Sunday, February 28, 2010

Salem, Massachusetts, January 2002

In December of 2001, a friend and I were out for a ride in her car and we got to talking about things. Somewhere along the line the subject of Salem, Massachusetts came up. I had been there once before, in 1994 I think. She had never been there, but had always wanted to go. She would be moving out of the area in a few months. We made some tentative plans to go out there while she was still on the East Coast.

A few minutes later we were struck from behind at a red light by a drunk driver. But that is another story.

We made the pilgrimage on the Martin Luther King Day weekend in 2002.

Statue of Roger Conant

Salem is a small town, or at least it feels like one; many of the places of interest to tourists are concentrated in an easily-walkable area around Salem Common. Both times I have been there I have stayed at the Hawthorne, an historic (and expensive) hotel located just off Salem Common.

The Hawthorne

The Hawthorne is a pleasant enough place, if you don't mind the peculiarities of an historic hotel - small rooms, thin doors, drunken tour groups or wedding parties or God-knows-what banging on your door (and all the other doors up and down the hall) in the middle of the night. And it's expensive, did I mention that? But it was conveniently located. The view out our window, for example, included The Fool's Mansion.

The view from our room in the Hawthorne. (The Fool's Mansion is the third building from the left)

I believe The Fool's Mansion is so named because it is a place where fools and their money are parted. It features very cool hand-made Gothic and Renaissance clothing. It would be very easy to spend a small fortune very quickly in that store - which would be unfortunate, because then you would probably have nothing left to spend in the other shops that fill the streets of Salem. Antiques, books, novelties, magical goods - Salem has a huge variety of things to spend money on. My first visit in 1994 was the week before Halloween; Salem was completely geared up for the seasonal influx of tourists, and we had the place pretty much to ourselves. In contrast Winter in Salem felt like the off-season, but there were still many things to see and do.

It snowed the second night we were there, and my friend and I went for a walk around Salem Common in the falling snow. As we walked, we could hear screams and cheers coming out of various windows in the city - we later learned that the New England Patriots were winning the AFC playoff game in that very same snowstorm. The next morning the snow-blanketed scenery presented a beautiful sight.

Howard Street Cemetery

I associate Salem with an odd, idiosyncratic things. The cobalt blue glassware that filled several antique stores there - I assumed it was somehow associated with the area, but that turned out to be just a random thing. The Chuck Barris autobiography "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" - I saw a first edition in an antique store in 1994 and browsed through it, set it aside, and later saw it turned into a movie. The story of Natalie Wood's death - a shopkeeper was watching a program about it on TV, and eagerly told us about the more lurid (and probably apocryphal) details. A woman who reported her children as having been abducted, but was later found to have drowned them - that was the Susan Smith case, and was from my first visit. A child who was killed when the sliding door on his mother's minivan rolled forward and crushed his head as he was getting out to go to school - that happened during the last visit. Ten-cent comic day. Orbs. The smell of sandalwood. Andromeda. Black Hawk Down.

Tombstones at Howard Street Cemetery

Eight years passed between my first and second trips to Salem. Eight more years have passed since my second visit. I do not know how long it will be before I go there again, or how much it will have changed in my absence.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Salem's Favorite Son

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The End of the World

Back when I had dogs I would take them for walks around Nanticoke. One place that we frequently visited was a spot I called The End of the World.

It wasn't, not really. It was just the end of the developments on the southeast corner of the city, marked by a place where the road abruptly stopped, as though planners were leaving the option open to keep going whenever they got around to it. New houses and cul-de-sacs on the border of the forest suddenly gave way to nothing but forest, with the mountains to the east visible through breaks in the trees. Civilization, at least Nanticoke's version of it, ended there. Beyond was wilderness. The End of the World.

As a kid growing up in Nanticoke the world was pretty simply defined: gentle rolling mountains to the North, gentle rolling mountains to the South, Wilkes-Barre and the cities beyond to the East, and a sparsely populated valley stretching off to the West, defined by mountains that continued to roll on forever. And forest, forest everywhere.

Most of our world was between these two sets of mountains. Virtually anything you could want or need for daily life could be found there, including an airport if you ever needed to travel to points well outside the valley. Not everything was to be found there; sometimes we would go on trips outside of the valley to see baseball games in Philadelphia or New York City or to Great Adventure in New Jersey or Hershey Park in far-off Hershey, PA. But those were special excursions, and rare. For the most part our lives took place within the valley between those two mountain ridges.

Even as an adult much of my life takes place within this valley. Aside from two years spent in Delaware, I have lived here for my entire life. I spent four years at the University of Scranton, and for much of the last eighteen years I have worked in Olyphant, just north of Scranton, near the other end of the banana-shaped chain of communities that form the Wilkes-Barre / Scranton metropolitan area, and comprise much of Northeastern Pennsylvania. My commute is along Interstate 81, on a stretch of it that runs from almost one end of the valley to almost the other. As I come close to Nanticoke the mountains still seem to roll on forever before me to the West, as though the entire world is made of nothing but forested corrugations of land.

But this is an illusion. Hard as it is to believe, the mountains gradually converge into a single ridge that terminates at a point not twenty-five miles west of Nanticoke.

At the foot of that terminus is a little place called Orangeville. I have never been there, as far as I know. But someday I would like to visit.

At the base of that mountain is a little parking lot. Someday I would like to go there, and set up my camera, and photograph that mountain, and think about how it would be possible to clamber up that mountain and walk along the ridge until you come to the spot where the mountain bifurcates into two ridges, one to the North and one to the South, with a little valley in between them. And how, as those ridges continue to diverge, they become the mountains that have defined the boundaries of almost my entire life.

And if anyone should come up to me while I am standing there in that parking lot with my tiny camera mounted on a tripod and ask me what I am doing, I would tell them that I have come here to photograph the End of the World. Because I wanted to see what it looked like from the other side.

Friday, February 26, 2010

All according to plan

The snow came last night. About eight to ten inches here, maybe twelve inches at work. Or so I hear. I didn't go in. They never closed. And the state never closed the highways, though they did drop the speed limit to 45 mph. Which means I need to allocate about two hours for my thirty-three mile commute.

I forced myself to sleep last night, and woke up at 7:00 this morning. I ran the snowblower along the front sidewalk and promptly had it plowed under. I cleaned half the street in front of the house, cleaned off and dug out the cars, cleared the driveway, and re-cleared the front sidewalk. Then I cleared off the front porch.

I drove across town and plowed my car into the snow on the side of the unplowed street. I then dug out the street behind my car and attempted to move the car into the cleared area so I could clear the part I had parked on, only to find that I was mired in snow. Two guys who were digging out the house across the street came over and helped me dig out and move my car, and another guy who was running a snowblower finished off the street for me. My neighbor had run his snowblower up and down the sidewalk for half the block, but another few inches had fallen since then, so I shoveled off the sidewalks in front of my house and my two neighbors' houses, and re-cleared the sidewalk and front porch for the elderly widower who has lived next door since I was born. I then cut a path up my steps and dug out my front porch. By the time I was done with all this another inch had accumulated on the sidewalks, and I cast an envious eye at the sidewalks half a block away that were salt-covered and only wet. I cleared the snow one more time and broke out my salt supply. After salting the sidewalks for our three houses, I headed back to my mom's house, cleared the sidewalks once again, and spread a layer of salt there.

Now I need to go to bed. Work was not cancelled last night, and it certainly won't be cancelled tonight. I need to wake up in a few hours to get ready for work.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Big one a-comin'

Nanticoke has managed to dodge most of the major snowstorms that have whacked the eastern seaboard this Winter, with the exception of one fourteen-inch incident that, as of yesterday, was mostly just a memory. But it looks like tonight we're in for a bad one.

Accumulations so far haven't amounted to much, and most of what has fallen has melted on contact with bare road surfaces that already had a residue of salt on them. But the greatest accumulation is supposed to come overnight. And the wind - gusts are predicted anywhere from fifty to seventy-five miles per hour, with significant drifting.

Local Text Forecast for Olyphant, PA (18448)

Feb 25 Tonight
Snow will be heavy at times along with gusty winds. Low 28F. Winds WNW at 20 to 30 mph. 6 to 10 inches of additional snow expected. Winds could occasionally gust over 50 mph.
All that seems to add up to "trapped at work in the morning." The possibilities include:

- Power outage at the plant, causing an evacuation at the height of the storm.
- Highway closures, stranding me thirty-three miles from home.
- Perfectly ordinary behavior from state and local authorities, meaning no snow plowing in the city where I work (they adhere to the "let the drivers tamp it down" theory) and no snow plowing from the state until the snow has stopped completely, or whenever they get to it.
- Blockages caused by vehicle breakdowns and crashes, possibly including me. The access ramp to the highway from the city where I work is a sharp uphill turn which is tricky even with a mild snow. Alternate routes involve steep downhill trips along roads that probably will not be plowed.

I have one "sick day" left from last year, and I might just use it. I feel another case of acute thanataphobia coming on.

Oh, and for those who need a reminder...
Another Monkey: Your attention please: IT'S SNOWING!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Mark your calendars: Sideshow Gathering 2010

The 2010 edition of the Sideshow Gathering has been scheduled! It will be November 5, 6, and 7 at The Woodlands Inn & Resort in Wilkes-Barre! The Sideshow Gathering is run concurrently with the Inkin' the Valley Tattoo Convention - so if tattoos are your thing, come for that, and wander over to see the sideshow performances.

I've been going to the Sideshow Gathering since 2007, though last year was the first time I made it for all three days. (One low admission price provides admission for the entire show!) If you are at all interested in the sideshow, swordswallowing, up-close magic, or performing arts in general, this is a fantastic place to see a wide variety of acts. (Renaissance Faires, too - there is considerable overlap between the two worlds.) Living legends of the circus and the sideshow world make regular appearances, as do many of today's stars. Historical artifacts from the circus and sideshow worlds are on display - and some of them can be yours at the Sideshow Auction! (As I was warned, I regretted not getting a bidding paddle for the auction. But I'm sure that jackalope skull found a good home with Sylver Fyre and Gwyd the Unusual!)

For images and stories from previous gatherings, see these posts:
Another Monkey: Scenes from the Sideshow Gathering (2007)

Another Monkey: The Sideshow Gathering 2008, Part 1
Another Monkey: The Sideshow Gathering 2008, Part 2

Another Monkey: Scenes from the Sideshow Gathering, Day 1 (2009)
Another Monkey: Scenes from the Sideshow Gathering, Day 2 (2009)
Another Monkey: Sideshow Gathering Day 3 preview (2009)
Another Monkey: A new record at the Sideshow Gathering 2009!

I think this year I will make an effort to connect not just with the sideshow performers, but also with the other people photographing and recording the event. I know last year there were several photographers, at least two videographers, and a newsletter writer in attendance.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Old Farmer's Almanac didn't say it would be like this!

One of my Facebook friends (and old High School friends, and Speech Team friends) mentioned that her kids came home from school today and informed her that the Farmer's Almanac is calling for another snow storm in March that will make the last two "look like flurries." This caused me to go to my copy of the 2010 Old Farmer's Almanac (by Robert B. Thomas, No. CCXVIII) to see what was actually written on the Weather pages for Region 3 -Appalachians, which is where both she and I live. From page 208:

MAR. 2010: Temp 34.5 (4.5 below avg.); precip. 2" (1" below avg.) 1-5 Snow, then sunny, cold. 6-13 Periods of rain and snow, chilly. 14-15 Sunny, cold. 16-19 Rain, cool. 20-26 Rain and snow showers, chilly. 27-29 Sunny, cool. 30-31 T-storms, turning warm.
Nope, no mention of a major snowstorm coming. So I guess we're safe!

On a whim I then checked the forecasts for Region 2 - Atlantic Corridor. This is a strip that includes Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. I understand that they experienced some weather there over the last few weeks. So what did the Old Farmer's Almanac have to say about February for them?

FEB. 2010: Temp 34 (1 above avg.); precip. 3.5" (0.5" above avg.) 1-5 Showers, warm. 6-10 Rain to snow, then sunny, seasonable. 11-14 Snow showers, then sunny, very cold. 15-18 Snow, then rain, milder. 19-24 Sunny, cold; then mild. 25-28 Snow, then heavy rain, seasonable.
...which doesn't really sound that accurate, from what I've heard.

"The Farmer's Almanac is predicting" is as much a red flag in casual conversation as "CNN ANNOUNCED THIS MORNING THAT THIS IS THE WORST VIRUS EVER" or "I CHECKED THIS OUT ON SNOPES" are in e-mailed warnings of impending doom. And, as with CNN or Snopes, it's also something easy to check. Not that, as can be seen above, a prediction that actually is in the Old Farmer's Almanac means a hell of a lot, one way or the other.

Of course, the Old Farmer's Almanac isn't the only almanac out there. There are others, and some even call themselves the "Farmer's Almanac." But my understanding is that if you buy them, the ghost of Robert B. Thomas will kill you in your sleep. I think I heard somebody say that they read that in the Old Farmer's Almanac.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Closing time

When I started this blog nearly six years I wasn't sure what I would do with it. Would it be a soapbox to shout my opinions to others? A place for book and movie reviews? An online diary?

It has been all of these things, and more. And sometimes the "more" was something unexpected.

Among the things I have done with this blog is presented a view of what life is like in Nanticoke, documenting the places and things that give this little city its character. I've taken photos, provided histories, told stories. I've even spun off some of this stuff into a separate blog.

Little did I realize that I was also documenting a vanishing world.

Maybe I did realize that. That was the driving force behind my (as yet unfinished) Stained Glass Project. And I knew that many places here were precariously balanced, held delicately in place by an economy on the edge and an ever-dwindling population.

I never did get around to telling the story of McDonald's Newsstand until after it closed in the Summer (or maybe the Spring) of 2009. But I did write about Diamond's Candy Shoppe way back in March of 2005, long before the home of the best chocolate in the world closed its doors permanently sometime in late 2008 or early 2009.

When I wrote about WNAK on October 31, 2007, Nanticoke's own easy-listening station had already been transformed into a Spanish music format. The building that had long housed WNAK was demolished in December of 2008, although the station continued to broadcast its new format from a location about fifteen miles away. The old format returned soon after (or possibly just before) the demolition - but then vanished from the airwaves completely in the aftermath of another transfer of ownership a few weeks ago.

I knew at the time I was documenting the Churches of Nanticoke that some of these houses of worship would soon be closed. St. Francis was already closed due to a leaking roof that the diocese had decided not to repair; its congregation was, at the time of my photo expedition, already meeting at St. Joseph's, a few blocks away. Now we know that St. Joseph's is also scheduled to close, along with St. Stanislaus and, unless the parishioners' pleas to the Vatican find a sympathetic ear, Holy Family as well.

What I did not realize as I took these photos was that the non-Catholic parishes of Nanticoke were also facing closure. I learned in November of 2009 at a fire house breakfast that St. George's Episcopal on Main Street had closed earlier in the year. I knew that the First Presbyterian Church was going through a rough time financially - the rectory, or parsonage, or whatever it is called was in danger of needing to be abandoned after a sewer collapse that the church could not afford to repair - but I noticed on the afternoon of the Sunday before last, days after a heavy snowfall earlier in the week, that neither it nor the neighboring First United Methodist Church showed any signs of any activity: the steps leading up to the main doors of each church were completely covered in untouched snow.

And these are just the places I've noticed. It is possible that many more longtime fixtures of life in Nanticoke have closed down, vanished, passed into memory. A dwindling population and a ruinous economic situation have combined to push these places over the edge into oblivion. How many more places will go away in the coming years? And will anything spring up to take their place?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Stations of the Cross for Children

This is the season of Lent, a forty* day buildup to Easter. When I was a child attending Catholic school each Friday in Lent meant three things: pizza for lunch, fish for dinner, and Stations of the Cross in the afternoon.

We used a special book of Stations of the Cross for Children. The books were old when I first saw them, back in the mid-1970's, but I have no idea when they were actually printed. After the old school closed nearly thirty years ago, one of the books came into my possession. I scanned parts of it back in March of 2001, but never finished scanning the entire thing. Unfortunately, I cannot now locate it - suggesting that in the intervening nine years it has been moved from the place of storage underneath my scanner. These are the pages I scanned.

This was a small book, pocket-sized. I've tried to reproduce it here actual size, but how large it appears depends on your specific screen settings. Note the absence of a copyright or publication date.

I always got a kick out of the way the Foreword talks around children - it's apparently not intended for them. Or maybe it is. But the tone and the language are much less simplistic than the "Preparatory Prayer" on the facing page.

The priest at St. Mary's when I went to school there was Fr. Piontek. Big, gruff, curmudgeonly, often seen walking around with a cowboy hat and cigar, or on more formal occasions the black vestments and robes that, after 1977, called to mind Darth Vader. He had recited and chanted these prayers so many times that they became just slurred sounds coming from his throat. So the opening verse on this and the following pages came out sounding like "WE ADORE THEE O CHRIST AND WE BLASPHEME". It was hard not to laugh.

This book introduced me to a few things. The concept of miniature art, for one: the illustrations were probably full-sized, full-color paintings that had been reduced to tiny grayshade images for the book. But they retained many little details, and there seemed to be tremendous expression in those shades of gray. Eventually I made a hobby - for a little while - of creating miniature art using a stamp magnifier and very sharp, very hard pencils. I might someday be able to locate some of those drawings.

Enlarged to show detail.

There were two other things to which this booklet introduced me. One was the concept of "etc." I had never encountered that odd abbreviation before I read it here ("Recite the Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, etc.") in first grade.

The other was the "Stabat Mater". I found these little interjections of verse much more interesting than the call-and-response ritual of the Stations of the Cross. I was fascinated by the rhyme scheme and the meter - a concept I instinctively understood, though I wouldn't learn that term until years later. (The meter of the Stabat Mater, I have just learned, is trochaic tetrameter.)

The Stations go on, and on, fourteen in all. Call and response, repetitive prayers, the slow grind of ritual. I remember the spectrum of feelings I felt as we just got started at Station I, as we crawled on to Stations IV and V, as we rounded the bend at Station VII, limped our way past Station XI, and finally made it to Station XIV, a virtual Via Dolorosa for children.

I haven't gone to the Stations of the Cross in many years. I may have one Friday open at the end of March this year. But it wouldn't be the same.

If and when I locate that booklet - and I am confident I will, eventually - I will scan the rest of the pages, and maybe post them to this entry. Part of an effort to preserve a vanishing world, I suppose.

UPDATE: I decided to Google "stations of the cross" and "a religious of the cenacle" - and - BOOM - found an online copy of the complete book! The cover is white and the images are in color, but otherwise it looks like the same thing. And the copyright and publication date information was on the last page - copyright 1936, Imprimatur July 21, 1920.

Stations of the Cross for Children on

*Forty days, not counting Sundays. This is why Lent lasts for nearly seven weeks.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Illustrations for Oscar Wilde's "The Selfish Giant"

UPDATE: You can just skip over these first three paragraphs if you like. And the fourth one as well.

Yes, that's what you would be seeing here...if I hadn't created the paintings using the Painter Classic program that came bundled with my cheapie Wacom tablet ten years ago, saved them in the proprietary .RIF format, and then had the 1999-vintage computer (running Windows 95) crash, taking the program with it.

So. The files are on my computer, recovered with great effort and some expense, first by my friend who built me this computer and transferred all my files from the old one, and then by the folks at Best Buy who had to recover this computer when I stumbled into a nest of vipers one day and had my new computer hit - hard - by several viruses at once. But they are inaccessible, as inaccessible as all the old homemade cards that were made in another proprietary format on another now-lost program. (Literally; I don't know where that disc is.)

Maybe I can locate the old tablet installation disc, and maybe I can convince Windows XP to allow me to install both the tablet and the Painter program. If that happens, I'll grab all those old RIF files and save them as BMPs or JPGs or whatever.

UPDATE: It took less than half an hour to locate and run the two discs that contained the installation programs for the Wacom tablet and the add-ons, including Corel Painter Classic. It then took another hour to figure out why Painter Classic kept telling me "Not enough memory to run Painter." (Turns out that too much virtual memory is as bad as too little, as far as this program is concerned; I temporarily cut my virtual memory in half and it works just fine.)

Perhaps the game was not worth the candle, though. These paintings...well, I was in my earliest days of playing around with this program, and I was aiming for something cartoonish, maybe even Muppet-ish, and I was mixing media - crayon, pastels, oils, watercolors - in a way that would be almost unthinkable (and probably unworkable) in the bricks-and-mortar world. Worse, the paintings were not really based on any textual passages (but see below), but more on my memory of the story, which I first experienced as a cartoon as a young child (see below) and later as an illustrated book at the office of Dr. Abbot, my Eye, Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor (that used to be a specialty, you know) who served mainly as my eye doctor, prescribing and dispensing my glasses and, later, contact lenses from third grade all the way through the end of High School. (He retired after that.)

Another note: The dates on these paintings indicated that they were created in late September, 2001 - in the weeks that came after the world changed forever, at least the world that some of us knew. My thoughts were turned towards family, and my young and as-yet-unborn nephews, and I was immersing myself in things that seemed important and worthwhile, all while swimming in an environment of shock and horror and grief and rage. I don't know how much that informed what I was doing, but I think it's in there somewhere.

This one is called "The Selfish Giant Alone." It doesn't really have a place in the story. I think it comes after this passage:
He had been to visit his friend the Cornish ogre, and had stayed with him for seven years. After the seven years were over he had said all that he had to say, for his conversation was limited, and he determined to return to his own castle.
(That sword looks bent, dammit.)

The problem is, the next picture - "The Selfish Giant Returns" - is an illustration for the sentence that immediately precedes that one:
One day the Giant came back.

It's meant to look imposing, frightening, an angry giant seen from a trespassing child's perspective, cast in silhouette by the sun. But at the same time it looks silly: a big angry giant with a sword* strapped to his back, wearing a short skirt.

And now "The Selfish Giant Revealed" - which would be an illustration for the very next paragraph. Two paragraphs, five sentences, three illustrations. Here we see the giant as more Muppet-like than the previous illustrations suggested, with ping-pong ball eyes and a wide gash of a mouth, big ears, a bushy mop of hair, sideburns, and knee breeches. Notice that the grass has grown midway to his knees in the seven years he's been away.

But that was it. I never did any additional illustrations for this story.

For those unfamiliar with this story, here's a link to Project Gutenberg's version of The Happy Prince and Other Tales by Oscar Wilde. Read them all. He was an amazing guy who wrote amazing stories.

BONUS: YouTube user TheLittleDevil has posted the old cartoon online in three parts.
The Selfish Giant - Part 1
The Selfish Giant - Part 2
(The personifications of Frost, Snow, The North Wind, Hail, and Autumn have stuck with me for my entire life.)
The Selfish Giant - Part 3 (It's missing the very last sentence at the end of the story, which is a real gutpunch. Read the story and see for yourself!)

*The sword, at least, is canon. From near the end of the story:
"Who hath dared to wound thee?" cried the Giant; "tell me, that I may take my big sword and slay him."

Friday, February 19, 2010

It's confusing, I know.

No time for a real post right now. I have to get ready for work soon. But it's a four-hour night, from 6:00 to 10:00, so I may be back for more tonight. Then I have three days off, then I go back on Tuesday for a four-hour night from 10:00 to 2:00 AM, then three twelve-hour nights, then four more days off.

Title Reference: From the Douglas Adams-authored video game Starship Titanic. These are the words spoken apologetically by the voice of the transportation system after it has lectured you for trying to exit by the wrong door.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Fire on the Mountain

Twelve days ago I took a ride up a steep and difficult road to investigate a cluster of lights I had spotted near the summit of one of the local mountains. The lights, it turned out, were from a housing development that has appeared near the base of the transmission towers on Penobscot Knob. This caused me to wonder:

How do they get their water? Where does their sewage go? Who ran utilities up to them? Who plows their roads? Who will come to save their houses when they catch fire?
Less than a week later, several other people were pondering that last question on a professional level. Though it wasn't one of the houses that was on fire, but one of the transmission stations at the towers.

Fire destroys WVIA building, knocks out signal - News - Citizens Voice
A worker reported electrical equipment in the building began sparking, and flames soon spread to the ceiling, he explained.

"Once it got to that area, it's off to races," he said.

Firefighters from several area companies guided the four tanker trucks up a long dirt road from a staging area off Lehigh Street to fight the blaze. There was no water supply at the site and only one truck could traverse the narrow road at a time, Tudgay said.

"Water was a huge issue," he said. "Where it's at, there's not much you could do about it."
As I heard the chatter on the emergency scanner, I didn't realize that this wasn't one of those houses. My ears perked up when I heard "Laurel Run Road" - that's the road that goes up Giant's Despair - and then heard a lot of back-and-forth questioning whose coverage area this fell into. Then I heard the driver of one of the responding vehicles, possibly a water tanker, reminding everyone that their vehicle was not equipped for mountain climbing or off-road adventures, but was essentially a tractor-trailer. Not the sort of thing I would want to see trying to go up (or down) Giant's Despair.

WVIA is back on the air, thanks to a lot of hard work and the generous assistance of other local broadcasters. But now I hope a lot of people are taking a long, hard look at the new construction up there and asking: OK, next time, when it's one of these houses on fire, what's the plan?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


We had our first major snowstorm here in Nanticoke last week, on Wednesday, February 10. It amounted to fourteen inches, and this may have been the high tally for the region - even Wilkes-Barre, just six miles away, received only about eight inches.

There have been a series of unusually heavy snowstorms in the last few weeks affecting areas like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. that normally don't see much snow. And, right on cue, the usual suspects are leaping up and proclaiming that this is proof that global warming is a hoax, Al Gore is a liar, science is wrong, and the overwhelming majority of climate scientists are in on a massive global conspiracy.

Never mind the fact that this is (according to members of the vast meteorological and climatological conspiracy) an El Niño year, during which weather will behave in weird ways. Never mind that snow is being helicoptered in to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver to make up for the stuff that melted during the period of unusually warm weather they are experiencing. Never mind that ski resorts are struggling to pull in revenues that even come close to miserable 2009 totals, thanks to an absence of snow on the slopes - again.

The funny thing is, you never see these same folks donning sackcloth and ashes during a heat wave, standing on the church steps and declaring global warming to be upon us, Al Gore to be correct, and decrying their own arrant stupidity.

No. That would be stupid. A single unusually warm period doesn't prove global warming, any more than a single Winter of unusually heavy snow in some parts of the world disproves it.

But what do I know? I've thrown in my lot with that vast scientific conspiracy.

See also: Jon Stewart - Unusually Large Snowstorm (Global Darkening!)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Bridge to Tomorrow

This is a photo I took on my Photo Expedition this weekend that didn't really fit anywhere else. After my time in Wilkes-Barre I made a trip to Max Saturday's Comics in West Pittston to pick up my latest arrivals (you won't believe how much trouble The Sentry just got himself into in Siege #2! Simultaneously earning the wrath of the Asgardian and Greek pantheons...this will not end well for Bob Reynolds!) and to tell Sam the comic shop owner (or, more specifically, his wife) to turn off my subscription for one of my comics. After I had concluded my business there I headed west along Route 11/Wyoming Avenue to pick up the Eighth Street Bridge from the Wyoming side. I parked on that end of the bridge to try to see if I could get photos from a different angle than I did the other day - but the snow- and ice-covered walkway made this too risky a proposition, especially since most of the photos I could possibly get from that end would be of the construction of the new bridge hust below and next to the old.

As I walked from the place where I had parked my car to the bridge proper, I saw a scene I had noted while driving several times before: The windmills (well, wind-driven electricity generators) of the Bear Creek Wind Farm appearing to loom over the Eighth Street Bridge.* The new juxtaposed with the old, coexisting (for the moment) in a single visual field.

This isn't the best picture. This is actually a crop of a much larger picture, which may have already been zoomed, I don't remember. Lighting conditions weren't very good, and for all I know I had condensation on my lens (as well as one cat hair, which I discovered later.) With better equipment under better circumstances, this would be a better photo. But if I were to wait until then, the bridge may be gone!

*This nearness is an illusion. The wind farm is actually six-and-a-half miles away, on Bald Mountain.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Sterling Hotel and Market Street Bridge, 1936 and 2010

A few weeks ago I received this email:

Subject: Eagle arch??
On a NE PA bloggers webpage there is a picture of a tall, narrow arch with an eagle statue on the top, but no ID. I have a very old photo with that same arch and am trying to place it. Can you help?

-Philip Lord
This is the picture to which Philip is referring, used as one of the decorative illustrations on the NEPA Blogs sidebar.

The next day - Christmas - I sent Philip this response:

Those are the eagles on the Market Street Bridge in Wilkes-Barre. Those photos are from an expedition I took in October 2005. I originally posted them on my personal blog, Another Monkey. Here are the original posts:
Philip sent this response the next day:

Many thanks for the identification and the fast reply. I have attached the image I have, which seems to be late 1930s or early 1940s, with half the town turned out to watch the river rise - note the sand bag line. The photo was stuck inside an old book I bought on I am an historian so this will provide me with a nice little project. Do you mind if I use your images on a PowerPoint slide presentation or small webpage on this photo? I don't know if you live near the place, and I imagine now that I have the place and river, I can run down the event. Thanks again.

I quickly gave my consent:
Yep, you may use my photos. I'm not sure when the flood in your photo was, but I'm sure the Susquehanna has risen many times. Most notable was the flood associated with tropical storm Agnes back in 1972, though that photo seems to predate it a bit. My friend (and fellow NEPA Blogs administrator) Michelle has a site called "Agnes In NEPA" which collected quite a bit of information about this event.

The Luzerne County Historical Society may be able to help you identify the event associated with your photo.

Good hunting!

By the way - I don't know for sure, but that may be the Hotel Sterling on the left behind those people. A lot of those buildings are still standing!
Philip did some detective work, and that same day sent back this response:

Thanks...looks like this flood was 1936*, which fits the people's clothes. Right after the Great Depression. We will be looking like that in a couple more years... :-)
And that was where we left things. But this past weekend I had made plans to take a walk in Wilkes-Barre, and to take a few touristy snapshots. I would be there, I would have a camera - why not try to re-photograph the scene?

This isn't as easy as it sounds. Streets, buildings, and even landmarks could have been modified in the intervening years. Lining up angles isn't easy when you're working with a print-out of the photo in one hand and a camera in the other. I didn't get it right in one shot. It took two.

I'm not sure if this is an exact match. The Sterling Hotel seems closer, and the arch seems farther away. I think the original picture was taken from a point which now would be several feet into the street. Even if I were confident that I would not get run over while standing in the road in the path of oncoming traffic while trying to match the shot, I would certainly be ankle-deep in dirty, salty slush.

There are some obvious changes. The sidewalk is different - I think in 1936 it was a series of concrete slabs interspersed with asphalt driveways, though that certainly could be dirt. There is a window on the first floor of the Sterling Hotel (commonly referred to as "The Hotel Sterling") which has been bricked over in the intervening years, but the bricks forming the arch over the window are still visible. A marquee was added sometime prior to 1972, because my mom remembers flood water coming right up to the marquee when Tropical Storm Agnes caused the Susquehanna to flood thirty-eight years ago.**

The Sterling looks like a wreck, and I have assumed that it is slated for eventual demolition. But I have been told that there are plans to renovate it and incorporate it into the downtown Wilkes-Barre riverfront complex.

None of the trees in the old photo appear to have survived. It would not be impossible for a, say, ten-year-old tree to survive another seventy-four years, though trees in urban settings tend not to survive and thrive as well as trees in suburban and rural settings.

I scrutinized the original and could not see any children.*** Only adults seem to have turned out to witness the spectacle. Seventy-four years later, I doubt any of them - more than a handful - are still alive.

I presented my new photo to Philip, and after some discussion we decided that I would publish these before-and-after photos here on Another Monkey. If the Sterling Hotel is demolished or substantially altered at some point in the future, it will no longer be possible to recapture this scene in this same way.

Many thanks to Philip Lord for his historical research and gracious permission to use the photo he found. His personal web site, full of genealogical and historical research, can be found here.

*This is known as the St. Patrick's Day Flood of 1936. From the Luzerne County Riverfront Project site:

Although numerous floods occurred in the Wyoming Valley, and some levees had been constructed to try to prevent wide-spread flooding, the valley was unprepared for the flood that struck on St. Patrick’s Day, 1936. That day the Susquehanna crested in Wilkes-Barre and Kingston at 33 feet, and flood waters flowed for miles across the Wyoming Valley.

The devastation wrought by the 1936 flood brought construction funding from Washington in the form of a valley-long, flood protection levee – at a flood stage of 36 feet. Subsequently, the Susquehanna River rose to flood stage in 1946, 1955, and 1964, with the levees providing substantial protection.
This protection lasted until 1972, when Tropical Storm Agnes caused the river to rise to 40.9 feet - overtopping the levees and flooding Wilkes-Barre and much of the Wyoming Valley.

**Thirty-six years passed between the flood of 1936 and Agnes in 1972. Thirty-eight years have passed since Agnes. As I write this I am temporally farther from Agnes than Agnes was from the flood of 1936.

***On closer inspection, it appears there may be several: one on the extreme left of the photo - second from the left - and two or three others just to the right of the front of the Sterling Hotel.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Photo expedition: Wilkes-Barre, February 13 2010

This weekend I made plans to meet with a friend for a walk along the Susquehanna in Wilkes-Barre. I took my camera with me.

I parked on Level 3 of the Boscov's parkade. This is only the second time I have parked there in the last eight years or so, and I was once again amazed at how tight the parking spaces are. As I made my way to the stairwell on the outer part of the parkade, I snapped this shot of something I have seen many times - the Rose Window of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church looking like a giant's eye peering into the parkade. Right after I took this picture the bells in the tower played the Westminster Chimes, the pattern telling me that I had fifteen minutes to meet my friend.

I hustled down Franklin Street, took a left on Market, and then turned right on River. I walked a little down the street and stopped and turned to snap a photo that will appear in another post. I then continued along my way, only managing to fall once on the ice before making it to the rendezvous point.

I had arbitrarily chosen the Luzerne County Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the lawn of the Luzerne County Courthouse as our meeting point, based on the naive assumption that the snow around this statue would be cleared, what with a ceremony scheduled to take place there in just a week. But it was not, and there was no path to even get to it. So I stood on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse and took some photos.

The Luzerne County Courthouse is a beautiful building. Beautiful on the outside, and beautiful on the inside, too, though I was unable to take any indoor photographs during my two-hour stint of Jury Duty on December 1 due to cameras being prohibited within the building. Unfortunately, it has been the site of some very ugly goings-on lately, and probably a lot more than just lately. (Googling "luzerne county courthouse scandal" - not in quotes - currently results in over 105,000 hits.)

A large man in a black coat is hard to miss, especially when he is standing on a snow-covered walkway taking photographs, so my friend had no problem finding me. We began picking our way carefully back along the river.

Even in Winter, this is a beautiful walk. The Susquehanna rolled by at a sluggish pace, as though at any moment it might experience a phase change and be converted entirely into ice. This is looking north across the river into Kingston. This view reminded me of another river in a faraway land.

Looking back towards the Market Street Bridge. The Kingston end of the bridge is visible, with the eagle-topped arches I have shown before. Those eagles will play a major role in another post soon.

A panoramic view of the Market Street Bridge, showing both the Kingston and Wilkes-Barre ends, with the dome of the Luzerne County Courthouse visible on the right. Sometimes concrete bridges can be attractive, too. (This is actually a cropped pseudo-panorama; the original had lots of sky at the top and lots of snow at the bottom.)

We followed the walkway along the river to the Dorothy Dickson Darte Center on the Wilkes University campus, and then hung a left and headed into downtown Wilkes-Barre to grab lunch. My friend's first-choice eatery would not be open for another two hours, so we opted to try the Blue Chip Gourmet, a franchise owned by a partnership that includes former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins hockey star Dennis Bonvie. I chose a hot pastrami sandwich (possibly the first I have ever had) with a hot chai latte and an apple in place of the chips. The pastrami was moist and hot, finely chopped and very flavorful, served on a bread that had a texture somewhere between an English Muffin and a bagel, with mustard permeating the zone between meat and bread. The chai latte was as good as I have had, and complemented both the pastrami sandwich and the accompanying oversized chocolate chip cookie. The Red Delicious apple I had in place of chips was one of the best I have ever had, both juicy and crisp with none of the mealiness or blandness I have come to expect from this variety. Overall a good meal in a pleasant setting, though at just over $11 a bit pricey for the area.

Our next stop was the Barnes & Noble College Bookstore that occupies the former Woolworth's building. We looked eagerly for a book by a local author that my friend had recently read and which was a topic of conversation for part of our walk - The Battle of Wyoming: For Liberty and Life by Mark G. Dziak. (You can read her review here.) Unfortunately, we could not locate it in either the History or the Local Authors sections. (I wasn't able to find it in the local full-sized Barnes & Noble, either, so I may have to order it online.)

My friend picked up a coffee for the walk home, and we parted ways as she continued back to her home. I stopped in at Circles on the Square, a "Delicatessen & Emporium" that has been a fixture in downtown Wilkes-Barre for twenty-five years. I browsed a bit, and then decided to head back to my car the long way around, going back to Market Street and then onto Franklin, rather than just turning around and cutting through Boscov's itself.

As I walked along I snapped this scene, with one of the eagle arches of the Market Street Bridge the distant focal point of several converging diagonals. Four giant "money bin" style banks occupy the four corners of this intersection. One of them is currently for sale.

Making my way along Franklin I grabbed a photo of this architectural lineup. St. Stephen's Episcopal is the main building seen here. The more distant purple church with a green roof on its steeple I do not know by name. Tucked in-between is the more modest castellated tower of the Osterhout Free Library.

Back inside of Boscov's, I grabbed this photo of the ancient tilework that decorates the first floor stairwell. This goes back to the days when this was Fowler, Dick, & Walker - The Boston Store. I believe this pattern, or at least some variation on the gray plaid part of it, decorated the old shopping bags from The Boston Store. I'm sure we have a few of them around here that I can check. All this tile would have been underwater in the Agnes Flood of 1972.

A lovely shot of the rose window of St. Stephen's, as seen from the third floor parkade of Boscov's. If you go back to the first photo, you will be able to work out where I was standing when I took this. You will also notice the tire tracks that cross that spot. I noticed them. I didn't hang out there too long, just got my shot and headed back to my car. My photo expedition in Wilkes-Barre was over.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Fracking: Coming soon to a (former) recreational park near you!

When I was a kid a highlight of each summer was the prospect of a visit to Moon Lake Park. In a region where in-ground pools were mostly the playthings of the wealthy, it was nice to have a place where kids could play in the kiddie pool, and older kids and adults could enjoy the full-sized pool or take boats out on the lake. Camping facilities were available for those who were into that sort of thing. It wasn't the most fabulous place in the world, but it was a fun thing to have nearby. (And the traditional stop for ice cream along the way wasn't so bad, either.)

Moon Lake Park has fallen on hard times recently, though by "recently" I suppose I mean "in recent decades." A few weeks ago it was announced that due to budget restrictions, the park would be closed. The county began preparing to sell off assets before the body was even cold, to the consternation of some. Was there some sort of plan here that involved Moon Lake Park no longer being a park?

Moon Lake Park Could Close -, January 14, 2010

Political Rants: Moon Lake Park - January 15, 2010 - Did a blogger scoop everyone on the intended fate of this park?

Four companies express interest in Moon Lake Park - News - Citizens Voice - February 9, 2010 - What exactly do they mean by "managing"?

And then today's news:

So now, for me at least, gas drilling will no longer be something that happens far away. It's coming to Moon Lake Park.

UPDATE, 2/14/2010: More links for this topic:

Another Monkey: Raping the environment (again) - More than fifty years after the end of anthracite coal mining in Northeastern Pennsylvania, the environmental damage remains. Will it be any different with Marcellus Shale drilling?

Wilkes-Barre Online and Circumlocution for Dummies - Two blogs by Mark Cour, frequently focusing on Marcellus Shale drilling and clean water issues.

The Susquehanna River Sentinel (old site) and The Susquehanna River Sentinel (new linkable version) - Two blogs by Don Williams, aka Kayak Dude, focusing on the Susquehanna River and the effects of environmentally destructive actions - which currently means Marcellus Shale drilling.

SPLASHDOWN! - Blogging from NEPA about gas drilling, here and across the U.S.

Frack Mountain - From the Back Mountain, a beautiful area of Northeastern Pennsylvania just northwest of Wilkes-Barre, comes another blog that tackles the issue of environmental damage caused by irresponsible natural gas extraction.

Friday, February 12, 2010

True Lies

The pretty hate machine continues running at full speed. From the opinion page of the Wilkes-Barre Citizens' Voice:

Ex-president George W. Bush consoled Fort Hood soldiers


As you may know, after the Fort Hood attack, former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura showed up unannounced to visit the injured soldiers at the hospital.

However, as you can read below, there's allegedly more to the story.

What is even better is the fact George W. Bush heard about Fort Hood , got in his car without any escort, apparently they did not have time to react, and drove to Fort Hood. He was stopped at the gate and the guard could not believe who he had just stopped. Bush only asked for directions to the hospital, then drove on. The gate guard called that "The president is on Fort Hood and driving to the hospital." The base went bananas looking for Obama. When they found it was Bush they immediately offered escort and Bush simply told them to be quiet and let him visit the wounded and the dependents of the dead. He stayed at Fort Hood for over six hours and was finally asked to leave by a message from the White House. Obama flew in a few days later and held a "photo " session in a gym and did not even go to the hospital. All this I picked up from two soldiers here who happened to be at Fort Hood when it happened.

(name redacted)

I was moved by this story. Moved to see if, by Googling a chunk of text, I could find out if this was an original letter or just one of those things being passed around and then presented by volunteers as their own composition. I chose the last sentence - allegedly a personal statement by the writer attesting to its provenance.

There are currently 493 instances of this exact statement being located by Google. Two of them in particular caught my eye - appearances on and Fort Hood Visit
Bush at Ft. Hood

This isn't an original letter.

Snopes finds the story to be a mixture of true (Bush did visit Fort Hood), false (Obama did a hell of a lot more than hold "a 'photo' session in a gym"), and undetermined items. FactCheck is even more emphatic in refuting the claims in the letter - and cites David Sherzer of the George W. Bush Presidential Center as a source for much of its information.

Everything beyond the title and first sentence of this letter is false. So this letter is a lie - as is the impression that this was an original composition by someone from Plymouth, PA, based on statements related to her by soldiers who were on base at the time. But that hasn't stopped the usual suspects from responding as they usually do:
2 posted comments:

What can I say. We have an idiot in the White House!! Well, all you people who wanted "change"; YOU HAVE "CHANGE". Now, let's get his term over with, soon!! - American, 02/12/10 7:35

Voting has consequences - ed, 02/12/10 10:35
Like some guy whose birthday is coming up soon today once said, you can fool some of the people all of the time.

I wish these folks could take to heart a request made by that great American statesman Sarah Palin: "So how about in honor of the American solider you quit making things up?"

Taking the bridge

I took my mom to a doctor's appointment this afternoon. She went into the office, and I had some time to kill. But I had a plan. I wanted to get some photos from the 8th Street Bridge in Wyoming*, PA, before it is demolished.

There is a new bridge being constructed next to this old one, seen in a Google Earth image. The new bridge would be just to the left of the existing one in the image above. Fun fact: several structures visible along the river bank to either side of the bridge entrance no longer exist.

The walkway is along the western-facing side of the bridge, so the best time to take photos here would be in the morning, with the sun at your back. Unfortunately my schedule put me there in the afternoon, so I was photographing into the sun. In this photo Monocanock Island can be seen in the middle distance, bisected by the line from a crane.

A view of the southern shore of the Susquehanna from the 8th Street Bridge. Note the construction below.

More images of the ice formations downstream from the bridge.

I don't know how long it will take to complete the construction of the replacement for the 8th Street Bridge. This is an old bridge, very narrow and somewhat frightening; I did not feel anywhere near as safe on it as I did on the similar (but much sturdier) Nanticoke - West Nanticoke Bridge a few weeks ago. But it will be sad to see it go. It is always sad to see these marvels of structural engineering get shunted aside in favor of functional but soulless structures of prestressed concrete.

*Wyoming, PA has a long history. It was the site of the Battle of Wyoming, also known as the Wyoming Massacre. This incident directly or indirectly resulted in the name of the state of Wyoming, depending on which account of the state's designation you believe.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Well, Northeastern Pennsylvania couldn't dodge every storm. The snow began falling sometime overninght, and by the time I finally made it home this morning over three inches had come down. We're expecting up to a foot before the storm is over.

It's still coming down, of course, and I have to get to bed. I still have two unused and unscheduled "sick days" from last year . I may use one tonight, depending on the situation when I wake up in a few hours. If anyone asks, I can tell them I've developed a case of acute thanatophobia.

Must sleep. Now.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010


Immediately before the start of a shift I usually get a lot of sleep. This is during the transition from being awake during the day to being up all night. I usually go to bed around 2:00 in the morning that last night off and force myself to sleep until almost 1:00 the next afternoon. (The rest of the rotation I will be sleeping only four to five hours each day.)

I tend to wake up a lot during this extended downtime, and that means more remembered dreams. Yesterday was no exception. But this was an especially odd dream: it was a dream about class distinctions.

In the dream I had teamed up with two of my friends. One of them, a handyman of sorts in real life, had gotten us a job working for the super-rich elite set in Nanticoke. Now, just to be clear: there is no super-rich elite set in Nanticoke. Not even close. But in the dream there was, and they were all gathered in a semi-secret party in one fairly unassuming house.

I don't remember what sort of work we were supposed to be doing in the dream. I don't remember interacting with any of these Nanticoke Brahmins. I just remember looking at them, engaged in their idle entertainments, untroubled by all the economic distress in the outside world. And I wondered what that must be like.

I suppose in the real world there are people who are untouched by the economic downturn. Every so often there will be a news story about some minor privation experienced by the richest of the rich. But there is probably some class beyond even them whose members are blissfully unaware of the sufferings of anyone else. What strings do they pull? What role do they play in the affairs of mortal men?

Once a friend and I mused that the exact position of every individual in society can be specified with a proper application of the notions of "upper," "middle," and "lower" class. Someone may be "middle class," but they may actually be in the "upper middle class," more specifically the "lower upper middle class"...and so on. Until recently I fancied that I was somewhere around the lower upper middle class myself; I had a comfortable amount of money, and I was able to spend it as I pleased. But in the last few years my fortunes have changed, and now I find myself in the lower middle class - or, perhaps, the upper middle lower middle class. That, of course, is subject to change.

Where would you place yourself on such a series of class striations? And in today's economic climate, where it is all too easy to slip down through the strata, what would it take to move up a few levels?

Monday, February 08, 2010

Demonstrate for clean water this Friday!

Friday, February 12, Kayak Dude of the Susquehanna River Sentinel will be holding a pair of demonstrations outside the offices of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Susquehanna River Sentinel: Who Dat that Knockin' at my Door?

"By standing on their doorstep and making a very public statement in opposition to their current 'rubber-stamping' approach to approving permits - even in floodplains - I will let them know at least a few folks are not satisfied with writing letters and offering public testimony."
If you are in Northeastern Pennsylvania, or any the areas affected by pollution to the Susquehanna and the surrounding water tables as a consequence of irresponsible and unsafe gas mining practices, please consider joining Kayak Dude in this effort to raise awareness in the groups responsible for keeping these areas safe and clean. And if you can't make it yourself, please lend your support by adding your name to his petitions.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Facebook Revises Format; World Thrown Into Chaos

Well, maybe not. Not quite. Not yet.

I haven't been hit with the February 2010 revision yet, but I know it's coming. And lots of people I'm friends with have gotten it already. And none of them are singing its praises. Many of them are actively cursing it out.

I don't know why Facebook revises its format every few months. It's a business decision, of course; and for a business that gives its services to users for free, such decisions must lean towards pragmatic considerations of increasing revenue while at least maintaining market share by not alienating users to the point that they begin looking around for some other forum that provides the same or similar services without subjecting users to things they find objectionable.

So on the one hand, you want to make more money from advertisers and applications developers. On the other hand, you don't want to piss people off too much.

But on the gripping hand, people don't like change.

Since I joined Facebook about a year and a half ago I have seen several changes to the interface format. Based on the earliest comments I saw from my friends, one had just happened a short while before I came on board. As for the others, it seems like they've kicked in just as soon as everyone got used to the previous changes.

Is this perhaps an intentional effort by Facebook to keep things fresh by never allowing users to get too set in the ways of a given revision? Is it part of a master plan to nudge Facebook toward something else? Or is it just a series of really bad decisions?

I hope Facebook knows the cautionary tale of SiteMeter.

SiteMeter was - is - one of the most popular visitor tracking applications out there. How popular, most people didn't realize until one fateful weekend starting on the very last day of July, 2008, when something happened that allowed an untested modification to the program to be unleashed on users - an untested modification that shut down a significant portion of the Internet.

Another Monkey: SiteMeter causing site errors in Internet Explorer

It took the better part of the weekend for SiteMeter to resolve this issue, a late summer weekend when the people doing the resolving had probably already made plans to do other things. It left the company with a black eye and a lot of angry users, particularly the paying users who found their sites inaccessible to customers for much of the weekend.

But that was just the dress rehearsal for what was to come. SiteMeter had been investing considerable time that year into a revision to their program, something that would be a dramatic change for the better. But what was released in the middle of September 2008...wasn't.

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

The reaction was overwhelming. SiteMeter heard and responded. They rolled back the revised program to the previous version. And that is the same version that is still being used a year and a half later.

SiteMeter hasn't had much to say since then. At all. Their blog, if you can find it,* is pretty sparse, and the posts referring to the two fiascoes of 2008 are gone. I get an impression that as a company, they never recovered from the massive loss of user confidence spawned by these debacles.

Facebook has never suffered such a loss, and has never rolled back a revision. Perhaps this is because, from a social networking point of view, they are the biggest gorilla in the room. Where are angry Facebook users going to go? MySpace? LinkedIn?

Maybe Facebook doesn't care. Users will keep on using Facebook, and will get used to any changes, and will keep attracting advertisers and application designers and their money.

Or maybe Facebook really and truly doesn't know. Maybe they think everything is fine.

There exists an official Facebook blog. On it members of the Facebook staff have been posting about the ongoing changes. This entry, for example, details the changes to the interface, while this one deals with changes to the way photos are uploaded. These posts serve as a critical source of information, but also provide an opportunity, through the comments, for users to provide feedback to Facebook itself.

Are the changes really all that bad? Honestly, I have no idea. I haven't experienced them myself. I expect that there will be some things I will like, and some things that make no sense whatsoever.

But no matter how bad these changes are, one thing is certain with Facebook: more revisions are just down the road!

*If you follow the link to the SiteMeter Knowledge Center and then click on the New/Announcements button, you go to a dead page. It took some doing to find the actual blog. And the blog itself has not been without its problems.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Climbing Giant's Despair

The Wyoming Valley offers amazing vistas and panoramas, even to the highway commuter. Interstate 81 rides along the side of the mountains that form the south edge of the valley. From this vantage point you can see across the valley to the north, as well as far along the mountains to the east and west.

I have been commuting along this route for nearly half my life. I have watched things change over time, new construction appear, old landmarks disappear, even whole new vistas presenting themselves when some culm banks and an inconveniently-placed outcrop of mountain were removed as part of a road project some ten years ago.

Lately I've noticed some new lights on the mountains. One group I never noticed until about three weeks ago. It looked like a small city, a line of amber and white lights situated near the top of a mountain ridge called Penobscot Knob, the location of the towers that broadcast radio and television signals to much of the Wyoming Valley.

I've tried to observe these lights from multiple positions, which is not an easy or particularly safe thing to do when most of your observations are being done from a moving car. But eventually I narrowed down the location of the lights. Using Google Earth, I determined that the lights appeared to be situated along a known road. The road running through Laurel Run. The road that used to be an extension of Northampton Street in Wilkes-Barre, once the longest road in the state of Pennsylvania.

The road that goes up Giant's Despair.

I have gone up this road at least three times in the past. I have even come down it once. It is terrifying. Steep, full of twists and turns. Hard on your engine going up, hard on your brakes coming down. Followed to its end it meets up with Route 115 in Bear Creek, which absorbed the remainder of Northampton Street for the long trek south to Brodheadsville. (Route 115 has a long and storied history; it has also been the scene of several fatal accidents recently.)

But that was where the lights were. And, with luck, that was where there would be an amazing view of the valley below.

The snow which crippled so much of the eastern seaboard this weekend barely touched Northeastern Pennsylvania. Nanticoke had less than an inch, other areas just a dusting. The road leading up Giant's Despair was clear and dry. And this evening I found myself in that part of the area. Well, what the hell?, I thought.

The Giant's Despair Hillclimb is an event first established in 1906. Part race, part endurance event, it is a test of a driver's skill and a car's stamina. Here is a dashboard video from one of the participants in the 2009 event:

Pay special attention to the 23 second mark, when the horizon vanishes and all you can see is road. I was doing 15-20 miles per hour for this entire stretch, so my windshield showed nothing but road for very long times. And I was doing it around 8:30 at night. In a fourteen-year-old car with more than 315,000 miles on it.

But I made it.

I caught a glimpse, briefly, of the valley below me; but to see this properly I would have had to be coming down Giant's Despair, or I would have had to be pulled off on the side of the road around one of the left-hand turns, and I wasn't about to do either of these things.

I found the lights, too, I think. It looks like they're coming from a new housing development near the summit of the hill where the houses have randomly aimed white and amber security lights. New light pollution from houses built in a ridiculously inaccessible location. How do they get their water? Where does their sewage go? Who ran utilities up to them? Who plows their roads? Who will come to save their houses when they catch fire?

I cruised past the housing development and then through the towers on Penobscot Knob. That's an eerie feeling, slipping between these enormous towers like a football through giant goalposts. Then a slight rise, and a long, shallow cruise down the other side of the mountain to meet with 115 and continue my descent back into the Wyoming Valley.

It was scary. But it was also somewhat exhilarating. And I think I solved a mystery that has been bugging me for the past few weeks.