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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Plans for this weekend

Well, there are two things scheduled for this weekend:

One is the Felberpalooza, which I am looking forward to. It is a celebration of writer/radio personality/blogger/author Adam Felber by the irregulars who comment at his website, Fanatical Apathy. It will be held at Grouseland, the mountain biking trail/campground belonging to the redoubtable Felbernaut Murray. As this is a mere 210.52 miles from my house, how can I pass it up?

The other is the arrival of an unwelcome visitor named Ernesto, which will almost certainly be bringing soaking rains to Pennsylvania on Saturday, when the main festivities of the Felberpalooza are planned. My greatest concern is more basement flooding, especially if it happens while I am 210.52 miles away. It is possible that the Felberpalooza will be washed out, or that some of the roads between here and there will be impassable. We'll see how that goes.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Melanie and Katrina, Deanna and Harlan

There are interesting conversations going on and posts popping up across the blogosphere. You should check them out. To start, I'll direct you to Melanie's Katrina anniversary post from yesterday at Hyperextended Joints. I find the stuff about Innovative Energy Management the most disturbing.

Meanwhile, Deanna Hoak has returned from WorldCon with a disturbing report about the behavior of someone whose writings I have long enjoyed, Harlan Ellison. This has prompted a discussion about whether an author's behavior devalues the author's works to the point where you should simply ignore them. Or: can you separate who an author is from what they have written? What do you think?

There's more out there, but finding it is left as an exercise for the reader!

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Virtuous atheists and divinely restrained sociopaths

Over on Adam Felber's Fanatical Apathy a discussion of religion and politics has broken out in the wake of Katherine Harris's interview in the Florida Baptist Witness. The discussion brought to mind first the recent "Letter to Timothy" dismissal of a Sunday School teacher by members of the American Taliban in that hotbed of fundamentalist fervor known as Watertown, New York. It also reminded me of a conversation I had with a recently born-again fellow student at the University of Scranton some 20 years ago (yes, those of you who went to college with me, it was Dave F.) in which he maintained that Fear of the Lord was the only thing that kept society from dissolving into chaos, violence, and lawlessness, since it was only because of this fear that people restrained themselves from acting out their fervent desires to rape, pillage, and murder. (I never really felt comfortable around him after that, having gotten a glimpse into his heart of hearts.)

Anyway, here's my contribution to the discussion:

Didn’t Katherine Harris get the memo about the Letter to Timothy? She should just shut the hell up. Women, I tell ya.

I’ve actually had devout Christians argue with me that, in the absence of God, there is no such thing as morality or ethics. They have a spooky, sociopathic attitude: If it weren’t for the Big Guy with the beard watching me, oh, the things I would do… In that sense, Christians who act only out of fear of divine reprisal are inherently less virtuous than non-believers who act out of a basic preference for good actions over evil actions. Add to that the fact that most Christians believe that upon accepting Christ they have an irrevocable Get Into Heaven card for the rest of their lives, and they’re truly a scary bunch that deserves to be watched closely. (Catholics, at least, believe that you have to confess your sins and perform penance to get absolution from sin.)

I’ll take a virtuous atheist over a divinely restrained sociopath any day.

Go on over and add your voice to the conversation. But be warned: we're a feisty, passionate bunch over there. Be sure to bring your "A" game.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Harrisburg: The State Museum

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building
Harrisburg, PA
August 26, 2006
The governmental heart of Harrisburg was fascinatingly deserted this past Saturday. The only other people we saw wandering about as we tried to make our way around the capitol building were also tourists. Despite the apparent lack of people in the area, the planetarium was surprisingly full for the 1:00 show.

There is much more to see at the (boringly named) State Museum than just the planetarium show . There is a Juried Art exhibit going on on the ground floor featuring painting, photography, design, sculpture, and crafts. (This is also where the bathrooms are, which is how we found it.) One floor down there is a gift shop and a desk where you buy the tickets to the planetarium show. On the second floor are exhibitions of human technology - wagons and carts, a gristmill and other such things. The third floor, in addition to the planetarium, hosts a collection of rocks and minerals, an exhibition of dinosaurs, the skeleton of a Wooly Mammoth found in Marshalls Creek and a recreation of the creature as it appeared with flesh and muscles and hair, a hall of more recent mammals (Elk, Bison, mountain lion, timber wolf), exhibitions of insects, reptiles, birds, squirrels, and wildlife of all sorts, and an impressive display of Civil War paintings and memorabilia.

Somebody needs to tell the curators that this model of Tyrannosaurus posture was generally abandoned quite a while ago in favor of the horizontally-slung spine seen in movies like Jurassic Park.

You can easily spend an entire day just wandering around the State Museum, taking it all in. Admission is free, parking is free on the weekends, and it's really worth your while. Go and see for yourself!

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Space is big. Really big.

Pennsylvania State Capitol building
August 26, 2006
The planetarium show currently running at the State Museum in Harrisburg is called "Big". The point of the show is to give viewers a sense of the enormous scale of the universe. Narrated by Richard Attenborough,who played John Hammond in the Jurassic Park movies, it is a combination of whiz-bang images (including a dancing caveman who appears to be roasting his 'nads) and solid science, all presented in an entertaining and educational package.

Perhaps the most impressive image - well, the one that impressed me the most - was the image of what you would see if you were to travel outside of the familiar confines of our galaxy. Because it was then that the planetarium dome simply went black.

If you go outside on a clear, cloudless night under dark skies, you will be able to make out thousands of objects of varying brightness: planets, stars, nebulas, globular clusters, the dim glow of the billions of stars in the Milky Way stretching across the sky - our own galaxy, seen from within. All of these objects are located within (or in the case of the globular clusters, in orbit around) our galaxy. With the naked eye, you might be able to pick out a faint patch of light in Andromeda, not far from the big M of Cassiopea. This is the Andromeda Galaxy, the farthest object visible with the unaided eye. Oh, there are plenty of other galaxies that you can see, but you will need a telescope to find them, and you will probably need the brighter stars in the neighborhood to help you zero in on their locations. There are also "ghost galaxies", low-surface-brightness galaxies (studied by my fellow member of the Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Sciences Class of '84 Julianne Dalcanton) that can be much closer and almost impossible to see.

Move outside of our galaxy and the Andromeda Galaxy will still be a faint smudge. And all those other galaxies will be much harder to find, because now you'll no longer have nearby stars to help you locate them - you left those behind when you left the Milky Way Galaxy behind. Move far enough away and even the Milky Way will be hard to see. You will be surrounded by empty darkness on all sides.

The space between galaxies is vast, and empty, and dark. I never really had a good sense of that until yesterday. It left me feeling a bit chilled. I was only too glad to step back out into the warm embrace of our galaxy, our star system, our planet, and my little corner of it.

A new show starts in November, based on Hubble Space Telescope photos. I'm going to try to see that one. You should catch "Big" if you can!

IF YOU GO: Tickets are purchased on the lowest level of the Museum. The Planetarium is on the top floor. So make sure you buy your tickets in advance, and be sure to be in the theater before the doors close! Check here for more information and a link to the planetarium's schedule.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Back from Harrisburg

I had a great time in Harrisburg with Jennifer from Jennifer D. Wade Journal. (We went there as a result of an exchange of comments here.) The planetarium show was fantastic, and made me realize something about space I never thought about before. The rest of the State Museum was pretty neat, too. Harrisburg itself, a city I haven't visited in 22 years, was fun. We drove through a 30 mile wall of fog to get there. But I'll tell you about all these things later.

When I got home I dropped my digital camera and cracked the LCD screen.

Oh, the camera still works. I can take pictures, and I can pull them off onto my PC. I can aim with the viewfinder window. I can even zoom blindly if I feel daring. But for the most part, I have no more control or fuctionality than I did with an inexpensive film camera.

I sent a note to Nikon asking how much it will cost to get it repaired. I'm betting it will be cheaper to get a new camera. Which I may have to do before next weekend's Felberpalooza.

But, hey, it's not that bad. Really.

This is bad.

Off to the planetarium!

See yas! I'm headed down to the State Museum Planetarium in Harrisburg today! I'll try to get photos.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Maynard Ferguson is dead

This wasn't supposed to be another post about death. I had really intended to write about Stephen Colbert and the planetary status of Pluto. Last week Colbert celebrated the fact that he had apparently won his argument with astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson over whether or not Pluto is a planet - Colbert says it is, Tyson says it isn't, and in an early draft of the definitions coming out of the International Astronomical Union's meeting on the subject, it looked like Colbert had won. But as of yesterday, it looks like the IAU has demoted the ninth planet to "dwarf planet" status. I fully expected Colbert to declare the IAU "dead to me." (So in a sense, this would have been about death anyway.) But, unless he mentioned it in the first two minutes, I don't think Colbert commented on yesterday's developments at all in last night's show. (He did, however, have as a guest theoretical physicist Janna Levin, author of A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, and not only held his own but managed to make her giggle like a little girl!)

But then I opened today's paper and saw that Maynard Ferguson has died.

If you've ever heard the theme from Rocky, you know some of Maynard Ferguson's music. I saw him perform once, at the Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre years ago. He was a short, plump, white-haired man with more energy than most rock performers I've seen. His opening number, played with his full band, was so exhaustingly exuberant that at the end of it I half-expected him to say "Thank you and goodnight!" He didn't. He and his band kept on going, blasting notes into the air like a musical fireworks show. At the end of the night the entire audience left smiling and laughing and talking, completely energized by the performance they had just experienced.

Dead now. But his music lives on, and hopefully he passed some of his energy and spirit on to his many proteges. I'm glad I got to see him perform.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

One year later

My father died one year ago today.

This is the photo that appears on the Thank You cards that I haven't sent out yet, the ones to family and friends who were so kind and generous and thoughtful and caring after his death. That is something I must take care of. Now that a year has passed, maybe I'm ready.

(I'm the one on the right. I was a cute six-year-old kid. What the hell happened?)

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

52 weeks later

It's been 52 weeks since my father died. He died on Wednesday, August 24, 2005. A year ago tomorrow, but 52 weeks ago today.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Death, again

For as long as I have known her my mom 's favorite page of the newspaper has been the Obituaries page. This was even before she worked at the bank and got to know so many people in the area through her work. "I want to see who is no longer with us," she would say whenever we would point out the morbidness of this fascination.

My mom is on vacation right now, visiting with my sister. Same as she was last year when my father had the fall that would lead directly to his death. (Well, not quite; they were in Florida last year.) Same as she was when my grandmother died.

Every morning she calls and asks me to read through the names in the obituaries. Every morning I read them off with the deliberateness of a University President at a Commencement.

This morning was no different. I got about halfway through the first page and she stopped me.

"That's the baby," she said.

One of the conditions for purchasing my grandmother's house was that I did not want to have to deal with tenants - noisy, car-owning, chain-smoking tenants. The impetus to the sale came about when the tenants announced they were moving. My aunt did not want to be stuck with an empty house, and I would be able to have the house without the hassle of tenants.

After a few false starts, the tenants finally moved out in April or May. I bought the house at the end of May.

In the middle of July, their 17-year old daughter had a baby girl.

I never saw the baby. Not much reason that I would, except that the father is part of the family that rents from my next-door neighbors. I did see them trundle the baby (shielded from view in her carrier) into their house a few weeks ago while I was doing yard work in my new yard. While running my wheedwhacker along the fence near their side door I discovered that they, too, were a family of heavy smokers. I hope they're not exposing the baby to all that smoke, I thought.

The baby died on Saturday.

So what killed a month-old little girl? I have no idea. Maybe we'll learn more as time goes by. I feel unbelievably bad for the young mother, who starts her Senior year in High School next week. To have had and lost a baby, all before her 18th birthday - that is a bit much to take.

We'll see what tomorrow's Obituaries page brings.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Major conjunction before sunrise on 8/22/06

As I have mentioned previously, there will be a conjunction of the Moon, Mercury, Venus, and Saturn low in the pre-dawn Eastern sky tomorrow morning, Tuesday, August 22nd. Head out around 5:00 - 5:30 or so and use binoculars for the best view!

UPDATE, 6:00 AM 8/22/06: Scattered clouds, cluttered horizon, encroaching daylight. Venus was easy, and the Moon was a narrow sliver. With much effort I saw a third component in the same binocular field - Saturn, I think - but then clouds blocked the view. I'll try for Mercury one more time before sunrise.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

House update Jr.

Much progress today, which would not have been possible without assistance from my cousin and her electric sander. Luddite that I am, I still prefer removing the old paint by hand using brute force, a putty knife, a paint scraper, sandpaper, and even more brute force. But for areas where you're just looking to smooth things out and remove just a little material, the electic sander works fine. And primer goes on much faster when two people are doing it from two sides of the porch. About two-thirds of the porch floor is now primed, as are both the top and bottom toeboards on the steps. Priming and painting the remaining third, which includes the area in front of the doorways, will require careful timing since the porch paint requires 24 hours to fully dry.

After we got done with the Sabbath's labors we retired to my cousin's house for pizza - but before then, as yesterday, I was greeted with an irresistable call from my lawn. This time I used my fully-charged weedwhacker on the brick walkway behind the house, which has become so overgrown with grass that it appears to be simply part of the lawn. Now I am convinced that some of those ancient bricks are seeing daylight for the first time in over a decade. I also whacked any other weeds that looked like they needed whacking, and then withdrew to a position of pizza.

My day's labors were not yet over. After giving a friend a ride home post-pizza, I realized that I needed to pick up some things at the grocery store. So there I was, in my paint-covered, tank-topped, jean-shorted glory, buying milk and peaches and a Sunday paper and ice cream and diet soda and a peach cake (BOOM: Sunday paper. There's a whole blog entry there. Later.) and Dulce de Leche Oreos (limited edition) and water and pre-cooked bacon and turkey bacon, too.

Now I'm back. Just need to put out food for the strays, take a shower, and head to bed. I'm looking forward to a nice, relaxing week at work.

In six days: road trip to the planetarium in Harrisburg!

Saturday, August 19, 2006

House update

Lisa from Amazing Grace pointed out that I haven't mentioned the house recently, and asked if that meant I was done. Hah! I say again, Hah!

So here's an update:

I basically lost all of July. July was just unreasonably hot, and when it wasn't hot, it was raining. Bad combination for getting stuff done. I didn't get anything done in July. At least, nothing much. At least, not since early July.

Oh, the sides of the steps are now painted. Also I've painted the edges of the porch boards. This is mainly so the porch will look sort-of painted to casual passers-by (especially shorter ones), but also so I can get the rest of the painting done from the comfort of the porch itself. I've also painted the boards that we used to replace the rotted-out boards in late June.

Lat week I planned to paint the last two parts of the steps that need painting: the toeboard on the top step (which runs under the porch itself) and the toeboard of the bottom step (which is directly above a large slate sidewalk.) I also planned to make a start of scraping, sanding, and painting the porch itself. Hah, again.

The top toeboard was a mess. Peeling paint everywhere, long cracks in the paint. This will be easy, I thought. Wrong. The top layer of paint was quite willing to come off, but not all at once. I was taking off little sheets of badly-applied paint one or two inches at a time. And every once in a while there would be a tiny spot of paint that had decided to hold on for dear life. So I spent the entire allotted time hacking away at the top layer of badly-applied paint with a putty knife, and never got to the bottom toeboard, or anything else. On the plus side, I think I got it all off, revealing the dark blue color that the porch had been painted decades ago.

Today, groggy with the aftereffects of a late-night phone call and an early-morning dental appointment to get a filling replaced, I went over to the house around 2:00, armed with my rechargeable weedwhacker and big plans. I whacked weeds until the battery was drained, and then it was time to deal with the porch.

By now it was raining, so I decided against priming and painting. Instead I would focus on sanding. I sanded the hell out of the top toeboard and then turned my attention to the porch floor. It didn't go as fast as I expected. A half-hour to do five boards, about 15 inches of a 30-foot-wide porch. 15 down, 345 to go.*

I called it quits after a short while because it was time for church. I nodded off a few times during Mass - God's way of telling me I really need more than three hours of sleep, even on a Friday night - walked back to the house, and dozed for about a half-hour in a recliner. I decided to pack things in. Since I would be toting a wheedwhacker covered with wet grass and weeds, I left through the back door.

I looked at the lawn. Hmmm, I thought, this could do with a little mowing. So I fired up the reel lawnmower and jogged back and forth across the lawn in a light drizzle while at least one neighbor watched from the safety of her porch and wondered what species of madman had moved into her neighborhood.

Then I discovered that a wheedwhacker with a fully-discharged battery, when allowed to sit by itself, will rebuild some of that charge. So I carried on with the weedwhacking. Twice.

And then it was time to go.

More fun tomorrow!

*Actually slightly less, since I've already painted the extreme edges, maybe six inches on each side. So, let's say 27 down, 333 to go.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Astronomy, astrology, and war

The morning of September 12th, 2001, I stood in my back yard and gazed towards the East, towards New York City and the rising sun. All those people, I thought for the hundred thousandth time. All those people.

And there, hanging in the Eastern sky, were a slim crescent moon and the planet Venus. The symbol of Islam hovering over the ruins of the World Trade Center as seen from most of the rest of the country.

The ground assault portion of the first Gulf War began in early 1991 while Mars was in Taurus, giving the Bull two red eyes.* Since ancient times this has been considered an auspicious sign, a signal that a war begun at this time will be successful. It is possible that when Ronald Reagan left office in 1989, he left behind some of his Court Astrologers.

(It should be noted that this was the real planet Mars appearing in the real constellation of Taurus. The positions of astrological "planets" and "constellations" have fallen very badly out of sync with reality over the centuries, and it is entirely possible that the astrological Mars was on the other side of the sky from the real, astronomical Mars.)

Now we are being told that Iran is planning something extra-special for August 22nd, next Tuesday. This is a Muslim holy day, Lailat al Miraj, which celebrates the night that Mohammed made a pilgrimage from Mecca to Jerusalem in a single night. According to the linked BBC source,

The Prophet travelled from Mecca to Jerusalem in a single night on a strange winged creature called Buraq. From Jerusalem he ascended into heaven, where he met the earlier prophets, and eventually God.

So is there an astronomical or astrological connection to this date? If you're a regular reader, you might already know that the answer is yes.** On this morning Mercury, Venus, and Saturn will all be gathered low in the Eastern sky, accompanied by a slim crescent moon. The sky will look very much as it did on the morning of September 12th, 2001.

Should we be concerned? Should we be scared? There are people on both sides of this conflict who recognize the value of keeping people in a state of fear. We shouldn't allow ourselves to be terrorized, but we shouldn't walk blindly into the future. What will happen? I don't know. We should expect nothing, and anticipate everything. In a few days, we'll know for sure.

*Actually, Mars spent much of late 1990 and early 1991 in Taurus, and some have connected its presence there to Sadaam Hussein's decision to invade Kuwait in the first place. The specific event I am recalling is that days before the start of the ground assault, on February 21, 1991, the Moon was in conjunction with Mars in Taurus. Hey, it's been over 15 years. Sometimes it takes a while to remember specifics.

**This really shouldn't be a huge surprise, since the Muslim calendar is based on the lunar cycle.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Rough days ahead

I have an odd sort of memory. Most of my mind is pretty odd, wired completely differently from almost everyone else I have ever met. But one of the odd features of my mind is what I've always called the "Yesteryear" effect: I can remember, with great vividness, things that I experienced exactly a year ago.

It only happens once. That is, I don't re-experience things I was re-experiencing last year, at least not most of the time. Usually it's just once and done.

My father had a fall on the Friday of this week one year ago. That fall led to his death the following Wednesday.

My mom is finally packing up his old clothes and taking them to a place near Baltimore where they will be given away for free to the needy - far enough away that she won't be running into some homeless guy wearing one of my father's old suits from when he worked at the gas company 40 years ago. These will be some of the best-dressed bums around.

So. Things will be a little rough for the next few days. After the anniversary, there are some things I need to take care of, things I've needed to take care of for the past year. Please bear with me if I seem a little distracted, or odder than usual.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Blogger and Categories

Mr. H.K. brought my attention to something I had missed: Blogger is making some major updates (currently only available in the "Blogger Beta" version), including the addition of a "Labels" feature - the functional equivalent of "Categories".

When I hear about longtime users leaving Blogger for other blogging platforms, one of the most frequently-cited reasons is the availability of Category labels and Blogger's lack of them. Category labels let you tag your posts for later grouping, so that users (including yourself) can browse through thematically-linked collections of posts. Blogger actually has a DIY approach to this, but it involves invoking several other programs and quite a bit of html editing - something I don't want to get into. Now it looks like soon there will be an easier way of applying these categories.

I've often thought about what categories I would use if I could. I've come up with a list, which is hardly comprehensive:
  • blogs
  • bloggers
  • blogging
  • pets
  • death
  • Haley
  • stargazing and skywatching
  • painting
  • photography
  • nature
  • music
  • Nanticoke
  • politics
  • rants
  • calls to action
  • an autobiography in 1,000,000 chapters
It's a start. Anyone have any other suggestions?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Schrödinger’s Ball

My computer is being very futzy tonight, so I need to be brief.

Schrödinger’s Ball by Adam Felber is a damned good, funny book. You should buy it. Now.

P.S. Check out this (SPOILER-FILLED!) review from the New York Times.

P.P.S. Check out the bottom of page 7 for the line that knocked me out of my chair - and got me to buy three extra copies - when I first read a preview three months ago.

P.P.P.S. Damn that ümlaüt. People may be looking for Schrodinger's Ball, or even Schroedinger's Ball. I hope they find the book!

Monday, August 14, 2006

Skippers

Silver-Spotted Skipper, 8/13/2006

Skipper (Least Skipper?), 8/13/2006

I never even knew there was such a thing as a Skipper until last year. Related to butterflies and moths, Skippers get their name from their erratic "skipping" motion through the air. It reminds me of bits of paper ash being blown about in a fire - rising, falling, rising again.

The upper image is of a Silver-Spotted Skipper - though today I learned that that term is applied to several different insects, including some that I don't think are Skippers at all. I also call it the Birdshit Bug, because it looks like a piece of wood that a passing bird has just pooped on. Good camouflage, and good outline break-up.

The lower image is greatly magnified. While the Silver-Spotted Skipper is about an inch long, the smaller, golden Skipper (which I seem to recall is a Least Skipper, but I can't find my Audubon Field Guide at the moment) is about one-third of an inch, and considerably more skittish than its larger cousin. I was lucky to be able to get close enough to get this shot, which was from a range of about a foot. Check out the funky pattern on its wings, like a collection of Post-Its tacked on for later reference!

UPDATE: According to several sites, the Skipper at the bottom is also a Silver-Spotted Skipper.

The return of Lisa's Amazing Grace

I blame Firefox.

Before I had Firefox I had no idea what RSS feeds were. With Firefox's Live Bookmarks feature, I can use the RSS feeds that come standard with many blogs to see when people have updated without having to open the blogs themselves.

Unfortunately I've been without Firefox and my Live Bookmarks for about two weeks, so the only way I know when people have updated now is to actually check for myself. Which I haven't been doing as often as I should.

Lisa at Amazing Grace has been posting again for more than a week after a nine-month hiatus, and I didn't notice until last night. Dammit! This is in spite of the fact that she and I discussed Sitemeters last week. I must be getting slow.

So stop by, catch up, and see how things are going with my favorite quilter / CPS caseworker!

Sunday, August 13, 2006

An ALL-NEW error message from Blogger!

This morning I tried to add text to those last two posts and I got this error message:

001 java.io.IOException: No space left on deviceblog/48/20/6/anothermonkey/archives/
2006_08_01_anothermonkey_archive.html

What the hell? Am I full?

UPDATE: Apparently not. I am able to post text again. Maybe I had filled up some sort of buffer by repeatedly trying to post those photos and aborting each attempt as it got hung up - which is why I finally went all old-school and dug up my old Hello! button to post them that way.

Sunflowers


Sunflowers, August 9th 2006 Posted by Picasa
Some sunflowers in my garden shortly before sunset. The sun is hidden behind the sunflower just to right of center. Shouldn't sunflowers be facing the sun? Maybe they were fixated on the reflected sunlight on my neighbor's aluminum siding.

Monarch


Monarch Butterfly, August 9th 2006 Posted by Picasa
My butterfly bushes have attracted a bumper crop of Monarch butterflies this year. I realized I haven't really taken any photos this summer, so I went outside on Wednesday and got some good shots.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Deanna Hoak

This is a link long overdue. Deanna Hoak has commented here several times in the past few months. She is, according to her blog, "a freelance copy editor specializing in Fantasy and Science Fiction." I think we first bumped into each other at Jess Nevins' place a long time ago. She's smart, funny, and a hell of a writer. Not to mention beautiful, which I won't mention since she's married, and mentioning such things about married women only tends to get me in trouble, and what the hell's this obsession with physical appearances anyway, dammit, what's your problem you salacious leering sexist bastard who looks upon every woman whose blog you come across as little more than a sex object with writing skills!

Ahem.

Anyway. Go visit Deanna Hoak's blog. You'll be glad you did!

30,000 page views

Thursday morning I checked my Sitemeter and saw this:

30,000 page views as of 8/10/006
30,000 page views! It's been less than seven weeks since I was at 25,000.

I owe a lot of this to The Anomalist, and to Cathy Baker of Hee Haw fame, and to When Fangirls Attack! It's nice to know that so many people are reading - or at least looking at - my stuff.

Friday, August 11, 2006

HAPPY BIRTHDAY ANDY P.!!!


Andy Posted by Picasa
This is Andy P., formerly of Manchester, England, and today is his birthday.

Look at him. Doesn't he look happy? This is because his loving wife has presented him with something special, in honor of all the things he has done to...er, for her.

The lid of his cake box is lined with the emblem of the Manchester City Football Club, because she knows how much they mean to him. And the cake itself is actually a giant Lafayette, in recognition of his passionate feelings about France and all things French.

Look at him. Doesn't he look happy with his M.C.F.C. insignia and his big French pastry? Aww, happy birthday, Andy!

I hope his brother gets to see this back in Manchester!

Personal DNA: Benevolent Analyst

This is all Encouraging Inventor Mr. H.K.'s fault.

At least, he was the first one I saw with this test, a multi-question personality profile. Then Animated Director Rima took it and posted her results. Then Benevolent Creator Melanie.

Actually, I took the test the other day at work (on a break, of course!), but wasn't planning to post my results. But blogger peer pressure got to me. So here it is:


If it isn't showing up, you can follow this link to the results:
My Personal Dna Report

Like Melanie, I'm a little baffled by scoring so high for "Style". Style? Me? I suppose if you interpret this as "Personal Style", which is pretty much the opposite of the more common concept of "Style", it makes some sense. I'm one of the least stylish people I know, but I have a pretty easily recognizable personal style.

Some of the other stuff I don't agree with either. I suppose it's like knowing I'm an Aquarius and on the Monkey-Goat cusp (I consider myself a Monkey, even though I am technically a Goat): anyone knowing me will know that I fit with 75% or so of the characteristics of both a typical Aquarius and a typical Monkey, in a way I do not fit for a Leo or a Rat (or, for that matter, a Goat.) Some of it is interpretation, some is shoehorning. Some is dead on.

Anyway. Take the test for yourself, and see how you score!

Tired, again

I had dinner at an Indian place with some friends last night. It was excellent. But on the way home I was so tired I could barely stay on the road. Driving while tired is stupid and dangerous, and I do it a lot more often than I care to admit.

I think Trixie may be to blame for my exhaustion - late to bed, and early to rise. Some mornings she wanted to get up at 2:30 instead of 5:30 to go out for a walk. My brother and his family came back from the beach yesterday afternoon and picked her up. So now I get to go to bed and get up on my schedule, not hers.

I tried to call a friend last night when I got home, around 9:30 my time, but got a constant busy signal. I was asleep by 10:00. I slept until 5:30 this morning.

I did some reading up on coyotes. Seems that the coyote Trixie and I encountered in my back yard was a small specimen, maybe a juvenile. They're not that uncommon in suburban areas, especially a suburban area that is bordered on all sides by forest (the closest forest is about a quarter mile away.) They are attracted to cat food placed out for strays and will prey on the cats themselves. They will also look upon small yappy dogs as meals, which may be why the coyote was eyeing us up the other day. According to the article, I should have aggressively chased it away, lest it decide that my back yard is part of its territory. Well, next time I'll know better.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Current events

I've been avoiding methioning current events lately. I have a feeling if I started I might not be able to stop.

So a major terrorist plot may have been thwarted at Heathrow. That's good, I imagine. But as anyone who has been even peripherally involved in a newsworthy story knows, you shouldn't believe the reports that you hear or read in the first few days, especially when they breathlessly involve "Breaking News." And the reports that follow tend to build upon the initial reports. Still, if what they're saying on CNN is even remotely accurate, then stopping it is a very good thing. Let's hope this wasn't just one protrusion on the iceberg. But it probably was.

My thoughts on the ongoing situation in Lebanon are complex.
  • Hezbollah (or however the hell you pronounce it) = BAD.
  • Hezbollah being allowed to amass 13,000 missiles of various types = VERY BAD.
  • Hezbollah firing those missiles at Israel while taking cover deep in civilian areas = VERY BAD.
  • Israel attacking civilian infrastructure = UNDERSTANDABLE (cut off transportation for those 13,000 missiles.)
  • Israel alerting civilians to flee before airstrikes = ADMIRABLE (on the other hand, should Osama bin Laden be thanked each time he issues a warning to Americans?)
  • Israel targeting fleeing refugees, ambulances, refugee camps, and U.N. observers = VERY, VERY BAD.
  • Lebanon allowing Hezbollah to run whole chunks of the country, dictate foreign policy, and engage neighbors in battle = STUPID.
So who the hell's gonna pay to rebuild Lebanon?

Lieberman's out because he supported the war - well, and because he toadied up to the Republicans and the Bush administration so much that he and Tony Blair were fighting over lap space. But didn't Hillary Clinton support the war, too?

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Coyote in the back yard

I had just put the finishing touches on the previous entry around 10:30 and decided to take Trixie, my brother's dog, out for a walk.

Trixie is very easily distracted and is convinced that anything she can see, hear, or smell is something that wants to play with her. She will chase shadows, reflections, joggers, cars, and bugs, she will stop and listen to a conversation going on down the block or a little kid jumping on a bed in a second-floor bedroom across the street. (These are all things that she did yesterday.)

She has discovered the spot where the cats come to feed and becomes very excited whenever we get to that point in our walk around the house. Sometimes the cats will hide, sometimes they will not show up in the first place, and sometimes they will make a run for it. In each case, if she senses they are near she will make inquiries as to whether or not they want to play, inquiries that sound to the human ear like high-pitched barking.

We were making our sixth circuit of the house. She still hadn't pooped, what with all the cars and joggers and people having conversations and kids jumping on their beds. We were passing the back steps where my mom puts out the food and I spotted something ahead of us.

I thought it was a cat. It moved like a cat, and it was the size of a very big cat, but its fur - beautiful, two-tone gray/black stuff - was all wrong. It didn't look like cat's fur. It didn't even look like dog's fur. The tail was wrong, too, and the legs, despite their feline movements. And its head...

It picked up its big fox-like head and looked at us. It froze. We froze. We were about 15 feet apart.

Fox?, I thought. No, too bulky, wrong color. Jackal? No, not around here. Coyote? Yes. A coyote. In my back yard. Fifteen feet away from me. Ten feet past the back steps.

Why would a coyote be in my back yard? Maybe it is hungry. Maybe it has experienced habitat disruption. But it looks well-fed. What has it been eating?

Maybe it is rabid. It's just standing there. If it approaches, it's probably rabid, and you're screwed.

Trixie interrupted this train of thought. "Hello, Mr. Coyote!" she said. "My name is Trixie, and I am visiting here for a few days, and I love to play. Would you like to play with me? I would like to play with you! Do please consider playing with me. It will be fun, and you will enjoy it. I eagerly await your response!"

Of couse, she said it in Dog, so it came out as "Yapyap yipYapyipyip YAPbarkYAP YAPYAPyip YAP yapYap!"

The coyote, perhaps due to a mistranslation from Dog to Coyote, was taken aback by this effrontery and took off like a fox with its tail on fire. In the background I could hear other coyotes bark-yip-whine-howling, probably reminding their friend that they had told him it was foolish to wander so far into human habitation.

We got the hell into the house. Cats, skunks, opossums, and now coyotes...what else is wandering around my back yard?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Venus and Mercury in the morning sky

I'm watching my brother's dog while he and his family are at the shore. She's a Toy Cockapoo, a Cocker Spaniel / Toy Poodle hybrid about the size of a small teddy bear and with enough energy to practically leap onto my shoulders with a running start.

Watching her means walking her, and dogwalks are something I haven't done since Haley died.

I walk her at night before we go to bed, about seven times around the house. She sleeps with me - we sleep back to back - but don't tell my brother, because they want her to sleep in her crate. At 5:30 she's ready for another walk, so I am finding myself thrust back into the magical landscape of the pre-dawn hours.

This morning the sky was turquoise, just the damndest color I've seen in a while. We stepped out and I was greeted by the arc-light brightness of Venus hanging over my neighbor's house. Some dim memory told me Mercury should be nearby, but I couldn't see it. Not that I had much time to look.

I consulted my August issue of Sky & Telescope and it says that Venus and Mercury should be very close right now in the morning sky - something like two degrees, which means reeeal close. Mercury is a fast mover - hence the name and the association between Mecury the planet and the Greek deity Mercury, though whether the deity took his characteristics from a namesake planet or the planet was named for a swift-footed Messenger of the Gods, I don't know, and you'd probably have to consult with some prehistoric proto-Greeks to find out for sure - so it won't be hanging about in a convenient location for long.

But it will be around for a little while, long enough that there will be a spectacular Venus-Moon-Saturn-Mercury lineup on the morning of Tuesday, August 22nd. Set your alarms now!

Irredeemable errors

When I met with some friends from out-of-state on Sunday we were discussing someone else who had chosen a life path that was not permitting her to live up to her full potential. She had such promise, such talent, and now she was consigned to the role of subservient housewife. "She's still alive," I said, suggesting that her future pathways had not yet closed. "She's not dead yet."

What I think is one of my best pieces of writing is something you will probably never read. It was an attempt to persuade someone to do something, or rather to stop doing something. It was a one-shot deal, so I knew I had to throw everything I had into it. It was literally a matter of life or death.

Did it work? I don't know. The person to whom it was written did not stop doing what she was doing. But in her subsequent messages I sensed an element of doubt, a realization that maybe she was on the wrong path. Did I do that? Did I plant a seed of doubt that had taken root? I have no idea. And whether or not I did doesn't matter as much as whether or not she is still alive a month, a year, a decade from now.

Now I see that another friend finds herself on the precipice of making a horrible mistake. What is the mistake? I have no idea.

But there are mistakes, and there are mistakes. Some errors are irredeemable. Most are not.

It's trite and naive to say "Where there's life, there's hope." Anyone who has ever dealt with mold in their basement will attest to that.

But as long as you are still alive, as long as you are not dead yet...well, that's something.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Weekend wrap-up

Lesson learned: radiation burns hurt. Even if the radiation involved is ultraviolet. So much for evening out my "farmer's tan" by wearing a tank top while mowing the lawn.

My allergies are back. I had a cough for nearly three months after I got back from Ireland, and I finally got over it at the end of June. So I had six weeks of feeling fine, and now I am sick again. Dammit.

Some friends stopped by for a visit yesterday. Over dinner a topic came up: why do people consciously choose to stay in small, economically depressed areas? This came up in the context of another friend, a girl who used to babysit my friend's daughter and with whom I once almost fell accidentally in love (mistaking her affectionate behavior as being uniquely targeted at me, which, coupled with her charm, energy, and brilliance, was an irresistable attraction) who has chosen to abandon a professional teaching career to be a stay-at-home mom in a small town. But it also applied to another friend, who has set up shop in the Pennsylvania countryside. And, of course, to me. I will have to explore this further in the future.

At the urging of not one but two beautiful women, I watched V for Vendetta this weekend. Not that I wouldn't have watched it on my own eventually, and I had already purchased it last Tuesday as soon as it was released, but it was something of a record for me to watch a DVD that quickly.

I enjoyed the movie. It is an admirable translation of Alan Moore's book onto the screen, although it is substantially different from the book in major details. Even with these differences, it is with two relatively minor points that I have quibbles:

- The doctor's diary should have trailed off after "He looked at me..." as it did in the book. It would have been much more effective that way, even with the unnecessary visuals that followed.

- The roses were changed from the variety "Violet Carson" (which is a real rose named after a real person, an actress, not after the rose's color, and follows the "V" theme) to the fictitious "Scarlet Carson". Why? Do rose patents act like copyrights, too?

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Day of defragmentation

Yesterday was a beautiful day, again. The weather broke just in time for me to mow my lawn and paint a little more of the porch. Yayyyy.

Unfortunately I didn't have time to get out to a local computer store to work on having one custom-designed to fit my needs. (Sorry, Gort.) But I did manage to run a scandisk and a defrag on my PC in Windows mode, since just running a scandisk in DOS mode last weekend didn't seem to do anything.

The scandisk took a few hours to run, and this is even after I had shut down everything else running in the background. But that was nothing compared to the defrag, which ran from about 3:30 yesterday afternoon to about 1:00 today - twenty-one and a half hours. Well, it's been a while since the last one.

Of course, as soon as I restarted the computer, out popped a flurry of errors. Oh, well. As long as this one lasts long enough for me to buy a new one and pull all my data off this one, I'll be happy.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Strangers in the sky

What the hell did I just see?

I was outside tonight, stargazing. The humidity has dropped enough to make it easier to see more stars, and I didn't have to worry about my lenses fogging up. But I had gone outside late - about 11:00 - and the stars had rotated significantly since my first steps back into stargazing two weeks ago. The Messier Objects I had noted earlier were now in new positions, and Sagittarius itself was farther to the southwest, in a new region of skyglow - possibly from a new gas station along route 309 heading into Hazleton.

I had seen quite a bit and was a little disappointed with the lack of satellites. Not that satellites were the main reason I was outside, but I always find them an interesting diversion. I had seen a few, but not as many as I had in previous sessions.

I was getting myself ready to get up and head back into the house when I cast my eyes to the northwest, towards (I believe) Serpens Caput. There I saw an interesting triangular asterism I hadn't noticed before. I must be getting tired, I thought. I could swear that triangle is changing shape.

It was.

I slapped my binoculars to my eyes and looked. At first it was hard to tell what was happening - it was like looking at two clouds in the sky, one in front of the other, and you can't tell if the one in front is moving to the left, or the one in back is moving to the right. There are no good fixed reference points in the sky when you're dealing with multiple moving objects.

Two of the three stars in the triangle were moving, together.

I've seen things like this before. Usually it's the International Space Station and a space shuttle right after they un-dock - really quite a sight, all too rare these days; I once had our entire night-shift crew out in the parking lot of our old building to see this, and Security dropped by to investigate. I once saw...something else. I think it was a satellite cluster called Snowflake, an experiment in coordinated satellite guidance, but I don't know.

This looked like one satellite chasing another across the sky from Northwest to South. Both were approximately the same magnitude, both fit into the same binocular field, and both vanished at about the same point in space - suggesting that they were actually at the same altitude and both passed into shadow at the same place. It was very strange having the leading satellite vanish from my direct vision but still be visible in my averted vision for a few seconds while I tracked the trailing satellite until it, too, passed into shadow.

I packed it in right away. Got myself inside and checked the atomic clock on the wall: 11:27 PM, Friday, August 4th, 2006. No more than two minutes had passed since I watched the twin satellites vanish from view.

This will be easy, I thought. I fired up my cranky old PC and, with some cajoling, got Heavens-Above (www.heavens-above.com) on the screen. Now it was just a matter of determining which two satellites passed into shadow above Nanticoke, PA at about 11:25 PM.

None.

The closest thing I could find was a Cosmos 2237 Rocket. It had the right path, but not the right time - it should have passed into shadow at 11:16 PM. And, most importantly, there was only one of it. Not two. No other satellites came close to taking that same path across the sky.

So what the hell did I see? Could the Cosmos 2237 Rocket have had a collision that broke it into two pieces and slowed it down enough to be ten minutes behind schedule? I have no idea. I can check for future appearances and see if one satellite appears as two.

It's good to know that the sky is still full of surprises, even for someone who thought he knew his way around it!

Another unplanned expense

It's hot. It's humid. Some storms came through that did a little to clear the air yesterday, but I was only able to see about a dozen of the brightest stars last night. Still, that's something. And I knew that, in a few hours, someone else would be looking at these same stars. That was something, too.

But that's not why I am writing.

No. Apparently it is not enough that my computer is dying and needs to be replaced. No, now my computer chair also needs to be replaced.

It started Wednesday night. I was wrapping things up for the night in the sweltering heat when I heard a crack and the chair seemed to shift a bit. I did a quick inspection, felt around under the seat, found nothing out of the ordinary.

Yesterday morning I sat down to begin trying to coax a few minutes of functionality out of my PC. My act of sitting was rudely interrupted by a brittle crack, like celery snapping, and a sudden lurch to the right.

I picked up the chair. Two of the five legs had snapped off. The pattern of their breakage was identical, leading me to suspect the presence of a weak alignment of molecules resulting from the way the plastic flowed in the injection molding process. The heat, I am sure, did not help, nor did the loads the chair was subjected to...for the last eight months.

My last chair, a cheap little task chair, lasted five years before it gave up the ghost. It was replaced with a carefully selected, special-ordered chair. Which broke after eight months.

I doubt the Gorilla Glue I'm using to repair this chair will last for more than a few seconds under stress, but we'll see. Whatever. Sam's Club has a chair with metal legs for about $89, $10 more than the chair that just broke. I think I'll just get one of those and see how long it lasts.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The President is in great (physical) health!

The news has been all abuzz with the results of the President's latest physical exam. The results? He's in great shape! Hip-hip-hooray, everybody!

Too bad they only measure his physical health and do not probe the functioning of his brain - his cognitive abilities, his reasoning faculties, his ability to analyze and synthesize information. Maybe give him a quick IQ test, a quiz on current events and American history, give him some what-happens-next questions. Perhaps he should take the High School exit exams being given as a requirement of his "No Child Left Behind" policy, and maybe an SAT for good measure. Add in a few rounds of "Fact Or Crap?" and some geography fun with a map of the U.S. and a globe. Perhaps a game of "How well do you know the Constitution?"

Not gonna happen. Reagan would never have passed, not in his second term or even towards the end of his first - he was allegedly showing signs of the early onset of Alzheimer's before his re-election. To be fair, Wilson would not have been able to pass in his later years, either, nor perhaps several other Presidents who are respected and regarded more highly than the current office-holder.

Not that it would matter much. Even if a battery of tests were to show that Bush is stupid, incapable of advanced reasoning, prone to fantastical thinking, ignorant of current affairs, ignorant of history, ignorant of the basics of the American system of government, ignorant of the most basic information about the United States and the rest of the world, unaware of the fundamental precepts of science, incapable of discerning facts from spin - well, what would it tell us, other than that he is a fitting representative of a large and vocal proportion of the voting public?

Two and a half more years to go.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

It's too hot, baby

It's currently 83 degrees in this room. It was 85 last night, and nothing I did could bring the temperature any lower. My computer malfunctions above 80 degrees. Above 85 it basically locks up.
After consulting with a friend this weekend, I'm wondering if the problem is with my 1999 vintage AMD-K6 3D processor. Unfortunately, my computer is too unstable for me to do any serious research on whether this is a known issue..
A new problem: blog posts sent by e-mail are not consistently getting through. I tried to submit one twice yesterday, and was only able to post it the old-fashioned way during a temporary reprieve from Firefox crashes. We'll see if this gets through.
I'm probably not going to buy a computer from Best Buy, for the stupidest of reasons: every single printed-out descriptive tag for the computers in their store is smeared, blurred, and streaky. It is virtually impossible to read the description for any of the computers' features. This should be obvious to every clerk, associate, or manager walking past the PC's. The fact that they haven't bothered to do anything about this tells me something about their level of concern for the customer. We'll see what Circuit City has to offer.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

I knew MTV when MTV didn't suck

Well, that's not true. MTV has always sucked in one way or another, depending on your point of view

I was 13 when MTV first came out 25 years ago. We didn't have cable yet so the only places I saw it were at friends' houses or in the TV section of department stores. MTV was a big driving force in getting a lot of fence-sitters to take the plunge and get cable - and in the early days it was considered a "Premium" channel, or not carried by some systems at all. Hence the "I want my MTV" promotion.

The MTV of today bears little resemblance to what it was back in the early days. They used to show music videos. A few years ago they ran a series of promos in which characters would assault people complaining about the lack of music videos on MTV and shout at them "THE MUSIC'S ON MTV2!" Yes, once again you had to buy a premium cable package to see music videos.

Still, MTV has always had things about it that sucked, and even they are sometimes remembered fondly. "Remote Control"? OK, that was one of the early steps down the slope that led away from music videos. Still, that game show introduced us to Colin Quinn and featured categories like "Inside Tina Yothers" (human anatomy questions, asked in the context of the body of the youngest daughter from Family Ties.) And that was back in the late 1980's, less than ten years after the channel came on the air

This morning during the "Happy Birthday, MTV!" segment on Good Morning America they showed a clip of the beginning of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana, the tracking shot across the tough-girl cheerleaders as the opening guitar notes are played. It gave me goosebumps. That was the dawn of the Alternative era, from the beginning of the 90's.

Sometimes, just sometimes, MTV didn't suck.

We'll see what happens over the next 25 years.