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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Never gonna be the same

I began my first day of my post-employment by staying in bed late, getting up, checking the morning blogs, making myself pancakes, and checking the blogs again. After a bit more kicking around and re-checking the blogs, I finally took a shower and headed out for a haircut. I was way overdue, and didn't want to go out on a job hunt in a week or two with a new haircut and a new suit - that reeks of desperation. So I decided to get a cut as early in the process as possible.

After stopping at my new house to check the mail and unload my personal effects from work, I came back to take my mom out to look for some ointment containing hot pepper extract, capsaicin. Easier said than done.

We stopped at my mom's favorite dollar store but couldn't find ointments with capsaicin. (We did, however, buy $12 worth of other stuff.) This dollar store is in the same complex as the Russian restaurant that I ate at with a friend early last year. But as we pulled into the parking lot I didn't see the Russian place.

After our dollar store shopping was done I drove slowly past the spot where I think the restaurant used to be. It has either been turned into yet another knicknack store called "Tuesday Morning" (which does not have a restaurant section visible), or (more likely) it is now closed, with plastic sheets over all the windows. Bummer, I thought. My friend really liked that place.

We left to go to a health food store that I frequent, the House of Nutrition. This is along Route 309 in Dallas, PA, in an area that is at once rural and densely forested. It is a store that I love. I have taken my grandmother there, and my father, and my mother at least once before. I have bought many things there over the last 12 years or so. It's been my major source of tea over the years. (One of the highlights of my departure yesterday was when I scooped a dozen or so assorted boxes of tea from my cubicle hutch into a box and announced "The Tea Shop is now closed.") I haven't been there since before Christmas.

We got there just before 4:00. There were several vehicles parked outside. Why was there a "CLOSED" sign on the front door?

After a minute or so of checking the hours of operation (they should have stayed open until 6:00 today) and looking for a sign suggesting that perhaps today was a day that the Dallas store would be closing early and directing customers to the Luzerne store, I finally noticed the GIANT SIGN in their front window that explained, in detail, that the Dallas location of the House of Nutrition would be closed as of February 1 and that all customers should go to the Luzerne location.

Closed. A place I have been going to for so many years. A place I first discovered around 1994 while going to the Finger Lakes in upstate New York with some friends. (It's possible I actually first noticed it in early 1992 while coming back from upstate New York with another friend.) A favorite destination on weekend rambles in the country - well, back before skyrocketing gas prices and other demands on my discretionary income made such rambles less frequent. So many memories. Closed.

We made our way to the Luzerne store, passing a recently-closed gas station that I had always used as a point of comparison for regional gas prices. Luzerne is an old residential/business area, completely different from the rural Dallas. We picked our way along streets clogged with sports cars and SUVs and found the Luzerne branch of the store. We found a spot in the tight parking lot and made our way in. The store was more brightly lit than its Dallas counterpart and was arranged completely differently. We found one expensive salve with capsaicin and bought it.

Life goes on, with or without our consent. Changes are everywhere. Nothing earth-shattering here, just the little details of life that are now out of kilter. We'll roll with it, I guess.

Title reference: Never Gonna Be the Same is the last track on Courtney Love's 2004 album America's Sweetheart. Regardless of what you think of Courtney Love you should buy this album, if only for this song and the song Sunset Strip.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end

Today one chapter in my life ended and a new one has begun. It was a longish chapter, covering nearly the past 15 years.

I should be depressed, or upset, or something. Instead I am...excited, exhilarated, optimistic. As I told a friend of mine who is in the same situation, we should think of it as an adventure.

To those who left with me, I can say: we will not truly be apart. We will always have this place. And the Big Wide World is not always so big, or so wide. We will meet again.

And to those who we left behind, please know that you will always be in my thoughts. I wish you the best. Difficult times lie ahead. I will help you however I can. Keep in touch.

Title reference: "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end" is from Semisonic's song Closing Time from the album Feeling Strangely Fine.

Monday, February 26, 2007

More snow. How nice.

More snow started to fall yesterday afternoon, shortly after I walked back across town after having spent another Saturday night in my new house. The snow had already been falling heavily to our South, in Maryland, and it was reaching us several hours later. By the time the Oscars got underway, there was about another inch of fresh snow on top of the remnants of the Valentine's Day Storm.

This morning I woke up bright and early at 5:00 and switched on the TV to see what the local TV clown/meteorologist had to say. He's a funny guy, quite entertaining and informative, but sometimes it gets a little annoying when you have to wait through all the screaming and shouting and silly animations and assorted antics when all you want to know is how much snow had fallen the previous night. Eventually he got around to it, while dancing around in a sweatshirt and a hat (Look, Ma! No coat!) and announced that only about an inch of light, fluffy snow had fallen. That's odd, I thought. We already had an inch when I went to bed.

I made my way upstairs, switched on the computer (it takes a long time to boot up), made the coffee, made breakfast, and went to the front porch to get the newspapers. One of them was there, but the other was nowhere to be seen. The porch looked like it had more than an inch of light, fluffy snow. About three inches more.

I brought in the paper and pulled out a push-broom. Light, fluffy snow would not be a problem for a push-broom.

The snow was neither light nor fluffy. We had four fresh inches of dense, slushy snow.

A half-hour later (I had to wait until at least 6:00 for the sake of the neighbors) I was outside running the snowblower. The slush poured out of the snowblower's blow-hole like the stuff from a Slurpee machine. It took me a while to clean my car, my mom's car, the driveway, the street in front of our house, the sidewalk along the street, and the sidewalk leading to our front door. Then it was time for a shower and a trip across town to clean up there. Fortunately it looks like my neighbor got his snowblower running again, and he did the sidewalk in front of his house, my house, and my other neighbor's house. I only had to deal with the steps and the slate sidewalk at the bottom of the steps.

I know we've had a lot less snow this year than in some - maybe most - years. Still, more than half of the Valentine's Day accumulation is still out there, unmelted, and now it's been topped by this. I think we've had our fill of snow. Now, if only this stuff will melt gradually, instead of suddenly...

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Tiki God in the Bathroom

People ask me what's keeping me from moving into my house just yet. There are several things. First of all, though I had new electrical service put into the house a few weeks ago, I have not yet had the house completely rewired. Secondly, I still need to do extensive interior painting and furniture buying. But all of these things could actually be taken care of after I move in. No, the main reason I haven't moved in yet is the bathroom - specifically, the shower. More specifically, the two short side walls of the shower, which are coated pasteboard with some holes worn through the coating. One good shower and the walls will probably swell up like sponges and begin rotting the wood behind them.

I know a service like BathFitters or ReBath will simply install shower walls on top of the existing walls. This was actually done on the other side of the house, and the results...well, let's just day you shouldn't do this if you're renting to the sort of people who don't clean their shower walls regularly. I'm gonna need a lot of bleach.

The other problem is what's on the long back wall. The wall integrity there is sound, but...

...this is the image that has gazed out at anyone using the toilet in my grandmother's house since we were little kids.

It's creepy, and freaky, and ominous, and the sort of thing that guaranteed that none of us spent too much time in the bathroom when we were kids. I have no idea what the story behind it is, or even if it was there when my grandparents bought the house in 1953 or if was something they had installed. The bathroom and pantry are an obvious addition to the house, which was originally built in 1910, probably without indoor plumbing. The wall image is a beautiful piece of work, highly detailed, lovingly done in gold on a plastic or linoleum board. Such a thing must not be unique, so perhaps there are others who have this image scarred into their consciousnesses? I've always felt that it dates from the days of South Pacific and Hawaiian statehood, but that's just a guess.
So what the hell is going on in this image, anyway? We see several elements: a possibly volcanic peak in the background, its top shrouded in clouds; three palm trees in the foreground (and several more in the background) bending in a wind blowing from inland, from the center of the island; a single hut, alone, no people near it; two boaters paddling away from the island, their canoe filled with something; a flock of seagulls flying overhead, perhaps in pursuit of the boaters, perhaps towards the island; and of course...
...the bug-eyed Tiki God.

Well, when we were kids, we knew all about Tiki Gods. We had learned everything we needed to know from that episode of The Brady Bunch where the Brady family went with Cousin Oliver to Hawaii and the kids desecrated an ancient burial ground and Greg got V.D. from a hula dancer and Peter was eaten by spiders and they had to fix everything by giving a Tiki Idol that they found back to Mr. Howell. Or something like that. So we knew that these were not things to mess with, unless you wanted to have to deal with horrible curses and Jim Backus.

When I was a kid I made up a story to go with the picture. It went something like this:

The two young men were eager to prove their manliness. A great fortune, they had heard, was waiting to be found on the Abandoned Island. But travel to the Abandoned Island was Forbidden by the village elders. The young men smiled to themselves as they thought how they had made false promises to the elders to stay away. Then one day they "borrowed" a canoe and paddled to the Abandoned Island to see what they could discover.

They entered the lagoon, came onshore, and saw one of the few huts left on the island. It was empty. But it did not look like it had been robbed, rather like the occupants had stripped it of all that it held. As they made their way along the lagoon they found other huts, inland, not visible from the lagoon, all in the same condition.

Finally they found what they sought. A great treasure was stashed away in a small cave: jewelry, shells, trade items, even some long-decayed pieces of clothing. Greedily they bundled up the choicest items and made plans to return for the rest. And then, through a parting in the trees, they saw the Blind God, staring at them with unseeing eyes.

Terrified, they made their way back to their boat, still carrying their bundle. What have we done?, they asked as a great wind began to blow from the center of the Abandoned Island. Forbidden, the elders had said. Why? They didn't know, and so they chose to ignore. For that matter, why had the island been abandoned in the first place? What had caused the islanders to pile all of their material goods into a cave as an offering for the Blind God? They didn't know that, either.

They got in their canoe, the bundle of treasures between them. Paddle, paddle like mad! they thought. The wind blew stronger from the island. The trees bent. A flock of seagulls flew overhead, fleeing ahead of the two young men. How fast would they have to paddle to escape the wrath of the Blind God?


UPDATE, 3/21/07: Thanks to a visitor from Boca Raton, Florida, I now know that the Tiki God bathroom mural came from a company called Marlite and is from around 1964. Check out this forum and scroll down just past the halfway point (or search for "bathroom") to see pictures of the Tiki God mural in a different setting. My mom has confirmed that my grandparents were responsible for having this thing installed!

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Shooting Englebert

I went with my mom to see Englebert Humperdinck at the Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre last Sunday. It wasn't something I had planned on doing. My sister was supposed to go with her, but the weather intervened, and my mom was stuck looking for someone to go with her. In the end I was chosen for my combination of driving skills, sure-footedness (we had to park several blocks from the theater, and had to clamber over several snowpiles at crosswalks), and willingness to tolerate Englebert Humperdinck. Hell, I had grown up with his music in our house, so it would be kind of fun.

My mom took her digital camera. Like most theaters, the Kirby has a "no flash photography" policy - not that a flash would have made much difference from our seats in the balcony. So the challenge was, how do I manipulate the settings on the camera to get pictures to commemorate the event?

Simply turning off the flash causes the shutter to stay open until the CCD on the camera has absorbed enough photons to satisfy it. This generally results in a richly-colored, blurred, partially overexposed photo. But I wanted to be able to get photos that were recognizably Englebert.
Well, it took a while, but eventually I remembered a combination of settings that I have used to take pictures of my nephews blowing out candles on a birthday cake in a darkened room. I turned off the flash and set the camera to "Sports" mode, where a single shutter press will take a rapid sequence of short-exposure photos. I was concerned that the photos would be too short-exposure and I might get nothing at all. So I had to restrict myself to moments when the stage was brightly lit and a spotlight was shining on Englebert. That was the situation in the photo above: the stage was illuminated a bright red and Englebert was being picked out by a spotlight. As you can see, the resulting photo shows a stage dimly glowing red and Englebert just barely visible. Still, it is possible to zoom in on the figure of Englebert and see detail in his face:
So I would say the photographic technique was a success. Unfortunately, now I have some 60+ photos to sift through to try to determine which to get developed. Or maybe we'll just develop them all!

Friday, February 23, 2007

Cat Pile

I am too tired to blog about anything coherent right now. So instead I give you a photo of Joey and Babusz sleeping together.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Abandoned

See this movie. It is creepy-scary. It is the sort of movie that will crawl behind your eyes and get into your brain and scare the crap out of you long after you've seen it. It will give you nightmares. It will make you afraid to be home alone. Trust me on this. See it!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Slices of life

I'm still only about half-way done with labeling my old posts. I actually didn't do any labeling work in the last few weeks, not even to my new posts. But now that I've switched to a new Blogger template that displays a list of all my labels (on the lower right-hand sidebar) and allows readers to view more than just the last 20 posts with a given label, the pressure is on to get this finished.

Labels are an interesting way to read thematically-related groups of posts. For example, if you want to read all of my posts that deal with my dog Haley, you could click on that label. If you wanted to read all of my posts that deal with the topic of Death you would click on that label. Ditto with Douglas Adams, or Movies, or Music. If you want to see only posts with Photos, there's a label for that. Paintings and Drawings, too. And if you're interested, there's a label for all the posts that feature Pictures of Me.

There's some overlap, of course, since most posts get multiple labels. This post, for example, has five labels: , , , , and .

Labels are fun. They allow you to (to use Douglas Hofstadter's imagery) slice through blogs at different angles, letting you see the same posts from different points of view. I'm starting to explore other people's blogs using their post labels. For example, I can read all of Ashley's movie reviews by clicking on the movies label on Ink On Paper. As more people make use of this feature I'll be using it to look at their blogs in a new way.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have over 450 posts to finish labeling...

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Rosebush in Winter

Royal Highness rosebush, photographed February 19, 2007. Note evergreens (Arbor Vitae) in background on left.

Royal Highness rosebush with Evergreen, painted March 20, 2004. For more information about this painting, go here.

Seen around Nanticoke

I spent Saturday night at my new house this past weekend. Parking is at a premium over there, as about 1/3 to 1/2 of all parking spaces have disappeared due to the snow. In the interest of maintaining peace with the neighbors, getting in some exercise, and maybe getting some photos on the return trip, I walked over at about 8:00 Saturday night.

The walk was interesting. Most of the sidewalks had been shoveled along my route, but not all, and I sometimes had to swing out into the street. Not everyone had dug through the snowplow-built piles at the crosswalks, so even if the sidewalks were clear, sometimes getting across the street required some mountaineering skill.

I stayed over Saturday night into Sunday. I did my weekly maintenance tasks (dump and refill the furnace, clean out the chimney cleanout) and changed over the decorations from Valentine's Day to St. Patrick's Day. Then it was time to hike back across town to get ready to take my mom to an Englebert Humperdinck concert in Wilkes-Barre. (My sister was supposed to come in to see the show with her, but my mom asked her not to because of the iffy highway situation and occasional snow squalls throughout the day; coming up earlier was impossible because the highways leading to the area were closed until Saturday afternoon. Englebert put on quite a show, though I was a little disappointed that he did not sing "Les Bicyclettes de Belsize", which I just learned is the title of my favorite song by him, a song that came out the year that I was born.)
As I left the house I took this picture of the hill in front of my house. This is the hill that a group of teenage girls didn't go sledding down on Wednesday night. This is also the hill that I watched a motorcyclist roll down to collide with a car that blew through a STOP sign at the intersection just past the two cars in the foreground on the right.
This building used to be a barber shop. Even though it was closed decades ago, the barber pole - a nifty illuminated rotating cylinder with multicolored stripes mounted inside another clear cylinder - stayed up until relatively recently. One of my earliest memories of snow was going for a walk with my father and sister and brother in the middle of a snowstorm. We walked past the barbershop, where there were drifts up above my head. I remember falling down in the snow there - I might have been four or five years old - and I was terrified that I would be left behind. I wasn't. (The building in the distance used to be a local tavern, or "Beer Garden." That was another landmark on that walk.)
Here is the house that burned a few weeks ago. Note the tree with no needles - this is the tree that I watched burn from my front window. The wooden supports holding up the front porch were in place before the fire - this is what gave the place the appearance of being a work in progress.

So there you go. A few more images from Nanticoke, and a few illustrations of incidents described here.

(Note: as I write this there is another fire burning in town, a pizza place about four blocks from my new house. I hope this is another accidental fire and not a case of arson.)

Monday, February 19, 2007

Changing of the Holidays

My house, done up for Valentine's Day. Features: 15 feet of Made-In-America red garland (with hearts); three-foot dangling string of red plastic hearts that spin in the wind; foil hearts on front windows and doors; red spinners on left and right sides of porch. Not visible: gel snowflakes on windows.
Red wind spinner on front porch.
Red foil heart on front door.
A few hours later, converted to St. Patrick's Day. Features: 15 feet of Made-In-America green garland (with shamrocks); three-foot dangling string of green plastic shamrocks that spin in the wind; wind spinner with Leprechaun hat dangling from string of shamrocks (seen blowing in front of door on right); foil shamrocks in front windows; cardboard shamrocks on front doors; two types of green spinners on either side of porch. Not visible: gel snowflakes and shamrocks in front windows. Note the change in the sky's appearance. Note also the freakin' huge snowpiles everywhere.
Closeup of front doors showing Leprechaun-hat wind spinner being used to weigh down string of shamrock wind spinners. We'll see if doing this keeps the whole shebang from flipping up on top of the garland as often as my string of hearts did. Note the green wind spinners on either side. Geez, I really need to replace those storm doors sometime soon. Green foil shamrock in front window. Note gel shamrocks and snowflakes dimly visible through reflected image of the house. Note also that I'm paid up for garbage removal through the year, baby!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

UnREMmed

Oh, boy. Another little glitch from the template switch: any links that I had REMmed out (that's BASIC speak for rendering a line of code non-functional, for you young whippersnappers) are back. This makes things a little confusing on the sidebar links. I'd better get a-fixin' them.

Don't forget your SiteMeter!

One of the many elements of my template that were left behind in my switch from my "classic" template to my "new" template was my SiteMeter!

If you're updating your template you'll need to go to the SiteMeter site (http://www.sitemeter.com/) and follow the instructions for adding the appropriate HTML code. It's not as easy as going to the backed-up version of your template (which you can only find by going into the "Edit HTML" option for managing your template and opening up the link at the bottom) and copying the appropriate chunk of code - the new Blogger templates have their own peculiarities. If you don't do this, your SiteMeter counts will drop to zero, and you will be very, very sad.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Shiny and new

I finally upgraded to the NEW & IMPROVED version of the template I've been using. I've noticed one thing:

After a "block quote" section, line spacing is reduced. This was a bug with this template long, long ago, but was allegedly fixed (in the "classic" version) way back when.
We'll see if it's still a problem. Maybe it's just a bug that affects posts that were made using the "classic" template. If it's an ongoing problem, I expect I will need to be re-upgrading my template sometime!

UPDATE: Fixed it! It took some digging and link-following, but other people have encountered this problem before me and have worked out some elegant (and some not-so-elegant) solutions. But it should've been right from the start. This is an issue that was identified a long time ago.

Here are the relevant links:
From Blogger Help Group
From The REAL Blogger Status

Friday, February 16, 2007

Blogger ate my homework

Internet Explorer crashed while I was doing a post. Eh, it was getting long and I'm too tired to really bring it to a coherent conclusion. Besides, everything I had to say will still be true tomorrow.

Anyway, quick outline:

- Interstate 81 is still closed south of Nanticoke. Why? The storm was two days ago. This is just embarrassing.
- Not enough plows on the roads. Why? Budget cuts.
- Too many drivers on the roads during the storm. Why? Employers refused to pre-emptively shut down before the worst of the storm, and only dismissed employees once the state and local authorities declared that the roads were being closed, thereby guaranteeing the creation of the giant mess on the roads. And even with roads closed, businesses remained open, requiring workers who couldn't call off to risk their necks or risk their jobs.
- And there was the storm, too. Big freakin' storm.

I haven't been able to successfully use the "recover post" feature in Blogger since I switched over to the new version. Has anyone else had that problem?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

In the aftermath of the St. Valentine's Day Storm

Damn, it's cold.

So here's how things went after yesterday's post:

After a quick lunch (Lipton's Ring-O-Noodle soup, with added noodles) I went outside to mop up what had fallen since I took a break. It was about 4-5 more inches of what would be called "packed powder" snow on a ski slope, I think. (I've never been skiing.) The snowblower made quick work of this, though more snow was coming down the whole while.

As I cleared the driveway, and the sidewalks, and the street, the question of how to get over to my new house to clean the sidewalks played over and over in my head. The roads were too bad to drive my Tercel, and even if I could, I would almost certainly not be able to park near my house - even though it's a double-block with enough frontage to park three of my cars end-to-end, there are usually several other people occupying those spaces. And in this weather, parking spaces would be in even more demand.

Get a ride? There were still reports of emergency vehicles and snow plows getting stuck, and the only person I knew with a truck big enough to get through was deathly ill.

So how to travel this mile across town, to the house that used to be a milestone on my dogwalks with Haley? How?

Duh.

After I was done doing as much as I could here, I grabbed my wallet and my cell phone (wrapped in a Ziplok bag), filled a plastic jug with over ten pounds of calium chloride ice melt, and began the walk across town.

It wasn't so bad. I took sidewalks where I could, but there were long stretches where sidewalks were not available. I wound up walking the last half-mile or so in the middle of the street, dodging the occasional person insane enough to be driving in a car (cars move with eerie silence under these conditions) or on a quad (quads are illegal on roads, even in these conditions, but nobody was enforcing that law yesterday.)

I must have made a strange sight as I walked across Nanticoke, my head wrapped in a black balaclava of sorts topped with my hardy Irish hat, the rest of me also swathed in black except for my white fleece sweat pants, carrying a jug with a picture of a cat on it, a jug full of calcium chloride pellets and topped with a paper towel since I lost the lid some time ago.

This is what my neighbor saw as I walked across the street to my house, snow whipping all around me. "You'd have to be crazy to drive in this weather," I said to him cheerfully.

And then a new problem presented itself.

My neighbor had very helpfully run his snowblower over the sidewalks in front of my house several hours earlier. Unfortunately, with the limited availability of frontage he had been forced to blow the snow over the fence towards my house. This meant that not only were my steps a solid slope of snow - something I expected - it also meant I couldn't open my front gate.

This was a problem. I analyzed my options. Hop over the fence? No, it's full of spikes that might puncture me in places I'd rather not be punctured - or, even worse, I might damage the fence. Cut through a neighbor's yard, exit their back gate, and enter my property though the spot where my fence is missing in the back? No. This would involve slogging through more than a foot of snow for about 100 feet, only to come to another stuck gate at the end. Walk around to the alley that runs behind my house and come in through there? Yes, that seemed like the only way.

My neighbor had a more elegant solution: reach over the gate with a shovel and clear enough space for the gate to open.

Once I was inside I had to feel my way up the buried steps to get to my front door and the snow shovel and assorted brooms that were within.

Clearing the snow was dull and mundane, but everybody was doing it so it was a bit festive. Nobody had a snowblower - it seems there's been a rash of snow blower deaths, including my neighbor's which had quit earlier in the day. The porch was easy to clear off, the steps were a little tricky, the sidewalks less so. Everything was complicated later when the wind picked up and began to throw the snow from our roofs down onto the sidewalks we had just cleared.

At one point I dug into some yellow snow where a dog had peed against my fence. I flipped this snow up onto the four-foot-high snowbank that I had built with the snow removed from the sidewalks. I laughed when I realized that someone might wonder how a dog had peed on top of a four-foot-high snowbank.

Then there was just the street.

The street was a mess. Cars were plowed in everywhere. The red car that had been parked in front of my house the day before was still there, and wouldn't be going anywhere until it was dug out. One other spot in front of my house was open but snow-covered. This is where the neighbor's tenant's daughter likes to park her monster truck. Why she prefers to park her truck in front of my house, especially when there are closer spaces available that are not in front of my house, I will never understand. But she wasn't there, and the street was.

I dug out the spot.

Not all of it, mind you. Enough for a Tercel, not enough for a monster truck. I'm not that much of a chump. But why would I do such a thing? Because if ever I do park in front of my house before this stuff thaws and melts and causes massive flooding in a week or two, and if ever someone comes at me yelling "Hey! That's my spot!", I can say to them with some justification "No it isn't. I dug it out."

As we worked on the sidewalks and the street the occasional quad or car or pedestrians came by. At one point a group of teenage girls with sleds walked by - most of them on the sidewalk, one of them on the street (independent non-herd-mentality potential innovator but engaged in following group not leading mark for future study). The one on the street looked up the hill that runs up the street in front of my house, the one that I watched a motorcyclist roll down towards a collision with a car a block from where I was sanding, scraping, and painting. "Wow," she said to her friends, who were ignoring her. "Imagine coming down this hill on a sled!"

I turned to look at her and caught her eye for a second. Do it, I didn't say. Have your friends stand at the intersections to stop traffic. Ask any guys on quads to help you block the traffic, and maybe tow you back up the hill after your run - you're a beautiful teenage girl and no guy could refuse such a request from you, I failed to add. You're young and alive, and how many more times will this opportunity arise in your life before you're too old and tired and burdened with responsibility to do such a thing?

The girls walked on. They didn't sled down the hill.

After three hours of shoveling I was done. I hung my clothes up near a radiator to dry. I crawled into my bed with its flannel sheets and listened to an interview with John Waters on Fresh Air (regardless of what you think of his movies, John Waters is one of the funniest, most thoughtful, and most insightful people you will ever hear interviewed.) I contemplated walking back so I could start the process again in the morning. Walk home, sleep, get up, clear snow, walk across town, clear snow, walk back.

Or I could just stay there for the night, in a house that I was paying to heat anyway, and cut out two of the walks across town.

After some deliberation I decided I would spend the night. I hadn't eaten supper, and I didn't really have any breakfast food aside from some orange juice and some cookies that had been in the refrigerator for many months. But I wasn't particularly hungry, the house was warm, the bed was comfortable, the wind was howling, and according to the news the area was in a state of emergency; the major highways were officially closed and were unofficially full of thousands of stranded motorists, and all of the local cities had ordered all vehicles off the streets. I realized I wouldn't be going in to work today, either.

On top of all that I was practically too sore to move.

This morning I woke up relaxed and refreshed. I drank some orange juice, cleared the sidewalks, steps, and porch (again) and then spent about an hour helping a group of neighbors dig out my elderly neighbor's car. "I don't know what's wrong with me," he said. "In my 70's I would have done all this by myself and cleared the sidewalks all along the house. Now..." Poles come from hardy stock.

Then it was time to hike back across town. The roads were better - the plows must have been out in the night - but the silently running cars sneaking up behind me were still unnerving. I got home around 10:30 to find that the stuck van was gone. I ate a quick brunch (actually supper from the day before) and headed back out to run the snowblower. By 2:00 I was done and taking my first shower in over 30 hours.

The highways are still a mess. They are partially officially reopened, although they are closing sporadically as accidents are causing random backups. We received well over a foot of accumulation, possibly the full 19.3 inches that had been predicted - though if the sleet had fallen as snow we would have possibly had another foot of total snowfall.

I will try to get in to work tomorrow. More snow is predicted for the weekend, so I'd better get more gas!

30,000

I received my 30,000th visitor today at 7:07:41 PM. I don't know who it is, but the IP address (75.75.157.###) looks familiar. They came by way of Gort's site.

Thanks for visiting, everybody! If it weren't for you, I'd be talking to myself!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Halfway through a St. Valentine's Day snow day

I didn't go in to work today.

I went out at about 10:00 last night and shoveled our sidewalks, just a few inches of light, sandy snow. After about a half-hour of this I hopped in my car (with my shovel) and went across town to my new house. My neighbor had shoveled several hours earlier, but enough snow had come down since then to require a lot of shoveling. Nearly an hour's worth of shoveling and salt-sprinkling, actually.

I left there a little before midnight and started out for home. Unfortunately, I hadn't let my car warm up to the point that the front windshield was warm enough to melt any new snow that fell on it, and I quickly found myself driving completely blind. I pulled over and scraped the windshield clean and finished the mile-long journey home.

After I got home the snow turned into sleet.

I woke up this morning to the constant sizzle of falling sleet. Several inches of little round pellets of sleet had fallen, and were still falling as rapidly as a downpour. Nothing at work is important enough to risk my life in this weather. I called off (using one of my eight remaining vacation days from 2006, which must all be used up by the end of March), had a quick breakfast of coffee and apple pie, and headed out to see if the snowblower would start.

Sometime overnight a white van got stuck in the intersection in front of my house. The driver spent several hours trying to move it. He returned twice this morning to try again without success. The van is still positioned in the intersection. (A quick check revealed the reason why it is stuck: bald tires. No cross-tread. This van should not be driving around on these tires under ideal conditions, let alone in the teeth of a storm.) Apparently as a consequence of this, no snowplows came through last night to clear my street.

So now my snowblower and I had several jobs: clear the driveway, clear the sidewalks, unbury my car, and clear enough of the road to ensure both that I would be able to actually move my car when the time came, and that any snowplows that came by did not promptly rebury my car or my driveway. All while sleet and, later, snow were coming down full blast.

Two hours and one refill later (using the gas and 2-cycle oil I bought yesterday) I am "done". It is still snowing, and I will need to head out again soon to redo everything I have just done. I will also have to figure out how to get myself over to my new house sometime to clear the sidewalks of everything that has come down since midnight - the scanner is full of reports of emergency vehicles stuck everywhere.

But I am done for now. For the moment. Well, for lunch.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Falling Down

Oh, it's coming down. Three inches in the last four hours or so, and more on the way. How much more? Well, nobody knows. On the radio they said "up to 20 inches", but they were talking about over roughly the entire Northeast quadrant of Pennsylvania - so if anybody there gets twenty inches, they're validated. My mom said she saw on television a prediction of "19.3 inches". Where the hell did that three-tenths come from?

Roads were slow between 6:30 and 8:00 tonight. That was no surprise. What was a surprise was that the home improvement store I stopped at around 7:00 was almost deserted. Maybe a dozen cars in a lot that could hold several hundred - and those might have all belonged to employees. No big rush on shovels, or salt, or snowblowers, or 2-cycle oil for snowblowers, which is what I was in there for.

I'm debating whether to do a quick shoveling now, or leave it until the morning. If I do it now, there will be less then. Maybe I'll even take a ride over to my house and see what I can do there.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Fired Up

6:30 PM: Leave work

7:05 PM: Arrive home (pretty good time!)

7:05 PM - 7:35 PM: Unearth snowblower* in garage.
This is a fairly monumental task. I'm not sure I used the snowblower at all last year, but since the last time it was used it has become a structural element supporting the random collections of cemetery wreaths, plastic flowers, cases of water, broken box fans (anybody need a high-RPM electric motor?), crates of things removed from cars, and other assorted items that fill our garage. But with persistence, rearranging, and only a finite number of disasters, I was able to get it out.

7:35 PM - 7:40 PM: Attempt to start up snowblower.
This is a very old snowblower with a two-cycle engine that uses a mixture of gas and oil (much like some chainsaws and outboard motors) and spews out a smoky exhaust that has a smell that gets into your clothes and skin (and also burns your skin if you add too much oil). I believe it does double duty by both removing snow from your sidewalk and driveway and spewing enough emissions into the air to ensure that eventually snowblowers will become obsolete.

7:40 PM: Add gas. Well, the gas-oil mixture.

7:40:30 PM: Start snowblower.

7:41 PM: Shut down snowblower for fear that neighbors' smoke alarms may begin going off. Seriously, that thing spewed out a remarkably thick cloud, and it never stopped even after I pushed the choke in. (Or did I pull the choke out? I forget.)

So now I'm ready. I don't trust weather forecasts for any precise predictions more than a few hours out, but everyone's saying there's a good chance we'll be getting thwacked with snow sometime tomorrow. I'd rather not have to go through this exercise with eight inches of snow on the ground, or find out at the last moment that I have to use shovels to clear sidewalks on two houses. Now I know my snowblower will start when I need it.

Maybe.

*Pedants will tell you that this is a snowthrower, not a snowblower. But we've always called it a snowblower, and if you say "snowblower" around here people instantly know what you're talking about. So, to the pedants I say, throw me.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Sleep

Spent the night over at the new house last night. Damn, that place is comfortable. My grandmother often spoke of "my little homey", and now I am having the same feelings for the place. The steam radiators alone are worth the price: when I wake up my hands are not dried out and cracked and bleeding. Once I get the shower walls replaced I should be able to spend the night over there and take a shower and at least make tea with the one burner on the stove that gives a decent flame. Actually, I'm afraid to spend a weeknight there because I may simply decide not to get out of bed and go to work.

Bedtime now. It's been a trying weekend - I'm hoping I haven't done irreparable harm to a friendship, like I've done at least once before. But I was just treated to a late birthday dinner by some friends, so I'm feeling a little better. Time will tell what time will bring, and the only thing we can count on is that things change.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Posting problems

I've spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to complete and refine the previous post. I've experienced more than a dozen crashes, lock-ups and forced restarts since last night. No idea why. Maybe some of the sites that I've tried to link to carry a special burden that exceeds the capabilities of my poor old computer.

If you want to look into the topic of climate change and the IPCC report (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released just over a week ago), you should pick up a copy of the February 10-16, 2007 issue of New Scientist. It's got quite a bit of fascinating, in-depth stuff, including an article on the items that didn't make it into the IPCC report. Check it out!

Friday, February 09, 2007

Duped, distracted, and dancing

(NOTE, 2/10/07: This is an expanded version of a piece I wrote last night, which I had to cut short because my computer kept crashing. While trying to update this morning I crashed again. And again and again this afternoon)
OK, I'll admit it. I've been duped.

I've been drawn into a debate over...well, the issue itself is a bit fluid. Is it whether John Edwards should fire two bloggers he hired to work on his campaign because of things they wrote in their own personal blogs? Is it whether what the women wrote on their blogs was so vile and offensive that any reasonable person would reject and condemn the writers immediately? Is it whether William Donohue and his "Catholic League" have the right to dictate who may and may not participate in the campaign of a potential Presidential candidate if the candidates know what's good for them? Is it whether a coterie of right-wing bloggers have set themselves on a crusade to suppress free expression almost exactly a year after they so bravely fought for free speech during the Mohammed cartoon flap?

Is it all of these things? Or is it none of them?

Is it merely a distraction, like so many distractions that are thrown up to draw attention away from the real issues of the day? Is it yet another case of those who call the music, and those who dance the dance?

I first heard about this in a news report on CNN's website on Thursday. I did some follow-up reading and wrote a post about it later that day. When I saw other people I knew posting about this subject, I challenged them on their positions.

And then I did some more reading and realized I was being drawn into the hall of mirrors known as the Echo Chamber, a network of right-wing pundits, commentators and bloggers where statements can be refined, magnified, amplified, and then presented as items of vital importance. The goal is always to achieve a win-win dominance of the national discussion: if opposing voices respond to statements from the Echo Chamber, they provide validation by allowing them to be recognized as worthy of discussion, while if they remain silent, their silence can be interpreted as acquiescence to the correctness of the stated position. Truthful statements by Al Gore were conflated into lies; Howard Dean's enthusiastic cheerleading became the "Howard Dean Scream"; the attacks on John Kerry have entered the political vocabulary as "being Swift Boated"; Joe Biden's praise of Barack Obama has been interpreted as a slur against all previous black candidates; and the non-issue of a military transport arranged for the Speaker of the House by the Sergeant-at-Arms only avoided becoming a dominant news story by the untimely death of Anna Nicole Smith.

And what are we being distracted from? Iraq, and the release of the report on the intelligence that led to the invasion of Iraq in the first place? The release of the summary of the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change? The release of statements condemning the Bush Administration's policies of interference with and censorship of scientific studies? The continuing erosion of civil rights under the current administration? The continuing inability to answer the question "Where's Osama?" more than five years after the September 11 attacks?

Let's stop being distracted. Let's stop dancing to this music.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Catholic League vs. Freedom of Speech

As you may have gathered from previous posts, I am a Roman Catholic. A practicing one, too, which comes as something of a surprise to me and to anyone else who has read my personal ad, where I describe myself as a "Jesuit-trained semi-agnostic lapsed Catholic." I've never really lapsed in practice, only in my heart. And I've come back, because I believe if the Catholic Church is going to be salvaged it will be from within, not from without.

There's a group called the Catholic League. I have no idea who they are, and I don't really have much desire to find out. From what I've read today they're a conservative action group with about 35,000 members and are not a part of the structure of the Catholic Church, so they don't have much formal relevance to Catholics or Catholicism in general. They no more represent or speak for Catholics than Al Qaeda represents and speaks for the worldwide Muslim community, or the Westboro Baptist Church represents and speaks for Protestants everywhere. Which is to say, not at all.

The Catholic League is in the news today. Seems that the John Edwards campaign has hired a couple of these freakishly opinionated and outspoken creatures known as "bloggers." And in the past, prior to their association with the Edwards campaign, these bloggers have, as is apparently the wont of their accursed kind, written opinions on websites and have posted them to places where other people could see them. And some of these opinions run counter to what the Catholic League finds acceptable. And for that, Catholic League President (hey! when was the election? I don't remember voting for this guy!) William Donohue has declared, John Edwards "has no choice but to fire them immediately."

Well, guess what, little man? Yes, he does have a choice. Welcome to America.

What are some of the terms this Free-Speech hating anti-American blowhard finds objectionable? From two articles on CNN's website:

...Donohue cited posts that the women made on blogs in the past several months in which they criticized the pope and the church for its opposition to homosexuality, abortion and contraception, sometimes using profanty.

"The Catholic church is not about to let something like compassion for girls get in the way of using the state as an instrument to force women to bear more tithing Catholics," Marcotte wrote on the blog Pandagon on December 26, in an excerpt cited by Donohue.

Among the McEwan posts that Donohue listed was one she posted on February 21, 2006, on her site, Shakespeare's Sister. She questioned what religious conservatives don't understand about "keeping your noses out of our britches, our beds and our families?"

...In his complaints, Donohue pointed to a Marcotte blog on her Pandagon site regarding the church's opposition to birth control, which she said forces women "to bear more tithing Catholics." Donohue also objected to another entry titled "Pope and Fascists."

Donohue also criticized a post by McEwen that refers to President Bush's "wingnut Christofacist base" on the Shakespeare's Sister blog.

The Catholic League president called the language "incendiary" and "inflammatory." "It's scurrilous and has no place being part of someone's resume who's going to work for a potential presidential contender," he said.

Mr. Donohue, wake up and smell the blogosphere. Most of us see worse than that while checking the morning blogs over breakfast. And as someone who's been called a "moonbat" by someone I thought (up until that point) was above childish namecalling, I can tell you that there's an awful lot of harsh language getting tossed around on this series of tubes known as the Internet. If you're going to disqualify every person who's used words like "moonbat" or "wingnut", "Islamofascist" or "Christofascist" from participating in the campaign of a potential Presidential candidate, you're going to be disqualifying an awful lot of people.

Only you're not going to be doing that, Mr. Donohue. Not you, nor your phony "Catholic" organization.

What's that, punk? Who's gonna stop you? Glad you asked.

See, it's not just me. I know people. I remember things. Like how, about a year ago, there was some furor over some cartoons that had actually been published several months earlier in a Danish newspaper. Now, whether the cartoons were specifically intended to offend Muslims or to be incendiary - well, a whole lot of people said that wasn't relevant, that wasn't the point. The point, they said, was that this is a free speech issue. And nothing is more important than Freedom of Speech. These folks, bloggers and their allies, believed in it so strongly that they were willing to band together and lurk behind the anonymity of their pen names and their blog addresses and publish these cartoons themselves and declare "Islamofascists, bring it on! We reproduce these cartoons in the name of FREEDOM OF SPEECH!"

Yes, those folks are the ones who will stand against you, Mr. Donohue. People who believe in Freedom of Speech so strongly that they will gladly hide behind their blogs and metaphorically stick their fingers in their neighbors' eyes, just because they know it will piss them off.

If they were willing to do this over the right to print cartoons that had languished unnoticed for four months, what more will they be willing to do to defend the freedom of speech of their fellow bloggers?

You have made a harsh enemy today, Mr. Donohue. The members of the blogging community that believe in Freedom of Speech are morally obligated to stand up to you. Who can stand against us?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Chaos and the weather

The tone on the "Right" and the noises out of their Echo Chamber have been a bit shriller since the release last week of the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change linking human activity to global warming. Last May I gave instructions on "How to be a Climate Change Denier":

1. Climate change? What "climate change"?
2. It's all a myth. Not happening.
3. And we had nothing to do with it, so there's no point in changing what we're doing.
4. Besides, people pay good money to travel to the tropics each year. Now they don't have to travel so far!

There have been some developments in these areas since then. #1 seems to have fallen out of favor, but it still gets dredged up once in a while. #2 has been refined to declare that the myth was invented by Al Gore (see the "ManBearPig" episode of South Park) to get attention, or by the Weather Channel to garner ratings. #3 is expanded to include every possible natural phenomenon that can influence the climate - trees that emit greenhouse gases, volcanoes, solar cycles, solar flares - and to seize on them as being the major, or even the sole, causes of climate change. #4...well, #4 is openly stated in an article in this year's Old Farmer's Almanac (which has been running annual articles by climate change deniers for the past few years). George Will tiptoes up to the point of saying it in his "Last Word" piece "Inconvenient Kyoto Truths" in this week's Newsweek:

Was life better when ice a mile thick covered Chicago? Was it worse when Greenland was so warm that Vikings farmed there? Are we sure the climate at this particular moment is exactly right, and that it must be preserved, no matter the cost?
There is a concept of a "tipping point", a point beyond which a system will begin to change at an accelerating rate without further input. Imagine putting a wooden board on a table so that it is hanging off a little. You can push that board out a little bit, and a little bit more, and a little bit more, and nothing much will happen - up to a point. Push the board just far enough and the mass of the board hanging off the table will equal the mass on the table - but the board will stay in place. A little bit further and it will begin to tip, but a degree of friction at the point of contact will keep the board from slipping off the table. A little bit more and the board will slip off the table. You can probably catch it, and drag it back, and reset the arrangement, if you're fast enough. Do that, because we'll be needing it in the next paragraph.

Now this time, line wineglasses up along the board. What happens when we reach the tipping point? Can you reset the wineglasses that smashed on the floor?

Reset the board, replace the broken wineglasses. Now add marbles, toy cars, cubes of Jell-O, a television or two, and a pack of marmosets. What happens when we reach the tipping point?

None of that has anything to do with what I'm about to say next.

I have a degree in Physics. I even did some time in graduate school. I was there to study Non-Linear Dynamics, the Physics of complex systems, known in popular literature as "Chaos Physics". I planned to have a Ph.D. by age 27 and use it to write books explaining complex Physics to the common layman. Things didn't exactly go as planned.

If you're interested in Chaos Physics, the best introduction I know of is James Gleick's book Chaos: Making a New Science. He's not a scientist, but he wrote the book after interviewing and working with a lot of people who are. In one of the earlier chapters he talks about the discovery that models of the interactions of air, land, and water that form the systems that determine our weather are irreducibly complex. That is, no matter how far down you measure data to determine the starting point for your models, there's always a level of precision below that that has an important effect. This is what's known as "sensitive dependence on initial conditions": start your calculations off using data that is precise to three decimal places, run your model for a certain period of time, and you will get one result. Start the same calculation using data with four decimal points of precision and run the model for the same amount of time, and you will get a different result. The longer you run your models - which are iterative models, where the results of cycle 1 become the inputs for cycle 2, and the results for cycle 2 become the inputs for cycle 3, and so on - the farther apart the final results will be. There is no practical level of precision that can be used to determine the inputs for meteorological models that can give results that are even marginally approximate for more than about three days out. Which is why I scream at the TV every time the weatherman gives a 5-day, or 7-day, or even 10-day forecast.

(One of the fun things with these equations is that if you start off with the right inputs you can create some really dramatic results. For example, there are lots of ways of throwing the system into a self-reinforcing Ice Age, and there are lots of ways of producing a permanent Greenhouse Effect. There are lots of ways that temperatures can flip-flop...well, chaotically. The inputs for these results are not always what you would expect.)

So, given that, is prediction hopeless when it comes to weather, especially long-term trends?

Well, to an arbitrary level of precision, yes. But meteorologists can look at trends, and records, and can compare where we are to where we've been. And computers can run thousands and hundreds of thousands of models of how the global climate will behave based on the best data available, with slight variations taken into account. These models can have their results polled and analyzed. If 99,999 out of 100,000 simulations say you're screwed, then you're probably screwed.

And that's the sort of analysis that went into the report that was presented last Friday, the same report that is saying that human activities are connected to Global Warming. The report that is being dismissed by non-scientists on the "Right" as being "not science." (Who would know better what is not science than a non-scientist?) But, really, did anyone expect them to admit that they have been wrong all along, that their delays in taking action prior to this point may have taken us beyond the point of no return?

That tipping point that I mentioned? The thought experiment involving the board, and the table, and the wine glasses, and the marmosets?

Icebergs are calving at rates not seen before. The ice caps are melting faster and faster. Things aren't just getting worse, the rate at which things are getting worse is accelerating. And human activities are pushing on the board, pushing it towards the edge of the table.

I think we passed that tipping point some time ago.

So we can try to save what wine glasses and marbles and Jell-O cubes and marmosets we can. Others will smash to the ground, beyond the point of repair. Maybe things have gone far enough that we can't stop the process.

Hang on. It's gonna be a hell of a ride.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The A-Z Guide to Political Interference in Science

OK, it's cold. My hands are cracked and bleeding, which is something they do when it gets really cold. I'm worried about how much damage is being inflicted on the unheated side of my house, and how much money I'm spending heating the heated side. So I'm too distracted to think of a post today.

I came across this post earlier today on Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy. Political interference in science, including suppression and censorship of language or even entire reports that do not mesh with official administration positions, has been a hallmark of the Bush Administration. The Union of Concerned Scientists has put together The A-Z Guide to Political Interference in Science. It's done up in a cutesy manner - each item is presented as an "element" on a Periodical Table - that may serve to alienate the report from the general public. (It's also presented in several alternate arrangements, including by issue area, which is probably the most intuitive way to go through these items.) But the message is important:
In 2004, 62 renowned scientists and science advisors signed a scientist statement on scientific integrity, denouncing political interference in science and calling for reform. On December 9, 2006, UCS released the names of more than 10,000 scientists of all backgrounds from all 50 states—including 52 Nobel Laureates—who have since joined their colleagues on this statement.
Go browse through a bit and see how your government - the government that was voted for by more than 62,000,000 voters in 2004 - deals with science. See why those 62,000,000+ voters should be hanging their heads in shame at what they've done. And see why the rest of us should be hanging our heads in shame for not being able to steer the country in a better direction. Get angry. And do something about it.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Cold

Urbandictionary.com's word of the day recently was "Gore effect": the tendency of local temperatures to plummet whenever Al Gore comes to the area to discuss global warming. Last week a major scientific report was released linking human activity to global warming. While to many of us this seems about as obvious as a scientific report that excessive eating and insufficient exercise will make you fat, many of the major networks have chosen to treat this report like it's something surprising and new. (Come to think of it, that's the way they report on the stories linking gluttony and sloth to obesity.) And, in a large-scale manifestation of the Gore effect, temperatures throughout much of the U.S. have flipped from record highs to record lows.

Many people are taking this in stride. "Sure, it's cold," they say. "But this is Winter. It's supposed to be cold." This has led some meteorologists to jump up and down while shouting about how much colder than average these temperatures are.

It is cold. And windy, for added fun. How cold? So cold that there wasn't any frost on any vehicles this morning. I didn't even notice it. I warmed my car up for a few minutes before driving it across town this morning to check on the conditions in my new house, and it didn't occur to me that I didn't have to do any scraping or window defrosting. I didn't realize this until somebody pointed it out to me at work.

The situation at the house is...uncertain. I may not have mentioned that half of the house is without utilities. Well, except water, gotta have the water. Though water is a problem at these temperatures. My theory is that the insulation around the outside of the house is much better than the insulation between the two halves of the house, so the furnace that is keeping one side nice and toasty warm (about 65 degrees) should also be keeping the other side well above freezing. So far it's working...I think. My min/max thermometer shows temperatures just below 40 degrees at the coldest. I've filled the toilet tank and bowl with windshield washer fluid (as recommended), I've turned off the water where it branches off just inside the heated side of the house, and I've purged the lines as best I can. Now all that remains is to repressurize the lines in the Springtime and see if there are any leaks. And by next Winter I'll either have the two sides of the house tied together into one furnace, or I'll bite the bullet and turn on the other furnace. With luck, my lines have not frozen, or if they have frozen, have not ruptured. We'll see.

Damn, it's cold.

Trucks, bikes, and automobiles

Another excellent post from Wilkes-Barre Online, written in the aftermath of a crash in which a driver, attempting to pass a car in a no-passing zone, lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a crowd of kids waiting at a bus stop, injuring one of them very seriously.

Mr. WBO has some very strong views of vehicular safety, speaking as both a bicycle commuter and a commercial truck driver. I also spent nearly two years as a bicycle commuter down in Newark, Delaware, which was (at the time) one of the most bicycle-friendly cities I had encountered. (A recent essay in Newsweek suggests that it has become less so, which is a pity.) I believe every driver should be required to clock at least 2000 miles of bicycle commuting on city streets and (where permitted) highways before being granted a driver's license.

As a driver who commutes more than 66 miles each day on a major highway in a tiny Toyota Tercel I have also developed some negative opinions of commercial truck drivers. Most of the time truck drivers are safe and courteous - though at times I suspect that such behavior is an indication of the presence of police somewhere. Other times truckers behave with a reckless disregard for the rules of the road, particularly those rules involving speed limits and safe following distances - and, if a construction zone is involved, sometimes both at once. These are times when I remember how, back in the mid-1980's, a car about the size of mine was boxed in and crushed not far from Scranton by a group of trucks during a low-visibility situation. In the fog, they didn't even notice the car.

But as Mr. WBO points out, it's the cars that fill our streets that commit the vast majority of the dangerous daily traffic violations. A friend of mine has had her car in the shop for over a month after it was run over while she was attempting to make a left turn into a parking lot. (The SUV behind her had stopped while she waited for a break in oncoming traffic, but the car behind that one decided to pass the mysteriously stopped SUV by pulling into the path of oncoming traffic. A series of events followed that resulted in him driving up and over the rear left quarter-panel of my friend's Volkswagen, and then driving past her face while on two wheels.) My mom still goes for physical therapy and treatments to deal with the chronic pain she has experienced since her car was T-boned on December 31, 2000 while she was on her way to church. We're not sure where the other driver was going, but apparently he was in enough of a hurry that he couldn't bother to stop at a four-way STOP sign. This was directly in front of my new house, one block from where I witnessed a car-motorcycle crash a few months ago.

So. Go to Wilkes-Barre Online. Read it. Learn it. Live it. And let's be careful out there, OK?

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Adding The Babblings of Whimsicalbrainpan

I've been visiting for just over a week, and in that time the author has become a regular commentor here at Another Monkey, so I decided it was time to add The Babblings of Whimsicalbrainpan to my sidebar. I've written about her site before, so you probably know that I think you should go and check it out for yourself. Stop by, have a look around, and leave a comment or two!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Shepherds and sheep

There are some things going on in the Catholic Church on the national, diocesan, and local levels that don't bode well for the continued existence of Roman Catholicism as a major religious denomination in the United States. A full discussion of the stuff that's going on, particularly on the local and diocesan levels, is best left until some other time.

Today the priest who was conducting the Mass at my parish, actually a priest on loan from a local college, had a very interesting sermon that touched upon both the continuing shortage of priests and the continuing loss of membership in the Church. His sermon touched on three major points:

1. The priest shortage. He put the blame for this squarely on one factor, which he defined in very carefully chosen terms: the current requirement of celibacy for priests, a requirement which is based on the tradition in which the Church currently operates. He arrived at this conclusion after 40 years of teaching at a Catholic College and talking to numerous individuals who would consider becoming priests if not for the Celibacy requirement. Celibacy for priests is not an issue of dogma, and in the past different traditions have prevailed and priests have been allowed to marry. If the Pope were to decide to change the tradition, it would change. (The same would be true for ordination of women, I am sure, though he did not discuss this.)

2. Catholics who have pulled away from the Church because of revulsion at sex scandals involving priests. He pointed out that the sexual crimes being committed by these priests were not related to the issue of celibacy, but were rather a result of "inadequate psychosexual development" - not a term you hear often tossed around in a little church in Nanticoke. His point, as I understand it, was that these priests had not learned to repress their improper sexual urges, but rather gave in to temptation and decided to run with it - and, worse, made use of their positions to exploit conveniently-placed victims. Still, while "inadequate psychosexual development" may explain (but not excuse) the crimes of priests, it in no way addresses the crimes of the bishops who simply shuffled these priests around from parish to parish and diocese to diocese in an attempt to avoid having their crimes come to the public's attention.

3. The relationship of priests to parishioners. This came about, I think, because of a specific incident that relates to the larger issue of the crisis at the local and diocesan level. To summarize: the diocese is consolidating all of the Catholic schools over an enormous area of (snowy, mountainous, treacherous-roaded) Northeastern Pennsylvania into a few (instantly overcrowded) facilities (with student commute times of up to an hour or more.) This has caused some dismay among parishioners, whose concerns received as much consideration from the bishop (who is widely considered to be an Al "Chainsaw" Dunlap type) as the Iraq Study Group's recommendations received from the Bush administration. So parishioners, angry at having their concerns dismissed with a wave of the crosier, have decided to express their displeasure in the collection basket. One couple that decided to put their objections on paper were suspended from the parish they had belonged to for 40 years by the parish priest. This has gotten considerable local media attention, and I believe many parish priests have been directed to do damage control.

So the point that the priest made was this: too often priests fail to treat parishioners with the respect that they are due. Perhaps this comes from the "shepherds and sheep" model of the parish - the parishioners are the flock and the priest is the shepherd, and the shepherd does not consult the sheep to see where they would like to be led. But this ignores another model of the Church as a body, with the parishioners making up the bulk of the body. The Catholic Church is essentially a feudal hierarchy, but without the serfs in the parishes the whole structure collapses. So priests must learn to tread carefully and treat parishioners with respect - and not to suspend them for speaking out against things they find objectionable.

Quite a lot there to digest. Not the sort of sermon I've been used to since I left behind the Jesuits in Scranton. I'll keep you updated as information becomes available.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Another Hallowhog draws to a close

It seems like only yesterday I was sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch of my new house, passing out candy and toys to kids and the occasional grown-up. Today it is Groundhog Day, and Punxatawney Phil either saw his shadow or didn't see his shadow, which means that we will have either an early Spring of six more weeks of Winter, I forget which. So now we pack away our Hallowhog streamers and noisemakers and rim-toodlers and prepare for the grim late-Winter Valentine's Day holiday, followed 30 days later by the somewhat less grim St. Patrick's Day.

So how will we remember this Hallowhog? Locally it was certainly one of the warmest Hallowhogs in recent memory, starting with an unnaturally warm Halloween and ending with about ten days of inch-at-a-time snowfalls every third day. (We're currently getting the heaviest of these; there's maybe two inches of very slippery snow out there, and it was a bit of a white-knuckled 33 mile commute home.) It was a Hallowhog that saw the end (for now) of Republican control of Congress, and a State of the Union address that was actually pretty enjoyable and was full of ideas that would have been good ideas if they had been presented six years ago, but now fall into the "too little, too late" category. This Hallowhog saw the word "surge" enter the daily vocabulary of newscasts (I have heard recent references to surges of roadside bombings in Iraq and surges of snow flurries), and it witnessed the greatest panic caused by aliens from outer space since the Orson Welles broadcast of "War of the Worlds".

And, to paraphrase Ice Cube's "It Was A Good Day" , nobody I knew died this Hallowhog. Three whole months plus a few days, and no family members, friends, or pets died. Something of a record, I think.

So I guess it was a pretty good Hallowhog.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Fear

My grandmother died in December 1998. During the nearly two years that she was at her final nursing home my mom and I got to know her roommate and several other residents pretty well. We continued to visit from time to time, and I continued to attend Mass with the residents there every Sunday until the diocese decided to stop having services there a few years ago.

There were two main ways of getting into the nursing home: the front entrance, which was not really convenient to anything for anyone, and the side entrance, which opened right off of the parking lot and took you directly past the administrative offices. (There was also an Ambulance entrance, but this was only convenient for vehicles pulling up to the far side of the building to pick up or drop off patients.) Like most visitors to the facility, I generally used the side entrance from the parking lot.

Until just after September 11, 2001.

That weekend a sign appeared on the side entrance, which was now locked. I don't remember the exact wording, but it was something like this:

ATTENTION VISITORS
Due to heightened safety and security concerns, all visitors must now enter through the Main entrance only.

Yes, we thought, that sounds reasonable. Can't be too careful. Terrorists everywhere. The threat is real. They might come to Nanticoke and attack this nursing home...through the side entrance.

It sounds ridiculous now. Back then, less so. At the time, it really did sound perfectly reasonable.

On September 11, 2001, hijackers trained in how to fly passenger jets turned fully-fueled airplanes into guided missiles that were used to kill over 3000 people. In 2002, anthrax spores were sent through the U.S. mail and resulted in several deaths, several non-lethal infections, and the closure of several contaminated facilities. Throughout the world cars have been used as housings for bombs; parked in plain sight or driven up to their targets, they provide both additional fuel for the bomb and deadly metal and glass projectiles.

On January 31, 2007 Boston was shut down because of some small electronic lighted billboards that had been placed without permission or notification in public places.

Was this an overreaction? Definitely. Was there a reasonable cause for alarm? It must have seemed so at the time to the people involved in the situation.

Were there planes flying overhead, and cars parked on the streets, and mailboxes on the corners?

The root of terrorism is terror. Fear. We have not learned how to manage our fear, to assess which items should concern us and which should be dismissed. For the sake of ratings, the sake of having something to say to fill up airtime other than "We don't know what's going on, we don't know what's going on, we don't know what's going on...", for the sake of posturing and scoring a few political points, elements in our society have learned to play on our fears as effectively as any terrorists.

Yesterday was a sad exercise in fear and demonstration of our failure to manage it. It helped show our enemies that even the approximately $500,000 that Al Qaeda invested in the September 11 plot was perhaps overkill. When a climate and culture of fear have been cultivated in this nation to the point that a few strategically placed electronic devices can shut down a major city, we have shown that we are quite capable of terrorizing ourselves. Through our fear, we are doing the terrorists' work for them.