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Audubon Society Field Guide Apps May 29, 2014

I don’t usually pay much attention when my iPad is syncing. It is, in my opinion, a little bit like watching a washing machine at work. It’s a simple process which doesn’t demand much (if any) human intervention. Any involvement with it beyond plugging in the device and giving the “sync” command seems a waste of time.

This doesn’t, of course, prevent me from taking an occasional glance at the machine. A short while ago, I happened to look down and notice that my iPad was updating Audubon Insects and Spiders – A Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders. And it is this particular app (and the explanation for its update) that sparked the idea for today’s post.

I began purchasing this particular series of apps nearly as soon as the Audubon Society released them. While I proudly own a full set of the original field guides (many of which were gifts from my fiancé), I’ve found that toting them everywhere I go can be a bit exhausting. The apps provide the perfect solution.

Instead of flipping through pages of colored plates in the hope that one might match up with the species in view, users can speed the identification process through an advanced search feature. It’s possible to quickly narrow a search to a specific region, season, color pattern, wing shape, and more… often producing a correct match within a matter of seconds.

The apps also provide a unique social feature. Through the use of GPS tracking, users can track and report their sightings to other users. This allows both amateur and professional naturalists to record the habits of various species and aids in conservation efforts.

Eleven separate guidebooks are offered in the North American Series with four of these guidebooks (Birds, Mammals, Wildflowers, and Trees) available as a combination within a single app. (Unlike the hardbound guidebooks, the Birds, Trees, and Wildflowers apps cover both Eastern and Western varieties.) If you aren’t interested in just an individual topic, take a look at the Ultimate Nature Series. Divided by region rather than subject matter, these provide a great resource for hikers, bikers, campers, climbers, and adventurers throughout the United States. Guides are available for iPod, iPhone, iPad, Android, Nook and Kindle – starting at just a few dollars apiece.

I smiled as I examined the explanation for the update to my Insects and Spiders Field guide: “Minor Bug Fixes.” I laughed and went back to work. As a regular user of the apps, I can tell you that these fixes (which I presume were to the app and not the insects featured inside) are minor, indeed. I wholeheartedly recommend these guides to anyone fascinated by nature and interested in playing an active role in conservation efforts.

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Letters of Recommendation: Advice for Scholarship Applicants May 22, 2014

I confess that I’m a bit of a collector. In fact, for many years, my mother believed that I’d collect just about anything: coins, stamps, baseball cards, rocks, pencils, or used bubblegum. (Okay, maybe not used bubblegum). One of my most prized collections, however, is an ever growing stack of letters of recommendation. I’ve asked for one from nearly every employer I’ve ever had as well as a few coworkers and fellow volunteers. Most are of the fairly general type declaring that I’m a hard worker and get along well with others. These are fine if you’re looking for a job, but when it comes to applying for scholarships, something else may be in order.

There are, I discovered, two primary considerations when it comes to requesting recommendations of this variety. The first is, “Who do I know who is willing and able to write a letter in keeping with the theme of the scholarship?” While there are plenty of scholarships which go un-awarded each year, there are also many which are flooded with applications. Sorting out the genuine contenders can be a challenge – and a recommendation that highlights your compatibility with the scholarship theme may go a long way towards landing your application at the top of the list.

What does compatibility look like? To begin with, if you’re applying for a scholarship that’s awarded on the basis of volunteer activity, you may want to ask your volunteer supervisor for a letter… not your employer. The person who oversees your selfless efforts will be in a much better position to share about your passionate dedication to the cause than someone who only sees how you behave when you’re receiving a paycheck. Applying for a scholarship that’s only awarded to women of high character? Ask another woman familiar with your personal habits to write the recommendation. Looking to make it to the top of a stack of academic achievers? Talk to a teacher who has watched you excel.

The second consideration is, “How many people should I ask?” This can be tricky and it tripped me up the first time around. The application asked for two references… so I asked two friends to write letters. What quickly became apparent was that not all recommendations are created equal. While a person may be in an excellent position to declare your superiority, they may not be eloquent enough to make a good case for your acceptance. Nor will everyone you ask have the time to write a recommendation or, for that matter, have the letter written enough in advance of the application deadline for it to prove useful.

In this case, it’s better to ask for too many letters and have to choose a couple of your favorites than to miss out on an opportunity because the best candidates were unavailable or lacked the necessary literary skill. Personally, I suggest that if you need two letters, you start by talking with three potential letter writers. (It doesn’t hurt to have more in reserve, but you may need their help in the future, so don’t exhaust all of your options at once.) This gives you some flexibility and should ensure that you get the type of letters you’re looking for.

Finally, make sure to provide everyone who agrees to write a letter for you with appropriate guidelines. Explain the type of scholarship you’re applying for and what the selection committee is looking for in a candidate. If certain aspects of your life, character, or achievement need to be highlighted, provide that information to your letter writers in a timely manner.

While I can’t guarantee that following these rules will always result in your receiving scholarships, I can say with reasonable certainty that they will help your applications to stand out. And when they do, your chances of being a winner are definitely improved!


A Matter of Division: A Workout that Works May 15, 2014

I admit that the treadmill and I have never been particularly good friends. I run (or walk) not because I feel passionate about the pursuit, but because a failure to do so will result in aching joints and unseemly weight gain. In other words, it is the lesser of two evils. The result, of course, is that running is a chore, not a hobby and it is an activity in which I grudgingly participate.

Such half-hearted interest requires that I plan my pursuit well in advance. I admit that this planning has often been lacking, but last year I was determined to see that change. I began running again in early Spring with the modest goal of working out for 30 minutes five days a week. In reality, I was only working out four times a week, but I saw this as at least a marginal victory over my normal sedentary preferences. At least I was out of my chair and away from my laptop. Occasional meetings with my sister provided me with a change of venue and some good company as we strolled alongside the local river. By Fall, I was feeling at least a little inspiration to up my game.

I began diligently laboring to meet my five day a week goal, but it quickly became evident that it was still a stretch. I could accomplish the task, but ended up feeling frustrated, exhausted, and pressed for time. According to all of the information I’ve been able to glean from actual runners, this is not the ideal result. And with this in mind, I decided to try an experiment.

What would happen if I trashed the 30 minutes five day a week goal and tried instead for 20 minutes, six days a week? The goal really didn’t seem that strange, since I already had a well-ordered six day work week and the smaller time increment fit neatly into a coffee break. Furthermore, the reduced amount of time allowed me to try out a few of the treadmill’s shorter programs.

It wasn’t long before the six day a week goal was yielding results. I was regularly making it to my workout and had even made some interesting discoveries regarding my limits. (Much to my delight, these proved to be significantly higher than I had anticipated.) I could easily climb an 11% grade, maintain a pace of 6.2 miles per hour, and had even discovered that I could determine my heart rate based solely upon physical cues! I was actually having fun.

After several weeks, I decided to calculate my results (an essential step in any experiment). With the original four day a week program (the five day a week plan never really took), I was walking for 120 minutes and burning 700-800 calories. With the six day a week program, I was still walking for 120 minutes… but I was burning an excess of 3,600 calories! It was clear that my problem hadn’t been the workout itself, but the way I had been dividing it up. And the result was inspiration.

While I still don’t claim to be a runner (it would be a shame to disgrace the title borne by so many of my truly athletic friends), I can state that I don’t loathe running quite the way I used to. It had become an acceptable and sometimes even highly anticipated part of my day. In the end, finding a workout that works wasn’t a matter of digging deep to find inspiration or setting grand goals, it was merely a matter of dividing the time into more manageable increments.


The Power of Cash May 8, 2014

Filed under: Money Management — acgheen @ 12:00 am
Tags: , ,

It’s a strange feeling pulling out a wad of bills. It isn’t the same as scrawling your name across the bottom of a check, knowing that the money is in your account. And it’s distinctly different from handing the cashier a plastic card with a magnetic strip so worn that it rarely functions. Cash is real. It’s tangible. It’s green. And it makes you think.

I’ve been using cash almost exclusively since last December. With the exception of a few bills paid through automatic withdrawal and a couple checks for recurring expenses, I use paper to pay for everything. I admit that making the transition from plastic felt odd at first. Unlike my credit card, cash runs out. If you don’t remember to replace it, you find yourself ready to make a purchase, but without anything with which to make that purchase.

This only happened twice before I remedied the problem with a “tiny emergency fund” (otherwise known as a $5 bill) stuffed into my coin pocket. It’s to cover the types of incidental expenses likely to crop up during an ordinary day, but not so much that it enables impulse spending. On mornings when I know I’m heading to the market, I’ll add a bit more (usually thanks to a reminder plugged into my iPod when I made my shopping list).

The system works well, but it has its side effects. For some inexplicable reason, cash isn’t just tangible, it’s emotional. The bills in my pocket have begun to feel a bit like friends… and I like their company. The result is that I find myself passing on many of the “incidental” purchases which previously marked my monthly credit card statement. Is it really worth trading Mr. Washington for Dr. Pepper? Not really. (My physician and I are finally in agreement on that.) Am I comfortable exchanging Mr. Lincoln for a hamburger? Nope. Does relinquishing Mr. Hamilton for a new book really make me happier than borrowing the tome from the library? Ok, well, maybe yes to that one… but I’ll spend a few days thinking hard about the question before I bid him adieu.

The truth is that cash, by its mere presence, provokes thought. But using cash hasn’t just influenced the amount of time I spend considering what and how much I purchase. It’s also drawn my attention to how blessed I truly am. What seems like very little when tallied in a bank book, is actually quite a lot when carried in a pocket. That wad of bills is about much more than just the power to make a purchase… it’s about the immediate ability to make a difference. (Seriously, when was the last time you tossed your credit card into a Salvation Army bucket?) Cash provides an avenue for generous, spontaneous giving as I encounter needs in the lives of others. It gives me not just a heart to help (I already had that), but the physical means to reflect that heart through my actions.

So each time I pull those bills out of my pocket, I weigh them in the balance. Is the purchase I’m about to make really necessary? And if not, is it really the best investment of my green friends? Such questions provoke thought. And that is the power of cash.


What Happens in Vegas Comes Home With Your Coworkers and Haunts You Forever May 1, 2014

Filed under: LasVegas,Travel — acgheen @ 12:00 am
Tags: ,

The trip to Vegas was a purposeful one. We had gone with the intention of vetting new products for the coming spring. But while our days were filled with walking the floor of the trade show, making deals and signing contracts, our evenings were free.

Our party was heavily weighted towards the female end and, after visiting Caesar’s Palace and the fountain out front of the Bellagio, we decided it was time to allow the one guy in our group to choose a destination.

“I’ve heard that there’s a really good pirate show,” he excitedly volunteered. Pointing down the road, he drew our attention to two large ships sitting motionless in a pool outside of yet another casino.

We all agreed and began making our way toward the boardwalk, which was quickly filling up as patrons staked out their “seats” for the event. Soon we, too, had selected prime positions and it wasn’t much longer before we discovered we’d be stuck in those positions for the next hour. I crouched down to rest my back and buy a little extra room (I’ve never been particularly fond of tight spaces and was even less so on this particularly warm evening), and waited.

The show began with cannon fire between the two ships – one of which was crewed exclusively with men and the other with scantily clad women. It was clear that all of us felt a bit awkward about the situation. And, as we watched, the show got progressively worse. It quickly became evident that there was an overarching dominatrix theme and, though our buying team was ready to leave, there was no quick avenue of escape. So we did the only thing which came naturally to any of us: we stared at the planks of the bridge, our faces growing redder and redder as we awaited the conclusion of our torment.

I finally couldn’t take it anymore and began pushing people aside as I slipped through the pressing crowd on a lengthy journey towards the sidewalk. My escape finally complete, I stood and waited. I heard the pirate ships sinking (something I’d have appreciated seeing under other circumstances), then watched as the crowd began to disperse. Meanwhile, I enjoyed the sensation of my body temperature returning to normal.

Leaning against a barrier, I watched as a couple walked past. The woman was clearly angered by what she had just witnessed and her husband, following her from behind was begging for mercy. “Honest, honey, it wasn’t like that last time!”

 “I didn’t know it would be like that,” my coworker said, as the rest of the team joined me on the sidewalk. “I’d just read that they sank a pirate ship.” His embarrassment was evident which, of course, meant that the story would be retold over and over again, to the excessive gratification of those of us who were equally culpable for the mistake.

So why retell the story now, years later? Quite simply to make the point that advertising, while often appealing, isn’t always truthful. What happens in Vegas doesn’t really stay in Vegas at all. Instead, it comes home with your coworkers and haunts you forever. That, alone, is a good reason to look before you leap… or at least take the time to do a bit of research before attending a show about pirates. Arrrrrrrg.


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