the topic is important enough to devote an entire semester to and are unwilling to reduce the coverage of their favorite subject to 50%.  Instead, each one seems to cover about 80% of the material/assignments that you would get in a full semester course.  (This might be a slight exaggeration, but it's definitely a larger work load this semester than last semester, when only one of my seminars worked this way.  It appears that the seminars in my department are all half-semester seminars but the ones in the psychology department are full-semester seminars.)

Other than feeling kind of crazily busy (and hence the weeks are passing so quickly I cannot fathom it), I think things are going pretty well.  The winter weather is being kind to us, at least.

This morning I kind of didn't want to go to my psych seminar at 9:00, but I was looking forward to walking to school in the relatively warm and very sunny weather.  (Relatively warm = my face does not feel cold while I'm walking to school; this happens at about 25 degrees F or so.)  I like walking over to the other side of campus because I can take a route that goes all the way along the river then meets up with the campus from the backside such that I never have to stop at a traffic light.  It was a pleasant walk (although as has been the case most days this winter, the bird life was virtually non-existent; today I heard a few chickadees singing and that was it.  Not even a crow!) and I was in a better mood when I got to class.

And when I got to class, I was on in that way that sometimes happens.  I'm usual a pretty good contributor to the discussion but I was especially good today.  Even adjusting for the fact that my professor tends to give positive feedback to people's comments, I felt very pleased when he responded to one of my questions/criticisms about a hugely important classic paper that we read with, "Were you one of the reviewers on this paper?"  Apparently I had immediately tapped into an issue that people in the area spent years grappling with.  So, I'm getting really good at evaluating other people's research.  It still remains to be seen if I can get any of my own ideas to work out.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Few Likes and Dislikes

While Tam looks with increasing disfavor on people's habit of rating everything they experience, I find the rampant Facebook "liking" and "disliking"* of consumer products distasteful.  There are very few products I would want to announce to everyone I know, or basically the world, as having some kind of significant attitude toward.  I don't believe this is any principled belief; it just feels cheap and tawdry somehow (esp. because I think a lot of the impetus for doing so is in response to marketers' promotions -- e.g., "like us on FB to enter our contest for a free XYZ!" (Why yes, I am a marketing student.)).  And really, my FB page is already overfilled with annoying, meaningless garbage without finding out that the guy who sat behind me in 8th grade math class "likes" Tombstone pizza.

*After posting this, I thought, Wait - is there even a dislike option on FB?  I don't actually remember, but I'm thinking no.  OK, I checked - you can "like" but not "dislike" things on FB.  This makes my disdain all the stronger.  All the rabbits in the world and I disapprove.

This being said, I am happy to share my thoughts on a couple of recently-bought products/experiences in this setting.  (My marketing strategy professor's favorite way to end any given sentence, whether it really makes sense or not, is with the words "in this setting."  Another guy in our department ends sentences characteristically with "from that standpoint."  A psychology professor is partial to "in this space," though he uses it less frequently and mixes things up by stating it in other positions in the sentence.)


Lands End Weatherfield Shoes:  These are my perfect "walk over 2.5 miles to school on wet, slushy, icy, or snowy (below about 2") ground in comfort and wear them indoors all day, admiring the subtly contrasting colors and pleasant shape below where my jean hems scrunch up" shoes.  I have the brown ones, and because they are currently on sale, have ordered the black and violet, too.  Because we contend with snowy conditions through Easter, I thought the violet ones would be nice for that time of year when 95% of the rest of Americans are wearing spring clothing.  I really, really wish they would make them in dark grey and in red or green or pretty much any other interesting color (perhaps not yellow or pink).

Kashi Dark Mocha Almond granola bars:  I gave these up for a couple weeks when I was being really strict about eating zero wheat, but I am now back to eating about 5 of these per week (with no negative effects; I have added back wheat only in the very small quantities in these granola bars and my mom's meatloaf recipe, which is mostly oat-based but has about half a tablespoon of wheat germ per serving, too).  I tried a bunch of strictly oat-based granola bars and they all (1) were not very filling for the calories, (2) tempted me even when I wasn't hungry and (3) left me wanting to eat another one right away even though (4) some of them didn't even taste all that good.  The Kashi mocha ones are filling (for only 130 calories), satisfyingly toothy, have a chocolate-y flavor without any gooeyness, are not very sweet, and taste quite good, but I never crave them when I'm not hungry or feel left wanting more.  I really appreciate foods that have a high ratio of liking to wanting (to hijack the terminology of neurologist Kent Berridge, who has done a lot of interesting, great work demonstrating that finding something pleasurable - liking it - and finding something motivating - wanting it - are regulated by different brain circuits).  This combination - enjoyable to eat without making me really want it - is especially hard to find in long-term shelf-stable snack foods in convenient form factors and calorie amounts that I can carry around in my backpack, stash in my office, etc.  So it's the bomb, basically.


Pei Wei restaurant in my nearby suburb:  Today was it.  Robert and I have been eating lunch at this place most Saturdays since we moved here, but this was the last time I'm going there.  I have really liked the place because (1) Pei Wei's chai iced tea is delicious, (2) it's easy to eat wheat and corn free, and (3) you don't have a server waiting on you so you don't have to feel bad about using up a table for a couple hours when they're not busy, which they typically aren't.  However, I would say that fully half the times we go, the awesome, wonderful chai iced tea is brewed so pathetically weakly that it is like having sex on a boat in a silty river - i.e., fucking close to dirty water.  We always complain, and they always brew a new batch.  Today, this process took, seriously, over 45 minutes.  This ridiculous delay, in combination with an especially too-loud stereo system and an egregiously loud and chatty set of 4 women at the table next to us (who Robert noticed after they left had gotten disposable to-go cups instead of the normal plastic cups yet left them on the table because, what, they enjoy being wasteful), has finally turned me against them.  (Coming home and finding out that the lunch was 200 calories more than I remembered it being, and hence not as filling/enjoyable for the calories as I thought, just capped it.)

Monday, January 9, 2012

475 Birds

Yesterday Robert and I went to the airport in search of a snowy owl that had previously been seen, but with no luck.  (We talked to a woman there who had been out every day last week looking for it with no success.)  I think snowy owl has officially taken over as my nemesis bird.  It was sort of amazing how many partly melted then re-frozen clumps of snow in the general shape of an owl there were out there, though.  I also saw some surprisingly bird-like light fixtures and security cameras. 

We also went to a park with a lake in the area and took a walk through a grassland-turning-to-marshland that was almost completely bereft of birds.  Seeing a few chickadees, cardinals, and house finches was the excitement of this walk.  The path ended at a lake but we had to turn back when we hit a marshy area that we couldn't cross.

So we approached the lake from a different place, this time immediately happening to meet up with a big guy dressed in camo and carrying a spotting scope and a camera with a gigantic lens.  He showed us two gull species that are usually found in the arctic but that for whatever reason decided to spend some time here.  I'm not usually very thrilled by looking at gulls, but it was interesting to see these birds (which were clearly different looking once you knew what you were looking for).  It made me think about how Robert's grandmother had a birding friend (appropriately named Martin) who lived on a lake and frequently phoned her to come out and see a 3rd year hybrid whatever gull that he had found - she wasn't into gulls either and so had to gauge how often she had to show up to look at his gulls to ensure that he kept calling her when he saw an exciting non-gull bird.

This experience has not transformed me into a gull lover, but it was with great satisfaction that I added to my life list:
Glaucous gull
Thayer's gull