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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Double Potter birthday!

Today is July 31, 2007. It is Joanne* Rowling's 42nd birthday. Which means she's less than two and a half years older than me. Looking at her accomplishments vs. my accomplishments is a little depressing...until I think about how old she was when the first Harry Potter book hit the bestseller lists. Then it's very depressing.

Not coincidentally, today is also Harry Potter's birthday. According to the in-universe chronology, he would be 27 today**. Happy birthday to both the character and the creator!

*Not "J.K. Rowling". As all the cool kids know, the "K" is a fake middle initial, added because her publisher felt she needed one. So "J.K. Rowling" is actually Joanne Rowling's pen name.

**This assumes, for those of you who haven't read it yet, that he isn't dead at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Another view of London

Fellow Felbernaut Hedera recently returned from a trip to London. Reading her traveller's tales reminds me of my own visit there in March of 2006. But they also remind me of how much I didn't get to see and do there. It's really impossible to fully experience London in a single weekend; it would probably take several years, or decades even, to sample everything that it has to offer.

Her stories, put in order as they happened:

http://hederascorner.blogspot.com/2007/07/visiting-london.html
Visiting London: Hedera and her husband head out to the ancient city, ride all the rides and see all the shows. Well, not all of them, just the cool ones.

http://hederascorner.blogspot.com/2007/07/driving-on-left.html
Driving on the Left: An unnerving experience for anyone who is used to driving on the right.

http://hederascorner.blogspot.com/2007/07/leavin-on-jet-plane.html
...Leavin' on a Jet Plane: Air travel is always fun. And sometimes your luggage takes a different flight.

http://hederascorner.blogspot.com/2007/07/found.html
Found!: The prodigal luggage is located.

Here are my own London tales:
London, part 1: Kensington Gardens.
London, part 2: Beginning our bus tour of London. The Marble Arch, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, St. Martin-In-The-Fields, a "very strange-looking statue", Nelson's Column, and a first glance of Big Ben.
Trafalgar Square statue: Alison Lapper Pregnant: Discovering the identity of the "very strange-looking statue".
London, part 3: Big Ben and Parliament.
London, part 4: The London Eye, the Dali statues, St. Paul's Cathedral, The Monument, and Tower Bridge.
London, Part 5: The Tower of London, and the bus tour wraps up. Piccadilly Circus at night, and Les Miserables at the Queen's Theater on the West End.
London, Part 6: Our second day in London. Oxford Street, The London Dungeon, and misadventures with buses.
Leaving London
Back from London, and an Ashes update: My third and final post from Ireland.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Golden Age of Wireless

After some finagling following multiple failed attempts on my own, the same friend who set me up with these new (and fully functional) computers has now helped me to also wirelessly connect to the Internet. This is my first remote post on this new setup.

Title Reference: "The Golden Age of Wireless" by Thomas Dolby.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Harry Potter and the Schizotypal Personality Disorder

There's an entire Wikipedia article dedicated to works that have influenced, or are thematically similar to, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Some of the works have been acknowledged as being influential, and others may be amazing coincidences, or just cases of common influences; as Neil Gaiman put it regarding the amazing visual and thematic similarities between his 1990 comic book series Books of Magic and the Harry Potter stories, "I thought we were both just stealing from T.H. White."

One comparison I haven't seen anyone make yet is with Douglas Adams's second Dirk Gently novel, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. While the books bear little relation to each other, Adams does posit that all of the immortal gods ever invented by humans are alive now (they're immortal, though some can die of certain godly conditions like "the onx") but, since they are no longer actively worshipped, they are more or less out of work. Unable to cope with a world they no longer understand, many of the old Norse gods are currently slumming around London, cleverly disguised as homeless people. In the novel, they travel back to their old stomping grounds via a portal located in the St. Pancras train station in London.

In the Harry Potter stories, wizarding folk sometimes live off in their own partially segregated communities, but sometimes live by themselves among and in close proximity to Muggles, or non-wizarding folk. Wizarding folk are generally bewildered and repulsed by Muggle technology (Arthur Weasley is an exception) and have a hard time seamlessly integrating into Muggle society. They sometimes draw unwanted attention to themselves by their utter lack of clothing sense - they will often select the most garish and mismatched outfits in an attempt to remain inconspicuous. And, of course, the platform for the Hogwarts Express (invisible to Muggle eyes) is located in King's Cross station in London. (Interestingly, St. Pancras served as the visual reference for the exterior of King's Cross in the movies.)

So, much as Adams posited that the homeless may actually be gods in disguise, I'm wondering if Rowling is suggesting that another class of people may actually be wizards living among us.

The definition of Schizotypal Personality Disorder has flolloped around a bit in the past 20 years or so since I first had it described to me by someone who had just had the diagnosis thrust upon her. (She could easily have been the inspiration for the Luna Lovegood character; I lost track of her fifteen years ago and miss her very much.) Some information can about it can be found in this CNN article, while mentalhealth.com provides both American and European descriptions of the condition. When I first heard it described, it sounded like a long-winded and technical way of saying "eccentric" or "different"; by some applications of the term, every Trekkie, every Deadhead, every Star Wars fan, and every person who lined up at midnight to get a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows could very well be considered potentially schizotypal.

But these aren't the people I'm thinking of, not really.

No, what I'm thinking of are society's oddballs, the folks who don't dress right, who don't know how to act in social situations, who keep to themselves and their small circles of friends. You know them, you've seen them. You might very well work with them or go to school or church with them. I've seen lots of them. As I drove through Wilkes-Barre yesterday I looked at some passing pedestrians in garish and inappropriate clothing - not worn, as far as I could tell, for any sort of shock value, as I would expect if the pair had been 35 years younger. I couldn't help but wonder: in Harry Potter's world, could these be wizards in disguise?

Several of the characteristics ascribed to persons exhibiting Schizotypal Personality Disorder seem to also apply to wizarding folk in Rowling's books:


  • odd beliefs or magical thinking that influences behavior and is inconsistent with subcultural norms (e.g., superstitiousness, belief in clairvoyance, telepathy, or "sixth sense"; in children and adolescents, bizarre fantasies or preoccupations)
  • unusual perceptual experiences, including bodily illusions
  • odd thinking and speech (e.g., vague, circumstantial, metaphorical, overelaborate, or stereotyped)
  • suspiciousness or paranoid ideation
  • inappropriate or constricted affect
  • behavior or appearance that is odd, eccentric, or peculiar
  • lack of close friends or confidants other than first-degree relatives
(And of course, most of these characteristics are exhibited to varying degrees by almost everybody. Using the internet for any sort of self-diagnosis is problematic at best.)

So keep your eyes open. Watch the people that you pass in the street each day. Who would be Adams's gods? Who would be Rowling's wizards? And what are we to them?


UPDATE, 6/6/2011: Several other people have blogged on the topic of personality disorders in the Harry Potter universe. Check them out!

The Harry Potter DSM: Cluster A Personality Disorders Action Potential (May 30, 2011)
The Harry Potter DSM: Cluster B Personality Disorders Action Potential (June 1, 2011)

On the road again

I will be heading down to visit a friend soon. I'm already several hours late, but there was some stuff that needed to be taken care of here. I should be back tomorrow.

UPDATE: Change of plans. Trip postponed until tomorrow.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Service

I was extra-lazy today. The day was dominated by taking my mom for a treatment at a pain clinic. This is something I have done most recently in September and in January, and was the sort of thing that I would take the entire day off from work for. (Most of the time; one treatment was on Thanksgiving Eve in 2005, and I just shifted my working hours so that I went in at noon and stayed late. Because we were busy then, and the work needed to get out, and I was dedicated. Hah.) Not having work today to begin with, I decided to just slack off.

Well, not really. After I dropped my mom off I came home and paid some bills. I then did some screwing around on the computer, and then checked on Wiggles.

I haven't mentioned Wiggles before. One of these days I'll write a full post on him...and then there will eventually be another post. Wiggles is a feral kitten who was dumped on my mother by a cruel and heartless neighbor who either took him and two other kittens from their mother, or who (as he claims) discovered the litter after their mother had been killed. Wiggles is a sickly cat, and will probably not live to his first birthday. But I will write about that later.

Anyway, Wiggles had pooped in his box, and had managed to smear the poop on himself. I cleaned him up as best I could and replaced the soiled towels. I bottle-fed him for a few minutes until he decided he didn't want anymore, and then headed up to a pet supply store to buy more baby bottles. (He bit through the nipple on this one.)

Shortly after I checked out of the pet supply store I got the call that my mom was ready for pick-up. She was woozy, as she always is after these treatments, and hungry. I took her to Cracker Barrel for a late breakfast. It was already after 12:30, and she had not been allowed to eat anything since the previous afternoon.

We had the worst service at Cracker Barrel I have ever experienced, and the second-worst service I have experienced anywhere. It wasn't the food that was a problem, though they didn't have any cherry fruit topping for my pancakes, so I had to settle for blackberry. No, it was the coffee.

The coffee that was poured for us while we were ordering was very hot. Very very hot. McDonald's lawsuit hot. Unfit-for-human-consumption hot (which is why I do not consider the McDonald's lawsuit over scalding hot coffee to be a frivolous one; it is not reasonable to expect that a beverage intended for consumption should be capable of producing first-degree burns.)

But that wasn't the problem. Given enough time, and enough blowing on the coffee (using "the wind under your nose", as the Polish saying goes) we were eventually able to nurse it down. The first cup even lasted halfway through our meal.

No refill was proffered.

Now in other countries, I know the U.S. policy of unlimited refills of coffee is considered odd. In Japan and other places the "second cup" is considered exotic and innovative - just don't ask for thirds. But in America it's considered standard. Partway through your meal the server will arrive with a pot of coffee and cheerfully offer refills, and then again towards the end of the meal. But that didn't happen today.

I finished my coffee first. The blackberries were cloyingly sweet, which is why I prefer the edgy tartness of cherries. It is not possible for me to finish the pancake-and-fruit breakfast platter without coffee, and I still had half the meal left. I tried to catch our server's eye, but she was nowhere to be seen. I tried to catch anybody's eye, but apparently I had accidentally invoked an invisibility field over our table. Besides, nobody had a pot of coffee.

After about ten minutes I finally found our server. We asked for refills. "Oh, didn't someone refill your coffee?" she replied. "I saw (someone) over here and thought she took care of you." She toodled off, the promise of fresh coffee billowing in her wake.

After another ten minutes the restaurant had filled up with a lunchtime crowd, and I was becoming more incensed. I was thinking of stepping out to a nearby Starbucks, buying their overpriced and overrated coffee, and bringing it back. Finally we were able to get the attention of another server. She took our request for more coffee, but it was quite clear that she was not happy about it.

Time ticked by. Still no coffee.

I was on the verge of a violent outburst when, what felt like ten minutes later, she finally showed up with coffee.

Five minutes after that our server came by with the bill. "Oh, did you get your coffee?" she asked.

Yes. Yes we had, thank you very much for asking.

Needless to say, the tip was only 15%.

(And that wasn't the worst service I've ever gotten. No, that was at the Hard Rock Café at Inner Harbor in Baltimore. I went in there a few years ago with someone who was starting to develop a diabetic emergency. I flagged down one of the yuppie snob GQ boys who were posing as servers, explained the situation to him, and asked him to please do everything he could to get food to my friend quickly. He eagerly assented, and then vanished. It took us over a half hour to get our food, while people who were seated after us were quickly waited on and served. Fortunately, my friend had an emergency nutrition bar in her purse, and was able to stave off a medical crisis with it. When the server finally showed up he was totally blasé about the slow service, particularly in light of my request. I believe his tip consisted of two pennies...for the eyes, of course.)

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Calls, part 2

Well, my second day of calling local Quality Assurance managers went pretty badly.

Out of five people I tried to contact on Tuesday, two were unreachable - as in, the information I had carefully researched turned out to be wrong. Or maybe things had changed at these companies since I did my research two weeks ago.

One of the remaining three I did manage to get through to - but he was in a meeting. Said to call back later.

For the other two I left messages. One of them returned my call, but apparently quickly wrote me off as some sort of salesman or outside consultant. Kinda hard to explain "No, I'm just some out-of-work guy looking for a job by unconventional channels." At least the conventional channels are still open to me, for what that's worth.

In the middle of my round of calls I received a call that completely threw me off my stride.

The caller ID indicated it was from my former employer. An unfamiliar female voice informed me that hourly jobs were available, and asked if I would like to come to a meeting on Wednesday at 1:00.

This wasn't really a surprise. An article published a few weeks ago stated that the company had recalled "almost all" of the employees it laid off at the end of February. My neighbor brought this to my attention when she asked me when I would be starting. I knew nothing about this at the time. After a few calls I learned that people had, in fact, been recalled, though to positions other than the ones which had been eliminated.

So I called Human Resources about three weeks ago. My contact there confirmed the information, and told me that I would be receiving a letter from the company in about two weeks.

Well, no letter ever arrived, but this call was the follow up.

I said yes.

There were three of us there yesterday: one was a 28-year veteran, next to whom I felt like a newbie with only 15 years under my belt. The third was an articulate youngster covered with piercings and earlobe rings (not earrings, but one inch wide rings of metal inserted into holes in his distended earlobes). We were given a quick tour of the plant and shown three jobs. I stepped back and let the other two see everything in close up - for two of the three jobs, I could have been giving the tour; one of them was in the department I started in fifteen years ago, and the other was in disc replication, the department for whom I had done extensive Statistical Process Control work in the second phase of my SPC Coordinator job from 1996 through 1998. (The third job was in Printing, which didn't interest me at all - too many nasty chemical fumes.)

At the end of the tour we were asked what our first choices would be. I chose the disc replication job. I was able to beg off a start date until August 8, which gives me a little more time to secure a more career-oriented position somewhere else, and gives me a deadline to focus on.

The pay isn't great, relatively speaking. Factoring in my bonus, the new job will involve a 1/3 pay cut - which still probably puts it in the upper 10% of available jobs in this area. I will retain all my old seniority and benefits, though all of my vacation time for this year has already been paid out, so any time off would have to be without pay.

The job is day shift on a 4x4 schedule, something I did for the first two years of my employment and missed terribly: four twelve-hour days on, four days off, with occasional mandatory overtime. This works out really well for me from a time perspective: my commute is at least 45 minutes each way, so instead of spending 90 minutes in the car five days out of every seven, I will now spend 90 minutes on the road four days out of every eight. When I was working, weekdays essentially consisted of wake, eat, shower, commute, work, commute, eat, sleep, with a little time for blogging thrown in but not much else, all extracurricular activities packed into the weekend. I usually spent at least nine or ten hours at work each day, so a twelve hour workday isn't that much more. The extra time off between shifts will be welcome, though I've pretty much had my fill of free time for a while.

And the job will be...nice. No worries, other than doing the job well, and learning an aspect of the DVD manufacturing process from another point of view. No calling customers begging them for work, or begging them to provide us with the components required to do their work. No sitting by the phone waiting for it to ring, no waiting at the computer for the next urgent e-mail to arrive. No wondering if tomorrow there will be more work. All that stuff is Somebody Else's Problem. Disc replication is the company's core business, which is part of the reason why the position of DVD Asset Manager for the Compression, Encoding, and Authoring facility was eliminated.

Of course I won't stop looking. I don't intend to spend the rest of my life as an organic component of a disc replication line. DVDs won't be around forever, and I know that my employment status could change in a heartbeat. But for now, it looks like I once again have a source of income.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Updater Jones

I have updated a few of my spinoff blogs and side projects.

Beyond the Needle got its first update since the July 14 Grand Opening. If you are a quilter, or know someone who is a quilter, check out the blog - and the store!

A Monkey in the Garden got a reprint of "Polyphemus Moth caterpillar", complete with this morning's update. Compare the 39-year-old me going eye-to-eye with the caterpillar to the four-year-old me reaching out to the Monarch butterfly, as seen in the photo on the sidebar (taken from this post).

A Blog of Nanticoke has a post about this weekend's Cabbage Roll 2007. If you're anywhere in the vicinity of Nanticoke this weekend, come on out to the Cabbage Roll!

I'm still neglecting NEPA Blogs. Maybe I'll round off the day with a blog hunt, looking for NEPA bloggers we haven't found yet.

UPDATE: No new blogs for NEPA Blogs, but I did find some sites I don't think we've linked to before. And then I remembered I haven't updated Unknown Failure in a while.

Title reference: "The Emperor Jones", a play by Eugene O'Neill, later made into a movie.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Polyphemus Moth caterpillar

My cousin called me up to her house this evening. They had "found" a big green caterpillar, and they were wondering if I could identify it. I grabbed my National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects & Spiders and my Nikon Coolpix L4 and headed up. This is what they had "found":

Polyphemus Moth caterpillar

They had it in a green plastic coffee can, with a twig and some grass and leaves. It was clutching some blades of grass by what I assumed was its mouth. It turned out I was wrong. The grass was being clutched by the caterpillar's butt end.

Note the strand of silk in the image, cutting across the "o" in "(S)wallowtail". There was also some silk woven onto the inside of the coffee can. Apparently, the caterpillar had decided to form its cocoon right then and there, inside its little green cylindrical habitat.

Caterpillar with field guide entry

The caterpillar appeared quite agitated, crawling all over my hand, my shirt, and the strap to my camera case. My cousin grabbed the camera and started taking pictures. Here's one of me going eye-to-eye with the caterpillar:

It's now safe at my house and back in its can, a net stretched over the top to keep my hungry hungry birds from eating it. In the morning I will check to see if it has spun its cocoon.

UPDATE, 7/25/2007: When I checked this morning the can was knocked over and the rubber band holding the net over the opening had been removed. But there is a cocoon in the can now! The caterpillar used one of the leaves to wrap the cocoon and it would be hard to see if I weren't specifically looking for it.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Finished it

Embargo off.

Now, let's see if anyone was tossing out any real spoilers...

Calls, part 1

Well, I made today's scheduled calls.

The first one didn't go so well. According to the person I spoke with, they are currently outsourcing all of their production - and, apparently, their process management.

The second and fourth ones were answering machines. I left a message in each case and will follow up in a week or so.

The third was actually quite promising. The person I spoke to asked a number of questions and was able to answer mine. He asked me to send him a résumé so he could pass it on. At the same time, he confided that their process was not particularly sophisticated, and they actually outsource mush of their operations management and Statistical Process Control through an organization called NEPIRC.
Who Is NEPIRC?
Since 1988, the Northeastern Pennsylvania Industrial Resource Center, Inc. (NEPIRC) has been in the business of helping small to mid-sized companies increase their productivity, profitability and overall regional and global competitiveness. We understand that smaller firms are the lifeblood of our regional and statewide economy and collectively drive our national economic trends. Those smaller businesses deserve access to the same technologies, consulting services and financial resources that much larger Fortune 100 companies use within their businesses. We are proud to bring those advantages to our many clients.


NEPIRC. Hmmm. Now there's someplace I could easily see myself. And it's based about five miles from my house. OK. They go on the third wave of people to get in touch with.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Big Day tomorrow

The air conditioner in my car gave up the ghost last year. It had actually died the year before, but we figured after 9 years of service, maybe it was just due for a recharge. The recharge did not last through the Winter, however, and by the hottest part of the Summer the air conditioner was little more than a circulating fan.

OK, fair enough. I wasn't planning to keep the car much longer, so it hardly seemed worthwhile to replace the air conditioner. I got by without it just fine.

Until last Sunday, when the fan motor died.

I took the car in to get this checked out last Wednesday. They diagnosed the problem, told me how much it would cost to fix, and ordered the parts. The repair is very expensive, but, dammit, I can't arrive at my next job interview (whenever that may be) drenched in sweat. It's the cost of doing business.

Unfortunately, the repair is scheduled for 2:00 tomorrow. This is unfortunate because my calls to heads of Quality Assurance departments begin tomorrow at 1:30. Odds are I'll just be talking to voice mails, but, dammit, I committed myself to make these calls at 1:30, 2:00, 2:30, and 3:00. I can't not make them.

OK, easy enough. My mom and I will head up in two cars earlier in the day, I'll drop off mine, we'll drive home, I'll make my calls, and then we'll drive back up later in the day to pick up the car.

Except my mom just had to schedule emergency dental work for 11:30 tomorrow.

Now things get more complicated. My car is getting worked on at a place north of Scranton; my mom is having her dental work done just outside of Dallas. The car place is about 35 miles away, the dental office is about 25 miles away, and the two places are about 45 miles apart.

So here's the plan: Early tomorrow, armed with my phone, my calling list, and my script, we will head off to the car place. We will drop my car off and then head for the dentist's in my mother's car. If need be, I will begin making my calls from the car; otherwise, we will head home after the dental visit, and I will make the calls from there (but on my cell phone). Afterwards we will go to pick up my car and part with a significant fraction of my cash reserves.

Lower-priority calls are scheduled tomorrow so I can screw up with the longer-shot companies, and have the routine down for the high-priority companies the next day. We'll see how this goes.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

I have it now

So I'll be reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for a while.

No spoilers, please.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Harry and me

I first started reading the Harry Potter books sometime after Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban came out. I had heard about the books for some time before that, of course, but had assumed they were simply a fad, a bandwagon that lots of people were jumping on. After a glowing review of the series in Newsweek (or was it TIME?) I decided to give it a look for myself.

I bought the hardcovers cheap at Sam's Club. I don't remember if I bought them one at a time, or bought the first three all at once. Once I started reading them, I was hooked. I was fascinated by the richness of the storytelling, the diverse cast of characters, the almost Dickensian air that permeated what could have been juvenile literature, but wasn't, really.

I came to that realization as I was finishing Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. There on the cover we see a happy, smiling Harry, hanging on to the tail of what looks like an oversized Flamingo. Whee! Look, I'm flying! On the back cover we see Harry's happy, smiling friends hanging on for the ride, having the time of their lives.

That cover was a lie. As anyone who read that story would know, none of the characters were smiling at that point, or particularly happy, other than happy to have not died gruesome deaths. Both Harry and the Phoenix he's holding onto should have been covered in Basilisk blood; Ron should have been covered in mortar, I believe, from having a wall collapse on him; and Ginny should have looked mostly-dead, from being, well, mostly-dead.

So who was the lie on the book cover aimed at? Ignorant, naive parents, I suppose, who presumed they were buying some light twaddle for their kids, something to trick them into reading books on paper. Parents who might object to the themes contained within those covers.

And there's plenty to object to. Oh, never mind the central theme of "magic" which so many Neo-Christians have railed against in these books. Sirius Black, after all, is Harry's Godfather, and each year the characters observe Christmas, complete with, if I recall correctly, traditional Christian carols. No, there are other things to object to.

Harry Potter is a terrible role model. He lies, cheats, and steals to achieve his ends, and his friends assist him in lying, cheating, and stealing. He breaks the rules whenever he feels like it. He is often protected from the consequences of his actions, but he is never entirely open or honest even with his protectors, and often acts in a way that suggests he doesn't trust them. He ignores good advice. He lets his impetuousness and, later, anger get the better of him. By the fifth book one of his friends - completely out of character - even attempts to suborn murder. One of my favorite characters, Professor Snape, voiced a protest against Potter's special dispensation from the rules, but to no avail.

But I digress.

By the time the fourth book was announced, I was fully prepared. And what a name: Harry Potter and the Doomspell Tournament! Finally, the danger that was hidden beneath the surface would be brought out for all to see! And, rumor had it, a major character would be killed!

I was a little disappointed when the title was changed to the more family-friendly Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. But the story did not disappoint: murder, mayhem, chaos, bad guys ascendant, good guys on the defensive, the death of a not-so-major character, and in the conclusion, the return to a war footing. Plus one of the single coolest characters so far, and one of the most chilling reveals of a plot twist ever.

I can't recall if this was the first book released with all of its spellings and terminology in the original British English, or if it was the next. I did receive as a gift a boxed set of the first four Harry Potter books from Ireland, as published in England, so I did get to experience them all in the original form. (I first read about the "Philosopher's Stone" in an Uncle Scrooge comic when I was a kid. Why was it changed to the "Sorcerer's Stone" for American audiences?) Some of the language does take some getting used to - "iced lollies" and "trainers" (which conjures up images of either bras for pre-pubescent girls, or elasticized diapers for toddlers) and other such terms.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix came out in June 2003, after I had begun reading blogs but before I had begun blogging. I consumed it quickly, interrupted by some basement flooding. I found its darker, angrier, more political tone and its clumsy adolescent romance to be disturbing, as they were intended. I was also glad to see a sudden infusion of adult characters that older readers could relate to. I believe I had already finished it when I came across a spoiler on someone's blog.

It was an honest thing, someone expressing outrage and heartbreak over the death of a favorite character on a blog I don't read regularly. Still, it was the sort of thing this blogger could have easily been more circumspect about. Once someone reads a spoiler, they can't un-read it.

I have to admit that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, released two years ago, struck me as the weakest of the books. A few key elements were introduced, things that will need to be wrapped up in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - or not resolved at all. But the new characters seemed pretty lame, and the central mystery of the title seemed fairly pointless. Still, the scene depicted on the cover, awash in a nearly phosphorescent acid green, was extremely cool and very gut-wrenching - hearing an aged adult character regress into a beaten, abused child is something that will be eerily familiar to anyone who has dealt with someone with Alzheimer's. The flashback to Dumbledore in the 1930s was worth the price of the book alone; regardless of the description, I imagine him as having decided to go incognito among the Muggles dressed as a Huggy Bear-style pimp, complete with a purple feather in an oversized fedora.

That was when the spoiler brigade came out in force. From what I have heard, people would drive past lines of people waiting to buy the book and shout out the surprise ending to them. But why? Why would people do this?

The simplest conclusion is probably the correct one: some people are just assholes.

Yep, some people are just born rotten, and get their pleasure from destroying other people's happiness whenever possible. It's probably a form of mental illness, a variation on the sociopathic personality disorder, and maybe these people can't help it.

Maybe. I'm not inclined to be so forgiving.

Some people are out in force already, trying to thrust Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows spoilers in the faces of fans, presumably because they're fresh out of kittens to strangle or butterflies that they can stick pins through the wings of. In less than twelve hours this book will be released, and in less than 24 hours more than a few readers will have torn through to the end. I will take slightly longer to finish it. Until that time I'm going to have to avoid any news reports that may report spoilers, any blogs that claim to carry them, and even any friends who claim to be privy to the ending via illegally obtained copies of the book. This means that I will have to temporarily disable at least one link on my sidebar. I will also take the precaution of not allowing comments on this post until after my friends and I have finished the book.

If you're the sort of person inclined to spoil things for others - well, a)Don't, and b)Get a life. And if you're looking for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows spoilers, go here.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Taking stock

My letters should start reaching the desks of various Quality Assurance managers today, but I haven't scheduled any follow-up calls until next Monday and Tuesday. In the meantime I submitted a résumé to yet another company yesterday, and I printed up an application for a "dream job" today. (Other people may see it as a "pointless menial retail job", but it's actually something I've always wanted to do.)

I decided to sit down today and tabulate all of the résumés, job applications, and letters of inquiry I've put out there. And...well, maybe I shouldn't have. It's a pretty depressing list, because as I look at each job I remember the hopes and anticipation associated with it, the way I tried to imagine myself in each position. That's a hard thing. For the past eight years I had built my niche in the DVD industry, inventing and redefining the job I was doing as I went along. For six years before that I did something that others had already invented and defined, but that had never been done before in my company.

Now I'm faced with an unknown future in an unknown environment, so projecting myself into each job takes a supreme effort. It's exhausting, frustrating, and, over and over again, disappointing.

But I have to keep trying. What's the alternative?

The following employers are currently hiring locally: Dollar Tree, Office Max, McDonald's...

In other news:

I reprinted another post on my spin-off blog A Monkey in the Garden. I like that blog. It's just my nature and gardening posts, so far all with pictures. I still have quite a few posts that I can reprint there. I may have to edit a few to remove non-gardening content, but that's OK. Maybe I'll go find something else to reprint on Unknown Failure, too. I also need to call to get an update for Beyond the Needle, and someone has asked for a write-up on A Blog of Nanticoke. I should give some attention to NEPA Blogs, too.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Another little problem with my book club

I just visited the QPB site to make sure I don't acutomatically receive this month's selection. However, I quickly discovered a problem at the site. Can you spot it? Solution is in invisible text below - highlight it with your mouse to view.

The two buttons under the cover image are supposed to be marked something like "Send now" and "Don't send". I think "Don't send" is on the bottom, but maybe I'm wrong. Which one should I click?

UPDATE, later the same day: It's fixed now. Heh.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Pirates of the Internet

Today I shipped off nine letters to nine managers of Quality Assurance at nine of the top manufacturers within 40 miles of my house. None of them have even a third as many employees as my last employer. Still, if I want to stay in the area, and I do want to stay in the area, these are my choices. Well, my top nine choices, anyway.

Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy posted a link to a website that has episodes of Carl Sagan's TV series Cosmos available for download for free. "I have no idea if this is legal or not," Phil noted, but many of his commentors expressed considerably less agnosticism on the subject.

http://www.badastronomy.com/bablog/2007/07/16/the-entire-cosmos-except-chapter-4/trackback/

(Update 7/18/07: Phil has removed the link. But these pirated videos are still out there, and a lot of people don't see anything wrong with downloading them. Whether this is legal or not at this moment is not a matter of consensus: stealing copyrighted material is wrong.)

Cosmos is a copyrighted program. It is not in the public domain, and is (and has been) available for sale in VHS and DVD formats for some time. While it is a program with great educational value, this alone does not exempt people who want to see it from copyright restrictions. Bottom line: unless it's been authorized by the copyright holders, downloading this program from any site on the Internet is illegal.

Nearly five months ago I lost my job as a DVD Asset Manager at a major DVD Compression, Encoding, and Authoring facility within a major DVD Replicator. At the time I was told that cost-saving cutbacks were being made because sales were lagging behind sales targets, and I was one of those cost-saving cutbacks.

DVD sales have fallen for a lot of reasons. The popularity of Digital Video Recorders (DVRs) built directly into TV satellite receivers means that people can record their favorite movies and TV shows from across a broad spectrum of channels, as long as they don't mind the monthly access fee, special per-program fees, and video and audio quality vastly inferior to DVDs. Many people have already replaced their old VHS movie collections with DVD versions, and now are buying movies at a much slower pace. And the number of major DVD releases coming out each week has dipped dramatically.

But the major reason for the drop in DVD sales is the same as the major reason for the drop in CD sales: Piracy. Illegal downloads. People would much rather get something for free than pay money for it. So they convince themselves that what they are doing is a victimless crime, not even a crime at all, just the happy transfer of ones and zeroes from this bit torrent site or that Usenet site. We're sharing, isn't that what we're supposed to do? Fight the power!

Internet piracy is not a victimless crime, no more than shoplifting or identity theft are victimless crimes. I'm one of those victims, and I know lots of others. If you're illegally downloading copyrighted material, you're committing a crime, too, just as surely as if you were stealing a DVD or CD or book from a store.

So if you're doing it, please stop. And try to convince other people to stop, too.

Now, what other local companies might be needing an ex-DVD Asset Manager? Let me get my list...

Monday, July 16, 2007

It's a Major Award!

I have been presented with an award by Whim from The Babblings of Whimsicalbrainpan. I'm a little foggy on the concept of these blogging awards - I believe the idea is that you can now pass it on to one or more other deserving bloggers. In her post on this topic, Whim gives these reasons for presenting me with this award:

D.B. Echo: He is one of the most thoughtful people I know. He is always pointing out great blogs in his posts and never fails to let people know when something is happening that he cares about.
I suppose I do do these things, though sometimes this is really a diversionary tactic: "Hmmm, I really have nothing to say, but...HEY! Look over there! Isn't that neat?!?"

If I were looking for someone that I could recognize for community involvement...well, there would be several:

In addition to being a funny writer, an undaunted blogger, and a huge Harry Potter fan, Ashley at Ink on Paper is also very active in the AIDS/HIV treatment and prevention movement. She deserves this award, and so much more.

When I think of community involvement, I also think of the online communities that people have gathered around their blogs. Over the years several of the bloggers I have read have attracted groups of regular readers who, through their interactions in their comments, have developed into virtual communities in their own rights. Sadly, several of these have backed away from blogging in recent years, and these communities have dispersed somewhat. There are two I can think of who still maintain their central positions in online communities:

Josh Fruhlinger started The Comics Curmudgeon just over three years ago as a way to share his snarky comments on the day's comic strips with his family and friends. Over the years his site has attracted an active community of regular commentors, many of whom have rediscovered a love for comic strips through his site. And the community is so much more: the members have come to be a group of people who share each other's happiness and sadness, who have supported each other and provided assistance in ways I haven't seen in other groups of commentors. For bringing all these people together and providing them with a focal point, Josh deserves this reward.

And the other is someone who experienced almost incomprehensible personal tragedy, and who soldiered on through sheer bloody-mindedness and now serves as an inspiration to all who know her story and read her blog. Her community is one that draws its strength from her to a degree that sometimes I think she doesn't realize. But I don't know if it's proper award etiquette to simply re-present the award to the person who has presented it to you! Still, Whim from The Babblings of Whimsicalbrainpan unquestionably deserves this award!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Harry Potter and the Ministry of Disinformation

(This is an expansion of a comment I left on Ashley's Ink On Paper. Ashley is cool and funny and a good writer and a social activist and a HUGE Harry Potter Fan, and you should be reading Ink On Paper on a regular basis.)

In just a few days the final book of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, will be released. Its contents are one of the most fiercely guarded secrets in publishing. Millions of Harry Potter fans will plow through the book in the hours and days following its release, hoping to discover all of its secrets and surprises for themselves before someone else stumbles along and blurts out the ending.

I heard reports - for the first time, just the other day; this is something I was unaware of at the time - that when people were waiting in line to buy their copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, spoilers would drive by and shout "XXXXX DIES AT THE END!", revealing the book's surprise death. (I won't mention it here, because there will always be people out there who don't know how the books end yet.) Now there are concerns that this will be done on a larger scale this time around. Fans are being advised to wear earplugs while waiting in line in order to avoid hearing spoilers.

My thinking is this: In the event of a Spoiler Attack, everyone in the line should begin shouting out the names of various characters and plot twists: "GINNY DIES!" "HAGRID DIES!" "RON AND HERMIONE DIE!" "HARRY AND VOLDEMORT KILL EACH OTHER!" Litter the air with so much noise that the spoiler's signals can't get through.

Same in the blogosphere. There will be plenty of people trying to spoil the surprises as soon as they become available. So why not start filling the Internet with false rumors now, to at least buy a little time for those slower readers?

Here are some (fake) HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS SPOILERS to get the ball rolling:

  • HERMIONE HAS BEEN IN CAHOOTS WITH VOLDEMORT THE WHOLE WHILE!
  • DUMBLEDORE SWAPPED PLACES WITH HIS BROTHER THE BARTENDER RIGHT BEFORE HE GOT KILLED!
  • VOLDEMORT IS REALLY HARRY'S FATHER!
  • DOBBY IS THE KEY TO EVERYTHING!
  • SIRIUS WAS REALLY A BAD GUY!
  • THE CHARGES AGAINST THE DEATH EATERS WERE TRUMPED-UP!
And here are a few more fleshed-out ideas for sowing misinformation:
  • The book will open with Ron and Hermione having once again spent some time together during summer break. Well, they did a bit more than "spend time": Hermione is now pregnant with Ron's baby, and is due to give birth before the end of the school year. Sybil Trelawney has now made another apparently legitimate prediction that suggests that Voldemort is currently less interested in Harry Potter, and is more interested in Hermione's unborn child...

  • The house-elves dissolve into civil war, with one side led by Dobby and loyal to the memory of Dumbledore, and the other side led by Kreacher and loyal to Voldemort. Will the centaurs join forces with one side or the other?

  • After the climactic final confrontation with Voldemort, the scene shifts to a small padded room in an insane asylum where a deeply troubled seventeen-year-old with tousled black hair and a scar on his forehead has spent his days since his eleventh birthday, locked in a fantasy world of magic and wizards and flying broomsticks, where he is both a sports star and the most important boy in the world. As the story ends his sole possession, a plastic snow globe with a magic castle inside, falls to the ground and shatters, and the light begins to fade from his eyes...
Enough of this noise out there, and people won't know what to believe. For a little while.

Bloggers come and Bloggers go

I just received a message today from the person responsible for getting me interested in the world of blogging, the first person whose blog I ever read on a regular (or even irregular) basis, stating that she has decided to get out of blogging.

I'm hoping this isn't true, that maybe I'm misinterpreting her statement. Or at least isn't true forever. I will miss her blog.

The second blogger I read on a regular basis has also backed way off from her old blogging frequency. I'm hoping she hasn't decided to leave the blogosphere, too.

A lot of other bloggers I used to read regularly have also cut back from their blogging. Was blogging just a fad? Or was it a phase that everyone else but me is outgrowing?

One blogger I read and interacted with regularly - I never linked to her on the sidebar, some keen-eyed readers may remember some mysterious conversations in the comments - stopped posting about a year ago. She was in the Air Force, stationed in Germany, and had...well, I think it was anorexia, because the "binges" she spoke of were not quantities of food that would qualify for normal definitions of bulimia. She was even somewhat embraced by the shockingly large pro-anorexia online community, though she herself was never really pro-anorexia. In her final posts she was being discharged from the Air Force and being sent back to California in the middle of last year's heat wave. She stopped posting after that. Maybe she was institutionalized. I worry that she died.

Another blogger I worry about is Melanie from Hyperextended Joints. Her last post was January 10 of this year, and she gave no sign of wanting to get out of blogging. The last words on her blog worry me: "This will be continued later. I need to go pick up Alison from school now." Could something have happened to her while picking up her friend? I am guessing that "Alison" is Allison Trzop, who is mentioned in Melanie's profile. I don't see many of Allison Trzop's fingerprints on the Internet after an October 2006 essay that she published. I've tried other junior-grade detective work but can't find any traces of Melanie anywhere.

A few other people have backed away from blogging for reasons I'm somewhat aware of. I wish they would come back, but I understand why they're not here now.

Today I came across an odd situation. While searching for...well, never mind what I was searching for, I came across the April 2003 archive of a blog called pickle juice. I flicked around for a little bit, and came away with these tidbits: cute redheaded woman, posting under the name Natalie, chose the address demonthighs.blogspot.com, married, has a daughter...good writer, nice photographs, pleasant stories, the sort of blogger I could see myself reading regularly. I decided to jump out to her main page and saw that the most recent entry is from July 31, 2005, and starts like this:
Before anything gets blown out of proportion or whatever, let me say this: I am, seriously, facing three years in jail.
And then it goes on to:
In the meantime, I've been "asked to leave" my mother's house and am crashed with my sister. BUT! But today I managed to finagle a sleeping room across the hall from her apartment, so that's pretty cool. A room with a door? For the first time in six months I'll actually have a door! That's pretty boss.
So. What happened between April of 2003 and July 31, 2005 to upend this woman's life like this? The answers may all be on her blog. And why hasn't she posted since July 31, 2005? That may be revealed sometime in August, 2008...or maybe earlier.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Things to do today

There is a city-wide yard sale going on today throughout Nanticoke. Go to this entry on A Blog of Nanticoke for more details. I won't be selling anything, but I may be hanging out at my cousin's house. Or mowing my lawn.

Attention quilters and other crafters: If you're anywhere in the area of Kirkwood, New York, just south of Binghamton and just north of the Pennsylvania-New York border, Beyond the Needle is having its GRAND OPENING SALE today from 9:00 - 3:00. Stop in and tell them I sent you!

Also, I've got another spin-off blog in the works. The first one, Unknown Failure, isn't working out the way I hoped it would; apparently AdSense boycotts ads on sites (or posts) that talk about computer problems, so I'm not getting a huge revenue stream from computer-specific ads. A Monkey in the Garden reprints my favorite gardening and nature posts, and already has generated some garden-specific ads after just two posts, one of them an introduction. Check it out! I'm hoping that some readers will find the concentration of posts on specific topics useful, and maybe some people who arrive at that blog first will find their way back to here!

Friday, July 13, 2007

Beyond the Needle

Here it is...the blog I've been working on for my friend's small business! Please click on the links, look around a bit, and let me know what you think. And then be sure to visit the store. Tell her you read about it on the blog!


Beyond the Needle is a complete quilters' headquarters, fully stocked with fabric, books, notions, patterns, and more! It's located at 2235 US Route 11, Kirkwood, NY 13795, just a mile or so north of the Pennsylvania-New York border. (Click here for directions.)
Beyond the Needle is open seven days a week - Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Wednesday from 9:00 AM to 8:00 PM, Saturday 9:00 - 4:00, and Sunday Noon - 5:00.
Beyond the Needle offers classes ranging from Beginner to more advanced projects. Longarm finishing service and Open Sewing are also available. Not a quilter? Beyond the Needle carries a full supply of fabrics appropriate for many arts & crafts projects. Stop in and take a look!
The GRAND OPENING CELEBRATION of Beyond the Needle is Saturday, July 14 from 9:00 to 3:00! Hurry in to take advantage of Grand Opening sales! Be sure to tell Lisa you read about the store on the Beyond the Needle blog!

Visa and MasterCard are accepted.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Trip report

The trip went well yesterday. It wasn't a terribly long drive, just under 75 miles, and my friend's store (a quilter's supply shop) was very beautiful. I spent a lot of time just walking around the place, absorbing it all, and taking pictures. I've got the blog mostly set up; all that we need to do, I think, is swap out some pictures, maybe add some information about in-store specials that weren't mentioned in her newsletter, and then once she gives final approval it will go live. Her store's grand opening is on Saturday, so I'd like to have the blog ready in time for that!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Man on a mission

I'll be travelling today, seeing how my Asset Management skills could be applied in the retail world, and trying my hand at creating a blog for a small business.

The small business blog is for a friend. If it works like I'm hoping it will - and I think it will - it will be another step along the path to doing this for other people, maybe even turning it into some sort of business. A small business is a small business, but a small business blog is something anyone can visit and interact with, anywhere, anytime, creating a relationship with the business and possibly generating more business. We'll see.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A Rainbow in Striped Air

Last Friday I was meeting some friends at a restaurant not far from where I used to work. It was a get-together of people who used to work together, all of whom have managed to keep in touch and remain friends, even though for some it has been years since we last had the same employer.

A friend had a special request for me to bring a dozen cupcakes from Sanitary Bakery. Nobody at my old workplace has had anything from there since I left at the end of February. I was happy to oblige.

I was 35 minutes into the 40 minute drive to the restaurant, picking my way through a thunderstorm and pleased with myself for being 15 minutes early, when a call came through on my hands-free cell phone. I pressed the button to take the call.

It was my mom. "You forgot the cupcakes."

Aw, crap.

We came up with a plan: I would turn around, and she would saddle up her car, and we would meet somewhere in between. That put us in the parking lot of a hotel in Pittston.

The rain was just ending and the sun was coming out as I pulled into the lot to wait. Rainbow?, I thought. I turned to look at the antisolar point and then out the specified radius for any telltale light patches. And I saw this:


I have never seen anything like this, though I imagine it's not unusual: a rainbow cut by crepuscular rays*, "shadow rays" emanating from the sun, or rather areas where sunlight is blocked by obstructions like clouds. I have seen some stunning crepuscular effects in the past, but I don't remember ever seeing them associated with a rainbow before.
The rainbow was pretty large; at the time I was seeing it it was about 6:45 P.M. on July 6. That places the sun low in the sky, so the antisolar point (the center of the rainbow, marked by an imaginary line going from the sun through the back of the viewer's head, through the eyes and to the shadow of the viewer's head on the ground) wasn't too far below the horizon. Much lower and the sun would be blocked by low clouds in the West and the rainbow would not be visible.
Atmospheric optics are really an amazing thing. Nature and the world around us can be beautiful, and knowing what you're looking at and looking for enhances your appreciation of that beauty. It is one thing to look up at the sky with wonder, and it is quite another to look upon it with an analytical eye. The trick is to do both at once.
So because I forgot a box of cupcakes, I got to see this amazing rainbow, and so did my mom. And now, so have you.

Recommended reading:
E.C. Boyer, The Rainbow
M.G.J. Minnaert, Light and Color in the Outdoors
*Technically these were "anticrepuscular rays". "Crepuscular rays" are "sunbeams", "anticrepuscular rays" are shadows. Whenever you see one, you're effectively seeing the other next to it.
Title Reference: "A Rainbow in Curved Air", album by Terry Riley, used as background music throughout the original radio program of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Spin-off Blog: Unknown Failure!

I was chatting with a friend today and something went wrong with her modem. Suddenly my IMs were coming back with the message "An unknown failure has occurred." Unknown failure, unknown failure, over and over again...it sounded like the message was scolding me for having not done anything significant with my life. And then I thought: that would be a great title for a blog!

But what could it be about? People who are unhappy with their lot in life? Blogs that get very little traffic, and can use all the publicity they can get? Then I remembered my plan to do spin-off blogs from my main blog, Another Monkey. And since the "unknown failure" was in fact a computer problem, why not use the blog to repost all of my computer problem stories in one place? After all, these are posts that tend to get a good deal of traffic, and people searching for this information may find it convenient to have it all in one place.

So here you have it: Unknown Failure, a spinoff of the blog Another Monkey, reposting everything from the "Computers Bloody Computers" category. I hope you find it useful!

Francesco Explains It All

If you read this post the other day, then Francesco Marciuliano is a man who needs no introduction. If you haven't, then read it - especially Francesco's comment!

The other day when I checked on Francesco's Blogger profile I found him linked to a host of blogs, but I didn't see the one that Josh Fruhlinger pointed out this weekend on The Comics Curmudgeon. Francesco Explains It All is a new blog (the first post was July 3, 2007) which, among other bloggerific things, gives insight into aspects of the Ted Forth Unemployment Saga that haven't made the paper. Plus it's damned funny, which should come as no surprise! Check it out!

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Still on the job

I just completed my scan of the industries listed in the Harris Infosource 2007 Pennsylvania Industrial Directory, picking out the larger industries in this area (within about 50 miles of me), the ones that are more likely to have a need for my services. Now I just have to compile that information.

It looks like the dominant industry in this area is plastics manufacturing, at least among companies with more than $10 million* in annual sales. Businesses with more than $25 million in annual sales are fewer and farther between, and tend to be local representatives of national and multi-national food and beverage manufacturers, and at least one CD/DVD manufacturer.

One bad thing: I found my old employer. It's actually listed twice. Once it's listed as a company with 25 employees doing $1 million - $4.9 million dollars in annual sales, manufacturing "prerecorded compact laser discs", with the address of one of the company's warehouses and a shift supervisor listed as "Manager". Another time it's listed as the old name of the DVD division, with 600 employees, $50 million - $99.9 million in annual sales, the correct address and phone number, the names of the people who stopped being President and CFO several years ago listed in those positions, and a URL and HQ address that point to the Warner Music group, which sold the company years ago.

In reality, the company is now owned by the firm listed in the first entry, has about 1500 employees (after the February RIF), and does something in the area of the business listed in the second entry.

I use a thing I call the "rule of the first": If the first thing you can independently verify in a list of things is wrong, odds are good that there are more than a few other errors throughout the rest of the data, especially in the stuff you can't check.** So all the data I just gathered is suspect. Still, it's the best data I've got so far, so I'll keep running with it.

*Why and how did "MM" become standard business-speak for "million"? In Roman numerals "MM" is 2000 (so 2007 is MMVII; so much of my life was lived in the MCM regime that it seems odd to not have the "-100" modifier in front of the second M); in SI (metric) notation "M" stands for 1,000,000 already. But for whatever reason, this is the convention, and anyone trying to make sense of business reports needs to know it.

**If you've ever been involved in an event that made the news, you can bet good money that at least some of the information in the news report will be incorrect. This experience teaches you to take averthing else you see and hear with an extra-large grain of salt.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

On assignment

I've been offline for most of the day today, giving blood and then running around trying to find an open library (the Osterhaut in Wilkes-Barre is open on weekends in the Summer, thank goodness) to research industries in Northeastern Pennsylvania, as recommended by fellow Comics Curmudgeon commentor, poet, and sometimes fill-in Chief Curmudgeon Uncle Lumpy, who is being amazingly cool and generous and helpful and is providing me with a lot of job search guidance and direction. So, no lengthy, meandering post, even though I've got plenty of material (A rainbow sliced by crepuscular rays!), 'cause right now I'm remembering that my current job is looking for a job.

More later!

Friday, July 06, 2007

"Hot fuel" and the 60 degree volume standard: Are we getting ripped off?

There's been a lot of talk in the news lately about thermal expansion of liquids. Usually that's not something that most people think about - and if they do, they're probably thinking about the way that water expands when it freezes (that is, when water goes from its liquid form to its solid form), which is pretty unusual (matter is usually more dense in its solid state than its liquid state) due to the peculiarities of its molecule, H20, and the way water molecules interact with each other.* But water in liquid form follows the same basic rules as other liquids: the hotter it is, the less dense it is, and the same number of liquid molecules occupy a greater volume; the cooler it is, the more dense it is, and the same number of liquid molecules occupy a smaller volume.

The liquid people are talking about these days is gasoline, and concerns about thermal expansion have to do with the fact that gas is priced per gallon at a temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit. At 60 degrees a gallon of gasoline contains a certain number of molecules of gasoline. At temperatures greater than 60 degrees, that same gallon contains fewer molecules, since the gasoline has expanded and the same number of molecules now fill a greater volume. Our internal combustion engines function by burning molecules of gasoline. If the gallon of gasoline you just put into your car contains fewer molecules, there are fewer molecules of gasoline to be burned in the combustion chamber.

So, don't you see? The gas companies are ripping us off! By pricing the gas at a cool temperature of 60 degrees, they get to sell us less gasoline in the Summer in each gallon but charge us an inflated price!

At least, that's how the argument goes.

I've heard folks on TV intone about this, and then grimly state that consumers can be seeing as much as X% less gasoline going into their cars in the Summer, resulting in a big loss of fuel economy.

Only that's not what my data shows.



1996 Toyota Tercel fuel economy
(miles per gallon)
10/1/2000 - 4/23/2006


For years I have kept track of some fairly simple data: What day I put gas in my car, how many miles I've driven since my last fill-up, how many gallons it takes to fill up my tank, where I'm getting the gas, and what the cost per gallon is. (I do this on a little notepad I keep in my car. Each pad lasts two or more years. Anybody can do this.) Lately my sampling rate has changed - instead of filling up three times every two weeks, it's not unusual for me to go two or more weeks without needing a refill. My driving habits have changed, too, since a 66-mile commute each day is no longer a given, and I'm consciously avoiding unnecessary trips. But none of that data is reflected in the chart above, which covers October 1, 2000 through April 23, 2006.

One critical piece of information allows you to immediately interpret the chart: the "year" label is centered on June 1 of each year, indicated by a blue line (visible by clicking on the chart for a bigger version.) The other lines on the chart, the ones between "year" labels, indicate December 1.

Now the chart may be interpreted by inspection alone: there is a sawtooth pattern - at first I thought it was sinusoidal, but it's much sharper than that - showing that the best fuel economy (as measured in miles per gallon**) occurs in the Summer, and the worst fuel economy occurs in the Winter. There are several proposed explanations for this, but the bottom line is that it is a real phenomenon. You get better gas mileage in the Summer than in the Winter. At its most extreme I'm seeing a 33% improvement - miles-per-gallon nudging into the low 40s in the Summer vs. the low 30s or below in the Winter.

Does the volume of gasoline expand above 60 degrees Fahrenheit? Yes. Does this mean that we're getting less fuel per measured gallon at higher temperatures? Yes. Does this have a noticeable effect on fuel economy? By my data, no.

And by rights, if we're going to complain about getting less dense gasoline in the Summer, we should also complain about getting more dense gasoline in the Winter. We should be paying more per gallon of gasoline in the Winter, when (according to my data) fuel economy plummets!

There are lots of things we can all do to improve fuel economy. Drive the speed limit - most car engines are designed for optimal performance at or around 55 miles per hour, so routinely driving faster or slower than that will affect your fuel economy. Make sure your tires are properly inflated. Remove excess weight from your vehicle. Cut out unnecessary trips, especially short hops. Dump your gas-guzzling "sheik's delight" and drive a car that gets 30 miles per gallon or better. Somehow, I don't think suing gas companies over the standard by which they measure volume will achieve anything much more than line the pockets of a few class-action lawyers.

UPDATE: This isn't really a "new" issue at all. Check out the dates on these links:
Land Line Magazine - March/April 2005
Hot fuel not a hot deal
http://www.landlinemag.com/Archives/2005/Mar05/news/hot_fuel.htm

The Blotter
Motorists: We're Being Cheated with "Hot Fuel"
December 15, 2006 3:15 PM
http://blogs.abcnews.com/theblotter/2006/12/motorists_were_.html

"Hot Fuel" Bilks Consumers, Lawsuit Charges
December 18, 2006
http://www.consumeraffairs.com/news04/2006/12/hot_fuel.html

Petroleum Equipment Forum
September 6, 2006
http://www.pei.org/forum/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=1394

Related stories:
Motorists steamed over 'hot fuel' losses sue oil titans, retailers - USA Today - Jul 4, 2007
http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-07-04-hot-fuel_N.htm

"Hot Fuel" Costing Consumers Big Bucks? - CBS News, NY - Jul 4, 2007
http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/07/03/earlyshow/main3013244.shtml

Motorists Sue Over 'Hot' Fuel - Slashdot
http://yro.slashdot.org/yro/07/07/06/0236256.shtml

A Wall Street Journal article that links to this post:
Why Your Car Has Lousy Gas Mileage
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB118055889115119023.html

A KCET (a PBS station from Los Angeles) article that links to this post:
http://www.kcet.org/lifeandtimes/blog/?p=200

*The fact that water expands when it freezes explains why a glass bottle of milk left by the milkman in the little tin box on our porch one Winter some 35 years ago froze and cracked; why I had to go to the hospital for stitches one late Winter night back around 1997 after picking up a frozen jar of home-jarred grape juice while gathering the garbage from our back porch; and why there is life on Earth - if ice were more dense than water, it would have sunk to the bottoms of lakes, ponds, and other bodies of water and killed any overwintering life forms by smothering them.
**In some countries fuel economy is expressed in "liters needed to drive 100 kilometers". In these countries, the lower the number the better the fuel economy. But that's crazy talk.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Where I'm at right now

I'm feeling pretty low.

It's the job thing, of course, and the frustration at trying to find another job, with the additional requirement that I find a good job in this area. That's a pretty tall order. Plus it's the realization that I am finally moving into the region where finances will start to be very difficult. But that won't last too long. After that, they become unworkable.

I guess the major problem for me is the feeling that everything I've done up to this point is meaningless. B.S. in Physics? Thanks, call us back when you have a Master's. Nearly seventeen years of experience in manufacturing? That's great, if you want to go work in a factory. I think there might be an opening on the loading dock.

Ah, I know Statistical Process Control? Can you pull control chart constants out of your ass? No, that's what the books are for. Plus, it's been nearly ten years since SPC was a part of my real job description, so people see that as a pretty stale skill.

(Technically, my job description for over ten years at my previous job was "Statistician", according to Human Resources. Even though that had nothing to do with what I've been doing since 1999, even though I tried to explain this to them years ago, that's what their records said so that's how it must be.)

So I spent the past eight years as a DVD Asset Manager? So what the hell is that? Try to explain this to someone and either their eyes will immediately glaze over if they don't understand at all, or they'll quickly decide that whatever it was isn't relevant to what they're looking for. And the one other company in the area that knows what a DVD Asset Manager is, aside from the one that decided they no longer need one, isn't hiring. Or isn't hiring me, at least.

So I'm a blogger? So what the hell does that mean?

It will pass. I'm feeling sorry for myself, maybe justifiably so. No-response job applications and no-response letters of inquiry and no-response interviews and a big loud hyperenthusiastic presentation for what may very well be a multi-level marketing scam, a "sorry, can't help you" from a highly recommended headhunter, a sense of impending financial doom - all are real, legitimate reasons to be discouraged.

But I'll soldier on. Hell, I'm half-Polish. That's what we do. I'll keep on scouring the websites and the classified ads, keep looking for that perfect job that everyone has been assuring me for over four months is waiting just around the corner. I'll dip into my emergence reserves, and my emergency reserve reserves, and the ones after that until there are no more. I'll do what I have to to survive.

Damn. This sucks.