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Monday, April 30, 2007

A question for Teachers

So how big of a mistake would it be for me to get involved in Teaching?

My résumé (short version):

- B.S., Physics (double-major in Philosophy, minor in Mathematics)
- One brief horrible semester in grad school that involved teaching an undergraduate Introductory Physics lab for 40 (or was it 80?) non-science majors. (This is something that I'm not actually including on my real résumé, since I dropped out of grad school after this semester - but should I include it because of the teaching experience?)
- Over sixteen years experience in industry: a year and a half with a solar cell manufacturer in Delaware, nearly fifteen years with a CD/DVD manufacturer in Pennsylvania; the latter job included a stint co-creating and teaching a multiple-day Introduction to Statistical Process Control course which my partner and I presented to several groups of students.
- Plus lots of tutoring here and there.

Is the Teaching situation really as horrible as I've heard? I know that the failed No Child Gets An Education program will not outlast the failed Administration that spawned it by very much, though it will probably not be item #1 on the list of disasters that need to be fixed right away by whoever takes office on January 20, 2009. But is the current situation so bad that I should just stay away until the scorched earth starts to show a few seedlings poking through? Should I run into this (metaphorical) fan blade full-speed? Or should I maybe just forget about it entirely and go off in some other direction?

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Non-progress report

I didn't do anything at the house Friday due to sporadic rains that looked bad on the radar but in reality didn't amount to much. I didn't do anything yesterday because my blood donation took much longer than I expected, and I wanted to go to church in the early afternoon to leave this morning free. I left this morning free because I was expecting to go to see my nephew's first T-Ball game today. But that didn't happen.

It didn't happen because there was no T-Ball game scheduled at 1:00, as we had been led to believe. Instead there were team photos and practice starting at 1:00, and the opening ceremonies for Little League, "Farm" League, and the T-Ball League were to follow at 3:00.

My mom and I drove off into the country where my brother's family lives. We drove along the winding mountain road to the Little League field to find the parking lot completely full. Overflow parking was over a quarter of a mile away - too far for my mom to walk. I dropped her off at the main parking lot, parked the car in the overflow lot, and hiked down to meet her.

Weather was all over the place. It was cold and overcast when my mom and I left our house, but I had the presence of mind to grab a visor cap for myself. There was a bit more sun when we arrived at the field but by then it was very windy. As the practice wound down and the opening ceremonies began very large and threatening clouds began to gather and a few raindrops fell on the crowd. Shortly after a faint rumble of thunder sounded in the distance, the clouds parted and the sun began to beat down. One of the assembled ballplayers collapsed from heatstroke. The opening ceremony dragged on and finally wrapped up sometime after 4:00.

One thing led to another, and I didn't wind up over at the house until 7:00. What the hell could I do with little more than an hour of useful daylight left? I couldn't scrape, sand, and paint, and I wasn't prepared to do mortar work. So I only had one option: mow.

This was the second time I mowed that lawn this year. The first time was last Saturday, and the grass sure had grown since then. A manual (that is, non-motorized) reel lawnmower works best on relatively short grass, so I had to mow some of the taller spots several times from several different directions. But I got it done, and didn't use any gas or electricity to do it.

So. More classes tomorrow and the next day. Maybe I'll get some painting done after that.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Bloody computers

It's been eight weeks since I lost my job. Eight weeks is also the minimum interval between blood donations. I last gave blood the Saturday after I lost my job. So the clockwork of the calendar dictated that this weekend I was due for another donation.

Everything went fine, up to a point. This donation caught me slightly by surprise and I didn't spend the past week cramming for the iron test. Usually I'll have a steak or two in the days leading up to the donation, and maybe some spinach or raisins. I normally get my protein from fish, poultry, and eggs, not red meat, so sometimes my iron measures below the Red Cross minimum requirement. But even that went OK on the second-chance hematocrit test.

I'm not even sure what the problem was. Something required a routine override, an override that I was apparently given every time I donated blood in the past. Only this time the computer system decided not to offer that option, and instead automatically deferred me. Correcting this error in the system so I could give blood this weekend - the Red Cross needs every donation it can get - required a manual override which required the approval of the supervisor's supervisor, who needed to be contacted by phone. In the end the registration process which normally takes five minutes wound up taking nearly an hour.

I understand an increased reliance on computers for safety and double-checks. But there's a problem when the computer system overrides any reasonable human intervention. Back when I was doing Statistical Process Control I always focused on the human element in maintaining processes - "Every control chart asks a question," I would say, and it was up to a human to determine the question, ask it, interpret the answer, and then determine the next steps - or whether the right question had been asked in the first place. Today there is an increasing and regrettable reliance on the automation of these systems, where the user is essentially saying "computer, watch this for me, and let me know if anything goes wrong."

Stepping back a level, this reminds me of one of the principles of the Biointensive organic gardening method set forth by John Jeavons: double-digging the soil by hand. This is a huge task, but well worth the effort. Not only does digging the soil by hand cause a lot less damage to the soil structure than using a motorized tiller, but it also lets you see directly what's going on with the soil: how many worms there are, how much organic material is present in the soil, whether there is a dry "hardpan" layer, and so on.

Stepping back another level, this reminds me of a deconstructive analysis I did of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey back in college...

But that's going back too far. My point is, because of a recalcitrant computer at the Red Cross Donor Center I spent an hour and a half on my blood donation today, and that threw my whole schedule off, and I never did get over to the house to scrape, sand, and paint today.

Maybe tomorrow.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Calling anyone from North Carolina

One of the most surprising things I've discovered in my time as a blogger is the disproportionately large number of bloggers and blog-commentors from North Carolina. You would think that many of the blogs you come across at semi-random would be from more populous states, like New York or California. But North Carolina comes up again and again, closely followed by Michigan. SuperG, dee, cooper (from Adam Felber's site), whim, all are from North Carolina.

If you're from North Carolina, I'd like to ask you for a favor.

Please go to whim's Whimsicalbrainpan and read this post. Read the background posts, too, so you can understand where she's coming from - though if you're over 30 years old you may be familiar with her situation, or at least with part of it; I expect it made the news statewide when it happened. Then follow whim's lead and please contact by phone and email the Governor's office, the NC State Assembly for "Mental Health Reform", DHHS, and your State Representatives. Use her message as a reference.

I would call upon everyone to join whim in this effort, but I doubt voices from outside of North Carolina carry the same weight in the state legislature as voices from within the state. But if you are from North Carolina, please do this! Thank you!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Ouch

After a busy day today, I am sore.

First, off to my old workplace to get some papers to sign. Hard to believe it's been eight weeks. When all this happened the year was only eight weeks old. Most of the last eight weeks have been uselessly crappy, weather-wise. Which is exactly what we expected.

It took me over an hour to go the 33 miles to my old place, with several construction-related detours. One thought kept going through my head: I can't believe I did this every workday for nearly fifteen years. Maybe the next job will have less of a commute.

After that my friend and I, who are going through all this crap side-by-side, went to the Scranton Career Link office to get our WIA Orientation. This is a class that explains to you how you will be taking other classes. This is the class you should take first, though no one explained that to us before we started taking classes. She and I have already taken at least five classes each, and I am taking another one on Monday and then we are doing another one together on Tuesday, so we're pretty far ahead of the curve here. Still don't know what I want to be when I grow up, though.

Then it was back home for a late lunch, and then over to my house to try to squeeze in some painting before the anticipated rains. I put a second coat on the South side of the garage, but I may need another one. About halfway through my painting I heard several people running down the hill that leads to my house. Girls, High School age, as far as I could tell. I assumed they were jogging, maybe as part of the track team, but on their second lap around the block I determined that they were not: from what they said to two younger girls who joined them later, they were looking for worms under rocks. (They were not being quiet about it, as I heard this at a range of about 100 feet.) I was trying to figure out some Tom Sawyer-(or was it Huckleberry Finn?-)esque way of enticing them into painting my garage for me that wouldn't involve me getting arrested, but in the end I gave up and kept on painting.

I got done with this by 4:30 PM ("done" defined as "I finished all the paint I had allocated myself, and I got the whole wall covered") and did a few other necessary tasks (unloaded a 60 lb. bag of mortar that I've been carrying around for a week from my trunk, killed some weeds that are growing in the wall I need to repair). Then I headed home to mow the lawn with my old-fashioned push mower. Somehow I got all this wrapped up by just after 6:30 PM. It usually takes me four hours - maybe the cooler weather helped!

And now I am sore. Bits of me are aching that shouldn't be. My right arm clicks when I roll it in its socket, and my left hip does the same thing. Plus I need to take a shower before I go to bed. At least I don't have any classes scheduled tomorrow. As an added bonus, it might rain, freeing me from any heavy-duty outdoor activities. Maybe I'll hit the home improvement stores and see if I can get prices on Shademaster Locust trees.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Bad Astronomy, NBC style

Phil Plait will probably discuss this over at his Bad Astronomy blog, but I just have to mention it, having seen it with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears.

First off, the big news: the most Earth-like exoplanet found so far has been detected orbiting a star in our cosmic neighborhood, a little more than 20 light years away. Phil Plait covers this news in depth on his site. I heard about it this morning on NPR, which for once didn't feel the need to sugarcoat and dumb down a science and/or technology story. (This has been an ongoing gripe for me: maybe they're trying to make these stories more "accessible", but instead they're making them into jokes that the average viewer will not take seriously. It's either a comment on how NPR views the comprehension ability of their listeners, or a comment on the attitude of NPR towards these stories in the first place.)

NBC covered this story at the end of the NBC Nightly News. This final segment is usually where they put human-interest pieces, puff pieces, even the occasional "this is serious but it doesn't fit in anywhere else" piece. I knew we were off to a bad start when the graphic for the story consisted of the text "In a galaxy far, far away..."

Errr, cute, but wrong. Yes, I get it, it's a Star Wars reference. But wrong. Not only is this exoplanet in the same galaxy as us, it's not even "far, far away" by any astronomical standard. Actually, in astronomical terms, it's "very, very close". As a guesstimate, I would say the star it is orbiting is closer to us than 99.9999% of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy. (I may be missing one or two nines at the end. Maybe more.)

OK, so far so bad. The rest of the report seemed moderately error-free, although instead of delivering the goods information-wise it was busy with fancy graphics and getting reactions from little kids. Yes, yes, I believe the children are our future, etc. etc., but still...well, things were mostly OK until they got to the part that said that it would take you twenty and a half years to get there if you could figure out how to travel the speed of light - "186,000 miles per hour". The speed of light is 186,000 miles per second.

That's just unforgivable. It's easy enough to look these things up - preferably in a real information source, and not just on Wikipedia. This is a network news broadcast, for chrissakes. If they can't be bothered to be right about stuff that can easily be checked by any kid with a basic Science textbook, why should we trust them to be right about stuff that we can't check ourselves? I mean, it's one thing to take a news report that's already pretty much targeted at kids and throw up the "In a galaxy far, far away..." crap because you don't even know what a goddamn galaxy is and you figure there's no difference between science and science fiction anyway, but it's another to report information that is flat-out wrong.

So does TV make people stupid, or do stupid people simply determine what's on TV?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Heat

Yesterday it was too hot to blog, at least on this computer. As the temprature soared to 80 degrees in this room I was only able to upload two of the three pictures on my "Ants! ANTS!!!" post. I added the first picture and all of the text this morning, but since I saved the post for the first time at 2:41 PM yesterday it was officially date-stamped with yesterday's date. The same thing happened with my "Spectre of the Gun" post - I started it on Wednesday but wrote most of the text on Thursday, so a reference to the next day being the anniversary of the Columbine shootings appears to be referring to Thursday - the day after the date stamp - rather than Friday, the day after I was witing, and actually the anniversary. I could fix that by changing "tomorrow" to "Friday", I suppose.

But right now I am lucky that the temperature has dropped into the low 70s. Internet Explorer has also picked up some crashy bugs, the sort of things that I usually associate with needing to do a Windows update, only I'm running Windows 98 SE which is no longer supported with updates. So I'm writing this in Firefox. Firefox takes much longer to open and crashes almost as often, but for the moment it seems to be working OK.

I've been neglecting NEPA Blogs, which is bad of me, especially since I've gotten a few e-mails about new NEPA websites. Maybe I'll take care of that now while my computer is not crashing.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Ants! ANTS!!!

(NOTE: Those who are squeamish about pictures of insects, particularly pictures of tens of thousands of insects locked in mortal combat with each other, may want to skip this post.)

It is hard to believe that one week after more than a foot of snow fell on parts of this area, it was practically too hot to paint my garage. (The heat also presented at least one other problem with the whole scraping / sanding / painting routine, but I don't think I'll talk about that until I have the issue resolved.) I was able to finish most of the front (East) wall of the garage on Saturday. On Sunday I had planned to deal with the South wall, but I waited until the sun was no longer directly shining on it to get started - about 3:00. I got only about a third of it done, which is about what I expected.

I was mostly finished with the task I had assigned myself when it occurred to me to look behind me at the sidewalk. There I saw a bizarre sight:
A volcano of ants seemed to have belched out from between two of the slate sidewalks. Not for the first time in my life I wished I had Edward O. Wilson hanging out with me. (There really aren't many times when it would be a bad thing to have a kindly old naturalist, author of Consilience, major proponent of the unification of the Evangelical and Ecological movements, and leading expert in all things related to ants by your side.) The ants were not engaged in frantic activity, but rather seemed to be engaged in some sort of orgy or slow-motion mass combat. Closer inspection revealed that the latter was more likely correct, as the ants seemed to be pairing up locked mandible-to-mandible:
Off to one side there were what I at first thought were smaller, immobile ants, but then I realized that these were the crumpled bodies of dead ants:
So what the hell was going on? I'm no ant expert, but I couldn't see any obvious differences in the bodies of the ants engaged in combat - so it seemed like this probably wasn't a clash between two different types of ants. (Of course, the Northern White Rhinoceros and Southern White Rhinoceros are indistinguishable to the non-specialist despite being genetically diversified to the point of being incapable of breeding with each other, although this will cease to be a problem when the last few Northern White Rhinoceroses die in a few years.) Was this a conflict between two colonies fighting for the same territory or resources? A single colony engaged in a family squabble or civil war? A behavior ants normally engage in when temperatures climb into the high 70s in the early part of Spring?

I don't know. Maybe I'll ask Dr. Wilson.

Title reference: It's a line from a favorite episode of Sprockets, the recurring Saturday Night Live skit that featured Mike Myers as the German postmodernist host Dieter. "Now, mein Shprockets, vee dance!"

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Cylon Moon

Five day old Moon, April 22, 2007 8:09 PM
Mare Tranquillitatis (Sea of Tranquility) at center of terminator

I remember watching this Moon once when I was a kid. I was sitting outside our house at a fake redwood picnic table - I'm pretty sure it was the first time I had read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which would put it in (I think) the Summer of 1981. High overhead there was a thick crescent of the moon, not quite at "First Quarter", clearly visible in the blue sky. Thin clouds blew in front of it, giving the impression that it was a spacecraft zipping through the atmosphere. It looked like one of the Cylon Raiders used in the original Battlestar Galactica series. Hence, I dubbed it the Cylon Moon.

Moon and Venus
April 22, 2007 8:25 PM EDT

It would have been nice if I had gotten a shot of the Moon and Venus Saturday night so we could have a complete sequence. Alas, my camera's batteries died before I had an opportunity. This may be the last shot in the series - by tomorrow I think the Moon and Venus will have moved far enough apart that I won't be able to fit them both in the same frame!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Protector of all things young

Today was a beautiful day. I got one wall of my garage mostly scraped, sanded and repainted, but no mortar or concrete work. Before I left for the house last night I took a few more astrophotos.


Moon and Venus
April 20, 2007 8:19 PM

Here are the Moon and Venus as seen Friday night. Note how much the Moon has moved relative to Venus since the previous night.


Venus closeup (showing gibbous phase?)
April 20, 2007 8:19 PM
Here is and extreme closeup of Venus from the previous photo. I need to check this against my copies of the April Astronomy and Sky & Telescope to see if I actually got a photo of a gibbous Venus. Since Venus is an "Inferior" planet (i.e. closer to the Sun than we are) it displays a dramatic range of phases, from a slim crescent to nearly full. (When it's completely full, it's also on the other side of the Sun from us.) Interestingly, this is the one image I took with the camera in the "portrait" orientation - none of the ones taken in the "landscape" orientation show this shape. So could this just be some asymmetry in my lens?

(UPDATE: I have checked with the magazines and yes, Venus is in a gibbous phase right now!)

Orion with power lines and streetlight
April 20, 2007 8:53 PM

Here's the big score of the night: Orion. You probably need to right-click and open in a new window to see the amount of detail I was able to tickle out by playing with the contrast and brightness. You can easily see the three stars in Orion's head, the redness of Betelgeuse in the upper left, the three stars of the belt, and even the sword to the lower left.


Orion's belt and sword
A close-up of Orion's belt and sword. Some of the stars here may be random pixels of red, green, or blue - it happens, which is why real astrophotography is done with stacked images to cancel out these random pseudostars. (UPDATE: Nope, those are all real stars! Apparently using this camera and some digital processing tricks I can squeeze out stars down to 5th magnitude!) Note the middle star in the sword, the three stars at the lower left - that's really the Orion Nebula, which is simply amazing through binoculars or a telescope. I "gave" the three stars in the belt to my brother when we were kids - we had been spending time after school one Winter at my grandmother's house, and we regularly noticed these three stars high overhead each evening when we came home. So I gave them to him to commemorate the occasion.

Title reference: Line from Orion by k8, available on her album Something Out Of Nothing.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Beautiful, busy weekend

The weather has finally gotten nice. It's time that I get started on all those necessary home improvement jobs I've been putting off due to the weather. I have not accomplished any of that yet today, I've been running around too much taking care of odds and ends. (I took an O-NET test at Pennsylvania Career Link that indicates I am Investigative/Artistic/Social - a "Thinker". Gosh, can you imagine?) So, the bottom line is I will probably not be blogging much this weekend.

Here's one more picture of the Moon and Venus, this time showing the Earthshine that so many people have commented to me about. Earthshine is just sunlight reflected off the sunlit face of the Earth lighting up the parts of the Moon that are not in direct sunlight. (Fun fact: the phases of Earth as seen from the Moon are the opposite of whatever phase of the Moon is as seen from the Earth. So when we are seeing a thin crescent of the Moon just past "New", an observer on the Earth-facing side of the Moon would see a gibbous Earth just past "Full". Another fun fact: since the same side of the Moon faces the Earth at all times, the Earth always remains in the same place in the sky as seen from the Moon!)
Venus and the Moon showing Earthshine,
April 19 2007, 8:31 PM EDT

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Moon and Venus, 4/19/2007, 7:58 PM

Well, this would be a really cool picture if Blogger would let me upload it.

Go and see for yourself! The Moon and Venus should be in the Western sky tonight until about 10:00 or so!

UPDATE, 9:29 PM: Ah, there we go:
The Moon and Venus, Thursday April 19 2007, 7:58 PM EDT

UPDATE 2, 10:54 PM: I took a lot of other pictures throughout the night. I haven't looked at them all yet, but here's the last one of the night, taken at 9:12 PM. I had to play with the brightness and contrast a lot to bring out the Pleiades (the "Seven Sisters", sometimes misidentified as the "Little Dipper", which is actually a lot bigger and in a whole other part of the sky) at the bottom center. There are two other bright stars visible in this picture whose identities I haven't checked yet.
Venus, the Moon, and the Pleiades,
Thursday April 19 2007
, 9:12 PM EDT

UPDATE 3, 11:30 PM: OK, this is just nuts. I played with some more of the photos, playing with the contrast to tease out detail - and look at the results!
This is the Big Dipper, or the Plough, or the (inverted) Great Bear. I've cropped and rotated it to be in its familiar configuration. In the enlarged version of the image (right-click and open in new Window) you can clearly see the double star in the handle.
Here's another view of the Pleiades. The blue haziness isn't just a contrast artifact - I believe it's actually the nebulosity that envelops the Seven Sisters showing up in my image!

Keep in mind that these pictures were taken with a Nikon Coolpix L4 camera in "Dusk/Dawn" mode, using the self-timer to eliminate vibration from pressing the shutter button. The camera was mounted on a plastic $7 Kmart tabletop tripod with aftermarket foam rubber feet held on with Scotch Tape, all securely located on the roof of my car for stability. Not too shabby!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Spectre of the Gun

Blogging is almost by definition a solitary activity: one monkey, one typewriter. But bloggers have some sort of natural herding instinct. Whenever given the opportunity, bloggers will, to use Douglas Adams's term, "sass" each other (sass: know, be aware of, meet, have sex with - The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). I have met quite a few fellow bloggers in my time - some before I knew they were bloggers, some before they started blogging. I've met with blogger / writer / radio personality Adam Felber and myriad regular commentors from his site, some of whom are themselves bloggers, and I've met twice with a gathering of local bloggers in Wilkes-Barre.

Still, the earliest bloggers I ever read were from other countries. For years I have tried to convince them to visit America. They have expressed no interest in it, partly for obvious logistical and personal reasons - not everyone sees the fun in dropping everything and flying off to some faraway country at great expense to stay with total strangers. But there's another reason: they see America as a land filled with heavily-armed homicidal lunatics.

This is a pretty common perception. From the earliest days our film and television entertainment have been full of heroes and villains who kill each other with sociopathic casualness. Our news reports show that this isn't just a violent fantasy. In Ireland, a single shooting anywhere in the country will make the national news, while here in America we'd call a single shooting a slow night in Wilkes-Barre. (To be fair, Irish auto accidents probably make up the imbalance, and drunken bar brawls are a national pastime. That's no stereotype, it's a fact of life there.)

Incidents like Monday's massacre at Virginia Tech don't help this image. The shooter and many of his victims are part of the same generation as the murderers and victims at Columbine High School, which happened eight years ago tomorrow. These are just two of many mass-shooting incidents which have earned America a reputation for gun violence.*

And it's not just the mass shootings. Gun violence is commonplace. As big cities export both crime and criminals to surrounding areas, armed robberies have become a daily occurrence even in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Guns are easy to get - just a few weeks ago Virginia gun-shop owners were holding sarcastic gun sale rallies in defiance of actions being taken by New York City to stop the flow of firearms from gun shops in Virginia and other states that have relatively lax background checks and waiting periods.

I know people who have guns. Hell, I've fired guns myself - I was a particularly good shot with a .22 pistol, the same caliber weapon as one of the two used in the Virginia Tech massacre. A .22 is something I've always considered a "polite" weapon: it is small, relatively unpowerful, and fires a small projectile - basically a high-velocity pellet. (Well, a very large pellet.) It is very difficult to kill someone accidentally with a .22, as opposed to other, much more powerful weapons which are designed to do maximum damage. Many of the people killed at Virginia Tech were killed with .22 slugs. Individual, precise, purposeful murders.

I know people who have guns. I know people who have guns who I do not think should have guns. But there is no reporting system in place, no regulation system in place where I can say "I believe this person is potentially mentally unstable and might, under the right conditions, someday use this weapon to commit murder." The law says they have a right to bear arms, and no situation exists that would preclude that right. Yet.

There are some who say that the answer is an armed populace, that if every student at Virginia Tech had been carrying a weapon this massacre could have been stopped almost as soon as it started. I say this is bullshit. I don't know what the solution is here - and maybe there isn't a solution at all - but I don't believe that having everyone carry a gun will have a net negative effect on gun violence.

And so we go on. We go on hoping that the next Tim McVeigh will not park a rental truck full of high explosives in front of our office building. We go on hoping that someone will not fly a jet into a skyscraper, will not put poison in our Tylenol, will not kidnap, rape, and murder our kids. We go on hoping that our next visit to a liquor store will not end with us dead on the floor, that our friends who work in convenience stores will not be murdered for the sake of a few bucks. We go on hoping that some heavily armed lunatic or some random bullet will not have an opportunity to dictate how we spend the remainder of our lives.

I don't know where I'm going with this. Maybe nowhere. This guy did this stuff, it's over. If there is any justice in the universe his name will be forgotten and the memories of his victims will live on. The rest of us have to live with what has happened and go on.

And maybe someday, this will be a country that my friends won't be afraid to visit.

*America is not unique in this. Australia's Port Arthur massacre in 1996 claimed 35 lives - two more than the Virginia Tech massacre.

Title reference: It's an episode of Star Trek (The Original Series).

Silence

My failure to post yesterday was not a moment of silence out of respect for those brutally murdered at Virginia Tech the day before yesterday. I'm still trying to formulate a response to that. It's weird that I experienced a sense of extreme detachment from this event until details about the killer began to emerge. Now I'm feeling anger, outrage...he did more than murder 32 people and wound dozens more. He has hurt America. But more on that in a later post.

No, my silence is because Microsoft Word has completely crapped out on this computer. I was able to revise my résumé on Sunday, but only after several attempts at starting Word from several different directions. When I went to make the revisions mentioned in Monday's post, nothing. Well, worse than nothing: it locked up my computer, leaving the system "dangerously low on resources". Multiple attempts to correct this on Monday yielded nothing. Finally on Tuesday morning I decided it was time for a more drastic course of action.

I am running Windows 98 SE on a 1999-vintage Compaq 7478 which was purchased in 2000. It did not come with Word pre-installed, so I had to buy a Microsoft Works Suite 2000 package at Sam's Club and install Word from there. I still have the discs. So, I decided to do the standard fix for serious Microsoft problems: remove and reinstall.

Neither of which worked properly.

Well, I thought the removal worked properly. But the reinstall "terminated unexpectedly" several times. So did subsequent attempts at re-removing the program.

So how did all this affect my ability to post?

Damned if I know. But somewhere along the line something else began chewing up system resources. Even when I shut down all programs but Explorer, it was still there, making my hard drive tick like a pocketwatch and my mouse move like its paws were coated with gum. A full Scandisk in MS-DOS mode didn't fix the problem, either.

So how am I posting this?

I suspected a virus. My anti-spyware stuff insists that the Word installation disc is infected with a Trojan. I suppose this is entirely possible, that something made seven years ago - even by Microsoft - could have been manufactured and shipped with a virus that was not detectable back then. It's also possible that my anti-spware is just reacting improperly to something from long before its time.

Anyway, I ran a complete virus scan this morning. It came up clean. Nothing. But the ticking stopped. Maybe the thing chewing up resources was my anti-virus program trying to run in the background? But why wasn't it showing up when I checked for running programs?

I don't know. But I'm posting now.

So. Can't revise my résumé, not in Word, not on this computer. I have several options: I could re-write it in WordPad. I could e-mail it or burn it to a disc and get it to my cousin's computer and revise it there. Or I could e-mail it to a prospective employer without the explicit "Continuous Improvement" terminology. I think I may take the third option for at least one employer.

Meanwhile...

More weird dreams, for the first time in a while. I dreamed I started to get calls from local and national media outlets about this blog. Someone somewhere had cited it in a major publication, and people were calling to get more information. That's kinda weird.

The other one was much, much weirder. I was in Philadelphia, a city I've only been in two or three times in my life. I was meeting with a group of prominent black - er, African American - celebrities. They were inducting me into a secret society called "The Order of the Mop."* (I failed to mention in the earliest verions of this post: This was a formal induction ceremony, black tie, featuring a head table with a podium, all taking place in a second-floor or higher banquet room which was small but elegant.) Each member was given a single strand from a mop and had to keep it on his or her person at all times or face dire consequences. I don't remember who was in the group; there were at least half a dozen people there, but I think they included Al Sharpton, and I know Bill Cosby and Phylicia Ayers-Allen (his wife from The Cosby Show.) Before the induction ceremony properly started there was some cocktail-party chatter about some radical speaker who was coming to town** to propose some extreme social theories involving sexual liberation. After the induction the other members rose to speak, ending with Bill Cosby, who seriously and stridently spoke of the need to silence the radical speaker before he could infect others with his sexually permissive social concepts...and the task of silencing him would fall to the group's newest member. At this point I began to wonder what the hell kind of group I had just joined, and why I was the only white guy there, and why everyone seemed to be a radical Muslim (as evinced by their speeches and the slogans hanging on the walls) when I was pretty sure that at least a few of them were actively Christian in real life. I protested that as a Catholic and a Christian I had an explicit injunction against murder, and why the hell was I in this group anyway, and...well, then I woke up. Weird. Oh, and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was tied up in there somewhere, I think as a computer game based on the 2005 movie. What the hell that had to do with anything, I don't know.

So. Let's see if I can keep this computer running long enough to e-mail a résumé.

*Northeastern Pennsylvania has for centuries been nearly a lily-white area. It was settled in the 19th century by Poles, Irish, Germans, Italians, and a few other European immigant groups, and until recently its population was mostly made up of the descendants of those groups. So there's no racist correlation between string mops and African Americans here. The only explicit correlation I can see is from the Chappelle's Show game show "I Know Black People!" reference to "Buffalo Butt", the all-knowing janitor from the 1970's sitcom What's Happening? (or was it Good Times ?) Otherwise most string mops in my experience have been pushed by white guys. (Even in fiction - Cliff Robertson's character in the Flowers for Algernon movie adaptation Charly, or the comic strip character Frazz.)

**I never saw this speaker, but I got the distinct impression he was a white guy from Sweden. And had a mohawk haircut.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Résumé revision time again

While wandering through the Job Fair today (where I didn't hand out a single résumé, none of the booths I stopped at were set up for that) I came across a company where a large number of people who used to work at my former company now work. (This is not entirely a coincidence; the two businesses are in no way similar, but the "buddy system" plays a lot bigger role in getting a job than most people realize.) One of the people working the booth recognized me and said, "So, are you still involved in Continuous Improvement?"

I was a little taken aback by this. He quickly pointed out that he was in the Statistical Process Control course that I designed and taught, the one that caused me to revise my résumé yesterday. (It wasn't until much later in the conversation that I checked his I.D. tag and recognized his name.) Apparently the course left quite an impression on him - "I still have that book!" he said, the book being Understanding Statistical Process Control by Donald J. Wheeler and David S. Chambers, which my partner and I used as the textbook for our three-day course.

I tend to think of Statistical Process Control and my days as SPC Coordinator as a thing in itself. But in fact this was just one element in the Continuous Improvement continuum. And Continuous Improvement is not just another management fad: it is something that is still embraced and pursued by thriving, dynamic companies. So why the hell don't I have it explicitly mentioned on my résumé?

So it's back to the drawing board - or, in this case, the Word document. Continuous Improvement, baby! Statistical Process Control! Designing and teaching courses! Come on, you know you want me!

A note on the weather: It snowed. Not much in Nanticoke, really just a dusting, but a mile or so out of town there was a decent layer everywhere. It was coming down pretty steadily when I met a friend in the parking lot at the Job Fair, which was about 12 miles from my house. As we left the Job Fair after two final stops at a booth for a casket distribution b2b company (dude, that's totally a growth market as the baby boomers start to snuff it) and what we hoped might be a pharmaceutical distribution firm but turned out to actually be a place that pays for blood ("We have several employment opportunities, or if you're looking to make some quick cash while you're between jobs..."), the snow was several inches deep and coming down hard in flakes the size or quarters. "This isn't happening, this isn't happening, this isn't happening..." I intoned as we shuffled back to our cars.

Could be worse. Could be New York City. Seven and a half inches of rain in Central Park yesterday? That is seriously messed up.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Joining the ranks

Today I filed a claim for Unemployment Compensation for the first time, ever.

It's something I really should have done six weeks ago. Somehow I got the notion that I wouldn't be eligible for unemployment payments until my severance ran out. Somehow several other people who were victims of the same round of layoffs got that same notion. A friend of mine has been telling me from the beginning that I should file right away. Like an idiot, I didn't listen to her until I got the official word at a meeting with the people from Pennsylvania Career Link nearly two weeks ago. I opened my claim right away, received my paperwork last week, and filed as soon as I was eligible - which was today.

I haven't lost anything, but if I waited a few more weeks I would have. Some zeroes would have been getting added into a calculation of average weekly income for the last quarter in which I had worked. SO: if you lose your job, contact your state unemployment agency IMMEDIATELY to find out what you should do. Don't take other people's word for it. Except your friends. Listen to them.

Tomorrow is the Job Fair. The weather looks like it will be somewhat rainy here at worst. I don't know what to expect at the fair itself. I printed out 25 copies of my résumé on good paper last week, then thought of a revision this morning and printed out another 10 with the revised text. I changed "Developed and conducted introductory Statistical Process Control seminar" to "Developed and taught introductory Statistical Process Control training course" - emphasizing the fact that I have indeed taught a training course in the workplace, a course that my partner and I developed ourselves. I will hold onto the original 25 copies as back-ups on the off chance that I find more than 10 employers to hand my résumé to.

I came up with this change while doing a bit of soul-searching. Teaching was one of my strong suits at work - well, learning and teaching. I couldn't teach anything I didn't understand myself, though I would sometimes join others in voyages of discovery where we would both be learning things at the same time. Because my mind jumps and dances around as I learn something, I can very effectively help others learn it once I have learned it - whatever is confusing them has almost certainly already confused me. (The worst teachers I have ever encountered are ones who have forgotten what it's like to not understand the material they are attempting to teach.) So if a company has a need for someone with such a skill - well, damn, I'm your man.

But what else am I good at, and motivated enough to do on a regular basis without slacking off? Not painting: painting is clearly something I have to be in the mood for, and apparently that mood strikes me each year sometime in March, which is when most of my paintings have been created. Not fiction writing: I hacked out the backstory to a single tale and then ground to a halt, and there is no internal pressure in my skull from anything else trying to get out. Not even photography: I go in fits and spurts with that, and they seem to be tied to the weather.

But if not any of these things, is there anything I do on a regular basis, anything I feel compelled and driven to do, anything that excites me and thrills me and makes me happy when I do it? Anything? Anything at all?

Well, maybe this.

But how do I earn a living doing that?

Saturday, April 14, 2007

What's next

There is a major Job Fair scheduled for this area on Monday. Dozens of employers will be gathered in one place, taking résumés and conducting on-the-spot interviews. If this is like the last one I was at (fifteen years ago) there will be some goodies to be gotten, too. Too bad the local casket manufacturer closed down - last time, they were passing out casket-shaped keychains.

I'll be meeting a friend of mine there who got cut at the same time as me. We're trying to help each other cope with this situation. Being unemployed isn't as easy as it looks.

This is all assuming the Job Fair doesn't get cancelled. There's a bit of weather expected over the next 36 hours or so. Starting tonight we are forecast to get heavy rainfall which will continue through Sunday night. Overnight Sunday into Monday morning it is expected to turn into snow. How much snow is hard to say. Early estimates had it at up to 12 inches, but the latest reports are calling for one to three. That won't be much more than a nuisance, if it turns out to be true.

This weather is still putting a major crimp in my home improvement Must-Do-By-May-31 plans. Subfreezing temperatures and heavy rain are bad for both laying concrete and laying down paint. I sure hope the weather gets nice soon - I've got work to do before I go back to work!

Friday, April 13, 2007

Old phone, new phone

I have decided to enter the late 20th century by getting a cell phone.

Oh, I've had a cell phone of sorts for years. It's a big ol' bag phone that more closely resembles a WWII Army field radio than a Star Trek communicator -which, like it or not, is what modern flip phones are modeled after. It had excellent clarity, was easy to handle and hard to lose (particularly since it never left my car and only worked if it was plugged into the cigarette lighter and switched on) It had a few "dead zones" where it simply didn't work, like several miles of highway near Scranton and a huge area that included the parking lot of the place where I worked and about two miles of highway near it. Unfortunately, it's an analog phone and as of next February will no longer function as my network goes to all-digital.

I didn't want to get a new phone. Not yet, anyway. I was holding out for the arrival of the Dick Tracy 2-Way Wrist TV. All the technology is there: the screen, the camera, the size. All that needs to be done is redesign the components to wrap around the wrist. Well, that, and I suppose there are some bandwidth issues to be resolved. The folks at the cell phone store assured me that something like this is being tested in Japan right now, but it won't be available in the U.S. for a few years.

So I got a new phone, a Samsung a930. Who knows? It might come in handy for the job search. It has the same number as the old phone, but it has the advantage of portability. I think the sound is crappy, but maybe that's just me. I opted for one with a camera, though at 25 cents per e-mailed picture I don't know if I'll be sending very many of them to myself. And any self-portraits I try to take come out upside-down. Anybody know how to fix that?

UPDATE: From cellphoneforums.net:
I just called Samsung. All you do, while in Camera or Camcorder mode, but haven't taken a pic or started recording, is press the volume rocker on the side of the phone and it goes back and forth between upside down and right side up.
It would be so easy for them to include this tidbit in the user's manual.

TITLE REFERENCE: "Old Hat, New Hat" by Stan and Jan Berenstain.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Trees trimmed with ice

Ice-coated trees along Route 115
south of Wilkes-Barre, PA
April 12 2007

Today I took my mom back down to Tannersville to exchange one of the pairs of shoes she bought two weeks ago. The drive there takes us through the Pocono regions that lie just south of Wilkes-Barre. As we climbed along Route 115 past the wind farm strung along the top ridge of one of the many mountains in the area, the panorama of trees almost-ready to bud changed into something ghostly. Every branch and treetop was painted silver. With dew?, I wondered as we drove along. Then it became clearer. No, not with dew. With ice.

Ice everywhere. It was a little eerie. Ice coated the branches and the power lines strung across the road. Ice dropped in neat straight segments onto the road, and fluttered out of the trees in mini-ice storms. By this point it was mostly slush and there was no real danger of getting your car windshield smashed by an ice-spear...I think. After a while I had the presence of mind to ask my mom to start snapping pictures with my camera.It's hard to take pictures of things from a moving car, especially delicate features in low-light conditions, but my mom did a pretty good job.

We didn't spend too much time in Tannersville, but by the time we got out most of the ice had melted from the trees. Still, with overnight lows predicted to be below freezing for the next few days, it's possible that this isn't the last bit of ice we'll see before Summer.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

One year without Ashes

Ashes died a year ago today.

The weather was much warmer this time last year, more Spring-like. I had been back from Ireland for a few weeks. I was glad that Ashes had held in until I got back, but he began a downward spiral soon after I returned.

By April 11 he was in very bad shape. He was very listless, barely moving throughout the day. He would sometimes rouse himself to eat the nuggets of Tender Vittles we spread out before him, but hydration was mainly coming by way of a syringe. He had not been to the bathroom in several days. We knew the end was near.

My mom and I were taking turns with him. I came home from work that day and she passed him off to me - there was garden work that needed to be done, and she wanted to take advantage of the nice weather to do it. I had her take one of our phones outside, one with an intercom feature - just in case.

I lay with him for a while, scratching his ears and under his collar, massaging him, stroking his fur, holding his paw, singing to him. He lay there with me, responding occasionally, his eyes opening from time to time. This went on for quite a while.

Then he stood up.

He stood up and started moving, moving like he wanted to jump off the bed. I called my mom.

"You'd better come in. He's moving. This may be it."

He walked in circles on the bed, looking for something. He didn't find it. He moved to the edge of the bed as my mom came in. "I think he wants to go to the bathroom," I said.

I picked him up and carried him to a place where we had puppy training pads laid out for him. I placed him upright on the pads. He planted his feet and began to strain. He let out a howl.

"Oh, God." I said.

He strained and strained. He opened his mouth to an unnatural size and howled and panted.

"He can't go on like this," my mom said. "If he's still like this in the morning, we have to put him to sleep." It was after 7:45 at night.

"I don't know if we should wait that long," I said.

She dialed the emergency vet. It took a bit, but she finally got through and began to ask about taking Ashes in to be euthanized.

Ashes collapsed.

He continued to strain and let out weak howls. His jaw kept hinging open as he panted desperately. A trickle of urine came out, but nothing else. Then the howls became fainter and fainter, the straining became less and less, the panting weaker and weaker. His jaw kept snapping open and drooping closed. His eyes bulged.

Maybe this went on for fifteen seconds, or a minute, or several minutes. I don't know.

And then, slowly, he wound down. His panting stopped. His jaw opened and did not close. His eyes remained fixed. He died as I held him at 7:52 that night.

"Never mind," said my mom as she hung up the phone.

I ran out and bought ice. I would not be able to take Ashes to be cremated until the next morning. He spent the night wrapped in blankets atop two bags of ice.

The next day I took him in to the vet's for cremation. As I handed him over I removed his collar. At that moment he was, in my mind, officially dead.

Now his ashes reside in a small, beautifully carved box, alongside the ashes of Haley and Minnie.

It's been one year. I still miss him. I guess I always will.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Duckwit

OK, the concept changed today. This morning in the shower, I realized that satirizing Tinsley's Mallard Fillmore would be an exhausting undertaking. There's just so much relentlessly wrong-headed hypocritical stupidity there that you could quickly wear yourself out trying to keep up - it would be like trying to stop acid rain one drop at a time. Really, Mallard Fillmore falls on its own merits, or lack thereof. It's a shining piece of crap set on a hilltop for all to see.

Still, I liked the character, at least the satirized version of it, as long as it was, well, humanized. And maybe got some other regular characters to play with.

Tinsley's character is a reporter. Allegedly. He lacks any shred of objectivity. My character is a small-time pundit, a guy broadcasting his opinions on a local radio station and publishing his columns in the local paper, and he would lack objectivity from the get-go. He wants to be a Rush Limbaugh, a Bill O'Reilly, a Don Imus, a Mike Royko, a Mike Lupica. But he's not broadcasting from New York or Los Angeles or Chicago. He's not nationally syndicated. He's stuck in Anytown, U.S.A. So how does he get a national audience? Well, he's also got a blog.

But what to name him? I thought of "Conrad Duckwit" - "Conrad" would be a play on "canard", French for "duck", but also defined as "a false, esp. malicious report" - very appropriate for Tinsley's original, though a bit harsh for my small-time pundit. "Duckwit" - well, you can figure that out. Later I decided he would be "Conrad 'Duckwit' Canard" - but it turned out someone else had already used "Conrad Canard" as a cartoon character. I considered "Anatoly", which I have always assumed came from the Latin for "duck" but may actually come from the root for "East". But it seemed odd to have a right-wing pundit with a Franco-Russian name, especially one that translates into "Duck Duck." After some thrashing about I arbitrarily settled on a first name of "Quentin".
One of the characters who inhabits Duckwit's world - Tyler Milford, the captain of the high school basketball team, the Anatotitans. Anatotitan is a duckbilled dinosaur whose name translates into "giant duck." Any fans (or victims) of the sports-themed comic strip Gil Thorp will recognize the names "Tyler" and "Milford".
The compulsively meddling biddy duck Dolly Duckworth. A Mary Worth parody, her last name is the name of a building that stands (or stood) near the University of Scranton campus. Her pear shape and vertical spine are based on the Indian Runner breed of ducks. Donald Duck was originally an Indian Runner, although later designs have had his butt stick out at a right angle to his neck like most standard ducks.

There were other questions. What to do with ducks' asses? (I've decided to keep them.) Shoes or no shoes? (Both. Duckwit went from cap-toe Oxfords yesterday to wingtips today, but I didn't include shoes on Dolly Duckworth - maybe she'll get walking sneakers, appropriate for today's hip, with-it biddy on the go.) Hair or no hair? (Tyler Milford needed a spit-curl, so he got hair on his freakishly large head.) Pants? (Yes. Duckwit's pants are pulled up high. Maybe he'll have suspenders, too, to go with his thin tie, fedora, thick-soled wingtips, and coat with elbow patches - all trappings of a writer trying to look "serious".)

Hmmm. Should I run with it?

Oh, That Hypocritical Duck!

If there's one comic strip that pisses me off on a regular basis, it's Bruce Tinsley's Mallard Fillmore. It's not that I disagree with virtually every position presented in this strip - I do, but that's not the problem I have with it. It's that it isn't a comic strip. It doesn't say anything funny or insightful, it doesn't have characters or storylines. It's just Bruce Tinsley using his talking duck as a mouthpiece to express his political views. It embraces ad hominem attacks and creates and destroys straw men that in no way represent opposing viewpoints. It engages in logical and rhetorical fallacies witch reckless abandon. It wallows in constant hypocrisy. And to top things off, it uses up precious real estate on the funny pages, space that could be used for a much better strip. Dude, get a blog.

So. Here I give you the first installment of a Mallard Fillmore parody - in this case, a They'll Do It Every Time / Mallard Fillmore mashup called "Oh, That Hypocritical Duck!" Enjoy!

NOTE: The idea has evolved. See "Duckwit".

Monday, April 09, 2007

R.I.P. Johnny Hart

Johnny Hart, creator of the quasi-religious comic strip B.C., is dead. He died at his storyboard. We should all be so lucky as to die doing what we love.

I didn't like a lot of what Hart did in B.C.. Most of the time I thought it was heavy-handed, unfunny, at times delusional...if you read the strip (or the other strip that he wrote for, The Wizard of Id), you probably have your own opinions of the man and his work. Still, at times he was able to set all that aside and just be funny. Here's an example:

B.C. , May 4 2006

Rest in peace, Johnny Hart. When I think of you I will hear doomed ants screaming as they fall off a donut.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Thicket the Owl is dead

You may recall Thicket the Owl from my visit to Grouseland for the Felberpalooza last September. I received word today that Thicket has died.

From: Murray Schrotenboer

We lost an old friend this week.

After 12 years of having and working with Thicket the Owl, he died on Monday the 2nd of April.

He was seen by several thousand people in programs at Grouseland, schools, nature centers, etc. and he was held by hundreds.

He had been ailing for about a month. Hard to know what it was but it could have just been old age.

It was windy and raw today with the temperature just above freezing as we laid him to rest.

He was never a pet, never affectionate, but he was a great program bird and it was always good having him around. A day doesn't go by when some kid at school doesn't ask about my owl.

He'll be remembered.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Going to a party

A birthday party, that is. Don't know if I'll be getting much blogging done this weekend.

Happy Easter, everybody!

Friday, April 06, 2007

Song Ref 41°N 93°W

I've decided that whenever I reference a song title or lyrics in a post, I will include a little note at the bottom identifying the song, the band, and (if possible) the album on which it appears.

I decided to do this after I wrote the post "Eggs (two different kinds)", the title of which references a Pink Floyd song from the album Animals. I've been receiving a lot of hits for the phrase "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end", which I used as a title for the post that announced that I had been cut from my job. I know this as a line from Semisonic's 1999 hit "Closing Time" but I never directly referenced it in the post. Now I have. I have also clarified the reference on the post "Never Gonna Be the Same".

It may be cooler and hipper to just leave the reference obfuscated and let readers try to figure it out for themselves. But I feel an obligation to provide information to people who have taken the time to visit my blog. And I hope they decide to stick around and come back to visit again and again.

Title reference: My Bloody Valentine's 1996 cover of Wire's Map Ref 41°N 93°W from the compilation album Whore: A Tribute to Wire. Here is Wire performing it:

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Eggs (two different kinds)

Today the nephews came over for a few hours. I engaged in some avuncular corruption of their minds by presenting them with Wacky Packages, product parody stickers and cards that formed an important part of my formative years and have now come back in time to have the same effect on my nephews. They then settled in for some drawing, playing with toy cars, and watching The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy.

After a few hours of this it was time for them to dye. Dye Easter Eggs, that is. We did it old-school style, with food coloring, vinegar, and boiled water. (Not extremely-old-school style, mind you, which is to boil the eggs together with some onion skins to turn them brown - though that's the way I normally boil my eggs to differentiate hard-boiled from raw.) Above are the results. There are only ten eggs here instead of a dozen because each of them took home his favorite egg - nearly-identical blue and pinkish-purple mottled eggs created by dipping an egg in multiple colors. (The tie-dyed egg was mine, done by adding and removing thin, torn strips of masking tape between short dips in the dyes. By overlapping and adding tape you can create complex color combinations. I read about it in a Scholastic magazine 25 years or so ago.)

My mom used to make chocolate covered cream cheese Easter Eggs. She hasn't done it in years, but a chance encounter at the bake sale that was part of our parish's Chinese Auction a few weeks ago put us both in the mood for it. I'll be doing them myself for the first time. I plan on making peanut butter, coconut, maple walnut, and I'm thinking of a mixture using honey and Rice Krispies. I'll let you know how they turn out! Here's the recipe, more or less exactly as it appears on the sheet (in the background of the picture above) my mom pulled out from somewhere:

Chocolate-covered Easter Eggs
Eggs:
1 1/2 sticks butter
8 oz. package cream cheese
Add at least 2 boxes of powdered sugar a little at a time

(you'll need a third box to add powdered sugar to thicken the batter after you've added the flavorings)

Mix all ingredients together well.

Divide and add as desired:
- coconut & vanilla
- peanut butter
- walnuts & maple flavoring
- well-drained (almost dry) chopped cherries & almond flavoring
NOTE: If eggs are too sweet, add a pinch of salt.


Chocolate coating:
Melt large package chocolate chips & 1/2 cake of wax in double boiler.

Shape cream cheese mixture into eggs and dip in melted chocolate. Place on waxed paper to set.

NOTE: Do not allow eggs to touch while chocolate is setting or some of the coating will peel away. Save leftover chocolate for patching holes.

Decorate with icing leaves and color-coded icing flowers.

Title note: The title of this post is a reference to the song Pigs (three different kinds) from the Pink Floyd album Animals.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Totally, Absolutely MAD

Several* years ago I received a gift for Christmas that I had specifically requested: Totally MAD, a 7-disc CD-ROM collection containing every issue of MAD Magazine from its debut in 1952 until December 1998.

I've always been a fan of MAD Magazine, and I've always been a fan of magazine collections on CD-ROM, so this was a dream come true. I've gone back to it again and again over the years to re-read pieces that I remember from my youth or to see stuff from years before I was born. As an added bonus, my friends left the price tag on the box - not to show me how much it had cost, but to show me that it had been inventoried as "Educational Software"!

With my renewed interest in comic strips I have used the amazing search feature** to look for parodies that I knew of and parodies that I never knew existed. Here are two examples that show how things have changed and how things have stayed the same:

Mary Worthless, The Worst From Mad #4 (1961)

Here's a parody of the strip about compulsive meddler and advice-giver Mary Worth, a fan favorite over at The Comics Curmudgeon. Mary appears to be about ten years older than her current incarnation, although this could be more a reflection of the changing face of old age in the past 46 years than any character change.

Brunettie, MAD #24 (July 1955)

One of the biggest complaints about Blondie is that it is very repetitive: the same characters, the same situations, the same locations, over and over. Will Elder thought so, too...52 years ago! Notice Daisy's brood: up until a few years - or was it decades? - ago, Daisy was often accompanied by a litter of identical-looking puppies. At some point in the recent past it appears that they were tied in a sack and tossed in the riv- I mean, they found good homes. From this parody we can see that the designs for the characters in Blondie have fundamentally changed very little in the past 50 years (Dagwood was still wearing that one-button shirt in the 1970s and possibly the 1980s or later), even though the character designs are radically different from what they looked like in the original, pre-Great Depression strips, when Dagwood was the scion of a wealthy family who chose to be disinherited so he could marry Blondie, a bubbleheaded flapper. In the end of this strip Dogwood has been transported into Terry and the Pirates or Steve Canyon!

This is just one tiny way of looking at the collected issues of MAD, which has always made a point of parodying and satirizing events of the day. There is a lot of historical and cultural information tied up on these discs. There are probably several Ph.D. theses in there somewhere.

And even better, an updated version of the collected MAD is out. Called Absolutely MAD, it packs everything from the first issues up until December 2005 onto a single DVD! I don't think I can wait for Christmas. Maybe I should establish that this will be the first thing that I buy with my first paycheck from my new job! That would certainly encourage me to start taking the job search seriously.

*Could it have been 1998? Or was it 1999? Maybe 2000...
**How amazing? A search for Art Director Lenny "The Beard" Brenner will turn up numerous pages where his drawn caricature is visible in the background of a scene. That's some mighty fine indexing there!

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Kübler-Ross grief cycle

I've blogged quite a bit about the feelings I've experienced since losing my job five weeks ago, even giving a semi-formal list of "Stages of Grief" here (cribbed from Matt Groening's Big Book of Hell.) Several of my friends who lost their jobs with me and also read this blog have thanked me for letting them know that they weren't the only ones experiencing these things. I knew there was an actual realistic formulation of these stages out there - hell, Lisa Simpson mentioned them in an episode of The Simpsons, so it had to be real! But I had no idea what they were, or what the name for them was.

Once again, all was revealed courtesy of The Comics Curmudgeon. I was flipping through all of the old Mary Worth posts this weekend, trying to locate posts related to Rita Boyd and the "broken glass swans" incident, and I came upon a post called Kübler-Ross for dummies (and drunks). And there it was: The Kübler-Ross grief cycle.

You can read about Elisabeth Kübler-Ross on her official website. But here is the Kübler-Ross grief cycle as presented by the Changingminds.org website:

Shock stage: Initial paralysis at hearing the bad news.
Denial stage: Trying to avoid the inevitable.
Anger stage: Frustrated outpouring of bottled-up emotion.
Bargaining stage: Seeking in vain for a way out.
Depression stage: Final realization of the inevitable.
Testing stage: Seeking realistic solutions.
Acceptance stage: Finally finding the way forward.
Hopefully I've finally moved into the Testing stage. I'm putting out feelers, trying to imagine a life beyond the here and now, possibly even one radically different from what I had been doing up until five weeks ago. We'll see where I go from here.

I encourage you to read the full article. Interestingly, these stages were originally derived in an attempt to understand how people with terminal illnesses deal with the knowledge of their illnesses and their impending deaths, but it has been found that people going through other, less acute forms of traumatic change - divorce, the death of a loved one (including a pet), the loss of a job, and so on - experience the same stages. You've probably experienced this yourself. Read about it and maybe in the future you'll be better able to deal with your own feelings, or the feelings of those around you.

Monday, April 02, 2007

April Fool's Day wrap-up

April 1st usually brings a bevy of hoaxes, pranks, stunts, and gags to magazines, newspapers, radio, television, and the Internet. But this year seemed to be slim pickings. Maybe the coincidence of Palm Sunday and April Fool’s Day threw a few people off. Maybe people feel less like joking these days. Or maybe I just wasn’t looking hard enough. But from my collection of blog links I was able to glean these stories:

Gareth Suddes at Another Chance to See posted a BBC interview with a primate specialist and a talking gorilla named Gerald.

Todd in Hell’s Kitchen (formerly Mr. H.K.) posted a gag headline about Bush and Cheney resigning and Speaker Pelosi being sworn in as President. (I was hoping he would post a gag quote on his “And I Quote...” Blog along the lines of “Dammit, I hate being touched! Doesn’t anybody respect personal space?” [Leo Buscaglia] or “Wow, that tie really doesn’t go with that jack- oh, CRAP!” [Helen Keller] ...but funnier.)

Gort at Gort42 posted two YouTube videos in a post titled “Klaatu barada nikto or So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.” For the uninitiated, “Klaatu barada nikto” was a shutdown message for the giant robot Gort in the movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, and “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish” was the final message given by the dolphins to humanity just before they (the dolphins) abandoned Earth prior to the arrival of the Vogon Constructor Fleet in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Is this just an April Fool’s Day post exploiting the “Gort” and “42” from the blog’s title (42 is the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything, according to the Hitchhiker’s Guide books), or is Gort bidding adieu to the world of blogging? I sure hope it’s not the latter.

My own automatic blog-generating software experienced a major breakdown on April 1.* (If you can’t see and/or translate the Webdings** at the end, just highlight the two lines of invisible text underneath.) But then I had to go and spoil my own joke by actually posting something I thought was important!

In an act apparently unrelated to April Fool’s Day, Bill renamed his Industrial Blog to Bill’s Writer’s Notes and then re-renamed it to Bill’s Notes. The actual address remains the same, however.

* Adam Felber actually did this same sort of joke in his book Schrodinger’s Ball which was released last August, but I originally thought of doing this last April 2. Since Adam’s book had already been in the can for quite some time at that point, he really did think of it first!

** Dammit, Firefox doesn't recognize Webdings (WEBDINGS)! So anyone reading this in Firefox just has plain old English text at the end! Maybe I should have stuck with the invisible text only!

Sunday, April 01, 2007

No Fooling: Check your clocks!

Our technology may just have played an April Fool's Day joke on us! As I sat here at my computer at 2:00 in the morning on April 1, I suddenly was presented with the message "Windows has automatically adjusted your clock for Daylight Saving Time." Remember how we switched to Daylight Saving Time three weeks early...three weeks ago? Well, now all of our pre-2005 technology has just switched us AGAIN!

Check your computer, your VCR, anything that might oh-so-helpfully have automatically made the change to DST! And expect a good deal of chaos for the next day or two as all sorts of little adjustments are overlooked!