Thursday, December 31, 2009

Accident on the last day of the year

We shut down early at work this morning. 2:00 - just in time to play bumper cars on the highways with all the drunks pouring out of the bars.

I stayed around for another hour to help with the annual inventory, so I figured I would miss the worst of things. I mean, who is on the highway at 3:00 in the morning?

Garbage trucks, it turns out. I had one puttering along in front of me on the highway on an uphill. I passed it, but shortly after we crested the hill the garbage truck passed me again. Soon it joined up with another truck from the same company.

Which is a good thing, because the two trucks together probably saved me from crashing into the accident debris scattered all over the road a little later.

The first sign something was wrong was the car off on the left side of the highway. It was stopped but for some reason looked like it was backing up. This might have been because the red cover was missing from its third brake light, so white light was shining from its rear window, looking like a misplaced back-up light.

I don't know if it had been involved in the accident or had simply stopped to help. But a few yards beyond it there was a smaller blue vehicle off on the left-hand shoulder, sideways. It seemed to be missing its rear bumper. And maybe its rear wheels, too. There were people standing around it. There were...things in the road. I don't know what they were.

The two garbage trucks slowed and then stopped, blocking the highway just past an exit. They are protecting the vehicles. They have radios. They are calling this in. I veered off onto the exit, realizing that I myself had slowed down enough to possibly get rear-ended by any inattentive drivers following me.

There was more debris on the highway near the exit. I got a better look at this piece. It was a folded-up baby stroller.

So. What happened? I have no idea. I didn't see any coverage on the news at 6:30 this morning when I went to sleep or at 11:00 this morning when I woke up. What were the things in the road, the other debris? Again, no idea. It could have been a bumper, a rear axle, some luggage that had been strapped on top of the vehicle. It could have been bodies.

I saw a baby stroller. Was there a baby in the car?

This was the second time in ten days I was in proximity to a violent-looking car crash. Should I have stopped to render assistance? I'm not a trained responder, so there's not a lot I can or should do in such a situation, other than advise people to stay put until help arrives, and maybe some heavy lifting.

I took the exit and took a detour the rest of the way home, most of it on a secondary highway. At one point I saw two ambulances pull onto the road in front of me. Neither had its lights or sirens on. Were they coming from the accident? Was their assistance not needed? Were they carrying patients beyond the need for lights and sirens?

Tonight there will be many car accidents, and more than a few deaths. Please drive carefully. If you drink, don't drive. And watch out for everyone else on the road who may very well be drunk.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Last day...night...whatever

Tonight is the last night of work for the year. After this I am off until next Wednesday.

Tomorrow will be quite busy. Among the things I want to do is meet with a friend who will be passing through the area. I think I will try to convince him to have lunch at a place two blocks from my house.

Time for bed. Just in case I don't see you before then - have a safe and happy New Year's Eve, and see you next year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


The wind. The wind. The WIND!

We got a heads-up before leaving work this morning that the wind was pretty fierce. But it took some effort just to get out of the building! My Tercel managed to hold onto the road the whole way home, somehow.

I took a detour on my way here this morning to my house across town, to verify that both my front gate and my Arcosanti bronze windbell were still in place. (They were.) Not that I was concerned that the wind would carry either item away. No, several people in town have been victims of scrap metal thieves who have stolen their wrought iron gates. And if someone is going to go through that sort of trouble for rusty 100-year-old iron, how much more appetizing is a heavy cast-bronze windbell? There's not much I can do to secure the gate, but as of this morning the windbell, a token of appreciation for being in a friend's wedding party seventeen years ago, is safely inside the house.

The wind has died down now, and none of the trees outside have collapsed. Neither has the house itself, nor the utility poles withe electrical wires slung between them. So now I can go to bed.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Back to work for three days

Well, I signed up for overtime for today...and I got it. So it's back to work tonight, and then Tuesday and Wednesday nights too. On Thursday a friend will be passing through the are and I'll want to meet up with him for lunch. Then it's mass sometime in the afternoon, dinner with my mom, and a New Year's Party (I think - I haven't received any recent reminders, so that might have changed.) So Thursday will be a bit of a marathon, and the challenge will be to get some sleep in there somewhere.

Friday, Saturday, and Sunday I may try to do some of the holiday visiting I haven't been doing. But when you have a car with 313,000 miles on it, you do have to be careful about long trips.

I actually don't go back to work after that until Wednesday the 6th, on a new experimental schedule where we'll be working fewer hours spread out over more days - instead of 48 hours every eight days we will work 40 hours every seven days, and instead of a 4-day-on 4-day-off schedule it will be 5 days on, 3 days off, with the first and last days of the 5 day rotation being partial days. It's confusing as hell, but there are very good reasons for trying it. Unfortunately, the practical upshot of commuting 5 days out of every 8 instead of 4 days out of every 8 is that the cost of commuting (as well as associated wear-and-tear) has gone up 25%. It's as if the price of gas went up from $3 a gallon to $3.75 a gallon. And before you suggest that everyone should start car pooling - there are practical considerations that make scheduling carpools impossible on these first and last days. Which means a major disruption for those who already carpool.

I wonder if any new employment opportunities will be coming to this region in the coming year.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

As 2009 grinds to a close

Christmas Day is over, though as our priest keeps reminding us, Catholics* observe Christmas all the way through to January 10, which is when we observe the Feast of the Epiphany. I have no problem with leaving my Christmas decorations up until then, and beyond.

It's been a busy past few days, and this is the first time in a while I've really had a chance to sit down and compose at the keyboard. Which is a damned shame, because unless something happens (and it might), I am at the top of the overtime list for tomorrow, so I will most likely be going in to work tomorrow night. I won't know for sure until Monday morning.

I've been laying pretty low this Christmas, shopping-wise. I know that if I leave the house now I will spend some money. Actually I want to spend some money on an Astronomy calendar (or, should I say, the Astronomy calendar.) And maybe a few other things.

2009 hit the rest of the country pretty hard economically. Here in NEPA, not so much - because we've already been in severe economic and employment straits for several years now. (I lost my decently-paying white-collar job back in February 2007, back when folks were still laughing at suggestions of a coming recession.) A friend in the D.C. Metro area tells me that some of her fellow government employees were having a conversation prefaced with the statement "Now that the recession is over..." When she pointed out that the recession is far from over for people in a lot of places outside of their insular little bubble community, they pretty much responded with a sneering "sucks to be them." (For more on this, see this post from Robert Reich.)

I think I'll be doing some blog housekeeping for the new year. There are a few blogs and associated sites that have gone away and are almost certainly not coming back. Pruning these dead sites away is personally painful because at least one of them represents a friend - now a former friend, or maybe a never-really-was-a-friend - who has also gone away and is almost certainly not coming back, at least not anywhere that I will be able to - or welcome to - interact with her.

A new year represents a blank slate on which all our hopes and fears exist only as potentialities that have yet to be actualized. Starting from where we are, I guess it's easy to hope that things will get better, and maybe they will.

*In the most recent local episode of "The Culture Wars", there was a bit of a brouhaha about a manger scene set up on the Luzerne County Courthouse lawn, with a token menorah tossed in for balance. You can read more details about this here. The punch line is, more than a few Catholics were among those talking about how Christianity is a part of our nation's founding tradition and culture. I think if they studied history more closely, they would find that damned dirty Papists were regarded by the Americans of the days of our Founding Fathers about as highly as gay Muslim pedophiles would be in today's culture.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Happy Boxing Day!

One of these days someone will think to program a Rocky marathon on this day.

Been busy...too busy to blog. In a good way, I guess. But in the blogosphere I did help someone solve a mystery these past two days. That's always fun!

...Plus I'm getting reinforcement on why I will never, ever become a landlord. Ever.

Onward to New Year's Eve!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas Eve!

...or Christmas Day, depending on your time zone and when and where you're reading this!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Most Nativity stories omitted the part about the giant cow

An old favorite from 2005. This display is back up again this year, located just off route 309 in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Accident (the short version)

Two cars collided just a few feet to my left on the commute in to work last night. It kinda scared the crap out of me. I called it in to 911, and was possibly the only person to call it in, as they called me back for more specific information to determine jurisdiction.

I don't know if anyone was hurt, but I can't imagine that everyone came out OK. At the very least, two cars were wrecked just days before Christmas.

Drive safely, everyone.

UPDATE: The slightly longer version, as related on Facebook:

This was a stretch of I-81 that was unusually congested. I assumed it was from construction down the road, but there was none to be seen. So maybe this is due to traffic from a shopping center filtering down onto the highway via the exit we had just passed.

In any event, traffic was crawling along, and continued to crawl along as far as could be seen. Probably a quarter mile of traffic was visible ahead.

BUT there was a mysterious opening in the left lane that no one seemed to be using. I was considering hopping over from my spot in the right lane to the left lane, and then continuing from there. It was just as I was thinking about this when I heard the screeching roar of locked brakes and skidding tires. I couldn't see where it was coming from, but I could tell it was somewhere behind me. Then I saw out of my peripheral vision a car on my left get rear-ended by a car behind it.

It was a pretty violent collision, and one of the cars - I believe it was the one that was struck - wound up spinning around entirely and facing me. I actually thought it was coming right at me at one point, and maybe it was. I managed to move over towards a merging lane, mainly to avoid debris, but secondarily to avoid getting hit by the cars involved.

My guess: two other people had the same thought about getting into the left lane that I did. One of them moved over and stayed around the pace of the rest of the traffic; the other driver decided to accelerate and speed past all the other cars in the right lane. He (or she) obviously didn't consider that someone else might move into the lane in front of him (or her.)

A few seconds later and it might have been me getting rear-ended in nearly-stopped traffic. If it had happened, it would have been on the eighth anniversary of the time a friend and I were rear-ended at a red light by a hit-and-run driver.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy Solstice!

Take comfort, my friends. The night won't last forever. The sun shall return.

'Round these parts the worst of Winter tends to come in January and February. So far I believe temperatures have been above average, with a few brief cold snaps. This weekend's snowstorm made some of the roads an icy mess, but what landed on sidewalks was easily brushed away.

There are differences in different countries as to when Winter begins. Some cultures refer to today as "Midwinter's Day", which implies that Winter is half over; but I will argue that weather in mid-February will be much harsher and more wintry than weather in early November, so Winter is not symmetrically balanced on this day. Others declare December 1 to be the start of Winter, which seems more reasonable. Of course, half the world reckons today to be the start (or middle) of Summer! For them this is the longest day of the year.

But wherever you are, have a Happy Solstice!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Shopping is done

Yep, all my Christmas shopping is done now. Which is good, because from this point on, any shopping would have to be done at 6:30 in the morning on my way home from work.

If anyone out there wishes you a Merry Christmas, remind them that Christmas isn't until next Friday! "Happy Holidays" is appropriate any time of the year. lists holidays around the world for every day of the year. Don't forget - tomorrow is the Winter Solstice! Sacrifice a virgin if you can find one. And warmly reassure everyone that the nights will now begin getting shorter, and the sun will one day return!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Final cookie push

Sugar Cookie dough is made and chilling.

Bird's Nests are about to be made.

Coffee filters are being repurposed after having sat on a shelf for more than ten years since the introduction of "permanent" filters.

Got a taste of the future today and...maybe things won't be so bad. Maybe.

Disappointment is feeling quite proud of yourself for having discovered something that would make an absolutely perfect surprise gift for your nephews - and then finding out it's the top item on their Christmas list. Well, that's not a bad thing. And it means that I'm well-attuned to the things that they might want. I just feel less clever.

Friday, December 18, 2009


Shopping: Done. Mostly. Fun fact: Mega Bloks are compatible with Legos.

Baking: Double batch of oatmeal chocolate chips done. Double batch of Rocks underway. Still to go: Bird's Nests and Sugar Cookies.

Cards: New design chosen. Mostly printed. Not mailed.

Unemployment: Filed.

Stopped in the Barnes & Noble in downtown Wilkes-Barre that also serves as the college bookstore for King's College and Wilkes University. Paul Krugman's Economics textbook is $180. A Physics textbook is $225. WTF?

SO what is it with all the crappy driving at this time of the year? Do these people lack any driving skills at all because they do not drive the rest of the year, kinda like long-term Sunday Drivers? I pulled into the parking lot of one store today and was immediately stuck because there were cars, including two police cars, parked at random all over half the lot. Not sure what was going on. I didn't see any damage to any of the cars, but there were a lot of citations being written. One of the vehicles was a minivan with about six shady-looking characters in it, all of whom seemed pretty amused that I was trying to maneuver around their stopped vehicle to try to park in the open spots they were blocking.

Big storm coming. Allegedly.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas list

Things I have to do in the next three days:

- Christmas shopping. Technically I've picked up a few things here and there. This will be a very light year, with the exception of gifts for my nephews.

- Christmas cards. My chosen design seems too dark and cynical, even more so than last year. I may go with more than one design. Whichever, I need to send these by, like, tomorrow to make sure they get where they're going by Christmas.

- Bake cookies. I can do this. I already did some, but those are all gone. I'll do at least another gross (gross and a half? two gross?) of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies tonight. Then the rest tomorrow and Saturday. Some of the things I need to shop for are cookie essentials, like a big bottle of whiskey and some good-sized tins.

- Pay bills. Or at least make a dent in them. Remember, kids, willingness to go into debt is an expression of faith in the future.

- File for unemployment for last week.

Oh, and a fun rumor going around work: We may be working Christmas Eve. So, no Vigil Supper with my family, no Midnight Mass, none of those silly old traditions. And, possibly, no bonus rate for working on a scheduled holiday. We'll see.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Party tonight

Yay! It's our department Christmas party. I have ten two-liter bottles of soda. I hope that's enough! It's going to be quite amusing walking into the plant with that much soda dangling from my arms.

Out of respect for no one in particular, I am refraining from doing my twenty-three year old joke about Oral Roberts' surviving brothers and cousin.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Race to the bottom

I've worked in the manufacturing sector in one capacity of another for most of the last twenty years. I've seen fads in management come and go, along with their proponents. I've seen consultants wade in and get paid big bucks to make huge changes that leave everyone other than the consultants in a worse position as a result.

I've seen stuff. Scary stuff.

But I've also seen manufacturers surviving. I've seen companies make cuts to the bone and beyond. I've seen employees accept a whittling-away of their wages and benefits because in this economy they realistically have nowhere else to go, and because they have a shred of hope that maybe someday things will get better, or at least back to somewhere closer to where they were before everything went to hell.

There's a lot of stuff driving this. My industry is fairly unique in that it manufactures a range of products that many consumers would rather steal than buy, and that they steal without the slightest trace of remorse - indeed, with a sense of self-righteously sticking it to the man.

But another thing that drives the downward death spiral across many industries is the unhealthy lose-lose relationship between retailers and manufacturers. Listen to this article from NPR's All Things Considered to get a sense of the scope of the problem:

Costco-Coke Spat Highlights Retailers' Strength - All Things Considered, December 14, 2009

Pay special attention to what is said between 1:10 and 1:40 - and realize that this does not only apply to "Chinese and Asian manufacturers."

This is not just a situation in which retailers and manufacturers are locked in a deadly embrace. Consumers are demanding lower prices, and have fewer dollars to spend in the first place. In some cases manufacturers are pinched between retailers and the clients for whom they are manufacturing the product. And like consumers, clients demand ever-lower prices for the same product, even as raw materials and other associated manufacturing costs actually increase, to the point that some manufacturers are looking at the possibility of manufacturing at a loss just to hold onto market share.

And what is the end result?

Imported Chinese drywall that poisons people and corrodes metal. Imported toys that are soft and pliable and bright and shiny thanks to the addition of toxic lead. Imported ingredients for pet food that have had their apparent protein content inflated by the addition of melamine, which has the side effect of sickening and killing the pets who eat it. Stores filled with goods that are pale, cheap imitations of items sold in decades past.* Items that have been manufactured in a half-assed, low-quality way because that's all the effort the manufacturer can afford to put into them.

Manufacturers know that if they can't keep up, the clients will try to find someone who can do the job at their price point. Consumers drive the system by valuing price over quality. Everybody plays a part, and everybody shares in the blame.

Is there a way out? I have no idea. I fear that we are heading for a future filled with cheap, useless dollar-store trinkets in place of the useful and functional things we want and need, a future where America's last remaining manufacturers have been driven from these shores, resulting in an economy where no one actually makes anything.

And all we'll be able to do then is look around and ask: How the hell did we get here?

*Do you have any old box fans around, maybe twenty or so years old? Go buy a new one and compare the quality and workmanship. Even just the size and heft and the tip resistance.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Three-day seven-day week

I was laid off yesterday, so this will be (at best) another three-day, 36-hour week. Fortunately I can pad this out with unused vacation days and turn it into a seven-day week. Which means I will be able to pay the bills that are due in the next few weeks, or at least put a dent in them.

This is going to be the least materialistic Christmas ever.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Teach the Controversy

From the Wikipedia entry, as of 11:29 PM 12/13/09:

Teach the Controversy is the name of a Discovery Institute campaign to promote intelligent design, a variant of traditional creationism, while discrediting evolution in United States public high school science courses.[1][2][3][4][5][6] A federal court, along with the majority of scientific organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, say the Institute has manufactured the controversy they want to teach by promoting a false perception that evolution is "a theory in crisis" due to it being the subject of purported wide controversy and debate within the scientific community. [7][8][9][10] McGill University Professor Brian Alters, an expert in the creation-evolution controversy, is quoted in an article published by the NIH as stating that "99.9 percent of scientists accept evolution"[11] whereas intelligent design has been rejected by the overwhelming majority of the scientific community. [12][13]
Teach the Controversy is also the name of a line of T-shirts that parodies this manufactured "controversy" of science vs. pseudoscience and mythology. There are two designs that I haven't seen yet - so I've sketched out my own versions. Quite literally "sketched" on a piece of scrap cardstock I happened to have floating around. The first one is actually my first and favorite version* of my sketch of the explanation of solar eclipses through the action of a dragon that eats the sun. I've seen an old image of this in a book, but I can't locate it online. I thought this was in Cosmos, but I've flipped through my well-worn copy several times and haven't been able to find it.

The second is a much rougher thumbnail version of my standard rebuttal to anyone who suggests that Creationism should get equal time with the teaching of evolution because "there are two sides to every story": "Should weather reports give equal time to the 'Weather God' theory of low pressure systems?" In this image is a partial scribble of Thor, the Norse God of Thunder, complete with Mjöllnir and a cartoon/opera horned Viking helmet. Would Thor hang with Zeus / Jupiter, who could throw lightning bolts to accompany Thor's thunder?
Silly stuff, I know. But the pseudoscientific phony "controversies" we see and hear every day are silly - and dangerous. Best to inoculate yourself to the stupidity. Unless you're convinced that inoculations are a government plot, or will give you autism...

* Here are the other two versions:

Saturday, December 12, 2009

I am exhausted

Haven't been sleeping right these past four days off - which just extended into five days. I need to get to bed soon. There's so much left to do, and I'm not getting most of it done this way. At least I took care of one promise today. But that means there's lots more baking ahead in the few free days I have before Christmas.

I think it's the weather. I think my Seasonal Affective Disorder hit me like a train with last Tuesday night's snow, and my body just wants to hibernate. That, and the fact that I appear to be stuck on night shift even on my days off. I'm trying to work through things with St. John's Wort. It's helped in the past. Maybe I should try taking some fish oil, too.

Let's have some holiday music, shall we? I saw this on a friend's site and reposted it to Facebook. It will probably go viral, like the Muppets' version of Bohemian Rhapsody. Here they are with "Ringing of the Bells" (a.k.a. "Carol of the Bells"):

UPDATE: Two hours later, I am wide awake and heading for bed.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Canadian Science Fiction writer Peter Watts assaulted and detained by U.S. border agents

When I met Chelsea Clinton in Scranton last year I had a few seconds to talk to her. Nothing much. Not that I was being rushed at all, and in fact I could have hung out with Chelsea at a nearby bar/restaurant afterwards, but I didn't want to delay the nice lady who took my picture and her daughter from getting to talk to Chelsea. So I think all I said to her after the picture was taken was something like, "I have a lot of friends who are afraid to travel to America. I hope your mom helps change that." I wasn't just thinking about our culture of violence. I was also thinking of the ever-more-draconian steps that are being taken to discourage any visitors from coming to this country, all in the name of National Security.

When Barack Obama became the Democratic nominee I threw my support behind him. I figured that either Democratic candidate would be more likely to reverse the Bush Administration's many miserably bad decisions than the McCain/Palin team.

On a lot of these, I'm still waiting.

Here's just another example.

On Tuesday, Dec. 8th, Canadian science fiction author Dr. Peter Watts was arrested and beaten while returning to Canada after reportedly helping a friend move in Nebraska.

According to Cory Doctorow (a personal friend of Dr. Watts), as border guards were inspecting his car, Dr. Watts got out and questioned what they were doing. He was subsequently punched, pepper-sprayed, beaten, handcuffed, and jailed. The witnesses in the car reported that Dr. Watts did nothing to provoke the guards into this response.
Dear President Obama: WTF? We hired you to fix these problems. This is the sort of crap I would expect under your predecessor. But I expect better from you.

See also:

Legal fundraiser for Dr. Peter Watts, SF writer Deanna Hoak (this is how I became aware of this story)

Dr Peter Watts, Canadian science fiction writer, beaten and arrested at US border - Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing

Not the Best of Possible Worlds. - Peter Watts' account of the situation. Contains some harsh language, understandably.

Science fiction writer charged after bridge struggle The Times Herald - A report in a Michigan paper from Port Huron, where this incident took place. Contains several inaccuracies and errors, which Watts addresses in the post linked below. Some of these inaccuracies and errors may actually be present in the official police report, though this was only verbally delivered to the reporter by Port Huron police Captain Jim Jones.

Squidgate. Update. - more from Peter Watts, including corrections to some of the reports floating around out there.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Here I go

Commencing preparations for Christmas in 3...2...1...

...hey, I wonder if anyone has updated their blogs or Facebook statuses in the last thirty seconds? Let me check...

UPDATE, 12/11/09, 2:40 AM: Twelve dozen oatmeal chocolate chip cookies made. Not a bad start. CHRISTMAS PREPARATIONS HAVE BEGUN.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Glowing spiral over Norway

I am in serious danger of becoming the sort of blogger who just links to other people's blogs or online articles. Not that that's a bad thing - there's a lot of good, cool, and interesting stuff I'm reading out there that I'd like to share. (Actually, Blogger has a "Blog This" function that I suppose I could be using. Hmmm...)

Anyway, here's something from Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy website about a mysterious glowing spiral that appeared over northern Norway early on the morning of December 9, 2009. Clicking on the image above takes you to the original Norwegian article (in Norwegian) with a larger version of the picture, and Phil's article has more images and links. The most likely explanation for this is that it is from a failed rocket launch, possibly from Russia, spiraling and venting exhaust.

A few - OK, more than twenty years ago, my father told me about a strange glowing, swirling cloud he saw in the night sky. Later that week I was talking with a girl with whom I was having a long-distance relationship and she mentioned to me that she had also seen something very much like this at about the same time. As she lived about 100 miles to the West, I realized that whatever they both had seen had to be pretty high up in the atmosphere. A few days later a small article in the newspaper noted that people all over the Eastern seaboard had reported seeing this, and it was just part of a Russian (well, Soviet Union) rocket launch that had gone up at an unusual time on an unusual trajectory, which is why such things hadn't been noticed during previous launches.

It's very unusual, very beautiful, rare but not unheard-of. If anyone reading this happens to be from Norway or thereabouts, please let me know if you witnessed this personally.

See also:
Strange 'Norway spiral' likely an out-of-control missile - space - 10 December 2009 - New Scientist

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Ice storm in the morning?

Yessir, sounds like there's some interesting weather coming tonight. While I'm at work. Will the various local and state agencies tasked with keeping the highways open and safe spring into action for the early-morning commuters? Another big advantage of working night shift: I won't be driving in at god-knows-when in the morning through this stuff, hoping to get to work on time. I can take my time getting home, especially since this is the last day of the rotation.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Two day week

Back to work today for the last two days of my rotation. This would have been a 36-hour week, but now is a 24-hour week since we were laid off yesterday. I could use my remaining vacation days to make up the difference, but I think I'll file for unemployment for this week as long as I'm eligible. (My unemployment compensation will be based in part on all the extra time I put in this summer.) I would have to be laid off two days next week - which is scheduled as a 48 hour week - to be eligible for unemployment then, and I'm hoping that won't happen. But I will probably take my remaining vacation days for my unscheduled days next week, to maximize that paycheck. There are a lot of bills coming up in the next few months, city taxes and school taxes and garbage fees and house insurance and other stuff. Plus, electrical rates are expected to jump by 30% after rate caps come off on the first of the year.

Sigh. This is what my life has come to.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Unexpected day off

I have tonight off. This would have been my second night of work for this rotation. Four days off, one day on, one day off, two days on, four days gets confusing.

I tried to be semi-productive today, sort of. Grocery day is usually Tuesday, but when the shift starts on Saturday the apples and grapes I bought several days before tend to be less-than-fresh, or by Saturday have already been consumed beyond what will carry me through the next four days. This morning I only had to shop for two days, so I didn't really have to worry about the grapes lasting too long. Which is good, because the bag of grapes that I bought - the last one of the type that I like - looks well past its peak.

I took my mom to church this morning. 11:00 mass. By then I had already been up something like twenty-one hours. I nearly passed out several times, which would have been amusing, as I probably would have wrenched one or more of the pews off its moorings if I had fallen. I experienced a near-passing-out thing that I've never had before: everything went momentarily brown, with a shotgun-blast pattern of bright red in the center of my vision, a Gaussian distribution of red dots. This happened twice. I caught myself both times. After church I went home and slept for five hours.

This is almost, but not quite, what it looked like. If I spent a few more hours on this image, I could probably get it just right. Or I could have just grabbed an image of a globular cluster and colored all the stars red!

I did do something massively useful today: I figured out hot to get Hotmail to filter all of my Facebook e-mails into a separate Facebook folder. That way these e-mails don't crowd out everything else, and I can go to a single folder to catch up on what I haven't read from Facebook.

I also started reviewing some emails from an old friend who is no longer a friend anymore. Probably nothing will come of it, but I'd like to see where things went wrong.

For anyone who's interested, here's my work/off schedule for the rest of the year:

Work: Dec. 7, 8
Off: Dec. 9, 10, 11, 12
Work: Dec. 13, 14, 15, 16
Off: Dec. 17, 18, 19, 20
Work: Dec. 21, 22, 23
Off: Dec. 24, 25, 26, 27, 28
Work: Dec. 29, 30
Off: Dec. 31, Jan. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Please keep in mind that "Work" indicates a 12-hour work night, and I will be unavailable all of that day and part of the next (if I am not scheduled to work the next night.) All dates are subject to change due to layoff and overtime.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Snow, glorious snow

The first measurable snow of the season. (We had some back in October, but that doesn't count.)

And in an hour or so, I have to drive to work through it!

Friday, December 04, 2009

Wiped out

Wow, am I tired. I've been staying up late, later than I should, because my body still thinks it's on night shift. But now it's just after 8:00 at night and I'm falling asleep...and I start back on four days of night shift tomorrow night.

I've been doing a lot of yard work these last three days. All the leaves from the yard here are either serving as mulch or are bagged and stacked in wire compost bins to start the process of decaying into leaf mold.

Across town I pulled out my garden, put away the tomato stakes, began pruning the grapevines, and mowed the lawn one last time. I then put away the lawnmower and all the garden tools for the winter.

I also decorated the house over there for Christmas. Noting fancy.

Took Bowie to the vet today to get her spaying sutures removed. No problems there, but I nearly vomited when I heard the insipid glurge of "The Christmas Shoes."

Still haven't started on the cookies. Dammit. I'm gonna be doing a lot of baking next week.

Some fun stuff courtesy of Gwyd the Unusual , who I saw perform at the Sideshow Gathering and am now friends with on Facebook: "Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods", a guidebook to strange and mostly unknown creatures said to haunt the woodlands of America. Published in 1910!
I still have to finish my Sideshow Gathering posts...and my Stained Glass Window Project posts...and my Christmas Shopping...and my bills...

Thursday, December 03, 2009

They'll Do It Every Time...for Christmas

It's still five days before the second anniversary of the death of longtime They'll Do It Every Time artist and writer Al Scaduto. (Whaaaa...? Only two years? It feels, like, forever!) But every year at this time I think of him, and the submission I wish I had made:

Every year Barfo puts away the Christmas decorations all nice and neat and orderly...
(Picture of Barfo in obligatory black sweater-vest looking proud of himself as he puts decorations away in neat little boxes marked "lights", "wreaths", etc...)

...but every year when he goes to pull them out again...
(Picture of Barfo saying "Wha-a-a???", projectile-sweating and google-eyed as he looks at chaotic tangle of strings of lights, cords, ornaments, candy canes, etc., all of which have managed to escape their orderly boxes and create the same mess Barfo had encountered the year before!)


Miss you, Al.

The Comics Curmudgeon archive of They'll Do It Every Time comics
The Comic Strip Archives: TDIET from the Houston Chronicle, Jan. 1 2004 - Feb. 3 2008

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

NEPA Blogs: Uncornered Market

I started NEPA Blogs nearly four years ago with a simple idea: to create a network of interlinked blogs that would increase each other's traffic, Google rank and advertising revenue.

It didn't quite work out that way. Maybe if I had informed each blogger as I linked to them, and asked them to provide a link back to the central site... But I didn't. Oh well.

What emerged instead was a NEPA Blogs that has lived up to its stated goal: "A clearinghouse providing links to blogs and other sites about Northeastern Pennsylvania or by people from Northeastern Pennsylvania." Thanks in large part to the efforts of fellow blog administrators Gort and Michelle, we are up to over 150 blogs linked on the NEPA Blogs sidebar and continue to add new ones all the time.

One of the more fascinating blogs that I have seen anywhere is one that was added a few weeks ago as a result of this e-mail:

Hi D.B.,

Would be grateful if would add Uncornered Market to the blogroll/mentions on NEPAblogs:

I grew up in Scranton before going to school at Cornell, moving to DC, San Francisco and Prague. My wife and I have been traveling the world and living out of backpacks for almost 3 years. We were profiled in the Scranton Times lifestyles section back in early 2008. Would give you a link, but the Times is apparently not keen on keeping online archives more than 18 months these days.

My ode to Scranton based on our last visit there:

You can find us on Twitter: @umarket

Cheers and thanks,

Daniel Noll
measuring the Earth with our feet...

To get a taste of why I find this blog so fascinating, I recommend this post:

From Ecuador to Turkmenistan: Ten Memorable Border Crossings We Have Known

It's blogs like this that might disabuse me of the notion that the blogosphere is dying.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

So much for Jury Duty

Jury Duty lasted all of two hours. They told us there's a light schedule for the rest of the month/year, and that amounted to two whole cases for the week - neither of which required juries. My check for $9 is in the mail.

I am tired. I am going to bed now.

Monday, November 30, 2009

And now, a word from my employer...

From our company newsletter:

Spread the industry news: FYI: and are accepting orders for the Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince DVD release on December 8th. COST under $10 - free shipping.

Blu-Ray is available for $20 - free shipping.
I haven't confirmed the "free shipping" part, but I have verified that these are the prices for the single-disc widescreen version. (Actually, it looks like Walmart has the Blu-Ray for $15.32, and Amazon for $15.99.) These prices are for the single-disc version. The two-disc version is $18.86 at Walmart and $19.99 at Amazon. And while the full-frame single-disc version is also $9.99 at Amazon, for some reason it is $14.86 at Walmart.

In the past I have argued for buying locally, even from big-box stores, because they provide jobs to people within your community. But money is tight, and if you can save more than a few dollars by buying online, do it. Besides, if everybody buys a copy (or several!), you'll be helping keep me gainfully employed!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Belgian Coma Guy: Miracle, or cruel hoax?

Last week the wires were ablaze with news about the man in Belgium who had apparently been in a coma for twenty-three years, only to emerge from it to tell the world that he had been conscious and aware of his surroundings the whole time!

How horrifying! How shocking! How shameful for the medical community! How...waitaminute.

I first heard about this story on the radio, on NPR, and it sounded pretty unbelievable. The next time I saw it it was accompanied by a photo showing the man in a chair and a woman holding his hand.

Uh-oh. Facilitated Communication. It's a hoax.

Facilitated Communication is one of those things like dowsing or Essiac that its proponents will swear up and down is real and legitimate, but which come circumscribed by so many caveats and restrictions that apparently only someone with highly specialized training - and someone who believes - is capable of doing it right. I don't have time to go into details right now, but some simple research will let you know both the brad strokes and the details.

Turns out I'm not the only one who got this impression. James Randi posted his analysis at the James Randi Educational Foundation website:

This Cruel Farce Has To Stop!

This story seems to have fallen off the radar. News cycles being what they are, this is more likely because the world has simply moved on, and not because people have seen through this hoax. So perhaps we will never know what will become of this man in Belgium and his family. I hope he continues to receive legitimate treatment, and no one is allowed to exploit him for their own selfish purposes.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Off to work...and then to the Courthouse

Well, I'm off to a holiday-shortened three-day workweek. I would've been glad for a little more time, but I'm also glad to be earning a little more money. For the record, for this week I will have earned twelve hours of "overtime" pay (paid at straight time), eight hours of holiday pay, and twelve hours of regular pay. For next week, assuming I'm not laid off at any point, I'll earn twelve hours each on Sunday and Monday nights, and then another twelve next Saturday.

But...starting Tuesday, unless I'm cancelled, I'll be on Jury Duty! Whoo-hoo! Making nine dollars a day! (What century was that pay rate established in, anyway?) My first day will be pretty interesting, seeing as how I'll be coming straight from having worked all night, probably by way of breakfast at Cracker Barrel.

Given the way things have been going at the Luzerne County Courthouse, I won't be surprised if some of us in the jury pool get tapped to be judges.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Big Picture: Mars

Nothing much to say today, so I decided to rummage around in the box of rainy-day post ideas. Here's one that I put in there waaaay back on the day before yesterday. It's from Alan Taylor's breathtaking Boston Globe photojournalism series The Big Picture, and was originally posted there on November 6 (while I was attending the Sideshow Gathering - and I still have to complete my posts on that!) This was found on the Livejournal of Chuck Anziulewicz, a native of Northeastern Pennsylvania who lives elsewhere but is linked through NEPA Blogs. Check out these astonishing Martian landscapes:

Martian landscapes - The Big Picture -
Since 2006, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has been orbiting Mars, currently circling approximately 300 km (187 mi) above the Martian surface. On board the MRO is HiRISE, the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera, which has been photographing the planet for several years now at resolutions as fine as mere inches per pixel. Collected here is a group of images from HiRISE over the past few years, in either false color or grayscale, showing intricate details of landscapes both familiar and alien, from the surface of our neighboring planet, Mars. I invite you to take your time looking through these, imagining the settings - very cold, dry and distant, yet real.

MARS! A whole other world! One that you can actually explore for yourself!

As the good Doctor said,

How lucky we are to live in this time
The first moment in human history
When we are in fact visiting other worlds

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

And remember, refrigerate all leftovers promptly, and freeze anything you won't be eating in a day or two. Don't want anybody coming down with a "stomach virus" next week!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Holiday reruns: The Littlest Turkey

Yes, it's that time of the year again! Time to do the repost of the complete version of The Littlest Turkey. Enjoy!

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."


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Layoff interrupted

Well, I'm not technically on layoff today. I was laid off Saturday and Sunday, and expect to be on Friday...and maybe Saturday as well. My days off this week are Monday through Thursday. But today I'm going in on overtime. So my guaranteed pay this week will be one day of overtime (paid at straight time, since I'm currently at zero hours for the week) and one day of holiday pay. I need to reopen my claim with the unemployment office.

Had to get up early to go and pick up Bowie. She's doing fine after being spayed yesterday. She's happy to see the other cats, and they're all happy to see her.

Now I need to go back to sleep for a few hours. Tomorrow I have a blood donation scheduled. I wonder if my iron levels will be high enough? I've been making a conscious effort to eat more red meat lately. We'll see how it goes.

Monday, November 23, 2009


I spent enormous amounts of money today. But what do you expect when you get three cats neutered* in one day? On top of that I ordered two wire compost bins from Ace Hardware, and took my mom to an eye appointment and then to Walmart, where we spent some money on cat items and gifts for my nephews - and then went back and spent way more money on a very cool Lego set for my nephew's birthday.

Credit card debt, I have said, is an expression of faith in the future.

I'm tired. I think I'm stuck in night-shift mode, so when I'm up during the day I have a few slumps in the afternoon. I had to get up early this morning. My alarms went off at 6:00** and 6:01, but I stayed in bed until 6:30. I had to get the kitties up to the vet's by 8:30

Thor and BlueBear are fine. Bowie, as had been planned all along, is being kept overnight because of the more traumatic nature of her surgical procedure. But I may be scheduled to work tomorrow - I'm on the list for overtime. I won't know for sure until 8:00 tomorrow morning. Whether I'm working or not, I must pick up Bowie tomorrow. If I am working, it will make for an interesting sleep schedule.

*As my friend Melinda pointed out, "spaying" is also neutering. The male form of neutering is more correctly referred to as "castration."

**To the song "45" by Lauren Malone, who (currently) blogs here. Here is the video, because I just spent a hell of a lot of time searching through the archives of Lauren's many, many blogs to find it. (It's #85 on this list.) NOTE: YouTube videos posted to my blog won't show up on Facebook, so go here to view it. But, seriously, you know you want to be reading my blog, Another Monkey, and not just the reposted posts on Facebook! Besides, Facebook appears to be broken once again today...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Neutered in the morning

Tomorrow morning I am taking Bowie, Thor, and BlueBear to the vet's to be spayed (Bowie) and neutered (Thor and BlueBear.)

While I'm there I will make an appointment for "Rachel", who is about a month younger than these three. We've taken to calling "her" Rachel/Ray, after this pretty little girl developed some clearly male characteristics (such as testicles that I would swear were not there before.) And while my skill at determining a cat's sex is admittedly limited, I'm still pretty sure "she" has some of the characteristics of a girl cat. Either we were very wrong about her sex for the first few months of her life, or she has changed sex completely since she was a kitten, or she is a genuine hermaphroditic cat. So, there may be a double charge for her, as she may need to get spayed and neutered.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Animals make us human

No dead cats today, but I just came back from taking my aunt to the emergency vet with her dog. The dog was quite old, and had developed a condition which was causing her pain and would eventually kill her - after considerable pain. The only option was surgery, which she might not survive and would probably never fully recover from. She was put to sleep.

I am watching Thor, one of the new kittens - well, basically a young adult now -, interact with Nicky, the Senior Cat of the house. Nicky is lounging atop a pile of boxes, and Thor was standing on his hind lags. Nicky had wrapped his arms around Thor's head and was grooming him, licking his ears. I thought Thor was about to make a power play and jump up on the boxes to try to push Nicky aside like he did a few days ago, but I was wrong. After Nicky groomed Thor, Thor took his leave and went on his way.

I just received some books from my book club. One of them is the latest by Temple Grandin called Animals Make Us Human. I remember hearing her talk about certain stress-related behaviors in animals - maybe it was when she was on Fresh Air when the book first came out - and I was surprised at how many of these I observed without even trying during a visit to a local zoo this summer. I can't wait to read it.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A glorious dawn: Dark Sun Setting

This requires some explanation.

What you are seeing are rays of sunlight - sunbeams, crepuscular rays (well, in this case, anticrepuscular rays) - whatever you choose to call them - as they appeared at sunrise.

The picture was taken facing north-by-northwest. Away from the rising sun.

As I drove home from work this morning I noticed the first light of dawn breaking to my left. It was pretty. There was some vague pink glow above the position of the sun, too diffuse to be a sun pillar, though it may have consolidated into one later. But I had a long commute ahead of me, and I had to focus on the road, the traffic, and not falling asleep along the way.

Many grapes, two apples, and two cans of soda later I took the exit for Nanticoke. This puts me on Route 29, a road that runs north-by-northwest. As I merged onto the road at about 6:40 I noticed pink streamers in the sky above me. Then I noticed purplish-blue rays between these pink streamers, converging on a point somewhere near the horizon.

I have seen this sort of thing before, but only rarely, as it is in fact a rare event. Atmospheric conditions have to be just right: just enough moisture in the air to light it up, just enough clouds in the right places at the right times.

I tried to pull out my phone to get a picture on the fly, but each time I tried to raise it the emergency brake light came on. I realized that one of the cords must have been wrapped around the brake. The only way I could get the picture safely was to pull over. Which I did.

And now I'm sharing it with you.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The beauty of mathematics

Once upon a time I was a Physics graduate student. It didn't last long, only a single semester. I was in the wrong place; the place where I wanted to be, where I should have been, had stopped taking any graduate students that year - shortly after I had been accepted into their graduate program. I was in the wrong time; if it had been twenty years later, or even ten years later, and the Internet had been in something more than the embryonic state it was in in 1990, I might have bounced back and straight into another graduate program. But that's a story for another time.

My chosen field of study was Non-Linear Dynamics. Chaos. The physics of complex systems. Very cool stuff. Not many places were specializing in that back then. My first-choice school was. My second-choice school had a single professor who was, which is why they were my second choice. I never really got to develop much of a relationship with him. As I have said before, my entire experience was something like getting mugged while drowning. Not very good.

Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy has done a post that reminded me of the beauty that underlies non-linear dynamics. If you're a fan of complex math, or if you like seeing beautiful things, check out his post and follow the links. It's reminding me of who I once was, and what I once loved. Go and see why.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Yeah. I'm in a black mood again, for various reasons.

Mainly the dead stray cats. Not just the fact that someone is going out of his way to kill these animals. Not just because my mom and I are completely overextended rescuing the ones we have, and we're still leaving several outside at the mercy of the elements - and the poisoner. But also because burying a cat is a pain in the ass. It takes a lot of energy and a lot of time, time and energy I could have - should have - been spending in other ways.

I looked at the leaves today on the tree lawn of the widow across the street, leaves that came from our Oak tree and that I have always raked up. The tree lawn is clean for a long stretch, and then, abruptly, the leaves start again. This indicates where I stopped raking on Tuesday. After I filled a bag and carried it across the street and onto our lawn to place with the others. Right before I found the first of the day's two dead stray cats.

At some point, I need to finish raking the leaves. And by then, maybe we will have a few more dead stray cats to deal with.

One of my friends has disappeared from the Internet. She was the first blogger I read on a regular basis, starting about seven years ago. Her creativity and style inspired me to start thinking about creating my own little online journal. I have kept up with her through many life changes, even the shutdown of all of her active blogs a while ago. But now she's gone from Facebook, too, and I'm concerned. Her last update was a disturbing pop-culture reference that many people wouldn't get. I still have a few ways left to try to get in touch with her. But I don't know if I should try.

Another friend has stopped talking to me. I don't know if I should take this personally, because it seems like she's stopped talking to pretty much everybody, including her blog readers. But I think I did something which was well-intentioned (and done at great effort and personal cost) that may have embarrassed her or creeped her out. Until she starts talking to me again, I won't know for sure.

And now it's time to go back to work. I feel like I haven't accomplished much, though I know I have. I raked some (but not all) of the leaves. I gave a couple of cats a decent burial, rather than tossing them in the trash as other people might have done. I took my mom grocery shopping for most of the things we'll need through the holidays, and we saved 43% overall through a combination of a 20% promotional discount, a 5% senor citizen discount, and using coupons on items that were already on sale. I took my mom for a medical procedure today, and then out for a late breakfast, and then filled up her tank with gas, and set her up for a 15% discount on groceries next Tuesday. (Not that I can imagine she will be needing much next week.)

I hope this passes soon. I don't like feeling like this.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sideshow Gathering Day 3 preview

I had intended to wrap up my coverage of the Sideshow Gathering by now, but events have conspired to keep me from finishing it. So for a small taste of what's in store, here are a few photos offered without explanation!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Two more in the ground

Why do we tell children that Santa Claus exists and monsters don't, when the opposite is clearly true?

I buried two more of the neighborhood stray cats today.

That wasn't my plan. My plan was to rake leaves, maybe mow the lawn one last time for the season. I had filled three bags of leaves from our front yard and from the tree lawn of the widow across the street. I could probably have filled two more, and mowed the lawn. I was making good time.

As I was dragging up the third bag to position it behind our house, I happened to glance into one of the shelters that my mom has set up to provide the strays protection from the rain and the snow. I saw a tabby tail in there, and a tabby leg. Getting closer I saw the whole tabby stretched out in the back of the shelter. Its eyes were closed but its mouth looked slightly opened.

I reached out and touched its foot with my leather-gloved hand. Stiff. No reaction.

I shook the shelter slightly, said something like "Hey, get up." No reaction.


This wasn't a "named" cat. It was one of the almost-identical gray tabbies, maybe one of the ones born last October. I didn't see it much, but when I did I thought of it as the Ocicat, because its tabby stripes were broken up into something more like spots.

Much like Squiggles two weeks ago, it appeared to be healthy overall, aside from the fact that it was dead.

I was done raking for the day.

I decided to have lunch. I didn't want to deal with burying a dead cat on an empty stomach. Lunch was more involved than it should have been, considering it was just leftovers. Then my mom told me that the lady for whom we save aluminum cans would be coming by "shortly" to pick them up. I was glad, because we had accumulated more than a few bags.

After a few more delays, it was time to get myself together and go out to do the unpleasant task of burying a cat.

Naturally, this was followed by another delay: I couldn't find my boots, which I had last worn two weeks ago when I dug a grave for Squiggles. What the hell? Did our cats carry one of them off? In the end I wore one boot from one pair and another boot from a completely different pair.

As I dragged myself and my grave-digging spade and my stone-lifting iron bar outside, my mom told me she had found another dead cat.

This one was in among the bags of leaves. It was another tabby, another adult. My mom thinks it was Daddy, who she believed was the father of Bowie and Thor and BlueBear and their two outdoor siblings.

I would have to dig the hole a little deeper.

Digging a grave isn't easy. It never is. Our yard has a lot of fill in it, mainly in the form of boulders, most of which are located under about six to twelve inches of topsoil. You can only dig so far before you need to pry out a boulder. Since the bottom of the boulder is usually twelve to eighteen inches below ground level, this is a bit of a trick. And the boulders are not always oriented in a way that makes them easy to pick up. I had one today about the size and shape of a loaf of bread, with its long dimension extending down into the ground. Sometimes the boulders are just too big to move, and you have to abandon the hole and move on to another location.

It took a while, but I got the grave dug. Not as deep as I would like, but there were some boulders at the very bottom, and I didn't want to abandon the hole. I did pull out two large stones, the loaf-stone and one other, which are now serving as headstones. The two cats are buried together, on the other side of Gretchen from Squiggles.

So what is killing these cats?

I don't know. I suspect a neighbor - the same evil, obnoxious neighbor I wrote about here, who had recently redirected all of the rainwater from his gutters to flow onto our property and into our cellar:

"Why not go talk to this guy and ask him not to do this?" you might ask. Well, this is the stereotypical "bad neighbor". He always has been. He will gleefully dump carcinogenic herbicides onto his property and let the runoff go into my gardens. He uses a noisy riding mower on Sunday afternoons, but complained when I used my reel mower in the early morning during a heat wave so that I might not die of a heat-induced heart attack like my other next-door neighbor. (He was whining that the noise of my mower - a faint click-click-click - had woken him up. I had to ask him to speak up several times as I could not hear him over the din of the early morning truck traffic on our street.) . He will cry blue murder if any leaves blow over from my yard into his, even leaves from trees several blocks away. He's a loudmouth and a lout and a bully. He's not the type who responds positively to being asked politely to stop doing something he obviously knows he shouldn't be doing.
Lately he has been complaining - loudly, belligerently - about the stray cats crapping in his yard. Fair enough. But is the proper response to such a thing poisoning the cats? Because that's what I think he's doing. Over the past two weeks or so - ever since another neighbor found the body of Squiggles - many, if not most, of the stray cats in the neighborhood have vanished. Tortoise, the mother of Peaches. Mommy, the mother of Bowie, Thor, and Bluebear. Most of the nameless lookalike tabbies. And now Squiggles and the Ocicat and Daddy have turned up dead.

But not long dead. These three cats have been dead only a few hours when they've been found mid-day. Could they have been poisoned in the morning? Could he be setting out bowls of antifreeze first thing in the morning?

The fact that Squiggles died two weeks ago and the Ocicat died today made me think that maybe this wasn't a case of poisoning. After all, if someone is setting out an attractive poison for these cats, I would expect to find several dead at once. And all I had to go on was one cat dead two weeks ago, one cat dead today, and at least two cats (Mommy and Tortoise) missing.

When Daddy turned up freshly dead this afternoon, suddenly poison seemed much more likely.

But I don't know. I don't know what the post-mortem signs of poisoning would be. I don't think these cats died quickly, but they didn't seem to be in agony. Squiggles died with a mouth full of pine needles. The Ocicat looked like it was asleep in a shelter. Daddy was nestled in a relatively warm and protected place among bags of leaves.

It could be something else. It could be someone else. Unless I actually see this guy setting out bowls of bright green liquid in the morning, I won't know for sure.

And if I knew, then what? There probably isn't even a law prohibiting poisoning stray animals. There probably is a law prohibiting feeding and sheltering stray animals.

Things like this make me hope and pray that there is some sort of cosmic or divine justice. No, I'm not about to shove a funnel in this guy's mouth and pour a gallon of Prestone down this throat - so if this should happen, it totally wasn't me. And I doubt he will have a minor but disabling stroke and find himself eaten alive in his bed by rodents whose population grew without check after he killed off all their predators. But if he were to collapse in front of me - well, I might find myself completely at a loss as to how to dial 911.

There's a special place in Hell for anyone who would poison stray animals.

Uncharitable, I know. Un-Christian. Well, as Eric Draven said in The Crow, you're just gonna have to forgive me for that.

I'll keep you informed of further developments. In the meantime, if there's anyone out there who could take in some stray juvenile kitten/cats, there are still a few left wandering around. That may not be true in a matter of days or weeks.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Leonids Monday night - Tuesday morning, November 16-17!

I'm off until Thursday night, which positions me pretty ideally to view this year's Leonid meteor shower.

Meteor shower this week as we cut through comet trails - space - 15 November 2009 - New Scientist

NASA - Leonids 2009

I witnessed the Leonid Meteor Storm of 1998, and that was just unbelievably amazing. Meteors left smoky glowing trails which became twisted and knotted in the atmosphere far above. This time around I'm not located in the best possible place to see the peak of the shower, but that won't stop me from bundling up and sitting out in an Adirondack chair in my backyard late Monday night and early Tuesday morning to see what I can see.

But don't take my word for it. Hear what Jack Horkheimer, Star Hustler has to say!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Five skulls in a shopping bag

I took my mom to an appointment this past Tuesday. After she was done we decided to stop at Walmart to see what we could see. I had a few things in mind that I was looking for - mainly, the life-sized styrofoam skulls that had been selling in the Halloween section for $4 apiece. Long story short: they did have them, but they were not 90% off as the "ALL HALLOWEEN 90% OFF" label seemed to suggest. Maybe they covered by the "All Halloween 75% off" sign.

In any event, I purchased five of the skulls - just to have. Maybe to put them on display next Halloween. I don't know. At a dollar apiece this seemed like a good deal.

The problem is, I haven't taken the skulls out of my car and put them in the "storage" side of the house. So for much of the past week I have been driving around with five styrofoam skulls in a shopping bag.

The skulls are life-size. They are made in China, so there is a chance they were cast from an actual soon-to-be-deceased (or recently-deceased) Chinese prisoner. It's a little unnerving. During my upcoming four days off I will try to relocate them to long-term storage. Until then, I will do my darnedest to avoid being pulled over for any reason, lest someone think the five skulls in the shopping bag are actually the real deal. Don't want to have to explain what they are, or why they're there!

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Roses of Mid-November

I wrote a few weeks ago about not remembering roses blooming in the final week of October. (See this post for an example of just such a thing in the not-too-distant past.) But I definitely never remember having new rose blossoms opening in mid-November.

This may be related to the fact that I have been picking the roses fairly regularly. There are still quite a few unopened rosebuds on the bush. How many more will open? How much longer will they hold on?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A new record at the Sideshow Gathering 2009!

On November 7th, 2009, twenty people - both professional sideshow performers and amateurs from the audience - gathered onstage to set a record for the largest number of people to simultaneously perform the "human blockhead" trick developed by Melvin Burkhart. From the record citation:
Implements involved included nails, screwdrivers, ice picks, a switchblade, a fork, a spoon, the earpiece from a pair of glasses, and a pair of scissors.

Picture by Timothy Cridland, a.k.a. Zamora, the Torture King

*Note: There are several typos and inaccuracies in this list. A corrected list is being developed.
Block Head: most people to simultaneously perform: 20. Tyler Fyre, organizer. Included: Tyler Fyre, Colonel Hunsley, Prof. Fountain, Prof. John Sprocket, Gwyd The Unusual, Swami Yomahi, Crispy Knight, James Taylor, Harley Newman, Doc. Wilson, Casey Severen, John Shaw, Donny Boroneo, Wanda Von Dunajew, Michael Katner, James Mundie, Martin Ling, Jim Stilianos, Mace, and Johnny Mahem.*

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

We interrupt this blog...

After five glorious days off, three of which were spent at the Sideshow Gathering, I am heading back to work for four nights. Unfortunately, work days are so draining, and the Sideshow Gathering posts take so long to write, that I probably won't be able to do my Day 3 post until Sunday at the earliest.

Today is also Veteran's Day. I don't have anything clever or insightful to say about that, other than this: I wish we weren't so darned good at filling up our hospitals and cemeteries with veterans. Remember all those who have served, in whatever capacity.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Scenes from the Sideshow Gathering, Day 1

Note: My reports on the Sideshow Gathering began with the end of Day 3, and then covered all of Day 2. Now we move on to Day 1, at least as much of it as I was there for...

I missed the very start of the Sideshow Gathering. I don't even remember why; it just happened. Most of the acts I missed came back onstage later in the weekend, but I missed Professor Fountain's routine entirely. Next year for sure!

When I came in, Gwyd the Unusual and Sylver Fyre of the Knotty Bits Sideshow were onstage, and had just called for a volunteer from the audience to assist in a balloon-popping routine. Here, Sylver (as far as the blindfolded volunteer knows) is about to use a whip to pop the big blue balloon between her hapless victim's legs.

Sylver and Gwyd then prepared to move on to a fire act - but, since fire was forbidden within the building, they had to go to a backup - snake charming. Here Gwyd reads from the mail-order snake charming instruction manual while Sylver presents a cute, cuddly Boa Constrictor that is deemed insufficiently menacing for the routine.

So Sylver moved on to the next option - a huge Albino Burmese Python. Here she strikes a "sexy pose" while attempting to heft the charmed snake.

Next up was Professor Sprocket, who treated the crowd to a glimpse of P.T. Barnum's original Mermaid, and then regaled them with patter that gradually became more and more incoherent. A true man of science, the Professor quickly determined that he had a screw loose, and attempted to correct it via a screwdriver inserted nasally. It took a few tries, but he eventually got the setting just right. More or less.

Master of Ceremonies Tyler Fyre (no relation to Sylver) then took the stage to fill everyone in on the magnificence of the weekend ahead.

Soon he yielded the stage to the Crispy Family Carnival, whose current family members include the lovely Roxanne, the strongman Mace, and of course, the father and leader of the Family, Crispy Knight himself. Crispy recalled past adventures making the cross-country excursion from the wilds of Oklahoma to the mountainous woodlands of Pennsylvania. One disastrous experience with the Crispy Bus several years ago has led them to see the wisdom of travelling by Toyota subcompact. But how do they all fit into such a small vehicle? Simple: Space Saver bags. Here they demonstrate by placing the lovely Roxanne into one and vacuuming out all the air.

Tyler Fyre returned to the stage, but this time as half of the Lucky Daredevil Thrillshow. Here the lovely Thrill Kill Jill demonstrates the miracle of "birth in reverse". Walt Hudson, sitting front and center, is about to get splashed with amniotic fluid.

The Swami Yomahmi was up next and demonstrated a dramatically orchestrated "pins into thumb" routine. Real magicians never reveal their secrets, but as the Swami reminded the crowd, he isn't a real magician. Unfortunately, something went seriously wrong during the explanation. Here the Swami realizes he has missed a critical step.

Next was Dr. Wilson, who demonstrated Chung Ling Soo's "Defying the Boxers" routine, modified for use in venues where gunfire is frowned upon. Here he is about to get shot in the face - with a paintball.*

Then came Coney Island Chris, who amused the audience with his ineptitude, propensity for self-injury, and marked fondness for pretzel rods. Having demonstrated by use of pretzel rods the power of the leg hold trap that is really old and rusty, and totally not a new one painted black and yellow as Todd Robbins recommends, he then proceeded to get his right hand inextricably caught in it. He then demonstrated that it's really, really hard to perform the rest of his routine with one hand caught in a leg hold trap.

John Shaw was the only performer onstage for the entire weekend - or, at least, just off-stage. In addition to being the sound man for the entire Gathering, he is also a professional magician and the operator of the Headless Horseman Hayride in Ulster Park, New York. Here he performs a routine involving a can connected with chains to hooks inserted into his eye sockets - and a volunteer from the audience who is very close to throwing up as he directs her to pour water into the can. (I think John was a little disappointed that he didn't make her throw up onstage!)

In a change of pace, Chris McDaniel performed a one-man Wild West Show, wowing the crowd with gun-spinning, whip-cracking, and rope twirling.

Here he twirls a lasso over the heads of the audience while singing "Give a Man Enough Rope" from The Will Rogers Follies. Chris ended his performance to thundering applause and a standing ovation.

The last act of the night was the living legend Zamora, the Torture King. After a light snack - well, a lightbulb snack - he then thanked the audience for its fine appetite for liquor before smashing up a tub full of empty liquor bottles and walking and laying in them. Two volunteers from the audience assisted him in the next part of the act: one by standing on his chest, the other by stabilizing her. It took some trying, but eventually Zamora got her to understand that when he shouted "Jump!" he didn't want her to jump off of his chest, but rather up and down on it.

Finally came Zamora's signature piece: skewers through the forearm, bicep, and floor of his mouth.

And that was only Day 1!

For Day 2's festivities, go here.

*To see a full video of Dr. Wilson performing the routine at the 2009 Chung Ling Soo Stage Magic Competition on May 17, 2009, at the Alamo Theatre in Bucksport, Maine, go here.