Sunday, May 22, 2011

Gardening in New England Rocks (Bad Pun Fully Intended)

Anyone who lives in New England can probably tell you what our most common native crop is-- rocks, of every shape and size.  Just this morning, I was working with my dad to reopen our old vegetable garden, which has been empty for a few years when we were all too busy for it, and found at least fifty rocks in a 10' by 12' area.  To put this in perspective, the garden was in use for at least ten to twelve years prior to the few years it's been lying fallow.  Somehow, in all that time, we still failed to remove all the rocks.  Every year, more appear.

Boyfriend attributes it to erosion, arguing that as the topsoil washes away, more rocks are revealed.  This makes sense, but he's never lived here to get a perspective on how ridiculously many rocks can show up in a brief period of time.  Thus, I prefer my own argument-- that New England rocks know how to migrate.

Either way, and despite all the rocks, I'm really excited to be reopening the garden.  Unfortunately, the more I sank into school and work over the past few years, the less time I got to spend outdoors, and I miss that.  Homegrown vegetables are also better than ones from the store, if only because you appreciate the work that went into them!  This year, I'm attempting , zucchini, cucumbers, green beans, carrots, radishes, watermelon and a few varieties of tomato.  We'll have to see how they turn out!

Farming in New England is overall an interesting phenomenon.  When I was driving to Virginia a few weeks ago, I was listening to the very funny book A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson, where the author and a friend attempted to hike the Appalachian Trail.  When discussing the New England segment of the trail, which spans almost all of the East Coast, Bryson wrote that colonial New England was (I believe) 30% forest and 70% farmland.  At the time when he was writing his book, the late 1990s, these numbers had swapped entirely, a really unusual reversal of progress. 

In large part, however, this didn't result from a lack of good soil for farming.  Rather, it was a result of increasing economies of scale associated with mechanized farming.  The hills and rocks of New England meant that farms simply weren't large enough for the huge machines that work so well in the Midwestern states.  So farming moved there, and New England reverted to forest.

A recent article I found, however, argued that with rising gas prices, the worth of local farming might increase, bringing year-round production back to New England.  I have to admit, it's a persuasive argument.  The Farmer's Market near my house in Ann Arbor has great food of all types, fresher and cheaper than those at the grocery store.  And when buying plants for my garden this morning, I got all seven varieties of vegetables and fruit for under $20.  As long as I do it right, the amount of food they'll produce for me is well over that amount. 

Regardless, it'll be a nice change to have something manual to do this summer in between my research and writing.  And the results should be delicious!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Upcoming Video Game Work

So I'm a little busy today, trying to work on a paper and prep for a job interview I have tomorrow.  This is particularly difficult because the paper isn't due for almost a month, which goes completely against my normal method of motivating myself through recognition of a fast-approaching deadline.  However, April will be a killer in terms of grading and exams, so I'm trying to finish as many of my more flexible assignments as possible now.  We'll see how it turns out!

In the interests of being at least a little exciting today, I decided to give you a brief peek into what the topic I'm currently working on is.  For my quantitative research class, we basically have to do the background research for and design a study.  If it turns out to be interesting, we might even conduct it later on.  So far, I've gotten good feedback on mine.

Which, I'm sure, means you're all wondering what this amazing project of mine could be.  Well, I'm afraid I can't write too much about it here for now, especially if I'm actually going to run the study.  Wouldn't want any of my more enterprising students (who make up the research pool we often use for exploratory studies) to discover my hypotheses and end up giving me skewed results.

What I can say is that it deals with (surprise!) video games, and more specifically their influence on public opinion.  Check out some of the material here to see some of what I'm working with.  We'll see how it goes!  If I don't end up taking it to the study stage, I'll probably give another update soon, but if I do, it'll be awhile before I manage to run all the data and can report back with my conclusions.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

SXSW- Part 3, Building a Web Community the 4chan way

The last few things I want to write about from moot's talk at SXSW (you can read my earlier post on it here) involve his attitude toward building a community online and the ways he's approaching his new project, Canvas, with the knowledge gained from 4chan.

Moot mentioned in his talk that 4chan started with a chat room of around twenty people and just grew from there to the 12 million people per month that visit now.  While it seems like  he should be a very wealthy man from getting so much traffic to his website, moot is currently $20,000 or so in debt because of the difficulties of finding advertisers.  Due to the nature of 4chan, he can't guarantee that ads won't run next to something inappropriate.  Not a lot of advertisers are willing to take that risk, and the ones left are often from companies moot feels may ruin the user experience.  Thus, 4chan generates no real revenue but incurs massive server fees.

It seems that these difficulties, as well as the successes, of 4chan have led moot to his new project, Canvas.  From his description of the site, it aims to mix the benefits of anonymity and creativity with greater ease of moderation and perhaps even the chance to make a profit (or at least not lose money).  Canvas, like 4chan, is an image sharing website, but it comes with a few changes.  While the site's still in closed beta and I wasn't able to get in, moot's presentation showed some stills of it.  One interesting feature is that Canvas includes tools to edit images within the web page itself, making it easier for users to work together to create new works (and memes).

It also links to Facebook, which seems at first to go against moot's stance on the benefits of anonymity being beneficial.  However, from what I can tell, he's hoping to hit a good balance between the pros and cons of having anonymous users, making a site with equivalent creativity but less trolling than 4chan.  The method Canvas employs to do this is to allow users to post anonymously but to have their registration information behind the scenes, through the connection to Facebook.  To quote moot's talk, "It's a first pass at weeding out your more casual trolls... Even though we're not surfacing your profile information, your name, your picture anywhere, just the fact that you know that we know is enough to discourage people."  This won't discourage everyone, of course, with moot guessing that only around 20% of people who might try to "muck things up" might be discouraged by this step.  However, it definitely says that he intends Canvas to be very different from 4chan, in terms of moderation and friendliness to wide audiences.  Hopefully it also allows him to get some advertisers!

Moot does, however, intend to keep some of the things he sees as key features of 4chan's success, the first being the organic growth it saw, developing from a small community to a large one without any form of advertising or explicit attempts to get more users.  He argued that this was key to the formation of a community and group identity, and said, "The problem is not scaling, but building a community worth scaling."  I thought that was a really interesting comment.  Any time you look up information about social media and social websites or games, you're generally inundated with advice on how to grow your numbers and attain success in terms of visits.  This kind of view, of allowing things to develop on their own, was refreshing, and I think it really does touch on part of why 4chan has been so successful.

One thing moot expected to change, and ended up reverting back towards the example of 4chan instead, was the format of the website.  Specifically, the way through which users could communicate.  4chan, as I have mentioned before, is a simple image board, where users can post images and comment on them.  For Canvas, moot was planning on adding a chat feature as well, to allow people to communicate more instantly and directly while working on a project.  What he said he found, however, is that chats were less fun for users than commenting was.  With comments, new participants can go back and read the logs, catch up and then contribute.  Apparently with chats, this was much harder, making it fun only for the people who were involved already.  As moot says the point of his sites is always to be fun, this led him to scale back the chat option and increase focus on commenting.  While chat is still a feature, he said he's aiming for a mix of synchronous and asynchronous communication on the site, or a "product at the intersection of chat and commenting".

I'll be really interested to see how the new site works when it's finally opened up.  I think it could manage to be pretty successful, and it would be nice to see one of the Internet's major players manage to make a profit for once.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

SXSW- Part 2, Anonymity and Creativity

Well, I've been back from Texas since Wednesday night, but some of the stuff at SXSW was just so cool/interesting that I'll probably be posting about it through this week or even beyond.  At the very least, I'd like to discuss the keynote speeches I was lucky enough to catch.

There were so many people at SXSW that I didn't think I'd be able to see the keynotes from the main room where they were actually taking place, especially since the organizers were expecting a large enough audience that they simulcast the speeches to eight or nine other rooms.  Somehow, I managed to get into the main ballroom for the two I really wanted to see-- Christopher Poole and Felicia Day.  Felicia Day is probably the more recognizable name of the two of these, but Chris Poole is equally successful and well-known on the Internet front-- just not by name.  Rather, he's known as "moot", the founder of, which he jokingly refers to as "the dark heart of the Internet" (before arguing against this perception).

If you haven't been on 4chan, don't go while at work or while with people that you don't want accidentally exposed to adult material.  The website itself is a very simple imageboard, where users can post and comment on pictures, but it allows them to be entirely anonymous.  4chan has become the spawning point for a number of Internet subcultures and memes (fads or trends, such as Rickrolling).  It's darker side has been manifested in Internet attacks, such as flooding the bandwidth of the Motion Picture Association of America's website in retaliation for their cyberattacks against The Pirate Bay, crashing the MPAA's website for a short period of time.  The community's members have also used their computer and hacking skills for positive results, such as tracking down a poster who was threatening to blow up his school and passing the information along to the police.  It's actually a pretty fascinating website to look at from a media studies perspective, just because its users are completely anonymous but still manage to exert a heavy influence on popular culture, other areas of the Internet, and people who irritate 4chan users.

I found Moot's talk really interesting, because while he recognized the more negative side of sites like 4chan, he expressed almost infinite faith in the potential of anonymity to be a positive thing.  Daniel Solove, a law professor at George Washington University, wrote a book called "The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor and Privacy on the Internet", where he argues that the difficulty of deleting information from the Internet means that all the mistakes and errors we commit in life will follow us forever.  With a permanent chronicle of our lives stored online, we no longer have the ability to reinvent ourselves by moving to a new place or by meeting new people.  This stifles experimentation and creativity, as our failures, like our mistakes, will also be linked to us permanently.  Moot's argument was that sites like 4chan, which allow users to be completely anonymous, can help make up for this, by giving people places to fail risk-free.  He saw them as places that can help breed creativity by decreasing the repercussions of trying something and having it not work out, as well as by allowing others to take, change and sometimes even improve upon original works.

This perspective actually correlates with some of the points I made in my undergraduate thesis, about balancing the right to free speech with the negative repercussions of anonymity.  Anonymity really does unlink identity and consequences, allowing people to make posts or put forward ideas that they might otherwise have stifled.  This is a positive thing when it means that, as mentioned above, people get multiple chances to try something without being deemed a failure, or when people who are surrounded by others who are unlike or disagree with them can share their viewpoints without being ostracized.  It's a less positive thing when it means that individuals can attack or libel one another with impunity.  Unfortunately, I don't know the best way to balance this, and I'm not sure anyone else does either.  I would, however, agree with moot that 4chan and similarly anonymous sites serve a purpose.

Moot also had a number of other ideas that I really liked, but including them would make this post way too long, so I think I'll save them for Wednesday.  For now, what do you think about 4chan, if you've experienced it in the past?  Is it useful, or just a spot for people to waste time and be offensive?  And how do you think open speech and civility can be balanced online?

(Also, if interested, moot's talk is actually up on YouTube in its entirety.  And the Austin Chronicle did an interesting article on 4chan during SXSW.  My favorite quote from it-- "Anonymity allows identity to exhale". )

Saturday, March 12, 2011

SXSW- Part 1

In very exciting life news, I am currently in Austin, TX to attend South by Southwest, or SXSW as they tend to abbreviate it.  SXSW was originally a music festival, then expanded to be a film festival and finally added a third component called "Interactive", which deals with topics that I am interested in, including video games and new media.  In a lot of ways, it's a conference for marketers and developers but manages to have some interesting points for academics as well.

I've actually been volunteering with Interactive since the fall as an Interactive Panel Liaison (IPL).  This position meant that, when panels were selected for the conference, some of them were assigned to me.  I then acted as the first resource for panelists or organizers who had questions, so that I could answer the easy ones and only pass the unusual or difficult questions along to the core SXSW staff.  This kept them from getting overwhelmed and also meant that I, in return for my help, got a free pass to attend!  Considering that registration badges cost upwards of $800, this was a major benefit.

I flew down here on Wednesday after classes, because registration started on Thursday.  Actual events began yesterday.  So far I have attended two panels, gotten three business cards, been invited to one party, and realized that I am really not very good at small talk.  I can do it, if necessary, but I always feel so awkward trying to come up with topics of conversation to discuss with someone I don't know.  The one time I feel I held a non-awkward conversation yesterday was when I actually found someone who had written his undergraduate thesis on video games, so we had something real to talk about.  Otherwise it's just the "Oh what do you do?  Where are you from? What brings you to SXSW?" type of conversation.

Small talking, I know, is an essential life skill, and really I suppose I'm not that bad at it.  I just don't like it.  Thankfully, other parts of SXSW have been enjoyable, like the content of the panels I've decided to see and the people I've gotten to work with so far.  The fact that I can get two free drams of my favorite Scotch a day because The Macallan is a sponsor has also been excellent.

I'm sure I'll have more to say on the convention, and probably on Austin as well, over the next few days.  It should be an interesting time!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Art of Video Games

When I was teaching my class on video games, we ended up in an interesting discussion one day that I had not foreseen or put on my syllabus-- whether or not video games could count as art.  To be honest, I hadn't even thought of this as a topic, and now I can't say whether it was because I assumed they did, assumed they didn't, or hadn't really thought about it.

My students mentioned an interesting editorial Roger Ebert wrote last spring, where he declared that "Video Games Can Never Be Art".  It was an interesting statement to make, considering that he later admit that the last video game he played, and which he didn't have the patience for, was Myst, released in 1993.  Ebert later issued another blog post, after further thought and after reading the very extensive comments left on his first post, saying, "I may be wrong, but if I'm not willing to play a video game to find that out, I should say so. I have books to read and movies to see. I was a fool for mentioning video games in the first place."  Personally, I think this was the only way for him to get out of the conversation gracefully, and I respect him for being willing to admit that his first post was a mistake, although the post title "Ok, kids, play on my lawn" does still have a bit of a crotchety ring to it.

I don't critique film because I don't know film, and Ebert's attempt to critique video games when he hadn't played one in over fifteen years was poorly thought out.  Especially because it now appears that The Smithsonian American Art Museum disagrees.  They are currently putting together an exhibition that will air in March 2012 on "The Art of Video Games" and, even better, they are looking for fans to vote on the artwork they think should be included in the exhibit.  I'd definitely encourage all of you to go check it out!  You can vote for up to 80 games, separated into 5 eras by the Smithsonian organizers.  They only ask for games that demonstrate "a focus on striking visual effects, the creative use of new technologies, and the most influential artists and designers... Remember, this is an art exhibition, so be sure to vote for games that you think are visually spectacular or boast innovative design!"

Personally, I can't wait for this to open and will definitely try to see it sometime next year.  I really love that the museum isn't focusing solely on the games themselves but also on the people behind them-- the artists and designers-- and on the relationships between video games and other aspects of culture like film and television.  I can only hope that the exhibition meets the high hopes I'm sure gamers will have for it, although if it's up to the Smithsonian's normal standards, I'm not too worried.

Monday, February 14, 2011

History of Valentine's Day

Late again, I know, but on purpose this time.  I held off from yesterday until today in honor of today's holiday. Although not my favorite, I find the history of the holiday to be interesting.  Did you know that there are in fact at least fourteen different Saint Valentines?  Or that the holiday is no longer a religious holiday in any way?  It's true!

The collective Saints Valentine were a number of Christian martyrs put to death in ancient Rome.  Whether the holiday was made to celebrate a certain one of the Valentines or if it was a collective holiday has never been determined, although it is certain that the holiday did not evolve until many years later.

Valentine's Day in its modern form, as a celebration of romantic love, originated in the Middle Ages, specifically in the works of Geoffrey Chaucer.  His poem "Parlement of Foules" presented  Valentine's Day as if it was a historical holiday, but no evidence exists to show that this is in fact the case.  There is a great deal of evidence to show that recognition was paid to Saint Valentine(s), with the actual saint's day established by Pope Gelasius I in 496 AD, but no association with love occurs before Chaucer.

For those of you who like to complain that Valentine's Day is a Hallmark holiday, meant only for the greeting card and chocolate companies, you can now support your argument further with the fact that it is no longer a religious holiday at all.  Pope Paul VI deleted it from the Roman calendar of saints in 1969.

For those of you who like this holiday, I would still encourage you to escape from Hallmark anyways-- traditional valentines were hand-made and often quite elaborate.  A great gallery of some can be found here.

Regardless of which side you're on, enjoy the day.  I'll definitely argue that more love in the world, even commercialized love, is never a bad thing.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Gotta Catch Em All?

Ok, ok, I know I'm late.  I have clearly not been doing well with keeping on top of this lately.  It's been a busy term, and I'll make it up to you by talking about something everyone likes-- Pokemon.

For some odd reason, the topic of Pokemon has been popping up everywhere this week.  I'm not really sure why.  Well, part of it was voluntary-- I generally always have a GameBoy Color in my bag, so when I had to take my cat to the vet this week, I ended up playing Pokemon Red while waiting.  So that was a deliberate exposure to Pokemon.

On top of that though, I accidentally stumbled upon this post from the fantastic "Things 90s Kids Realize" blog, which argues that 150 Pokemon was more than enough.  I suppose 151 is also acceptable, as it's a major point of debate how many qualify as first generation, but they have a point.  I don't even know how many there are now.  In my mind, it stops at Mew.  How well do you remember them all?

The last thing that reminded me of Pokemon this week were these two images that were sent to me by friends, questioning some very important assumptions regarding old Pokemon games.  

Certainly puts things in a new perspective for you.  I felt kind of like a terrible person after reading that first one.

I realize that most of this is not original material, and for that, I apologize.  But hey, I'm supposed to remind you of things you knew at one point and you have to admit-- Pokemon were always pretty awesome.  perhaps after I play a bit more I'll give you some better tips on catching Pokemon in the Safari Zone.  So frustrating!

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Mean World Syndrome

Most of my time recently has been spent grading papers turned in by my students, detailing their analysis of media effects in television shows they viewed.  When I do take a break, I've gotten hooked on the TV show "Castle".  Collectively, these two inspired today's blog post.

"Castle", if you haven't seen it, is a pretty excellent show.  I'd highly recommend it as a series with interesting characters, well-written dialogue and some clever plots.  Nathan Fillion stars as mystery writer Richard Castle, who teams up with the NYPD when a serial killer starts imitating the way his victims were killed in his books.  After solving that crime, he stays with the NYPD as an assistant/observer, using the main detective Kate Beckett as his inspiration for the main character in a new book series.  The reason watching this show connects to my students' papers is because it reminds me of a Media Studies theory, Mean World Syndrome.

The central premise of Mean World Syndrome is that exposure to violent media leads viewers to believe that the world is more dangerous, or "meaner", than it actually is.  For instance, the tendency of news shows to focus on crime, while understandable, is thought to increase this by making viewers believe crime is more common than it actually is.

While I haven't studied this syndrome in awhile and don't know what the contemporary assessment of its accuracy is, I do occasionally have to wonder if it's affecting me.  Living by myself and having a very active imagination, I have already spent a few nights waking up from a dream convinced that someone is in my apartment.  Rather scary at three in the morning.  Now I'm curious if occurrences like these might be partially influenced by what I'm watching on TV.  Guess we'll find out if watching "Castle" has an impact!  It's a relatively non-violent show (while containing dead people, it rarely shows them getting killed or even a lot of blood), but I'll definitely be keeping my eyes out.  What do you think?

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Cuba and the US

Ack, Wednesday already!  I have a ton of work to do and about 350 papers to grade still, so unfortunately, no original material from me today.

Instead, I'm doing another shout-out to my little brother, who is now the Editor of the Marketplace segment of the Boston College newspaper, The Heights.  Now, you might be wondering, what the heck is the Marketplace section?  I thought it was financial info.  My friends all guessed the classifieds.  Turns out, it's actually the world news and politics section.  Who knew?

I know the main focus in the news recently has been the Egypt protests, but my little brother's last article was on another interesting world situation-- the lifting of travel restrictions between the US and Cuba, for the first time in almost 50 years.  The article gives some really great history on the issue and some of the arguments for and against the changes.  Check it out!  Definitely could be an interesting change in US/Cuba relations.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Video Game Records

I get very different reactions when I tell people that I basically study video games for a living, ranging from extreme jealousy to complete disbelief, and sometimes even to offense.  Some people apparently do not believe this is a legitimate way to be spending my time or something for which you should be able to go to graduate school.

This means that I often have to justify or at least explain my interest and why I think what I do is worth it and worth being paid for.  I've got a couple brief one-line responses, like "If culture and social values aren't created in the media forms people use every day, where are they made?", but sometimes I need more ammunition for a longer fight.

Today, I got a little bit more to add to my arsenal (sort of) when I found a Wired article on video game-based records in the Guinness Book of World Records.  Some of these really only matter within the context of video games themselves, such as "Longest Survival on a 6-Star Wanted Level in Grand Theft Auto IV", but others speak to the wider implications of video games that I look into in my work.

For instance, did you know that Sid Meier's Civilization V had an officially recognized day?  According to the article, "Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley declared Sept. 21, 2010, "Sid Meier's Civilization V Day" to honor the game's release and celebrate the strength of the game-development industry in his state, which developer Firaxis calls home."  In my mind, this speaks volumes about the economic impacts of the game industry.

Another interesting record is "First Facebook Game to Cause a Lawsuit", which is held by the game Scrabulous, sued by Scrabble owners Mattel and Hasbro for copyright infringement.  Scrabulous lost, to no one's surprise, showing the ways traditional power structures and legal systems are being applied to the (relatively) new technology of video games.  

Apparently there's an entire Guinness World Records: Gamer's Edition.  I'll have to check it out and see what they've got.  Hopefully they've improved upon the list of "Best Games" they released in their 2009 Gamer's Edition.  I love Mario Kart as much as the next person but best game ever?  I think not.

(Also, as a side note, I love that the #8 bullet in that last link turned into an emoticon. How very Internet-savvy.)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Movable Type-- Quality Undergrad Media Studies

I am in graduate school.  By definition, this makes me kind of (really) a nerd about my field of study.  Possibly one of the most nerdy things I've done, and also one of the best, was joining together with a few of my awesome fellow Media Studies majors as an undergrad to found Movable Type, an undergraduate media studies journal for the University of Virginia.

The reason I bring it up today is because the journal didn't close down when the original staff graduated in May.  In fact, it's still going strong, and the second edition is in the process of being released now.  As an online journal, new editions of Movable Type are released a few papers at a time, to keep postings more current.  Even better, all the content is archived and searchable, as well as sorted by keyword.

If you've ever been interested in exactly what media studies majors and scholars write about, Movable Type can give you more than enough insight.  One of my papers on gender and video games, a topic I covered briefly in an earlier post, is up on Movable Type, as well as some of the best work I've read by my fellow undergraduates.  If you're interested in hackers, crafts, Glee, Harry Potter fandom, political campaigns or more, I'd encourage you to check it out, read some material and leave your comments.  It's great to get feedback on work, especially if you're planning to go anywhere with it.

Because the articles and the journal can be a little heavy at times, however, I'll also leave you with "A Media Studies Love Story", a video created by one of the original Movable Type staffers, demonstrating not only her own nerdiness and love for media studies, but a bit of insight into what it is.

In case the video looks familiar, it was inspired by the follow advertisement, "Parisian Love", released by Google for the 2010 Superbowl.  Enjoy!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Kitty! And Animal Shelter Policies

Check out my new kitty! He's so cute!
It may seem that I'm pet crazy, since I just had a post about my fish, but it just happens that I managed to get new pets in close proximity to one another.  I'm not keeping this one though, and if you want him, you can have him.  He is, in fact, my newest foster baby and the first one I've had in Michigan.

Because of my lack of money and my unusual schedule, both resulting from my graduate student status, I can't really afford to keep a pet of my own.  I do, however, love having animals in the house.  To solve this issue, I volunteer for whatever humane society is in the area as a foster mom for cats.  I'd foster dogs too, but they're not allowed in my apartment.

When I lived in Charlottesville, VA, I volunteered at the Charlottesville-Albemarle Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (CASPCA).  The cats I got were primarily ones with minor illnesses and health problems, the kind that they didn't want spreading to other animals in the facility.  I had a lot of cats with colds and ear infections.  Like this one!
This lovely lady, originally named Posey, was later dubbed "Paula Deen", due to her minor chubbiness.
Here in Michigan, I work for the Humane Society of the Huron Valley (HSHV).  This cat, Stewart, is the first I've gotten, and was fostered out because of his extreme dislike of the shelter.  The first picture I received of him from the foster coordinator, who referred to him as "Turtle Kitty" for hiding under his bed, is below.
While it looks funny, it was actually a pretty serious problem-- he had stopped eating and was losing a lot of weight.  Even after a few days with me, he spends most of his time hiding under the bed and still isn't eating nearly as much as he should.  I've been referring to him as "ShyGuy", especially when he finally creeps out from hiding and then runs away as soon as I look at him.  Hopefully he'll recover the rest of the way soon; when he does come out, he's a great cat.  When you pet him, he leans so far into your hand that he'll actually lose his balance and tumble over, which is really funny to see.

I've been lucky with regards to the humane societies located near where I live.  Both have had great, newly renovated facilities with lots of space, light and air for the animals.  They're actually cheerful places to visit and volunteer, which makes it easier to deal with all those homeless animals and their overwhelming cuteness.  One thing that differs between them, however, is that CASPCA is a no-kill shelter, while HSHV is what they refer to as "open-access".  I'm still not completely sure how I feel about this, so I'll hash out some of the pros and cons for you.

Obviously, the largest pro of a no-kill shelter is that animals are never put down, unless they are terminally ill or injured to the point of no recovery.  Not having to euthanize animals is the goal of any good shelter but is an explicit and solid commitment of no-kill shelters.  Many institute a number of programs to decrease the number of homeless animals in the community, such as rescue services and free spay/neuter clinics.  Others work to keep pets with their owners, through measures such as pet food banks and behavioral classes.

The downside of a no-kill shelter, however, comes from the fact that, in addition to these admirable and very useful programs, the shelters often limit the number of animals they take in.  If they already have five hound dogs, they are likely to turn away another, as its chances of being adopted in a reasonably short period of time are low.  This puts a lot of pressure on other shelters and resources in the area and often just moves euthanization somewhere else.

In contrast to this, open access shelters never turn away animals, allowing them to act as a resource for anyone.  They also provide some essential functions, like euthanizing animals that are a threat to community safety.  And, like I said before, any good shelter, even if it's open access, strives to avoid euthanizing animals.

I guess when it comes down to it, whether a shelter is no-kill or open access is not the factor that is going to affect my support for it.  What is going to change my opinion is the number of programs they have in place to help animals and people in the community, whether that is through rescue programs, spay/neuter clinics, pet food banks or more.  In the end, those say more about the good the shelter is doing than what title it has.  And as much as he didn't like it there, I like to think HSHV did a good thing for ShyGuy by bringing him to me!
What do you think about the no kill vs open access divide?  Do you have strong feelings one way or the other?  Or do you agree with my more case-by-case view of things?  There's this awesome little link below that you can hit to let me know!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Bonus Post-- Recipes with Applesauce

Because I'm excited to be back posting (hopefully) regularly and because so many of you are still coming back to visit even after my long break, today you get a bonus post!  Even better, it's in the form of food.

I made a pretty interesting dinner today, so I figured I would share the recipe for it.  As I don't have a microwave in my apartment, something I think I referenced in my earlier post on onions and garlic, the next easiest way to cook is using a slow cooker or Crock Pot, where I can just throw things in and leave it.

Here's a preview of what today's recipe made, with my awesome Eeyore cookie jar in the background.
Chicken and Applesauce
2 chicken breasts, halved
2 cups applesauce
1/4 cup barbecue sauce
2 tsp. honey
1/2 tsp. lemon juice
The recipe I used also called for 1/2 tsp. of poultry seasoning, which I don't have.  Instead, I used 1/2 tsp. of thyme and 1/4 tsp of parsley.

First, season the chicken with salt and pepper, then brown in oil for five minutes per side.  Then remove it from the pan, cut it into 1" cubes and move it to the slow cooker.
Mix the rest of the ingredients.  Pour them over the chicken and mix it all well.
Cover and cook on High for 2-3 hours, or until the chicken is tender.  Yum!

I served mine over rice (see below), but it would probably be good over pasta as well or by itself.  I even added carrots and cucumbers on the side.  I feel so healthy!

Of course, then I also did have some of the applesauce cake I made yesterday, which might have ruined it.  Quite delicious though!  Check it out.

I actually can't find the exact recipe I used for it again, but this is the closest approximation.

Applesauce Cake
1/2 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup chilled applesauce
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda 
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves 

Cream butter with sugar. Add applesauce; beat well. Stir in flour, soda, and spices. 
Pour the batter into a greased and floured 8 inch square pan. Bake at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) for 40 minutes, or until done. Serve warm. 

Applesauce cake, if frosted, usually has cream cheese frosting or caramel frosting. I didn't have the ingredients for these (you can see this is a trend of sorts with me), so instead, I mixed up something on my own. 

I had some store-bought vanilla frosting, but thought it would be too sweet for this type of cake. So I added to it: 

2 tsps. cinnamon 
Dash of ginger 
Dash of cloves 
2 large spoonfuls of flour (to make it less sweet) 

After mixing these all in, the frosting was less sweet and a bit spicy, making it the perfect topping for a thicker, richer cake like applesauce cake. 

So there's your bonus post for this week.  Let me know how you like these if you try any of them out!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Intro to Chinese

My goodness, Wednesday already?  I feel like I need to keep better track of my schedule so that time doesn't slip by me like this.

But anyways...

Recently I've been watching a lot of Firefly, because I got the complete series on DVD for Christmas.  Among other things, it reminds me of one of my close friends, who I met in Chinese class when the show inspired him to take it.  For those of you who aren't familiar with it, Firefly is a science-fiction show often branded as a "space Western", following the crew of the Firefly-class starship Serenity as they make a living on the outer edges of space.  In the "history" of the show, the US and China fused together as the world's great superpowers to create a fusion culture as well.  Characters often mix Chinese phrases into English speech, particularly when swearing.  My friend's sole reason for taking Chinese, he has claimed, is so that he could understand what the characters are saying.

Unfortunately, neither of us ended up being all that great at Chinese.  It's a difficult language, and my problem came with one of the fundamentals.  I do not have the greatest ear for music, and Mandarin Chinese is a very tone-dependent language.  By that I mean that four words can have the same spelling in pinyin, the method for writing characters using English letters, but are differentiated by the manner and pitch in which they're said.

For instance, take the word "ma", the traditional example given in class.  When written like this-- mā-- it is pronounced using first tone and means "mother".  In second tone, má, it means "numb", third tone, mǎ, is "horse" and fourth tone mà means "swear" or denotes a question.  Therefore, if you use the wrong tone, you could accidentally call your mother a horse, something I doubt she'd appreciate.  How the tones are pitched is displayed in the image below.

So in order to say "mother", you pronounce "ma" with a higher pitch, keeping it flat all the way through.  To pronounce "horse", your voice starts at a middle tone, falls and then rises.  For a demonstration, rather than my fumbling description of it, check out this video.  I'm sure you'll hear the difference, but could you imitate it?  Throughout the duration of a sentence?  Harder than you may think originally.  Even after a year and a half of Chinese, I never did get my fourth tone correct.  I was never sharp enough with it or something-- words pronounced with fourth tone are shorter than the other three.

I've been told that the reason for these tones is because has far fewer syllables than English does, so in order to make more words, another distinguishing factor was needed.  On one Chinese 101 website I found here, it says that the Chinese language has only about 400 possible syllables, while English has 12,000 or so.  No wonder it's so hard to learn!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Here Fishy Fishy Fishy

Why hello there!

It certainly has been awhile, hasn't it?  Sorry, I was on vacation.  And then you know how things are after you get back from vacation-- everything that you were supposed to do on break jumps you all at once and you have to struggle through for a bit.

University of Michigan is weird.  Classes restarted on January 5th this year.  It was like being back in high school again.  What college does this?  I am also bothered by their idea of "Michigan time".  Instead of scheduling classes for 50 minutes like a normal school, to provide students 10 minutes of travel time, they instead schedule them for a whole hour, then expect people to be 10 minutes late.  If you expect people to be on time, you have to specifically declare your event "not Michigan time".  Ridiculous.

But ranting about the weird traditions of my new school is not what I intended to do today.  Instead, you get to hear about my new fish!

I've had a small aquarium for awhile, but unfortunately, fish do not move well.  While I was careful with them and they survived the trip from Virginia to Connecticut at the beginning of last summer, the trip from Connecticut to Michigan at the end of the summer did them in.  After that, I was moving in and getting work done, and I never really had a chance to get new ones.  So this past week, I finally made it to the store and picked up some awesome new additions to my fish tank.

A general rule for freshwater fish tanks is that you want, at most, 2" of fish per gallon of water.  This means that the max my fish tank can hold is about six small fish, so of course I got six.

The first two are neon tetras, some of my favorite fish when my family had an aquarium when I was growing up.  A picture of them is below.  They're some of the smallest fish you can get, but completely awesome, because their name comes from an iridescent blue line down their side that really does look like a neon light.  I named them Xenon and Argon.  Those of you who know your periodic table are laughing right now.
The second two are cobra guppies, a breed I actually couldn't find a lot of information on when I did a Google search on them.  I have no idea where they're from or anything.  They do have a snakeskin-type pattern on their sides and tails (see below), but I'm not sure I really would have gone with cobra for the breed name.  However, since the breed designation is not up to me, I went with it and named them Indiana and Sallah.  ("Why'd it have to be snakes?")
The last two are tequila sunrise guppies.  I was unaware this even existed as a breed and again find myself seriously questioning who names these things.  Really, tequila fish?  I do have to admit that their coloring does match the name, though.  So their names are Jose and Patron.  Mine have better tails than the ones pictured below, but you get the general idea.
I know this post is far less informative or academic than most of mine, but I was really excited to get new fish and proud of myself for not killing them when getting them into my tank (the shock of moving kills a lot of fish, like I said).  So I decided to share!  I'll get back to the more important stuff on Wednesday.  See you then!