Monday, February 25, 2008

I'm smitten

by socks!

For all my years of knitting I refused to knit socks--I couldn't see the point, the thought of all those toothpick needles and a billion stitches, plus the fact that I'm pretty hard on things, especially things I'm walking on. I tried knitting a pair of knee high socks about 4 years ago--I got halfway through the second one and realized the first one was way, way too small, and I hadn't kept notes about the calf increasing, and I just stuffed them into a box for 3 years of punishment.

Saturday a friend of mine asked me about turning a heel--she was trying to learn to knit socks. I couldn't make sense of the instructions on the spot, but suddenly I was motivated to go home and knit at least one so I could explain it to her. Of course, as soon as I got a little ways into it, I realized what all the hype was--so fast! So fun! And Chaos' mom was right--they are very soothing to knit--I don't even need a pattern now that I understand the construction!

The real "killer app" was trying it on and realizing it was going to fit my sasquatch foot. Fit it perfectly (well, ok, it actually, didn't, but I ripped and adjusted for my gauge, and now it does). Oh, heaven. I haven't had socks that fit in so long (20 years?) that it had stopped occurring to me that they could fit.

Plus look at that gorgeous yarn! It reminds me of orange cream soda!

And I cast on a little pi shawl/blanket:



ISE6 signups are open! I'm hosting again--it was such fun being involved last time!

I have some very exciting news about which I'll blog tonight.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Living the high life

You know your potato chips are overpriced when the serving suggestions include wine selections (nay, champagne suggestions):

But then you probably good have guessed that from the front of the package already:

This webpage was advertised in my feedreader as

Six new denizens of the deep—from crustacean crushers to pale and fleshy-lipped eelpouts—were found recently in oceans off Antarctica.

Possibly the most irresistable link I've seen in a long time.

I didn't realize I'd taken such a long blogging hiatus. I have the usual complaints (busy life, empty brain) and some not-so-usual (debilitating eyestrain-induced headaches from too much computer time which flare up from time to time). I've also been engaged in an abbreviated course of the spiritual exercises in everyday life. I've been flush with blogging topics because of it, but strangely hesitant to actually blog about any of them. I guess I'm a bit uncomfortable talking about my spiritual beliefs. This is partly because I don't want to alienate anyone (although I noticed myself getting a bit strident at times on environmental pollution topics), but also because I came of age at a time when it was really Not Cool to be religious, and I find that hard to shake. Anne Lamott talks about some of this in her book Traveling Mercies--the bizarre, ironic shame of having to "come out" as a Christian to one's hipper-than-hip friends. This prejudice is only magnified in the science world, where I sometimes wonder if they will secretly revoke my degrees if they find out I'm not an atheist!

I make occasional mysterious references to my "secret life" to my colleagues, implying that I have some kind of wild side which keeps me busy in my off hours. The irony of this amuses me to no end--my activities are in fact the most sedate, wholesome kind I can think of. It's also funny to me because I used to engage in a lot of wildly unwholesome ones, which I never kept very secret when they were going on. But that's a whole 'nother post. Another blog, even!

But I've also hesitated because, frankly, I fear the posts would veer off into self indulgence. Yes, even a personal blog has a limit to self absorption! I will say that I've found the experience extremely rewarding and enjoyable so far (I've done 2 weeks out of 5). I'm currently struggling with What I Want To Do With My Life, and this is a helpful process. More on this in the future.

A brief knitting update:

My two color brioche in the round cowl thingie (knit from all wool, not a wool silk combo like I mistakenly wrote). All I can say is squish heaven:

Pecan Pie Beret. While I achieved exactly the gauge specified in the pattern (possibly a first), the brim came out faaar too large.

I knit it with a wool silk blend which already had another life as an overly tickly neck gaiter:

I contemplated ripping back the beret and adding way more decreases, but I can't bear the idea of tinking so much brioche (and my experiences with ripping and picking up the stitches in brioche is far worse). The entire hat is a bit floppy. Since I already hate this yarn for being expensive and being such a failure (2 scarf attempts, a gaiter attempt) I'm going to take the plunge and see if I can't felt it down just a bit.....

The rest of that yarn is trying to be a pair of fetching, but all that tight knitting is killing my hands. Plus I need to extend the part so it even reaches my knuckles. I'm now feeling all self conscious about my hands being freakishly long.

I'm about to rip the half done bearded cap and the strap to the Monk's Travel Satchel. Both had been started in Zehpyr as a stash buster, but my experience with the aibhlinn stretching out like a mofo has made me realize I need to save the wool silk blends for items that don't need to hold their shape somehow. Hmmm, how is this relevent to the Pecan Pie Beret?

And I whipped up a little scarf for my mom. She liked the black hearts of oak pattern scarf I'd made, but also wanted something a bit lighter for better night-saftey. This is icy blue bamboo cotton and white polyamide furryness that was the softest thing I'd ever touched. I've always been a bit of yarn snob so I was surprised to find myself buying synthetic fun fur, but there you go. This was also my first garter stitch scarf!!

And I've made a bit of progress on the unspun sweater for my friend:

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

London pictures

I finally got my London pictures up. I had to rewrite my html-generating script in c. I am a really crappy programmer, so this took forever. I also had to keep reinstalling bits and pieces of tools--still finding broken things since I upgraded to OS X 10.5.

A couple highlights:

a goat in a bush:

a cat that lives at Canterbury Cathedral:

Sidewalk rules:

Anti-protester paint:


Saturday, February 02, 2008

Land use

One of the soap boxes I like to get on is about land use. Hmm, that's not a very appealing introductory sentence! Today's NASA Earth Observatory Newsroom image caught my eye. It's a map of tree canopy heights from 1650 to now. The tree canopy is just what it sounds like--the canopy of leaves formed by a forest. Trees have a large impact on local climate. A dense forest prevents much of the falling snow from reaching the ground, and also causes the snow that is there to melt faster (the tree trunks are far warmer than open land would be). A thick canopy of leaves is one of the darkest (most light absorbing) natural ground covers, absorbing up to 90% of the sunlight that falls on it. Contrast that to a snow-covered area which has been cleared of trees, and reflects 90% of the sunlight that falls on it.

You can start to imagine that clearing a forest might have a pretty big impact on the local climate. There is an interesting hypothesis that was put forward a few years ago by William Ruddiman that we humans started tinkering with climate long before our coal-burning frenzy began in the 1800s. His idea is that by clearing vast forests into crop and pasture land during the invention of agriculture 8000 years ago, we started altering climate unknowingly. Changing land use on a large scale changes many things--the sunlight absorbed, the depth and duration of snowcover, but also the chemistry of the atmosphere (those all-important "greenhouse gases"). Trees can store a lot of carbon, so cutting them all down changes how much carbon is absorbed from the atmosphere. Some cultivated plants, particularly rice, emit a lot of methane, which is another greenhouse gas. Domesticated farm animals also "emit" a lot of methane (actually, so do we bean-eating humans, although I'm not sure if anyone's tried to calculate our personal, direct contribution to global warming...). He even finds evidence for small climatic changes caused by the bubonic plague--enough people die that large amounts of land are abandoned and the forest returns.

This idea caused, well, it caused a shitstorm in the science world. A lot of people freaked out, somehow imagining Ruddiman's hypothesis contradicted current human-induced climate change. To me his idea, if true, only strengthens the case for how much we are changing things unknowingly. Modellers are furiously running simulations to see if they can quantify some of these effects, and it remains a big debate in the community.

I think it's a pretty cool idea--certainly food for thought. I'm also interested in the continuing land-use choices that we make. Last fall I applied for a faculty position in environmental science (which was, apparently, far out of my league...), and my proposed research project was to install a ton of little weather sensors around the urban area and try to understand how local choices affect local climate. For example, we know that adding a green roof acts to cool the building itself, but also prevents a bit of urban heat island because the moist, living, breathing greenery can be 25 degrees cooler than a searing hot asphalt roof. I wanted to explore this in more detail, as there are many of these ultra-local choices that can change local climate. Simple things like construction materials and the presence of parks or other green spaces or bodies of water can make a large difference on how miserably hot a city gets in summer. I'm really inspired by bringing the climate issue into the local realm. Yes, global carbon emission limitations are important, but I tend to feel pretty impotent in that process. I'm much more excited about things individuals and communities can work on. Not only would these help climate change, but they would make cities a lot more pleasant to live in.

Note: This material will not be on the final exam. Ha ha*. Hope someone found the science lesson interesting!!

*That is really me, although not my most spontaneous laugh (hard to make yourself laugh on demand for the mic). My (frequent) laugh is the one thing, bar none, I get complimented on the most and some friends were even threatening to make this into their ringtone.....


Friday, February 01, 2008

Confusion Tax

When I first moved to Zurich, I found myself making a lot of purchasing mistakes. Buying things that I thought were what I wanted, but weren't. This happened because of my bad German, or wishful thinking (it's sugar and it's brown, it must be brown sugar!), or cultural assumption (little jars of tiny cucumbers floating in vinegar must taste like pickles), or different genotypes (translate American clothing sizes to European. Buy pack of tshirts one size bigger than specified, just to be sure. Try on shirt. Nearly suffocate it is so tight, yet find it stretches halfway to the knees.) or miscommunication with clerks, especially at the pharmacy. In fact, pharmacy transactions continue to be a bane for me. Pretty much everything is behind the counter (even, say, vaseline!) and you have to ask for it (hence the expression "over the counter" for non-prescription meds). I find this frustrating for a couple of reasons:

1) The pharmacist, being helpful, will try to coerce you into the product of their choosing. If I really don't know what I need, that would be helpful. When I already know, it just seems patronizing. I know it isn't meant that way, but it's hard to put aside my cultural background

2) I feel like I'm being monitored--I'm not allowed to buy larger quantities of things. One time I asked for wart stuff and they insisted on seeing the wart (I should have said it was somewhere unmentionable) and then refused to sell me the over-the-counter medicine, claiming it was too small. Yeah, they start small and then grow, and they're a lot easier to treat when they're still small! Just sell me the damn crap.

3) I like to browse and compare packages. Which multivitamin has less iron? How many bandaids are in this box? Oh, these bandaids aren't sealed--oh, even worse, you have to cut them to size yourself with your rusty, dirty scissors. I get flustered really easily by clerks, and I can't think straight when someone is staring over me, so I wind up just buying whatever they thrust at me (or running from the store (#53)). When I wanted vitamins, I asked, and they went and laboriously got one single bottle. I could see there were others, but getting them to bring one of each so I could stand at the crowded counter for 20 minutes trying to translate the german and think under pressure? Not a good scenario for me.

So I wound up buying a lot of mistakes. I came up with the idea of a "confusion tax"--it's like a tax for newcomers and idiots. I found the idea amusing enough that it took the sting out of all the money (really, hundreds of dollars!) that I wasted. And sure enough, the monthly confusion tax outlay has steadily decreased.

But it's still there. I recently decided I needed some better lighting for knitting. At one time I had a full spectrum compact flourescent lamp (an Ott knockoff, back in New Hampshire). Lots of searching later, I found an online store in Switzerland with full spectrum CFLs (the real-store selection is very poor). I order. I wince at the ~30 dollars a single bulb is going to cost me. I wait. And wait. And wait. 7 weeks later, my package arrives (mail takes either 1 or 2 days to travel inside Switzerland which is, please recall, the slightly larger than the state of Maryland). I eagerly rip it open and install the new bulb in my it-only-faces-up floorlamp. Guess what. This is a directional bulb. I now have a very well-lit spot. On my ceiling. I've moved it to my hanging-from-the-ceiling lamp in the middle of the room. Giving me a well lit circle in the middle of the room. Far from the knitting couch.


I could try to mount a new downward-facing lamp, but the walls here are very strange--the ceilings are all plaster (I have several gaping holes from where I tried to mount things) and the walls apparently have metal cladding just underneath the weird, bumpy, looks-like-paint, but rips-off-like-wallpaper surface, and I can't get any nails or thumbtacks into it, so I've given up trying to mount stuff. My two ceiling lamps aren't mounted--they literally dangle from the electrical wires.

(It's funny how much apartment customs change. Most places I've lived in the US, all the sort of built in furnishings stay with the apartment. In the New Hampshir village I was in, somehow the custom had developed that you took your fridge/stove, etc with you when you moved. A rude shock to new arrivals having to outlay a grand. Here, the fridge and stove were left in place, but instead of lights, I just had pairs of bare wires dangling from the ceiling.)

Mostly all this seems funny to me--this is precisely the adventure I had signed up for. The great thing about living abroad is it encourages me to question all my assumptions--not just the obvious ones such as universal health care, or how do we, as a society, choose to treat people who find the basic responsibilities of life to be overhwelming. Life is a bit richer when I don't take everything for granted, and some amount of manageable deprivation just makes the enjoyment on reunion that much more intense. The best orange I ever ate in my life was the one I had on station opening at the south pole after a year of no fresh food.

P.S. I changed commenting platforms, which seems to have deleted all the old comments. Oops!

P.P.S. Oh--I guess I could buy another floorlamp, just a downward facing one!