Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Moving in Cambridge

This past weekend, I moved in time to bunker down for Hurricane Irene (which proved to be little more than a windy storm for Cambridge, MA). As most of my previous moves have involved primarily storage/shipping, I'm a little late to the game when it comes to knowing how moving works. During my move I learned the following:
  • Do not move on September 1 if you can help it. I haven't ever done this myself, but our move was initially scheduled for September 1 and it was difficult even to reserve a UHaul--and this was at the beginning of August. If you have to move September 1, plan early.
  • If you can't get a UHaul, try the suburbs. We initially had non-overlapping apartment leases (Aug. 31/Sept. 1) and needed to reserve a truck overnight to store our things. We ended up finding one about an hour outside Cambridge.
  • Cambridge issues moving van permits. You can apply for one here but they will cost you money and it may not be honored. I paid $45 for two spots and even though the city put up signs, cars occupied the spots for the duration of my move.
  • Wardrobe boxes are brilliant. Wardrobe boxes (available at the UHaul store and other places) allow you to hang your clothing intact onto a built-in bar. They take up a lot of space, though.
  • Becoming a minimalist is a good idea. I don't think of myself as someone who likes having a lot of stuff, but apparently I have too many things to move comfortably. I have been making good use of the MIT reuse list, the Planet Aid clothes/shoes donation box at MIT, and the book/item exchanges in my building for giving things away.
From my roommate I also learned some cool things about the car-sharing company Zipcar:
  • MIT has a great Zipcar deal where students pay $25 a year.
  • If your Zipcard does not work, Zipcar can remotely open the trunk of a Zipcar, where backup cards are waiting. They will be able to remotely activate a new card for you.
I am currently looking forward to the September 1 looting, which occurs when everybody moving out realizes they have too much stuff and begins selling/giving away things. Being a minimalist may limit my options somewhat.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Google Sites: Why I Believe in WYSIWYG Again

If you have been looking for a mindlessly easy way to create and host slick-looking websites, your life is about to get a heck of a lot better.

I recently discovered that Google Sites provides an amazingly usable interface for creating websites without programming. Sites I've created using Google Sites include a site for Graduate Women at MIT (screen shot to the left) and a personal wiki for posting links to useful things. In this post, I describe what you can use Google Sites for, what you can't use Google Sites for, and how to get started using Google sites.

Google Sites is really done well--not only does it provide support for a comprehensive set of website creation actions, but it also gets the little things right. It has the following advantages:
  • Easy creation of websites, wikis, blogs, etc. You can edit web pages the way you edit Google Docs. Google Sites has four built-in templates: a regular website (editable almost exactly like a Google Doc), an announcements page (for making a blog-like page) a file cabinet (for uploading files), and a list (for entering spreadsheet items). This makes it quite easy to public many kinds of content.
  • Easy publishing of content such as spreadsheets, documents, calendars, and photos. Google supports easy embedding of other Google technologies such as Docs, GCal calendars, and Picasa photos/albums.
  • Collaborative site editing. Google Sites has the same collaborative editing format as Google Docs, making it easy for several people to work on a website together.
  • Automation of site creation tasks. Google Sites gets many of the details right. For instance, you can copy and paste the contents of another website into a Google Site with the formatting preserved and images appropriately displayed and linked. Google Sites also makes it easier to include an image: it supports automatic resizing and automatically inserts a link (which can easily be removed) to the real photo.
  • Customizable templates. Google Sites supports many design templates and also allows the user to change properties such as the appearance of the navigation map (along the top or on the side, tabs or boxes, etc.) and colors and fonts for the text. Google Sites also allows the user to insert a logo into the header (More actions > Manage site > Site layout > change logo)--the GWAMIT site above was done this way.
  • Escape hatches. You can view and edit the HTML source of any page. I find this helpful when there is a weird space I can't get rid of in the Sites editor--WYSIWYG* can only take you so far.

If you want to make a site with a unique design or a lot of functionality, Google Sites may not be the way to go. As for design, Google imposes a fairly standard template onto the site and doesn't allow editing of style sheets, making it difficult to get a page with a different format. As for functionality, it is not completely straightforward to embed Javascript for things like Facebook Community pages and Twitter feeds. Google Sites does allow the user to insert Gadgets wrapping HTML/Javascript, so it should be possible to wrap arbitrary functionality inside a Gadget and then put it in the page. (There is at least one gadget for wrapping Javascript, but it didn't work for me.) I found this helpful post about creating a Google Gadget to wrap Javascript to display a Twitter feed.

To get started with Google sites, go to sites.google.com, activate your account, and start making pages. To create a new site, click "Create new site." Once you choose a template and a name, you'll be directed to a page for editing your site's homepage, the page that shows up under http://sites.google.com/site/[your site name]. You can edit this site just like a Google Doc. You may also create other pages for your site, link to them, move them, etc. Google has a nice getting started guide here.

* What You See Is What You Get.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Monday, August 08, 2011

Before Grilling Season is Over, Try Watermelon

I was recently made aware of NY Times food columnist Mark Bittman's recipe for grilled watermelon and prepared it for the first time yesterday. Grilled watermelon burgers with cheese are a surprisingly delicious combination of sweet and savory flavors. They are also quite easy to make. I recommend being generous with salt and pepper and also using a milder cheese.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Clothes Shopping on a Grad Student Budget

The bottom of my wallet has been taunting me this summer, my first without a Microsoft internship. Determined not to let the halving of my income degrade my quality of life, I have been investigating lower-cost alternatives to my usual indulgences. Initially skeptical of buying used goods, I have made significant spending reductions in the clothing category by turning to thrift and consignment stores.

The main reason to buy used clothing is to acquire interesting accent pieces (either vintage or design) that are higher quality and interesting than comparably-priced alternatives at department or chain stores. My prized vintage purchases (both under $20) include a purple dolman-sleeved button-down dress and a black dice print dress with dice buttons on the back. My favorite gently-worn designer purchases (both under $30) include a khaki Marc Jacobs jacket and a gold-sequin Trina Turk shirt. I have compiled the following tips for picking out interesting/appropriate/timeless pieces among used clothes.

First of all, thrift and consignment stores can be quite confusing to navigate due to the large amount of and variety in the clothing. Here are some tips for approaching the shopping experience:
  • Figure out how the store is organized. Racks may be organized by color, by size, or by some other criteria. Figuring out the organization of the store can help you find what you want much more quickly.
  • Browse methodically. It's can be overwhelming to browse at random when there is only one garment per look/size/color, so it can be good to pick a category (for instance, summer t-shirts) and look only in that category until you are finished.
  • Have an idea of what cut, colors, fabrics you are looking for. This goes for clothes shopping in general, but being able to quickly rule out items of clothing will make your shopping experience much more efficient. Knowing what size you are in different brands will also help.

Once you have found an article of clothing that you like, you should make sure it is a worthwhile purchase. Here are things I have learned:
  • Check the quality of the clothing. Carefully inspect the garment for stains and tears. Make sure the garment will not fall apart after one washing.
  • Don't go for trendy pieces. If someone else has already given away a piece of trendy clothing, you may not be able to get much more wear out of it.
  • Recognize good brands and watch out for fakes. Having a good sense of which brands make clothing that will last through a few washing and wearings will help you pick out worthwhile purchases. Knowing which brands tend to make poor-quality trendy pieces will also help you avoid bad purchases. It is also important to watch out for fakes.

I recommend buying the following things used:
  • Statement pieces. It may be a combination of the fact that people tire of statement pieces quickly and that they don't get reworn too much, but I come across quite a few interesting shirts in good condition.
  • Cardigans and layering pieces. It's nice to have many of them, they usually aren't what make an outfit interesting, and it does not matter that they look brand new. Also, I have found more than one nice cardigan for $10.
  • Leather belts. A tip from my friend Rachel, who finds belts on eBay: these seem to hold up pretty well and cost much less used.
  • Vintage-style clothing. Vintage pieces look cooler if they look more authentic and you could potentially find something nice for a fraction of the designer vintage-chic price.
  • Formal dresses. Formal dresses often do not get much wear: I have seen very nice dresses at consignment stores for very low prices. (I have seen a Vera Wang silk evening gown for something like $38 at the Garment District.)
I would advise acquiring button-down shirts caution: I've had to resew the buttonholes on a couple of shirts.

Here are some thrift and consignment stores around Boston:
  • The Garment District: this place has everything: a dollar-a-pound section for random lucky finds, a costume section, gently-worn designer, and gently-worn other used clothing.
  • Poor Little Rich Girl: a chain of well-curated gently-worn designer.
  • Second Time Around: another chain of well-curated gently-worn designer.
  • Raspberry Beret: "consignment, vintage, and unique items."
I have a friend who also likes Boomerang's, but more for furniture and home items. Have fun!