Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A Tale of Two Polls

In most sports, there are multiple polls to tell you about the relative merits of teams in the league. Since I primarily follow college basketball, I am mostly aware of the Coaches poll and the AP poll. As far as I can tell, there is no objective basis for either poll, unlike the flawed BCS ranking system, which we won't discuss here. Instead, the Coaches poll takes the votes of coaches in Division I basketball, and the AP poll takes the votes of sports writers around the nation. I guess that's why the word "poll" is used.

Anyway, I have become very aware of these little numbers this season with my Aggies beginning the season ranked 13th, and proceeding to move around in the polls as high as 6th as the weeks progress. What's interesting to me in all this is that no one seems to be very consistent about which poll they use. If they want to make two teams seem better matched or more separated, they'll use the ranking from one poll and the other poll for the rank of the other team. In the sports sites for each of the teams, they seem to just use whichever one is higher. Last week, A&M's site proudly displayed a number 6 ranking (from the AP poll), and this week, after losing to Tech, we're using the number 8 ranking from the Coaches poll to toot our horn (the AP has us down to 10).

So, I wonder, do people naturally gravitate toward whatever makes themselves sound better, or is there any group out there that keeps measuring themselves against the same stick? Companies reporting a loss in a quarter will try to highlight revenue growth or investment in future technologies. Teams that lose all the time resort to pointing stats they've improved ("Sure we didn't get any touchdowns, but did you see that we had 13 first downs in that game -- isn't that great?!"). Is it just a defense mechanism to not dwell on the bad stuff?

I suppose we do it in our lives, too. I certainly justify my slow running by looking at the improvement I've made rather than the absolute time. I try to look past the gazillion dollars we spent on eating out last year in favor of noting that we cut our movie expenditures from .1 gazillion to .05 gazillion. My car may not get the best gas mileage, but I'll point out the 1-3 mpg improvement right after I've filled up my tires.

Since it's not really that odd a behavior, I guess I'll forgive the sports teams trying to make themselves look better. It's all about getting more butts in the seats to make more money, and that seems a decent way to do it. It's just odd to me that the pollsters give them ample data to pick and choose from, rather than sticking to just one ranking list.

Life Without A Dog

It's been a while now since we had a pet in the house. Shiner went to a new, permanent home back in August, and we've been dogless ever since. I have to admit that it makes me sad to not have a compelling reason to come home after work. I know he was destructive, and gave us cause for concern, but he was a sweetheart, and I miss him.

That's all. And with moving, likely to a rented place first, it'll be a while before we're in a position to have one again. Anyone want to share their's with me for a week or two?

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Marathon Training: 3 Weeks To Go

What is up with all this cold weather? It's killing my motivation! Regardless, this morning I ran the 3M Half Marathon. I figured I was already signed up for it, so who cares if it's only 34 degrees outside -- can't let money go unused! The runners were about half and half wearing long pants or wearing shorts. I debated this decision for a long time before setting out, so I felt the need to notice this. I figured in shorts I would freeze to death waiting for the race to start, but in long pants, I would probably overheat before the halfway point. So, I opted for freezing at the beginning. I actually did see two guys running only in shorts, and I felt bad for their skin, but everyone has to do it their own way, right? I ended up finishing the race in just over 2 and a half hours, on about 11:30 min/mile pace. I felt really good with it, because here's the best part:


Surprising as it might be, I've done lots of triathlons, and I've always had to stop and walk parts of the run sections. This has always been demotivating to me, and is why I decided to actually learn to run. And I really feel like I'm learning that particular skill. Sure, my training derailed a bit when I got sick in the fall, but I've still built a bit of a runner's base, and I think I could actually run in future races.

I'm still planning to do the marathon in a few weeks, even though I haven't finished enough of the long runs to know that I can run the full marathon without walking. However, I'm going to do it anyway, and we'll see what happens. I'm looking forward to it, and am remotivated to do my runs this week and get back on schedule to do a marathon in the future that I can actually finish.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Addicted to Craig's List

It appears we are officially moving. My husband accepted a job offer out in Santa Barbara, California, so we are headed out there the beginning of April.

We are excited, but can you believe how much there is to do? It's insane how much we've collected in seven years in our house, and the likelihood of moving into an apartment again means that a bunch of stuff must go. As we're at the beginning of this process, we're just trying to declutter our house, and take inventory of what we don't want to move with us.

Thus enters Craigslist. I feel like a posting fiend. I mean, there is tons of stuff that we'll just give to Goodwill or throw in the trash, but there are a lot of things that we should be able to get money for, so those things we're putting out on the 'list first.

It's an interesting experiment to see which things have appeal and which don't. Who knew a bunch of wood we'd bought for a project a long time ago but never did would have been the first thing we sold? Who knew we'd get more inquiries for a set of chairs that Shiner used as a chew toy than anything else we've posted? Go figure. It's all very interesting, and we just keep adding things to the list, since we can't seem to predict which things will be interesting to people. Currently we have 15 ads posted. There'll be more as we get closer to being ready to empty the house, but it's a start.

If you're a regular reviewer of the list, who knows -- you could end up with a piece of Heather Strangeness of your very own!

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Marathon Training: 4 Weeks To Go

I bet you all figured I stopped training for the marathon. Well, you'd be mostly right. I keep telling myself I'm just in the middle of a long tapering phase...a very long tapering phase. I am still running some, just not with the rigor and planning I had at the beginning. Maybe it's because I'm so slow and it gets boring to run 4+ hours per day. Maybe I let the busyness of the holidays get to me. And maybe I'm just lazy.

Regardless, I still intend to do the race. I won't likely be able to run the whole thing, but I'll do my best and leave myself lots of improvement space for future years. I certainly wouldn't want to start out with my best marathon ever. :)

That being said, this last week had a lot of really cold weather, and that sort of limits one's motivation. I did run nine miles last weekend, and I'm signed up for the 3M Half-Marathon next weekend. And we'll just have to wait and see how that goes.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Frozen Water Is Amazing

Venturing out into the city yesterday, I couldn't get over how amazing ice really is. I put forth the following for your consideration:

It's heavy. When you look at ice and snow, it appears to be light and lilty. However, the weight must be enormous. I have a tree that extends out over the driveway, but the branches are well above our cars. When I went out to my car yesterday, though, the branches were weighed down into my bike rack. We also have a large live oak tree in the front that currently has a major limb (about a foot in diameter) bent almost to the street. I figure if we get anymore accumulation of ice, that branch will break right off. In the meantime, can that branch go back to where it belongs if the ice melts? When I went running at Town Lake last night, I found myself ducking under low-hanging branches that I've never worried about before. All because ice weighs a lot.

It's tenacious. Have you ever tried to get 1-inch layers of ice off your car? Or even if it's not that thick -- ever tried to get your key into a lock with a millimeter or two of ice laid over it? When we got to our car after our flight the other night, it was completely iced over. It was impossible to get the key into the trunk lock (I have an old car without the fancy controller that allows you to unlock your trunk at the press of a button) or the passenger door. It was a good thing there was a big SUV next to the driver's side door, so we could actually get in the car that way to start warming things up. Once we were in, it took an onslaught of heated winshield wiper fluid and defrosting air thirty minutes to allow us to proceed home. Yesterday's ice removal from cars took nearly an hour.

It's pretty. If you can look out over a field with each and every blade of grass individually encased in an ice sheath, and not find it beautiful, then you are a cold and heartless bastard. Or you really don't like the cold. While not as fun to play with as snow, it leaves the same impression of untouched beauty that freshly fallen snow does. Then, the icicles that have formed around town are outstanding to look at. We have a couple of 18-inch, 1-inch diameter gems hanging off our roof, and I've enjoyed watching them form -- growing off the dripping water from the melting ice on the roof itself. The knobbly nature implies a brittleness that just isn't there. Last night after dinner, my husband and I fenced with icicles, and I couldn't get over how strong those little boogers are. We pushed one into the ground like a wooden stake, and I'll be interested to see the hole that is left behind when the icicle spear disappears.

Meanwhile, I found a feature I would really like to see in my car (other than the push-button trunk unlocking feature). There were several times while out and about that I wished I could make my car shake itself off like a dog that's just emerged from a bath. Instead, large chunks of ice dislodged themselves from parts of my car while driving along and crashed off with a thunderous noise. I worried that would be dangerous to some car behind me (but I was very proud that all the drivers I saw were keeping safe distances between each other), and all could have been solved by a nice vigorous shaking of the car. Do you think Detroit would listen if I suggested such a feature?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Waiting for the Barbarians

Somewhere along the line I decided that I would read a book per month in 2007. Not exactly a New Year's resolution, but more of a commitment to doing things that I know I should be doing.

In preparation for attending the Austin Lyric Opera presentation of Philip Glass' Waiting for the Barbarians next weekend, I decided to read the book by Coetzee. This was a bit of a surreal experience, reading a book based on a poem that is the basis of an opera. I really think these are my favorite types of stories, where a story is based on a smaller work and then new details are added to expand out the story into something new and more detailed. I think it's why I like movies based on short stories so much. The larger story line requires so much more detail that it takes on a life of its own that may be a completely different arc than the way I read the initial work. The original poem by Constatine Cavafy can be found here.

The poem left a feeling that the barbarians didn't actually exist. The thought of them was used to keep everyone on edge, feeling like they could be lurking around any corner. The public officials serve nearly exclusively to ward off a threat that may or may not be there.

The correlations to the fear-mongering current US administration were unbelievably clear and scary. It was reminiscent of the bogeyman and a naysayer all in one.

Then I read Coetzee's novel, and the barbarians really did exist. I kept expecting them not to, but this was one of those situations where the novel deviated from original root story, and it really resulted in a wholly different and interesting story.

At the most basic level, this is the story of a central government coming into a remote part of the country and asserting their power to make a stable situation into a war. But this is not even close to the point of the story. There are layers upon layers of nuance -- an old man trying to feel love again, an expedition into the root cause of prejudice and hatred, a study in pain and resilience. The book is masterfully written, and I can certainly see why the Nobel organization awarded Coetzee their prize in literature if the rest of his body of work are anything like this book. Absolutely recommended for a quick read while you're waiting in the airport.

I can't wait to see what the opera ends up being like.

"We Hope That Was Exciting"

We were in the pile of unlucky people flying into Austin while freezing rain and sleet fell from the sky. Initially, our flight was delayed ten minutes, and then thirty minutes, and then it was leaving three hours late. We kept thinking they would cancel the flight. I mean, really...if landing at 10:30 at night is dangerous, how is that going to get better three hours later, with no sunshine?

As we approached the Austin airport, the pilot came on the intercom and informed us that one of their indicator lights wasn't working, so they were going to replace some bulbs and see if that was all the problem was. At that point, one hundred fifty people sit in their seats all having the same thought: "And, what if it's not just the little bulbs?" When the pilot came back one he assured us that all was well, and we were ready to land. Again with the simultaneous thought balloons, this time saying, "Is everything really okay?"

Then came the actual landing, after which the pilot came back on, and said, "We hope that was as exciting for all of you as it was for us." Um, excuse me? I don't think we needed to know that.

Then, as we were deplaning, I overheard the pilot talking to another passenger that the light that wouldn't come on was for the left landing gear. It then became clear what I heard before the first announcement -- the landing gears being lowered, raised, and lowered again. I'm glad they got the landing gears open and checked out and were able to land properly. But does it make me a bad person that I kinda wished they hadn't? To have experienced the excitement of a belly landing on runway foam?

Monday, January 15, 2007

Maybe There IS a Santa Claus

Last Friday, the most amazing thing happened. I really never thought this day would come. It blew me completely away.

My husband went to an appointment with a psychiatrist.

I have maintained for a long time that he has some issues, and should probably work on them. He has never been willing to go. He has come up with virtually every excuse in the book: he's worried they might put him on drugs and then he might not be creative/able to have sex/interesting enough/etc.; he doesn't feel like he can talk to a professional about suicide, because they'll call the police on him; he doesn't think there is anything a therapist can do for him; people who go to therapy are whining crying babies; and on, and on, and on. We also have issues as a couple, and I've never been able to get him to go to marriage counseling with me.

But, apparently something changed somewhere along the line. Perhaps it's the matter-of-fact-ness that I now use to describe the dying of our marriage. Perhaps it's the impending possibility of a move out of Austin, and me requiring a change. Perhaps it's how several of his coworkers have given him referrals to their therapists. Perhaps it's that his sister was diagnosed as bipolar not once, but by two different doctors in 2006. Who knows, but I'll take the result, regardless.

He won't talk about his visit, but I'm also not pressing him for details. I'm just happy that he's officially talking to someone who is impartial and who he can feel is unequivocally on his side. I know it's not the be-all, end-all of solutions, but I have trouble not getting giddy that things are going in a more correct direction.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Monday, Monday

My Monday just got really easy. My boss called me this morning to tell me not to come to work because the office is under quarantine. I work in a section on Congress Avenue where they found a passal of dead birds, and they want to keep the people out of the area until they determine that the area is safe. They think they might let us in by noon, but that's unclear.

Now, I could, of course, work from home this morning, but it's still pretty well guaranteed to be a less productive day than I would normally have had. It's crazy -- I wonder if we'll send an email to all our customers regarding our unexpected unattended office this morning. If we did, I think it should be something like this.

Dear Customers,

We don't normally slack off on taking your phone calls on Monday mornings, but today we have a good reason. There were a bunch of dead birds found on the street near our office, and EMS shut down the area for the whole morning. Most likely there is no toxin in the air and this was a prank, but in our ultra-terrorist-sensitive society, we have to be excessively cautious -- shutting down businesses for hours just in case. Hopefully, there won't be any dead squirrels tomorrow.

We'll be back in the office when the paranoia lifts. Thanks for your patience.

I'm sure there'll be no backlash from that. Right?

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Organic Food Production

After reading Kyle's post on the topic, and the associated Economist article, I found myself with a lot of questions and thoughts that I felt the article skipped over. So, I decided to accumulate those here.

I do buy organic, not because the food is better, but because it promotes sustainable food production. Conventional farming taxes the land pretty extensively, requiring synthetic pesticides and fertilizers to produce crops. Those synthetic products, apart from any side effects to the planet, require non-renewable resources to be created. Oil specifically. As a result, a significant amount of energy goes into producing the food than is received back out in the crop. From the National Organics Standard Board, here is the definition of organic:

Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.

It would seem, that while organic farmers certainly do still use fertilizers and methods of controlling pests, they have to do it in ways that rely on the most renewable of energy resources, the sun. This only seems like it would benefit the world in the long term, and would further reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

I was also under the impression that there is a significant amount of food that is produced in the United States that is destroyed each year because the supply far outweighs the demand. It seems this is primarily in the rice and grain categories, but if there is motivation to use that farm land in a sustained way for other crops that fall under the organic label, then I want to continue to support that. And there is no better motivation than higher margins from consumers that are willing to spend more money for the same food.

So, even if The Economist tells me I'm wasting my money and harming the earth by purchasing organic foods, I'm going to keep doing it. I enjoyed having my choices challenged, though. It forced me to go look things up and make sure that I wasn't just making myself feel better by some rationalization.