Sunday, November 30, 2008

Reminder: Conjunction of Moon, Venus, and Jupiter November 30 - December 1!

Don't miss it! Right after sunset, with the Moon passing in front of Venus on December 1 for viewers in parts of Europe!

Go here for more details and an animation:
Another Monkey: Conjunction of Moon, Venus, and Jupiter, November 30 - December 1, 2008

The Stained Glass Project: St. Hedwig and St. Edward

This is part of an ongoing series called The Stained Glass Project, in which I am attempting to photographically preserve the stained glass windows of my parish church, Our Lady of Czestochowa (St. Mary's) in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania.

The third portrait window from the back of the South wall of St. Mary's church in Nanticoke, PA features portraits of Saint Hedwig and Saint Edward. Both stand against the "cathedral" backdrop, discussed previously.

Saint Hedwig has a long and complicated biography, and it would be tedious to try to relate it here. So I direct you to these online sources of information:

Nothing in my admittedly cursory reading of these biographies really explains the one thing that since childhood has stuck in my memory about this portrait:

What is that object?

To a kid, certain things about this images stuck out: Monsters. Weapons. Toys. Saint Hedwig holds what I always thought of as a toy schoolhouse, maybe even a toy church. Why? As I began my research I assumed that she was responsible for the founding of schools or construction of churches. But I am not seeing that. Instead it seems that she was heavily involved in the founding of monasteries. Is this object meant to represent a monastery?

And what did she do to earn a crown? Certain portraits show saints wearing crowns, while others do not. Is there a code here, like the alleged code involving the number of horse's legs that are raised in a statue? Or could this simply be in recognition of her status as a Duchess of Silesia?

The second portrait seems a little more straightforward: St. Edward the Confessor was a king of England, renowned (if the stories are to be believed) for his healing touch. Unfortunately, he was also uncle to St. Edward the Martyr, who was also king of England. Which one is this? I have no idea. The youthful appearance could mark him as the latter, who was only sixteen or seventeen when he died. The spear could be a clue - Edward the Martyr died, according to one account, due to injuries received in a stabbing by an assassin while he was visiting his wicked stepmother during a hunt. Have a look at this source material and see if you can figure it out:

The lines across St. Edward's body and the dark blotch on his head are not cracks, but are the chain once used for opening and closing the vented window above the portrait.

The upper round window is the one I have dubbed the "Temple." The calligraphy on the scroll at the bottom is not readable in this image.

The person who presented both of these windows has a name immediately familiar to the people of Nanticoke: K.M. Smith, the namesake of the K.M. Smith Elementary School. Unfortunately, almost all references to "K.M. Smith" that I can find online refer to this school, not to the person. I may need to go to the Nanticoke Historical Society for more information.

Communication: the key to success

I got my affairs in order yesterday. Picked out the clothes I would be wearing to work today, clothes that would be comfortable for working on four DVD presses for twelve hours at a clip in an environment which could possibly run hot and cold at different times of the day. Made my lunch, all assembled and bagged and ready to go. Set my alarms for 3:00 this morning. Called the overtime/layoff information hotline to confirm that may name was not on the layoff list. Got to bed by 9:30, though I tossed and turned and didn't finally fade into unconsciousness until well after 11:00. Had a dream that involved going to some sort of a convention with a bunch of my friends, including friends from the Internet. I was climbing the stairs of the hotel when a horrible noise pierced my consciousness.

What the hell is that?, I wondered.

Of course, it was my alarm. I bounced out of bed, made a pot of coffee, ate a bowl of cereal and had a mug of coffee and a glass of juice. Took a shower, started the car so it could de-ice, came back inside for a second mug of coffee. Called the layoff/overtime recording again to verify that my name was not on the layoff list. Was on the road by 4:50 so I could get to work well ahead of my 6:00 AM start.

Obeyed the speed limit the whole way there, especially through the construction zones. Not much traffic anyway. Got to the plant around 5:35. Killed time for a bit. Went in. Put my lunch in the refrigerator. Punched in at 5:42. Went to the office to get my assignment.

Punched out at 5:52 and headed home. Seems nobody in the office knew I was coming back today, and they were fully staffed without me. So I'm on layoff today. Maybe tomorrow, too, and the rest of the rotation, and the rotation after that.


Speaking of communication, the DTV changeover is still being planned for February 17. After the collapse of the economy, I kinda thought that this transition might be postponed a bit.

Let's do a Fermi estimate of the economic impact of this transition:

  • Say there are 100 million households with TVs in the U.S. I have no idea if that is high - assuming on average three people to a household - or low.
  • Now assume 50% of those households never ever draw any signals from the air. So that leaves us with 50 million households that sometimes get signals from the air.
  • Now assume half of those households have relatively new televisions that are capable of receiving DTV signals. (Even if these televisions are so equipped, are they connected to antennas capable of picking up the DTV signals?) So now we are left with 25 million households that get signals from the air at least some of the time and are not equipped to get DTV signals.
  • Now imagine that every one of these 25 million households buys one converter box. How much are the converter boxes? I don't know. But the coupons are good for $40 off the cost of the box, so let's assume the cost of the converter boxes is somewhere from $50 for a basic model to $100 for a fancy one, requiring a consumer outlay* of $10 - $60. Let's guesstimate very conservatively (and for the sake of an easy calculation) that the average cost to the consumer is $20.
  • So this leaves us with a consumer outlay of $500 million for the privilege of continuing to watch "free" television over the air.
Is this high? Low? I don't know. It ignores the cost of new televisions and antennas, and of getting connected to cable and satellite providers to avoid the issue entirely. It ignores the landfill space that will now be occupied by all the handheld and portable televisions that have internal antennas and cannot be connected to converters and will effectively become paperweights and boat anchors next February 17.

Now for the fun part: Who the heck gets signals from over the air, anyway? A lot of people, actually. They tend to come from the lower economic strata of society - the poor, the elderly, the people living in places that are unserved by cable. How many residents in nursing homes have their own televisions to keep them company in their waning years? How many of these televisions will go to static on February 17, cutting off the residents' last connection to the outside world? How many coupons will be assigned to each nursing home? Who will go out and buy converter boxes for the residents? Who will connect them? Who will bear the cost of this?

It's coming. Nobody is planning on putting the brakes on this thing until after the economy recovers. Are we ready to make this investment?

*And who do you think funded the converter box coupons in the first place?

Saturday, November 29, 2008

We interrupt this blog for four days of work

In case you're one of the people who I haven't already told about this: surprise! I'm back on the press floor as of today tomorrow* (Sunday, November 30), running four DVD presses and asking myself what the hell this has to do with that degree in Physics I got nearly twenty years ago. (Once upon a time I had an answer to that question. Now I don't.)

I'll be on the 4x4, working four twelve-hour days and then (in theory) getting four days off. Depending on how things are going, I may be forced to work overtime on those days off, or I may be laid off on my next rotation. Heck, I may even get laid off before the end of this rotation.

I fancy myself a writer. This blog represents the bulk of my writing output, so you can judge for yourself what sort of writer I am. But I am reminded of a story I read about someone being stuck in an airport while he was travelling with a science fiction writer friend. As he sat there and cursed the airline and its delays, the writer pulled out his notepad and began jotting down notes. The man asked the writer what he was doing, and he replied "I'm a writer. This is all research."

I'm going to keep telling myself that as my feet ache and my back aches and my head spins while trying to deal with the demands of four DVD presses and their associated systems, all of which serve to remind me how mechanically incompetent I am. It's all research, it's all research, it's all research...

Maybe someday something will come out of it.

*Crap. I meant to delay this post until tomorrow. Oh, well.

Macy's Parade gets Rickrolled!

I missed this when it happened, and I've missed any references to it in the mainstream media or on the Internet until I read about it at Dr. Isis's place. The float from Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends got Rickrolled by a very special guest star!

Rick Astley, FTW!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Squidgy things

So I'm working on a post that will basically be the equivalent of jamming a stick into a nest full of racist hate-spewing hornets. But silence in the face of evil equals consent.

As you may recall, the last time I dealt with hornets it was with a ridiculous overabundance of caution. I defeated them. But these hornets do not slow down when the sun sets, nor are they vulnerable to an attack from an oblique angle. Dealing with one or two trolls was bad enough. Do I really feel like dealing with a well-organized army of them, and their irregulars throughout the world?

I'm going to need backup on this one. I had backup last time, both moral support and expert technical guidance. I expect I will need a lot more of each this time.


I've migrated away from MySpace, mostly. There are a few people I'm friends with there who are very active, but most of my friends have moved on from there. Even the "false friends" have moved on, meaning I'm not getting contacted by slutty girls in bikinis who really, really want to be my friend.

No, now I'm getting contacted by fourteen-to-seventeen-year old boys and girls from random spots in the world who really, really want to be my friend.

So, like, what's up with that? Is this happening to anyone else who has a MySpace account? Does anybody else still have a MySpace account?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Buddy List disaster

There are a few reasons you shouldn't vacuum your keyboard while your computer is running. For one, you might send a static discharge through the keyboard that can fry things you'd rather not have fried. But for another, you might do something dumb, like accidentally delete your entire "Friends" Buddy List from your AIM window.

Like I did.

So if you were one of the people I used to chat with using AIM, contact me through the comments or send an e-mail to the address listed on my sidebar, and I'll re-add you right away! And I'll have to remember to never, never do something so dumb again!

Holiday Reruns: The Littlest Turkey!

Because I am lazy, here yet again is the repost of the complete version of The Littlest Turkey.

What's more traditional during the holidays than reruns of your favorite holiday specials? In that spirit, and the spirit of not having very much time this year, I present to you The Littlest Turkey complete in one post!

The Littlest Turkey was originally posted November 16 (Part 1) and 17 (Part 2 and Conclusion), 2005, and was originally posted complete in one post on November 24, 2005.

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 26, 2008

Turkey Pardons

Once again President Bush pardoned the official White House turkey, a monstrous 43-lb. beast who will, most likely, die within a year as a result of the deficiencies bred into it in the quest to develop the biggest, most delicious birds for the market.

Turns out the tradition of turkey pardons is a lot more recent that most people think - according to, dating back only to 1989:

By now you've probably seen the Sarah Palin post-turkey pardon interview, in which a turkey slaughter is carried out in a conveniently set-up shot. Even my most liberal friends regard this as an obvious case of "gotcha journalism."

And besides, this was a turkey farm where turkeys are bred and raised for slaughter, destined for the tables of Americans who indulge in the annual tradition of gluttony. Why should anyone be shocked to see that they actually kill the turkeys there?

Enjoy your Thanksgiving dinner. And if you're feeling guilt over the fact that you're eating a dead bird, consider a Tofurkey next year.

More on Presidential turkey pardons:

Another Monkey: Talking turkey

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Tattoo Thief

OK, one tale I haven't told from the Sideshow Gathering until now: It was robbed on its opening night, Halloween. Here's a video of the guy who did it. If you can identify this guy, Marc's Tattooing - the sponsor and organizer of the event - is offering a reward.

From: Inkin The Valley
Date: Nov 25, 2008 9:20 PM


Do you know this guy?

He stole a bunch of equipment from the Inkin' the Valley Tattoo Convention in Wilkes Barre, PA, Halloween night at the Woodlands. Email if you have ANY information.

PLEASE REPOST if you’re in our area.

We'll tattoo ANYTHING you want if you give up information that helps us find this person.

Thanks, Marc's Tattooing

Sometimes they come back

My mom was putting food out in one of the shelters that we've set up for the neighborhood stray cats when she got a surprise. This shelter is an old wheeled plastic garbage can, cracked and no longer useful for its original purpose, tucked under a Rhododendron with several old plastic tablecloths on top for waterproofing and a bag of leaves for insulation. This one also featured a critter who stuck its pointy nose out of the covered entrance to the shelter when my mom went to set some food inside. She recognized the nose as belonging to an opossum, but asked me to check it out. After three tries I managed to get the photo above.

I assured her - incorrectly - that opossums are insectivores who do not stay in one spot for very long. If the Wikipedia entry is to be believed, they are opportunistic omnivores who will stay in one area as long as food - including pet food, and occasionally small (kitten-sized?) mammals - is readily available.

I didn't just go out with a camera, but with a garden rake as well, to encourage the intruder to leave the area. But I looked at the wet, frightened, and bedraggled creature in my picture and took pity on it. It was, after all, a cold and rainy night, and we knew the cats had other accommodations available. And my laziness one hot Summer day last year put another opossum through a lot more distress than it should have experienced. Yes, I know this is almost certainly not the same opossum, but I still feel bad about the last one, slowly cooking in a cage in the scorching midday heat that it naturally avoids. I decided to leave this one unmolested.

This morning the lid protecting the entrance to the shelter was pushed aside, and the opossum was gone. The cat food was still there.

Title Reference: The creepy Stephen King short story Sometimes They Come Back.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Stained Glass Project in the news!

Pick up a copy of today's (11/24/08) Wilkes-Barre Citizens' Voice and turn to page 4 for an article by Erin Moody all about The Stained Glass Project! It even shows some of my photos - including one on the banner at the top of the front page!

Go out and buy a bunch of copies. Support local newspapers!

Erin Moody: Framing Stained Glass Snapshots - Wilkes-Barre Citizens' Voice, November 24, 2008

UPDATE: Huge thanks are due to Erin Moody, not just for this article but for having actually provided the encouragement for me to engage in this project. She first contacted me about possibly doing an article just two days after my initial post on this subject! Her interest encouraged me to become more active with this project, and the realization that there might eventually be an article written made me decide to put up more posts more quickly than I might have otherwise, so that anyone coming here by way of her article would not be disappointed.

So, once again: Thank you, Erin!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Stained Glass Project: The Round Windows

This is part of an ongoing series called The Stained Glass Project, in which I am attempting to photographically preserve the stained glass windows of my parish church, Our Lady of Czestochowa (St. Mary's) in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania.

One of the more mysterious aspects of the stained glass windows of St. Mary's church in Nanticoke, PA is the significance of the round windows positioned at the top of each pair of portrait windows, and at the top of the two pairs of non-portrait windows located at the very back of the church. These are placed well above the heads of the parishioners, some fifteen or so feet off the ground, and contain details and carefully written calligraphy that are almost impossible to view without some aid. What do they show, and say, and represent? Do they relate in any way to the portraits below them?

Based on the most immediately visible round windows, all of which seemed to be examples of plants with Latin words attached - as dee pointed out, possibly the Latin names of the plants themselves - I began to suspect that these images might represent a Hortus conclusus, an "enclosed garden" made of images painted on glass, each representing some aspect of Mary or other theme drawn from the Bible.

So, for example, we have the Oliva speciosa, the "fair olive tree," whose significance is described here.

We also see what appears to be a rosebush in bloom positioned above Saints Leo and George.

Then we have what may be a Cornus, a dogwood tree, the relevance of which is explained in dee's comment.

But the pattern soon falls apart. The rest of the round windows are of a collection of plants, objects, buildings, all of which may have some deeper significance, but most of which do not fit in with the Hortus conclusus theme.

Lily of the Valley





Immaculate Heart of Mary (distinguished from the Sacred Heart of Jesus by the flowers and piercing sword)


Chalice (or, more likely, a Ciborium)


Closeup of calligraphy under Host image. Even at this distance I can't make it out.

UPDATE: Translation and explanation, again courtesy of dee:

"Speculum sin macula" Mirror without blemish, or mirror without stain.

In the Litany of Mary, she is referred to as the Mirror of Justice (and the Seat of Wisdom, Ark of the Covenant and my favorite, Mystical Rose, among others) I was trying to match all those incredibly beautiful metaphors with these windows -- the temple could be the Tower of David, for example.

And even more from dee, in a later comment:

...upon further reflection (no pun intended) I think that's the moon in the Speculum Sin Macula window. The moon reflects the light of the sun; Mary reflects God's love back to us.

I would never have guessed that last word was "Macula." It looks to mee something like "Alarula", which of course doesn't translate. So could this be a depiction of a mirror, rather than a Host?

UPDATE, 12/14/08: While researching this window, I was reminded of something I had once been very familiar with, but have since forgotten:
The term pyx is also a standard term used in the Roman Catholic Church to refer to a flat, circular container, sometimes called a lunette, composed of a ring of metal (usually lined with gold) holding two glass or crystal disks, to create a round, flat, glass-enclosed space for the Eucharistic Host. This is used together with a monstrance for exposition and Benediction services. The lunette is often kept in another object, itself sometimes called a pyx, luna, or custodia, which is usually a round box often on a small stand, giving the impression of a faceless, old-fashioned, alarm clock.
So this brings us full circle to the possibility that this is an image of a host contained in a lunette. But those markings on the white circular object in the window do look intriguingly like round craters, rayed craters, and maria on the Moon, though...

As for the rest of these images: What is their significance? I do not know. I present them here for you to ponder and offer your thoughts.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Recession? WHAT Recession?

Today I had a fairly structured program to follow:

  1. Get up.
  2. Eat.
  3. Shower.
  4. Give blood.
  5. Drop off photos at Sam's Club for processing. Which means, "Take CD-ROM of photos to Sam's Club and upload on one of their self-serve thingies for processing."
  6. Get oil change.
  7. Buy sneakers. (I'll be needing them starting next Sunday. Twelve hours a day on my feet again...)
  8. Buy whiskey. Brandy was OK in last year's Rocks, my grandmother's fruitcake cookies, but whiskey punches them up better. I learned that last week when my mom freshened some Rocks from last Christmas that I had taken out of the freezer with some whiskey that I had on the counter. Unfortunately, this was Paddy whiskey from Ireland, not available for purchase in the U.S. It costs about $30 - $35 a bottle (depending on the dollar-euro exchange rate) and about $400 - $1000 for shipping and handling (depending on the cost of a round-trip ticket to Ireland so you can carry it home in your checked baggage.) So I was looking for something similar in taste, but more affordably priced.
  9. Buy fuel injector cleaner, drygas, and window insulating film.
  10. Buy cardstock, preferably the stuff that comes with envelopes. For my holiday cards, among other things.
  11. Pick up photos at Sam's Club.
Items one, two, and three went smoothly, though it was the first time in many donations that we used my right arm. (My left arm is semi-retired since the vein apparently closed itself off the last time I tried to give blood.) But when I got to Sam's Club I was a little surprised to see the parking lot more packed than it has been in years. Recession? What Recession?

I got to the photo kiosks and saw that there were people crowded around them all. On closer inspection I saw that many of these people were just family of the people using the machines, and in fact one machine was open and available - I didn't notice that at first because there were two kids playing with it while their father used the one next to it.* After pounding the unresponsive touch-sensitive screen with my fingertips a bit, I was able to get my photos uploaded and sent off to be processed. For some reason I didn't get a receipt. Oh, well. Onward.

Oil change went well. I wasn't sure about this new place at first, but I've gotten to like the pit-crew style team service. Turned out my coolant reservoir was mostly empty, so they topped that off.

Sneakers went well. Got New Balance again, but this time I shopped on design and weight, not whether or not the particular model was made in the U.S.A. (That used to be New Balance's thing. Not anymore.) Twelve hours a day running four DVD injection molding systems puts a strain on your feet and legs. But all the signs indicate that this gig won't last long... and then I'll be needing good shoes for pounding the pavement. Saved $15 over the shelf price, too! And this parking lot was also mostly-full.

I completely forgot to buy whiskey. This bugs me, because the liquor store is right next to the next place I had to go, so it would have made a nice, efficient pattern. As it is I went to the one downtown after church and after I delivered my mom to the church-sponsored variety show being held afterwards. I got a 750 ml bottle of Bushmill's 1608. It's not as good as Paddy. I was wondering if there might be a place where I could have sampled different whiskeys for taste. Then I realized that there is one: it's called a "bar." Maybe next time I'm out and not the designated driver I'll do some Irish whiskey taste testing. The things I do for the sake of good Christmas cookies!

I gritted my teeth and went into Wal-Mart for the next bunch of stuff. I went in through the garden department entrance, which always takes the edge off. Yet again I had a hell of a time finding a parking place, even in the side lot which is usually overlooked by most shoppers. I got the stuff I was looking for fairly quickly and checked out. The lines at all the registers were long when I started to check out, and were much longer by the time I was done with my transaction.

I went back to Sam's Club, where the parking lot was now even fuller than it was a few hours earlier. I searched for a while for the blank greeting cards, since they have done one of their periodic store layout re-shuffles, and eventually discovered that they no longer carry what I was looking for. Crap. I'll have to go somewhere else to get them.

Finally I went to the photo desk to pick up my photos...only to find that they had never transmitted. So there were no photos to be had. I decided I would try sending them from home.

And try, and try. Uploading large numbers of high-resolution photos takes a long time. And each time I did, a few of them failed to upload. So I had to reload twelve out of seventy, then five out of twelve, then one out of five. Finally they were all uploaded and ready to order...and the program told me I would have to crop my photos. ALL of them. I have no idea what that means in this context. I think it means that I have to change the resolution, or maybe the aspect ratio, to avoid pixellation. I don't know.

I think I may order just two or three to be printed, to see how they come out. If everything looks fine, I'll do the rest. If not, I'll drop them off to be printed - just not from the same machine I used today.

Tomorrow I will be visiting friends, but I will try to post another entry in The Stained Glass Project. My goal is to do one a week, every Sunday. We'll see how that goes.

*It is unwise to assume any child-sized person is a child. I realized that as I walked past the line of people standing in line at the service desk and noticed a person the height of a ten-year-old girl who was quite obviously a full-grown woman.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Buyer Beware: Click Farms and Positive Feedback

Back in the early 1980's, when a lot of things were happening in my life that helped form me into the person I am today, my father brought home a book he had been given as part of a promotional deal with someone. (Not sure how or why, or what was being promoted, or who it was being promoted to.) The book was the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, and I fell in love with it.

There are lots of word origin books out there, but none of them that I've seen are quite like this. Rather than a dry, bare-bones treaty on etymology, this book contained fascinating short essays on hundreds of common words and phrases, written in a breezy, conversational tone that was never condescending or dumbed down. I could pick up this book, open it at random, read an entry, flip through the pages and read a dozen more, then look up and wonder where the time had gone.

I was cleaning out my old room one day years ago when I noticed that the book was not on the shelf where I had always kept it. I thought Oh, well, it'll show up someplace. And it did - two hundred miles away at my sister's house. Turned out she had appropriated the book at some point and had taken it with her when she moved into her own house. I decided I would buy myself a replacement one of these days.

A few weeks ago I was at my brother's house and, apropos nothing, he mentioned how he'd like to get a copy of the Morris Dictionary to share with his sons. I decided I would get him one for Christmas. I figured I would go online, find one from a discount book seller - because money is so tight for everyone everywhere right now - and order myself a copy while I was at it.

I went on Amazon. There the book is listed at $25.08 (with FREE Super Saver Shipping!) A bit steep to order two right now...but wait! What was that note? "27 new from $6.71." A 70% savings! How could you beat that?

I clicked on the offer of the cheap new book, and everything seemed in order. And the seller's feedback - remarkable! 96% positive over nearly half a million ratings in the past twelve months? Over 2,600,000 ratings overall? Unbelievable!

And, well, maybe it was.

I ordered my books - two of them - and even with shipping and handling it still came out to less than the cost of one book at Amazon's discounted price. Delivery could take up to four weeks, so I waited.

Within a week I got a confirmation e-mail:

> Dear Amazon Customer,
> This email is to confirm we have shipped the order
> from that you placed through the
> website. The details of this order are

> shown below:
> ISBN Order Ship Title
> --------------------------------------------------------------------------
> 1594862869 2 2 The New Glucose Revolution
> --------------------------------------------------------------------------

Hey! Great! Super! Ummm...waitaminute...

I sent off a quick e-mail to their customer service address:

The book that you have listed is NOT the book I ordered!
Order Date: November 5, 2008
Shipping estimate: November 6, 2008 - November 7, 2008 2 of: Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins [Hardcover] by Morris, William

And then, a few days later, I sent another e-mail:

A package arrived from your company today. I have not opened it because I believe it contains the wrong product. Please advise ASAP on how I can return these and when you will be shipping the books I ordered.

I believe I see what happened. The book that I ordered two copies of was this:
Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins
ISBN 1594862861

The book that you shipped two copies of, according to your notice, was this:

The New Glucose Revolution
ISBN 1594862869

A single digit difference makes a completely different book.

And I got no response.

I tried two more times, through Amazon's site - they have a way of contacting sellers. Still nothing. Finally, I posted negative feedback on their site:

1 out of 5: "They get one star for prompt delivery - of the wrong books. (They were off on the ISBN code by one digit.) I have sent them two e-mails and contacted them twice through Amazon with no response. Not sure what the problem is, or if this is business as usual with them."

(Amazon won't let you give zero stars.)

Today I received a notice that my money was being refunded.

Item: Refund for Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins [Hardcover] by Morris, William
Reason for refund: Customer service credit
Memo from seller: This title was incorrectly listed on
Amazon Payments has refunded your credit card for this purchase, and the refund should appear as a credit on your next credit card statement.

I'll wait and see if that happens. But I noticed that my negative comment has been buried under an avalanche of positive feedback:

5 out of 5: "Fast, no problems."
5 out of 5: "I am very pleased with this transaction. I would highly recommend this seller. Thanks!"
5 out of 5: "Brand new 'used' book. Very nice.....A"
5 out of 5: "Fantastic service. Superfast shipping. Great person. Thank you. A"
5 out of 5: "great seller"
5 out of 5: "Thank you!"
5 out of 5: "Excellent"
5 out of 5: "Good service, book in great condition! Would buy again."
5 out of 5: "Got shipment notice quickly; USPS took longer than I'd have liked but not seller's fault."
5 out of 5: "Like new just as described--fast shipping--many thanks!"
5 out of 5: "Prompt service."
5 out of 5: "as promised"
5 out of 5: "Thanks!"
4 out of 5: "GOOD SELLER"
5 out of 5: "Thanks, perfect sale:)"
5 out of 5: "Prompt"
5 out of 5: "Quick delivery. Book was in excellent condition. Very satisfied customer."
2 out of 5: "24 days is too long to wait for a book that's supposedly already in stock. Would not use this seller again."
5 out of 5: "Fast service."
5 out of 5: "Would use again...quick and reliable service"
5 out of 5: "Happy with service"
5 out of 5: "Thanks."
4 out of 5: "Thanks for great service, have a happy holidays."
5 out of 5: " a"

...most of which sounded...I don't know...fake? There's only one comment in this group that isn't positive - and all of these were posted within a few hours of my comment.

There are things out there called "click farms" - virtual boiler-room "work from home" schemes were people are paid a pittance just to click on sites, links, ads, whatever - make it look like there is lots of traffic where in fact there is very little, make it look like a lot of people are clicking on ads when in fact they are not, all with the idea of increasing page rank, increasing desirability to advertisers, increasing advertising revenue.

So how much more would it cost to pay a click farm to give positive feedback to an online retailer?

Not that I'm saying this is what happened here. Nosiree Bob. I'm not making any such accusations of retail fraud here, of intentional misrepresentation of customer satisfaction. Nope. Nothing of the sort. I may have suspicions, but that's hardly enough evidence to make such a claim.

So: let the online buyer beware. Don't assume that because a retailer has an overwhelmingly positive feedback rating that it actually means anything. Look at the negative feedback. Research the company a bit. Check their site to make sure the product is actually being offered. (That would have helped me.) And if something goes wrong, contact them. If you get no response, contact them again. And if still no response, take your complaint upstairs.

Now, I need to try again to see if I can find an inexpensive copy of this book. Two of them, actually. Hmmm, Amazon currently says it has 27 copies starting from $6.71. And the company offering them has really good feedback...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Attention SiteMeter users!

I don't know if there as many SiteMeter users out there as there were before the Fiasco of September 2008 or the Fiasco of August 2008 (formerly known as the "SiteMeter Fiasco of 2008" until it turned out it wasn't the only one.) But if there are, and if you'd like to put in your two cents on some new design ideas, please check out this post on the SiteMeter News & Announcements blog.

After the September fiasco, I signed up to be a Beta tester in response to this post. I received an acknowledgement of my e-mail - but nothing else. So when I saw the chance to participate in this survey, I jumped at it. It requires that you be a registered SiteMeter user, and takes a good 15 minutes or so to complete, but it invites comments at every step of the way. So if you're a SiteMeter user, please go there and help to design the new SiteMeter interface!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Conjunction of Moon, Venus, and Jupiter, November 30 - December 1, 2008

I'm feeling tired and uninspired right now. Going to head to bed early.

So I was wondering what I could write about that wouldn't take too much out of me, and I remembered that there's a cool conjunction of the Moon, Venus, and Jupiter coming up November 30 and December 1.

Rather than try to summarize what's going to happen, I'll just point you towards some sites that talk about it in detail. Plus I've posted a nifty animation that I found on one of the sites. Play through it to get an idea of what you'll see where and when.

Breaking Orbit: Stargazer Alert! Venus and Jupiter in Conjunction This December
EarthSky: Venus and Jupiter conjunction. Moon nearby!
Jack Horkheimer: Stargazer: The Three Brightest Night Time Objects Meet In A Terrific Extraterrestrial Trio!

Mark your calendars! Don't miss it!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Atheists, Nihilists, and Agnostics explained

I really like Metalocalypse more than I should. It's not like I'm into this sort of music. But having been in the industry a little, and having known a few musicians and audio engineers in my personal and professional life, I get a lot of the stuff here. Plus, I'm pretty sure in one episode they referenced My Bloody Valentine, as band leader Nathan Explosion erases several albums' worth of recorded, completed tracks because he's dissatisfied with them. (My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields did the same thing, eventually resulting in a hiatus of fifteen years or so that was only broken last year.)

In this episode, bassist William Murderface has decided that he needs to find religion. But which one? Here the band sits in at a service in the Church of the Athiests.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Adventures in leaf raking

I raked leaves this past weekend. I raked leaves the weekend before, too, and not just my leaves, but the leaves of the woman next door, and of the recently-widowed neighbor across the street.

Not out of the goodness of my heart, or not just out of the goodness of my heart. I wanted the leaves. I wanted them for use as mulch on my blueberries over the coming Winter, since I have found that those blueberry bushes that are heavily mulched - like, buried in mulch, wrapped in burlap, and otherwise insulated - tend to grow more and bear more fruit the next season. And I want them for making leaf mold, which is an excellent soil conditioner in the garden but takes about five years to make. (Mix one bag of leaves with a few shovels of soil and some water. Pierce bag with pitchfork. Wait.)

But mostly, I wanted them for insulation.

Not for me. For the cats. The stray cats outside. For their shelters. I can't ensure that they'll all survive the Winter, but I can give them a fighting chance by surrounding their shelters with several feet of bagged leaves.

So I raked. This past weekend, and the weekend before. The weekend before I raked on Saturday, when it was quite warm, and all the little gnats were active, so active that I had to get a hat with a brim (to keep them away from my eyes and nose; they tend to come no closer than the edge of the brim) with a watch cap pulled over that, and over my ears, too keep the bugs out. I raked a bit on Sunday, too, when it was cold enough that I needed the hat-and-cap for warmth, not bug protection.

I got ten bags that weekend. Seven from my yard and the next-door neighbor's yard, three from the lady across the street. But I wasn't done yet. Some leaves were still stubbornly clinging to the trees. I knew I would have to wait until this past weekend to finish the job.

Only this past weekend it was supposed to rain.

I got up Saturday thinking I would be rained out of a job. But, no, the rain was spotty and sporadic enough that I should have clear spots for long enough to do what I had to do. I putzed around in the morning while some episodes of drizzle came and went, but by noon (having listened to Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! on NPR) I was ready to get started.

I got my gloves, my rake, my cart, and several garbage bags. I got my little smooth-soled slip-on sneakers that I use as garden shoes. I headed out to the front quarter to rake what had fallen off our Japanese Red Maple and Oak. It looked like a bagful.

The day was warm, but the bugs were apparently otherwise occupied. I was almost done filling the bag when it began to rain.

It wasn't so bad, particularly in retrospect. But it was raining hard enough that once I had the first bag filled I decided to take a break and let the rain pass. I went inside, switched on The Weather Channel (which was showing one of the typical Weather Porn shows that have come to fill up their schedule) and waited for Local On the Eights. The :48 slot came and went without a break, so I decided to cool my heels for another ten minutes and see. The show ended at the stroke of :58, and local weather broke through the stories of weather-based tragedy that pay the bills at The Weather Channel. Radar showed ribbons of precipitation slicing through the area. I could see the one that had just passed, and I could see another lining us up for a shot. If I time this right, I could clear the yard across the street before that hits, I thought. So I geared up again and rolled the cart out of our driveway, across the street, and up the handicapped-access curb cut leading to my neighbor's house.

Her Japanese Red Maple had also conveniently dropped the rest of its leaves, but her yard has some obstacles that mean raking requires some planning and forethought. I came up with a plan of attack, assigned piles here, here, and here, and started raking.

I was about a third of the way done when it started to rain.

Once again, it wasn't so bad, not at first. A light drizzle. I could avoid getting too wet by standing under the barren branches of the Japanese Red Maple. Well, not so much under as among. Those trees hold their branches low.

I had filled one bag completely when the rain picked up a bit.

Well, I can't quit now. I was about halfway done, and the wind was picking up, and it would undo all the piles of and rows of leaves I had just made. Besides, it was just a little rain. I'm tough. Hey, I'm half Polish. I could take it.

It started raining harder.

There comes a point when you are raking leaves and it starts to rain when you can say "Screw this, I'm going in," and head back inside without getting thoroughly drenched. There's no shame in doing that. Many leaf-raking experts might advise that that is the right thing to do in those circumstances.

But once you have gone beyond this point and are thoroughly soaked, and are mostly blind from the rain on your glasses and the water dripping into your eyes, and your leather gloves begin to feel like a second skin because the water has softened them to the point that they are as supple as they were before the tanning process, when all you can do is focus on the pile of leaves in front of you and try to ignore the rest of the world...well, when you have reached that point, there really isn't much point in turning back. You can only get so wet.

Japanese Red Maples hold their branches low. Did I mention that? A very dangerous thing for a hulking half-Pole who is half-blinded by the rain on his glasses and the water dripping into his eyes and from the tunnel vision caused by focusing on the pile of leaves in front of him. The branch that I ran into while moving with all deliberate speed didn't hit me across the forehead hard enough to knock me out, or even knock me down. But it did leave a mark.

I finished, eventually. I was completely soaked. I was cursing at myself for my stupidity. I piled the bags of leaves, extra-heavy from the water clinging to each leaf, into the cart, and laid the rake across them. I only had to reload the cart one or two times as the bags tumbled out onto the sidewalk.

I made it across the street and into the driveway, but balancing the rake was a pain. Lose it. Dump it here and come back for it later. I did, tossing it on the lawn right near the curb, halfway in the driveway.

I got the cart and the leaves to the designated spot as the monsoon hit.

Fine. Done. Leaves in place. Cart turned over to serve as a cat shelter. Go in house, get out of rain.

Oh, crap, forgot the rake.

Plan B: Go back down the lawn, down the hill. Get the rake. Go in house through garage. Strip off soaked clothes, throw in washer, and go directly into shower.

Wet hills and smooth-soled slip-on sneakers do not mix.

I fell. I'm not sure of the particulars, but I wound up on my butt, right leg folded under me, left ankle twisted. Nothing felt sprained or broken or dislocated. I got up and did exactly the same thing again.

At least by now I was mostly down the hill. I fought through the sideways rain to get to the rake. I braved raindrops the size of marbles to get back to the garage.

I got inside and propped up the rake. Took off my gloves, my nice new leather gardening gloves, now soaked. I inserted the handle of the rake into one so that it could dry with the fingers up. I found a broom and did the same thing with the other.

I went into the basement and made my way to the washing machine. Pulled off my shirt and threw it in. Tried to pull off my T-shirt, but the fabric was old, and tired, and wet, and stuck to my body. My fingers went through the fabric like it was wet paper, nearly tearing the neck ring off completely.

Well, it will make good rags, I thought as I tossed it into the wash.

A hot shower never felt so good.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Stained Glass Project: St. Stanislaus Kostka and Assumption Mary 1

This is part of an ongoing series called The Stained Glass Project, in which I am attempting to photographically preserve the stained glass windows of my parish church, Our Lady of Czestochowa (St. Mary's) in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania.

The second picture window from the rear on the South side of St. Mary's church in Nanticoke, PA features one of two saints named Stainislaus and one of several images of Mary, the mother of Jesus. In this case we have St. Stainislaus Kostka, a Polish Jesuit novice who died at the age of eighteen in 1568, and Mary in what I believe is a depiction of the Assumption.

On the left side of this pair of portraits, St. Stanislaus Kostka wears the cassock and surplice which mark him as a Jesuit novice. The habit, the lily, and the infant Jesus are all noted in his Wikipedia entry as "attributes," symbols associated with a particular saint. He is depicted with the "ocean" backdrop, which is, like the "cathedral" backdrops, partially blocked from view by an obscuring curtain. I like to think of this as being part of the same structure - possibly the "New Jerusalem" - depicted in the images of Saints Leo and George, but perhaps with a view of the outside world. I call this the "ocean" because there seems to be a subtle difference in color - not really visible in these photos - between the two panels behind the saint's head and the one panel above it; the dark structure I interpret as a shoreline, delineating the slightly lighter blue above as sky and the slightly darker blue below as water.

On the right side we have both the first of several depictions of Mary seen among these portraits, and the first example of an irregular background. This is apparently a depiction of the Assumption, which is the Catholic tradition (later to become dogma) that after her death Mary was raised bodily directly into Heaven, leaving behind an array of flowers where her body had once been. These may be the flowers shown at the bottom of the window.

As with all portrayals of Jesus and Mary in these windows, there is no identifying tag at the bottom as there is with portraits of the saints, only the words "ORA PRO NOBIS" - "Pray for us."

I have to say that this is not my favorite of the portraits in the windows of St. Mary's. The set of the infant Jesus' jaw, the dead blank eyes of Stanislaus Kostka (who looks much older than his eighteen years), the disproportionately large hands and small head of Mary - which bears an almost cartoon-like face - all compare poorly to some of the details seen in other portraits. It would be surprising if a single artist were responsible for each portrait image; it would be quite a coup to determining who was responsible for the creation of each, and then look for similarities within the works of a single artist, and differences between different artists.

Both the New Advent and Wikipedia entries make reference to a portrait of Stanislaus Kostka by Scipione Delfine that is supposed to be the most accurate depiction of his face. Unfortunately, neither entry depicts the portrait, and online searches have so far come up empty. On a recent visit to nearby Holy Trinity church in Nanticoke, I observed a large and elaborate stained glass window that contained a head-and-shoulders depiction of St. Stanislaus Kostka and the infant Jesus that appeared almost identical to the one in St. Mary's. Were both images created by the same artists and artisans? Are both drawn from the same source material? Unfortunately, at this time the windows of Holy Trinity are beyond the scope of my investigation. Perhaps someday someone will perform a similar study of those windows.

Note that the dark objects in the background of Mary have clearly rounded edges, rather than the sharp tailings-off we will see in the "ocean" backdrops. This suggests to me that the objects in the sky behind Mary are representations of clouds, while the distinctly different objects such as the one seen in the St. Stanislaus Kostka portrait are not.

Once again I have managed to get a surprisingly sharp image of the round window at the top of the pair of portraits. This time the banner with the accompanying text is clearly visible. But for the life of me, I can't figure out what it says.

In this close-up shot, taken (like the close-up images of the saints' portraits shown above) from the choir loft, we can see that the text is a highly stylized calligraphic script which renders the words pretty darned near unreadable. I think I can make out the top word, which is apparently in Latin; but I cannot find any biblical reference online which pairs the word at the top with anything resembling the word at the bottom. Any help here would be very much appreciated.

The St. Stanislaus Kostka window was presented by George Hill and William Evans, while the portrait of Mary was presented by E.E. Ritter. There is a George Hill listed as a Nanticoke assessor in 1874, though I cannot say for sure that this is the same one referenced here. I can't find any definite information as to who William Evans or E.E. Ritter were, although I do see a reference to an "E.E. Ritter" as an architect in other parts of Pennsylvania.

Here is what this window looks like from the outside. Not as impressive, and not quite the same effect. But someday - weeks, or months, or possibly years from now - someday, this is the only way you will be able to view this window, or any of these windows: from the outside looking in. And not long after that, these windows will probably be gone, relocated to newly-constructed Catholic churches in other parts of the country or sold to the highest bidder on the lucrative architectural antiquities market.

But that day has not come, not yet. For now you still have the opportunity to see these windows for yourself, every Sunday at 11:30 AM Mass. Come and see what this church is like, and how the windows look during a midday Mass with a congregation present. Come and see them now, before it's too late.