Wednesday, May 30, 2007
While we don't have any major travel plans set yet (though a possible trip is in the works), my SO and I are both looking forward to spending time on our house. Our long-stalled bathroom and kitchen remodeling is first up on our list, though we have a number of other household projects we want to get through as well1. I'll also be taking a guitar course, and will finally have time to start blogging more regularly (heck, just posting all the drafts I wrote up during the semester will be a big project).
1 So, any visitors to the Rhosgobel estate this summer are thus forewarned that they will be staying at a house under construction (and that construction work may be occuring during their visit).
Saturday, May 26, 2007
I won't let all that stop me from enjoying the weekend though; I can finally taste the sweet elixir of summer.
1 Will my students ever learn that I don't want to catch them plagiarizing? It means I have to spend at least 2-3 hours per case documenting the plagiarism, confronting them, and then writing a formal report to our dean. It'd save everyone a lot of time if they just cited sources properly; heck, I might even be done with grading if it wasn't for the plagiarism cases I'm currently dealing with.
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
PZ reports that the evolutionary relationship of these three groups is being revised: those wacky sea squirts are now thought to be evolutionarily closer to us than cephalochordates are. PZ does more than just say that, though: he also goes into lots detail about the developmental biology of ascidians1. It's all good, so go read the post already.
1 Be sure to look for the figure showing that some ascidians develop adult characteristics well before they metamorphose!
I've ended up finding a lot of sites that have video game sheet music or guitar tabs on them, and thought I'd list them here1:
- NobuoUematsu.com - Sheet music (in gif format) of music by (you guessed it), Nobuo Uematsu
- Nintendo on Piano - Sheet music (in PDF format) for Castlevania, Metroid, Super Mario Brothers, and others
- RabiteMan's Game Music - Sheet music (in .gif format) for Final Fantasy IV and VI, Chrono Trigger, and others.
- Video Game Sheet Music - Sheet music (in pdf or NWC format) for Megaman, Super Mario Brothers, and others.
- Game music themes.com - Sheet music (in pdf format) for many games, sorted by console type.
- Shivasar’s RPG Sheet Music - Sheet music (typically in .gif format) for a number of RPGs, including lots for Chrono Trigger and many of the Final Fantasy series.
- Riulyn's RPG Sheet Music Shrine - Sheet music (typically in .pdf format) for lots of RPGs, including Chrono Cross, lots of Final Fantasy's, and others.
- NinSheetMusic - Sheet music (in .MUS format) from various Nintendo games, including the Mario Brothers games, Metroid, Pokemon, Castlevania, and others.
- Ichigo's Sheet Music - Sheet music (in a variety of formats, including PDF, gif, and MUS) for a whole bunch of games (titles list here)
- Piano Themes - Sheet music (in PDF format) for a huge list of games
- Video Game Jam - Guitar tabs (as .txt files) for a lot of games, sorted by console type.
- Nintendo Tabs - Guitar tabs (as .txt files) for a number of Nintendo games, again sorted by console.
It's nice to have something to distract me from the mountains of papers that are awaiting grading.
1 (VGmusic.com's list of links helped quite a lot)
Sunday, May 20, 2007
I was flabbergasted. Not saving money by cooking at home? One of the primary reasons we cook at home is because we save lots of money (though another nice benefit is that we also get to eat tasty food cooked to our own preferences). So, after we were finished being flabbergasted, we came up with a list of suggestions for those who would like to save money on food. We've broken the suggestions into two broad categories: things you can do while shopping and things you can do at home to save money.
Saving money by shopping smartly
- Shop the loss leaders. Most grocery stores try to entice customers into their stores by selling a few items at a loss, while hoping to make the money up on other items the customers buy. Preferentially shop for loss leaders, and ignore everything else unless you really need it; this is probably the single most important thing you can do to save money on food. Looking at grocery store fliers before going shopping can help you figure out what the various stores' current loss leaders are, helping you plan your upcoming meals.
- Stock up on things you know you'll use. This combines well with shopping the loss leaders, as stocking up on items when they're cheap allows you to spend a lot less money overall. My SO and I drink 100% fruit juice daily; when not on sale it's typically fairly expensive ($1.50 per 1.5 quarts, at least), but we almost never buy it at that price. Instead, we wait for juice to go on sale, and then buy dozens of containers of it. The same goes for almost everything else we regularly use (canned tomatoes, flour, sugar, bacon, frozen vegetables, etc.). In addition to just saving money, stocking up like this allows you to be more flexible with your cooking, since you always have good amounts of your basics on hand (e.g., we always have lots of onions, garlic, and cans of whole tomatoes on hand, so we can whip up a basic pasta sauce whenever we want).
- Learn (or notice) when things are in season. This often goes hand in hand with shopping for loss leaders as well (since in-season produce is often sold as a loss leader), but besides being cheaper, produce is often also better-tasting when bought in-season. Holiday seasons often bring cheap prices on traditional holiday foods; for instance, if you're in the US and want to roast a whole turkey, be sure it's around Thanksgiving (or buy an extra one at Thanksgiving and pop it in the freezer to plan ahead).
- Consider frozen vegetables and fruit. Frozen vegetables can be stored for months (allowing you to stock up on loss leaders), and are often better-tasting than out-of-season "fresh" produce. We usually have frozen corn, green beans, peas, and raspberries on hand, which we can then use in a variety of recipes without planning. Note, however, that frozen vegetables and fruit aren't ideal for everything, so don't just blindly use them; things like frozen broccoli or cauliflower will never be as crisp as their fresh equivalents.
- Shop by price per unit mass or volume. This almost goes without saying, but when you buy something, look at how much it costs per unit mass or volume, and compare it to other, similar products. Bulk purchases are often well worth it when considered in this light. When looking at price, be sure to give store brands (generics) a try: they're often much cheaper than the brand name product, and many times taste just as good. Generics are especially good when it comes to raw ingredients (e.g., flour, sugar, baking powder, tomatoes, dry beans), but they're at least worth trying for everything you buy. Also, we find that coupons are rarely worth it, as most coupons are for brand-name items, and typically only bring the price of the brand-name down to something close to the generic equivalent. Additionally, since coupons are often for pre-prepared foods, you can almost always make the same food for less by cooking it from scratch.
- Consider making some of the things you buy pre-made by hand. My SO and I make almost everything from scratch; part of this is because we enjoy cooking from scratch, but it's also because raw ingredients are almost always cheaper than pre-made components. For example, pasta sauces, cookies, biscuits, pancakes, and salad dressings are all cheap and easy to make at home, yet expensive to buy pre-made. About the only foods we buy pre-made are sausages, baked beans, jams and jellies, dry pasta, and breakfast cereals. If you don't know how to make something by hand, just look it up in your cookbook; you'll likely be surprised at how relatively easy it is (unless it's ravioli).
- Get a rewards credit card and use the supermarkets' information-gathering ("rewards") cards. My SO has a credit card that gives 2% cash back on purchases made at grocery stores; it's like always shopping with a 2% off coupon. The supermarkets' information-gathering cards are always worth it; if you forget yours for a day, sign up for a new one. However, don't be fooled by how much you "saved" with the card, since you probably wouldn't have bought the items if they weren't on sale.
- Comparison shop between different grocery stores, and learn which stores have the items you want cheap. For instance, in our area Trader Joe's has cheap heavy cream, whole milk yogurt, free-range chicken eggs, artisan bread, and frozen berries; our local health food store has cheap nuts, grains, and produce; our local supermarket has cheap flour, sugar, and paper goods; and our local Japanese market has cheap rice, soy sauce, and other Asian ingredients. For goodness's sake, don't spend hours and hours comparing the prices at different stores, but every now and then go to a different store and see what their prices are like.
- Invest in a set of good leftover containers, and use them. Cooking in bulk allows you to get multiple meals from a single cooking event, making cooking more efficient (saving both time and money). Many foods freeze very well, allowing you to keep them for months and then pop them in the microwave when you don't feel like cooking. High-moisture foods (e.g., soups, stews, curries, pasta sauces) tend to keep the best, and can even taste better after the first day in the fridge. Despite the claims of many of my relatives who say that "leftovers never taste the same," I've never met a food that I wouldn't eat as leftovers. Note that old food containers (e.g., sour cream containers, yogurt containers, glass jars) often make good leftover containers (though they can melt in the microwave).
- Learn how long ingredients last. Many fresh vegetables go bad relatively quickly (though some, like potatoes, carrots, and turnips, can be stored for weeks), but many other foods can be stored for months or years, so if you know you're going to use them, stock up on them when they're loss leaders. Sugar lasts nearly forever, canned vegetables last for years, and most frozen items will last at least 6 months. But since most things do eventually go bad, don't buy so much that you'll be throwing away lots in a few weeks or months. Some waste is fine (and is a common byproduct of shopping loss leaders and stocking up), but don't go overboard.
- Don't plan all your meals in advance. Most shopping gurus state that to save money you need to shop with a list; this is nonsense, primarily because it prevents you from shopping loss leaders. It is, however, a good idea to save grocery store fliers, hunt through them for good loss leaders, and then put those on your list. Once you've become familiar with the ingredients called for in your favorite recipes, when you get to the store (and/or when you look over the store's sales flier) you can determine what ingredients are cheap, and thus determine what would make the most sense to cook. When we go shopping we'll often have very vague lists, such as "veggies, fruit (apples?), baking soda, juice, ...", which allows us to survey the items available at the store and select the optimal combination of freshness, variety, and price.
- Learn (and be willing to research) new recipes for a variety of ingredients. When shopping for loss leaders you'll probably find that foods you're not used to cooking with are on sale, and thus worth buying (maybe turnips, Brussels sprouts, or some odd cut of pork will be insanely cheap). So, by knowing a lot of recipes, you'll be able to figure out something tasty to make with the cheap food you buy. Or, if you don't know a lot of recipes, be willing to learn them - go ahead and buy four pounds of turnips, and then when you get home look online (or in a good cookbook, see below) to figure out what to do with them. As a side benefit, this will increase the variety of foods you eat, thus reducing your culinary boredom and improving your nutritional balance. Even if my SO and I buy a 12-pound holiday ham, that might be the only time we buy ham that year, and even then we cook it up in five different ways, so we never get bored of it.
- Examine your meat expenses. Meat (beef, pork, chicken, fish, shellfish, etc.) is often expensive. To cut your meat expenses, we'd suggest learning how to cook cheaper cuts of meat (e.g., chicken legs work just as well as chicken breasts in most recipes), avoiding recipes that call for expensive meat (e.g., scallops, prime cuts of beef) except as a special treat, stocking up on meat when it's a loss leader, and/or reducing your overall meat consumption. One of the easiest ways to reduce your meat consumption is to learn to cook non-Western cuisines: many of these dishes have no meat in them at all (e.g., Indian dals, pilafs, and yogurt salads), and others (e.g., curries and stir-fries) use meat as just one ingredient among many. As a side note, it's easy to get enough protein without eating much (or any) meat, as long as you eat a varied diet1. Many non-meat foods have a decent amount of protein in them; for example, a cup of milk has 11 grams of protein, a cup of Cheerios has 3, a slice of whole-wheat bread has 4, two tablespoons of peanut butter have 8, one ounce of cheese has 7, a large egg has 6, and a cup of broccoli has 3 (for comparison, an ounce of raw chicken or salmon has 6 grams of protein; data for everything but the milk from here; milk data from a gallon of 1% milk in the fridge).
- Invest in a good, basic cookbook. I don't know why I'm bothering to write that header in the generic - there's really only one good, basic cookbook you need: Joy of Cooking. It's a stellar cookbook that includes recipes for just about everything (except drinks), and also includes an amazing amount of background information on how to do virtually everything in the kitchen from scratch. If you don't have Joy in your life, go get it.
- Realize that many recipes are flexible. Don't treat recipes as though they are cast in stone. If your recipe calls for red bell peppers, and when you get to the store you find that they're $5 each, consider alternatives (would green bell peppers work? What about broccoli or some other vegetable?). While the end recipe will not be exactly the same as the one in the cookbook, it can often taste just as good. Note, however, that this does require some cooking finesse, as ingredients that serve a direct functional purpose in a recipe cannot be substituted out (e.g., you can't substitute broccoli for peppers in a stuffed pepper recipe, and can't substitute corn starch for flour in a bread recipe). So, if you're a beginner, don't worry too much about this, and instead just focus on finding recipes that use the ingredients you have.
- Consider growing your own produce. While this is certainly not something everyone can do, consider growing your own fruits and vegetables at home. Things like herbs, tomatoes, berries, squash, and tree fruits (e.g., lemons, avocados, peaches) can be much cheaper and tastier when grown at home. Note, however, that you'll need to research what grows well in your area without much tending.
[Update November 2007: One common meme we've seen on the "I can't shop cheaply" topic is the claim that if you shop cheaply, then you can't buy fresh produce; this is patently false. To provide just one example of how produce can be bought cheaply, on a recent shopping trip to our local produce market we bought 62.25 pounds of produce (including red bell peppers, yellow onions, sweet onions, zucchini, butternut squash, apples, garlic, carrots, potatoes, yams, brussels sprouts, bananas, lemons, limes, and pears) for $35.67, for a total cost of $0.57/lb. Of course this relies on having a local cheap produce store that discounts in-season produce, and being willing to buy only the items on sale, but it's an example of what's possible.]
1 The Harvard School of Public Health suggests eating 9g of protein per 20 pounds of body mass. Thus, the average weight US female (165lbs) should eat 74 grams of protein a day, while the average weight US male (190lbs) should eat 85 grams a day (weight data from here).
Friday, May 18, 2007
This afternoon we're going to get her an herb and flower garden going, and tonight we'll celebrate with slow-roasted pork ribs and collard greens, followed by an introduction to German-style board games.
Thursday, May 17, 2007
You can learn even more at Neruos's website.
The OSD can record from any analog video source, from a TiVo to a satellite box to a DVD player to a games console. It records to any removable media you plug into it, such as a USB thumb-drive or a hard-drive -- so you can record your favorite DVDs, your best video-games, or your TV shows straight to drive. Needless to say, it'll play back from all this media as well.
The OSD is networkable, and can schedule programming in advance like a TiVo. It can play back all the standard download formats, including Xvid and Divx.
Best of all, the OSD is open: anyone can hack its firmware and add features to it.
Now this is a DVR that I just might buy.
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Unfortunately, however, things are not going quite so well back in California. My SO came home tonight (after a very long day of work) to find that our house was full of hundreds of buzzing, potentially stinging, uninvited arthropod guests. After some investigation (and careful shooing), my SO determined that we have a swarm (or other congregation) of bees in our chimney. As a friend in Oregon said when I told him about this: "So THAT'S where they've all gone!"
Anyone need some bees?
1 In fact, my mom was feeling good enough today to head around town with me to help buy supplies for all the projects she wants me to do while I'm here. I should emphasize that I'm not complaining: many of those projects entail cooking, which I'm more than happy to do (and which I benefit from as much as she).
Sunday, May 13, 2007
After talking with our resident pathophysiologist (it's convenient working at a college with a good human anatomy and physiology group), I've learned that atypical ductal hyperplasias fall into a category known as fibrocystic changes, meaning changes in the breast that produce lumps, yet are not full-blown cancerous growths. Some fibrocystic changes are associated with an increased risk of cancer (they're pre-cancerous, if you will), while others aren't. Unfortunately, it looks like atypical hyperplasias are associated with an increased risk of breast cancer in the future, and, based on what my mom has been told, sometimes atypical hyperplasias are even found around cancerous tissue.
My mom had a consultation with a surgeon this past Thursday, and he scheduled her for a full biopsy (essentially a lumpectomy) Tuesday. The quick timeline took us both by surprise, though it seems like a good idea.
My mom lives alone near Denver, and thus I'm going to be flying there on Monday to be with her during and after the procedure. While the operation sounds like it should be routine, I'm planning on staying the entire week just in case (and so I can be there when the tissue test results come in). Being that we've only got two weeks left in the semester, this is not an ideal time to be away from my classes (in fact, it's a crazy time to take a week off). However, I suspect my students can somehow manage without me1.
From stats that my mom was given, no evidence of cancer is found about 85% of the time atypical hyperplasias are excised. Funny how statistics are not nearly as comforting as one wants them to be.
1 Though I will be pre-recording my lecture and distributing it online, so my students can still get their daily dose of Prof. Radagast, if they so desire.
Thursday, May 10, 2007
More than ten students called me over during the exam to ask what the word monogamous meant.
Wouldn't the conservative pundits have a field day?
Sunday, May 06, 2007
A canna and an English rose.
Of course, if one was to look at my past garden pictures, one might think that I only take pictures of roses. To help counter that, here's what our calla lillies look like right now:
These die back to their rhizomes every fall, and I love seeing them pop out of the soil in the spring.
[Warning: A long, boring post about troubles purchasing a guitar follows. If you're interested in problems with new Washburn D10SBs, or a comparison of Musician's Friend's and SameDayMusic.com's customer service, read on. If not, don't.]
Regular readers will remember that back in March I decided to start learning to play the guitar. The first step was to obtain a guitar, which I attempted to do by placing an order for a Washburn D10SB from Musician's Friend back in late March. It took me until yesterday to actually finally have a working guitar; in this post I'll recount this tale of woe, and review the customer service of both companies I dealt with.
Musician's Friend shipped my package the day after I placed the order, and it arrived via UPS ground in the usual time. The order consisted of my guitar (which came in a hard case), another hard case I ordered for a friend, and some other miscellaneous items (a guitar stand, extra strings, and some picks). Unfortunately, Musician's Friend had packed everything into one (giant) box, and had put exactly two sheets of paper into the box as padding (my guitar's hardcase wasn't even in a plastic bag). As one might expect, the UPS elephants had had a blast with the package, and thus virtually everything in the order was damaged. Even the box of picks had been broken open during shipment, and thanks to a minimal taping job of the box's seams, most of the picks had fallen out during transport. Most distressing was that the two cases had rubbed against each other, leaving large gouges on both.
Musician's Friend was quick to respond to all of my e-mails, but unfortunately their responses were often uninformative. For instance, the first e-mail they sent said that I should ship everything that was damaged back to them, and that they could either exchange everything for new items or give me a full refund. I still wanted a guitar, so I said that I wanted to do an exchange. Only later did I find out that by "exchange" they meant "send us back your guitar and four days after we receive it we'll place a new order for you," while by "refund" they meant "we can place an order for a replacement guitar immediately for you."
I packed the guitar up and sent it back the next day; it took the usual time to get back, and then a few days later I got a notice that they'd placed a new order (X') for me for the replacement items. The next day I got this:
Dear Radagast:As you might guess, at no point before this did Musician's Friend ever mention that they were out of stock. In fact, I'm fairly certain that they had a D10SB in stock when I initially shipped back my damaged guitar to them. At the end of the e-mail they informed me that the soonest they'd ship the guitar was now May 11.
Thanks again for your recent order #X'. The items which were in stock have been shipped, and we've sent your package tracking information via a previous email.
As you may recall from the Item Status on our website or from speaking with us when you placed your order, the item(s) listed below are not in stock. Our orders for this gear have been expedited through the manufacturer, and we are still expecting to ship your products within the timeframe originally quoted. If we anticipate an extended delay, we will contact you again to verify any changes you may wish to make.
I was furious. It didn't help matters that Musician's Friend had never once apologized for anything; the words "apologize" and "sorry" are completely lacking from any of the numerous e-mails they sent me. While the other replacement items did ship the next day, they arrived with the same mediocre packaging (no bubble wrap, and all the small items were put loose into the same box as a guitar case, which led to the new pick package breaking open and spewing its contents all through the box).
After doing some shopping around, I found SameDayMusic.com, another online music store that seemed to be fairly large, had a good return policy posted, and had the D10SB in stock, albeit for a higher price. SameDayMusic had a price match policy on their website, and within a day of finding their site I had a URL available to purchase an in-stock D10SB for $5 less than I had paid at Musician's Friend. I placed an order with SameDayMusic, and took great pleasure in cancelling my Musician's Friend order (though I only later found out that the customer service representative "incorrectly" cancelled my order the first time, and thus it took me multiple e-mails and more than a week before the money was refunded to my credit card).
SameDayMusic lived up to their name and shipped the guitar out the same day I ordered it. It arrived the usual time later, and I was ecstatic to find that they actually knew what bubble wrap was1. Unfortunately, the guitar case arrived missing one of its feet, and the guitar had a few small scratches on the side. The case was packaged in what appeared to be the manufacturer's bag, and there wasn't a foot in sight, so it seems likely that the foot was broken before shipping.
SameDayMusic's response to my e-mail was refreshingly thorough and kind. The very first sentence of their e-mail was apologetic (including "apologize" prominently), and they clearly explained all of the options for either exchanging or returning the guitar. Unlike Musician's Friend, they made it clear that they would ship out a replacement item the very same day, even saying that they'd only charge my card if they didn't get the return item within a few weeks.
SameDayMusic did indeed ship out a replacement guitar the very same day, and they did one better: they shipped it out second-day air (Musician's Friend shipped out their replacement items standard ground). This replacement (the third guitar and case I was to receive) arrived two business days later, and again was packaged with bubble wrap.
The case was in great shape this time, but the guitar had a dent on the front. The guitar and case both appeared to be packaged in the manufacturer's bag, and there was nothing in the case that could have caused the damage, so this damage again appeared to have happened before shipping. I informed SameDayMusic of the damage, but unfortunately by this time they were out of stock of the D10SB as well, and wouldn't have it in stock until June. To their credit, SameDayMusic apologized profusely, and reported this problem to me in the very first e-mail they sent after I told them of my damaged shipment.
At this point I had two guitars and two cases (as SameDayMusic's return shipping label hadn't arrived yet), but fortunately one of each was in fairly good shape. One case was perfect, and I could live with the scratched guitar (as the scratch wasn't too noticeable, and was only in the finish). I proposed that I'd be OK with keeping the better set of items if I got a small discount; SameDayMusic wrote back the next day saying that they'd be happy to give me a 20% discount for the trouble. That was more than I expected, and thus I'm pleased to say that as of yesterday I finally have a guitar I can keep.
Thanks to their excellent customer service, SameDayMusic has now won a customer for life. Musician's Friend, on the other hand, won't see my money again. It's amazing what an apology, a speedy replacement shipment, and some flexible thinking will do for you.
1 To clarify, while SameDayMusic's packing was better than Musician's Friend's, it was still sub-optimal. The guitar was packed in its hardcase, which was put in a plastic bag, but then the case was put into a box just barely bigger than it was, with bubble wrap was stuffed into one end of the box to attempt to lock the case into place. I would have preferred it if the entire case had been wrapped in bubble wrap, or if it had been double-boxed.
Saturday, May 05, 2007
I'm exhausted; the next three weeks can't go by fast enough.