Friday, October 28, 2005

Haunted House

About 10 years or so ago, when I came back to the States after having spent several years abroad, I saw the movie "The Nightmare Before Christmas." At the time I thought it totally bizarre, and not in the hey-I-wish-I'd-thought-of-that way...more like the I-hope-whoever-came-up-with-this-is-being-kept-far-away-from-children-and-small-animals way. I've since reconsidered, and I truly appreciate the story of poor Jack Skellington whose fondest wish is to bring joy to children everywhere via some very ghoulish Christmas gifts.

I'm reminded of all this because tomorrow I face a somewhat daunting task: making a Halloween gingerbread house, replete with candy ghosts, jelly bats, and oodles of black icing.

Whoever thought of taking the traditional gingerbread house of Christmas and turning it into an edible bit of Halloween decor? That person must certainly have taken inspiration from Jack Skellington's crew.

Fortunately for me, the gingerbread comes pre-baked, meaning all I have to do is assemble the house and decorate it. Unfortunately for me (and everyone else at the pumpkin-carving party I'll be attending, house in hand), decorating is my weak suit.

Were this a knitted house of wool things might be different. As it is, I have no confidence in my ability to pipe icing windows and line up candy roofing tiles. The kit gives me three "spook-tacular" designs to choose from, and I'm certain I can reproduce none of them. My saving grace is that haunted houses are by design supposed to be crooked, awkward-looking structures; tilting windows and leaning fenceposts can be passed off as deliberate artistic interpretation.

I suppose that if our biggest problem of tomorrow is an imperfect gingerbread house we can call the party a success; will be sure to report on the outcome of mixing beer with carving knives in a later post.
Breakfast, anyone?

Bacon and eggs as you've never seen them before.
If you thought Chicken Viking Hat was weird....

Just when you thought you'd seen everything, along come penguin sweaters.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Spinning and Felting and Rhinebeck, oh my!

So, I finally made it to the Rhinebeck Sheep and Wool Festival, and boy did I think I'd died and gone to fiber heaven! The fairgrounds were packed with fiber folk; as an added bonus, a gem and mineral fair was also being held, but the beader in me lost out to the knitter and I spent all my time getting lost among the fleece.

My first stop -- an alpaca booth with gorgeous shawls, ponchos and other items all made of soft, soft alpaca -- netted me a bag of treasures and rock-bottom prices: five old Spin-Offs at -- get this -- a quarter apiece; the Lee Raven Handspinning book; the Felted Knits book; and my best bang for the buck: a brand-new umbrella swift for all of five bucks! I passed on the Ashford hand cards and now regret it; at $30 they weren't the absolute steal that the swift was, but they were full-sized cards, brand-new and definitely cheaper than any other place I've seen them. Oh, well.

I also took home a pound of undyed superwash merino; at $15 for the pound I think I did pretty well. My second Rhinebeck regret is not having bought more of it when I had the chance; I went back later in the day and it was sold out. At least I got a business card and can order more by mail if I want.

But the BIG excitement was...(drumroll, please!) I bought a spinning wheel! That's right, I went for it. I pigenholed every spinner I saw and asked what wheels they used, why they liked (or disliked) them, what they would recommend, etc. I then found a wonderful booth where I could test out a variety of wheels...Louet, Majacraft, and Ashford, among others. I finally decided on a Louet S17 with three bobbins, already assembled but unfinished, plus an unfinished Ashford spinning chair. Susan, the owner, was wonderful about helping me decide and letting me test everything for as long as I wanted. I resisted the temptation to add a loom to my purchases at her booth, but I don't know how long I'll be able to keep from adding weaving to my growing list of fiber addictions.

So far I've been very patient about not spinning too much on my Louet before it's finished. DH has put two coats of oil on it so far (after I spun about half a bobbin of beautiful orange Corriedale top...I just couldn't resist giving my wheel a whirl!), and one more coat should be enough to finish it off nicely. My mind is already racing towards what I'll make with my handspun....

And speaking of making stuff with my very own handspun, I took the plunge and made a felted handbag! I had about 50 yards of a super-bulky, olive green and yellow two-ply Corriedale that I wasn't sure what to do with. Paging through Felted Knits yesterday, I saw that the Small Felted Bag would take just about that much yarn, so I pulled out my number 13s and got to work. It took maybe an hour to knit up the entire purse -- a very basic 30-stitch tube sewn together along the cast-on edge. I even braided the remaining yarn and attached it as the purse's handle (MUCH easier than knitting I-cord and it felts to nearly the same look). Today I tossed it into the wash with a few pairs of jeans and three washes later I do believe it's well and truly felted.

Well, I HOPE it's well and truly felted. After wash #2 it was about 2/3 of the way there, so I put it back for one more cycle; let's hope that when it comes out it's a nicely felted shoulder bag and not an unrecognizable blob of wool! If this all works out, I might even add a nice little beaded fringe along the bottom....

Photos of all to follow!

Friday, October 07, 2005

Chicken Viking Hat

One must see to believe....

All it takes is one look in my closet to know where I stand.

There they are, all stacked neatly in a cabinet: the brown Riojas, the classic Arizonas, the wine-red Gizehs that took me all around Sweden, the black Ashbys that I wore every day throughout my pregnancy. Yes, I'm a Birkenstocks gal, dyed-in-the-wool. Even Dear Hubby's Wall Street wingtips have been discarded, replaced long ago, not with Birkis -- he, after all, is still in the corporate world -- but with shoes far less Gordon Gekko, far more Jim Anderson in style. Much to DH's feigned chagrin, my commitment to granola does not stop at the breakfast table.

Which is why it wasn't at all surprising to find myself mentally siding with the supporters of copyleft even before I finished reading this week's blog assignment article. The question of copyleft vs. open/open is a no-brainer to me: if something is created with the intention of being made available free of charge, it's inappropriate -- not to mention downright nervy -- to develop a variant of the original and start charging money for it. It puts me in mind of the people who get free stuff from freecycle and then turn around and sell it on ebay. Poor form, to say the least.

Although, I must admit, as I played Devil's Advocate with myself I couldn't help but compare the copyleft vs. open/open debate to the debate that's going on in the pharmaceutical industry these days. The essential question there is should big pharmaceutical companies be allowed to retain copyrights or patents on the medicines they develop. Retaining these rights means the companies can essentially charge whatever they want for their products...even if that means poor people -- even whole nations of them -- suffer and die for lack of money to purchase lifesaving drugs. The drug companies, of course, argue that without the ability to charge outrageous prices for their drugs, there would be no incentive for them to invest in R&D, and less research means fewer cures overall; opponents argue that it's unethical (to say the least) to develop cures that only the world's richest can afford, and that there must be some mechanism for getting the same medicines to the poor without waiting for the drug companies' licenses to expire.

However, there's a key difference between the two debates. Drug research requires funding -- huge amounts of cash to stock the labs and pay the scientists and run the triple-blind studies.... The days of a lone man scraping mold out of a spoiled petri dish and developing a miracle cure are gone. But coding, good coding...that can and is being done every day by everyone from professionals right on down to intrepid high-schoolers hanging out in their parents' basements. The number and virulence of computer worms and viruses -- many of which were developed by students -- seem to indicate that powerful programs can be developed without any corporate revenue supporting them.

The argument that open/open licensing is necessary in order to get vendors to invest in open-source educational software is a moot one. In reality, it doesn't matter much whether or not vendors get involved simply because their greatest resource -- ready access to cash -- is one that the open-source world can get by without. Would a steady influx of cash be nice? Probably. Is it worth sacrificing the "open" nature of open source? Probably not.

"For copyleft advocates, the issue boils down to trust." In a world where the President of the United States is unrepentant about deceiving the public in order to wage a personal war...where corporate malfeasance and the fleecing of the "little guy" have become the business of the day...where public confidence in officials of all stripes is at a record low, is it any wonder that trust is in short supply? The online community sans the vendor industry is talented enough that I for one would be willing to lose the possibility of corporate sponsorship in exchange for guaranteed free access to derivative programs. Let Corporate America invest their money in creating their own paid-licensing programs from scratch instead of building on the backs of free programs and then expecting to turn a profit.

Quintessential capitalist Ronald Reagan is famously quoted as saying "Trust but verify." How deliciously ironic that the arguably anti-capitalist copyleft advocates are following the late president's advice. What better verification can there be for maintaining the accessibility of free programs than copyleft? And when in history have we more surely needed that kind of verification than now?

Thursday, October 06, 2005

I started writing a simple comment to a great blog entry:

Between the Pipes

I then realized that my comment was so long (long-winded??) that I should probably just post it on my own blog. Without further ado, here goes:

I completely agree that the instructor has always been the stitching that holds the small pieces of every course together, both in terms of content and delivery. As you noted in your post, in the f2f classroom, the instructor joins multiple media herself by switching from handouts to overhead slides to the textbook. This "multimedia" has been around for so long that we hardly consider it media at all any more; as such, it has -- perhaps for the best -- become transparent, leaving the instructor and the students to focus on the important part of the lesson, namely the content.

Online education, being such a relatively new field dealing with such relatively new media, has brought the media of instruction back to its opaque state. With online multimedia staring us so squarely in the face, it's easy for both instructors and students to get lost in the "how" at the expense of the "why." Of course, the "why" must always win out (although in reality it often doesn't). However, I don't think it's possible to leave the "how" completely up to the individual students in the online environment any more than an instructor would leave the "how" up to the students in the f2f classroom.

I think online media may offer a wider array of options than are available in the f2f classroom. After all, a f2f classroom could get pretty chaotic if an instructor told the class to read an assignment either from the textbook, from a photocopy she was passing around or from a slide she was showing. Out of necessity, the f2f instructor needs to choose one medium for that reading and ask everyone to use it, even though some students might prefer one form over the other if given the choice. No such confusion need occur in the online classroom. One group of students could choose to complete a project by communicating through wikis; another group could choose to use a blog; still another could choose to use a forum. However, the instructor still needs to give direction, especially when dealing with students who are less familiar with what technology is out there. The online instructor who tells a group to "complete this project" without providing any suggestions for which media to use may find that the group, when faced with boundless -- perhaps overwhelming -- options, chooses nothing at all. I think this will certainly become less and less of an issue as online media become more and more transparent; this will happen naturally over time as generations of children raised with this technology come of age. Just as the written word was once a revolutionary form of media that completely transformed the nature of knowledge transfer but has now become such a standard that we don't even give its use a second thought, today's "revolutionary" online multimedia will one day be second nature to everyone. In the meantime, though, too many options and too little direction may cause more problems than not (see here for an interesting example).

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The ring of truth to it....

So, I was reading through a recommended article on what can happen in an online course when too many variables and too much flexibility is introduced, and I was particularly struck by this short paragraph:

We need to find ways of rationalising the assessments, and minimising duplication. At present, it’s very bitsy, with lots of modules, and lots of assessment tasks. I think what we’ll end up with are a few carefully designed projects that cover all areas.

A few carefully designed projects that cover all areas....

Right now, I'm taking an online course...well, two to be exact, the one that requires this blog and another one. It's the other one that's really got my knickers in a twist, so to speak. And I think the problem is that it's very bitsy - full of minute assessment tasks that don't hang together as a whole. I feel like I'm doing busywork instead of developing some integrated understanding of the subject matter and how it applies to my real-world situation. How I wish we had a few carefully designed projects in that course!

But try telling the professor that....