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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween Accessories: How to Make a Buckler

My Halloween costume this year never quite came to fruition, but over the last couple weeks I nevertheless managed to create a number of successful accessories.  Here, then, is part one of my guide to making a passable buckler, battleaxe, and sword.

Part I: The Buckler
A buckler is a small shield, generally metal and 15-45cm in diameter, gripped in the fist.  I honestly used to think that a buckler was actually a small shield which straps (or buckles, hence the name) to the forearm, but Wikipedia leads me to believe that this is actually an inaccurate view arising from Dungeons and Dragons.  A buckler has a number of advantages as a Halloween costume prop over a larger shield: it takes less material to make, and it is also a lot easier to carry around at a party.  The easiest way to make a buckler is to go to a thrift store which carries dishes and find a round metal bowl (in Toronto, the two best places to look would likely be Honest Eds or a Value Village).
The suitably shaped bowl I used to make my buckler.
Turing the bowl into a buckler is then simply a matter of attaching a handle to carry it.  If one is looking to put more distinction between one's buckler and simply a bowl with a handle, an additional option would be to attach a central spike (bucklers were not only defensive, but could also be used as a punching weapon and were occasionally adorned with spikes or sharpened edges for that purpose).  Although the traditional buckler handle was in the direct centre, I found it easier to control by placing a handle slightly off centre with a corresponding forearm strap.  In order to get away with only a central handle it would have to be anchored fairly strongly to prevent the buckler from twisting in one's grip; using a strap and a handle is more forgiving.
Buckler handle and forearm strap.
I wasn't particularly careful with the appearance of the handle, as the underside of the buckler would generally be hidden.  In order to give it some rigidity, I started with a wooden chopstick.  I then took an old sock which I used to protect my hand when tousling with the cat (not to worry, I have several pairless socks which have been donated to this cause, so she will not mourn the loss of this one) and used part of it to wrap a layer of cloth around the chopstick.  This provided both extra thickness to make the handle easier to hold and "tabs" which I could tape to the surface of the bowl to hold the handle in place.  When using tape to secure anything which will need to support weight, it is best to align several strips in alternating perpendicular patterns.  After I attached the handle I used the remains of the sock to place a pad on the inner surface of the bowl to prevent my knuckles from rubbing against the bare metal.

My initial strap was a thick rubber band which was also held on with tape, but it ended up snapping in what we believe to be a cat-related incident.  Since I had the hot glue-gun out anyway for the sword, I decided to use it to secure a new strap made from two lengths of string wound together.

That wraps up the simplest of the three accessories.  Altogether it cost me $3.50 for the bowl, an old sock, some string, a random chopstick I found in our kitchen drawer, some duct tape, and a couple dollops of hot glue.  Here is an image of the buckler being held up to parry a strike:

Buckler parrying an axe.
The axe will be described in the next part.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Master of Vision

As those who follow this blog may have noticed, I again entered a bubble of silence since mid-summer.  Rather than another bout of writer's block, however, I was instead under deadline pressure to finish my Master's thesis, and time spent writing other things seemed wrong.  I am happy to report that on October 5th I defended my thesis, which was accepted without revision.  For anyone who is interested in plowing through it, a finalized copy of my thesis can be downloaded from here.  Now that my thesis is finished, it is time for me to get busy on my PhD and all of the small items (like marking) which got pushed to the back-burner leading up to the defense.  I am hoping that one of those small items which I will now have more time for is blogging regularly again.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Excellent Climate Change Allegory

These past few weeks have involved long hours sitting at my computer trying to hammer out my thesis and ignore the uncomfortable sensation of sweat sticking me to my chair or trickling down my side. Thankfully, I do not suffer from hyperhidrosis, but it has simply been incredibly hot and humid.  In fact, this summer has brought on another record set of heat waves, which one can only hope will finally galvanize political environmental action.  Of course, this hope is likely in vain.  Media Matters published an excellent article on the coverage of the recent heat wave, which is worth reading:
In December 2008 the Washington Post reported that AT&T and DuPont planned to lay off a combined 14,500 employees. The lead of the story said: "Need more proof that the recession is real? An onslaught of grim unemployment and layoff reports yesterday should dispel any lingering doubts."
Was the recession the only force behind these job cuts? No. Other variables would be needed to explain why the layoffs were hitting these specific companies, at this time, and at this scale. But the recession was the obvious background condition, the broader context that could not go unmentioned in a proper news report on the layoffs, and there was no hand-wringing about drawing the connection. The article didn't caution that "No single bankruptcy or job cut can be definitively blamed on the recession." No one waited for a computer model to precisely sort the causes of these layoffs. No one tracked down a contrarian to point out that layoffs happened long before the recession and that, in fact, such-and-such a company somewhere is hiring.
Which brings me to the massive heat wave that we're now emerging from. Scientific observation and analysis have established that human-induced climate change makes extreme heat events more common. But when heat waves hit, many reporters hesitate to mention climate change without appending disclaimers of the sort that you don't see on other beats.
Go read the rest of the article.  As with all allegories, it is obviously not a perfect fit, but it does an excellent job of showcasing the frustrating manner in which environmental issues, particularly climate change, is treated by the media.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Some Friday Humour

Given that it is a Friday and some sort of ridiculous construction is taking place just below my window which makes concentrating on work rather difficult, I thought I would post something lighthearted.  Here are three videos of Henri, a cat undergoing an existential crisis.  I think the videos get progressively better (both in film quality and content), but it is nevertheless worth watching them in order to see the development of poor Henri's nihilism.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

What does Stephen Harper think public scientists are for?

Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada have never provided a convincing illusion of being good for either science or the environment, but they nevertheless managed to wheedle enough support to squeeze out a majority government*.  Somehow, a slim majority has put it into Harper's head that this now means that his party doesn't just lead the Government of Canada, but rather that they are the Government of Canada (or, rather, that the Government of Canada shall now henceforth be renamed the Harper Government).  Taking this
conflation and running with it, Harper has consistently taken the view that government scientists must get approval before speaking with the press.  The latest example of this policy is a letter sent to Parks Canada employees informing them that it is their "duty" to support the Harper government.  The bizarre logic behind this policy seems to be that Harper views Canadian scientists as employees of the government, and since he views the Government of Canada and the Harper Government as synonymous entities, all Canadian scientists (and all other civil servants, by the same logic) are now expected to toe the Conservative line.

Which leads me to conclude that Harper must not understand what public science is for.  After all, supporting party policy is the job of politicians and pundits, not scientists.  It is this fundamental misunderstanding, then, which leads to the short-sighted axing of huge swathes of Canadian science.  For example, the government claims that halting funding for the Experimental Lakes Area makes sense because it no longer fits with Ottawa's mandate.  Such a line of reasoning actually does make sense if one believes that the job of government scientists is to support government policy, since the current government doesn't actually care about fresh water preservation or protection.

Civil science in actuality is meant to service the people of the country, not the policy of the government.  Of course, this is an old struggle between scientist and politician, but I had honestly believed that a modern understanding had come to pass acknowledging the necessary degree of autonomy and impartiality relegated to scientific and regulatory bodies (like Parks Canada).  It is this fundamental perversion of the relationship between policy and empirical study which, to me, is the most disturbing aspect of Harper's leadership.

* For anyone who voted for the Conservatives because they were sick of a minority government leading to constant elections, that's a terrible argument.  Sometimes having a non-functional Parliament is better than having one which will toe the line for bad policy.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Solution to Puzzle 16: Trip to Canada

Here is the solution to the "Trip to Canada" puzzle:

The Uncle traveled to one location in each province and territory in Canada in the following order:

1.) Alert, Nunavut
2.) Yellowknife, Northwest Territory
3.) Whitehorse, Yukon
4.) Whistler, British Columbia
5.) Red Deer, Alberta
6.) Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan
7.) Winnipeg, Manitoba
8.) Newmarket, Ontario
9.) Trois-Rivieres, Quebec
10.) Eel River Crossing, New Brunswick
11.) Cow Bay, Nova Scotia
12.) Cornwall, Prince Edward Island
13.) Labrador City, Newfoundland and Labrador

I unfortunately did not realize that there is also a Cornwall, Ontario, until after I published this puzzle, but I hope the rest of the locations were unique enough for the puzzle to still have been solvable (plus, Cornwall, PE is the only one which would make sense given the order of the Uncle's travels).

Monday, May 7, 2012

Start of the Week Quotations

"The labour of women in the house, certainly enables men to produce more wealth than they otherwise could; and in this way women are economic factors in society.  But so are horses."
"There is no female mind.  The brain is not an organ of sex.  As well speak of a female liver."
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman, American writer and feminist, 1860-1935

"All of us here know there's no better way of exercising the imagination than the study of law.  No poet ever interpreted nature as freely as a lawyer interprets the truth." - Jean Giraudoux, French dramatist, 1882-1944

"Diplomacy is to do and say,
The nastiest thing in the nicest way."
- Isaac Goldberg, American journalist, 1887-1938

"Nothing is so impenetrable as laughter in a language you don't understand." - William Golding, English novelist, 1911-93

Monday, April 23, 2012

Start of the Week Quotations

I cannot believe it has been nearly a year since I added another set of these.  Here are this week's quotations:

"With five free parameters, a theorist could fit the profile of an elephant." - attributed to George Gamow, Russian-born American physicist, 1904-68

"That kind of patriotism which consists in hating all other nations." - Elizabeth Gaskell, English novelist, 1810-65, in Sylvia;s Lovers

"I've kept political diaries ever since I went into politics... I'd love to do a political memoir, but a lot of people will have to be dead first." - Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, Irish politician and current European Commissioner for Research, Innovation, and Science, 1950-

"Personally I feel happier now that we have no allies to be polite to and to pamper." - George VI, King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from 1936, 1895-1952, spoken to Queen Mary on 27 June, 1940

"O Freedom, what liberties are taken in thy name!" - Daniel George (Bunting), English writer, 1890-1967

"If you can actually count your money, then you are not really a rich man." - J. Paul Getty, American industrialist, 1892-1976

Since it has been so long since I have put any of these up, I think it is worth reiterating that my inclusion of a quotation is not necessarily an endorsement of its content, but rather just means that it is something that I found either amusing, thought-provoking, or otherwise interesting as I (slowly) progress through a copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Cayo Largo Part V: Underwater Critters

In Cayo Largo Part IV I described our trip to Iguana Island, which was the first part of our day excursion.  In this post I will describe the second part of that trip: snorkeling and wading in the shallows around virgin islands.

After visiting the Iguana Island, our boat set out for a shallow coral bed for some snorkeling.  Despite the shallowness of the water (I would guess it wasn't deeper than twenty feet anywhere nearby, although depths are notoriously difficult to judge in clear water), we were still a fair ways away from the coast of Cayo Largo.  It was amazing the difference this made; whereas the water directly off the coast, as described in Part II and Part III, was characterized by fine white sand and fish almost the same colour, here the sea was full of fauna in a myriad of colours.

The coral was predominantly yellow-green to yellow-brown, but there were occasional outcroppings of beautiful reds and purples.

A piece of purple coral (click to enlarge)
I should also mention that I found underwater photography to be quite challenging.  Light levels and clarity of the image are much more difficult to control and one is undergoing almost constant motion from the waves and currents.  Even more challenging is the fact that goggles prevent the use of the viewfinder for targeting the camera.  Although, as with most digital cameras, our underwater camera also has a screen which is used more often for aim anyway, the bright sunlight at the surface would generally make the screen unreadable, and thus a large number of our pictures were taken blindly.

Despite photographic difficulties, though, the material we had to work with helped make up for it.  There were (I think) four types of fish who swarmed around the boat to feed off the hull and any scraps which fell in the water (Manuel was making lunch and discarded unwanted bits off the side.  I don't know how healthy that is for the wildlife, but he and the captain seemed to think it was perfectly normal).  Two of the fish were black with blue highlights, and I am only identifying them as separate based on their distinct fin structures.  The other two fish were much lighter in colour.  One species had vertical black stripes and the other a horizontal yellow stripe down its side.  All four seemed perfectly happy to intermix, and you can see them in the two photos I took.  You can also see one of the dark fish species cleaning off the underside of the boat in a video I took, and another video of Sarah swimming amongst the fish schools (sorry for the shakiness of the camera).  If anyone can identify the species of the fish, please let me know (either in the comments or send me an email).
UPDATE: Thanks to studentjohn's comment, I now have an idea as to the identities of three of the four fish.  The big blue and black fellow in the first image appears to be some sort of triggerfish , while the vertically striped fish are sergeant majors (I actually feel kind of silly about not recognizing that), and the fish with a horizontal yellow stripe are yellowtail snappers.

Swarm of schooling fish (click to enlarge)

Another shot of the fish swarm (click to enlarge)

 Although these four fish seemed to be the predominate denizens of the area, there were still many other species of fish to be found.  I have also included a couple of my favourite pictures of these fish.  As with the others, if anyone can help identify the species, let me know.

A really happy looking fish (click to enlarge)

A small multi-coloured fish (click to enlarge)
After snorkeling we were given lunch which consisted of a delicious Cuban lobster dish with rice, buns, and fruit.  The final part of the excursion after lunch was a trip out to a small group of uninhabited virgin islands.  These were quite beautiful and scenic, with many conch and small fish in the shallows around them.  One of the passengers on our boat reported spotting a small crocodile, but Sarah and I were unable to find it.

A view on the beach of the islands (click to enlarge)
There was quite an expansive region of shallows between some of the islands in which the ocean was never much deeper than the knees.  Here we discovered several excellent starfish.  Even more excitingly, several rays were also zipping through the water.  The rays moved quite fast, and so were rather difficult to photograph.  It would seem that whenever I gave the camera to Sarah, the rays would swim tantalizingly close to my legs, only to skitter off to Sarah as soon as she had given the camera back to me.  After numerous failed tries, Sarah finally managed to get a couple photos.  As with the fish above, if anyone can identify the type of ray, please let me know.
Starfish in the shallows (click to enlarge)
The full sting ray swimming away.  Unfortunately the water was a little cloudy, most likely due to us churning up sand as we chased the rays (click to enlarge)
This was the best picture we managed to take of the ray's face (click to enlarge)

After we had our fill of sloshing about in the shallows, we got back on the boat and were taken back to the marina on Cayo Largo.  We were reunited with our shoes, and a bus took us back to our resort.  The next part deals with the many birds we spotted.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Taking a Sick Day

I had originally planned this week on finally finishing some more of my draft topics that have languished for too long in the works. I was particularly interested in opining on the topic of education, given that my mind is once again occupied by the topic given that the winter semester is drawing to a close and I am finishing up with end of term duties. However, a nasty bout of the flu had other plans for me, and so I find the prospect of lounging on the couch watching mindless television and drinking hot water spiced with honey and cinnamon while feeling sorry for myself to be a much better choice in activity.

Luckily for me, my friend Ian has posted a recent essay he wrote on the subject of teaching style, so I can abdicate my responsibility to him for this week. Ian is currently in Korea as part of a program for international English teaching called TaLK. His essay has several interesting comments regarding the maturation of his teaching strategies over the course of his teaching term, and I think would be well worth checking out for anyone interested in teaching.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Cayo Largo, Part IV: Island Critters

In the middle of our vacation, Sarah and I went on a day-long boat excursion. In Cayo Largo Part III, I had promised to put up pictures and videos from the snorkeling we did while on the excursion, but I had forgotten that I first needed to put up a post about the first part of our excursion: Iguana Island. As always, click on the images for a larger size.

Our excursion started early in the morning. A bus picked us up at our resort and, after brief stops at a few other hotels to pick up some more people, drove everyone to the marina. We had arranged our excursion with the small catamaran option, meaning eight passengers and two crewmen. The captain was a short and lean man with wrinkled, leathery skin befitting a Cuban sea-captain. He sported mustache that was also quite fitting, and was very particular about the rule that no shoes were to be worn on the boat. I don't think the captain spoke a word of English, and aside from a few brief pantomimed conversations spent most of the trip stoically scanning the horizon oblivious to his small cargo of tourists.

Manuel, the first-mate, was young and jovial, and spent most of his time organizing our entertainment. Language was a bit of an issue - four of the other passengers were French-Canadian who had moderate Spanish (and Manuel appeared to be more comfortable with French than English), so they had no problem. However, the other two passengers were a Russian couple with no Spanish and only moderate English at best. I tried my best to help translate, but considering that I was already only getting about half of what Manuel said since his English explanations tended to be a bewildering blend of French, English, and Spanish, I really have to wonder how much managed to get passed along. In the end communication was not really all that vital since we mostly just had to keep our shoes off and watch the early morning sun track across the water.

After a brief trip, we arrived at our first destination of the day: Iguana Island. It is a small rocky island not far from Cayo Largo. As soon as we disembarked we were greeted by dozens of iguanas. Since it was still somewhat early in the morning most were content to simply bask in the sun, but there were a few who were curious about the ranks of tourists unloading on their island.

An iguana basking on the rocks.

One of the largest (and hungriest) iguanas we saw.

Although the massive numbers of iguanas were exciting enough, we quickly discovered that Iguana Island was also inhabited by another type of creature as well. There were several hutias ambling about on the island, seemingly perfectly at home with their reptilian compatriots. There are actually several species of hutia endemic to Cuba, so I am not sure which type were on the island.

A hutia hanging out in a shady patch.

A hutia and an iguana coexisting.

Finally, here is a short of video of one of the hutias walking about. The audio track was mostly just wind on the camera's microphone, so I cut it out entirely (so if you can't hear anything, don't worry; your speakers are probably still working just fine).

The next installment will finally get to the underwater critters from our snorkeling trip.

Mea Culpa

The other day I ended up browsing through the unfinished drafts on this site and realized that I had never finished the series of posts about the fauna encountered on our trip to Cuba. As it is now coming up to two years since that trip happened, I realize that finishing off that series is long overdue. So, I apologize for the outrageous delay, but at long last I will be finishing those posts off over the next few weeks.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Puzzle Number 16: Trip to Canada

Raylan is a young boy in Kentucky whose Uncle Olyphant has just returned from a trip to Canada. On the drive home from the airport, Raylan excitedly asked his uncle what he did.

"Well, son," Uncle Olyphant replied, "My first night was spent in a frigidly cold environment with a constant siren warning me to keep watch for polar bears. Needless to say, it was not a very pleasant time. However, my trip quickly got much nicer, as the next day I found a fancy golden dagger, and shortly after that I ran into a beautiful alabaster stallion. I went to a show which ended up being a fascinating musical number performed solely by a fellow's mouth, followed by a few days watching the largest species of European deer roam about the prairies. After that, I found the jaw of the largest deer in the world. The next day, to my surprise, I won a marvellous wooden cylinder which one can stick in the wall and hang a hat on. From there I went on to a recently established collection of stores to see if I could find any souvenirs for my favorite* nephew, but we'll talk about that a little more once we get home. The next thing I did was visit a trio of French rivers. A little farther along, once the river was mostly English again, I had to ford it in a location where it was full of voracious eels. Despite the danger, it was well worth it in order to get to a fascinating bay perfect for cattle. From there I caught a boat in order to go see a wall made entirely of maize, and finally ended the trip by visiting a large community of friendly and well-mannered dogs."

Raylan looked quizzically at his uncle. "That sure sounds like a nonsensical trip, Uncle Olyphant. Where in Canada did you go to do all of these things?"

Uncle Olyphant smiled and said, "Son, I've already told you."

Where did Uncle Olyphant go?

Solutions to the puzzle can be found here.

* Note the authenticity of his American speech with the lack of a 'u'.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Test Subjects Needed

There is a study on word associations being conducted which is trying to develop a large database of information. Gathering data online is always somewhat dubious, but nevertheless it is an interesting project. Participation is fast and actually fairly fun, so it is well worth checking out and filling in the words that come to mind. The one caveat is that you need to be a fluent English speaker, but if you are reading my blog chances are that is the case.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Conscientious Objection

There is currently a political debate in the United States spurred on by Republican and Catholic histrionics regarding access to contraception. In an increasingly common marriage of convenience, Republicans and Catholics (along with several other misogynistic religious groups, but the Catholic influence here is particularly overt) have joined forces to try and prevent contraception from being provided as part of regular health coverage.

Along with the fight over whether or not access to contraception should be part of regular health care (short answer: it should) this debate has prompted the resurgence of the idea that health care workers, particularly those at religious health care institutions, should be allowed to refuse to provide contraceptive services to patients on the grounds of conscientious objection. This is just ludicrous, and I'm not sure how it keeps coming up.

1.) Refusing to provide contraception is not making a personal decision

The standard line in support of contraception is that the health care worker is personally against the use of contraception, and therefore cannot condone providing it. The thing is, this is not comparable to the conscientious objectors in wartime. The original conscientious objectors are refusing to physically go off to war, risk death, and shoot people themselves. No one is asking the health care worker to pop a pill or throw on a condom.

For the particularly thick-headed who cannot seem to understand this difference, try this: imagine going into a grocery store, waiting in one of those horrible cashier lines, and discovering once you finally get to the front that the cashier is a member of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness* (more widely known as a Hare Krishnan). The cashier informs you that he cannot in good conscience sell you your meat, eggs, cola, tea, or coffee, as the consumption of those are against his religious beliefs, but he will be happy to ring your apples and lettuce through for you. If you want to buy the rest of your groceries, you'll have to wait in a different line. If he happens to be the only cashier on hand at the moment, you'll just have to put your groceries back and go to a different grocery store, or come back later when another cashier is on hand. Now imagine try and take that indignant response to call the manager and explain that the cashier can refrain from eating whatever the hell he wants, but he has no right to tell you what food you can buy, and imagine how much greater than indignation must be for something far more personal than what you are going to be eating for dinner that night.

2.) Not all contraception is about birth control or even sex

This is really simple: just because oral contraception can be used to drastically reduce the chances of pregnancy from unprotected sex does not mean that is the only reason for taking it. In fact, a report released this past November (link to the pdf) by Rachel K. Jones of the Guttmacher Institute claims that over 1.5 million women use birth control pills exclusively for non-contraceptive purposes. Even though it is not up to the health care worker to judge whether women should be having sex for non-reproductive purposes in the first place, refusing to provide contraceptive pills can put the health of women at risk for reasons entirely unrelated to sex.

3.) Health care has standards of practice

Health care workers are not like employees in all fields. Health care (and here I am referring to real health care, not alternative medicine nonsense) has standards of practice that are not optional for very good reasons based on an understanding of human health and physiology. The decisions for what constitutes standards of care can only reasonably be expected to be developed by health experts themselves, and legislating exceptions or specific procedures by an assembly largely made up by individuals ignorant of medical knowledge is nonsensical and potentially even dangerous.

* Obviously this could work with a variety of religions and products.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Brief Personal Update

It has been far too long since I was actively writing. Thesis work has really ramped up over the past few months, and that has crowded out most other activities. Now that it comes time to actually write the thesis, however, I find I am out of writing practice and could use the exercise of drafting something regularly. I have also used the blogging break to begin accumulating anew a mental list of trivialities on which I would like to opine, and I have even found myself mentally composing prose while on the bus or at the gym. This had, for whatever reason, largely stopped during my many months of writer's block, so I am hoping that the reappearance of my inner monologue bodes well for the future.

2011 was a rather big year for me. I got married to a wonderful woman at the end of the summer, and toward the end of the year we bought and moved into a new condominium. We are greatly enjoying the new space (especially our cat, Klein, who now has dozens of excellent locations to lounge in the sun). The year was not without its challenges (such as administrative mix-ups over funding and some health issues), but it was nevertheless a fairly monumental one. Perhaps some stories from it will find their way up here in addition to my other planned expositions.