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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Farewell, 2008. And may 2009 not suck quite as hard.

2008 was a bad, ugly year for a lot of people. And even with everything that happened - the mortgage meltdown, the collapse of risky investment schemes leading to the collapse of the global economy, the loss of discretionary income, soaring unemployment, outright corporate theft on a grand scale, political corruption, the demagoguery and the fear-mongering of the Presidential campaign - I fear that we as a society will come away from 2008 with very few lessons learned.

If nothing else, I hope everyone realizes one thing: Now we know what it's like when you pass a tipping point. So when someone warns you about other upcoming tipping points, you have some idea what they're talking about.

God help us all in 2009.

A Conjunction for the End of the Year






Conjunction of the Moon and Venus viewed over my neighbor's house between 4:57 and 5:05 PM on December 31, 2008. Pictures taken with my Nikon Coolpix L4 mounted on a dollar store tripod on the ice-covered roof of my 1996 Toyota Tercel.

The things I go through for you! The temperature when I took these pictures was somewhere around twelve degrees Fahrenheit, and the winds were gusting strongly enough to put the wind chill down somewhere around absolute zero. I was bundled up well enough, but my camera has teeny tiny controls that I cannot operate with a gloved hand. So I needed to remove my right glove momentarily each time I wanted to take a picture. After doing that four times (the fourth image shown here is actually a zoomed section of the third picture) my hand felt like it was frostbitten, and I had to get the hell back inside to warm back up. Still, I think the results were worth the pain.

2008 has not been a good year. Astronomical coincidences like this at least provide us with moments of beauty that can lift our spirits, if only for a little while. I will try to keep you apprised of upcoming events throughout 2009!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Conjunction tonight, December 30, 2008!

As you can see in this illustration stolen from Sky & Telescope's "Sky at a Glance" for Dec. 26 2008 - Jan. 3 2009, the thin crescent Moon is going to have some pretty company (particularly Venus!) in the West just after sunset today and tomorrow!

I feel bad about this, because I knew about it...and forgot. I was even checking my magazines for interesting stuff the other day and overlooked this!

Thanks to Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy for the reminder.

Go out after sunset tonight and check it out!


UPDATE: Use the Moon tomorrow (December 31) to find Venus with the naked eye in broad daylight! I'm not sure if this will work tomorrow - the atmospheric glare of the Sun may wash out both the Moon and Venus - but I have observed Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn in the daytime using just my own eyes, so it's worth a shot! Try blocking out the Sun with a chimney or church steeple, then look for the Moon about one-and-a-half three (maybe?) handspans to the left (East) of the Sun. Once you've found the Moon's not-so-thin crescent, look in its general neighborhood to see if you can spot the brilliant point of light that is Venus! (It might help if you use a cardboard tube from paper towels or toilet paper to isolate the part of the sky you're looking at! This also helps to enhance the appearance of colored stars at night.)


SEE ALSO: Another Monkey: A Conjunction for the End of the Year

Monday, December 29, 2008

Christmas visiting

OK, I'm leaving in a few minutes. I originally planned to leave a few hours ago, but one thing led to another, what with me changing my wiper blades and sanding and repainting the wiper arms (it is still too cold to do that, but I'd rather have something on those arms other than cheerful orange rust) and then refilling my front tires (damn, how long was the right front that low?)

Packed the cookies and the mulling spices. I topped off the tank on the way home from work on Saturday, the last time I used the car. Now I just need to finish packing an overnight bag and stop at my house to grab the box of wine - the furnace maintenance can wait another day - and then head on down to my friends' place. No snow left in the Poconos, either, so I won't be taking my ice cream maker.

Maybe I'll post from down there. Maybe not. We'll see!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

My Christmas Eve adventure

This is not Santa Claus.

I haven't abandoned The Stained Glass Project, though it's been a while since I've done a regular Sunday post. It just takes some time and effort to study and research each window, and while I had the time to do it today, I opted instead to screw around on the Internet. More soon, I promise.

It snowed this past week, quite a bit. We had six to eight inches of snow on Friday, and additional minor accumulations on Saturday and Sunday - just enough to make it necessary to scrape, shovel, and salt. The morning of Christmas Eve we got pounded again, this time with ice and freezing rain, which made existing road conditions much worse.

I had to babysit my nephews that morning, since both my brother and sister-in-law had to work that day. The plan was originally that I would get out there for 6:30; my sister-in-law would be leaving at 6:00 and my brother would be leaving at 6:30, and I would hang out and wait for the boys to get up, have breakfast, and get dressed, so I could then drive them back the nineteen miles of winding, narrow roads - some of them up and down a mountain - to my mom's house, where they would hang out until my brother picked them up on his way back from work in the afternoon.

Plans changed the night before, based on the predicted weather. My sister-in-law decided she would go in to work an hour later. So now I didn't have to be there at 6:30, I had to be there at 7:00. No big difference from my point of view.

I got up, showered, dressed, ate breakfast, and was on my way by 6:15. Road conditions were awful, so I picked my way slowly along the road, keeping pace with the other traffic - generally at 25 miles per hour. The hill climbing part of the trip was...interesting. I was pretty interested in whether the people coming downhill at me would be able to handle the turns. They did, mostly. (There was a rollover at the bottom of the hill about an hour after I came through.)

I got to my brother's place at 7:00 on the dot, having taken 45 minutes to travel 19 miles. I got there to see my sister-in-law waiting in her SUV in the driveway, and an unfamiliar car crashed into their front lawn.

"Ummm, what's up with that?" I said as I pulled up.

"She spun out at the corner and went off the road," my sister-in-law explained. "She's stuck in the snow."

Well, the boys were still asleep and I had nothing to do for a few hours, so I decided to see if I could help. "Be careful!" the woman in the car cried as I duck-walked up the driveway. "Don't slip on the ice!" she warned as I slipped on the ice. (I fell, but I have learned how to fall. And falling on ice is easy, much better than falling on a surface with greater friction.)

We tried to assess her situation. Front-wheel drive Pontiac, front wheels off the road and onto the roadside snowbank, snow packed under car. Rocking back and forth had done nothing but dig her in deeper. I decided to try cat litter under the wheels. I did not have any in the car, a situation I remedied later that day, but my brother's family has a cat. Unfortunately they use scoopable/clumping cat litter, which tends to turn to paste when it touches water. Not very effective as a traction aid.

Next we tried shovels. Again, I did not have one in the car at the time, but I was able to locate two of my brother's shovels that seemed like toys. (At least one was a toy, a kid's snow shovel that had been buried in the snow on the front lawn, but the other was a real snow shovel of a less serious design than I am used to working with.) We dug out the snow from under her car as best we could.

We also received generally unhelpful assistance from a few passers-by, most of whom managed to dig her car in a bit deeper. She explained her situation to each in turn as I chivalrously held her pink umbrella over her head - or over my head, when I would occasionally zone out and forget that I was supposed to be keeping the freezing rain off of her. The last one seemed to know what he was doing, and I trusted his skill with the gear shift enough to actually get in front of the car and push it with my mighty muscular thighs. (Why do people try to push things with their hands? Compare the femur to the bones of the wrist. Discuss.) After a few back-and-forth rockings - with me pushing on the back, and retreating on the forth - we managed to get the car moving. I was so happy that I fell flat on my face as the car backed away from me. Luckily, I landed in deep snow.

A few hours later I found myself stuck in the driveway, trying to get to my mom's with my nephews. The shovels were called back into action, and then I remembered the magic of Low gear. We drove our way carefully along the winding downhill road, past the remnants of the rollover accident. When we made it onto a relatively clear straightaway, the boys began to pepper me with questions about how Santa Claus covers so much territory in a single night, which I answered by explaining that Santa actually travels by means of a quantum wave function in a Bose-Einstein Condensate, effectively being smeared out over entire sections of the world at once and using chimneys as resonant chambers for triggering the momentary collapse of his wave function into a particular location for a twinkling of an eye.

Seven hours later I made the trip back to my brother's house for Vigil Supper, this time with my mother and sister in the car. And then back to my mom's house three hours later. And then to Midnight Mass at 11:15 - my mom is in the choir and had to be there early - and back home again at 2:00.

So I was a little bushed for Christmas Day. And since I had to be up for work at 3:00 the next morning, I never did bother to wake all the way up. So for me, Christmas has only just begun.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Mulled wine

I'm thinking of making mulled wine during one of my Christmas visits. Big ol' box of wine, some spices, a pot, low heat, a ladle, some glasses, a fireplace, some cats...

I drink mostly boxed wine these days. I drink only rarely, usually just before a blood donation, so I need something which will keep for a long time after opening. Wine in a box is protected from light and oxygen, so it will not turn to vinegar in the eight weeks between blood donations - or even over the course of sixteen, twenty-four, thirty-two, or more weeks.

But boxed wine does change over time. It improves. Upon first sampling a box, the wine usually tastes shallow, very one-note. Over time - eight weeks, minimum - the once-tapped wine begins to develop complexity, and begins to resemble the more expensive Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon that my friends and I used to enjoy so much. I can't explain how, unless some air is getting into the collapsing inner bag and is causing a slow oxidation. Whatever, the wine tastes good - and gets better over time.

It is possible that the last time I had anything resembling mulled wine - boxed wine poured into a mug with cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and a few other spices added, all stuck in a microwave for forty-five seconds or so - was the morning that my grandmother died, after I came back from seeing her body at the hospital. Ten years? That's a long time between mugs of wine.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Back to work for Calendar Day

I have two days of work this rotation, Friday the 26th and Saturday the 27th. These days inconveniently fall right on Calendar Day and the start of after-Christmas sales, but I'd rather be earning money than not earning money. Besides, it's not like I have any money to go shopping with anyway.

These days will bring the grand total of days I have worked in the month of December to nine. Nine twelve-hour days, 108 hours, plus three twelve-hour holidays for which I've already been paid. Here's hoping for better times ahead.

Once my truncated work week ends I will be free for at least five days (four days off-rotation plus January 1), so I will be able to do my Christmas visiting starting Sunday, December 28. I'll be slightly sore, but I will soldier on. I'd better get some of these cookies delivered before I eat them all!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas, such as it is

It doesn't really feel like Christmas this year, even though I've been baking my ass off getting ready. I guess last year I looked at my financial situation and said, "So what, I'm buying gifts anyway!" Not this year.

My card this year reflects the bleakness that I'm feeling. I felt bad about sending it out, especially after I started to get really nice cards from friends everywhere, cards whose sentiments lifted the despair from me for a little while at least. But a lot of people who received the card have gotten a kick out of it, so I guess maybe I've brightened their days, too.




Naturally, there's a story behind this card.

The story is that when I tried to come up with a design for this year's card, I realized that my printer is all out of color ink. (The empty cartridge in my printer was installed 12/5/07 to print out last year's Christmas gifts, so it served its purpose well.) So I would have to come up with a black and white design, or bite the bullet and get a new (or refilled) cartridge.

I toyed with a few black-and-white designs, and then a thought hit me: what if I ran out of black ink while printing these? I decided then that the card would be spare, minimalistic, to an extreme degree. I had an idea what it would look like, and least the front of it, and I had to find an appropriate typewriter font. (This one is called CarbonType, though the lines on the inside of the card are in VTCorona.) A 12-point font looked better, but I opted for the smaller 10-point.

I was going to list holidays inside the card, but I did that in a previous year, so instead I listed a group of characteristics and time lengths that could apply. (Most people had all of the items checked, though for friends in bands I left the "Silent" line unchecked.)

The kicker is the last line. In previous years my friends and I have expressed confidence that the coming year could not possibly suck as badly as the one we had been though, but every time we had been proven wrong. So this year I only expressed this as a hope.


As Tiny Tim said in A Christmas Carol, "God bless us, every one."

Or, as The Comedian said to Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen, "God help us all."

Which, I suppose, is never a bad sentiment.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas Eve

Well, we're here. The shopping is done (mostly), the cooking and baking is finished (maybe), the family is gathered (or will be soon)...or not.

Whatever your situation, I hope you have a peaceful holiday season, and a more prosperous year ahead.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Holiday schedule

I was on layoff last rotation. Actually, I haven't worked a full week since the week before Thanksgiving. I worked three eight-hour days that week, had an eight-hour holiday, and then the plant was closed the day after Thanksgiving. I was supposed to start working the 4x4 (four twelve hour days on, four days off) the following Sunday, but that didn't get communicated properly - so I was on layoff that Sunday, and then worked three twelve-hour days. The following rotation I was supposed to work Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday, but I was laid off on Monday, resulting in another 3-day/36-hour week. And last rotation, Tuesday through Friday, I was laid off the whole while.

This rotation I'm not expecting to be laid off. It should start on Wednesday, but that's Christmas Eve, a holiday. Christmas Day, too. So I will need to be in bed by 9:00 Christmas Day to be up at 3:00 bright and early the morning of the 26th, and then again on the 27th. Then I'll have the 28th through the 31st scheduled off, and New Year's Day as a holiday, but I will need to be ready to go back to work the morning of January 2nd.

I'll try to do my holiday visiting sometime in there!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Happy Hanukkah!

The Dreidel Song gets all edgy and stuff in this version (featuring Jules Brookes & Y-Love) from Erran Baron Cohen's album Songs in the Key of Hanukkah.



Listen to the Fresh Air interview with Erran Baron Cohen here.

Remembrance of things past

My grandfather and grandmother (second row, left of center)
and my great-aunt (second row, second from right)

I've done it. I've loaded 1,168 images onto a 2GB SD card that will go into the digital photo frame I got my mom for Christmas. Even so, the card is still only half full, so I have room for another thousand or so images.

My grandmother shakes her fist at the gathered family
at her surprise 80th birthday party, 1990.

A word of advice for anyone attempting to do this, something I once knew but have since forgotten: root directories have limits on how many files can be stuck in them. I learned this over ten years ago when I was developing an automated data collection system for our CD testing racks. Each test that would run on the rack would have its results saved to a 3.5" "floppy" disc as a flat file. Once a week I would go to all of the racks and swap out the discs with blank ones,* and then compile and analyze all of the data for one of the world's largest CD manufacturers using two computers with 500 MB hard drives. When we implemented this system, everything seemed to run fine for the first day or two. But then, almost but not quite simultaneously, systems began to crash across the plant, and I had to engage the built-in kill switch (set the rack number to "0" to prevent records from being written.) A brief consultation with the people who had done the programming revealed that we had butted up against the root directory limitation: as each test rack performed a number of tests that exceeded this limit, the program was no longer able to save to the floppy. We got around this by having the program save to a subdirectory on the disc, where the limitation did not apply.

Chico the Chihuahua (1975 -1991) and
Kitty the Black Dog (1983? - 1997)

So: if you try to do a file dump onto an SD card, you will be able to load so many files (my limit was 338) and then you will get the message "directory or file cannot be created." Thanks to the helpful information shown here, I learned how to get around this:

mathias
Thu, 06/11/08@21:28
Copying pictures from my PC onto a Sandisk 2Gb SD card with a Belkin reader/writer, I find I am unable to store any more than approx. 600MB of pictures before a dialogue box appears and says "The directory or file cannot be created. I have also tried with different SD cards with the same result.I would very much appreciate it if anyone help me with this problem.

anchor
Fri, 07/11/08@11:57
A quick Google shows that this is not an uncommon problem. The root directory has a size limit.Try this: delete one file from the existing directory on the card, then create a new folder. Try again copying to the new folder and see if that helps. You may even need additional folders to accommodate all your pics.


Kitty and Josie (adopted as an adult
in 1991; died 2001)

I followed anchor's advice and was able to load the rest of my photos onto my SD card, no problem! Wait, that's a lie. My Targus card read/write gizmo from Radio Shack sucks badly; I need to either apply constant pressure on the card with my thumb to ensure contact, or I need to use a rubber band to keep the card locked in. The slightest bump will either break contact or dislodge the USB/power cable. Also, I ran into several "cursed" images that would not copy over until I did all sorts of tricks. Pain in the butt, really. But I am not complaining.

So now I have it. 1,168 images, mostly from the last two or three years, but some older, a few much older. A broad sampling of the past and the future, the living and the dead, all cycling along at five second intervals. I hope my mom like it.


*OK, it was a semi-automated system.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Fog in the Church

Winter has arrived, all at once. On Friday we had anywhere from six to eight inches of snow, good snowball-making stuff. Yesterday morning I ran out to my car to go to my eye appointment to find it covered with a dusting of snow over a layer of ice. And today the trip to church was delayed slightly by the need to clean another inch of snow off the car.

While I was driving my mom's car (and my mom) to church this morning, I made a point to stop at my car and retrieve the camera that I had left there overnight. I had a dollar-store tabletop tripod in my pocket, and I realized that the snow on the ground might be just the thing for getting better-lit pictures of the Northern windows at the church, so I wanted to be prepared just in case the midday sun broke through the clouds.

I got to the church and broke out my equipment to test it. As the lector approached the lectern to deliver the first reading, I snapped the photo above. Unfortunately, I had not realized the effect of exposing my very cold camera lens to the relatively warm, humid environment of the church. The lens fogged up immediately, and I got the fairly cool sepia-tone image (oddly reminiscent of a certain image by Andres Serrano) shown above. I then broke out a convenient poly/cotton cloth to clean the lens (OK, I used the sleeve of my shirt) and got this version of the same shot:



After Mass I ran down to the center aisle to re-shoot the Northern windows, using the folded tripod as a stand to stabilize the camera on the pews. Not all of the new pictures came out as well as I would have liked - I will definitely need to bring in my real tripod to get properly sharp images of some of the windows - but most of them are definite improvements over what I had before. (On the left is the original handheld image; on the right is one using the dollar-store tabletop tripod.)

So now I can do a few more installments of The Stained Glass Project using halfway decent images!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Eyes eyes baby

This is what it looks like when your eye explodes.

I went to the eye doctor today for a dilation and examination, my first one in over three years. I got a clean bill of health. My eyes have not degenerated to the point that I need bifocals, though that will almost certainly not be the case next time around. The concentrated Wisk that I splashed in my eye a few months ago did not cause any scarring. The increase in visibility of my always-present floaters was probably the result of different lighting and monitor conditions in the office where I was doing my data analysis gig. And most of my vision problems are probably the result of thousands of tiny scratches on the three-year-old lenses in my glasses.

Ten years ago I had a slightly more serious problem. I suppose I had been noticing it for a while, but it first became obvious when I happened to be in a stall in the men's room at work. The door was painted a solid, cheerful royal blue, but I could clearly see a burning spot of orange-yellow on it. Problem was, this burning spot of orange-yellow moved wherever I happened to be looking.

Now, if I had just been looking at a bright light or an intensely-colored object, I might have concluded that I was seeing an afterimage. But I had not been looking at any such thing in the past few minutes. And the image persisted; it did not fade like an afterimage should.

I was worried. There was something wrong with my eye, maybe something seriously wrong. I made an emergency appointment with my regular eye doctor, the one I went to today. He got me in - possibly that afternoon - and after an exam referred me to an opthamologist.

It was a few days before I got to see the opthamologist, and during that time the spot didn't get any bigger, but it also didn't go away. When he finally got me in we did all sorts of fun stuff: he dilated my pupils - always a good time - and then injected a fluorescent dye into my bloodstream that made me want to dry-heave. After an agonizing wait, the real fun began as he aimed an incredibly bright light into my wide-open pupil and took a series of pictures. The end result was a group of photos like the one above, showing a small rupture in a blood vessel in my right eye just slightly off from the center.

"So what can we do about it?", I asked.

"Nothing," he said. "It will just go away on its own."

Ummmm. Well, that was good news, I suppose. But it seemed like there wasn't really much point to the whole dilation / fluorescent dye / extremely bright light deal, if all we were going to do was let nature take its course.

I wished I had been going out to Tink's that night. It would have been cool to have giant glowing pupils on the dance floor.


In time the bright spot faded and was gone. Still, I wonder if it will come back. And what brought it on? Was it a weakening in the walls of the capillaries in my eye? A temporary increase in blood pressure? Or was it just a freak occurrence?

For now my eyes are OK. I will get the prescription for my new glasses filled at one of the places that accepts my insurance. And I will continue to be on the lookout for any unexplained bright spots in my field of vision.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Another dream

I had dreams again last night. I haven't had any that I can remember in a while, but last night I had two. One was just weird, and I'm not going to talk about it. The other, though, was a standard category dream, with a twist.

I've been alive long enough to be able to categorize my dreams, and I've been able to compare notes with enough friends to know that the categories are not unique to me. (Are they cross-cultural? That's a question worth investigating.) There is, for example, the dream of falling, or slipping, often involving running up a flight of steps and missing one - accompanied by a myoclonic jerk. These come early in the sleep cycle. How the dream precedes (or seems to precede) the jerk leads to interesting questions of causality vs. retroactive memory.

Another common group of dreams involves classes in high school or college. Typically, I have a final to take but I cannot remember or cannot locate the room it is in, or I have a final coming up and I realize that I have forgotten to attend all or most of the classes that semester. I have heard an explanation that dreams like this imply that the dreamer is suffering for a lack of organization. Sure, why not?

Last night's dream was different. I had a class in college, and I had forgotten to go to the classes - but only for the first week or so. I had then remembered that I had the class and was trying to catch up with all the introductory stuff, including the fairly basic question of what books I needed for the class. Apparently this was some sort of meta-analysis sociology class where we would be studying the analyses that several people had made of other people's analyses of certain social movements, all of which seemed to be based in the early-to-mid 1970s. It seemed, even in the dream, to be the sort of absolutely ridiculous and pointless liberal arts course that I hear my right-wing friends use to make the argument that college educations are worthless. The professor even seemed like an old hippie, and the classroom was a loosely structured array of couches and loveseats and coffee tables, more reminiscent of Sybill Trelawney's Divination classroom in the Harry Potter stories than any classroom I've been in.

Truth is, I had very few general "Liberal Arts" classes in college. As a Physics/Philosophy double-major with a minor in Mathematics and a member of the Special Jesuit Liberal Arts program, my schedule was fairly packed, but mostly with specialized courses. Most of my Liberal Arts courses were in the SJLA program, which meant I was taking them with the same highly focused group of students. Through my four years in college I probably took a half-dozen or so classes that fell outside of this framework (aside from my Phys. Ed. classes, which were Judo, Racquetball, Bowling, and Bowling), and none of them were quite as woolly as the one in my dream.

Sheena McDermott's death has affected me in some strange ways, and I think it was behind this dream. It has made me re-examine my life, naturally, and my derailed career path, and my relationships (and lack thereof), and my timidity in the face of so many things where Sheena had always shown boldness, and the series of choices that have led me to this very moment. What should I have done differently? What can I do differently from this point? Some obvious suggestions run into immediate obstacles. Get a new job? Fine. Where? Who's hiring? Go back to school? OK, great idea! How do I pay for it? How do I pay for everything else I need to pay for that I'm just barely paying for already?

Am I stuck? Is there a way out? One that doesn't involve abandoning all of the people and things I have sworn not to abandon?

Yesterday was garbage day. My brother doesn't have a recycling program where he lives, so rather than toss all his plastic and glass and recyclable metal into a landfill he carts it twenty miles to my mom's house and puts it out on her recycling day. This means that whenever he does this, instead of having two recycling containers to contend with I have four, plus any extras he might bring along. Being lazy, I tend to carry all of these containers at the same time - two garbage-can sized containers in one hand, two in the other, a washtub-sized Rubbermaid container gripped with a forefinger and thumb. Sometime this works, and I get all these containers from the curb to the destination point without incident. Yesterday I dropped the Rubbermaid container, which meant I had to go though the supreme inconvenience of unlocking my arms, setting down one pair of recycling containers, re-gripping the Rubbermaid container with forefinger and thumb, and then using the three remaining fingers to pick up the two recycling containers. As I cursed and muttered under my breath the thought came unbidden: What would Sheena give to be able to do this again? I don't know. I didn't know Sheena well enough twenty-three years ago, or at all in the past twenty-one years, to be able to answer that. But I shut the hell up and did the simple task I was doing, and moved along.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Pixels, not paper

Since I got a digital camera a few years ago I have taken thousands of pictures. Even my mom has taken hundreds of pictures on hers. Unfortunately only a fraction of these have ever been printed. Why kill the trees and waste the chemicals when we have perfectly good ways of viewing the pictures? But my mom wants to be able to have them at her fingertips. I had to dissuade her from buying a photo printer from one of the home shopping channels this weekend. I explained to her that even if the printer itself was inexpensive, the cost of the ink and paper would be prohibitive.


I got some friends a digital photo frame for Christmas last year. It was a nice one, I thought, and pretty middling price-wise as far as these things go...though it tells you how much my financial situation has worsened since then that I cannot conceive of buying anyone a present this expensive this year. But it went unused most of the year, in the original box. In the meantime I saw a few other digital photoframes in action and they looked atrocious: garish colors, distorted images, ugly, ugly, ugly.


The last time I visited these friends a few weeks ago they had the photoframe up and running, loaded with photos of sea life from a diving trip they had taken over the summer. The colors were beautiful, the images sharp and clear. I decided then and there I would be getting my mom this same frame for Christmas.


I've got a spare 2GB SD card, so I'm going to use that to install her pictures into the frame. I have over a thousand photos ready to go already, pictures from my camera, from her camera, scans of old family photos and my nephews' artwork. I may even get pictures from my brother if I get a chance.


It's weird going through these images - seeing children who have since grown up, friends and family members and pets who have since died. I'm not sure how the order of images will be determined on the frame, but if it follows the order in the folder I'm working with then there will be some very strange juxtapositions. With something like, say, twelve hundred photos going into the frame, it may take some time for any given image to appear again in the slideshow. Or two images that were taken consecutively may be separated by hundreds of other images.


The biggest challenge I've faced so far is the need for all images to be oriented the same way. The majority of the pictures I'm looking at are in the "landscape" format - long axis running horizontally - so that will be the way the frame will be displayed. But that means that if I don't want any "portrait" style photos, with the long axis running vertically, to be displayed sideways, I need to segregate those images and then rotate them ninety degrees.


It's a tedious process, but I'm down to 160 or so that need to be rotated. Once I have them all ready, I'll drop them onto the SD card and have it ready to pop into the digital frame on Christmas Day! I hope she likes it!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Goodbye, Sheena

I was out doing some Christmas shopping tonight when I saw that someone had left a message on my cell phone. I hate getting messages on my cell phone - Verizon has it set up so that if you have any messages near their expiration date, you have to play through all of those and either delete or re-save them before you can hear your new message. Generally I just check the caller ID of whoever called me and call them back. But this time I made it to the message immediately and listened to it.

It was a friend I went to the University of Scranton with. He was an Electronics Engineering major in my class, the class of 1989 (I majored in Physics, and we were both part of the same department.). He asked me if I had gotten the latest alumni magazine, the Scranton Journal. He asked if I had seen that Sheena McDermott, who was an Electronics Engineering major from the class of 1987, had died.

I had gotten the magazine, but I hadn't read it. I was still sore at the University for their supremely bad timing in calling me earlier this week to ask me to make a donation to the alumni fund a few minutes after I had confirmed that I would be on layoff for this rotation.

Sheena was a remarkable person. Feisty, vivacious, alive. She smoked and drank and swore like the fine Irish lass she was. I saw her more out of the department than in it. She was one of the University Players. I remember seeing her in Bus Stop, playing the role of Cherie. (At one point in the production a prop door refused to open. Rather than going around, she shouted "Help! Help! I'm locked outside!")

In recent years, as I've stretched my legs on the Internet, I've tuned up my sleuthing / stalking / people-finding skills. Sheena was one of my earliest targets. Unfortunately, "Sheena McDermott" is not exactly a unique name, so I received a plethora of results, most or all of them pointing to Sheena McDermotts other than the one I was looking for. This was before the days when MySpace and Facebook and personal blogs were ubiquitous.

I guess I haven't looked for her in a while. Otherwise I might have found her site, and re-connected with her, or at least known about what was going on with her, or what had gone on with her. From the site:
Sheena lost her battle with cancer the night of April 26, 2008. As all the entries in the Guestbook here and in the NJ Star Ledger obituary reflect, Sheena left an extended community of friends and family who will miss her greatly.
Her obituary:
Sheena Ann McDermott

NORTH ARLINGTON - Sheena Ann McDermott of North Arlington passed away Sunday, April 27. She was 44 years old. Ms. McDermott was born in Jersey City and raised in North Arlington.

She was a graduate of Queen of Peace High School, received her undergraduate degree in Physics and Electrical Engineering from the University of Scranton and received her M.B.A. from Rutgers University School of Business. During her career as an engineer, she was employed by several corporations all over the country before returning to North Arlington and starting a second career as a math teacher at North Arlington High School.

She is survived by parents Charles and Mary (nee McMahon), siblings Karen, Mark and his wife, Rita and Neil and his wife, Bonnie. She is also survived by nieces and nephews Jeffrey, Zachary, Brooke, Brian, Tara and Andrew as well as extended family and close friends.

On April 30, relatives and friends attended the funeral from Parow Funeral Home and the funeral mass from Our Lady Queen of Peace Church, both in North Arlington.

The family would appreciate donations made to the American Cancer Society (Colon Cancer Research), 20 Mercer St., Hackensack, NJ 07601 in her memory.


Goodbye, Sheena.


See also:
Brad Macomber's posts about Sheena
American Cancer Society: Sheena's Inspiration
More information on Sheena's Inspiration

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Aging the Angel

I got a lot of great photos during my cemetery walk this past October 19. The day was bright, the leaves were at peak, and lots of beautiful scenes were presenting themselves. One of the more striking photos was this one of a monument topped by an angel, either praying, or gripped with grief, or both.

I really like this photo, but today I reminded myself of the neat things I can do with my fairly simple Adobe PhotoDeluxe Home Edition 3.0 software when I took a sharp, new digital color photo and turned it into a simulation of a grainy, aged sepia-tone photograph. I decided to try to do the same thing here.

The first step was to desaturate the image. I didn't do it all the way, because I wanted to have a hint of color to play with in later steps.


I then modified the dominant color into something much more amber, by playing with variations that made the image more yellow and more red.


I desaturated again, added noise (monochromatic noise, using a Gaussian distribution), and played with the lightness, brightness, and contrast.


I repeated these steps several times until I had something that looked pretty close to the image I wanted.



After I had it where I wanted it, I used the Extensis Photoframe tool to simulate some edge damage in the photo.


I actually applied two of these frames, with the second flipped horizontally and vertically relative to the first and then skewed by a few degrees.


Next I created a border, which, since it is white, is only apparent if you select this image. I did this by increasing the "canvas size" uniformly in both the horizontal and vertical directions.


Next I "aged" this border by yellowing it slightly.


To add verisimilitude, I included a note in the lower margin. The font I used is Akbar, which replicates the lettering of Matt Groening in his Life In Hell comic strip. I stretched and skewed the text a bit. The color is blue-black.


Next I saved this image as a jpeg. This is because there are ways you can manipulate an image layer that you cannot manipulate a text layer. So I saved it as a jpeg and reopened it for more manipulation. I then smudged the text area somewhat, added a little more noise, and used the Soften tool to soften the entire image.

And that was that. Here is the finished image:


Not bad for a half-hour's effort.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Nanticoke Historical Society

The Nanticoke Historical Society was featured in a story in today's Citizen's Voice:


Nanticoke Historical Society saves, documents pieces of city’s past

BY ELIZABETH SKRAPITS
STAFF WRITER

Published: Monday, December 15, 2008 11:58 AM EST

NANTICOKE — They’re preservationists, technophiles, detectives and, when the occasion calls for it, Dumpster-divers.

Members of the Nanticoke Historical Society have seen too much of the city’s history reduced to rubble, crumble to dust, get carted to landfills or otherwise irretrievably vanish to be squeamish. When it comes to saving records that might be crucial for charting the South Valley’s history or providing genealogical data, they’ll do what they have to.

“Believe me, it’s a rich, rich history we have in this town,” said Chester Zaremba, the society’s vice president and secretary.
You can read the rest of the article here.

I wonder what the Society's membership dues are? I'd like to get involved. Assuming I'll be on this schedule for a while, I may find myself with some time that I could devote to the activities of this group, and it may mesh with things I'm already involved in. And since I've chosen to make this place my home for the foreseeable future, this will be a good networking opportunity as well.

I don't know much about web design, but I think I've got this blogging thing down pretty well. I wonder if the Nanticoke Historical Society would benefit from having its activities publicized through a blog?

You can see all of my entries in the category A Song of Nanticoke here. You can also see my blog about Nanticoke (mostly reposts of things from Another Monkey, or things that have been reposted on Another Monkey) here.

You can visit the Nanticoke Historical Society website here.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Stained Glass Project: Shattered Image

This is part of an ongoing series called The Stained Glass Project, in which I am attempting to photographically preserve the stained glass windows of my parish church, Our Lady of Czestochowa (St. Mary's) in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania.


When I did a post featuring the round windows at the top of each pair of large stained glass windows at St. Mary's church in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, I realized I had missed something. There were twelve pairs of portrait windows in the church, six on either side, plus a pair of non-portrait stained glass windows at the back of the church on either side. Each of these pairs formed a major window, surmounted by a round window. I had twelve images. There should have been fourteen. What had I missed?

I quickly realized one of the missing images was on the North side all the way at the front of the church. This was one of the least-accessible windows, and one of those that gets the least light. My current image of it is poor and blurred and cuts off the round window entirely. Soon I will be arranging to reshoot these windows with a tripod to get the best possible images with my equipment. But where was the other?

The other, it turned out, was in the back of the church above the South side non-portrait window. It was visible only from the choir loft, and only from a part of the choir loft that I had never been in before.

I found myself in church unexpectedly on a Sunday morning two weeks ago. I had already been to Saturday evening Mass that week, but since I didn't have anything better to do that morning, and since it was the first Sunday after Erin Moody's excellent article on the Stained Glass Project had appeared in the Wilkes-Barre Citizens' Voice, I decided to attend Sunday services and see if anyone was looking at the windows with renewed interest. (They weren't, as far as I could tell, though a few people did stop me to comment on the article.)

After Mass I made my way over to the South side of the choir loft to get my picture of the overlooked window. The light was not at its best, so I knew that getting a sharp image would be very difficult. But when I saw the window I was a little taken aback.


Someone, at some point in the past, has used this window for target practice with a BB gun.

With some effort I could probably pinpoint the position of the shooter. Just based on the pattern of cracks I could probably place him - it was almost certainly a him - to within plus or minus twenty feet. To determine when this happened, though, I would have to call in someone with better skills in crime scene investigation. At best I can assert that this most likely happened within the last hundred years or so.


Another obvious question, though, is : What the heck is this an image of? The banner script will likely be of little assistance, since key parts of it are missing - rubbed away, or simply evaporated - and the impact scar left by the BB eliminates the first letters of the first word. The object itself looks strangely mechanical. At first glance I thought this was some sort of musical instrument with a horn attached, or a sort of record player with a tone arm. On closer inspection the object above the multi-sided structure looks like it might be a pump handle, or perhaps a pulley attached to the structure. Could this be a representation of a ciborium, or a pyx? Or could this be a baptismal font? The linked Wikipedia entry notes:


The simplest of these fonts has a pedestal (about 1.5 metres tall) with a holder for a basin of water. The materials vary greatly consisting of carved and sculpted marble, wood, or metal. The shape can vary. Many are 8-sided as a reminder of the "new creation" and as a connection to the practice of circumcision which traditionally occurs on the 8th day.

This structure appears to have six sides, not eight, though this may be an illusion; compare to this image of an actual baptismal font. If this is a baptismal font, does this one have a lid on it? (Many modern fonts feature lids.) And is the object on top a pump-handle, or a ladle for conducting baptisms?

Inscription enhanced to bring out detail

It's hard to say, particularly without the full inscription. But that helpful information has been taken from us by a small ball of stainless steel, fired by some wanton boy perhaps many decades ago.


UPDATE, 12/15/08: Once again, Dee solves the mystery!


Hortus conclusus -- literally an enclosed garden, but used as a metaphor for the Virgin Mary. From wikipedia: The term hortus conclusus is derived from the Song of Solomon (also called the Song of Songs) 4:12: "A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed."

It's not a baptismal font, it's a sealed fountain.

The Latin for "fountain" is "fons." So if this is a "sealed fountain," then the inscription is most likely "Fons Conclusus"!

Dee, your scholarship once again has been amazingly valuable!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Ten years ago today

Ten years ago today my grandmother died.

It was a Sunday. She died in the early hours of the morning, in bed, in her nursing home. I was the last member of our family to see her alive, and the first one to see her dead.

The next day I went into work for part of the day, ostensibly to wrap some stuff up before taking bereavement leave, but mainly to write this e-mail to a pen pal who had become a friend:

Dec. 14, 1998

My grandmother died on Sunday morning.

I think I forgot to tell you in my last letter how well my grandmother was doing. Let me rectify that omission now. My grandmother began getting treatment for her urinary tract infection early last week - Sunday or Monday - and immediately responded very positively. Her eyes brightened, she stayed awake and alert for hours at a time, she stopped alternating fever and chills, she spoke in complete sentences or longer-than-usual fragments. When I came to see her on - Thursday? Friday? - she was in bed; as I approached, she said, "Don't wake me up. I'm sleeping." This was followed by "What time is it, anyway?" When I told her it was 7:15 at night, not in the morning, she decided to wake up all the way and sit up with me for a while.

On Saturday afternoon she was better than she has been for months. She was bright and alert, sitting in her chair, watching an Andre Rieu Christmas Concert on television. She loved the music, and loved being able to name some of the songs, like "O Come, All Ye Faithful" ("Adeste Fideles".) When I told her that my mother was coming home from my sister's place in Maryland the next day, she simply said, "When?"

My uncle was there when I came in that day. After he commented on how well she looked, he mentioned to me that my grandmother's first long-term roommate in the nursing home, Eleanor Wallace, had died on Friday. My grandmother showed no reaction. I made a note to look up the obituary and go to the viewing - we had developed quite a rapport with Eleanor's family.

That afternoon, before I took my pre-
Tink's nap (or was it after I had napped, worked out, showered, and dressed? Details are so confused right now), I called my mother at my sister's house. I tried to break the news about Eleanor's death gently, and suggested that she might want to come home a little early, to be able to make the viewing.

Tink's was relatively uneventful. I came home at the usual time, around 3:00 AM, and had a before-bedtime meal. I went to sleep at 4:00 with Mazzy Star's "Among My Swan" playing, planning to get up in five hours to go to 10:45 mass at the nursing home with my grandmother.

My father woke me at 5:50, not two hours after I had lay down. My cousin was on the phone. She said, "Babki was rushed to the hospital this morning. When they went to check her at five, she wasn't breathing and didn't have a pulse." I think I responded with "That's not good" and immediately began getting dressed. I called my mother, told her that my grandmother had been taken to the hospital in "bad shape" (read "dead") and suggested that she call my uncle, who had been contacted by the nursing home as the events transpired.

I rushed to the hospital, after verifying which hospital it was. I assigned a high probability to her being dead on arrival - dead since before 5:00 that morning. I assigned a much lower probability to her having been successfully resuscitated, but then assigned a high probability that, if this were the case, she would die again anyway in a very short time. Everything else was assigned a vanishingly small probability.

Mercy Hospital in Wilkes-Barre was not built according to any one plan. You go in the main entrance, up a flight of stairs to the main lobby, and down a series of corridors to the Emergency Room. (Patients, of course, have a direct entrance.) But the doors do not lead to the Emergency Room waiting room, or admissions - you go directly into the ER. As I entered, I was overwhelmed by the calm and silence. There was a single nurse at the desk. There was no activity in the room, no beeps or pings of monitors on patients. All was quiet.

I assigned a high probability to my grandmother being dead. A much lower probability was assigned to her being alive but not in the ER. A very small probability was given to her having not yet arrived at the ER.

I confronted the nurse. "I was told that my grandmother was being brought here. Her name is Anna ____."

She stammered momentarily. "Have you spoken with anyone about this?" she said. I knew what she meant.

"It is very likely that she was dead when she came here," I countered. (That's the way I talk. It sounds really artificial when I read it now, but I think those were my exact words.)

"Yes," she said. She led me to one of the ER berths and drew back the curtain. There was my grandmother's body. Her skin was still pink. I touched her cheek - still warm. Very warm. I commented to the nurse, and then I realized that my hands were still cold from the drop in body temperature all humans experience during sleep, and from my two-minute walk through near-freezing temperatures from the parkade across the street to the main entrance to the hospital. She just seemed warm to me. Her skin was pink - not the darker color I would expect if she had choked to death on mucus or otherwise suffocated. She looked asleep - well, not exactly, since she never slept with her mouth open like that.

I got on the phone, tried to tell my mother that there was no need to hurry. I crossed connections with her - she was trying to call her brother in Georgia. I called my uncle, the father of the cousin who had told me about what had happened, and he said that he had tried to call me to let me know that she was dead, but I had already left. I was glad I missed that call. I might have decided not to go to the hospital.

As it was, I was the last member of our family to see her alive, and the first one to see her dead.

I came into work late this afternoon nominally to take care of some problems that came up over the weekend, but really just to write this letter.

There is another letter I must write, to the people who work here. I'll try to get that one out tonight.

The ten year anniversary makes me think about the ways my life has changed since then. Some things have gotten better, some worse, some have remained the same.

Ten years ago I was a thirty-year-old working his way up the corporate ladder at a well-established company. I had just committed to take a job in a new, exciting branch of our facility - but who knew if this "DVD" thing would take off? Still, I was willing to take the risk of leaving my job as Statistical Process Control Coordinator for our large CD manufacturing section and take on the role of DVD Asset Manager, coordinating the receipt of the DVD content for each project we would be Authoring and determining the precise way in which all of the elements would fit together into an Authored project.

Today I am a forty-year-old who has slipped quite far back down that ladder, smashing his chin off the rungs along the way. I almost said "that same corporate ladder," but in fact the ladder has changed ownership several times since then. I now work as a DVD Molding operator in a moribund industry in a collapsing global economy. No longer am I patiently accepting deferred rewards with the promise of something better to come; now I am scraping along as best I can, looking and working and hoping for something better to come along - just like everybody else.

There is music that I associate with that time. The songs I mentioned here were all songs that I listened to on the last night of my grandmother's life, after I had gotten back from dancing at Tink's. But there is another song, a favorite of my grandmother's. She was the sort of person who loved to sing. She would sing while she worked around the house, old standards like "Old Joe Clark" and religious songs like "Were You There?" But when I was a child there was a song she would sing to me - and, contradicting the song's lyrics, my brother and sister as well. We would sometimes sing it together in her later years, and for one of her last birthdays I bought her a music box that played it. Coincidentally, she was as old when the song first came out as I was when she died, give or take a few months.

The song is this. "You Are My Sunshine" by Jimmy Davis and Charles Mitchell, here performed by Elizabeth Mitchell:



You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are gray
You'll never know, dear, how much I love you
Please don't take my sunshine away.

The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping
I dreamt I held you in my arms
When I awoke, dear, I was mistaken
So I laid my head down and cried.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are gray
You'll never know, dear, how much I love you
Please don't take my sunshine away.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Of monkeys and movie trailer recuts

My friends have somehow gotten the notion that I have a thing for monkeys. It started, apparently, with the naming of this blog. The reason why I chose this name is given in my first official post,* and has as much to do with actual monkeys as Schrödinger's Cat has to do with actual cats. But that hasn't stopped friends and relatives from getting me monkey-themed gifts and knickknacks, including stuffed animals, plastic and resin figurines, and Nick & Nora Sock Monkey flannel bedsheets. One figurine stands atop my monitor at this moment. It's a monkey cowboy from a dollar store, about six inches tall, and in the fashion of such third-world manufactured items found in dollar stores it is incredibly detailed and meticulously painted.

I would love to be able to find a similar figurine (at a similar price) of a monkey using a typewriter. Every once in a while I will do a Google search for the terms monkey typewriter figurine and see what sort of hits I get. Every time I this photo repeated over and over:


Today I clicked through to one of the linked sites featuring this image and found this blog entry on John's Entertainment News Blog from two years ago:

Coming Attractions
It's that time of year again where studios release their serious work to be considered for Oscar voting. So as a way of taking a break from all of that, I thought we'd focus on something a little more comedic but with a hint of seriousness. In an earlier post I took a jab at the Internet comparing it to a million monkeys typing on a million typewriters. Well, occasionally those monkeys come up with some good stuff and give us access to previously untapped levels of creativity. One such example is the recut movie trailer. This is where people take clips and make a movie trailer that makes the film appear as if it is from a totally different genre. YouTube is full of such efforts and below are my favorites.
Unfortunately, with the passage of two years the free-speech-hating anti-parody legal goons have quashed several of the clips in this post, including the thriller version of Office Space and the teen high school comedy version of The Ten Commandments. But a few others are still functional, including the warm-hearted family comedy Shining, about a father and son growing closer during a Winter caretaking stint at the Overlook Hotel.



Check out the other survivors on the original post, before they get erased as well!


*Which was technically my second post; the original text of this post just said "Coming soon!" for the better part of a day, but was overwritten with this post - so in a sense, my first post is actually lost!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Lord Privy Seal videos

I was looking for a video to possibly use in a post in a few days. I found what I was looking for, but first I had to wade through a few of what I call "Lord Privy Seal" videos.

I first learned this term from a post by Richard Dawkins a few months ago in the aftermath of this incident. Here's what he said:

A favourite joke among the film-making community is the 'Lord Privy Seal'. Amateurs and novices in the making of documentaries can't resist illustrating every significant word in the commentary by cutting to a picture of it. The Lord Privy Seal is an antiquated title in Britain's heraldic tradition. The joke imagines a low-grade film director who illustrates it by cutting to a picture of a Lord, then a privy, and then a seal.

Wikipedia also has some information on this term.

With the advent of cheap and easy video editing software, anybody can sit down and create a video to a song with very little effort. Some people do outstanding jobs - see, for example, Lauren's excellent video for her song "45" - but others do very literal slideshows of every term used in the video. Take a look at this video that someone put together for the Smashing Pumpkins' cover of Fleetwood Mac's (well, Stevie Nicks') "Landslide" - a cover that I feel is superior to the original and to every other cover that I have heard. But the video...meh.* Is it really necessary to show a picture of a landslide every time the word "landslide" is used?

I'm not going to complain too much. Without these Lord Privy Seal videos, a lot of this music wouldn't be on YouTube at all. And one such video pointed me in the direction of the video I grabbed for future use. But still...what makes people so literal-minded?


*This is not an official Smashing Pumpkins video. As far as I know, the Smashing Pumpkins never made a video to go with this song.

Rain, rain

Wow. Am I glad I don't have to head into work tomorrow. It is currently pouring outside, and this rain may very well be ice in the morning. Or I may need to spend the morning pumping out my basement.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Flurry of activity

I have my Blogger Dashboard set up to give me a list of the most recent posts from the 30-some blogs I'm following. (It's something like a Google Reader, but somewhat less confusing. I also have a Google Reader.) Most days I will see two, or three, or a half-dozen posts that weren't there yesterday, and I'll click through to see what people are writing about.

I feel bad about this. I used to visit most of these blogs every day just to see if anyone had posted. Now with this feature, as with Live Bookmarks in Firefox, I don't have to visit just to see if there's an update. Which now makes it look like I'm not reading my friends' blogs anymore.

Today I was a little surprised when I opened my Blogger Dashboard and saw dozens of new posts. Some from people who had posted two or three times in a twenty-four hour period.

It was the same on Facebook. Usually I'm seeing just a handful of notes, links, and updates from my friends. Today the list kept going on, and on, and on.

Unfortunately, I'm too whipped to catch up on all these updates tonight, and I have one more day of work to go. Maybe I'll get a second wind after my last day of work tomorrow and be able to read them all then!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Back to work day

Regular readers may have noticed that I failed to do a post for The Stained Glass Project this Sunday. That was unintentional. It just slipped my mind. Honestly, I was all out of sorts with the prospect of being on layoff this entire week, and I was also hard at work baking cookies all day Sunday, and yesterday too.

But on top of that, I am also running out of good photos of the stained glass windows. The problem is, all of the photos that I have so far were taken freehand with a timed shutter delay to minimize camera jerking, but otherwise just stabilized through my Zen-like control of my breathing and heartbeat. Even though the pictures were taken on a bright Autumn day, many of the windows - including almost all of the ones on the North side - show some blurring, as the shutter stayed open for an unreasonably long amount of time. I have spoken to the parish priest about getting access to the church to re-take the photos using a tripod, preferably on a bright day when there is snow on the ground (to maximize reflected sunlight), and he agreed. I was actually planning to make arrangements for this week, since aside from baking cookies I would be otherwise free.

So I was a little surprised to find my name not on the layoff list for today.

Twelve hours of nonstop motion, bookended by lengthy commutes and hastily-eaten meals. I'll be turning in in a little bit, after I've thrown together a lunch and gotten my clothes together for tomorrow and checked the layoff message to confirm that I'm actually not on layoff tomorrow. It will be another three-day week, today, tomorrow, and Thursday, and then I'm not scheduled to go back until next Tuesday. Will I be working then? Nobody can say.

Monday, December 08, 2008

One year without Al

Al Scaduto, the final artist and writer for the long-running strip They'll Do It Every Time, died a year ago today.

There was something timeless about Al Scaduto's work, mainly because his characters existed in a world out of time, where clothing and hairstyles from the 1940's collided with computers and flatscreen TVs. Over at The Comics Curmudgeon we loved to snark at this weirdly anachronistic strip, but after a while we came to snark lovingly as more and more of the daily strips were actually based on submissions by the regulars at The Comics Curmudgeon.

There was one submission that I always meant to send, but never did:
Snarkly and his friends make fun of that anachronistic old strip that runs in the funny pages...
(Guy looking at paper, saying something like "Couldja believe they still print this stuff?")
...and then talk about it online for hours every day!
("Voices" from computer: "This is the eighteenth time he's mentioned squid this year." "Yet another character in a black sweater-vest!" "How many different jobs has Lula Patoot had in the entertainment industry?")


That was us. Comics Curmudgeon regular Squid Countess actually kept track of the mentions of squid, a favorite meal of Al's characters. I was big into the sweater-vests. And everybody was following Lulu Patoot's illustrious career.

Al never knew. According to his daughter, he didn't even know how to use a computer - she handled all the incoming e-mail for him. I guess our cover was never blown. Which is really a tragedy - it would have been a lot of fun to have had him hanging around the site.

They'll Do It Every Time continued for a few weeks after Al's death - my submission was one of the last to be published. The syndicate announced that no one else would be taking over the strip, which had passed through the hands of several artists and writers through the decades.

It's gone now. No longer do Al's anachronistic characters react with bewilderment to a universe they cannot quite grasp. Squid is off the menu. Lula Patoot has retired for good. And the black sweater-vests have been folded neatly and placed in a drawer. The funny pages are a little less funny.

We miss you, Al.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Snow on a Sunday morning

It snowed last night. The snow actually started yesterday while we were in church, sometime between 5:30 and 6:30 PM, and left a thin but slippery layer on the streets, enough to be a danger to the unwary - or even to the very wary. I only lost control once on the mile-long drive home. But the scanner was full of reports of accidents last night, and of warnings to emergency personnel to be careful.

This morning the world (or at least the part of it directly outside my windows) was covered in a thin blanket of snow, maybe a quarter of an inch. Enough to be pretty, not enough to be a major concern.

There are different responses called for different sorts of snow accumulations. Some are best dealt with with a snowblower, some a shovel, some a broom. Some require salt to melt the dreaded ice that lurks beneath. Some are a deadly, snowblower-breaking, heart-attack inducing layering of snow, slush, ice, and snow, like the Valentine's Day storm of 2007, and can only be dealt with through brute force and plenty of muscle.

And some are best dealt with by sitting down, having another cup of coffee, picking up the Sunday Funnies, and letting the sun melt the thin layer of snow in a few minutes.

Today's snow fell into that last category.

So I was a little annoyed when my peaceful Sunday reverie was broken by a sound very much like this:



(That's the Big Dog robot from Boston Dynamics.)

At first I assumed it was the neighbor who used to have all of his rain gutters directed onto our property until a visit from a city official who sank in our saturated side yard nearly up to his knees while investigating a complaint - he loves his noisemakers, and nothing gives him greater pleasure than shattering the quiet of a Sunday afternoon with a three-hour ride on his smoke-belching riding lawnmower. But it wasn't. It was the people another neighbor hires to clean her sidewalks when it snows. Only instead of making quick work of things with some brooms - or, better yet, ignoring the problem entirely and letting it go away on its own - they were slowly, methodically, going over every square inch of her sidewalk and even her car with leaf blowers. Not that the leaf blowers were doing a very good job: a lot of melted-on snow was getting left behind clinging to the sidewalks. But, hey, they were doing something to justify the bill they were going to send her.

Finally, after what has seemed like at least an hour, they have stopped. Now I can get back to ignoring my sidewalks and reading the Sunday Funnies.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Virtual Refrigerator: Jeff Dunham

When I saw these pictures, drawn by my six-year-old nephew a few weeks ago, two questions crossed my mind: Who the heck is this guy? And what does "Jeff Dun Ham" mean?

I had to ask my nephew to explain. And then, with the help of a few quick searches, I learned a lot more about ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, and Guitar Guy (pictured with Jeff, above), and Jeff's pals.

Apparently my nephews had watched Jeff Dunham's Very Special Christmas Special on Comedy Central. Note the dialogue below from Achmed the Dead Terrorist:



Compare Jeff Dunham's face in the first picture - where he was addressing the audience as himself - to the tight-lipped, dead-faced version in the other pictures. Then watch the trailer (linked above) and see how Jeff Dunham holds his face while speaking through his characters. (Note also the detail of Jeff's arm reaching into Achmed's back, where the controls are located.)

Here is the character Walter. Note the elements in this picture - the coffee cup, the Christmas tree, the microphone. There's probably plenty of other stuff I'm not noticing.

When I was a kid I used to watch Edgar Bergen on TV and marvel at his skill at creating characters like Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. There were other ventriloquists active back then, like Wayland Flowers and Madam, Shari Lewis and Lambchop, and Rod Hull and Emu - some technically better, some who made no effort to keep their lips from moving. It's good to know there are people still carrying on this art, and that kids still find it fascinating and funny.