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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Out Like a Lion; or, How I Nearly Died Four Times in One Commute

It was my fault. I almost thought something along the lines of Sucks to be them as I watched the morning news yesterday about the heavy rainfall and terrible flooding in parts of the Northeastern U.S. somewhat farther to the "north" and "east" than Northeastern Pennsylvania. We were in the clear. Safe and dry. The local weatherman confirmed it.

When I woke up at 2:00 in the afternoon I was wondering what the sizzling noise outside was.

Turns out it was sleet mixed with rain. Great, just great.

I left for work early, but not as early as I should have. The rain turned to snow almost immediately, but the roads weren't too bad - until I hit the whiteout in Plains Township, about halfway to work. The snow was coming down hard and heavy, and I was trying to remember why I was just thinking about when it would be time to pull out the lawnmower earlier in the day.

The road was a mess. Traffic was a mess. We were going through a construction zone, one that was just rearranged less than a week ago. Traffic has been bad through this zone all rotation, stop-and-go during the best weather. Having nearly an inch of slush on the ground did not help, especially with the "stop" part of stop-and-go. I was smart enough to leave sufficient braking distance between the front of my car and the back end of the car in front of me, but twice traffic came to a complete stop - and my car didn't. Fortunately I lost momentum before plowing into the car in front of me, or shimmying off the side of the highway. Twice.

We got free of that fairly quickly, and the weather improved dramatically farther along the way. Still, I was wary of getting swamped by the walls of slush being thrown up by passing tractor-trailers - it happened once before, and I wound up taking an unintended exit off the highway. So I was a little worried as I was pulling up to a car pulling a camper behind it - was it tossing off enough slush to be a problem?

I didn't think that the problem might come from above. Namely, from the overpass that we were both passing under.

I don't know if the sheet of slush that inundated me was tossed off by a tractor-trailer or actually thrown off the side of the bridge by a plow passing over. At that moment it didn't matter to me, blinded as I was by all the slush landing on my windshield. My wipers did nothing to clear it for a few passes, and I was briefly concerned that they might have been broken by the force of the impact. But eventually visibility returned, and I continued along without blindly careening into a bridge support or fellow traveller.

After that it looked to be smooth sailing. I was running late but might, just might, make it to work on time. I called in to work (using my hands-free phone, of course) and advised them that if I didn't hit any more traffic backups or weather issues there was definitely a very slim chance I might not be late.

The highway was clear up to Scranton, though there was a phantom backup there - possibly an echo of a traffic issue from minutes before and miles away. But I made it through that, too, without losing too much time. My best hope tho make up time was the Casey Highway, the "new" highway (about twelve years old now, I think) that puts me within half a mile of work.

I forgot that, as a "new" highway, the Casey Highway gets low priority for salting, snow plowing, everything. So even though the weather didn't seem too bad there, the highway was a complete mess.

I was passing a slow-moving vehicle when my car made an odd noise. The tone of the engine went high as though I were accelerating dramatically even though my speed remained the same. Oh my God, I'm hydroplaning, I thought. My tires were no longer in contact with the road surface, but were spinning freely on a low-friction layer of water and slush. Only my momentum was keeping me going. And if the tires bit back into the pavement while the engine was racing the way it was, I would spin off completely out of control.

I remembered everything I had learned about dealing with this. I took my foot off the gas and kept it the hell away from the brake. I gripped the wheel tightly. I thought about nothing else. Within a few seconds the sounds and vibrations of the car had returned to normal, and I resumed my drive at a lower rate of speed. Screw it, I thought. I already told 'em I might be late. No point in getting killed going to work.

I punched in at 6:00.

They're not calling for any sort of precipitation today. We'll see what happens.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

OK, I'm tired

Falling asleep sitting here. Not going to get much coherent out. Thirdday Blues again. One more twelve-hour night tonight, and then one four-hour night, and then I don't go back until Monday night...though most of the time off is already scheduled.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Leadership Wilkes-Barre Comedy Night, Thursday April 8

When fellow blogger (and co-NEPA Blogs administrator) Michelle showed up at the bloggers' gathering this past Friday, I noticed she was carrying a stack of posters. They were for an upcoming project from Leadership Wilkes-Barre, a comedy night on April 8. Doing some quick figuring, I realized that this would be a work night for me. But that doesn't mean that you can't go!

From the Leadership Wilkes-Barre Facebook site:

Leadership Wilkes-Barre Comedy Nite: Thursday April 8th at Bentley's -Rte 309 in Ashley from 7-9 p.m. The cost is $10 and proceeds will benefit the BILAA Little League Field Renovation in Hanover Township---a project of the LWB Class of 2010.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Traffic

I was late for work yesterday, because I hit a construction zone I wasn't expecting.

It was on a bridge - a "temporary" bridge - on Interstate 81 near Laflin. I had heard a mention of it the day before yesterday, that there were some emergency repairs being done that were to be wrapped up by last Friday afternoon. From the looks of things, either they weren't, or PennDOT decided to resurface the bridge just for the heck of it.

I have no idea if this is still going on, or if it will be this afternoon. The link to PennDOT's District 4 Traffic Cameras no longer works. I poked around the PennDOT site for a while and found what I think is the functional equivalent. I have a feeling that this will also go away in a few months and be replaced with something else similar that you will only be able to find through a brute-force search. Maybe that's the nature of government websites - if somebody is being paid to update and revise your websites, then by gum, those websites are gonna get updated and revised, no matter how many links have to be broken. I see the same thing all the time with NASA websites, too.

One final note, and something that I think I've mentioned before: Why do state police always position themselves, lights flashing, just past the last possible exit before the traffic jam up ahead? Wouldn't it make more sense for them to position themselves well ahead of the exit, so people would have plenty of time to decide whether to stick with the delay, or go ahead a set out on the detour. Now, whenever you see a parked cruiser, lights flashing, the message is always "You know, it would have been a great idea to take that exit you just passed. Too late now!"

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Fun while it lasted

Back to work in a few hours. These three days off have been fairly packed. Yesterday featured a trip to drop off my documents to have my taxes done, my cousin having a baby while my mom and I were at the tax preparer's, and the long-anticipated bloggers' gathering (which, as I have reported, was a smashing success.)

Now it's back to work for four-and-a-third days. My schedule is as follows:

Saturday, March 27 - Tuesday March 30: Work, 6PM - 6AM
Wednesday, March 31: Work, 6PM - 10PM
Thursday, April 1: Make chocolate Easter Eggs. Meet friends for dinner in Scranton at 6:15.
Friday, April 2: Dye Easter Eggs, start seeds, prune rosebush, finish pruning grape vines
Saturday, April 3: Birthday party for friends' daughter
Sunday, April 4: Easter. Also, set out prunings for pickup by city.
Monday, April 5 - Wednesday April 7: Work, 6PM - 6AM
Thursday, April 8: Work, 6PM - 10PM
Friday, April 9 - Monday, April 12: Off

Friday, March 26, 2010

Blogger gathering a resounding success

The blogger meetup at Rooney's Irish Pub was a smashing success. At its height there were at least a hundred people crowded into the place: bloggers, politicians, reporters, blog readers, blog commenters, and almost certainly a few regulars wondering who the heck all these people were and what they were doing there. Congratulations to Gort for making this happen. It was interesting to meet politicians generally only seen in television sound bytes face-to-face, and to see some of the real people behind the blogs. Pictures were taken, secret identities were revealed, and at least one reporter took notes and collected quotes.

I'll keep an eye out for posts and articles referencing this event, and I'll link them here.

NEPA Blogs
Not Cease From Exploration: Obligatory Blogger/Politician Post Meeting Post
Gort42: Blogger meetup post game (with links!)
Wilkes-Barre Citizens' Voice: Candidates meet the faces behind the screen names

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Streetlights

Many years ago, when I had money - before I bought my house in May 2006, before I lost my job nine months later, before I took my new job at a 1/3 pay cut six months after that...actually, well before any of that, back in 1997 or 1998, based on the office I remember sitting in at the time I thought about this - I contemplated making a gift purchase for the city of Nanticoke: a dozen or so Hubbell Skycaps. Back then these aluminum bells for shielding and redirecting the glare of outdoor mercury vapor lighting sold for about $25; as of 2002, when this article appeared in Sky & Telescope, the price had jumped to $35, plus $10 shipping; as of March 2010, Green Earth Lighting (formerly Outdoor Lighting Associates) is selling them for $72 apiece, or two for $124. (There would have been two conditions to this gift: the city would have had to handle the installation, and, dammit, I wanted the first ones to go on the streetlights outside my house.)

Looking at this now, I don't even know if these shields were designed for city street lighting - everything suggests that they're for residential security lights. But surely there must be something similar that can be attached to existing corner lights. These are just inefficient, wasteful, and dangerous beasts: they send much of their light into places where it isn't wanted (like the windows and walls of surrounding houses, and the eyes of passing drivers, whose ability to see at night is compromised by the glare of intense lights shining directly into their eyes) or isn't needed (like into the sky, producing a milky-white skyglow in places where mercury vapor lights are common, and an orange-yellow skyglow where the prevalent lighting is from sodium vapor). They are also self-defeating in terms of security: they provide just enough illumination for nighttime miscreants to go about their business, but create sharp and dark shadows where anyone or anything could hide.

The economic crisis is hitting local governments hard. Colorado Springs has shut off a third of its streetlights, a move surely applauded by some who remember what the sky used to look like at night. But with properly shielded and directed lighting, any municipality could easily cut back on the number of streetlights being used without cutting back on the actual amount of useful illumination. It would have been cheaper to have done it back in 1997, or in 2002. But it's still something that local governments should consider.


See also:
The International Dark-Sky Association - http://www.darksky.org/
SkyandTelescope.com - Saving Dark Skies - Your Home Lighting Guide

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

One of each

When I was at the University of Scarnton in the mid-to-late eighties, there was a magazine-and-cigarette shop downtown called Markowitz Brothers, although it was more often referred to as the "Te Amo" based on the most prominent cigar ad painted directly on the outside of the building. It carried every type of magazine, newspaper, and tobacco product that you could imagine, and many that you couldn't. More than once I found myself staring at the astonishing collection of magazines there covering every topic of interest from knitting to gardening to woodworking to cars to a staggering spectrum of pornography. I would look at these and wonder: Who the hell buys these? Can they possibly sell enough copies of any of these magazines to justify their presence here?

In the end I decided that for most of these magazines there was probably just one person buying one copy each month. One person for the model train magazine, one for the dollhouse furniture magazine, one for Cat Fancy, one for Plumpers. (Well, maybe more than one for Plumpers.) One of each. That would be enough to keep the magazines coming in each month.

In later years my thinking evolved to conclude that given sufficient time, at least one book would be written on every conceivable topic of interest to any given person.. Want to know the role salt has played in the development of civilization? Mark Kurlansky has you covered. How about the history of the once-common, soon-to-be-extinct fish, Cod? Errr...Mark Kurlansky again. OK...say you want to know how you can use knitting to help you recover from heroin addiction? Kelley Deal of The Breeders has been there, done that.

Apparently Alfred Kinsey came to a similar conclusion regarding sexuality based, in part, on his careful and thorough observations of sexual practices in gall wasps. He later did some work with humans, too. But, come on, what's more interesting, human sexuality or the sexual practices of gall wasps? Sheesh. And while Kinsey's research into human sexuality was highly controversial based on the generally socially unaccepted practices of some of his research subjects, it was possible to recreate in a small way some of his research just by casting your gaze along the top rack of magazines at Markowitz Brothers. (Today, thanks to modern technology, you can do this research from the comfort of your own computer, being careful not to run afoul of applicable laws.)

The original, unrated version of the DVD of John Waters' 2004 movie A Dirty Shame included a documentary covering various sexual fetishes and perversions. It was structured in such a way that each segment ended with a representative fetishist expressing their own perception of what was behaviorally beyond the pale - which was then the next topic covered. (I mean, sploshing? Really?)

I recently reposted an announcement to Facebook regarding an upcoming gathering of local bloggers:

Reminder to folks in the greated (sic) NEPA region: The next blogger meetup will be Friday March 26th at Rooney's Irish Pub 67 S. Main St. Pittston, PA 18704 starting at 5PM. All bloggers, blog readers, blog groupies and the merely blog-curious are invited!
Now, this is the second time I've used this wording on Facebook, which I originally used in a blog post. And nobody, nobody, commented on the term "blog-curious", which implies that either they are not getting the reference, or are politely ignoring it. But one of my friends (and fellow University of Scranton alumni) did question the notion of "blog groupies" - which I would define as people who are sexually attracted to individuals based on their status as bloggers, or specifically based on the quality and/or frequency and/or size/length/girth of their blog posts.

Is this really such a crazy idea? Newsweek reported last year that it is possible for men to pick up extra cash by appearing on websites in which they, fully clothed, sit on and pop balloons. Many balloons. $50 an hour. Why? Don't ask. You might not want to know.

In a world where such a thing exists, is it possible that "blog groupies" also exist? Or to put it another way: In such a world, is it possible that some non-zero number of "blog groupies" do not exist?

I think not. And I shall continue to investigate this topic with the same vigor that Alfred Kinsey displayed in his study of the habits of gall wasps.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Was it ever really about health care?

I need to go to bed soon, but here's something I was musing about when I was flitting from alarm to alarm for twelve hours at work last night. It's not a new idea - really, it's something that's been in the back of my head from day one - or at least from when the de facto leader of the Republican party, when asked what his hopes were for the newly inaugurated Obama administration, responded simply "I hope he fails."

I think that the organized opposition to health care reform had almost nothing to do with health care reform. Health care reform provided a context, but I think if President Obama had made his top priority jobs creation, or economic recovery, or baseball, motherhood, and apple pie, the same coalition would have mustered the same fury to thwart the successful achievement of his stated objective.

We'll see if that is true in coming months, as the focus moves on to other topics.*

And what have they accomplished?

1. They very nearly succeeded in thwarting the top priority of the President they hate so much. That in itself is a huge achievement - and if they had succeeded, this would be a completely different situation.

2. They forced proponents of health care reform to invest enormous amounts of effort into getting it passed - far more than they had expected would be necessary, or allocated for. What other priorities will not, can not be pursued as a result of this extra energy cost? Each one that has fallen by the wayside can be counted as a collateral victory, even if the stated objective of stopping health care reform was ultimately unsuccessful (But see *, below.)

3. They have poisoned the political landscape. See the chapter "I Grow Discouraged About the Tone" in Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them for more information. Of course, this was written years before any of this happened. Now populist politics is a no-rules, no-holds-barred game. I think in the future we will look at the organized assaults on last summer's town hall meetings as being a happy memory of a more genteel time.

4. They have demonized the opposition. They have convinced so many of the people that stand to benefit the most from health care reform that the members of Congress - Democrats all - who voted for health care reform are pure evil, blood-sucking baby-killing demons from the deepest pits of hell. So come election time, will you vote for them, or for whichever Republican is set against them?

In the end, I think that's what it's all about. Politics. Power. Who controls Congress. Health care reform had almost nothing to do with it. The goals would have been the same regardless, and I suspect that the methods used to achieve those ends would have been the same.


*Of course, the opposing forces have still vowed to continue to fight the battle they just lost. Jeering that it's just a flesh wound, I suppose. "The Black Knight always triumphs!"

Monday, March 22, 2010

Hitting the wall

Two and one-third days down, one and one-third days to go. And, damn, am I tired right now. Thirdday blues, I guess, even though one of those days was a partial.

Some stuff happened in Washington yesterday, or so I've heard. One thing is for certain: there will be lots more tedious back-and-forth online. I don't have the energy to get into it right now.

My mind is a scattered mess right now. I think I should get to sleep. If I go now, I can get nearly six five and a half hours in before I need to get up again!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Spooky

Amber was the most unusual cat of her litter. While most of her littermates were variations on the standard ("mackerel") gray Tabby, Amber was a bright golden color with brown stripes. Very easy to spot. Not a good survival trait for a feral cat. So we took her in. (And because she turned out to actually be a she, we were glad to have removed another breeder from the mix.)

One of her littermates wasn't a gray Tabby. It was a black kitten with an unsettling habit of letting you get very close to it - as long as you were approaching from behind. As soon as it saw you, it would run away, or at least out of reach. It also didn't seem to respond to noises - just visual cues. It was also smaller than the gray Tabbies, which led me to assume that it was a female.

On January 1 of this year I caught the black kitten. Barehanded, while it was sleeping. In retrospect, I probably should have been wearing leather gloves, and a leather apron.

We quickly determined that she was actually a he, and that he wasn't hard-of-hearing at all. But we had him.

He gave us a bit of a scare on his first vet's visit, when he tested weakly positive for the virus that is known (somewhat misleadingly) as "feline leukemia." We had kept him strictly isolated from the other cats, even his sister Amber, and had always washed thoroughly after handling him, so we weren't too concerned with contagion. A more sophisticated and sensitive (and expensive) test came back negative.

We had no idea what to call him in those early days. My mom suggested various precious names, which I shot down. I took to calling him Little Black Cat, or LBC for short. In the end my mom decided on the name Spooky - a name once borne by another black cat, a feral without fear who was last seen about about a year ago. When I last saw him, SpookyBear (the "Bear" part came from one of my nephews) was very bedraggled, but there was no question of taking him into the house.

The younger Spooky has absolutely stretched the limits of how old a feral kitten can be when it is first taken into a house. He was fine in isolation, perfectly comfortable in the company of humans, but when released into the larger house his first act was to hide - very effectively. He did interact freely with the other cats in the house, but he avoided any contact with the resident humans. It has only been in the last week or so that I have been able to pet him and hold him without having him run away.

The original SpookyBear received his name because he had a "spooky" habit of sitting still and staring at any approaching humans while his littermates ran away - he would only retreat when you were almost within touching distance. BlueBear was named for his blue eyes (which faded as he got older) with the "Bear" part tacked on in memory of SpookyBear. (BlueBear is now about as big as Nicky - at less than a year old, he could easily be mistaken for a small panther.)

The new Spooky is definitely his own animal, with his own unique traits, and an odd look about him - eyes that tend to have the lids down to the top of the pupil, giving his a suspicious and skeptical look at all times, and a head that is much wider across the upper portion than the lower. Maybe this is just the awkward adolescent stage - at one point Bowie looked less like a cat and more like some sort of bizarre alien creature, long-legged and spectrally thin with skin stretched taught across her frame. We will see how Spooky develops over the coming months.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Conjunction of the Moon and the Pleiades, Saturday March 20, 2010


Moment by moment, the Moon crawls up the sky towards its Saturday night encounter with the Pleiades - on the first night of Spring!

Images taken Friday, March 19 at 7:28 PM. Compare to these images from Thursday night.

LEFT: Unenhanced image, with the Pleiades circled.

RIGHT: Contrast enhanced to 88 with Adobe PhotoDeluxe.

Remember, I won't be able to photograph or even observe the actual event tomorrow, so I'm counting on everyone else to see it for me!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Notes for a future post

This is one of those posts I've been meaning to write, but I haven't been able to bring enough of myself into focus long enough to do it justice. And tomorrow starts another stretch of - well, whaddya know, three and two-thirds days! (Friday 10 PM-2 AM, Sat-Sun-Mon 6 PM - 6 AM, Tuesday 6 PM - 10 PM) - during which I will definitely not be able to do a proper job on this topic.

The question is one Mark Cour raised this past Sunday, in an aptly-titled post:

Circumlocution for Dummies: Why bother?
...During stretches such as these, it's a real chore for me to write. All of which makes me wonder about small town bloggers who post their brilliant utterances on a daily basis no matter what. No matter what. What am I to make of that? They've either got too much time on the their hands, no job, or they are devoted to an endeavor with highly questionable returns.

And I've always wondered about that, that motivation. On a case by case basis, why it is that people bother? I've questioned my own motivation in print at times, and so has another die hard known as Gort. Sometimes I wonder if some are blogging with an end result in mind....

...So after all of this needless circumlocuting, I am left to ask, why do you people bother? And what makes a person blog as if by rote? What's the reason for the 'another day, another post' mentality? And lastly, what do you get out of it? Why bother?
I have answered all of these questions here and there, a little at a time, sometimes several times over, with answers that may or may not be mutually contradictory. But I will answer them again, in a single, unified post that attempts to draw all these threads together, to lay out all the different reasons side-by-side and show that they do, in fact, point to an answer.

But not just now. Sometime soon.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Getting ready for Saturday's big date


The Moon slides up the sky towards Saturday night's encounter with the Pleiades. Images taken Thursday, March 18 at 8:51 PM.

LEFT: Unenhanced image, with the Pleiades circled.

RIGHT: Contrast enhanced to 88 with Adobe PhotoDeluxe.

I will be in work Saturday night and won't be able to get outside to photograph or even observe the conjunction. So I'm hoping everybody else gets to do it for me!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Paparazzi

Yesterday I pulled an all-dayer and planned to get to bed early, but then my badly sprained biological rhythms kicked in. I napped, briefly, while surfing the internet, but then found myself wide awake - more or less - all the way to 3:00 in the morning, about thirty-six hours after I had last slept. I then slept to nearly 1:00 this afternoon - so when I woke up I had to rouse myself in a hurry to make my 3:00 blood donation. (Made it at 3:30. They're willing to wait for my blood.)

After getting leaked I decided to check the oil in my car, which is a good thing, since it means I get to keep driving it. I won't be getting an oil change tomorrow because about a quart and a half of what's in there right now is fresh oil. Next days off for sure.

Stopped at a local candy store to get some stuff my mom likes, then went up to see my comic book guy. Business was good - there was quite a crowd of people there when I got there, and several more came in while we hung out and talked about his recent newspaper profile. Granted, it was in the "Good Times for Seniors" supplement, but you know what they say about publicity.

On the way back I started taking photos - and I didn't stop until well after dark. Nearly seventy photos, some of which will get their own blog posts. Here's a sampling:


The Eighth Street Bridge in Wyoming, PA, looking south to the Bear Creek Wind Farm seven miles away. This is basically a do-over of the photo on this post. It was an absolutely gorgeous day - note the family out on bicycles on the walkway ahead of me.



The Susquehanna was flowing fiercely around the pilings of both the current bridge and the replacement being built next to it. Here is one of the wakes being created.



Sunlight on choppy waters. The Susquehanna and Monocanock Island.



Vertical contrails. When I was younger and the world was under constant threat of total annihilation from an exchange of nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles, this sort of sight would have been terrifying. The verticality here is an illusion - these are three planes flying horizontally but all almost exactly toward a point directly overhead.



One of the planes on a collision course with the girders at the top of the Eighth Street Bridge.



The Huber Breaker in Ashley, PA. Slated for eventual demolition, unless someone is willing to put up big money to preserve it.



The Moon trapped in a geometric web. Venus is also visible in this picture, just to the left of the chimney on the left.



The Moon again. Note the Earthshine which makes the dark parts visible. Close inspection will reveal two stars just to the left of the Moon. I couldn't see these with my naked eye or with binoculars, but they show up in every photo of the Moon that I took - and appear to shift position as the Moon barrels across the sky. - well, no. In two consecutive photos taken at the same zoom level, one in "landscape" and one in "portrait" mode, the "stars" maintain the same position on the screen - but move with respect to the Moon. Yet in photos taken in the same orientation but at different zoom levels, the "stars" maintain the same relative position to the Moon but the distance between them changes - as though they are also being "zoomed". So clearly they're system artifacts, but artifacts that show up differently based on the zoom level. And they don't appear in photos taken later in the night!



Orion from my mom's back yard, with contrast blown up (to a setting of 88 on Adobe PhotoDeluxe) to improve visibility. I wanted to get the trail of the plane flying into Orion's groinular area during the multiple seconds that the shutter was open. The effect makes it look like Orion is quite happy to see somebody.



Auriga from my mom's back yard, again with the contrast increased. This approximates what I could see bare-eyed. I think visibility was even better than it was during my astrophotography outing last week.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

All-dayer, and a reason to go out Saturday night!

It's after 5:00 PM on Tuesday, and I've been on the go now for over twenty-six hours. Got up at about 2:15 yesterday, worked all night, came home, had some coffee and a light breakfast, and took my mom out grocery shopping - where, through discounts on top of discounts, she saved a combined total of about 33% on her bill - which I paid, of course. After unloading the many, many bags of groceries, used the ingredients I purchased to make an onion, black olive, and anchovy pizza, at about half the cost of ordering one.

Which brings us to here.

I'm too tired to do anything much, and it would be dangerous for me to try to do a lot of things right now. The day has been beautiful, and I'm glad I got to experience it, but I think I need to get to sleep soon. The Red Cross has already called to confirm my donation at 3:00 tomorrow afternoon, so I have plenty of time to block in other things I want to do.

There are other posts I'd like to write right now, but I can't really do them justice at the moment. I'm hoping I can get to them before it's time to start another rotation of work on Friday night.

Note to everybody: If you can, watch for the slim crescent Moon low in the West after sunset - maybe you will see it tomorrow night, probably you will be able to see it Thursday night, and almost certainly on Friday night. On Saturday night the Moon will have a close encounter with the Pleiades. I will be working that night, so you will have to see it for me! Here is Jack Horkheimer describing what you have to look forward to:



Don't miss it!

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Note from the Hinterlands

James Mundie is one of the many talented and fascinating people I have met by way of the annual meeting of performing artists called the Sideshow Gathering. He recently passed along a bit of "Sideshow Ephemera" in the form of a program for the "Tiny Town Review" - billed as "A LARGE COMPANY OF AMAZINGLY TALENTED SINGING AND DANCING 'LITTLE PEOPLE' ". While this entire program makes for remarkable reading - as James puts it, it is a "relic of a politically incorrect time", in this case 1938 or so - one item in particular caught my eye:
"...Mrs. Rose was elated over the acquisition of two sisters, Adela and Florence Nowak, whom she had lately discovered in the hinterland of Nanticoke, Pennsylvania.”
I wonder what the story of the Nowak sisters was beyond this brief mention. Did they go out and see the world, while the rest of their more typically-sized friends and relatives stayed at home and never left town? Did they ever return to Nanticoke? Seventy-two years later, do they still dwell in the living memory of those who knew them before they went into show business?

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Very tired

Wow. Even though we only had an eleven-hour night at work, I feel extremely tired. Heading for bed.

I'm sure I had something very clever to insert here. But it will have to wait until I am more awake.

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Bloggers' meetup, March 26, 2010

All bloggers, blog readers, blog groupies, and just the blog-curious in the greater Northeastern Pennsylvania area (and outlying regions!) are invited to a get-together on Friday, March 26 at Rooney's Irish Pub, 67 S. Main St. Pittston, PA* 18704 starting at 5PM.

Gort42: Blogger meetup

Local politicians will allegedly be in attendance. Opinions shall be expressed. Beer shall be consumed. As it is a Friday in Lent, I will probably forgo the nachos in favor of pizza and/or some sort of fish thing. (Menu here.)


*Not here, Rooney, Kentucky, which is where anyone following my original directons link would be taken.** My apologies. And to anyone who followed those directions, I hope the locals are a friendly, non-yankee-hating sort.

**Turns out the original link was correct, but somehow the interpretation of the embedded html code gets mangled either by Blogger or by Google, which owns Blogger.



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Friday, March 12, 2010

Life as an airport terminal

Many years ago a friend told me about a movie idea. I'm not sure if it was his, or if it was something someone had told him about. It would be about a movie studio executive who spends all of his time flying from city to city, airport to airport, never experiencing anything of any given location beyond the airport terminal. He then approves or rejects story ideas based on how well they conform to the idea of the world he has assembled from his experiences in airports. He has no idea what the world is actually like, but is responsible for presenting an image of that world through the projects he greenlights.*

(I was a little intrigued when I heard the plot for Up in the Air. It seems like a somewhat similar idea.)

A friend was posting to Facebook from Baltimore Washington International airport yesterday. This made me reminisce a bit about times I have spent in BWI. I realized that this is the airport I have spent the most time in. But what other airports have I been in, I wondered?

My first plane flight was for our senior trip in high school in 1985. We left from Philadelphia and arrived in Orlando. I don't remember much about Philadelphia, and that was a long time ago.

My next trip was to a friend's wedding in Atlanta in 1992. Avoca to Atlanta directly.

Then a business flight to Knoxville in 1994 - also a long time ago. Left from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport in Avoca - yes, it's true - changed planes in Pittsburgh, arrived in Knoxville. Nothing too memorable about Pittsburgh or Knoxville - though on the return flight a much smaller plane asserted its right-of-way at the landing strip, forcing us to abort a landing at Pittsburgh.

My next flight was another business trip, this time to Los Angeles in 1996. Avoca to Pittsburgh to LAX. Again, nothing too memorable about Pittsburgh. LAX had the worst coffee I have ever had.

After that a series of flights with my mom from BWI to Orlando to visit the Kennedy Space Center, Cocoa Beach, and Disneyworld. Three trips, all before September 11, 2001.

All of my international travel has happened since September 11, 2001. All from BWI, all to Shannon airport in Ireland, some direct, some with stops at Newark, one with a return stop at Logan in Boston. One side trip from Shannon to Gatwick just south of London. I was in Logan - the departure point for two of the hijacked September 11 flights - less than a year after September 11, so the place was in quite a state of security reconstruction. But Gatwick was absolutely the most chaotic airport I have experienced - they didn't let us know what gate our flight was departing from until it was time to begin boarding.

All in all, I'm glad I got to experience some of these places beyond the airport terminals!


*I seem to recall this conversation involved the movie Good Burger, and wondering whether anyone outside of Hollywood thought that burger joints actually look like that.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Back to work, and things left undone

Well, it's back to work for another four-and-a-third days, starting with tonight's four hour shift. For those of you playing along at home, here's my current schedule for the rest of March and beginning of April:

Thursday, March 11: 10 PM - 2 AM
Friday, March 12 through Monday, March 15: 6 PM to 6 AM
Tuesday, March 16 through Thursday, March 18: Off
Friday, March 19: 10 PM - 2 AM
Saturday, March 20 through Monday, March 22: 6 PM to 6 AM
Tuesday, March 23: 6 PM - 10 PM
Wednesday, March 24 through Friday, March 26: Off (Bloggers' gathering night of the 26th, location TBA)
Saturday, March 27 through Tuesday, March 30: 6 PM to 6 AM
Wednesday, March 31: 6 PM - 10 PM
Thursday, April 1 through Sunday, April 4: Off (Birthday party Saturday, April 3; Easter Sunday, April 4)


There are a few things that I really, really need to take care of on my next days off. Taxes, for one - I could really use that no-interest loan I gave to the government over the past year refunded to me. Also - it's time to be starting the seeds for my garden. Here's some great information on doing this for people of all skill levels.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Telling us what to think

Fossil fuels are amazing things. They are literally concentrated solar energy: sunlight converted through photosynthesis into organic matter that then died en masse in a certain special way that allowed the biochemical makeup of these dead things to be preserved and slowly transformed over hundreds of millions of years into materials that could later be extracted from their stony encasements and distilled into energy sources or used directly as energy sources.

When you burn a bit of coal or light a burner on a gas stove or drive around in your internal combustion engine-powered car you are releasing the concentrated converted solar energy of untold numbers* of trees and plants. It's really a pretty awesome thing, if you think about it. And a pretty frightening thing, if you think about it a little harder - like, about how much of this concentrated sunshine is actually available, how fast it's being used, how long it will last, and how long it will take to make some more.

Energytomorrow.org, an American Petroleum Institute industry advocacy / anti-regulation group, has been on a blitz to make sure you think about this the right way. "Most Americans agree," they tell us, that our country needs more energy - "from all sources." The Americans who agree are smiling and happy, their faces turned upward, ready to embrace the future. And the Americans who don't agree? Well, in their 49% of the pie chart that appeared in the ads that were in heavy rotation just a few weeks ago - lots of ad buying going on here - the Americans who don't agree are looking down, away from the camera. Afraid. Ashamed. Unwilling to face the future, betraying their children and their fellow Americans to a future of dependence on foreign energy suppliers.

The problem is this: current methods of extracting natural gas from shale deposits that underlie some parts of the United States - you know, the place where "Americans" live - are dangerous and have both immediate and long-term effects on the surrounding water table, nearby watersheds, and the people who depend upon these resources. When natural gas extraction begins in an area, local well water becomes mysteriously contaminated, water begins to burn, animals that drink it die - all in what the natural gas extractors maintain are a series of remarkable coincidences.

Now, of course, we can expect anti-progress luddites to make such wild claims. And, after all, is this really such a steep price to pay for energy independence, at least in the short term? The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. So what if a few animals die from manganese contamination (a remarkable coincidence, totally unrelated); so what if a few water wells explode (it was eventually going to happen anyway); so what if some people you've never met and probably wouldn't even like if you did have to start getting all their drinking and washing and bathing water trucked in because the stuff coming out of their wells is, by yet another remarkable coincidence, too dangerous to use? All those smiling, forward-thinking people on the pie chart said this is a good thing. The nice lady from Energytomorrow.org told us so!

An abandoned coal breaker at the intersection of the Sans Souci Parkway and Dundee Cross Road in Hanover Township, PA
A few years ago there was a nifty ad campaign touting coal as the fuel of tomorrow. It featured young, well-muscled models, men and women alike, flexing and heaving as they toiled in a coal mine to the strains of "Working In A Coal Mine." Today's coal was clean, and extraction was much different from the bad old days. It would be the energy source of the future, and would guarantee America's independence from evil foreign energy merchants, as long as those meddling environmentalists didn't stand in the way. I'm not certain, but I believe the end of the ad campaign coincided with the Sago Mine Disaster in 2006, in which an explosion trapped thirteen coal miners underground for days - and twelve of them died.

Kayak Dude, of The Susquehanna River Sentinel, warned a week ago that the ante was about to be upped, and that the "patriot card" was about to be played. And sure enough, groups like Chesapeake Energy have now launched extensive ad campaigns - in this area, at least - that explicitly link willingness to go along with the unrestricted, unregulated extraction of natural gas with patriotism. If you love America, they're telling us, you won't stand in our way.

Advertising is designed specifically to tell you what to think. If done correctly, it convinces you that the opinions voiced on behalf of the advertiser's client are in fact your own. We have seen plenty of examples of this in the political sphere, where perfectly ordinary people have been manipulated into believing the most extraordinary things - and then loudly expressing these beliefs as their own. It's emotional manipulation. Meme manipulation. And it works.

Next time you see one of these ads, ask yourself: What are they selling? What are they trying to get me to believe? And why?

*Well, I have no idea how many trees and how many days of sunlight went into making a golf ball-sized bit of anthracite or a gallon of gasoline. I'm sure somebody has figured that out.


Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Backyard astrophotography on the cheap

One of my Facebook friends has recently entered the world of astrophotography. Even though he's still learning his way around both the techniques and the sky itself, his results are strikingly beautiful.

My camera is a Nikon Coolpix L4, a digital point-and-click snapshot camera designed to be simple and inexpensive. While it offers a wide range of settings, it really isn't designed for astrophotography. At all. But I have mastered some tricks and techniques and have been able to get passable results with sufficient massaging.

Last night I had reason to go to my as-yet-uninhabited house across town. I noticed as soon as I stepped out to get into my car that the sky was exceptionally dark and clear. When I had completed my task I stepped into the back yard and looked at the sky.

My back yard isn't completely shielded from light. There's quite a bit of light trespass, both direct and reflected. But the yard does have a largely unobstructed view of the Southern and Western skies, and with a little effort I can find shadowy spots where the glare is kept at bay.

The view last night was stunning. The sky was dark, the stars were bright, and hazy patches here and there told me of the presence of things just beyond my range of vision. If only I had had binoculars with me - or a camera!

I decided to go back tonight with both. Unfortunately, wispy clouds in the late afternoon warned me that I wouldn't be experiencing the same crystal clarity I had enjoyed the night before. And the night sky did have a pearly murkiness to it, the stars were less intense, and the hazy patches were less evident. Still, I set up my tiny camera on my tripod, set it to "Night Landscape", activated the ten-second timer, and hoped for the best.


I have had to drastically enhance the contrast on these images to bring out the stars. I could see stars much dimmer than those visible in these photos, and the light reflected from neighboring houses was not as glaringly bright as it appears here. The V-shaped formation to the left of center is the Hyades cluster, with Aldebaran the bright red star at the upper left tip. Just to the right of center is the tiny dipper shape of the Pleiades, one of the most strikingly beautiful naked-eye targets in the sky. Appearing just over the roof of my shed is Bellatrix, the star in the upper right shoulder of Orion.


Panning slightly to the left, we now have a much clearer view of Orion, including red Betelgeuse in the left shoulder (or armpit!) Now Sirius, the brightest star in the sky is peeking out over the roof of my shed!


One view that really made me wish I had a camera last night was the Big Dipper nestled neatly between my house and my neighbor's house. Unfortunately I set up about an hour later than I should have, and by that time the Big Dipper had rotated well beyond this position. Still, here it is soaring over the roof of my neighbor's house.


I packed up my stuff and decided to call it a night. But even before I set foot into the house I had a change of heart. I slung the binoculars over the back of a chair to become permanent residents at my house and then set up the camera and tripod once again, this time on my tiny back porch. Shooting over the top of my dormant and denuded grapevine I was able to get this shot of Orion and the Hyades. Look closely about three-quarters of the way across the image, just below the centerline, and you will see a diagonal reddish line - a satellite or distant airplane streaking across this multi-second exposure.


Panning right I was able to get (most of) Orion, the Hyades, and the Pleiades all in one image. Now the red streak is nearly at the stars of Orion's belt.


Finally, I angled the camera up and hoped for the best, aiming it at the site of many of the hazy patches from last night, squashed-pentagonal Auriga. While they are not clearly discernible in this image, they were most likely the star clusters M36, M37 and M38.

And with that, I finally packed up my camera, my tripod, and my copy of Guy Ottewell's Astronomical Calendar, and headed back across town.

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Monday, March 08, 2010

Self-diagnostics, self-medication

I don't get sick very often. Actually, with the filtered-air, bright-light factory environment I work in, I (almost) don't get sick at all anymore,* at least on my on-shift.

One way that I know I am getting sick: the number of typos I make while writing increases dramatically, even if I feel otherwise fine. Whenever I see this happening, I can usually knock it down with a little home remedy - equal parts lemon, whiskey, and honey. Taken at the first onset of symptoms, it will often prevent development of a full-blown cold. And to be clear: we're talking a LOT of lemon, a LOT of whiskey, and a LOT of honey here, maybe three or four fluid ounces each in each dose. Combine the lemon (lemon juice is fine, but cut-up fresh lemons are much better) and honey and microwave until they are hot, then add the whiskey. (Don't add it before you heat it or the alcohol in the whiskey may begin to evaporate away.) When I was in Ireland a friend made a similar drink called a "hot whiskey", but studded the lemon with cloves. The cloves add a delicious dimension to the drink.

I can measure work-induced fatigue in a similar way. On the days that I am working, my ability to play Scrabble suffers dramatically.** Usually my brain can only manage to assemble three- or four-letter words. On my off-shift days, I am able to more clearly access the concordance of words I have experienced in my life, so I have a larger selection of Scrabble possibilities to choose from. Not that I don't get my ass kicked fairly regularly by certain players even on my off-shift days.

Unfortunately, the lemon, whiskey, and honey remedy does not help to correct work-induced fatigue, and is specifically disallowed on my working days. Add to that the fact that I don't particularly like whiskey***, or any other alcoholic drink, and that the stuff is damned expensive, and I tend to reserve this medicinal tonic for times that I actually need it.


*Other people who work alongside me swear that our workplace actually causes them to get coughs and colds more often. I used to get sick fairly regularly when I worked in an office environment.
**My ability to blog also diminishes dramatically, though part of this is vastly reduced time available for writing, even if I have just spent much of the night's twelve-hour shift mentally composing and editing one or more posts.
***With the exception of Paddy whiskey, which is tragically - or fortunately - not available in the United States.

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Sunday, March 07, 2010

Another note to myself

Just so I don't forget this brilliant piece of brilliance by the time I have time to actually write a full post...

Two words:

Gun Tourism.

Carry on.

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Saturday, March 06, 2010

NEPA Blogs: Fairytale Feasts

(Just leaving a quick note for myself here. I may copy this note and use it as the post on NEPA Blogs.)

Via e-mail:

Hello -

I saw your blog "NEPA BLOGS" and I just wanted to let you know that I am from Pittston, PA and I recently launched my own blog, "Fairytale Feasts." I would love for you to add my blog to your site!

www.fairytalefeasts.com

Thanks! :-) -- Diana



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Friday, March 05, 2010

A death in the blogosphere

The blogger known as Jon Swift is dead.

I didn't know him. I've never read him. I'm sure I've seen him referenced here or there, or listed on somebody's blogroll somewhere, but I couldn't tell you where. Possibly some of the people who referenced or linked him in the past are reading this right now - and maybe they're just hearing about this for the first time.

This post on Watergate Summer caught my eye. It pointed to Jon Swift's final blog post, from almost a year ago. Scrolling down the comments you eventually come to this:

mlfcyw said...
I don't know how else to tell you all who love this blog. I am Jon Swift's Mom and I guess I'm going to OUT him. He was Al Weisel, my beloved son. Al was on his way to his father's funeral in VA when he suffered 2 aortic aneurysms, a leaky aortic valve and an aortic artery dissection from his heart to his pelvis. He had 3 major surgeries within 24 hours and sometime during those surgeries also suffered a severe stroke. We, his 2 sisters, his brother, his partner and his best friend since he was 9 years old were with him as he took his last breath. We have all lost a shining start who warmed our hearts, tormented us and made us laugh as he giggled at our pulling something over on us. He passed away on February 27, 2010. My beloved child will live on in so many hearts. I miss him more than I can say. If you are on Facebook, go to organizations and join "Friends of Al Weisel, Unite!" It will give you just a taste of how special he was. Farewell, Jon (Al)

3/02/2010 8:14 AM
This situation underscores several fundamental problems regarding death among bloggers - and in the online world in general. If someone who is known by their pseudonym dies, how will anyone know? ("Jon Swift" was well-enough known that several online news articles about his death can be found by searching for his pseudonym.) And how does such a message get out? In this case it was a comment from his mother. But what if Jon Swift, like many bloggers who have been the targets of spam comments and relentless trolling attacks, had comment moderation enabled - like I do? Would someone be able to get access to his account to approve individual comments, or to turn comment moderation off?

I considered these issues, and proposed a safety measure, in a post I wrote nearly four years ago:

Another Monkey: The Blogger Buddy System

It's not a perfect solution. I tend to blank out on my bricks-and-mortar friends for weeks at a time, on a rotating basis; while I'm away they can assume that I'm attending to other facets of my life, if they are giving any thought to my absence. My blog is actually my most reliable indicator of my continued existence: as long as I can, I will try to stick to a post-a-day schedule. If I ever stop posting for a prolonged period of time without prior explanation, you may safely assume I am dead, or incapacitated.

Rest in peace, Jon Swift. May your blog stand as a record of your thoughts.

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Thursday, March 04, 2010

The "Fear" memo: Business as usual

Running late today. Had to make a slightly complicated lunch for tonight (shrimp and bowtie pasta - two things that needed cooking.)

If I were doing a real post, I might be commenting on this:

Exclusive: RNC document mocks donors, plays on 'fear' - Ben Smith - POLITICO.com

What to call it? FearGate? PowerPointGate? How about "Business as Usual for the Republicans"? I think this will quickly blow over since this is really such a non-story. Next: Fire is hot. Rain is wet. It snows in the Winter. (Wait, some climate change deniers seem to think that last one is a news story. "It snowed! In February! Al Gore LIED!")

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Striding across the days

Back to work for another four-and-a-third, starting with a four-hour night tonight, then twelve-hour nights Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Then three days off, and another four-hour night, and another four nights of work.

When this rotation is over, I need to take my car in for an oil change, and maybe get the "Check Engine" light checked out, and maybe look into scheduling an inspection. (It's due in April, but I think I can get it done in March.)

In just about a month, based on past practices, it will be time to mow the lawn for the first time. Maybe before then the ground will have thawed enough to allow me to bury the plastic-wrapped body of a stray cat who died yesterday.

The days fly by when you're working this schedule, as though you were walking across the calendar wearing seven-league boots. On days that you're working, there is time for little else, and the days when you are not working fill up very quickly. Before I know it I'll be congratulating myself once again for having the foresight not to take down my Christmas Tree.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Another dead stray

I was going to do a post on...something. Maybe the ghosts that show up on the Street Level view of Nanticoke on Google Maps. Maybe the third day of last year's Sideshow Gathering, or even the second day of the Felberpalooza. Maybe a lot of things.

My cousin was driving past our house this evening and spotted what looked like a dead cat in the road. She called, because she had seen our garage door open earlier and was worried that it might have been one of ours.

It wasn't. It was one of the strays. If I reckon correctly, it was one of Bowie and Thor and BlueBear's littermates, one of the ones we weren't able to catch. I think there are two of these older cats around, guarding over the younger ferals who are part of Amber and Spooky's litter.

I didn't see it at first because it wasn't in the street, at least not anymore. It was curled up in a sleeping position on the sidewalk under a corner streetlight. It was warm and limp. I carefully scooped it onto a snow shovel and noticed an absence of blood anywhere around its body.

My intent was to wrap it in several layers of plastic and then stash it behind our shed, covered over with bags of leaves until the ground has thawed enough to dig yet another grave. I slipped on the snow as I carried it back with me. The body slid off the shovel and onto the snow. There was blood where the nose and mouth came in contact with the snow.

I didn't hear anything that made me think that this cat was hit by a passing car, and aside from the blood coming out of the nose and/or mouth there didn't seem to be any signs of trauma. But that seems like the most likely explanation, unless someone is using some sort of poison that causes these hemorrhages. I don't know. It's a rough life for feral cats, and I hope my mom and I helped make what months this cat lived somewhat more livable.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Aldi

I shopped at an Aldi today for the first time in, maybe, fifteen years. When I shopped there before I found some aspects of the place odd, and the place seemed like a very cut-rate version of a supermarket. Having been to Europe, I now recognize the European aspects of the place - the coin deposit for using a cart, the seated cashiers, the active encouragement of the use of reusable shopping bags. (Aldi has European characteristics because it is, in fact, a European chain - German, to be exact.)

One thing I forgot - or maybe never encountered before, because I had purchased only incidentals - was that Aldi does not accept credit cards. I do not, as a rule, use debit cards, so fortunately my mom and I had enough cash on hand to pay for our order. (I immediately stopped at an ATM and withdrew money equal to what we had spent, plus a little extra; I would have been better off using my ATM card as a debit card.)

I don't like dealing with cash-only businesses. I always feel like there's something shady and underhanded going on, like somebody's trying to keep a transaction off the books, maybe to avoid paying sales tax*, maybe so they can sell inventory that doesn't officially exist. Turns out my uneasiness may have a rational foundation: shell companies that take in payments in the form of cash are a fundamental part of any money-laundering scheme, as was helpfully explained on NPR last year. (No dictionary required!**)

So, anyway...Aldi. Yeah. Odd place. Kinda out-of-the-way for me. Not super convenient, and that offsets whatever savings I might realize there. Maybe I'll go there again if I'm looking for something specific that I know they have much cheaper than anywhere else. And I'll be sure to take a pocketful of cash.***


*Or maybe the opposite is true: To charge sales tax for things that are not supposed to have sales tax charged on them. Pennsylvania recently announced that sales tax exemptions would be ending on a number of items, including candy and magazines. Now, I'm a feller who has bought some candy and magazines in his time, and I don't rightly recall being not charged sales tax on these items. So if sales tax was collected on non-taxable items, where did it go?

**Just shows how quickly this movie became dated: If Office Space were taking place today, and the guys were wondering about the particulars of money laundering, they would JFGI. Or look it up on Wikipedia.

***One of the items we bought there today was a waffle maker for $12.99...because we've been looking for a waffle maker. And just down the aisle was a gas-powered portable electric generator for $399.99. I wonder how many people have walked into the store with enough cash on hand to purchase one of those as an impulse buy?