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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

One more Ashes update before I go

My mom just took Ashes for his weekly visit to the vet. Ashes gained four ounces in the past week. That's pretty significant, and really good news.

A big THANK YOU to everyone who's been praying for Ashes. If, indeed, your prayers have been effective in this matter, then I implore you to add prayers for world peace and an end to hatred and misery for people and animals everywhere. Thanks!

Monday, February 27, 2006

Almost

I packed my bags last night. Underwear, toiletries, cans of soup and clam chowder and tuna, two pounds of Dunkin' Donuts coffee, several bags of Reese's peanut-butter filled chocolate Easter Eggs, and finally my clothes. Made up some new luggage tags to apply to both outside handles and the inside of each bag. Weighed them, with some difficulty. Each bag is almost exactly 40 pounds, 10 pounds under the limit.

And then I noticed that one of the bags is coming apart at a seam.

Looks like the edge of the bag frame was damaged - probably a heavy jolt somewhere - and the fabric began to tear away, leaving about a two-inch gap near the top of the bag. Maybe this is OK for a car trip to the shore, but it's bad enough that I won't trust it on the flight from BWI to Newark to Shannon and back again.

So it looks like there's one more thing I have to do before I go: buy a new piece of luggage!

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Memories, pressed between the pages of a book

I accomplished most of my major goals yesterday: I pruned my butterfly bushes and my hydrangeas, even though I had to do it with a pair of pruners instead of the loppers that my brother borrowed some time ago; dragged up and emptied my luggage; got my oil changed and my car washed; got to the record store (do people even know what the word "record" refers to?) and bought a bunch of CDs, mostly for my friend in Ireland; and bought a small stack of books.

Some of the books are slim volumes for putting into my carry-on and reading at the airport or on the plane. Two of them are books of short stories for helping me to record the experiences of the trip. When I travel I try to take a book along to read at key points along the way. Whenever I re-read the book later, I re-experience the smells, the sounds, the weather, the mood - all of the sensory experiences that I felt during the trip itself. I can tell you where I was when I read a given passage, maybe what time of day it was, or even what the weather was like. Whenever I want to re-live the experiences of my last visit to Ireland, I just get out my copy of Harlan Ellison's collection of the edgiest science-fiction writing of the late 1960's, Dangerous Visions. As I read this story or that story, I am back at my friend's house in the cold early morning hours before anyone else is stirring, or I am sitting at a table in her kitchen on a sunny mid-morning drinking tea and waiting for her to get ready. It's all there, encoded into the pages of a book.

Does anyone else do this?

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Final days

I'm leaving for Ireland in four days. I just drew up a checklist of what I have to do before then - specifically, stuff I have to do today. This ranges from dragging out my suitcases (one of which hasn't seen the light of day since my last trip to Ireland, and may very well still have a few Irish souvenirs tucked into it), to getting an oil change and car wash, to stopping at a local music store (they're closing one of their locations, so they're having a "Moving Sale"), to pruning my butterfly bushes (they can be pruned anytime during their winter dormancy, and should be pruned nearly to the ground, but I haven't gotten around to it yet, and when I return the third week of March it may be too late).

Ashes seems to be gaining weight. This could be a good sign - maybe he's responding positively to the new medications he started this week - or it could be swelling of some sort. His kidneys are still working (i.e. he's still peeing), so it's probably not just fluid retention.

Had a nightmare about work last night. It involved, for some reason, stamps. I'm stressing out about some changes there, and I'm wondering what I will find when I come back after nearly three weeks away.

I plan to set up a post-dated entry (with a date of, say, March 20th) that will explain that I am away in Ireland, and that I intend to attempt to post from there. Any actual posts from Ireland will appear under this post.

If you'd like a postcard from Ireland, get me your address - soon! What I'll probably do is what I did successfully on my first trip: write out the addresses ahead of time on a sheet of labels, affix the labels to the post cards, and add my message. This way I can focus on the messages, not on looking up addresses.

Better get moving. It's already 8:18 AM - the world will be opening its sleepy Saturday eyes soon! Now, where did I put those loppers so I can start pruning...

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Those who call the music, and those who dance the dance

I am currently dealing with a dying pet, and an impending house purchase, and an even more impending overseas trip. My work situation has become somewhat - dynamic, shall we say - which makes going on an extended vacation that much more interesting.

All of these things have combined to give me an interestingly self-focused perspective. I am looking at the outside world through a narrowed view, like peeking through the curtains onto a crime-ridden street. But my desire for information has not diminished, only my tolerance for bullshit. I've got tight filters thrown up on what I'm letting through, and they're getting clogged by all the huge chunks of crap floating around out there.

  • The Mohammed cartoons are still being cast by some as the single most important freedom of expression issue in the history of expression. Bullshit. Is there an inalienable right to shout "FIRE!" in a crowded theater? No, of course not. Is there an inalienable right to shout "C*CKSUCKING N*GGERS!" in a crowded theater? No again. Does the fact that you and your buddies would not find it objectionable at all to shout "C*CKSUCKING N*GGERS!" in a crowded theater mean that no one should find it objectionable? Hell no. Does the fact that I replaced the "O" in the first word and the "I" in the second with asterisks make me a coward? No yet again, asshole.
  • The Cheney hunting accident was a hunting accident. It involved the Vice President. It involved beer - a beer, which in the opinions of hunters that I've talked to and read is enough to make this a thoroughly irresponsible act: you do not drink while hunting, period. It involved a police response which would have been considered unacceptably lackadaisical in any other situation - but, hey, this was Texas, and this was the Vice President. If this is the first time you've noticed that he's a privileged, secretive scumbag with utter contempt for the press and the American public, and that Texas treats these two oilmen the way some countries treat cows, you haven't been paying attention these past five years one month and four days. (Leap year, you know.)
  • The Dubai company that bought a British company that administered some cargo-handling functions at some ports is a non-story. Again, if this is the first time you're thinking that port security is something we should be concerned with, you haven't been paying attention. And maybe you should also think about the fact that most of that cargo handling is dealing with cargo coming into America's ports - technically known as "imports" - and not with cargo being shipped out of America - what you would call "exports."

All of these are to one extent or another non-stories, no more worthy of the national or international spotlight than the fact that my cat is dying, or the fact that I'm buying a house. But at the same time they have become real stories.

  • The Mohammed cartoons have been made the focal point of radical Muslim clerics who have encouraged increasingly violent protests against them, and against Denmark, Norway, and of course the United States. At the same time right-wing extremists - most notably bloggers, who bravely hide behind pseudonyms and the illusion of anonymity granted by the internet - have tried to whip this into a free speech issue. The two sides roar at each other like pro wrestlers posturing in the ring. And buildings burn, and people die, and moderates become radicalized. If the peacemakers are "blessed", as some guy who delivered a sermon on a mount once said, then these people are surely cursed.
  • The Cheney hunting accident blanketed the news for more than a week, even scoring the cover of the current Newsweek. This has led a lot of people to wonder: what else was going on while everyone was distracted?
  • The port security issue is one that most people haven't thought of since it got some airtime in 2004, during the Presidential election. And guess what? 2006 is also an election year! Incumbents of every stripe are taking a firm and courageous stance against allowing Dubai Ports World to take over administration of some functions on some parts of some ports. Most are acting like the whole idea of foreign management of port operations is something new and shocking - which means they are either being disingenuous or are displaying remarkable ignorance. In any event, the whole situation will almost certainly blow over once the November elections have passed.

Three relatively minor stories. One has resulted in tremendous violence. One has resulted in information gridlock. And one has resulted in remarkable political posturing.

From my self-centered cocoon of personal crises I watch people play their assigned roles in these stories, operating very nearly as though according to pre-programmed responses. Someone else is calling the music, and they are dancing to it. The real question is: To what end? Or more simply: Why? Why this music, right now?

Stop dancing to the tune they're calling. It's time to choose the music for yourself.

Still hanging in there

Ashes made it through another night. Every morning I wake up and expect to find that he had died in the night. But he's still hanging in there.
He didn't seem very interested in anything this morning. He was sitting in the hall, facing away from me, and didn't turn to look at me when I called his name. But he did decide to run right into the computer room, my sister's old room, which is one of his favorite places to hang out. He didn't claim the new computer chair today, as he often does, but instead jumped right up onto the bed. I scratched him and brushed him but couldn't get him to purr - he's been purring less and less lately, and almost not at all since his latest visit to the vet this past Tuesday. I spread some Tender Vittles in front of him but he ignored them. Eventually he turned his head so he was facing ninety degrees from where they were, so I made another pile of food in front of his new position and went online to check the day's blogs.
After about fifteen minutes he nibbled on one of the nuggets. Then a second, and a third, then half the pile, then nearly the whole pile. I added the nuggets from the first pile to the second one, the one he was eating from, and he ate all of them, too. I emptied the rest of the packet in front of him and ran to get another one. But by the time I got back he had eaten his fill.
After I took my shower and got dressed for work I came upstairs to say goodbye to him, as I have every day lately. I walked into the room where he was sprawled on a bed, flanked by two of our other cats. He looked up immediately when I entered the room and was extremely alert as I kissed the top of his head.
My mom called the vet today and he confirmed that they would be in the office today, and tomorrow, and even Saturday...in case we need them. The subtext is clear: if Ashes dies on a weekday or early enough on Saturday, we will be able to get his body to the vet's for cremation. If he dies later in the day on Saturday or on Sunday, we'll have to hold onto his body until they re-open on Monday. It's a grim thought, but somebody has to think it.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Bargaining

I know that a lot of what I've been doing these last two days has been bargaining: If only I can find Tender Vittles, maybe Ashes won't die. My aunt bought four boxes - 24 pouches. I bought another four boxes today, and have another 20 boxes being expedited to me. 28 boxes total, 168 pouches. He eats about half a pouch each day. Enough to last him 336 days. An eleven month supply.

Some of it is out of necessity. If Tender Vittles is the only thing he will eat, then it is a question of locate it or watch him starve. Some of it was a grand show: when it looked like none were available anywhere, and I found a supply online, I pounced. I ordered more than I needed partly because I expected to be told that there was insufficient stock to fill my order. But I ordered expedited delivery because, if it were to be of any use, it would have to arrive sooner rather than later. So my total purchase came to something like three times the actual retail cost, if it were actually available at a retail outlet? So what. Ashes is worth the expense.

I bought more at a nearby Price Chopper just to prove to myself that it was in stock. I restrained myself from buying their entire stock. Someone else might have a cat that will only eat Tender Vittles, and I wanted to leave some for them.

Ashes is lying next to me, taking a catnap. We are holding hands. I will place my hand upon one of his paws; he then places the other paw on my hand. This seems to calm him. And I think he will only eat if he is calm and relaxed.

He just woke up, more alert than he was before the catnap. While he was napping he looked very unnatural, and began to twitch, like a dog having a dream. Maybe he was having a dream, too, or maybe this is just another stage of the dying process. I don't know. Whatever. I woke him up because I was afraid it was the latter. But he seems much better now.

If Ashes doesn't die before I go to Ireland next Wednesday, I am afraid he will die shortly after.

Tender Vittles located

NOTE (added 1/18/07): If you are searching for Tender Vittles, try calling the Purina 800 number (1-800-778-7462) to locate a retailer in your area. Get several, because stores listed in Purina's system may not actually carry the product. Also, try Amazon.com - I was able to order a case from an online grocery store there.

I drove my aunt to her son's house on my way to work yesterday morning, and along the way I ranted about the Tender Vittles quest that had begun the night before. So while I was searching online and my mom was searching stores throughout the Wilkes-Barre area, my aunt found herself in the pet food section of a Price Chopper in the Scranton area looking at some boxes of Tender Vittles, trying to remember if that was what I had been talking about. Isis at Purina had identified Price Chopper as on of the two local sources of Tender Vittles, but I was never able to communicate this to anyone else - my mom's phone was picking up signals only sporadically - so it was just by luck that my aunt found herself there. She bought four 12-ounce boxes.
It was too late to cancel my online order when I got home last night, so I also have twenty boxes coming to me from a grocery store in New York.
I am wondering why so many retailers are referring to Tender Vittles as "discontinued". I think that Tender Vittles must be a low-profit-margin product, especially given its relatively large shelf footprint - each 12-ounce box costs less than $2, but takes up shelf space that could be occupied by four pouches or packets of something else selling for $1 or more per unit. So from the retailer's point of view, it is more desirable to fill the shelves with more expensive items, especially if desperate consumers will buy them as a potential alternative to Tender Vittles - like I did Monday night.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Tender Vittles found, maybe

I was able to get in touch with Purina at their 800 number (1-800-778-7462) and a woman named Isis (an Egyptian goddess, a 1970's TV superhero character invented to balance Shazam! in the Saturday line-up, the name of Gary Seven's cat in an episode of Star Trek whose title escapes me at the moment, and the name of the actuarial program used by my life insurance agent who, ironically, died a few weeks ago) was able to track down local sources of Tender Vittles. (She said that only certain sizes of Tender Vittles were discontinued, not the entire product line.) One of the sources was a pet supply store that we had already checked, in person and over the phone, where they insisted that Tender Vittles is a discontinued product. Another source is a supermarket not too far from my house. I'll stop there on the way home.

In search of Tender Vittles

Ashes is at a critical stage. He has stopped eating almost any food except Tender Vittles - and I've just discovered that Tender Vittles has been discontinued by the manufacturer. I just bought some at a supermarket a month or so ago. I checked that same supermarket last night, and they had none. A second supermarket also came up empty. So did a third one, and all the local Kmarts and Wal-Mart and Target and all of the local and national pet food stores. Now we're down to searching Big Lots and Ollie's and other junk stores. Maybe I'll try a few cut-rate markets in bad parts of town - they might have some old stock.
I've just ordered 20 boxes online from Amazon.com. With expedited shipping they might get here in a few days. Maybe Ashes will still be alive by then, I don't know.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Baggage limits

Continental's limits for flights to Shannon airport in Ireland:
  • Two checked bags, 62 linear inches total (length + width + height) and 50 lbs. for each bag.
  • One carry-on not to exceed 50 linear inches and 40 lbs.
  • One personal item equvalent to a laptop computer or purse. (Mine will be a backpack containing critical documents, my camera, a book for reading, DK Eyewitness guidebooks for Ireland and London, and a notepad and pen.)
140 lbs. total? Shouldn't be a problem. This time I'll be travelling a little lighter than last - no cake mixes. Last time my luggage was filled with cake mixes, which are impossible to find in Ireland and are among the densest items you can pack. I shipped some cake mixes at Christmas, so my friend doesn't need them this time. Just some tuna (solid white Chicken of the Sea albacore), Dunkin' Donuts coffee, clam chowder (gotta confirm she wants creamy/New England style), and a few other things you can't get over there. Some of that weight will be replaced on the trip back with Paddy whiskey, which you can't get over here!

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Power Laws and the Linkocracy

I believe it was Bill at IndustrialBlog who once referred to the blogosphere as "the ultimate meritocracy." I disagree with this assessment. Blogs become popular and well-trafficked for a number of reasons, not always simply merit, but tend to stay popular and well-trafficked because they are popular and well-trafficked. I have seen blogs with very little merit receive enormous amounts of traffic and vast numbers of comments from bloggers hoping to increase their own site traffic by comment clickthroughs.* I have seen well-written and thoughtful blogs toil away in obscurity, unread by anyone except the writer and perhaps a few accidental surfers.

Thanks to Mr. H.K.'s websurfing, I clicked through to an article in New York Magazine called "Blogs to Riches: The Haves and Have-Nots of the Blogging Boom". It focuses primarily on the few bloggers (and non-bloggers) who have managed to turn a tidy profit from their blogs, but it does have a fascinating discussion of power laws and their application to blog popularity that fleshes out the concept of the linkocracy. While you're there check out the "Related Stories", including "Linkology: How the Most-Linked-To Blogs Relate". Then ask yourself: Who's linking to me?

*I could give an example but won't. But here's a hint: it's a site that was mentioned in a comment a few weeks ago, a site that is often spoken of in hushed terms. The posts on the site were fairly unimpressive, but each one had hundreds of comments.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

I hate being right


I can see the future. Not perfectly, not completely, not about all things. I can be surprised by the unexpected. But a lot of the time, I can see the future, in the same way you can.

I tend to be a pessimist. I assume things will work out for the worst, that when things "happen for a reason" that reason usually involves greed, or stupidity, or the gain of one individual or group over another. When I look at a situation I will try to sort out the family of probable outcomes based on these pessimistic assumptions and try to prepare for each one. Usually the actual outcome is not a "worst-case", but it is something I have prepared for.

I stopped at the local PNC Bank last Saturday to order currency for my upcoming trip to Ireland. I don't like using traveller's checks (or "cheques", as American Express likes to call them) because they tend to be cumbersome to use, are not universally accepted, and whipping one out usually is the best way to announce that you are a tourist. I much prefer credit cards, which give good exchange rates, a record of purchases, and are almost universally accepted. Almost, but not quite. For some situations - bars, tips, corner shops - you simply need cash, in the local currency.

I am travelling to two different countries next month: Ireland, which uses the euro, and England, which uses the British pound. I will spend most of my time in Ireland, with just three days in London. My friend has made arrangements for flights to and from London and for our hotel stay, and has charged these things to her credit card. I need British pounds for walking-around-money in London, and euros for my time in Ireland, and to reimburse my friend for the expenses she's already charged to her credit card.

In the past I've gotten $500 in euros to take with me on my somewhat-less-than-two-week trips. These trips were in 2002 and 2003, when the dollar was stronger against the euro. This time my visit will be somewhat longer, nearly three weeks. But aside from the London side-trip, I expect to be doing less "touristy" things, so I don't think my cash needs will be as great. Plus I am trying to save for a house, and a new car, and a new computer. I decided to bump up my euros to $600 worth, and also order $150 in British pounds.

As I said, I stopped at my local PNC Bank branch to order my currency last week. My mom used to work for a bank that was bought by a bank that was bought by PNC, so she ended up working for PNC for a few years. My accounts wound up being held by PNC, and even though I've transferred most of my savings into a credit union, I still do some of my banking at PNC. Also, they have the largest presence of any bank in Northeastern PA , and own most of the ATM's, and are one of the only banks open on weekends. So if you have a day job and need to do face-to-face banking once in a while, PNC is pretty much your only choice.

So I went into PNC and ordered my currency: $600 in euros, $150 dollars in British pounds. I watched the teller write this on a slip of paper:

600 EUROS

150 POUNDS

(It was, of course, upside-down, but I can read upside-down almost as easily and quickly as right-side-up.)

"That's six hundred dollars in euros, and one hundred and fifty dollars in pounds," I stressed.

"Yes, yes, I know," she said peevishly.

She's gonna screw it up, I thought to myself. But after several more assurances that what I had ordered would be what I got, I left the bank, unconvinced.

When I went to the bank to pick up my currency this morning, I was greeted with the sort of consternation that usually occurs at a local branch when someone tries to do anything more complicated than make a deposit or a withdrawal. One of the tellers volunteered that she knew about the currency that had come in, and asked me to stand aside so the other dozen or so customers could be waited on while she was retrieving my money from their vault.

She came out with a UPS envelope. She opened it to reveal two envelopes stapled together, each with a receipt on the top. Reading upside-down again, I saw

BANKNOTE Sale 600 European Union Euros @ a rate of 1.2791

So, not only did I get the crappy rate I expected (XE.com currently lists the Euro at 1.19395, so I basically got slapped with a 7% conversion fee), but also they made the mistake I had specifically warned them not to make.

We checked the other envelope, and it said

BANKNOTE Sale 150 English Pounds @ a rate of 1.8711

(XE.com lists the current exchange rate at 1.74031, so again, I am paying a 7.5% conversion fee.)

Well, I was as pissed off as you can get in a bank without getting the police involved. The money has already been debited from my account, so there's no recourse other than to essentially trade back the extra money - at, no doubt, rates favorable to the bank. Oh, I can complain to the manager. I can complain to the president of PNC Bank. I can write about this on my blog. In the end, it won't make a bit of difference.

So in eleven days I will be boarding an airplane with my pockets bulging with nearly $1050 in currency. That makes me a little uncomfortable. On the plus side, I'll be using my credit cards less, assuming the cash doesn't get lost or stolen somewhere along the way. And my friend probably won't need to get any cash converted for our trip to London - 150 pounds should be enough walking-around money for the three of us. Maybe.

I guess I can always hope that the dollar plummets while I'm over there. Then I'll hold onto any excess currency, convert it back into dollars on my return, and live like a king .

Thursday, February 16, 2006

South Park Jihad

I was thinking about the Mohammed cartoon flap, and I though to myself, "Wow, what would the South Park guys have to say about this?" Probably something that would piss off all sides involved. And, I figured, they would surely use Mohammed as a character in the show. That would certainly get them on a bunch of "naughty" lists in the Muslim world.

Then I remembered: they already had.

It was season five, episode four. David Blaine, street magician, has become David Blaine, cult leader. Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman all join the Church of Blaintology, but Stan makes a break for it and turns to the one person he knows he can count on - Jesus. (Hey, Jesus lives in South Park. Or lived, rather, before he was killed while rescuing Santa from Iraq a few years ago. It's kinda complicated.) But Jesus sees that David Blaine is a formidable opponent, and he turns to his friends for help - or, more precisely, his Super Best Friends: Krishna, with the power of shape-shifting; Buddha, with the power of invisibility; Joseph Smith (the founder of Mormonism), with the powers of ice; Lao-Tsu, founder of Taoism, with mind powers; Moses, the group's coordinator; Sea-Man (heh heh, heh heh) with power over the creatures of the ocean; and...Mohammed, with the power of fire.

(This episode has what I consider the funniest South Park gag ever. When David Blaine brings the giant statue of Abraham Lincoln from the Lincoln Memorial to life to wreak havoc on Washington, D.C., the Super Best Friends respond in the only way possible - by building a giant statue of John Wilkes Booth to shoot Lincoln in the back of the head.)

Yep. Mohammed was a cartoon character on South Park years ago. How come nobody complained then?

(Episode 504's original airdate was July 4, 2001.)

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Don't Be A Dick

A Public Service Announcement on Gun Safety

(Authentic 30-second sketch, done at work [on, err, a break or something] on a shopping-list-sized piece of scrap paper [1/3 of a letter sheet, about 8.5" x 3.7"] in response to a request by "nato" on Adam Felber's Fanatical Apathy.)

(Note the resemblance of the Dick head to the head of CyberCheney.)

Is there a doctor in the house?

I guess this is an attempt to prove that more can be done in the blogosphere than just inflaming religious tensions throughout the world. Or maybe I'm just a busybody. Or maybe it's because I don't want to see one of my favorite bloggers be sick, or worse.

Lauren over at Please Make Rice, I Love You has hives and rashes. Bad.

/2006/02/mom-dont-panic.html

Don't think that's bad? Read this:

/2006/01/hoping-to-meet-george-clooney.html

She's had them since around January 1st, and has been treating them with varying levels of success. Her doctor is taking the approach of treating the symptoms rather than worrying about the cause, which many of us find strange and unsatisfying (or just plain dumb.)

/2006/02/yippee.html
/2006/01/does-anyone-want-to-trade-bodies.html
/2006/01/hi-hives.html
/2006/01/usually-low-maintenance.html
/2006/01/you-know-what-i-heard.html
/2006/01/hives-are-gone.html
/2006/01/itchy-and-scratchy.html
/2006/01/candycanes.html
/2006/01/drowsy.html

This is apparently the first mention of them, which would put the actual start date as Monday, January 9, 2006.
/2006/01/three-stooge-horses.html

(Each of these should open a single archived entry. Be careful about diving into her whole-month archives unless you have a high-speed connection and a lot of RAM. I crashed my computer badly last night trying to do just that. Twice. I finally settled on just doing a blog search on her site.)

Speculations are mostly focusing on this being an allergic reaction. But to what? Suggestions have ranged from cotton to tap water, soda to shampoo, and everything in between. Everything is suspect, even her boyfriend. She's tried eliminating various things with no success. The timing suggests that it may be something new that's been introduced into her environment, possibly since Christmas.

I started digging into information about various skin conditions and learned that some of them are autoimmune diseases, where the body's immune system begins to attack healthy tissue. I'm not qualified to make that sort of diagnosis, especially not over the Internet. But I'm hoping it's something her doctor at least has in the back of his mind.

I dug a little further because I remembered that this was not Lauren's first bout with hives. I found two incidents in August of last year - one from a bee sting and one from exposure to a plant. Can either of these be related to her current condition?

/2005/08/ive-got-itch.html
/2005/08/all-moved-in.html

If there's anybody out there who can give Lauren some advice, please go to her site and do so. Thanks!

Monday, February 13, 2006

Local Monsters

(Should I be concerned that my computer has crashed every time I have done research for this post? And that the last time it crashed do hard that the "Recover Post" feature would not work?)

Every part of the world has its own legends and lore, myths and monsters. Northeastern Pennsylvania is no different. John Peruka has sought to publicize the "Secret of Olyphant", which you should probably hear about in his own words. Just last week I learned of the "Suscon Screamer" a fierce half-wolf / half-pig that haunts the area of Suscon Bridge, not far from the Grimes Industrial Park and the Pittston FedEx office. There is a spot in Scranton where, I am told, if you flash your headlights three times the devil-worshippers will come out to get you. (I don't know if these are the same illiterate devil worshippers and/or slaves to fashion who spray-painted "WORSHIP SATIN" at the Nay Aug Zoo back in 1985.) And, of course, there's the B'Gunk, a swamp monster who haunts the wilds of Glen Lyon. (The only way to get away from him, I am told, is to shout his name three times while running for your life: "B'Gunk! B'Gunk! B'GUNK!")

There are stories like this everywhere, and there are plenty of them here in NEPA. But what we don't have is a single coherent repository for all of the stories of ghosts and monsters, devil-worshippers and UFO's, local characters and local connections to the pyramids of Egypt. It's time somebody took care of that. I'm sure there's somebody out there who would be willing to write this stuff down. Why not write it up as a blog? Blogger.com offers the space for free, and it takes five minutes to get started. And I'll be sure to link you from NEPA Blogs!

So, what are you waiting for? Get started, and send me a link!

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Another *%$@#! survey

Here's another one of those survey things.* This one is courtesy of Anne.

Four Jobs I've Had
This is more interesting if I group together jobs by employment location or period.
1. Stock boy at Jean Nicole at the Wyoming Valley Mall. So there I was, a seventeen-year-old kid trying to earn some walking-around money for college, and I managed to get a job running a vacuum, dusting display racks, and maintaining stock at a womens' clothing store. I was the only guy working with a bunch of older (twentysomething) women. It only lasted a few weeks in the summer of 1985, and was less fun than it sounds.
2. Final Selecting/Forming Selecting at Owens-Illinois. Three summers in college - 1986, 1987, and 1988 - spent working rotating shifts at a glass factory that made TV faceplates. Owens-Illinois became OI-NEG after they "partnered" with Nippon Electric Glass; a few years later they dropped the American-owned pretense and became TechNEGlas. Now they're gone, but my tinnitus and carpal tunnel syndrome remain.
3. Solar Cell Manufacturing, Astropower, Newark, Delaware. This was a pick-up job after I dropped out of the Physics grad program at the University of Delaware. I wasn't prepared to run home with my tail between my legs right away, so a few friends and professors steered me in the direction of this place. We made solar cells out of scrap silicon wafers that had been rejected by the semiconductor industry. It was pretty cool. I worked there from March of 1990 to August of 1991, during which time we occupied three separate locations. They moved and expanded several times since I left, but seem to have fallen on hard times in recent years.
4. CD Plater/CD Preproduction SPC Coordinator/"PSG: Statistics"/DVD Asset Manager. When I finally got back from Delaware in late August 1991 I spent a few months taking care of my grandmother, who was flat on her back due to sciatica. I kicked around for a while, looking at various employers, not sure of what I wanted to do. Some friends steered me to a local CD replicator who had done some work with the University of Scranton (my alma mater) in the past. I put in an application in January 1992 and waited patiently. When I was just about ready to give up, I got called in for an interview in May of 1992. I would start on the night shift in a relatively lowly position that would be basic production gruntwork (not that basic, really, and not that grunty), but word was that the company was hiring people with college degrees in the intent of grooming them for something else. It turned out to be true, and I quickly took on a new position of CD Preproduction SPC Coordinator. This job mutated through the years and the ensuing management changes into something else. In 1998 I decided it was time for a change and began the prep work to throw in my lot with the newly-formed DVD department. I began working for them in February of 1999, and am still doing much the same job (in a far more polished and streamlined way) seven years later.

Four Movies I Could Watch Over And Over
1. Monty Python's Life of Brian. I have watched this, beginning to end, and rewound the video tape and started over. I don't think I have it on DVD yet.
2. Trainspotting. Start to finish it's an amazing movie. After seeing this I decided to start going out to clubs, looking for Kelly Macdonaldish girls. Hey, Diane the character was underage, but Kelly Macdonald was wonderfully legal at the time of filming.
3. Toy Story 2. Way better than it could have been. I did once spend the better part of a Sunday watching this movie over and over and over again, beginning to end, at the request of a four-year-old girl. It never got boring.
4. O Brother, Where Art Thou? I love this one for the music as much as anything else. If any movie demands a special edition DVD, full of commentaries and making-of documentaries, it's this one. You'll end it singing "Angel Band" ("...o carr' me away on your sno-ow white wings, to my e-ter-nal home") and start over again with "Po' Lazarus" and "The Big Rock Candy Mountain."

Four Places I've Lived
1. Nanticoke, PA. It's where I started out, and it's where I am now.
2. Pittsburgh, PA. Five weeks in Hamerschlag House at Carnegie-Mellon University in July and August of 1984 for Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Sciences. Technically, I was also living in Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, since Fred Rogers lived in a neighboring maximum-security apartment building. I saw him once while I was there.
3. Scranton, PA. September 1985 - May 1989. If there's ever a choice between living on-campus and commuting to college, choose the on-campus option. It's worth it.
4. Newark, DE. August 1989 - August 1991. First for grad school, then to prove a point.

Four TV Shows I Love
1. Star Trek (the original series). It was way ahead of its time, and a product of its times. It was social commentary sold as science-fiction, presented on simple sets with spare, underwrought writing and special effects. A good, fun show with lots of classic characters that have touched and inspired millions.
2. Monty Python's Flying Circus. Laugh-your-ass-off wet-your-pants stuff.
3. South Park. Social commentary presented as a cartoon.
4. MTV's 120 Minutes. It doesn't exist anymore, but in the late 1980's and early 1990's this was the best place to see and hear the newest and greatest new music every Sunday night. While I'm here I may as well add in Daria, the Beavis and Butthead spin-off, just because I'm in love with Jane Lane - and they had great music.

Four Places I've Vacationed
1. Ireland. Going there again in a few weeks.
2. Cocoa Beach, Florida.
3. Disneyworld.
4. The New Jersey Shore - mostly Stone Harbor and Avalon.

My Four Favorite Dishes
1. Fried Fish. (Cod or Haddock, dusted with flour, salt, and pepper, dipped in egg, coated with flour/cracker crumbs, fried in oil.)
2. Apple Fritters.
3. Linguine and shrimp. (Boil linguine. Fry shimp in olive oil. Add garlic, onion, salt, pepper, red pepper, herbs, and white wine or lemon juice. Drain linguine thoroughly and add to frying pan. Toss over high heat until linguine just begins to to show some signs of browning.)
4. Broiled salmon. Microwaved salmon is pretty good, too.

Four Websites I Visit Daily
I visit a lot of websites daily. I mostly visit blogs. Many of these I have set up on RSS feeds as "Live Bookmarks" in Firefox so I can see when anybody's posted something new. New postings almost always earn a visit from me.
1, 2. Sammie's sdfsdf.wox.org and Camilla Henrikke's wallflower.nu aren't set up with RSS feeds so I have to check them manually - and I do, every day.
3. Adam Felber's Fanatical Apathy is on an RSS feed, but more than half of the attraction of his site is the comments - in a sense, Adam and the regular and irregular commentors constitute almost a "group blog" - and I have to check the site to see the comments.
4. Oh, hell. May as well admit it. I check my Sitemeter every day. Actually, I have Sitemeter set up so it's the first page that opens up when I open Firefox.

Four Places I'd Rather Be
1. In bed. With several beautiful and insatiable women.
2. Swimming in Uncle Scrooge's Money Bin. Also with several beautiful and insatiable women.
3. In a place where there is no dying, with every person and animal I've ever loved. I guess that's where the idea for Heaven came from, huh?
4. Right here. With several beautiful and insatiable women.

Four People I'm Tagging
I don't tag. If you're reading this, consider yourself tagged. If you're a beautiful and insatiable woman, consider yourself tagged and contact me directly and I'll go over these questions in depth with you. If you're a woman who has a thing for bloggers and is good at giving backrubs, feel free to contact me, too.

*I won't call it a "meme". A meme is something else completely different from these surveys, and calling the surveys "memes" just makes it less likely that people will understand the real idea of the meme as a self-replicating unit of information, which is very unfortunate. You could just as accurately call these things "cucumbers" or "defenestrations."

Friday, February 10, 2006

Nothing (in bed)

We ordered Chinese food for lunch today at work. We haven't ordered from this place in a while, and it was exceptionally good. (I had the sweet & sour chicken.)

After our meals we all cracked open our fortune cookies and passed them around. I opened mine and found...nothing. It was empty. No fortune.

There's probably some standard interpretation of this, but we opted for the obvious one.

Eek.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Ashes update

More than two weeks after the day I was about 80% certain he would die, my cat Ashes is still hanging in there.

That trip to the vet on January 24th was an eye-opener. Until that day I had convinced myself that Ashes was sick, and probably gradually dying, but wasn't in any imminent danger. After that visit I was seeing things in him I had allowed myself to overlook. And his behavior that day made me think that his life expectancy was measured in hours, or at best days.

That day the doctor provided us with a one-week supply of antibiotic liquid and a larger supply of a liquid nutrient. I think he was humoring me. I don't think he expected us to use much of either of them. He didn't want to send me away empty-handed, but he didn't want to foster any false hope.

Ashes survived that day and that night, and fought like a tiger the next day when we began his medication. He continues to fight every day.

We've taken other steps. We've segregated his food from the other cats so he can eat without being bothered, and without having to share. My mom did exhaustive research to determine exactly what he would and would not eat on his own, and now we have him on a diet of dry "Special Kitty" cat food and one of the twenty or so varieties of Turkey-based moist cat food available at the supermarket. We provide a constant supply of fresh water, and brush him for at least 45 minutes a day. I think the brushing has as much to do with his longevity as anything else, and in any case, he loves it tremendously.

So he's still eating, still drinking, still pooping, still insisting on getting brushed. He's not getting better - he's still losing weight each week - but the rate at which he's getting worse has definitely slowed tremendously.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Religious inspiration in unlikely places


A plastic crucifix submerged in a jar of urine. Back in 1987 this photograph spawned vigorous and vitriolic condemnations, and resulted in calls for funding cuts for the National Endowment for the Arts that echo to this day.

As a Roman Catholic and regular churchgoer I was fairly repulsed by the descriptions of this image. How could anyone even think to do such a thing? But when I eventually saw it, my reaction was something completely different.

I don't know what Serrano's intent was in creating this image. Frankly, I don't think you can trust artists to speak the truth when they discuss intentions and inspirations.* Art is meant to be seen, or heard, or smelled, or tasted, or felt; a work of art does not have meaning in and of itself but acquires meaning through the perceptions and interpretations of those who relate to it. And those people may not necessarily have the creator's notes to work from.

When I was in, I think, fourth grade, the teacher - the nun, as we would say, because that's what she was - left my class alone at the end of the day to go on some nunnish business. Maybe for an hour, maybe two. She gave us reading assignments to do, and other assorted busywork. We behaved ourselves - for a few minutes.

The discipline we imposed on ourselves began to unravel fairly quickly. First furtive whispering, then open talking, then a cacophony of voices that made it impossible for anyone who wanted to obey the rules - like, say, me - to do so. Then the class clown, George G., took it upon himself to see how much havoc he could create. He scooted from desk to desk, cracking jokes. It's possible a full fledged eraser fight broke out. The class had dissolved into shouts and laughter.

After a good long while, another nun entered the room and stared at us sternly.

We were caught. Nailed. Had she not entered, we could have created the illusion that we had been behaving ourselves and had done our work. But our noise was so tremendous that it had disrupted her class, several rooms away. And now she would report us to our nun. And who could contradict her?

The next day we took our seats quietly, sheepishly. We were in for it, we knew, and we knew she had something special planned for us.

She walked to the girl sitting in the front right of the class and handed her a small card. "Take this. Look at it. Pass it on. And no talking."

I don't remember if she got around to describing what was being passed around before it got to me. Eventually it did. It was an image of the scourged Christ. Jesus stood, weeping, his clothes bloody tatters, a crown of thorns on his head, his body covered with thousands of cuts and tears, skin peeling off in ragged strips, blood leaking from every wound. It was an image of pain and suffering like nothing I had ever seen before.

"Jesus suffered and died for your sins," she said. "What you did yesterday, what all of you did yesterday, made his suffering that much worse."

I don't remember if she assigned us any other punishment. It really didn't matter, after seeing that image.

That same sense of suffering, of being bathed in the sins of all humanity, all sins, past, present, and future, every sin that has been committed and is being committed and will be commited, of taking on all of that and dying because of it and dying for it and dying to redeem those sins and open the Gates of Heaven for the first time in all of human history to permit admission of souls into the divine presence for all eternity - that's the feeling I get when I look at Andres Serrano's plastic crucifix submerged in a jar of urine. That's what Piss Christ means to me. That is the feeling I draw from it, instantly, to the core of my being, every time I see it. Other people may see only blasphemy, only deliberate insult. But if I can draw inspiration from it, then it has meaning and value.

*Just try to reconcile the various stories told by Lennon and McCartney on the origin of "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds." It's about L.S.D. No, it's based on a dream. No, it's based on a drawing by one of Lennon's kids. Wait, it's about L.S.D. after all.

Down again, down again, jiggety-jig

Blogger appears to be down again. I'm posting this via e-mail

They had a scheduled downage last night starting at 7 P.M. PST(10:00 EST). Maybe they never came up again

At this point I wouldn't be surprised if they're skimming all the Blogspot blogsites looking for Terms Of Service violations that might get Google's offices burned down by a crowd of angry Muslims.

UPDATE: Weird. I can get in through AOL, but not Firefox. The same thing was happening on Saturday right before everything became accessible again. I wonder if this has something to do with the latest Firefox upgrade?

Monday, February 06, 2006

Adam Felber on the Mohammed cartoon flap

Adam Felber has a damned funny (and damned offensive) piece on the offensensitivity issues underlying the Mohammed cartoon flap. If you're the sort who was offended by my T-shirt reference on Bill's blog or my Nativity scene reference in my own comments, you might want to pour yourself a stiff drink first.

I put in my own two cents in Adam's comments:

Clearly we’re living in a world where “diplomacy” is a four-letter word.

We need somebody to sit these two groups of kids down and explain the facts of life to them. In the one corner, some folks need to learn a lesson in politeness and respectfulness to others, and if you decide to ignore those basic considerations, you should expect repercussions. On the other hand, another group needs to realize that they cannot expect the rest of the world to act according to the rules they have chosen to apply to themslves.

Nobody’s coming out of this looking good. The cartoons, in my opinion, were an intentional provocation; they were not something that was done innocently and were later noticed by some people who then took offense. But the violent reactions they have provoked are out of proportion to any response that can be expected in the civilized world. Still, maybe that was the desired outcome. Some people just crave conflict.


Adam makes a more serious point in a comment to his own post:

Is it coincidence that these conspicuously right-wing bloggers are suddenly the biggest and best champions of Free Speech? And that they’re suddenly authorities on Islam who are sure that the cartoon can’t be THAT offensive?

So… a bunch of crazy mullahs are going to whip their people into a frenzy, the American right wing is suddenly going to cynically put on their ACLU badges so they can provoke the mullahs further, and we’re going to have a war touched off by a cartoon.

I can’t help feeling that the extremists have made the rest of us into suckers on this one.


As always, Adam gets a bunch of insightful comments from every side of this issue. Go read the whole thing here.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Travel preparations: 24 days and counting

I will be flying to Ireland (flying in to Shannon airport, staying in County Cork) on March 1st, arriving there March 2nd. My friend and I will do a quick trip to London the weekend of the 11th/12th, and then I will be flying back to the U.S. on the 19th.

The dollar is currently not great against the euro - as of this writing it's about .831 euros to the dollar; for comparison, when I went to Ireland in late March 2003 it was about .88 euros to the dollar, and in late February 2002 (the first time I visited) it was closer to 1.2.* (As a point of comparison, I was just told that a beer at Bennigan's - which advertises itself as an Irish restaurant/bar in the U.S., and as an American restaurant/bar in Ireland - was five euros, or about $6. This is probably a 16-ounce "Irish pint", though.) The dollar is also worth only about .567 British pounds, but I have no personal records to compare that to. I'm wondering how much British currency I should take as walking-around-money for a weekend trip.

So, just as I am about to travel internationally, just as the Olympics are about to get underway, just before the kickoff of the Super Bowl, a few people have decided that the best way to deal with a hornet infestation is to throw rocks at the nests. Brilliant. Thanks.

*According to this site, my memory is not entirely correct. In February 2002 the exchange rate was floating around 1.15 euros to the dollar, and in March 2003 it was fluctuating rapidly from .90 to .95 euros/dollar. Still, now is worse than then. At least the exchange rate is better than the all-time low of 0.73150 euros/dollar.

Nunquam oro per stultus

Can anybody check my Latin? This has always been my motto, and I wondered what it might look like in Latin. I resorted to the first online translator I could locate. It may very well translate into "People called Romanes, they go, the house".

Actually, my motto is "There is no point in arguing with idiots." Some people think that if I argue with them it's because I think they're wrong and stupid. The opposite is true. As long as I keep an argument up, it means that I have hope not only of convincing them that my position is correct, but also of learning from them that their position is correct. Once I have determined that my opponent is both immune to rational argument and incapable of providing any insight to me, I will simply walk away. I'm just wasting my time and theirs, and getting both of us unnecessarily annoyed.

Geez. I could sure use some dialectical humor right about now.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Welcome to the Two Minutes Hate

And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his
Hath turn'd his balls to gun-stones*; and his soul
Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly with them: for many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands;
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down;
And some are yet ungotten and unborn
That shall have cause to curse the Dauphin's scorn.

- Henry V, Act I, Scene 2
**


I am trying to write something about this whole cartoons-of-Mohammed situation, but the posturing that's going on makes me want to fling my keyboard aside.

Of course I support freedom of speech and freedom of expression. But suddenly legions of folks who just days ago would gladly have seen Hillary Clinton or Al Gore or John Kerry cast into the deepest recesses of Alberto Gonzales's basement torture chamber / rec room for remarks they have made blaspheming against the Unitary President and his Party of the Permanent Majority are now casting themselves as defenders of free expression and freedom of speech - specifically, the right, the duty, the moral obligation to publish cartoons depicting Mohammed.

I don't buy it. If you have even a passing knowledge of Islam, you probably know that their religion prohibits pictorial depictions of Mohammed. If you have even a little sensitivity, you would understand that Muslims of good faith could become incensed about such depictions. This isn't a free speech issue. This is an intentional provocation. This is an extended two minutes hate. And I won't take part in it.


* Good King Harry is talking about
tennis balls. Go get the 1989 Kenneth Branagh movie version. It kicks ass.

**I could have sworn that this passage contained the line "Mock eyes from heads", but I can't find it anywhere. Or is that something Branagh just kinda threw in?

Thursday, February 02, 2006

On the last day of Hallowhog

February 2nd brings to an end the joyous celebrations of Hallowhog. I seems like little more than three months ago that we were welcoming costumed Ghosts and Goblins, Reapers and Pirates to our doors.

The funny thing is, I got a few very late Christmas cards from some friends right around New Year's Eve. I decided that it was too late to get out my own Christmas cards, but I could still get out Hallowhog cards! First, of course, I had to create them. But, hey, I had plenty of time.

I never did get around to it.

Sigh. I guess I'll just have to send out next Hallowhog's cards a little early!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Hits from NEPA Blogs

I'm starting to get a few hits from NEPA Blogs. I really should set up a Sitemeter on that site so we can see how many people are visiting each day, and how they're getting there.

I'm only adding a few sites each week, but that will change if more people start letting me know that they have a blog and a Northeastern Pennsylvania connection. So how about it? Any bloggers out there from Nanticoke, Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, Hazleton, Ashley, Sugar Notch, Warrior Run, Forty Fort, Throop (pronounced "troop"), Olyphant, or Tunkhannock? Any folks from Blakeslee, Clarks Summit, Honeypot, Nescopeck, Nuangola, Moosic, Dallas, Swoyersville, Avoca, Pittston, Old Forge, Wyoming, Kingston, Plymouth or any of the ten thousand other places that make up Northeastern Pennsylvania? Let me know! I'll link you on NEPA Blogs!