I’m an extremely casual birder, by which I mean that every once in a while, I’ll grab binoculars and my Sibley’s Field Guide to the Birds of Western North America and poke around at a local lake.

And, the cool and slightly embarrassing thing about being a casual newbie birder is that you get to claim really common birds as life-listers. Behold, the latest addition to my life list, the American Coot!

Is that not the most charmingly goofy-looking bird? The tiny little bill! The big, round body! The FEET! Oh, the feet! I’m charmed. And since the coots were not at all shy and posed obligingly for photos, I thought I would share with all of you how charmed I am. (Don’t worry, I won’t make a habit of announcing each addition to my life list here. Most of them don’t photograph nearly so well.)

A bit ruffled about education

Recently, prominent Youtuber Dan Brown (much cooler than the author), posted a video about education and the effect the Internet has and needs to have on our system of education. Here’s that video, so you can know what I’m talking about:

Now, he’s been tweeting about having ruffled a few feathers, and I think we all agree that’s a good thing. And Dan, if you’re reading this, I suppose I’m a bit ruffled.

Now, I’m an advocate of alternative education. I was homeschooled for most of my primary education, and the Internet was a HUGE part of my curriculum throughout high school. Hell, I even believe there’s some merit to the concept of “unschooling”–that is, learning through life and natural inclination, rather than a rigid curriculum and schedule.

And I agree, the Internet has had a profound effect on the way we find information. I mean, that’s a fact, so it’s not really something I need to agree with, but I agree.

But here’s the problem: Dan’s emphasis is on his own experience, and I think that’s where the thesis fails. Yes, the experience he describes sounds to me like higher education at its worst.

But it’s far from the universal state of higher education.

Last year–my senior year of college–I had the pleasure of taking a course which involved students directly in the research of the inimitable Cathy Gutierrez, a quite accomplished professor in the Religion Department, who has a blog of her own here.

Now, the fact that the professor herself has a blog might already give you an inclination of the sort of environment we were dealing with. This class integrated the most cutting edge research technology available.

Several times during the semester, we met with librarians from the college. We learned how to move beyond the rather limited world of J-STOR. Among others, we learned how to use Credo, a database which not only utilizes standard search methods, but will also generate interactive concept maps that, besides being really cool, also allow users to explore the information non-linearly.

Through the library’s subscription services, we had access to decades and centuries of primary documents, including newspaper back issues–Harper’s Weekly, the New York Times, you name it. (It wasn’t related to our project, but we even had access to documents that only exist in the BRITISH MUSEUM, for goodness’ sake!) These are huge, incredibly helpful databases that take a great deal of effort and manpower to create and maintain–it seems fair to me to require a subscription to use them, and so the access to those databases alone is a HUGE advantage of being in enrolled in an institution.

And the BEST thing about the class is that the information sharing went both ways. I personally was able to introduce both my professor and my librarian to Google Documents, Google Reader, and basically the whole concept of RSS feeds. They were excited and interested and eager to learn about these new tools. In fact, my professor actually used Google Docs to access our coursework.

In fact, Google Docs was at the center of a group project I was involved with, which involved scanning many pages of microfilm newspapers, indexing, optimizing, and tagging them, and then making them available–for free!–on the Internet.

Do you realize the full significance of that? A bunch of undergraduate students–not all of them even seniors!–created a legitimately useful source of information that would otherwise be buried on a microfilm in a tiny library in upstate New York. Dan Brown, isn’t this EXACTLY the sort of change you would like to see in higher education?

Now, I realize that not everyone has the blessing of attending a small, private women’s college. Not everyone gets this kind of opportunity. But isn’t it a step in the right direction for higher education? Dan Brown, as long as things like this are going on, I do not think it is fair to accuse higher education of failing to change with the Internet.

I’m Emma Meador, and I am out.

EDITED TO ADD: Another piece of evidence that change IS occurring: students and alumnae from my college can now text their librarians with research questions, etc. I can’t think of clearer proof that the school is trying very had to make information as accessible as possible.

Hello Stash!

Last week I got the most EXCITING surprise! A family friend’s mother passed away five or six years ago, and happened to be an avid knitter. Well, I just inherited pretty much her entire stash, and it’s not like when someone says, “Hey, my mom left a bunch of yarn in the attic, you want it?” and it turns out to be a big box of moldy acrylics. This is nice yarn, and my own stash just grew exponentially.

(Actually, that’s not hard, because as a poor, recent college grad, I haven’t had the money or space to develop any real ‘stash’ as such. But STILL.)

It looked like this upon arrival.

I spent literally an entire day sorting it. I was in heaven. I love sorting things. I know it sounds OCD, but I’m not ashamed: sorting is one of my favorite things to do. And I also love fiber. So, spending a day sorting by fiber content, yarn weight, color, texture, etc.–it was a blast. (Well, other than the mothball fumes and cat hair, which did aggravate my delicate lungs. The fact that I was constantly burning tiny scraps of yarn didn’t help. More on that in a bit.)

The sorting process looked like this:

That was my favorite batch–good, solid wool yarns, in great colors. The lady whose stash I inherited bought a lot of novelty yarn–highly textured mohair blends and whatnot–which is fine, but not something I use a lot, myself. But give me a solid worsted wool yarn, and I’m in heaven. I think all those round balls in the center are some sort of Rowan Tweed, but they didn’t have the labels.

It was a strange thing, too, going through these boxes, because I learned a lot about this woman, but I don’t even know her name. I know she was pretty organized–not only were the various boxes and baskets already basically sorted by project, but I found a bag full of ball bands and other labels, each one with a little scrap of the yarn wrapped around it, so that it would be easy to know which band went with which yarn. Smart! (More on this in a later post.)

I know she mostly knit sweaters, and she liked colorwork. There are several half-finished intarsia sweaters in here, as well as a whole basket full of tiny bobbins of yarn from an intarsia project. The whole concept of intarsia rather terrifies me–so many ends!–so I’m impressed. (Non-knitters: Intarsia on Wikipedia.)

I know that either she liked mohair a lot, or it was popular in the time period she was knitting, because there are LOADS of mohair yarns in there. (Some of them are blends that just seem WEIRD these days, like the two sweaters’ worth of 95% mohair/5% nylon yarn.)

I know that she probably didn’t really knit socks–I found three vaguely neglected half-balls of sock yarn, sans labels. And the reason I take this as proof she wasn’t a sock knitter is this bit of common ground I found between us:

That’s one of many bags of basically unusable scraps of yarn. I’m very relieved to discover I’m not the only person who saves that last few yards on the very vague possibility that it might be useful one day. And believe me, if she was a sock knitter, there would literally be BAGS of sock yarn ends.

So, it was a little like getting to know this person through her yarn–an awesome experience, in more than one sense. Imagine inheriting a stranger’s library, and what you could learn about them from it–it’s like that, but with yarn.

And I think that it’ll challenge me as a knitter, since her projects were so much different than mine. I mean, I need to use the yarn–that’s why it was given to me, because her daughters wanted to see it put to good use–so I’ll need to stretch my limits. Yay!

I have more to say about this whole experience, so in the next couple of weeks you can expect posts about things like determining fiber content of mystery yarns, and all the fun tools that came along with the yarn.

My fantastic alpaca beret

Last summer, during a fiber emergency, I bought 7 oz. of gorgeous brown alpaca top, and promptly spun it all up. It was a dream to spin. Luscious. I chain-plyed it and ended up with about 220 yards of worsted weight alpaca.*

It looked like this:

It took me a while to decide what to do with it. I mean, 100% alpaca yarn is definitely a luxury–it’s rare because alpaca is expensive, and also because alpaca doesn’t have the natural elasticity of wool, meaning that whatever project I made had to be okay with a lot of drape and not a lot of ability to bounce back into shape.

I finally decided on a beret. I was in need of another hat that was cute but also warm enough for winter wear. I have warm hats, and cute hats, but not many warm AND cute hats. Fortunately for me, alpaca is an exceptionally warm fiber, because the individual hairs are hollow and thus insulate better than wool.

I didn’t use a pattern–I’m sort of allergic to patterns–though I did read a few beret patterns to see how other people had done it. After a few false starts, this is what I got!

I knit it from the center/top down, increasing with yarn overs to make pretty little ladders of holes spiraling out from the center of the hat. It took me a few tries to realize that I needed to twist the stitches beside the yarn overs–otherwise, the neighboring stitches would eat up the extra yarn there, and instead of a hole next to neat columns of stitches, I’d just get a few very loose and messy stitches.

(If you look at the full-size version, you can see how I inadvertently created a little flower at the center of the hat. It was an accident, but it’s one of my favorite things.)

It’s a nice, slouchy project that is for the most part totally okay with not having a lot of elasticity. The only place I really needed elasticity was the ribbed cuff. So I went down to the craft shop, and bought a little spool of knitting-in elastic (literally: that’s what it said on the package), and knitted it right into the cuff.

Knitter nerd note: I actually only knitted it into the knit stitches of the k1p1 rib. For the purl stitches, I just stranded it along the back. I figured I would get more pull inward that way than if I knitted it with every stitch (thereby increasing the length of the elastic around the brim, and decreasing the amount of inward pull). It’s just a theory, so I’m not sure it made a difference, but the cuff is springy and snug, so something worked.)

I can’t tell you how much I love this hat. The yarn is beautiful and soft and luxurious, the color is great, it’s warm (because of the alpaca), but also suitable for warmer weather (because it doesn’t cover my ears). And it’s cute!

And the best part is, it only used half of my skein of alpaca, so now I can use the rest for something else! I’m thinking maybe wrist-warmers, or a skinny scarf.

* Incidentally, to all you non-fiber nerds, I’m sorry the posts are so full of jargon. I just sort of decided not to gloss everything. That’s what Google is for, after all.

The Girliest Scarf Ever

Some time last year, Christina sent me yarn in the mail. No reason, except that she was being awesome. WIN. She sent two skeins of beautiful hand-dyed yarn.

One of them was a skein of sport weight merino from Yarntini (colorway: Hope). It took me a while, but I finally found the perfect pattern for it: the Undulating Waves scarf.

The yarn is very pink, and since the scarf is lacy and beaded, I took to calling this my Girliest Scarf Ever on Twitter.

(Click photos to view full size.)

(Seen here on a chair at the coffee shop, because the light there is better than it is at my house.)


I love it VERY MUCH. It’s very pink, but the beads are green, and . . . well, my school colors were pink and green. (It was a little women’s college in the south. Don’t ask.) And the yarn is definitely one of the nicest I’ve ever used–soft and cushy and just beautiful.