Monday, October 23, 2017

Move: to Madison, WI (Day 200)

This blog post is long enough that in-post links are a good idea.

After more than six months, the vacation mode had run its course. One or two visits to downtown Madison, just to wander around, were sufficient. When I was in downtown most recently, the best moment was tracking two mice that lived in a planter bed on State Street. Those rodents were about as interesting as the best pieces of art in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

Summer has ended, and with it the tornado warnings and the sultry 90-degree days. Even with those highs, night temps dipped well into the 70s. Cool enough to sleep with the windows open. I had to use the air conditioner only once. Temperatures have gently drifted down since August. October in Madison is like January in Houston. Lows in the 40s, highs in the 60s. Later this week, lows will move into the 30s.

When it came to increasing the amount of weight that I could lift, progress stalled at 70 lbs by mid-August. In late August, I had to head back to Houston to move furniture, and drive the moving truck to Jefferson City, Missouri, in time to see the total eclipse of the sun. After totality ended, I finished the drive to Madison.

The eclipse was awesome. This eclipse picture is not.

Less than a month after moving furniture, I had to go back after Hurricane Harvey to survey the old house. The house came through apparently unscathed.

Southwest Airlines was charging
the highest prices I had ever seen for flights from Milwaukee or Chicago to Houston. The cost was about the same as what Delta charged for “Comfort Plus” from Madison to San Antonio. I chose Delta.

Earlier in the year, I redeemed some Rapid Rewards points to get a cheap flight from Chicago to Houston for early October. That worked great. Until I missed the bus to Chicago. The next one would have arrived much too close to boarding time. So, I called Southwest Airlines to re-schedule the flight for the following day. Despite getting a refund (in points), I still paid $550 for the remaining Business Select seat. So, the free (except for Early Bird check-in and government-mandated fees) flight became the $550 flight. If there was any good news in this, it was that the more you pay Southwest Airlines, the more points you earn. This $550 flight will eventually pay for at least one free flight in 2018, reducing the cost-per-flight to a more reasonable $225.

For all the complaining about the decline in the air travel experience, some of it might be due to the race to the bottom to offer customers the lowest possible fare. There are analyses that compare seat widths and overall room to what was available in prior decades.

Paying about in the neighborhood of $400 to $800 for Delta’s “Comfort Plus,” or $500 to $600 for Southwest Airline’s “Business Select,” brings a clear improvement in the passenger experience. Delta’s “Comfort Plus” offers somewhat larger seats, and additional four inches of leg room (as of 2017). Southwest Airline’s “Business Select” puts the passenger in the first 15 boarding positions, and you get a free drink coupon. No difference in seating; just much better odds at sitting near the front, and drinking one free shot of vodka.

In other words, if you want a 1980s flight experience, then you’re probably going to have to pay adjusted-for-inflation 1980s prices for it. Sony Walkman not included.

Far, far cheaper experiences have been Learn to Hunt events, as well as Carnivore Tracking and Wolf Ecology classes. The DNR hosts these events.

In late September/early October, I learned to hunt raccoons at the Mackenzie Education Center. Hunting raccoons is done at night, and involves dogs chasing the scent of raccoons. The dogs let out a particular bark or yell after they “tree” a raccoon. When the hunters hear this kind of barking, they use GPS to find their dog. At the tree, the hunters use bright lights to shine up into trees to look for the raccoon. This proves tricky when the trees still have most of their leaves.

After riding in a truck, waiting for dogs to bark, walking and walking through forests and cornfields to look for the dogs, shining lights up into trees, and wondering if the raccoons went to an adjacent tree, our crew got only one raccoon.

Despite this, there were several notable outcomes:

1) The one raccoon our team got was a rare cinnamon-colored raccoon. How rare? Comments from fellow hunters included "I've never seen one before" or "People spend decades hunting before they see one." One of the instructors said that cinnamon raccoons are so rare that their skins are not worth as much as the more common raccoons. "It takes three raccoons to make a hat." One cinnamon raccoon is two too few.

2) I shot a
real gun for the first time. No, I did not shoot any raccoons. My first time shooting was during target practice. The gun was a 0.22LR (“twenty two long rifle”), and targets were 25 to 30 yards away.

Yours truly shooting for the first time.

Just hitting the target sheet four out of five times impressed the instructors.

3) The lead instructor made more than one reference to the book Where the Red Fern Grows. In fact, upon arriving, the lead asked me if I was familiar with the book. After responding in the negative, she offered a free copy (there were stacks on the stable). She also said that the movie version of it was playing in the classroom.

For those of you who grew up in Texas, have you heard of Where the Red Fern Grows?

While I don’t yet have a “review” of the Madison area, I do have some lessons learned:

1) Wisconsin is known overall for cheese, beer, and bratwurst. If you don’t like any one of those food items, then you’ll miss out on social experiences. When asked how one can socially integrate with others, a predominant answer was “Drink with others.” Learn the difference between good cheese and great cheese.

2) There are more bars here than grocery stores. If you avoid bars, then you’re really missing out. The diversity of bars is noteworthy. Your best bet is to sample a whole bunch bars all over the county. When you’ve found “your bar,” you’ll know it.

3) Cross-country relocation (especially outside your “nation”) is a prime opportunity to do random things that you never did before. Two good sources are, and the events listing in your local free newspaper. In the Madison-area, that would be the Isthmus. Doing that has led to an introduction to Sheepshead.

The one exception to this lesson is all of the interaction with the Wisconsin DNR. The shortest version of the story is that I e-mailed someone at the DNR about learning how to hunt. They put me on an e-mail list. They send out the occasional e-mail, and I poke around the DNR website. One thing leads to another...

It leads to the occasional group photo.

4) Yes, it is possible to get a sunburn at this latitude. Especially during the months of May, June, and July. It may require a couple of hours, but it is possible. Normal protection techniques (Fedora hat, long-sleeved shirt) are not enough. The sun hangs lower in the sky for longer periods of time. You may not get burned at 1:00 pm, but instead at 3:00 pm. The simplest solution is to just put on sunblock every two hours, and keep wearing a hat and long-sleeved shirt.

5) When it comes to flights, compare prices from Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago airports. Buses will take you from Madison to Milwaukee and Chicago. You have may to create a matrix of airfare plus
busfare. However you do it, you must plan ahead. If you plan on taking a bus to Milwaukee or Chicago, then be prepared to walk around looking for the bus stop. The buses will not linger, waiting for late passengers.

6) If you’re going by yourself to a downtown Madison event, then there is no reason to pay for parking. With enough circling, you can find a free spot. If bringing along family or friends, then you’ll have to negotiate with them.

Outside the specific-to-Madison context, there is another lesson learned:

Regarding AAA, it may be worth it for renting a moving truck from Penske. Paying $40 - $60 for the lowest-tier AAA service may save well over $100 on a truck rental.

As for towing and roadside service, your auto insurance may already offer it, for $10 to $30 per six months. Cheaper than AAA? Maybe, maybe not. Check the terms of your auto insurance to see what they offer. If you don’t have towing and roadside service from anyone, then consider getting it if your think your car is likely to break down. Or, if you often ride with friends, and they drive old or unreliable cars. I’ve not used AAA for roadside service ever since I began driving newer, more reliable cars.

As for car rental discounts, AAA is almost worth it...unless you’re a Costco member. For example, the price for a given Hertz car for a given time period would have been about $170, without AAA. With AAA, the cost would have been about $100. Worth it.

With Costco, a similar car at Alamo was about $53. Even more worth it. If you are a Costco member, then reserve cars through them, and let the AAA membership expire. Heck, if you rent cars for more than one or two days per year, getting a Costco membership just for the travel benefits alone may be worth it.

In real estate news, the sub-$1000 one-bedroom apartments have all but disappeared within biking distance of the office. At the moment, one is better off sharing a two-bedroom apartment for $1400ish per month ($700ish per bedroom).

The cheapest condos that are not on a through street start at about $130,000 plus $220 monthly fee. I would have to stay in one of those condos for at least five years before the cost of buying that condo was less than renting over the same time period. Since I've been in this town for just over six months, buying does not seem like a good idea right now.

Final note, regarding assimilation: Go Packers.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Move: to Madison, WI (Day 100)

Believe it or not, the logistics of moving to Madison are still not complete. Most of my stuff is still in Houston. Naturally, I miss people more than stuff, but it sure would be nice to have a couch.

Eventually, the logistics will be complete, and cultural adaptation will dominate. While Wisconsin is not completely foreign from Texas, it is different (enough) in terms of local cuisine, events, and so forth. As the locals like to bring up during our conversations, I still haven’t experienced winter. Readers of this blog can look forward to moment-by-moment commentary about snow.

One of the things that I’ve done to blend in grid-patterned shirts that are appropriate for the office. Male Houston office workers tend towards solid-colored shirts, polos, or shirts with otherwise simple patterns. Many folks in the Madison office have similar taste. However, there are enough men wearing a wide variety of plaid and grid-patterned shirts that it became clear that I was missing something. One web search later, with some price comparisons, two shirts arrived at the PO Box. Total cost was under $80; shipping was free.

Speaking of the PO Box, if you have one, then you should consider getting a street address for it. It’s free, and you get something that resembles a normal address. If you allow the Post Office to have your signature on file, then FedEx and UPS had ought to hand over your purchased items to the Post Office. Commentary on the web isn’t clear on the overall effectiveness of this, but since it costs no more to have those features after you pay for the PO Box, it is a free experiment (minus losses from items being...lost).

In other news, I’ve joined a gym to achieve the goal of safely lifting 100 lbs. That means lifting 100 lbs multiple times without too much straining or effort. Currently, I can lift 50 lbs safely. Why do this, especially so far from New Year’s? Two reasons:

1) Moving
2) Volunteering at District 1 EMS.

When I helped a co-worker move, it became clear that my upper body strength was inadequate for many tasks. After decades of similar embarrassment, it was time for change. Plus, when it comes time to move my own stuff, having any extra strength will obviously make the job easier.

As for District 1 EMS, they ask point-blank on the form if you can lift 100 lbs. While they will accept you if you can’t lift that much, it is the kind of question to which I would really like to say “yes.” This is really about safety.

Aside from work and chores, major ongoing tasks include: playing Sheepshead at Laurel Tavern, learning Mandarin, reading more about Wisconsin history, walking more segments of the Ice Age Trail, volunteering for the DNR or similar groups, and Monitoring an Aquatic Ecosystem Using a Raspberry Pi and Sensors from Atlas Scientific.

Time management is a good skill to have, along with budgeting, cooking, and writing in cursive.

In real estate news, the landlord offered to renew the lease for one year, raising the monthly rent by less than 2%. Meanwhile, Madison-area real estate went up by more than twice that amount. That sends a strong signal to keep renting.

But, let’s say that the landlord did not offer to renew the lease. What then?

Well, within a few miles of the office (biking distance), Zillow reports 12 one-bedroom apartments available for no more than $1,000 per month. In the same region, there are three one-bedroom condos available for the same price. There are no townhouses or single-family houses available in the area for that price.

For the equivalent price of a property, a visit to the New York Times Buy vs Rent Calculator is in order. With the $1,000 per month ceiling, and some assumptions about certain numbers, the Calculator showed the following purchase prices at at given condo fee. The condo fees below are taken from actual listings; they're not made up:

$104,000 for a place with a condo fee of $193/month
$108,000 at a condo fee of $164/month
$131,000 without a condo fee.

In other words, if there is a condo selling for $104,000, and has a monthly fee of $193/month, then that is equivalent to paying $1,000 per month in rent, at certain values of down payment, duration of residence, property taxes, etc.

At a max price of $104,000, there are four places for sale in the same region that has 15 places to rent at no more than $1,000 per month. Increasing the max price to $108,000, a total of five places are for sale. Increasing the max price to $131,000, and excluding all condos and townhouses and properties that face busy roads, that number is zero. Remember, there are a total of 15 places to rent for at or below $1,000 per month in this part of town. 

Yep. For the moment, I’m still better off renting. It makes little sense to leave a quiet neighborhood to pay more to live in a louder, more polluted neighborhood with a longer commute.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Compare: the Histories of Texas and Wisconsin (Intro)

This analysis uses Lone Star: a History of Texas and the Texans (updated edition), by T.R. Fehrenbach as the (troublesome) source for Texas history. For Wisconsin history, the analysis uses Wisconsin: a History (second edition), by Robert C. Nesbit (revised and updated by William F. Thompson). 

This analysis will not only compare the two states’ respective histories, but also effectively be reviews of the two sources.

The format of this analysis will be as follows. A topic will be stated, followed by three entries: Both, Texas, and Wisconsin. The “Both” entry will summarize what both books say about their respective states, if what they say is essentially the same. The “Texas” and “Wisconsin” entries will cover information that is unique to each state. Exceptions will be noted.

As topics are posted, each of the below entries will be a hyperlink to that blog post.


The Ice Age
The Land
The First Settlers
The Spanish
The French
The Missions
The Fur Trade
The British
The Consequences of the American Revolution
The Americans
The Southerners
The Yankees
The Consequences of the French Revolution
The Settlements after 1830
What happened in 1836
What happened by 1848
Civil War
Post-Civil War Agriculture
The Meaning of Government
The Rise of Economics
The End of the Frontier
La Follete
The Social Organism
The 20th Century
Relatively Current Trends

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Walk: the Ice Age Trail

Upon moving to Wisconsin, I sought out history books to help explain the cultural background of the state; to understand where people were coming from. As it happens, the history of Wisconsin begins with the Ice Age. At least, the Ice Age is mentioned in Chapter 1 in each of two history books.

The first is Wisconsin: The Story of the Badger State, by Norman K. Risjord. The second is Wisconsin: A History, by Robert C. Nesbit (2nd edition, revised and updated by William F. Thompson).

Risjord describes the Ice Age dramatically: “The story of modern Wisconsin begins with the ice, a moving mountain of ice that scoured the countryside and rearranged the hills and valleys. It is called the Wisconsin glacier because of the profound impact it had on the Badger State, and it was the last of four glaciers that had overrrun North America in the last million years” (1).

Nesbit / Thompson puts it more soberly: “As the glaciers retreated northward for the last time around 7000 B.C., the character of the land and ecology changed. The land warped upward, relieved of the tremendous weight of the glaciers, changing lake levels, contours, and drainage patterns. As the climate warmed, spruce forests were replaced by pines” (10).

The Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey Ice Age geology web page has a wonderful image that shows the extent of the last glaciation (the Laurentide Ice Sheet) that occurred over Wisconsin:

They state: “The Laurentide Ice Sheet and the large volume of meltwater flowing from it greatly altered the landscape of Wisconsin. As a result, the landscape of the area glaciated during the last part of the Wisconsin Glaciation is notably different than that of areas glaciated earlier in the Ice Age (where erosion has destroyed most earlier glacial landforms) and areas that were never glaciated. For example, the outermost limit of the last glacier is marked by a conspicuous ridge of glacially deposited debris. The many lakes and wetlands and the irregular landscape that characterize so many areas of eastern and northern Wisconsin are also a direct result of the last glacier.”

It turns out that I’ve been walking segments of the Ice Age Trail in my hikes around Devil’s Lake State Park. The IAT roughly traces the extent of the last glaciation. Curious to experience more of natural Wisconsin, I looked up a nearby trail segment of the IAT. The nearest one appeared to the Table Bluff Segment, near Cross Plains.

It was a hike that I took this morning, when the weather was partly cloudy, breezy, and temperatures were in the 70s. Getting there took about as half as long as the drive to Devil’s Lake. Also, parking is free, but there is no ranger station nor any facilities of any kind, except for signposts, and the occasional bench. While hiking boots weren’t strictly necessary, sturdy shoes are a must.

Unlike Devil’s Lake State Park's rocky trails leading towards cliffs, the Table Bluff Segment trail is through a mixture of open prairie and woods. The trail itself is kind of hard to photograph. 

 The trailhead

 Looking back at the parking lot

Into the woods

Onto the prairie

At the other end of the trail

Even photographing the signs is awkward, due to the tall grass

 See? I told you it was 2.5 miles!

While there are no scenic vistas of water, there is a charm to the rolling prairie and occasional grouping of trees. There is only the sound of birds, insects, and the wind through the trees, until you get within a few hundred feet of U.S. Highway 14. It brought back the pleasant memories of traipsing through a similar landscape, looking for baby deer.

The Table Segment is 2.5 miles one-way, so I walked five miles in about two hours. There is no loop; you reach the end (or any stopping point), and turn around. The trail is only one “lane” wide. If you are by yourself, then step aside to let all larger parties through.

Overall, a good experience. Reading about Wisconsin history and geography, and experiencing its ecology and geography is fun.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Move: To Madison, WI (Day 50)

This blog entry is two days late due to ongoing moving obligations.

The most significant moving-related accomplishments in the past month have been the following:

1) Getting a Wisconsin driver’s license
2) Registering to vote in Dane County
3) Acquiring auto and rental insurance
4) Getting Wisconsin license plates for the car

Of the four, number 1 was the most convoluted, 2 was the easiest, 3 took up the most amount of time, and 4 was surprisingly easy. What made number 1 relatively complex was the required documentation. Essentially, if you’re moving to Wisconsin, and you need a driver’s license (in 2017), then you need to have at least the following:

1) Driver’s license from current (old) state
2) Birth certificate OR passport
3) Proof of local residency (lease contract, name and address page from your house title paperwork, etc.)

In situations (other than border crossings) requiring either the birth certificate or the passport, I usually bring both, as well as the Social Security card. It never hurts to bring all of them, and it sometimes helps. After you fill out the form(s) and get your picture taken, the clerk will scan the relevant proof-of-citizenship and -residency documents into the computer system. The clerk will then void your current (old) license, and issue a paper copy of your new permanent one. The permanent one will arrive in the mail in about a week.

With the new permanent driver’s license (the one that came in the mail) in hand, one is able to register online to vote. It only takes a few minutes.

Getting quotes for auto and renter’s insurance is always time-consuming. If you haven’t been through that process, what you do is look up a bunch of local insurance agents and brokers. Start making phone calls. You will answer many questions, having to tell the agent/broker/clerk that you don’t know the answer to at least some of the questions. You’ll write down the combinations of deductibles, coverage amounts, multi-policy discounts, and so forth. You’ll mull over the options. You’ll wait to hear back from agents that never call back. You’ll wonder if having one insurance company cover both the apartment and the car is worth paying an extra $20 or so per year. The alternative might be going with the cheapest auto and renter insurance quotes, but at respectively different companies. I cannot tell you what to do in this situation. Everyone will have different experiences, and likely go with different companies or plans.

What is remarkable is that most quotes for car insurance in Madison are less than half of what I paid in Houston.

Getting the license plates requires proof of residency (your driver’s license) and the title or registration paperwork for your car. The clerk didn’t ask for proof of insurance. Since my car still has a lien on it, all I had was the registration renewal paper that you get in the mail in Texas. The paper has the car’s VIN, weight, my name, and my old address, among other information. You fill out a short form, and hand that form and the registration renewal paper to the clerk. You never see your old state’s registration paper again. The clerk returns with the Wisconsin equivalent of the registration paper, and your new license plates. You pay a total amount of fees well over $100, and walk out with your new plates. I managed to receive one of the remaining six-digit Wisconsin plates. My car is now registered in America’s Dairyland. Yeehaw.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Volunteer: for your state's DNR

Whichever state you live in, there is likely a Department of Natural Resources that could use your assistance in helping scientists and technicians monitor and understand the environment. If you would like to be (or are) a “citizen scientist,” and like the great outdoors, then definitely look up opportunities. I have already walked around Devil’s Lake State Park, and was looking for way to get more involved with the Wisconsin State Park system or the Wisconsin DNR in general.

On one rainy Saturday, I volunteered for the Wisconsin DNR in their effort to monitor Chronic Wasting Disease in deer. The name of their project is The Southwest Wisconsin CWD, Deer and Predator Study. You sign up online or by calling them. Contact details are in the link.

There are two shifts: morning and evening. I volunteered for both, deciding that if I was going to drive 45 minutes or so from the apartment to Dodgeville, I should stay for the whole day. One of the goals of this move is to do things I’ve not done before, with only a minimum of preparation. This is the second new thing; the first is playing Sheepshead.

Volunteering for the CWD, Deer, and Predatory Study is hands-on ecological work. It looks something you might have seen on 3-2-1 Contact. With hiking boots, rain jacket, black nitrile gloves, and not-a-paid-employee-of-DNR orange vest, one walks with the crew in lines, either straight ahead or in a large spiral. Trees, slippery rocks, creeks, and nettle bushes make this tricky. This goes for an hour or so. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a fawn.

Most of the time, the fawn will lay still even as the DNR staffer lays their hands on it. The first step is to blindfold the fawn. For reasons that I don’t understand, blindfolding deer calms them down a great deal. After they calm down, you and the staffer determine its weight, sex, age, put a GPS collar on its neck, and attach ID tags on its ears.

Perhaps the most dramatic aspect is attaching the ID tags. Punching a hole in an ear seems painful. But, the staffer is careful to avoid the major blood vessels. The fawn appears to not notice. In the two fawns that I held in position, the animal seemed calm. It was as if it were asleep. I focused on its breathing and pulse. Knowing nothing about deer physiology or psychology, the breathing and heart rate seemed steady.

Most of the time, you’re riding around the Wisconsin countryside in a van or truck with wildlife technologists and biologists. The hills, prairie, and farms seem exotic to this guy from Texas. Even in the rain. Walking for hours in such terrain (along with the aforementioned slippery rocks and creeks) provides a great workout. Especially for whichever muscles control the lifting of your leg, and positioning of your foot. I apparently spent a lot of time trying to figure out which rock was the least slippery.

If you are a former Boy Scout, this activity might bring back memories of hiking on ambiguous trails through an endless countryside.

The staff at the DNR is great. They are funny, and passionate about the work they do. Hiking with them, and riding around in trucks and vans, was an honor and a privilege. I look forward to volunteering with the DNR again.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Go: to the (Mini) Maker Faire

Forward! To Mini Maker Faire!

What? I can’t see or hear you.

As member of Sector 67, I volunteered at the Madison Mini Maker Faire. It was a lot fun to help the group set up their stuff, and help several dozen people make simple fidget spinners. I even managed to park for free, relatively close to Monona Center.

To get free parking, find a spot near the event area really early.

If you have never been to a (Mini) Maker Faire, it is a nerdy gathering of do-it-yourself technologists. It is the electronic or mechanical (or both) extension of crafting, taking to elaborate and sometimes expensive extremes. If you volunteer as part of an organization, you usually get in for free. However, even in relatively small cities like Madison, parking at the event is almost never for free.

After about three hours of standing outside, helping families make their spinners, I ate lunch at Merchant Madison on Pinckney Street. For $10, you get a Mexican Pozole. It tasted good, especially after adding jalapenos, onions, cabbage, and tortilla strips.

It’s recommended.

Overall, a great day. While my Fedora was effective in shading most of my head from the sun, it was not so effective on my neck. The solution is a hat that has a flap on the back to shade the neck. Also, work gloves. Not only would this have made more comfortable the handling of the hot metal of the fresh, in-progress spinners, it would have shaded my hands from the sun.

Meanwhile, inside Monona Center, members of Sector 67 sold stuff.

Despite the hot sun, and the hot metal, we still had fun.

Our fearless leader, riding his Penny Farthing bicycle.