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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Planetary triangle, 7/31/2010

For the third night in a row I was able to get out and photograph the ongoing and ever-changing conjunction between Venus, Mars, and Saturn. Thursday night's sky was beautifully clear and cloudless, with excellent "seeing": the planets popped out of the background easily and made themselves excellent photographic targets. Friday night was far more humid, and this coupled with wispy clouds throughout the sky made viewing conditions comparatively lousy, with the planets dim and inconspicuous against a milky field. Tonight was somewhere in-between: the humidity was lower, but the clouds were more well-defined. (It's race weekend at Long Pond, so rain is almost as much a certainty as it is for the Bloomsburg Fair.)

I chose a different viewing location tonight. On the previous two nights my photos were taken from the corner sidewalk in front of my mom's house, which is on the busiest street in Nanticoke. I have to admit that I get a little antsy as I stand there with my tiny Nikon Coolpix L4 mounted on a photographic tripod that I bought at Kmart more than ten years ago, with the occasional car whizzing past going at least twenty or thirty miles per hour faster than the posted speed limit. Tonight I decided to pull up stakes and move my setup to my house across town, where my photos would be taken from the relative privacy of my back yard. Also, I had to mow the lawn and do some other yard and garden work, so this was an opportunity to neatly and efficiently sequence tasks.

Clouds were clearly going to be an issue. I waited patiently as one or two of the celestial trio popped out of the thick wisps that moved with agonizing slowness along the Western sky. My first clear shot was at 9:14 PM:


In close-up, we can see that Mars is completely surrounded by clouds, and Venus appears to be shining through a cloud.


An interloper star can be seen here, midway between the Mars-Saturn pair and Venus. A quick check with Google Sky indicated that this is Beta Virginis.


Beta Virginis is a star with an interesting historical role. From Wikipedia: "This was the star Einstein used during the solar eclipse of September 21, 1922 to determine the speed of light in space, as it fell close to the Sun."

The planetary trio continued to play their game of peek-a-boo in the clouds as they got ever lower in the sky. Photographing them was complicated by using a ten second delay on the shutter (the self-portrait mode) to avoid any camera vibrations, and by the fact that each of these images was actually a several second exposure. So from the time that I pressed the button, to the time the shutter opened, to the time the shutter closed, took something like thirteen to fifteen seconds - plenty of time for a cloud to slide across one or more of the planets. This photo was captured at 9:17 PM.


Finally a thick bank of clouds rose up over the Western horizon and began to creep over Venus. I took my final shot of the trio at 9:20 PM and called it a night.



You can compare the positions of these planets to their positions on previous nights here:

Planetary triangle, 7/29/2010
Planetary triangle, 7/30/2010

If you haven't seen it yet, or need a quick refresher, watch the Jack Horkheimer video explaining this event here.

And special thanks to Noreen Clark of WNEP for announcing this event on her weather forecast last Monday morning. Without that announcement I might have missed this entire event!

We'll see how much longer my luck holds out. I hope I get a photo of the tightest grouping of these three planets next Sunday, August 8!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Planetary triangle, 7/30/2010

My plan to photograph the ongoing conjunction of Venus, Saturn, and Mars nightly nearly got derailed on Night 2. Seeing conditions were nothing like yesterday. Even in the parts of the sky that were not full of clouds, a dim haziness made viewing conditions poor at best. Mars and Saturn occasionally emerged from the cover of some wispy clouds to shine faintly through the haze.


This picture was taken at 9:11 PM, twenty-four hours after the first photo in yesterday's post. Mars and Saturn are almost invisible in the reduced-size image above, and don't fare much better in the larger version you can see when you click on it.

Here's a version where I played with the contrast and brightness. Now the two outer planets are a bit more clear, and we can see that Saturn appears to have tipped forward a bit since last night, leaning to the right and toward Venus. In reality, neither Mars nor Saturn have moved very much in the past twenty-four hours - Mars takes 687 days to go around the Sun, while Saturn takes 29.7 years. Earth, on the other hand, has moved 1/365th of the way around the Sun since last night. (If you're having trouble visualizing this, just break out your trusty orrery and see for yourself - or play with the controls on this nifty online orrery until you can get it to show you the minuscule differences in position from one night to the next.)

Tobacco hornworm

My cousin found this big fella chewing on her tomato plants. From the picture of something similar in my bug book (National Audubon Society Field Guide to Insects and Spiders) we believe it is a tobacco hornworm, though it may also be the similar and closely-related tomato hornworm. (According to Wikipedia, the seven lines on its side mark it as the tobacco hornworm; eight V-shaped marks would make it a tomato hornworm.)












My cousin caught it and kept it in a sealed jar with some leaves and a small twig. By the time I got to see it we thought it was dead, but it sent a pulse through its body during the photo session that convinced me otherwise. My Nikon Coolpix L4 is usually pretty crappy when it comes to close-up mode, generally focusing perfectly on the background and leaving the foreground object a blurry mess. We fixed that with additional lighting provided by one of those million candle power spotlights, which my cousin keeps to illuminate woodland creatures visiting her back yard.

Appropriately enough, we propped the tobacco hornworm and its twig on top of an ashtray. The end of a cigar in the ashtray gives a sense of scale - this was a big critter.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Massive fracking chemical spill damages roads in three counties

A Chesapeake Energy contractor spilled hundreds of gallons of a mineral oil-based chemical on several roads in three counties, softening and damaging the roads and rendering them unusable until they can be repaired.



From the travel advisory issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation:

Motorists in the northern tier are advised that a one-mile section of Spring Hill Road (SR 1007 in Tuscarora Township, Bradford County) and Second Street (SR 3001 in Laceyville, Wyoming County) is currently closed following a spill of mineral oil-based drilling mud down the center of the road.

The road is currently closed from the intersection of Edinger Hill Road in Tuscarora Township along the length of Second Street in Laceyville.

An oily substance leaked from a truck in the area of the Champdale Farm gas well pad and has destabilized the roadway.

PennDOT, Chesapeake Energy and other emergency responders are on the scene.

Repairs will need to be made before the roadway can be reopened to traffic.

OK, some questions:

- How did this happen?
- Who is responsible for cleanup?
- Who will be getting the bill for the cleanup?
- Who is responsible for making sure these trucks aren't leaking chemicals onto the roads, and why was this one allowed to?
- How much of this chemical has gotten into the environment?
- Who will compensate the people whose lives have been disrupted by this spill?

This may be the first time (as far as we know) that this has happened locally, but it won't be the last.

Kids will be going back to school in a few weeks. School buses will be sharing the same roads as the heavy trucks hauling water, fracking chemicals, and other substances involved in this industry. How long until the first truck/bus collision?

Planetary triangle, 7/29/2010



As you may recall from a previous post, we're currently witnessing a beautiful planetary ballet low in the West after sunset. Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Saturn are strung out along a relatively small area of sky. (In fact their distances from each other are enormous; the closeness is an illusion caused by our line of sight.) If you have clear skies and a good view of the horizon you might be able to see Mercury. The rest of us will have to be content with bright Venus at the lower right, and dimmer Mars (below) and Saturn (above) on the left.

I'm glad I was able to get photos tonight and will try to get photos over the next week or so. Because of the changing positions of the Earth, Venus, and Mars (and to a much lesser extent, Saturn) along their orbits, the placement of these planets will shift considerably over the next ten days, until on August 8 Venus, Mars, and Saturn will all be clustered together into a relatively tight ball. See the Jack Horkheimer videos here to get a good idea of what you will see and when you will see it.

But don't dawdle - because these planets are so low, the window to see them is very tight. At 8:50 tonight the sky was still too bright from the glow of twilight to be able to see Mars and Saturn, and horizon obstructions (houses and trees) kept me from seeing Mercury. The upper picture above was taken at 9:11 PM, and the lower picture was taken at 9:14 PM. Shortly after that Venus was obscured by the trees.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Permits? We don't need no stinking permits!

So. Say you're a municipality in Northeastern Pennsylvania. And say you like to run things on the up-and-up, and maybe have one of those "PERMITS REQUIRED" signs hanging at the city limits. That means that companies can't just come to town and do what they want, when they want to...does it?

Gas drilling company sues Damascus Township over cease and desist order - News - The Times-Tribune
A natural gas drilling company has filed a federal lawsuit against Damascus Twp. in Wayne County, just days after township officials issued a "cease-and-desist" work order on one of the company's exploratory wells because it didn't obtain a permit.

The suit, filed July 6 by a subsidiary of Houston-based Newfield Exploration Co., claims that on July 2 township officials "took administrative action to stop the drilling project" by issuing a stop-work order. It further states the township does not have any regulatory authority to do so through its zoning ordinance.

The suit alleges that state law, in particular the state Oil and Gas Act, which is enforced by the state Department of Environmental Protection, supercedes all local authority to regulate or require any special provisions upon natural gas exploration and development.
The Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act is a very controversial little law which was allegedly authored in large part by the oil and gas industries themselves. Many municipalities have been finding out about it the hard way - by discovering that, when it comes to oil and gas drilling, they really have no say in the matter. And with Pennsylvania pinning much of its hope for fiscal solvency on revenues from oil and gas drilling, just how likely is it that the state will do anything that might hamper drilling?


SIDE NOTE: Over the last decade or so I have been noticing a gradual increase in large birds-of-prey in this area. including some that are endangered or protected. Last week I saw a bald eagle circling over River Street in Plains (or possibly Wyoming), and earlier this week I saw what appeared to be a roadkill bald eagle on the highway near Olyphant. I believe it is a violation of federal law to interfere with or disturb the nesting sites of these birds, as some locals found out in an incident involving a peregrine falcon a few years ago. Are environmental impact studies being done for each gas well being drilled, particularly with an eye to how the noise and light pollution (as well as potential chemical pollution) will affect federally protected wildlife?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

To bed with me

Sorry, nothing coherent today. I took a detour on the way home this morning to do some grocery shopping, and now my schedule is totally out of whack.

Two days down, two more to go.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Planetary line-up at sunset


The end of July and the beginning of August bring a beautiful sight in the western sky after sunset: four planets roughly lined up - and three of them forming a gradually-tightening triangle. Sky & Telescope magazine provided the diagram above, and also provides a little more information on their site:

SkyandTelescope.com - Homepage Observing - This Week's Sky at a Glance

As usual. living treasure Jack Horkheimer provides an excellent guide to what you will see and when you will see it:



Too pressed for time to listen to Jack's entire five-minute presentation? Tough! Listen, maggot, Jack's been doing this for a long time, and I fear he may not be doing it for much longer. This man puts a lot of effort into creating this educational guides to the week's sky, and the least you can do is take five freaking minutes to listen to the man!

What? Still going on about how you're too busy to watch this? Alright, you pressed-for-time pantywaist, Jack actually foresaw your whining, and compressed his presentation into a one-minute segment. Happy? Now shut up, sit down, and watch!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Come to Wilkes-Barre, home of the famous Giant Cow!

I was flipping through the Sunday supplement PARADE magazine today while getting ready for work and I came across a map on page 5. This is item five - "Visit an American Original" - on their list of "15 Ways to Enjoy Your Summer." I scanned the map for points of interest close to me and noticed one directly over Northeastern Pennsylvania. This was #37 - "Wilkes-Barre, Pa. - Giant Cow."

Three-O-Nina made the list!

Another Monkey: Three-O-Nina


If you are in or passing through Northeastern Pennsylvania, it is worth driving East along Business Route 309 off the Blackman Street exit (exit 165) on Interstate 81, about a quarter of a mile past Kmart. This is one of the few survivors of the cows made by the FAST fiberglass sculpture company in the 1950's and 1960's. At Christmastime, you may get to see the giant cow (nicknamed "Three-O-Nina" because of her location on route 309) enlisted into the culture wars by the local Knights of Columbus!



For more information, see parade.com and roadsideamerica.com .

Roadside America - Wilkes Barre, PA - Giant Cow



P.S. - Don't climb on the cow. You might damage it, and you will be arrested and/or fined heavily.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Rain delay

Well, I was going to do a post here about economic monocropping, but there's a line of thunderstorms blowing through the area, and I don't want the computer to blow up in my face. So I'm going to disconnect soon. Then tomorrow it's back to work for another four-day rotation...maybe.

Thunder. Lightning. Smoke? I smell wood burning. Hmmm, I hope it starts raining soon...

Friday, July 23, 2010

First the Triffids came for Rick Warren...and a longish Side Note

I was over at my house this evening watching the news on WNEP2, the digital sister station of our local ABC affiliate. I was a little confused when the news wrapped up at 10:45 PM. Inside Edition, the entertainment tabloid show, came on and I watched it just for the heck of it. From the very start one of the stories being touted involved megachurch celebrity pastor Rick Warren being blinded by a poisonous plant in his garden. As someone who has been known to putter around in the garden, I was suddenly very interested.

The show thundered by, apparently a truncated version stripped of any commercials - each segment ended with a preview of stories in upcoming segments, immediately followed by another segment. Finally one more extended preview came up, promising more details on the incident, and immediately segued into the closing of the show. Dammit! The one thing I was watching for, they skipped!

CNN has this to say:

Pastor Rick Warren blinded by poisonous plant, expected to recover – Larry King Live - CNN.com Blogs

Megachurch pastor Rick Warren is home recovering after his eyes were burned as he pruned a firestick plant in his yard, his spokesman told CNN Thursday.

...

"My eyes were severely burned by a toxic poison," Warren wrote in a Twitter message Thursday morning. "Hospitalized Mon. Excruciating pain. Now home. Pray my sight loss is restored."
...and not much else. No helpful links on this "firestick plant" - that was left up to a commentor:

Charles, July 23rd, 2010 9:20 am ET: Euphorbia Tirucalli or "Firestick" the sap is VERY deadly. Will burn your skin if you touch it let alone get it in your eyes. Brazil looked at using the sap as gasoline in the 80's.
Wikipedia has this to say about Euphorbia tirucalli:

The milky sap contained in this plant is corrosive and extremely toxic. Contact with skin causes severe burning; contact with the eyes may cause severe pain, and may cause temporary blindness for up to 7 days. For eye exposures, flush eyes with water for at least 15 minutes and seek medical attention. Over-the-counter antihistamines may provide relief for sensitive patients. Symptoms may worsen over 12 hours. If swallowed, may cause burning to mouth, lips, and tongue. Deaths have been recorded from swallowing the sap and, if swallowed, one should seek medical attention.
As Charles noted in his comment, the sap of this plant has a potential as a biofuel. But as the plant is restricted to tropical and semi-tropical environments, I don't think I'm in danger of accidentally encountering it...yet.


Side note: After the 15-minute version of Inside Edition wrapped up, it was followed by a show from the 1960's called Crisis (formerly Kraft Suspense Theater.) The episode title was "One Tiger to a Hill." I found this title intriguing enough to look it up to see if it was a reference to something. Googling it resulted in these hits:

-An episode of Route 66 from 1962
-This episode of Kraft Suspense Theater from 1964
-A play written by Sharon Pollock in 1980
-A short story by Iftekhar Sayeed set in Bangaladesh and written in 2007
-A song by Jamie Musselwhite

...ah, here we go. From The Most Dangerous Branch: How the Supreme Court of Canada Has Undermined Our Law and Our Democracy by Robert Ivan Martin (Mc-Gill-Queen's University Press, 2003):
The phrase "One Tiger to a Hill" is taken from Robert Ardrey's African Genesis: A Personal Investigation into the Animal Origins and Nature of Man. Ardrey's central analytical concept is "territoriality"; this is the notion that much animal behaviour can be explained as a struggle over territory. A tiger must hunt to survive and the idea that any single hill will provide only sufficient hunting opportunities for one tiger to be able to survive.
Robert Ardrey's book is from 1961, predating the Route 66 episode. From Wikipedia:

Robert Ardrey (b. October 16, 1908, Chicago, Illinois—d. January 14, 1980, South Africa) was an American playwright and screenwriter who returned to his academic training in anthropology and the behavioral sciences in the 1950s.

African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative, two of Robert Ardrey's most widely read works, as well as Desmond Morris' The Naked Ape (1967), were key elements in the public discourse of the 1960s which challenged earlier anthropological assumptions. Ardrey's ideas notably influenced Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick in the development of 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as Sam Peckinpah, to whom Strother Martin gave copies of two of Ardrey's books.
Was this phrase in common use prior to Ardrey's book? I have no idea. I had never heard it prior to one hundred and three minutes ago, and I'm fascinated to find it dotted about in popular culture. Is anyone familiar with this phase? Does anyone of a certain age remember if Robert Ardrey's works had much of an impact on daily life in the early 1960's?

Mallard Fillmore (corrected)


There's a crappy right-wing comic out there called "Mallard Fillmore." As with most things right-wing, it shows a distinct detachment from reality. In the original of the corrected comic above, the secret words were "racist" and "hater" - because, see, whenever anyone uses the word "racist", they're really just trying to squelch a debate that they're losing, and all those lefties are tossing out the word "hater" these days like hash brownies at the Doo Dah Parade. At least in Bruce Tinsley's world.*

My corrected version is actually well out of date: the "Right" has been branding their opponents as "SOCIALISTS!" for quite some time now, and have never stopped using "Liberal" as an epithet, even though it has faded in power as people have come to realize it means "not like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, or Bruce Tinsley."

Anyone interested in seeing the original (from Sunday, July 18, 2010) might be able to find it here, at least for a little while. Other than replacing the words "racist" with "liberal" and "hater" with "socialist", I also changed the tie color from Cowardly Liberal Pale Yellow to Red State Red, and the suit from Pale Shades of Gray to Reagan Brown. If I had the time and the patience, I would have changed the hairstyle from Balding Liberal (And Possibly JEWISH) College Professor to Fabulously Styled Neocon/Theocon. But really, Tinsley's crap doesn't deserve that much effort.


*I was going to say "Bruce Tinsley's alcohol-clouded vision", but that's an ad hominem attack, and I'd never stoop to that.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Live-blogging the Paul Kanjorski telephone town hall meeting

On hold, waiting for a Paul Kanjorski "telephone town hall meeting" to begin. Five minutes late so far...

Started at 7:38. In line to call.

In line to ask a question, I mean. Just got to put my question online: "Is Congressman Kanjorski pursuing solar panel and wind generator manufacturing in Northeastern Pennsyvania?"

He's talking about predatory lending legislation, which he pursued in 2001 following the post-9/11 influx of New Yorkers to PA - sellers and mortgage brokers were colluding to inflate the prices of properties being sold to those dumb city slickers. I learned about this in June of 2001, when I went on a date with someone who knew about this stuff from the inside. (Not sure how - I think she was a beautician. We went to see Shrek, go to Wilkes-Barre's Fine Arts Fiesta, and had dinner at a now-closed restaraunt. I had linguine with scallops, and splattered myself with butter sauce.)

There have been no more bank failures in the last 20 months...?

Ten minutes in...no questions so far. Wait...

One question...two minute monologue so far...wait, she's getting to the question...

Just got a call 14 minutes in telling me that in a few minutes, Paul Kanjorski will be holding a telephone town hall meeting. The same one I've been on for fifteen minutes now.

First question was about mortgages. Now another one about the recession, and the job loss, and the health care.

Mary Ann from Exeter. Damn, she sounds familiar. Is Social Security going to go up in the next four years?

S-I-N-G-L-E is not pronounced "signal", folks.

Steve from Henryville. Lived within his means, played by the rules - out of control spending in the Federal Government! When will the Federal Government learn to live within its means? Somebody needs to study basic Economics. If the Federal Government lived within its means now, we'd go straight into Depression.

"Things we couldn't control - like two wars, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan." Ummm, wait. You could have said "NO" to either or both of those.

Next question: shipping jobs overseas.

"Great job opportunity - the gas industry." Yeah, we know you're in their pocket, Paul. And so is your opponent.

Flood insurance in Plainsville. Anything with the word "Plain" in it generally means "Flood Plain."

Stimulus stuff.

Last question - Frank from Olyphant. Stimulus money. Why aren't you pounding the pavement showing people where this stimulus money is going? Good question: Kanjorski is actually very bad at tooting his own horn. He's been in office for so long because of voter inertia, not because people are in awe of his accomplishments. In reality, he actually HAS accomplished quite a bit - not all to my liking, but that's life.

Never got to ask my question, but I got to leave it as a message. A warning about economic monocrops, like the coal industry in Northeastern PA and the oil industry in the Gulf, and how a single major disaster - like the Knox Mine Disaster in 1959, or the BP Oil Disaster in the Gulf - can shut down an entire region's economy. Now Kanjorski is encouraging us to slip on the noose of Marcellus Shale drilling - putting all of our chips on one number. What is he doing to bring solar cell / solar panel manufacturing and wind generator manufacturing to Northeastern Pennsylvania?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Homer

Today after I got home from work I watered my tomatoes, moved some heavy terra cotta pots, and slept. Then I woke up, ran the weed whacker, and hauled out the garbage.

More than half of our garbage, by volume, is cat litter. We recently acquired our twelfth cat. I had decided that we were done with cats, but this one had extenuating circumstances.

For the past few months I believe the resident feral population has hovered at five: two from the same litter as Bowie, Thor, and BlueBear, and three from the same litter as Amber and Spooky. We have managed to catch two of those ferals for neutering and re-release, one of the older males and one of the younger females. The other younger female became pregnant at some point and had kittens a few weeks ago at the height of the heat wave. (It appears her kittens have all died - I found and buried two of them last week, and I have seen none anywhere near her today.)

The other older cat has not been around lately. Maybe he's dead, maybe he's just moved on to establish his own territory.

And then there's Homer.

These cats are really just semi-feral. They know that humans on the porch mean that there may be food available, so any time they hear the back door open they will come up the steps and through the propped-open door to see if we have anything for them. Mostly they will keep their distance, dashing back off the porch at the slightest provocation. Except for one of the younger cats.

For weeks, months maybe, one of the three younger cats kept trying to come into the house. Not sneakily, not by stealth: it's just that whenever we opened the back door to go back into the house, he assumed we were inviting him to stroll in, too. Several times he nearly made it, and was caught in mid-stride. He didn't put up a fight when we turned him back, but he would always try again.

Our personal trap-neuter-release program, as you may recall, started with a disaster. While I was able to trap one cat, a young female, almost immediately, she got loose while I was trying to transfer her to another carrier. She bit the hell out of my hands each of the several times I was able to grab her as she raced around the house looking for an exit, and then she spent most of the next three days (Thursday morning through Saturday night) hiding in our house until we successfully re-trapped her. (That first Friday my sister was able to trap an older male that we then had neutered.) We had to hold onto her until the following Friday, when the mobile low-cost spay/neuter clinic came back to town. She spent that week in two oversized pet carriers, being transferred from each when it became too soiled to let her remain.

After that adventure was over and she had healed from her surgery and been released, I took the carriers outside, disassembled them, hosed them down , cleaned them off, and then filled them with a bleach-water mixture to soak for a while. Then I went to work for the night.

That night I was haunted by visions of feral cats drinking the bleach-water mixture from the carriers. My God, what have I done? Have I killed the cats we were trying to save?

The next morning when I got home from work I went straight out and dumped out the remaining bleach-water and hosed out the carriers.

One of the cats was on our porch, sniffing at the food. He yowled a bit, stepped off the porch, jumped off the steps behind a rhododendron, and yowled some more.

Over the next few days I kept an eye out for him. He was suddenly very skinny, as though he weren't eating at all. Had I burned his esophagus and stomach and the rest of his digestive system with bleach-water?

The other cats stopped coming around, though we saw them once in a while. We suspected that they resented what had been done to them, and did not appreciate being made our unwilling guests. And I figured the pregnant one had gone off to find a place to have her babies. The temperature began to soar.

But the skinny cat kept coming around. He would plant himself directly in front of the back storm door, which opens out. Several times I had to pick him up and relocate him so I could open the door all the way. He didn't put up a fight.

Finally it was time for me to go back to work. On that day, my mom decided she had had enough of watching this cat getting skinnier and skinnier, dying by inches. She was going to take him to the vet to see if there was anything that could be done with him.

I told her that she was probably just investing a lot of money in having a cat put to sleep. If he hadn't been accidentally poisoned by me, or intentionally poisoned by someone else, he was probably being eaten alive by parasites and full of diseases. But she decided to take him and that was that.

As I got ready to leave for work, they were finally taking her into a room. As I left for work, she called me with the verdict.

He wasn't dying, not irreversibly. He hadn't been poisoned, intentionally or accidentally. He didn't have rabies, or Feline AIDS, or Feline Leukemia. What he had was a severe respiratory infection that was compromising his ability to eat or drink. The vet gave him I.V. hydration, a massive dose of antibiotics, and prescribed some appetite stimulants. We decided that we would hold onto him for at least two weeks, if possible, and try to get him back to fighting weight.

It became clear very quickly that this was the cat who had always been trying to get into the house. He didn't fight us, not like his feral sister had when we captured her for spaying a few weeks ago, in fact not at all. And I don't think this was just because of his weakened state. He actually seemed to be - well, not just friendly, but actually grateful. Happy to be starting a life as a domestic cat. (This sort of odd behavior in a nearly year-old feral had me wondering about rabies, but the vet says he's clean.)

That was nearly two weeks ago. He is doing well. He has put on weight, thanks to a liquid diet of kitten milk which is now transitioning into a diet of solid food in liquids. Where once his spine was the widest part of his body other than his head, he now has a little belly and a somewhat less-bony spine. He is still showing signs of intense gratitude, nuzzling us when we pick him up and wrapping around our legs when we enter the bathroom-turned-isolation chamber where he is being kept. He still tries to stroll out a door - but now it is the bathroom door, so he can meet with his fellow cats. Several times a day I will carry him around the house so he can see (but not closely interact with) the other cats of the house, especially Nicky the Senior Cat and his sister Amber and brother Spooky.

We were stumped as to what to name him. Finally I decided on a name that reflected his life story: All that he wanted to be was a house cat. All that he wanted was a home.

So now we have our twelfth cat: Homer.


The order of cats:

Nicky, born August 1998. Abandoned by his mother when she relocated the rest of her litter. Rescued by my sister, then transferred as an infant to us. Senior Cat.
Joey, found in mid-2000 wandering around by my brother's house, looking to get in. Probably several months old at the time..
Babusz, born September 2006.
Scooter, born July 2007.

Bowie, born Spring 2009. Fell into basement twice. The second time, we kept her, May 18, 2009.
Thor, littermate of Bowie, caught barehanded by my mom June 4, 2009.
BlueBear, littermate of Bowie and Thor, trapped (using bird netting as a lure) June 2009.

Ray Chelle, formerly Rachel, littermate of Gretchen (deceased), child of Socks (deceased). Captured (along with his sibling) June 30, 2009.
Peaches, daughter of Tortoise (deceased), caught barehanded by my mom, July 2009.

Amber, born Autumn 2009. Captured October 2009.
Spooky, littermate of Amber. Snatched in his sleep January 1, 2010. (Spooky was fairly old when we caught him, and had a very hard time adapting to life in a house. I decided that he was at the maximum age for taking in a feral.)
Homer, littermate of Amber and Spooky. Came to us, sick and apparently dying, July 2010 - nearly a year old.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Today, tomorrow, yesterday

In December, 2001 the car in which I was a passenger was struck from behind while we were waiting at a red light. I sustained a scalp laceration from a seam in the headrest of the passenger's seat. As I was being prepped for transport to the hospital for staples, I was quizzed to check for cognitive impairment:

"What day of the week is it?" they asked.

"Today is the 21st of December. Pearl Harbor Day was the 7th. Pearl Harbor Day was a Friday this year. It's been 14 days or exactly two weeks since then. So today must be Friday."
That was before I was working the 4x4 schedule, or the even worse Krazy Kalendar schedule which ran from January through the end of June. Now I often point out that if any of us are in an accident, we're totally screwed as far as the test above goes.

"What day of the week is it?"

"Days of weeks, these terms are irrelevant to me. Today is either Firstday, Secondday, Thirdday, or Lastday. If I am not working, it is a day off. That is all that matters.."
It becomes almost impossible to keep track of what day of the rest of the world thinks it is. And it is more than just a naming issue. For example, when I received a message on my last off day telling me that I had to bring proof of employment eligibility to a certain place on July 20, 2010 at 6:20 PM, I took a quick look at the calendar and concluded that this was on Monday, our third day of work

The upshot of all this is that I took my passport in to work a day early. I am to take my passport to work tomorrow - or rather, tonight, depending on your point of view.

So. One more sleep-period before I go to work and find myself chained to a bench in the belly of a ship bound for Iceland, a steady drumbeat telling us how fast to row.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Not enough time

Running late. No real post today. Off to work, passport in hand. There's an outside chance I'll be deported to Iceland, even though I'm not from there.


INXS - "Not Enough Time"

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Numbers stations

I heard two interesting things on All Things Considered yesterday on the way to work. One just angries up the blood, so I think I'll put off dealing with it until later.* But the other concerned something that has fascinated me for a while: numbers stations.

Numbers Stations: Mystery Over The Airwaves : NPR

Numbers stations are these mysterious yet fairly well-known broadcasts on shortwave radio that consist of voices - now electronically generated or at least pre-recorded voices - reading off clusters of numbers. These numbers make use of an uncrackable encryption technique known as a "One-Time Pad" to communicate - well, something. You can't actually know what is being communicated without the key, which is the point.

Numbers station - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Four and a half years ago I stumbled across what appeared to be "numbers blogs" during a random walk using Blogger's "Next Blog" button.** These were blogs that consisted of nothing but clusters of numbers updated every minute or so. According to the NPR piece, these blogs would be inherently more traceable than the shortwave broadcasts. I don't know if they're still out there - I didn't bother to save any of the addresses (which, if I recall correctly, consisted of random character strings) and I don't know if I could just stumble across them again.



*Do the Republicans actually want to see the economy in general and unemployment in particular improve as long as Barack Obama is in office and/or there is a Democratic majority in Congress? Wouldn't such a thing be perceived as a victory for Barack Obama and/or Congressional Democrats? This will be discussed later, when I'm more prepared to deal with the inevitable troll attacks.

**The "Next Blog" button has since been modified so it directs you to a blog similar to the blog you are currently on, which pretty much defeats the ability to do a random walk.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Papers, please

OK, fun's over. Time to go back to work for four more days.

For many of my friends, this will be the beginning of their final two rotations. A lot of people in the first wave of layoffs - terminations, really - are scheduled to go in August, but rumor is that they will actually be cut at the end of the next rotation, just a few days before the end of the month.

I'm scheduled to be laid off - terminated - no later than the third week of December. But I could be cut any time before then.

Odd thing: After eighteen years of employment that included one previous involuntary separation, the company has decided that they have an irregularity in their records regarding my employment eligibility. I have been asked to bring in proof of my employment eligibility. Acceptable documents include an unexpired passport. My passport expires in less than two weeks, so I guess this comes at an opportune time. I don't see myself travelling internationally in the near future, but I suppose it won't hurt to renew my passport - especially when my next employer asks for proof of employment eligibility.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Driving Mr. Groundhog

Yesterday one of our cats got loose. His name is Spooky, and he is a black cat with a scattering of individual white hairs, including one white whisker. We found him after some effort, hiding under a tarp under a rhododendron. But before that discovery we set out our Havaheart trap baited with cat food, hoping to catch him. Two weeks ago he got out without anyone noticing and turned up in the trap that we had set out for a groundhog, baited with an apple. We found the apple outside the trap, and him inside it. He apparently went into the trap to play with the apple, batted it out, and tripped the mechanism.

We never bothered to unbait the trap this time. This morning it was still positioned in the front garden where a groundhog had dug a burrow next to our foundation. Groundhogs may seem like annoying but not especially dangerous herbivores, oversized relatives of squirrels and chipmunks, but in reality their extensive burrows can cause considerable property damage and even undermine foundations. So when we discovered that we had caught something overnight, I wasn't too upset to see that it was a groundhog.


We caught a groundhog once before. It was a big, cheeky fellow, who was really not very pleased about being in the trap. The groundhog who has been menacing our neighborhood lately is also a big bruiser. This was a smaller specimen, who I have since dubbed Groundhog II: Son of Groundhog. It might not have been the groundhog, but it certainly was a groundhog.


So now the question was: what to do with him?

The last groundhog we caught we drove to a semi-remote forested area several miles away and released him. And that was good, but...I've always had a sinking feeling that the groundhog could retrace our steps and make it back. Based on no information at all, I have decided that groundhogs (like ghosts) cannot cross running water. So it seemed to me that the best thing to do would be to take him across the river, through the mountains, and along a creek to the area of Moon Lake Park and release him there. If they're going to do gas drilling there, may as well lend them a hand. Or some paws.

Yes, this should do.

I wasn't in a hurry. I took my time eating breakfast and getting myself and my car ready. I laid out an extra tarp on the back seat, rolled down all the windows, put on some leather gloves, and after showing our "latest acquisition" to a neighbor loaded the trap into the back seat. As I did so I had an awful thought: I hope there's no way he can get out of there.

It was a longish drive, with me playing Morgan Freeman to the groundhog's Miss Daisy. (He wasn't much of a talker.) At no point did I consider letting the groundhog take the wheel, despite suggestions from friends.

This is why.

I missed the park. It's been well over twenty-five years since I was last there, which is a bit of a shame. I drove until I knew where I was - briefly considering letting the groundhog loose on the lawns of the rich bastards who have cut off all public access to Lake Silkworth - and backtracked until I found the sign marking the entrance to the park. I drove up to the park, noting the general lack of traffic along the access road as well as the broad open fields and densely forested areas along the way, a nice, safe place for a young groundhog to start a new life. I turned around in the park entrance, drove back down the access road a little, pulled off the road, and released the groundhog. He immediately dashed across the road and, I hope, to safety.

Now we'll see if any of his relatives come around seeking revenge. Or perhaps he will make it back somehow, and we will witness Groundhog III: Return of the Groundhog.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Three days down

I've had a pretty good three days off. I slept too late on Tuesday and missed some opportunities to do things.Yesterday...what the hell did I do yesterday? Some Facebook stuff. Hauled out the garbage early. Made a trip to the comic book store and didn't find anything - though I realized after the fact that I might be able to replace my long-lost issues of Plop!, DC's horror/comedy series from the 1970's, without spending too much money. Met with a friend and her daughters for a while.

Today started out badly. Went to the dentist, which as usual was no big deal. Stopped at the post office to buy stamps and the supermarket to buy groceries. While I was in the supermarket, got a call from my mom that one of the cats had run out of the house. Checked out quickly and got home as fast as I could. I searched around the outside of the house two or three times before I located him by the bell on his collar - he was hiding under a tarp covering one of our "cat shelters" located under a Rhododendron.

While looking for him I made a disturbing discovery: two dead kittens in another of the cat shelters. One of the most recent crop of strays had been pregnant, something I first noticed a few weeks ago when we began trying to catch the strays for spaying and neutering. About two weeks ago I stopped seeing the pregnant cat around. About a week ago I thought I heard a kitten crying somewhere in our yard, but I was not able to locate the source of the sound, which quickly stopped. We never heard any more crying after that.

I don't know how or why these kittens died. They were lying together, and did not appear to have been dead more than a day or so. I did not find any sign of their mother or any other kittens, living or dead. I dug a hole next to our other cat graves and buried them as gently as I could.

Later this afternoon I met with my friend and her daughters again, after which I attended a meeting with the other representatives of the Nanticoke Democratic Committee, which was actually quite interesting and highly informative. Then I made some very excellent long-distance phone calls to friends old and new.

I found out last night that my old mentor may be my future nemesis. This could get interesting.

Tomorrow - Friday, July 16 - I may or may not be working overtime. If I'm not, I will be attending this.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Happy Bastille Day!

I read MAD Magazine's parody of "Papillon" (issue 170, October 1974) when I was six, and thought it was disgusting and hilarious. To this day, whenever I catch a snippet of the movie - which features Steve McQueen's title character being repeatedly beaten, brutalized, betrayed, and otherwise suffering horribly - I burst out laughing!

If you are a fan of MAD Magazine, or just remember some issues fondly from your childhood / adolescence / young adulthood / whatever, you should do yourself a favor and get a copy of the Absolutely MAD DVD-ROM. Oddly, I have just read in two different places that this is a two-DVD set; my copy has only a single DVD, and that's all the packaging claims is contained within. My version contains every issue from #1 (October - November 1952) through #460 (December 2005), plus Super Specials, interviews, and other extras. It runs on an Adobe Reader platform, so it functions on more systems than its seven CD-ROM predecessor Totally MAD, which contained issues through 1998 but also featured a more interactive interface and many more extras.

MAD Magazine is still published today. In early 2009, beginning with issue 500, it switched to a quarterly publication schedule. (This change was accompanied by the cancellation of the MAD Super Specials - most recently called "MAD Color Classics" - and the youth-targeted MAD Kids.) This was just one of many changes to the publication frequency over the history of MAD Magazine. In the most recent issue it was announced that MAD would be switching to a bimonthly schedule - or switching back, I should say; it wasn't too long ago that MAD was using the phrase "Buy a Bi" in its subscription advertising.* I'm looking forward to the increased frequency; MAD's quarterly schedule was not accompanied by an increase in the number of issue pages, so the total annual content dropped considerably. It was also very difficult to be timely or topical with such a stretched-out publication schedule.

So, if you love MAD Magazine or are just fond of print media, please also consider supporting the magazine - and the industry - with a subscription!


*UPDATE: This was apparently a reference to the Super Specials. After writing this I checked the frequency of publication for the last twenty years: there were eight issues a year for the first few years of the 1990s, then a few years of nine, then one of eleven, then twelve issues a year from the late 1990s through the end of 2008.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Paul Kanjorski and solar energy

For years I have been calling on Representative Paul Kanjorski and departing Senator Arlen Specter to act to embrace the industries that will support the new energy economy - specifically, solar cell manufacturing, wind turbine manufacturing, and lithium-ion battery production. But it seemed that Senator Specter had no interest in this, at least not in any way that would benefit Northeastern Pennsylvania, and Representative Kanjorski saw fit to tie this area's future - and his legacy - to natural gas drilling.

But it turns out that at least some Kanjorskis see a future in solar energy.

Solar panel producer tied to Kanjorski receives $400M federal loan - News - Citizens Voice

A Colorado-based solar panel manufacturer for which the nephew of U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski is vice president of marketing has received a $400 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The loan commitment to Abound Solar Manufacturing - announced by President Barack Obama during his July 3 weekly radio address - is to increase solar panel production at an existing plant in Colorado and build a second plant in Indiana that will create more than 1,200 jobs, a company statement said.

Part of the management team of Abound Solar is the Nanticoke Democrat's nephew, Russell Kanjorski. But a campaign spokesman denied the congressman had any part in the awarding of the loan commitment.

"His nephew works for the company, but is an executive and has nothing to do with securing federal projects, I don't believe," said spokesman Ed Mitchell. "The congressman doesn't know any of the executives of the company and has had no contact with them.

"The congressman has also had no contact with anyone in the administration to get the (loan commitment) and that's what it comes down to," he added.

Kanjo nephew works at firm that gets loan The Times Leader, Wilkes-Barre, PA
The company that employs the nephew of U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski has received a $400 million guaranteed federal loan.

The same company, formerly called AVA Solar and now known as Abound Solar Manufacturing, received a $3 million federal grant in 2008.

The two federal awards and the Kanjorskis’ relationship have been called “coincidental” by the company. The Kanjorski campaign said the congressman played no role.

Lou Barletta, the Republican challenger to Kanjorski in the 11th Congressional District race, said, “I guess the Kanjorskis are just lucky.”
(It should be noted that Lou Barletta worked very closely with Senator Specter to secure the Hazleton Creek Project, which imports Delaware River dredge so toxically contaminated with heavy metals that no other municipality will touch it to be used as landfill in Hazleton. This is a major reason why I voted to end Specter's career, and why it will be a cold day in Hell before I vote for Barletta. The federal agents who have been assigned to this area have taken an interest in the particulars of this project.)

According to the Times Leader story, the company denies any involvement by either Kanjorski in securing these awards:
Mark Chen, spokesman for Abound Solar, said Congressman Kanjorski had no role in the process.

“He was not involved with the securing of the initial commitment of the loan guarantee,” Chen said. “The company has received DOE grants in the past – including the $3 million in 2008 – but the decision on that was made before Russ Kanjorski worked here or even applied for a job. It was purely coincidental.”
So, hooray for the Colorado-based solar manufacturer. Good for them for getting this award, and good for Russ - my former Speech and Model U.N. teammate from high school - for having entered this field. It's just too damned bad that his uncle didn't have the foresight to try to bring companies like this - and all those jobs - to Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A brief note on Fracking coverage

Heading for bed soon, so I'll be brief.

Over the past few months and especially the last few weeks I have been very heartened by the expanded coverage being given to issues related to the extraction of gas deposits under the Marcellus Shale Formation. Until this expanded coverage came along, much of the general public had no idea what the concerns were with this, or even that concerns existed at all. Several local bloggers have been going on about this for years, but for the large segment of the local public still out of touch with the blogosphere this expanded coverage is the first they're hearing about the situation.

One thing concerns me, though. Is the news coverage reaching the point of attention saturation? Will the public eventually get bored with this issue, one which directly affects every resident of Northeastern Pennsylvania, and move on to other concerns?

I don't know. If that happens, I think it will just take one contaminated well, one uncontrolled leak of fracking fluids, one tragic accident involving the heavy trucks used throughout the gas extraction process, to pull people's attention back to this issue.

Tragically, I expect that there will be plenty of these to keep people focused.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

They paved Paradise, now it's nothing but flowers

I've had this three-song sequence in my head for...oh, you know, decades. Three songs where each one seems to be a response, or at least a sequel, to the preceding one.


First, Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" from 1970, a protest against urbanization and suburban sprawl:




Then 1982's "My City Was Gone" by The Pretenders, a lament for urban decay - with echoes of "Big Yellow Taxi". Embedding disabled, so click here to hear this song. (See the comments on the video for an interesting discussion of how this song wound up as Rush Limbaugh's theme music.)


Finally, Talking Heads' "Nothing But Flowers" from 1988 - an elegy for the vanishing suburban landscape being reclaimed by nature. The pavement decays, and Paradise re-emerges. Here it is performed solo by David Byrne:

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Rest and motion

I slept extra-long today. It's our first rotation back to a "normal" 4x4 schedule of four days on, four days off, plus overtime, minus layoffs. I got quite a bit of sleep yesterday before work (something like eleven hours), and today I turned in almost as soon as I got home and scored another six hours or so.

The upshot of this is that I have had very little time to do anything else today. I watered my tomatoes - the temperature finally dropped a few degrees, though Nanticoke never received the downpours we had in other areas. But now I have to leave early to drop off a card at a graduation party on my way to work.

So, to amuse you, here's a neat little video posted at Phil Plait*'s Bad Astronomy. There is a series of books out that demonstrate this sort of animation. Read the comments on his site for links to more information about how this is done.




*As readers of Avengers 2 #4 (part of Marvel's "Ultimate" line) know, Phil Plait's name appears in Ultimate Black Widow's address book, though the absence of any red dots next to it means that Ultimate Nick Fury - think Samuel L. Jackson with an eyepatch - has not had sexual relations with him. This news probably came as a relief to Phil.

Friday, July 09, 2010

If you oppose gas drilling, you must be in Big Oil's pocket

I have been saying for a while now that if anything good has come out of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, it is the cessation of those commercials from the American Petroleum Institute*'s propaganda arm, energytomorrow.org. You know, the ones where the smartly-dressed lady (a former talking head from a cable news network, I believe) assured us that the majority of Americans agree that we need more oil and gas drilling, and anyone who opposes this or wants regulations on drilling is a filthy socialist commie. Haven't seen those at all lately, but maybe I'm just not looking in the right place.

I was watching CNN today and I caught a brief ad. It started off slamming the oil industry for the disaster in the Gulf, and then it segued into a warning: expect slanderous attacks on alternative energy - the energy that will Assure America's Energy Independence - from groups supported by Big Oil.

Yes, that sounds reasonable, I thought, as the name of the group or organization sponsoring the ad slipped past me. Especially in these days when the Roberts/Alito/Scalia/Thomas Supreme Court is hard at work actively defending the rights of fine upstanding corporate citizens like BP to exercise unlimited spending to support their free speech.

But then I got to wondering: who sponsored this ad? I missed it, so I'm not sure, but it certainly wasn't one of the better-known legitimate environmental groups. Instead the name had a vaguely euphemistic ring to it, like so many sponsors of issues ads. And more often than not, these euphemistic names are actually a cover for the fact that the group sponsoring the ad is in direct opposition to the impression you might get from hearing the name.

So who is sponsoring this ad? I don't know. Solar companies? Wind companies? I personally know of one anti-wind energy blog which was being written by someone on Big Oil's payroll (by his own eventual admission.) Nuclear power? That's a whole 'nother story there, kids. So says someone who lives within twenty miles of a 30+ year old nuclear power plant.

Natural gas drillers?

That would be reasonable. Natural gas drillers, like coal companies, see themselves as "alternative energy." And they maintain that their product will help ensure America's Energy Independence, while at the same time admitting that much of the extracted gas is being shipped overseas. Here in Northeastern Pennsylvania, once Coal Country and now Marcellus Shale Country, there is growing grassroots opposition to hydraulic gas extraction operations, commonly known as "fracking." Would it be at all surprising if the Big Gas companies were now trying to give the impression that such opposition was actually being bankrolled by Big Oil? Is the anti-fracking movement the real target of these new ads?


*What kind of Institute is this, anyway? Apparently they don't study things like "How to avoid and deal with deep-water disasters" or "Making sure industry members behave ethically."

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Over and over

My five-day vacation is over. Tomorrow I resume a regular four-days-on, four-days-off schedule - which can be complicated by overtime, lack-of-work layoffs, and the fact that the first wave of permanent layoffs is scheduled for August. (I'm scheduled to be permanently laid off in the second wave in December.)

Unfortunately, I accomplished precious little on these days off. I suppose I could enumerate all the mundane little tasks I've accomplished here and there, but I feel like I've done very little, and far less than I had planned. I blame the heat: a stretch of days over ninety degrees (that's temperatures in the 30's, for you furriners) has the same enervating effect as the loss of sunlight intensity in the wintertime. And, damn, it's been hot.*

So, naturally, as I am heading back to work, the weather is supposed to finally break, with temperatures sliding back into something more tolerable for living beings.

...hmmm. The weather is supposed to break with mighty thunderstorms, and I currently have the windows in my car rolled down more than a crack, and I should stay in bed late tomorrow as I make the transition from daywalking to night shift. Maybe I should roll those windows up before I turn in for the evening.

BONUS: This song caught my ear on Tuesday, and it's been getting played in heavy rotation on the best alternative station in the area, Marywood University's VMFM 91.7. The band is The National, and the song is "Bloodbuzz Ohio."



*It's been so hot that the grass in the yard has gone dormant, so I was able to get away without mowing this week. Unfortunately, it's been so hot that I'm starting to worry that my tomatoes will be stunted.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Dappled Sunlight, 6/28/2007




The story:

It was four months into my layoff and I was getting desperate. Precious few jobs were to be found anywhere in Northeastern Pennsylvania. To make matters worse, the weather was swelteringly hot. The weather had played hell with my ancient (seven year old) PC and combined with numerous other factors - including, most likely, a vast array of viruses that had made it though my nearly-as-ancient (but dutifully updated) antivirus software - to fatally crash the system one time too many. A friend offered to assemble a new system for me, cobbled together out of parts he had acquired here and there. We transferred the data from my old hard drive to the new one, gave it a few test-boots, and I was back in business.

For a little while.

I don't know if it was the heat, or a Firefox bug, or just me, but I managed to break the new set-up very quickly.

So back I went on the nearly seventy mile journey to my friend's house. It was eventful, to say the least: a titanic electrical storm swept through the region that afternoon, knocking out power to the house, and for a while it looked like I would be going home empty-handed. The first re-install failed in exactly the same way as the initial install. I think we tried it a second time and were able to make it fail again. The third time we made some modifications, stripped out a few things, and it came up and stayed up.*

By then it was about 3:00 in the morning. I didn't have anywhere special to be the next day, but my friend needed to get up for work in just a few hours. I spent the rest of the night at their house and got up after my friend had left. I packed my newly-repaired computer into my car and left the house as my friend's wife and their child were heading out for the day.

We stepped outside to cool, moist air, a far cry from the hot and humid air before the previous evening's thunderstorms. The rain had soaked the ground, and dew had formed on every needle of every branch of the hemlock forest that surrounds their house. A mist hung in the air, and the risen sun broke up in the branches and fell as visible beams onto the forest floor. I raised my ever-present camera and took three pictures.

Thanking my friend's wife for their aid and hospitality, I saddled up my car for the journey home.



*For a while. I managed to crash it again several months later. But by then I had a job, and decided not to bother my friend again, feeling too much like Odysseus returning to Aeolus to ask for the same favor one time too many. I bit the bullet and paid to have the contents of the hard drive salvaged and the necessary programs re-installed, including a souped-up anti-virus program. Aside from a power supply failure a year or so later, it's been pretty stable since then.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Damn, I used to be able to write

I bought dental floss today. Fifty-five yards for eighty-eight cents. Dental floss, it seems to me, is a product subject to massive price inflation and massive size deflation. I knew I'd written about this in the past, so I did a search of Another Monkey for "dental floss." What I found surprised me in two ways:

1. The price of dental floss is the same as it was over two years ago.

2. Damn, I used to be able to write.

I don't know if observation #2 is actually true. I mean, maybe what I was writing twenty-five months ago was crap, as crappy as what I'm writing now. But I've always been plagued by this tendency to envy the quality of my writing in the past. I'm sure in June 2008 I was looking back at stuff I had written in 2006 or 2005 and thinking "Wow, I used to be able to write."

Judge for yourself, if you have the time. Stroll through the archives of yesteryear's posts and see if you don't agree.





When you are done, you may enjoy these images of crepuscular rays, taken at about 8:24 tonight:


Monday, July 05, 2010

The great tomato race

After last year's disastrous bout of Late Blight Fungus, I decided that this year all of our tomatoes would be grown from seed. I started two groups of seeds: an "indeterminate" variety of Rutgers in small terra cotta pots on the windowsill of my mom's house, and a Lee Valley Seed Starter half-full of "determinate" Marglobes. (For those unfamiliar with these terms, see here.)

The windowsill Rutgers tomatoes took off well ahead of the Marglobes, which grew under a 100-Watt equivalent brightness compact fluorescent bulb on a timer. The Rutgers have stayed ahead of the Marglobes in every way measurable. This even applies to the Rutgers that had its neck broken in a tragic fall; I repotted it in potting soil, burying it up to the first true leaves so it would form new roots along the stem, and it is doing well so far.

In late May, I transferred some of the seedlings to larger pots on the west-facing front porch using (John Jeavons forgive me) store-bought potting soil. A few weeks later I selected the healthiest and most advanced of each type for transfer into Topsy-Turvy upside-down tomato planters, which I hung from the crossbeam of a clothespole in a sunny location. About a week later I decided to repot another Rutgers into a large pot on the ground below and between these two. I then set upon a regular schedule of watering all of these plants, including the seedlings still on the front porch nursery.

The results can be seen above. (This picture was taken just before sunset. This location and the one below get direct sunlight all morning and part of the early afternoon; this location also gets late-afternoon sunlight, while the one below gets direct sunlight until mid-afternoon.) Rutgers are on the left and in the center; Marglobe is on the right. The Rutgers in the part is larger and darker than either of the hanging tomatoes, both of which have craned their necks to aim their leaves at the sun. (Background plants include dill, immediately behind and to the left if the pot; a bolting Double Delight rose, which regularly throws up numerous long straight canes that do not bear roses; a neighbor's peach tree on the middle right; and a dwarf cherry tree - now well over twelve feet tall - in the background on the left.)

I repotted a second group of tomatoes in containers for comparison just a few weeks ago. In this picture Marglobes are on the left and in the green pot in the foreground, while Rutgers are on the right and in the pinkish pot in the back. Again, the Rutgers are outpacing the Marglobes (which were one of the parent plants of the Rutgers variety), the potted plants are outpacing the hanging plants, and the hanging plants have twisted their stems so they are growing upright. (Please don't ask what those hanging plants are hanging from. The answer is a very bad idea.)


I still have two more Topsy-Turvy planters, though I don't think I will use them this year. I also have several more large pots and quite a bit of unused garden space. Two more Rutgers are in large pots on the front porch, and several more Rutgers and Marglobes are destined for repotting soon. In addition, I have half a dozen indeterminate Beefsteaks that I started when I briefly thought that both Rutgers and Marglobe were determinates. (Rutgers comes in both varieties, and I happened to pick the indeterminate type, though I did not know that until after I re-located the seed packet.) The Beefsteaks and the rest of the Rutgers and Marglobes will either be repotted, planted directly in the ground, shared with friends and neighbors, or held in reserve against some future disaster.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

UFO on the Fourth of July

Last night a Facebook friend posted about seeing a UFO. Her description sounded like she might have actually seen the International Space Station. A check with heavens-above.com revealed that the ISS had in fact made a spectacular pass over her location, though not at the time she specified. So the jury is still out on what exactly she saw, although she is now fairly certain that it was the ISS.

Tonight I saw something that definitely wasn't the ISS.

Today was my recovery day from work, so after going to church (a morning Mass) I spent much of the afternoon sleeping. I got up early in the evening, puttered around for a while, and heard the weather forecast. It was hot outside today, and is supposed to get hotter as the week progresses. I realized I hadn't watered my potted tomatoes in a few days and decided that evening would be a safe time to water them as long as I avoided getting water on the leaves.

It was around 9:00 by the time I finally got myself together. Fireworks were in full swing - not the local city-sponsored display, which was last night, but the illegal stuff that is fired off every year on the Fourth of July and the weeks before and after without any sort of legal repercussions. And then I saw something rising out of the northwestern sky that didn't look like a firework.

It looked like the ISS at first, a little, though it was very bright and - like the object seen by my friend last night - was orange. I believe I saw the ISS once glowing orange in reflected moonlight that had refracted through the atmosphere, but that was in the sky opposite the rising Full Moon. Tonight the Moon is in a completely different position, and less than half as bright as it was then. Besides, I could quickly see that this object was extended in space, a slightly flattened sphere like two bowls joined mouth-to-mouth, glowing orange from the bottom and dark red on top; no matter how hard I have tried, I have never been able to see the ISS as anything more than a very bright point source. And it drifted in front of some clouds, something the ISS could not possibly do.

I ran into the house to get my camera and my mom, so she could see this too. I quickly snapped off a series of photos in sports mode, though these showed nothing more than a fuzzy red dot. I realized I would have been better off grabbing my binoculars instead, and left my mom outside to continue viewing.

"It's turning red!" she shouted as I pulled my binoculars out of the case. "It's gone dark!" she added as I popped off the lens caps and ran back outside.

The sky was still bright enough to see the now-dark object drifting and dropping. I turned the binoculars on it and saw it clearly: a deflating bag, looking like red mylar, crumbling and tumbling through the night sky. It fell clumsily, passed behind some trees, and was gone.

So what was it? Most likely some sort of Chinese Lantern.



I've seen other versions of this same idea: Solar balloons, which absorb the heat of the sun to expand gas within the balloon and provide lift, and even expensive LED-illuminated toys from the likes of Hammacher Schlemmer. The color changes were probably due to the changing angle of view, or to the fire that provided lift and illumination burning itself out.

I don't know for sure. I didn't perform a search for debris at a crash site, nor did I investigate any possible launch sites. But it seems likely that a Chinese Lantern was the source of this brief and mysterious incident.


UPDATE: Chinese Lantern UFOs were reported all over the place last night:
http://www.examiner.com/x-2363-UFO-Examiner~y2009m7d5-UFO-group-tracked-across-Pennsylvania?#comments

Saturday, July 03, 2010

July 3, 1778


Two hundred and thirty-two years ago, an operation was launched to cut off an important source of agricultural provisions to the Colonial Army during the American Revolution. The target was an isolated valley in Northeastern Pennsylvania, once considered the "southern door" to the Longhouse of the Iroquois Confederation, now claimed by Connecticut. An army of Tories - Americans loyal to the crown - along with Iroquois allies (who did not represent or act on behalf of all of the Iroquois tribes) stole into the outskirts of the Wyoming Valley, with the objective to destroy all agricultural supplies and empty the Valley of its rebellious population. Their approach was not entirely unexpected, as advance scouts had been spotted in the region for some time, and the residents of the Wyoming Valley had set about defending themselves as best they could. But this was a task made difficult by the fact that the Valley had already been largely stripped of its population of able-bodied fighting men, including those who had trained specifically as a regional militia; all were needed in the War for Independence, and all responded. Some of these soldiers, upon hearing of the impending invasion of their homeland, resigned their commissions and made haste to assist in the defense of the Wyoming Valley. But the force that marched out to meet the invaders on July 3, 1778 was not made up primarily of trained soldiers, but was mostly a motley crew of the old, the young, and those otherwise unfit to serve in Washington's army. With more fervor and valor than discretion and prudence, they marched on the superior invading force of Butler's Rangers and their Iroquois allies - and were slaughtered.

The Battle of Wyoming became known as the Wyoming Massacre, and it well deserved that name for the atrocities that were performed on the captured Colonial soldiers. But according to the popular accounts of the day*, the civilian survivors of the Wyoming Valley were rounded up after the battle into their forts and burned alive - which must have come as something of a surprise for the refugees from the Wyoming Valley as they heard these accounts in the weeks that followed. The truth was more humane, though only a little less horrible: civilians were allowed to flee, though all of their Earthly possessions were destroyed, along with the settlements that had once made up the Wyoming Valley. But the story of the Wyoming Massacre made a great propaganda tool, and helped to turn global sympathies to the Colonial cause, as well as serve as a rallying cry for Colonial forces who saw in this tale the ultimate fate of their own homelands should their efforts fail. While a technical success for the British side, the Battle of Wyoming played a key role in turning the tide of the war.

I highly recommend Mark Dziak's excellent history The Battle of Wyoming: For Liberty and Life, which was first recommended to me by my friend and fellow blogger Jennifer D. Wade. (See her review here.)

*See the entry for "August 3d" here, which reads in part:
"Colonel Dennison, on whom the command of the fort had devolved, defended himself till most of his men had fallen by his side, when he went out with a flag, to inquire what terms would be granted him on surrendering the garrison? He received from the ferocious Butler a reply in two words, 'the hatchet.' Colonel Dennison was finally obliged to surrender at discretion, still retaining a hope of mercy. But he was wofully mistaken; the threat of Butler was rigorously executed; after selecting a few prisoners, the remainder of the people, including women and children, were inclosed in the houses and barracks, which were immediately set on fire, and the whole consumed together. Another fort was near at hand, in which were seventy continental soldiers; on surrendering without conditions, these were, to a man, butchered in a barbarous manner; when the remainder of the men, women and children were shut up in the houses, and the demons of hell glutted their vengeance in beholding their destruction in one general conflagration!! This tragical scene being finished, the merciless authors of it spread fire and sword throughout the settlement, sparing, however, the houses and farms of the tories; they extended their cruel hands to the cattle in the field, shooting some, and cutting out the tongues of others, leaving them alive. The additional particulars, from their unparalleled enormity, would not be recited here, were it not that they have been already promulgated from authentic sources."