Monday, May 16, 2011

Passing Along My Mail Center Knowledge

I went to the post office today. The lines were outrageous, both inside at the service desk and in the lobby at the automated mail machine. I watched a lady struggle for 15 minutes to mail four [domestic!] packages. And then it turned out she was mailing books. She paid Priority postage instead of book rate (media mail) postage - she probably spent a total of $25 when she could have spent closer to $10.

Even with the automated machine's clunky interface and several screens with offers of unnecessary services, it only took me about 2-3 minutes to mail two packages. I will admit, I have a bit of experience with shipping and mailing - I worked in Hope College's mail center for 3 years. I've dealt with USPS, UPS, and FedEx, both domestic and international, as well as presorted bulk mailings. Since I know about all the options, I know what I want. I'm going to venture a guess and say that the reason the lines at the post office are so long and people struggle so much is mainly due to A) bad advertising and B) lack of knowledge. I don't know everything, but I'm going to pass along my knowledge of the basics so that whoever reads this can make more informed decisions about how they mail things.

Sure it's convenient... but you'll pay the price.

Let's talk about A). I'm guessing you have heard the slogan, "If it fits, it ships!". The US Postal Service has been really pushing their Flat Rate boxes. Some of their reasons make sense, but, the average person who needs to mail something (i.e. someone who is shipping a package to a family member - not running a small business) does NOT need flat rate shipping. In general, unless you're shipping something very heavy, very far (i.e. shipping three dozen cookies, an 8x10 picture frame, and five packages of extra clean underwear, from California to your college student in Michigan), you really don't need Flat Rate shipping.

On to B). Here are your basic options, and some tips/guidelines. If you know what your options are, you should know what you want, and be able to pay a fair price.

Express Mail - really unnecessary unless you need something to get somewhere by the next day. Wanna pay $18 to ship something that could have gone for 44 cents if you would've shipped it a week earlier? Didn't think so. If the receiver can wait 2-3 days, priority mail should be fine.

Priority Mail - Basically, Priority Mail is forced upon you if your package is over a certain weight limit, even if you don't need it to get there quickly. Generally, Priority Mail takes 2-3 days, depending on the distance it has to travel. The lowest price you'll pay is around $5, and it goes up from there depending on what "zone" it's being delivered to. Flat rate mail, described above, is also a Priority mail service, but the pricing doesn't depend on zones or weight - only on size.

First Class Mail - First class mail takes a bit longer than Priority and includes your letters (44 cents if under one ounce, 64 cents if between 1 and 2, etc. - also subject to size restrictions), flats (bigger and/or thicker than a letter, up to the size of a large manilla envelope), and parcels (packages that don't fit in the above size categories, but are still light enough not to have to be sent priority). If you're sending more than 5 sheets of paper in an envelope, get it weighed to check you've got enough postage on it; otherwise it'll be sent back to you. Please don't try to send oddly shaped objects in a letter - your envelope could get caught in the mail machine and rip open, destroying the contents and pissing off the postal workers since they have to go reset the machine. If you're just under or at the thickness limit, move up to a flat to be safe. If you're sending something that doesn't bend easily (like a CD in a case) - send it as a parcel, not a flat. Also: don't guess. Sticking 5 stamps on a package and praying it's enough isn't going to help you. Just go to the dang post office if you're unsure.

Media Mail - This is something that all college students should know about, as well as anybody who buys or sells books online. Books can get heavy, especially when they're college textbooks. I hardly keep any of my textbooks after using them for a semester, and instead sell them online to try to get some of the ridiculous amount of money that I spent on the book back. Instead of having to pay $5-$10 to send a single book, you can pay $2-$4 for it when you ask for media mail. Note that this is a service only offered at the counter during regular hours - most automated machines don't give this option.

Packaging - If you wait until you get to the post office to get your packaging, you're probably screwed. Reuse old boxes and buy plain, reinforced or padded envelopes at an office or grocery store. If you go to the post office and grab one of their red, white, and blue priority or express boxes/envelopes that are so conveniently sitting in the lobby, you must send it by the service stated on the box. When reusing old boxes, cross out all of the old barcodes and take off the old labels if possible.

Extra services - Only pay for extra services if you really think you'll need them. I've never had a problem with any packages and I've never paid for delivery confirmation, insurance, return receipt, or anything like that.

I hope this has helped, but if you still don't understand your options, try reading "A Customer's Guide to Mailing", found at the USPS website. Pass on some postal knowledge to a friend and maybe we can make the whole process go a little bit more smoothly!

Thursday, September 30, 2010


I'm pretty upset about the growing level of conservatism in Michigan right now. The current numbers show that Virg Bernero (the more liberal, Democratic candidate) is behind Republican Rick Snyder (who I admittedly don't know that much about) in the Michigan governor's race, and living in Holland is enough to make me think that the whole state is turning into some anti-liberal, homophobic, religious haven. I take solace in the fact, though, that we still have places like Ann Arbor.

However, Andrew Shervall, an assistant in the Michigan Attorney General's office, has taken it upon himself to crusade against the University of Michigan (located in Ann Arbor) and its new student body president - a gay student by the name of Chris Armstrong.

Check out this video outlining the story and then check out Shervall's blog (link below).

One comment on this video: Shervall mentions co-ed housing as "a radical redefinition of gender norms". 
I loathe gender norms. I have a lot to say on this topic. More later.

Shervall's blog can be found at:
Some highlights:
  •  "Exclusive" photos from a party that got broken up by the police (He probably took them himself. Creeeeepy.)
  •  Screenshots from Armstrong's friends' and supporters' facebook pages, in an attempt to discredit them as being homosexuals, liars, Bible-bashers, law-breakers, underage drinkers, and all kinds of "scandalous" things.
  •  Obsessively stalking Armstrong's facebook and noting when anything has been changed or deleted, saying how Armstrong is clearly trying to "cover up secrets". Right. Maybe he just doesn't want to give you more fuel for your crusade?
Funny enough, Michigan's Attorney General, Mike Cox, has been a huge proponent of keeping the public safe from internet predators and reducing cyber-bullying. Hmm.

UPDATE: the blog has been made private. Also, click the link for a piece on Andrew Shervall from last night's Daily Show

Friday, September 3, 2010


Today's fun fact is brought to you by the 34th issue of Cabinet Magazine, "A quarterly of art and culture".

The English word test comes from the Latin word testis, which means "witness". Makes sense, right? If you're taking a test, you're a witness to your knowledge.

Well, what about the word "testicle"? It also comes from testis, which happens to be the singular form of testes. So what's the relationship between witnesses and testes? Funny enough, throughout the centuries, witnesses of oaths in many cultures got pretty familiar with each others' testicles. It was common to grasp another man's genitalia while swearing an oath, making a promise, or giving testimony (see what I did there?) in court. The swearer of the oath was effectively saying "you can cut off my balls if I'm lying". Jake, who let me borrow this magazine after using it for his art class, suggested that this was also symbolic of cursing or punishing future generations for the lies of the speaker.

This happens numerous times in the Bible. In Genesis, a servant places his hand "under the thigh" of his master, Abraham, to swear an oath. Later in the same book, Joseph is also said to place his hand under Jacob's "thigh".

"When the time drew near for Israel to die, he called for his son Joseph and said to him, 'If I have found favor in your eyes, put your hand under my thigh and promise that you will show me kindness and faithfulness. Do not bury me in Egypt,'"
- Genesis 47:29, NIV
Anyway, I thought this was pretty exciting. Er...interesting. And I wanted to share. Because I knew you all would love to learn about testicles etymology today!


Oh my goodness. I forgot about one of my favorite clapping songs last time. This song is incredibly captivating (at least I think so) and I can't believe I forgot to mention it!
Radical Face - Welcome Home

Aquí está otra canción fantástico que tiene aplausos de manos, y no lo recordó hasta la vez mas reciente que yo lo oí en la radio!
Mute Math - Spotlight
Not sure why i wrote that in Spanish.... moving on.

Here's another fun song that was just mentioned to me for its hand clapping:
They Might Be Giants - Twisting

Here's some more goodness, in the form of food. I'm sad I didn't get a picture of it for the blog entry, though it wasn't really that much to look at. Instead, I can give you a picture of what my kitchen would've looked like, had I waited just a little bit longer to remember to pay attention to the oil that was on the stove behind me:

Grease fire! woohoo! They can devastate a kitchen in minutes, and can't be put out with water.

Anyway, here's the recipe (as best as I can remember) for my "italian omelet".
  • Saute chopped shallots, onions, and avocado in italian spices and olive oil; remove from pan.
  • Add garlic and more olive oil; later add chicken breast and pesto to pan; cook through
  • Remove chicken from pan; cook spinach in microwave, then add to remaining oil and heat in pan
  • In new pan, scramble eggs and milk; add chicken and spinach and cook as omelet; add mozzarella cheese
Note: Short as it is, this blog entry has been saved as a draft for a couple of weeks, and I finally got around to finishing it tonight. I've been rather busy - finishing work, taking summer finals, starting school full-time again... sucks that I've been neglecting this blog, but I've gotta do what I've gotta do.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I have an unhealthy obsession with hand-clapping. music, I mean.
I don't just go around clapping my hands at strangers.

Listen to "Penelope" by Pinback. Then read.

I was about to go to bed, but I decided that I needed to post this song because it's been in my head all day. It's been lingering there, in the back of my mind, resurfacing every so often when my brain isn't occupied with some other immediate function. Despite the coming and going, that haunting presence hasn't driven me crazy it must be good, right? Hah, that's not really a valid reason, since I have a pretty high tolerance for things that don't agree with some peoples' ears. But this doesn't fit that category, because, in the name of all things catchy, who doesn't love hand claps?!

I should probably clarify though. The hand claps that I'm obsessed with happen to be more of an important supporting rhythmic theme than a cheesy addition to the beat. It's kind of funny, because I will hear a new song that really strikes me, and later realize that it's got the claps. Heh.

Great example of the flamenco-inspired style I adore: "Boy With a Coin" by Iron & Wine
(combined with the guitar style, "Penelope" falls into this category as well)

Less constant, but still good examples: "Stars and Sons" by Broken Social Scene, "Left & Right in the Dark" by Julian Casablancas

Syncopation is great!

Here are some songs with syncopated repeating clap-beats: "Starlight" by Muse, "The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders" by Sufjan Stevens
Syncopated beat mostly all the way through: "15 Steps" by Radiohead (I'm a sucker for 5/4 time).

More standard beats, but still decent clapping (real or fake): "Clark Gable" by the Postal Service, "We're From Barcelona" by I'm From Barcelona (the pattern borders on being pretty standard and boring, but the song is cute), many Ratatat songs

I made this creepy digital art just for you!
Guess what else I've made?: Click here to go to a Grooveshark playlist of all these songs.

Can anyone add to these categories? I know there are some songs I'm forgetting.
If anyone actually reads this, and you know of a good song with hand claps, post it in a comment please!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

I've got music, coming out of my hands and feet and kisses

I've been far too busy lately to get substantial reading done, so I thought I'd do a quick post of some songs that I've been digging lately. Most of these have come out pretty recently (thank you, satellite radio). Sometime I'll post some older favorites though, too, as long as people don't hate me for pushing my taste in music at them.

The links below go to Grooveshark, a free music service that lets you stream whatever songs you want. The ads are obnoxious, but I'll take the bright, flashy banners advertising stuff I don't care about as long as they come with a way to listen to that song I can't get out of my head but don't personally own. Descriptions and links are after the jump.

Here is a generic, poorly-edited picture of smoke that I attempted the other day. It's sad that something can be so beautiful but can't be captured in an image without being under precisely the right circumstances. But I guess that's the point of having eyes and experiencing life.

Now, without further ado:

I've never been that much of a Gorillaz fan, but I heard this song on the radio and it simultaneously creeped me out and intrigued me. It's poppy, yet dark; repetitive, yet unique. 
Gorillaz: Rhinestone Eyes

If you've seen 500 Days of Summer, you've heard the song "Sweet Disposition". The intro hooked me in as soon as I heard Dougy Mandagi's crooning falsetto mingling with opening guitar riff. "Fader" is their latest single, and I think it's pretty awesome, though in a different style than "Sweet Disposition".
The Temper Trap: Sweet Disposition & Fader

Just listen. This song makes me want to put the accelerator to the floor.
Two Door Cinema Club: I Can Talk

I recently re-discovered this band after having seen them in concert a few years ago opening for Anathallo at the Pike Room. I'm pretty sure that's it's just the one guy (who happens to be Andrew Bird's drummer) doing everything (live sampling FTW) except for the saxophone. And the saxophone rocks.
Dosh: Capture the Flag

I have been on such a Julian Casablancas kick lately... his debut solo album is fantastic. The lyrics totally make up for the poppy synth riffs, and, I don't even mind the synth riffs that much, despite my aversion to catchy things. Note: Julian is the lead singer of the Strokes, whom I love, but the style is a lot different; the Strokes are a lot darker sounding.
Julian Casablancas: 11th Dimension

I love Passion Pit, but I've listened to their album so many times that it's nice to hear something new from them. And while this song is nowhere near new, the style in which they cover it is refreshing.
Passion Pit: Tonight Tonight (Smashing Pumpkins Cover)

Well...that's my update. I hope it sufficiently made up for the fact that I created, and then neglected, this blog. I hope to be less busy this week and continue reading... once I get through the latest chapters in my macroeconomics and physics classes, that is.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Lexicological and Biological Change

Last Night, I started reading Dawkins' "The Greatest Show on Earth". I chose it to be first on my list because I figured it would be an interesting contrast to the literal six-day-creation, Earth-is-only-a-few-thousand-years-old perspective my most recent read, "Noah's Flood: Birth of the Ice Age" by the Biblical fundamentalist Robert Gielow (note: I plan to write a review of this book at some point in the near future). I haven't gotten very far in Dawkins' book, but it has already provoked some thought.

In the second chapter, Dawkins describes some "evolutionary basics" - every animal has some common ancestor, etc. He notes that inheritance of traits is not always as obvious as it seems; at some point, it was commonly thought that some breeds of dogs were descended from jackals, some from coyotes, and some from wolves. This was based among traits in the dogs that seemed to be more in line with one of the supposed ancestral species. However, with advances in genetics, it was proven that dogs - all breeds of them - are descended from wolves only. Granted, they do have a common ancestor with jackals somewhere. But the point is, ancestry is not always obvious on the surface; you have to delve into history to find it.

This may seem like a complete tangent, but: is the same not true of language? English is especially guilty of having a murky lineage. We have influence from both Latin and Germanic languages, so we often have two words that are completely different, but mean exactly the same thing. We also have words that are similar enough in structure - and sometimes meaning - that they seem like they could have the same great-great-great-great-great-grandfather* word. Yet, these words often have no common root word at all!
*Something that I still don't understand about the Spanish language, even after taking five years of classes, is why there are assigned genders to its words, or how the gender is decided. What makes a chair feminine (la silla) or a desk masculine (el escritorio)? What if you make a compound word out of a masculine word and a feminine word? Is there a 50-50 chance that their offspring will be gifted with a linguistic Y chromosome? Or will there be some sort of mismatch that causes it to become a kind of hermaphrodite, similar to the genderless words of the English language?
Some words are closely related, stemming from the same root word, but splitting off at some point in time, much like a genetic mutation. Often one word will survive and the other will not; however, in English we have ended up with the words "amiable" and "amicable" - different by one letter, yet having almost the exact same meaning. Why do both words remain?

How much of language is left up to natural selection? A language's words - and styles of speaking - go in and out of popularity as determined by the usage of its native speakers. Some of this may be artificial selection, as in the case of attempting to make oneself conform to a certain perceived status or style; however, there is an element of natural selection in the process: keep up with the times, or you'll be left behind.

This may explain a portion, if not all, of the immense variation and incredibly voluminous vocabulary of the English language. It's hard to get an exact number, but there are some estimates that claim that the English language contains about 900,000 words. Of course, not all of that number are colloquial; many of these terms are scientific, obscure, outdated, or slang. A college graduate's working vocabulary is estimated to be around 60,000 words, which is only a fraction of that grandiose number. However, compare that to a Japanese speaker's commonly used set of words that numbers around 30,000, or the entirety of the French or Spanish languages which are estimated to contain a total of 100,000 to 200,000 words each.

It should also be taken into account that Japanese, Spanish, and French (yes, even French - no matter how unassimilible it seems to my ears) have rigid pronunciation guidelines; basically, if you can pronounce it, you can spell it, and vice-versa. English has such an extensive range of pronunciations for the same letter or syllable, that it's no wonder we have so many mutated words, so many non-native speakers struggling to learn them, and so many native speakers botching their spelling.

Take, for example, the word "dachshund" (dear god, i can barely spell it even though I've been thinking about it all day). It is clearly a German word, and the reason so many Americans know it (or do they?) is because it is a popular breed of dog (artificial selection, anyone? I'm sure I could go much deeper into the gene-pool-discrimination and inbreeding that is the world of pedigrees and dog shows, but I'll leave that to Dawkins' book). Anyway, because the word has been incorporated into English, it has been mangled by English speakers. Let's have Google image search illustrate this for us:

Look! Three Different breeds of canine!

As interested as I am in language, and as typically good I am at spelling, I am personally guilty of this particular affront to lexicographers, linguists, and English and German speakers of the world. I thought that "Dachshund" was pronounced "Dash Hound" (simply an anglicized version of the word), and that "Doxon" (a phonetic, Americanized interpretation of the German pronunciation) was a completely separate breed. It definitely blew my mind when I made the discovery that all three were one in the same; it also made me feel like quite the dumb ass. So, does English's lack of consistency in spelling and pronunciation make idiots out of Americans? (...not that we need any help.) Or are we getting something more out of it, something that other countries lack? I suppose that's up to you.

I can certainly argue it both ways. Being entangled with other languages and having a wide variety of pronunciations and words to pick from isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sure, it can get confusing for speakers of more structured tongues, but Americans certainly have an interesting way of speaking. As they say (whoever "they" may be), "variety is the spice of life". A bigger "gene pool" of words to pick from leads to tremendous lexicological growth and rich diversity...I guess that English is truly the "mutt" of modern language.