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Thursday, March 31, 2011

The problem of blogging

I've definitely fallen away from blogging.  The funny thing is, I really don't have an excuse for not blogging at the moment, other than the fact that I do not see blogging as an activity which will lead me back to gainful employment.  Which may be completely wrong: it may be that a more dedicated focus on blogging will provide a better focus for the rest of my life, and may help provide an anchor for the daily structured, disciplined approach to job searching that I absolutely need to develop.

Of all the people whose blogs I was reading before I started my own blog, I don't know if any are left blogging regularly.  They've dropped off for their own reasons, or maybe no reasons at all.  None of us are as young as we used to be.  And the blogs that I have encountered from the younger generation tend to be less introspective, analytical, or journalistic and more nihilistic.  But that's a terrifying subject for some other time.

It's not that there's a shortage of things to blog about.  The crisis at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant continues.  In the earliest hours following that crisis, a very authoritative-sounding analysis of the situation was being cited as proof that no one had anything to worry about; the situation was minor, was well in hand, and would soon be resolved with no lingering effects.  As time has gone by, this post - which, while not written by someone authoritative who had specialized knowledge of nuclear physics, was actually a private family communication that was never intended for publication or citation - has proven to be increasingly inaccurate in its underlying thesis, its conclusions, and (to a lesser extent) some of its descriptive details.  It's an interesting example of the failure of the "appeal to authority" logical fallacy, particularly when the authority you are citing is not an actual authority.

Pennsylvania college students recently marched on Harrisburg to protest newly elected Republican Governor Tom Corbett's budget cuts to funding of the state system of higher education.  While it is all well and good to see college students embracing activism and taking action against a perceived injustice, it is unfortunate that the motivation for their action was, ultimately, unenlightened self-interest.  The fact that Corbett has done these things, or any of the other things that he has done since he came into office, should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention.  The time for action, the time for doing things to keep these problems from happening at all, was back before Election Day last year.  That was when college students should have gotten organized, gotten motivated, and gotten moving.  Now it's all over but the shouting, unless someone has a better plan.

Anyway, that's the sort of thing I should be blogging about.  Maybe I'll start up again on a regular basis soon.

When comments go bad

So.  I read this bit about automatic spam detection on Circumlocution For Dummies.  That got me to thinking:  I've set up a few spinoff blogs over the years that I've been pretty much ignoring.  The idea was that they would just repost selected blog entries on specific topics - gardening, computers, astronomy - and I would get very specifically targeted Google Ads to appear on them.  But after setting them up with a few initial posts, I sort of forgot about them for...a while.

After I started getting spammed relentlessly by a psychotic racist during the 2008 presidential campaign I set up comment moderation on Another Monkey and left it on.  I've also got my other blogs set to automatically email me comments for review.  I think.  I've caught a few spammy ones on one of them recently, of the sort that say something meaningless like "Nice post, visit my online gaming casino site" with a link back to their site.  But I got to wondering if I'd done this with all of my other blogs.

Obviously not.  The first post I checked on one of those long-neglected blogs had 110 comments.  The first one - and probably many of the others that followed - was from the psychotic racist.  From back in 2008.

I've got some work to do.  Time to take out the trash.  And change some settings on those blogs.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The dream of the cathedral

I died in a dream last night.

I was part of an army.  From the uniforms I'm guessing the forces of the Kaiser in WWI, but that could have been a back-formation:  the uniforms were fairly generic olive-drab old-style uniforms, with the sides of the helmets slightly flanged out, and woolen coats on top. The helmets may or may not have had knobs.  The dream was mostly in shades of honey and burnt umber, with olive drab and flesh tones and some white, and dashes of color in the windows.

The dream picked up in the aftermath of a battle in a cathedral.*  Bodies of soldiers were everywhere, dead and wounded and dying, maybe dozens of us, maybe a hundred.  Light streamed in through the windows. One of my fellow soldiers lay near me, dying.  He was an older man, looking very much like a medieval knight, with his white hair and a medium-length well-groomed beard that came to a neat point.  He told me that since I was dying, too, I should do what he was about to do:  take my bayonet and stab it under my ribs into my heart. Just a quick push and it would all be over.  I took his advice, and he and I died.

As we died our ghosts rose above the scene of the battle.  The full-color ghosts looked exactly like we did before the battle, I suppose, but our bodies cut off at about the midpoint of our abdomens, and the rest of us was represented by some vertical streaks like a cheesy optical effect.**  We floated about six or ten feet above our bodies, in an air that was thick with ghosts, and there was a sense that we were all waiting for something.

Eventually a medical detail or ambulance crew of some sort showed up to look for survivors.  They picked through the bodies and pulled out a few to take out of the cathedral; presumably those were the ones who were still alive and considered salvageable.   They came to my body and noted that my wounds were not necessarily fatal, except for the bayonet in my heart.  I remember feeling a sense of betrayal, a feeling that the old soldier hadn't wanted to die alone, so he convinced me to come with him.

So.  I died in a dream.  And I didn't die for real.  So there.


*The name "Rouen" stuck in my head after I woke up. This, I have since rediscovered, is the site of Notre Dame Cathedral, something I probably already knew; a few seconds with the Wikipedia entry on the cathedral did not indicate any skirmishes taking place within the cathedral during WWI.  Besides, this place was a lot smaller and simpler, though it still had some amazing architecture and nice windows. 

**I wonder if the prismatic streaks at the top of Tiffany's revived supertiff.com inspired this image.  For the record, I do not consider the streaks on her blog header to be a "cheesy optical effect."  Think something more like the "would somebody please put some covers on these lights" lights on the bridge of the Enterprise from the 2009 Star Trek movie.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Surprise! Marcellus Shale commission to meet Friday

An announcement came out of Harrisburg today that the first meeting of the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission will be held tomorrow.

I only know about it because I get Facebook news alerts from both of the local newspapers, and one of them published the following article at 3:44 PM today:

Marcellus Shale commission to meet Friday The Times Leader, Wilkes-Barre & Scranton PA

I followed the instructions for finding this information online on the official Pennsylvania government site, and they certainly didn't make it easy. After a few false trails I found the press announcement itself as a pdf file - with a notation that it was last modified at 3:46 PM, two minutes after the Times Leader story was published:

Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission to Hold Inaugural Meeting
Meeting Is Open to the Public

Harrisburg – The Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, created to address the
needs and impacts of natural gas development on local communities, as well as
promote the efficient, environmentally sound and cost-effect development of
Marcellus shale and other natural gas resources, will hold its first meeting on
Friday, March 25.

The panel, chaired by Lt. Governor Jim Cawley, will meet from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30
p.m. in Room 105 of the Rachel Carson State Office Building, 400 Market Street,
Harrisburg.

In announcing the commission’s creation on March 8, Governor Tom Corbett said
the panel’s purpose is “to oversee how we can build around this new industry and
how we can make certain we do this while protecting our lands, our drinking water,
our air – all the time growing our workforce.’’

The commission, comprised of state and local government leaders, industry, and
environmental experts, has been established to insure the successful development
of the natural gas industry and advise the governor on pertinent issues, including
possible legislative and regulatory changes.

The meeting agenda and related materials are available through the Public
Participation Center on the Department of Environmental Protection’s web site at
http://www.depweb.state.pa.us. Enter “Marcellus shale advisory” in the search bar
and the first result will be the commission’s page.

Seating in the conference room is limited, so individuals planning to attend are
requested to contact Christopher Gray at 717-783-8727 or chrgray@state.pa.us to
help organizers in planning. Reserved seating is not available.


In addition, public comment can be directed to the following:
Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission
Office of the Governor
225 Main Capitol Building
Harrisburg, PA


Note that the meeting begins at 10:30 in the morning, meaning that this announcement came out less than nineteen hours before the actual start of the meeting! Does this sound like a reasonable amount of time for participants, the public, or the press to prepare for such an important meeting? If I were the suspicious type, the sort who believes that Governor Tom Corbett is completely in bed with the Marcellus Shale drilling industry and completely opposed to any regulation of it for any reason, I would think that this announcement was timed to stymie both public participation and coverage of the event by the media. I'm hoping at least a few concerned citizens and a few representatives from local news outlets will be able to drop whatever plans they had for tomorrow and get down to Harrisburg. Just be sure to contact Christopher Gray at 717-783-8727 or chrgray@state.pa.us to "help organizers in planning."

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A moveable feast of snow

Calendars are funny things, especially when religious holidays - "Holy Days" - are considered.  Some of these have fixed dates. Christmas, for example, always falls of December 25.  The feast of St. Patrick always falls on March 17, though St. Patrick's Day parades usually fall on the weekend before or weekend after that date.  Other holy days are "moveable feasts."  Take Easter.  Easter, the holiest and most important day in the Christian calendar, is always observed on the first Sunday following the first Full Moon after the Spring Equinox, for complex reasons.  The upshot of this is that Easter can fall on any Sunday between March 22 and April 25, inclusive, depending on the date of the Spring Equinox and the date of the Full Moon.  This year the much-remarked-upon "Supermoon" Full Moon took place on March 19, the night before the Spring Equinox, so Easter will be almost as late as it can be - it falls on April 24.

St. Patrick's Day usually marks the end of snowy weather in these parts.  Usually.  But significant snowfalls have been known to take place right up until just before Easter - whenever Easter is.*

It snowed again last night.

The forecasters were calling for snow, a few inches overnight, maybe a total accumulation of about six inches.  Maybe.  This morning I woke up at 5:30, bright and early to go on a tour of a  solar installation being done at a home under construction.  I turned on the morning local news to get an idea of what the weather would be like - and immediately heard that they had received 7.8 inches of wet, heavy snow overnight, it was still coming down, and most highways were in bad shape and littered with jackknifed tractor-trailers.

The snow compacted quickly, and began to melt as soon as the sun was up.  It became excellent snowball/snowman snow, but also excellent heart-attack-while-shoveling snow.  Schools closed all over the region.  My tour was cancelled.  The snowblower made quick work of the sidewalks and driveway, and what was left behind melted away.

As I took the garbage out tonight, I saw that the next wave of snow had already begun to accumulate.  It had started off as sleet, hard and heavy, forming an icy shell on all the cars.  I couldn't even bring myself to see what it had done to the sidewalks.  I'll worry about that in the morning.

Dear Winter:  In the immortal words of James T. Kirk: "I...have HAD...enough of...YOU!!!"


*One of the biggest and most legendary was in 1970, when Easter fell on March 29 - one of the earlier dates for Easter.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What has the natural gas extraction industry done today?

I'm waiting for a version of the commercial that runs at least once per break on CNN to go something like this:

"We're America's Natural Gas Extractors, and here's what we did today:

"- Pumped another few million gallons of clean, clear water out of the environment and into pockets underground, where (we hope) it will never be seen again.
(Sometimes in excess of what they were allowed to take:
Chesapeake Energy fined $20,000 over water withdrawal violations - News - Daily Review)

"- Extracted a few million gallons of wastewater from fracking sites and dumped them into holding ponds, or into creeks and streams if no one was looking, or just opened the valves on our waste trucks and let them go...well, anywhere!
Pa. man, company accused of dumping gas wastewater - FOX19.com

 
"- Contaminated a few more drinking water wells. Hey, people, get with the program. Get hooked up to municipal water!
Residents Want Gas Company to Pay for Water - WNEP

"- Reduced property values across Pennsylvania. 
YouTube - Drilling Pollutes Home and Groundwater

"- Wrecked hundreds of miles of back-country roads that were never meant to take the kind of punishment our trucks dish out.

"- Spent big money making sure that politicians vote the right way, and buying up ad and sponsorship space on TV and the radio.
TV Commercials | Chesapeake Energy - America's Champion of Natural Gas

"- And one thing we didn't do today: Pay any extraction taxes!"

Friday, March 18, 2011

What was the plan?

Some time ago I was working in a place that had lots of little plastic discs on heavy stainless steel spindles laying about.  It had been a tempestuous Summer storm season that had seen more than a few tornadoes .  One day I walked into the plant and asked the people around me, "What's the plan in the event of a tornado?"*

The first response was usually a wry laugh, followed by the assumption that we would all die.  A few people knew where the stairwell was that led to our secret downstairs region affectionately known as "The Pit."  Some people knew of the other stairwell on the other side of the building that also led there.  None of us ever went there, usually.  And more importantly, tornadoes never hit this area. Usually. 

One did, back in 1998, in a place called Lake Carey.  It sucked a man and his grandmother out of their lake cottage.  They were both killed.

Just because an event is rare doesn't mean there shouldn't be a contingency plan in place for it.  Indeed, it's the rare events that are exactly the things we have to plan for.  So it's raining? Take an umbrella.  So it's been raining to the point that water is coming in your cellar? Break out the pumps. So it's been raining to the point that bridges are too dangerous to use, and access to major roads is cut off?  OK, what's the plan?

In 2005 we saw the answer to the question "What is the plan if a major hurricane causes Lake Pontchartrain to overflow and inundate New Orleans?"  There wasn't one, not really, causing surprisingly smug reactions in some neighboring states.  And a few weeks later we found that the Texas plan for evacuating senior citizens in the face of another hurricane apparently involved incinerating some of them.

In-between those two disasters I stopped and wondered: what would be the evacuation plan for this area?  I envisioned a variety of disaster scenarios - floods, forest fires, a nuclear disaster at the local power plant, even a major earthquake - and tried to see how evacuation would work in each case.**  I tried to run these past some friends who assured me that I was being ridiculous.  The likelihood of any one of these disasters was so small that it was a waste of mental energy to even think about such contingencies.

The Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant was a robustly engineered facility.  It was built to withstand an earthquake and a tsunami of magnitudes well beyond what had ever before been experienced locally.  But when an earthquake with a locally unprecedented magnitude of 8.9 struck off the northeast coast of Japan on the afternoon of March 11, Fukushima Dai-Ichi's emergency systems were put to the test.  When primary cooling pumps were knocked out, emergency diesel pumps kicked in to keep coolant flowing and keep the core (and the stored spent cooling rods) from overheating.

Then the tsunami hit, a great monster of a thing.  And it knocked out the emergency pumps.  So now what?

Errr...

Apparently the disaster preparations at Fukushima Dai-Ichi assumed that the emergency systems would not fail.  The catastrophic events necessary to call the emergency systems into play were almost inconceivable; to assume that an additional disaster would knock out the emergency response to such an event must have been laughable.  A waste of mental energy.

So there was no Plan B.

At least, that's the generous assumption, the one that assumes a failure of imagination that has led to - fifty?  one hundred and fifty? - brave employees of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi power plant to endanger themselves, possibly to sacrifice themselves, in the course of trying to fend off a greater disaster with far-reaching consequences, while executives of that same company, a company that has been accused of deliberately soft-pedaling the severity of the situation in their reports to the Japanese government, and the people of Japan, and the rest of the world, weep about the bravery and sacrifice of these heroes.

The not-so-generous assumption is that that was the Plan B:  in the event of a catastrophic failure of the back-up systems, send some employees in to deal with it.  Express regret at and gratitude for their sacrifice.  Make nominal payments of compensation to their families.  Carry on with business as usual.

We've seen this, again and again.  The Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico just blew up, killing eleven workers and creating a gusher of crude oil polluting the Gulf coast?  Hit it with dispersant.  It won't fix anything, but it will prevent an unsightly slick from forming on the top of the water - improving the optics, as they say.  A coal mine disaster at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia has killed many workers, threatening continued production at all of Massey Energy's sites?  Shut the families of the dead up as quickly as possible with payouts tied to gag orders - and remind all the other locals that their employment options are basically Massey or nothing. In neither case was there a Plan B to effectively deal with a low-probability catastrophic failure.  And in both cases the price of such a failure was enormous.

What the final outcome of the events at Fukushima Dai-Ichi will be is unknown.  Perhaps the heroic efforts being performed will halt the continuing advancement of the disaster, allowing cleanup to begin. Perhaps the disaster will result in an uninhabitable zone like the area around Chernobyl, gradually being reclaimed by the wilderness.  But one thing is for certain: somewhere, someday, there will be additional disasters, almost unthinkable low-probability events with enormous consequences.  When these things happen, will there be plans for dealing with the consequences?

*This would have been a good question to have asked at the glass factory where I worked during my Summers in college.  Large, heavy TV faceplates were everywhere, and a huge furnace filled with molten glass dominated the building.  Yeah, a tornado there would have sucked a lot.

**I didn't think of the related situation where the disaster itself is the shutdown of the escape routes - or just normal travel routes.  In the aftermath of the Valentine's Day Storm of 2007, routes 80 and 81 were shut down for days, and a considerable amount of interstate traffic was rerouted along relatively rickety bridges in Nanticoke.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Disasters

Our weather for the last three months has followed an annoying pattern:  ice on top of snow on top of snow, then a rapid thaw, then immediately more snow, then another rapid thaw, then heavy rain followed by more snow and then more rain.  And more rain and more rain.

All this left the ground saturated, and the water table high, and conditions right for some basement flooding.  I've been preparing for this since the rains began last weekend, sweeping the basement floor and picking up any loose items and making sure I knew where my pumps were.  We dodged the flooding bullet last weekend, and every day up until yesterday.  Yesterday it was clear that we would be getting an all-day soaking rain.  My water detector started to sound sometime around ten o'clock last night, and I realized I wouldn't be getting much sleep.

At first the water was just a trickle, and it looked like I might be able to contain it with some dams made from towels.  I checked on these dams several times and it looked like they were holding.  But then the rain picked up in intensity and the saturated soil began to void its excess water into our basement.  It quickly spilled beyond the dams, until they were nothing but waterlogged towels in the middle of a partially-flooded section of our basement.  I set up the pumps and broke out the lengths of garden hose for directing the water across our cellar and through the garage and down the driveway.  These are submersible pumps that need a minimal amount of water (about one-eighth of an inch) to get the pumping action started.  Below that they will shut down, or just burn out. So it's actually necessary to allow some depth of water to accumulate before you activate them.  (Most installed sump pumps are built into holes in the cellar floor where the water will accumulate first.)  Some water had gotten into the downstairs bathroom, too, so that called for more floor towels.

After that it became a cycle of laying down towels to try to contain the spread of the water, checking the pumps to make sure they were in deep enough water, changing out dry towels for soaked ones, putting the wet towels in the washer, shutting down the pumps if they had pumped themselves dry, putting the washed towels in the dryer, and reactivating the pumps when water had accumulated again.  Over and over and over.

Eleven o'clock rolled to midnight, and I switched to the Weather Channel to get radar updates on the storm.  It looked like the  worst was past, but it would take a while for all the excess water to percolate through the soil.

I rummaged through the downstairs bedroom where I sleep when I stay over.  This is only partly below ground, so flooding must be severe for water to push into this area.  Nevertheless I looked for things that were on the floor that could be ruined by any water that might get in.  I spotted the power strip/surge protector for the VCR, DVD player, and digital cable box dangling off the edge of the entertainment center - not on the floor, but suspended by the various wires and cables leading into it.  I reeled it up and tucked it into the entertainment center, next to the TV.

The cycle continued.  At its worst I had maybe a quarter of an inch of water in some parts of the basement, maybe a little more.  The pumps pumped away, and I kept relocating them to be in the deepest part of the water.  Dry towels replaced wet, which went in the washer and then the dryer and then back on the floor.

It was getting late.  After one o'clock in the morning, maybe two.  There was a presentation I wanted to see in Scranton on Green Energy Jobs at ten o'clock, and I would have to be out of the house by nine to be sure I made it with time to spare.  Even allowing just an hour to get up and get ready, I would need to be out of bed in just six hours.  During my working days that would seem like a luxuriously excessive amount of sleep, but now it seemed barely adequate.  I got myself ready for bed, to maybe grab sleep in two hour chunks, checking the pumps and changing the towels in between. I decided to watch a little TV first.  See if the storm had truly moved on.  I hit the ON button and automatically punched up the Weather Channel.

All I got was static.

OK, it was just working a few hours ago.  What happened?  What changed? I immediately suspected the power strip / surge protector.  Had I manhandled it, maybe disconnected something?  I picked it up and examined it.  Everything seemed to be plugged in.  I unplugged everything, one at a time, and plugged it back in, just to be sure.  I noticed that the digital cable thingie didn't have an indicator light showing.  Could that be switched off?  No, the switch was in the "on" position.  Then I realized I must have switched off the power strip when I was handling it.  (The TV is plugged in separately, which is why I got static instead of nothing.)

I flipped the switch and the screen went to black as the digital cable box reinitialized.  Then it remembered that I had punched up the Weather Channel.  Or maybe that was just the last channel selected.  Either way, I was suddenly treated to images of utter devastation in Japan.

Magnitude 8.9?  That can't be right.

I flicked back and forth between the Weather Channel and CNN.  The news was unbelievable.  An earthquake of that magnitude, just off the coast?  Surely there will be - and yes, there it was, footage of the tsunami, washing across farmlands in the Japanese coastal countryside.  The buildings looked undamaged, and the fields looked empty.  Was there time to evacuate everyone?  The answer became clear as the helicopter-borne camera followed the advancing wave and, in the near distance, a moving line of cars and trucks became visible.  Did the people in those vehicles know that death was coming?  Were they racing away from it, or just going from one place to another, assuming the worst of the earthquake had  passed?  While I watched the camera never followed the wave front right up to those cars.  Each car, each truck, had at least one living person it it.  If the tsunami reached those vehicles, each person in them would almost certainly be dead in the near future as a consequence.

The image changed to a factory of some sort, maybe a refinery.  Great spherical tanks close to each other, some burning spectacularly.  Occasionally the orange glow of the fire would flare up as, I suppose, another tank exploded.

I watched.  I dozed.  I woke at one point to the sound of the video shot within an office building as the quake hit.  At another point I awoke to something else: I didn't know what it was, but I knew I had programmed myself to get up when I heard it.  It wasn't an alarm.  It was...nothing?  Ah, yes.  Nothing.  The sound of the dryer stopping.  Another load of towels ready to change out.

I went into the flooded part of the basement.  I had had the pumps switched off, and the water had re-accumulated.  The towels I had on the floor were completely saturated.  I had maybe a quarter of an inch of water at the deepest parts.

It was nothing.  A little pumping, some towels, some quick mopping with bleachy water, and everything would be fine.  I had just watched a wall of water destroying houses and snuffing out lives as it rolled across Japan.  I had no worries.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

SiteMeter issues

A few days ago I started having problems with Internet Explorer 8.*  Big problems.  It would lock up at various times in a non-repeatable manner.  Sometimes it would lock up when I opened too many tabs.  Sometimes it would lock up when I tried to close a tab.  Sometimes it would lock up if I was typing a comment in Facebook and made a mistake or wanted to make a change and used the left-arrow key. Sometimes, but not always.

I tried everything.  I remember once I started having random problems that seemed to be related to my mouse - more specifically, my mouse cord - and finally tracked the source to my drawing pad pen, velcroed to the side of my tower. Once I removed that, the problems went away. (Spurious signals being induced in the mouse wire by the magnet present in the tip of the pen? I have no idea.) I looked for something similar. I have a pair of headphones hanging from a stick-on hook on my tower. Could the magnets in the earpieces be causing a problem? I took them down. I had pulled my now-expired passport out of my passport pouch and propped it against the side of the computer. Could there be a magnetic strip embedded in the cover? I moved that. The problems persisted. I finally tried running an anti-virus scan and I found - something. Mal/GlFlframe-A. Not a virus, but an object that exhibits virus-like properties. Something that hadn't been there on the previous day's sweep. I removed it.

The problems persisted.

This had graduated from being annoying to something much worse.  It wasn't something physical, it wasn't something extrinsic like a virus.  Was it something intrinsic to one of the sites I had open?  My habit is to open my Hotmail, then Facebook, then SiteMeter, then Blogger. From Hotmail I may open links in new tabs.  Ditto for Facebook.  From SiteMeter I may open detailed information about individual visits in new tabs, and sometimes use those as jumping-off points to sites that directed traffic to my blog. From Blogger I will open my blog, and check for updates on friends' blogs.  Within a minute of going online I may have a dozen or more new tabs open.  Could one of them be causing the problem?

I tried opening each of my first four sites in separate windows.  I thought maybe these would each invoke individual sessions of IE8, and a crash on one would not cause a crash in the others.  In a few minutes I found I was wrong.

OK.  Four sites.  Open them three at a time.  There are four ways of doing this, assuming the order in which I open them is irrelevant.  (If it is relevant, there are 4x3x2 ways of choosing three items from a group of four, so I would have to run twenty-four tests.)  On a hunch I decided to eliminate the third site first: SiteMeter.

This wasn't just a random choice.  SiteMeter, once opened, is a static site - it won't update unless I refresh it.  All it does is show me reports. But the SiteMeter homepage was once apparently infected with a virus.  This came in the immediate aftermath of the August 2008 incident in which SiteMeter managed to crash most of the Internet for the better part of a weekend, apparently because someone decided that a Friday night would be the best time to implement some changes that had not yet been tested. (Perhaps the virus was a parting gift from the employee who was blamed for the problem?)

(This was not the only disaster of 2008 for SiteMeter.  They rolled out the new, exciting, revised SiteMeter in mid-September, to universal condemnation - and rolled it back, to their credit, the same day.  I don't know how much these two fiascoes hurt the company, but I'm guessing "a lot."  Since that time they have made occasional posts to their news and announcements blog, but most of them have been removed.  The last post there is from February 19, 2009 - more than two years ago at the time of this writing.)

So I opened Hotmail, then Facebook, then Blogger.  It took an enormous effort not to open SiteMeter.  And then I surfed and clicked and commented away to my heart's content without so much as a hiccup.  I soon forgot I was running a test.  Eventually I remembered.  I finished off any business I had, closed any extraneous tabs, and opened SiteMeter.

Within a minute Internet Explorer locked up.

I shut down IE and re-ran my virus scan.  It came up clean.

I re-opened SiteMeter by itself.  Within a minute it locked up again.

OK, test over.  SiteMeter was to blame.  Not very scientific, but so far this conclusion is holding.

So what's wrong?

I have no idea.  I'm not seeing much scuttlebutt about SiteMeter online, other than  some speculation that the precipitous drop in Gawker Media readership after a site redesign might actually be a problem with how their SteMeter thingie is reporting visitor statistics.  But I don't see any other recent praise or criticism of SiteMeter.  And the SiteMeter site itself is remarkably comatose. It's possibly little more than a zombie at this point, a zombie that happens to be generating enough revenue to keep it running.

I still check SiteMeter, sometimes.  Usually at the end of a session, when I'm done with everything else, when I don't care if IE crashes or not.  But it does.  Every damned time.



*Yes, I know.  Well, there's your problem right there.  Blah blah blah.  Shut up.  Has anyone resolved the Firefox js3250.dll issue yet?  I still get lots of hits about that every day.  SiteMeter tells me that.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Rain, snow, rain

A few weeks ago the accumulated snow of the previous month and its thick protective crust of ice melted away in a matter of days.  Temperatures shot up to above freezing, and the wind picked up.  Unfortunately the wind was the herald of another weather front moving into the area, and hours after the last of the old snow had melted away a new layer of seven inches of snow the consistency of corn starch fell.

Over the past week or so that snow has faded into memory.  Temperatures rose to the point that I was able to get out and do some Winter gardening.  But there was more weather on the way. Rain, intense and possibly sustained, would be plowing through the area over the weekend.  But reports were confusing: some called for one to two inches of rain, some called for rain changing over to sleet, and some predicted rain, hollowed by sleet, followed by snow.

Yesterday morning it began to rain, later for Nanticoke than for much of the surrounding area.  By the afternoon it started to come down in earnest, so I donned my wet-weather gear - a raincoat buttoned up to the throat and an Irish tweed cap -  and made an inspection tour of the grounds, to verify that all of the rain gutters and downspouts and ground-level guides were functioning and free of debris, and all water was being directed away from the foundation of the house.  It was.

Early in the evening the shuuusch of rain was replaced by the sizzle of sleet as the storm entered its second act.  Little pellets of ice fell from the sky and coated the ground, and the sidewalks, and the steps.  I planned to step out and lay down some of my dwindling supply of calcium chloride ice melt, but the sleet accumulation was already too thick.  So I pulled out a snow shovel and scraped off as much of the  accumulated sleet as I could.  Then I laid down the ice melt.

A few hours later the sizzle of sleet gave way to the muffled silence of falling snow.  Not entirely silent: at one point as I prepared for bed a bright flash lit up the windows, and an agonizingly long time later thunder rolled through the house.  Thundersnow, the first I had personally experienced in years.

By this morning the accumulated snow measured about four or five inches of wet, dense stuff.  Whether this was because more rain had fallen at some point, because the snow was dense to begin with, or because the increasingly intense March sun had melted and packed down the snow, I don't know.  I needed a snowblower to remove most of it, and then took the lowest layer of slush off with a shovel.  The sun took care of the rest.

More rain is expected later this week.  Heavy, intense, long-duration rain.

I prepared for basement flooding Saturday night.  Groundwater flooding is not unusual for us, though it has become a less frequent occurrence since the city convinced our uphill neighbor not to have all of his downspouts emptying directly onto our property.  (Now one of them first pours across his property for a few feet, but that has actually made a big difference.)  We didn't get any rain Saturday night, and last night only a little bit of water seeped in and retreated by morning.  But with the ground saturated from this weekend's precipitation, an additional accumulation could be a problem.


This month is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the St. Patrick's Day Flood of 1936, this region's worst flood until Agnes in 1972.  As of the end of 2009 I actually have an odd connection to the 1936 flood, about which I had previously had no knowledge.  You can read about that adventure here.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Objective

This past Wednesday I had to meet with someone at the CareerLink in Scranton.  I needed to take with me a variety of documents, including an updated version of my résumé from the CareerLink website.

As I reviewed this Wednesday night, I noticed that while everything was up-to-date, I had not included an "Objective."  Now, at the moment my employment goals are, shall we say, open-ended.  I could not define my objective as something like "Seeking middle management position with established manufacturing facility."  Not that I would turn my nose up at such a job (if such a job even exists anymore), but that is not the only sort of position I am looking for.  Ideally I could tailor the objective on my résumé for whatever job I'm applying for.  But to get things started, I wanted to write up an objective which actually expressed what I'm looking for in the broadest terms.  I came up with this:
B.S. in Physics with over 19 years experience in industry, including Continuous Improvement and Statistical Process Control. Seeking position with progressive, forward-thinking organization that can make full use of my skills and talents.
OK, the first sentence there isn't an objective.  Hell, it's not even a sentence.  And the second sentence may just sound like a crock of B.S.  But these are the words that have been curdling in my mind for weeks.

"Progressive, forward thinking organization" sounds politically loaded, but it isn't. I'm looking for a company that is interested in its own growth and plans to stick around for five or more years.  The company that I was hired into nearly nineteen years ago was like that: it had a thriving R&D department and was interested in the being in the forefront of new technologies.  CDs, Laser Disks, CD-ROM, DVD - all of these things were manufactured from their earliest days at that facility, and in some cases the technology for manufacturing them was actually developed there.  But manufacturing has never favored the innovator, who assumes so many of the up-front costs and risks; it is the Johnny-come-latelies who can enter the field late with more advanced equipment and less of a burden of legacy costs who tend to dominate the market.  In a way, that is also progressive and forward-thinking.  These are the types of companies I'm looking for, and I've got a few on my radar.

"...that can make full use of my skills and talents."  I have a degree in Physics.  I had a second major in  Philosophy.  That should tell you something right there. I can write.  I have some artistic skill.  I am very good with public speaking, in part because of a technique that is rather unpleasant to explain.  (In summary: Hate your audience.) I can work hard and work late, work long hours without stopping to eat.  I can slam my way through a problem and document every step of the way. I'm a relentless researcher. I can come up with solutions to problems literally in the blink of am eye - I called these "eyeblink solutions" years before Malcolm Gladwell wrote his bestseller "Blink" - and sometimes it will take days or even weeks to fully explain the chains of reasoning that went into the solution. Oh, and I have an enormous, encyclopedic store of valuable and trivial information stashed right behind my eyes, and know how to find lots more information in external storage.  I can read upside down, which comes in handy more often than you think. I am strong like an ox, and healthy like one, too.  (Are oxen particularly healthy?) I can be intimidating like a perturbed gorilla. I can debate decorously, or, when necessary, I can flay the flesh from my opponent's bones with my tongue.

Would all that fit in well with a call center?  Or a warehouse job?  "But," you might object, "didn't you just spend from August 2007 through December 2010, with a ten-month hiatus in 2008 when you were on a statistics 'special project,'  working on a production line on a factory floor? And much of that time on night shift?" Indeed I did.  I didn't think I could do it - I'm not the world's most mechanically inclined person. But I did. Through much of that time I held out a glimmer of hope that the industrial downward spiral would reverse itself, and new, better job opportunities would present themselves at the company where I had put in so many years. They never did. Which brings us to here.

Anyway, that's my objective, fleshed out. It's not quite an elevator pitch, and all that wouldn't really find a good home on a résumé.  But those are my skills and talents.  Now I just have to find a progressive, forward-thinking company that can make full use of them.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Prune all the things

Last night I drove across town to my house - almost.  I parked my car at the service station across the street, dropped an envelope with my name outside and my key inside through a slot in the door, and walked over to my house.

It was time to get my side-view mirror replaced.  I had made a workable temporary fix by supergluing the major parts of the housing back together and then attaching a plastic replacement mirror (cut from a rectangular sheet I bought at an auto parts store) with multiple pieces of Velcro, which combined adhesive strength, flexibility, and the ability to fill gaps.  Yes, for about two weeks I've been driving around with a side view mirror held together with Velcro and superglue.  Workable and ridiculous.

I slept well, as I always have since I had the security system installed.  But after I woke I began the waiting game for my car.  I wasn't about to call first thing, so I puttered about a bit, arranging things that needed arranging, checking my week-old plug in the chimney (made from a 6" steel duct cap and silver-foil heat resistant tape) where the stovepipe from the old coal stove in the kitchen used to enter.  I puttered through what would have been breakfast up to what would have been lunch without hearing from them.  Finally I remembered a task I had put on my list long ago: prune the grapevines.

The grapevines in my yard are over a hundred years old, judging from their appearance as full-sized vines in the oldest photos of the house.   The vines seemed to have been planted in what was once the common "red, white, and blue" pattern:  a red "spice" grape, white Niagara grapes, and blue Concord grapes, with another vine of Concords in the back by the garage.  Tragically, some of them have died out in recent decades. The red grapes died, or were killed, some fifteen or so years ago, and the Concord grapes behind the house seem to have gone away.  Meanwhile, black rot has become a regular problem, especially during hot, wet summers.  Several invasive vines and weeds have worked themselves into the grapevines, especially deadly nightshade and a sort of wild raspberry that is all thorns and no usable fruit. And just to make things interesting, a mutant sort of grape has appeared on one end of the grape arbor, golden-yellow with a dull, yeasty taste.

So my task was clear:  Prune away old growth, crossed vines, and excessively exuberant growth.  Open up regions for air circulation.  Remove all black rot "mummies."  Remove any weeds and vines.  Prune away the dreaded wild raspberries.

The actual pruning of the actual grapevines was fun.  I moved around quickly, trying to envision the finished product like a sculptor chipping away at a block of stone.  Thanks to diligent applications of fungicide and relatively clement weather last year, there were not many black rot mummies to worry about.  Nightshade was a problem in the vines behind the house, but I cleared as much of it as I could find.  I also had to repair the detached wires on which I was training the Canadice vines that are the replacements for the late lamented spice grapes.

Then I moved to the other grapevine, the Concords in the back by the garage.  Pruning the grapevine itself was an easy process.  On a lark I had allowed the grapevines to stretch out along a clothesline that runs the length of the yard between the arbor near the house and the one near the garage.  Unfortunately the vines that took this path showed a lot of leaf growth and very little fruit production.  (In fact, the previously mentioned yellow yeasty grapes grew along the clothesline near the house.)  I ruthlessly cut away at these vines, then took down the vines that were blocking the door to the garage and the pathway to the rear gate.  And then I discovered that the grapevines were not the issue I needed to focus on.

Reaching out of the ground like emissaries from Hell were dozens of shoots of wild raspberry.  Many of these were very tall, four or six or more feet, and some were up to three-quarters of an inch thick, and some branched out into two or three or four more nightmarish vines.  Thorns covered every inch of the shoots, hard and strong and needle-sharp, able to pass through fabric like it wasn't there.  Even my leather gloves were penetrated again and again, and I was glad I was wearing a hat, glasses, and earmuffs.  (I should have worn goggles to protect my glasses.)   Pruning these was a huge problem.  I often cut the shoots in the middle, then worked my way up and then down, removing each one in several pieces.  The thorns tangled themselves in my clothes and trailed along with me as I moved around.  I think I got most of them, though since I simply cut them down to the ground instead of rooting them out, I expect they will be back. 

When I finished I was faced with the question of what to do with all the stuff I had pruned.  Yard waste collection won't begin for another month or so, and I didn't want to stash the painfully dangerous wild raspberry cuttings along with the benign grapevine prunings.  In the end I decided to pile all the thorny stuff along the inside of the fence between the back alley and the rear grapevine.  Anyone who decides to vault that fence will be in for a surprise.

I tucked away the raspberry cuttings, gathered the grapevine prunings into a can on my back porch, went in through the back door, and reset the alarm.I stripped off my leather gloves and looked at my hands, scratched and bleeding.  I realized my legs were pretty scratched, too, right through my jeans.  I took off my gardening coat, hung it and my hat and scarf and earmuffs up on the hall tree, and settled down to watch some television while I waited for the call from the service station across the street.  Then it would be time to drive back across town and finally get something to eat.
 

Title reference:  "Clean all the things!" from the post "This is Why I'll Never be an Adult" on the amazing blog-you-should-be-reading Hyperbole and a Half.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The end of the Februaries

February is over, and now we can get on with life.  There is a rule of thumb I learned in gardening years ago:  it's OK to start seeds before March if you get an "attack of the Februaries," so long as you have enough seed to replant all the February-started seedlings that will die - which will probably be all of them.

Last year I got off to a late start.  Work consumed all my time, or so it seemed, and I never got around to starting what few plants I started until sometime in May.  This year I am engaged in a job search, but I plan to take the time to prune my grapevine and start my tomatoes sometime in March.

I experimented with a few different ways of starting seeds last year, and I found that the absolute best method for me involves miniature terra cotta pots (the kind that come in the Chia Herb Garden) on an East-facing windowsill.  Topsy-Turvy Tomato Planters didn't work out at all for me, and the tomatoes I transplanted into the garden fared very poorly for some reason.  The best results were with tomatoes transplanted into large planters, pots about eighteen to twenty-four inches in diameter.  We'll see how well this year's crop grows.

Now, where did I put those seeds...