Monday, August 27, 2012

Bad Statistician! No Cookie!

Hello internet. It is to you I come to vent my frustration over a statistic that I see over and over again and which makes me nash knash gnash my teeth with severe annoyance. Leland has heard me complain about this so many times already that he does not care to hear about it anymore. So here we are.

Here's the setup. I'm reading a book called The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the real state of the world, by Bjorn "screw your o with a slash through it" Lomborg. Basically, Lomborg is a statistician who was challenged by a right-wing anti-global warming type to actually look at the statistical evidence for environmental degradation. When Lomborg looked, he discovered that many of the statistics and statements about the planet are in fact misleading or just wrong, and came to the conclusion that things are actually a lot better than people think. I'm not exactly subscribing to Lomborg's newsletter just yet, but it's an interesting book.

ANYWAY. On Page 50, Lomborg breaks out this old chestnut:

"Until around the year 1400, human life expectancy was amazingly short - a newborn child could on average only expect to live 20-30 years... Stone Age skeletons from North Africa show a life expectancy of just 21 years... an average citizen of Imperial Rome lived only 22 years."

For a book that is dedicated to the misreading of statistics, this is pretty much jaw-droppingly misleading. Is Lomborg wrong? Not - exactly. But were most Stone Age hunters and Imperial Romans all going around and dropping dead in their early 20s? Not even close!

In fact, the 20s are when the fewest people were dying (even taking death in childbirth into account). The statistics are skewed because these groups had high levels of infant mortality. Mortality curves for such groups look like a U - most people either died really young or really old. If you have a data set, and half of the numbers are small, and half of the numbers are big, and you take the average, you're going to get a number that is neither small nor big - a number that does not truly reflect the "average" at all.

From our perspective, childhood in the past was a time of shockingly high mortality. In many places half of all children died within the first five years of life. So that's the bad news. The good news is that if someone jumped that first hurdle, they had a good shot of making it to adulthood. And once they made it to adulthood, they had a good shot of making it to their 60s or 70s, a perfectly respectable life span without antibiotics or air conditioning or seat belts.

Spouting off life expectancies that were calculated using the whole lifespan paints a completely distorted picture of ancient life. Can you imagine a world where most people died in their mid-20s? Even if you get a jump on having kids as soon as puberty started (which among hunter-gatherers is from 15-18), most children would be orphaned by age 6 or 7 at the latest. It would be extremely difficult to pass on accumulated information about - well, about anything that requires any skill or knowledge, since people would only have a few years to accumulate it. A once-in-a-lifetime weather event like a 50 year drought would wipe out entire communities, since there would be nobody around to relate how the group had made it through the last drought. 

Luckily for humankind, that's not what happened. First of all, no group with an average age of death in the early 20s is going to have such an extended pre-pubertal (childhood) period. Duh. Studies of still-existing H/G and subsistence farmers demonstrates that plenty of people do, in fact, survive well past their 20s. In fact, the best hunters in H/G groups are in their 40s. And there's plenty of suggestion that we wouldn't be who we are as a species without the routine existence of old people. The "Grandmother hypothesis" suggests that the evolutionary purpose of post-menopausal survival (which would seem to be evolutionarily disadvantageous since the woman is no longer able to contribute offspring to the species) is that post-menopausal women - grandmothers - watched the kids while their parents were off gathering food.

It's just stupid to throw this statistic around without explanation. It's the very kind of obfuscational behavior that people are always accusing statisticians of. And it drives me INSANE.

Lomborg does explain this statistic - eventually. Most people don't even go that far. But now you are EDUCATED. So the next time someone tells you that pre-modern existence was nasty, brutish, and short, you will know that they are WRONG.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Summer Adventures - Vacation and Stuff

Are you ready for a picture blast??

So we went on a little trip! First we stopped for a day to visit our friends Stephen and Jenn (and cockapoos Hurley and Joey) in Virginia, and had a lovely time wandering around the utterly adorable Old Town Alexandria area and watching the boats on the - Potomac? Yeah, that sounds right. And I don't feel like looking it up. Some historic-sounding river. The Potomac, the Delaware, the Rubicon... don't make me learn stuff, world! I'm on vacation. That's the US Capitol building in the background. Or possibly St Peter's Basilica. Or the Kremlin.

Riding the free trolley. Leland can't just take a normal looking picture. Like your shirt, Stephen!

And the best part of DC - food trucks. Like, twenty of them. Why is food from a truck so much better than food from a restaurant? I don't know, but it's science.

CUPCAKES FROM A TRUCK. YES. Sweet Bites, the best cupcakes in America. That's right, I went there. We ordered a bunch and then devoured them, sharing each delightful concoction amongst the group. The woman who runs the truck actually came out of the truck to tell us how much she enjoyed watching us eat them. We are magnificent gluttons.

Then we went and bothered the President for a while. 

And wandered around the Mall, stopping at the new World War II Memorial, where I almost slipped and fell right into a fountain that had a prominent sign posted asking that people not throw coins into the water out of respect.

We took in the Vietnam Memorial, which I had never seen. I love this picture of our three reflections on the wall.

After our too-short visit in Virginia, we continued north to Leland's cousin's wedding in Doylestown, Eastern PA, which is like a yuppie-hipster paradise, but in a good way.

TWEE. And stuffed with antique stores, homemade pretzel bakeries, and establishments that will sell you any variety of gourmet product. It was a nice sunny day in the low 70s, and although we failed to find a coffee shop that lives up to Leland's high standards, I did enjoy the sensation of breathing in an atmosphere that was less hot and humid than the inside of my own lungs. The wedding was lovely, the food was tasty, and of course the bride was beautiful.

Leland and I sadly parted ways, and he drove back to NC while I traveled with Leland's parents to Indiana, Western PA. I came bearing gifts!

This is the first time I tried making bags, and they came out really nice if I do say so myself. These are designed to be lunchboxes (actually bento box holders), and have a vinyl lining and a little cover that can be pulled up over the goods. If you are can sew (optimistic beginner or above) and want to make a few of your own, the tutorial I used is here.

For my 3 1/2 year old nephew Luke, I made a pillowcase with John Deere fabric from the remnants bin (freaking LOVE the remnants bin). And yes, the fabric is sideways. Let's all pretend that was a deliberate artsy choice instead of an annoying mis-reading of the instructions (which, once you account for bone-headed mistakes, was surprisingly easy).

The boys each received my first attempts at making stuffed animals, little mooshy bunnies with embroidered faces. And the faces even turned out kind of non-creepy! Almost! Hopefully they won't haunt little Harlan's dreams. You can see him here trying to give the bunny back. (Just kidding.)

On Saturdays I went with my mother-in-law Phyllis to Ligonier Country Market to help her sell her lovely homemade soaps.

Love those rolling hills. Miss them in pancake-flat Eastern NC! Here's the market as vendors begin arriving...

And just before the opening bell. Of course, Phyllis' stand was the prettiest.

Though the sunflower seller gave even Phyllis a run for her money.

After two weeks in PA, we crammed three adults, one toddler, one baby, and all of their stuff --->

into one car and headed off to the beach (Kill Devil Hills) via a visit to Aunt Jean's (EDIT: Joan, not Jean! I promise I know your name, Sis, it was just a typing error. Also Uncle Don was there). It was an interesting lesson in how three year old brains understand time. "Are we going to the beach now?" "Is this the way to the beach?" and then, when we hadn't arrived at the beach after an unacceptably long amount of time (twenty minutes or so), "Mom, are you sure this is the way to the beach?"

Yet somehow, we all survived and no small children were murdered.


It was great to spend some time with the nephews and see how Harlan's baby blanket held up to repeated washings.

And very excitingly, someone turned ONE! Things Harlan can now look forward to - being expected to use the toilet, feed and dress himself, and ultimately get a job and pay taxes and scrub the bathroom. It's all downhill from here, kid, so enjoy that cake while you can.

And be sure to lick all the icing off your arm before Mom is able to wash the rest of it away.

Luke and I had a good time goofing around.

For Harlan's big birthday, I made him a book of colors from fabric scraps. I didn't really have a plan or anything when I started making this, so it really came together better than I deserved. And it *should* be pretty durable.

All good things have to end - and as fun as a vacation with small children is (really!), it's definitely exhausting. Even when you're just the aunt. Leland drove up to spend the day at the ocean, and then we went back to Greenville.

I had a couple of big quilt finishes recently, too. First was this blanket for Stephen and Jenn's little baby boy, who should be here in just a couple of weeks! And for some reason, as I was trying to finish, bind, and quilt the blanket under a deadline - the baby shower - I suddenly developed standards.

I had decided to border the quilt (a combination of Irish Chain and Snowball blocks) with an orange solid. But after I put it on, I didn't like it. I mean, it was fine. But the fabrics didn't come together to make anything better. They just sat there. It was like the equivalent of a plain peanut butter sandwich. It's all right. Even tasty. Certainly nutritionally filling. But what I wanted was a nutella peanut butter sandwich. Two things combining to create something new!


At first I was going to let it slide, but then I couldn't and ended up ripping it off. I guess that means I've developed artistic principles. Luckily, I quickly found a replacement batik orange fabric that looked amazing against the amazing dark sky blue Robert Kaufman fabric that I got just for this quilt. Lots of quilters don't mix batiks with other fabrics. I don't know why, because it's like the equivalent of adding the nutella to the peanut butter.

I used the original orange solid to bind the edges. I just love those little suns on the fussy-cut blocks.

And finally, I finished the very first quilt that I plan to keep! It's a scrap quilt with mostly nine patch blocks - lots of clothing scraps. When I finished cutting for this quilt about six months ago, I'd used up almost all my fabric scraps. My fabric addiction has ensured that these have been replaced plus a bajillion more. Ha.

The colors are a little weird in pictures, but somehow work really well in person. The backing, which you can see peeking out in the first photo (tan background, brown and pink/coral leaves and plants) was a king-size sheet that I bought for 3$ at Goodwill. Boom. (Yes I washed it.)

One of my favorite blocks, made with leftovers from Luke's baby quilt, a wedding quilt for friends Adam and Sarah, and a white dress shirt that was Leland's.

Nova approves.

After our (ok, mostly my) lovely working vacation across this great land, it's been nice to kick back and make Leland make me mochas.

Suck on that, inferior coffee establishments!

And also, after getting a yogurt maker for my birthday (which: who knew?), I can make Leland make me yogurt too!

Boil the milk, add a container of store-bought (or some of the previous homemade batch) as a starter, and pour into these cute little glass jars.

The yogurt cooks in the maker for several hours (which you can also do in the oven I think if you don't want to buy a yogurt maker)...

And after a night in the fridge, this is what you get. Forget those smug people who eat the fancy Greek yogurt and can time their toilet arrangements down to the minute. You can be extra-smug if you make your own. Smugness IN YOUR FACE.

And now I shall mix it with nutella and counter all the healthy effects of the yogurt with a good helping of fat and sugar. Hoorah!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Skin child: A terrifying glimpse into my subconscious

You're gonna be glad there are no pictures in this one.

We all know that it's generally pretty boring to hear about other people's dreams*. And yet we all tell each other our dreams. It's kind of self-indulgent and narcissistic yet oddly whimsical and naive at the same time, like a little kid who is still amazed at the stuff their brain can come up with.

So it's kind of like having a personal blog...

*cough* moving on.

I have really bizarre dreams. Which I thought was normal until I reached an age where I had to listen to other people talk about their dreams. And I have to say the King of Boring Dreams is probably our ex-roommate, Stephen, who dreams about things like going to the store and working out. That's probably the sign of a well-adjusted subconscious. Which does not bode well for me.

My dreams pretty much come in two flavors: completely nonsensical and terrifyingly cinematic. Both types are quite vivid, though I can never really explain the first type. Often I'm trying to protect something small, a baby or a pet, and the thing I'm protecting changes size and sometimes it talks and generally there's a goal I'm working towards like climbing a mountain except sometimes it's like the world falls out from under me and I'm...

You know what, never mind. Let's just say that these dreams are hard to make sense of and leave it at that.

The second type are white-knuckle vivid dreams that stick with me for years. I can still remember dreams from my childhood (for a long time I had a reoccurring dream that I was a superhero fairy who could fly, which was awesome and maybe explains a lot about me). Though sometimes (rarely) these are good dreams, they are more likely to leave me just happy to wake up again.

And I have a lot of zombie dreams. I like zombie movies, tv shows, books (like Stant Litore's series set in Biblical times), but indulging in any of these inevitably means zombie dreams. If I think about zombies for too long I have zombie dreams. I'll probably have one tonight. I suffer for my blogging.

In fact, I had a zombie dream just two weeks ago. In the dream I was a soldier out on patrol with my unit. The dream was so vivid that I could feel the helmet on my head, the gun over my shoulder, the utility belt around my waist with a radio and a sidearm. And yes, I dream in color. I recall the olive green of the uniforms. It was sunset, the sky streaked orange behind the other soldiers in my unit.

And then came the zombies.

At first we thought they were just the enemy. Until our guns had no effect on them. Or to be more precise, our guns mowed them down, but they were able to get right back up again, flagrantly defying the zombie-genre convention that a headshot can kill the reanimated.

I pulled out my primary weapon, a machine gun, and felt the percussion of it as it slammed against my shoulder, and it grew hot beneath my hands. Each time I sprayed the mob it gained us only another few seconds, and we kept falling back, falling back.

Finally we came to an abandoned market stand, just me and one of the other soldiers left. The ammo for the machine guns was gone, and we rested our arms against the counter top as we fired our sidearms into the crowd.

One of the zombies was almost on us, a man with dark hair and a white shirt, and he was reaching for me, his hand so close to my wrist.

I pulled the trigger. The gun went click. I felt it, the impotent jolt against my hand. The zombie reached for me.

And then I woke up.

Not only is sleeping occasionally terrifying for me, it can be equally frightening for the other people in the room. See, my dreams sometimes leak through into real life.

During the hypnagogic state (transitioning to and from sleep), it's not uncommon for people to experience all kinds of sensory phenomena, up to and including full-on hallucinations. Which I sometimes have. And like my dreams, they tend to be very vivid. Once, sleeping in my room in Minnesota, I woke to see a man with a bike - wearing a helmet - standing in my doorway. I got out of bed and took two steps to my right, into my bathroom. Peeked out a second later. He was still there. Ducked back behind the wall again. Peeked out again. He was gone.

In my room in England, I woke to see an old woman sitting on my chair, knitting unfurled over her lap.

In one college bedroom, I opened my eyes to a face right in front of my own, with dark eyes and white skin, grinning at me, hands pillowed under its cheek.

On vacation beside Lake Chautauqua, a black human-shaped thing with fuzzy edges came through the bedroom door and dove under my bed. I woke up my sister in the next bed and my boyfriend in the next room with my frantic attempts to find the thing under my bed.

And the thing is, as my logical brain reasserts itself, I also see the way that the shapes resolve into ordinary things or just melt back into the shadows.**

Anyone I share a room with just has to get used to me talking in my sleep or half-sleep, trying to explain the pictures in my head, or even sitting straight up or calling out to a hallucination lingering from my subconscious. I'm not generally scared when I see these things.

Case in point, last night.

I woke up around 2:30 AM and looked down towards my feet, where I saw something slumped over the side of the bed. What I saw, more precisely, was the empty skin of a child, like something had slurped out the bones and organs and so on and left the rubbery rest of it hanging over the edge of my bed. Except the head. The head was still intact, facing away from me. I could see the dark hair.

So I did what anyone would do if they saw a skin child draped over the end of their bed. I sat up and touched the head. And it was soft and fuzzy, just like I expected. I wasn't afraid or weirded out. Maybe just curious and a little confused.

At that point I realized I was touching the cat, and the rest of the thing resolved itself into a blanket. I wasn't sleepy anymore (not because I was freaked out or scared, mind you, I just wasn't sleepy), so I got up and went into the other room. A few minutes later Leland joined me. Not thinking, I told Leland the story of what I'd seen.

"Why on earth would you tell me that?" he said, and then refused to go back into the bedroom without me.

Leland's really easy to scare.

*If you're a person who regularly tells me their dreams, this does not apply to you, I love hearing about your dreams. Just so we have that covered.

**So do I think these things could be ghosts? There is no reason to claim that these are ghosts when there is a recognized scientific phenomena - hypnagogia - to explain them. But I would never say that I knew for sure that they weren't ghosts. To be quite frank about it, I'm none too pleased with the idea that they might be.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

How I Got to Dance to My Wedding Song (finally)

Things I should be doing instead of writing a blog post: a great multitude.

I was going to try this thing where I write smaller little stories or vignettes on my blog instead of the monster posts. In theory this will mean more posts. In practice I will probably still end up with monster posts because I am long winded.

So anyway, this is the story of how I (finally) got to dance to my wedding song.

When we were planning the wedding, we decided to go with a DJ for a couple reasons. 1) they're cheaper; 2) I usually like the standard version of a song better than a cover; 3) I am a control freak.

We hired Instant Request. Here's a warning. This story is not going to make Instant Request look real good.

We spent probably two hours filling out the EXTENSIVE questionnaire provided by the company about our music preferences, what we wanted to be playing during appetizers, dinner, dancing, and so on, and if we listened to Norwegian death metal never, seldom, occasionally, sometimes, often, or CONSTANTLY, and if we thought great-aunt Myrtle would enjoy Tibetan throat-singing for her after-dinner cup of coffee. If I could use one word to describe this questionnaire, it would be THOROUGH. We could even tell the DJ on what side he should part his hair, and warn him that Myrtle gets a little handsy after her third shot of Jack.

We also talked to our DJ for at least half an hour a couple days before the ceremony. We were Good to Go.

Until the day arrived, and all the little details were in place, and I looked ravishingly beautiful, and the DJ was sick and couldn't come.

So, as per their practice, Instant Request sent a replacement DJ. I was informed of this via a series of frantic whispers as I prepared to walk down the aisle. Now, to be fair, we had kind of a complex music thing that we wanted to have during the ceremony (all right, not THAT complex - one song for the small wedding party and a different one for Leland and I when we walked down together, and then a third song for the recessional). The DJ nailed it. I decided to relax.

The first sign of trouble was when the DJ came up to my brand new sister in law during appetizers and whispered, "what kind of music do the bride and groom like?"


During dinner, which I was DETERMINED to enjoy for two reasons: 1) everyone tells you that you don't get to eat at your own wedding because you're too busy making sure everyone else is having a good time, and screw that, because; 2) our food was freaking AWESOME, the DJ then came up to me and asked me what kind of music I thought he should play.

And look - LOOK! While I was looking through the wedding pictures, I found this picture of the DJ talking to us while we were waiting for our next course. Here's a tip. When the bride is making that face at you, back away slowly. I'm not one of those people who thinks that the bride should get to do whatever nonsense comes into her head just because it's "her special day", but SERIOUSLY.

Uh - just play good music. That people like. Isn't that kind of YOUR JOB?
(As a side note, if you need a caterer, hire Three Sons Signature Cuisine in Minneapolis. Just do it. Even if you're in Reykjavik or something. Just fly them in. They made one of the best meals I've ever eaten and if you know me well enough to read my blog, you know that's a serious statement.)

After dinner, we got up for the first dance. Which, let me just say, is kind of weird. It's kind of weird to sway back and forth with your new spouse while people stare at you. We had requested Can't Help Falling in Love by Elvis (aka - the fools rush in song). You know. This song:

We stood there in the middle of the dance floor, and instead of the gentle opening melody and Elvis' dreamy voice, what started to play was a weird, fast remix version of the song, which I CANNOT EVEN FIND ON YOUTUBE.


We didn't request WHICH VERSION, which I suppose was our fault, but seriously. I didn't even KNOW there was a FAST VERSION, because while I have heard the slow version dozens of times, I have never heard the fast version. And - just - what the hell? Who would dance their first song to a weird fast remix of the original? Did it not occur to the DJ that this was strange, and while he was bothering us during the spinach and strawberry salad with goat cheese, he could have just made sure that he had the right song?

After a second of confusion, Leland ran over to the DJ table while I made this expression.

This is my "what the fuck!?" face. For future reference.
This is one of my favorite pictures from the wedding. (And if you need a photographer, Julie E Photography is amazing. Even though she does have automatic music playing on her website.)

In the confused silence, my new brother in law Tristano swept in and stole the first dance from Leland.

Tristano claims he doesn't remember doing this. PROOF. Leland is in the background talking to the DJ.
And Leland started waving me over. "The DJ doesn't have that song," he whispered.

It wasn't like we were talking about a deep track from a Men At Work album. This is a standard wedding song, right? Am I crazy? You have fifteen thousand songs and freaking I Can't Help Falling in Love by freaking Elvis is not one of them? Let's put this in perspective - we were announced in the reception to the Indiana Jones theme song. Which the DJ had.

So standing right there, on the spot, we had to ditch the first dance song that we had spent some time picking out and instead pull one off the laminated list from the DJ's big binder. We looked for one song, then the next, and finally one of us said, in semi-desperation, "What about Wagon Wheel by Old Crow Medicine Show?"

Right after we started dating, Leland and I made the brilliant decision to go work for the same company in close proximity for eight hours a day and also share a hotel room, all summer. It was predicted that by the end of the summer we would either be bitter enemies or married, and Leland bought the ring the next October, so I guess that worked out. Hence our choice of the song about fools rushing in. Anyway, on the two hour drive to and from the job site, we listened to a lot of bluegrass, and both fell in love with Wagon Wheel. There's a line in the song, "I hear my baby calling my name and I know that she's the only one", and Leland would squeeze my hand when that part came on. Awww.

And the DJ had the song. Feeling like maybe we should take more time in picking, but also feeling flustered, I was all, "fine", and we took our places again.

At first we swayed awkwardly back and forth for a while, but then Leland started singing under his breath, and then I started singing, so here we end up swinging around the room, both singing at the top of our lungs. It was wonderful.

(Julie shoots in real film, not digital, so we got to see all of the hilarious pictures that would probably have been deleted from digital cameras to preserve dignity.)

So that was my first dance, and I couldn't have asked for a better song. And that was before we moved to North Carolina and the song became even more meaningful to us (the lyrics go, "heading down south to the land of the pines, thumbin' my way into North Caroline... and if I die in Raleigh, at least I will die free...")

Last summer, while at a bluegrass concert with Leland's folks, we heard Wagon Wheel and I made reference to what had happened at the wedding. My inlaws didn't know what I was talking about - they'd never heard the story. And my father in law said, "don't ever tell that story again! I love that Wagon Wheel was your song, it's just so - you".

And so all of that was just set up for the actual story... How I Got to Dance to My Wedding Song (finally). I'm just so good at these short posts.

Two weeks ago, Leland and I and his family attended the wedding of his cousin Kathleen and her now-husband Charlie. It was a beautiful wedding, with a great DJ. As I was signing the guest book, I saw Leland trying to catch my attention from across the room.

"Do you hear what's playing?" he was saying.

It was "Can't Help Falling in Love".

"Hurry, we're going to miss it!" he said.

I didn't have a chance to consider the unlikelihood of my husband actually wanting to dance with me, because normally he just flat out refuses. (We've since worked out a deal. At weddings I get one slow and one fast song of my choosing, excluding either Wagon Wheel or Can't Help Falling in Love, which are both freebies.) I rushed to the dance floor.

And finally we got to dance to our song.

(Well, the last half of it, anyway.)

We were even the only couple on the dance floor.

Then, as the song ended and we were leaving the dance floor, another familiar song came on. Wagon Wheel. And there, behind the table, is my father in law, grinning at us. "What a 'coincidence'. You can't leave now!" he said.

So we danced, and Leland's parents were dancing on one side of us, and his sister and brother-in-law on the other side, everyone singing at the top of their lungs.

It was wonderful. Much better than if the DJ had just played the right damn song in the first place. So maybe at the end of all of that, you SHOULD hire Instant Request to screw up your wedding. At the very least you'll get a good story out of it. And at best, you'll get something much better.