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.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Visit: Devil's Lake State Park, in Wisconsin

As time goes by in the new town, the novelty of the move wears off. The necessary changes become further apart in time. Blog posts such as today's are intended to keep family and friends knowledgeable of events not otherwise specific to moving. Now, without further delay:

About an hour northwest of Madison is Devil’s Lake State Park. To get there, get on Beltline headed towards Middleton, and stay on it. The freeway ends, but U.S. Highway 12 continues towards Sauk City. You drive through pristine farm land and hills. After crossing the bridge over the Wisconsin River, you drive through Sauk City, and past it. The Highway widens and narrows as U.S. Highways do.

About four miles north a significant S-curve on Highway 12, turn right on Ski Hi Road to get to the Visitor Center South Shore. The road will end at a T-intersection. Turn right to continue to the South Shore. Turn left to go to the North Shore.

Headed towards the South Shore, you’ll drive on a narrow, twisty road, then pass a boat dock, and eventually towards the Visitor Center. You’ll have to pay for admission, and the price depends on whether you have Wisconsin plates, and whether you want a one-day pass, or an annual. A one-day pass for this Texan’s vehicle cost $11.

After parking, you can walk towards the lake, and around the pavilions. Eventually, you’ll see maps or signs for various trails. Ideally, you’ve seen the map beforehand.

I walked three trails: the Grottos, the CCC, and the Potholes Trails. Walking those trails, I unintentionally managed to avoid six major geological attractions as indicated on the map. Despite that error, the views were wonderful.

Click on any to enlarge:

If you can make out the hat near the center, it gives the picture a sense of scale

No hiking shoes were necessary, but may have come in handy on slippery rocks. I wore a broad-rimmed hat, and a long-sleeve shirt. If the temperature was above 60 degrees, I would have considered wearing a short-sleeve shirt and sunblock, or hiking earlier in the morning, or later in the afternoon.

The crowds were civil, even polite. Lots of incidental campers. One group was rappelling off one of the rock faces. Temps were in the 50s, and the sky was clear. A perfect day for a hike.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Move: to Madison, WI (Day 20)

After 20 days, you’ve settled into a routine. Ideally, you have a very good idea of how to do your job. Also, you may have paid (off) the credit card bill(s) from your move.

But, your furniture is still at your old place, or in storage, and you’re still in the sublet. On the other hand, after 20 days, you may not miss your stuff. For now.

Indeed, the only thing (not person) that I miss is my garden, and compost bin.

O 'Yukon Gold' potato cultivar, you will be missed

While having a container garden on a balcony is feasible, composting in an apartment setting is not. In Houston, I had to keep a bale of hay in the garage, so that there was some anti-smell components to add to the compost when the need arose. With a balcony, a composting system (bin plus hay plus room to maneuver) may take anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of your balcony or patio.

As the Wired guide suggests, you’ll be buying dirt every season. The economics of apartment gardening lean heavily towards that of a money-sinking hobby, versus a money-saving task.

In more prosaic news, yesterday I checked the PO box, and there was mail! It’s taken more than two weeks, but Houston mail is making its way to Madison. Mail is also starting to arrive in the sublet mail box. Mostly fliers, but some sublet-specific stuff.

In other relocation news, I’ve visited several neighborhoods, and compared them to the neighborhood where the sublet is. While some neighborhoods have more people outside, walking their dogs, etc., they’re further from the office than the sublet is. Some neighborhoods have no highway or airplane noise whatsoever, but they’re much, much further from the office. Some neighborhoods have high-quality housing, but the neighborhood itself is monolithic and dull. One gets the feeling that it may be a ghetto in about ten or 20 years. Some neighborhoods have a decent-sized grocery store (something bigger than an Aldi) within five minutes' walking distance. But, you clearly hear the major road that is adjacent to the grocery store.

Overall, no neighborhood stands out as being really better in more than one way than the one I’m currently living. The sublet is close to work, and in a reasonably active, but quiet neighborhood. The build quality of the sublet is pretty good as far as apartments go. There are worse houses out there. But, the neighborhood is kind of pricey, and far from major grocery stores.

Right now, I’m unwilling to pay more than the mortgage payment equivalent-of-rent to live further away from the office. Only one neighborhood seems worth it, and it is the one within five minutes of a grocery store. It also has some the cheapest real estate in the area. I have yet to see the inside of house that is for sale there, so build quality is not yet fully known.

In other words, I may just stay in the sublet. Yeah, that means missing out on not owning real estate in Madison. But, I already own real estate in Houston. That house is being rented out. Selling the house there, to buy a house up here, is not an obvious good decision. At least, on a five-year planning scale.

In community events news, I’ve gone to a total of three library events: the John Scalzi reading, a performance by Forward Theater, and a discussion lead by Dan Egan on his new book. Forward Theater was salaciously funny. Egan’s talk gave some ideas that could be useful for my ecology hobby. However, it has become clear that I should go to community events that take place somewhere other than a library. This is not to avoid burn-out, but to avoid becoming accidentally complacent or dependent on library events.

But, the Middleton Library has indoor agriculture (sort-of), too!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Move: To Madison, WI (Day 10)

Settled into the sublet today. After 10 days of AirBnB, it’s nice to have one’s own kitchen and bathroom. It’s not-so-nice to sleep on the floor. We’ll see how my back feels, and determine from there whether an air mattress is necessary.

If you’ve never moved into your own apartment or house before, be prepared to buy at least the following things:

Shower curtain + rings
Toilet paper
Floor lamps + light bulbs

The sublet doesn’t have ceiling-mounted lights, making floor lamps a necessity.

Since this sublet has coin-operated laundry, I need to stop by a bank or credit union, and exchange bills for quarters. May also buy a sturdier laundry basket.

If you’ve lived your entire life near I-10, note that places north may not have central air conditioning. Especially where the winters are more brutal than the summers. In the case of the sublet, there is a wall-mounted unit in the living room, but not in the bedroom. Fortunately, summer nights in Madison seem to have lows in the 60s. Compare that to lows as high as 78 or 79 degrees in Houston. How humid Madison feels compared to Houston remains thus far not-yet-experienced.

On Friday, I went on a tour of Sector 67. Sector 67 is one the local maker-spaces in Madison. If you’re in town, you should definitely check them out. The size of their facility, and the amount and variety of their machinery, would compete very well in the Houston area.

This is just the lobby. 
Click to see a larger version of the photo.

On Saturday, I attended a show by the Monkey Business Institute, at the east Madison location of the Glass Nickel Pizza company. MBI is an improv-comedy troupe, which may or may not be your cup of tea. MBI offers three levels of shows. I saw the Adult show, versus All-Ages or one of Imprompt2, the Merge, and so forth (they rotate which will be the third offering).

I laughed, sometimes hard, which is all you need to know about how funny they are.

Parking was free at both Sector 67 and Glass Nickel Pizza.

On Sunday, Aldi and Target reminded would-be shoppers that it was Easter, and that people looking for food or general merchandise had better go to Pick ‘n Save and Wal-Mart, respectively. Good thing those last two were open; I might have had to find a church at which to confess the sin of trying to buy food and a shower curtain on Easter.

As for other community events, there are at least two places in Madison offering Krav Maga lessons:

Urban Krav Maga Madison
FightPrime Training Center

There are also two local community theaters:

Madison Theatre Guild
Verona Area Community Theatre

Now, for real estate analysis and empirical research:

Before buying a house, it may be a good idea to drive to the neighborhood where the house is located, and answer the following questions:

1) Do you feel safe parking your car here, and walking away?

2) Do you feel safe walking around the neighborhood?

3) What do you hear or see that you like or don’t like?

Remember that you’re not buying just a house, but also a neighborhood.

I’ve walked around two neighborhoods so far, and found that each has their pros and cons. The first is closer to work than the second. The first also has a townhouse that the realtor showed me, and the townhouse looked very nice.

However, the first neighborhood felt sterile. If you’ve read Jane Jacobs, then you will know what I mean when I write that this neighborhood may suffer the suburban version of the “great blight of dullness.” This, despite the neighborhood having a diversity in residential building types: single-family houses, townhouses, and apartments. However, the buildings have not aged enough to show whether they will age well or not. This is despite the fact that the townhouse that the realtor showed me was built in the 1980s. It appears to be the newest building in the immediate vicinity.

The second neighborhood is more established, with more people outside. The housing is either single-family or duplexes, and there is an elementary school within the neighborhood. It’s not all residential. The only problem that I experienced right in the neighborhood was traffic noise. A nearby US Highway is indeed very close. You could see and hear cars and trucks whizzing by. Once I heard a motorcycle engine rev, I knew this neighborhood wasn’t going to work out. Were it not for the noise, this second neighborhood would be worth the commute.

Overall, neither neighborhood is significantly better than the one in which the sublet is located. As I type, the window is open, and all I can hear is the drone of a distant air conditioner, if that is what it is. As far as noise goes, it’s steady and subtle. Only one airplane has passed over this neighborhood, since I opened the windows this afternoon.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Move: To Madison, WI (Day 5)

The biggest news is that an apartment management company approved my lease application. The next step is to sign some paperwork, pay the deposit, and get the keys. The scheduling of those steps is tricky. Their office has business hours, and I work during those business hours. We’ll get there eventually.

I have completed two days of work at the new job. Everything is going well. Not sure yet when I’ll have time to return to Houston to move my furniture, but...we’ll get there eventually.

Checked the PO Box. Got some junk mail. Nothing personal yet.

Ate dinner at Saigon Noodle on Odana Road. It’s recommended. While the Chicken Soup was very good, the hot tea was excellent. The sense of fullness from the soup and the tea really took off after about five minutes had passed after eating. The sense of fullness reached its peak about fifteen minutes later at the Aldi. Bought some frozen dinners and lunches for the week ahead. The credit card bills look huge.

When it comes to thinking about Madison, there’s many comparisons that appear attractive to make, but also do not feel fair to make as of right now. While comparing Madison to Houston seems obvious and inevitable, it’s also unfair. The size difference alone drives many other noticeable patterns and trends.

If size was the primary controlling factor, then the only towns I could personally compare Madison to are Huntsville, Alabama, and Beaumont, Texas. While these three towns are not exactly the same size, there are in the same rough order magnitude (city-only non-metro populations between 100,000 and 600,000). Houston might be better compared to Chicago, but I’ve not yet been to Chicago.

So, how does Madison compare to Huntsville and Beaumont? For starters, it’s a northern city, while Huntsville and Beaumont are southern. There’s no ambiguity there. Madison and Huntsville have economies largely driven by government, education, or the military. Beaumont’s economy is largely oil and gas, though there’s a university in Beaumont as well.

Really, though, comparing Beaumont and Huntsville to each other is more interesting than either to Madison. While both Beaumont and Huntsville are southern, they represent different aspects of the South. Beaumont is Deep South, or Gulf Coast South, or Cajun, or something like that. Huntsville is the Tennessee Valley, or southern Appalachia, or the foot hills of Appalachia, or something like that. Beaumont gets hurricanes. Huntsville gets blizzards and tornadoes. Beaumont is like a mini-Houston, with few-if-any of Houston’s good features. Huntsville does not appear to be a mini-version of anything else near by. Birmingham and Chattanooga seem sufficiently different from Huntsville, and sufficiently similar in size.

Given a choice, I would rather live in Huntsville than Beaumont. Huntsville has the more beautiful countryside and cleaner air. But, if Beaumont has got you down, you can always drive to Houston, which is an hour-and-a-half away-ish. The nearest cities to Huntsville are about two hours away. Even then, the really big city that is nearest to Huntsville is Atlanta, which is about 6-or-so hours away, via mountain roads. Beaumont connects to Houston via I-10, which really has only one significant curve, near Winnie.

So, what about Madison? Even though I enjoy the short commutes, the light traffic, the very-good-to-excellent dining options, and the urban and suburban areas, nothing really stands out that says, “Ah! This is Madison!”

For people who live in or know much about Houston, imagine a city consisting only of the Clear Lake neighborhoods of Houston, plus Webster and League City. Surround it by several dozen miles of countryside. It’s just Clear Lake-Webster-League City. Interstate 45 largely bypasses it, yet both Webster and League City technically straddle I-45. The town hall and city government in League City is bigger, if it had to represent Clear Lake and Webster. The University of Houston – Clear Lake campus might be larger, as there is no longer a much larger U of H main campus 25 miles up the freeway. The hospitals might be larger, and more numerous, as there is no Texas Medical Center 28ish miles up the freeway. Johnson Space Center remains in place, at its current size. Ellington Field becomes a full-fledged airport, but still smaller than Hobby Airport,12 miles up the road currently. You get the idea.

What town in Texas is actually like this, today? Brian-College Station? A bit small. Its metro population is the same as Madison’s city population. Among Texas cities that aren’t part of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, the ones closest in size to Madison are Laredo and Lubbock. I don’t recall ever visiting Laredo, and I’ve only ever driven through Lubbock. Reading through Wikipedia, Laredo appears known for being almost entirely Hispanic, and having its economy largely based on trade with Mexico. Lubbock is a “hub city,” being a center of trade and services in an otherwise empty part of the country. Just like all the other western cities: Amarillo, Denver…

So, there you have it. Madison eludes comparison because there is nothing currently in Texas like it enough to draw a comparison.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Move: To Madison, WI (Day 2)

When it became clear that I would have to drive to the sublet leasing office to drop off the application form during business hours, looking up its exact location became necessary. The relocation agent had driven her and myself there yesterday. Upon determining its location, it was too close to a freeway to be considered as even a short-term residence. Re-evaluating all the options, I chose the sublet that was the furthest from freeways and industrial areas. It also just so happened that the chosen sublet was the closest to the new employer.

To make matters happier, the application process could be done entirely online. Ba-da-bing, done! No word from them yet, but it is still the weekend.

In the meantime, I’ve looked up community events and volunteer opportunities.

The two Madison-area makerspaces (Sector 67, and The Bodgery) have their open houses on certain days of the week; otherwise, only members can access the spaces.

The Madison Astronomical Society has their next meeting on Friday April 14.

Corey Feldman’s Whad’ya Know performance will be on Saturday April 29.

The Monkey Business Institute has weekly improv shows, every Saturday.

I called up a contact for a Learn to Hunt event, only to find out the that target audience is for children. The good news is that the contact is willing to take people out turkey hunting, provided that they get a hunting license and camouflage.

I then called the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), to ask about non-resident vs resident license options. The short story is that one needs a Wisconsin Voter ID or Driver’s License for at least 30 days to qualify for residence license. The longer story is the licenses are purchased yearly. So, if I want to hunt right away, I need to buy the non-resident license for the year. The cost for a non-resident turkey hunting license is at least $63, plus stamps. For resident, the cost is $18 plus stamps.

I also e-mailed the contact for Hunting for Sustainability program, to ask if the program would be offered for 2017.

The Wisconsin State Park System is looking for volunteers.

One of the prerequisites to enter the EMT program at Madison Area Technical College, is to have a CPR certification for professionals. I need to call up the EMT program, to ask if one should put down their program’s contact details on the application form, or their own personal contact information.

I ate a late lunch at Monty’s Blue Plate Diner. Had the Blue Plate Burger with French Fries. The blue cheese and grilled onions on the burger were succulent. Monty’s Blue Plate Diner is recommended.

Then, for fun, I drove to the Post Office to check the mail. There was no mail.

Then, for necessity, I drove to an Aldi, and bought bananas, party mix, beer, and a frozen dinner. Total was about $15.

Oh, by the way, the above driving was done without a GPS. One of reasons to drive to the (west-side) Post Office was to figure out how to get there from eastern Madison. Granted, I looked up where all this stuff was online, and studied the maps carefully. Nonetheless, I had to navigate by memory of places previously driven to, or of maps as seen on a laptop.

For tonight’s entertainment, I drove downtown (still without the GPS) to see John Scalzi speak at the downtown library. It turns out that there was a “special event” happening downtown, so the cost to park in a garage was $8.

A Special Event: The Essence of Wisconsin

Usually, I drive in ever-widening circles, in search of free parking. If none is to be had within a mile or two, then I use mass transit. This tactic worked reasonably well in Houston, especially since the light rail has recently expanded. The oh-so-Progressive Madison does not have light rail running down University Boulevard from the airport to downtown to Middleton. For shame, Madison. For shame.

Anyway, I didn’t search for free parking; my vehicle still has a lot of my belongings. From that perspective, eight bucks didn’t buy so much a parking space, but rather a lower probability of broken windows and missing stuff.

Oh yeah, John Scalzi was kind of funny. He’s a goofy nerd who kept bringing up how much money he wanted for options for his intellectual property, and how that options money is paying for college for his kid. He also read excerpts of his material. If what he read is typical of his product, I’m glad to have saved the time and money. Especially the money. I just spent eight bucks on parking.