Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Women in Law: Today's Fascinating Downstate Fact

Ada Kepley of Effingham, Illinois, was the first woman in the United States to graduate from law school! Not just an Illinoisian, but a downstate Illinoisian, who broke the barrier!

Her husband, who initially urged her to attend law school, drafted the bill that prohibited discrimination against women in the "learned professions" in Illinois after she was refused admission to the bar. The bill was passed into law in 1872.

Kepley attended the Chicago Union College of Law, which later became Northwestern University, from 1869-1870 and graduated with an LL.B. (which is a very old-fashioned sort of law degree).

The first American woman lawyer, incidentally, was also a midwesterner: Arabella Mansfield of Iowa, who was admitted in 1869 -- one year before Kepley graduated. Mansfield learned law as an apprenticeship under her brother; she did not attend law school.

The Illinois State Bar felt that "the "strife" of the bar would surely destroy femininity" (Bradwell v. Illinois, a contemporaneous case on the issue of women in the legal profession in Illinois). One suspects the Illinois State Bar of the late 1860s and early 1870s couldn't imagine Eyebrows's 70 pairs of shoes or they wouldn't have worried about it.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Doll Clothes

A while ago I decided I wanted to learn to make clothes. I've been embroidering for as long as I can remember, but the truth is I can't afford to frame as much stuff as I make. Sewing is my relaxation of choice -- it's very Zen -- but I already have a box full of finished, unframed projects. So with women's clothes being ... well, awful and made to fit Eva Longoria and nobody else, I thought it would be helpful if I could crank out my own clothes now and then. But making full-sized people clothes is expensive and time-consuming and errors cost a LOT of money. So I decided to learn the way little girls learned for years and years before the introduction of factory-made clothes: making doll clothes. (And doll clothes are easily and quickly made by hand; I don't find the sewing machine nearly as Zen as sewing by hand. It's noisy.) If an 8-year-old can do it, I have every confidence that I can do it!

I got this book called the Mary Frances Sewing Book from Lacis, a reprint of a 1913 storybook that teaches little girls to sew. (Lacis also carries a doll that fits the book's patterns.) It's alarmingly Edwardian, but the instructions are good, and last July or so I started working through the book. Now, I've finished all the projects in the book but the Wedding Dress.

The whole thing is both amusing and alarming because I'm not actually a doll person. I didn't really play with dolls as a little girl (I was all about Legos) and I've never felt any impulse to collect them, but I've been hard at work for 7 months on turning out an elaborate Edwardian wardrobe for a DOLL.

Anyway, having achieved relatively mad doll-couturier skills, I'll be teaching a class for little girls who want to learn to make clothes for their American Girl dolls through the Park District in March & April. It's called "Sew Fun" and it's on page 17 of the Winter/Spring 2007 Playbook.

The first project will be an apron, like this one. It serves as a "sampler" to learn the basic clothing stitches and construction.

After that, the girls will make nightgowns. These are charmingly old-fashioned; to avoid making plackets (where the buttons or zippers go), which are terribly complicated, it uses "baby lace" on the neck and arms, which is threaded through with a ribbon, and the neck is made very wide and the ribbon tightens it to the proper size. (You can still find these on traditional christening gowns, although I think they're probably frowned on in actual baby clothes as a choking hazard.)

The nightgown pattern serves as a base for a huge variety of other outfits the girls can make in class (if they're speedy) or at home after the class is over. For example:

In the picture above, on the left, the top three dresses (nightgown, morningdress, nightgown variation) are all based on the nightgown pattern, and on the far right, the top three pieces (bathrobe, kimono, and cardigan/bed jacket) are all based on that pattern. If you have an eye for clothing cut, you'll notice that the dress with red trim, the bathingsuit (blue flannel on the left), the pinafore, and the rompers are also basically the same pattern (although requiring pattern adjustments, which the first six don't).

My ridiculously well-dressed doll also has a party dress, fur-lined cap, automobiling coat, raincape, fur muff & tippet, three hats, and a variety of doll underwear.

I feel like this is a sort-of creepy hobby I shouldn't tell people about or they'll be like, "Um ... you're too weird to be my friend." But probably it'll be a cool hobby again once I start making real-people clothes.

Anyway, to do something useful with my newfound talent, I've created the confection at right, a princess dress for an American Girl doll (that one's Samantha -- I borrowed it for the fitting). You'll notice the matching satin slippers between her feet, which do fit; I was too lazy to put them on for the picture. I'm donating this to the Junior League's Dueling Pianos fundraiser for the silent auction. This is a rollicking good time; the last time I attended (two years ago; last year I had a conflict) there was actual dancing on the tables. You should all go because Mr. McGee has this dance he does ... I really just can't describe it. All my relatives are still talking about it from our wedding.

My guiding aesthetic in this dress was "what would I want if I was a little girl getting a party dress?" And the answer was: poofy skirt and lots of sparkles. So there you have it: poofy skirt, and LOTS of sparkles.

To sum up: Sign your daughters up for my class so they can make doll clothes instead of paying $30 a pop to the American Girl company for them. Go to Dueling Pianos because it's a hoot.

PS - forgive the terrible photography. I can only take pictures using my LEFT eye, which is the one that can't actually see anything, because I tip over if I close my left eye and look through the camera with my right. Seriously. So I never know if the strap is in the picture or not because I can't see anything but a fuzzy blob of approximately the right shape and color.

Monday, January 29, 2007

In Which Eyebrows Is Something of a Political Prostitute, But Feels Okay about That

So Friday morning I got a call from the local democrats inviting me to a coffee thingie where Dick Durbin would be chatting with constituents. I was surprised, because normally people don't invite me to be in the same room with politicians, as I like to shoot my mouth off, but I thought, hey, that might be fun.

I sort-of suspect that I was invited at least partially because I blog and they were hoping I'd blog nice things about Senator Durbin. I'm about to do so, so I feel ever so slightly chagrined, since normally I prefer to do the opposite of what people want me to do, just because I'm contrary. (I had a music teacher in high school who knew this and whenever he thought I was slacking off, he'd say, "You'll never learn to play that passage at speed," and even thought I knew what he was doing, I couldn't resist the urge to prove him wrong. It was so aggravating.)

So Saturday morning I was awake at a reasonable hour and actually wearing clothes by 8 a.m., which almost never happens. I trotted over to the Lariat Steakhouse, leaving Mr. McGee still blissfully asleep, for the 8:30 a.m. coffee.

Everyone was extremely nice to me and I met a lot of folks from local politics and government. I was struck by the fact that I was just about the youngest person there, not counting the babes in arms. There were two other young women I know, and one of them had a husband in tow, but otherwise it was mostly middle-aged and older folks. It was also a mostly-labor crowd. I note this because I think the democratic party really needs to start building bridges to younger liberals, and many younger liberals "lean green," and there was a real dearth of both youth and non-labor democratic concerns in that room. (Which isn't to belittle labor; furthermore, I think labor and greenies have a lot of common and complimentary goals, but that's another post for another day.)

The senator socialized for a while, then spoke for about 10 or 15 minutes and then took questions for half an hour. He is surprisingly short. He has a firm handshake. Babies smile at him. (One little charmer, every time the room applauded, would shriek and clap her hands. It was adorable.) A surprising number of people are willing to put on suits at 8:30 on a Saturday morning.

So here's the part where I talk about content rather than appearance:

Durbin impressed me.

He did not talk down to us, which is an increasingly rare trait in politicians. He was extremely forthright, saying things like, "This is the bill I'd ideally like to see passed, but the truth is we don't have the votes for that; I expect a compromise bill that looks something like this." There wasn't a lot of ideological posturing. He was very honest about what he thought could and could not be accomplished. He admitted to not knowing the answer to a question he was asked.

I asked a question about Ag policy, and he gave me a pretty thorough answer. I happen to think it's the wrong answer -- he's big on ethanol, which I think will turn out to be a spectacular debacle, but it's hard to count it against an Illinois or Iowa politician when they're in favor of something that's such an enormous economic boon for the states. And his answer reflected that he was aware of both the human and ecological dimensions of agricultural policy; he even talked about fertilizer runoff and why it's bad for farmers and the environment. (Generally the kind of thing only ag and eco nerds worry about.)

I came away from the morning with a favorable impression of Durbin. I don't agree with all of his politics and policies by any means, but the impression I got is that he is someone who is honest, forthright, intelligent, thoughtful on the issues, and concerned about both his constituents and the wider world.

I called my mom to tell her about it, and she asked, "Which Senator?" and I replied, "The not-sexy one who's not running for president?" "Oh, Durbin!" (Okay, now I feel less like a shill.)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

When "Fashion Victim" Is Not an Option

Today I took a survey on hair-care products, covering a wide variety of brands, for a couple of bucks, because apparently I'm a target demographic.

So I had to rate these 10 different brands in different categories, or say which adjectives or phrases applied to them. First I got things about how hair care products make me feel:

This brand makes me feel ....
Like I can do anything!
Like I'm on the cutting edge of fashion.
Secure in my self.
Like it cares about me and my needs.
Like I'm underlining my personality.

Okay, dude? If your personality is UNDERLINED BY YOUR HAIR CARE PRODUCT, you don't have a personality. You have a marketing demographic you bought from a brand that you're pretending is your personality because you haven't been able to come up with one on your own.

It's HAIR CARE. It does not make me feel like I can do anything. It makes me feel like I have clean hair. That's it. I have never noticed that my ability to function in the world is at all hampered by the frizzies.

Then we got into "what type of person uses this brand?" and I had to click to say which brands were used by people who are:


and so forth. Nowhere did I get options like "pathetic trend hound" or "more money than sense" or "fashion victim" or "pretentious." Because frankly? That's who a lot of these brands are marketed to.

And I have to wonder how useful this survey is as a market survey when you're not allowed to have negative thoughts about the brands; I mean, it's just a push poll. Somewhere in Hair Care Inc. headquarters, executives are saying, "Look at these numbers! Everyone surveyed loved our brand!"

More money than sense in the board room too, apparently.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Roof-Mounted Microturbines

Since we're talking over at Billy's blog about renewable energy. Billy actually suggested nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels, which I have no particular objection to, but I think it's charmingly old-fashioned of him since it's all about renewables these days!

(He's probably correct, though, that we're a long way from being able to make all buildings energy-independent or generate enough green power to power the non-independent buildings, and nuclear will fill that gap better than fossil fuels.)

At the McGee house, we are researching the possibility of a roof-mounted microturbine for our house. There's a lot of conflicting data out there, and most turbines to date have either been substantially too large for home installation (think the ones in the giant wind farms) or the small ones created too much vibration and destroyed your roof.

But a couple of UK-based companies have some exciting new microturbines out with high-tech vibration dampening designs. They mount basically like an old-fashioned TV aerial, up a pole on the side of your house to above the roof (the pole's a little fatter than I recall TV aerial poles being). There are also these neat new little ones that get mounted on the SIDE of skyscrapers and other tall buildings in "urban canyons," because apparently the sides of these buildings create their own winds blowing up and down the sides because the air has to go somewhere. Super cool!

This is the one we're looking at. Here's a picture of the Swift being installed, which gives you a good idea of the scale of it. (Windsave is another latest-generation microturbine getting a lot of good press.) The Swift costs about $2900 stateside, depending on exchange rates, but I don't know if that's if you buy it from a US wholesaler or if you buy it from the UK and then have to pay to ship and import. (We haven't gotten so far as e-mailing the company to ask!)

We're still in the research stage -- figuring cost, output, our energy use, whether our "site location" would make it worthwhile, Illinois's renewable energy grants, etc. -- and it may not pan out, but I think it would be so super-cool to have a wind turbine on my roof! Preliminary numbers suggest it could provide 1/2 to 2/3 of our electricity*; what I haven't been able to discover is if Ameren allows you to "sellback" to the grid when you're making more than you're using. (ComEd does.)


*Two notes: First, this is based on the Swift's generation rates in the UK. I have no idea how the wind there compares to the wind here. Second, we have gas heat, gas water heat, gas dryer, and gas oven & range combo. Those are four of the biggest energy hogs in the typical house (A/C and fridge are the other two), and they're all gas. So our electricity use is MUCH LOWER than someone with electric heat or electric appliances. A wind turbine will not lower our gas power use. Since you can't generate your own gas power by farting into the appliance, the only options there are to reduce use or increase efficiency. Which is why my thermostat is set at a chilly 63*F in the winter, and a balmy 80*F-ish in summer, but only when it's over 88*F-ish AND humid. (Although I confess I sometimes drop it into the 70s to be able to sleep when it's really stinky out.) I'm whinier about hot than cold, so my winter thermostat setting is more eco-brag-worthy. I'm totally after a programmable thermostat so I can drop the heat to 55*F overnight in the winter, at which point my Floridian husband will divorce me.

-------------end digression-------------

The idea is that in many areas, it's pretty windy when it's not sunny, and it's pretty sunny when it's not windy, so if you combine a small roof solar array (such as these types, which are flat to the roof and either form the roofing material or sit flat on top of it, so you don't have big ugly stand-up panels) with a microturbine, you can generate 90% of your electrical needs, depending, of course, on age and size and efficiency of house. Here's a site with Illinois solar maps to match the wind map above.

Check out DSIRE for state-by-state incentives for renewable power, including grants, rebates, tax incentives, etc. (In Illinois, for example, renewable energy home installations are property-tax advantaged.) The feds also have good information on various incentive programs, as well as tons of data and information.

In the meantime, we've sprung for a Smart Strip, which allows you to plug a "control" device, such as your CPU or television, into the blue outlet, and then you plug dependant devices, like monitor and speakers and printer, or DVD and X-Box, into the white outlets, and they're only allowed to turn on when the blue outlet is on. But the important feature here is that it prevents your electronics from sipping power while in "sleep" mode -- most don't truly turn "off" unless you disconnect them from the wall. They eat a slow but steady diet of electricty that can really add up. This cuts them all off except for the "control" device so they can't sip. The two red outlets let you keep things like your TiVo (don't want that turning off!) or your desk lamp independent of the "control" device.

There's a little tool called the Kill-a-Watt that you can buy to measure how much electricity any plug-in thingie in your house is using, either when it's on or when it's off and drawing "phantom" power. Transformers are the real enemies here. I have not personally used a Kill-a-Watt but ecogeeks I know who have think it's the best thing since sliced bread.

We're going to start with my computer array in the Smart Strip, and if it works (and our electrical use drops), we'll get a couple of others for the TVs. I'll let you know how it goes!

Friday, January 19, 2007

Adventures in Homeownership - Squirrel Edition


There was a squirrel in my fireplace.

I'm in my office doing my normal morning e-mail check and working on a couple documents, when I start hearing an unusual amount of noise from the living room. Usually this means the cats are wrestling, and if they make enough noise I'll go make a loud noise to startle them into stopping so I can get some work done, but these noises involved clanks and clangs that I could not exactly place.

When I get into the living room, I see Grey Cat in guard position. Orange Cat is too, but much farther back from the fireplace.

Before I finish wondering, "What is this all about?" I hear skittering noises from the fireplace.

Oh. Crap.

There is wildlife in my fireplace.

I couldn't tell exactly what it was -- I couldn't SEE it because of the sun reflecting off the glass doors on the fireplace -- but I was pretty sure it was either a squirrel or a very noisy and panicked bird. And yes, people, it was not in my chimney -- it fell THROUGH the flue, which I must have accidentally left open, all the way into the actual fireplace.

So I close all the blinds and get a flashlight and get down on my knees in front of the fireplace (first ensuring that no little critter could manage to bust out of the glass doors, latch onto my face, and give me rabies, comedy-movie-style), and indeed, there's a squirrel in there. If you look real closely at that heavily-doctored picture on the left, you can see his outline reasonably well. I couldn't get a good shot because there wasn't enough light, but the flash made too much reflection, and there was NO WAY IN HELL I WAS OPENING THE GLASS DOORS.

Panic! Panic! Panic! It takes me like two solid minutes before I manage to find the number for animal control, which is the same thing as PAWS, but I didn't know that, because I've never needed an animal controlled before.

"In the chimney or in the fireplace?" the nice lady at PAWS asks me.


"Good, we can do that. We'll be right over."

So I pace, and wait, and pace, and panic, while the squirrel, poor thing, gets more and more panicked in my fireplace. In a sign of an unfortunate level of adulthood and misplaced priorities, I start cleaning the living room before animal control gets there so I won't be embarassed by my disorganized stack of newspapers. The cats, having ascertained the squirrel can't actually get at them, go back and forth between being bored and being fascinated.

Finally, animal control man, right, arrives. "I'll try to snag him," he tells me, "but usually when they're panicked, what works best is letting them get a whiff of fresh air and go right out the door." Unfortunately, my first floor is open plan. The cats get locked in the bathroom, the one closeable first-floor door gets closed, and the front door is stood wide open. I stand up on the first step because the ONLY thing worse than a squirrel flying at my face and latching on to it would be a squirrel running over my bare toes. Which happened to me once, only with a chimpmunk, and I'm still not over it.

At no point did it occur to me to put on shoes. Clean the living room before animal control arrived, yes. Put on shoes, no.

Animal control man goes squirrel fishing with one of those long grabby things that I use to fish my newspaper out of the bushes and animal dudes use to catch wild things that might bite. He snags him a couple of times, but the squirrel keeps getting away. And then the moment of horror comes -- the squirrel runs out into my living room.

And because this was a squirrel dumb enough to fall down a chimney, this is also a squirrel too dumb to find the front door. Instead, he runs into my dining room, skitters around on the floor, and then leaps to the dining room window and starts trying to climb up THAT. (I was not quick enough to get a picture.)

Finally, with animal control man herding him, he SHOOTS out the front door and up the 60-foot hackberry tree, sans a portion of his tail that was lost in the fight. (That's just some of the fur there on the left.)

Peace is restored to the McGee household. If you're on my block and see a squirrel missing half its tail? That's my unwanted and fortunately evicted houseguest.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

My AmerenCILCO Bill Is Sleazy

For those of you NOT in Illinois, you may not be aware that because of a failed deregulation scheme of 1997, Illinois electric customers are facing monstrous rate hikes, which you can read about from the Citizen's Utility Board. This has been, you can imagine, tremendously politically unpopular statewide, and the legislature continues to ponder rate freezes, though no action has occurred.

In Peoria, we are served by AmerenCILCO, which proposed the greatest rate hikes of all Illinois electric companies for its customers, a 55% rate increase for residential users.

Today I got my first bill, which runs from December 9, 2006 to January 11, 2007, and therefore splits my bill at January 1. I have two separate sets of rates on the bill with the "before" and "after" the rate hike, which went into effect on 1/1.

Here's what my pre-07 bill says:

Energy Charge -- 392.00 kWh @ .06618000 = $25.94
various fees
Total Delivery Service Amount -- $28.70

(It also lists a customer charge and various taxes, which are included in that total delivery service amount; those are proportionally the same on both halves of the bill so I won't address them.)

Here's what my new bill says:

Distribution Delivery -- 171 kWh @ .02596000 = $4.44
Meter Charge (this is new!) -- $1.10
various fees
Total Delivery Service Amount -- $7.43

Woah! I compared the Total Delivery Service Amounts, and my bill had DROPPED! Dramatically! My rate for delivery had gone down from $0.066 to $0.026! I spent AGES trying to figure out what, exactly, this was all about.

Then I realized that there was another page of the bill, with a bunch of charges I've never seen before. (My bill page breaks after listing the new "total delivery service amount." I don't know if that's deliberate or just where my personal bill broke this month.)

On the next page, we find an entirely new category of charges, called:

Electric Supply
Non-Summer (0-800 kWh) -- 171.00 kWh @ .07585000 = $12.97
Market Value Adj. -- 171.00 kWh @ .00000000 = $0.00
Supply Cost Adj. -- 171.00 kWh @ .00091000 = $0.16
Transmission Service Charge -- 171 kWh @ .00180000 = $0.31
Total Supply Amount = $13.44

So while pre-07, my total per kWh was an easy-to-understand $.06618000, my NEW bill splits my delivery service (the name of my TOTAL bill pre-07) at $.02596000 and a new category called "supply" with four different rates you have to add up yourself, to get $.07856000 per kWh for "supply" (a higher rate by itself than my total prior per WkH rate), which gives a total rate of $.10452000. Or to make it not a sentence with a ton of numbers:

Old - $.06618000
New Delivery - $.02596000
New Supply Rates totaled - $.07856000
Total New Rate - $.10452000

That's a jump from about 6 1/2 cents to 10 1/2 cents per kWh. My total bill of 563 kWh (ugh, that seems high) would have been $37.26 under the old rate; it would be $58.84 under the new bill. (Plus taxes and fees.)

Except AmerenCILCO goes out of their way to make it very difficult to figure out your new total kWh cost; it's gone from a very simple and self-explanatory bill to a huge list of services with all different rates and strange names and no explanations. (Actually, they define terms very broadly on the back of the bill. All my new fees and rates are listed as being RECOVERY costs.)

$37 to $59 is a pretty big jump. I'm not good at "percentage change" but that's right around 55% or 60%, closer to 60%, probably thanks to the new "meter charge" which isn't technically a rate hike. Now, keep in mind that we're gas-heated, so we usually spend around $100/month in the winter on gas heat, and those costs have been fluctuating and generally rising. For someone whose house is electric heated, this rate increase is going to be BRUTAL.

But what really annoys me about the bill is the sleazy attempt at making the rate hike more palatable by hiding it in a plethora of new rates and fees. AmerenCILCO says the 55% rate hike is necessary to continue its operations, and that this is obvious if you look at the numbers. If that's true, why is AmerenCILCO engaging in such obfuscation of rates? If the 55% rate hike was necessary and fair, why does AmerenCILCO feel the need to hide it from consumers?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A New Chapeau

My husband came in the other day and announced, "I want one of those hats men used to wear with suits, you know? My head gets so cold walking to court and you can't wear a knit hat with a suit. You know what I'm talking about?"

"A fedora?" I asked, googling up a picture.

"That! I want one of those!"

I was so absolutely charmed by this that I didn't even point out fedoras haven't been worn since 1964. (Also, my own hat-wearing has probably warped his views on hats -- I'm entirely in favor of hats and wear them all kinds of places, really big ones with huge brims.) Plus, I think my husband will look super-handsome in a fedora. He's one of the few men these days who could really carry it off.

And he has a point -- when it's 11* and you're walking three blocks to court in a cutting wind, your head getts pretty darned cold, and a knit hat with a pompon on top isn't going to do it. And you'll get hat hair.

So, as his birthday is approaching, I have ordered him a Tilley, which is the Holy Grail of hats. Not because they're the most stylish, but because they're ridiculously well-made with careful attention to detail and a lifetime replacement guarantee and kickass customer service. (Mr. McGee knows what I ordered because you don't just off and order someone a random hat for their birthday. It's hard to explain why you're whipping tape measures around their head, for starters.)

So the next time you see a tall, thin man in an overcoat and fedora striding through downtown Peoria, it's either my husband, or an escaped film noir private eye from the 40s. Either way it's bound to be an interesting encounter!

Monday, January 15, 2007

Arbeia Roman Fort: Pictures (aka the lazy post)

Okay, so I'm busy with 8 zillion offline projects, including one that involves a great deal of chatting with the Tazewell county coroner, who is a VERY NICE MAN and very personable. Also very helpful when presented with bizarre questions.

I meant to posts some pictures with my husband's post here about the history of Arbeia Roman Fort, but I forgot. Which works out well because now I get to do a lazy post of nothing but pictures. I promise we'll shortly have a description of the part of the dig we worked on, but both of us are deep into the kind of work we get paid for right now.

(As always, you can blow up the pictures by clicking on them, and in this case you can see stuff a LOT BETTER by blowing them up!)

Without further ado:

A view of the reconstructed west gate of the fort, from the inside. The reconstruction is an aggregate reconstruction based on descriptions and remains of various similar forts, and is probably a good guess as to what Roman fort gates in Britain looked like. It is three stories with two arched gates (as you can see) and on the inside back the wall is reinforced with earthen ramparts. There are wooden stairs on the earthen ramparts, which was probably the case in most forts to provide access to the wall in the in-between parts between gates and towers. The dirt for the ramparts probably would have come from a ditch running around the outside of the wall, about six feet out from the wall, and as deep as the rampart's dirt would fill to the same width.

It's hard to imagine from this angle and in such a tiny picture, but when you approach it from the front, it is HUGE and IMPOSING. I was like, "Holy crap, I wouldn't want to attack someone who could build something this big and solid today, let alone when everyone else was working on huts made of sticks." I exaggerate. But not by much. It's truly impressive and seeing the reconstruction you get an idea of the awe the Roman military and organizational establishment was held in.

The white tent on the far right was for a big Roman re-enactment society party/festival/exhibition. I had sort-of thought military re-enactors were an American thing, but I was very very wrong and they were very very into it.

This is an overview of the site. I'm standing in the tower, right above the gate, to take this shot. Right in the front you can see two buildings (one has a random earthen mound, and no I don't know why) that have the crenelated wall shapes and the square footings running down the center -- those are the foundations of the granaries from Arbeia's supply fort era. Real stone is stone that was actually there; loose rocks with the wood strips are reconstructions of foundations that were too badly damaged, to show the extent and outlines of the buildings.

There's a pit kind-of in the middle left that was the strong room that held the money and would have been under the command office. Up in the top right, the hole in which we spent our two weeks is between the two blue trash cans and the large white building, which is a reconstructed Roman barracks.

You can also see a lot of houses here. As noted in my husband's piece, Arbeia is in a VERY urban environment. This pleased me in particular because I don't like traveling places where there are no bathrooms. An archaeological dig where you can get good and muddy and sweaty and then go take a real first-world shower and get a beer at a pub sounds just about perfect to me.

This building has a few more courses of stone than most; this was the southwest tower. Roman forts are build like "playing cards," rectangular with rounded corners, towers in the corners. You can see the rounded corner in this shot.

This is the muddy hole in which I spent my vacation. It's a little tricky to explain what's going on here without giving you a dissertation on the site, because the area we were digging underwent more than the usual number of changes during the life of the fort, but I'll try.

To the left you may be able to see a couple courses of stone sticking out from the sheered off hole-wall. Those were the barracks. The area where we are all kind-of sitting and digging was the intervallum road of the original fort, or the road that ran just along the interior of the wall all the way around the fort. On the right were originally ramparts, which seem to have been torn down at some point in the fort's history and replaced with wooden buildings, perhaps service buildings like smithies. The "holes" you see are post holes where the wood rotted away. (They don't come as empty holes when you dig off the top layers; there's like carbonized rotted wood that's easy to tell from the other stuff. We didn't do that part of the dig.) It's not entirely clear what was there because there's some argument about which post holes go with which other post holes to create buildings. To the right of that would have been the south wall of the fort.

Later on, the south wall was knocked out and the fort expanded considerably to the south, when the fort was converted to a supply base for the Scottish campaigns of Septimus Severus, who was trying to keep his orgy-lovin' sons out of Rome and out of trouble by making them fight barbarians on the far northern frontier. That GIANT DITCH (which has some black plastic in it) dates from that era. The archaeologists at the site think it may have been enterprising soldiers who were tired of the space between their barracks being used as a thoroughfare from the supply part of the fort to some other buildings, so they dug a ditch to block it and force people to use the real road. Maybe. It may have had some other purpose nobody's figured out yet.

We were digging off some of the bottom layers of the intervallum road, part of the levelling fill (I forget the technical name), so we found a lot of Roman dinner trash, like limpet shells and sheep bones and cow bones and broken pottery bits, which the soldiers probably pitched out there on the theory it'd get paved over anyway.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Grumble Grumble Sniffle Sniffle

I have a winter cold so I can't blog -- I can't even say the word blog properly. I'm doing that thing where you shuffle around the house in sweatpants trying to catch up on things like laundry because you can't manage to do anything else but you're not quite sick enough to not feel guilty doing nothing whatsoever.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Beautiful Things, or Why I Was Glad I Didn't Have a Typed Order

I had court this morning on a minor matter, in which I was successful. Incidentally, my husband and I were double-scheduled in front of the same judge at the same time this morning on wildly different matters. The judge was asking me -- I was in first -- if there would be any difficulty with the double-scheduled attorneys and I said, "No, your honor, I'm married to the other one. I get to go first." The bailiff glanced out in the hall where my husband was conferring with his client and said, "Yeah, she can go first." I had to go out into the hall after the judge's decision in my case, to draw up an order by hand -- I hadn't expected so quick a decision so didn't have a typed order ready -- while the next couple cases went in after me. The order took me about 10 minutes, then I went over to sit with the other waiting petitioners near the courtroom door so I could pop inside between cases and get my order signed. The case being heard was a closed hearing.

"What sort of case?" another loitering lawyer asked the bailiff.

He glanced at his docket. "Adoption," he said. Ah, closed hearing, closed hearing, we all nodded.

I waited a few minutes more, bouncing my leg with eagerness to move on with my day, get my order signed and get back to work. At last the door opened.

A girl, maybe 11 or 12 years old, dressed very prettily and formally for court, spilled out the door, her eyes absolutely shining, unable to keep from grinning while she clutched an order to her chest. She looked like she was about to fly. Right behind her were, I presume, her new parents, whose grins were almost as big as hers and who had tears standing in their eyes.

You often get to see the joy in new parents' faces when they greet their child entering the world. But it's a rare privilege to see that joy in the child's face as well.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Note to P&G: I Am Not That Smart

So they changed the packaging on my hair conditioner, which makes me CRAZY. And it's not a little change in color or something -- no, they've changed the bottle shape, the bottle color, the which-way-is-up of the bottle, the pictures on the bottle, the name of the conditioner, the scent of the conditioner, and even the color of the conditioner!

Okay, Proctor and Gamble, I AM NOT THAT SMART.

I shop for most products by scanning for the familiar package shape and color. If Cheerios were not yellow, I would never find Cheerios. Looking for a new product is always a PITA because you have no idea what it's going to look like. My goal in grocery shopping is to be in and out of the store as quickly as possible. I make a list sorted by areas of the store so I don't have to backtrack or search at random. Whenever the grocery store moves something, I seriously just stop buying it. They kept moving around the parmesan cheese and I just gave up buying it for 8 months. I'm not going hunting.

So for whatever reason -- I assume to draw new consumers in with their WOW! BAM! packaging -- companies feel the need to redesign their friggin' packaging every year or whatever. For a while it was the "feminine hygiene" products that were the worst, as Kotex and Always tried to introduce color-coding and symbols so we could apparently choose our products by secret code. Maddening.

Now Clairol has totally redesigned the entire Herbal Essences line. It took me 15 minutes to figure out which one was supposed to be my conditioner. I'm really not smart enough to guess when they change the packaging -- I need clues. I'm so irate about the whole thing I'm totally switching to Aubrey Organics.

Also? Now my hair smells like cucumbers. They say it's berry tea and orange flowers, but it smells like cucumbers.

Friday, January 05, 2007

History of Arbeia Roman Fort

I asked Mr. McGee to put this together AGES ago and he just finished it now and now he's bugging me every half an hour about whether I've gotten around to posting it yet. As if I'm the slow one!

Anyway, this is about our awesome vacation to archaeologically dig in September 2006. Following this piece will be a piece from Mr. McGee about our specific dig area, and then I'll write about what we did as diggers and vacationers. (Hopefully those will follow shortly. However, clearly there is major procrastination involved in this project.) Enjoy!



In 43 A.D., the Romans invaded Britain. For the next four centuries, Rome deployed troops throughout the island. These troops built forts, imported goods from distant lands, and spent money in the local economy. Simply because of the length of the Roman occupation, Roman military sites are among the most ubiquitous in the British landscape. Hadrian’s Wall was one of the most recognized landmarks in the medieval world, and still is today. However, many of these sites have been overlooked or misidentified over the years, and our understanding is still developing. The remarkable discoveries of wooden writing tablets (including the oldest known writing by a woman in Latin) preserved in anaerobic conditions at Vindolanda highlight the importance of the work yet to be done.

Arbeia, which lies just to the east of one end of Hadrian’s Wall, is one of the first Roman sites to have been excavated in Britain, and is unique in that the local community has owned and preserved part of the fort since the late nineteenth century. Archaeologists have thoroughly investigated the history of Arbeia through a series of excavations beginning in the 1970s.


The fort we know as Arbeia was built on a low headland overlooking the mouth of the River Tyne in modern day South Shields. Evidence of human occupation on this site extends back to 3,000 to 4,000 B.C. During this time, much of what is currently the North Sea was inhabited dry land, and the present coastline may not have been established until after 3,000 B.C. Prehistoric finds along the coastline near the Tyne River include various flints, burial sites, and bronze blades. Recently, an Iron Age farmstead, which dates from the third century B.C., was excavated underneath the southern portion of the fort. Occasional finds of flint tools under the Roman layers of the fort also suggest an earlier occupation.

Roman Occupation

Julius Caeser made expeditionary landings on the island in 55 and 54 B.C., and plans for a full-scale invasion were drawn up in subsequent years. However, Rome did not seek to annex Britain until 43 A.D., during the reign of Emperor Claudius, who likely used Britain as an opportunity to consolidate his power in Rome through the traditional means of military achievement. Rome’s initial goal of taking control of the whole of Britain was delayed and never fully achieved, although it was also never consciously abandoned. The Roman army did not firmly establish itself in north-east England until the middle of the A.D. 80s.

It is very likely that a Roman fort was built at the mouth of the River Tyne late in the first century A.D. However, no fort from this period has been discovered, and the oldest buildings excavated at Arbeia date to circa A.D. 125. These buildings seem to belong to a civilian settlement typical of those that developed outside Roman frontier forts. There may be an early fort site buried beneath modern day buildings in South Shields.

In the A.D. 120s, Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of a wall to the north of the Stanegate, a road connecting Corbridge and Carlisle which marked the northern limit of sustained Roman penetration. As planned, the wall was to be built of stone (turf blocks in the west), 10 Roman feet wide, with forts and towers at regular intervals, stretching 80 Roman miles (73 modern miles) from the river Tyne in the east to Solway Firth in the west. Partway through the building process, the width of the wall was reduced to 8 Roman feet to save time. Although ships could not easily enter the mouth of the Tyne because the river was full of sandbanks and reefs, it served as an effective natural barrier to travel by land for several miles inland. Thus, Hadrian’s Wall was begun at Wallsend, several miles west of Arbeia, where the Tyne became fordable.

Twenty years after work had begun, Hadrian’s Wall was abandoned, and the Antonine Wall was built about 100 miles to the north, between the Firth of Forth and the Clyde, the narrowest point on the island. Hadrian’s Wall was reoccupied in the A.D. 160s. The first fort that has been excavated at Arbeia is a stone fort built during the time of this reoccupation. The fort covered 4.1 acres, with a fairly standard plan that accommodated 480 infantry and 120 cavalry. Evidence suggests that the garrison was substantially reduced in numbers towards the end of the second century. The fort was converted to a supply base circa A.D. 205-7. Most of the buildings inside the fort walls were demolished, and thirteen stone granaries were built. The south wall was demolished, and a new fort wall built to the south of the original wall, expanding the size of the fort to 5.2 acres. The fort garrison, the Fifth Cohort of Gauls, squeezed into this new southern area (only a quarter of the size of the original fort), with two granaries for their own needs, and a new headquarters building at the center of a new dividing wall separating the garrison from the supply area.

Despite its proximity to both the beginning of Hadrian’s Wall and the North Sea, Arbeia was not initially linked to the supply of the troops building the wall or of the troops that subsequently garrisoned the forts along its length. Arbeia was probably converted to a supply base to serve as a link in the supply chain up the coast for the campaigns waged by Emperor Septimius Severus in Scotland in A.D. 208-10, in an effort to distract his orgy-loving sons with good wholesome military invasions in the hinterlands. When these campaigns ended with Severus’s death in A.D. 211 (without the successful reformation of his sons), Arbeia became a supply base for the garrisons on Hadrian’s Wall and other inland forts. During A.D. 222-235, seven granaries were added, and the accommodation for the garrison enlarged.

The soldiers who occupied Arbeia were auxiliaries (provincial levies) from elsewhere in the empire. Although the Roman legions were primarily responsible for building the frontier forts and Hadrian’s Wall, they were garrisoned in centralized legionary fortresses. The Legio VI Victrix constructed the earliest excavated fort. The Fifth Cohort of Gauls who garrisoned it would have been natives of Gaul. Most of the auxiliaries in Britain were drawn from the northwestern provinces of the Empire. Later in the Roman occupation, the auxiliaries tended to be British, as the foreign soldiers married native Britons and replenished their strength from the native population. However, the auxiliary units retained their original names.

A fire struck the fort in the late third or early fourth century, destroying many of the buildings and forcing an extensive rebuilding. This last overall rebuilding likely coincided with the substitution of a new unit for the previous garrison. This new unit was called numerus barcariorum Tigrisiensium, the company of Bargemen from the Tigris. This garrison remained throughout the fourth century until the end of the Roman occupation of Britain. As Arabs from modern- day Iraq, the Tigris Bargemen are the likely source of the name attributed to the fort: “Arbeia,” which is probably a Latin version of a word in Aramaic that means “the place of the Arabs.” Scholars have attributed the name Arbeia to the fort because an entry in the Notitia Dignitatum, a fourth-century Roman army list preserved in an eleventh-century medieval document. The entry identifies Praefectus numeri barcariorum Tigrisiensium with Arbeia. The post-Roman name of the site, recorded by the sixteenth-century antiquarian, John Leland, was Caer Urfa, probably a corruption of Arbeia. The name Horrea Classis (“the granaries of the fleet”), known from the Ravenna Cosmography, may have been attached to the site in the third century.

Post Roman Occupation and Excavations

Although the Roman occupation ended in the early years of the fifth century A.D., occupation of the fort continued. However, these times were unsettled and demonstrate a distinct lack of Roman order and law. In addition, the knowledge and resources to maintain the stone structures of the fort in good repair were no longer available. The west gate fell into disuse in the early fifth century, and a large ditch was dug in front of it. At a later date, the partially ruined gate was restored to use with the replacement of one of the gate arches by a timber entry. The Anglo-Saxons occupied the site later, but their timber buildings leave little physical evidence from which to determine their architecture or use. The sixteenth century recorded that the fort was the birth place of Oswin, a King of Deira who was killed in A.D. 651 and became a saint, but this attribution has not been conclusively proven or disproven.

Later residents in the area may have robbed building materials from the fort, a common fate for Roman remains in the Middle Ages. Otherwise, the site lay relatively untouched, other than continuous farming of the overlying fields, for 1000 years. In 1875, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners purchased the fields on the site and made them available for housing. Following the discovery of a Roman column by local Tyne river pilots, a local clergyman organized a limited exploratory excavation of the fort before construction began. This dig was only the second of a Roman fort in northern Britain. The excavators misidentified the few buildings they uncovered, but documented their results. The Corporation of South Shields agreed to preserve a small portion of the fort as the “People’s Roman Remains Park.” Housing was erected over the remainder of the site.

In 1933, Ian Richmond, a leading scholar of Roman archaeology, reviewed the documentation of the earlier dig and realized that the buildings uncovered had been granaries, indicating a Roman fort used as a supply base. He conducted excavations in 1949-50 that first accurately discovered the history of the fort. In 1953, the existing museum was opened, and shortly thereafter the South Shields Archaeological and Historical Society was founded. Over the next two decades, important excavations were conducted, particularly after the bathroomless Victorian-era houses on the site, which had become slums, were demolished as part of an attempt to revitalize the area. In 1975, the Tyne and Wear Museums took responsibility for the fort. Currently, most of the area of the original fort is owned by the local community and available for excavation. However, the east gate and a portion of the northeastern fort lie under a row of private homes that were rebuilt after the 19th century houses were demolished but before South Shields decided to preserve the site.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

RIAA Lost the War, Missed the Memo

I haven't felt very bloggy lately, because I've been terribly busy and not out and about around Peoria much this month. But one thing I have been thinking about is Digital Rights Management (DRM), which are the various systems movie and music (and sometimes publishing) companies use to restrict you from pirating their products ... which, in reality, means that they restrict you from actually USING products you own in perfectly legal ways. I cannot, for example, hook a DVD player up to my TV/VCR combo, because the DVD player reads that as "attempted piracy" by being hooked straight to a VCR system. I get all the anti-piracy lines on the DVD. When I upgraded to DVDs a few years back, I actually had to shell out for a new television. Some CDs won't play in CD players they think can record, which can include computers or even car stereos; ideas are bouncing around for CDs and DVDs that will only play in ONE player, the first one you play it in, so you could never take a movie to a friend's house or take your Grateful Dead CD to the basement workshop if you'd already played it in the living room.

So the problem with all of these DRM schemes is that a) they're ridiculously easy to crack -- if I wanted to pirate a DVD, I'd do it on my two-DVD-drive several-year-old Dell using free software off the internet, not on my 10-year-old TV/VCR combo -- and that b) they screw honest consumers, the vast majority of us, while pirate go right on pirating.

I have not actually ever pirated a DVD. It seems like way too much trouble. I know how it works in theory, but I know the law, generally respect it (I do find a monetary worth to movies that I'm willing to pay for), and don't really have any desire to bother. I have better things to do with my time. Most consumers (statistically) are like me, particularly with movies, not interesting in pirating things we've bought. Maybe ripping a copy so we can have one in the car and one in the house, but most of us aren't pirates and don't care to be. All we want to do is be able to buy a DVD or CD and have it work WHEREVER WE WANT TO PLAY IT and not have stupid copy-protection schemes that can install spyware or malware on our computers, prevent it from playing in various players, or prevent us from using it in entirely legal ways.

What the companies want to sell us, basically, is a license, not a song. Not a movie. But a license. Which is great for them, but while I'm willing to pay 99 cents for a song, I'm not paying 99 cents for a limited license to that song. And I'm not renting a single. I'm just not.

So these are all concerns of me and people older than me who are interested in DRM. But I've been thinking about the kids younger than me. Kids who know how to rip CDs when they're 10 and bypass iTunes restrictions when they're 12. Kids who have never lived in an era when albums weren't basically a single with a lot of crappy mass-produced filler after it. Kids who are frighteningly clever at remixes and shmups. Kids whose cleverness I watch on YouTube and bust a gut laughing at while SNL gets less and less funny.

So here's where the RIAA has gone wrong -- they're fighting a rearguard action against my generation in the hopes this will solve the problem. But kids today have never lived in a world without digital data, and while all information WANTS to be free, digital data is slipping around the bars of the cage like crazy.

The RIAA wants to live in the world of the last 50 years where we paid for music bundled by the album, resulting in some truly spectacular albums, but a lot of crappy, mass-produced filler from the RIAA popstar factory. A world where music companies were arbitors of taste, controlled what went to major outlets (stores, MTV, radio), and decided what we would listen to. The "underground" was harder to find, and often inaccessible to kids under 16 or 18 or 21 who couldn't get to or go in to the venues.

But that's not today's world. I've seen the future of music compared to a medieval or Renaissance era of music where court minstrals were supported by people who thought they were worthwhile entertainment rather than a corporate machine peddling stars. It's an interesting analogy. The truth about the music industry today is that, as I saw it decribed the other day, our nation's biggest music stars that the have the full promotional power of the record industry behind them are winners of a karaoke contest. (And honest to God, if I see one more overblown "Idol is back" commercial, I'm not watching this year just for spite.)

Kids are ridiculously savvy these days. They can still be manipulated by marketers, but only when they're willing to be manipulated. They see through adult attempts to be "hip," through lame prepacked corporatiana sold as something grassroots and deep and worthwhile. They listen to obscure bands from Finland on the internet.

They download singles.

I download singles, particularly older singles that I half-remember from my childhood or when I was in junior high and going to dorky dances. I snagged American Pie off iTunes -- I only have it on tape, not CD -- and was so re-enamored of Don McLean's musical gifts (and my ability to see his entire discography and listen to snippets right there in front of me) that I went on a Don McLean iTunes binge and I'm definitely snagging his albums on CD. MC Hammer? Not so much. If I like a Britney Spears single (yes, I like Britney Spears singles), I can snag THAT SINGLE and not the entire filler disc. Older singles, okay, it resurrects the market for older classic songs that otherwise wouldn't be bringing in any money, but new singles? How can they convince you that Britney Spears actually has a whole concert's worth of worthwhile music when you know and they know that there's only the one song on the album worth listening to, and that's all you buy?

The RIAA hates this.

But kids aren't going to buy crap anymore just because it's packaged with good stuff. They know how to surgically incise the data they want from the data that sucks, and it really seems like the RIAA is fighting desperately to hang on to a 1970s business model that not only is inappropriate to today's world and is alienating their consumers in droves (there are oodles of people, including me, who opt not to buy music we may really like if it has restrictive DRM -- I research this before I buy a particular CD.), but that allows them to sell uncreative mass-produced musical pap at a massive profit.

It's a rearguard action. The world has already moved past the RIAA and its machinations; the RIAA just hasn't noticed yet becuase it has enough consumers in the Baby Boomers to prop up its failed business model for a few more years yet. In the meanwhile, it's missing chances to figure out how to serve the next generation of music consumers because it's absolutely terrified of them, their freedom of data, and their desire for music that doesn't suck.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


Boise State vs. Oklahoma may be the best college football game I have ever seen.

And WOOHOO Boise State!