Tuesday, September 30, 2008

If you can read this, you haven't hit bottom yet

This weekend I was at a birthday party at a friend's house. At one point he and I lounged on his comfy couch, idly watching college football on ESPN2HD over the satellite feed on his 52" widescreen TV. As we sat there he railed against the $700 billion bailout package that was being rushed though Congress at the urging of the White House. "Where's my bailout?" he said. "Who's going to give me money to pay off my debts?"

At work some people are in panic mode. While others of us chuckle and whistle Skeeter Davis songs, they are making serious plans to cash out their 401(k) accounts. I think cooler heads have been able to convince them that this would be a mistake.

I ran into one of them this afternoon as he got a snack out of a vending machine. On the machine someone had taped a note:


I laughed when I saw this sign. If we are at a point where people can be choosy about what varieties of overpriced junk food they want to have available in the vending machine, junk food that is easily available from a supermarket or even a big-box store for a fraction of the price, we're not in such bad shape.

Hell, I complain about the price of the gas I consume each day during my 66 mile commute in my 40 mpg Toyota Tercel.* But this means I have a job, and I have a car, and I have the ability to buy gas.

I got to thinking about the widescreen TV and the satellite feed and the house and the comfy couch and I thought hell, I have a friend whose computer broke and she can't afford to get it fixed and she'll be mostly offline until she can gather up enough money to get it done. The same could have been true for me: I am only online because a good and generous friend built me a new system to replace the overtaxed, obsolete one that died on me last Summer. Because of him, I am online. And, if you are reading this, so are you.** Which means you have (or have access to) a computer, and a monitor, and Internet service. How badly-off are you? How much worse could it get?

Yet strained as my finances are, there are many things I still could trim out of my monthly expenses. Oh, most of the low-hanging fruit is gone: I drive an ancient but highly economical car, almost all of our light bulbs are low-wattage fluorescents, I only rarely eat out (except with a gift card), discretionary purchases are down close to zero. But still there is more that can be trimmed out. There is always more.

I heard somebody quoted on NPR this morning as suggesting we are nearing a tipping point when it comes to the economy. I almost drove off the highway laughing. We are only "near" the tipping point in the sense that we passed it some time ago. Possibly when Merrill Lynch went under. Perhaps when Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac went down. Maybe when Bear Stearns bit the dust. Possibly sometime before. In any event, we have passed the tipping point, and are now in the accelerating collapse phase. It's not too late, not entirely. With an enormous amount of effort - an amount that increases exponentially with time - we can still pull this system back to something resembling stability. Oh, the damage is done; things have broken that cannot be repaired, things have gone away that will not be coming back. But there's still some time, some chance left for the economy, both in the U.S. and for the global economy.

Right now I feel that the economy is like Eddie Murphy's Aunt Bunny falling down the steps. (Video has NSFW / R-rated language.)

The fall seems to take forever, and we're still only partway down. Can we stop before we hit bottom?

And assuming we can - well, what then?

* $3.47/gallon today, 9/30/2008.
** Unless somebody printed it out and gave it to you. But who the hell would have done that?

Betting odds for Thursday's Vice Presidential Debate

  • Palin cancels at last minute due to an unforeseen government emergency in Alaska, where she's still technically the Governor: 20:1
  • Palin cancels at last minute due to unforeseen family emergency; Republican pundits declare that it is un-American to demand that anyone place mere politics ahead of family: 37:1
  • Palin cancels at last minute due to acute laryngitis: 12:1
  • Palin cancels at last minute due to rushing back to Alaska to lead troops in mobilization against unforeseen invading Russian force coming across Bering Strait (later found to be a stray weather balloon and a severely confused flock of Canada Geese): 7:1
  • Palin shows up, kicks Biden's ass: 4,725,322:1
  • Biden scoffs at Palin: 2:1
  • Biden sneers at Palin: 2:1
  • Biden acts condescending towards Palin: 1:1
  • Biden displays easygoing charm and aura of honesty of a used-car salesman: 1:1
  • Palin has no idea what a question is getting at: 2:1
  • Biden randomly makes up chronologically impossible historical references: 2:1
  • Palin delivers "Blizzard of Words" and sounds like blithering idiot: 2:1
  • Biden kicks Palin's ass, but is then roundly condemned by pundits for being such a meanie: 1.0000001:1
  • Economy collapses, country thrown into chaos, martial law declared, elections cancelled: 3:1 (and falling)

Monday, September 29, 2008

Deadline to register to vote: October 6, 2008!

One of the positive aspects of the Clinton-Obama slugfest across almost all fifty states and quite a few territories was that it served as the greatest voter registration drive we've seen in a long time. People who had never been registered before and people who hadn't voted in years, as well as long-time registered voters, sat up and noticed that the Democratic Primary was a real contest! People knew that their vote could make history: would they be creating the possibility for the first black President, or the first female President?

The contest didn't quite make it through all 50 states. But it made it far enough to result in a huge increase in the number of registered voters in the U.S.

For those who haven't registered yet, it's not too late. But it is very nearly too late! In Pennsylvania, the deadline to register to vote for the President in the 2008 election is October 6, 2008. You can learn more about registering to vote in Pennsylvania at votesPA.com. You can also go directly to the Applications and Forms page. Or...

...or I could just grab all the links and post them here:

Voter Registration

Absentee Ballot

Alternative Ballot

So if you haven't registered to vote yet, please do so now! Time is running out!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Scenes from the back (and front) yard, 9/28/08

Attention arachnophobes: this post contains big huge pictures of a spider! Out of concern for your well-being, I have moved them to the end. Which screws up the chronological flow. I hope you're happy.

It seemed like there might be a rainbow today, so I got the camera all ready. But there wasn't. I was faked out. Standing on the steps to the back porch, I scanned the sky and saw...nothing. Nothing but sun-tinged clouds mostly blotting out the sky. I turned my head from side to side and saw, on my left, that there was very much something.

It was a spider. A big huge gigantic spider, maybe 3/4" long from head to spinners. This is a spider that has been spinning webs across our back steps. Big webs. Strong webs. I know, I've walked through a few.

Now that's worth a photo, I thought.

And it was. Several photos. But, as I explained above, I have moved that section of this post to the end.


I remembered as I came back in from photographing the spider that my mom had pointed out a mushroom under the Oak tree in the front yard as we drove to church this morning. Mushrooms are fragile things with a quick life-cycle. Even if the mushroom managed to not get trod upon by a clumsy human or done in by the curiosity of a feral cat, it would still dump its load of spores and wither away in just a few days. I realized this was probably the best time to try to get a photo. So I did.

I noticed a few other items of interest in the neighborhood of the Oak. For one thing, these little mushrooms, barely half an inch across:

These tiny things are what the Polish old-timers refer to as "podpinki" or something like that - my spelling may be off. My mom says the "pod" part means "under" in Polish. I do not think that there is an official definition of what podpinki actually are, and I know that it is dangerous to eat random wild mushrooms.

(Fun fact: my grandmother always pointed out that divorce rates were low back in her day because in the event of irreconcilable differences between a husband and wife, the wife would simply poison her husband. Podpinki were probably the means of resolving these differences in more than a few instances.)

Oak leaf. One of the first that has changed color. There will be more.

This object, know as an Oak Apple Gall, also started off life as an Oak leaf. But a tiny wasp laid an egg within the layers of the leaf, and a series of remarkable biological processes (are there any other kinds?) kicked in to protect the tree from the invader by forming a gall - and, consequently, providing a cozy home for the developing wasp.

Barberry. This attractive thorny plant, covered with round maroon-colored leaves and bright red elongated berries, is actually an invasive perennial. It started off life about fifteen years ago as a few shoots of what we thought might be some sort of winter-hardy Eucalyptus. It is now a shrub several feet across, and has started generating offspring.

Holly. The holly berries are at their peak brightness, I think. Will they keep until Christmas?

Arachnophobes: this is where you get off. Beyond this point there be spiders.

Ye've been warned.

Be it upon your own heads.

They gone?


Now, check this out:

The spider was between me and the bright sky in this image. Note the alternating light and dark segments in the legs.

A slightly different angle, with more of the sky showing.

Now I shifted so the light was reflecting off the spider, rather than shining through it. These pictures are tricky with my Nikon Coolpix L4 - the autofocus is constantly trying to settle on a focal plane somewhere other than where you are trying to photograph. Also, the tightness of the focus at extremely close range means that sometimes some parts of an object will be in focus while some parts are out of focus. In this case the lens was about a foot away from the spider, and the photos were made more difficult because the spider was above eye level, so I had to take the pictures with the camera held above my head. (As opposed to the mushroom photos, where I sprawled on my belly on the wet lawn to get the photos. The things I go through for you people!)

One last shot of the spider in its web. The twisting of the web makes it look like a physical expression of a graphical representation of a mathematical formula in three dimensions. Which, of course, it is.

So there you have it. Mushrooms and spiders and Oak Apple Galls, oh my! What kind of amazing stuff is just outside your house, waiting to be noticed?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

John McCain vs. science

MCCAIN: You know, we spent $3 million to study the DNA of bears in Montana. I don't know if that was a criminal issue or a paternal issue, but the fact is that it was $3 million of our taxpayers' money. And it has got to be brought under control.

As President of the United States, I want to assure you, I've got a pen. This one's kind of old. I've got a pen, and I'm going to veto every single spending bill that comes across my desk. I will make them famous. You will know their names.
McCain tried to deadpan that line about the study of bear DNA as a criminal or a paternity issue. It was a joke, a laugh line, one he's had as part of his standard array of speeches for a while. But nobody laughed Friday night.* And some people have been not laughing at this line for a while.

Currently the front-runner for the GOP nod, McCain also hits the research in speeches on the stump, cracking jokes about bear paternity tests and criminal investigations. "I don't know if it was a paternity issue or criminal, but it was a waste of money," McCain railed last month during a campaign stop in Clawson, Mich. Scientists, however, are not amused: They insist that the study is not only worth every penny but that the $3-million price tag cited in the ad is, in a word, wrong.

- Scientific American, "McCain's Beef With Bears",
online article dated February 8, 2008

Anyone who has been paying attention to the McCain-Palin campaign knows that they have never let the truth stand in the way of a clever-sounding phrase.** If John McCain really doesn't know the reason behind the Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project, all he has to do is ask - or ask someone else to look it up online for him.

Over time a very disturbing picture of John McCain has gradually formed as someone with little regard for science. Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy has kept up a steady stream of posts outlining the candidates' positions on science, and McCain's position is scary, to say the least: see here, and here, and here, and here, and here. Does he know more than he is letting on, or is he the sort who views basic research as a waste of time and money? I don't know - but from his "criminal issue or paternal issue" quip, I fear it is the latter, not the former.

LEHRER: What I'm trying to get at this is this. Excuse me if I may, senator. Trying to get at that you all -- one of you is going to be the President of the United States come January. At the -- in the middle of a huge financial crisis that is yet to be resolved. And what I'm trying to get at is how this is going to affect you not in very specific -- small ways but in major ways and the approach to take as to the Presidency.

MCCAIN: How about a spending freeze on everything but defense, veteran affairs and entitlement programs.

LEHRER: Spending freeze?

MCCAIN: I think we ought to seriously consider with the exceptions the caring of veterans national defense and several other vital issues.

So how much federally-funded science do you think will fall into that "other vital issues" category? I'm willing to bet "none." Do you think McCain was just talking out his ass here, or is this something he would really carry out?

That's not the sort of question you want to have answered the hard way.

*Mainly because the rules of the debate demanded absolute silence from the members of the audience.

**"I said thanks, but no thanks" anyone?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Live blogging the debate, sort of

In the opening, Jim Lehrer appeared to have a bearded man's severed head at his right elbow.

"...because if they don't keep quiet, they know that I'll be adding
their heads to the collection on my desk."

McCain is wearing a hypno-tie...

(Thanks to Bill for reminding me that I meant to post this clip - this is the best quality actual Futurama clip I could find.)

Lehrer has gone off the script entirely. Interesting.

McCain hates science. That's obvious now. The "bear DNA" crack probably scored points with true-believers and some of the soft-headed. Now he wants a spending freeze on everything except a narrow range of programs - none of them science, basic or applied, as far as I could tell.

$5000 for health insurance? First, find insurance that only costs $5000 a year.

McCain isn't Miss Congeniality. He's mentioned that twice.

He just mentioned Palin. Oh, Blizzard of Words Babe. If you can get pantsed by Katie Couric, you really need to rethink your debating approach. Too bad she wasn't on the Speech Team instead of the Basketball Team.

Uh-oh, "strategy" vs. "tactic." Even I know that there's a difference there. Though I don't remember what it is.

Achmed....Achmedna...Achmeddinna...naaa...not gonna be workin' here anymore!

Didn't everybody learn how to pronounce "perestroika" 25 years ago? (Or was that "glasnost" he was having touble with?)

Jim Lehrer: "SHUT UP! The both of you! Just...SHUT...UP!!!...Next question:..."

Hey, it's over. I survived.

CNN Transcript of the debate

Complete video of the debate, courtesy of C-SPAN:

The Tale of the Bat

Yes, I know the first Presidential debate is scheduled to start in less than a half hour. I've got the VCR set, for real this time. But I don't want to let this story slip away.

I took my mom for an outpatient procedure today, a "nerve block" to dull the back pain caused by an accident on the morning of December 31, 2000. (She was T-boned at an intersection. She
was on her way to Church. The guy who hit her...was not.) On days that I do this (about once every four to six months) I drive her from our house to the pain clinic, drop her off, and then kill time in the area until I get the call that she is ready to be picked up. Usually, factoring in delays, the length of time the procedure takes, and the number of patients ahead of her, the whole thing takes two to three hours.

Sometimes I go home if I have time, but the clinic wants you to be able to pick up patients within 15 minutes, and we live farther away than that. So I will usually use these days as an opportunity to do something I do very rarely: shopping. Just going into stores, seeing what they are offering, and comparing prices. Not much actual buying, not anymore.

I hit several stores today, all built on the former site of some culm banks. Barnes & Noble, Target, Sam's Club - well, I bought batteries in Sam's Club.

One store that caught my eye was the newly-constructed Five Below. It seems like a fairly typical junk store, but its gimmick is that all the things inside are from $1 - $5 - nothing more. Some of the stuff, frankly, looked overpriced. But with lines half-a-dozen people deep, I decided I wasn't going to be buying stuff there today anyway. So I left.

This was the store's Grand Opening, so the store was packed with customers, customers who had driven there in cars. Which meant that the parking lot in front of the store was filled. I was able to find a parking lot on the side, near the back. To get to my car I had to walk along two sides of the complex. As I made my way down the first sidewalk, I noticed a brownish lump stuck to the side of the building, maybe two inches long, six feet off the ground. Did somebody do something to this wall already? I thought. Or is that...

Yes it was. It was a bat.

I looked around, but there was no one there to share the moment with, just like there was no one to share the circumzenithal arc I saw on the way out of work yesterday. I took a picture with my camera phone. I wish I had my regular digital camera with me, I thought. And then I realized, I did! Even though the day was gloomy and rainy, I had packed it in the car as we left this morning, just in case.

I got up as close as I could, in my judgement, without bothering the sleeping bat. I took one picture from its right side, and realized that there really wasn't too much more I could do. As long as the bat was sleeping, it wasn't going to be moving much. So I swung around to its left side and took an almost identical photo.

I tarried a bit as I saw a man approaching with a child on his shoulders. He was talking aloud to the toddler, and I heard him ask what I was taking a picture of.

"Bat," I said.

He looked, and showed his son without letting him touch it. "Looks like he picked a bad place to sleep last night," he said.

"He looks comfortable enough," I said.

And that was it.

I hope the bat went unmolested for the rest of the day. It was low enough to the ground that someone who wanted to hurt the little mosquito hunter wouldn't have to try very hard. I hope it has a good hunt tonight, eats well, and finds a safer and more secure place to bed down for the day in the morning.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Undecideds

The events of the 2000 election happened for several reasons. Back then, even though there were early signs of what can in retrospect be viewed as a "minor market correction", particularly in the tech sector, national prosperity was soaring. Most people were doing quite well, on paper at least. And a significant portion of the electorate decided that the best person to lead a nation of wealthy folks was someone who knew what it meant to be significantly, unashamedly wealthy. He's rich like us, they thought. He'll be able to lead the way to all of us getting even richer.

They were wrong.

But this is not their story.

An even more significant portion of the electorate went to the voting booth on Election Day with no idea who they were going to vote for. "I won't make up my mind until the curtain closes," I remember one voter saying. Many had no real opinions on George W. Bush and Al Gore, or simply had no preference. In the end they helped bring the election to within the statistical margin of error. The rest, as they say, is history.

It wasn't the first time. In hindsight the Kennedy - Nixon election of 1960 does not seem to have been one that was particularly close. We are, after all, talking about John F. Kennedy, the sainted Irish Catholic who became a martyr for his commitment to Liberty, vs. Richard M. Nixon, the shadowy, twisted figure who would bring shame and disrepute upon the office of the President, who brought us Watergate and secret tapes and "I am not a crook!" But these are the caricatures that these historical figures have become in our time. Forty-eight years ago America was largely indifferent to these two candidates. Kennedy looked good on TV, and Nixon didn't. That probably made as much difference as anything. America flipped a coin, and Kennedy was elected. Nixon would have to wait another eight years to get his turn in the Oval Office.

But today? Today I don't know how many Undecideds there are. There are still people I believe cam be swayed one way or the other, so all campaigning is not meaningless at this point. But most of these people have some sort of preference already formed. It's just a question of whether they will be pushed further towards this preference, or pulled away from it - or if they will grow despondent to the point that they withdraw from the field of combat entirely.

But there may be a few who are still out there who are asking, "Why should I vote for Obama over McCain? Why should I prefer McCain to Obama?" There are reasons on both sides. I will try to present my arguments in a post sometime in the next thirty-nine days or so. Maybe I can persuade a few voters to come over to my way of thinking.

Still, I just don't think there are a heck of a lot of undecided voters out there right now. People have chosen their sides, though events may still sway their decisions one way or another. Time will tell. A lot can happen in thirty-nine days. But I just don't think a lot of people will be walking up to their polling places on November 4 with no preference at all for either candidate.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A little light music for the end of the world

While on the way to a bloggers' get-together this afternoon, I was listening to All Things Considered on NPR and heard a mention of an event called All Tomorrow's Parties. Naturally my mind jumped right to the Velvet Underground song and the William Gibson novel, but I knew there was something else there, something I should have remembered, something I was forgetting. But what? And then, when they described it as "Alt-Rock Summer Camp," I knew: This was where My Bloody Valentine played! Would they mention them?

Mention them they did:

The weekend saw sets by numerous bands, including Mogwai, Meat Puppets and Lightning Bolt, as well as the first U.S. performance in 16 years by My Bloody Valentine, which closed the weekend in spectacular (and deafening) fashion.

"It was good that airfield-grade earplugs were handed out free, because My Bloody Valentine's set was the loudest music I've ever experienced. You didn't so much hear it as feel it. It was like getting a full-body deep-tissue massage with sound waves. Somehow the Stardust Ballroom didn't collapse under the assault."

I had the sublime pleasure of hearing bits of "Only Shallow" and "Soon" on my car radio. On NPR! As I've already posted the video for the former, here is the video for "Soon":

The get-together was quite nice, and I got to meet a few local bloggers I've never met before. Inevitably, among the discussions of politics, blogging, and athletic competitions, there was some discussion of the recent/long-coming economic meltdown. On the way home I was treated to the whole of President Bush's speech on the crisis. For the first three-quarters of it, as he announced an overview of what had happened and how we had gotten here, it was like listening to a school filmstrip presentation narrated by Andy Griffith - probably not the sort of effect a speech on a major financial disaster delivered by our first MBA President should have gone* had.

Both the discussions at the bar and the speech ands it the* and the post-speech on-air analysis emphasized the point that this disaster is incredibly, incredibly huge. Having already decided I would be posting the My Bloody Valentine video, I figured I may as well pick a few other videos to post.

Everclear, "Santa Monica"
A favorite of the band 3 Brix Shy.

We can live beside the ocean
leave the fire behind
swim out past the breakers
and watch the world die

U2, "Until the End of the World"
Not an end of the world song. A song from the point of view of one New Testament character, sung to another.

In the Garden I was playing the tart
I kissed your lips and broke your heart
and you
you were acting like it was the end of the world...

Here's a song by The Cure I've never heard before, called "The End of the World":

UPDATE, 9/25/08: Here's a song I was trying to remember yesterday but couldn't. Fortunately I was able to hum it well enough to be able to squeeze enough lyrics out of an older officemate to seed a Google search: "The End of the World" by Skeeter Davis:

I was really trying to find REM's "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)", but the only official version I could find is non-embeddable. But I did find this version, which seems somewhat more appropriate at the moment:

So. Have a pleasant end of the world! See you tomorrow!

*More proof that I should not blog while tired.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

What does it take to get some real prison time around here?

From today's Wilkes-Barre Citizens' Voice:

Plymouth shooting suspect surrenders
The suspect in Saturday’s deadly shooting at a Plymouth bar surrendered Monday afternoon just as police were about to storm a Plymouth Township home to nab him.

Published: Tuesday, September 23, 2008 4:09 AM EDT

The suspect in Saturday’s deadly shooting at a Plymouth bar surrendered Monday afternoon just as police were about to storm a Plymouth Township home to nab him.

“There was a massive police presence … They were about to serve a search warrant, and out walked the defendant,” Luzerne County District Attorney Jackie Musto Carroll said.

Investigators charged Jeremy R. Kendricks, whose street name is “Squirm,” with a single count of criminal homicide.

The 26-year-old alleged killer was arraigned by Magisterial District Judge Donald Whittaker in Nanticoke, and ordered jailed in the Luzerne County Correctional Facility without bail.

Police accuse Kendricks of gunning down and killing a man inside a crowded Bull Run Tavern around 1:30 a.m. Saturday.

“It’s surprising no one else was killed,” Musto Carroll said.

Witnesses told investigators Kendricks pulled a silver handgun and repeatedly shot Kirk Lipscomb, 26, of Scranton.

Another man, David Green, also of Scranton, was wounded as shots continued to ring out, witnesses said.

Lipscomb later died on the operating table in Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center in Plains Township. Green was released from the hospital on Sunday.

Tips from the public led police to the home in Plymouth Township, Musto Carroll said.

“We’re very satisfied with the police work. It was through their efforts he was caught,” Musto Carroll said. “The public can rest.”

A witness told police Kendricks had assaulted people at the bar a week earlier, but no one reported it. Police have not said if Kendricks is responsible for Green’s injuries.

Kendricks was represented at Monday’s arraignment by attorney Demetrius Fannick. Fannick said his office and Kendricks’ family had discussed the possibility of a surrender, but the police investigation led to the Plymouth Township home before one could be negotiated.

“It’s important to note, this was a peaceable surrender,” Fannick said.

At his arraignment, Kendricks told the judge he did not have a permanent address. Kendricks has been arrested 16 times since turning 18 in 2000, and court records list various addresses for him in Wilkes-Barre over the years.

Some of his previous arrests include:

  • Kendricks and five others broke into Valentine Jewelers in Dallas on April 11, 2000, and stole $3,000 worth of jewelry. He pleaded guilty to charges of burglary and carrying a firearm without a license.
  • Kendricks pleaded guilty to statutory sexual assault after he and another man were charged with giving alcohol to two 13-year-old girls and a 15-year-old girl and forcibly having sex with them in Nanticoke on Sept. 21, 2002.
  • He pleaded guilty to an attempted burglary of Bedwick’s Pharmacy on Hazle Street on Feb. 9, 2005.

Kendricks’ preliminary hearing is scheduled for Oct. 2 in front of Whittaker.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Now on Facebook

OK, yesterday I finally gave in and signed up on Facebook.

I'm not going to post a link to that account here, any more than I would post a link to my LinkedIn profile. I'm going to start off by only friending people I know, but that includes people I know online. If you know me and have a Facebook account, drop me a line and I'll give you the link - or check your e-mail and see if I already sent you a friend request.

I'll be honest with you: I'm not so thrilled with the whole Facebook concept. I feel like it's another step in the destruction of the "Global Conversation," which is how I have always thought of the Blogosphere. Once upon a time the Internet was full of people standing on soapboxes, shouting out their ideas and opinions and taking questions from the wandering crowd and waving to their friends on other soapboxes. Back then everyone could hear what everyone else had to say, and in most cases anybody could chime in with their two cents. Ideas got traded back and forth, friendships were made, enmities were spawned, and somebody from Norway and somebody from Australia could inspire somebody in Pennsylvania to join in.

That's still going on. But a few (quite a few) years ago sites like MySpace started to change the game: Now in most cases you could still hear part of the conversation, but to join in and give feedback, or just to see everything someone had put out for public view, you had to join in - as in, sign up as a member of that service. Now instead of an organic social network of bloggers linking to bloggers whose blogs they liked, enjoyed, or admired, you had artificial networks of people joining together for entirely different reasons. And the conversation became a little muffled.

Then along came Facebook. I never heard of it before the Virginia Tech massacre, when Facebook became a primary means of students getting out "I'm OK" messages to their families and friends, but it had been around for some time before then - in fact, I've heard some techno-hipsters who insist that Facebook "jumped the shark" well before April 16, 2007. But the trick with Facebook is: to actually see anything beyond a limited "public profile", you must also be a member of Facebook.

And so the Global Conversation moves from the Commons into private clubs. There is plenty still going on, and plenty of conversation being had, but unless you're a member you can't have any part of it.

So is this the end of the Global Conversation? I have written in the past about Blogging Energy Units: people only have so much time in the day to be online, and read blogs, and post comments, and engage in discussions. If all that is going on behind closed doors, what is left that will be shared with the public? Will people even have the time and energy to say anything online outside of Facebook? Or will much of what they say and do be hidden away, to be viewed only by Facebook members?

I'm not going away. I have things I want to say and an indefinitely finite time in which to say them. I promise you, I won't be saying these things in the shadows, in the back room of a private club somewhere. For good or for ill, I plan to keep exposing my words in public, to keep participating in the Global Conversation.

How about you?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Some thoughts on Sarah Palin

It was just two weeks ago that I was advising a fellow commentor at Fanatical Apathy thusly:
I think it would be as much a mistake to try to disregard Palin as a lightweight distraction of no importance as it was for Kerry to disregard the ironically-named “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” back in 2004 until the damage had already been done.

Try to hark back to those long-ago days when Palinomania was just beginning, when the afterglow of Palin's speech was still shining brightly. There was still some question as to whether or not her bounce would amount to anything; but by the beginning of the next week, the news was All Palin, All The Time. You couldn't throw a dead cat without having it bounce off an image of Sarah Palin. The Republicans had found their Celebrity.

And that, I think, is where it started to go wrong.

I've criticized Obama for using what I call the "chase figure" strategy in his appearances. A "chase figure", as any Star Wars geek worth his or her blue milk would know, is an action figure that is intentionally shipped to retailers in limited numbers. If a case contains 20 Darth Vaders, 20 Luke Skywalkers, 20 Stormtroopers, 20 Sandpeople, and 20 Rebel Commandos, it might contain one Ralph McQuarrie Stormtrooper. And so that was the figure everyone wanted. By limiting access to the product, an artificial demand was created. So many Obama appearances have been limited-access events in small venues. And they always are packed houses.

Sarah Palin has been more accessible. Throngs have showed up everywhere she has gone to hear her repeat essentially the same speech, the same talking points, in appearance after appearance, even after many of these points were shown to be blatant misrepresentations of the facts - or even outright lies. She has been all over the TV, playing the media that she and her running mate officially hold in great contempt like a harp from hell. Maybe people didn't know a lot about the political philosophy of Sarah Palin, but they sure were becoming familiar with Sarah Palin the hockey mom and moose hunter.

And familiarity, as the saying goes, breeds contempt.

Things started to unravel by the end of that first week after the convention, as Sarah Palin showed Charlie Gibson and the world that while she was quite good at spitting out official party platitudes, she needed to go hit the books when it came to specifics. Then came the roadblocks to the long-standing bipartisan Alaskan investigation into the reasons behind Governor Palin's abrupt dismissal of a government employee. As always, the crime is less damning than the cover up, and we were all treated to a cover up in real time as the McCain-Palin campaign scrambled to interfere in an internal State matter - and succeeded. (What glimpses we received of Palin's method of governance during those parts of this process that actually got to happen suggest that the "Change" she represents is a change back to Nixon-era enemies lists and political intimidation and retaliation.)

Now Palin has been pushed back into the shadows as all the chickens spawned by the past seven years and eight months of Bush Administration mismanagement have started to come home to roost, all the postponed bills have come due, all the duct tape and bondo has started to fall off. McCain-Palin's post-convention bounce is gone. Palin's celebrity star has dimmed. And those on one side of the political divide are faced with a dilemma: do we keep silent and let her fade into obscurity, or do we continue to shine a light on her and her past and risk stirring interest in her once again?

I had planned to hold my tongue. But I don't think silence is the best strategy at any point in a political contest. Sarah Palin is still there. The reasons behind her selection are still there. And the long-term strategy behind that selection, whatever it may be, is still there. So I choose not to be silent.

Recommended reading: When Atheists Attack: A noted provocateur rips Sarah Palin—and defends elitism. Sam Harris, Newsweek, from the magazine issue dated Sep 29, 2008 (Hat tip to Tressa.)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

As American as Mom, Apple Pie, and Liberals

We Liberals are well-known for our hatred of America, family, religion, tradition, and all that is good and right with the world. Which is all about as true as the claims made in a typical McCain-Palin ad. Offered as evidence: my lunch.

While Conservatives spent this Saturday morning smoking their fine cigars and drinking their cognac while sitting around in their slippers made from the hides of Harp Seal pups and checking out the balances in their secret numbered Swiss accounts, I was busy baking. I made two loaf pans of Shoo-Fly Cake and one batch of my grandmother's Drop Cookies from a recipe that my mom said she was never able to get to work right. While Conservatives were in chat rooms discussing their heroin and pornography*, I was busy sharing my grandmother's Drop Cookie recipe with the world. And while I was doing that, my mom was frying up a batch of not-so-green tomatoes for lunch.

My lunch, clockwise from front: Fried not-so-green plum tomatoes from our yard; jar of concentrated grape juice, made Thursday night from grapes picked just a few hours earlier; Drop Cookie with coconut; slice of Shoo-Fly Cake.

Yep. All natural, all homemade, partly from ingredients grown at home. Even now I can see Conservatives growing apoplectic with rage, shaking their fists at the screen and shouting "Damn you, d.b. echo! I want what you are having for lunch!"

But wait - what is that in the upper left-hand corner? Those two glows...are those eyes? Laser Cat eyes?

Zoom in...track left...enhance...enhance...

Yes, it's Scooter, last seen posing on a hassock for a portrait, photobombing the picture! Nicky is in there too, or at least part of him - his back, belly, and legs, visible in the upper left of this enhanced image.

Now that I've eaten and screwed about online a bit, it's time to go out and express my Liberal hatred of America by mowing my lawn with my manual reel mower. Whirrr-click-clack-squeak, anyone?

*Paraphrase of Rorschach from Watchmen.

Babki's Drop Cookies

These are a soft, puffy cookie made with sour milk. I have found very good versions of them in the bakery sections of stores called "Sour Cream Cookies," but there are lots of recipes for Sour Cream Cookies that are completely different from this recipe from my grandmother.
  • 1/2 cup shortening (I used butter)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup sour milk*
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Flaked coconut

*To sour milk, add drops of vinegar to milk until it curdles. I recommend using whole milk - that was what my grandmother used.

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • Cream shortening with butter in large bowl.
  • Add beaten egg.
  • In separate bowl, Mix together dry ingredients. Add gradually to egg/butter/sugar mixture.
  • Blend in sour milk and vanilla.
  • Drop by rounded tablespoons onto cookie sheet. Sprinkle with coconut.
  • Bake at 350 degrees for 12 minutes.
The goal is to make a uniformly soft cookie, lightly browned on the edges but not crisp. Cookies should form flattened domes. For best results, I recommend using ungreased non-stick pans.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Sorry, wrong number

The phone rang yesterday afternoon, and it was for me. The following is a paraphrase, since I didn't record or write down the conversation as it occurred.

There was a pleasant-sounding woman on the other end of the line.
Her: Hello, would you be willing to participate in a four-question political survey?

Me: Sure, why not?

Her: Do you intend to support John McCain and Sarah Palin in the upcoming election?

Me: (Ummm, are those my only choices?) No.

Her: Are you undecided, or is that definite?

Me: No, that's definite.

Her: OK. Do you plan to vote for Lou Barletta or Paul Kanjorski?

Me: Kanjorski.

Her: OK, in the upcoming election, which of these subjects will influence your decision? (I don't remember all the items, but it was a list of five, including the Economy, and ending with Immigration and "Pro-Life." It would have been more honest for her to say "Overturning Roe v. Wade" or "Outlawing abortion in all cases, including rape and incest, which we in the Republican Party don't believe happen often enough that anyone should get too worked up over the statistically insignificant number of girls who will be required by law to bear the fruit of their rapist's efforts." )

Me: Ummm...the first three.

Her: OK. (Giggling) And now I have to ask...would you be interested in volunteering for McCain - Palin?

Me: No, thank you.

Her: OK. Thank you, and have a good evening.

Me: You too!
Dammit. I should've tried to turn her.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Virtual Refrigerator

I just made some grape juice out of the grapes that I harvested from my back vine today. Assuming it turns out well, I'll post instructions here later.

I just created a new blog. It's one that I've been planning for a while: The Virtual Refrigerator. It will be a showcase for all the refrigerator art being churned out by my two nephews, and possibly a few guest artists. The second post actually preceded the first, introductory post, but I mucked about with timelines and I think I got them in the order I wanted without generating too many paradoxes.

If you have any refrigerator art scans you'd like to post on The Virtual Refrigerator, let me know! Or, if you decide to create a similar site of your own, let me know and I'll link it!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

We interrupt this cavalcade of politics for...cake

OK, I'm doing a lot of political blogging right now. But you know what? At this moment I think that who is going to be in the White House for the next four to eight years is pretty darned important. Really, my last post pretty much summed up where I'm coming from. And I'm going to keep at it until the last vote is cast.

Having said that, please know this: there's always time for cake.

Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy reminded me of this with this post. And that post reminded me of a blog I've been meaning to link for a while now, but keep forgetting.

Cake Wrecks isn't just a fantastically popular digest of professional and amateur cake design and decoration gone horribly, horribly wrong. It also showcases the occasional brilliant and beautiful (and, I trust, delicious) creations like this Wall-E cake, and this James Bond-inspired Wedding Cake.

(The closest I came to decorating a cake was my Y2Cake, of which I do not believe there are any pictures. It was made for a Y2K party that I was co-hosting at a friend's house. It was baked in a mold shaped like a computer monitor and keyboard, with the words "GAME OVER" in sugar letters on the screen. Decorations included a rubber critter from a dollar store called a "Y2K Bug", a toy passenger jet crashed nose-first into one side -which would turn out to be in very, very poor taste 21 months later, but having aircraft lose their guidance systems as the year rolled over from 99 to 00 was a concern for many on that ultimately uneventful date - , and a squad of army men erupting from the hole in the cake that my cousin's dog chewed while we were letting the cake cool. Don't worry, I trimmed around the parts she had eaten, and I ate the neighboring region myself.)

I'm not sure who first turned me on to this site many long weeks ago, but it was probably Michelle. Let's say it was her.

No discussion of cakes would be complete without noting the cake Deanna Hoak made for her son's birthday - scroll down into her comments for the recipe and modification.

And speaking of cakes, I'm due for a blood donation in ten days. About time I made some Shoo-Fly Cake. For the iron, you know.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Let's get it right this time.

Feel free to use this on your own site.

For our friends the spiders, here's the text:

Bush/Cheney: Wrong in 2000.
Bush/Cheney 04: Wrong in 2004.
McCain/Palin: Wrong for 2008.

Let's get it right this time.
- http://www.barackobama.com/

Another tale from the daily commute

Interstate 81 between Wilkes-Barre and Scranton is a busy stretch of road, full of commuters and truckers and occasionally people who are just trying to get fro here to there. On most days it's a fast road, meaning that even though the posted speed limit drops to 55 mph due to the increased population density, you can still find yourself in a pack of traffic doing 70, or 75, or more.

But there are cops. State Troopers. There are lots of nooks and crannies for them to hide in. So sometimes speeders get caught. Sometimes.

There are also several right-hand on ramps and left-hand off ramps along this section of the highway. Drivers perform a constant ballet as they try to avoid ballistically merging with other drivers entering the highway who have somehow interpreted the "YIELD" signs to say "RAMMING SPEED."

So it was in the wake of one of these maneuvers that I found myself cruising along in the left lane somewhere north of the speed limit.

Oh, I wasn't going that fast. No slower than the car behind me, no faster than the cars in front of me. But actually, judging from how close the sporty silver sedan behind me was following me, I was going slower than they thought I should be going.

So I judged the road ahead. Left lane: clear for at least the next hundred yards or so. Right lane: gradually overtaking two tractor trailers heaving themselves uphill. Beyond them, free and clear.

I looked at the time. I had a half hour to cover the next ten miles. I was in no hurry. Pass the trucks, pull into the right lane, drop out of warp speed, make the rest of the trip at full impulse power. No problem.

I did just that. For a moment I realized that just up ahead was another right-hand merge, and perhaps I had made a tactical mistake. Too late now. The silver sedan, glad to be free of my obstruction, zoomed past me, and was closely followed by several other cars.

A cloud of dust erupted from the on ramp ahead. What the...?

The State Trooper pulled nimbly out of his position of concealment alongside the ramp and into the clearing in the road ahead of me, then slipped into the left lane. He threaded his way through several cars, all going well over the speed limit. He seemed to be focused on just one, up ahead.

I'm no good at recognizing cars. I think it's related to my prospagnosia prosopagnosia, my difficulty recognizing faces. Ask me to pick a car out of a lineup and I may be able to get the color and number of wheels, but not much else. So I'm not sure that the sporty silver sedan that the State Trooper pulled over about a mile ahead of me was actually the same sporty silver sedan that had followed me so closely in the left lane for several miles. I could just hear them thinking: That putz in front of me was so slow...I finally got the chance to make up for lost time, and now this?

All I can say is, Oops. Sorry.

And maybe, Better luck next time.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Put an Obama sign on your virtual lawn!

Yesterday I decided I wanted to stick Obama signs on my blog's virtual lawn. Feel free to grab them to use on your own site!

The first three are trimmed and edited items stolen from barackobama.com. The first one started out life as a bumper sticker. I trimmed the top and bottom to shift the focus to the text.

This is the same image, with "wings" added to make it fit the top of my blog better.

The local Catholic bishop is essentially threatening to excommunicate everyone who supports Obama. But he is also a mafia-hugging, pedophile-shielding, union-busting, parish-closing Republican tool who has done more to reduce the ranks of Catholics in the diocese than any other cause.* So I'm not so inclined to listen to him. I found this as a yard sign on Obama's site, and trimmed it to focus on the text.

These next two I made myself, for my sidebar. The first is kind of self-explanatory:

The last one is to put to rest any concerns that ardent Hillary Clinton supporters like me might decide to betray our core principles and vote for McCain/Palin out of spite:

Again, feel free to grab these for your own site!

*He's renamed the "Bishop's Annual Appeal" to the "Our Grateful Faith Annual Appeal", apparently in an attempt to reduce the number of offering envelopes that come back with two-word messages enclosed. He's a prime example of so much of what is wrong in the Catholic Church today.

MAD Magazine is AWESOME, and Al Jaffee is BRILLIANT!

I got this month's issue of MAD Magazine in the mail on Saturday (yes, I let my subscription to New Scientist lapse, but not my subscription to MAD!) and, as is my habit, flipped right to the Al Jaffee "Fold-In" on the inside back cover. And...well, I don't want to give it away, but let's just say I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Al Jaffee has been burned as a witch. A witch who can see the future. Because this issue was put together probably six to eight weeks ago, yet the punch line, the answer to the question "What types of increases provoke the most obsessive media scrutiny?", accompanied by pictures of Obama and McCain under text that says "EXPANDING CO2 LEVELS", "SOARING DEFICITS", "CLIMBING OIL PRICES", and so on, is just so frighteningly prescient...

...well, you'll just have to pick up your own copy of MAD Magazine issue #494, October 2008. Or go to a drugstore or supermarket or book store or newspaper stand and sneak a peak at the fold-in that someone else has probably pre-folded for you.

And don't miss "Overheard at the Barack Obama Rally in Germany" on pages 24-25. ("Freebird! Play Das Freebird!")

Some political parody posters from MAD:
No Country for Old Man
The 46-Year-Old Political Virgin
The Knockout

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The NEW & IMPROVED SiteMeter: ummmm.....

Well, I migrated my SiteMeter accounts first thing this morning. And was immediately told I couldn't access them anymore.

Let's see if we can find the flaw in this plan:

1 – Click on the “Login” tab at the top right of SiteMeter’s homepage (http://www.sitemeter.com/).
2 – Use the bottom half of the Login area to activate your account (Migrated Account Activation) –
A - Enter your Codename
B - Enter your password

3 – Press Submit

Your account is now active.

Note – our activation process will check to see if any additional accounts in our system use the same email address as your accounts. If others are found you can activate those by providing the correct codename. Successfully activated accounts will appear under the same Master Account.

4 - Your SiteMeter account(s) is now active on the new system. You should be able to go directly to your new Master Account area.

NOTE – The next time you want to access your SiteMeter account use the Standard Login in the upper half of the Login area by entering your email address and password.
Take a close look at the word in red: password. Notice the part where a new password is created that is now linked to your e-mail address instead of the individual SiteMeter accounts, each of which had its own password? (I have, I think, six accounts.) Oh, you don't see that part? Neither do I.

UPDATE: Because they had it hidden on another page, the "Help" page. Maybe it wasn't even there at the time I encountered the problem:

Note – The next time you want to access your SiteMeter account use the Standard Login in the upper half of the Login area by entering your email address and password. Passwords are now case sensitive. Please enter your current password in uppercase to log into your account.
(They made it red, but I made it bold.)

So I submitted a request to SiteMeter for a new password. Still waiting. I understand, they're probably getting bombarded with requests right now.

As for the new look for SiteMeter - feh. It looks like it was designed by a programmer, not an end user. Compare this snapshot of the information for my 100,000th visitor...

...to the new, exciting, control-room style of SiteMeter today:

Nothing simple, nothing elegant, nothing intuitive. But it sure is flashy and all technical looking! Tiny, dark, chunky fonts on a dark background? Brilliant! I can't even figure out how to get the basic information I used to use all the time.

Maybe, if they're smart, SiteMeter will have a tutorial tucked away somewhere that explains how to access things like referral stats and out-clicks and locations that used to give me a daily picture of what was bringing visitors here, and whether they were clicking on any of my links, and where they were coming from. Maybe those are all Premium services now. Maybe it's time I start looking at other statistics tracking packages.

Update: And what are other bloggers saying about the "new and improved" SiteMeter? Here is an unedited reproduction of the first page of Google Blog search results for "sitemeter":

SiteMeter gets a facelift - and a few other nips and tucks too
3 hours ago by Brad Linder Web analytics company SiteMeter has rolled out a major update to its free and premium web stats tracking service. The new version of SiteMeter is full of new charts and graphs that let you see how a web site is performing at a glance. ...
Download Squad - http://www.downloadsquad.com - References[ More results from Download Squad ]

New SiteMeter is much less usable than the old one
6 hours ago by Lumo SiteMeter.com, a server responsible for the counter at the very bottom of this page, has switched to new servers with new software. The statistics suddenly is shown in Flash applets. Because of the following and other reasons, ...
The Reference Frame - http://motls.blogspot.com/ - References

Bye-bye SiteMeter
4 hours ago My wife loves looking through the SiteMeter stats on her blog (Linda's Thoughts). Today she was frustrated to find she can no longer access those stats. SiteMeter redid their user interface for free accounts, so that it is very ...
JackLewis.net - http://jacklewis.net/weblog/ - References

I Hate The New Sitemeter
4 hours ago by Shawn Powers I used to love the simple, useful, real-time information SiteMeter offered for web traffic. This weekend, they changed over to their new system, which resembles a much less friendly, and much less useful version of Google Analytics. ...
The Brain of Shawn - http://www.brainofshawn.com - References

SiteMeter Stinks
3 hours ago by nospam@example.com (Brian C. Ledbetter) SiteMeter's service was atrocious enough to use before (it was slow, and barely worked via BlackBerry), but now they've gone and redesigned everything—and I don't know how they did it, but it's even more horrible than before. ...
Snapped Shot - http://www.snappedshot.com/ - References

Sitemeter has changed
4 hours ago by Neil Aside from migrating successfully to their new servers over the weekend, Sitemeter have also rolled out their new look. Yes, I’m old, but I really was more comfortable with the old one! There’s one new bit thought, whatever it may mean. ...
Floating Life - http://ninglundecember.wordpress.com - References

I hate hate hate hate the new SiteMeter.
4 hours ago by Ann Althouse What is the point of SiteMeter now? Everything I loved about SiteMeter -- and you can click on the SiteMeter tag to read how I've adored it -- is gone. Ugh! I'm throwing away my most-click-on bookmark. blog advertising blog advertising.
Althouse - http://althouse.blogspot.com/ - References

They've ruined SiteMeter
7 hours ago by Robert Stacy McCain Just got my first look at the new format for SiteMeter statistics. It sucks, big-time. Like Windows Vista, is how bad it sucks. The old Site Meter was simple and elegant. The new Site Meter is clumsy and awkward. ...
The Other McCain - http://rsmccain.blogspot.com/ - References

Sitemeter Strikes Again, and Other News
1 hour ago by Tenured Radical you sneer) I have spent a substantial amount of time migrating to the New Sitemeter. And after a prolonged effort, during which I considered options from sending out an SOS to my blogpal ahistoricality (who has occasionally offered ...
Tenured Radical - http://tenured-radical.blogspot.com/

new sitemeter sux
48 minutes ago by upyernoz the new sitemeter rolled out today and my first impression is: i hate it. the annoying thing is that the old sitemeter let you easily display a list of the recent referring sites, even with a free account. now referral info is buried, ...
rubber hose - http://upyernoz.blogspot.com/

Update from Sitemeter:

SiteMeter Rollback

September 14, 2008 · Comments Off

Good Afternoon,

We have received and heard your feedback concerning the latest changes to the website. We will implementing a rollback to the website immediately. We will also be responding to each of your support requests as soon as possible. If you have any questions please let us know.


SiteMeter Support Team

Later, revised, edited, redacted, expanded version of same:

Our Apologies -

September 14, 2008 · Comments Off

Dear Valued SiteMeter Customers,

As you’re no doubt aware by now, we’ve chosen to roll back our website to the previous “classic” version.

Based on some performance issues we were experiencing along with feedback from the community it appears we have pushed our new site live prematurely.

Our intention is and has always been to offer you, our customer’s better tools and more accurate data. Obviously we fell short of this. The first thing we need to do, moving forward, is to roll out new product releases in parallel to our current platform. This will give everyone a chance to try out, evaluate, and comment on our new concepts.

We would also like to take this opportunity to ask those of you who had issues or concerns with the new site to participate in future beta testing. We had originally asked for Beta Tester in two of our newsletters sent earlier this year so we’re eager to build our beta group even larger. If you’re interested in participating please send us an email using our support ticketing system with BETA TESTER in the subject line of your email.

In the near term we’ll be evaluating the performance issues and feedback from our community. If you have additional input that would help us build you a better product we’d like to hear from you.

We apologize for the botched rollout and will do our best to make sure the next time we do this it has your full support and blessing.


The SiteMeter Team

It is sad that now, whenever anyone mentions the "SiteMeter Fiasco", you need to ask "Which one?"

I think the folks at SiteMeter who thought this new design was a good idea need to take the time to read Edward Tufte's "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information." Oh, hell, everybody should read that book. It's fan-frickin'-tastic!