28 December 2010

Gift Bags

For many years now, we've used fabric bags for our Christmas and birthday gifts within our immediate family (ie we don't give them away, but reuse them). Using these bags saves on paper wrapping, sticky tape, and wrapping time. They are super easy and fast to make, and I thought you might like to see how it's done!


• Decorative fabric, this can be Christmas fabric, kiddy print fabric, old sheets, recycled shirts, use whatever you have to hand. A soft polyester / cotton fabric works best, you don't want to use anything sheer or too stiff. You'll want to make a range of bag sizes, from little (jewellery!) to huge (for those kiddy toys!), so fabric scraps of nearly any size will work well.

• Ribbon or cording to tie the bags closed. You can even use plaited yarn or knit i-cord for this.

• Sewing thread.


Step 1 : Cut your fabric to twice the size you want your bag. I don't measure anything, I just fold the fabric in half to get the rough size I'm after, and cut to size. The fold can either be on the side of the bag, or the base, it doesn't matter.

Step 2 : Get the cord for the tie closure, and fold it in half. You want a decent amount of ribbon or cord, so you can tie a pretty bow. Place the folded ribbon on the side of the bag, far enough down from the top of the bag to give a nice ruffled effect when the bag is tied shut - roughly 1/4 of the total height of the bag (or so).

Step 3: Fold the fabric over so right sides are together, and pin the 2 sides to be sewn together, catching in the looped end of the cord in the side seam as shown below. Sew the seams. I usually sew over the ribbon bit a few times for extra strength.

Step 4 : trim the corners of the bag. You can finish the seams if you like, but honestly, I don't bother - the bag isn't going to get that much wear and tear, or even need washing much.

Step 5 : Fold the top edge of the bag over twice to make a narrow hem, iron it if you're so inclined (I don't bother, and just finger press it), pin, and sew.

Step 6 : Turn the bag right side out, give it a firm shake, turn out the corners, you can even iron it if you're really getting carried away, and you're done! It really is that quick - about 10 minutes to make 1 bag from scratch.

After filling your bag with the gift, tie the ribbon to close it, and pin on a name tag or add one with a hole punched in it over the ribbon tie.

Some more ideas :

• For children's gifts - dinosaur fabric, animal fabric, brightly coloured sheets, stripes, there are a million great kid print fabrics out there. (Make sure you tie their bags with double knots to stop peeking under the Christmas tree!)

• Make small bags from exquisite quilting fabrics.

• Make the top of a bag out of calico or some other plain fabric, and add a band or base of a fancy or panel print fabric.

• Make personalised bags for your family, with their names cut out of fabric or embroidered on, if you're into appliqué or embroidery.

• Make a drawstring closure instead of just stitching in the ribbon if you're feeling extravagant.

• Have two different fabrics for the front and back of the bag.

• Raid your local op shop for old clothes and linen which are decorative and of the right sort of weight and drape, and chop them up for your bags.

• Get your kids to draw Christmas / birthday pictures with fabric markers / crayons onto plain calico, set their artwork (usually this means ironing the fabric), and then use the fabric to make some bags.

• Make enough bags that you can give them away with gifts to friends and family, and spread the "gift bag" love!

22 December 2010

Tuk Tuk Dreams

My rather amazing and activist brother David met Laban in Canberra some years ago. This story here is a genuine and heartfelt one, and if you'd like to get involved, there are links at the bottom of the page.

Here is the first letter from my brother :

Dear Family and Friends - make a difference this Xmas with a gift to help my friend Laban Baragu in Kenya.

Laban befriended us in Canberra a few years ago and has kept in contact over the years. He recently contacted me to ask for financial help - he now has a small family and is struggling to provide for them. I am committed to helping him in whatever way I can and ask that you support me.

For the last few years, he and his wife have operated a small shoe stall at the markets but are finding it very difficult to make a living above the poverty line. Laban had a micro-loan but was not making enough money from the shoe stall to pay it back - the bank took his furniture as payment.

Here is a recent email from Laban:

Hallo David, do you think the photos will serve the purpose? whats the progress. Sometime i have sleepless night i cry to myself coz am not able to provide for my son the proper meals, its a shame but i try my best. Sometime I go with a single meal per day to at least have something for the following day if i don't succeed. Thank you for taking your time to knowing what we are going thro' and trying to help us. Am praying to my God that everything falls into its place. With the tuk tuk my family will be able to overcome all the troubles, all i have to do is put more hour into the business and the rest will be history, i will be able to stand on my own and take care of my family.

Thank you once again and regards to your family.


Laban is now trying to change his life by buying a second-hand Tuk-Tuk (motor-bike taxi) - which he says will provide a greater income and allow him to move above the poverty line and provide for his family.

The challenge is in buying the Tuk-Tuk - he is no longer eligible for a micro-loan, and while Laban is adamant that he will pay back any money lent to him, a gift will remove so much pressure and allow him to focus on building the business, while still spending time with his wife and son Ryan. I am aiming for $3,000 which will allow him to purchase the Tuk Tuk outright and not owe anything.

So why not support Laban's Tuk Tuk Dream, either with a donation or a gift on behalf of someone else - a great present for those of us who have enough.

If you are interested, let me know how much you want to give and who you want to gift it from (name and address) - I will then make up a small card and send it to who you nominate by Christmas- stating that you have helped Laban and his family on their behalf. I will also provide updates on Laban's progress as I receive them.

Thank you for considering this call for help and please pass this email on to those who you think may be open.

Lots of love,



Last week David set up a small Cause on Facebook, and there are just a few of us there, doing what we can. He posted this a few days ago :


We've nearly reached half way - $1,355! And today with the help of extra loan funds, I have sent $1,700 to Laban so he can put down a deposit on a tuk tuk and start using it. He will then need to pay the remaining $1,300 within 9 months - but hopefully we can make that happen sooner.

I rang Laban today and told him that I had deposited the funds and that it was a gift from those who have contributed - he burst into tears. I could hear the utter relief in his voice. He was so thankful to everyone - "Words cannot express how I feel." he said in his soft, gentle voice.

We are certaintly making a difference - join us who have donated if you can, so we can complete this dream. Thank you all.



To help out, visit the Causes page on Facebook.

To contact David directly, send me an email and I'll pass it along.

What I really love about this is how directly and quickly we can make a difference. I support Medicin san Frontiers and Amnesty International, but somehow, contributing to Laban's Tuk Tuk Dream is so much more satisfying and rewarding. There are no middle men here, no administration costs, just direct action and direct help. And I'm in awe of my brother, who follows his words with action, rallies people around him, and passionately stands up for people and causes. I think you'll agree he's a pretty awesome guy.

20 December 2010

Glassy Goodness

Son is honing his glasswork skills, as you can see.

His art marbles and phone charms are now available in the Craft ACT Shop in Civic. He's submitted his application to the Flower Marble course with John Kobuki next July at the Corning Museum of Glass in upstate New York (a big adventure!!!). He's had some commissions. And he's started making geckoes!

You can see more photos of his work here. He is slowly getting his Etsy shop started too, so stay tuned :)

07 December 2010

Eye Exams

A health update for you. My new neurologist, the wonderful Dr Lueck, is quite sure that I have neuro-sarcoidosis. This will always be a 'best guess' diagnosis, as the only way to be 100% sure is to get a tissue biopsy, and a brain biopsy isn't something anyone wants to do, or will do.

It turns out that my lumbar puncture tests results were abnormal - how the f--k all the doctors missed this when I was in hospital, I'll never know! Gah!

I did have oligoclonal bands and elevated white blood cell counts, and combined with the abnormal MRI and the location of the lesions (optic chiasm), it all adds up to a completely typical presentation for neurosarcoid. There you go, I'm normal at last! Ha!

Yesterday I had my latest peripheral visual field exam, and there was a little bit more improvement. Not a lot, but a bit. This is what has been squeezed out from another month on insanely high doses of prednisolone (40 mg/day).

Just so you can see what corticosteroids can do for you, if you have neurological vision loss, check out these results :

These are my test results from September. The black bits are where I can't see. Dark grey areas show partial vision. The circle represents my entire field of peripheral vision. The test is done by staring at a central light, and pressing a beeper every time you notice a light - these lights are pin points at different brightness levels (often very faint!) that flicker on and off.

I then had a month on 60 mg of prednisolone, and another month on 50 mg. These are the rather startlingly wonderful results from the end of October. This is what corticosteroids are bloody good at! At this point they let me drive again :)

And these are my test results from yesterday. The red circles show the optic nerve - we've all got blind spots there! So there has definitely been a little more improvement after another month on 40 mg of pred, but that central bit is pretty stubborn, isn't it?

The blank spots are still obvious and somewhat annoying all the time, I often miss bits when reading instructions and recipes, in particular. This may be permanent scarring, and I may just have to get used to it. My vision has also become generally extremely blurry since September, which is probably neurological in cause (not a drug side effect), so I'm getting my glasses prescription updated this week.

I'll see what Dr Lueck wants to do, whether I need to stay on such high doses or not. I'm seeing my immunologist Dr Cook next week, and suspect that I'll be put onto the immuno-suppressant meds, like Azathioprine and Cyclophosphamide (a chemotherapy agent). They are also "steroid sparing" meds, which means if you take them at the same time as prednisolone, you can get the same effect at a lower dose of steroids. These are generally very long-term meds for neurosarcoid patients. I just have to hope Dr Cook agrees with Dr Lueck about the neurosarcoid diagnosis, there's still some discussion going, I suspect ... still hoping to avoid the cerebral angiogram.

It turns out that the awful itchy blistering skin lesions I've had on my calves for the past couple of summers are probably sarcoid in origin too - I've been to a dermatologist, and when they recur (unlikely while I'm on steroids) I'll have them biopsied. This could provide us with the 'gold standard' tissue diagnosis for a definitive sarcoidosis diagnosis, so is the only time when I'm kinda hoping the horrible lesions come back!

One benefit of having such a rare disease (less than 4 per 100,000 people have it) is that you get the best doctors - both my specialists are the heads of their departments. I'm officially interesting.

I'm also on Lyrica now to deal with the numbness in my right arm and face, and the neuropathic foot pain. Getting used to it was dreadful, but after 10 days (during which I felt like a zombie and came *this* close to quitting) my body decided to just get on with things ... it does help a bit, but doesn't stop these symptoms entirely. The foot pain is more like 2-5 out of 10, instead of 7-9, though, so that's a definite benefit.

I really hope I can drop down on the prednisolone soon, the side effects are getting more difficult to accept, especially the Cushingoid weight gain / redistribution :( Feeling a bit like hiding away in a cave at the moment. I'm doing what I can to be as healthy as possible - eating well, cutting out sugar, exercising daily - but there's only so much you can achieve against such high steroid doses. It's all rather hideously inevitable. So if I look like a bloated frog next time you see me, be kind ...

01 December 2010

TAM Sydney Diary

Warning : link and photo heavy post! Ready to come on a trip with me?

The Amazing Meeting certainly lived up to its monicker! It really was amazing, and a fitting first TAM for Australia. (What is TAM? This explains it all.)

I travelled up by the 6:45 am train on Thursday ... what a great way to get places. I love the train.
A cryptic crossword, sock on the needles and a Peter Robinson audio book Dry Bones that Dream on my iPod (thanks to LittleNeedles!). Perfect.

On Thursday I wandered about the Powerhouse Museum for several hours til my feet complained, and then checked in to my hotel (Ibis Hotel, World Square) ... nice room ...

.. crap view!
In the afternoon I visited Kinokuniya, the wonderful Japanese bookshop in The Galeries Victoria. While I was there I noticed that they had a single copy of Word Searches for Dummies ... well, why not, I thought? They might like it signed? So I took it to the Information Desk - where I espied Anh Do doing exactly the same thing, signing a pile of his new book! So we had a great little chat, and a few fist bumps. So that was all pretty exciting. I was relatively restrained with my purchases, mainly bought gifts for the family, and the Sock Yarn One-Skein Wonders book for myself.

I had dinner sitting at a 'shared table' (ie without knowing the others on the table) at the dumpling restaurant Din Tai Fung. The food was good, basically yum cha. A bit weird ordering without having prices listed against the menu, but it worked out. The lychee and green tea slushy ice drink was a highlight. Noisy, very busy, popular venue.

On Friday I had the morning free, so walked up to Morris & Sons, my first 'in person' shopping experience there! What a great shop! I looked for angora without success, but did stock up on some KnitPro accessories, extra tips (trying the acrylic ones) and cables.

And at lunchtime it was time to register for TAM, and get started!

We all got Placebo Bands in our conference bags! Richard Saunders showed us the tricks that are used to make the Power Balance bracelets appear to work ... honestly, don't waste your money. You can get your own Placebo Bands here, they are only $2, and any profits go to non-religious charities.

The conference was held at the Sydney Masonic Centre, around the corner from my hotel (yeah, that was on purpose). The building was impressive, and very comfortable. Most sessions were held in the Grand Lodge, which held just over 600 people ...

... including pirates ...

Over the 3 days we heard many and varied speakers, all of them interesting. This is Brian Dunning of the Skeptoid podcast holding forth ...

Friday night was a "TAM Fringe" event - my good mate Sally came along to this, was great to see her, and excellent that she could get along to this, despite missing out on a ticket to TAM. This was at Maloney's Hotel, thankfully just across the road from my hotel. The food was fine, but the surroundings were terribly loud, sigh. I really don't cope well with noisy surroundings any more. A weird "Canberra moment" - the young American woman sitting next to me turned out to live less than 1km from me, in the same suburb! We'll be catching up some time soon.

I think that one of the best parts of TAM was being able to meet my heroes, and make new friends ... this is me with talented musician and podcaster George Hrab of the Geologic Podcast (amongst many other things), who is just the nicest and coolest guy ever. He'll be in Canberra at Skeptics in the Pub (Sun 5 Dec 1-4 pm King O'Malley's Pub in Civic) next weekend if you're around and interested in meeting him! (Still hating what mega-doses of prednisolone are doing to my body and face. Sigh.)

Other authors / skeptics I met included Brian Dunning, Rebecca Watson, Evan Bernstein, the Novella gang (ie the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe team), Dr Rob Morrison (yes, that Rob Morrison, from The Curiosity Show), Kylie Sturgess, Richard Saunders, my favourite science writer and general hero, Simon Singh, and The Amazing James Randi himself ... I collected autographs in the back pages of Carl Sagan's classic book, The Demon-Haunted World (Admission : using the book for autographs was Andrew's idea, not mine, I just knew a good bandwagon when I saw one!).

Simon asked me to take photos when he met James Randi, and email them to him :)

Rebecca Watson was all exited to meet a puzzle writer, and asked if I'd like to write a regular puzzle for the Skepchick site - shit yeah! And Kylie Sturgess was interested in the Mahikari literature and stories I had to lend her, so maybe this will lead to a bit more heat on that particular deceptive group ... So stay tuned - exciting things are happening :D

Dr Paul Willis from ABC's science show Catalyst was our excellent and hilarious MC for the whole event. The lectures and workshops ranged over a wide range of topics, from science-based medicine and education to science journalism, elbology, skeptical activism, astronomy, live podcast recordings, and so much more. The effervescent Dr Karl spoke (actually, I think "enthused" is more appropriate for Dr Karl), as did Dick Smith - I hadn't realised that he was one of the founders of the Australian Skeptics 30 years ago. Julian Morrow from The Chaser was there too, on several panels.

Saturday night was the conference dinner, held on board a massive catamaran. The food was OK - just a buffet - and it was a bit too crowded and noisy for my taste, but still fun to have attended.
The crowd attending TAM was a good one - roughly 1/3 were women, and there were a lot of young people, some kids, and plenty of uni students. A change from the early TAMs, which Randi said were completely older white guys, The students from the Freethought University Alliance were there in force, and I was interviewed for the Young Australian Skeptics podcast ("vox pop" section). There were also many retirees, and a wide range of nationalities. The mood was overwhelmingly positive, and there was plenty of laughter, silliness, and good humour in all the talks and in general.

The best - and quietest - meal of the weekend was at the Korean restaurant Dae Jang Kum, on Sunday night with Chrys from the Gold Coast and Steve from Melbourne ... OMG, go there if you get the chance. The Spicy Squid and Pork Belly was perfect - just the right amount of chilli and extremely nommable. You know it's good when most of the other patrons are Korean ...

On Monday, despite being utterly exhausted (there's only so much one can handle with chronic illness after all) I bussed over to the NSW Art Gallery - something I've wanted to do for decades, and have never managed yet. So that was enjoyable, I'm glad I made the effort.
I then had several hours to kill in central Sydney, and really didn't want to spend more money or hurt my feet any more than necessary. In the end I plopped down in a café with my knitting (a sock for hubby) for a couple of hours ...

Then it was just a matter of collecting my luggage from the hotel and walking to the train station ... there's my train! Another enjoyable, quiet, and uneventful trip home, getting in around 10.30 pm.

This book says it all for me - being involved in a faith healing cult for 14 years was what eventually led me to this skeptical path in 2000 ...