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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Cheesecake (from Carla Allas)

About thirteen years ago my mom brought home a cheesecake that was given to her by a co-worker.  It was amazingly good, so good that I think the recipe was the first thing I ever scanned on my brand-new scanner.  (Which is odd: my mom left work there two years before I had a scanner.  But, whatever.)  That scan is lost somewhere in the discs of backed-up files from that computer, now replaced for over three and a half years.  But my mom was able to find the actual recipe card she was given.  Here it is:

Cheesecake (from Carla Allas)

Crust:
16 graham crackers, crumbled
1/4 lb. melted butter
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup sugar

Mix and place half of mixture in bottom of pan.

(NOTE:  This cake also prompted me to buy a springform pan, which to this day has gone unused.  I just dug it up so I could make this cake.  So even though the recipe doesn't mention it, I believe it is made in a springform pan.)

Filling:
2 lbs. cream cheese
pinch salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup sugar
4 beaten eggs

Beat very well, pour onto crust.

Bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes.  Remove from oven.

Mix together:
1 pint sour cream
1 tablespoon vanilla
4 tablespoons sugar

Gently spoon this mixture on top of cake.  Sprinkle remaining crust mixture on top. Place in oven at 375 degrees for 10 minutes.  Refrigerate and set before cutting - overnight is best.

(One hint I picked up from another site:  run a knife around the edges of the cheesecake to release it from the sides of the pan before it cools.  Otherwise the cake may crack as it cools and sets.)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

When I was your age...

I turned forty-three today.  Forty-three.  What's special about forty-three, other than that it's a prime number?

Well, when you're forty-three, you're a quarter-century older than when you were eighteen.

I was eight during the Bicentennial, when the United States celebrated its two hundredth birthday.  Two hundred:  eight quarter centuries.  Six third-of-a-centuries.    Now it's 2011, another third of a century plus a year and some months later.  Seven third-of-a-centuries plus change.

I was thinking of doing a post on what life was like a quarter century ago, so all those young whippersnappers who just turned eighteen could see how easy they have things.  Well, easy, no.  The economic outlook is pretty bleak, bleaker than it was in 1986, which was still pretty bleak, unless you were a Yuppie or some other moneyed member of the avaricious class, which still didn't make things entirely easy, because they were always worried about who they would have to stab in the back to get their next line of coke.

But there are so many things that eighteen-year-olds have today that we didn't have then.  The Internet, at least not in anything resembling the form it is today.  Computers and portable phones were playthings for rich kids, mostly, or tools for institutions.  All the forms of social networking that exist today: back then blogs were kept on paper in diaries, connecting with other people generally involved meeting them face-to-face or using the telephone - and most telephones didn't have caller ID or call waiting or answering machines that would take messages when you were already on the phone. And text messages? We called those "letters." Or sometimes "notes," passed in class.

When I turned eighteen, twenty-five years ago, I had just completed my first semester in college.  Just a few months earlier I had met many of the people who would become my lifelong friends.  And I had to stay focused and keep my nose clean to maintain the scholarships that allowed me to go to college.  That was another thing that wasn't easy.

I had just had my first Winter break from college.  Intersession, it was called, when full courses would be crammed into the four weeks between New Year's and the beginning of Spring Semester.  I opted not to take any.  I don't think my scholarships covered them.  So I had spent the month in idleness, making phone calls and writing letters and reading from the books for my second semester.  In the end I decided to uphold an old tradition and make a mid-day pilgrimage to my alma mater.  I hiked the few blocks to the high school, chatted with some teachers, and went home.

While I was at the school, the Challenger exploded.

I've written about that already.  Six years ago.  The first January after I started my blog.  And this year I forgot about it until yesterday, when I was thinking about today's post, and the blogosphere was flooded with memorials.

So that's how I spent my eighteenth birthday.  Watching TV, watching the news for any piece of new information, rather than the constant replaying of the moment Challenger stopped being a rocket and became a collection of loosely-connected non-aerodynamic pieces that were moving far too fast to stay together.

Eighteen-year-olds:  when I was your age, that was what was going on.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Catching up

Wow. I haven't blogged at all since Monday, and I didn't feel any guilt or stress about that.

In my defense, I've been working on something job-search related.  It may have all come to nothing, but at least I got my résumé revised into a format I like, placing education over employment experience.  Funny thing is, I just found an old copy of my résumé from 2007, and that was the format I had it in - and then I must have revised it again, based on somebody's advice, to put education last.  That's the funny thing about advice: one person's "always" is another person's "never", and vice-versa.

I've also edited and streamlined my DVD Asset Manager part (which is what I did from 1999 through 2007) from half the total total length of the text to just four bullet points.  Short and punchy.  Nobody cares about details.  If they want more information, they know how to get in touch with me.  (Nearly forgot to put my cell phone number on it!)

I wanted to post after the State of the Union.  Maybe the one crazy Republican who said the "integrated" seating was a Democratic plot to make support for President Obama appear stronger had a point:  members of Congress could not simply glance at the people all around them to see if they were supposed to be standing and applauding or sitting and scowling.  They had to at least glance around the room to get cues for their actions - or, worse yet, pay attention to the speech and decide for themselves.  I wonder if this is why so many people seemed to be reading ahead in their copies?

Speaking of streamlining and editing, I also want to post about the trimmed-down version of Macbeth I saw this past weekend with my friend Jen.  It's designed as a mobile, condensed version of the story, using just seven performers in multiple roles and shortened to seventy minutes for presentation to high school students as a companion piece to a complete reading of the play.  Interestingly, none of the murder and bloodshed was edited out, so this version of the play actually distills and concentrates the violence.  (Also, with all the stabbings, beheadings, and bloody swords in the play, the biggest shock for the audience came from seeing a plastic baby doll smashed onto the floorboards.)

And then there's the post about unconventional ways of finding out about jobs.  Construction notices.  Obituaries.  Zoning board meetings.  (That's where I was tonight.)

Maybe I'll post about all these things.  Maybe this will have to suffice.

Monday, January 24, 2011

An employment resource of questionable value

The Harris Pennsylvania Industrial Directory is intended as a business-to-business resource, a guide to all of the businesses in the state of Pennsylvania indexed by municipality, cross-indexed by business type and business name.  I first encountered it during a job search four years ago.  A friend who is an expert in connecting job-seekers with employers recommended a similar book - Moody's Million Dollar Directory - which is not available at Wilkes-Barre's Osterhout Library. The Million Dollar Directory is published by Dunn and Bradstreet, while the Harris Industrial Directory is published by Harris Infosource, a division of Dunn and Bradstreet.  Both are apparently similar in layout, though the Million Dollar Dirctory is more exclusive, listing only companies with at least nine million dollars in sales volume and 180 employees (or 900 employees, if the listing is for something other than the main headquarters of the company.)

The Harris Industrial Directory is a remarkable reference book - and, at the Osterhout Library at least, is kept behind the reference desk.  Coming in at well over a thousand pages and with a price tag of $152.50, the 2011 edition is a hefty tome, jam-packed with information including business names, addresses, telephone numbers, contact names, sales volume in dollars, and a brief description of each business listed.  Here is a sample from page 567 showing some of the employers in Olyphant, Pennsylvania:


I have two issues with this book. The first is a minor quibble that mainly affects job-seekers is using it to try to get information about potential employers, but would also be a problem for anyone trying to use this book for information about industries within a region:  the listings are grouped alphabetically by municipality.  So the listings for Olyphant in Lackawanna County come after the listings for Oley in Berks County and before the listings for Ono in Lebanon County. An individual seeking information about all the companies in a given area would have to know the names of all the municipalities in the area and search through their listings one municipality at a time.  It would be more useful to group all of the municipalities in a given county together, and provide a cross-index showing which municipalities are in which county. (It may be possible to do this sort of re-indexing through the online version of the directory, available on a trial basis here.)

The other issue is far more major, and calls into question the value of the book as anything more than a doorstop or seat prop for small children.  There is one company in Olyphant with which I happen to be intimately familiar, and, as in 2007, curiosity led me straight to the entry for this company.  And, as in 2007, I found the 2011 version to be full of errors.


Anyone who knows about the company listed above can tell you that, besides the company name and maybe the sales figures (I have no idea what the sales figures actually are), every single piece of information in these two listings is wrong.  The addresses (one is for a warehouse, I think, and one is for a satellite facility that was vacated more than eight years ago), the phone numbers (the 717 area code has not been used in this area since December 1998), the contact names, the number of employees (25!), even the garbled description of "prerecorded compact laser discs."  All wrong.

And that's for the one company I actually know anything about!

Yes, there are a lot of entries in this book.  Sure, they're dependent on companies furnishing them with up-to-date information and making corrections as needed.  Of course, there will be some errors in a system like this.

But if the one company I know anything about has an entry that is almost entirely wrong, how can I trust any of the entries for companies I don't know anything about?

The Harris Industrial Directory is intended as a business-to-business resource, but also has tremendous potential as a resource for job-seekers.  Its layout leaves something to be desired and forces any job seeker to do a lot of flipping and searching, ideally with the aid of a detailed map.  But the inaccuracy of the verifiable data calls into question the accuracy of all of the data contained within its covers.  A guide to all of the industries in a given state, with contact information and detailed information about the specific company's product and sales volume is a wonderful idea.  Sadly, the Harris Industrial Directory is not that guide.

Cold

It's cold outside.  I don't know how cold, exactly, but if Nanticoke was in step with the rest of the region, it was well below zero - Fahrenheit.  That's one of the advantages of the Fahrenheit scale:  below 32 is freezing, but anything above zero falls into the "Well, whaddya want, it's Winter!" category.  Anything below zero falls into the "Holy crap, it's cold!" category.

My pipes didn't freeze.  I took the precaution of turning two taps on to slow trickles.  My kitchen sink has always had a drip that I've never fixed, and in the past I've relied on that to keep the pipes from freezing.  But this year, for the first time since I bought my house in 2006, I took the added precaution of opening up the taps a little.

My car didn't freeze, either.  When I got in it Saturday night to go from my mom's house to my house I noticed that there was ice on the windshield, and it didn't take long to see that the ice was on the inside of the windshield.  That problem hasn't repeated; probably the act of heating up the car and getting in and out has removed enough residual moisture from tracked-in snow that it's not an issue anymore.  But I was nearly out of gas by Sunday morning, and after using my car to make the 1/4 mile commute from my house to church (hey, I didn't want to freeze to death on the way!) I stopped at a local gas station, added a bottle of drygas, and paid a ridiculous amount of money to fill my tank.  A trip yesterday cycled about a gallon and a half of the gas and drygas through the system, and I was fairly confident that my lines wouldn't freeze overnight.  They didn't, though the car was not at all happy about starting this morning.

At times like this it's helpful to think about this past Summer.  I didn't get a lot of stuff done that I wanted to this Summer, in part because of the overtime I was working, and in part because of the brutally hot temperatures we experienced.  A friend and her daughters were in the area for a few weeks, and I had hoped we could get together and go for a walk along the recently renovated River Commons in Wilkes-Barre.  We never did, partly because of scheduling issues, but mostly because it was too dangerously hot to spend that much time outside.

What kind of Summer do we have to look forward to this year?  I'm hoping for a mild one, with adequate rainfall interspersed with dry spells long enough for me to repaint my porch and do some concrete work.  But first we have to get through this Winter.

Damn, it's cold outside.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Disasters: Knox and Fracking

Fifty-two years ago today, corporate greed and a willingness to place short-term profits ahead of both the well-being of people and sound business practice resulted in one of the greatest man-made disasters Northeastern Pennsylvania has ever known:  the Knox Mine Disaster.  "Only" twelve people died, but the entire subsurface coal mining industry in Northeastern Pennsylvania also died that day, as water from the Susquehanna River broke through and flooded the River Slope Mine and all connected mines.

undergroundminers.com: Knox Mine Disaster
Historical Markers: Knox Mine Disaster
PA GenWeb: Knox Mine Disaster
Knox Mine disaster - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Last year, in another part of the Susquehanna, methane bubbles began to emerge as a result of nearby gas extraction activity:

Susquehanna River Sentinel: 126 Days, 10 hours and counting...

The coal mining industry presented a temporary boon to this area.  The people who worked the mines never became rich as a result; the areas that were mined were left permanently scarred, with culm banks, mine fires, mine subsidences, and poisoned creeks and streams as lasting reminders.  Now a new industry has moved into this area with promises of short term payoffs - as long as you ignore the long-term consequences.

A few months ago, as I waited for an opportunity to speak with our Representative in Congress at a blogger-politician mixer, I chatted briefly with one of his top aides.  She asked me what I saw as the most important issues locally, and I brought up the issues of fracking - natural gas extraction by way of hydraulic fracturing of the entombing layers of rock - and its lasting effects on the environment, including contaminated drinking water wells, dumping of fracking chemicals onto roadways and into watersheds, and the long-term effects of gas migration through previously impermeable geological strata.  Bringing up the issue of the methane bubbles, I said "We've broken the Susquehanna!"  And she immediately responded "But we can fix it!"

I never did get a chance to find out how, and I don't think I ever will.  That Representative lost his race, and with the upcoming redistricting, even his old district may disappear, too.  The new Representative has a poor track record on environmental issues - one of his major accomplishments as mayor of a local city was importing tons of toxic river sludge that had been rejected by other municipalities to be used as fill.  A few bubbles in the Susquehanna probably won't bother him, even if they portend a disaster that will dwarf Knox in scope.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Kidnapped

Here's a story I thought I told already.  If I did, I can't find it anywhere.

I lived in Newark, Delaware from August 1989 to  August 1991.  I lived in a complex of suburban townhomes, in a neighborhood full of young families just starting out.

There were quite a few kids in the neighborhood.  Little ones, older ones.  They were usually left to their own devices, playing in the not-very-busy streets until their parents called them home for supper.  It sounds idyllic, but there was a subtext of parental neglect going on here:  a lot of these parents were too busy drinking or working on their cars or their boats to be bothered to pay attention to what their kids were doing.  One resident elderly woman, Miss Jan, served as a neighborhood mother hen for these kids, but somehow I got roped into playing a sort of mentor and guardian monster whenever I was around.

Usually the kids appeared in groups, and that was fine:  if any trouble came up, one could raise the alarm if the others were occupied.  I always found it disturbing when I would see single kids playing alone outside, especially the younger ones.  Even two decades ago, that was a dumb and dangerous thing.

One day one of the kids stood outside the townhome where I rented a room and called my name.  It was Nicole, a little four-year-old.  She was standing in the street holding a huge bouncy ball.

I went outside to see what was the matter.

"Will you play ball with me?" she said.

We proceeded to play in the street for a good ten minutes or so, tossing or bouncing the ball to each other.  After a while I started to think about all the other things I had wanted to be doing that day, and I made an excuse to stop our game and told her she should head home.

"Wait," she said.  "I need to show you something."  She took me by the hand.  "Come with me, come with me!" she called.

I guessed we were heading to her house.  Those developments were - and probably still are - a labyrinth of roads, yards, and houses, and I had gotten myself lost several times just by taking a wrong turn on my ride home.

Yep.  Still a maze.
I was worried that maybe there was something wrong, some reason that she came out on her own one afternoon and sought out one of the few adults she knew by name.  Had something happened at home?  Had something happened to her parents?

"Where are we going?" I asked.

"Come with me me, come with me!" she said, continuing to lead the way. 

We came to an open gate leading into the back yard of one of the houses.  "Go in here," she said.

I went into the yard.  Everything looked OK, but...

Suddenly she threw down the ball, ran out of the yard, and slammed the gate.  "Now you have to stay!" she shouted triumphantly.

Aw, dammit.  I had just been kidnapped.  A little kid of the neighborhood had just gotten herself her own pet adult.

I tried to convince her to let me go.  She just giggled.  I tried reason.  I tried scolding.  Nothing worked.

Finally I decided to appeal to her on the most basic level and told her that my mommy would cry if I didn't come home, that she would miss me and be sad because she didn't know where I was.  (Never mind that my mother was more than two  hours away from where I was living and where I was currently the captive of a four-year-old girl.)  That did the trick.  She reluctantly agreed to let me go so my mommy wouldn't be sad.  I told her she should go in now and see her own mommy.

That was twenty years ago.  Nicole would be twenty-three or twenty-four now.  Danny and Tabitha (with whom I discussed the concept of death one gloomy afternoon,* after I learned that my childhood pet had just died) would be in their mid-to-late twenties; Rebecca and the two Stephanies - Rich Stephanie and Stephanie With the Heart Condition - would all be in their early thirties.  I wonder how they turned out?  OK, I hope.  I wonder if any of them remember me?  I'll probably never know.

See also:
What brought this to mind was a random story I heard at a party the other day, when someone related that he had been approached by a little girl who was looking for her lost dog.  "She was probably trying to kidnap you!  That's the classic approach!" someone else replied, and asked if she had offered him any candy.  I suggested that before he knew it he would have found himself being spirited away on the back of her tricycle.

While I was remembering this story, I noticed a new post on Hyperbole and a Half.  Wow.  At least I didn't go through what that poor guy had to endure.


*Oh, look, there it is.  Fifth paragraph.  This same story, told in just a few sentences.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Entropy and its discontents

This is a stunning and beautiful story of science, tattoos, and life after death.

Requiem, revisited - The Loom - Discover Magazine

Thanks to Phil Plait for the link on Facebook.


Side note: This reminded me that Ludwig Boltzmann, who formulated the mathematical description of the entropy of a system, has the formula engraved on his tombstone.  If the image of him on that tombstone is accurate, he had shoulders like a Romulan linebacker and could kill you with his forehead, chin, or just his steely glare.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Untitled

It's surprisingly difficult for me to get off my duff and do the things that need doing right now.  It's terrifyingly easy to lose myself in the day-to-day details.

Slept late this morning.  It was snowing when I went to bed, around 2:00 in the morning.  Despite the passage of nearly a month* since I was laid off, my body has stayed on a sort of modified night shift, staying up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning and then wanting to sleep until 9:00 or 10:00.  This was actually the pattern I stayed in most of my days off while working night shift. I knew that a crust of ice was expected to coat the snow at some point, and make any sort of traveling tricky.  I woke to the sound of my neighbor shoveling his sidewalks, and mine, and the neighbor on the other side of me.  I rolled over and lazily decided to let him have his fun.

When I finally got out of bed and geared up to go outside, I was surprised at how clean the sidewalks looked.  But - why did there seem to be some white patches of ice on his sidewalks, but nowhere else?  I decided to go and investigate, but first I had to clear the crusty snow off my porch, my steps, and the sidewalk inside my gate.  When I finally made it out to the sidewalk, I realized that  the appearance of being completely clean was an illusion - the sidewalks were covered with a transparent layer of ice.  The white patches I was seeing on my neighbor's sidewalks were actually spots where he had salted; the salt had melted through the surface of the ice and started to melt the snow and ice underneath.  I went back inside, filled a dispenser with ice melt, and marched back and forth in front of my house, his house, and the house of the neighbor on the other side.  I also sprinkled some salt onto their front steps and the sidewalks on their side yards, just for good measure.

After all this was done I drove over to my mom's house to have breakfast and get to  work on her sidewalks.

Then we went to my brother's house for a birthday party, and then stopped at the supermarket on the way back to do our grocery shopping for the week.  That was where I discovered that my unemployment claim had not been paid out onto my debit card.

And that was my whole day.  Sleep, shovel, salt, shovel, salt, shower, birthday party, grocery shopping. 

Mundane.  Trivial.  Really not helping to further the program one bit, except in the sense that lawsuits from people who fall on icy sidewalks and the deleterious effects of not eating would tend to keep the program from reaching a successful conclusion in a timely manner. 



*Well, exactly a month, if you exclude the eight holidays that the state of Pennsylvania, or at least its Unemployment office, have had since the start of my layoff:  Christmas Eve Eve, Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year's Eve Eve, New Year's Eve, New Year's Day, Martin Luther Ling Jr.'s birthday, and Inauguration Day.  A call placed December 28 that was guaranteed to be returned by "the following business day" was not returned until January 4th.  A filing on January 16 - a Sunday, but a work day for the Unemployment office - which was to result in a claim payment by "the following business day", was not paid by the evening of Tuesday the 18th.  So I'm assuming Inauguration Day was not considered a "business day."

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Planter of Oaks

This is a story I began to visualize about five years ago.  I sketched out (literally drew pictures of) some of the scenes described below.  (I later mailed those sketches to a friend.  I wonder if she still has them?)  The main scene comes from a story I read in an old copy of The Whole Earth Catalogue.  The overseers grew from an old Doctor Who monster - from the John Pertwee days, I think:  big sunflower-headed things that were handing out flowers to people, and everyone assumed they were members of some sort of cult in costume, but actually they were mechanical constructs and the flowers were poisonous and would kill the recipients at some point.

So I took the story of an old Frenchman replanting an oak forest , acorn by acorn, and twisted it by asking:  what if he isn't doing it because he wants to do it, but because he's being forced to do it?  Here's one version of the story.


The procedure was routine by now, a mechanical reflex:  Use the pointed rod to drill a hole in the ground about three inches deep.  Take one of the acorns from the bucket on his hip and drop it in the hole. Press the soil down with his foot.  Take one pace and repeat the process.


James had been at this for - weeks?  Months?  It was hard to remember.  He just knew that it had to be done.  Not every acorn would become an oak.  Some would never germinate.  Some would be found and eaten by animals.  Some would germinate and be shaded out by other plants, maybe even by competing seedlings.  Some would become oaks.  He would never see that day, but someday this would be a forest again.


He looked up.  He was in the back yard of a house.  The house was still in good shape, though he could see spots where neglect was leading to decay.  Something was growing from a crack in the foundation.  In a few decades, the oaks that he was planting would shatter that foundation, whatever was left of it.


There was a swing set in the yard.  The sliding board was rusted, and one of the swings had broken off on one side.  No kids had played on that swing set for years now.


Kids.  Baby goats.  Frolicking.  The sheep's in the meadow, the cow's in the corn.  The buzzing came into his head, and then the noise like someone cracking their knuckles underwater.  The overseer must be near.


And it was.  It hung in the air thirty feet behind him, looking like a madhouse version of a scarecrow.  The huge yellow smiley face bobbed like a big mylar balloon sold at a dollar store.  The robes rippled and shimmered, revealing no shape beneath them.  Puppets, they had to be.  But no time for such thinking now.  Now James had to return to his task.


It was three years, or maybe five, since they had come.  No.  Five since the war, the war to end all wars, and everything else.  Nobody knew the true extent of the war because the global communication system had been one of the first casualties.  No email, no text messaging, no cell phones.  The Internet went down.  Television went dark.  Radio went silent.  The mail stopped getting delivered.  And soon every device that relied on electronics stopped working.


Maybe it was just a local thing, or so folks had thought at first.  But there was no easy way to find out.  You couldn't call anyone, or send a text or an email.  You couldn't even hop in a car and drive to the next city over to see how things were there.  Walking became the primary way of getting from here to there.  But over there, wherever there was, the story was the same.  Nobody knew anything more than you did, in most cases.  After a week or so people began to drift into town from farther afield, people who had been walking for days.  Some of their stories sounded unbelievable.  Some of them didn't have coherent stories to tell.  Some of them were just sick.


It was bad enough getting by without electricity, or water coming from the taps, or food coming to the supermarket, or any sort of trade and barter system except what people were making up as they went along.  But the hospitals were effectively gone, along with any of their patients who had depended on electronics of any sort for survival.  Soon afterwards anyone who had depended on electricity for, say, refrigerated medicine or a steady oxygen supply was also dead, or soon to die.  Anyone dependent on any sort of medication would be in the same situation soon.  There were no more supplies coming from anywhere.   But when contagious diseases started being spread from town to town, city to city, things got dramatically worse.  Some places tried to seal themselves off from outsiders.  Sometimes this worked.  Most of the time it didn't.


James had had a house then.  He had worked out of town, in a job that he drove to every weekday, but he had a house where he lived with his wife Lori and their two happy baby goats bounding across the hills clonk CLONK and he loved them and tried to get by and take care of them drill the hole, drop the acorn, press it down and for two years he had kept them alive through force of will and brutal, horrible things that he did not regret move one pace and drill the next hole and then the overseer came, big smiley-face balloon hanging over billowing robes filling the doorway one day and saying nothing and then cLOnk the kids were dead and they took Lori away drop the acorn, press it down, move one pace and then they took him away and put him to work work work rebuilding the world or planting a forest or atoning for humanity's sins.


The overseer was next to him now.  It never made a sound, and he didn't know if it could.  Some people he had worked with said they talked, some of them at least, playing snippets of recorded conversations from TV shows and movies and songs and commercials.  He heard once that they could be killed.  Someone said he had lured one into a mine, deep underground, and they reached a point where the overseer just fell from the air.  And the big smiley-face head was a mylar dollar store balloon, and the robes were empty and felt like polyester.  The guy who did it told his story to others and then he disappeared.  The people he told the story to disappeared, too, but not before they spread the word.


His head buzzed again.  The sun was setting.  Time to stop.  He didn't want to go on, anyway.  The floating abomination wanted him to go into a house, he knew.  Not the house he was near, with an intact roof and some glass in the windows.  The house it was urging him toward was half-wrecked, and looked like it had been burned.  But there would be food there, and water, and a place to rest.  And in the morning it would be time to start again, unless the overseer decided differently.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Hibernation

I've always had a hard time feeling energized in the Winter.  Seasonal Affective Disorder, they call it - the "Winter blues".  Some regard it as a signifier of major depression; I see it as a hibernation atavism.

In the book "Outliers" Malcolm Gladwell writes about French vineyard workers who would spend the Winter in bed.  Literally, the whole Winter, all in one bed, huddled against the cold, a seasonal indolence brought on by the conditions under which they worked.  The description sounds very much like a form of hibernation.

I've been able to avoid this issue somewhat for the past few years by working in a brightly-lit factory.  Before that, in my previous job, I kept a desk lamp in my windowless office despite the bright fluorescent office lighting.  But now my situation is different:  I find myself without a job, without a routine, without the regimentation of the work day and the work routine.  I have tasks that I have to accomplish, sure:  paperwork and online forms to be filled out, job searches to be done, bills to be paid.  I could create an artificial routine for myself, of course.  But the short days and cold weather make it seem much more reasonable and even desirable to stay in bed as long as possible.

Last time I lost my job at was at the end of February 2007, and was able to take advantage of my unemployment throughout the Spring and part of the Summer by throwing myself at the dozens of home projects that needed to be done.  Nearly four years later, many of those projects need to be done again.  Unfortunately, January is not an ideal time for doing all the things I have been unable to do because of my work schedule:  scrape and repaint the front porch, the front steps, the rusting wrought-iron fence, and do some concrete repairs.  All I can do is look at those things and hope that I will have time to get them done when May and June roll around.

The days are getting longer, and have been since before Christmas.  The Sun is rising earlier and setting later.  We are crawling inexorably toward the Spring Equinox, and then the longest day of the year on the Summer Solstice.

But for now, it is Winter.  The days are short, the nights are long, and both are very cold.  Time to hibernate - at least for a few hours.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Glasses

If there's one thing I remember from third grade science class, it was this tidbit of information:  you will start having trouble seeing things close-up sometime after your fortieth birthday.

Now, I don't remember all the specifics of the explanation given, nor do I remember if this was expressed as an absolute.  For some reason I can't remember if this was before or after I got my first pair of glasses, which was also in the third grade.

My eyes were bad when I was a kid, despite - or, according to some people, because of - the fact that I was an avid reader.  I got through kindergarten and first and second grade without corrective lenses, but sometime in third grade my eyes had worsened to the point that I could no longer see the blackboard clearly.  (We were still using blackboards back then, not whiteboards or flatscreen displays or three-dimensional holograms or whatever the kids are being taught on these days.)  My new glasses, which were thick and ugly, corrected that, and I could see again.  (Though the first time I went outside for recess after I got them I panicked when I thought some of the older boys were trying to play a trick on me by holding some sort of hoop-on-a-stick in front of my face.  Turned out it was just my eyeglass frames seen from extremely close range.)

My distance vision was lousy from that point on, and got worse as time went on.  But close-up I had microscopic vision.  I could bring things almost up to the surface of my eye and see finer and finer detail.  I was convinced that my "near point", the closest point you can focus on, was somewhere inside my eyeball.

And this continued to be true until somewhere after my fortieth birthday.

I last got new glasses in early 2009.  At that point my eye doctor and I discussed the possibility of getting bifocals.  I wasn't really there yet, but I was on the edge.  We opted to wait until next time.

I never liked the glasses I got that time, which I am wearing as I write this.  My eye insurance was not the best, and would only cover a small part of my refraction (which was handled by an out-of-network doctor I have been seeing for over fifteen years) if I filled out a bunch of forms with an identity thief's treasure trove of information.  They would partially reimburse me for my glasses if I got them from one of a very limited number of dispensers.  I selected a big-box membership club to which I belong.  The frames seemed nice, and had a feature that allows the hinges on the temple pieces to swing open 90 degrees, avoiding the hazards of breaking the temple pieces off.  But the tiny screws holding them together soon began to loosen up, and finally one of them developed a habit of falling out entirely.  I dealt with this first by retightening the screws on a weekly and then daily basis, then by replacing the prodigal screw with a different one, and then simply glued everything together as a last-ditch fix.

The lenses were another matter.  I have always preferred glass to plastic lenses.  I had plastic lenses once when I was a teen and hated them:  the image through them seemed blurred and wavy, with nothing like the sharpness and clarity I enjoyed from glass lenses before or since.  And, of course, they scratched easily.  But glass lenses have gradually been becoming harder and harder to find - due, I am told, to liability concerns.  As my eyes worsened, my glasses became thicker and thicker and heavier and heavier.  My last glass lenses were made of high index of refraction glass which allowed me to enjoy the benefits of glass in a marginally thinner lens.

The big box membership club where I got my current pair of glasses didn't offer glass lenses, only polycarbonate.  When I got them they seemed blurred and wavy, but at least were scratch-free.  That soon changed.  They also seemed to be a hair off from where they should have been.  I chalked this up to slight changes in my eyes since my refraction, but it is possible that they simply screwed up the order.

My near vision issues continued to worsen after I got these lenses.  It didn't help that I was in a job that demanded frequent reading of identification codes etched in metal in characters about two millimeters tall.  I began to regularly pop my glasses up to read these numbers bare-eyed.  Soon I found myself doing the same thing for any reading.  Obviously the time had come for new glasses.

I was in a bit of a pickle with respect to my insurance.  My last glasses were from early 2009, and my insurance only covered one new pair of glasses every two years.  But my job was slated to run out sometime at the end of 2010, maybe.  Probably.  Perhaps.  Depending on how things went.  So unless I somehow found myself working and covered by insurance come early 2011, it looked like I would be on my own for getting new glasses.

2010 ended, and so did my job.  COBRA doesn't cover eye insurance.  And I found myself sizing up white canes.  In the end I decided to bite the bullet and follow through on the appointment that had been scheduled two years earlier.  Better to spend the money when I really didn't have it than to go to job interviews half-blind.

So today I had that appointment.  Had my eyes dilated, which is just wearing off eight hours later.  Got measured for bifocals - lineless progressives, dispensed by the place where I had my refraction done.  Polycarbonate with a scratch-resistant coating.  We'll see how long that lasts.

These new glasses, which I should have in about a week and a half, cost a hell of a lot of money. But your vision is not something to skimp on.  I hope they're worth the investment.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Magazines

As I mentioned a while back, I'm letting most of my magazine subscriptions expire as a way of saving money.  At one time or another I've subscribed to a lot of different magazines.  One of the strangest questions I've gotten during a job interview - and I believe this was after the formal interview was over, though of course the evaluation process was still going on at this point - was "What magazines do you subscribe to?"  The gut reaction to this was "That's none of your goddamn business," but I cheerfully discussed Sky & Telescope, Astronomy, Newsweek, and MAD, and expressed regret that I had had to cancel New Scientist a few years earlier.  Of course, these magazines told the interviewers a lot about me - particularly Newsweek, which probably pegged me as a hippie commie liberal.  (Had I said I subscribed to New Republic, which would not have been true, that would have told the interviewers something else entirely.)

During the years that I subscribed to Astronomy and Sky & Telescope I had a long-range plan in mind.  I saved every copy of these two magazines, full of fascinating pictures and articles and breaking news and information specific to the publication month.  I would one day get a sturdy rack of some type and sort these magazines into twelve piles, one for each month.  The October 1998 Astronomy would be in the same pile as the October 2005 Sky & Telescope.   The sky for the month of October would be explored in detail by the collective action of the writers and editors for two magazines over the course of many years.

Being unemployed, I suddenly have found new opportunities to buy things.  Ace Hardware had a sale on Gorilla Rack shelves last week:  normally $69.97, they were on sale for $30.  I have a Gorilla Rack in my mom's basement that I assembled as a storage rack back in 1996 or so.  Despite having the occasional bottle of shampoo leak all over it, it is still in great shape, and has never given me cause for worry.I picked up two sets of shelves for myself and one for my mom.

I haven't put together these racks yet.  That's an activity I'm reserving for a specific day in the future.  But I did have a chance to look over the stacks and stacks of magazines that will go on these shelves, and...

...damn, I have a lot of magazines.

No, this isn't a hoarding issue.  These items were saved for a specific reason, for a specific purpose.  Newsweek routinely gets recycled, at least whenever I get around to it.  But just looking at the sheer number of magazines I have - including not just these, but MAD and New Scientist as well - and thinking of all the others that I have discarded over the years, and thinking about the cover prices, and even shaving off 40% to 50% to account for subscription savings, the total cash equivalent of all these magazines is simply staggering.

Was this money well spent?  Every action and decision I have ever made in my life has brought me to this precise moment in space and time, so an argument can be made that all of these magazines have helped lead to me being unemployed a few weeks before my forty-third birthday.  Yet at the time I believed that every one of these magazines was worth the money.  For information, for education, and if I can continue to derive value from them in the future, then for the investment value, I believe they were worth it.

Still.  There are a hell of a lot of magazines to be shelved.  I hope two Gorilla Racks are sufficient.

Be back soon

I haven't really felt like blogging much these past few days.  There are really much more important things I should be doing that I haven't been doing.  But in the aftermath of the Tucson shootings, I'm getting hit with a lesson I took away from this post by Bill:  You really don't want to know what other people are thinking.  Some people, anyway.  It's more disturbing than you could imagine to discover there are psychopaths and sociopaths lurking - well, not everywhere, but in enough places to make the world an uncomfortable place.

(As Jon Stewart pointed out, the life stories of the six mostly-random people who were killed in this past weekend's shooting are enough to make you realize that any random person may in fact have a truly amazing life story, and there's a greater likelihood that any given person falls into this category than into the "crazy" category.  But the crazies can definitely out-shout the amazings.  And out-shoot, too.)

I'm thinking a lot about the basic question "What is a blog?"  Someone set out to answer this back in 2003 for an actual scholarly reference work, and this is the definition she came up with.  Compare this definition to the sites listed on Regator's Top 50 Blogs of 2010.  How many of them fall within the definition from 2003?  Can an argument be made that some of these are not, in fact, "blogs?"  What is the definition of a blog in 2011, and how has it changed since 2003?

But enough of that nonsense.  That's all for another time.  I've been playing around with a...thing on Facebook, something I did once before.  It's a way of generating imaginary album covers.  The rules:

1 - Go to wikipedia and hit random. The first random wikipedia article you get is the name of your band.


2 - Go to quotationspage.com and hit random. The last four or five words of the very last quote of the page is the title of your first album.


3 - Go to flickr and click on “explore the last seven days”. Third picture no matter what it is, will be your album cover.


4 - Use photoshop or similar (picnik.com is a free online photo editor) to put it all together.

5 - Post it with this text in the "caption"

Here are the album covers I've come up with tonight:


38541 Rustichelli was a techno-trance outfit consisting of a single member who kept his identity a closely guarded secret.  His exclusive underground performances usually consisted of banks of keyboards and sequencers playing by themselves onstage while the anonymous artist mingled with the gathered crowd.  Tragically, he was often the only person in attendance, and his career ended after a single album which, while completely digital in composition, was released only on vinyl.

Trying to tap into a Japanpop groove, Matthew's Best Hit TV was eventually revealed to be a quintet of North Korean spies seeking secrets of nuclear weapons manufacture.  Their efforts at espionage were slightly less successful than the sales of their lone album, a collection of somewhat sweet ballads and, inexplicably, sea chanteys.

George Maniakes was one of the more successful Greek lounge singers to prowl the clubs of San Francisco in the late 1960's and early 1970's.  Like "No Guarantee of Maturity," most of his songs seemed to be directed towards pre-pubescent girls in an other-than-avuncular manner.  He eventually vanished from public view after a  scandal involving currency speculation and the importation of exotic fruit.

The Shift Key was an early alternative band whose songs were relegated to college stations until well after alternative had gone mainstream and was considered passe.  "A Year and a Half," their seventh album, was considered their most upbeat work, despite controversial cover art apparently parodying the suicide of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain.  Following their breakup in 1998, the members all independently went on to form competing "new folk" bands, who now tour county fairs and jamborees and enjoy far more success that they ever experienced in their earlier incarnation.


NOTE: The original images, taken from Flickr totally without permission:

"Very Little on Office Supplies" :  Pericolose curiosità (parte 3) From Fabio Luffarelli
"Health Like a Waterman" :  "Look At All The Lonely People" by CantBuyMeLove
"No Guarantee of Maturity" : "1/52" by rockie nolan
"A Year and a Half" : "Humpty Dumpty *Explored*" by Nelson Oliver

Monday, January 10, 2011

Who's crazy here, anyway?

Everyone's queer 'cept thee and me,
and I'm not so sure about thee.
- One of my grandmother's favorite sayings

It wasn't long after Saturday's assassination attempt on Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords which left her seriously injured and several others, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl, dead, that shooter (or alleged shooter, if you care about the legal niceties, which I don't at this moment) Jared Lee Loughner's YouTube videos started making the rounds.  They weren't videos in any traditional sense; they were screeds presented as text in a video format.  When I saw them there were three of them, which I assumed were in chronological order.  In each one he spoke of three major themes:  grammar, currency, and something he called "conscience dreaming."

I was willing to view these things with open eyes and an open mind.  What is he saying here, anyway?  What clues to his motives in Saturday's shootings is he leaving?  Why the hell don't these people have blogs, so we can see their crazy stuff all neatly laid out in individually indexed posts?

On the "grammar" issue I quickly moved to the assumption that he was speaking of some sort of theory of grammar from a Philosophy of Language point of view.  Had this guy had some brief encounter with Philosophy of Language, maybe even from the Wikipedia entry on it, and gone off on some track about constructing a view of reality through the construction of a proper grammar?  (This is a theme taken up in Fredrik Pohl's "The Gold at the Starbow's End", though I noticed that Pohl has made no mention of this on recent entries on his blog.)  'Cause there was no way on Earth this kid could be talking about the ability to construct sentences properly in English - something he was demonstrating a distinct inability to do.

The issue of "currency" seemed also vague enough that I wondered if he was speaking metaphorically.  Was he speaking of that to which you assign value, that which you use as a form of exchange with the world?  But then in the final video he writes "No! I won’t pay debt with a currency that’s not backed by gold and silver!", it seemed like that interpretation was out the window.

The concept of "conscience dreaming" and "conscience dreamers" was a puzzling one.  I found a few scattered references on the Internet.  Was he maybe talking about "conscious dreaming," and letting his poor grasp of grammar twist his words?  A friend of his explained in an interview posted today that these were actually references to "lucid dreaming," and suggested things would become more clear once investigators had read his dream journal.

Throughout the videos there were also repeated pseudo-logical formulations.  Was there anything behind this, or...

In the end I came to a simple conclusion:  this kid was just nuts.

(See also:  Jared Lee Loughner's Mental State - Newsweek )

Sharron Angle and Sarah Palin have - metaphorically, at least - come under fire since this issue.  Angle was the one who spoke of "second amendment remedies" to issues involving members of Congress.  Palin published a map of hotly contested congressional elections, with crosshairs (or, according to information coming from Palin's camp since the shootings, "surveyor's symbols") indicating the locations - and a list of names at the bottom - of targeted candidates.  Gabrielle Giffords, the Democrat who was the target of Saturday's assassination attempt, was on that list.

Now:  no sane person would hear Sharron Angle speak of "second amendment remedies" and decide that this was a call to go out and shoot members of Congress that they had issues with.  No sane person would look at Sarah Palin's map with its crosshairs (as Gabrielle Giffords herself interpreted them) and decide this was a call to  action to go out and start shooting down the members of Congress on the targeting list.  You'd have to be crazy to do these things.

And, to all appearances, Jared Lee Loughner was at least a little bit crazy.

It seems like every time there's a mass killing incident we find out that the perpetrator had a long history of mental illness.  Virginia Tech.  Columbine.  These were done by people who were clearly crazy.  The system had been blinking red, to paraphrase the 9/11 Commission, and no one had responded adequately.

But that's not always the case:  Lee Harvey Oswald.  James Earl Ray.  Tim McVeigh.  Ted Kaczynski.  Nidal Hasan.   Were they crazy?  Maybe a little.  Don't you have to be crazy to set off a truck bomb outside a federal building packed with civilians, to open fire on an army base?  Is this the sort of thing sane people do?  Or were they sane people who had been persuaded by the invective of others coming into synch with their own twisted lines of thinking?

And who else is crazy out there?  Fred Phelps, the leader of the so-called "Westboro Baptist Church?"  Late-night UFO and conspiracy enthusiast Art Bell?  How about Glenn Beck?  People who believe that climate change is being caused by human activity?  People who believe that all of the science behind climate change has been faked?  Birthers?  Truthers?  Scientologists with their stuff about Thetans and Xenu?  What about Catholics, who believe they eat flesh and drink blood - not symbolically, not metaphorically, but literally eat flesh and drink blood - in their weekly rituals?

You've probably seen a few Internet posts about this weekend's shooting.  Have you tried wading through the comments?  Some of them are probably people doing a "Poe" - pretending to espouse a radical and delusional belief while in fact not believing it at all - but some are almost certainly the writings of deranged individuals.  Lots and lots of deranged individuals.

So where does it end?  Maybe it doesn't.  Inflammatory, incendiary speech - shouting "Fire!" in a tense political theater - is still considered protected speech, a proper expression of First Amendment rights.  Even if someone calls for acts of violence against public officials, you would have to be crazy to follow up on those calls.  Maybe.

But in any case, there are a lot of crazy people out there.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Tree shadows and a bonus spaceman

My mom had two trees removed from her front yard about a month ago.  One was a pine tree that was at least as old as her house - 43 years old.  Another was an oak tree that was planted in 1977.  (I remember reading issue 5 of the Star Wars comic book adaptation as it was being planted.)  Both were strong and healthy, but a bit large for a suburban development - and, frankly, we've been increasingly concerned about one or both toppling in a windstorm.

Her front yard still features one large and impressive tree:  a Japanese Red Maple.  Long thought to be a sterile dwarf, it is now probably some twenty feet tall and regularly presents us with offspring.

I stopped over her house after clearing the light snow that fell overnight from my porch, steps, and sidewalk.  I had not shoveled her walk at all from yesterday's dusting, and had to remove both that and the overnight snow from her front sidewalk.  As I stepped out of my car I noticed a complex tracery of shadows on the snow from sunlight shining through the branches of the red maple.  For the last third of a century this view would have been compromised by the oak tree, but now that it's gone, there are new vistas to be seen.

By the time I pulled out my phone, activated its camera, and fumbled to get the leather case out of the way of the lens, some clouds had passed over the sun, making the shadows fade.  I waited until the sun was in a relatively clear spot and then realized that my polarizing sunglasses were rendering my view of the screen completely black.  I took them off as quickly as I could, re-aimed the camera, and took the picture.


(Compare to this painting from four years ago.)


BONUS:  Back in August I was delighted to find the retro-cereal Quisp in my supermarket.  It was in an aisle-end display, and had the look and feel of a limited-time offer.  The special display soon disappeared, and in October I found myself wondering if Quisp would continue to be sold with the other breakfast cereals.  A quick scan of the sugar-frosted corn by-product section failed to turn up any Quisp.  But then I decided to look in a less-likely spot.  And there it was, hidden in the health-food section.

No, I did not put the Quisp there.


See also:

Quisp! Orange County Mexican Restaurants
(Note that this second link is to a post from the May 2006 limited release of Quisp that shows a box with the same comic strip on the back panel that was on the box I bought during the October 2010 limited release.  I wonder if I should be concerned about this.)

OK, you win

I don't remember exactly when and where this incident happened.  I think it was in the York, PA school district, and I think it was possibly between 1995 and 2000.

One of the most treasured and despised bits of the U.S. Constitution is the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."  This has been interpreted to mean (to borrow the language favored by Thomas Jefferson) a separation of Church and State.  One of the upshots of this - not actually put into action until the efforts of one woman - is the elimination of overt religious activity in public schools.  Prior to her efforts, Christian prayer in schools was the norm and was required of all students, Christian or otherwise.  Afterwards, even religious trappings commonly associated with holidays were prohibited, though the secular items associated with these holidays were still acceptable.*

Depending on who happens to be in charge of a school board at any given time, numerous school districts try to skirt this issue, coming up with convoluted plans to obey the letter of the law while thumbing their noses at its intent.  Sometimes they don't even try to give the appearance of following the law, but just charge through in an assumption that no one will complain.

In a school district that may or may not have been in York, PA, in a time that might have been sometime between 1995 and 2000, one school decided it would just plow through and put on some display that simply ignored the general interpretation of the Establishment Clause.  I don't recall if this was some Nativity display for Christmas, or crosses for Easter, or just a display of the Ten Commandments**, an old favorite of folks wishing to stick their finger in the eye of those who hold the Establishment Clause dear.  They probably figured they were in a district which was religiously and culturally homogeneous, so the likelihood that someone would complain was low.

Someone complained.  I don't remember the details.  I believe it was a student, or a pair of students, maybe even a group of students, who fancied themselves as Pagans or Wiccans or something else that was popular among kids at the time.  (And for all I know, they might have been serious and honest about it.)  But they made an issue of the overt religiosity of the display in question, and complained that other religions were not getting similar representation, and thus, as public tax dollars were being used to fund the display, there was a clear violation of the Establishment Clause.

I don't think it went to court, which is important to the story.  I don't think there was ever an official order settling this case.  Instead the school conceded the point:  yes, it was wrong to put on a display for one religion without granting others equal time.  So this display would just be the first in a series.  After it came down, the students who raised the objection would be allowed to put up a display, in the interest of equal exposure of other cultures and religious beliefs.  It's all about education, you see.

So the Christian display came, and the Christian display went.  And then the school realized it had made a terrible mistake.  It had been wrong to even contemplate this display in the first place, let alone put it up.  They completely conceded the point that the students had originally raised:  any such display with such an overt presentation of religion clearly violated the Establishment Clause.  They had made a mistake, and had seen the error of their ways, and they would never let it happen again.

Starting with the display the students were going to put up.

See, the students were right, and the school was wrong, and had been from the start.  They should never have put that display up in the first place.  And the students' display would be just as wrong.  It would be compounding the original wrong the school had committed.  Best to just recognize the school's error and move on from there.

But the students weren't going to get to put on their heathen display.  No way no how.

I don't know how this situation ended.  I may have some of the critical details wrong, though I'm pretty sure I got the gist of the story.  The moral is, if you concede a point after conceding the point is completely moot, after you've had your way and had your say, and if the act of conceding will prevent the other guy from having his way and having his say, you have effectively gotten to have your cake and eaten it, too.  You've won by conceding.

There was a comedian who did a routine about this, about dealing with a rambunctious son.  (Maybe it was supposed to be how his father dealt with him as a child.  The comedian may or may not have been Rondell Sheridan.)  He would play a game:  let's see who can punch the other on the arm the softest.  First the kid would go, giving a light tap.  Then the father (I think) would take his turn, inflicting a punishing smack, followed by the concession "OK, you win!"  (The joke also works if the father goes first and concedes while his son is writhing in pain, and that may have been the way the joke went.  The same idea was used in the South Park episode "Mecha-Streisand.")

In 2009, the Health Care Reform legislation debate had been intentionally dragged out by Republicans so that there was no vote and no resolution prior to the summer Congressional recess, when members of Congress traditionally return home and have meetings with their constituents.  For many constituents the reaction to Health Care Reform was "meh," "whatever," or "Didn't Bill Clinton try to get this passed in 1995?  Good Lord, this is way overdue!"  But not for constituents who were taking their marching orders from right-wing radio and TV.  Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Back were busy firing up the troops.  Sarah Palin was warning about "Death Panels" that would be a natural consequence of health care reform.  This was treason, they told their loyal listeners; that guy in the White House was running roughshod over the true interests of the people of America, and was arrogantly planning to impose his own vision of America on them all.  So the voices on the radio came up with a plan for the summer:  Hijack these town hall meetings.  Shout down any opposition.  Travel en masse to wherever a member of Congress was holding a meeting - even if they weren't constituents of that member of Congress - and get their message across, loud and clear.  Particularly loud.

And that's what happened.  These people went to these meetings and vented their fury.  What they were furious about, they weren't entirely clear.  But they were mad as hell, and they weren't gonna take it anymore.  Not from Democrats, or Liberals, or Progressives.  And especially not from that Negro Mulsim Kenyan in the White House.

And it worked.  Democrats brought sheets of paper to a rock fight and were trounced.  Anyone with a genuine question or concern about Health Care Reform got drowned out by all the people screaming with rage because they had been instructed to scream with rage.  Participatory Democracy was derailed in favor of mobocracy.  Somewhere, Rush Limbaugh leaned back and lit another cigar that had been paid for by the Insurance lobby, satisfied with a job well done.

The Democrats never recovered.  The unfocused rage spiraled and coalesced.  The 2010 elections saw many Congressional Democrats swept from office by the activism of the people who had worked so hard to derail Health Care Reform.

And now it's our turn.  Republicans are everywhere.  They just got sworn into office this week.  They're not going to be able to turn this thing around, not in six months.  Not before the summer recess, and the summer town hall meetings.  Time for them to face some rage - or at least some heat - from the other side.

Today a mentally deranged and well-armed man opened fire on an open-air "town hall" sort of meeting in Arizona.  Representative Garielle Giffords, D-AZ, who was one of the Democrats targeted with crosshairs of a gunsight by Sarah Palin in an ad during the 2010 election, was shot in the head at close range.  She was seriously injured, and several other people (including a young child) were killed.  Giffords had been targeted by violence in the past, including someone who brought a weapon to a town hall meeting, and she had spoken out about the rise of violence in what passes as political rhetoric.



Maybe this is just a case of a lone psychopath operating for his own purposes.  Maybe it was someone who was influenced by the violent rhetoric expressed by Republicans and Tea Partiers.  In any event, it is likely that, starting now, constituents will have far less access to their Congressional representatives than they did before today.  

Huffington Post: The End Of Access

Anyone who tries to express Summer of Rage-level political opinion is now more likely to be arrested than to be featured on CNN and Fox News.  At last the nation is willing to recognize that there is a point when the rhetoric is so out of control that it has come to represent a serious threat to individuals and to the political process itself.  Finally the nation may be willing to see that the Summer of Rage was taking things too far.  The other side is willing to say, "OK, you were right all along" - after they've had their say and gotten their way.





*Except, for some reason, Halloween.  Thought this is a relatively recent development and may be part of a religious backlash.
**In which case they would probably have been the version used by the apostate hellbound Protestants, rather than the correct version used by Catholics.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Snow on Russian Christmas

It always snows on Russian Christmas.  I don't know how widespread this belief is,  whether it's something specific to Northeastern Pennsylvania (where it isn't always true) or whether it's something that was brought over from the Old Country.  "Russian Christmas" refers to the celebration of Christmas by the Russian Orthodox Church according to the dating of the old Julian calendar, which places it on January 7th on the Gregorian calendar.

Myth, fable. old wives' tale, folklore, whatever.  We haven't had much in the way of snow this Winter so far.  This morning we woke up to four inches of fresh powder.

It was a light snow, the sort that you could clear with a leaf blower or a broom, not like the wet, heavy "lasagna snow" we had during the Valentine's Day Storm of 2007.  But it was enough to require clearing at my house and my mom's house before I could head out to a meeting at CareerLink in Scranton.

I think there's more snow on the way, and it's snowing in Scranton and points north right now.  But, hey, it's the weekend!

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Sage

A long time ago, when I was young and impressionable, I was a fan of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons.

I've talked about this before.  But, truth be told, I didn't really play the game as much as study it.  I pored over the rules, the statistics, the tables.  Some things seemed ridiculous and unnecessary, like the brief descriptions of forms of insanity characters could be afflicted with (this was the first place I heard of hebephrenia), the explanations of various forms of gambling, or the list of unique magical artifacts and their properties.  (The likelihood of encountering Baba Yaga's Hut in any given game seemed pretty slim.)

One of the things I encountered in the rulebooks was the non-player character class known as the Sage.  Sages didn't do much other than know things.  They studied and amassed knowledge.  Those that you were likely to encounter in the game were the sort who would live in great castles or small huts surrounded by books, scrolls, and other appropriate information storage systems.  Sages might be expository devices who could be consulted to get critical information for an upcoming adventure, or they could actually be the driving force behind that adventure, hiring the characters to locate and retrieve some long-lost scroll or arcane tome.

A guy.  Living alone, surrounded by books.  Driven by a quest for knowledge.  Valued by others for the things he knew.

That's what I wanted to be.

I'm partway there.  I've got the big house that I live in alone.  I've got the books, both in numerous bookcases and scattered in boxes waiting to be placed on bookcases that have yet to be assembled.  I even have one of those TV-and-typewriter gizmos that uses a telephone line to connect me to a universe of information and disinformation.

Now, if I could just find a way to turn a profit from this, I'll be in business.  Literally.

Leonardo da Vinci was pretty much the template for this class.  But even he had to whore himself out to wealthy nobles, designing weapons and city defenses and taking commissions of paintings on the walls of churches and even the occasional portrait to earn his daily bread.  Galileo, another figure in this mold, earned his living as a professor and sometime writer, much to his personal detriment.

I don't think I'd be able to find any wealthy nobles in this area willing to pay me for my artistic and engineering expertise, if I had any.  Becoming a teacher of some sort is a more reasonable possibility.  But my options in this area are somewhat limited, and are circumscribed by some of the life choices I have made.  My original plan, twenty-some years ago, was to earn a Master's degree in Physics and then quickly move through a Ph.D. program with the ultimate goal not to become a great theoretician or experimentalist, but instead to become a writer of books on science intended for a general audience.  Unfortunately my plan was derailed shortly after completion of my B.S., and I was steered onto a path that has led to twenty years of experience in various positions in what can be described as "medium tech" manufacturing facilities, making solar cells and CDs and DVDs. 

I never did get a Master's degree - something that is considered a minimum requirement even to teach at the local community college.  But I did get a house in which to surround myself with books.  My highest priority now is to hold onto that house, to be able to keep paying the mortgage and the taxes and all the associated bills.  The major problem with that at this moment is the loss of my job.  I need to find another job, and soon.  The option of bettering myself through education is available, but I don't know how practical it is in my case:  I doubt that the state would pay for me to get a Master's degree.  Some programs exist to pay for getting a teaching certificate, but they require a period of service in an inner-city school as a form of payback - something that doesn't sound compatible with my plan to not lose the house I currently own.

No path is clear from here.  I've got my goals and priorities laid out.  Now I need a way of making them happen.  I'll keep working on that.  Hey, if I'm really a Sage in the making, I should be able to think of something.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Quick and easy Bagna Cauda

Like, I suspect, a lot of people, I had never heard of bagna cauda until November of 1994, when it figured as a plot point in the Babylon 5 episode "A Distant Star."  Back then I didn't have home access to the Internet, but what research I could do showed me that this was, in fact, a real thing, a fondue of sorts. 

I didn't think much more of it until fairly recently when I got on an anchovy kick.  I mentally combined the ingredients I could remember:  garlic, olive oil, anchovies,...cream?...and it was good.  Even though the cream seemed a bit excessive.  I wanted to learn more.

I did the minimum research required for any such question - I looked it up on Wikipedia.


The strength of Wikipedia isn't in the information it gives you, which is usually freely editable and can be modified by anyone, regardless of how little they know about the subject.  (Wikipedia actually discourages anyone who is a subject matter expert from contributing to a topic.)  The real strength lies in the references.  Wikipedia can be very useful as a jumping-off point to other sources of information, sources that are professionally edited and reflect the trustworthiness of the groups with which they are associated.  A footnote on the Wikipedia entry led me to this article from the New York Times Magazine:

This was originally nothing fancy, a simple sauce or fondue used to feed vineyard workers in the Winter.  Olive oil, garlic, and anchovies, slowly heated together, used as a dip or sauce for vegetables - or, as Michael Garibaldi had it on Babylon 5, even with bread.  (It's great with bread.)  The cream and butter are regional additions and probably change the taste and character substantially  Walnut oil, salt-dried anchovies, fermented black garlic - make it as plain or fancy as you like.  It's your kitchen, and you (and your friends and family) will be the one eating it.

For me, the recipe is simple, and involves just three ingredients.

In a small saucepan I place however much extra-virgin olive oil as I feel like - maybe half a cup, if this is going to make multiple servings.  I turn the heat to medium and add some garlic:  a few large cloves chopped up, or many long, thin ones with the ends removed.  (These can be broken up further.)  I then add one tin of King Oscar flat anchovies in olive oil, pouring the residual oil in for added anchovy goodness (and, of course, the dissolved salt.)  Soon the oil will begin to bubble around the garlic cloves and the anchovies, and this is the sign that you should reduce the heat to its lowest setting and go surf the Internet for a while.

After about ten or fifteen minutes you can check to see that - ta-daaa!  Your anchovies are gone!  They haven't dissolved, but they have disintegrated into a powder that is mostly congregated at the bottom of the saucepan.  Your olive oil will also no longer be yellow-green but will have taken on a brownish tinge from the anchovies. At this point try to squish the garlic with a fork.  If it's soft and squishy, you're good.  But if it's still hard, it needs some more time to simmer.

In either case, you can get your vegetables and/or bread ready now.  I like my bagna cauda with steamed broccoli, but you can have whatever you like.  Traditionally the vegetables should be dipped in the sauce as it simmers, but I drizzle it over the vegetables and enjoy it like that.  Then I take slices of Maier's Italian Bread, sometimes cut into triangles, and sop up the residual sauce.

As this is made with olive oil and fish, it qualifies as a health food and will cause you to live forever.*


*Preceding statement has not been tested or verified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

More on the death of blogging

Here's a list of the top 50 blogs of 2010 as chosen by the people at a blog I've never heard of before, posted to Facebook by the blogger at #21.


Many of these I've also never heard of.  Two I have on my sidebar - one, at the #9 spot, a very recent addition - and I regularly visit...errr, one other.  (#4, if you're wondering.)  Unfortunately, very few of these look like the sort of blogs I grew up with, the ones that gave us insights into the lives and thoughts of other people - something, as one fellow blogger pointed out, that may have helped to spell the end of the Golden Age of Blogging:  learning just what's on other people's minds may have led a lot of blog readers to recoil in horror after a while.  In fact, many of these from a distance look like what might have once been called "websites," but in blog form.  Still, it's good to see a list like this, and it just might be worthwhile to check out some of the fifty sites listed here to see if they're worth becoming regular reads.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Cake

A few years ago, during one of my visits to Ireland, I caught an Irish-language short film on television.  It involved a woman and a blind man, strangers, who wind up on the same compartment in a mostly-empty train.  The man engages in a monologue which clearly annoys the woman, and then...well, I won't ruin the ending for you.  Let's just say after you see this, you might understand why my memory of this film was spurred by the last image on yesterday's Cake Wrecks post.  (NOT for the squeamish!)

The Irish language is a funny thing.  Like modern Hebrew, it's an issue of national cultural pride, but also something of a manufactured language.  Case in point:  one bit of Irish a lot of non-Irish speakers know (besides pogue mahone) is the word craic, pronounced "crack", defined in a mid-nineties radio commercial for The Travel Channel (in which an Irish bartender advises a visiting American that "there's plenty of craic to be had in the back room") as "fun" or "a good time."  But in fact, craic is a mid-twentieth century addition to the Irish language, and is borrowed from the English in the sense of "to crack up"  (with laughter) or "to crack jokes."  The respelling is just to make it more Irish-y, something like adding an "e" to the words "Renaissance Faire" makes it seem more Olde English-y.

When I was over in Ireland I met a man who looked for all the world like he should have been wearing a pith helmet and hunting elephants in late 19th-century Kenya.  He fancied himself something of an expert on the Irish language, which is taught in school and used in all government publications but is otherwise only rarely spoken or written.  He looked over his daughter's Irish homework for a few minutes, then looked up, abashed, and said "The language has changed a lot since I learned it."

Still, there are TV programs in Irish, and movies like this one.  I believe a lot of them are funded through government grants in an effort to keep the language alive.  The actor playing the blind man in this film, Brendan Gleeson, was actually once a teacher of Irish.  He later went on to play another character who was both a teacher and had vision problems - Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody in the Harry Potter films.

And now, without further ado, here is a bit of Irish-language horror for y'all, with English subtitles helpfully provided.  "Cáca Milis" - "Cake."