29 December 2010

New Years Resolutions

Wow, has it ever been a busy holiday season!  Without my calendar in front of me to confirm, I would still guess that I averaged an event per day.  Fortunately, I managed to do well enough on my homework to make an A in my latest class.  Yay!

Since then I've caught up on some reading and articles.  Of all those I read, the one I want to point out is this one: Women and Money.  The first financial book I read was Smart Women Finish Rich by David Bach, which I feel is better than most books on female finances, but could certainly be improved with the information that the article's author suggests.

On the topic of scheduling, this is the point where I need to admit that I did too much in the last six weeks.  I'm working on that with my New Year's resolutions.  It's a mistake to make too many, though; I read a great article today about ways to help you keep your resolutions.  So here are my goals for 2011:
  • Financial Improvement: paying down debt, increasing income, reducing expenses.  My husband and I are doing our annual financial update next month, so I'm likely to blog about this a lot in the near future. I also intend to write a post soon about our financial journey.
  • Physical Improvement: I lost 16 pounds last year, but have gained back around 6.  Planning to drop that 6 again and then finish with the last 7 I was originally planning to be rid of.
  • Personal Improvement: Less agreeing/volunteering to do things, more reading, sewing, cross-stitching, and personal time, and no guilt about it.  Also, more having friends over and less going out (conveniently helping with the financial goals).
Is there something you're working on in the new year?  Do we have complementary goals or are you working on something uniquely yours?

21 December 2010

Lunar Eclipse

Tonight, all across the country, thousands if not millions of people are staying up late to watch the only total lunar eclipse of this year.  There's clear viewing across most of the country and this eclipse will have a totality of around 70 minutes, which makes for great viewing.  As I write this, the Earth's shadow is already creeping across the Moon's surface.

Historically, lunar eclipses are thought to be harbingers of evil and misfortune.  A quick survey of lunar eclipse and cultural significance reveals numerous cultures that told stories of Luna being swallowed by a dragon, a snake, a puma, or some other animal.  But tonight, all that is changing in a way that only 21st technology can bring about.

Tonight, people are not watching in solitude or isolated bunches.  As I'm writing this, I have dozens of friends whose Facebook statuses reflect their interest in this phenomenon.  They're staying up late and we're all watching the eclipse together, in a way that only 21st century technology makes possible.  Even those with no clear view of their own can watch via NASA's live feed on the web.

Tonight, I'd give a lot to have a decent telescope or pair of binoculars.  Rest assured, my digital camera is taking great pictures (to be shared tomorrow) but nothing beats a telescope for astronomical observation.

Pictures coming soon.  Happy viewing, everyone!  And Happy Winter Solstice!

15 December 2010

Impossible Things are Happening Every Day

It's a big, wide, interesting world.  Every day, my RSS feed on Google Reader brings me something strange and fun... often, several things that are strange and fun.  I have a huge backlog of TEDTalks to watch, but in the mean time I've been reading up on all sorts of other interesting topics.

These articles are all about how the world is improving:

  • A History of Violence: All about the changing realities of mortality in every day life and how violence has decreased in the last hundred years.  Yes, with two world wars, decreased.  Fascinating stuff by an author whose books are rising on my "to read" list.
  • Genetic tests for fetuses: A new, safer method that uses very sensitive maternal blood tests to check for genetic factors.  This article gives me serious Gattaca flashbacks, but modern medical science still amazes me.  I also feel obligated to point out that the writer does a very responsible job of explaining the time needed for commercial viability and the systematic drawbacks to diagnostics that reveal so much information.
  • MRI of baby being born: The title sort of speaks for itself, but the image is amazing.  It apparently required a whole new set up for an MRI scanner, but this sort of imaging can provide a wealth of information never previously available.
  • History of Life Expectancy and Wealth: I've seen this graph in a TEDTalk previously, but the 5 minute video and mini-lecture is a better explanation of the data itself.  A cool look at how life really is getting better for most people, dramatically so in the last 150 years.
  • Recognizing Women in Science: A long article that I'm still working through, but so far it's fascinating and well worth the time.  The Royal Society of Britain is celebrating its 350th birthday this year, but women were not allowed to join until 1945.  The article takes a look at what the RS and other scientific societies lost by excluding women (who were already winning international prizes for their work!).
And these articles are about things we could be doing better:
  • Creative Groups: A short list of things to do with groups of people to inspire creativity.  I think his points about group size are incredibly important.  And of course, it all runs back to my devout wish to run a 21st century Parisian salon or British coffee house...
  • Building Your Own Personal Finance Manual: A cool idea, which would never have occurred to me because I'm innately horrified of writing in books.  I would use Smart Couples Finish Rich, if I were to do this.  What would you use?
  • Terry Pratchett on Alzheimer's: An article that reminds us that there are still demons to slay.  If there were ever a reason to encourage your children to become thinkers and researchers and scientists, this is it.
  • Science in the Public's View: I don't necessarily endorse everything this article says, but the overall point is a great one, as shown by the pathetic coverage of NASA's newly discovered arsenic-using life form.  The second bullet point in the article is the scariest to me: 44% of people surveyed could not name a scientist role model; the top three choices of the remainder were not scientists (Bill Gates & Al Gore) or not alive (Albert Einstein).  Stephen Hawking, anyone?  Neil deGrasse Tyson?  Brian Cox?  Brian Greene?  All of whom are regularly featured on news programs and TV specials.  And those are just physicists, for crying out loud...
And last but not least, for sheet entertainment value, this clip about a family dinner date (complete with the man who would go on to play Ward Cleaver), with commentary brought to you by Mystery Science Theater 3000.  Not for the easily offended (i.e. those without a working definition of sarcasm), but very funny for the rest of us.

What about you?  Discovered anything lately that just amazes you beyond words?

06 December 2010

Holiday Charity

I posted a link to this before, but it got lost in the shuffle of a different post: Worldbuilders

Authors are becoming increasingly connected directly to their fans these days.  This is an attempt by an author to harness that power and do some good in the world.  It's hard to call Patrick Rothfuss a favorite author of mine, although I very much enjoyed his fantasy novel, because it's a small statistical sample.  But let's say that his book is awesome (because it is) and that he deserves adulation for setting this up year after year (because it's a huge undertaking and he does).

So what is Worldbuilders?  It's a drive to raise money for Heifer International, a global charity that is predicated on teaching poor and rural people responsible agricultural practices.  They have lots of great info about that on their site, so I won't repeat it here, but suffice to say that this is a charity with a strong systematic outlook.

But!  Worldbuilders is not just about "hand over the cash"!  There are prizes!  Good ones!  Specifically, a lot of rare and/or signed books, plus some miscellaneous items.  These are donated by publishers, authors, readers, and bookstores; the prizes can be seen on the blog linked above.  Most items are put in a lottery; a $10 donation gets you one lottery entry.  Some items are sold directly in their online store.  A few rare items (such as getting your manuscript professionally edited or a signed Brett Favre jersey) are put up for auction on Ebay.  And, thanks to the generosity of Rothfuss and some corporate sponsors, all donations are matched $0.50 on the dollar.  Last year, the final total was over $125,000, which was $190,000+ after sponsor matching, a mind blowing amount for such a distributed group of readers.

In any case, I think this sort of effort deserves a plug.  The lottery fundraiser portion is done on December 13th, but some of the auctions extend beyond that.  If you haven't decided where to put your holiday charity money yet, consider Worldbuilders, where your money is worth 50% more.  The latest blog entry by Patrick Rothfuss gives your odds of winning with a $20 donation at 1 in 8, which are good odds for such cool stuff!

02 December 2010

Gift Lists

After my last post, a friend asked an interesting question:
As far as gifting goes, I'm curious what your thoughts are on that. I've been having the worst time building christmas lists these past few years. Maybe next year, when we're not a DINK household (dual income, no kids), I'll have more wants. Right now, and with our current financial choices, it's difficult to generate a christmas list of reasonably priced items that we haven't already bought for ourselves.
We were a DINK household, too, and it does make a difference.  When I write my Christmas list, it's for me, not for my family, as my husband is quite capable of writing his own list.  Two solid incomes meant we could buy anything we needed while still meeting our financial goals.  Right now, even though I'm doing online tutoring, I still consider us a single income household (my income is wiggle room in the budget).  That does make a huge difference in what we can afford, but as you probably know, we are very careful with our money and are sure to use it where we need it.  Being budget conscious, we also strive to put reasonably priced items on our lists, although we generally include one or two "big" items as well.  I'm not sure how well this thought process will work for everyone, but here's what I did this year.

I mentally and physically break my list into categories.  Yes, I organize my lists.  You're shocked, right?  First, I include the basics: clothes, anything I need, and stores I shop at for gift cards.  Most people that I know hate giving gift cards, but I love receiving them.  It's a great feeling when I do want to go shopping (rare, but it does happen!) and I can do it for free!

The next thing to go on the list is what I think the household/family could use. For instance, this year I have a large "kitchen goods" section.  None of the things on that list are really necessary (hence why I haven't bought them for myself), but they would make my kitchen easier or more fun to use.  The current list includes things like tea spoons, a milk frother, and a recipe box.

After that, it's all individual taste.  I used to ask for tons of stuff but only use a small portion, leading to tremendous clutter.  Now, I try to pay attention to what I actually use in my house and how that could be improved.  For instance, this year I spent a lot of time cooking & baking, exercising, sewing & cross-stitching, drinking tea, and reading.  Hence, there are kitchen & tea accessories, exercise equipment, sewing paraphernalia, and crafting supplies on my list.  For the first time since I was very young, the list only included one video game and three DVDs.  I just don't spend much time playing video games or watching movies any more.

And then of course, there are the books.  *evil grin*  Okay, I actually wasn't that bad.  The list was mostly books in series I've already started or new titles by authors I love.

I'm also trying something new.  Get Rich Slowly had a great post last year about a study showing that good experiences lead to happiness more consistently than good Stuff does.  Based on my experience, especially in the last year, that felt very true to me.  So this year, I also included some "experience" requests, like tickets to the local symphony orchestra.

If that sounds like a lot, remember that this list goes to six different households, all of whom buy gifts separately, and all of whom like to have options, making me sympathize with the need to be creative when writing!

Does your family influence how you write your gift list?  Did you give that up when you got married or reached a certain age?  Do you request them from others or use a different method to choose gifts?  How do you handle gift giving during the holidays?

30 November 2010

Holiday Resources

With December starting tomorrow (eep!) and Christmas just around the corner, it's time that I came through on my promise of a bargain shopping post.  George and I love shopping for Christmas gifts.  He likes to buy something just right (i.e. expensive) and I like to buy for everyone... you can see how this would quickly become a problem.  One of the hardest parts of our financial journey has been to convince ourselves that good gifts should be thoughtful, not perfect.

The last two years we have successfully given ourselves a per-person spending limit.  We decide together who we're buying for (8 people this year, excluding ourselves), what our total budget is, and divide, leaving a little margin for error.  Since we're a military family, the rest of our families live hundreds of miles away, so that limit includes everything: the item, taxes, & shipping.  You don't pay taxes and shipping with Monopoly money!

I'm still choosing gifts for everyone this year, but while I'm doing that, I'm using some basic techniques and tricks to stretch our budget as far as possible.  Here's what I've come up:

  • Shop Online - In my world, online beats in line any day.  Internet sites can be a great way to compare prices, look at reviews, and avoid buying related to social pressure ("I came in so I should buy something to make the trip worth it...").  I recently posted about how I saved 66% on some books that I ordered; 2/3 of that discount came just from shopping online instead of in stores.  Some people enjoy the "thrill" of shopping in a store, but I always feel stressed when I shop.  Thus, the lack of instant gratification is great for me (i.e. I can't buy to make myself feel better because I don't feel bad in the first place).  I can sit back, make a calm decision, and either buy (cheaply!) or walk away with no problem.  *See my note at the bottom for info about paying online.
  • Comparison Shop - This is the #1 rule of bargain hunting (#2 is probably Never Pay Sticker Price).  Search for the lowest price, keeping in mind extraneous costs like shipping.  This is about an information imbalance: if only the seller knows the cost, you lose.  If you comparison shop, you are correcting that imbalance in your favor.
  • Coupons - Coupons aren't just for grocery shopping!  They can save you hundreds when used properly.  Sign up for your favorite stores' emails (see the email section below) and you'll get coupon codes for online shopping as well as in-store discounts.  There are a number of sites that collect coupon codes (my favorite is RetailMeNot and there are others), but you can just Google "(store name) coupon" to find them, as well.  There are also online sites that have deep discounts advertised for local activities or one day deals: Groupon is the most famous, but again, sites like this are growing in number.
  • Cash Back Programs - This is as close to free money as you're going to get.  There are two ways to get cash back on purchases and yes, they can be used together!  The first method is the "old fashioned" way - that is, rewards cards, which can be used in stores or online.  Every credit or debit card we have is linked to some type of rewards program.  (As a personal note, I think if your bank or card company doesn't offer a rewards program for free, it's time to swap banks... yours isn't working enough for you!)  Some of these give you a percentage back, either on your statement or in the form of a check, and some earn you points towards gift cards.  The second method takes advantage of the advertising arrangements between online retailers.  It involves signing up on a website (generally with just an email address and name) and then using that website to link to wherever you're shopping online.  My preferred site is Ebates but there are several other reputable sites out there (and again, it pays to compare!).  This article from Living with Less has a great overview of available sites and how to use them.
  • Discounted Gift Cards - Still going to the store to buy gift cards?  Think again.  Sites like Plastic Jungle buy gift cards that people don't want at a discount from the face value (another money source if you have these laying around) and then sells them to people for a slightly lower discount. There are many sites like that, so I use Gift Card Granny to find them.  This can be a great way to save big right up front.  Standard discounts generally run from 5-15%, but I have seen much bigger numbers.  You can use this two ways: to get gift cards as gifts for others at a discount or for yourself to use to purchase gifts.  Combined with a coupon, this can add up to a very big discount.
I would be remiss if, along with those methods listed above, I didn't mention a couple of things that I do to make my very busy life a little less stressful.
  • Email Address for Advertisements & Orders - I have a separate email address for all websites.  Every coupon site, every store, every newsletter goes to that address.  It's easy to get a free email address these days; I recommend gmail because of their phenomenal spam detection and organizational tools.  I opened that address thinking that stores were selling my email address and I didn't want to wade through spam or advertisements not targeted at me.  In fact, it has been a great organizational tool because all of my coupons and ads go to that account and all of my online order info is there as well.  And I have to say, having had the address for the better part of a year, not a single spam item has been found... not by the spam filter and not by me in the inbox.  Which should tell you something about those forwards your friends and family send you...
  • Security when Buying Online - Shopping online is easier and more secure than ever.  Most companies have shipping date guarantees and tracking numbers; the information that you enter is fairly standardized (name, address, card #, etc.) so you can detect anomalies easily; you can use a payment service (like Paypal, although there are others) instead of your credit card if you prefer; and your Visa or MC is protected from fraud liability as long as you report it.  Major credit card companies also offer an option to use a "dummy number" that they generate for your online purchases, which you can get through their websites when you log in to your account, as an extra layer of security.  While you should be careful when shopping online, using a major credit card, looking for the https:// instead of http://, and being heads up about what information a company actually needs are good ways to ensure your information is being properly used.

I should quickly point out that I recommend doing all of this in addition to having a solid financial plan.  If you can't afford it in the first place, no discount is going to make your situation better.

It's been a long post, but I know most of my friends are as bargain minded as I am, so I hope you found it interesting.  There are lots of opportunities to spend less.  Is there anything you do that gets you more for your money?  Tips or techniques to use in combination with these?

29 November 2010


Ten days since I posted last!  I hope that everyone had a happy Thanksgiving full of family, friends, and good food, just like I did.

After a very busy week (week?  month!), I had some downtime today to catch up on my Google Reader articles.  I've recently added several science blogs to my subscriptions, catching up on current science trends and discoveries.  Several articles and an email lead me to thoughts about validation through peer review.  It's a time honored scientific mantra that research isn't valid until it can be reproduced and subjected to critical review.  The underlying assumption, of course, is that the reproduction and review are done by other people.

Under certain circumstances, that is absolutely necessary.  Specifically, if you want other people to believe your science, your methodology needs reproducibility and peer reviewing.  But what if you don't want to publish your science?  Nothing in the definition of science says that it must be shared.

Regardless, that's largely a philosophical argument, the kind best done around dinner time with good food and wine available.  The practical implications of peer-reviewing are a little jarring to an introvert like me... maybe they are to extraverts, too.  For instance, this article, which describes a trial being started with autistic children.  It's a bit long but not dense and it rightfully points out that there are a number of unscientific and unethical aspects to this trial.  But the article also says this:
 There is no evidence, other than a non-peer reviewed paper Montagnier self published in a journal he edits, that this is possible.  This paper makes most extraordinary claims that remain unreplicated – a basic requirement for research to be considered worth responding too, much less accepted.
 If the science is wrong, say so.  If the evidence does not substantiate the conclusion, call it out.  But don't condemn the work just because you didn't have a chance to give your opinion.

Even that example is a little esoteric.  So let's bring it to the quotidian, shall we?  Let's say that you want to host a group event.  You check with a couple key members of the group, who green-light things (I did my social due diligence! screams the introvert).  You send the invitation.  You get good responses back until... The One.  Who says s/he is upset that s/he can't attend... but really means to say (and does a good bit of implying) that the real problem is that s/he wasn't consulted and her/his opinion was critical to this event.  Who has implied that their opinion is more valuable than yours, as is their time.  Peer review!  The opinions of the peer group (in this case, the invitees) is more important than the originator (the host), regardless of whether or not the original idea was quality or not.

In case it's not obvious, I'm very over this mentality today.  It does, however, remind me of a great quote by one of my favorite historical figures:
“Men often oppose a thing merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike.” ~Alexander Hamilton
I guess some things never change.

19 November 2010

Savings Article

When I first started this blog, I was also discovering other web features.  The one I've used most so far is Google Reader.  This is a cool (and free!) organizational tool that lets me collect, via RSS feeds, all the blogs and websites I read into one location.  I just sign into my Google account and voila, interesting updates tailored to me (and by me).  It's also the source of most of the articles that I feature here.

I read several interesting articles today, learning that I don't know squat about tea (yet!) and that Patrick Rothfuss' annual Worldbuilders fundraiser has restarted (great cause + cool swag = awesomeness).  My blog following is a little eclectic, but centered on a lot of the themes I use here: books, authors, tea, history, economics, and personal finance.

So it should come as no surprise that it was this Freakonomics article that captured my attention this morning.  It discusses an interesting idea about using incentives to encourage savings.  Using some quick Google research, the current savings rate in the US is anywhere from a negative number to about 4%, depending on what you count as "savings".  It always surprises me how little financial preparation many people have; the article's note about half of Americans not being able to access $2,000 in 30 days is pretty jarring.  Speaking from experience, our financial planning and savings have been fundamental to our success in the last year, in which I have been unable to find a job commensurate with my skills and education.  I can't imagine going through these months with no savings account, knowing that any unexpected financial burden would drive us further in debt.

The best aspect of articles like that one?  It reminds me that even when money is tight that we took the right steps.  It's good to keep it all in perspective.  What finance statistics and factoids surprise you?

16 November 2010

Book Elimination Progress

My bookshelf already looks better.  I got rid of 12 books from my spreadsheet that I know I won't read.  Plus, there were over a dozen books that had crept onto my shelves with no mention in my reading list.  Most of those were put out as well, and I added the seven books that I do intend to get to.  I also put 8 more titles "on notice" by sticking them in a box.  All told, I eliminated 4,932 pages from my reading list, about a 20% reduction.  The eight boxed books are potentially another 2,644 pages to go, although some of those titles will find their way back to my reading list.

Overall, I'm proud of myself for this.  My bookshelf is cleaner, my reading list is up to date, and my reading is not an emotional drag for the first time in months.  Of the books that I own and will read, I have 21,535 pages to enjoy, although that number will drop as I finish a few more books before the end of the year.  I would love to be below 20k pages by January 1st, but hesitate to set that goal knowing how busy I am between now and then.  In any case, that is a do-able number for next year's reading and I intend to set that New Years Resolution for myself.

Next up are my Goodreads shelves.  I already created a couple of new exclusive shelves, titled "potential to-reads" and "removing from reading list".  The "removing" list currently stands at 43 books and growing; I'll delete this list and its contents once I've gone through all the unread books.  I'm moving books I'm interested in but not actively pursuing from "to read" to the "potential" shelf.  This will create a pool of books to draw from if I want something new but also remove the emotional burden of a 200+ title "to read" list.  Books that I own will stay on the main list, as will books on my "anticipated purchases" list.

Okay, that's all very complicated.  But the point is, I'm lightening my load and making reading a fun hobby rather than a chore.  It's very much like handling our finances; now that I know where things are, I feel more relaxed and in control.  Anything that helps reduce stress this time of year is definitely worth the time.

Now there's a better question: what to do with the books I'm not reading?  Options include donating, trading, or selling.  I'm leaning toward selling for the money and because it wouldn't create more books for me.  Has anyone else done online book selling?  Or have a good charity to donate to?

15 November 2010

Used Books

Based on a comment from one of my book reducing blog entries, I thought I'd talk a little bit about my philosophy on used books.  Succinctly, I avoid buying used books whenever possible.  Before that sounds a little harsh, here's why: The author doesn't get credit.

I'm a big believer in honest free market trading.  I feel that if there's a way for me to help an author to benefit from their craft, I should do it.  Used book sales are not tracked and do not generate royalties for the author.  So I make every reasonable attempt to buy new copies of books that I read, in the hopes that the author makes enough money to continue writing books that I enjoy.

Yes, this is impactful from a financial point of view, but not as much as you'd think (see my previous post on my 66% book discount!).  Used booksellers are getting smart and comparing prices online.  Even in the last five years, the number of good deals I find are diminishing noticeably.  I completely understand that some people only buy used for financial reasons, needing to watch every single cent.  If it comes down to feeding yourself or buying a new book, I feel like the choice is obvious.  Realistically, I'm no longer in that position, so I can afford to stand on principle on this issue.

So when do I buy used?  When a book is out of print and no longer available new, of course.  Then there's no way for the author to receive credit, so I feel free to enjoy the book on whatever terms I can find it.  I'm very excited about authors who are working to publish their backlist as ebooks.  When I get an e-reader, that will be the first set of books I buy.

In the spirit of holiday bargain shopping posts, you might be interested in the best find I ever made in a used bookstore.  Six years ago, I found a hardcover copy of On Basilisk Station, which a friend had recommended to me.  At $0.25, it was much cheaper than a new paperback (this was in my college days when it really was a choice between groceries and books!). I bought it, read it, loved it, and started looking for copies of the next book in hardcover online.  I was shocked to find that because of limited printings (the early hardcovers for the series were published retroactively), the book that I bought for $0.25 was worth over $40 online!  I purchased the next few books new in paperback.  Years later, once I could afford it, I purchased all of the in-print hardcovers new and am only missing one of the out-of-print books.  I still have that original book... it was worth more to me as an enjoyable story than the $40 return on investment that I could have received.

What's the best book deal you've ever gotten?

14 November 2010

In Which I Gloat About Cheap Books

I'm slowly learning that everything can be had for a bargain.  Paying sticker price is rarely either a good idea or your only option.  There are some days that this goes better than others.  For instance, I shoot for an average 10% coupon rate at the grocery store, but that means that I range anywhere from about 4% to my all time high of 17%.

Today, though, I'm pretty sure I got one of my best deals ever on books.  I purchased three books (not all for me) which were list prices of $29.99, $15.00, and $15.00, or $59.99 total.  At least, that's what they would have been in the bookstore...

I do a lot of my shopping online; it makes it easier to compare prices, make calmer decisions, and to walk away from an item I'm not 100% sold on.  Knowing that I wanted to purchase these books, I turned to online retailers to see what kind of a deal I could get.  I settled on Barnes & Noble because I had a gift card and because I almost always have a coupon.  Amazon rarely sends out coupons and Barnes & Noble has been on a successful push to narrow the online price gap (the difference in totals came out to a few cents and I don't remember in whose favor).

Just for shopping online, the prices of the books are $16.43, $8.72, and $10.59, or $35.74 total.  That's already a 40% discount, just for clicking the mouse instead of wasting gas money!  The other great thing about internet shopping is how savvy people have thought of so many smart ways to use the web.  So even though the most recent email coupon I had from Barnes & Noble was expired, I just Googled "Barnes & Noble coupon", and voila, coupon codes!  In this case from Retail Me Not, which had a 25% off one item code.  After putting that in, my final total was $31.63, a  47% discount.  Could it get better?  Oh yeah.

The piece de resistance is that I had a $11.14 gift card from returning a book I purchased a few months ago and decided I would never get around to reading in my recent book elimination efforts (new post on that coming soon!).  Because I made a smart choice in trading in a book I wouldn't read, I paid $11.14 less than the discounted price for books I will read.  It hardly seems worth mentioning that the credit card I used to finish the transaction gives me 5% back on book purchases (I will, of course, pay off the balance just as soon as the transaction clears and my books arrive).

Even after factoring in taxes, and we all know lower sales price means less sales tax, I paid $21.56 for what should have been a $64.19 purchase.  I saved myself 66% off the sticker price.  Not too shabby, if I do say so myself!

Could I have done better?  Believe it or not, yes!  If I had a Barnes & Noble Membership I could have saved another 10% off the discounted price (saving about another $3, or 5% overall).  I could also have purchased a discounted gift card to use on the purchase.  I could have gotten my purchase price below $15 if I had really wanted to, and honestly, I'm kicking myself a little bit that I didn't.  But not too hard.  Because you have to admit, 66% off is a pretty awesome discount.

11 November 2010

More Randomness

Sometimes I feel like most of what I post is a round-up of interesting links, but I also feel like I can't help it.  Too much interesting stuff is going on in the world!  And the internet brings it right to me to share!

First, the best piece of the day: Karen Traviss' blog.  Karen Traviss is a British sci-fi/fantasy author that I follow.  Her writing is phenomenal (even if I have only read her Star Wars work; the rest are staying on my to read list) and I respect her views on many topics.  The entry linked above is about Remembrance Day (Britain's equivalence to Veterans Day, both coming from the Armistice Day holiday) and what we owe our veterans.  It's a long post and totally worth it.  If you don't read anything else from this entry, check out that blog entry.

Second, some interesting info about e-book sales from publishers, rather than retailers.  I've never seen hard data on market share for genres before this article (admittedly never having searched it out) and I'm surprised to learn that sf/f sells better than romance.  Go figure.

Lastly, I found this blog entry from a Freakonomics article about the same paper referenced in the blog.  I'm not a big fan of the climate crisis panic, but this is fascinating information about the effectiveness of female education.  TEDTalks has a lot of info on that topic and I'm slowly going through some really brilliant speeches by people who are making a huge difference in this field. I'll try to post some of them soon.

"Down Time" Escapes Me

So in what is all too typical of me, I managed to cram everything under the sun into my 5 days off.  My house is finally clean... well, the downstairs is, anyway.  And the finances are updated/readjusted for now and I made some progress on Lego Harry Potter.  But what I'm really excited about is this weekend!  I have an action packed three days coming up:

Friday is a day trip to New Orleans with some of the ladies from the local spouses' club.  This should be a good trip because we really have not taken advantage of the closeness of NOLA yet, so hopefully I'll get some inexpensive day trip ideas.  Plus, I get to hang out with a good friend!

Saturday is the Renaissance Festival in Hammond, LA.  In honor of Veterans Day, this weekend is half off for military families.  I've heard nothing but good about this festival and I'm very excited to be going with yet more good friends!

Sunday is my cram day of sorts... we were originally going to spend the whole day at the semi-local Celtic Festival (complete with jousting, music, and sheep herding dogs!).  But of course I had to get on the internet and one thing led to another (as it often does for me) and I found a Christmas craft fair!  And, even more unsurprisingly, it's only this weekend, just like the Celtic Festival.  Thus, Sunday is just going to be busy and that's all there is to it.

You may notice the lack of book clearing.  Not to worry, I started the list two days ago and just have to go take them off my shelves now.  Going to squeeze in the worst part of that before we go out to dinner tonight.  But first, I have to kick the two napping beagles off my lap!

09 November 2010

Today's Finds

While I'm waiting for my class' website to load, I'm happy to announce that I finished my final paper for my second class!  Yay!  I'd like to thank all the History and English teachers I ever had for giving me so much work that I learned to write a 4,000 word paper, complete with research and editing, in 10 hours.  And also for their unending patience with my stubborn reticence to improve my writing, despite their excellent teaching efforts.

Whew!  Now that that's done, let's move on to something more interesting.  Or rather, several somethings:

First up, yet another cool article from Get Rich Slowly.  This one is about how to make car dealerships fight over your business.  Or, at least, how to stop getting ripped off so horribly.  What I got out of this, besides how to make my introverted-self very happy if we ever buy a car from a dealership, was the writer's solution to a gender issue, namely that car salesmen offer better deals to men.  Because after all, a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do.

Secondly, a short article about natural versus human-made systems.  This one's particularly concerned with genetically modified food.  My favorite quote:
The fact that cross-species gene transfer happens without human intervention in nature, however rare, provides further justification for viewing transgenic technology not as a Frankensteinian intervention into the natural world, but as yet another method of trait selection, something we’ve been doing with heroic results since the dawn of agriculture.
Believe me, statistically speaking, you wouldn't be here without that intervention.  For info, look up the history of fertilized soil some time.  I'm reposting this article because the underlying lesson is a favorite philosophy of mine: That every choice, even making no choice through non-action, has consequences.  The point is not to avoid them, because you can't, but rather to engineer them to be positive consequences, something that human beings are uniquely suited to do.  In short, don't hate humanity!

Lastly, a few weeks ago I posted my review of Steven Johnson's new book, Where Good Ideas Come From.  As my review implied, I'm completely enamored by this book and have referenced it countless times since I read it just a few months ago.  This article from the UK's Guardian says everything I felt about this book, but in a more journalistic, readable way.  If I'd said it, it would have rambled.

And while I've been typing, my paper is officially submitted!  All done with my second class.  My third class, Project Planning Execution and Closure, starts Sunday.  Too bad I'll be at the Celtic Festival!

04 November 2010

Back to the Book Question

I feel a bit like a kid today: I'm counting down the days until school is out.  Or rather, till my current class is done (5 days!).  I have three more assignments, including one 15 page research paper, which will be about the systems engineering behind e-readers.

In any case, I get a very short break between classes, only 5 days, so what I'm actually thinking about is how to spend those days.  Two of them, Saturday and Sunday, will be taken up with a Renaissance Festival and a Celtic Festival and Highland Games (very excited about both... even budgeted for souvenirs, i.e. cool jewelry...).  For the remaining three days, there are two goals (big step for me: notice the lack of house cleaning objectives!):

  1. Beat Lego Harry Potter (almost done w/ Year 4, just need to go back and play to 100%)
  2. Par down my to-read lists.
No typo, lists.  There are 3!  One on Goodreads, one on a spreadsheet, and one that's a stack of books in my room.  Obviously, there's a lot of overlap, but I suspect some books have sneaked onto one list or another without my acknowledgement.   Based on what I wrote before and the awesome feedback I received, here are my new book elimination rules:
  1. Any Star Wars books/series that I started and didn't like (I'm looking at you, Coruscant Nights!) or that I haven't yet started will be eliminated.
  2. Any book I've owned more than 4 years without reading will be eliminated or boxed, no exceptions (and I can't cheat here, there's yet another list with proof of ownership for that long).
  3. Any book that I feel will not be read will be eliminated or boxed.
  4. Parts of series that I've never bothered to collect will be eliminated.
Even if I wuss out a bit on #3, I think that's going to take care of most of the dead weight on my shelves.  Anything in a box (call it a "maybe toss it" box) will stay until January 1st.  If I can't remember it in two months, it goes.  I track my reading annually and I want to start next year's reading feeling lightened and not duty-bound to read something because it's on a list.  I want to go to a bookstore and pick up a book without feeling guilty that I have dozens at home that are unread.  I'm inspired by the success of others and knowing that when I eliminate Stuff, I feel healthier.

Are there other rules you would recommend?  Have you successfully done this yourself?  And how do I have a book list party to add some social pressure?  Or should I bribe myself with a treat to celebrate afterwards?

03 November 2010

Narrators and Biases

I forgot to add this article to my earlier post about books:

Kate Elliott's Blog which links to this blog post: Michelle Cooper: Just a Girls' Book.

I know from experience that this happens all the time with children's and YA novels.  What do you think?

Book Issues

This month the book club I'm part of is reading The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.  I sort of wish it was here this morning because it is storming outside.  It is so gray and nasty, the perfect day to cuddle up on the couch with hot tea and a long book.

Speaking of long books, I recently finished Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule.  As you can see in my review, I was un-enthused.  Very disappointing, as I had several friends whose opinions I trust recommend this series.  I'm pushing through the second one, Stone of Tears, which seems to be picking up a bit, but even on this rainiest of days, I don't feel compelled to read it.

What I'd really like to be reading is the penultimate Wheel of Time door-stopper, Towers of Midnight.  I tried to order it last night, along with this month's book club selection.  On Amazon, the order came to around $24.50 and on Barnes & Noble, $26.03.  Those of you familiar with online ordering know that I wanted to order from B&N because I would get free shipping.  So I put both books in my online cart and, lo and behold, the price of Towers of Midnight dropped by $1.42.  Which would normally be great, but this time would in fact cost me $4.98 in shipping, a losing deal.  I'm not going to the store to pay full price for either book, so I guess I'll wait a few days and see if either book price increases by $0.39.  Only I could be upset at prices dropping!

So instead of reading today, I'm applying for a new job.  Wish me luck...

In for a Penny

This is the smartest article I've seen in awhile:

One Dunkin’ Donuts store is taking a stand against the penny.  A sign at the store reads “We will be rounding your change to the closest nickel. For example, if your change is $2.03, we will give you $2.05. If your change is $2.22, you will receive $2.20.  For any customer who still would like their pennies, please just ask the cashier and we would be happy to accommodate you.” The change is designed to speed up service. Here’s hoping the initiative goes viral. 
 In case you weren't aware, it costs more than $0.01 to make a penny (and more than $0.05 to make a nickel).  So basically, every time a penny or nickel is made, we lose money.  Lots of people have advocated for the U.S. to stop producing new pennies and nickels and Congress will review a bill to change the metal composition of coins to reduce production costs next year.  It may not sound like much, but think about the billions of pennies and nickels out there... yeah, it adds up (more info here).

30 October 2010

About Those E-Readers

I want an e-reader.  Desperately.  Enough to make what is, for me, a large financial commitment for a relatively new device and to continue that commitment with future purchasing.  This is a device I would use constantly, researching, reading for school, and feeding my insatiable sci-fi/fantasy habit.  So why don't I own one yet?

Over the years, with an increasing understanding of finances, I have come to be frugally minded.  I track where every dollar of our money goes.  Later this morning, I'll be doing the weekly accounting as well as setting up the few bills for November that are not on auto-payment.  But this emphasis on the value of money leads me to an interesting mindset: I believe very strongly in buying the things you want.  No, really!

The worst purchases I have ever made are, without a doubt, the ones where I compromised quality for cost.  Not because they were a bad decision or didn't meet the criteria I had set out, but rather because I hated them.  Hated that they represented my inability to obtain what I wanted.  Every time I look at a purchase like that, I think about the compromise I made and what I gave up, rather than the value that I added or how much I like the product.  As my favorite personal finance blog says, money is mental and emotional as much as it is rational.

Hence, my husband and I have a strategy for managing the emotional side of money: buy what you want.  I'm not saying go impulse spend or go into debt, but save the money for the product you want, not the one that's 50% of the cost for 75% of the features (technically a better value but not satisfying!).  This is the same reason that we own and use our 27" CRT television rather than buying a big screen TV.  We want one of the best on the market and we'll wait until we've saved the cash for it, rather than wasting money on an inferior product.

So back to those e-readers.  I was excited about Barnes & Noble's announcement of the NOOKcolor this week.  It seemed to be the e-reader I was waiting for.  After looking through the specs, however, it's not even close.  Here are my criteria in a rough order of precedence:
  1. E-ink screen, not LCD.  I want to read in bright sunlight on car trips.
  2. Multiple file support, including .pdf, .doc, .docx, and .epub.  Others are a plus, but those 4 are required for my continual use.
  3. Color.  If I'm reading a .pdf for school, I need to see the definition on graphs.  Yes, there is a company out there that has developed a color e-ink screen; they're "in talks" with manufacturers.
  4. Note taking.  I'm creating an electronic commonplace book for myself and I need to be able to move quotes from books or articles to OneNote.
  5. Expandable storage.  I'm a book acquisition nut and one day I'm going to blow through the device's limit, especially with all the public domain books that are available for free.
  6. Easy to use.  This includes understandable menus and fast refresh rates for quick page changes.
  7. 3G.  Wi-fi is great, but if you want me to impulse buy books on a road trip, 3G is a must.
  8. Web-surfing.  I don't need to do extensive web searches, but access to an online dictionary, Facebook, Wikipedia, my blog, my email, and blogs I follow are a must.
  9. Other pluses: .mp3 player, long battery life, nifty accessories, ability to lend e-books.
It's really not much to ask, considering that all of these features are available on some e-reader device.  The problem?  They aren't available on the same device.  The Kindle misses #2, 3, 5, & some of 9.  The Nook misses #3, 6, & 8.  NOOKcolor misses #1, some of 9, & possibly 6.

I hope that some manufacturer wises up soon and realizes what could be done with an all-inclusive e-reader.  In any case, I'll be reserving my cash until MY e-reader appears.

25 October 2010

Catching Up

As I said last time I posted, I've had many topics I wanted to post about in the last week.  But fate in the form of training orders arrived today and, consequently, my week just became busier.  So instead of doing separate posts about each, I thought I'd post the links to articles I've read and let you enjoy them yourself.
  • Freakonomics: Pesticide Politics - The Freakonomics blog, by the authors of the bestselling book as well as other contributors, is one I follow and enjoy because of the wide array of topics and viewpoints presented.  This one discusses pesticide in produce and centers on a favorite topic of mine: the misappropriation of science to scare people who don't understand science.
  • Reason: Of Mice and Men - An interview with one of the scientists cited in the Freakonomics article.  It's older (1994) but a great source for insight into a true scientist's mind.
  • Wired: The Geek Syndrome - Wired is a magazine and online site for people who revel in technology and science.  I often find informative and largely unbiased articles on a variety of topics contained within.  This article, also a little older (2001), is about the increasing prevalence of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) diagnosed in the children of geeks.  It describes Asperger's syndrome extremely well, so it's worth reading just for that, but it's more interesting when you consider that recent studies show that ASDs are increasing across the country, which was not known in 2001.  One day we're going to understand autism spectrum disorders better and we're going to look at our society as a whole and say "Duh.  Of course it's that way.".
  • Wired: Autism-Spectrum Quotient - I include this even though it's not an article because anyone who is interested in personality dynamics will find it interesting.  It's a 50 question test designed to look for autism tendencies in persons of normal or above-average intelligence, i.e. to locate potential high-functioning autism or Asperger's syndrome cases that may go unnoticed because of overall smarts and coping abilities.  I wasn't surprised by my own score... were you?
  • TEDTalks: Temple Grandin - (19:44) Speaking of autism, one of the world's most famous autistic persons is Temple Grandin (there was a movie made recently about her that you can find on TV occasionally).  This is a speech by her about the need for all types of thinkers.
  • TEDTalks: Steven Pinker - (22:39) Pinker has a couple of books out that I already wanted to read; after listening to this talk, they're going on my Christmas list.  If you've read Freakonomics or its sequel, SuperFreakonomics, you'll very much enjoy this talk about the brain and its characteristics.
There was more, but that's probably enough link-spam for one day.  Enjoy!

    22 October 2010

    Brain Survey

    When it rains, it pours... I went from being solidly bored most of last week to freakishly busy in a hurry.  We're in Atlanta (traveling blog!) for a friend's wedding this weekend.  Somehow that compressed my week into one frantic day after another and it's not going to quit till some time next week... maybe the week after.  Ugh.

    All of that to say that I've had a number of topics I wanted to blog on in the last few days that I haven't had time to formulate into decent posts.  So here's a highlight of my brain over the last week:
    • Homework - I'm half way through my 2nd class, doing really well, just staying busy.  This class requires reading and responding to a case study every week, the shortest of which was over 80 pages. This week's is 137 pages and I should be reading it instead of blogging!
    • Trip Preparation - A 3 day trip is tricky because you do all the prep work of a longer trip without the payoff.  Plus, pretty much every second of this weekend is booked, which I hate; I was looking forward to some down time while we're away.
    • Craft projects - Namely, the gift for my friend whose wedding we'll be at tomorrow.  Unfortunately, it's not going to be ready in time.  I worked on it all the way up here today (6+ hours of work) and I'm still at least 8 hours away from completion.  Is putting a picture of a not-quite-done project in the card a faux pas?  On the plus side, the Yankee capes for the dogs seemed to have worked out.  Which brings me to...
    • Yankees - Who are playing for the American League Championship this week.  They fell behind 3-1 but gained some ground (post-dog capes) and are 3-2 tonight.  Championships are stressful in our house.  Hopefully they'll win tonight and tomorrow and go on to the World Series.  And then in two weeks I can finally watch a normal TV show!
    • Dress shopping - My husband finally talked me into getting a new dress for this wedding, so we went shopping today to find one.  Five shops to find a dress, three of which didn't have a single long dress.  Not one... apparently cocktail length is in this year.  Finally found one we both liked, a little more expensive than I intended.  If I get the use out of it that I got from my last one, that'll be fine.
    • Haircut - After threatening it for months, I'm finally having my hair chopped off tomorrow.  I can't wait!  Pictures to follow shortly.
    • Thanksgiving - Which, if you hadn't noticed, is approaching at a velocity around Mach 1.  Actually, I was making quiche last night and there was a little dough left over.  It reminded me of my sister; when we were kids, she would use the leftover dough to make a little center piece for the pie.  Our mom would throw it on the pie for the last few minutes of baking.  I hadn't thought of that in years.
    • Christmas - If Thanksgiving is coming up at Mach 1, Christmas is moving at something close to c.  My wish list is almost done, but normally by this time of the year I've started picking out gifts for my family. Not even close this year.  At least the Christmas budget is completed.
    I promise a more interesting post soon.  I found two articles on pesticides and the misappropriation of science that I wanted to comment on, so that's probably next.  Hope everyone has a great weekend!

    20 October 2010

    Yankee Beagles

    If you've ever met my husband, you know he's a Yankees fan.  Actually, maybe even if you haven't met him... his fandom is that strong.  Since the Yankees are on a bit of a dive this week (as in, 3-1 against in a 7 game playoff series) I decided to finish this project.  And by "finish" I mean "do" because even though I've had the material for over a year, I hadn't actually cut anything out before today.  Take a look:
    Yankee capes
    These are little capes for the dogs.  Those of you familiar with my Facebook page know that a couple years ago I made some bandannas for the dogs which have our football teams on them.  Specifically, they are reversible so the dogs can "cheer" for either the NY Giants or the SF 49ers (guess who cheers for which team?).  George has wanted some similar doggy gear for the Yankees, so today he gets his wish.  And they only took an hour to do!
    Close up
    I'm not sure why I cared enough about dog gear to really work on those straps... they were the hardest part with all the turning inside out.  Other than that, the cape material is fleece, so not much sewing is required.  Very easy!  And hopefully they'll bring some luck to the Yankees tonight!

    Further dog-modeling pictures are likely coming soon.

    15 October 2010

    New Blanket

    I went on a bit of a creativity spree yesterday and worked on a couple of lapsed projects.  I was going to take pictures of the dog blanket that I finished last night, but I encountered a problem:

    I thought the pictures could wait and I intended to try again this morning.  This was the result:

    I guess I must have done alright.

    14 October 2010

    Forget Baby Mozart... try The Chieftains

    I find connections in odd things.  I often think that if I have any unique talent, it's pattern recognition (and possibly an above average memory).  For instance...

    In one of the more brilliant musical combinations ever produced, the Chieftains and Nickel Creek do a mind-blowing version of "Raggle Taggle Gypsy" on The Chieftain's CD Further Down the Old Plank Road.  I dare you to sit still while listening to this song.  And the great thing is that this song is such a great representation of Myers-Briggs Personality Types.  No, really!
    • The SJ's are the bass line... steady, reliably on beat, a small number of notes, rarely (but occasionally!) caught up in the emotion of the story, only changing speed or pitch when the complete music demands it.
    • The SP's are the flute, the pipes... flirtatious, jumping in and out of the song, drawing the ear's attention, reliable in their unceasing movement.
    • The NF's are the melody, the vocals... the human story, the emotion, the commonality amongst the other parts.
    • The NT's are the mandolin... fast but (mostly) on beat, piquantly staccato, sometimes unnoticed, most notable when contrary to the rest of the music.
    Of course, that still leaves the fiddle and cello... assuming there's a cello right there at the beginning... it may be a second bass.  And maybe a lighter stringed instrument... a harp or a Tiompan.  Not sure, there's a lot going on in this song.  Every time I changed the equalizer settings, I heard something new.  Not a bad life metaphor... change your bias, observe a complex new world.

    I should note that in grand family tradition, I must have listened to the song over 20 times in a row while writing this post (my husband is thankful for headphones).  I'm still not tired of it.

    Also, iTunes has no equalizer setting for "bluegrass" or "folk".  Really, iTunes?  The best preset you can do is "acoustic"?

    12 October 2010

    Why We Need the Explorers

    This was just too beautiful not to post.  Brian Cox is a physicist who has a lovely way of explaining the wonder and magnificence in science.  This particular video is about the true value of science in response to government budget cuts of research and science programs.

    I watched many TED Talks today but this one hit home.  Enjoy.

    10 October 2010

    Scheduling Request

    I can't believe that I haven't posted in three days.  I spent most of a day this week watching TEDTalks which always yields something worth talking about.  In theory, I was doing research for a paper and although I found three videos I think will help in the future, I have to own up to having watched most of the videos out of sheer curiosity.

    Which actually leads me to an issue I'm having lately: scheduling my time.  I'd like to make a small change that would help organize my day (Pareto Principle, anyone?).  I think the change I need is when I wake up.

    I'm a night owl... I naturally fall asleep after 11 and get up after 8.  And that's perfectly fine, I get my full night's sleep.  The problem is that lately I'm falling asleep around 1 and getting up just before 10.  This creates a cascade failure of a day.  I skip breakfast because it's lunch time.  After lunch, I have to do all the repetitive housework tasks I was planning to do in the morning.  Once that's done, it's on to whatever has to be done for the day (i.e. bill paying, homework, spouses' club).  By the time my husband gets home, I've had no time for myself, half of what I needed to do isn't done, and it's already time to cook dinner!  I then try to squeeze in what family time I can get.  And of course, I spend my last hour or two reading to get some me-time, often staying up just a little later to finish a chapter or section.

    What I think I need is a long day to exhaust me and then a reason to get up on time the next morning... and the next... and the next (and also to make myself put the book down before 11, but a couple long days in a row will take care of that).  I had no problem getting up early for work a year ago and I think it's because when I woke up I felt like I was accountable to someone.  So what if I made a regular appointment with someone in the morning... say, walking at 7, every week day?

    It's the kind of elegant solution that appeals to me. It's simple and doesn't require time consuming preparation or costly equipment.  It's repeatable (studies show that 30 days of doing something makes it a habit and that it's better to repeat daily than less frequently).  I'm unlikely to skip out because I'm accountable to someone else and I have no excuse for other things I should be doing at 7.  Walking also helps me accomplish other goals: fitness, health, exercise for my dogs.  And best of all, it takes advantage of what I know about myself: that when I wake up early and regularly, I get more done, no extra scheduling or carrots/sticks needed.

    Need to exercise more?  Get up earlier like me?  Need help doing something? I'd be happy to reciprocate with being your accountability partner.  So who's up for daily morning walks?  

    07 October 2010

    The Way of Kings

    First I'd like to do a little dance to the tune "I'm done, I'm done, I'm done!"  Because The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson is, after all, a 1,007 page book.  Fortunately, it didn't feel that long, maybe more like 700 pages.  Which is still long, but not as long... more like two regular novels rather than three.

    The Way of Kings has three main characters: a general, a slave, and a scholar.  It has religions, magics, science, history, visions, thieves, aristocracy, soldiers, slaves, characters who know too much, characters who know too little, romance, treachery, battles, betrayal, and so many twists you'll see some and think you're safe (you're not).  I love the scholar, the heretic atheist Jasnah, and her apprentice, the questioning devout with an agenda Shallan.  They're a brilliantly written pair of women, particularly Jasnah, who strikes the perfect balance of surety and uncertainty that is present in scientific thinkers of all ages.

    This is a book that's obviously going to appeal to fantasy fans, especially those with a history of enjoying the epic fantasy sub genre (think door-stopper books).  But I have a small plea, if I may: Try it.  Yes, it's 1,007 pages.  Yes, it's full-blown high, epic fantasy.  Yes, it's the first of a ten(?) book series.  Yes, there are some made up words and odd names.  Despite all that, or perhaps because of the author's skill with those traits, it's a wonderful Story.  No fiction or mystery or romance author world-builds like this and it reveals something subtle about the way you and I perceive life.  Besides, if you don't like it, think of all the hassle you'll save yourself by not being able to buy the rest of the as yet unwritten, unpublished series!

    My more complete review can be found here on Goodreads (minor spoiler warning).

    04 October 2010

    Look Out the Window

    The view from my backyard this evening.
    Remember that first star you used to wish on as a kid?  The evening star?  This is it... only (and get ready to impress your kids/friends/unsuspecting strangers) it's not a star.  It's Venus!  Ta da!

    Go ahead, roll your eyes.  I know you knew but you have to admit... it's a cool picture.  My backyard rocks.

    Depending on the timing, Venus can conversely be the last "star" to disappear in the morning.  Historically, Pythagoras (yes, the triangles guy) is credited as the first to figure out that the morning and evening star were the same heavenly body.  Venus also has phases, just like the moon.  Galileo was the first to figure that out, courtesy of his improved telescope.  Today, you can see the phases with a pretty cheap telescope or even a pair of binoculars.  How cool is that?  And how crazy is it that I don't own either!?

    You can actually see Mercury with the unaided eye as well, but only if you have a fairly clear horizon (it's visible above the horizon just before sunrise and just after sunset) and then only for a few weeks a year.  To see another planet with the naked eye, check out the night sky after the crescent Moon rises on the 10th.  The red dot off of its bottom right quadrant is Mars.

    For stargazing tips, check out StarDate or better yet, Space.  

    One last astronomy geek out moment: this month is a great time to see my favorite constellation, the Pleiades cluster.  You've seen it before... it's the background image of this blog.

    Changing Seasons to Think Ahead

    It's Fall!  It's Fall!  It's Fall!

    Well, at least temporarily.  I'm sure Summer will rear its head one more time, but the weather for the last few days has been gorgeous.  In the mean time, I know it's fall because after I got up this morning, the dogs resumed their daily cold weather ritual of trotting downstairs and laying in the sun beam in the living room.  It's terribly cute, especially once it gets cold out and you can watch the dogs scoot as the sunbeam slowly precesses across the floor.

    Since I've been looking at my upcoming schedule for the last few days, I'm seriously in the mood for Christmas to be here.  We're already invited to 3 holiday events and there's December's book club to look forward to.  I was looking online this morning to find a local astronomy group for stargazing (unsuccessful, still looking) and stumbled across this little gem: a local Nutcracker show!  It's apparently put on by a non-profit ballet group on the gulf coast for one day in December.  No info on price, but the shows are Saturday the 4th, at 2 and 7 pm.  Who wants to go?!?

    Also, who wants to go to the symphony?

    02 October 2010

    September Book Club

    One of the true joys I have in being currently unemployed is that I've had time to not only pursue my own diverse reading, but to join a book club started by a friend of mine.  The ladies in the book club are an exceptionally interesting group and we always have fun meetings.  We even manage to discuss the book at least a quarter of the time!

    Last month we read Addition by Toni Jordan, a new Australian author.  We all enjoyed the book very much but the best part of the experience was, of course, the discussion.  The book's protagonist, Grace, suffers from OCD brought on by childhood trauma.  That led us into a discussion of what OCD-like tendencies we all have.  Our list included everything from hand-washing to eating food in even pairs to playing number games in our heads.  I play number games with digital clock readouts (which is pretty common) and, when I was a child, could calm myself by counting in multiples of 2.  2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64... I used to be able to get to 2^15 or beyond  before I actually had to start adding.

    So what about you?  Any slightly odd habits (that you're willing to share) lurking in your past or present?

    An Oddity of Being an Introvert

    I AM AN INTROVERT.  In our extraverted society, making that statement is akin to saying "Please excuse my asocial behavior.  I have a condition."  According to what I've read, introverts make up 20% - 25% of the population, maybe less.  So after an incredibly busy week, I intended to write a post about an introvert's perceptive differences, specifically how I coped with a socially-oriented week.

    But it occurs to me that before you can have a conversation about introverts, you need a very clear definition.  Like many psychology terms, "introvert" has entered the mainstream vernacular in a way which retains a kernel of the original meaning but has gained some extra, incorrect nuance.  My definition of introvert stems from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), based on Jung's personality typology.  So the introvert that I'm talking about is a person who:
    • prefers small groups or solitude to large groups
    • has a small, intimate group of friends (as opposed to a large group of acquaintances)
    • lives internally, rather than externally
    • expends energy in social situations and gains energy in being alone
    Perhaps more importantly, an introvert is not (necessarily) shy, quiet, non-articulate, or anti-social.  Most introverted adults develop coping mechanisms for the largely extraverted world and can appear socially engaged, especially to those who only see the introvert in social situations.  An introvert is also not averse to socializing or meeting new people, although they tend to avoid situations requiring lengthy contact with multiple strangers, preferring smaller gatherings of friends.  MBTI also posits that all people show a combination of tendencies.  Very simply put, an introvert can (and should!) act like an extrovert and vice versa, dependent on their personal energy levels and how good their coping mechanisms are.

    That's a long and terribly incomplete definition of introvert.  For more information about introverts and MBTI, an internet search engine will yield a plethora of results, some which are less reliable than others.  I would recommend the following:
    • TypeLogic (a website with good information about the 16 personality types, including a fun bit about who they are historically and fictionally.  I'm an INTJ, which I'll continue to post about.)
    • Socionics Types (a webpage that has a short, easy to understand comparison of extraverts and introverts)
    • Please Understand Me (a basic introduction, complete with MBTI test, but it's a bit NT-centric)
    • Please Understand Me II (further basics with some good information about interactions)
    • Gifts Differing (much more technical but also more complete; written by one of the women responsible for developing the theory)
    I'm breaking off the bit about my social week for another post.  The definition of an introvert alone is enough to chew over for the day, but let me leave off with an opinion: It's not socially acceptable to say yes to an invitation and then not hang out with people.  If an extravert is alone and suddenly needs company, she calls someone and goes out.  If an introvert is with a group and needs to be alone, can she suddenly say "I need to be by myself, see you later?"  I don't think our society is set up for that.  What would you all do?  Do my introverted friends have a way to deal with that situation?  Or do you have tells, ways to know that an outing will be too much?

    29 September 2010

    An Interesting Question about Story

    Excuse my double negative, but I couldn't not repost this link from author Kate Elliott.  It's a wonderful piece that speaks to the timelessness of cyclic human history, with underlying suggestions about changing future history through family dynamics.

    Kate Elliott is an American fantasy author whom I very much respect.  I've only read one series of hers, the Crown of Stars septology (I might have just invented a word...), but it was amazing and I look forward to reading her other work.  Her blog covers many topics, including writing, publishing, her books, her family, and pretty much anything that crosses her mind.  That last has led to a lot of interesting posts including my two favorites on the Bechdel test (very short) and epic fantasy (more complete).

    If you haven't heard of it (and I hadn't before Elliott's post), the Bechdel test is a pretty simple sorting criteria for a story.  A story passes the Bechdel test if it:

    1. Has two named women
    2. who talk to each other
    3. about something other than men.
    *Note: the original test only asked for two female characters, but increasingly those who are concerned with such things modify it slightly to require that those characters be named.  The original source also only applied the test to movies, but it can easily be generalized to any story-telling medium.

    Obviously, we could have great conversations about passing the test in spirit or in letter and the fact that passing or failing doesn't mean a story is bad or good, and Elliott's second entry above discusses these issues in better detail.  But it is an interesting measure of how society perceives gender balance and what we allow to go unnoticed.  We women certainly know that we're named and talk to each other about a wide variety of non-male centric topics.  So surely our story-telling arts reflect that, right?  Right?

    I've always felt that my preferred genre, science fiction and fantasy, was more gender balanced than general fiction tends to be.  Looking through the lens of this test brings me to the realization that the difference is not nearly as wide as I once thought.  John Scalzi, an author whom I have not yet read but who writes a great blog and is a creative consultant on Stargate Universe (one of my favorite current shows), demonstrated this pretty dramatically with movies from the past 5 years.

    So go ahead.  Apply the test to your favorite movies, TV shows, and books.  See what you get.  Find anything interesting?  Any patterns?  I'm thinking of starting a blog page with a running list of stories that I watch or read and whether they pass, both by spirit and letter.  What do you think?