Sunday, December 10, 2017

Fashionably Late

A large part of my college education was social rather than academic. When I first arrived, I may not have been entirely adjusted to American culture, but the larger issue might have been a lack of practice in a variety of social situations. Perhaps the most concrete example is the timing with which one should show up to an event. Going to class? It doesn't hurt to be on time or early. Going to a party? If you show up 'on time' and don't know the host really well, you will by the time the party actually starts.

There is a certain level of lateness that is extravagant and carefree, and it seems hardwired into some people. What I did not previously know, however, is that there is another level of party-arrival lateness (in general) that is just normal. I discovered this both from arriving 'early' to some events and accidentally being late to others and finding that it worked out much better. With practice, then, I could plan my schedule to be exactly as late as I wanted.

To sum up, some are born late, some achieve lateness, and some have lateness thrust upon them.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

What To Do With Cardboard

About half of the furniture and other items for my new apartment have arrived on my doorstep in boxes, and I have not yet been able to suppress my instinct to hoard cardboard boxes because they might be useful. The stack of flattened cardboard in my living room is currently finishing a final stage of growth as the last few items arrive, and then I need to make a decision.

I could make some sort of furniture, or perhaps something decorative, but I can't quite think of something that I would actually want to have around the apartment. My younger self, I'm sure, would be very unhappy to hear of this current lack of creativity; I remember a book of crafts my family had that described a bunch of things to do with big boxes that I could never try for lack of material. Perhaps I need to take an afternoon to make a cardboard fort and then be done with it.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Mattress Saga

When I moved into my new apartment, I knew there were two things that I wanted to order online: a mattress and a desk chair. Other furniture would come from a variety of sources, but I wanted to use two-day shipping from Amazon to get a mattress and a desk chair as soon as possible so that I could be comfortable while sitting down and lying down.

At first, things were looking good; I placed my order and followed tracking information online as the mattress and chair traveled from an Amazon facility to my door. On the day the packages were to be delivered, however, I came home to see an empty front porch.

Life is full of difficult questions, and I suppose we will never know the answers to some of them. What happened to those packages that day is one of those mysteries. Data entry error? Possibly. Theft? Perhaps. I waited the 36 hours recommended by Amazon when packages are marked as delivered but are missing, then contacted customer service. Fortunately, I was offered a refund for the chair and a replacement for the mattress (why the different products got different responses is another of life's mysteries). And thus began my mattress's second odyssey.

Package tracking began again at distribution, but for an unknown reason, USPS did not bring the mattress on the expected day. Next thing I knew, the package's information was updated to become UPS and it was revealed that the mattress had spent the weekend in Texas and had only just begun its voyage east. At this point, I would normally have contacted customer service, not because of my natural inclinations, but because this first time that two-day shipping had let me down meant that I needed to sleep on the floor for a week longer than I had hoped to. However, since the mattress I was being sent was a readily-offered replacement, I decided not to push my luck.

I arrived home today to see a battered package on my doorstep. I cannot tell the adventures this package has been through, but the mattress it contained was fresh and new, and I look forward to sleeping on it tonight. It is by this series of events, then, that the first item with which I hoped to furnish my apartment arrived last. I'm sure there's a moral in there somewhere.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Hot Pocket Limerick

There once was a microwaved sandwich
That was stuffed full of cheezies and hamwich
The outside was hot
As a stove-heated pot
But the inside was wow even hotter I burned my tongue

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Magic Tricks

There is a constant discussion among watchers and performers of magic tricks about what the effect is of knowing how a trick is done. On one hand, of course, is the idea that knowing the mechanism ruins the magic. On the other hand, however, so many books and videos are dedicated to revealing magic secrets that you have to admit that many non-performers get enjoyment out of knowing how tricks are carried out.

The third point of view in this discussion is that the best sort of magic has no trick and is thus equally amazing no matter what the audience and performers know about it. My personal favorite trick to perform is in this vein: you take three cards from a deck of cards (you can even have someone choose the cards for you if you like) and shuffle them around. Display the three cards to your audience so that you cannot see them and have them pick one (you can have them touch it or just think about it if you want to go with a mentalist angle). Shuffle the three cards again and select one at random (performer embellishment goes here). Present the card with a flourish and ask the audience if it is their card. If it is, great! Everyone is amazed. If you got the wrong card, change the subject of conversation.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Experimental Design

One thing I enjoyed about my summer in the Yukon was the sort of conversation that can be found in a remote camp of a dozen or so young biologists. While the squirrels being studied at camp were certainly a dominant topic, we would also spend time talking about other research projects we had heard about or been involved in. On a particularly wild night, we watched an episode of BBC's Planet Earth 2 on an old laptop and I have never seen such an excited and vocal audience for a documentary.

If anyone at camp suggested an untested theory or hypothesis, the next question was 'how would you design an experiment to find that out?" For example, if someone proposed that squirrels bark when they hear other squirrels barking, a simple experiment might be to play recordings of squirrel barks in the forest and see if real barking increases in frequency.

There were many good experiment designs discussed, but perhaps the most brilliant was a story we found written in a textbook written by some of the scientists who had started doing ecology research in Kluane (the part of the Yukon we were in) over 30 years ago.

The question to be answered was 'is the population of snowshoe hares limited by food availability?' A standard experiment to answer this question is a 'food add'-- if you put more food in the hares' environment, and the hare population then increases relative to an environment with no added food, there is evidence that hare population is limited (at least in part) by food availability.

There was, however, a problem. Snowshoe hares in Kluane share an environment with bears, and the containers of food pellets put out for the hares were being eaten by said bears. To prevent this, a series of clever containers were made to allow hares access to the food while keeping bears from eating everything and ruining the experiment: metal bars at the mouth of a container, for example, could create a barrier for bears that hares could slip right through. Unfortunately, the bears were able to break everything that the researchers could (cost-effectively) come up with.

The key design question, then, for this food add experiment is how to provide food for hares without providing food for bears. How might it be done?

It's not the easiest question, considering the variety of things that bears will eat.

The brilliant solution that was eventually arrived at was to scatter the food pellets over the forest floor instead of depositing them in containers as is typical in many food adds. This works because of Optimal Foraging Theory, which says that since animals need to spend time and energy to acquire food, they will only make an effort if the reward for foraging is worth their investment. When the food pellets were all together in containers, it was worth a bear's time to break into said container, but if eating all those pellets required picking them up one by one off the ground, it was no longer sustainable foraging for a bear. For a hare, however, finding and eating pellets one by one was a great deal, and thus the experiment was successfully conducted. The design was simple, elegant, and made use of a broad ecological theory for fine-tuning; that sort of experiment is something to aspire to.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Then, Now, and In Between

It's been a year and a bit since my last post, and I'm looking to get back in blogness. I don't think I've changed hugely in that time-- looking again at the blog description that I wrote three or four years ago, I can confirm that I still like plants, games, King Arthur, and thinking about eye contact on public transportation.

There have been, of course, a few life changes. I graduated college in May, worked on a research project in the Yukon for four months, wandered through three months of self-esteem-decreasing underemployment, and have most recently moved to Charleston, South Carolina to start a new job in pest control. There are stories here that I can tell at a later date, but to reflect the general life transition of the past year, I have changed my blog's visual theme.

I fell off the wagon of blog-writing for a few reasons, the biggest being that I felt like I was running out of things I found interesting to write about. As I start blogging again now, I am hopeful that the thoughts and events of a year will be sufficient fuel to get me back in the habit. Additionally, the blank page that is my first real job and solo apartment should produce some new situations and thoughts for this blog's benefit.

With any luck, this will be a second wind for Variant Minds. If not, third time's the charm.