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Sunday, December 31, 2006

Happy New Year's Eve!

Today a friend of mine stopped by partway through his seven-hour drive back home from visiting with his family for the holidays. He got the nickel tour of my new house, which includes the bright blue porch, the Christmas tree, the lamps from Target, the original paintings (by me) fun-tacked here and there throughout the house, the basement (forgot to show him the coal bin or present him with a souvenir lump of coal), the attic, and everything in-between.

Before he went on his way we stopped at a local Italian restaurant for lunch - my treat, since today is his birthday. While we were there we were waited on by a cute enthusiastic waitress* whose fingers were completely unencumbered by rings. She was extra-friendly and super-chatty, and really, really liked the color of my shirt ("I love that color!" she cooed, "It's like - oatmeal!") and stroked my arm several times while enthusing over it. So I reacted to her the way I always do in situations like this.

"So, any big plans for New Year's Eve?" I utterly failed to ask.

"No, no. Another one at home all by myself!" she did not have the opportunity to respond.

"How tragic!" I did not retort. "Me, too! Say, maybe...ummm...if you'd like..." I might have stammered, if the conversation had taken place at all.

Bah. Humbug.

It's been a rough year. Ashes died in April after a long, lingering illness. I lost another uncle in May, also after a long illness. Minnie died in October after a brief but devastating illness. Some of my friends are having even rougher times. And I myself have suffered some losses that I haven't told you about.

But it hasn't been all bad. I got to see Ireland one more time, and London as well. I finally bought my grandmother's house at the end of May. I got to meet Adam Felber and a bunch of my fellow Felbernauts back in September. A new cat came into my life at the same time Minnie was leaving. I passed out candy and toys for my first Halloween at my new house, and I decorated my own Christmas tree and my own front porch for the first time. An old friend of mine had a baby, almost unexpectedly, while another friend and his wife had a baby after many years of trying. I talked to someone I've wanted to talk to for years. And I've met some people who I hope to get to know better as time goes by.

Life goes on, with or without our consent.

Another year is ending. Another year is beginning.

Good luck to us all.

*Note to me: Shannon. Remember that. Her name is Shannon. Like the airport.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Labels, blood, and oil

Today was a semi-big day. Blood donation followed by an oil change, then the purchase of over $59 worth of cat food and cat toys, lunch from McDonald's (including my first Eggnog Shake of the season), and a free car wash from a place I've never been to before.

I'm continuing my backwards journey through my posts, applying labels as I go. My goal was to get back to the post where I announced the purchase of my house back on May 31 of this year, but my computer has become futzy within two posts of this goal. Oh, well.

It's a hell of a thing to be relieving all the events I've written about in reverse order. To see Minnie as a box of cremated remains, then to read her life story, then her death story, then her progress reports, then the announcement that she had gone into the hospital unexpectedly. To see my decorated, painted porch, then to watch it become unpainted, unprimed, unsanded, unscraped. It's really quite unnerving. But it helps me appreciate how I've gotten to where I am.

250-plus posts labelled. 660 or so to go.

Friday, December 29, 2006

100 down, 813 (or so) to go

So. I've started labeling posts. I've created quite a few labels so far, and I've been able to label 100 posts (well, 98 posts; two of them were drafts that haven't been published yet.) Most of them have two or more labels - some of them quite a few more. Some of the posts that I've already labeled need to be re-labeled with labels I have thought up since I first labeled them.

Today is also NaDruBloDa - National Drunk Blogging Day. I fully intended to participate but then I remembered that I had a blood donation scheduled tomorrow. So, no drinking allowed. Except some red wine. It thins the blood, makes the donation go faster. So I'm having a little red wine. 24 ounces - two 12-ounce mugs - of Franzia Cabernet Sauvignon (from a 5-liter box that I just bought an hour ago) so far. I may have a little bit more with dinner - leftover pierogies from Vigilia on Christmas Eve. So, sorry guys, no Drunk Blogging for me today. Jes' a little drinkie with dinner. Thassal, ossifer.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Testing, testing...

Here we go with my first post using the new Blogger.

Assuming this works, my next task will be to start going through all my old posts and start adding category labels.

Here I go...

As soon as I post this post, I will begin the changeover to Blogger Beta. Hope I don't lose...everything. Wish me luck!

UPDATE, 13 minutes later: No, I guess not. The option of switching is not available at the moment. There's an explanation on the relevant Blogger page - buried, as usual, under tons of hype and obsolete information.

Update, 12/20: If you don’t see the “Switch Now” button on the homepage, it’s because a ton of people are already switching to the new Blogger, and we only let so many run simultaneously in order to give everyone a good experience. Just log in to old Blogger for now, and we’ll give you a heads up on your Dashboard when we’re ready for you.

Not exactly the most reassuring thing in the world - "we only let so many run simultaneously in order to give everyone a good experience"? - but at least it's an explanation. I'll try to upgrade next time I'm given the opportunity.

UPDATE 2, 6 hours and 45 minutes later: Still nothing. And the update of X-Cleaner I just downloaded doesn't seem to be working. Now, let's see if AVG's anti-virus update will similarly fail...

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Happy second day of Kwanzaa!

Spent another night at my house. Some of my neighbors have already stopped lighting their decorations. Nonsense! Christmas decorations are to remain lit until the "official" end of Christmas, the Feast of the Presentation, which I think is January 7th...or is it the 8th?* And they are to be left up and lit again on Russian Christmas, which is...somewhat later. I forget.

Did some work from home this morning. Nothing major, just annoying, since the clients driving this work to be done are also on vacation! If stuff wan't crucial enough to get completed in the weeks leading up to Christmas when I was begging and pleading for the final elements that would allow us to complete a project, I don't see how it can be suddenly that much more critical on the days between December 25 and January 1.

Anyway. Off to meet my mom and my sister for an extremely early dinner. Take care!

*No, as dee pointed out to me, I had at least one and possibly two other feastdays in mind. See the comments for details.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Happy Boxing Day!

It's the day after Christmas and the merriment continues. More stuff with family and friends - the cats loved their presents, too! Today was Christmas for Cats, since one of our three cats spent all day yesterday hiding somewhere in our house with a wire toy caught in her collar. She came out of hiding last night but by then I was already over at my new house, where I got a very good night's sleep. So the cats got their presents this morning.

I discovered yesterday that my MySpace account had not been forwarding my mail or messages to me in a very long time - in the case of mail, ever. So I got caught up with mail messages stretching back almost half a year. I also replied to a "friend" request (from someone I know) that was fortunately only a few days old, and I fired off a new "friend" request (to someone I sort-of know) of my own. Unfortunately, MySpace is a massive resource hog that slows my computer dramatically and crashes my it with great regularity. (When you go to a page and get the message "176 items opening....175 items opening...174 items opening...", you can be pretty sure that you're in for a bit of a wait.)

Consequently computer performance isn't quite what I'd like it to be at this moment. Plus, the computer is in my sister's old room, and she doesn't appreciate having me putting in long, hard hours chatting and blogsurfing. So I won't be able to be online as much as I'd like for the next few days. If you need to get in touch with me, contact me at the e-mail given in the upper right-hand corner of my page, or at the other e-mail address given in my profile.

Have a great Boxing Day!

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas!

Wherever you are, whatever your situation, I hope on some level, in some way, the good feelings of this day touch your life.

Merry Christmas, everybody!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas (Eve)!

These are the images that appeared on my Christmas Card this year. My card was essentially an announcement of my new address and phone number - unofficial, as I haven't actually moved in yet!
Front of the card: my big freakin' house, decorated for the holidays. Yes, both sides are mine. Yes, the porch really is that color. Yes, there's a lot of work to be done.
Back of the card: my tree. LED lights create an amazing glow, dollar-store plastic "crystal" ornaments refract the light every which way, and the mysterious tree topper tops the tree.

As I have said before, I may not get a chance to post again before Christmas. So let me say to you now:

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Christmas merriment

Well, here's another crack at the post that Firefox ate yesterday. (Firefox has already crashed on me twice this morning - let's see if it can crash hard enough to take out Internet Explorer.*)

Gort has posted a hysterical Christmas message from frequent commentor Mean Old Man. Check out the links at the bottom of the post to other Christmas humor, including "ATF Raids North Pole" and "Latest Victim of Global Warming - Santa Claus."

Also see this post that links to a website that parodies Hazleton mayor Lou Barletta's anti-illegal immigrant attitudes with respect to a certain jolly old undocumented foreigner. (Barletta, incidentally, has asked the FBI to look into this site because they solicit credit card donations - i.e., they have a PayPal button on the site. I hope Lou Barletta is ready to get on the FBI's "crank" list.)

If I don't get a chance to post again in the next few days, let me say it now: MERRY CHRISTMAS!

*Yes. Yes it could.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Firefox sucks (again)

I've been using Firefox again for the last few weeks. It seemed to be much more stable than it was a few months ago when I abandoned it during the rash of js3250.dll crashes. Unfortunately "firefox js3250.dll" and "firefox keeps crashing" continue to be among the top ten search engine hits for my site. So obviously the problem hasn't gone away.

As I said, Firefox has been much more stable and reliable for me than it was a few months ago. At least this was true until last night. Last night the latest "critical update" for Firefox installed itself on my computer. Since then each of my Firefox sessions has ended in a lockup and a crash. Most of the time this is just annoying. When the crash takes out a blog entry I've just invested some time in, and when the crash is so serious that the blog entry is unrecoverable, it's more than annoying.

So. Maybe I'll keep using Firefox to check for blog updates using the RSS feed. Maybe I'll even use it for other purposes. But for now, it's just not stable or reliable enough to use to post blog entries.

I suppose I could recreate the blog entry I was working on. It was link-heavy and topical and funny. Maybe I'll wait until tomorrow. And I'll definitely be writing it using Internet Explorer, not Firefox. For all its problems, IE is proving itself to be more trustworthy that Firefox. Oh, well.

Get well soon, Firefox.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Bar Brawl and The Car Crash

Today is December 21, 2006, the fifth anniversary of two fairly traumatic incidents in my life: the Bar Brawl and the Car Crash. Both helped to remind everyone involved why public intoxication is such a stupid idea.

The Bar Brawl
The setting: A cantina in the spaceport town of Mos Eisley. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker are at the bar. Suddenly Luke is confronted by the "walrus man" Ponda Baba and the malevolent Doctor Evazan...

OK, that's not exactly how it went. It was a Friday, our last day of work before the Christmas holidays, and a bunch of us had gone to a bar for a celebratory drink. It was not the bar we usually went to, but it was one suggested by a friend as a change of pace.

I got there late, as usual, and picked my way through the semi-darkness to find people whose faces I could recognize in the context of a work-related event. I spotted my friends near the end of the bar, not far from the door. At the end of the bar stood someone I had not seen in a few years. He used to work in our company, but had to leave after seriously injuring his back. He was quite drunk. I went up to him and talked with him for a few minutes. A strange woman who was sitting next to to my friends began shouting and throwing coins at us. I assumed the guy I was talking to knew her.

After a while I moved closer to my friends and ordered a beer. Some of my friends had stepped out for a moment, but had left their purses and jackets behind and asked us to keep an eye on them. I noticed one of my friends was talking to the strange coin-throwing woman. The woman suddenly began to shout and lean and poke at my friend. "Are you accusing me of stealing? Are you? 'Cause I think you are!"

Oh, boy. Here we freakin' go.

Bad things were brewing. My friend is small and not particularly well-equipped for handling violent confrontations. The woman who was accosting her was more wiry and weasel-like, with sharp painted claws and a sharp painted face. I, on the other hand, am quite large and particularly good at getting in the way.

I moved casully down the bar to a position between the two women. I then interposed myself between them with my back to the accoster (I know, I know) and my front to my friend.

"We should be leaving," I suggested. Did I mention that I sensed bad things were brewing?

"What are you doing getting in my wife's way?" a voice from behind me demanded.

The new face in the confrontation was also small and weasel-like and, like the woman he had just referred to as his wife, was quite visibly drunk.

The details of the next part are a little fuzzy. Calm explanations were met with drunken retorts. Apparently when my other friends had stepped out, one of the things they had left behind was a small pile of money on the bar to buy drinks. This pile was next to the strange drunk weasel-faced coin-throwing woman. My friend had - perhaps a bit naively - inquired as to whether the money the s.d.w.-f.c.-t. woman was throwing at various people in the bar (including me) was her own, or was coming from the pile of change our friend had left on the bar. This question was taken as an accusation of theft, and things went from there.

Eventually a consensus developed amongst the patrons in the bar - the bartender appeared to be about 18 and in no way prepared to deal with a confrontation. The consensus was that the drunken weasel-faced couple had had their fun for the night and perhaps should leave. Immediately.

Grudgingly, they got up from the bar, gathered their stuff, and began to leave. I cast a wary eye in their direction.

As the strange drunk weasel-faced woman walked past my friend, she grabbed her by the back of her head and tried to slam her face into the bar.

Other people have expressed to me the opinion that they would never strike a woman under any circumstances. I find that stupidly sexist. I have a body that is seemingly designed for violent confrontations, but I have no particular inclination to engage in them and actually avoid them wherever possible. Still, when violence is deemed necessary and unavoidable, gender is not an issue with me.

I rose to my full size of seven feet tall and four feet across.* My eyes glowed a golden red. Smoke curled from my nostrils. Fire shot from my fingertips. Electricity washed across my scalp. Titanium plates covered my skin.

Several years ago I was in a training session at work where we were asked to complete the sentence "If you want to see me angry..." My response was "mess with my friends."

I grabbed the woman by her shoulder and jerked her around to face me.

"You..."

There exists a word of power that I know that I could have used in that situation to have initiated a violent melee. It is very powerful and is rarely spoken aloud in public. It is a dangerous weapon, for it often rains consequences on the speaker as well as the speaker's target. I chose not to use it. I formed my words slowly and carefully in a voice like a cyclops throwing boulders at Greek sailors.

"You. Do. Not. Do. That."

And there we were again. The weasel-faced woman's weasel-faced husband jumped right in, his chin coming nearly to the level of my chest. He pushed at me several times. His wife tried to attack my friend again. I remained immobile, blocking them from getting near my friends. Eventually others interposed themselves between us and once again convinced the weasel-faced couple to leave. By this point adrenaline was causing my muscles to twitch in anticipation of a fight that would not be happening.

And then my friends showed up again - the ones who had left their purses and coats and a pile of money for us to watch.

"We're getting out of here," I said, referring to myself, my friend who had been the victim of the attack, and a third friend who had been with us the whole while. Not that there was any danger at the bar anymore, as far as I knew. But I had had my fill of the place. I wanted to be anywhere else.

We left. But further adventures awaited us that night.

The Car Crash
We went across the street to, of all places, another bar.

It was a classier bar than the one we had just left, with more of our friends there. We told them the story of what had just happened. If I were the drinking type, I would have been looking for something strong to calm my nerves. But I am not, not really, and I knew I had a long drive home ahead of me.

My friend who had nearly had her faced smashed into a bar (it never actually made contact, but was close) had another party to go to - but a private party, so she would be leaving us shortly. My other friend and I decided we should also be going somewhere else, preferably somewhere non-barlike. We decided to go hang out at a Borders bookstore and relax a bit.

We went there. Spent about an hour. I picked up another copy of Alan Moore's Watchmen to give as a gift - my third, apparently, since I recently discovered that I have two copies for myself. I ran into some friends and we talked for a while. Eventually we elected to check out and leave.

My friend had driven us to the bookstore. My car was in our parking lot at work. To get back we had to leave the mall-ish area where the bookstore was located, drive along Main Avenue in Dickson City untill we reached "the Anchor", turn onto the main street of Olyphant, and then take a few connecting roads back to our building, our parking lot, and my car.

Main Avenue in Disckson City is long and sometimes straight, sometimes curvy. It has a few traffic lights on it. We approached one as it turned red. We were the third car in line.

I don't remember if we made small talk at that light. Some loss of memory is common with head injuries.

I do remember the noise. It was like the worst squealing belt I've ever heard. It was coming from behind us, quiet at first, then louder and louder. It was soon joined by a high-pitched noise from within the car - my friend screaming in frustration. We were about to get hit from behind.

Go stiff or go limp?, I asked myself. Stiff is most people's automatic choice when confronted with a fall or an impending collision, but it can cause serious muscle and joint injuries. Limp is recommended, but it means you're putting a lot of faith in your restraint system. Not that going stiff would at all help the restraint system.

I chose to go limp.

Being inside a car during a collision doesn't sound like the car-crash sond effects you hear on TV or in the movies. You usually get a slamming thunk accompanied by a deep crunching sound, since most car bodies are reinforced with plastic honeycomb structures or other similar stiffening bits of plastic that go crunch when they are crushed.

My friend's car lurched forward. She had kept her foot on the brake the whole while. This kept us from getting pushed into the car in fron of us, which then might have gotten pushed into the car in front of it, which would have resulted in lots of tedious insurance paperwork and possibly additional injuries.

My body lurched forward, stressing, straining, stretching to reach the windshield. It did not. Limp. Limp. The seat belt held. Then I snapped back into the seat, hard. Very hard.

"Son of a..." I reached into my pocket for my cell phone. I moved my head and felt something wet on the back of my neck. I reached back and touched it. It was bood. My blood.

"Awww, dammit..." I said. I fished in my pocket for my handkerchief while dialing 911 with my left hand. "I'd better get out and survey the damage."

Suddenly there was a squeal of tires from behind us. The car that had hit us was coming back to life. Even though we were in the rightmost lane with a line of parked cars to our right, he was going to try to pass us on the right. My side of the car.

He tore past us. If I had stepped out of the car he would have run me over. If I had opened the door he would have hit me.

I got his license plate number as he went by.

My friend tried to give chase, but her car was too messed up to travel. We managed to get it into a parking lot across the street, a parking lot of a strip mall that held a chicken wing place (open) and a medical supplies store (closed). I was on the phone with 911, using my (very poor) cell phone assigned by work. This meant that the call was fading in and out. I wanted to find a land line to call for help with more certainty that the people on the other end of the line would hear me.

I got out of the car and walked up to the doors of the place, talking all the while with a 911 operator who wanted me to stay on the line. She seemed to be particularly excited about the blood coming out of the top of my head. I was staunching the flow with a pocket handkerchief that I kept for just such occasions. I gave a mighty tug on the door. Stuck. I tugged harder. A new noise filled the air, a sound like a recess bell ringing in a schoolyard.

Some guys dressed like cooks came out of another door. "Do you need help?" they asked.

"No," I said. "I called it in. But I was afraid I was going to lose ..."

I caught a glimpse of the gathering crowd out of the corner of my eye. I spun around in a way that I do not recommend for anyone who is bleeding from the head. About two dozen people had appeared out of nowhere to stand in an arc around us and gawk.

"Hi," I said.

A car pulled up. Car? No Police? No Ambulance?

A woman got out of the car. "I got a report of an alarm here," she said.

"Ummm, I called 911...I think they're sending Police and an Ambulance."

"What? Why?" She said. She approached the set of doors I had tried to open. She had a key. She unlocked the door and turned off the alarm.

"Well, I..." The Police showed up at that moment, saving me the trouble of explaining that there was an obviously damged car in her parking lot, and that I was pretty sure I knew how the alarm got set off in her medical supplies store. The Police, however, did have to explain that they were not there because of her door alarm, but because of the obviously damaged car and the circumstances that had led up to it.

The ambulance showed up and they tended to me. They first had to convince me that pacing the parking lot while gesticulating and shouting into a phone was probably not a recommended treatment for a head injury. Before I returned to the (now twisted) passenger's seat of my friend's car, I noticed something shiny on the ground near me. A ring. "Hey, isn't this yours?" I said to my friend. It was.

The ambulance crew was made up of small, light people (including one barely legal girl wearing low-rise frayed-waist jeans and sparkly thomg underwear whose phone number I totally failed to get) - all together they might have outmassed me, but I doubt it. I assisted them in getting me into the ambulance for my trip to the hospital to get something for my bleeding scalp by pulling myself and the gurney I was strapped to up by the hand-hold bars that ran along the ceiling of the back compartment.

Once inside they began to test me for cognitive impairment.

"What day of the week is it?" they asked.

"Today is the 21st of December. Pearl Harbor Day was the 7th. Pearl Harbor Day was a Friday this year. It's been 14 days or exactly two weeks since then. So today must be Friday." (I wasn't showing off. That's how I remember things. It was the last day of work, sure, but it was the last day of work before a holiday, so I couldn't just assume it was a Friday.)

"Who is the President?"

Through gritted teeth I said "George W. Bush."

(Dammit. I should have said "Al Gore." Those wounds were still fresh on December 21, 2001.)

At the hospital they took my information, cleaned the slice across the top of my head, and put staples in my scalp. Four or five, I forget how many.

I started to go into shock a little later - chills, visual sparkles, general wobbliness - but didn't.

My friend called a friend who was able to pick us up and take us to my car. By the time he arrived I was OK to drive the 33 miles back home.

I wanted to go to bed. But first, I had to wash the blood off my coat.

The Car Crash: The Aftermath
My staples came out a week or so later. My head remained sore for a while. The cut, it turned out, was from a seam in the headrest - my scalp must have tried to force itself into the seam when I snapped back.

My friend's car was messed up pretty badly. The seat I was in was also seriously damaged, twisted out of shape. Everything was eventually repairable.

After several weeks of detective work and with the assistance of the license plate number from his car we were able to nail the guy who hit us. He was driving with a suspended license, which is a lot less effectve at keeping people off the streets than you might think. He also had several previous drunk-driving arrests. He was probably drunk the night that he hit us, coming from one of the many bars along Main Avenue in Dickson City. Confronted in court he pled Guilty. Whatever happened to him? I have no idea.

Eventually my friend moved away. Got married. Had a baby.

I don't go out to bars much with people from work anymore. Too many drunks on the roads on the last day of work. Also haven't been in any car crashes since that day - let's keep our fingers crossed on that one. You never know when a drunk driver is going to be coming up behind you at a red light.

*Slightly larger than actual size.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan is always on my mind this time of year. I've been planning on writing a piece about him for some time. As it turns out, today is the tenth anniversary of his death. Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy has called his readers' attention to Joel Schlosberg's plan to have a Carl Sagan Memorial Blog-A-Thon to commemorate his life and influence. So what better time to write this post than now?

Carl Sagan's Cosmos came onto the scene when I was twelve years old, at the same time as a great many other influential events in my life. Star Wars had exploded onto movie screens just a few years before. The Viking missions had shown us Mars, and the Voyager missions were sending back amazing images of Jupiter and Saturn and their many moons. The Space Shuttle had been tested and was being readied for flight. Jupiter and Saturn were engaging in a long, complicated series of maneuvers in the evening sky. The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy was hitting the airwaves in America for the first time. I had discovered Dungeons & Dragons (with the polyhedral dice so well explained in the back of the Cosmos book) and begun reading Tolkien and Niven and Ellison and OMNI magazine.

And there was Carl Sagan on the cover of TIME magazine, standing on the shore of the cosmic ocean. There was Carl Sagan on television every Sunday night, showing us the beauty and wonder of the cosmos and saying "Look at this! Isn't it amazing?" To us. To me. He didn't just bring the beauty and wonder of the cosmos to the general public. He brought it to me, and that was infinitely more valuable - in my mind, anyway.

(A side note: Carl Sagan appeared on the cover of TIME magazine on October 20, 1980. But I associate Sagan with Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, the lighting of the Advent Wreath in the upstairs hallway of my school, a chorus of children's voices singing "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel". Why? Because my grandmother was my one source for TIME magazines, and she would get them from my uncle in Maryland, who had a subscription. He would gather up his old magazines and bring them up to my grandmother when he would visit throughout the year. He would have brought the October 20, 1980 issue to her when he came in to visit at Thanksgiving. So I would not have seen this issue until after the start of Advent.)

I graduated from Catholic grade school in 1981 and survived four years of High School. When I started college in 1985 I double-majored in Physics and Philosophy - perhaps more influenced by a certain pointy-eared Vulcan than by Carl Sagan and Cosmos. But as I neared the end of college I began to formulate a plan: I would become the next Carl Sagan.

No, I would not become brilliant or influential or directly involved in planetary exploration. But when I entered graduate school at age 21 my goal was to have a Ph.D. by age 27 and to have published my first book by age 30. Carl Sagan had brought the wonder of the Cosmos to the people. I would carry on what he had started. I would use my unique blend of knowledge, experience, and skills to write books on advanced topics in science that would appeal to and be comprehendible by the common layman.

It didn't work out that way. Graduate school was the single most horrible and humiliating event in my life. I have compared it to being mugged while drowning. Maybe at another school, in another program, things might have been different. Maybe not. Maybe I just wasn't up to the challenge.

Besides, there already was a Carl Sagan.

He's gone now. Dead these past ten years. This blog is the closest I've come to my dream of being a writer who would share his love of the universe with the rest of the world. But Carl Sagan's work lives on. He touched and influenced many, many lives. Maybe no one of us will ever be the next Carl Sagan, but maybe, just maybe, each of us can carry a small spark of the flame that he touched us with. And somewhere along the line, we can share that spark with others.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

What to buy for Christmas: Gifty stuff

A few years ago I was planning some life changes that involved the purchase and eventual wearing of ties. The plans fell through - that is a tale that I'm not quite ready to tell yet - but the ties remain. Even then I was confronted with a monumental question: what am I gonna do with all these ties when I'm not wearing them?

The answer seemed obvious: get a tie rack. I wasn't entirely sure what a tie rack was or what it would look like, but I figured that they might be on display near the ties. I went to our newly-opened Kaufmann's (which has now become a Macy's) to have a look. No such luck.

I found a clerk who looked like the sort who might know about ties and tie accessories. "Excuse me," I said. "Where would I find a tie rack?"

"Ummm..." he said. "If we have them, they would be over...nope. No tie racks. They're really more a seasonal item."

"Seasonal?"

"Yeah. We have them for Christmas, but that's about it."

Tie racks. Nose hair trimmers. Electric carving knives. Air compressors that go in your trunk for emergency tire inflation. Little hammers with points designed to smash windshield glass and special hooked blades for cutting through seatbelts. These are things that are wheeled out at Christmastime and put on sale for a few weeks. After Christmas they retreat to whatever stasis box they are kept in for most of the year. Some - not many - are wheeled out again a few months later for Father's Day, but they are quickly swept away to make room for the Summer collections that are posted each Spring.

Some of these things are really, really useful. If you're over 30 I probably don't need to tell you the importance of a "personal groomer" - a nose hair trimmer. Other items seem less immediately useful, but they are the sort of things that you don't realize you need until you need them. I carried my emergency air compressor for five years before I ran over a screw and needed to reinflate my tire several times on the way to get it replaced. And a crash hammer - well, I'd be happy if I never needed to use one of those. But if I ever needed it, I'd be glad to have it.

So there you are. With less than a week to go before Christmas, if you're stuck for gift ideas why not make your way to the "gift" section of your favorite department store? You may find something that will be appreciated very much, and is available for a limited time only.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Clostridium difficile

Last Friday at lunch we were discussing my ability to remember things that I've read. "You read a magazine article once, and then ten, fifteen years later you just pull it out again," sombody said, accusingly.

"No I don't. I read it, and then I mull over it for weeks. Then I remember it ten or fifteen years later. But only things that interest me enough to think about for a few weeks, and are laid out in a way that I can remember them. Some things I forget almost as soon as I read them. Discover magazine is like that. I can read an entire issue and not be able to tell you what any of the articles were about."

That's not entirely true. I remember the controversy over the Hotheaded Naked Ice Borer story from more than ten years ago.* I also generally recall the medical horror stories from each issue. And now I owe the magazine an apology.

Saturday I was shopping for groceries when I drifted through the magazine section, looking for the National Geographic with the way cool picture of Saturn on it. I found it, and found the same picture on the cover of Discover. I threw both magazines in my cart. I can't afford this, but, what the hell.

The magazine sat in a bag in my house from the time it came home until yesterday afternoon when I had to...umm...do some reading. I took Discover with me, took a seat, and began to flip through the articles.

Most of the articles were unremarkable. Discover is completely unlike New Scientist in this. With New Scientist you feel like every article is something amazing and exciting and new. With Discover it's like, yeah, whatever.

The medical horror story had pictures. X-rays. An enlarged colon. An enlarged abdomen.

Hmm. That rings a bell.

The story was about a woman who went into the hospital with diarrhea and a swollen abdomen and was dead two weeks later, killed by a runaway intestinal bacterium called Clostridia difficile - c. difficile for short, c. diff to its victims and their kin.

C. diff is one of a plethora of intestinal bacteria (or "gut flora") that exist symbiotically with every one of us. Each one does a little something. Some are directly beneficial, like the ones that help us digest food or generate Vitamin D. Some help to suppress the growth of other bacteria and thereby provide a happy environment for all the bacteria to get along with their life cycles - which, ideally, require a healthy host.

The problem is antibiotics. Powerful broad-spectrum antibiotics can kill almost everything in your intestinal tract, good and bad alike. In time you can replenish these bacteria - please don't think too hard about how - and get back to your life. But sometimes some of the more hardy and thuggish bacteria will survive the wholesale slaughter and begin to reproduce without competition or control. And then you're screwed. C. difficile is one of the hardiest and most thuggish of the gut flora.

The woman in the article had arrived at her situation as a result of antibiotics taken to prevent side effects from dental work. Many people with heart conditions need to take antibiotics before any dental work, even cleaning, or they may acquire an infection which will attack their hearts and kill them. (About a year before he died of cancer, my uncle told me that my grandfather had had some dental work done a week or so before he died of an apparent heart attack at the top of the steps of what is now my house while my grandmother was at 7:00 morning Mass.) Because of dental work, she took antibiotics which led to her eventual death. A slow, horrible, painful, humiliating death.

My mom has mitral valve prolapse. That's a condition that necessitates taking antibiotics before dental work. Even a cleaning.

I showed the article to my mom. "Is this what you had last year?" I asked. (Relevant entries are here and here.)

"C. diff - yeah, same thing," she replied.

"Did you have any dental work done in the weeks before you got sick?"

She checked her records. "Yes. About three weeks before." Just like the woman in the article.

"Are you getting any more dental work done soon?"

"Yes," she said. "I'm supposed to start the antibiotics tomorrow."

Wow.

Needless to say, she took the article with her to the dentist. I wish I had already found and printed out this article from the Journal of the Canadian Dental Association that directly addresses the issue. The abstract:

Clostridium difficile–induced diarrhea and colitis are common complications of therapeutic courses of antibiotics in the hospital setting. We report a case of Clostridium difficile colitis following antibiotic prophylaxis for endocarditis prior to dental procedures in the community setting. The infection necessitated hospital admission and a prolonged hospital stay. Dental practitioners must be aware of the significance of the disease and the risk associated with antibiotics, whether they are used for prophylaxis or treatment.

So. At her appointment today my mom has talked this over with her dentist, and later with her primary-care physician. They are investigating using a less-powerful antibiotic prior to her scheduled dental work. We will monitor her after the treatment for any sign of abdominal discomfort, and we have a plan of action in case anything comes to pass.

And a well-timed article from Discover magazine may just have saved my mother's life.

More information on Clostridium difficile can be found here:
Clostridium difficile Wikipedia entry
Information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Clostridium difficile Colitis Following Antibiotic Prophylaxis for Dental Procedures Journal of the Canadian Dental Association)
Article on C. difficile from CNN
Medpage Today article on C. difficile-related diarrhea outbreak

*For an April Fool's joke in 1995, naked mole rats were recast by Discover as penguin-hunting predators of the Antarctic, capable of generating sufficient heat to melt the ice out from under a delicious, delicious penguin and have it in the deadly hunter's chisel-toothed jaws before the tuxedoed bird knows what hit it. Some people thought this was for real, and were very upset to learn it was a joke.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Falling towards Christmas

Seven days to Christmas Eve. Eight days to Christmas. Virtually no shopping done. There will be a lot of gift cards getting handed out this year. Low-denomination ones, I'm afraid.

I mailed out another stack of cards yesterday. I have three more to mail tomorrow. Twenty-five cards so far. Then just two more. One to a friend whose address I do not know, but with whom I am having dinner on Thursday. The other one...well, I just realized I may have been using the wrong name on their cards in the past. And I seem to have fallen off their Christmas card list. Maybe we'll wait and see.

I've got my gifts for people at work nearly assembled. Just a few more pieces, and then I have to haul them in for the party on Thursday. I'm making Chocolate Dream Pies, too, so maybe I'll make them Tuesday night and take them in Wednesday.

I also need to work on my sort-of-but-not-really gag gifts for my friends. Once I sit down to make them it should only take a few minutes total. Those are things I have to work on at my house, especially since one of the components of the gift comes from the house.

By the way, my valves worked fine. No problems there. But I have to add "empty rusty, filthy water from furnace" to my weekly to-do list.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

A game of valves

Sunday, 12/10, my house.
Bernie: You need to get new valves for these radiators. Get Gorton valves, five size C and five size D. Write that down, Gorton. Cost about four, maybe six dollars each. Home Depot might have them, or Lowe's. If not, try East Penn Supply or R.J. Walker's. You get them, I'll replace them. But get them right away. Better sooner than later. And remember, you want Gorton valves.

Monday, 12/11, Lowe's.
Me: Do you have Gorton valves? I'm looking for sizes C and D.
Surprisingly helpful associate: We have Maid-O-Mist. They're the same thing.
Me: I was told to get Gortons. But let me see what you have.
Clerk: This is where they would be, but it looks like they're out of stock.

Monday, 12/11, Home Depot.
I find my way to the heating shelves where I see Maid-O-Mist valves, but no Gorton's. They are $9.90 apiece, more than the $8.80 apiece for the nonexisetent valves at Lowe's, much more than the $4 - $6 suggested by Bernie.

Upon leaving I head across the street to R.J. Walker's, where I find that they close at 5:00 every weekday and are only open until noon on Saturdays.

Tuesday, 12/12. An undisclosed location.
I do a quick internet search for Gorton and Maid-O-Mist valves. I can't find a qualitative comparison, but I see that Gorton valves are $9 online, while Maid-O-Mists are $6.
I call East Penn Supply at their Wilkes-Barre location.
Me: I'm looking for Gorton valves for steam radiators. Sizes C and D, five of each. Do you have them?
Woman on phone: We have five size C. They're in stock in our Scranton store.
Me: How much do they cost?
Her: $9.70 each.
Me: Great! How late is the Scranton store open?
Her: Same as us, until 5:00 every day except Thursday, 8:00 on Thursday. I'm showing that the C's are actually in transit from there to here.
Me: Good, it'll be easier for me to pick them up in Wilkes-Barre. What about D's?
Her: None here. But I'm showing four in the system, two in our Berwick store, two in another store. I can pull them here.
Me: Great. Please do. I'll be there on Thursday.

Thursday, 12/14. East Penn Supply, Wilkes-Barre.
Me: I'm here to pick up some Gorton steam valves.
Guy at counter: Here they are. Five size C.
Me: Super. Could I have a look at one? I want to make sure they're 1/8" angles. (I have seen online that they also come in 1/4" and straight configurations.)
Guy: Here.
He places a box containing five Maid-O-Mist Size C valves in front of me.
Me: These are Maid-O-Mists. I ordered Gortons.
Guy: I don't know who you talked to, but this is what we carry. Maid-O-Mist, not Gorton.
Me: Whatever. And the D's?
Guy: Not here yet. Should be here on Saturday.
Me: OK. I'll be back then.

I quickly stop in at Lowe's and Home Depot, both of which are within a quarter mile of East Penn Supply. Lowe's is still out of stock. Home Depot is still twenty cents more per valve.


Saturday, 12/16. East Penn Supply, Wilkes-Barre.

I arrive at about 11:40. Closing time is noon.
Me: I'm here to pick up some steam radiator valves. Size D.
Moe: Size D?
Larry: I don't think we have those.
Shemp: Let me look them up.
Me: I have an invoice. I was told that they were coming in from two other locations.
Moe: Other locations?
Shemp: Berwick has two.
Larry: Nothin' came in from Berwick.
Moe: Why do you want C's and D's? They're both about the same size. You don't mix 'em like that. Let me show you how a house is laid out...
Larry: We have two size D in stock.
Shemp: Computer says we have three. But two of 'em are reserved.
Me: Maybe they're reserved for me. I have four on order.
Larry: Naw, we can let you have one of these, but not both.
Moe: Let me get out a diagram and show you how a steam layout works...
Me: Tell you what. Maybe I'll come back when the other valves come in.

I leave at 11:50. It is about a quarter mile to R.J. Walker's, which also closes at noon.


Traffic is horrendous, due in part to holiday mall traffic, in part to a malfunctioning traffic light. After a long, long wait through several lights I overshoot the R.J. Walker entrance, twice. On the third attempt I enter the lot just as they lock the front door.


Now I'm pissed.


I roar back onto the road in my little Tercel and head for Lowe's. On the way I am cut off by a guy in a beaten-up pickup truck pulling out of Home Depot. It has a poorly-secured load of rain gutter in the bed, a tailpipe that is half corroded away, a nearly-flat left rear tire, and it is belching smoke and what smells like raw gasoline into my air intakes. I lean on my horn, which has little effect.


I enter Lowe's, grim-faced and angry. It is full of other people who are also grim-faced and angry to be shopping for home renovation projects in the middle of a Saturday a week before Christmas. The valves are still out of stock. I leave grim-faced and angry.


I head back down to Home Depot. The valves are still there. Still twenty cents more than East Penn Supply. Still not Gortons.


Screw it. I buy five Maid-O-Mist 1/8" angle size D valves and head for home.


THE END...?

Friday, December 15, 2006

Happy Hanukkah!

Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah! If you've got a menorah, fire it up!

I've noticed a trend towards Christmas horror movies, or at least horror movies that are released at Christmastime. Wolf Creek was the first one that caught my attention, and this year there's Black Christmas , apparently a remake of a 1974 film. Last year there was Santa's Slay, a hilarious, violent, and nicely-made tale of the Viking demon Santa Claus, forced to bring presents and cheer each Christmas as a result of losing a bet with an angel , and what happens when he manages to get out of the strict terms of the bet. It's not necessarily anything new - back in my youth there was Silent Night, Deadly Night, and there's actually an old tradition of Christmas ghost stories, as evinced by Dickens' A Christmas Carol and the line about "there'll be scary ghost stories" in the song "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year."

So why not Hanukkah? When will someone come up with a Hanukkah-themed horror movie? Maybe "Menorah of Death: Eight Nights of Terror"! Hey, it could work. And weirder projects have gotten greenlighted.

(An aside: I was expressing my contempt for the "young, attractive kids captured by sadists who torture, mutilate, and murder them" horror film cliché when I thought of an interesting variant: a group of bloggers are captured by sadists who proceed to torture, mutilate, and murder them. The trick is, there are computers throughout the place where they're being held where they can access and post to their blogs! So will they try to escape, try to rescue their fellow bloggers, or just sit down and blog about the experience? And if anyone has the smarts to make a desperate plea for help on their blog, is anyone out there even reading, and will anyone who reads care enough to organize a rescue mission? Excitement! Gore! Blogging!)

Anyway. The first candle is lit. Seven more to go! Happy Hanukkah, everybody!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

What to buy for Christmas: Get off the can!

This year I am asking for nothing for Christmas. I don't mean that I'm not asking people to buy me anything for Christmas, I mean that I'm asking people not to buy me anything for Christmas. There's nothing quite like moving all of your accumulated material possessions from one location to another to give you a good idea of what "wretched excess" means. And I pretty much have everything I want or need, anyway.

On top of that, as someone still settling into the new-home-buyer groove, I am effectively broke. So I can't really afford to get anyone anything much this year.

Last year I made a Christmas list at the urging of my family and friends. One of the items that I thought would be easiest to get turned out to be impossible to get: a shaving mug, brush, and soap set. It seemed that this would be the sort of thing that would be available in "gift" sections of department stores. But no such luck.

And that was where things stood for a while. No mugs, no brushes, no shaving soap, not in the gift sections, not in the after-Christmas section, not anywhere. Then one day in February I was waiting to pick up a prescription (or was it some photos?) for my mom at the drugstore. I was killing time there, walking from aisle to aisle and scrutinizing every single item on each shelf. I found myself in the shaving aisle looking at skin conditioners and products for bald guys (things I could use next time I decide to shave my head) and I decided that this would be the place where the shaving mug/brush/soap would be located. If only I could see it.

I walked along the aisle from one end to the other and looked at every item. Nothing. I circled around and did it again. Still nothing. I contemplated standing on my head, but reminded myself that I was in a public place where such a thing might be frowned upon. Fine. I did the next best thing. I tipped my head ninety degrees and looked at the shelves sideways.

There they were.

The problem was that they didn't look anything like I expected them to. The brush was packaged in a box only a little larger than a box for a tube of lipstick. The soap was sold separately in a squarish box roughly the size of a deck of cards. I did not see any mugs.

I bought a brush and three cakes of soap from two different manufacturers. I hurried home (after the prescription and/or photos were ready) and couldn't wait to try it out. I found an old coffee mug (one of the many, many mugs I have received as gifts over the years - this one had an old-time car and my name on it, and I'm pretty sure it came from the Hersheypark gift shop about 30 years ago). I dropped a cake of soap in, sprinkled on a few drops of water, and twirled the brush to make some shaving cream.

CLANGCLANGCLANGCLANGCLANG, said the mug.

To make a long story slightly shorter: don't use a ceramic coffee mug as a shaving mug. The action of swirling the brush will make a hell of a racket, will bruise your knuckles, and will possibly break the mug. If you can, get a plastic mug, often sold at dollar stores. Much quieter, much less painful, much more durable.

Anyway. My point. Shaving brushes and shaving soap make great gifts. They're a little hard to find, and you may want to get a plastic mug to make life easier for the gift recipient. But there is a certain primitive pleasure in making your own shaving cream out of nothing more than soap, water, and the twirling motion of the brush. It will take a while to get the mixture exactly the way you want it (I prefer a creamy foam which requires very little water and a lot of twirling), but once you've found it, you own it.

More than that: shaving mugs and brushes are very environmentally friendly. I would go through about a can of shaving cream a month, with all the propellant and metal and transportation and manufacturing costs associated with it. A single cake of shaving soap will last for at least three or four months. And the only waste is the small pasteboard box - you decide how much water to add, so you can regulate the amount of foam you make, and any leftover foam will dry back into the mug to wait for you to add water and a brush once again. The mug and soap are a solid, as is the brush, so they can go through airport security without a problem. On top of all that, the vigorous twirling action of the brush counts as a sort of mini-exercise.

So. There are a few things that you can buy someone this Christmas that aren't totally unnecessary crap. From my personal experience, I recommend a shaving brush, shaving soap, and a plastic mug. Get them for a friend, and tell them to get off the can this Christmas!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

What not to buy for Christmas

About ten years ago I received a Christmas present that made me, well, sort of angry. The gift giver was well-intentioned. The gift was quite beautiful, and in fact I still have it, and plan to display it prominently in my new house. But it was, in my opinion, money badly spent, put in the coffers of an unscrupulous organization that sells false hope and pretty pieces of paper.

I was given a star.

Well, not really. I was given a certificate from the International Star Registry assuring me that my name was now attached to a very dim, very obscure star somewhere in the sky. (I think it was in our galaxy, but I'm not sure that was a requirement.) My name and my star would be registered in a book, and that book would be registered in the Copyright Office of the United States. And it would be my star, and mine alone, and no one else could lay claim to it.

Only it's all crap.

The International Star Registry has no more right to name, register, and sell stars than you or I do. Which is to say, none at all, or all the right in the world, depending on your point of view. Their names are not registered officially anywhere, and are not recognized by anyone. Except, perhaps, by the ISR itself, and I even have doubts about that.

A few years ago an editorial in Sky & Telescope or Astronomy magazine (I forget which, I subscribe to both) suggested that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em: they recommended that local Astronomy clubs could conduct fundraisers by selling, naming, and registering stars as part of their clubs. Imagine, each and every member and supporter of an Astronomy club memorialized forever in the sky, as recorded in the annals of the club itself! It would simply be a variation on the "memorial walk" idea in which bricks are sold by various organizations to serve as memorials - memorials that only last until the next landscaping renovation.

I myself gave away a star to a friend's daughter once. I think it might have been Antares. She was about three years old, and we were looking at the stars in the Southern sky from her grandfather's porch. "You see that one?", I said, pointing to a particularly bright star in Scorpius. "That's Ciara's Star. From now on, that's what it's called. Whenever you see it, you can say, 'That's my star.'"

Only it's not, except to me. And maybe, if she remembers all these years later, to her.

So what's the harm in buying a fancy-looking certificate for $50 or $100 or whatever the going rate is? It's the thought that counts, right?

No. There's more to it than that. People fork over their money and think that they are actually doing something significant, that they are actually honoring or memorializing people in ways that aren't just meaningful, but are actually recognized by the rest of the world. And it just isn't so. There are horror stories of people visiting observatories and asking to be shown the star that they bought to honor their beloved grandmother or their son who died tragically or a brother who was killed in the World Trade Center. Sometimes quick-thinking astronomers will simply punch up the coordinates of a particularly colorful or bright star and say "There you go." Other times they will tell the truth, as good scientists often do. And the people will be heartbroken, or crushed, or will become angry - sometimes at the astronomer or observatory in question for refusing to recognize the star that they purchased in memory of their loved one. They have the certificate to prove it.

So don't buy anybody a star this Christmas. You can give them away for free, with just as much right and far more meaning.

UPDATE: Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy recently wrote an article on this very subject for Skeptical Inquirer magazine. From that article you can find links to the International Astronomical Union's page on Buying Star Names (the IAU is the body officially internationally recognized as the assigner of celestial names) and "The OFFICIAL Star Naming FAQ" (moved to here), as well as some fascinating (and horrifying, and this-is-AMERICA-for-Chrissakes-they-can't-do-that-ing) backstory on the trials and tribulations of the latter site.

An aside: While thinking about this I realized that it would be very easy for somebody (well, for somebody other than me) to create an online star registry. ISR's star registry isn't online; you can allegedly get the name of your star from them online, but you have to provide identifying information first. Seems that it would be simple enough to provide an online registry that would let you see who every star that has been registered has been registered to. That way I could see if my star might be sandwiched between, say, stars registered to Winona Ryder, Kelly Macdonald, and Keira Knightley, which would be wonderful indeed. It would also let you be certain that there have been no duplicate registries - and, indeed, that they haven't simply been selling photocopied star maps of the same dozen stars over and over again.

You could then tie this online registry to something like MySpace and create personalized constellations with your friends! I imagine many of these constellations might wrap around the celestial sphere in ways that would give stellar cartographers fits of apoplexy. But, hey, certain sacrifices must be made. Anybody up for the challenge? I call Antares!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Vote for Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy!

Voting for the 2006 Weblog Awards ends on Friday, and Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy is a serious contender for Best Science Blog. You can vote once every 24 hours from a given computer, so why not click over and vote for Phil, not just once but as often as possible? It would make a deserving young man very, very happy!

(Oh, and Phil has promised that any of us who plug his blog in this fashion will get a link to our sites in Friday's post! If even 0.5% of his 12,000 daily readers were to click through to here, that would be...umm...about...60 new readers stopping by! Hey, what can I say. I'm a stats whore, and my Weblog Award vote can be bought!)

Monday, December 11, 2006

Friends and relations send salutations

And the Christmas cards are just pouring in. Well, two of 'em so far. If my crappy ancient Logitech eyeball camera weren't so darned fuzzy, you might be able to tell that the card on the left is from Camilla in Norway (discernable by the Norwegian "Merry Christmas" greeting "God Jul" to the left of the center of the card.) The other card is a more abstract image (a closeup of an ornament with a ribbon) from my friend Tressa and her husband.

I sent off three cards internationally last Monday. I mailed a dozen on Saturday, and one more today. I need to get out at least an additional nine, but some of those I don't have addresses for just yet. And, as predicted, my ink cartridge has started to fail, running low on (of all things) yellow, at least on part of the card. Still, if you don't know that the image on the back of the card was supposed to have a yellow cast to it, you wouldn't notice that it was missing. So I soldier on.

If you'd like a card from me, just let me know, and send the necessary mailing information!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Most decidedly not according to plan

So today the plan was to buy the stuff to fix the toilet (a 3/8" NIST x 3/8" compression fitting angle valve [multi-turn, not quarter-turn] and a 12" no-burst toilet [not faucet] connection), make chocolate chip cookies, and then meet Bernie at the house at 3:00 to fix the toilet. "Once you have that stuff, it'll take five minutes", he said last night. He was right.

As far as the toilet went.

I managed to screw up the cookies. I've made dozens of batches of cookies, and this is the first time I've ever screwed up like this. The trick is to combine the flour, baking soda, and salt in one bowl, and the sugar, brown sugar, vanilla, and eggs in another, then add the flour mixture gradually to the sugar/butter/egg mixture. I screwed up by adding the semi-softened butter directly to the flour. This resulted in everything being thrown out of order. Cookies are not a uniform blend of ingredients, some sort of homoegenous chemical solution, but are actually a combination of things wrapped around other things - little layered bundles of flour, salt, and baking soda wrapped around sugar, butter, and vanilla, smooshed together with other little layered bundles of ingredients and some chocolate chips and oats and milk. Getting the mixture out of order means that things may not wrap and smoosh and melt properly. (This is critical when making flaky pie crust and pastries, not as critical when you're making cookies.) Still, the final product was quite edible. I'm trying to avoid eating them all.

I got the last batch out of the oven right around 3:00. I called Bernie and he was slightly delayed - Santa Claus had come to town, and his kids were visiting with him. But the delay was brief and soon I was headed over to meet him at the house.

The ice-cold house.

Last night Bernie had commented on the temperature in the house. It wasn't that cold, hovering around 60 degrees, but I decided to push the thermostat up a little bit to keep things warmer overnight. (It turns out he was joking with me - he keeps his house even colder.)

Now, as I looked at the thermostat something seemed wrong. Something was missing. Oh, yeah, the little needle on the top of the display that showed the current temperature was gone. Wait - it wasn't gone, it was pegged all the way to the left. Offscale cold, fifteen degrees at least below where I had it set.

Bernie showed up. He assured me that nothing we had done yesterday could have caused the furnace to shut off - the two systems are essentially separate, connected by a fill valve that is normally closed. We decided to address the toilet issue first.

Five minutes later the toilet was fixed. Bernie ran to the basement to open up the main water valve - slowly, so that you do not blow the entire system apart. The toilet worked. No leaks.

(A side note: I mentioned the toilet situation to a friend of mine who recalled an episode of "This Old House" where condensation kept forming on the tank of a toilet, causing condensed water from the air to drip onto the floor, eventually rotting out the floor. This might have been exactly what had happened to me, and was actually on my short list of possibilities. The solution was to replace the toilet.)

Now, to the furnace.

Bernie went though a list of checks. Not the thermostat. The boiler had adequate water. The chimney -

Bernie was suddenly lost in a cloud of soot as he opened the chimney clean-out. The chimney was blocked. The furnace was off because its safety sensors had detected that exhaust gases were not being vented .

(Note: The Carbon Monoxide detector in my living room is still showing a peak reading of 0 ppm. So either the furnace shut off before there was any measurable backup elsewhere in the house, or my CO detector isn't working.)

A few minutes of banging and brushing cleared out the blockage. The house is old, the chimney is old. The chimney will eventually need to be replaced at considerable expense. In the medium term there are other solutions. In the short term I will need to check the chimney weekly and clean it out as necessary.

Bernie reset the furnace and showed me how to do it. He ran the boiler through its paces, draining it partly to clear out the rust and sediment, partly to test the low-water cutoff (it worked). We then went through the house and coaxed the steam through each radiator. In doing this, Bernie determined that all of the release valves on the radiators will need to be replaced - they're all the wrong size, and have probably always been the wrong size. So now I am shopping for Gorton's valves, size C and D, five of each.

After nearly two hours (five minutes of which had been dedicated to fixing the toilet) Bernie headed out. I sat with the house as the heat worked its way through the system and brought the temperature up to a balmy 70 degrees. After checking the toilet for fresh leaks (none) I headed down to the water heater and (as Bernie had recommended) turned it to "PILOT" - why keep heating and reheating the tap water while I'm not there? - and then went back to the thermostat and turned the setting down to 65 degrees before I left the house.

So now I have more things on my homeowner's weekly maintenance list. More bills looming on the horizon. And once again, I am thankful for Bernie.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Not exactly according to plan

The plan for today:
1. Wake up
2. Make photo CD-R to include in Christmas gift
3. Shower
4. Purchase some Snyder's Honey Mustard Pretzel Bits to include in Christmas gift
5. Mail 12 Christmas cards, an important piece of mail for my mom, and the Christmas gift. Post office closes at noon, so time is of the essence.
6. Go to friends' place to make cookies

This is how things actually went:
1. I woke up. So far, so good.
2. To free up sufficient space on to allow me to create the CD-R, I had to delete chunks of crap from my hard drive. This took about five attempts before I got it right.
3. I realized that I should take advantage of the relatively mild temperatures to do some minor yardskeeping that I had been ignoring. Empty the compost buckets into the composter, bring up the recycling containers from near the garage, put perennial covers on two stunted blueberry bushes and one stunted rosebush, detach and thaw/drain the garden hose. This all took a while.
4. Then I realized I should check out my house to make sure no pipes had burst, particularly on the unheated side. (The two sides leak heat across the center wall pretty easily, so this isn't much of an issue. One side serves to heat both. So far.) So I added this to my to-do list.
5. Showered. By now it was after 2:00 and the schedule was way off.
6. Went to post office. Mailed the cards and the letter.
7. Went to supermarket to buy pretzel bits.
8. Went to house to check everything out. No flooding, no water spilling out of ruptured pipes, everything seemed good. Checked the Min/Max thermometer I had left in the bathroom on the unheated side to see that temperatures had stayed tolerably warm even with some of the surprisingly cold weather we had had this past week.
9. Went to my side of house to use bathroom before going to church. Noticed thin film of water on the floor by the toilet.

Uh-oh.

I drained the toilet tank, shut off the supply valve, and tossed towels on the floor. This was something I would have to deal with after church.

After church the toilet tank was half full. At this point I knew everthing I needed to know to avoid the fiasco that followed, but I chose to plow ahead.

I reasoned - based on previous issues with the toilet and certain assumptions about where the water was coming from - that something was wrong with the float valve and it would need to be replaced. The leaky shut-off valve was irrelevant (wrong wrong wrong) because the toilet was designed to operate with the valve fully open anyway. Right? (No no no you, sir, are in error)

I called my friends and begged off coming down to make cookies tonight. Plumbing emergency. Be down tomorrow. We'll have fun, a lotta laughs, be like old times. With cookies.

I picked up a Fluidmaster complete replacement kit, containing everything I would need to replace the entire contents of the toilet's plumbing. All I wanted right now was the float valve, but you never know when you'll need the other stuff.

I came back to the house and realized I had no idea where my wrench or vice grips were. I went into the basement and located a wrench. My house came complete with tools and repair items. I have to keep reminding myself of that.

I began to remove the old float valve. Step one, remove from water supply line. Valve closed? (no no no no) Good. Attach the wrench (stop stop stop stop) and turn counterclockwise from the point of view of the nut.

Water began to spray everywhere.

Idiot.

It goes without saying, I think, that simply revesing the action of the wrench did not make the water stop leaking.

My cousin's cousin is Bernie, an all-around handyman who is willing to do anything to help anyone, even a miserable jerk like me. After a few frantic calls to various relatives I was finally able to get my mom in touch with him. She sweet-talked him into coming out to the house right away to see what he could do.

Bernie showed me where the main shut-off for the entire house's water is in the basement. The things I was trying to shut off in the basement (once I realized that the valve next to the toilet wasn't getting the job done) were actually the valves controlling the water to the second floor, where the bathroom is. These would have been exactly the right things to turn off if they were working. But they, like the toilet shut-off valve, were not.

After some grunting and fitting and struggling Bernie determined that the toilet was almost but not quite fixable with the stuff I had bought. The valve needs replacing, and a new connection hose is needed, too. I need to pick these up tomorrow, and Bernie will come up in the afternoon to take care of this for me.

So: no trip to make cookies tomorrow, either. I think I may make them on my own, in between buying the plumbing gear in the morning and playing assistant plumber in the afternoon. I may run down to my friends' place just to drop off some cookes after the toilet repair is done.

Oh, well. Such is the life of a homeowner. Lucky for me I know someone like Bernie.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Cards, parties, and cookies

I mailed my first batch of Christmas cards on Monday. Early, I know. These were to overseas addresses. I hope they get there by Christmas.

I have at least a dozen more printed out. Maybe I will do another half-dozen tonight. These are a little image-heavy and take a while to print out, so I am only printing out a few at a time. Eventually I will suck my ink cartridge dry, at which point I will probably discover that my replacement cartridge is also dry.

Tonight we had our company Christmas party. It was better than I expected, partly because it was held in a much bigger room than last year, and partly because a couple of people who swore up and down that they would not be there decided to show up after all. I did manage to get lost getting there, and wandered the hills and byways of Sturgis, Archbald, and Scott Township for 40 minutes trying to find the place, stopping twice for directions. (Note to people giving directions: While the statement "Go out of the parking lot, down the road thataway, and turn left at the light" may be technically the same as "Go out of the parking lot, down the road thataway, and turn left at the third light", the latter statement contains a critical additional piece of information which may be of some interest to lost travelers that the former does not. And note to business owners: If you own a popular bar/restaurant and would like to retain only the clientele who currently frequent your establishment, then it is perfectly acceptable to have the only sign indicating the name of your business printed in a type that is illegible from the road, so that people unfamiliar with your structure might drive past it several times while looking for it. If, however, you would like to attract new patrons to your location, you might want to consider having a BIG FREAKING SIGN ON YOUR BUILDING WITH THE NAME OF YOUR BUSINESS. Just a suggestion.)

Tomorrow I'll be making cookies. A quadruple batch of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. They're basically the Toll House Cookies recipe from the Nestlé Semi-Sweet Morsels package, minus the nuts, plus a lot of oatmeal and a little milk.

Haven't done any Christmas shopping yet, except for the shopping I've been doing throughout the year for gifts to give to people "eventually". Time to gather those gifts together and figure out who I still need to buy for.

Yay.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

To switch, or not to switch?

I'm a late adopter. I got my first computer sometime in 1999 or 2000. I started a blog in 2004. I don't like to rush into things.

Blogger's new Beta version has been around for a while, and they're starting to exert a little pressure to encourage bloggers to switch. It looks like it will be possible to switch over a current blog, retain the name and url, keep everything you've ever written and any comments anyone's ever posted, and still get all the funky new features of Blogger Beta.

So what's not to love?

Mr. H.K. switched a long time ago and had a few problems early on. I hadn't seen any dire reports from him recently - until this past Sunday. And Lauren has simply upped and left her old blog behind. But I want to keep the anothermonkey.blogspot.com address. And I don't want to risk losing all of my entries, as happened to Mr. H.K. on his experimental Beta Blog. So, what to do?

I think for now I will wait. Soon, I will switch. But not just yet.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Play places

I just got back from a birthday party. It was held at a local "play place", a small-time version of Chuck E. Cheese.

When I was a kid we had play places like this. There was a franchise of something like Chuck E. Cheese when I was in my early teens, and there was a local chain called Top Dog which specialized in 29-cent hamburgers and hot dogs. Both also had plenty of video arcade games, back in the days when the state of the art in home video game consoles was the Atari 2600. No ball pits, no bouncing castles, no obstacle courses. I recall that these were fairly dark places lit by dim neon lights and the glaring screens of dozens of video games.

Not anymore. It now seems that these places are generally painted white and brightly lit by fluorescent tubes. This is probably for increased safety and visibility. Parents and guardians can keep an eye on their children more easily in a brightly-lit place than in a place that was lit like a dance club.

But the bright lighting also shows up the general squalor of these places in a way that dim lighting helped to conceal. There is something unsettling, off-putting, and vaguely disgusting about these places, as though a thin film of grease has been deposited on everything and then generously highlighted with drops of mucus and dotted with flyspecks - which is pretty much what, in fact, has happened.

But there's something else. It's as if all the fun has been taken out of these places, as if the soul has been sucked from them and all that has been left behind is an undead husk, still moving, still breathing, but devoid of any warmth and life. Kids play overpriced games in the hope of winning a few tickets that, if they are lucky or determined enough, they can collect and redeem for the sort of prizes that used to come free in a box of Cracker Jacks, dispensed by either bored carney types or lovesick teenagers. (Our party was being served by two teenagers who couldn't stop flirting with each other. How cute. Now, can I please have some forks?)

I went into one of the last Top Dogs a few years ago, shortly before it closed and was replaced by a Japanese restaurant. The burgers and hot dogs had shot up in price to 39 cents - this was around 1999 or so - and were worth every penny. But the video games had been replaced. Gone were Q-Bert and Tempest and Galaga. In their place stood what looked like Joker Poker machines and other video games of the sort you find in bars, particularly the seedier bars. And instead of families having birthday parties and kids running all over, the place was filled with the skeevy types of characters you would want to keep as far away from children as possible.

Maybe this is the way these places have always been. Maybe I just never noticed when I was a kid. It seemed like they were a lot more fun and a lot less scuzzy back then, but maybe my focus was on the games and not on the facilities themselves. Still, I can't shake the feeling that kids these days are getting cheated in this experience.

And maybe that's a good thing. As Calvin - or was it Hobbes? - once said, it's a magical world. There's a lot more magic to be found outside of these play places than there is within them.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Schedule change

I work a late-ish shift - currently about 10:00 in the morning to 6:30 or 7:00 at night. I do this for several reasons.

Many of the clients I work with are in California, and many of them don't actually hit their stride workwise until about 3:00 in the afternoon, their time. So a large number of e-mails that require immediate attention come in from our clients after 6:00 our time. I can interact with the clients immediately at that point, and relay their information to the proper people in our facility for action first thing in the morning.

I also like working without the distraction of other people. This is not to say that I don't like working with other people, not at all. But my interactions tend to be so intense that it becomes difficult to focus on some of the more monastic aspects of my job. So to have an hour or two at the end of the day for me to silently focus is immensely beneficial to me, and ultimately to everyone else who depends on what I do.

On top of all that, I'm also extremely lazy and have a hard time getting out of the house very early.

Well, for the rest of this week I'll just have to adjust my morning schedule. Tomorrow I have a birthday party to go to in the afternoon, so I will have to leave work a few hours earlier than I usually do, which means I have to go in a few hours earlier. Thursday I have a dental appointment; I usually schedule my dental appointments for weekends, but the flooding a few weeks ago has thrown my dentist's schedule into turmoil. Friday we have a corporate Christmas party schedued in the early afternoon. No biggie here, but still, I have other people depending on me to feed them work. I can't just come in and work a half day.

So: no more lollygagging. No more checking the morning blogs, or seeing who's on MSN chat in the morning. No more screwing around. Rise and shine. Up and at 'em. Get a move on. Get to work.

For the rest of this week, anyway.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Through the eyes of many bloggers

At our little bloggers' get-together on Saturday I floated the suggestion that we should all get together for some activity sometime, and then all blog about it individually. That way you would have the same event experienced by several people simultaneously and then reported from each of their particular points of view.

For some reason, I didn't realize that was exactly what we were doing.

Accounts of the get-together have started to appear. I've already reported on my experience of the gathering. David Yonki (pronounced Yonk-EYE) reports on a battle of wills between two lovely young ladies that literally set the tone for the afternoon. John Morgan of The Pennsylvania Progressive, who drove several hours just to be there, gives a summary of his experience. And Mark from Wilkes-Barre Online gives the most eloquent description of the event so far, with pictures!

If I'm reading him correctly, I think Mark is also suggesting another collective noun to describe a meeting of bloggers: a "barrel", as in "a barrel of monkeys" (the title of his post). In this case, monkeys who have momentarily stepped away from their typewriters.

I'll continue to add to the list as time goes by and more accounts surface. I'm looking forward to next time!

UPDATE, 12/5/2006: Gort, the Founder of the Feast, gives his Post Game Report. He also has some reflections on why he got into blogging in the first place.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

A Christmas mystery

I went over to my house to spend the night Friday night, so I could do some things first thing Saturday morning. This past Friday in Northeastern Pennsylvania featured some truly nasty wind, and one of the things I wanted to do was repair any damage and straighten out any decorations that got scrambled by the wind.

When I got to the house the first thing I did was check the mail. As I approached the mailbox I saw something was tucked onto the newspaper holders. A gift box? But it was held on - with wire.

Wire? A bomb?

I went into the house and turned on the porch light. Yes, the package was wired to the mailbox. Common baling-type wire. I untwisted it and freed the package. It did not fill my body with shrapnel or spray acid in my face. I looked closer and saw a tag - a computer-printed tag:

I knew then what was in the box. Still, I had to open it.
Yes, it was a tree topper, of exactly the sort I was looking for.
The tree topper is from Sears, imported from West Germany, which places it from somewhere between the end of World War II and German Reunification in the early 90's. (I'm too lazy to look that up right now, and my computer would probably crash if I tried.) It cost $1.29, which should help place it in time a bit more.

So whodunnit? Who located this ornament, printed up this tag, wrapped up this present, took it to my house (possibly with the knowledge that I would be there), and took into account the Friday winds by wiring the box to the mailbox?

It could be several people. It could be one of my friends who I have interrogated since I found this and who have sworn that they know nothing about it. It could be other friends who are prone to elaborate practical jokes. It could be a neighbor who asked someone else to type up the tag for them. It could even be some unknown local fan of my blog, who was able to trace my house through its uniquely-colored porch.
In any event, I now have exactly the tree topper I was looking for. And for that, I am extremely grateful.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

NEPA BlogCon report

So what does one call a meeting of bloggers? I'm inclined to call it a cave, in the sense of a place where trolls might gather. But then again, "troll" has a specific meaning (actually, several different specific meanings) in the world of blogs and blog comments. When I say "trolls" I have in mind a gathering of several large, unkempt monsters who rarely see the light of day - as one of our number described it upon entering the bar, "a bunch of fat white guys." (This isn't entirely true. Gort is quite svelte, and the author of Wilkes-Barre Online is downright wiry. The rest of us are just big-boned.)

The discussions were wide-ranging and quite animated, especially after the third beer. Much of the most passionate conversation centered around politics on the local, state, and national levels, but we even talked a little about blogging inself, such as the pros and cons of Blogger (wich hasn't crashed in days) vs. Typepad, and which tracking software is the best (I'm quite happy with SiteMeter, though considering the amount of information available from a free, downloaded program, I am terrified at the amount of information available to someone with something more sophisticated.) We had representatives of several counties, some of whom had traveled more than an hour to get there.

In the end I had to bug out early - well, relatively early, around 7:30 - to meet with another blogger and her friends. The party raged on without me. I look forward to reading more complete reports from the others in attendance!