Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Lizzie Walker's Best Books of 2008

Since August of 2002 I have been keeping a list of every book I've read for pleasure. This is quite a committment and every time I fill in a new book I'm sort of amazed that I've managed to keep the list up for over six years. Just look at how little time it took me to start regularly neglecting my blog - you should be suitably impressed.

Since starting my Master's program last fall my "pleasure book" time has significantly decreased. I do not list books I have to read for courses or research, even though I've read lots of fantastic books that way. My list is purely books I've read from cover to cover for enjoyment.

It's New Year's Eve and because I don't have any particularly exciting plans I decided I'd list my top picks of books. These were not necessarily books published in 2008, just ones I'd gotten around to reading this year.

Here we go! Is there a theme? Probably. I gravitated big-time towards non-fiction and graphic novels, but there are some other gems here too.

10. Missing Sarah by Maggie DeVries:
Maggie taught one of my courses this year. This is a sad, quiet memoir about a family coming to grips with losing a daughter and sister first to a life of drugs and prostitution, and then to Robert Pickton.

9. The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell:
Predictable, maybe. But an amazingly readable, intelligent and entertaining insight into the human relationship with dogs.

8. Nul Points by Tim Moore:
How much do I love Tim Moore. Le sigh. I don't think anyone's books have made me laugh so much - if you don't know Moore, look him up. He writes fantastically hilarious travel narratives, always with an provocative starting point. In Nul Points, he travels around Europe to catch up with those singers who have earned the dubious distinction of attaining a score of zero in the Eurovision song contest.

7. Suffer the Little Children by Donna Leon:
Everyone likes a good mystery. Donna Leon's mysteries are good in many, many ways. Set in Venice, they center more around the frailties of human beings rather than psychological suspense or plot twists, but they still manage to be suspenseful and satisfying. They're always a treat, and this one is a fine example of her work.

6. Skim by Mariko Tamaki:
A pitch perfect graphic novel in its depiction of 1990s high school setting; its understanding of teenage girlhood; and its emotional truths.

5. Under the Banner of Heaven by John Krakauer:
Want to read about wacky religious sects? About magical goggles and golden plates? Want to feel relatively normal? Let's face it: we all do. This is your book.

4. Porcupine by Meg Tilly:
A simple story about a young girl coping with loss and upheaval - but, like Skim, it resonates perfectly.

3. American Born Chinese by Gene Yang:
A rather complex graphic novel that brilliantly incorporates three distinct plot strands. Anyone who has felt like an outsider or awkward in their own skin will be drawn to this book. The ending is totally unexpected but deeply satisfying.

2. The Arrival by Shaun Tan:
Until about two days ago, this was going to be my Number 1 (see below). An astonishing, breathtaking book about the immigrant experience. I don't want to say more and ruin the surprise. Also, Shaun Tan is a Very Nice Man, and unlike many children's authors/illustrators, totally normal and not creepy or full of himself! (There, I said it. A lot of them are. Just saying.) I was lucky enough to chauffeur him to a speaking engagement in October which made me love this book even more.

So now that I have a personal investment in The Arrival, I feel just a little treacherous recommending something else as my top pick of 2008. But my heart cannot lie...

1. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel:
I only read this two days ago, so it barely squeaked in on my 2008 list. Go read it. Now. It is funny, heartbreaking, intellectual, heartwarming. I want to read it again and again. It is a gem. That is all I will say.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Deep and Crisp and Even

I have been a bad, bad blogger. I knew that would happen when I signed up. But I will try to make amends. Lots has happened since October 6th when I last posted... namely in the form of one Spratley G. Pinhead, a Mini Australian Shepherd that we adopted from a rescue on Halloween!

Also, it has snowed in Vancouver. And it has stayed on the ground. And the temperature is below zero. It's amazing! The city is in chaos. We got to witness and almost-spectacular SUV - taxi crash on Granville yesterday.
How much snow has accumulated? Well, using the patented Walker Fish Garden Ornament meter, it's easy to keep track!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Molesworth Time!

On a mizzly, drizzly day like today, who better to brighten the spirits, than my own beloved Nigel Molesworth?

It seems strange that all the tuough boys around with faces like wild baboons started life as babes in prams chiz chiz chiz. i mean you kno wot weeds babes are they lie about and gurgle and all the lades sa icky pritty and other uterly wet things.

Being a baby is alright but soon all the boys who hav been wearing peticoats chiz chiz chiz begin to get bigger. they start zooming about like jet fighters climb drane pipes squirt water pistols make aple pie beds set booby traps leave tools about the garden refuse to be polite to visiting aunts run on the flowerbeds make space rockets out of pop's golf bag and many other japes and pranks.

It is at this time that parents look thortfully at their dear chicks and sa



Geoffrey Willans Down With Skool!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Time to BARF

And by BARF, I don't mean hurl. That just wouldn't be appropriate for a blog! Ewwww.

BARF stands for Biologically Appropriate Raw Food, or Bones And Raw Food, and today I made Nutmeg's meals for the month. Last year I got a consultation from Sabine at Better Dog Care, who provided me with all the meats, fruits, veggies and supplements I need to prepare for Nutmeg. All the fresh ingredients cost a grand total of $48.47. Chicken necks will cost me about $12 for the month, so all told Nutmeg is eating a healthy diet for about $2.00 a day.

Here are all the ingredients - all from the supermarket.

Assembling the food is labour intensive, but I've got it down to a smooth, 45 minute routine. First I mix the ground beef and ground chicken with cottage cheese in a big bucket.

Then the part of BARF that might actually make me... well... barf. I blend some beef liver in the food processor. Admittedly, it's kind of fun. But a gross kind of fun.

Next I whizz up some sweet potato, carrots, broccoli, zucchini, lettuce, apple and banana.

The veggies and liver, plus eggs and grapeseed oil, all get added to the meat/cottage cheese mixure. Then the whole shebang is divided into four weekly portions which go into the deep freezer, to be defrosted as needed.
Then the fun part starts. As you can imagine, dear reader, BARFing does create quite a mess. Nutmeg is alwasy a big help.

Hey Nutmeg, I think you've got something on your face...

Sunday, September 7, 2008

What has Dog Training got to do with Plastic Bags?

Ever since learning about clicker training and other methods of positive reinforcement, I've begun to notice ways in which such principles apply not only to Nutmeg but also to myself.

Here's a brief synopsis of the four ways you can train a dog, or really any animal. (Okay, I'm not so sure about amoebas or bugs... but mammals, birds and fish for sure!)

When we're talking training, "positive" means that something is added, and "negative" means that something is taken away. It can be confusing, because usually when we say "positive" and "negative" we mean "good" and "bad," but in this context it has a much less emotionally charged connotation.

A reinforcer is anything that the training subject finds pleasurable - food, a toy, attention, etc. A punisher is anything the training subject finds unpleasant - a smack, a shock, etc.

There are four quadrants of training (excuse the lame little diagram):

+ reinforcement + punishment


- reinforcement - punishment

Positive Reinforcement: Adding something desireable to increase the occurence of a behaviour. Example: Doggy sits, she gets a treat.

Negative Punishment: Adding something undesireable to increase the occurence of a behaviour, and then removing it once the behaviour has been demonstrated. There are actually two sub-categories of this one.

  • Escape: The animal receives an unpleasant stimulus, which is only removed after it performs the desired behaviour. Doggy wears a shock collar and receives electric shocks until it comes back to its owner. Once it comes back, the shocks are turned off. Eventually this leads to...

  • Avoidance: The animal does something to avoid receiving an unpleasant consequence Doggy comes when called in order to avoid the shock.

Positive Punishment: Adding an unpleasant consequence to decrease a behaviour. Doggy jumps up on visitors, Doggy gets a smack from her owner.

Negative Reinforcement: Removing something pleasurable to decrease a behaviour. Doggy nips her owner during play, owner removes playtime and ignores Doggy.

As you can probably guess, most positive reinforcement trainers use a combination of positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement, and avoid the use of punishment at all costs. For example, I recently trained Nutmeg to hold a small bucket in her mouth. I could have done this a number of ways. Many old-school hunting dog trainers use an ear pinch or shock collar to train what is called a "forced retreive". The dog receives a painful ear pinch or an electric shock unless it picks up an item. Once it's holding the item in its mouth, the pain is removed. I could have done this to train Nutmeg - but I think it's barbaric. Instead, I used the clicker and gave her a click and a treat everytime she sniffed, mouthed, picked up and held the bucket, progressively upping the ante. If she did not perform as I intended (e.g. by picking up the wrong end of the bucket) she did not get a treat. Within a week I had a fairly reliable bucket-hold, and I had a dog who was excited to work. And looked completely adorable too. :0)

Anyway, this post was meant to be about me, and how some of this theory applies to my own life and behaviour, wasn't it.

An example that I've become particularly aware of these days is my reliability with resusable shopping bags. I'm happy that they've become pretty trendy nowadays, because I've always hated those nasty plastic bags that clog up not only landfills, but every nook and cranny in the kitchen. They only hold 4 bananas, so I end up returning from the grocery store with about 12 of the things, whereas one cloth bag would be sufficient.

Despite my fondness for them, it's not uncommon for me to forget to bring them to the grocery store. If the consequences are good (or bad) enough, the chances of increasing this behaviour are better. Let's look at a few ways this happen at the three grocery stores I tend to frequent.

At Superstore, I have to buy plastic bags for 5 cents each: Positive Punishment - paying extra is an unpleasant thing for me, so I decrease the behaviour of forgetting my cloth bags.

At IGA, I get 3 cents off my grocery bill for every cloth bag I bring: Positive Reinforcement - getting money off my bill is a pleasurable experience, so I increase the behaviour of brining cloth bags.

At Safeway, there is no consequence (positive or negative) for bringing cloth bags, so in this case my behaviour of using them is extinguished because it goes unnoticed.

I'm proud to say that my cloth-bag-bringing is at about 90%. There are some other reinforcing consequences for using them: sometimes a cashier will thank or praise me (positive reinforcement); they're easier to carry (negative punishment - removes the hassle of carrying lots of plastic bags); and there's the environmental aspect (negative punishment - we avoid global catastrophe).

Obviously, there are some ways these shops could further increase my behaviour. For example, Superstore could charge 25 cents instead of 5 cents per plastic bag. That's like upping the wattage on a shock collar. Make the punishment worse! Similarly, IGA could take off 25 cents instead of 3 cents for every cloth bag I use. That's the equivalent of using some stinky garlic sausage instead of boring old kibble for training Nutmeg!

As it stands, Superstore's technique is the most effective one for me - punish plastic-bag users! And actually it's really effective. I hardly see anyone in Superstore needing to use plastic bags. Imagine a positive reinforcement trainder singing the praises of punishment!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

10 Years...

It was ten years ago today, September 6, that I arrived at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, and began the best four years of my life.

I miss it every day, and everywhere I go I try to build a new Sackville.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Silver Bells and Cockle Shells

The big project this long weekend was to do up the garden. We had two ugly and scraggly rhododendron bushes. After a trip to Rona and the purchase of a hacksaw, these two were not long for the world. Then, today, we bought a wide assortment of plants from the "shady" section of the garden centre.
Photos to document the transformation...

Before the rhodo carnage.

And after.

Nutmeg feels very zen in the new garden. Pretty soon she'll be dispensing wisdom.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Minefield Rats

As many of my doggy friends will know, I'm a big devotee of clicker training - or any form of positive reinforcement training - and I was excited to stumble across this story today.

A Belgian-Tanzanian non-profit, Apopo, is training rats to sniff out mines in Mozambique. The rats are trained to detect the scent of TNT. They scratch at the ground whenever they smell it and they receive a bit of banana as a reward. Brilliant, I think: in addition to excellent noses, the rats are too light to set off the mines, so the operation is much safer than it would be for sniffer dogs or people with metal detectors.

Here's the story:

And here's the organization that does the training:

Friday, August 29, 2008

As Any Fule Kno

This year I will be writing my Masters thesis on Nigel Molesworth, who falls between Ramona Quimby and Elizabeth Bennet as one of my top literary heroes of all time. That's saying a lot, because I have a degree in English.

Anyway, a couple of readers (yay, readers!) expressed interest in this particular personage. I am more than happy to oblige.

Nigel Molesworth is the creation Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, and he appears in four books, all published in Great Britain in the 1950s.

Down With Skool! is the first of the series. It's followed by How to be Topp, Whizz for Atomms and Back in the Jug Agane. Sadly these masterpieces have not been reprinted since 1999, which is really inexcusable. If you happen across one in a used bookstore, snatch it up! (And send it to me, maybe?)

Molesworth attends the rather dreary St. Custard's, along with Molesworth 2, his little brother, his grate friend Peason and Fotherington-Tomas, who sa hullo clouds hullo sky and skips around like a gurl. The books aren't so much stories - the plot lines are loose, to say the least, and they jump around from straight narrative to scripts and leap back and forth in time - as musings on school, life, and everything. Oh, and Molesworth can't spell.

Here is an excerpt, to whet your appetites. From Down With Skool! Chapter 6, "How to Torture Parents":

Country Dancing

Another form of torture for parents is the displa of country dancing on ye sham vilage green. The skool gardener is awakened from another sleep in the onion bed and skool piano wheeled from big skool revealing wizard patch of dust marbles dead beetles conkers and skeletons of boys who hav crept away to die...

Boys then all dress up in weedy costumes with all sorts of bells everywhere and parents take their seats. miss pringle take seat at skool piano and strike huge opning chord.


(dancers enter)

ALL: Dilly dilly dilly dilly o

With a rilly dilly, strawberry, o.

(pointing toes)

EBENEZER: Rilly-dilly jingle. Rilly-dilly jingle.

EPHRAIM: With a raspberry-o.

ALL: Rilly-dilly raspberry, rilly-dilly raspberry o.

I'm looking forward to my thesis...

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

It was a drizzly, dark morning today, and I had Nutmeg out at the river early. She was happily digging her hole in the sand when she noticed a man in yellow emerge from the path. She watched him for a moment before he took out his harmonica and began to play for her.

Now, I cannot claim to be a huge harmonica enthusiast, usually because the only tunes I've ever heard played on a harmonica tend to be a bit too sprightly and wheezy for my liking. But this man began to play what I can only call a dirge - dark, melancholy and slow. Nutmeg was transfixed. She did none of her cute head-tilts, nor did she wag her tail or go up to him to search for treats. Nor was she afraid. She just stood there, enchanted, as he played his tune for her.

After he finished, the man just said, "That was for you, buddy," and disappeared again into the bushes.


Thursday, August 28, 2008

My very first (profound) post

Last night I was hit with inspiration. I should start a blog.

Usually when I am hit with insomniainspiration, I either:
a) forget all about it the following morning
b) realize that it was a silly idea and never follow through, hence my failure to - for example - try windsurfing.

This blog's aims are many and varied. Mainly I expect I will discuss (in no particular order):
a) My dog.
b) Dog training - theory and practice.
c) Children's Literature.
d) The many joys of Nigel Molesworth.
e) Things that bother me. Of which there are many.
f) The many joys of lamination.

Brace yourself for profundity.