Category Archives: New Learning

Strange Google Searches

One of the most entertaining aspects of blogging on WordPress involves looking at the “Site Stats” to see  how many people have looked at the blog, where they live, and how they got here. The handful of regular “One New Thing” readers are people I know personally.   They consist primarily of family and friends, generally people who are either polite and click a link that appears on my Facebook page, or people who are extremely bored.   Some friends have blogs of their own and occasionally link to mine, which leads to a “friend of a friend” encounter.

However, it is always interesting to see the Google searches that lead here.  Most of them are pretty benign and often lead to a picture I’ve hijacked off the Internets.  When The King’s Speech was in theaters, I got dozens of hits from people searching for Colin Firth as King George VI.   And the simple search for Stars continues to show up as a Googled favorite, as are various Coke Bottle searches.

Hint to those Googling "Anti Demotivational Posters": Anti Demotivational Posters would just be Motivational

But then there are the searches that aren’t so mundane.  I continue to be amused at the number of people who end up clicking through to this post about the evils of Girl Scout cookies by searching phrases like demented girl scouts, Meth Cookies (are they looking for a recipe from Toll House?),  or Drugged on Girl Scout Cookies . I should have attached a picture of myself with a Thin Mints hangover.

Some people have questions for the great oracle of Google such as “how do I know if a Law firm is ripping me off on a class action lawsuit” (they are),   others are written in a different language (звезды), and a couple appear to have been searched for by a member of Congress (guy doing a girl with beer can resting on her back).  I have no idea which post of mine that last one links to, and am not willing to Google it to find out. Maybe my blog is more interesting than I thought!

Occasionally my Google searchers add to my own knowledge base.  Someone searched for “It was the most monstrous barbarity of the barbarous march” which linked to my post on Sherman’s March to the Sea, and I learned this was a quote from Whitelaw Reid in 1868.   I have yet to learn who Whitelaw Reid is, but I’ll get there eventually.

Lots of folks are looking for fashion advice.   While several searchers are scurrying to find out what the f*&k  resort casual is, one person wants to know if its OK to wear a leather jacket to such an event (only if its a biker resort and you have the matching pants).  There are also more than a few fanny pack fans out there, but one particular Googler made me curious enough to try this search myself.  As a result, I now have item #1 on next year’s Christmas list….the o-fishal Rockabilly Skull and Crossbones Fanny Pack:

I if I didn't have this blog, I wouldn't know about this awesome fashion accessory.

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Inviting a visitor to the US: Part 2

After our trip to visit Kim in Ecuador,  I wrote about how difficult it is to invite her new friends to visit us here in the US.  Over the past few weeks I’ve become even more  familiar with that process.    Kim’s  friend from her host family is a 20 year old college student at the university where she is placed through  the Fulbright Commission.   He is working toward his goal of becoming an English teacher in Ecuador.   He’s a good student and  lives a fairly typical, active college student type of life.  Like many young people, especially a future English teacher,  her friend would like to visit the USA.

Kim would like to be able to show him around her country, her home, and introduce him to her friends and activities.  She would like to invite him to a family wedding, to the beach, to meet her friends, shop at Target and go to Starbucks.  He could visit the school where Jim works,  play some basketball, and visit universities to see how they operate here.  He could visit Jenny in Charleston and observe how American college students frequently all live with each other rather than with their parents and grandparents, and probably wonder why anyone could possibly think that’s a good idea.  

So Kim’s friend is taking the big step of  (cue trumpets and flashing lights) *applying for a tourist visa*.   And after doing more research on what might help this process along, we are gathering documents to sponsor him.    Apparently having a sponsor is a positive, but nowhere close to a guarantee that his visa will be approved.  The bulk of the responsibility still lies with him to prove beyond a reasonable doubt to the US Consulate that no matter how tempted he is once he gets here to start picking tomatoes in searing heat for an unlivable wage, he will be a good visitor, see the sites , buy the t-shirt, then return home to his family and school.

This is where it gets even more complex.   Sponsoring a foreign visitor consists of quite a bit more than saying, “I’m a law-abiding, tax-paying, employed, US Citizen who would like to invite my friend from Ecuador to visit me for a couple of weeks during his semester break.   I’ll let him stay here and feed him and make sure someone licensed does all the driving.   I’ll pick him up when he arrives then make sure he is safely on his way home when its time to leave.”    Instead, this is what’s involved.

First, this being the  government, you have to obtain and fill out a form.   Specifically Form I-134, an “Affadavit of Support”, issued by the Department of Homeland Security.   Among other things, this form lets you know that you, the US Citizen,  may be sued and held personally responsible if your sponsoree applies for Welfare and/or Food Stamps.  It then goes on to ask for information about everything short of the results of your last colonoscopy, which of course you must have notarized. Bank account balances, stock accounts, home value, salaries, life insurance and personal property values are all covered.

There is then a list of documents to send along with the form.  This list of what they want is longer and  more intrusive than our mortgage application. First we are to write an official “letter of invitation”  to the sponsoree, and a separate letter to the US Consul telling them we’re inviting him to visit us. Since you’re already doing the form and all the documents I would think it would be obvious we’re inviting him, but this is the US government so common sense is not a strength.    The other documents they suggest include: an official letter from our employer certifying the position held and salary, the last few pay stubs, our past few years tax returns, including the accompanying W-2 forms, and our bank statements with an accompanying letter from the bank.   And a partridge in a pear tree.

We have most of this information together and have agreed to send it directly to Kim, who will assure its safe arrival at the US Embassy in Quito when her friend has his required in-person interview.  However, I am blacking out all social security and account numbers on the aforementioned documents.   I trust Kim and her friend, but not so much anyone else whose desk this may cross to keep that information secure.

We also took one more step as well to help with this process:  we called our friendly US Senator’s office.  The one who sent Kim a letter congratulating her on the Fulbright and saying, “If I may ever be of assistance, please do not hesitate to call on me.”  We decided this would be a good time to take him up on that offer.  It turns out that our request is not so uncommon, and their office has a staffer assigned to help with just this issue.   They indicated that they will write a “letter of interest” to their colleagues at the Embassy, and email a PDF copy to us so the friend can carry it in to his interview.   But they were also sure to emphasize that this is “Not a guarantee”, that they have no real influence over the outcome, and that the interviewers in Quito will still have the ultimate responsibility in deciding whether Kim’s friend can come visit us.

 

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Fruits vs. Vegetables

Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it on a fruit salad.

A few days ago we visited a favorite BBQ restaurant with family members who stopped by to visit on their way back to the Midwest.   Like most  restaurants that serve up Southern specialties, you would be hard-pressed to find anything even remotely healthy on the menu.  But what’s a little heart disease when the trade-off is the best BBQ, mac & cheese, and potato salad around.  Even  food that has potential to be good for you (ie, “greens”, a term I’d never even heard before moving south) has likely been doused with pig juice and butter.
Somehow, in the way round-about conversations seem to go,  a question was raised:  What’s the difference between a fruit and a vegetable?   If my friend Kim Foglia, the science teacher who inspired my blog, was around, I’m sure she’d know the answer.   However, the 7 of us, in spite of having  well over 100 combined years of education, could not figure it out.   We knew factoids such as a tomato is a fruit and corn is a grain, but none of us actually knew what, specifically,defines a fruit or a vegetable.
We came up with guesses involving seeds, and parts of the plant, and how they reproduce, but none of it seemed quite right.  Perhaps the best observation was from the youngest family member, our daughter Anna,  who stated, “If I like it, its probably a fruit and not a vegetable.”    Turns out that definition was probably as good as any.  Like most conversations and debates these days, we eventually decided to stop using our brains and instead put into action one of the many Smart phones dining with us that evening.

No question left unanswered with instant Google access

Droids, Iphones and their ilk have, in my opinion,  unfortunately replaced the debates, questions, ideas and discussions of “the old days” (2010 for our family)    but that’s another topic.     Out came the phone, and the magic Google oracle appeared.     “Oh great Google God,” we asked……”What IS the difference between a fruit and a vegetable, anyway?”

It turns out even Google was a little stymied by this question.   There were lots of instances where others had asked this question, and had gotten various responses and disagreements.    Even the valedictorian of Google, Wikipedia couldn’t really make up its mind.    The “seed” response was popular, as was  a fruit being “any edible part of a plant with a sweet flavor  whereas vegetables have a savory  flavor.  I’m sorry, but there is not a soul on this Earth who can convince me brussel sprouts are savory, unless savory is a synonym for “BLECH.”

Reproductive properties are apparently important for fruit definitions:   a fruit is the ovary or womb of a plant, containing the seeds.  When a Mommy and Daddy fruit love each other very much and are way, way older than you and able to support a family and are using safe methods,  then the Daddy fruit uses its special fruit parts that only boy plants have and the Mommy part has special parts that only ladies have (but which you should never show anyone)……oh, never mind, just go watch some HBO.

So it seems like “fruit” is easy to define, but vegetables not so much.   The dictionary defines a vegetable as:   The edible part of a plant, such as the root of the beet, the leaf of spinach, or the flower buds of broccoli or cauliflower.

So in other words, because a tomato is an edible part of a plant and is also a “ripened ovary that contains seeds”   that makes it a fruit AND a vegetable.   But wait a minute…..doesn’t that then also apply to apples, oranges, bananas, strawberries, etc???  They are also edible parts of plants that contain seeds.   That doesn’t  make sense.     Someone else suggested that the difference is “generally determined by the amount of Vitamin C content.”    I think that person needs to get a Smart phone.

Finally, we found some responses from actual Botanists.   It seems that botanists don’t even really like the word vegetable.   Kind of like how psychologists don’t like the word “crazy,” a word which also has no technical definition.

One says:

“Botanists generally don’t use the word vegetable to mean a plant or even a plant part. The basic parts are roots, stems, leaves flowers/fruit/seeds. Vegetable is a grocery store term: Tomatoes are called vegetables to distinguish them from the sweeter fruits like peaches. Carrots are called vegetables but the part we eat is of course a root.” 
and another says:

“Vegetable is a culinary term. Its definition has no scientific value and is somewhat arbitrary and subjective. All parts of herbaceous plants eaten as food by humans, whole or in part, are generally considered vegetables. Mushrooms, though belonging to the biological kingdom, fungi, are also commonly considered vegetables…Since ‘vegetable’ is not a botanical term, there is no contradiction in referring to a plant part as a fruit while also being considered a vegetable. Given this general rule of thumb, vegetables can include leaves (lettuce), stems (asparagus), roots (carrots), flowers (broccoli), bulbs (garlic), seeds (peas and beans) and of course the botanical fruits like cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, and capsicums.”(Wikipedia.org)

So that solves it.   Vegetables don’t even exist.   It is simply a made-up word to make plants sound a little more appetizing.    The next time someone tells you to eat more vegetables you can safely respond that vegetables are imaginary and to do so would make you “crazy”.

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Things I’ve learned recently

In no particular order:

  • I learned about the history of the “Soccer Mom” stereotype, thanks to my college sophomore daughter Jenny, who wrote an A+, “best in the class” paper on the topic (they are never too big to brag about).  Here’s an excerpt:

  The soccer mom concept is a relatively new one; the phrase really took flight in the 1990s, but the first mention of the soccer mom is traced to 1982. A Massachusetts town was put in the spotlight when the “Soccer Moms Booster Club” was robbed of over $3,000 by the treasurers’ husband (Weisberg 1996). It wasn’t until 1995, however, that the phrase returned with a connotation attached to it. Susan B. Casey ran for Denver City Council under the slogan “A Soccer Mom for City Council,” intending to assure voters that, although she had a PhD and had managed presidential election campaigns, she was no different from them (MacFarquhar 1996). The phrase came about during a time of great doubt concerning women’s achievements, particularly with their ability to maintain a successful career while still showing love and support for their family. Casey ended up winning the election by just over half the votes, but the “soccer mom” concept was far from gone, and would actually take a large role in the 1996 presidential election the following year.

  • I’ve learned how to use Powerpoint.  I’m putting all my groups/class materials on PowerPoint.  Hence, little time left to blog.
  • Every year the US State Department has a lottery to allow 50,000 immigrants to move legally to the US without the usual family and/or employer requirements.  They select 90,000 randomly from more than 14 million applicants(!) then choose the winners based on “extensive interviews, background checks, and medical exams.” I know about this because this year they screwed up the selection process with a computer error then had to go back and tell people who thought they had won,   “Oh, not really….never mind.”

    I don't think I've seen this outfit in the women's department at Penney's.

  • Cher is 65??!!
  • The white, good old-boy network is alive and well in the South.  (oh wait, I didn’t actually learn that, I was just reminded of it).
  • Dogs can be allergic to their own cataracts and eyeball removal is called enucleation.    I would say its a new experience to have a 1-eyed pet, but its not because we had a 1-eyed cat for almost 20 years and a 1-eyed frog for awhile too.
  • At least I have a good personality

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Ambato: Tierra de las Flores y las Frutas (land of flowers and fruits)

We spent several days of our Ecuadorian adventure in Ambato, where Kim lives.  Ambato is a city south of Quito,  high in the Andes along the Pan-American Highway.   Like the slogan says, the city is known for their flowers and fruits, and they even have an annual fiesta to celebrate this distinction.  Near as I can tell, Ecuadorians have festivals for EVERYTHING and they all travel to each others’  cities to attend them.   If you’re looking for something to do, you basically figure out who’s hosting the party  and that’s where you go.    Everyone  knows the weekend that Ambato hosts the Festival of Flowers and Fruits  in February during Carnival and the population swells to the point where they have to call in the military to assist the local police in providing security.   We missed the Festival (probably a good thing….it sounds like a week meant for people much younger, livelier, and needing far less sleep than us), but Kim’s friend from the US did visit that week and shares her impressions here.

Parade celebrating the fruits and flowers

As I mentioned in a previous post, we were privileged to meet Kim’s friends and host families while we were in Ambato.    When someone invites you over to their home for dinner, it is nice to bring what we in the US might call a “hostess gift.”    We ended up making gift bags with some goodies & snacks from a local fancy-type of food market.    But you might bring a bottle of wine, or in some cases, flowers.

NO, not flowers!   In Ecuador it would be considered odd to actually give someone flowers, which are so abundantly available and inexpensive, if not free.     Flowers are so cheap and  common in Ecuador that bringing a bouquet as a hostess gift is akin to picking up a loaf of Wonder Bread at the 7-11 on the corner and then presenting it as a gift.   Boyfriends in Ecuador are off the hook in this regard.  I think they sort of  thought we were kidding when we talked about how one of the most romantic gifts an American girl might receive from a boyfriend is a bouquet of flowers, and the pricetag that can go along with that gift.

One Valentine's Day when we were young, Jim gave me a Hershey's Bar. He thought this would be a GREAT gift because "I know you like chocolate." He has never lived this down (and never will). Giving roses as a special gift in Ambato would be kind of like giving a Hershey bar.

Ecuador is filled with flower farms.   Many of the flowers, including roses, that we pay muchos dineros for here in the US are shipped  from Ecuador.    Kim told us how the flower farming business in Ecuador has traditionally been full of corruption and worker exploitation.  Laborers are typically women who work long, hard hours for low wages, no benefits, and in unsafe environments.  A cut rose you buy on the streets of New York, Chicago, or San Francisco may have been harvested by one of these women earlier in the week.    There are now unions and efforts toward Fair-Trade Certified flowers, but like many such changes its a slow process, particularly if  the effect includes higher prices for Americans.    One of Kim’s Fulbright friends who lives in the nearby city of Latacunga works toward this effort on one of the large flower farms in the area by helping teach the children of the laborers.   I found this PBS link and video about a rose farm in Latacunga and how they are approaching this issue.   I don’t know if this is the farm where she works, but if you have a few extra minutes, its interesting and informative.

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South Carolina’s Windshield Replacement Law

Earlier this week I got into my car and had an “oh crap” moment.   There, right in the center of the windshield,was a foot-long crack.     I tried to wipe it off, hoping it was just a condensation pattern, or twig that had fallen and was playing tricks on my eyes, but no such luck.   I have no idea why it cracked although I’m sure the fact that it had been  about 120 degrees one day then 30 below the next probably didn’t help.  A cracked windshield is not a rare or a serious problem, but the times it has happened before its ended up being one of those “Gee, I could have thought of  better uses for that $250” moments.  Sure, you can report it to insurance, but the cost is less than the deductible and then you have a dreaded  claim on our record    (Insurance Rule #1: never use it).

But we quickly discovered Reason #220 why South Carolina is a cool place to live.  Apparently at some point along the way a lawmaker must have chipped a windshield because it is one of only 4 states with a “windshield replacement law.”   This means that when your windshield (or in SC’s case, ANY window) is cracked,  your insurance has to replace it with NO deductible, and they can’t count it against you.   And not only did our insurer cover it, they even sent someone to my workplace and he replaced it right there in the parking lot.   So no missed work or sitting around in repair shops for hours.

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Well, that’s embarassing

I have lots of new learning and new experiences built up from our wonderful trip to Ecuador, so I’ll try to write about some of it over the next few weeks & months while still trying to keep up with the “one new thing a day”  effort.  Lately, other than the trip, its been more like “one new thing a week” unless you count work-related stuff.

One of the main things I learned from our travel experience is how awful our own US policies are for foreign visitors.  On our end, when we wanted to visit our daughter in Ecuador, we just made sure our passports were up to date, bought a round trip ticket for our week-long visit and showed up.  We got our passport stamped in Quito, our bags scanned, and were sent merrily on our way.

While there, we met Kim’s 2 host families.  These are people she met through her University who have welcomed her into their families and social lives. They have cared for her, taught her, fed her,  traveled with her, included her in their daily lives, and love her.   Both families are typical Ecuadorian middle-class – adults are business owners, professors, high school teachers, and government workers;  college/grad students are doing things like med. school,   teacher training, and studying psychology plus holding part-time jobs and doing what 20-somethings do in their spare time (socialize, dance, party, go out), while  the teens and younger kids all go to school just like kids here.  They participate on soccer and basketball and dance teams and are frequently busy with school or work-related events.  They have dogs and drive Toyota’s.   Sound familiar?  Sure there are language and cultural differences, but for the most part, its very similar to our lives here. While we were there, both families hosted us for dinner and entertained us and made us feel welcome.

So, what’s the polite thing to do in this situation?   It is (at least in my mind) to invite THEM to come visit YOU sometime!  Not only do they know Kim and now us, but  they have family members who live in the US.   So maybe they’d like to visit and do wild and subversive things like go to Disney World,  eat BBQ and go to Wal-mart.    Dress like dorky tourists and buy new fanny packs.  Oh wait, that’s us.

Guy in the background is thinking: they let this guy come here, but they think I'm too big a risk to go to HIS country?

Megamaxi - the Ecuadorian Wal-mart

So the apparent solution is to make it close to impossible for anyone from a country that isn’t on an “approved list”  to visit, no matter what the reason.   There is no just getting a passport and buying a ticket.  If they really want to go to Disney World, or visit Abuelita in New Jersey, they have to successfully jump through hoops of fire to make this happen.

A potential visitor from Ecuador has to first travel to a major city such as Quito or Guayquil (possibly hours away) and interview with the US Embassy for a visitor’s visa.   The Embassy is very clear (yes, they state this….its not a subjective opinion), that unless the person can STRONGLY prove otherwise, they assume that the person is trying to sneak in and become an illegal immigrant and will not approve the application.   They are particularly suspicious of anyone under the age of 30.  Gee, what age group in any culture generally likes to travel and see the world – wouldn’t that be the young people?

The applicant has to bring lots of documents to the interview and be prepared to defend them.  The  “proof” that the Visa applicant  has strong enough ties in Ecuador that he or she wouldn’t leave  (even though we KNOW they all really, really want to) may or may not be reasonable or even culturally appropriate.   For instance, the applicant should have a few thousand dollars in an Ecuadorian bank account.  Now what 21 year old do you know who has a few thousand dollars in a bank account?  Certainly not mine, unless its the Bank of Mom and Dad.  If the applicant is a young adult, in addition to a job and school registration, they want that person to have rent and utility receipts showing that he has his own apartment and is independent.  He must have important things to come back to, like a landlord.  The problem is that in Ecuadorian culture young adults for the most part continue living with their parents until  they get married and start their own families.   Its the norm, and doesn’t mean the kid is a slacker or secretly desires to give up Medical School and clean toilets in a seedy Miami hotel.     In fact, Ecuadorians seem to be slightly appalled in a politely curious way that Kim not only prefers to live alone, but that we support this.

The difficulty in getting a Visa to the US is apparently legendary.   If any family member, ever, at anytime, has “overstayed their welcome”,  you might as well forget even applying.  If anyone in your family has committed any crimes, you’d better hope your US cousin has Skype, because you’re not going to her wedding.

Potential visitors better make sure they don't have any of these types in their family tree. Most of us would be in trouble if we were held to the same standards

Interviewing is nerve-wracking.  Remember, these aren’t just people showing up at the Mexican/US border saying, “Hey, yeah….I just want to go over buy some of those cheap US prescriptions, then I’m coming back. Really.”    They have typically prepared for this for months if not years,  made an appointment well in advance and bought new interview clothes.  And even if everything is perfect, its still a seemingly random crap shoot.  This  process has resulted in a proliferation of tips and guides for potential applicants such as this:   “Prepare a list of anticipated questions and practice answering them again and again.”    “Prepare perfect documents, especially your family photographs, property documents, bank statements, and income tax records.  Make sure the documents are perfect and nothing is missing.”   and  “You should know by heart the order the documents are arranged in your folder so that if you need to present a particular document it can be presented in 2 to 5 seconds.  The interview officers are highly impatient, and any delay/fumbling in pulling out a document and presenting it to the officer can trigger an emotional reaction that might lead to visa rejection.”

I don’t know if this is true, but while reading up on this topic I came across one website that said Brazil, in retaliation for the USA’s draconian measures has instituted the same policies for US citizens wanting to visit there.   Can’t say I blame them.

So speaking as a US citizen it really is embarrassing not to be able to say to our friends, “Please come visit!”.  Instead it comes out as something akin to “Gee, if my government ever deems you worthy of stepping foot in our country and after they have fingerprinted and photographed and implanted a GPS-tracking device, if you’re not already totally fed up, I hope you’ll stop by.”

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