Saturday, December 31, 2005

New Year's Eve 2005

Tonight I will see in the New Year up the street at my cousin's house with some friends, doing an Aqua Teen Hunger Force DVD marathon. I've already had the traditional lobster tail dinner with my family - which consisted of me and my mom, with my recently widowed aunt joining in this year. My friend whose father died on December 26th was up with her husband, and I finally gave her about three years' worth of stored-up Christmas presents.

My friend's father's funeral was this morning - an unusually long delay, it seems, but understandable under the circumstances. The wake last night was a mini class reunion of sorts. I should feel old, I suppose: my one friend from college's daughter is 17 years old (17 years and two months today, to be exact; she pointed out to all of us last night, she will be eighteen in ten months and one day, as of yesterday.) Of course, she was born while we were still in college. I've only been out for sixteen years...and seven months...

The weather briefly went completely to hell today. Leaving the after-funeral brunch I was pelted with little ice pellets falling from the sky. On the way down the mountain from Hazleton into Wilkes-Barre by way of Route 309 the ice was joined by big, goose-feather snowflakes. I made it to Barnes & Noble OK to pick up a few last-minute gifts, but by the time I made it out of the store my car was coated with heavy, wet snow.

Getting out of the parking lot was a challenge, but making it down the hill to Jiffy Lube to get a year-end oil change (I was in the neighborhood, I was due, and I had time) was almost impossible. I nearly slid off the road into a ditch at least twice in stop-and-go-traffic - the go part wasn't bad, it was the stopping that made me skid.

But I made it. I survived, and now I just have to walk a block to my cousin's house with a bag containing four seasons of Aqua Teen Hunger Force and one disc of Death Race 2000. Better remember to set the VCR for the South Park marathon, too...

Hope everybody has a safe and fun New Year's Eve. See you next year!

Thursday, December 29, 2005


As expected, my 1996 Toyota Tercel hit 250,000 miles right around the end of the year. It happened today while I was on a winding, narrow part of Route 11 with a mountain on my right, the Susquehanna on my left, a blind curve behind me, and Shickshinny a mile ahead of me. (Notice the green arrows indicating that my hazard lights are flashing. Safety first!)

I didn't take the advice of a friend who suggested that, wherever and whenever the car hit 250,000 miles, I should simply pull over, turn the car off, leave the keys in the ignition, and just walk away. It would have been pretty funny, though.

And it seems like just yesterday that I hit 234,567 miles. In fact, it was eight months and one week ago.

What the hell is THIS?

I was doing another random blog search today and I discovered the latest trend in non-blog blogs: blogs with apparently randomly-generated names that consist of nothing but strings of four-digit numbers that seem to be posted every minute or so.

What the hell is this? Is this some sort of game? Or maybe some sort of international espionage deal, like the shortwave radio broadcasts that consist of nothing but strings of numbers being recited day and night? Or maybe it's the latest effort by the pay-to-blog forces to discredit Blogger and Blogspot?

I'm wondering if I should flag these apparently fake blogs as objectionable content. They aren't objectionable per se, but I object to anything that simply consists of random noise salted into the blogosphere.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Farewell to R.L. Burnside

I just found out that R.L. Burnside passed away this past September 1. With all the personal and national commotion going on at that time, it's understandable that I missed his death announcement. He will be missed.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Calendar Day, one day late

December 26th is a very important day in the U.S., and possibly all over the world: it is the day that retailers start selling the next year's calendars at 50% off.

I call this day Calendar Day. Sometimes I will buy a calendar or two before Calendar Day, because they are in short supply and I really want them, or because, like the Life In Hell calendar, they are only available through certain retailers and are guaranteed to sell out.

It seems that this year, at long last, either most shoppers or most retailers have gotten wise to Calendar Day. I wasn't able to get out of the house to go shopping yesterday, and by today most of the calendars had been picked over.

My holiday season has been a bit of a blunted emotional roller coaster. This has been a year of tragedy and loss for me and my family. (It has been a year of tragedy and loss for many people, victims of the Tsunami of late 2004 and the hurricanes and earthquakes and bombings of this year, so for me the more natural deaths of my uncle, dog, and father, in that order, seem to pale by comparison.) I have been able to cope in the runup to Christmas, perhaps, because I immersed myself in my box project. The amount of effort involved, both mental and physical, meant that I didn't have much spare time to dwell on tragedy and loss. But once we had our Christmas party at work last Thursday, that was it. I was spent. Exhausted. Done. Not to mention sucking Sterno fumes in an enclosed location, which didn't help my energy levels.

December 23rd I spent flitting from one retailer to another, buying mop-up gift cards for everyone I hadn't managed to get a gift for, and a few extras just in case.

December 24th was non-stop wrapping, followed by gathering together the gifts and food items for vigil supper at my brother's house, followed by Midnight Mass - the last Midnight Mass for our priest, possibly for our parish, and possibly for my aunt, who has cancer. I took pictures.

December 25th was Christmas, and I decided to let it all hang. I was wiped out and wanted to sleep. It was not to be.

I got a call early in the morning (well, around 9:00) from a friend who was on the way back from Northeastern Pennsylvania to her home near Washington, D.C. She had been in the area to have vigil supper with her father, who was in a nursing home and has been for several years. She was just calling to let me know about modifications to her work/vacation/grad school schedule and how Friday would be the optimal day to arrange a visit.

Fair enough. I got up, took a call from my friend in Ireland, exchanged gifts with my family and our cats, had breakfast, and took visitors. Eventually I got a shower and went to my cousin's house to exchange with her and a friend of ours. We wound up watching episodes of Aqua Teen Hunger Force from my new Volume 4 DVD set. Late that night I got to bed and vowed to sleep in.

I got another call from the same friend early on the 26th, only this time she was on her way up. Her father had died around 7:00 that morning.

The day was a blur. Phone calls, more visits. One of my uncles - for whom this may also be the final Christmas - was in town, visiting my cousin's house. I eventually found my way up there with my camera. We made small talk. I took pictures, both with my camera and with the almost-identical camera I had gotten for my mom. We watched more Aqua Teen Hunger Force. I never got out to go shopping for calendars.

Today got off to a slow start. My sister was heading back down to her place in Maryland, and I wanted to be around to see her off...but as it was, she didn't get out until late, so I didn't get to do the visiting I had planned. Which was OK by me. I would have liked to see my friends, but it felt good to be doing nothing more strenuous than sitting around watching my new DVD of Death Race 2000.

I finally got out to do some calendar shopping late today. By the time I got there, the one independent local bookstore - the one that had the Dogs Playing Poker calendar - had closed for the day. Waldenbooks had been ravaged, but I was able to pick up the Terence Dickinson Astronomy calendar (which is so big it has two holes to hang it up), a Hubble Space Telescope calendar, and a Dick & Jane calendar. The kiosk in the mall had nothing worth buying, and neither did Spencer Gifts or Barnes & Noble.

So, it looks like no MAD Magazine calendar this year (I have purchased this for the past two years at a Spencer Gifts near East Canton, Ohio, but I'm not going out there this year, since my friend has stayed in Ireland for the holidays), no Ireland page-a-day calendar (the 2005 edition had mostly the same pictures as the 2004 edition anyway, just in a different order), and no Marjolein Bastin calendar, either (her design for this year was less nature-studies and more frilly feminine stuff.) I still have a few stores to hit. But, really, there are only so many calendars I need...

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Quick Christmas update

Still in the middle of the Christmas frenzy...we went to my brother's house for Christmas Eve Vigil Supper last night (a tradition among the Polish, or Roman Catholics, or Polish Roman Catholics) and gave the nephews some of their gifts. The younger nephew loved his harmonica, and the older one was thrilled with Rock'Em Sock'Em Robots.

I realized as I finished wrapping that I have bought almost nothing that runs on electricity this year. I sent a portable CD player to Ireland, and I have a K'Nex roller coaster that I bought a few years ago and had to hold onto until my friends' son was old enough, but that's it. Toy cars and wooden blocks and harmonicas and games - it's an old-fashioned analog Christmas this year!

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Merry Christmas 2005 from Another Monkey!

My card design for 2005: Three-O-Nina, at the forefront of the culture wars!

I was looking to see if the owners had dressed up Three-O-Nina at all for Christmas. For a twelve-foot-tall cow she's actually quite easy to overlook, and I had to focus my attention to actually see her as I drove by. But when I did, I nearly crashed my car laughing, and knew I would have to be back in the daylight hours with a camera.

For those unaware of the internal religio-politico environment in the United States, there is an increasingly militant debate going on between religious extremists on the one hand who feel that Christmas is the sole property of Christianity and any attempt to secularize it or recognize heathen festivals like that newfangled Hanukkah thing is a direct affront to the One True Religion, and secular extremists on the other hand who are striving to create an air of inclusion by excluding any recognition of religious connotations to the holiday. Most Americans, of course, have compromised by treating the days following Thanksgiving and the entire month of December as an orgy of consumerism called "Christmas" while also respecting the religious aspect of the holiday (for Christians, anyway) by making it one of the two days out of the entire year they actually go to Church. (The other is Easter. We call these "Lily and Poinsettia Christians.")

I find the entire debate preposterous, but soon I think the religious extremists will begin to employ the same tactics to this debate that they freely utilize in the abortion debate (namely arson, bombings, death threats, and assassinations.) Those wacky religious extremists, always ready to kill in the name of the Prince of Peace.

But in the meantime I find this image itself preposterous. Someone saw fit to use a twelve-foot-tall cow to remind us to "KEEP CHRIST IN CHRISTMAS." Somehow the Gospel writers skipped over the bit about the GIANT FREAKIN' COW that was hanging out by the manger. And I shudder to think what would have happened if that cow had felt a bit peckish and decided to snack on the hay in the manger, and failed to notice the little baby dressed in swaddling clothes laying there...

Merry Christmas, everybody!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The work gifts of 2005

Our Christmas party at work has come and gone, so now I can reveal the gifts that have occupied so much of my life these past few months: boxes!

I have tried to group the boxes in these photos by theme.

Top row: the Treasure Chests. These are smaller versions of the box I made for my nephew for Halloween. I gave them to the two people in our group who are most active in anti-piracy efforts. These are the only two boxes in the group that are essentially duplicates. Finish is a dark stain rubbed lightly over a light stain and spattered with black in an irregular pattern. Bands are black, interior is light stain.

Middle row:
The Simple Box. It started out life some other color - green, I think - but then got a coat of a yellowish-brown shade called "camel" and a coating of crackle finish. It also picked up some accidental white spatter somewhere along the way. The interior is unfinished, and remarkably the inside lip is free of drips. I kept wanting to do something else to it but couldn't bring myself to it - it seemed perfect as it was.

The Steamer Trunk: Darkish red and crackle finish on the outside, daubed with antiquing stain to give the look of old red leather. Interior is camel. Designed for a world traveler in our group.

TheWhite Crackle Box. This one made the best use of the crackle finish kit I bought. A cream-white layer over a crackle undercoat over a darker shade of brown, rubbed over with antiquing stain.
I nearly ruined this finish when I handled the box while wearing gloves that had residue of the dark stain I used on the Treasure Chests. I had to do some touching-up which is apparent as the thicker white on the left side of the front panel.

Bottom row: The Solids. Solid Black, Purple (which looks blue in this photo) and dark Blue, covered in a high-gloss varnish. The purple and blue actually consisted of multiple thin layers of different shades, dark over light, creating a slightly translucent effect.

Then there are the Applique Boxes:
Top row: The Vine Box and the Flower Box. Both are crackle-finish, white over green in the case of the Vine Box, and white over blue for the Flower Box. The Vine Box appliques are actually split over the opening of the box, and wrap around the back and sides. The Flower Box has a single applique on the front - anything more seemed like too much. Both were then daubed with antiquing stain.

Middle row: The Butterfly Box, the Blueberry Box, and the Snoopy Box. I go into more detail on the Butterfly Box below. The Blueberry Box was an exercise in simplicity: a blue lid and a cream-white bottom, appliques of blueberries on the front and back, wrapping around the sides. The Snoopy Box was red and white in the mistaken belief that only the roof of Snoopy's doghouse is red; turns out the whole thing is. The Snoopy decorations are stickers, not appliques, and are coated with several layers of gloss varnish.

Bottom row: The Pansy Box, the Rose Box, and the Grapevine Box. More cracklework and appliques. The Rose Box is very complicated, with gold trim and multiple shades of white and pink. The rose on the lid was my first applique. The grapevine applique was a pain to get to wrap around.

Here's another view of some of these boxes, showing the backs or insides. Note that there are butterflies and Snoopies within the top two boxes.

I was especially pleased with the butterfly box, which was inspired by this blog entry and was made specifically for its author.
The background sky is several shades of blue, from dark sky blue on the inside of the lid to nearly white at the base - this reproduces the actual shading of the sky. The blades of grass are three or four different shades of green. The sky-and-grass idea actually came from an idea for a chair for my nephews: the "Sky Chair" would create the illusion of sitting on the blue sky with the chair's legs nestled in green grass. The grass and sky, and the butterflies, are also contained within the box.

Finally there are the boxes I call "The Specials". Each of these boxes contains a surprise:
Top row: The Jadestone Box. More on this below.

Bottom row, left and right: the Jewelry Boxes. Cracklework in pale shades with glued-on plastic jewels.

Bottom middle: the Watermelon Box. A light green crackle-finished over a darker green. The resemblance to watermelon skin dictated the inside finish.

The Jewelry Boxes and the Watermelon Box opened to show inside detail. The rim of the Watermelon Box is a pale whitish-yellow that resembles actual watermelon rind. Note the white seeds. The Jewelry Boxes have more plastic gems and glued-in mirrors.

Finally the Jadestone Box in detail. The finish consisted of a base of dark green, washed over with a thin layer of lighter green, washed over with a thin layer of even lighter green...the end result is a milky, translucent shade of green that is different from any of the paints I own. The marbling was applied with a feather (using the techniques I learned while making the Box of Souls) and with a very fine paintbrush, using camel, several shades of white, and several shades of green. I then overpainted some of the marbing with another sort of paint that makes the Jadestone Box very special:
It's the only box out of the twenty that glows in the dark!

So there it is. There's the thing that's been occupying so much of my free time. It was an education, it was therapy, it was a lot of work, and it was a lot of fun. And someday, maybe someone will pick up one of these boxes and say, "What the hell is this?", and one of my friends will respond, "It's a box. Let me tell you about the guy who made it..."

For entries on previous years' work gifts, go here.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Almost Christmas

One more day of work and I'll be off until the third day of next year. Yeehaw.

I may not make it. My gift project is done - I took the wrapped gifts in today; twenty of them didn't even fill a banker's box, and all together they weighed only a few pounds. I just got done making a dessert for our party tomorrow, and I also bought the ingredients for more cookies, because somebody keeps eating the ones I already made. (Well, dammit, they're so good, I can't help myself.)

But several of our clients have decided to pull some typical holiday stunts. Several assets that were due last week for projects that were due this week are now scheduled to come in tomorrow. Well, tomorrow we shut down halfway through the day, have a party, and leave early, and half of us won't be back until next year - maybe. Other clients are trying to set up critical meetings for next week, when most of the people they want to talk to will be out of the office. And then, of course, there's the new client who just materialized. We have to establish all of his customer requirements with him, even though he is essentially serving as a broker for a company in the UK and needs to consult with them about everything. Oh, and he operates out of New York City, which means that during the ongoing transit strike he is spending several hours each morning walking in to work in subfreezing temperatures. By the time he gets in, his UK clients have retired to their pubs to enjoy blood sausages and warm beer while watching a spot of cricket on the telly, and he has to begin the slow international overnight e-mail ballet. Oh, and his project is due immediately.

When I leave work tomorrow I am supposed to turn all this off. It will become Somebody Else's Problem, and much of it will probably be waiting for me, essentialy unchanged, when I get back next year. I need to start thinking about another vacation, and soon.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Blue Sundaze at Wellington's, December 16 2005

I made it through the snow to Wellington's last Friday night to see Blue Sundaze play in public for the first time since their farewell show in August. Once again, the bar spelled the band's name "BLUE SUNDAY" and managed to misspell "NIGHTT".

Rose goes all ghostly as she tunes up. I think I know what happened in this photo, but it would be tedious to try to reproduce it. Let's just look at it and say "Wow."

The band ROCKED, as always, though I only made it through one set. I was scrunched into a side booth taking my pictures from a fixed vantage point, using a beer bottle as a camera support. (The fixed point meant that John, the band's bassist, was obscured and didn't show up in any of my photos.) At the end of the first set I got up to visit the little photographer's room, and I suddenly realized that I was tired. Very tired. I needed to start my 40 mile journey home soon, or I wouldn't make it at all.

Just before I left I found out that Rob Rosencranz, former guitarist for 3 Brix Shy, was also in the bar. I got a picture of 3/5ths of that late lamented band, made my rounds with all of the Blue Sundaze band members, thanked them for the show, and excused myself.

I got home alive, and hoped that I would get a chance to take a nap before the next Blue Sundaze show - whenever that may be!

Monday, December 19, 2005

A day punctuated by annoyances

Today could have been a good day. Bits of it were quite good. Other bits, not so good.

I was meeting a friend after work today for dinner, and we were going to try to get a photo enlarged at Sam's Club beforehand. So I headed into work early with the intention of leaving early. I was about 18 miles from my house and had just checked the time and was feeling quite good about my morning commute when suddenly I ran into a traffic jam.

The first sign of the traffic jam was the large number of stopped cars on the highway just past a highway off-ramp, which was the last opportunity to get off the highway before the traffic jam. The second sign, as is often the case, was a police car with flashing lights located just past the exit as though it were trying to tell you what a good idea it would have been to take that exit, if only you hadn't just blown past it.

(I would later learn that the accident was caused by an SUV that was attempting an illegal U-turn from Interstate 81 Northbound onto I-81 Southbound through an "Authorized and Emergency Vehicles Only" access road across the median. This SUV struck another SUV, which struck a bus, which fell off the road and partly down an embankment. In all there were about five vehicles damaged plus the bus, and quite a few injuries. The actual accident was entirely on the other side of the highway - the northbound backup was mostly caused by rubbernecking.)

I got off the highway at the next exit after a slow crawl of a few miles and took some of the same back roads that had served me during last week's snowstorm. It probably took me just as much time to make the same progress as if I had stayed in the traffic jam, but it felt better to be doing 35 mph instead of 5 mph.

Work was annoying, for reasons I won't get into here - aside from saying that once you have demonstrated the ability to perform outstandingly, this becomes the new baseline and all expectations assume the outstanding as a bare minimum. This can be very annoying when it comes to customer expectations in the final days before Christmas.

Finally my work day was done and I skedaddled to meet my friend at Sam's Club to enlarge a single picture. Unfortunately, there were several people in line ahead of us at the Picturemaker, including a man who appeared to have suddenly decided to convert an entire album of old photos into digital scans. After more than a half-hour of patient and not-so-patient waiting, we finally gave up and decided to go to dinner.

Dinner was nice. I forgot to bring a copy of my Christmas Card, but I did remember to bring a small plate of cookies - which my friend tore into as soon as I presented them. After dinner we drove back to Sam's Club to reunite my friend with her car, and we noticed that people were still being admitted after the store's 8:30 closing time. "A Christmas Miracle!", we declared, and took a peek inside to see if there still was a line at the Picturemaker. There was, and we were screwed again.

I think if we had just been ahead of this yutz at Sam's Club, we might have had our enlargement in less that a minute. But that wasn't the way the dice rolled today. So my friend will try to get the enlargement done on her own. As for me...well, I'm falling asleep right now. Time for bed.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Cookies are made

I got together with some friends yesterday and made cookies. I made a triple batch of Toll House batter, using the recipe from the back of the Nestle Toll House chips bag, and split it roughly in half. Half of it became my traditional chocolate chip oatmeal cookies (to the batter add copious amounts of chocolate chips, oatmeal, and milk), and the other half became a version of what I am calling "Monkeynut Cookies".

Monkeynut Cookies are the basic Toll House recipe with about half of the chocolate chips replaced with white chocolate, and chopped walnuts, pecans, and almonds added. The intent was to also throw in the residue of the ingredients for White Chocolate Macadamia Nut cookies, but Wegman's was out of Macadamia nuts in their bulk food section yesterday, so these cookies didn't get made. Wegman's was also out of Macadamia nuts today, but fortunately had some in jars in the canned nuts section. They were 50% more per unit weight than the bulk nuts, but this was not a problem because a) the more expensive jarred nuts were available, while the inexpensive loose nuts were not, and b) I just threw out a whole lot of rancid nuts from last year, so I have no business quibbling with myself over price. So today I will be making White Chocolate Macadamia Nut cookies and proper Monkeynut cookies!

Saturday, December 17, 2005

A brief blizzard at Borders bookstore

I had many adventures yesterday. I was finishing off yesterday's blog entry when a friend IM'ed me and asked if I could give her a ride to work - her truck was in the shop, and she had waited until she was fairly sure the roads were clear and safe before she asked. She usually goes in to work about an hour and a half before I do, and I still had to spread some salt on the steps and sidewalks, give one of my cats some pills, and take a shower. Oh, and remember to take in a fresh box of tissues to work. But I said sure, no problem.

I should have known how the rest of the day was going to go when I watched my box of tissues tumble off the roof of my car as I was halfway down the busy street that leads out of Nanticoke.

I was able to recover the tissues, but I was not able to find my friend's house. Not right away, anyway. I have been there a dozen times, but I still missed it five times before I finally got to her.

Then there was the incident of the hill that leads from her house. My little car couldn't pull itsef up this hill, which is at roughly an 89.9 degree angle to the horizontal and was slightly glazed with ice. My friend knew an alternate way to the highway, so we took that.

We eventually would up at work at 10:00. This was a big pain for her but less so for me, since I was trying to find a way to kill time before the 10:00 PM Blue Sundaze show - this show was just a few miles from work but nearly 40 miles from home, so it would make no sense to go home after work and come back for the show. Lucky for me, a ton of work came in yesterday, and it had some major problems that need extensive technical consultation with the customer and the customer's marketing department. I wound up not leaving work until after 7:30.

I killed time by stopping at a local grocery store and picking up my "Holiday Meat Pack" courtesy of my company. I then went to Sam's Club for gas, chocolate chips, butter, and some perfume for my mom. After that it was about 8:30 and I decided to go to the Borders bookstore to kill some time.

Borders was crowded and uninspiring. Even if I had found something I wanted to buy - I already did all of my Christmas book shopping - the line was about 20 people deep. I wandered around a bit and then decided to head out to get something to eat.

I stepped out of the bookstore and into a blizzard.

Well, it wasn't a blizzard just yet. It was just flurries as I left the store, but by the time I got to my car it had worsened into a minor blizzard. Nothing to do, I thought, but take pictures.
I like this one. It's a brief time-exposure - my camera does that in low-light conditions when I turn the flash off - so each falling snowflake is described by an individual line. The sodium vapor light illuminated them perfectly.

Another shot of the parking lot, taken from the roof of my car. The light and the snow have combined to create a nuclear blast look.

A shot taken from within my car through the passenger's-side window. Again, each snowflake can be seen as an extended line. There were quite a few of them.

Luckily the blizzard tapered off to flurries again after just a few minutes. Driving conditions were treacherous for a little while, but the roads cleared up again after a few cars had gone through. I was able to make the hike north to Wellington's to see Blue Sundaze once again. But that is a story for another blog entry.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Ice ice baby

I hate ice. There's plenty of it out there right now.

Last night was a fun ride home from work. Icy snow had been gently falling much of the afternoon, covering the roads and our cars with a layer of precipitation that was at once gritty and slippery. I left work early in the hopes of getting home sometime before midnight. I had to stop at the Scranton Post Office in the Steamtown Mall - this is a super-Post Office that is open seven days a week and stays open until 9:00 on weeknights. (Most Post Offices, like most banks, are designed to deal only with the unemployed, since they generally close before most people get out of work each day.) It was good that I was already planning to get off in Scranton, because 81 South was a parking lot beyond that point.

I did my business at the post office - relaying some stuff to a friend overseas and buying some Christmas stamps. (No Christmas stamps were available on the racks, but they did have some behind the counter. They had plenty of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa stamps on the racks, and I almost bought these until I was able to get my hands on the Christmas ones that they had stashed. They also had, for some reason, Eid stamps. Eid is the holiday that marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Why these stamps were out now is a little confusing, since Ramadan ended for 2005 at the beginning of November, and the next Eid will be the third week of October.) I then took a semi-major road - Route 11 - to get to my cousin's house to pick up my aunt. By this time the roads were quite bad, and we decided to continue home along Route 11 until we could see that 81 was clear. We drove a few miles in second gear with the overdrive switched off at speeds under 35 mph until we got to an on-ramp that had a clear view of traffic moving south along 81. We got back on 81 just past Moosic and rode it for a few miles until we spotted another traffic jam that started about 100 yards after the Pittston exit. We saw this before we got to the Pittston exit and were able to take the off-ramp to get onto Route 315. We followed this until after it became Route 309 in Wilkes-Barre and then got back on 81 for about a quarter of a mile to the Nanticoke / Route 29 exit.

Roads were crap the whole way, but my little car and my mad driving skillz got us through. I shoveled another inch of slushy snow when I got home and then spread a lot of salt in preparation for the freezing rain that would soon follow.

Now the roads are covered with ice. I'm hoping they'll be treated before I head out to work. Both tonight's Blue Sundaze concert and tomorrow's cookie baking party are a little iffy at the moment. We'll have to see what the weather brings later today.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Blue Sundaze reunion December 16th!

Blue Sundaze is getting together for a reunion show at Wellington's in Clarks Summit this Friday, December 16th from 10:00 PM - 2:00 AM. This is the same place where they played their final regular show back on August 5th. If you're anywhere in the area of Northeastern PA, stop by to hear them play. And be sure to say "hi!" to their intrepid photographer!


I've been getting a lot of Google image search hits related to the term Christmas2004Front.jpg, which is leading the searchers to my post on last year's Christmas card. But how are these people searching on that in the first place? I don't think this image or its associated post is so popular that it's showing up on Google searches for "christmas", and I doubt anyone is searching on "christmas2004front" itself. This image is the #16 image result for "christmas monkey" - is that how people are finding it?

This year's card will feature a photo. A ridiculous, preposterous, silly photo that I took this past Sunday that touches on the current politico-religious debate in the U.S. over Christmas. What is it? You'll just have to wait to see!

Monday, December 12, 2005

Send some love Melanie's way

Melanie over at Hyperextended Joints is having a hell of a week. First she lost her wallet during her commute home, and with it all her cash and credit cards and her bus pass. Then this weekend her car got pretty severely crunched by a hit-and-run driver in front of her apartment building.

It could have been worse in both cases. Her wallet was recovered, apparently intact, shortly after it disappeared - but in that time it had traveled some distance, and may have been rifled or at least perused. And a helpful neighbor managed to get the information on the vehicle that hit her car - though I know from personal experience that this does not necessarily mean that a well-connected and highly motivated hit-and-run driver won't be able to keep his or her car under the radar until the whole thing blows over. And Anne at Almost Quintessence can tell you just how unhelpful the police can be in the course of an "investigation" involving a car.

But let's not despair just yet. For now, please surf on over to Melanie's Hyperextended Joints and offer any condolences and bits of advice you might have.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Sunset in the Poconos, December 11, 2005

I visited my friends in the Poconos today for the first time in a long time. I originally planned to visit them the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and then changed my plans to last Sunday, but neither of those visits worked out. But I am pencilled in for another visit next Saturday in an annual cookie-baking festival. (Several friends get together and make cookies, each person a specific type of cookie, and then the cookies are divided amongst us so each of us has a larger variety of cookies than if we had just made our own.)

It looked like I would be arriving there around 3:30 so I figured I would be in time to get some shots of the sunset from a pretty good vantage point near their house. As it was I was still winding my way through Kunkletown when the sunset was at its most colorful. I reached my chosen spot around 3:40, pulled off of the road as much as I could, jumped out of the car, and took these three photos. Enjoy!

Christmas Cookie recipe

A friend of mine asked me to e-mail her this recipe. After I typed it out, I figured I may as well just post it to my blog. This is my grandmother's recipe, by way of my mother.

UPDATED 12/22/2010 to include 1/2 cup of milk in step 4.

My mom calls these "Sugar Cookies" because she usually tops them with colored sugar crystals. They are actually a sort of "shortbread cookie".

1. Preheat oven to 350 - 375 degrees (Fahrenheit - all these measures are in American units.)

2. In large bowl, mix these ingredients as for dough:
- 4 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder (NOT baking soda)
- 1 cup shortening (like Crisco)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt

3. In separate bowl, mix together
- 1 heaping cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking soda

4. To sugar mixture, add
- 2 well-beaten eggs
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla

5. Pour sugar mixture into flour mixture and mix until smooth. Roll out onto floured board and cut into desired shapes.

6. Place cookies on well-greased sheets. TOP WITH SUGAR CRYSTALS BEFORE BAKING. (If you are using icing, you may omit the sugar crystals; icing goes on after the cookies are baked.) Bake until just firm but not yet brown. If the cookies turn golden brown, they will be very crisp and brittle.

In small bowl combine butter, powdered sugar, and milk to desired consistency - should be a medium-thick paste. If adding food coloring, add before milk to avoid making the icing too thin.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Made it!

I made it to work alive. The roads are a mess, but passable.
I nearly broke my leg cleaning off the two inches of additional snow that accumulated since this morning's cleaning. I slipped on the snow while working on the passenger's side windows and ended up with my left leg extended in front of me with the knee bent ever so slightly in the wrong direction. Fortunately I am extremely flexible, and my knees tend to bend backwards a bit anyway. Nothing seems damaged or even sore, but my entire lower body was covered with snow for the ride in to work.
My commute was delayed by a tractor-trailer that drove at 15mph on an onramp for what semed like 10 minutes. There were assorted cars off on the sides of the highway. At one point my car skidded sideways halfway into the other lane - which was fortunately empty. Once I got off the highway I had to plow through a few intersections by taking my foot off the gas, holding the wheels straight, and hoping for the best. And the way home is currently blocked by at least one jackknifed tractor-trailer. Just another late-Fall day in Northeastern Pennsylvania!

Yayyy, more snow

Another six inches of snow fell overnight and this morning. It was light, dry, powdery stuff, but it still took me nearly an hour and a half to clear the driveway, the street in front of our house, and our sidewalk with a snowblower, the steps with a shovel and broom, and the cars with a brush.

Now I have to get ready for work. This morning's commute should be fun.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Disney on a weekend

A friend of mine just came back from her first visit to Disneyworld. She was there for a single day - and it was a Saturday.

I misunderstood her itinerary. She had been at a business conference in the Orlando area all last week and was able to extend her stay for a few days. I thought she was going to visit Disneyworld on Monday. Instead, she went on Saturday. If I had known, I would have warned her not to go. Never on a weekend. I love Disneyworld, but I have been there on a weekend, and I would never do that again.

During the week the parks are full of people from all over the country and all over the world, people who make visits to Disneyworld an annual ritual and people who have saved their nickels and dimes their whole lives just to go there once. They have travelled hundreds or thousands of miles and spent hundreds of dollars just to get through the gates of the Magic Kingdom.

On the weekend - starting on Friday night - many of these people are still there, but they are joined by scores of locals. People for whom the trip to Disney is no big deal, just a run of a few miles down the road. And as locals they get special year-round admissions at deep, deep discounts. They can go there anytime they like and it's little more significant to them than a trip to the movies would be for anyone else.

During the week there is a sort of enforced niceness among the crowds. There will be rudeness, and culture clashes, and squalling children and repulsive cigarettes from faraway places. But on the weekend it's a different story. Hordes of drunks and rowdy teens harass the tourists and curse in front of their kids, jump over fences and cut in lines. What do they care that you might have waited your whole life for this chance to visit the faroff land of Disneyworld? For them, it's either this or run around town stealing Stop signs and smashing mailboxes.

I know I'm not the only one who has experienced this. But there's very little record of it online. A Google search for "disneyworld on a weekend" yields 15 versions of a single article. Replacing "disneyworld" with "disney world" yields two unique results. The more generic "disney on a weekend" yields a whopping six unique results. Why is this? Do people who speak ill of Disneyworld in the blogosphere - or rather, of the bad behavior of some of its guests - soon hear from Disney's lawyers? I guess I'm about to find out.

Comments and Word Verification

In the wake of the smenita incident and in the spirit of The Meaning Of Liff by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd, I would like to request that anyone posting a comment also mention the "word verification" word required for that comment, provide a definition, and then attempt to use it in a sentence. I kicked this off yesterday, minus the using it in a sentence, on a comment posted to one of my own entries. (The word was kpbait, which I said "either has sexual connotations or is military slang for something that is likely to get you K.P. duty." Sentence: "Beetle Bailey, stay away from Miss Buxley. She's kpbait for sure!")

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A Charlie Brown Christmas

I got home from work and a pathetic attempt at Christmas shopping (I got a hat and some mittens for a 4-year old girl whose name I pulled off the "Angel Tree" at work; why the hell is it suddenly so difficult to buy Barbie clothes?*) just in time to catch "A Charlie Brown Christmas" on TV. The show is oooooold, and quite dated - having Lucy post a sign at her Psychiatry booth that says "The Doctor Is REAL IN" might have been funny and even edgy and current once upon a time, but now it just looks dated. Still, it's fun if for nothing other than to watch Snoopy ridicule Charlie Brown, do impressions of a sheep, a cow, and a penguin, perch like a vulture on Lucy's head, dance on Schroeder's piano, turn red with embarassment, and then slink off on his belly. Also the hand-waving decoration and transformation of a sickly twig into a full-fledged Christmas tree is pretty funny, and somewhat goes against the moral of the story (Snoopy's Christmas decorations, which represented his selling-out to commercialism, are the very decorations that transform the Christmas tree - so, see, all it took was a little commercialism to change that poor little twig into a great tree!)

It was only at the end when I saw the copyright line that I realized just how old this show is: 40 years. 40 years! For forty years this show has been airing, and it got barely a shout from the network. A rerun of "Lost" gets more publicity.

Once upon a time my brother and sister and I would drop everything just to see this, or "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town" (which was on the other night) or "The Year Without A Santa Claus" (also known as "The Heat Miser / Cold Miser show", which also aired in the last few nights), "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer" (the 1964 animation classic, not the dreadful 1998 cartoon), and "How The Grinch Stole Christmas!" (the 1966 classic, not the Jim Carrey crapfest). Nowadays the shows still air, thanks in part to the demands of nostalgic but increasingly irrelevant Generation X-ers (whose voices are being drowned out by the increasing economic power of Generation Y and the continuing presence of the aging Baby Boomers.) But in this era of TIVO and video on demand and nearly every program ever made being available on DVD, does anyone really feel the need to watch these things when they are broadcast on TV? The notion of letting some network programmer determine what time you will drop everything and sit down and stare into your TV for a half-hour seems not just anachronistic but downright tyrannical.** I guess I'm just old-fashioned.

*Don't worry, I did get a Barbie. TWO Barbies. And a life-sized baby doll. It's just the big flat packs of clothes and shoes that I can't find. I believe in spoiling total strangers.

Jess Nevins explores this a bit further here.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Is Blogger down?

I can't access my blog, or any other Blogspot blogs, or the Blogger status page. But I can access the Blogger dashboard and my post editor. I hope this is just a temporary problem.

UPDATE (12/6/2005, 7:15 AM): Yay, I'm back up. I'm trying to check the comment - I think it's one that Lauren left, which I've already read necause I get all my comments e-mailed to me - and Blogger is telling me that this post doesn't exist. Which is kinda odd, since I'm editing it right now.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Snow, December 4, 2005

About two inches of snow fell overnight and continues to fall. This is light, dry, fluffy snow, easy to sweep and shovel, not like the heavy, wet, dense stuff that induces heart attacks and is good for snowballs and snowmen. Compare this photo to the one I took yesterday after finishing the Christmas decorations.

The snowflake shape of the day is: needles.

A closeup of the glass ornaments I put in the trees flanking the bottom of the steps. Good thing I got this done yesterday!

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Comment verification problem

I was trying to leave a comment on the latest post on Anne's Almost Quintessence when I was confronted by the Word Verification displayed above. Easy one, I thought, one that won't even mess with my low-grade dyslexia. I typed in the word "smenita" and hit the button - and got an error message telling me I had typed it in wrong.

OK, I thought, maybe the "m" is actually an "r" and an "n" smooshed together. Sometimes "rn" can look like "m". I tried that. Nothing doing.

I tried exiting and re-entering her site. Nope, same indecipherable word.

I tried leaving a comment on my site. Same word again.

OK. Either I have to log off, shut down my computer, come back online, and try to get a new word, or something is wrong with the verification system in general. If you're trying to leave a comment and can't, please send me an e-mail at the address listed in the right-hand column, right above "About the author."



Thanks for letting us know about this. This weekend, a server issue was causing some problems with the word verification on blog comments. In some cases, this prevented comments from being created. The problem was fixed on Saturday evening (PST) so everything should now be working normally again. If you continue to have trouble, please clear your browser's cache and cookies, and that should solve it. Thanks for your patience.

Blogger Support

I think we can now define the word "smenita" to mean "A word verification problem (CAPTCHA for you propellerhead technosnobs out there - Chris Pirillo, I'm lookin' at you) that cannot be resolved by rational means."

Outdoor decorations are done

Done decorating the house!

Today's bit was putting up the garland around the front door, changing the lightbulbs from 40 watt incandescents to 7 watt fluorescents, and hanging more than 150 little shiny silver and gold glass ornaments in the two Christmas trees flanking the steps. Here's what the front of the house looks like by day:

And here's more or less the same view by night:

If you look closely in the enlarged night view, you'll see the "flames" of little battery-powered LED candles in every window.

Kinda subdued, kinda subtle, but I think it's pretty nice.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The unofficial start of Winter

I saw the first sure sign of Winter's arrival today.

In the U.S. the official start of the seasons is tied to the equinoxes and solstices: Spring begins on an equinox (when day and night - at the equator, at least - are equal in length, with the days getting longer and the nights shorter on the following days), the Summer begins on a solstice (the longest day and shortest night of the year, again, at the equator), Autumn begins with another equinox, and Winter with another solstice. This year the Winter Solstice is December 21, so until that date it's officially Fall - in the U.S., at least.

We had our first snowfall here in Northeastern Pennsylvania nore than five weeks ago, back on October 25th. Around here snow in the Fall is no more unusual than snow in the Spring - neither is uncommon, although the heaviest snofalls still take place in what are technically the Winter months.

One of the signs that Spring has finally arrived each year is the sighting of the first Robin. The return of this beautiful songbird tells us that more are on the way, and soon the landscape will be full of blossoms and birdsong - even if the sighting takes place technically before the Spring equinox.

And what are the signs that Winter has really arrived, even if the calendar says otherwise? Well, snow for one, particularly the sort of snow that we had today: what I call hypnosnow, a dense, fast-moving snow which produces a hypnotic perspective effect in your car's headlights that resembles the Starfield Simulation (or Flying Through Space) screensaver that comes standard with Windows, and can force traffic to a crawl. I drove through a few miles of this today, and it sure does suck.

But that's not the surest sign of Winter's arrival. No, I always count the sighting of the first SUV on its roof as a sign that Winter is here. SUV drivers generally share a delusion of invincibility and invulnerability, a sense that they command the road and all other vehicles, and indeed the road and its attendant medians and guardrails and rock outcroppings are subject to their whim - a notion that physics frequently dispels.

Well, today I didn't see an SUV on its roof, but it turned out that the thing that was holding up traffic less than three miles from my house was an SUV that had plowed into the center guard rail and managed to tear its entire front bumper off. So I guess Winter is really and truly here!

Now, dammit, where did I put my snow shovel?

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Christmas status update

Decorations are 90% done. Just need to string some garland around the front door and replace the front porch lights with something lower-wattage - I think they're currently 40 watt bulbs, and they're overwhelming the little lights decorating the front of our house. Last year I replaced them with ultra-low-wattage flickering-flame bulbs, but those stopped working at sub-freezing temperatures. I have some 25 watt bulbs that I'll try.

Nearly done shopping for my mom and my sister. Just packaged stuff for my friend in Ireland, and her daughter, and their friend. I'll ship it tomorrow after work.

Still much shopping to do. Seems like I can't walk into a store without spending $40 - $60 - and that's not all on Christmas gifts. I went into a bookstore today to pick up a book for my sister (about $10, $7.50 after using my 25% off coupon) and walked out $60 poorer - well, I might be able to give some of the books I picked up as Christmas gifts. Then I stopped into a record store to get some CD's as presents - walked out with 3 CD's and a $43 charge on my credit card.

No progress on the work gift project. I need to get cracking on that this weekend.

I am tired now. I think I'll go to sleep.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

2005 Hurricane season ends; Do the hurricanes know that?

For the past few weeks there's been a tone of anticipation creeping into the voices of news anchors as they give the reports about the latest storms forming in the north Atlantic. They have been ending these reports with a countdown to November 30th, which is the official end of the 2005 hurricane season.

So what now? Now that the season is officially ending, what happens to any hurricanes that form in the north Atlantic? Do they get counted towards next year's tally? Or do we just pretend they're not there and hope they go away?

This sort of thing has happened before. 2004's Cyclone Catarina - a.k.a. Hurricane Catarina, not to be confused with 2005's devastating Hurricane Katrina, which caused so much devastation in the southern U.S., most famously the destruction of New Orleans - formed off the coast of southern Brazil near the Brazilian state of Catarina, in a region where no hurricane had ever been known to form before - and as such, it fell outside the normal naming conventions. And the "Perfect Storm" of 1991 , immortalized in the book and movie of the same name, similarly formed in the far north Atlantic in a region where hurricanes were not previously known to form, and also never received an official designation.

The 2005 hurricane season officially ends today. Here's hoping it ends in reality, too.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"Cool scenes that we will never see in Star Wars" post deleted from IMDb

Dammit. Over on the IMDb's message boards for Revenge Of The Sith, the "Cool scenes that we will never see in Star Wars" post has been deleted.

It's too bad. It was a collective creative work of dozens - maybe hundreds - of Star Wars fans. There were so many posts and responses that it crossed over the "read-only" posting limit - and then quickly "expired" by IMDb rules and was swept away by posts of the "Who's hotter, Padme or Leia?" variety.

My own contributions to this thread have been saved here on my blog - you can jump into them here. A few of the participants probably archived all or most of the posts, although the only ones I can find online cover the first dozen or so - you can find them by Googling "dead tusken raiders buried in the backyard" (the punch line to one of my favorites) or "cerodeus" (one of the contributors and possibly the founder of the thread.) Unfortunately, the IMDb has taken steps to ensure that its message boards cannot be archived by tools like the Wayback Machine - but if you'd like to give it a shot, the URL for the "Cool scenes" thread was .

Monday, November 28, 2005

Roast Turkey Soup

Damn, this is good soup. If you still have the skeletal remains of your Thanksgiving turkey, you can make this soup. Otherwise, you'll have to wait for your next turkey dinner.

Bones of one turkey (leg, thigh, and wing bones are probably sufficient, but I threw in everything)
Sprigs of parsley
Whole black peppercorns
Whole cloves of allspice
Dark turkey meat
Canned corn kernels (optional)

1. Remove meat from bones. Roast the bones. (I have no idea what this means, but I was told that it is the secret of this soup. So I put the bones in a foil-lined pie tin, covered them over with foil, and put them in a 400 degree oven for about a half hour. Then I turned off the heat and let the bones sit in the cooling oven until I was done doing whatever I was doing.)

2. Put water in stockpot. How much water? I dunno. How much soup do you want?

3. Add bones. Turn on heat. You are going to be slowly bringing this water to a boil.

4. Clean carrots, maybe two of them. Slice however you like. It won't matter much, because they will have lost their carrot-ness - their taste, their texture, their flavor, their vitamins - by the time the soup is done. Add them to the stockpot.

5. Ditto on the celery. This stuff is basically going to make the soup stock and is donating its flavor. By the time you're done, you'll have a hard time identifying anything that had once been celery.

6. Add sprigs of parsley, fresh if you can get them. Tear them up a bit - you will be able to identify them later on, and you want to get some in each bowl of soup.

7. Add salt. Not too much, maybe two tablespoons (assuming you've filled your stockpot about 2/3 full with water.) You can always add more salt later.

8. Add peppercorns and allspice, maybe a tablespoon of each. Less if you are weak and cowardly.

9. Gradually bring to a boil. But just to a boil.

10. Reduce heat once the soup begins to boil. Simmer on low heat for 1 1/2 - 2 hours.

11. During the simmering process be sure to scoop off any floating globs of fat or scum (my grandmother called it shummy) from the top and edges of the pot. (This won't be as much of an issue as it would be for chicken soup, which uses the same basic recipe but uses uncooked chicken as the meat. The turkey bones have already had much of the fat cooked off of them.) Be careful not to scoop out all the parsley.

12. Taste. Add salt if necessary.

Remember, your flavor is coming from the marrow of your bones. The salt and spices and vegetables add to it, but the marrow is the real source.

13. After you've decided it's soup, or very nearly so, add the dark meat. This will be very stringy, so you may want to cut it into short pieces first, or keep it in very large chunks.

Scoop out into bowls, being careful to avoid giving anybody any of the smaller bones from the ribs or the vertebrae. (You may want to just stick to legs and thighs and maybe wings. That should be plenty for your soup.) Add noodles and, if desired, corn. (The corn adds some interesting variations of texture and taste to the soup. Plus, if you have leftover corn from Thanksgiving, it's a great way to get rid of it.)

One interesting aspect of this soup: about an hour after having it, you will want it again. And an hour after that...and an hour after that... It pays to make a lot of soup at once.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Intruder at the Christmas Tree

My nephews are visiting and, as is our tradition, we are putting up our Christmas Tree this weekend. It took me about a half-hour to assemble it and about another half-hour to fix it so that it stood up straight in the base. My nephews and I then spent about another hour working on decorating it (with non-breakable ornaments only!)

We took a break for our Sunday dinner, leftover turkey and some turkey soup I just made, and the reading of "The Littlest Turkey." (I wanted to do this on Thanksgiving, but my nephews had to leave before I got to it.) We then returned to finish the tree only to find this waiting for us:
Nikki had once again decided to interject himself into a holiday activity. He hissed and swatted at us as we tried to shoo him away. Three of the ornaments visible here are hand-painted leftovers from my 2003 Christmas project for my friends at work: a gold-leaf ball that never dried, an "Escher sphere" reflecting an imaginary landscape of snow and trees and stars, and on the extreme left partially obscured by a gold bells ornament is the very ornament pictured here .

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Materialistic holiday update

I am about 80% done with my Christmas shopping. I was about 50% done before Thanksgiving, but I have been able to pick up some major gifts at big post-Thanksgiving discounts. Unfortunately the remaining 20% will take a lot of effort, since I haven't got a good idea what I'll be getting these people.

My Christmas gift project for my friends at work is about 50% completed. Another 40 hours or so of working on it and I should be done!

Friday, November 25, 2005

Luck organs

Adam Felber at Fanatical Apathy just wrote a post suggesting that if "Intelligent Design" is a serious argument, then one must recognize that the "design" of human beings - with their fragile knees and spines and appendices, big heads and small birth canals - falls a little short of most definitions of "intelligent".

I've written in the past about what I call "biological practical jokes", situations in human physiology that are so perversely ironic that they could be held as evidence of malicious intent on the part of any purported "designer." (I do not believe in a "malicious designer", by the way.)

There is another aspect of human life that I have always wondered about. We humans are prone to defects and aberrations: bad eyesight, bad teeth, poor ability to regulate blood sugar, etc. In the dim dark ancient days of, say, three hundred years or more ago, I cannot imagine that many people with crappy eyesight, a mouthful of rotting teeeth, or lying on the ground in a diabetic coma had much opportunity to reproduce. Not that some of them didn't manage to get laid, but I imagine people with good eyes and decent teeth and an ability to eat whatever whenever without worrying about dying probably did a lot better in that arena.

But then we humans compensated for our frailties with technology. Bad eyesight? Here's some glasses / contact lenses / radial keratonomy / laser surgery to correct your vision. Bad teeth? Go to the doctor to have them pulled / filled / resurfaced / straightened / replaced - and here's some toothpaste and dental floss and instructions on how to use them. Can't control blood sugar? Here's some insulin and a list of dietary recommendations, and maybe some medication to keep you in balance.

So we go around with our defects compensated for (but not corrected or eliminated) by technology, and we go on happily copulating and squeezing out little ones who carry our genes. And that's all well and good, as long as the plug doesn't get pulled on technology.

But there are some other things in human physiology that make you scratch your head. In a pre-technological (or at least pre-surgical) society damage to them would have almost certainly resulted in death. Things like the appendix, whose proper biological function is uncertain and possibly nonexistent, but whose malfunction can result in death; or the spleen, which does perform a known biological function but is not absolutely necessary to life, yet is so susceptible to damage through injury or disease that it is frequently removed as a result because its malfunction is a threat to life.

So why do we have an appendix or a spleen? Let's ignore (or dismiss) any arguments about the "mysterious ways" of an intelligent designer and look at it purely from an evolutionary point of view. Why do we humans still cart around genes for these fragile, dangerous things that we could probably just as easily do without?

I propose that these organs are a biological indicator of difficult-to-measure factor: luck.

Granted, there's a lot of luck involved in evolution overall. Only organisms that are strong enough, or clever enough, or sneaky enough, or persistent enough, or lucky enough get to pass on their genes to the next generation. If you were the sort of kid who tended to wander into the middle of busy street, odds are you never made it to adolescence with a fully functioning reproductive system. Or maybe you did, but you got banged up a little. Maybe a lot. And maybe you had to make a trip or two to the hospital for a little life-saving emergency surgery.

Once upon a time there wouldn't have been that sort of emergency surgery available for pre-adolescents who got gored by a Woolly Rhinoceros or an Irish Deer and had their appendices or spleens ruptured. They would have died, slowly and painfully, and their genes would have died with them. Meanwhile their companions, who were quick enough or clever enough or lucky enough to avoid getting gored in the first place, would have gotten the opportunity to grow to sexual maturity and pass on their genes to a new generation - including the genes for their spleens and appendices.

It's not a strong argument for why we carry around vestigial or semi-vestigial organs that amount to little packets of unstable explosives stored here and there in our bodies. It doesn't explain why those individuals born without an appendix or a spleen don't have a strong reproductive advantage over those of us born with all our organs intact. Still, it is an interesting avenue of thought to explore: the possibility that the presence of organs that are non-essential in their function, fragile and easily damaged, and lethal in their damaged state may actually be an aspect of natural selection for a characteristic as intangible as "luck."

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Where's MY Thanksgiving dinner?

Nikki the cat was afraid he'd be left out of the Thanksgiving dinner, so he grabbed a seat at the table. Note the Tofurkey on the left.

The Littlest Turkey compendium

Special for Thanksgiving: The Littlest Turkey, complete in one post.

D.B. Echo

Once upon a time there was a farm where turkeys lived. All of them were young and plump, big and strong and proud. All of them except one. He was smaller than all the other turkeys. He was called the Littlest Turkey.
The Littlest Turkey wanted to run and play with the other turkeys, but they didn't want to play with him. "Go away, Littlest Turkey," they would say. "Come back when you've gotten bigger."

But the Littlest Turkey was sure he was as big as he was going to get. He tried to eat as much as he could, but he never seemed to get as big and plump as the other turkeys. And he knew that unless he got big and plump like the other turkeys, he would never get to go to the Laughter House.

The Laughter House was a wonderful place. The Littlest Turkey had never been in there. He knew that only the big and plump turkeys would get to go inside the Laughter House. He had seen them go in once, and had heard their squawks and gobbles of laughter for a little while. It must be wonderful in there, the Littlest Turkey thought. All those turkeys go in to laugh, and none of them had ever come out again. How much fun they must be having!

The Littlest Turkey decided that, big and plump or not, he would get into the Laughter House the next time they let the turkeys in.



Part 2
D.B. Echo

The weather started getting cooler, and the leaves on the trees started to change colors. All the turkeys knew that soon it would be time for the biggest holiday of the year, Turkey Day.
"Just before Turkey Day is when they take the big and plump turkeys into the Laughter House," thought the Littlest Turkey. "But this time I'm going to get in there, too!"

It wasn't long before the big day came. All of the big and plump turkeys lined up to go into the Laughter House. The Littlest Turkey waited near the entrance of the Laughter House, then squeezed in between two very big and plump turkeys. No one noticed him because he was so little.

The Laughter House was dark inside, and there was a sort of moving sidewalk there that was taking turkeys into another room, where he could hear gobbles and squawks of laughter. One by one the turkeys hopped up to ride the sidewalk. The Littlest Turkey hopped up, too.
The turkey in front of him, whose name was Tom, turned around. "Go away, Littlest Turkey," he said. "Come back when you are bigger."

"Yes, go away," said the turkey behind him, whose name was also Tom. "They do not want little turkeys at the Market. Only big and plump ones."

"No," said the Littlest Turkey. "I want to go to the Market with you." He had never heard of the Market, but he realized that it must be even better than the Laughter House.

A Man spotted the Littlest Turkey. "Go away, Littlest Turkey," he said. "Come back when you are bigger."

"Oh, please, Mr. Man," said the Littlest Turkey. "I do so want to go to the Market with the other turkeys."

"Very well," said the Man. "We've got a quota to meet, anyway."

The Littlest Turkey rode the sidewalk into the other room. He wondered what things would be like at the Market.


D.B. Echo

The Littlest Turkey was cold. He was colder than he ever remembered being before. But then again, it was hard to remember much since they had chopped his head off.

He was in a case with the other turkeys, the big and plump turkeys. Turkey Day was coming soon, and people were coming to the Market to pick turkeys to take home.

They always seemed to want the big and plump turkeys. One time a little girl had seen him in the case. "Mommy, mommy, look at the little turkey," she said. "I want to take home the littlest turkey."

"No, dear," her mother said. "We are having many people over for Thanksgiving. We need a big, plump turkey."

One by one the other turkeys left the Market to go home with people. Turkey Day was coming soon, and people were taking away more and more of the big and plump turkeys. But no one wanted the Littlest Turkey.
Finally, the day before Turkey Day came, and the Littlest Turkey found himself all alone in the case.

"How sad," he thought. "No one wants to take me home."

It was late in the day, and the Manager was about to close down the Market for the night. Suddenly a Man came into the store.

"I have a coupon," he said, "for a free turkey. Do you have any left?"

"You're in luck," said the Manager. "I have one left." He showed the Man the Littlest Turkey, all alone in the case.

"It's a little small," the Man said. "But I guess beggars can't be choosers. Besides, it's just me and my wife this year. A little turkey might be just what we need."

The Manager took the Littlest Turkey out of the case and traded him to the Man for the coupon he was holding. "Happy Thanksgiving!", he said to the Man.

"I'm not going to be left behind for Turkey Day," thought the Littlest Turkey happily as the Man put him in the trunk of his car. "I'm so happy. But I'm so cold." He rolled around a little as the car pulled out of the parking lot. "I sure hope I'm going someplace warm."


Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Talking turkey

The President pardoned the National Thanksgiving Turkey yesterday. Two of them, actually, named Marshmallow and Yam.

But why? Is this ceremony implying that it s somehow un-American to kill, cook, and eat turkeys? Just once I'd like to see the President - any President - say "We are gathered here to pardon the National Thanksgiving Turkey, as is our annual tradition. But, goddamn, that's one fine-lookin' bird, all big and plump and juicy. Pierre, fire up the oven. Bob, get my axe - it's in the Oval Office, behind the chair, next to my baseball bat."

Thanksgiving is a celebration of carnivorosity and gluttony as Americans stuff themselves silly and then plop down to watch some football. We then proceed to slowly consume the leftovers and eventually declare that we are all feeling sick from eating so much turkey. Sick from the turkey? Well, it's probably food poisoning resulting from eating improperly preserved leftovers. If you get a "stomach virus" in the next week or so, it might not be a virus at all.

I know someone who insists on a Tofurkey every year. I've tried it. It's horrid. Not just the taste, but the texture as well. Tofurkey is covered with cheesecloth-like bumps to try to simulate the texture of plucked turkey skin. This is one aspect of vegetarianism I've never understood: why, if eating meat is so evil, do so many vegetarians try their best to recreate the taste and texture of meat with their non-meat meals? It's intellectually and ethically dishonest. I'm not a vegetarian, but I could live on lentils and barley for a good long time. The combination has a texture and flavor and mouth-feel that is delicious and uniquely its own without having to be dressed up as simulated meat.

I've been looking around at children's books about Thanksgiving lately, and any of them that feature turkeys as main characters seem to be about the turkey trying to save itself or its family from the chopping block. Why? Are we trying to teach our kids that omnivorosity is wrong? Maybe create a little family conflict at the Thanksgiving dinner table? I really think my Littlest Turkey is a more appropriate sort of holiday fable. At least there the turkey winds up in the freezer case and eventually the oven, as do millions of real turkeys each year.

But not Marshmallow and Yam. Nope, they're doing to Disneyland!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Xbox 360: How's your Nintendo?

I was out doing more pre-Black Friday Christmas shopping last night. I picked up a major gift for my mom and most of the accessories that go with it. (I won't say what it was just yet - there's a teenie tiny chance that she might read this before Christmas.) While walking into the store of national electronics retailer Best Buy I noticed a line of people off to one side of the entrance. Some were in camp chairs, some were sitting on blankets, some were standing, some were using cell phones. They all looked about college age. It looked like the line waiting for the opening of a new Star Wars installment.

Hmm, I thought. The store is open, so I don't see why they're not in there. Are they protestors? Nobody has a sign, and nobody is accosting me, yelling "Just say no to Coltan!" Maybe they're job applicants? Best Buy can't be hiring that much seasonal help! Has the economy really gone that far downhill that people are willing to line up in the cold for a handful of seasonal retail jobs?

I went into the store in guided missile mode. I quickly found the thing I was looking for - a saunterer was standing directly in front of the display for it, wobbling from side to side, so I had to keep ducking around him, first to the right, then to the left, then back again, just to read the card under the display model. Finally I caught the eye of a clerk - he wasn't really the clerk there, he was just a substitute clerk, and I think he was relieved to meet a customer who knew exactly what he wanted and didn't have any questions. He managed to talk me into a two-year service plan for $20 - hey, this is for my mom, and if something goes wrong with it, I'd like her to be able to get it fixed.

I went to the checkout and struck up a trivial conversation with the generation-Y girl who was ringing up my purchase. "Why are all those people lined up out there?", I wanted to know. "Oh, you silly old man," she replied*, "they're waiting for the Xbox 360 to come out."

Oh, I thought. Well, that's certainly worth standing in line in the cold for hours.

I flashed back to a time years ago when the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was all the rage. This was 15 years ago when I was living in Delaware. I was getting a ride back to Pennsylvania with my sister. We had stopped along the way at a McDonald's to grab something to eat and I was browsing through a newspaper that someone had left lying around. There was a small side article that stated that apparently imports of the NES system at that time constituted a significant portion of the U.S. trade deficit with Japan.

Back then, "Nintendo" was synonymous with "video game". And now? Nintendo is still in the game with the GameCube, but I think it's a distant third behind the PS2 and Xbox. And who uses the old NES anymore? Maybe some retro-gamers, but otherwise it's just a museum piece. Today's hot technology will be obsolete in a year and nearly forgotten in five, and the people who were standing in line in front of Best Buy will wonder what they were thinking. Years from now I suppose at least they'll have memories of a night spent in the rain and the cold with a bunch of other gamers, waiting for a chance to buy a game that now sits in the back of a closet collecting dust.

*No she didn't. But she was probably thinking it.