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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Happy birthday, Larry Niven!

I stopped over my house today to mow the lawn. Afterwards something strange and spooky but ultimately wonderful happened...but I won't write about that just yet. Maybe not ever, not here anyway. Don't want y'all thinking I believe in ghosts.

But in between mowing the lawn and the thing I'm not writing about, I had a little sit-down time with a short story collection by one of my favorite Science Fiction authors, Larry Niven.

I first read Larry Niven back in 1980 or so, when I was first getting into reading Science Fiction. Oh, I had been a Science Fiction fan for years, but it had mostly been through television, Doctor Who on PBS and Space: 1999 and reruns of Star Trek and endless rounds of SF movies on TV, from the Planet of the Apes series (later a TV series) to random stuff with aliens and rocket ships. The paradigm shifted in 1977 with the release of Star Wars, and things were never the same.

I'm not sure why I waited so long to pressure my parents into letting me join the Science Fiction Book Club, but I did. My initial package contained The Hugo Winners Volumes 1 & 2, Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials, and a few others whose identities I might be able to eventually dredge up. The Hugo Winners was a treat, a smorgasbord of excellent short stories and novellas by some of the finest writers of the 1960s and 1970s, all tied together with Isaac Asimov's introductions and personal comments. It was my first exposure to the writings of Poul Anderson, Harlan Ellison, Philip Jose Farmer, and Larry Niven.*

Larry Niven's Hugo Award-winning story was "Neutron Star." This was not just my first exposure to the writings of Larry Niven, it was also my first exposure to what is known as "Hard" Science Fiction, Science Fiction that is woven out of elements of real science and technology and, with specific exceptions, is bound by the constraints of the laws of Physics. In "Neutron Star", for example the concept of a Neutron Star is carefully explained, and the effect of coming too close to one is the main point of the story. Terms are explained using real physical dimensions, temperatures are given on the Kelvin scale, and characters behave according to real physical laws - with the exception of hyperdrive, the device that allows very fast travel across interstellar distances without the constraint of the speed of light or all the effects of relativistic time dilation.

Also, the two-headed, three-legged Pierson's Puppeteer, a main character in "Neutron Star", was illustrated in Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials. A nice little crossover.

These stories came at a critical time in my life. Just before The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, just before the Triple Conjunction of 1981, just around the time of the first Space Shuttle launch and the release of Cosmos. All these things, in some way, have helped to make me the person who I am today, for better or for worse.

***

I flipped the book that I was reading today open to the back, where they had a mini-biography of Larry Niven that noted that he was born on April 30, 1938. Which means that today is his 70th birthday. Happy birthday, Larry Niven!


*Turns out I had had my first exposure to Larry Niven years earlier through the Star Trek animated series. The episode "The Slaver Weapon" was based on his Known Space story "The Soft Weapon." I had also first been exposed to Harlan Ellison throgh his episode of the original Star Trek series called "The City on the Edge of Forever."

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

$3.59

Gas prices have gone up twenty cents in less than two weeks.

Let me rewind a bit. As of Thursday, April 17th the cheapest gas I could find to fill up my mom's tank was $3.39 a gallon.

That Monday, the 21st, I needed gas for my own car, and at the same location the gas was now $3.45 a gallon. OK, six cents in four days. That's a lot, but...

Usually I follow a set pattern in gas buying. Fill up the tank, run it out to nearly empty, fill it up again. Three times every two weeks. In the past that made sense for me as a good balance of cost vs. time spent going for gas. But with the price of gas rocketing up every day, now it makes more sense to fill up as often as I can. If I wait, I'll be maximizing both the amount of gas I need to buy and the price I'll pay for it. By topping off more frequently, I'm paying incrementally higher prices each day, but I'm buying less gas all at once.

When I went to top off on Wednesday the 23rd the price had jumped to $3.55 a gallon. Ten cents in two days. EDITED AFTER CHECKING RECORDS TO ADD: And when I got gas again on Friday the 25th it was up another two cents to $3.57.

As of yesterday, the 28th, the price was $3.59 a gallon.

I haven't topped off since last week. I'll probably go tomorrow for something closer to a fill-up. I wonder what the price will be then?

UPDATE, 4/30/08: Filled up today, and prices had plummetted to $3.58 a gallon. WOO-HOO! At this rate, they'll be giving it away for free within a year!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Twenty-three days later

On April 5 I attended a funeral for a neighbor. He was of a goodly age, 80 or 81, and had died of cancer. The whole neighborhood turned out, and a woman who lives down the street commented on that to me. "Too bad this isn't exactly a block party," I replied. This guy had hosted several block parties when I was young, and they were fun. There used to be lots of block parties around here, with blocked-off streets or (more often) a common party area being defined where everybody's back yards met. But then the homeowners got older, and their children moved away. Most of them. Now our only neighborhood gatherings are funerals.

I saw someone else at the funeral, someone who was diagnosed with cancer four years ago. She has undergone treatment since then, chemotherapy and whatnot. It worked, as well as could be expected. It slowed the spread of the disease. Allowed her to be with her grandchildren, allowed her to sing her beloved Polish hymns in the choir loft at church, one of the last of the Polish-speakers who know the words as something more than just funny sounds.

But chemotherapy has its limits. And as she reached the limits of her treatment, new options were explored. She was looking into taking part in a clinical trial of a new treatment in Philadelphia, at the University of Pennsylvania or someplace like that. Someplace far away, infinitely far for someone with advanced cancer. That was the stage she was at when I saw her at the funeral on April 5th.

Too late. During the evaluation tests it was determined that her cancer had spread. Spread into places where it's very bad to have cancer.

She's dying now. Well, she has been dying for quite a while. Pedantically speaking, she's been dying since she was born. Practically speaking, she's been dying of cancer for a long time. But now her death is that much more immediate. It's probably a matter of days, not weeks.

I saw her today. I took her some lilacs that I had cut from my bushes. They've only just budded, and most of the tiny flowers haven't even opened yet, and the smell isn't very well developed. Maybe in a few days. But I didn't know if I had that long to wait.

She looks...totally different. I am amazed what a difference twenty-three days can make. On April 5 she was weak, but was able to walk on her own, with some assistance for steps and curbs. Now she is bedridden, essentially comatose. I don't know if she will ever see the lilacs I brought her.

UPDATE: She died less than ten hours after I wrote this. Now her suffering is at an end. Goodbye, Cioci Tozi.

Her funeral is this Saturday - four weeks after I saw her at our neighbor's funeral.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Or, if you prefer your energy to come from the wind...

I've had two friends tell me that they are considering getting wind generators for their properties.

As an aside, I have to say that I hate the term "wind generators": pedantically speaking, "wind generator" is no more correct than "windmill" - these things no more generate wind than they (necessarily) mill anything. I suppose the correct term is something like "wind-driven electrical generator" or "wind turbine."

Anyhoo, for those thinking of getting your own backyard wind turbine - well, check with any local codes and restrictions first. But next, check out this post from Anne's Almost Quintessence:

Is That A Turbine In Your Yard Or Are You Just Happy To See Me? A Tale Of Independence

Once again, Anne has gone where others will surely follow. Personally, I've never found wind turbines to be as exciting as solar panels as ways of getting electricity from the environment. But I don't hate them. Yet there are vast areas of the world where wind turbines are looked upon with the sort of disgust, hatred and loathing usually reserved for people named "Clinton." Inefficiencies, noise, and bird and bat deaths aside, there are lots of folks who object to wind turbines for aesthetic reasons.

Let me tell you something. I live in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, where homes nestle in valleys formed by gentle, rolling mountains, with a river running through everything, and creeks and streams and cliffs and forests, forests as far as the eye can see. I live in one of the ugliest places in the world, with culm banks and mine fires and mine subsidences destroying homes and massive deforestation and runaway river pollution and creeks that run orange-brown with sulphur and iron leached from old mines, where waste chemicals are dumped down boreholes and mountains of garbage provide a very large income for at least one Legitimate Area Businessman. I live less than twenty miles northeast of the nuclear power plant in Berwick. I drive past the turbines of the Bear Creek Wind Farm twice a day, and I get within spotting distance of a much larger wind farm as I go to work north of Scranton each day. I think I know a thing or two about the aesthetic impact of wind turbines.

The greatest negative aesthetic impact the wind turbines have is on the drivers who stare at them with rapt fascination as they drive by, potentially endangering themselves and everyone else on the road. I wouldn't be surprised if developers pick locations for future hotels, businesses, and housing developments based on how good a view they have of the turbines. They are an imperfect solution to the problems that we face, but they are a step forward. And they sure are pretty to look at.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Can Wal-Mart save the world?


Diagonally from upper right: Wal-Mart, Wegman's,
Sam's Club, Wilkes-Barre Township, PA

In a comment on my "Fields of Light" entry, Joy wrote this:

Am I the only person in America who remembers when RONALD REAGAN REMOVED THE SOLAR PANELS FROM THE WHITE HOUSE ROOF??? Yes, children, once upon a time this country ENCOURAGED the idea of alternative energy thru tax credits for installing solar panels, etc. Reagan, demi-god of the Republicans, is responsible for DISCOURAGING that sort of wacky idea. His administration was the period when this country took a serious wrong turn, and his Administrations lack of foresight is why we are now beholden to other countries for our energy. Just think how cheap alternative energy sources would be right now, had we continued down the path of developing them 20 yrs ago.
and later followed up with this:

I just did a search for "Reagan removes solar panels from White House" to be sure I hadn't just imagined Reagan's treachery. "A bright vision of solar power emerged in the 1970's, as a patriotic response to the oil embargo. Jimmy Carter's energy plan included a goal of powering 20% of the nation with renewables by the year 2000. The president even put solar panels on the White House. The threat of solar tightened chests in the oil companies, as any free, clean, unlimited fuel source can be sure to do. At this point the oil and gas companies were ready to play hardball. They formed political action committees that contributed almost 3 million dollars to House and Senate candidates with "strong pro-industry voting." In California, Pacific Gas and Electric/Southern California Edison fought hard against the publics rights to own and use solar water heaters. By the late 70's Exxon, Mobil, Arco, Amoco and other oil companies had bought out many of the solar companies and the PV cell patents. Then, none other than former spokesperson for General Electric, Ronald Reagan, was elected president. The Carter solar tax credits ended, the $684 million investment Carter had requested was cut to $83 million, budgets were cut, studies squashed, and researchers fired. Then, adding insult to injury, Reagan removed the solar panels from the White House roof. Denis Hayes, organizer of the first Earth Day and former Department of Energy staffer from the Reagan era says, "It was a clear, calculated campaign by the DOE in the years of the Reagan administration to crush the solar energy program of the federal government, driving many of the most talented people out of the field". Our current president, former oil company executive George W. Bush, supports drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve, supports development of nuclear power, and opposes the Kyoto Protocol." (snipped from http://towardfreedom.com/home/content/view/886/69/)

I mourn for the loss of "The Future" we COULD be living in now, had the nation stuck to its environmentally-friendly energy goals.

Could the country's leading retailer lead us to where Jimmy Carter once tried to get us, on a path Ronald Reagan took us off and no President since has chosen to put us back on?

I have no great love for Wal-Mart. Frankly, I don't even like to shop there, though I find myself doing so more and more often as the contracting economy causes me to value prices over principles. But like it or not, they are the leading retailer in the United States, and they sell a lot of merchandise. And they have a hell of a lot of stores. A hell of a lot of big, flat, boxy stores.

In "Fields of Light" I suggested a future where every big-box store in the nation might feature a roof (and a parking lot) covered in photovoltaic cells*, converting the vast quantities of wasted sunlight that fall onto the roofs (and parking lots) of these buildings into electricity. Now, I'll be the first to admit that that's a tall order. Risky. Expensive. Aside from an eventual return on the investment in the form of lower energy bills - possibly even revenue from the sale of excess generated electricity to the utility companies - what benefit would a retailer stand to get out of this?

Well, goodwill**, for one. Retailers have a certain amount of goodwill from the communities where they locate: they provide jobs, they provide goods and services, they give people places to shop. And people like to shop. But they also compete with existing retailers, and sometimes drive them out of business with lower prices that smaller, locally-based retailers cannot match. Wal-Mart is notorious for this.

Many companies are actively trying to revise their images to appear to be more environmentally friendly. Sometimes this is more than simply image-polishing. Sometimes retailers are trying to make a real change - for sound business reasons in addition to the image angle. I believe that, at least as of a few years ago, Wal-Mart is one of those companies. So a company that is actually doing something that is good for the environment, and is doing it in an obvious way, will score points with consumers in a way that other businesses will not.

Secondly, any retailer who covers the roofs of their stores with solar panels will be leading by example. And if this is spun properly, they will not only be leading other companies, but they can also be leading consumers who will say "Well, geez, if they can make their electric meters spin backwards, maybe I can too!" Wal-Mart primarily sells household goods, not building supplies. But they can branch out, or sell through their Sam's Club warehouse stores.

But solar panels are expensive! And bulky! Well, this is where Wal-Mart gets to use their powers for good instead of evil.

A lot of people think Wal-Mart is evil because of the way it displaces existing retail jobs and replaces them with lower-paying ones at their stores. And that's true, as far as I know. But their real evil comes from what they do to suppliers. Wal-Mart drives its suppliers to supply their products at the price Wal-Mart dictates. Meet that price or your products don't go on the shelves, don't get sold by Wal-Mart. Fair enough. But often, that price is well below what a manufacturer spends to actually produce the product...domestically. So the only way to meet Wal-Mart's price point is to outsource to overseas manufacturers, where manufacturing costs are much lower - resulting in the loss of American manufacturing jobs. (And a consequent reduction in the number of consumers who can afford to buy goods at anything more than the absolute lowest prices.) And sometimes even that isn't enough. And then manufacturers have to cut corners to trim costs wherever they can - often resulting in a reduction in quality. And then the competition - other retailers, other manufacturers - has to follow suit, slashing prices, and costs, and expenses, wherever and whenever they can. Or they go out of business.

Evil. Or business as usual. Depends on your point of view. In a different time, a different place, no one retailer had that amount of control over the price points of goods that it sold. Things have changed. Wal-Mart is big. If you're not selling your product there, you'd better be comfortable with wherever you are selling it. And you can bet that eventually Wal-Mart will offer a cheaper alternative.

Wal-Mart can harness this incredible power to drive down the cost of photovoltaic cells.

Think about it. If Wal-Mart were to decide to cover the roof of every one of its retail stores with photovoltaic cells, how many solar panels would that be? My back-of-the-envelope calculation, starting out with an unknown number of retail stores ('cause I'm too lazy to look it up), an unknown number of square feet on each roof (ditto), unknown electrical demands for a typical Wal-Mart (again, lazy) and unknown electrical generation capacity for each solar panel (lazy lazy), comes up with an answer of "a lot."

Would Wal-Mart pay a lot for those photovoltaic panels? Hell, no. They would use their buying power and their considerable leverage to twist photovoltaic manufacturers to produce panels that are as inexpensive over the long term as possible. The carrot on this stick: whoever could manufacture the panels that would go on the roofs of Wal-Mart stores would get to manufacture the panels that would be sold to consumers through Wal-Mart. (Until a better deal came along, that is.)

But could Wal-Mart manufacture a demand where none exists? Well, yes. That's what marketing does. But this might be getting a boost in the near future anyway, as electrical rate deregulation will quickly cause consumer prices for electricity to spiral to stratospheric heights. And suddenly photovoltaics, which at this point produce electricity that, per unit, is more expensive than other sources, will look like a very good deal.

In summary, Wal-Mart is ideally suited to lead the way toward a revolution in consumer photovoltaic usage.

  • It is a leading retailer. Where it goes, other retailers may follow, and what products they utilize, consumers may more readily accept.

  • It has the power to drive down prices of photovoltaic cells and have versions made for both their own use and consumer use.

  • With its large number of retail stores, it has the footprint to make a real difference.

  • A visible commitment to the environment will generate vast quantities of goodwill and attendant opportunities for increased sales and strategic partnerships.

  • Finally, Wal-Mart would be modeling a product that it would also be selling to consumers. So not only would Wal-Mart be reaping the benefits of solar-generated electricity, it would also be reaping profits from the sales of photovoltaic systems to consumers.

Maybe.

I just spent the day hanging clothes on the clothesline to dry, transplanting strawberry plants to my house across town, and mowing my mom's lawn with a manual (reel) mower. And all the while I watched a steady parade of gas (or diesel)-guzzling pickup trucks and SUVs drive by. Just how high does the price of gas (and diesel) have to get to convince these drivers to park these behemoths? I'm thinking, much higher than it is now.

Three decades ago Jimmy Carter declared a goal at least as ambitious as Kennedy's goal of having a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s: to have 20% of the nation powered with renewables by the end of the millennium. Twenty-two years ago Ronald Reagan drove a stake into the heart of that plan. Since then we have continued along a stupid path of increasing dependency on fossil fuels, an addiction that is driving the current occupant of the White House to move to open up wildlife refuges to oil drilling in an effort to wring out some fraction of the oil our nation demands. The solar panels came off the roof of the White House in 1986. We turned away from the path that led towards increased utilization of renewable sources of energy. No one has put us back on that path yet.

Can Wal-Mart do it?



*I'm focusing primarily on photovoltaics, because I have more experience with them. I have little knowledge of the use of solar panels for directly heating water. Both kinds of solar panels were used on the roof of the White House.

**I am using this term in the colloquial sense, not necessarily in line with the technical definition used by Economists.

Postscript: I worked in the photovoltaic industry from March 1990 through August 1991. My knowledge of the state of the art is a little rusty. To learn more about what's going on in photovoltaics today, a good jumping-off point is Edgar A. Gunther's blog GUNTHER Portfolio: Photovoltaics, Solar Energy, Energy Policy, and Diversions.

Friday, April 25, 2008

YouTube Weekend: Mazzy Star, Fade Into You


There is so much that I love about this video. First there is the song: haunting, dreamy, beautiful, sad, but hopeful - though it seems to be constantly bending down whenever you think it might lift up. Then, of course, there is lead singer Hope Sandoval, whose voice has the same qualities I previously attributed to Bilinda Butcher of My Bloody Valentine. (According to the Wikipedia entry on Mazzy Star, there is a MS/MBV connection: Hope Sandoval once collaborated with MBV drummer Colm O'Ciosoig.)

And then there is the shot of the Moon starting at about 2:15. This image always reminded me of a Sunday morning when I was about 9, when the waning gibbous Moon shone in the Western sky above the rooftops across the street just after sunrise, framed by utility lines much like in the video. We explored it using what we had at hand, various toy telescopes and a ridiculously clear and powerful one-piece telescope from a box of Cap'n Crunch. (I can't find this particular scope online. It wasn't a folding telescope, more like a rifle sight, actually. I still have it somewhere.) Through this little toy scope I wandered all over the "seas" of the Moon until it sank behind the houses across the street.

I let this memory get the better of me. I didn't notice until I watched this video on YouTube earlier this week, seeing it for the first time in many years, that the location of the terminator on the Moon (the edge of light and shadow) indicates that this is a waxing gibbous Moon at sunset, not a waning gibbous Moon at sunrise - unless this Moon happened to be being observed in the Southern hemisphere. (This is based on the relative positions of the Moon and the Sun: for an observer North of the Tropic of Cancer in the Northern Hemisphere, the Sun always appears in the South, while for an observer South of the Tropic of Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere it always appears in the North.) But what really clued me in are the markings on the Moon, the Maria, or lunar seas; their orientations appear almost identical to my picture from last week, which was taken right around sunset.

This song appeared on Mazzy Star's album So Tonight That I Might See. I fell asleep to their follow-up album, Among My Swan, the night that my grandmother died.

This song featured prominently, and bizarrely, in Paul Verhoeven's imperfect adaptation of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. As two testosterone-fuelled characters begin the foreplay of a fistfight, this song can be heard in the background. As the fight commences, the song fades up to drown out all other audio. Best fistfight music ever.

Oh, and Hope Sandoval is totally hot. Did I mention that? It kinda goes without saying.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Lawn Mowed

Note to self: Do not wait until April 24 to mow the lawn over at the house for the first time. The grass in the Southwest corner will be eight inches tall and almost impossible to mow. Again.

Seriously. Parts of this lawn would have choked a gas mower, burned out an electric. And a manual reel mower? Well, if I were any less magnificent a specimen of the human species, I might have looked upon it as a chore. Wait - I did. It was a total pain in the ass. Some parts I had to go over half a dozen times to get them to look halfway mowed. It took me at least 50% longer to do than it should have.

I think a lot of this growth was very recent. I just mowed the lawn at my mom's house this past Saturday, and it was only high in a few isolated spots. Most of the lawn was below the cutting height of the mower. I had toyed with the thought of profaning the Lord's day and mowing the lawn at my house last Sunday, but I never did. I also considered doing it yesterday, but it started to rain while I was out buying topsoil, potting soil, and seed starter mix on my way home from work, so that put the kibosh on that plan.

Yesterday I did, however, get some seeds started. Better late than never. Should have been doing this a month ago, but they'll catch up. I still have many seeds to start. If all goes well, I'll have some amazing pictures come August or so.

Need to transplant some strawberries soon, and put in a call to the nursery about the one cherry tree and two blueberries that never came out of dormancy last year and are pretty much dead this year. I wonder if I should plant the replacements in the same spots, or if the soil in those spots might be no good? The tree that died was near where the tenants had a swimming pool, so who knows what might have gone into the soil?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Not the emergency I had in mind

I saw something on my SiteMeter today that made me pause.

Now what brought that on?, I wondered.

On the way home I found out that there had been an incident - or at least a suspicion of an incident - at Nanticoke's high school today. The information I was getting was third- or fourth-hand, but the story I heard involved Crips and Bloods, who apparently sit at different tables in the cafeteria, and a threat of a Columbine-style incident. Is any aspect of that story believable? I would not be surprised to learn that we have Crips and Bloods in our high school. A threat of a shooting? Easily believable.

What is a known fact, though, is that there was a heavy police presence at the school today, and they wanded each student who entered the school - less than a full load of students, because many kids chose to stay home today.

Here's what the Citizen's Voice had to say:

Update: Police patrolling at Nanticoke High School 1:35 p.m.
By: Denise Allabaugh , Staff Writer

NANTICOKE - Several police departments, state police and an FBI gang task force arrived at Greater Nanticoke High School early Wednesday after a rumor spread that "something" was going to happen, said Superintendent Anthony Perrone and Nanticoke Detective William Shultz.

"This started last week as a fight between a boy and a girl and that's what caused the whole incident. For the last two days, they have been bickering back and forth. They called each other derogatory racial names," Perrone said. "There was no riot. Nobody brought a gun. Nobody brought anything. There is no lock-down in any of the schools."


Officials said the threats and bickering spread beyond the original combatants to other students at the school.

Nanticoke, Newport Township, Hanover Township, the Luzerne County Sheriff's office and state police came to the school as a precaution, Perrone said.

Several students did not attend school or left early Wednesday. Perrone could not say how many students were absent.

"There was a rumor that went around and they were afraid," Perrone said. "I got calls from parents all night last night. When they call me, I tried to explain to them exactly what happened. You're never sure so you take the proper precautions so that no one gets hurt. There were such rumors that it was unbelievable."

Check back to The Citizens' Voice for more updates.

The Times-Leader also has an article. I didn't see anything on the WNEP site, or on the website run by WBRE/WYOU.

Nothing happened. Not today, at least.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bye, it's been fun, we'll miss you, come back soon!

Well, so much for the Pennsylvania Primary. It's been fun being the center of national attention for a while for something that didn't involve disaster or tragedy. And now the candidates and their entourages and the press corps and the camp followers will move on from Pennsylvania to focus on the next series of primaries: Guam, Indiana, North Carolina, West Virginia . . . I wonder how much attention is being lavished on Guam? See here for the full list.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Brilliant idea for how to lead the charge to alternative energy for consumers: Wal-Mart can lead the way to the place Jimmy Carter tried to take us, along the path that Ronald Reagan chose to take us off - and no one else has tried to get us back on. And electrical rate deregulation will help get us there. Ponder on that, and barring any emergencies,* that should be the topic of a post in the very near future. Maybe tomorrow.


*I won't say unforeseen emergencies, because there's a very easily foreseeable emergency heading this way, though I probably won't be writing about it directly until it all comes down.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Pennsylvania Democratic Primary Day

Tomorrow is the day. Tomorrow is the first time Pennsylvania's votes have mattered at all in a Primary election since 1976.

Rather than a process by which the most qualified candidate is gradually revealed from a crowd of hopefuls, Nominating Primaries are part popularity contest, part beauty contest, and part horse race. Far too much weight is given to early contests, and highly qualified candidates who fail to win, place, or show tend to drop out before too long.

Whoever wins tomorrow's election - and "win" is a relative term, since the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania doles out electors proportionally, rather than on a winner-take-all basis - there is a very good chance that the other candidate will be the nominee. I am supporting Hillary Clinton in this race, because I feel she is the more experienced and better-qualified candidate. How much either of these factors count in determining who gets to sit behind the desk at the Oval Office can be judged by looking at the man who has occupied that role for more than seven years. But, should Barack Obama be chosen as the Democratic candidate, I intend to support him in the months leading up to November.

Sadly, many people do not share this viewpoint. Many people on both sides of the Democratic divide are suggesting that if the other candidate gets the nomination, then perhaps they will sit out Election Day in November - or will vote for a continuation of the failed policies of George W. Bush.

That's just stupid. Crazy, even.

Will the Democrats have a "Dream Team", a Clinton/Obama or Obama/Clinton ticket? I don't know if this is still possible. Too much blood has been spilled, too much Earth has been scorched. Maybe these two will patch things up at the convention. Maybe not.

But both have to realize: they cannot win in November without the support of the other's backers. Whoever does not get the nomination must do everything in his or her power to convince his or her supporters to vote for the nominee. And not just vote: root for them, cheer them on, swing other voters. Whoever doesn't get the nomination must become Cheerleader-in-Chief. Barack Obama must use his considerable charisma and rhetorical skills to convince his followers to vote for Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton must use her relentless campaign skills to convince her supporters to back Barack Obama.

It's the only way. Otherwise Rush Limbaugh has won, and Anne Coulter has won, and Michelle Malkin has won, and George W. Bush has won. And we have lost. Again.

Don't let that happen.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Fields of light

Big box stores at the Arena Hub Plaza in Wilkes-Barre
Township, built on the former site of culm banks.
Imagine this scene covered in solar panels.

When I was at the University of Scranton I would sometimes take lunch with my friends in the second-floor cafeteria at the the Gunster Center, also known as the Student Center. The North wall of the cafeteria was all windows, and it overlooked the campus's tennis courts. In Winter the courts would go unused, and after a heavy snowfall they would present themselves as a field of gleaming white snow - until, inevitably, someone got around to creating rude graffiti with footprints. But I digress.

One day I was having lunch - or maybe it was dinner - with some friends near these windows, and I looked out at the snow-covered tennis courts. I looked out at the dazzlingly bright scene, amazed at how much sunlight was being reflected. How much solar energy is falling on that area? I wondered. And who knows, maybe I did some paper napkin calculations. But I got to thinking about the photoelectric effect, and what went into manufacturing solar cells*, and I realized that while this is a magnificent and amazing way of taking sunlight and converting it into a usable form of energy - in this case, electricity - nature had been doing the same thing for a very long time through the amazing process of photosynthesis. What if, I wondered, we could find a way of getting plants to convert sunlight directly into fuel material? Well, plants do that already; you can burn most plants and release energy stored in their tissues. Or you can ferment some plants and, through a series of chemical and biological steps, create alcohol. But other plants create oils, or oil-bearing seeds and nuts from which the oil could be extracted. What if we could breed a plant that could use energy from sunlight to produce oils with characteristics suited to our fuel needs?

That was probably when I noticed that the footprints in the snow on the tennis courts spelled a rude word in 20-foot-high letters, and pointed it out to my friends.

*****************

The tennis courts ceased to exist years ago, replaced by a multi-story library. The Student Center was demolished earlier this year after a new one was built to take its place.

The need to find new sources of energy is greater now than it was during my lunchtime reverie in the mid-80's.

Northeastern Pennsylvania, like many places, is gradually becoming a land of big white boxes. I work in one, and others cover the mountainsides like huge, flat snowbanks. Several major highways run through NEPA (I-80, the great East-West corridor; I-81, a North-South corridor second perhaps only to I-95; and the Pennsylvania Turnpike), we are in close proximity to New England, New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia; and real estate prices are very reasonable (up slightly from "cheap.") These factors have combined to make us an ideal location for warehouses and distribution centers. In addition, we have the usual suspects when it comes to malls and big-box stores.

This is less of an environmental disaster than you might think. This is coal country, and coal mines produced enormous quantities of waste rock - slate mixed with coal that could not be separated out economically.** And these were piled up in great artificial hills called culm banks. Culm banks, some covered with groves of trees, some large enough to alter regional wind patterns, were a major feature of this area until a few years ago. Now many of the culm banks are gone, hauled off to be reprocessed for any usable coal, the remnant used as fill...somewhere. Replacing a culm bank with a revenue-generating mall or warehouse or big box store is not necessarily a bad thing.

But there is something inherently wrong with this new landscape of flat buildings and flat parking lots. When seen from above it resembles a lifeless desert, with a few trees and grassy areas thrown in for traffic control purposes. Sunlight rains down and is absorbed by the asphalt of the parking lot and the tarpaper (or whatever the coating is) of the flat roofs. Cars heat up, buildings need to be cooled. Energy is wasted in the form of both incoming sunlight and electricity used to run cooling systems.

What if we were to cover everything in solar panels?

Solar panels have some drawbacks. They are expensive. They are heavy. They are relatively inefficient. The electricity they generate costs more , for the moment, than electricity generated by remote sources. All these things can change.

There are other practical problems. Big box roofs are not designed to handle the weight of several hundred solar panels covering every square inch of available space, especially not when these panels are laden after a heavy snowfall. A parking lot roofed by solar cells would present new hazards to drivers, many of whom (as I have noted before) should not even be allowed to drive a shopping cart. And there is always the hazard of making a big, long-term investment in a technology that is superseded in its lifetime by something vastly better.***

Could there be financial advantages to investing in photovoltaic electrical generation on surfaces that are otherwise just solar heat sinks? Absolutely - if the surface is going to be around long enough to recoup the investment. What is the life expectancy of a big-box store? A mall? A parking lot? What is on the horizon in photovoltaic technology? How will photovoltaic-generated electricity costs compare to, say, coal-fired power plant-generated electricity, particularly as deregulation of the cost of electricity takes effect?

In the meantime the photons rain down from the Sun and fall on the roofs of the malls, and the roofs of the warehouses, and the roofs of the big boxes, and the surfaces of the parking lots, and the interiors of the cars parked on them. How much longer can we afford to let this energy go to waste?

*I only knew this theoretically; it would still be several years before I was working for a solar cell manufacturer in Delaware after a brief but humiliating run in grad school.

**Often the task of separation was carried out by children, called "Breaker Boys." This practice ended well before the Knox Mine Disaster ended coal mining in NEPA on January 22, 1959.

***I wonder how smart the folks who invested in big-screen TVs back in the mid-90's, when they cost so much that some people were having them built into their walls so they could have them rolled into their mortgages, feel today.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Unclaimed property

The other day my mom spotted a friend's name in the paper, in a full-page ad from the Pennsylvania State Treasury under the heading "State Treasury Seeks Local Unclaimed Property Owners." I just called her to let her know about it, and just for the heck of it I looked up my own name on the website - and it turns out I also have money coming to me! And so does my mom, and several of my friends from college.

I've known about this site for a while, and kept meaning to check it out, but you know how things are. But now I've got my claim form, and I just need to fill it out, and get it notarized, and stuff it in an envelope, and put a stamp on the envelope (with extra postage, since it's a five-page form), and send it in, and then wait by the mailbox...

So, ja, I'll get right on that. In the meantime, if you've ever lived or worked in Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth might have some money that belongs to you! Check out http://www.patreasury.org/ for more information, or just go straight to the Unclaimed Property Database and start searching!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Sepia Moon

The Moon, April 16, 2008, 6:33 PM or so

I stepped outside to get some photos of the Moon on Wednesday, because I wanted to. This photo was taken with my Nikon Coolpix L4. Compare to this photo taken in April 2005 with my old digital camera.

(For added fun, compare these photos with this photo, taken in November 2005. Notice the difference in size and shape of Mare Crisium, the small oval seen at the top of today's image and the April 2005 image and much more prominently visible at the 2:00 position of the November 2005 photo and the photo below. Why does it look different? Libration, baby! Check it out! The cool motion that lets us view 59% of the Moon's surface!)

Today the Moon is waxing gibbous, more nearly Full. Soon it will move to within one degree of Mars, something I meant to mention earlier. But looking at the Moon a few hours ago, I noticed something about it that I've noticed for several years.

It looks sepia-toned to me.

The Full Moon, something like how I see it. Modified version of image taken from http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/details.php?gid=165&sgid=&pid=1750

I don't know when it was that I first noticed this. I think it was sometime in 1997 or 1998, when my grandmother was in her final nursing home. I stepped out into the parking lot one night as I was heading home, looked at the rising Full Moon, did a little trick with my optical perception, and wham - a Sepia Moon. Or copper-on-lemon. Or brown-on-white.

It's weird. I wonder if its indicative of something wrong with my eyes, or if it's a trick of seeing what you expect to see, or if I'm actually seeing the true color of the Moon. Does anyone else see the Moon like this? Does everyone? I have no idea. I'd be interested in finding out.

In the meantime, there's a conjunction of the Moon and Mars coming up tonight! I'll try to get photos.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Headless Rabbits: Germany

I saw this on CNN's website today:

German police probe animal beheadings

BERLIN, Germany (AP) -- Police are investigating who might have decapitated scores of animals and drained them of their blood* in a west German city, a spokesman said Thursday.

Over the past year the corpses of 21 rabbits, three chickens and four wild birds have been found headless in and around the city of Bochum, police spokesman Volker Schuette said.

Police have formed a special commission to investigate the grisly discoveries, but so far have no clues about who may have killed the animals.

http://edition.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/europe/04/17/germany.animals.ap/index.html?iref=hpmostpop

Hmmm...too bad they haven't Googled the words "headless rabbit". They would have been led to the world's leading authority on headless rabbits, at least as far as Google is concerned. Based on reports from around the world, I believe we may be able to suggest a description of the culprit: about 18 inches long, tail, pointy ears, whiskers, sharp bitey teeth, fondness for catnip, cheezburgers, and inexplicably biting the heads off rabbits...


*"Drained them of their blood"? An interesting detail. I wonder what this is based on? If a cat kills an animal by breaking its neck, and then bites the head off, will blood come pouring out? Or will it stay in in the veins and arteries, not pushed around by the pumping action of the animal's dead heart? Could this be mistaken for being "drained of blood"?

$3.39

No, not a follow-up to yesterday's post. Not yet.

Wait. Yes it is.

I paid $3.39 (and nine-tenths of a cent) per gallon for gasoline today. To fill up my mom's car, which I will be borrowing tomorrow while mine is in the shop. It cost more than $42 to top off her tank. And I got off easy - the station across the street was $3.49/gallon.

When Douglas Adams traveled to Beijing in 1988 on his quest to see a Baiji dolphin as part of the Last Chance to See expeditions, he encountered a city of bicycles. There were motor vehicles, of course, and massive pollution, but bicycles were the primary form of transportation.

Not anymore. Cars have become far more common in China than they were two decades ago. As the economic status of the Chinese people improves, many of them are emulating the lifestyle long considered standard for Americans and other Western cultures - including two cars in every garage. India is following suit.

In Lester del Rey's short story "The Coppersmith," one of the Little People awakes from six score years of slumber to find himself in a world he does not understand, where aluminum pots and pans resist his copper-mending skills and automobiles belch filth into the air, smoke that irritates him in a way that his beloved pipe tobacco does not. In the end he comes to an accommodation with this new world. In order to earn the honest living required of him, he takes a job in the only place where he finds that his skills with the old metals are sought after: a body shop, where he mends the copper and brass parts that once comprised critical parts of auto engines. (del Rey wrote this in 1939.) He reasons that, even though the pollution from automobiles sickens him and keeps others of his kind in enforced slumber, the more cars there are on the road, the sooner they will use up the finite natural resource that fuels them. So he puts his skills to work to speed the day.*

If only it were that simple.

How soon will we use up all of our available oil? It's hard to say, and it really depends on what your definition of the word "available" is. Once upon a time crude oil could be found bubbling to the surface in some places, but later it became necessary to drill to get at the big deposits. And then to drill deeper, and sideways, and in more inaccessible places. Someday all that may be considered low-hanging fruit as oil exploration turns to more and more difficult sources of oil.

Not that the availability of oil is what's driving the price up. No, there are other factors at play, economic factors too complex for me to even think about reading up on this close to bedtime.

But oil is a finite resource. And even if we're not in danger of running out of it yet, at some point we will run low on the easy-to-get stuff. And then the question will be, what premium will consumers be willing to pay for the oil that was more difficult to get?

My Economics professor in college told my class that the world will never run out of oil...technically. The price of oil, he maintained, would climb as the availability dwindled, rising as high as the market would be able to bear. Finally a day would come when the market - the consumers - could not afford to buy any more oil at a cost that producers would be willing to sell at. And there would be one last barrel of oil that would be unsold, because no one would be able - or at least willing - to pay the asking price. And that last barrel of oil would go in a museum, with a velvet rope around it and a small plaque explaining the history of petroleum in just a few sentences.

I believe the solution to fuel oil availability lies with plants. No, not with the generation of Ethanol from corn or sugar beets or weeds or what have you; I think that process is too inefficient, too energy-intensive, to make sense in the near term. No, I think the solution rests with plants that don't exist yet, genetically engineered plants designed to use the power of photosynthesis to manufacture plant oils that can be used as fuel oils with minimal processing. (Isn't this how The Day of the Triffids started? The book, not the movie.) Of course, this wouldn't do a lot to curb greenhouse gas emissions, or to slow down our headlong charge towards...well, see my last post.

In the meantime the price of gasoline keeps going up. Yet I haven't seen a reduction in the number of gas-guzzlers on the highway during my daily commute. Nor have I done anything to reduce the distance that I commute, or to reduce the amount of fuel I consume during that commute, roughly 1.75 gallons a day.

Nope, all I can do is bitch. $3.39?! Who's crazy here?


*Lester del Rey was a remarkable writer, but you shouldn't need me to tell you about that. For a similar "mythological creature seeks employment" story, read "The Pipes of Pan", in which the Greek god Pan seeks a way to earn his daily bread after his last devotee has passed on.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Review: Under A Green Sky

You should not read this book.

I mentioned last week that I had started reading Peter Ward's Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future. Here's what I wrote:
I have a feeling that the "Global Warming" part of the subtitle was tacked on at the publisher's request, since halfway through it has mostly been an exploration of the different varieties of mass extinctions that have taken place in Earth's history.

You've probably heard about the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. But truth is, prior to Luis and Walter Alvarez's discovery in 1980 of the iridium layer that provides evidence of an extraterrestrial impact consistent with the end of the Age of the Dinosaurs, this was just another theory floating around. But it took off. And soon every mass extinction - and there have been a few, where a significant proportion of living things on Earth and under the oceans have died off - was being blamed on asteroid impacts. Even though there was no evidence for them, no telltale iridium layers or smoking craters, save the one that hit some 65 million years ago and within a few years or decades brought down the saurian rulers of the Earth.

Ward carefully presents the evidence for other causes, all sewn together in an exciting narrative that presents a behind-the-scenes look at the jealousy, pettiness, cutthroat competition, and downright danger experienced by those who would solve these mysteries. And he dispels the notion that this is a world made for us; indeed, he puts forth various evidence-backed versions of Earth's past environment that were inimical - and deadly - to almost all forms of life.

I'm not done yet. I only made it about halfway though, and the badly-written and -acted soap operas chattering over my shoulder this afternoon made it hard to focus.* But I think I'm just getting to the good parts, where various toxic gasses tied up in the oceans are belching forth and doing really bad things to the environment.
I've mentioned tipping points before. Turns out that when I wrote this post, I was at the tipping point of this book.

You should not read this book.

There are those who dismiss concerns of climate change by referring to the proponents of this idea as AGW Alarmists. It took me a few seconds to work out what those letters stand for. They stand for Anthropogenic Global Warming - global warming brought on by the actions of humans. Some of them would certainly label paleontologist Peter Ward an AGW Alarmist.

In this book I will marshal a history of discovery, beginning in the 1970s, that has led an increasing number of scientists across (a) broad swath of fields to conclude that the past might be our best key to predicting the future. As strewn across this barren, nearly lifeless hillside in the nontouristy middle of Nevada, if there is even the slightest chance that the carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere of 200 million years ago caused this mass extinction, as well as the numerous other times before and since that ancient calamity, then it is time for we practitioners who study the deep past to begin screaming like the sane madman played by Peter Finch in the classic 1976 film Network, who brought forth his pain with the cry: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore."

In our case, this cry must be: "I am scared as hell, and I am not going to be silent anymore!"

This book is my scream, for here in Nevada, on that day when heat was its usual quotidian force of death, we sat on the remains of a greenhouse extinction, and it was not pretty, this graveyard, the evidence clutched in the dirty rocks utterly demolishing any possibility of hyperbole. Is it happening again? Most of us think so, but there are still so few of us who visit the deep past and compare it to the present and future. Thus this book, words tumbling out powered by rage and sorrow but mostly fear, not for us but for our children - and theirs.

(Introduction, pages xiii - xiv)

Is Peter Ward an AGW Alarmist? He might consider that term to be putting it mildly.

You should not read this book.

As I described above, Ward takes us through the recent history of the determination of the causes of past global extinctions. One - and only one - extinction is known to have been caused by an extraterrestrial impact. Other extinctions show evidence of different causes, or more precisely, the same different cause. It's nothing quite so simplistic as "the world got too hot for things to live." No, the mechanism is a bit more horrible than that.

The story usually starts with volcanism. Earth is a geologically active planet, which is a nice thing, because without a source of heat inside our planet things the history of life would be would be very different. Non-existent, really; Earth's distance from the sun is too great to maintain liquid water just as a result of direct solar radiation.

Oh, not that the heat from our core is enough to do it, either. Not by itself. Thermally speaking, without any other factors coming into play, Earth would be an iceball with some liquid water at the lowest reaches. There is evidence that it has been, actually, several times.

Ah, but our geologically active planet has volcanoes. Volcanoes which periodically erupt in large numbers, and pour blessed greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. It is through the heat-trapping function of these gasses, called the greenhouse effect, that our planet is warm enough to support liquid water - and life.

But you can have too much of a good thing. I won't try to restate Ward's thesis - he sums it up pretty plainly in Chapter 6, "The Driver of Extinction," on page 137 of my softcover.
First, the world warms over short intervals of time because of a sudden increase in carbon dioxide and methane, caused initially by the formation of vast volcanic provinces called flood basalts. The warmer world affects ocean circulation systems and disrupts the position of the conveyor currents. Bottom waters begin to have warm, low-oxygen water dumped into them. Warming continues, and the decrease of equator-to-pole temperature differences reduces ocean winds and surface currents to a near standstill. Mixing of oxygenated waters with the deeper, and volumetrically increasing, low-oxygen bottom waters decreases, causing ever-shallower water to change from oxygenated to anoxic. Finally, the bottom water is at depths where light can penetrate, and the combination of low oxygen and light allows green sulfur bacteria to expand in numbers and fill the low-oxygen shallows. They live amid other bacteria that produce toxic amounts of hydrogen sulfide, and the flux of this gas into the atmosphere is as much as 2,000 times what it is today. The gas rises into the high atmosphere, where it breaks down the ozone layer, and the subsequent increase in ultraviolet radiation from the sun kills much of the photosynthetic green plant phytoplankton. On its way up into the sky, the hydrogen sulfide also kills some plant and animal life, and the combination of high heat and hydrogen sulfide creates a mass extinction on land. These are greenhouse extinctions.

Not good. Not pleasant. And a scenario which has been repeated multiple times in the Earth's history.

But, the thing is, geological evidence indicates that there was usually an incident of mass volcanism that brings on this nastiness. Volcanoes belching methane and carbon dioxide into the air. But, despite a few rumblings here and these, there are no indications that the Earth is on the verge of experiencing any mass volcanism incident.

Humans have built their own volcanoes.

We are belching our own greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. From smokestacks and tailpipes, herds and paddies, field-clearing fires and irrigation floods, we are engaging in unprecedented acts that are generating greenhouse gases, and rapidly increasing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations to levels not seen in eons.

So what now? What next? What is Ward's plan from saving us from this looming disaster?

(You should not read this book.)

Well, that's the kicker, kiddies: he doesn't have one. Peter Ward isn't writing this book as a savior. He isn't really a Prophet of Doom, though that's the overall effect. He's a scientist describing findings of the paleontological past and applying them to the future. The fate outlined above, barring another asteroid strike, appears to be inevitable; it is a mechanism that has played out over and over again in Earth's past. But it's a question of when - or at least it was. For now there is no longer any need to wait for volcanoes to push the system over the edge. We're doing it ourselves. Have been doing it. Maybe have done it. It may very well be too late to do anything about it. It may have been too late for the last 30 years, or since the Industrial Revolution. It may have been too late since humans tamed fire and developed agriculture.

Is there any hope?

"Without hope there will be no action," Ward writes on page 192.
As far as can be seen in the present, we have not yet reached the point of no return, or the tipping point. We as a worldwide society can keep carbon dioxide levels below 450 parts per million. If we do not, we head irrevocably toward an ice-free world, which will lead to a change in the thermohaline conveyor belt currents, will lead to a new greenhouse extinction. The past tells us this is so.

This is written at the end of Chapter 9, "Back to the Eocene." The chapter that was supposed to end the book.

You should not read the next chapter, called "Finale."

You should not read this book.

You should not read it if you like to sleep at night, to dream of the future. You should not read it if you have children or plan to have children. You should not read it if you commute 66.6 miles a day in a 1996 Toyota Tercel that gets 35-40 mpg or if you ride a bicycle to work. You should not read this if you'd ever like to stare out at the ocean again and not think about the doom that will someday come from its bottom.

So why am I here, writing this? Why am I not sitting in an alley somewhere, a blanket wrapped around myself, with a sign reading "NO HOPE / NO FUTURE" hanging around my neck?

Honestly, I don't know. In time the strongest effects of this book may wear off, and I'll be able to return to my painting, my photography, my gardening. Maybe tomorrow. There are bills to pay, blogs to read.

Some may take the inevitability of the oncoming disaster as a license to do what they wilt. I don't really have a good argument against that. But we're not there yet. Maybe we'll be able to avoid the tipping point for another century. Maybe if every person in the world abandons their cars tomorrow, maybe if every factory in the world shuts down tomorrow, maybe if 90% of the Earth's population disappears tomorrow, we'll have a little more time than that. And maybe in that time somebody will notice something that has been overlooked, some key that will allow us to avoid rushing headlong into the disaster. Maybe.

Maybe you should read this book.


Image taken from the HarperCollins website.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

LOLCat Skeptic

No, I don't believe in Basement Cat.  Why do you ask?
see more crazy cat pics

Current status: 5-cheezeburger rating with 137 votes!
(Note: this picture was posted on the voting page on April 15, 2008 at 12:14 PM. As of April 17 at 7:48 PM it still has a five-cheezeburger rating with 278 votes, but it's waaaaay back on page 92 of the voting pages, and constantly getting pused deeper. Use the date and time to find it!)

If you're not down with the LOLCats, a quick primer: Ceiling Cat is any cat that likes to hang out in a drop ceiling or in the rafters and look down on us hoomans and other kittehs. (One of my cats is a Ceiling Cat.) At some point it was established that Ceiling Cat is God.

A while back someone captioned a shot of the view down some basement steps into their dark basement, as two glowing eyes looked back. The caption: "good solz go to ceiling cat bad solz go to basement." And thus was Basement Cat born: Ceiling Cat's opposite number, cast out of the ceiling so long ago. (Basement Cat is usually solid black, while Ceiling Cat can be any color. Happy Cat is usually gray. I'm not too sure if there are any other recurring characters.)

There's no easy way to link to this image for voting, but if you wade through the voting pages you might find it. (As of 8:21 PM on 4/15/08 it was on page 13 with 140 votes and a five-cheezeburger rating.) Unless, of course, it gets promoted to the main page!

Monday, April 14, 2008

That's just the way it ain't

I got annoyed watching CBS's Sunday Morning yesterday. They had a bit where a guy was putting a golf ball across Scotland. Putting? Why not driving? It seems like he would have covered a lot more territory a lot more quickly that way. But I know next to nothing about golf, and I digress.

Anyway. His journey started with a sendoff by a group of dour-looking bagpipers. Yayyyy, bagpipes. Who doesn't love them? And then he proceeded to travel through storybook Scottish countryside, and meet stereotypical Scotsmen in stereotypical Scottish garb. Now, I've never been to Scotland, but I got a creeping feeling as I watched this that none of this represented what Scotland is really like. At all.

Too often it seems like when a piece is done focusing on a particular area, the broad outlines are drawn before any field research is done. It's kinda like saying, "OK, we're going to do a piece on New York City. We'll find a mugger, a hooker, and a peep show, then jump in a cab with an authentic New York cabbie - no foreigners, dammit! - and go to Central Park and ride in a horse and buggy to go see the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty." None of this necessarily represents what the city is about, but instead reflects a whole lot of prejudgements and stereotypes - and then selects supporting evidence to make it seem real.

I'm seeing a lot of that as national attention turns to Pennsylvania in the runup to next Tuesday's Democratic Primary. News reports present a cartoon version of Pennsylvania, slices of it presented to support a particular storyline. Let's go to a cheesesteak shop in Philadelphia and talk to all the funny people with their funny accents! Let's go to Pittsburgh and showcase the blue collar crowd! Here we are in Amish country with its horses and buggies and simple folk and their simple ways!

Northeastern Pennsylvania was given this treatment a few weeks ago. As Michelle reported, ABC's Good Morning America did a story on Wilkes-Barre that presented the city in a highly unfavorable light. Much of what it presented was, in fact, true, but it was presented in such a way that it made things look much worse than they really are. It's not hard to do.

In my A Blog of Nanticoke, I try to present my hometown in the most favorable light possible. Guess what? It ain't all sweetness and sunshine here. It would be very easy to show only the dark side of things - the squalor, the vacant houses, the rundown buildings that used to be major businesses, the potholes, the filth, the decay. And that's pretty much what ABC did to Wilkes-Barre, because those images supported the thesis they were trying to present. They told the truth, but they did not tell the whole truth.

I've been to Ireland, and it's not all Leprechauns and rolling green fields and "top o' the mornin' to ya!" It's a real place with real people. It's complex. It has a past, a present, and a future. Most of it doesn't fit into the cartoony version of Ireland that is presented to us on television.

Similarly, I do not expect that any real version of Scotland resembles the stage-managed place I saw on CBS this past Sunday morning. Nor is Wilkes-Barre completely represented in the piece on Good Morning America. So I am reminded to take with a huge grain of salt any presentation of any place anywhere on TV. They may be telling the truth, but not the whole truth. They may be showing you images of things as they are, but your overall impression may be of things as they ain't.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Award: Gratitude With Attitude

This Friday I was presented with another Award by Whim: The Gratitude With Attitude Award. I was a little bewildered at first, because I wasn't clear on what I might have done to deserve such a thing. In her post she cited this reason: "D.B. Echo, who is always willing to share what he is grateful for."

I guess I do, in fact, do this. But never enough.

If I were to try to enumerate a list of things I'm grateful for here, it would be woefully incomplete. But I'll try a few.

I'm grateful for my friends - both the bricks-and-mortar ones and the online ones. I learned during my period of unemployment last year just how massively dependent I am on my friends for my continued health and well-being, both physical and mental. I hope that in some way I serve a reciprocal function to them.

And I am equally grateful that these friends have put up with my crap. I know I'm sometimes a ridiculously unreasonable person who demands accommodations and considerations well beyond the bounds of ordinary politeness. Most of my friends haven't called me on this - yet. I will try to be a better person in this regard.

I'm grateful to have been a part of the global conversation these last few years. In my last post I expressed a concern - hardly anything new - that blogging's time has come and gone. Jen opined that people are spending more time (= Blogging Energy Units) on texting and social networking sites. These are essentially closed conversations, one-to-one or one-to-some, while blogging is an open conversation - one-to-many in the posts, many-to-one (or many-to-many) in the comments. Is the conversation over? Will it resume? I don't know. I'll keep waiting for it. And I'll do my best to keep up my end of things. But even if it were all over today, I would be happy just to have been engaged.

I'm grateful for the traveling I've done and the adventures I've had. Financial realities - among other things - may dictate that my travels are, for the moment, at an end. I expect they will resume again, perhaps sometime soon. In the meantime, each of those travels, each of those adventures, has left a mark on my being that has changed me in some way, usually for the better. And I'm grateful for that.

I'm grateful for my family. Everything I said about my friends applies here too, only a hundred times more.

I'm grateful for my job. It's given me the opportunity to learn, to grow, to network, to work with interesting people (including three fairly major celebrities who personally took part in putting their creative works to DVD), to save for my retirement, and to have enough money to buy a house, a car, to travel overseas three times, to travel to Florida numerous times, and to visit my friends all over the country. Even when I lost my job, the company dealt with the situation in a way that was pretty classy and probably well beyond any reasonable expectation. And then, nearly six months later, they brought me back, to start the journey all over again.

I'm grateful for the people I've worked with.

In the last group I worked with before I lost my job, I worked with an elite fighting force dedicated to turning around clients' projects in unreasonably short times with unreasonably high levels of quality and attention to detail, all at the lowest possible cost. We should have failed, time and time again, as our numbers were reduced and reduced and reduced again over the years. But we held together through sheer bloody-mindedness and a fanatical dedication to our work, to our clients, and especially to each other. Even now, the remnant of what was once my group still carries on, a four-engine plane improbably flying on with three engines gone and half a propeller on the last. I'm grateful to have been a part of such a group.

In the group I worked with when I came back, I was the slow learner that everyone took under their wings, the kid that everybody explained things to over and over and over again, the guy who everybody stopped what they were doing to help. Nobody had to do that. Everybody could have said "Sink or swim, pal." But they didn't. And I'm grateful for that. And I will remember it.

I'm grateful to the Toyota corporation for making the 1996 Toyota Tercel DX, a fantastic car that still gets 35-40 mpg after over 286,000 miles.

And, last but not least, I'm grateful to you, dear readers, without whom I would just be talking to myself. Thank you for visiting, thank you for reading, thank you for commenting, and thank you for coming back.

I'm supposed to pass on this award, but I do not feel worthy to judge anyone in this regard. If you feel grateful for something, a little or a lot, please claim the award for yourself and post in on your site. And once again, thank you !

Mark Cour on the NEPA blogging scene

NOTE, 4/15/08: AAAAAGH! I carefully picked my way through this piece and corrected all the misspellings of Mark's name...except the one in the title. Now I've done that, too.

Mark Cour, Northeastern PA's oldest longest-running blogger, has posted his thoughts on the state of blogging in NEPA, including specific comments on five bloggers - including yr. hmbl. blgr.

Lu Lac comments the political goings-on in two counties, which is no small task. And he’s also the local political historian. His “1968” posts remind me every time that I was correct in ignoring politics until my thirties. Different time, different name, very similar results. He’s opinionated, but never mean-spirited.

Then there’s Gort. Frankly, he’s way too partisan for my tastes, but he can be objective when he’s not repeating talking points. He tries to make nice with those who visit his site and he demands some civility and decorum from his readers when they leave comments. He’s a dinosaur, in that, he’d have to be called a responsible blogger. But he needs to admit the error of his sporting ways and kneel before my New York Football Giants helmet.

Another Monkey? A breath of fresh air these days. Not limited to one or a few topics. Thing is, you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into when you visit this site. Today it’s politics. Tomorrow music. Then next day it’s the Carpenter Bees terrorizing him in the backyard. And the very next it might be how beautiful it can be when celestial bodies collide, or how his car sucks*. Very prolific and talented writer.

Things at Kings is almost indescribable. It’s eclectic, it’s memories on parade and it’s observations from the front window when the snow flies. Never controversial, but always there.

Kayak Dude’s site is devoted to Don’s passion--The Susquehanna River--and a few other related topics on occasion. He’s a smart guy, a tireless guy, a well-read guy and a very reasonable guy. Just don’t go throwing any sort of illogic at his beloved river, though. Ain’t gonna float.

Check out the complete post at Mark's Wilkes-Barre Online. Marc's site is always worth reading, even when you don't agree with him. Maybe especially then.

One point he makes in this post is that NEPA Blogs has become a collection of mostly-dead sites. This is true, and is my fault. Well, I didn't kill the sites, but I haven't been especially assiduous in pruning back the dead foliage. In part this is because I retain a glimmer of hope that these sites will come back. Mostly it's because I'm too lazy to get around to it.

It is sad that the best I've been able to manage for NEPA Blogs lately has been the official notice that Beal's Bites has become a zombie.

Has blogging's time come and gone? Was it just a fad, and the general public has now turned its collective energy to something else? I don't know. I'm not going to say that just yet. I think blogging has enormous potential as folk history, folk journalism, folk writing. Just because some people have moved on doesn't mean that others aren't moving in. We just have to keep our eyes open for them.

* * * * * * * *

Marc also does a bit on 10-codes in anticipation of his upcoming ride-along with the Wilkes-Barre Police. As with most things, 10-codes have not been far from the front of my mind lately.**

I heard a 10-45 call on the scanner last night and had to look it up. 10 codes are very nonstandard, which is one reason Homeland Security wants to see them abolished and replaced with plain English. (Or wanted to: it looks like they've backed off from this plan.) The call was for a D.O.A., but according to the entry in Wikipedia (which, while inaccurate, is at least definitively inaccurate) 10-45 can have these meanings:

  • animal carcass
  • pick up officer
  • fatality
  • Drivers License/Warrant Check
  • fire alarm
  • fueling vehicle
  • all units in range please report
  • traffic accident (injury)
  • property damage/car accident (non-injury)

So with that in mind, here are the possibilities for what Marc is referring to when he mentions specific codes that may apply to specific bloggers:

Gort 10-47?

  • emergency road repair
  • disorders and family trouble
  • missing person
  • drunk driver
  • blood run
  • Paper Work
  • request ambulance

Another Monkey, another 10-35?

  • major crime alert
  • confidential information
  • suspicious person
  • Child abuse in progress (New York City)

The Lu Lac 10-82 Letter?

  • reserve lodging
  • stop for interrogation/arrest
  • traffic signal out
  • cover assistance
  • advise location and status

Not quite sure what Marc was getting at here. Go visit his site and see if you can figure it out for yourself!

* I object to this wholeheartedly. My car does not suck! It is a 1996 Toyota Tercel with over 286,000 miles on it that still gets between 35 and 40 miles to the gallon. Of course, it is showing signs of wear, and needs the occasional repair or overhaul. But at the moment it still makes better sense for me to keep it running than to invest in a brand-new car, or gamble on a used one.

**Someone got to witness my memory process in action during a fairly one-sided IM exchange last night. It was pretty frightening, I think.