I am an order-generator

Today I got to show off my ability to alphabetize. I’ve been volunteering at the library for the past two months, and I have encouraged them to give me any and all odd jobs that may need to be done (I do love variety!). So first I served as a greeter, helping patrons find their way around the library; then I stood around the computers and helped people log in, save documents, and print; then I learned how to mend books (repair spines, tape dust jackets, repair ripped pages); then I learned how to re-barcode books. They’re now discussing how to set up a special station near the computers for me, so that I can do one of these craft-tasks but be “on call” for any computer assistance that is needed, freeing up the reference librarians to do, well, reference things.

I had also offered to help out with book shelving. Apparently this task falls into a sensitive subject zone: how much work to allow volunteers to do versus work that is reserved for qualified librarians (or librarians in training). Initially I was told that shelving was for actual employees (called “pages”, which still cracks me up), but then today that’s exactly what I was asked to do. The volunteer coordinator said, “I told them that you have a Ph.D.”

I was first given a test cart of books to alphabetize. My trainer gave me tips that effectively translated to “I like to do selection sort, but let’s start you with insertion sort because it’s more straightforward.” Alas, when he checked my results, I had in fact mis-ordered one Babysitter’s Club book. I was however forgiven this mistake and then sent off to shelve the books.

It ended up taking me over an hour to shelve about 30 books. Juvenile Fiction was in a serious state of disarray. For every few books I shelved, there was a new one I discovered out of place that needed fixing. I was also “fronting” the shelves (bringing all the books forward to the same level for easy viewing). The amount of existing disorder was likely not attributable to the “pages” but instead to the happy, careless browsing of the under-10 crowd. I spent a good ten minutes on the Babysitter’s Club section alone (apparently I am not the only one who has made a mistake there). There are over 100 books in this series, most of which the library owns. I garnered great satisfaction from each decrease in entropy that I achieved. Really, is there a task better suited to my sensibilities? I already start twitching from the effort it takes to avoid doing this in bookstores.

As a side effect of this shelving, I now know the Juvenile Fiction section better, and can even respond usefully when children ask where the Horrible Harry or Magic Treehouse or High School Musical books are. Next time I may even be permitted to work with the Dewey Decimal System. Non-fiction, here I come!

(Book image by David Sillitoe)

Lunar embroidery

I’ve dabbled a little in cross-stitch embroidery, but never tackled anything this spectacular. beche-la-mer was so inspired by a topographical map of the Moon that she decided to embroider it, in full color and texture. After just one month’s effort, she achieved her goal.

You can read more about the process at her blog:

I think it’s awesome that she chose the far side of the Moon to immortalize.

(Thanks for the pointer, Jim!)

Jim suggests that a Mars follow-on would be another fun project. I think this image, showing the Tharsis bulge, Olympus Mons, and Valles Marineris, could make a particularly fine work of art:

But oh, all those French knots! Maybe I’ll finish the sock I’m knitting first.

Great women vagabonders

Traveling holds such a tingling allure, rising up out of the promise of new views, new experiences, and exploring into your personal unknown. I’ve previously written about the concept of vagabonding, an extreme form of travel that involves really living in some new world, not just visiting it, and often for extended periods of time. An isolated page in Vagabonding (by Ralph Potts), titled “The Pioneering Women of Vagabonding,” listed 14 women vagabonders, only one of whom I recognized. Neither did this book provide any information about them—which I took as an opportunity to do a little fun research on who these women were. Here are summaries of and excerpts from the first four on the list:

  • Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was an accomplished author, philosopher, and feminist. In 1796, she published Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, based on a trip she undertook with her infant daughter, Fanny, to address business negotiations for Fanny’s father, Gilbert Imlay. Truly a courageous vagabonding experience, if ever there were one! An excerpt from one of her letters:

    “The cow’s bell has ceased to tinkle the herd to rest; they have all paced across the heath. Is not this the witching time of night? The waters murmur, and fall with more than mortal music, and spirits of peace walk abroad to calm the agitated breast. Eternity is in these moments. Worldly cares melt into the airy stuff that dreams are made of, and reveries, mild and enchanting as the first hopes of love or the recollection of lost enjoyment, carry the hapless wight into futurity, who in bustling life has vainly strove to throw off the grief which lies heavy at the heart. Good night!”

    She later married William Godwin, who among other things was drawn to her because of this same book. They also had a child together: Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Mary Shelley), who wrote Frankenstein.

  • Isabella L. Bird (1831-1904) is already a great favorite of mine; I’ve very much enjoyed her stories of traveling through Japan (Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, 1880) and Colorado (A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, 1879). Born in England, she wrote about visits to America, Hawaii, Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Sinai, Persia, Kurdistan, Tibet, Korea, and Morocco. (Really, is there anything beyond her?) She is eloquent, fearless, curious, polite, adventuresome, and successful, and her descriptions of the scenery in which she finds herself are unfailingly, soaringly poetic. You can listen to two of her books read aloud: A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (delightful!) and The Englishwoman in America (I haven’t read this one yet). She also offers a description of evening:

    “The sinking sun is out of sight behind the western Sierras, and all the pine-hung promontories on this side of the water are rich indigo, just reddened with lake, deepening here and there into Tyrian purple. The peaks above, which still catch the sun, are bright rose-red, and all the mountains on the other side are pink; and pink, too, are the far-off summits on which the snow-drifts rest. Indigo, red, and orange tints stain the still water, which lies solemn and dark against the shore, under the shadow of stately pines. An hour later, and a moon nearly full—not a pale, flat disc, but a radiant sphere—has wheeled up into the flushed sky. The sunset has passed through every stage of beauty, through every glory of color, through riot and triumph, through pathos and tenderness, into a long, dreamy, painless rest, succeeded by the profound solemnity of the moonlight, and a stillness broken only by the night cries of beasts in the aromatic forests.”

  • Alexandra David-Neel (1868-1969) was born in France, but by age 18 had embarked on solo adventures in England, Switzerland, and Spain. She later traveled to India, Tunisia, China, Japan, and others, but seems to have been most drawn to Tibet (and Buddhism). She first crossed into Tibet in 1916, was discovered and sent away, and then re-infiltrated the country in 1924, disguised, for two months.
  • Mary Kingsley (1862-1900) found the opportunity to vagabond in Africa only after both her parents died, freeing her from caring for her invalid mother in England. She collected fish, studied cannibals, and climbed Mt. Cameroon (an active volcano more than 13,000 feet tall). Her Travels in West Africa is available for reading online. She begins with:

    “I succumbed to the charm of the [Gold] Coast as soon as I left Sierra Leone on my first voyage out, and I saw more than enough during that voyage to make me recognise that there was any amount of work for me worth doing down there. So I warned the Coast I was coming back again and the Coast did not believe me; and on my return to it a second time displayed a genuine surprise, and formed an even higher opinion of my folly than it had formed on our first acquaintance, which is saying a good deal.”

Reading their writings, it’s hard not to feel the pull to follow in these women’s footsteps, and enter one’s own foreign lands, wherever they may be.

Who reads this blog

StatPress is a WordPress plugin that tracks site visitors and which pages they visit. Over the past couple of months, I’ve learned that this site gets 1000+ visitors each month (not necessarily unique) plus about 5000 visits from spiders (!). On April 22, there were 474 visitors in a single day. Slow world news day, perhaps?

Who are these visitors, and what do they come to see?

In aggregate, visitors to this site use:

  • Operating system: Windows XP dominates the list, at about 50% of visits. It is followed by Mac OS X (17%), Windows Vista (15%), and Debian (9%). I’ve also had 3 visits from a BlackBerry, 1 from WebTV, and 1 from something called Symbian.
  • Browser: Firefox 3 handily tops the list (36%), followed by IE 6 (20%) and IE 7 (19%). Next is Iceweasel (9%), which is a rebranded version of Firefox.

It’s fascinating to browse the search terms people typed that led them to my blog. The ten most recent were:

  • what did i learn in psychology class
  • touch sensitive dimmer stuck on
  • what i learned today blog
  • touch lamp won’t turn off
  • Basketweave knit pattern
  • what I learned today
  • Reverse Corte
  • problems with touch lamps
  • indent négatif latex
  • how much baking powder to add?

And overall, the most visited pages are:

Any other favorites?

In addition to people-visits, this site also sees a lot of spiders. Interestingly, although referrals from google dominate all other search engines, I see many more spider visits from yahoo. Could it be that google has a more efficient spidering strategy, requiring fewer visits? Or yahoo is more fond of my site? We may never know. I also learned about search engines I’d never heard of, including Moreover, Naver (South Korea), Searchme (a “visual search engine” that just went offline today due to lack of venture capital), and Radian6.


I recently found myself in Corvallis, Oregon, on a Sunday morning with no definite plans. So I went to church.

This was not previously a regular feature of my Sundays, but for some time I’ve been interested in learning more about different religions and making time to attend services. A good friend recently started going to a Unitarian Universalist church and has spoken highly of the community she found there. Sure enough, there was such a church in Corvallis, and so a little before 10 a.m. I walked through its doors for the first time.

The churchgoers were all picking up nametags from a table—but not to worry, for there was a visitor’s desk clearly marked at which some other newcomers were already introducing themselves and writing out their own nametags. I felt immediately comfortable and welcome. I spoke with a few people, and then we went inside for the service.

The minister was a very impressive, prepared, and enjoyable speaker. She spoke about current events and encouraged us to think about what role we could have in improving things. She talked about how technology and culture can be both gifts and curses to us—enabling great convenience, great deeds, and great works, but also separating us from nature and from each other. One interesting quote she shared was along the lines of “waste [as in trash] is possible only if we believe that there is an ‘out’ to which things can be thrown,” which is really quite insightful. We do think of there being somewhere for trash to go that is away from us and away from our immediate world, and this is another kind of separation. If you remove that separation, then you see throwing things away as simply shuffling them around within what is, ultimately, all one place. Our place.

Two parts of the service really left an impression on me. First, at the end of the sermon, members of the congregation were invited to give their own views on what had been said (a kind of “talk back”)—and many did. Very thought-provoking (and enjoyably interactive). Second, at the end of the service, members were invited to come up and light candles for celebration or sorrow, and to relate to the group what major event they wished to commemorate. I can see how this is a great community-building exercise, and it was nice to be able to share in these people’s lives, however briefly. There were also several songs sung, and the minister led them all with her own voice (and sometimes her guitar). Very impressive!

Back home, I looked up some local UU churches and now have attended two more services (at different locations). The friendliness to newcomers was unvaryingly present. However, neither of the local churches featured a talk-back or a communal candle lighting, so those may not be standard features. But they also had their own nice touches, such as soloist vocal performances (music does seem to be a large part of the UU church!), and one even provides the sermons as a podcast!

There were two thoughts from today’s service that I particularly liked.

“A candle must give itself away. In the giving, the spending, the spreading, the sending, it finds itself.” — John Wood

And paraphrase, from memory:

What matters is not what we get by striving, but who we become as a result of our striving.

Both are full of important implications about how we choose to spend our time, at work and in the world at large. Time for some in-depth contemplation… and thought-provoking discussions with friends!

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