Saturday, January 31, 2009

Twenty-Five Things

This is a "meme" (in the colloquial definition) that's been going around Facebook. It has grown a bit over time - when I was originally tagged here last October it was just seven things. I am including the Facebook header since this will be cross-posted on Facebook. I won't tag anybody, not really, but I will flag the people I especially want to notice this.

Create your own note, list 25 things about you that others might not know about and then tag your friends (in the upper right corner). You must tag me in it too.

  1. I have (as of this writing) nearly 1,800 posts on my blog, Another Monkey.
  2. If there's something I haven't told you about myself there, it's probably because I don't want you to know.
  3. I drive a 1996 Toyota Tercel 4-door DX with over 300,000 miles on it.
  4. My daily commute is 66.6 miles, round-trip.
  5. I don't believe in killing unnecessarily, even insects. I have captured and released bees, wasps, and hornets that have been inside buildings, and I know how to lead a housefly out of a house. (They're photophilic* - they move towards light. Darken the room the fly is in and use a flashlight to lead it towards an outside door. Then let it out of the house.)
  6. I double-majored in Physics and Philosophy at a Jesuit liberal arts college (the University of Scranton.)
  7. I planned to get my graduate degree in Physics at Bryn Mawr, where they specialized in Non-Linear Dynamics, but Bryn Mawr put ALL graduate programs on hold for incoming students that year.
  8. I knew this before the head of the Physics department at Bryn Mawr did.
  9. I did one semester of grad work at the University of Delaware, but washed out very quickly.
  10. I broke two cars while learning to drive.
  11. I have been described as being "too intense."
  12. I consider myself unintense to the point of being nearly catatonic at times.
  13. I believe I have lost at least one longtime friend because of my blog.
  14. I believe this is because she thought I had said something terrible about her.
  15. I was actually referring to her mother.
  16. I have been to Ireland three times, with a side trip to London once.
  17. I have "contact memory". By touching an object, I can remember everything I have ever associated with that object. Well, almost everything.
  18. This is very useful when I am trying to remember something I read in a book. I only have to touch the book, and I can (usually) remember (almost) everything I have ever read in it.
  19. I use a related skill to encode memories of vacations into books that I read while I am on vacation. As I re-read the book I re-experience the events of the vacation.
  20. I bought my grandmother's old house in 2006.
  21. I still haven't moved in.
  22. I can communicate with dogs, cats, pre-verbal children, and at least one rhinoceros.
  23. My hearing is least sensitive in the range of most human voices.
  24. I have mild prospagnosia prosopagnosia. I have tremendous difficulty recognizing and reconstructing faces.
  25. I don't do memes. Most of the time.

*I think I should have said "phototropic" which can mean "tends to move towards light" as well as "tends to grow towards light."

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Stained Glass Project: Other Churches, Other Windows

Tomorrow Bishop Martino will announce, via pre-recorded message, the fates of Roman Catholic parishes throughout the Diocese of Scranton. Some will remain as they are, some will absorb other parishes, and some will be absorbed - losing their individual identities forever.

Last week I attended Mass at Holy Trinity church, which is widely assumed to be one of the only Catholic churches that will remain open in Nanticoke. It is the largest, but is also the costliest to operate and has a parking lot that is woefully inadequate even for its current load of parishioners. How - or if - the Diocese intends to deal with the logistical details of these coming mergers remains to be seen.

I was in Holy Trinity Church, sitting near the front. I had taken my camera along with the intention of getting a picture of the window that portrays the head and shoulders of Saint Stanislaus Kostka and then comparing it to a portrait window featuring the same figure in St. Mary's church. But I got there too late to do any sightseeing. So I had to content myself with snapping images of the windows closest to me.

This window, at the front left of Holy Trinity, is clearly designed with a different aesthetic in mind from the ones I have been discussing in Saint Mary's. The window is far more ornate, more like a mosaic of glass with figures thrown in. The main figure portrayed - and I have no idea who this is; it could be Saint Dominic, or Francis Xavier, or Ignatius of Loyola, or any of a hundred other saints - is in a far stiffer pose than the painted glass portraits at St. Mary's, and the child at his side - is this Jesus as a child? Could the older figure be Saint Christopher? - seems disproportionately small.

An interesting feature of this image is that as the sun set, the figures' flesh became a pallid grayish-purple, finally fading to gray entirely.

There are two figures flanking the altar, set high up near the ceiling. Only my image of Saint Peter (identifiable by the keys he holds) came out sharply.

I have been in this church probably less than two dozen times in my life. These windows hold no memories for me, no deeper meaning. But for others, they do. I wish someone from this parish - from every parish - would take it upon themselves to record and preserve these images for all to see, and would share what the windows mean to them.

I am nearly halfway done with the windows of St. Mary's. I will begin to skip around a bit now, postponing discussions of some windows until I get more acceptable images. I'd better locate my tripod soon - I may be running out of opportunities to take these photos.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Birthday thoughts

Thanks to everyone for the birthday wishes.

This doesn't seem as traumatic a day as last year. Actually, my birthday has gone mostly unremarked in the everyday world, but not due to neglect or apathy or anything like that. My mom has a pretty serious cold - has had it for about three days now, and it doesn't show signs of letting up. While I am made of titanium and diamonds and have the constitution and physique of an ox (most of the time), most of the people around me are a bit more frail and fragile. So we will wait until she is better to have a family get-together.

I took her to the doctor's first thing this morning, which on a day off is 11:00. While she was there I went grocery shopping. She called for me to pick her up as I was loading the groceries into the car. We then went to the drugstore to drop off a prescription - she may have something more than a cold, or maybe her doctor just likes prescribing drugs unnecessarily. They told us it would take twenty minutes to fill, so we did a quick tour - first to a liquor store for me to get some whiskey for traditional health tonics (this time, I'm trying Feckin Irish Whiskey), then to an ATM, then to my house for me to verify that the Calcium Chloride I spread yesterday evening had done its job, then to Sanitary Bakery to pick up my birthday cake and a dozen or so pastries that caught my eye, and then finally back to the drugstore drive-through pickup window to find that they were not quite ready with my mom's prescription.

My mom stayed in the car while I went into the store to kill time while waiting for them to fill the prescription. I didn't notice anything that really caught my eye - they seem to be all out of 2009 calendars, even though last year I was able to get a MAD Magazine calendar the day after Valentine's Day. As I approached the prescription desk, I noticed that there was only one cake of Williams Mug Shaving Soap left - and it was on clearance for 50% off. (Why is this on clearance? Is Williams not making it anymore? Is Combe Incorporated, their parent company, going out of business? If that's the case, I guess we should all stock up on Ice Blue Aqua Velva!)

Came back to my mom's house, unloaded the car, re-salted the sidewalks (which had frozen over), reheated some chicken soup as a late lunch for the both of us, put some clothes in the wash.

And that was it.

I'm not complaining. A low-key birthday was pretty pleasant for a change, and I received birthday greetings over the phone and in the mail and through e-mails and IMs and MySpace and Facebook and this blog - again, thank you everybody!

Maybe this weekend, we'll finally cut the cake!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

She's coming down on her own, now

I'm fading fast. I should be in bed now.

My day started as every other work day lately when I woke up at 3:00 in the morning. Breakfast, shower, shave, all rushed because of the need to get out early due to the snow.

There wasn't that much snow this morning, but enough to make driving difficult. It was a long and harrowing drive in to work.

Work was OK. Busier than I would have liked. But I walked out with all my fingers and both hands sstill attached, though they are now dotted with callusses and burns and cuts and bruises. Most of those will heal in time. Some will leave scars.

The commute home was better. Temperatures were above freezing, so the snow had turned to slushy water on the roads, or had melted entirely.

I came into town planning to shovel and salt my sidewaaks first, and then go back and do my mom's. I have to drive past my mom's to get to my house, and the roads looked at least partially melted.

On the way across town to my house I saw several large objects dart in front of my csr. I missed them. Suddenly another object slammed into my car. Someone's recycling container had been upended by th ferocious winds that were blowing through Nanticoke.

Long story slightly less long: shoveled and salted my sidewalks, then did the same for my mom's - after first taking out the garbage and newspapers that I had had stashed just outside the garage. Dug out her car, just in case this stuff freezes solid overnight.

Then I put out new dry food for the "outdoor cats." Here's hoping they survive the Winter.

And then I ate.

I have fallen asleep nrarly a dozen times while witing this. I think it's time for bed.

UPDATE, 1/29/09: I actually spell-checked and corrected this last night. As you've probably noticed, I missed a few things. Spell-checking while passing out is only slightly more error-proof than writing while passing out. At least I got rid of all the aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaas and uuuuuuuuuuuuuuus - there were several. I've decided to leave the remaining typos in place.

Title reference: Background line from REM's "The One I Love", sung by Mike Mills under some - but not all - of the "FIII-IIII-RRRE" choruses. Ever since I first knew that was the line (in July 1997, when I got an REM concert video that included Line 21 captions for the lyrics), I have assumed that "Fire" was actually a command given by a WWI artillery captain ordering his gunners to shoot down a dirigible which, in fact, is already crashing. I'm not sure why.

This was actually a back-up title for this post. I was originally going to call it "I'm coming down fast", but I realized I would have to include the "but I'm miles above you" line, which seems arrogant. The Beatles' "Helter Skelter" which this lyric is from, was referring to an amusement park ride - not a call to anarchistic revolution through mass murder. Sorry, Mr. Manson, you got that one wrong.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


On my commute home from work today, just outside of Scranton, Pennsylvania, my 1996 four-door Toyota Tercel DX hit 300,000 miles. I pulled over on an offramp on the Central Scranton Expressway to record the event.

It should come as a surprise to no one that, three miles later, my CHECK ENGINE light came on.*

I had no intention of keeping my car this long - well, not up until the events of nearly two years ago. I had planned on getting a new car after about the 250,000 mile mark, or when cars become sufficiently advanced for me to consider selecting a replacement for my sturdy, reliable, efficient (40+ mpg in the Summer) Tercel. Other cars aren't there yet, and at this time I can't afford to add a car payment to my monthly list of bills. Maybe someday.

Until then, I'll keep on driving my Tercel. Next stop: 350,000 miles!

*Really, it's probably just a milestone setpoint - though I don't remember if I had the light come on at 100,000 or 200,000 miles. But there are a few things I should have taken care of soon anyway. On Thursday I'll check everything I can check myself, especially the coolant/antifreeze level - that has set the CHECK ENGINE light off before.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Electronics ephemera

Pronunciation: \i-ˈfe-mər-ə, -ˈfem-rə\
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural ephemera also ephem·er·ae
\-mər-ē, -rē\ or ephemeras
Etymology: New Latin, from Greek ephēmera, neuter plural of ephēmeros
Date: 1650
1: something of no lasting significance —usually used in plural
2 ephemera plural : paper items (as posters, broadsides, and tickets) that were originally meant to be discarded after use but have since become collectibles

- "ephemera." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009.
Merriam-Webster Online. 26 January 2009

I visited three different stores that are going out of business in the last week. One of them, the Waldenbooks at the Wyoming Vally Mall, was a book store. The other two were the Wilkes-Barre Office Depot, an office supply store with a heavy emphasis on electronics, and Circuit City, the electronics retailer that is folding nationally.

I never did shop at these last two stores much, so I didn't really expect to find much that would interest me now. Maybe some toner for my ancient HP DeskJet 842c. No such luck, but I did pick up a refill kit, so one of these days I'll see if I can use it without destroying my printer.

As I breezed through the aisles of each store I couldn't help but think about the ephemeral nature of consumer electronics. State-of-the-art this morning is obsolete this afternoon. Flatscreen TVs that people had mounted into the walls of their houses so they could roll the cost into their mortgages are now dinosaurs, prehistoric toys with a lower quality image than much of what is available today. 2 gigabyte memory cards are selling for under ten dollars - I paid several times that amount for my first card, which I believe was 512 megabytes.

Most of us have bought into this at one point or another, and many of us have growing collections of the electronic detritus as a result - not just the electronics items themselves, but all the associated cords, cables, adaptors, and other stuff that came along for the ride. Some of it is generally useful, but some of it has lost all associated meaning - there is no longer a Slot A for Tab B to fit into, because the gizmo that had Slot A on it is currently basking in a landfill somewhere. Yet we hold onto the cords and cables and whatnot - just in case.

New merchandise has stopped arriving at these stores. Yesterday's inventory will have to do until it is sold or the retailers close up shop. Addicts will have to turn elsewhere to get their electronics fix.

Sic transit gloria electronica.

I know I've posted this before, but here it is again. From 2000, a classic ad pushing Staples (an office supply retailer) as a major source of technology gifts.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The essential introductory Science Fiction library

One of my nephews recently turned thirteen, and I decided to get him a present that might stick with him for a while: a collection of what I consider to be essential Science Fiction books, ones every kid should read. My nephew is already a huge fan of Star Wars in all of its permutations, but I'm trying to show him that there are other things in the world of Science Fiction. These are (mostly) books that I was reading when I was his age, and I'm hoping they fire his imagination the way they did mine.

In a case of perhaps Going Too Far, I wanted to replicate my experience of these books as closely as possible by buying the same editions that I originally read, or at least editions that are as similar as I could find.

The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien. This is technically Fantasy, not Science Fiction. I was probably fourteen when I first read this book. I was already into Dungeons & Dragons, and I bought this book mainly out of a sense of necessity, like it was required reading for me. Also, I wanted to plow through The Lord of the Rings, and I knew this was a critical introduction. I had the paperback edition with the yellow-orange cover with a painting by (I think) the Brothers Hildebrandt on the cover of Gandalf, Gwaihir, and Bilbo. I bought this for my nephew as a paperback, but with a different cover.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams. This isn't just a book; it's also a membership to the global society of fans who get all of the inside jokes, a passport to a larger world of fandom. Ideally I would present my nephew with the radio series first, which is how I was originally exposed to the Hitchhiker's Guide, but I did the next best thing: I purchased an undersized hardcover copy that purports to be the seventh printing of the First Edition, in exactly the same size, shape, and cover art as my copy, which I purchased in 1981.

Dune, Frank Herbert. Heady, complex stuff, and I think I was a bit older when I read this for the first time. Still, it's a great book, and it's a cool introduction to all sorts of ideas. Pity the sequels never lived up to the original. I got this in paperback - I had the burnt-orange paperback, which was coordinated with the other books in the series at that time (Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, and God-Emperor of Dune.) Hey, my nephew will finally get all the Dune references on The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy!

Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein. I believe this was technically written as juvenile fiction, though I was closer to thirty when I first read it. Larry Niven recommends that all kids be exposed to Heinlein by age ten. I doubt Starship Troopers was what he had in mind. Really more along the lines of military fiction or even social fiction, it is filled with plenty of original ideas and thought-provoking images. I was able to get the same edition that I bought for myself years ago, with the James Warhola cover.

The Star Wars trilogy. OK, not essential, but it's fun to spot the errors and differences - Luke flies in Gold Squadron as Gold Five, Yoda is a wizened blue figure, the ghost of Obi-Wan explains how he gave baby Luke to his brother Owen for safe keeping...

I probably should have thrown in George Orwell's 1984 for good measure, since that is essential reading for everybody. And The Hugo Winners Volumes I & II (edited by Isaac Asimov) is a wonderful collection of short stories providing introductions to Harlan Ellison, Larry Niven, Fritz Leiber, and dozens of other giants of science fiction - maybe I'll get that for him eventually, too.

That wasn't everything I got him for his birthday, but those books formed the core. I hope he reads them, and they don't just wind up tossed aside or collecting dust on a shelf.

Other people, I am sure, have their own ideas as to what books provide an essential introduction for young readers. Please share your own ideas in the comments!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Too much to tell

Today was another Big Day - which is defined as a day where I run two or more errands in sequence without touching base at home. Today I gave blood, chased a wild goose (a clearance-section child's easel at Target, last spotted nearly a week ago buy my aunt), shopped (unsuccessfully) for electronic ephemera at Circuit City, shopped (successfully) for bouncy balls at Party City, paid one last visit to the Waldenbooks at the Wyoming Valley Mall, topped off my gas tank, checked my oil, came home, ate supper, searched (unsuccessfully) for my good tripod, went to 4:00 Mass at a different church than "my" church (parking there is always an adventure, since they have parking spaces for about 30 cars and seating for about 1000 people), and went to my nephew's long-postponed birthday party.

Half of those could be blog entries themselves. But they'll have to wait. I have work in the morning, and I have several things I need to do before I can go to sleep.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Big doings today

I got up this morning, had breakfast, screwed around on the computer, checked the daily funnies online, and whined on the Comics Curmudgeon website that I couldn't find the tenth missing ping-pong ball in today's Slylock Fox.

I then took a shower, got dressed, and drove over to my (still unoccupied) house across town to drop off a 50 lb. pail of calcium chloride pellets (the best and least damaging de-icer I know of), a sack of leftover cookie-making ingredients, and several dollar-store LED flashlights. (I use them at work, and keep spares in storage.) I also took advantage of the sudden warm spell (temperatures hovering above freezing!) to nail down a loose board on my front steps. Then I drove a few blocks to do some banking, and headed out to a car wash to wash the grime and road salt off my car.

Next came the big stop of the day: tire rotation at Sam's Club. I waited an interminably long time while I watched one tire guy do his thing on a truck in the one open bay in the three- (or is it four?-) bay garage. One of the other bays was occupied by a pile of tires, while a third was being used by two other tire guys to assemble a wooden playhouse of some sort, which seemed odd. All three of the workers were arrayed so that none of them had a clear view of the window or the counter where customers would wait. Just as I was about to barge past the NO CUSTOMERS BEYOND THIS POINT sign, open the door to the work area, and shout "HEY!", one of the workers accidentally looked at the window and I began to wave vigorously.

I was told that tire rotation would take about an hour. I took this opportunity to visit the Kohl's next door - a store I had never been in before today, and after today will probably never be in again. (Not that anything bad happened, I just found the place completely uninteresting.) Next I stopped at the recently-opened Office Depot store just on the other side of Kohl's, which now sports a banner that reads "STORE CLOSING." I picked up a few discounted items which were massively overpriced to begin with.

By then my tire rotation was done. I headed to the Wyoming Valley Mall, where the Waldenbooks which has been a fixture of the mall for thirty-eight years is closing. It is closing tomorrow, actually, though the remaining books (and there are a lot of them) are still being offered at only 40% off. I didn't buy anything. (I got a copy of The Black Dossier there on Wednesday - I had never noticed it in the store before.) Maybe I'll stop in one last time tomorrow.

Came home, ate supper, went online, and read this e-mail:

Missing ping pong ball‏
From: Bob Weber
Sent: Fri 1/23/09 11:39 AM

You might want to take another look at the snake.

Bob Weber, Jr., creator of Slylock Fox (and son of Bob Weber of Moose Miller fame), had e-mailed me with a hint on finding the last ping-pong ball in today's Slylock Fox! BEHOLD THE AWESOME POWER OF THE COMICS CURMUDGEON! BEHOLD THE IMMEASURABLE COOLNESS OF BOB WEBER!

So, you know, anything else that happens today just kinda pales by comparison.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Stained Glass Project: St. Anne and St. Peter

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 subjects of the fifth pair of windows from the rear of the South side of St. Mary's church in Nanticoke really need no introduction. Outside of the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph), Saints Anne and Peter are probably among the best-known figures in the Communion of Saints.

Saint Anne is the mother of Mary, and the grandmother of Jesus. The New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia notes that everything that is known about Saint Anne - including her name - comes from apocryphal sources:

All our information concerning the names and lives of Sts. Joachim and Anne, the parents of Mary, is derived from apocryphal literature, the Gospel of the Nativity of Mary, the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Protoevangelium of James. Though the earliest form of the latter, on which directly or indirectly the other two seem to be based, goes back to about A.D. 150, we can hardly accept as beyond doubt its various statements on its sole authority. In the Orient the Protoevangelium had great authority and portions of it were read on the feasts of Mary by the Greeks, Syrians, Copts, and Arabians. In the Occident, however, it was rejected by the Fathers of the Church until its contents were incorporated by Jacobus de Voragine in his "Golden Legend" in the thirteenth century. From that time on the story of St. Anne spread over the West and was amply developed, until St. Anne became one of the most popular saints also of the Latin Church.

The Wikipedia entry on Saint Anne notes that a book is one of her saintly attributes, often shown in depictions of her, though no explanation is given. Nor is it clear why she is shown holding a Triregnum, or Papal Tiara.

New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Saint Anne
Wikipedia entry on Saint Anne

Next to Saint Anne is the portrait of Saint Peter. The obvious attribute shown here is the pair of keys (one behind the other) clasped in his right hand.

New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Saint Peter
Wikipedia entry on Saint Peter

There are two other items worth noting about this pair of windows. One is the remarkable similarity in pose, composition, and coloration of the two portraits: both are depicted in almost identical orientation to the viewer, and both wear vestments of rich ruby red, pale aquamarine, and wheat. (Saint Anne also has some purple in her clothing.)

The other is the fact that these windows are considerably modified compared to most of the other portrait windows in the church, missing the upper and lower openable panes and the "PRESENTED BY" tags. These modifications were likely made in the 1950's when the side door of the church (shown above) was installed. (I believe this was in 1953.) So, tragically, the names of the donors are probably lost to history - unless some separate record of these donors, or perhaps even the missing pieces of the window themselves, are stored somewhere!

The upper round window depicts a Lily of the Valley, mentioned in the Song of Songs and another element of the hortus conclusus. Additional religious relevance, from the Wikipedia entry:
The flower is also known as Our Lady's tears since, according to Christian legend, the tears Mary shed at the cross turned to Lilies of the Valley. According to another legend, Lilies of the Valley also sprang from the blood of Saint Leonard of Noblac during his battles with a dragon.
The script on the banner beneath this image is, unfortunately, unreadable.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

MAD Magazine: "Obama: The First 100 Minutes"

I came home from work yesterday to find that MAD Magazine #498 (February 2009) had arrived in the mail. Talk about timing!

Check out the little details in the cover art by Mark Fredrickson, like the banner at the top of the Chicago Tribune on Obama's desk, dated Wednesday, January 21, 2009:

Pick up a copy! It's worth it for the cover alone! And the minute-by-minute chronicle of "Obama: The First 100 Minutes" makes it clear that the new President won't be getting treated any differently than his predecessors!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Watching the World Wake Up from History

At 6:00 this morning, I began work with President George W. Bush in the White House.

At 6:00 tonight, I will walk out with President Barack Hussein Obama in the White House.

A new era has begun.

Jesus Jones: "Right Here, Right Now"

Monday, January 19, 2009

Last night in the White House

President George W. Bush is seen Monday morning
in the Oval Office Jan.19. 2009, making phone calls
to current and former world leaders during his final
full day in office. White House photo by Eric Draper

One day ends, and a new one begins.

Are you better off than you were eight years ago?

Tomorrow George W. Bush will become an ex-President. The set at the prop ranch at Crawford will be struck, if it hasn't already, and the now former Commander-in-Chief will retire to the loving embrace of those who are better off than they were eight years ago.

I sincerely hope someone keeps an eye on his post-Presidential adventures. What he does in the years to come may help clarify what has gone on in the past eight.

Tomorrow a new day will dawn at noon.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Martin Luther King Day adventures

Tomorrow I will drive my Tercel with its stuck-on emergency brake light a mile across town to a local garage - assuming they are open and can fit me in. Then I will walk to my house and shovel the sidewalks. Good thing my house is across the street from the garage.

I just looked up my problem online and got several different possibilities:
  • brake fluid level low
  • brake pads worn
  • ice buildup preventing the brake cable from releasing all the way and tripping the switch
  • some fault at the sensor
  • some fault at the gauge

I'm inclined to dismiss items 1, 2, and 5 as being too coincidental. (Why should they happen now, during the coldest weather we've had in, I think, a few years?) Item 3 sounds like it could be fixed by parking for a few hours in a warm environment. Item 4 sounds like the sort of thing that can happen when half a dozen different ice melt formulations are being splashed onto the underside of your car each day.

I'd like to meet some friends for dinner tomorrow but that may not be possible, given my current car situation.

Tuesday it's back to work.

UPDATE, 1/19/09: They can't see me until Thursday. So I'll drive my car across town like that anyway, to shovel my sidewalks. I wish I lived closer to the Steamtown Mall - they have a heated parkade.

UPDATE, 1/21/09: Well, I fixed it, but I'm not sure how. With access to my car in the daylight for the first time since this problem arose, I dug out the owner's manual and found that it actually covers this sort of problem. The "first aid" advice is to check and top off the brake fluid. I tried to check the level, scraping off as much grime as I could from the outside, and it looked low.

This afternoon I drove the nine miles to the nearest auto parts store to pick up some brake fluid, the brake light on the whole way. When I began to add it, still parked in front of the store, it suddenly seemed like the level was high - so high that it seemed to be right up to the filter screen where you add it, well above the "MAX" mark. (Which would explain why I didn't see a fluid level line.) I added only a few drops before I stopped - both the manual and the bottle give dire warnings about spilling the brake fluid on anything. I decided to drive home and try to figure out next steps. I went into the car, turned on the ignition, and all the usual lights lit up on the dashboard, including the BRAKE light. I then reached for the gear shift, and discovered that I had instinctively set the parking brake when I got to the store, even though I am trying to make a point not to. I released the brake - and the light went out. Problem solved.

But what did it? The past few days have seen moments where the car has warmed up enough to melt ice. Was the trip to the auto parts store enough to dislodge the last few crystals of ice that were blocking the sensor? Or did the thimbleful of brake fluid that I added do the trick? I don't know. If I hadn't set the parking brake, if I had started up the car momentarily before I added the brake fluid, I might have found out. But for now I have no idea.

I'll check my car tomorrow morning before I cancel that appointment at the garage.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Almost 300,000

I looked at my odometer yesterday and saw that it is at about 299,760 miles. I'll be hitting 300,000 this week!, I thought. And then my heart sank a little: I put 66 miles on my car each day during my commute. At that rate, I would hit the 300k milestone sometime during the commute, and it would be virtually impossible to get a photo of the event, like I did for 234,567 and 250,000 miles, unless I was on my way home and was able to detour somewhere off the highway.

I added drygas to my fuel this week, the good isopropyl stuff. I also replaced my windshield wiper blades recently, and checked my coolant level. I thought I was ready for whatever Winter could hand me.

This morning my car decided that I could not release my emergency brake.

Let me make this clear: My emergency brake is released. I know what it feels like when I'm driving with it on, and this ain't it. I think. I'm pretty sure.

But the BRAKE light won't go off on my dashboard, and the brake lights on the back of my car stay lit.

I wasn't about to drive my car 66 miles in that state. If nothing else, the computer at least might become convinced that I am driving with the emergency brake on, and might do something rash. Luckily there was a backup plan in place in the event that I could not take my own car to work. Luckily also, I gassed up my mom's car yesterday and added drygas to the fuel.

When I got back from work today I checked to see if the slightly warmer daytime temperatures might have undone whatever has put my car in this state. Nothin' doing.

I don't think this is really a brake issue. I think the brake is fully disengaged. I think this is a sensor issue, or something like the issue which prevented my speedometer/odometer cable from sending signals just about a year ago. (In reality, I probably have 302,000 miles on my car already, but my odometer was non-functional for most of last January.) I would very much like this problem to go away on its own. But if it's anything like last year's problem, it will only go away with the assistance of rather a lot of money.

Until it does go away, my car will be offline.

Ironic footnote: Looks like we're shut down for the Martin Luther King holiday on Monday. So my total work commute for this rotation would be 198 miles, not 264 miles. If I had driven my car to work every day this rotation, I would still have some miles to go before I hit 300,000. As things stand now...who knows?

Friday, January 16, 2009

Dinosaur Comics

If you're not reading Ryan North's Dinosaur Comics at ...well, what the hell is wrong with you?

(Sorry these images are so small. Right-click and open in a new tab or window to view them full-sized.)

this comic is based on two days ago, last saturday, when i kicked joey comeau of asofterworld dot com's ass at chess so badly that he DIED. :0 ;0 :0

It's a brilliant concept: working with the same six panel images, create an ongoing comic strip involving a group of talking dinosaurs who are more-or-less friends. With special off-screen appearances by God, the Devil, and other guest stars! How long can you keep such a thing up? Ryan North has been doing it since February 1, 2003!

even the example t-rex gives is fundamentally flawed.  who would like to be known as a 'sexual basketball player'?  'sexual basketball' sounds like some game a creepy guy would make up and then try to get you to play with him.  what's the deal, creepy guy?

This isn't a comic strip for kids, which might be the target audience you would expect for a strip involving talking dinosaurs. It's clever, witty, and sophisticated, and packed full of references to pop culture. Check out this example from the "Mirror Universe" story arc:

look how evil he looks in the second panel! seriously it's freaking me out

Ryan North includes hover text unique to each strip, a related joke that appears if you use the site to compose an e-mail response to a specific strip, and even embed code for each day's strip (which is how I got these strips to come over!) (which produced images too wide to display on the blog, so you'll have to click through the images to see the full-sized originals, though I was able to reproduce the hover text through a meticulous process of trial and error!)

Go on over to and check out the entire collection of archived strips! You'll be glad you did!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

All tomorrow's gardens

If you're like me, the cold temperatures of Winter* have got you thinking of the beginning of planting season in the Spring: breaking the ground, spreading the compost, double-digging the beds, starting the seeds in flats, transplanting them to the garden when they're big enough...

OK, maybe you're not thinking of these things. But if you've ever ordered anything garden-related through the mail, your mailbox is probably filling up right now with glossy gardening catalogs filled with bright, colorful photos promising huge, beautiful and/or delicious flowers and vegetables from your long as you buy your seeds from whichever catalog you're holding.

Two catalogs in my experience break with this pattern. Neither is slickly produced, or is full of colorful photos - last time I looked, both were printed in black text on white paper (in one case, newsprint), and neither has fancy illustrations. These are my two favorite catalogs. (Surprisingly, each has a web presence.)

Bountiful Gardens is produced by the group Ecology Action. Their promise is "Heirloom - Untreated - Open Pollinated varieties for sustainable agriculture."
Bountiful Gardens sells untreated open-pollinated seed of heirloom quality for vegetables, herbs, flowers, grains, green manures, compost and carbon crops. Offering Biointensive and Grow BiointensiveTM sustainable organic seed.

Specialties: Rare and unusual varieties. Medicinal herbs. Super-nutrition varieties.

Biointensive books/videos for growing soil sustainably using mini-farming techniques such as double-digging, intensive spacing,and companion planting.

Fine tools, basic organic gardening supplies, and non-toxic insect controls.

You may be interested to know that Bountiful Gardens is a non-profit organization and a project of Ecology Action which does garden research and publishes many books, information sheets, and research papers, some in other languages. Ecology Action operates a research mini-farm in Willits, CA and promotes the GROW BIOINTENSIVE(TM) method of food production which teaches people in 130 countries around the world to grow food and build soil with less work, water, and energy by natural methods. Find out more at
I have grown many beautiful flowers and delicious vegetables from seeds bought from Bountiful Gardens. One of my favorites is the ping-pong ball sized cherry tomato Chadwick's Cherry, which grows profusely and reseeds readily. I purchased and planted it once, perhaps ten years ago, and it came back every year from seed, until the fateful Spring three years ago that I decided to also plant Brandywine tomatoes - and none of my fallen Chadwick's Cherry came back the next year. Lesson learned. I'll order and start more Chadwick's Cherry this year.

The other catalog is even stranger. It's from J.L. Hudson, Seedsman. His Statement of Purpose is a bit long, but it makes for interesting reading. Although I haven't seen this catalog in years, I doubt it's changed much from the last time I saw it: tiny serif typeface on plain white paper, folded over to make a booklet, with no illustrations but for botanical line drawings. And the plants are arranged by taxonomic classification: genus, species, and variety. So if you're looking for seeds for a Butterfly Bush, you need to know that you're really looking for a Buddleja; a quick scan through the B's reveals that J.L. Hudson is offering this:

LOGANIACEAE. 'BUTTERFLY BUSH', 'SUMMER LILAC'. Showy deciduous or evergreen shrubs of great value for the garden. Their handsome flowers are profusely produced in round heads or spike-like panicles, and are attractive to butterflies, who congregate to feed on the nectar. Handsome large leaves. Best in full sun and well-drained soil. Many will survive in the North if the base is protected. Easy from seed sown on the surface or lightly covered. Keep warm to germinate in 2 - 12 weeks. Give ventilation to prevent damping off. Try using GA-3.
—Buddleja Davidii (=variabilis). (a!,h) BUDD-6. Packet: $2.50
'ORANGEYE BUTTERFLY BUSH'. Lilac flowers with orange throats, in dense 4 - 10" spikes in late summer. Shrub to 6 - 15 feet, with large, narrow, dark green leaves that are white underneath. China. If cut to the ground by a freeze, it will sprout from the base and reach 7 feet by fall. "A very handsome species with showy and fragrant flowers appearing in great profusion in late summer."—L.H. Bailey. Germinates in 2 - 12 weeks.
Scanning through the J.L. Hudson catalog gives you a wealth of information on plants and gardening, and provides you with a quick education in the Latin naming of various plant species. You will find many fascinating plants, some you might never have thought to grow before.

The time of "The Februaries" is almost upon us, that time of the year when, in defiance of all logic and reason, experienced gardeners will take a stab at starting seeds about four weeks too early - and have their initial optimism dashed to bits as damping-off kills all of their promising young seedlings. Best to avoid the possibility entirely by arranging to have these catalogs arrive sometime in early February, and then receive any seeds I order in proper time for March planting!

To request a copy of the Bountiful Gardens catalog without placing an order, click here.
Follow these instructions to obtain a print catalog from J.L. Hudson, Seedsman.

*How cold? I nearly got frostbite pumping gas today!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Pareidolia: Ghouls in the Carina Nebula

Pareidolia is a frequent topic of discussion (and sometimes derision) over at Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy. Pareidolia is a very human tendency to perceive coherent images in randomly arrayed or naturally occurring items - so we see a big ladle or a sword-carrying giant in the stars, or a man or a rabbit in the Moon, or the image of Mary in a rust stain on concrete, or Jesus in a piece of Pita bread.

This Christmas my sister got me the calendar Heavens, subtitled Hubble: Deepest Views of Space. It's a nice calendar, though it isn't officially put out by NASA or the Hubble team or anyone else associated with the images within. It's one of the two astronomy-related calendars commonly available in bookstores, although there are several others that are more expensive and harder to find. (One of them is Terence Dickinson's Astronomy, which I managed to pick up for half price at a mall kiosk last week; I actually think the pictures in the Heavens one are nicer.) The point is, this calendar is probably gracing the homes and offices of thousands or tens of thousands of people right now. And the image shown above will be on display in those homes and offices for the next sixteen days or so. And once they notice the image of ghouls in attendance at a deathbed, the people in those homes and offices may be just a little freaked out.

Do you see it? If you're having trouble, I'll point it out to you.

UPDATE, 1/15/09: Now made explicit with labeled diagrams!

First is the corpse on the deathbed, seen in the lower right of the image. A shroud or hooded cloak covers his eyes, though his nose, mouth, and chin - all lit from behind by a heavenly light - and neck are clearly visible. The cloak appears to wrap his body below the neck.

First in attendance is the figure I call The Physician. He wears a high-collared cloak and a wide-brimmed conical hat. His eye glows with - concern? desire? anticipation? - though his mouth is held tightly shut beneath his prominent nose.

Hovering over The Physician's shoulder is The Hungry Ghoul. His face is full of malice, his eye clearly alight with delight and glee. His rotting face with its high cheekbone and pointed chin shows a leering grin full of nasty-looking teeth, ready to devour the once-living flesh as soon as it has cooled down enough. (Ghouls only eat the dead, you know.) He wears an open-collared shirt. The set of his shoulders suggests that while he is full of excited anticipation, he is also relaxed and patient.

Finally - and least distinct, because it does not fully reside on the same plane of existence as the other figures - is the female figure of The Mourner: eye shut, mouth set but slightly open, long hair falling over her left shoulder, turning away in grief. The long deathwatch is over, the Physician - himself a ghoul in disguise - has recorded the passing, and now there is nothing to be done but a funeral and burial.

It's the Carina Nebula, a beautiful and magnificent astronomical feature, as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the greatest achievements of human technology. There aren't really ghouls or corpses or mourners there in the image. What really is there is much more amazing, much more wonderful. Read up on it and see.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Charlie Sexton: Beat's So Lonely

I was cruising YouTube a few months ago looking to see how dated the videos for popular songs from the mid-to-late 1980's look today. A lot of them have not held up well. This one, however, has. It's a non-embeddable video (come on, Universal Music Group, get with the program!), so right-click to open in a new tab or window. Charlie Sexton's "Beat's So Lonely":

Charlie Sexton could have been a one-hit wonder, a wunderkind* who had a huge hit song at age seventeen and then faded into obscurity. But he has stayed very active in the industry in the twenty-four years (nearly A QUARTER OF A CENTURY HOLY CRAP) that have passed since this song came out.

*When this song came out I remember thinking that this guy looked both like an anorexic Frankenstein and a little kid. In reality he is less than eight months younger than me. I guess I was a little kid back then, too.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The last seven days

Dammit, the source code for my Bush Countdown Clock is apparently referencing a site that has now expired. So the clock has gone blank, and we won't get to watch it count down the final week.

I have been told that I will be working next rotation, too, so I will be in the final six hours of my fourth day of work as one President is sworn in and another one is sworn out. I will have to remember to set my trusty VCR to record the blessed event. At 12:01 PM I expect to feel a little thrill as I race around my four DVD replication systems, installing stampers and pulling spindles and running tests and chasing alarms. Soon thereafter I will join most of the rest of the nation and the world in saying "good riddance" to George W. Bush and his miserable crew.

And then the work of rebuilding our nation will begin.

UPDATE, 1/13/09 at 9:22 AM: Aaaaaand it's back. I guess they got their site issues resolved.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Quick updates before the collapse

Gotta get to bed soon. Just some notes:

- Snow wasn't as bad as predicted, and roads weren't as bad as I feared. Oh, I still had to punch my way through a wall of ice to open the door of my car, and it did take me 52 minutes to travel the 33 miles to work instead of the traditional 40 minutes. But I have had much worse experiences on my commute. Like, say, last night.

- Yes, I did not get laid off this rotation, for which I am immensely glad. Though today was very frustrating in a lot of ways, I'm still glad to be earning money. Don't know if my luck will last into next rotation - I'll find out on Friday, if not sooner.

- Inauguration Day next Tuesday! If I'm working, that's the last day of my rotation, so I would be up for any gatherings and/or celebrations after about 7:00. If I'm not working, I'm free all day!

- Everybody seems to have posted to their blogs and/or Facebook accounts today. I have a lot of catching up to do. But not tonight! Tonight is for sleeping. Now.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Weather and work

This is another advantage of my work schedule: I have a four in eight chance of having bad weather for my commute, while everyone else has a five in seven chance. For direct comparison, that's a 28 in 56 chance for me vs. a 40 in 56 chance for everybody else.

Unfortunately, the 56-sided die was rolled and I failed my saving throw.

The problem is a double - well, triple whammy: The weather event is happening on a weekend, when prompt snow removal is a lower priority than if schoolchildren and most 9-to-5 Monday-through-Friday commuters would be affected. And my commute takes place in the early-morning hours, usually starting off at 5:00 AM, though tomorrow (if I decide to go) I will need to leave closer to 4:00 AM. Plowing the streets and highways for any commuters who might be using them at such a preposterous hour is also not a priority.

Wait, make that a quadruple whammy: the snow is still coming down as I write this, and is expected to continue until 6:00 in the morning. Now, why should anyone consider plowing streets or highways in the wee hours of a Sunday morning at a time when the storm is still expected to be going on?

But money is money, and we are talking a lot of money here. I can take the day as a personal day, but that will be money not available to me at the end of the year. We'll see how things look in the morning...very early in the morning.

Friday, January 09, 2009

YouTube Weekend: Men at Work, "Overkill"

There are at least three or four stories behind the reason I'm posting this song. I think. Maybe I'll explain someday. It's hard to focus right now as I am fading away towards unconsciousness, having just completed one-quarter of my work rotation. Hopefully my internal alarm clock will wake me up at 3:00 tomorrow morning (two minutes before my first alarm clock), as it should, rather than at 12:30, 1:00, 1:30, 2:00, and 2:30, as it did this morning. (Which is half of one of the stories. I couldn't get to sleep last night, and this song came to mind. I do not think I will have that same problem tonight.)

Ghosts appear and fade away
come back another day

Fun fact: that's PAL timecode running along the top, with a 25 frames per second standard. (The last number goes from 0 to 24.) This is used in Europe and (I think) Australia. NTSC is used in the U.S., Central America, Japan, and a few other places and uses a 29.97 fps standard (30 frames per second on video.)

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Back to work

My four days off are over. My polarity now flips to Work mode for the next four days, assuming I don't get laid off mid-rotation.

I have to admit I like this work schedule. Four days of dancing in a whitespace, and four days off. It's hard on the feet, and getting up at 3:00 in the morning is a pain. But the pay is good - better than anything else available locally at this time. And the four days off give me lots of time to do things I would otherwise have to cram into weekends and after-work hours.

Not that I always get everything accomplished. Today I did manage to pay my current bills, shuffle some money around from a special savings account to a special checking account, use that money to pay may garbage fee, sewer fee, and sewer access fee (two different fees paid to two different entities), put up my new garbage sticker, take down my Christmas decorations (except the tree), get my driver's license renewed, get new glasses ordered, get a 50 lb. bag of cat litter and two 21 lb. bags of cat food, get some pine cat litter, top off my tank (gas went up 10 cents since this morning!), and do a few other things. I failed to get my tires rotated - the driver's license thing took too long, and when I got to the place for the rotation there were two cars ahead of me, and I would have probably been the last job of the day, and I opted to avoid that headache. I also failed to get rock salt; there was a run on it last night and this morning, and everyone is sold out for the moment, so we'll have to get by on what we have left.

And now it's time for bed. I'll probably write telegraphic posts over the next three days after work, and then I'll be back in "off from work" mode. See you then!

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Snow (and ice, and slush) for Orthodox Christmas

Today is Orthodox (or Russian) Christmas, Christmas Day for those who follow the Julian calender. By tradition, we keep our Christmas decorations up and lights on until this day. After this day, it's just pretty much that we haven't gotten to them yet.

There is a belief, or at least a saying, that it always snows for Russian Christmas. This isn't true, as a quick review of the records for recent years will show. But this year we did have snow for Russian Christmas, albeit day-old snow.

Yesterday I took my mom out grocery shopping and to an appointment. This is something we do every Tuesday that I'm off, but we usually do it in her car, a big comfortable thing. My brother is currently borrowing her car while his is in the shop, so our trip had to be made in my car - a 1996 Toyota Tercel DX four-door with 299,400 "official" miles on the odometer and an additional 2,000 or so miles that were put on before I could get the speedometer/odometer cable replaced last year.

The car performed better than I expected. Anyone who has ridden in my car knows that the phrase "rattling deathtrap" is no exaggeration. But the car held together, and was as nimble and quick as it has ever been.

The first sign of a problem came as we were checking out of the supermarket. There, through the big picture windows in the front of the store, we could see snow falling on all the cars in the parking lot. It came down harder as we packed the groceries into every available space in my car, and harder still as we drove over the bridge and along Route 11 between a mountain and a river to get my mom to her appointment. I decided to wait for her in the car during her appointment, and got pelted with all sorts of snow.

After the appointment we stopped at a nearby Kmart. When we exited the store we found that the snow had turned to sleet. We also found that the route back the way we came was apparently blocked, as evinced by the line of cars that stretched from around a distant curve to the entrance to the shopping center we were leaving. So we drove back to Nanticoke using an alternate route through Wilkes-Barre, puttering along slowly with a conga line of other cars. A trip that should have taken us 15-20 minutes took over 45.

But we made it.

This morning I awoke to the sizzling sound of rain falling on sleet. It rained most of the morning, getting under the ice that had formed on the sidewalks and making it easier to remove. But it also made removing the ice a miserable, cold, wet task.

There were things I wanted to get accomplished on these four days off. Get my tires rotated, get new glasses, pay my garbage fee and post the sticker in my window, visit the bank and shuffle around the funds for the garbage fee and the sewer fee and the other sewer fee and the other fun annual stuff. I haven't done any of that yet. I have to get it done tomorrow, or - unless I'm laid off for all or part of the next rotation - I won't be able to get to it until next Tuesday.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Appliances of the Devil

About ten years before she died, my grandmother was given a food processor and a fancy stand mixer by my rich uncle, the one who went to work for International Business Machines back when they were first getting involved with electronic computation devices. I laughed that she was using these newfangled gadgets while I was looking for the strongest wooden spoons I could find for mixing my cookie dough by hand.

I've long eschewed motorized and electronic gadgets for doing things that could just as easily, or more easily, be done by simpler means, particularly when the net cost of acquiring and using the gadget exceeds any net savings in terms of time or effort. An extreme example is the Segway Personal Transporter, which essentially does away with all that tedious effort involved with walking - the only exercise most people get. But this particular rant is directed at household appliances.

First on my list is the microwave oven. Oh, you kids these days take them for granted, but I remember when the Amana Radar Range was the item to have in your kitchen. My family didn't get its first microwave oven until 1983 ("Chiefs" was on TV the night that my mother and grandmother brought it home.) I tried out a few recipes from the hardcover cookbook that was included in the box, and none of them came out tasting anything like what I expected. Eventually we worked out that a microwave oven could never completely replace a conventional oven. You couldn't put metal in it, it heated things unevenly (creating patterns of burned stuff next to uncooked stuff), and conventional oven recipes could not be easily transcribed for microwave cooking. So we came to the conclusions that most other people did: it's OK for defrosting things at low power, for reheating leftovers, for softening ice cream and butter, for refreshing bread that had dried out, and, until the advent of cookware and frozen meals designed explicitly for microwave ovens, not much else.

Next let's move on to food processors and electric mixers. A food processor will chop, slice, grind, and otherwise mangle food for you in a fast and painless way. Balderdash! Give me a strong, sharp knife, a mortar and pestle, and a cast-iron meat grinder any day of the week. And electric mixers? Some of my fondest childhood memories are of watching my mom make chocolate chip cookie dough in her old chrome electric mixer. The smell and sound of the motor were just as exciting as the fluffy, whipped appearance of the batter...until the day that the motor burned out. After that my mom moved on to a series of hand-held electric beaters, none of which have survived more than a few years. I make cookies the manly way, using brute force, a stout wooden spoon, and a hand-held mixing bowl. Or, if the dough becomes too difficult to work with the spoon, I roll up my sleeves and mix it with my hands. (I told my friends that a lot of sweat went into making the Christmas cookies I gave out as gifts this year. I don't know how many of them realized I was speaking literally.) Still, the KitchenAid mixer is a work of art, and a damned fine looking piece of engineering. If ever I were to stray from the path of righteousness and brute strength, that might be where I would go.

My brother, sister and I all chipped in to get our mom a dishwasher about ten years ago, and she's still using it. As far as a labor-saving device goes, dishwashers do the job quite well. Unfortunately, they do the job of cleaning dishes somewhat less well. Every utensil, dish, bowl, mug, and glass must be checked at the completion of the wash cycle to confirm that the dishwasher has not simply engaged in a redistribution of food debris. If you can hack it, this is another case where brute force - and the magic of soap and water - can get the job done just as well as, or even better than, the mechanized substitute.

Two other devices require honorable mention, at least. One is the television, particularly the gigantic flatscreen beasts that were in huge demand this past Christmas, despite the fact that nobody seemed to have any money. Once upon a time televisions were simple things, essentially radio receivers that would pluck a signal from the air and transform it into a moving picture of Lucille Ball or David Brinkley or astronauts returning from space. If they broke, you would pack them into the car and haul them to the repair shop downtown, where a man would pop off the back, pull out some tubes, and test them to see if they had gone bad. In the 1970's TVs evolved into pieces of furniture called floor consoles, and they were too big to haul in to the repair shop - so the TV repair man would come to you. Eventually TVs became smaller, cheaper, more portable, and all electronic, so there were no more tubes to replace - and in many cases it was cheaper to replace the TV with a new one than to repair the old one. But now televisions are once again huge and expensive, and TV repair men are once more making house calls.

The other device, of course, is the home computer, particularly when it is connected to the Internet. More than just a TV with a typewriter keyboard attached and a fancy calculator inside, this appliance is...well, what isn't it? A tool for instant worldwide communication, an access device to billions of documents, videos, audio clips, images, a global commons, an infinitely large storehouse of pornography, the ultimate time No, there is nothing at all wrong with any of this. The other things, sure, they're the tools of the Devil - or, more accurately, the appliances of the devil. But not computers. No. No. No.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a few hundred friends' blogs to catch up on...

Monday, January 05, 2009

The Stained Glass Project: St. Francis of Sales and St. James

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 fourth pair of portrait windows from the rear of the South side of St. Mary's Church in Nanticoke features St. Francis of Sales and St. James.

    The identity of St. Francis of Sales is fairly unambiguous. As a relatively recent figure (1567 - 1622) there is a considerable historical record of his life.

    St. Francis de Sales wears bishop's vestments because he was, in fact, the Bishop of Geneva. But the lemon, lavender, and sea-foam vestments seem to be at odds with what is written here in the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia:
    His food was plain, his dress and his household simple. He completely dispensed with superfluities and lived with the greatest economy, in order to be able to provide more abundantly for the wants of the needy.
    I do not know what the object is that he is holding in his gloved hand. It could be a Pyx, though it seems a bit large. One of his listed attributes, or associated symbols, is the Sacred Heart of Jesus, but this does not look much like that. Perhaps it is a vessel containing the heart of St. Francis de Sales himself? Again, from the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia:
    In 1622 he had to accompany the Court of Savoy into France. At Lyons he insisted on occupying a small, poorly furnished room in a house belonging to the gardener of the Visitation Convent. There, on 27 December, he was seized with apoplexy. He received the last sacraments and made his profession of faith, repeating constantly the words: "God's will be done! Jesus, my God and my all!" He died next day, in the fifty-sixth year of his age. Immense crowds flocked to visit his remains, which the people of Lyons were anxious to keep in their city. With much difficulty his body was brought back to Annecy, but his heart was left at Lyons.

    The second portrait is more problematic. We are told that it is St. James. But which St. James?

    There are many Saints who bear the name of James. Based on some quick reading and the image of the book in St. James's hand, I believe this is the individual known as St. James the Just, also identified as St. James the Less, Bishop of Jerusalem and author of the Epistle of St. James.

    The round window above this pair of portraits depicts a radiating five-pointed star, rendered with three-dimensional detail. Unfortunately, the text on the banner beneath it is unreadable, if there is any there at all.

    The image above was actually the very first photo I took for what would become The Stained Glass Project. I snapped this image while waiting in the pew for my cousin's wedding to begin.

    And now, something unusual. We're going to focus on the feet.

    St. Francis of Sales is wearing emerald green slippers or shoes of some sort, with what appears to be a racing stripe running up the center. This is quite possibly the most colorful portrait in the church. Priestly vestments are specific colors for specific liturgical seasons and events, so perhaps the choice of colors has some deeper significance.

    One of the greatest points of variation in humans is the shape of the feet. This was made clear during World War I (or was it World War II?), when refugees from France began pouring into England with little more than the clothing on their backs and the shoes on their feet. When they attempted to fit their feet into shoes made for British feet they found them to be uncomfortable and ill-fitting, as the general shape of the British foot is different from the general shape of the French foot. More recently, a shoe company came under fire for marketing a shoe designed specifically for the feet of a certain Native American tribe; apparently some people maintain that all feet are created equal, and any attempt to recognize ethnically-related differences in foot shape is akin to racism.

    Having said that, I don't really know anyone who has feet shaped like this depiction of St. James. where the end of the big toe barely comes to the middle knuckle of the smallest toe. Perhaps this peculiar foot shape could be an aid in identifying the region from which the model and/or artist involved in creating this portrait came from.

    The donors of this pair of windows are really significant individuals. St. Francis of Sales was presented by F.H. Kohlbraker, a Superintendent of Susquehanna Coal, one of the region's major coal mining companies. His obituary in 1932 lists him as a "Retired Executive of Coal Company and Banker," though I cannot identify which bank he was associated with. (Nanticoke was once a major banking center for this area.) St. James was presented by J.C. Brader, who in 1889 was listed as the Vice-President of First National Bank of Nanticoke. What positions either of these men held at the time the windows themselves were presented I do not know. Determining that will require further research.