Tuesday, March 31, 2009

In the absence of information, rumors will reign

The title of this post has long been a motto of mine. Back when I was in a position where my opinions on such things mattered, I always favored complete disclosure and transparency over need-to-know parsing out of information. When people have more information than they need to make a decision, unexpected insights may arise from previously-overlooked combinations of data. When data is meted out parsimoniously, occasionally critically important information may be inadvertently (or intentionally, even maliciously) withheld, leading to decisions being made based on a skewed perception of the problem.

The James Randi Educational Foundation had its YouTube account suspended yesterday. Here is the announcement of this incident, in its entirety, from randi.org:

Our YouTube account has been suspended, which means all of the Randi Speaks and other JREF videos are temporarily unavailable. We're researching the problem, and will be back online as soon as possible. Thanks very much for your patience.
Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy is the president of JREF. Here is the announcement he made on his blog, in its entirety:

I’m getting lots of notes, comments, tweets, and emails about the suspension of the YouTube JREF account. We’re working on it with YouTube, and we’re hoping to have this resolved soon. Obviously, this is not something we’re going to go into details about until it’s resolved, so please don’t fret, and we ask for your patience. The support we’ve seen from everyone has been fantastic, and we appreciate it.
And that's it. That's all the official information that I've seen out there.

For those unfamiliar with the group, here is the information from the "About the Foundation" page from randi.org:

The James Randi Educational Foundation is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1996. Its aim is to promote critical thinking by reaching out to the public and media with reliable information about paranormal and supernatural ideas so widespread in our society today.

The Foundation's goals include:

  • Creating a new generation of critical thinkers through lively classroom demonstrations and by reaching out to the next generation in the form of scholarships and awards.
  • Demonstrating to the public and the media, through educational seminars, the consequences of accepting paranormal and supernatural claims without questioning.
  • Supporting and conducting research into paranormal claims through well-designed experiments utilizing "the scientific method" and by publishing the findings in the JREF official newsletter, Swift, and other periodicals. Also providing reliable information on paranormal and pseudoscientific claims by maintaining a comprehensive library of books, videos, journals, and archival resources open to the public.
  • Assisting those who are being attacked as a result of their investigations and criticism of people who make paranormal claims, by maintaining a legal defense fund available to assist these individuals.
To raise public awareness of these issues, the Foundation offers a $1,000,000 prize to any person or persons who can demonstrate any psychic, supernatural or paranormal ability of any kind under mutually agreed upon scientific conditions. This prize money is held in a special account which cannot be accessed for any purpose other than the awarding of the prize.
The JREF is the sort of organization that tends to step on a lot of toes, because they also tend to pull back a lot of curtains and reveal the hucksters hiding behind them. Hucksters, faith healers, cultists, snake oil salesmen - if you're peddling crap, rest assured that the JREF has your number, and will do everything it can to let people know it. So, naturally, there are a lot of people out to get them.

Only we don't know if that's what's going on here. Information is being withheld. The people who do know the "official" reason YouTube has suspended this account aren't talking, or at least aren't sharing any details. Every bit of official information that has been release on this matter is included in the first two quotes above. Anything beyond that is speculation.

And there's been a hell of a lot of that. P.Z. Myers (whose adventures trying to see a movie in which he was featured I wrote about just over a year ago here) wrote a post about this incident yesterday which has a decidedly different tone than the ones posted on randi.org or Bad Astronomy. It opens with this statement:

This is insane: YouTube has become an overzealous nanny, protecting kooks from offense, now banning the eminently respectable JREF.
But there is no additional information provided. When pressed for information in the comments, Myers responded

The reason for this particular event is irrelevant, given YouTube's history of bowing to the demands of creationists and other kooks. Might as well give up and concede it to them -- it's on the road to being another godtube.
...which is not the sort of response I would expect from a scientist, or a skeptic.

The pitchforks and torches immediately came out in the comments. Speculations abounded as to what had happened, and who had done it, and retaliatory strikes were taken against the people who were suspected of having done whatever might have been done. But the only additional information added to the pot was this statement, purportedly a quote from a private communication by James Randi himself:

Comment #162
Posted by: ozzy1248
March 30, 2009 9:54 PM

Update - Received word from JREF about suspension:

"Sean: there were a few complaints about Oprah material and some from Dean Radin, as well. YouTube shut us down pending our resolution of these problems. I expect we'll be back up very soon...
James Randi."

Hopefully we'll see them back shortly.
And that's where things stand, as of now, information-wise.

The comments fared a little better on Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy. with several of us arguing that we should remain patient as Phil had suggested, and several others taking us to task for waiting to act before we actually had anything more than speculation. Phil has done four additional posts since the one announcing the YouTube suspension, but has not provided any additional information.

In the absence of information, rumors have reigned. Scratch a group of fans of rationality and skepticism, and you might just find an angry mob underneath.

I'm hoping the people who know what is going on see fit to share this information sometime soon.

UPDATE, April 5, 2009: Phil Plait posted this to the JREF site on April 3:

The JREF YouTube Account is back online!
Written by Phil Plait
Friday, 03 April 2009 09:00

We're pleased to announce that our YouTube channel is back online.

Our account had been suspended by YouTube due to some copyright complaints on a handful of videos we had uploaded. The videos in question have been removed, the proper hoops have been jumped through, and YouTube restored the account. We are currently going though our inventory to make sure any videos that we even suspect might be in violation are removed. There are 200+ of them, so it'll take us some time, but we're on it.

I'd like to thank all our supporters once again for the outcry when this happened. But I'll also gently chide some of you: there were many rumors, accusations, and conclusions jumped-to when our account was taken down. As you can see, no one was attacking us, and no one acted unfairly - the complainants were within their rights, and YouTube acted according to their rules. In fact, when we started conversing with one of the complainants and with YouTube, everyone acted in a civilized and even friendly manner. The matter was resolved quickly and, I think, to everyone's satisfaction.

Because of this, I'd like to personally thank everyone involved with this as well.

So we're back on the air! You can expect to see more Randi Speaks soon, as well as our usual skeptical take on all things unskeptical. Thank you to everyone for your support and patience.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Night Shifting

A lot of people think working an all-night shift is difficult, maybe impossible. I guess for some people, it is. I knew one person whose body couldn't handle the shift; going from day shift to night shift threw her body chemistry off in a dangerously bad way.

But for me, it's easy. As long as I get good rest the day before, I'm all set to put in a full night. This usually means that the day before I begin the night shift rotation I go to bed at a reasonable hour - say, no later than 11:00 PM or midnight. I then sleep in, late, and then force myself to sleep some more - optimally, all the way to 2:00 in the afternoon, giving me an unreasonable fourteen or fifteen hours of sleep - less, if you count the hours of wakefulness that inevitably intrude. I leave the house early - my target time is 4:45, a good fifteen minutes earlier than I would leave for day shift, to allow for extra afternoon traffic and construction. Barring such events, I make it to work by 5:20, and spend twenty minutes reading a magazine in the parking lot. I get out of the car at 5:40 and clock in at 5:45. (On a day when I was diverted by traffic and construction, this schedule was thrown off by a half hour; I pulled into the parking lot, hurried into the building, and clocked in at 5:55.)

I don't drink coffee at work. The bright lights, frantic pace of work, and adrenaline rush tend to keep me going until lunch, which sometimes doesn't come until after 3:00. When someone asked me why I don't drink coffee during the night, I asked him if he wanted to see me any more hyper and high-strung than I currently was. This may come as a surprise to some, who know me as a mellow, laid-back sort. That is just my "relaxed" mode. At work I am rarely relaxed.

Work plows along through the night until our relief arrives at or before 6:00. We punch out and trudge to our cars in the pre-dawn darkness - a situation that I trust will be remedied in the coming weeks. On the way home I drink a can of diet cola, eat some grapes left over from my lunch, and sometimes drink half a liter of water and eat an apple.

When I come home at 7:00 I do one of two things: go online for an hour or so and catch up on blogs and maybe try to squeeze in my daily post, or go directly to bed. If I go directly to bed I usually am not asleep until nearly 8:00, and usually do not sleep all the way through to the 2:00 alarm. Days that I go on the Internet first I tend to get more solid sleep.

At 2:00 I wake and eat a meal - usually something dinner-ish, with diet cola and possibly coffee. The lunch that I pack for work is also dinner-ish, with added fruit and cookies. In a sense, I eat two dinners and no lunch or breakfast. I then go online, write my post if I haven't already (or, sometimes, write the next day's post and set it for delayed publication), and catch up on the thousands of updates that people inevitably post when I'm working. Then I pack my lunch (dinner leftovers, grapes, a bottle of water, an apple and a spare for the ride home, and a high-carbohydrate snack, usually cookies), take a shower, dress (I lay out my clothes for the entire four-day rotation on the day before it starts), saddle up the Tercel, and head out again.

On the last day of the rotation I stop on the way home for gas, have some coffee and something breakfastesque when I get home, and go on the Internet until I fade into incoherence.

And then the trouble starts.

You see, working night shift is easy for me. Transitioning to a "normal" schedule on my days off has proved impossible so far. On my first day I usually crash for a few hours in the middle of the day, but then I'm up and wired again as afternoon fades to evening - and get increasingly wired as the night progresses. Eventually I go to bed - not before 3:30 in the morning these last two days - and sleep until 10:00 or so. I then spend the first half of the day feeling hung over: my eyelids swell, my eyes become fiercely sensitive to light, and I tend to get clumsy and lean on things a lot like a slouchy beat poet. In the afternoon I become extremely tired for brief periods, but as the evening wears on I become, once again, increasingly wired.

I'm trying to work through some solutions. Wine seems to have helped. Tonight I stupidly had a craving for cookies, and double-stupidly decided to have some leftover coffee with them. I added some whiskey to the coffee - not something I would normally do, but I'm hoping it will help me sleep.

I need to find some workarounds soon. Next Sunday I will come home from my last day of work and go almost immediately to an 8:00 Palm Sunday mass. I will then return home, shower, change, and head down to visit some friends to celebrate their daughter's birthday one day after her party. I will probably relax a bit face-down in the dirt outside their house three steps from my car until they get back from church, and will then be as witty and charming and photosensitive as a hungover slob as I do my own gift presentation and an inspection of her other gifts. I will then likely crash on a couch for a few hours, and rally in the late afternoon or early evening - at which point I will have to head home, since I (stupidly) made arrangements to have my car inspected the next day.

This is all assuming I'm working next rotation, which is not at all certain.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Stained Glass Project: St. Victoria and St. John the Baptist

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.

Continuing to move from the front of the North side of St. Mary's Church in Nanticoke, PA to the rear, the second window we come to is another truncated one. Like the window featuring Saint Anne and Saint Peter directly opposite it on the South wall, this one seems to have been modified from an original, full-sized window, since the donor tags at the bottom are missing.

This pair of windows depicts Saint Victoria and Saint John the Baptist.* As noted above, the windows appear to have been modified after installation, with the lower openable pane and the donor tags removed. Previously I have suggested that the upper openable pane has also been removed, but this appears not to be the case since the upright piece of the red cross at the center point of the semicircular fan window at the top is continuous with the top border of the portrait itself.

These windows are positioned directly above the alcove that until recently housed the church's baptismal font, which is now located on the South side of the main altar. This would seem to be an intentional coincidence, although the alcove itself appears to be, like the side entrance opposite it, a relatively recent addition to the structure - perhaps in the last fifty years or so.

The baptistery contains another stained glass window, but this window is clearly not contemporaneous with the twelve pairs of portrait windows that line the walls and will not be included in this study.

The left-hand portrait is of Saint Victoria. Victoria is a problematic figure: the name can apply to any of several poorly-documented and possibly apocryphal figures. The New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia does not even have an entry on anyone named Victoria, except in an entry for Diocese of Perpignan which states

In memory of former ties with the metropolis of Tarragona, the Church of Perpignan honours several Spanish saints: St. Fructuosus, Bishop of Tarragona, and his deacons Augurius and Eulogius, martyred at Tarragona in 259; some martyrs of the Diocletian persecution (end of third century); Justa and Rufina of Seville; Felix and Narcissus of Gerona; Aciselus and Victoria of Cordova; Leocadia, of Toledo; St. Ildefonsus (607-67), Archbishop of Toledo.

"Victoria of Cordova" is apparently the sister of Acisclus, who was martyred along with her. But other saints bearing the name of Victoria include Victoria of Albitina, Victoria the sister of Anatolia (also martyrs), Victoria the servant of Edistus (with whom she was, unsurprisingly, martyred - or at least martyred soon after), and, not to be outdone, a Victoria who was martyred along with Denise, Dativa, Leontia, Tertius, Emilianus, Boniface, Majoricus, and Servus. It is unclear which Victoria this portrait represents, but it is a pretty safe bet that she was a martyr.

Catholic Online lists three of these Victorias: Victoria the sister of Anatolia, Victoria of Tivoli (twice), and Victoria the sister of Acisclus. There is also a Blessed Victoria Strata, who has not been canonized as a saint; perhaps this is related to the fact that unlike the many Saints Victoria, she was not martyred.

No description of any of the various Victorias lists either a crucifix (which may symbolize martyrdom) or a lily (which may symbolize purity) among her attributes. However, the Wikipedia entry on Saint Acisclus (the brother of Victoria of Cordova, or Córdoba) notes as his attribute "with Saint Victoria, his sister, crowned with roses" - much like the Saint Victoria portrayed here. So perhaps this figure is Victoria of Cordova.

As obscure as Saint Victoria is, she is paired with one of the best-known saints: Saint John the Baptist.

John the Baptist is sufficiently well known that I will omit any details on him as an individual. Here is his entry in the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, and here is his Wikipedia entry.

Saint John the Baptist stands before a unique backdrop. Like most of the other saints portrayed in these windows, he appears to be in the "cathedral" setting, judging from the stone pavers on which he stands. But his background is not columns and arches, nor is it a window on the sky or the sea; instead he stands in front of a wall made of stone blocks. Like many of the other figures, this background is partially obscured by a curtain, though this curtain appears to be of a simpler design than the curtains in the other portraits, which feature details like this stitchwork seen over the shoulder of Victoria, and virtually invisible to the observer's unaided eye:

These two portraits have aged worse than many others in the church. This is especially noticeable in Victoria's hair and the loss of detail from John the Baptist's face and beard.

In contrast to this apparent weathering, the upper round window is sharp and clear, with some of the most legible script: "Civitas Dei", City of God, which I have conjectured is the setting for the "cathedral" images of the saints.

*Note: This image has undergone more correction than most of the others in this series. Apparently I succumbed to the temptation of getting as close to the window to photograph it as I could, which resulted in a perspective distortion - the bottom is much wider than the top. I have attempted to correct this by "stretching" the image at the top corners. This may have resulted in some distortion in the vertical dimension - when I was able to make the top as wide as the bottom, I realized the figures were too short, and I adjusted them by eye. Here is the image I started off with:

Saturday, March 28, 2009

YouTube Weekend: Catherine Wheel, "Black Metallic"

I first came to know this song by way of a compilation of live performances played at the WHFS studio called "Just Passin' Through." The version there, from 1996, is an extended acoustic performance with passages added to the beginning and the end ("Look into the sky, Daddy-O...") that have nothing to do (as far as I can tell) with the song itself. The version on YouTube sounds heavily overproduced by comparison, especially in the vocal treatment, but it has its own strange, dreamy beauty - as well as a sense of relentlessness and despair.

This video (from 1991) is creepy and disturbing, particularly after the 2:40 mark. It echoes some parts of Kubrick's version of The Shining. It's a non-embeddable video, so right-click on the image to play. Catherine Wheel, "Black Metallic":

For over a decade this song made me think of someone I knew - at least the opening lines "I've never seen you when you're smiling; it really gets under my skin..." As of earlier this week, those lines no longer apply.

Turns out this wasn't the first Catherine Wheel song I had ever heard. I caught a video by them at the end of an episode of MTV's late lamented "120 Minutes" at a friend's house back in 1995 or so. That song was "Waydown", and the video is disturbing for completely other reasons. People with a fear of flying may not want to watch!

Rotation's end

Well, I'm done with work for this rotation.

I should probably go to bed soon. I don't think I can just transition instantly to being up during the day. Which is too bad - it looks like a beautiful day.

I need to figure out how to adjust to the end of the rotation quickly. I have plans for next Sunday, the end of a rotation, and for May 15, which is also the end of a rotation.

I should try to make arrangements to get my car inspected next week on Monday or Tuesday. But maybe that can wait.

I was supposed to give blood today, but the Red Cross called to cancel. Just as well. I would probably fall asleep while donating.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Internet Explorer script error: Line 53, Character 3

Anybody know what the heck this is? I've been seeing it over and over again on websites of all sorts. It appears whenever I try to close the page I'm on. The above example is from Gort's Gort42, which is a Blogspot blog. I'm also seeing it on Gareth's Another Chance to See, which is also a Blogspot blog, as well as Isis the Scientist's On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess (NEW ScienceBlogs version) - which is not a Blogspot blog. On many other sites I'm not seeing the problem at all.

The remedy that I have found is to click the "Yes" button, or sometimes the "No" button, or sometimes both, about a gazillion times. The fun part comes on the gazillion-and-first click, after the message has closed and you've just randomly clicked on whatever happened to be under it.

I know, I know: Who uses Internet Explorer anymore? Use a real browser, like Firefox! Well, I use Internet Explorer, and so do a heck of a lot of other people. And as far as I know, Firefox hasn't resolved this problem, though their open-source philosophy suggests that I should say that Firefox users haven't resolved that problem.

I tried looking information up on this problem the other day but could only find scattered bits and pieces. I'm guessing that this is another one of those little bugs inadvertently written into Internet Explorer that requires an elaborate and precise workaround and creates an incompatibility with stuff that works perfectly well in other browsers that hasn't had the workaround applied. But that's just a guess. Maybe on my days off I'll look into this more closely.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Bad day

Well, today wasn't so much a case of a single penny derailing the train as it was a case of the train jumping the tracks and plowing right into the heart of a major population center and releasing its cargo of nerve gas. It was that kind of day.

The most annoying part of it was that I had nothing to do with the problems. Everything - well, almost everything - I did was fine, when I got to do it. But I spent so much of the night racing around answering alarms and restarting presses that it was hard to focus on doing things.

It got to me after a while. At one point I thought I could very easily walk out of the room, turn in my badge to the office, quit, and walk out of the building. Then I realized it was 5:00, and I only had one hour to go.

We still don't know what the problem was. I had my theories, and threw them at my tech as quickly as I could formulate them, and some of them seem like they might actually explain the problems. But the real question is, will day shift be able to clear them up before I go in to work tonight?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

More dreams

I seriously think I should earn a paycheck when I spend my entire sleep period dreaming of work. Maybe it could be in dream money, and I could use it to buy things at the dream shop.

I kept waking up every hour or so wanting to do a stamper change. Then I remembered I had handed off the presses to someone I know, and I realized I could trust him to take care of business for the twelve hours that I was away.

(At least this was better than the dream I had the previous day, where I was yelling at my mom for enrolling in a gardening club that charged $19.95 a month to get a catalog of overpriced gardening items. Thing is, i think she actually received an offer for a club like that in real life. She didn't enroll.)

Last night's penny on the tracks came early, but we recovered pretty well. We'll see how things go tonight.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Back to work, again!

Assuming I don't get laid off sometime in the next twelve hours, I'm about to go back in for four! more! days! of money-earning, back-of-the-hand-burning fun.

Well, four more nights, I should say. My first four nights went very quickly. Working all night is very easy for me, it turns out, and as long as I'm on a roll and things are going well, the work is not all that bad. But some days - nights - it only takes a single penny on the tracks to derail the train.

I did have a hell of a time adjusting back on these four days off. Friday - well, I've noted what I did Friday already. Saturday I was still out of it, though I got some necessary chores accomplished. Sunday I felt half-asleep most of the day and accomplished nothing besides watching two episodes of Cosmos on DVD. Monday was the first day I felt somewhat normal - and now it's time to shift back to sleeping during the day and working all night.

But it's money, baby. Money to pay the mortgage and the utilities and the various insurances. Money to pay down the credit card debt. Money to keep the car running so I can go to work and earn more money.

And in four more days I will be shifting gears again. With any luck, it will be an easier transition.

Monday, March 23, 2009

sour bowl monkey vomit

I get the oddest search engine hits on my site. Who would be searching for sour bowl monkey vomit? And why? (My site appears on the twelfth page of search results for this, in part due to this entry and this entry. Did the person searching for this term click through to the previous 110+ results?)

cathy baker hee haw death is enduringly popular. As far as I know, Cathy Baker, the "That's All!" girl from the end of Hee Haw, is still alive, though a lot of people seem to think otherwise. If anyone needs to set up her own personal site, it's her.

eye hooks how to sideshow: This is not the sort of thing I would want to learn about from the Internet.

Once in a while I get hits for leaf raking. Is this the sort of thing for which anyone needs instructions?

Searches like show me a photo of a red leaf rake suggest that some people have search engines slightly more sophisticated than the ones I use. Mine usually just search based on words, not specific instructions. Every time I see something like this I am reminded of Scotty in Star Trek IV speaking instructions into a mouse when he is using a 1986-era computer.

cake shaped like poo stems from the "Poop Cake" of a few years back - though, to be honest, the cake was shaped like a litter box; the poop was just Tootsie Rolls.

Not that I mind these searches. All are welcome. Well, once in a while I get ones that are just plain disturbing...but the less said about them, the better!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

YouTube Weekend: The Verve, "Bitter Sweet Symphony"

I am hearing the opening notes of this song, or a soundalike version, being used in a Bank of America commercial. The Verve, "Bitter Sweet Symphony":

I'm wondering if Bank of America, like The Verve, will be sued into nonexistence by Messrs. Jagger and Richards, Esq.? Right now Jagger and Richards probably have a hell of a lot more money than Bank of America, even after accounting for the copious amounts they have inhaled, snorted, and injected. Still, I'm sure they'll take whatever they can get. Like they did with The Verve.

Tryin' to make ends meet
you're a slave to money
then you die

I wonder if Bank of America listened to the lyrics before they greenlighted the use of this song in a commercial?

Update, a few seconds later:
Here's a version of the commercial, though I'm not sure if it's the one I heard last night:
The music is called "The Contender" by a group called The Illusionaries. Hope they have a good lawyer...

Saturday, March 21, 2009


I slept from shortly after I got home on Thursday morning at 7:00 to around 2:00 Thursday afternoon. Worked from 6:00 PM Thursday to 6:00 AM Friday. Got home a little after 7:00 Friday morning, made some coffee, had some pie, screwed around online, stayed up until 11:00 AM. Went to bed. Woke up at 12:30 PM, did some stuff, slept until 2:00 in the afternoon, did s0me more stuff, went back to bed. Woke up around 5:00, called some friends, talked on the phone for a while, rubbed my feet and legs with Kmart's version of Icy Hot, got out of bed, had something to eat. Have been screwing around online since, with the exception of a break to watch the last twenty minutes of the last Battlestar Galactica. (I can't believe it was all the dream of an autistic kid. And when Adama woke up in bed with Suzanne Pleshette...)

It's now 2:51 Saturday morning.

I should get to bed soon. In the morning (later in the morning, I should say) I will haul away my old 19" CRT monitor to be recycled at Best Buy. They'll charge me $10, but will give me a $10 gift card. Maybe I'll buy something.

I'll also have to do something with my old speakers. Like the monitor, these are also quite old, and the left speaker has something disconnected internally. If I can figure out a way to get into the welded-plastic shell I might be able to fix it. Then I'll have a backup set of speakers (with a very good subwoofer) with only a small chance that they will burst into flames. If anyone feels technically competent in these matters, these Altec-Lansing stereo speakers (with subwoofer!) are free to a good home!

Friday, March 20, 2009


Well, my first night shift rotation in over fifteen years is over. I stopped on the way home to get gas - Sam's Club has its pumps open before 7:00 in the morning! - and then headed the rest of the way home. Made coffee (something I haven't done these past four days, not in the morning, at least), got a slice of pie, and sat down to listen to NPR's Morning Edition on the computer while checking out everybody's blog and Facebook updates. After a while my reading became woolgathering became hypnagogic experiences, and I'm now thinking maybe I should take a nap.

Friends on Facebook may recall my complaint the other day about headaches caused by the extremely bright blue LED indicator light on my right speaker. I want to have an indicator light, I just don't want it to burn through the back of my skull by way of my eyes. Various methods of dimming or masking this light were discussed. Then I came up with a simple and elegant solution...

...block the light with the tail of a Euoplocephalus! Why didn't I think of that sooner?

You'll notice a few other things in this photo: the right half of my new widescreen monitor, with a desktop background from The Stained Glass Project (see here for the specific image). Desk lamp with compact fluorescent light bulb - almost all of our lights are now CFL's; the light does not look as green as it photographs. Stapler. Ankylosaurus (labeled Euoplocephalus, though I'm pretty sure this is one of the more lightly-armored Ankylosauridae) and Triceratops, both dollar store dinosaurs (see here for another photo of these miniatures, and see here for the definitive online report on "Dollar Dinos.") Van Gogh's Fourteen Sunflowers. Part of a "bumper sticker" I made back in 2004 that reads "SAVE HUBBLE, SCRAP BUSH." The speaker, dinosaurs, and stapler are all on top of my HP DeskJet 842c printer. In the shadows in the foreground are a kitchen timer shaped like a chrome coffee pot (great for when you're cooking or baking while online - another dollar store item) and a coffee cup with a reproduction of a vintage ad for Yokohl Brand oranges featuring an old-style Donald Duck.

Update, 3/21/09: Out of the shadows

Now, I think I'll check a few more things online and then have a little lie down.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The chorus of the morning

One advantage of coming home at 7:00 in the morning at this time of year is that I get to experience the chorus of the morning: songbirds declaring their locations, staking out fluid and overlapping territories, calling for mates, warning off rivals, all at once.

I saw my first Robin of Spring yesterday, two days before Spring actually arrives! It was a big fat one who stood on my lawn and stared at me as I pulled up in front of the house. Then I watched a Cardinal light up crimson in the upper branches of an Oak at sunrise as it sang "wit-wit-wit-witwitwitwit-dEEEuurrr".

On the way home this morning I heard this on NPR's Morning Edition:

Lessons From The Recession In The Classroom

I had a slight thrill of recognition when the narrator spoke of driving through the Pocono "mountains." (There really are no such things, despite what countless skiers and snowboarders and honeymooners will yell you. The Poconos are actually a highly eroded plateau. Very strange to drive through that terrain knowing that fact.) He spoke of travelling to a public college in Northeastern Pennsylvania, and I wondered "where?" Then he revealed he was at Luzerne County Community College, just down the street from me!

It's a report on a topic of some interest to me, how the faltering economy is affecting college enrollments - negatively for some schools, positively for others. Sadly, I don't think the report ever specifically states where L.C.C.C. is located - it's in Nanticoke! So anyone who listened to this report today, who heard a brief snatch of the carillon bells playing, was listening to an audio postcard from my hometown!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


One major advantage of working day shift over night shift is the traffic, or lack thereof.

This may sound a bit backwards unless you remember that day shift goes from 6 AM to 6 PM, and night shift goes from 6 PM to 6 AM. So the day shift commute takes place around 5:00 in the morning, when the highways are mostly empty with the exception of long-haul truckers and other extremely early commuters. Night shift, on the other hand, requires a commute around 5:00 in the afternoon - rush hour.

It's not just the fact that there are more vehicles on the road. Only rarely are there active work zones in the early-morning hours. In the afternoon construction has been going on all day, and significant delays are possible. Backups, even.

That's what happened yesterday.

I technically live forty minutes from work, door to door, assuming smooth traffic. Since I cannot always assume smooth traffic, and since I still have to walk through the parking lot, into the building, and to the time clock prior to 6:00 - well prior, if I want to not be a jerk, get a good turnover, and relieve my counterpart a little early - I have to add a little buffer to my start time.

On day shift I worked out that 5:00 was a pretty optimal time to leave the house for work. It got me there with fifteen to twenty minutes to spare. If I suspected there would be bad weather or other delays, I would set out as much as fifteen to twenty minutes early.

Night shift is another matter. I would routinely see traffic jams through construction zones on my commute home, usually affecting traffic coming the other way. If and when I had to take a detour on my home-bound commute, it was no big deal.

On Monday I thought about all these things when I left the house at about 4:40 - and got to work at 5:20. So yesterday I decided to shave things a little closer, and left at about 4:50.

Naturally, I hit a traffic jam.

It could have been worse. A state patrolman had thoughtfully positioned his vehicle before the last exit before the traffic jam, so people who realized what was happening had the option of exiting and taking a detour. Which is what I did. But the detour was already overstuffed with commuters, so it was full of its own delays. After more than twenty minutes of picking my way through Moosic and Scranton I was able to get back onto Interstate 81. I made it to the timeclock with five minutes to spare.

This afternoon I think I'll try to leave a little earlier. Maybe I'll take a magazine with me.

For now, I need to get to bed.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

One night down, three to go

Well, I survived my first night shift in about sixteen years.

The actual "doing it" part wasn't so hard. I work in a whitespace, pretty much. So, day or night, you're getting massive light stimulation. If you don't look out a window, you can't really be sure if it's 3:00 in the afternoon or 3:00 in the morning. And the job keeps you too busy to think about how crazy it is to be working from 6:00 at night to 6:00 in the morning.

The harder parts are the two other major components of the day: eating and sleeping. I had worked out a meal regimen that kept me fueled up so well that some days I would eat at 3:30 in the morning and not eat again until 4:00 in the afternoon. But on night shift, it would feel odd to be eating cereal with a banana and drinking two cups of coffee in the mid-afternoon. Likewise, it would feel odd to be eating supper in the morning, just after I get home.

On day shift I settled on a sleep pattern of being in bed by 10:00 at night and up at 3:00 in the morning. On nights...well, I'm going to try to get to bed soon, and I have my alarm set for 2:00 this afternoon. Yesterday was an odd transition: I got to bed around 12:30 Monday morning, and woke up (as I had pre-programmed) just after 7:00 in the morning so I could call the unemployment office to see why they wanted me to call them (Routine stuff triggered by cycles of work/layoff.) I think I rolled over for a while, but then got up again and screwed around online for a while. I finally lay down for a nap again at 1:15, and let myself drift off to sleep to test my alarms. (I rearranged them slightly based on that experiment.)

Falling asleep now...need to get to bed soon.

One advantage on this shift: I'll be better informed. I can listen to All Things Considered on my way in to work, and Morning Edition on my way home. On day shift I was going in to work before the morning news came on, and coming home while listening to Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

Good night! Or should I say, good day! And happy St. Patrick's Day!

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Stained Glass Project: St. John the Evangelist and St. Helen

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.

With this entry we begin to review the windows along the North side of St. Mary's church in Nanticoke, Pannsylvania. Having worked our way forward from the back of the church on the South side, we will now work our way backwards from the front of the church along the North side.

The first window is a truncated one, missing both the upper and lower openable panels. It apparently was designed that way and not modified at a later date, since it still has its donor tags.

This pair of windows, the sixth from the rear of the church on the North side, contains portraits of Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Helen.

This first image is fairly straightforward: John the Evangelist, quill in his right hand, apparently writing on a scrolled page held in his left hand. Accounts of his life can be found here:

New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia entry for St. John the Evangelist
EWTN page for St. John the Evangelist
Wikipedia entry for John the Evangelist

The eagle that stands at his side deserves some explanation. Each of the four authors of the Gospels is represented by a figure - Matthew a human, Mark a lion, Luke an ox, and John an eagle. The New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia has this to say about John's eagle: "Early Christian art usually represents St. John with an eagle, symbolizing the heights to which he rises in the first chapter of his Gospel. " A fuller description of these symbols is given on the "Symbols of the Four Evangelists" page on the site catholic-resources.org. The ultimate source of these particular symbols, according to this site, comes from a vision recounted in Ezekiel 1:1-14:

In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), the word of the LORD came to the priest Ezekiel son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and the hand of the LORD was on him there. As I looked, a stormy wind came out of the north: a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continually, and in the middle of the fire, something like gleaming amber. In the middle of it was something like four living creatures. This was their appearance: they were of human form. Each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf's foot; and they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another; each of them moved straight ahead, without turning as they moved. As for the appearance of their faces: the four had the face of a human being, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle; such were their faces. Their wings were spread out above; each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies. Each moved straight ahead; wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went. In the middle of the living creatures there was something that looked like burning coals of fire, like torches moving to and fro among the living creatures; the fire was bright, and lightning issued from the fire. The living creatures darted to and fro, like a flash of lightning.
This particular eagle always disturbed me as a kid, with its large, glassy eye gazing upward lovingly at the evangelist, a cartoonish smile (actually, the bottom of its beak) on its face. I believe this is a Golden Eagle, though its upswept crest does not appear in the depictions I have seen online - if anyone can identify the species more precisely, please let me know. The eagle seems to be in direct contact with St. John's leg, like a dog staying close to his master's side.

Saint Helen, who lived from about 250 AD to 330 AD, is well-known as the mother of Saint Constantine, the Roman emperor who embraced Christianity. Her story is covered here:

New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Saint Helen
Lives of the Saints: Saint Helen
Wikipedia entry on Saint Helen (Helena of Constantinople)

Among the many stories told of St. Helen is one that credits her with finding the True Cross. From the New Advent Catholic encyclopedia entry on "Archæology of the Cross and Crucifix":

In the year 326 the mother of Constantine, Helena, then about 80 years old, having journeyed to Jerusalem, undertook to rid the Holy Sepulchre of the mound of earth heaped upon and around it, and to destroy the pagan buildings that profaned its site. Some revelations which she had received gave her confidence that she would discover the Saviour's Tomb and His Cross. The work was carried on diligently, with the co-operation of St. Macarius, bishop of the city. The Jews had hidden the Cross in a ditch or well, and covered it over with stones, so that the faithful might not come and venerate it. Only a chosen few among the Jews knew the exact spot where it had been hidden, and one of them, named Judas, touched by Divine inspiration, pointed it out to the excavators, for which act he was highly praised by St. Helena. Judas afterwards became a Christian saint, and is honoured under the name of Cyriacus. During the excavation three crosses were found, but because the titulus was detached from the Cross of Christ, there was no means of identifying it. Following an inspiration from on high, Macarius caused the three crosses to be carried, one after the other, to the bedside of a worthy woman who was at the point of death. The touch of the other two was of no avail; but on touching that upon which Christ had died the woman got suddenly well again. From a letter of St. Paulinus to Severus inserted in the Breviary of Paris it would appear that St. Helena herself had sought by means of a miracle to discover which was the True Cross and that she caused a man already dead and buried to be carried to the spot, whereupon, by contact with the third cross, he came to life. From yet another tradition, related by St. Ambrose, it would seem that the titulus, or inscription, had remained fastened to the Cross.
All of which goes to explain why she is shown holding a cross - though certainly not the True Cross, judging from size alone. The segmented vertical piece, the upright, may be in some way significant, as may be the green cloth wreath around the top piece. But I do not see any explanation for these features in the linked references.

Nor do I see an explanation for the scales held in her right hand. Scales are not listed among her saintly attributes, the symbols typically associated with her.

I am unaware of the significance of the structure depicted in the top round window, though I have somewhat arbitrarily assigned it the identifier of "basilica." It may represent a specific structure, or it may be some more generic structure. It is not the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is built over the site where St. Helen found the True Cross. The text on the scroll beneath the image is not visible, if there was ever any at all.

The donor tag at the bottom crosses both portraits, and reads "Presented by John Smoulter, in memory of my beloved wife." There was a John Smoulter, Jr. who was listed as president of First National Bank of Nanticoke in 1889. Was he the person who donated these windows? And was his wife's name, perhaps, Helen?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Two, two, two haloes in one!

Note: I originally used the soelling "haloes" throughout this post. My Webster's New World Dictionary (Fourth Edition) lists the plural of halo as "halos" or "haloes." Minnaert uses "halos" throughout his book, so I revised my spelling to match his...and inadvertantly missed the title. Since that spelling is also in the url for this entry, changing the title might revise the url. So I'm leaving it as "haloes."

I dropped off my tax information at an accountant's today - my tax situation has become too complex in recent years for me to do my taxes on my own, something I actually used to enjoy. On the way out I noticed a hazy wash across the sky. I knew then to block the Sun with my fist and look in its general direction through by polarized clip-on sunglasses. And what I saw was...odd.

I was hoping for a halo, and maybe a circumzenithal arc. What I saw was something I've never seen before: a halo, all right, but with some other arc touching it, like a hyperbola with the Sun at one focus.

I only had a camera phone with me. I grabbed a photo, but since I live just a few minutes from the accountant's office, I decided to try to get more images when I got home, if the halos were still present.

They were.

These images were taken between 1:11 PM and 1:13 PM on Saturday, March 14, 2008. I used a hoary old evergreen to block the Sun. Blinded as I was by the glare in the sky, I did my best to capture the halos. I took several images, but most of them came out looking nearly identical. Wispy cirrus clouds are visible, probably providing the ice crystals which formed the halos. Oddly, the point where the two halos touch seems to be offset very slightly counterclockwise from a point directly above the Sun.

Here's another image, using an old gaslight to block the Sun. The deviation of the two arcs on the right is more obvious here. Note the trees reflected in the glass.

So the question is, what were these halos?

M.G.J. Minnaert provides a comprehensive list of halo phenomena in his classic and essential Light and Color in the Outdoors. The lower halo, a segment of a circle that went completely around the Sun, is the 22 degree halo. The other halo appears to either be Parry's arc, or the upper tangential arc, or possibly both.

While trying to image the right side of the 22 degree halo, I actually captured something quite odd:

This appears to be a nearly-vertical white line in the sky, just to the right of the evergreen. Remember that I was mostly blinded by the glare from the sky, so I didn't really see this at all - I thought I was photographing the edge of the halo. So what is this? None of the optical phenomena that I can find on Minnaert's list match this at all. It also isn't an artifact from a defect in the lens or the imager, because it also showed up when I rotated the camera 90 degrees.

My best guess is that this is a cirrus cloud, since that would make it parallel with the cirrus clouds seen in the previous images. Or perhaps it's the edge of a larger cloud, or a linear indentation in a cloud. It's also possible that it was an otherwise unnoticed contrail. Or perhaps it is an artifact, an internal reflection of some sort - I guess if I took a picture with the camera held at an angle to the horizontal, we would have known for sure.

For now we will have to write it off as just one of those things. But keep a camera handy, and keep your eyes open. You never know what you might see! And if you do get any cool halo images, please share them with the rest of us!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Explore Mars with Google Earth!

A comment on Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy alerted me to this. Anyone going to the Google homepage today (Saturday, March 14, 2009) will see this image:

Hovering over the image, as I did when I took the screen grab above, reveals the reason: today is the birthday of Giovanni Schiaparelli, whose canal-covered maps of Mars fired the imaginations of countless planet-watchers. While Mars didn't turn out to have any canals, Schiaperelli and his maps are still fondly remembered among Mars enthusiasts.

This all ties in to something that a post on Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy reminded me of yesterday: Google Mars. Google Mars is actually bundled with the 5.0 release of Google Earth - so if you have the latest version of Google Earth, you also have access to global maps of Mars! Here's a quick introduction:

I downloaded the latest version of Google Earth a week or so ago, so I just dove right into the Mars option without really paying much attention to the tutorial. The first thing you see (after a brief initialization) when you open the Mars option is this:

Mars! The patchwork strips of different resolutions have to do with how different regions of Mars have been imaged by different orbiters. I zoomed in for a closer look:

I was intrigued by the images on sticks that were dotted across the surface. I knew there were symbols used to indicate landing points and specific areas of interest, but these looked like...animals?

Closer inspection showed that these images indicated where I could find Amazonian Manatees, Aye-Aye Lemurs, Rodrigues Fruit Bats, and other endangered species on the surface of Mars! Apparently the Last Chance to See tour markers that I had downloaded from Gareth's Another Chance to See had been superimposed on the surface of Mars!

(I briefly toured Google Sky, and saw the same effect there when I discovered that a small green marker near, I think, Sirius was actually an image of a Komodo Dragon!)

I tootled around a bit, tossing around the Red Planet like it was a bowling ball in a ball polisher. Almost at random I picked out a region of higher resolution and began to zoom in on it.

A quick zoom on this terrain revealed strips of another color tucked away - even higher resolution images. I zoomed in further.

This looked like the edge of a canyon - and the blue stripe down the middle suggested that there was an area of even higher resolution there! I kept zooming in.

This is really interesting looking terrain. On Mars. On another planet. And here I was, zooming into it. What was that bright thing near the top?

A closer zoom revealed more interesting stuff: fractured terrain, a canyon wall, and - was that a piece of the canyon that had detached itself?

Zooming in even closer suggested that, yes, this white trapezoid (about 275 feet, or 84 meters, across its "base") appeared to be a chunk of the white terrain in the lower left that had broken off and crashed below, leaving scattered boulders and...

...plumes of billowing dust?

No. No way. Clicking on a red informational box on the border of the image, I got this information:

Rocky Mesas of Nilosyrtis Mensae Region

This image was taken by the
High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on board NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft.

See this image’s
observation information page.

Observation ID: PSP_003231_2095
Image of: Proposed MSL landing site in Nilosyrtis
Location: 29.29°N 73.29°E
Acquired on: April 5, 2007
Well, of course any proposed landing site for the Mars Science Laboratory would have been gone over with a fine-toothed comb. The likelihood that someone would have overlooked an image of an avalanche in progress in that neighborhood is virtually nil.

Here's a fun little detail: a boulder apparently fell, rolled, bounced, rolled, and bounced again, skipping over the surface several times before it came to rest. That boulder is just eleven feet across - 3.5 meters. The smallest details visible in this image are less than two feet across, the size of a small dog! On Mars!

Here's an oblique view of this region. I have not exaggerated the vertical scale, but it is possible to magnify this so things appear stretched to three times their actual height.

If you'd like to check this out, you can open Google Earth, select the Mars option, and zoom to Latitude 29°23′11.33″N, Longitude 73°17′3.60″E (or just "Fly To" PSP_003231_2095). Let me know what you think, and what else you may discover on Mars!

Friday, March 13, 2009

False Spring

It looks so beautiful outside right now. Blue sky, fluffy clouds, bright sunshine. And the temperature is currently below freezing.

I always assumed the term "Indian Summer," which refers to the occasional warm spells that hit parts of the United States well after Summer has ended, commemorated the fact that some of the first Europeans who sailed across the Atlantic assumed that they had reached India when in fact they were not even half-way there. But it turns out the term actually has the same racist connotations as "Indian Giver" - the natives of this land had different concepts of property than the Europeans, so a gift that was "given" to a person was still the property of the community, not the recipient, and could be "taken back" at any time. So too with "Indian Summer": it was given as a gift, and then taken back very quickly.

In years past I have observed what I call False Spring: a brief period like this, with somewhat warmer temperatures, followed by the final throes of Winter. I guess this also falls into that category, even though true Spring is only a week or so away.

Still, it beats the eerie False Summers we had a few years ago: periods in early Spring, before any trees or plants have fully leafed out, when temperatures shot up into the high 70's to low 80's. This created a weird, post-apocalyptic feel. It was unpleasant, and I hope we don't experience it again anytime soon.

I guess I should start getting some seeds in flats, and start plotting out this year's gardens. Planting season will be here soon enough!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The new pornographers

Well, we've got Food Porn on the Food Network, and Weather Porn on the Weather Channel. People can get their rocks off on the fetishistic presentation of food preparation or storm fronts. But the economic downturn, recession, depression, collapse of the global economy, whatever you want to call it, has spawned a new sort of pornography: Misery Porn.

Misery Porn has actually been around for a while. The Weather Channel pretty much had that market cornered through their "Storm Stories" series, where weather comes along and destroys lives and properties - and, if the poor schmucks who happened to be in the way were holding a camcorder at the time, you can watch it as it happens!

But now you can turn on CNN or NPR anytime they are broadcasting news and you will be likely to get stories of - are you ready? - how horribly this economy is affecting people's lives!

I don't know what the percentages are. But I think there are actually some people to whom this is news, for whom the recession is happening somewhere far, far away, to other people. But for the rest of us, the rest who are dealing with unemployment and underemployment and mounting bills and looming foreclosures and all the other fun stuff - well, speaking just for me, I want to say OK, I get it. I know. I'm already there. Could we please talk about something else for a while?

But no. Every day CNN trots out more "experts" to talk about how people can deal with looming layoffs. Their typical advice: Make sure you have been setting aside a portion of your paycheck each week! Be the expert on something at your place of work, the "go-to guy", the person who people can't live without! If you're looking for a job, be sure to conduct a search online! All...very un-useful stuff, depending on your situation.

And every day NPR runs more human interest pieces on how miserable people's lives have been made, complete with crying babies, crying adults, creaking doors, people making phone calls. All very sad. And mostly unhelpful.

So to whom is this being targeted?

I can't speak for CNN. For the life of me, I think they're just scrambling to fill time, trying to put something on the air other than somebody just saying "We don't know, we don't know, we don't know..." And I often get the feeling that the anchors are wondering how long it will be until CNN decides it needs to tighten its belt, and starts asking itself Why pay some guy in Atlanta to sit at a desk and read the news when you can hire someone young and sharp in Bangalore or Mumbai to do the same thing in perfectly accented English for pennies on the dollar?

But NPR...well.

I've been a listener to NPR for many years. Decades even. I was a member, back in the days when I could afford it, even slightly beyond.

See, NPR is funded by grants and sponsorships. Some from the U.S. Government. Some from corporations and foundations. A lot from people who pledge contributions.

NPR has long been accused of appealing to the latte-sipping sushi-eating Limousine Liberal set, the members of the monied class who nevertheless embrace populist left-leaning causes. And you know what? That's fair. NPR knows who its audience is, but they also know which members of that audience are most likely to open up their wallets and contribute - and which members are most likely to have money to contribute. If that means doing some programming that appeals to them, the occasional story that covers a topic that interests them, so be it.

These people, like many members of the monied classes, are not touched by the recession in ways that us regular folks are. Bernie Madoff and his Ponzi scheme? Absolutely. The collapse of Bear Stearns and Merrill-Lynch and the other old stalwarts of Wall Street? Certainly. Unemployment figures hitting record highs? Ehhhh, not so much.

I believe that the stories of everyday suffering by the working class, the Misery Porn stories, are not being targeted towards members of the working class. I think they are being targeted towards the members of the monied class, who listen and intone solemnly "There, but for the Grace of God, go I." And then, perhaps, call their accountants and arrange another contribution for the fine folks at that radio station that keeps reminding them of how good it is to be them.

Maybe. I don't know. Or maybe NPR just has no idea what to cover, other than daily stories of human suffering.

On the whole, I'd rather not hear any more Misery Porn. I'm living it. My friends are living it. And for me, that's plenty.

Now, can we please talk about something else for a while?