Friday, April 30, 2010

Tomorrow is Free Comic Book Day

Tomorrow is Free Comic Book Day. Why not stop in at your local comic book store and see what they have to offer? They will have plenty of free comics available (see here for a list) and will most likely have sales and specials in conjunction with the event. Support print media! Support comic artists and writers! Support your local comic book store!

Three dreams

Well, it was really just one dream, but it involved three disaster scenarios. And, despite my best efforts at committing them to memory, one of them has evaporated away. Maybe I will remember it when I turn in for the day in a little bit. I had these dreams yesterday, during my daytime sleep before work.

One of the disasters was bizarre, but understandable to local television viewers. Joe Snedeker, meteorologist for local ABC affiliate WNEP, announced that he had acquired a small nuclear missile and would be launching it during an upcoming weather segment. And he did. (This would not be entirely uncharacteristic, or even unexpected, behavior from Joe Snedeker.)

The other disaster that I can remember involved the space shuttle Discovery. In the dream, it suffered a failure to launch and collapsed on the launch pad. The external fuel tank broke apart in a manner similar to those films of rockets collapsing during early launch tests. (I remember thinking that this seemed really odd, though I don't know how the external fuel tank might actually look in such a situation.) The orbiter collapsed into the exploding cloud of flames, also snapping apart in several places. As I watched I wondered if anyone in the crew cabin could have survived, and I was assured that they could not.

I remember the sense of tragedy I felt, not just for the deaths of the crew - seven astronauts, in this dream - but for the premature termination of the Shuttle program. In reality there are only a few shuttle launches left, including one of Discovery.

I woke up at this point, and it was time to get ready for work.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Kentucky Derby and NEPA Bloggers' gathering this Saturday

As has become a bit of a tradition, there will be an informal* gathering of NEPA bloggers, blog readers, etc. etc. this Saturday. From Gort's official announcement:

The 13th annual get together of the Saturday OT Committee and Operatic Society to watch the Kentucky Derby is scheduled for Saturday, May 1st 4PM at Marks Pub 1287 N Washington St, Wilkes-Barre.

None of us are big horse race fans but this is just another excuse to infuse cash into the malt beverage industry to ensure it's liquidity. After all, we don't want D.G. Yuengling & Son to go the way of General Motors.

This is not a mega-meetup like the one last month a Rooney's (we will do that again in the fall) and it has not been sanctioned by the Northeast Blogging Council. But of course everyone is welcome.
I am supposed to be working that day, but as luck would have it I have already scheduled vacation days for both Saturday and Sunday. But this is only because I have an event I have to be at bright and early Sunday morning. So if I do make it out to the get-together, it will only be for a special brief cameo appearance.

*Like we've ever had any other sort.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The case of the Canadian at the border

Back in December of 2009 I was alerted to a new post by Science Fiction / Fantasy copyeditor Deanna Hoak on her blog:

Legal fundraiser for Dr. Peter Watts, SF writer Deanna Hoak

Now, I had never heard of Peter Watts prior to this incident. As a matter of fact, I have never (as far as I know) read anything by him, before or since. But that made no difference. From what I was reading, it sounded like a profound injustice had been done, and that got my blood boiling. I wrote this post that same day:

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

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

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

On a lot of these, I'm still waiting.
I haven't followed the case that closely since then, maybe popping in on Dr. Watts's (NSFW - language) blog to read his newscrawl from time to time. But this week's news out of Arizona, along with the careful parsing by supporters to try to make it sound like the law could mean something other than racial profiling of Hispanics (or suspected Hispanics), led me to wonder how many pigment-deficient folks might be hauled in on suspicion of being illegal Canadians. This led me to wonder what was going on with that Canadian writer dude who was arrested at the border that I had read (and written) about months earlier. I sought out his blog and read this, posted Monday night:
No Moods, Ads or Cutesy F***ing Icons (Re-reloaded) »

I. Am.

Coming home.
More tomorrow.
So. I had come in at a crucial point - the climax, or just past the climax, or actually just past the second climax. A quick read of the preceding post indicated that Dr. Watts had, in fact, been found guilty - not of repeatedly assaulting a border patrol agent's fist with his face, as I initially surmised, but of "obstructing a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer", a felony that could result in up to two years of jail time, and everything that goes with that (including loss of income, permanent felony conviction record, and a charge of $60/day for the privilege of being incarcerated.)


He had been found guilty. He was now a convicted felon in the eyes of the United States. The recommendation for sentencing was the maximum allowed - “6 months incarceration, with 60 days suspended upon payment of court assessments in full.” And he was going home to Canada. So what gives?

What gives was that his case was presided over by, and his sentencing was handed down by, a judge who was sympathetic to his situation. After a bit of speechifying on the part of the judge, during which time Peter Watts was completely uncertain as to whether he was about to be taken out in shackles or taken out for a drink, the judge handed down his verdict: suspended sentence, plus a $500 fine and court costs. For what, as Peter Watts describes it in his post-homecoming post, was "an offence that even the Prosecution admits amounts to not-getting-on-the-ground-fast-enough."

He's a free man. Well, conditionally free. And a convicted felon, with all that goes along with that. And what does go along with that? I don't know. Prohibition from entry into the United States? That will make any air travel plans that much more difficult. And if that is the case, I guess he will have to pray that no future flights that he takes are diverted into U.S. territory, or he may be facing some jail time.

There is a video of this incident. It exists, and it was presented in court - over the objections of the prosecution, who wanted to introduce an edited modified version for whatever reason. I've never seen it. It was being kept out of the public sphere as it was evidence in an ongoing case. It would be interesting to see, and more interesting to hear - although, reportedly, no audio exists.

It is easy to see this as a case of police engaging in a bit of thuggish fun against a totally helpless and innocent Canadian writer. He maintains that he exited his vehicle - stopped at the Port Huron exit point while returning to Canada after helping some U.S. friends move - when he noticed that an unannounced search was being conducted on it, in order to ask why an unannounced search was being conducted on it. Consequently, rather than being given an explanation, he was ordered back into the vehicle and/or onto the ground. His failure to comply with these orders resulted in him being pepper-sprayed, assaulted, arrested, charged, and subsequently convicted as a felon.

Was there more to this? Was Watts belligerent, bellicose, engaging in actions that made the border patrol agents feel that a violent response was necessary? I have no idea. Witnesses say no, definitely not.

Americans have learned in the days following September 11, 2001 to bow down and meekly obey any orders given to us by uniformed folks at airports or at the borders, lest we find ourselves on the receiving end of the sort of treatment Peter Watts received. We know that there is no crime more likely to bring about summary justice than contempt of cop. Apparently that message did not reach our cousins to the North.

But we also know that, mixed in with all the good and noble individuals who put their lives on the lines every day to enforce the law and serve and protect the people, there are more than a few who are schoolyard bullies with badges and guns. Everybody knows of examples, or knows people who experienced these situations first hand. Recently a University of Maryland student was charged with assaulting a police officer (and his horse) during celebrations following Maryland's defeat of Duke University. But video of the incident* clearly showed that the student did nothing that was described in the incident report, and was in fact the victim of an unprovoked and brutal assault by several armed and armored police officers.

And criminal abuse of power is not restricted to police: in Northeastern Pennsylvania, we are still reeling from the aftereffects of the actions of two Luzerne County judges who set up a racket convicting juvenile offenders and sentencing them to incarceration at a privately-run facility which was providing them with kickbacks, the famous "Kids for Cash" scandal. Unknown numbers of kids who committed relatively minor infractions were railroaded into this system, denied even the opportunity to be defended; in the aftermath, all of the juvenile convictions of Judges Conahan and Ciaverella were tossed out as incorrectibly tainted, and any unpaid fines and restitution were dismissed - re-victimizing those legitimate victims of actual juvenile offenders, and setting more serious offenders free along with the rest.

Not every cop is a thug, or every judge corrupt. Any more than every Catholic priest is a pedophile, or every Tea Partier a delusional racist "birther."

Peter Watts is a free man.

But Peter Watts is also a convicted felon.

See also:

Madeline Ashby: / Science fiction and fantasy / Blog posts / Sometimes, we win.

From David Nickle's The Devil's Exercise Yard:
Off to Port Huron tomorrow
Peter Watts is free
... and Back Again

*In Pennsylvania, it is illegal to make any video recording of a police officer in the course of his duties. So if this had happened in Pennsylvania, the video would have probably been inadmissable as evidence, and the person who made it could have been arrested.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Another Monkey Consumer Price Index, 4/27/2010

Wow, it's been over a year and a half since I've done a Consumer Price Index post. I've completely forgotten how it goes, so I'm going to copy and paste the last one and just update the actual items and prices.

I don't have my gas price information handy at the moment. I'll grab that sometime later.

Today's currency conversions, according to

$1 =
  • 0.65497 GBP (British Pounds)
  • 0.75752 Euros
  • 1.01428 Canadian Dollars
  • 12.3746 Mexican Pesos
  • 1.08592 Australian Dollars
  • 5.94060 NOK (Norway Kroners)
  • 29.3387 Russian Rubles
  • 1.77795 Georgia Lari
  • 6.82717 Chinese Yuan Renminbi
  • 93.2590 Japanese Yen
  • 1,168.53 Iraq Dinars
  • 14,250.00 Turkmenistan Manats
  • 361.900 Zimbabwe Dollars
  • 0.000858194 Gold ounces

Weis Market, Nanticoke, PA, 4/27/10:

Milk, 2% milkfat, half-gallon: $1.62

Apples, McIntosh, 3 lbs.: $3.49
Grapes, Red seedless: $2.99 / lb. (on sale, $2.49 /lb.)
Onions, yellow, 2 lb. bag: $2.99

...and that's it for the staples. Previous price indices were based on staple items like bread, milk, eggs, fruit, and vegetables. But I think this is too limiting, especially since we repeatedly buy many non-staple items whose price fluctuations deserve to be watched. Here are a few of those items:

Weis brand soda, diet, two liter: $0.88/bottle (on sale for $0.79/bottle)
Cinnamon buns with cream cheese icing, four pack: $3.99
King Oscar brand Flat Anchovies in Olive Oil, 2 oz.: $1.69
Sparkle paper towels, two three roll pack, 56 two-ply sheets each: $3.99 (on sale, buy one get one free)
Fancy Feast cat food, 3 oz. cans: 2/$1.09 (on sale, $0.50 apiece)
Whiskas Tender Bites cat food, box of 24 3 oz. pouches: $9.99

Gerrity's Market, Hanover Township, PA, 4/27/10:

Bananas: $0.39/lb.

Whiskas Cat Milk, $2.99/3 pack

How do your prices compare?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Spring fever

Well, not fever exactly. More a sore throat, occasionally runny nose, and some sneezing.

I've had this for a few days now. I was sneezing quite a bit in work on Friday night. When I mowed the lawn on Saturday I noticed that the lilacs are currently in full bloom, so I'm wondering if there's a connection.

I don't get sick very often, and once I'm well I tend to forget about having been sick. That's why I created the "Sick" label for my blog. If I post at least once about being sick each time I'm sick, I'll be able to draw up a long-term history showing when, specifically, I get sick during the year.

I had a dream last night. A nightmare, not a dream, and technically this morning, sometime between 5:30 and 9:00. (I have not fully adjusted from night shift, and why should I? I go back to work on Wednesday night.) It was an end-of-the-world nightmare. The human race was being systematically hunted down and exterminated by Cybermen from Doctor Who - specifically, the pewter-hued Cybermen from the alternate Earth in the modern Doctor Who. Their method of extermination was simple, brutal, and efficient: Move into an area, thoroughly search the area, and kill any humans. (By shooting them. They were carrying some sort of cyber-rifles.) I was in a semi-deserted town with a friend, her daughter, and several other people who for whatever reason had not fled ahead of the advancing army of Cybermen. The last thing I remember from the dream was being in a sort of infirmary or group sleeping area on the third floor of an old boarding school, hiding under beds in different parts of the room - my friend and her daughter on one side of the room, me on the other. All the other people we had been with were dead or were in the process of being hunted down by the Cybermen. The Cybermen were searching the building where we were hiding, and we were hoping - ridiculously - that they would just pass us by. I woke up before I got to see how it ended.

I never have established if my nightmares are related to how I'm feeling, or what I'm eating, or anything else other than how soundly I'm sleeping - you only remember dreams if you wake up during them. We'll see if I have any more that I remember.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Disney's "Oceans"

I took my nephews to see Disney's "Oceans" this afternoon. This was actually a planned event, but no one but me was in on the plan until all the pieces slid into place. I had no idea my nephews would be coming over for a visit until they were almost here, and I had no idea they would be able to go to the movies until a few minutes after that. But I checked the movie times yesterday, and scheduled our sole after-church activity - a trip to pick up Chinese food for dinner - to allow sufficient time to make the 2:40 show. (The movie was showing in Moosic, some twenty miles from my house.)

We didn't get into the theater as early as I would have liked, so we had to sit fairly close to the screen - not such a bad thing when the movie is a literally immersing experience. The movie itself was quite beautiful, except for the parts about pollution, which were appropriately ugly. As this is a movie targeted towards children and being distributed by Disney, there was little about mating activities, save for a single shot of two turtles apparently riding piggyback, which brought laughter from the children in the audience. There was quite a bit of violence, however, including almost an entire hatching group of sea turtles getting picked off one by one as they race to the ocean in broad daylight, and a seal apparently swallowed whole by a shark. (I say "apparently" because it is possible that the shark subsequently spit out the seal and did that tear-and-rend thing with its rows of serrated teeth.)

The past few years have seen an explosion in the number and quality of nature documentaries on television, in the movies, and on home video. This one holds up quite well. At no point in Pierce Brosnan's narration did I think "Hey, it's that Remington Steele / James Bond guy!" I did not detect any trace of boredom in any of the adults or children packing the theater - though I must confess I personally found the movie very relaxing at times. I look forward to getting a copy on DVD to see those parts I might have missed.

See also:
Oceans Disneynature
Disney's 'Oceans,' A Bewitching Homage To The Sea : NPR
Window Into Wonders of the Oceans - ABC News
Oceans - Movie Trailers - iTunes

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The golden spiderlings

While mowing the lawn this afternoon I noticed the lid on my composter was askew, despite the paving block I have on top to keep it from blowing off. When I went to adjust it I noticed a spider web on the block and the lid, apparently clogged with pollen. Then I noticed that the pollen was moving. I went back in the house and grabbed my camera.

The things that I thought were grains of pollen were actually baby spiders, about a millimeter and a half long. Each was golden yellow with a black spot on the abdomen, the rear section.

On closer inspection of the photos, the black spots appear to be spinnerets, and the spiders' eyes appear to be red - some of them, anyway.

I don't know what variety of spider these spiderlings will grow into. Most of them are fated not to grow up at all. Life is harsh for little spiderlings.

Friday, April 23, 2010

On Trust: Semi-random stuff from the radio

I heard an amusing piece on Morning Edition on the way home yesterday. Not for what's said, exactly - the tone is quite neutral, with no attempt to make the subjects look ridiculous, and yet there are tidbits strewn here and there. For example, who would have expected that what energizes "Young Conservatives" is actually a frustrated sense of entitlement? Somebody didn't do his Ayn Rand reading assignment.*

Here it is. It clocks in at just over four and a half minutes.

Rising Distrust Is Wind In Conservatives' Sails : NPR

And while we're on the subject of trust - this is a great story from yesterday's All Things Considered. Need to increase donations during the Public Radio pledge drive? Just give listeners a snootful of oxytocin,** and they'll start handing over their money quite generously:

When The 'Trust Hormone' Is Out Of Balance : NPR

*Full disclosure: I've never read Ayn Rand, either.
**Not to be confused with oxycodone or oxycontin.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Resource demands and scarcity

It's Earth Day.

The greatest challenge that will face the human race in coming decades is the same one that has loomed for the entire history of life itself: resource scarcity. There's only so much stuff to go around that living things need to go about the business of living. In the case of humans, we can replace "need" with "want", and humans will still work just as hard to get it.

Humans have lived outside of the state of nature for tens of thousands of years, since hunter-gatherers became herders and farmers and freed up their own resources to develop civilization. From then to now our civilizations have defined which resources we want and need to consume.

Our technological society demands energy, and lots of it. For our homes, for our cars, for our factories, for the electrical grid upon which we are almost completely dependent. We get what we need through the use of coal, oil, natural gas - and to a much lesser extent, nuclear energy, hydroelectric power, geothermal energy, and the power of the wind and the sun.

We're receiving reminders all the time that these energy sources come with a price tag attached. Twenty-nine coal miners dead in West Virginia in that industry's latest tragic accident. Eleven oil platform workers missing in the first oil platform disaster that I can recall in ages. Groundwater supplies - another critical resource - being contaminated by the "fracking" technique used to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation in Dimock, Pennsylvania. Even that pesky volcano with the unpronounceable name in Iceland serves to remind us of just how geothermal energy works.

Our hunger for resources grows with our increasing population - and sometimes faster, as previously technologically unsophisticated areas come to partake in the modern world and add their resource needs to those that already exist. In 1988 Douglas Adams visited a China where the streets were clogged with pedestrians, trucks, and bicyclists. Today those same streets play host to a vast array of cars, all of which have propelled China into a distant second behind the United States for national petroleum consumption.

Meanwhile, the climate itself is changing. In part this is due to the effects of resource consumption itself - the use of fossil fuels resulting in a release of climate-changing greenhouse gases. And this has a feedback effect as well: as the climate changes, resource demands will change as well. Not necessarily for the better: reductions in consumption of oil and natural gas for heating homes may be offset by increases in coal used to generate electricity to cool those same homes.

And where does all this resource consumption lead to? Damned if I know. Maybe the resource demands of the human population will exceed the resource availability, with a result all-too-familiar to fans of nature documentaries. Maybe resource availability will grow along with resource demands, as new resources are identified, or previous restrictions on resource availability are eased - also not a pretty picture, in many versions of this scenario. Maybe the demand will suddenly drop off, resulting in a surplus of available resources - though it may not be pleasant to think about what sort of events would result in a sudden and sustained drop in resource demands.

It's Earth Day.

Where are we going?

See also:

Susquehanna River Sentinel: +++ Earth Day 2010 +++
The Lu Lac Political Letter: The LuLac Edition #1159, Apr. 22nd, 2010
Gort42: Earth Day
Circumlocution for Dummies: Frick the freaking fracking!
GDAC Earth Day Statement « FRACK MOUNTAIN
SPLASHDOWN!: 1970 ~ EARTH DAY ~ 2010

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Harry Potter and the Brief Readership Spike

A few weeks ago - March 1, 2010, to be exact - the band OK Go! released the "Rube Goldberg machine" version of the video for their song "This Too Shall Pass." It's a remarkable piece of video, and instantly went viral. Half a dozen of my Facebook friends immediately posted it, one with the comment "WATCHITWATCHITWATCHITWATCHIT". (I have learned to trust her musical tastes, so I did.) Within hours, almost everyone was watching it. Within days, almost everyone had watched it. And within a week, anyone who brought it up was essentially told, "Oh, that's so last week."

The day before yesterday I noticed a spike in the readership of my blog, Another Monkey. I expected this would be another Cathy Baker spike, or another mass outbreak of headless rabbit discoveries, or another group of people desperately seeking the solution to Facebook's js3250.dll bug. But it wasn't any of these things. Instead the entry that was attracting all the attention was this one:

Another Monkey: Harry Potter and the Schizotypal Personality Disorder

I looked it up and anxiously began re-reading it to see what kind of dumbassed comments I had made in that post. And what I found was...pretty good. Well-researched, occasionally even beyond the Wikipedia level. Pretty well written, too. Well, this was during those months when I was laid off; I really didn't have any excuse for not writing, and for not writing well.

But who were these people? My SiteMeter told me that the traffic was coming from Facebook, but that was where the information ended. Was this a Facebook group for Harry Potter fans? A Facebook Schizotypal Personality Disorder support group? A Facebook group for Psychologists? I had no idea. A single anonymous comment didn't help. Looking deeper into SiteMeter showed that someone had originally discovered the post while Googling "harry potter and personality disorders" or something like that - the exact wording is now lost to the aether. Soon there was another search engine hit for a slightly different wording of the same search. And then the flood of Facebook hits started coming.

It has subsided.

Maybe I'll never know who these people were or who directed them to my post. Maybe a few of them liked what they saw and decided to stick around or come back for more. Maybe one of them will read this post and fill me in. I don't know.

I don't know how OK Go! is doing. I had heard a Morning Edition report on them a few weeks before the video came out, about conflicts they had had with their record company (EMI) over allowing fans to embed the video of "Here It Goes Again" - the "treadmills" video that came to be a prime example of the "viral video." Another report released shortly after the "This Too Shall Pass" video hit the Internet indicated that the band had broken with their label and started one of their own - a risky venture in the best of times. I suppose I could glean some information from the band's website.

But going viral isn't what it used to be. What used to happen over the span of weeks or months has now been reduced to days or hours. Any fame is fleeting. Like the song says, "This Too Shall Pass."

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Unpronounceable Icelandic Volcanic Pareidolia

This past Sunday, Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy posted a Facebook link to this article in Universe Today:

Incredible Images of Iceland Volcano from Just a Few Kilometers Away Universe Today

One of Phil's running themes has been pareidolia, the human tendency to see images - particularly faces - in random or naturally-occurring formations. I've always viewed pareidolia as a fun game, so I decided to take a crack at these images and see what I could see.

Image 1: Lightning visible in the plume of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland on April 17, 2010 - clearly an image of the head of Watto, the Toydarian junk dealer from The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones

Image 2: The massive plume of Eyjafjallajokull volcano dwarfs a helicopter flying nearby - Not sure on this one, but it looks like a bunch of robed figures randomly standing around. Maybe a cover for a Rush or Yes album?

Image 3: The plume of Eyjafjallajokull volcano on April 17, 2010 - Immediately obvious to me is what appears to be an oversized foam novelty hand declaring "We're #1!" in the top of the ash cloud, just to the right of center.

Image 4: Another view of Eyjafjallajokull volcano on April 17, 2010 - A sight you do not want to see: A herd of angry Rancors advancing on your position.

Image 5: Radar image of the volcano, taken by the Icelandic Coastal Patrol. - This one has gotten a lot of attention, with people seeing some sort of angry face in the image. But careful inspection will show that - unless Icelandic is a more perversely complicated language than I remember from my days of working with subtitles for DVDs - the image is upside-down. I have taken the liberty of rotating it to show that it actually portrays ...

...a dozing Jawa, taking a siesta in the Mos Eisley Cantina. Apparently Panthro from the Thundercats has joined him, and is sitting with his back to us.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Under the Sickle

Fifteen years ago I stared up into the night sky and saw something I had never seen before.

The deaths earlier that day of all those men, women, and children had been an emotionally devastating blow. Who could do this? Who could hate this country so much, to strike at its very heart? Where would they attack next? What would they do next?

No one knew that night. No one would suspect a young, clean-cut Army veteran had plotted and planted and detonated the bomb that killed all those people.

I tried to bring what prescience I might have to bear on what might follow. But I was limited in my imagination. We had seen that a truck bomb was ineffective at destroying a large building like the World Trade Center. Now we knew that such a weapon could be devastatingly effective against a much smaller building. Try as I might, all I could foresee were bigger bombs against bigger buildings. Nothing about passenger jets loaded with fuel.

As I stood outside I tried to clear my thoughts. All those people, I thought, as I stared out into the black sky studded with stars. And then I saw the Sickle.

Leo, my memory informed me. I had never looked at this particular arrangement of stars and known it to be Leo, or more specifically the sickle-shaped mane of Leo. But I had seen it countless times in my magazines and my charts. It was somewhat stunning to have seemingly randomly-arranged stars suddenly coalesce into a pattern, and then have my mind match that pattern correctly with information previously stored. But there it was.

Where do they go?, I wondered. I imagined the souls of the dead as little wispy trails high-tailing it from the rubble of Oklahoma City to the stars and the cosmos beyond. But maybe that wasn't it at all. Maybe when the floor above you pancakes onto the floor below you and crushes your brain into a pulp, that's it. Story's over. You've done all you're gonna do.

I looked at the Sickle. I had seen something new tonight, something I had never seen before. My story wasn't over. Some stories had ended, but a lot of them were still going on. We all had an obligation to go on.

I turned from the stars and headed back into the house.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

April 19, 2010 is the deadline to register to vote in Pennsylvania

Thanks to David Yonki for bringing this to my attention: The deadline to register to vote in the May Primaries in Pennsylvania is April 19, 2010., The Pennsylvania Department of State's online voting information and resource center: Register to Vote

This didn't really loom large in my mind, for two reasons:

1. Primary elections never really meant much to me, because until the 2008 Presidential Primaries I was a registered Independent and therefore ineligible to vote in the Pennsylvania Democratic or Republican primaries. At best I could vote on "Questions."

2. I figured pretty much everyone in the country who was interested at all in participating in the political process registered to vote prior to the 2008 Presidential election.

Karl Rove, in what little I was able to bear of his Fresh Air interview last month, maintained that his true genius lay not in his mastery of the politics of divisiveness (in which he denies he participates) but in his ability to target segments of the population who have traditionally not participated in the political sphere and bring them over to the side of the politician he is promoting.

Even after 2008, there are certainly still people whose political power goes unused because they have self-disenfranchised by failing to register to vote, thereby rendering themselves ineligible to participate in elections. I wonder if there were voter registration tables set up at the April 15 Tea Party rallies? If not, it was certainly a missed opportunity.

If you haven't registered to vote yet, April 19 is your deadline if you'd like to participate in the Pennsylvania primary elections.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Dangerous driving music

I heard this song on the way home last night. Maybe I was just happy to be done with my shift, but it was very hard not to just hit the gas and start doing barrel rolls.

Darude - Sandstorm

(The video is a bit sedate for the music. It could have used some parkour.)

This is just one of several songs that I find dangeous while driving. Here are some others:

Sneaker Pimps - Spin Spin Sugar (Armand's Dark Garage Mix)

Smashing Pumpkins - Cherub Rock

Vivaldi - Winter

Friday, April 16, 2010

Quick notes: Pulitzers and infiltrators

Back in 2008, you may recall, a reporter wrote a story about my Stained Glass Project, and my efforts to photographically preserve the stained glass windows at St. Mary's church in Nanticoke. I couldn't help but notice that the reporter who was writing the article, and who met me in person for an interview, was young - very young. In a brief exchange of chit-chat after the interview I determined that this market was her first newspaper job right out of college, that she came from a place halfway across the country and went to a school almost as far away. And the question I should have asked her, if I were actually asking questions instead of deriving answers indirectly from her statements, was this: Why? Why here? Why Wilkes-Barre?

A few weeks ago I met a reporter from that same newspaper. She was familiar with my Stained Glass project, and as we got to talking I asked her the question that I hadn't asked her colleague a year and a half ago. And she explained that many of the newspaper's staffers - perhaps half - are actually from outside the area, even outside the state. This provides the newspaper with a variety of perspectives that would be lacking if they only hired locally. Still, I never asked how that selection process for staffers works. I imagine it's something like a draft for college players turning pro, and some recent graduates get tapped by New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, and some get drafted by Wilkes-Barre.

Still. Thinking about the Pulitzer Prize news from the other day, it seems to me that the Wilkes-Barre / Scranton area might actually be a plum assignment for ambitious young reporters looking to make a name for themselves. There's no lack of intrigue and corruption in this area, plenty of creepy crawly things under every rock just waiting to be uncovered. From crooked politicians to backroom deals to suspected organized crime figures operating in the open, from gas drilling contaminating wells to toxic river sludge being used as landfill to toxic sewage being dumped directly into the Susquehanna, there are plenty of things to write about in this area - some of them, perhaps, even Pulitzer-worthy.

Another thought:

I saw reports on yesterday's Tea Party Gatherings while I was getting ready for work yesterday afternoon. I heard one woman speak momentarily about "infiltrators" - people who have come to take up space at the Tea Party gatherings without actually embracing the Tea Party ethos. I wished the report had gone into more depth - I wasn't clear if she was speaking of, say, Obama supporters attending the gatherings and calling into question the actions of the Tea Partiers, or if she was talking about those more extreme elements (Birthers, "Obama is a Muslim," "Obama is a Socialist," "Obama is the Anti-Christ") from which the Tea Party movement has recently apparently been trying to distance itself. I suppose I may be able to find more information in the reports on yesterday's activities.

But for now, I must head for bed.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Tea Parties today

"Tea Party" events are being held across the country today. It's tax day, and the timing is not coincidental.

But it's also a work day - for me, and for much of the rest of the country. I am wondering if that timing is also not coincidental - if maybe there is an intent to reach out to the unemployed?

I would like to be able to go, though I don't know if I actually would even if I had the opportunity. My free time is limited, and I don't know if this would be the best use of it.

I would like to see for myself what sorts of ideologies are represented. Do people who are simply Anti-Obama dominate? How many "birthers", people who deny that Barack Obama was born in the United States and is therefore ineligible to be President, and who demand to be personally provided with his original birth certificate, and who reject as lies and fabrications any claims that yes, he really was born in the U.S. and yes, there really is a real birth certificate and no, you don't get to grab it just to satisfy your paranoid delusions...sorry, off on a tangent there. How many "Obama is a Muslim" types, and "Obama is a Socialist" types? How many cries of "TYRANNY!" at the notion that people who were previously denied health-care coverage will now be able to get it? How many of the bizarrely misspelled signs that have become de rigueur at these events, since apparently proper spelling and grammar are elitist concepts?

And how many people who really, sincerely believe in what they are promoting, and are not just trying to put lipstick on a far-right anti-Obama movement? While I'd be interested in getting photos of the other people, the loonies and fringers and fanatics, it's the level-headed true believers I might actually want to talk to.

And I might ask them some questions - most of them starting with the words "Where were you?" Where were you during the Bush administration? I was paying taxes back then, too, while we were getting saddled with an incredibly expensive war in Iraq based on what turned out to be false intelligence - a war that we will be paying for for generations to come? Where were you when closed-door deals on our energy future were being cut by Dick Cheney, and no-bid contracts were being awarded to well-connected firms? Where were you with cries of "TYRANNY!" when David Addington (who?) was undermining and outright violating the Constitution, redefining the powers of the President to be essentially without limits - which was all apparently OK as long as that President was George W. Bush and not Barack H. Obama?

Tea Partiers, where were you? And why did you choose to be silent?

Are you sure this isn't just about how much you hate Barack Obama?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Gas royalties investigation wins Pulitzer Prize

There's lots of news in the world of Marcellus Shale drilling lately. Mostly bad.

Lately I've been thinking of making a research trip to Dimock to see the effects of large-scale gas extraction projects firsthand. But now it looks like that won't be necessary, as EnCana just won approval to begin gas extraction operations in Lehman Township, which is much closer to me. It's an area that has long been a favorite weekend destination of mine, a short drive North of Wilkes-Barre into the region known as the "Back Mountain", a place of rolling hills and lush forests and pastoral farmland and rustic houses and, soon, hydrologic fracturing rigs.

Susquehanna River Sentinel: Peaceful Valley more

Meanwhile, in what may be an unrelated situation (but around these parts, everything is connected), the federal agents who have taken up full-time residence in the area staged a raid of offices containing information about the Hazleton Creek Project, a glorious plan to bring in Delaware River dredge considered too toxic to touch by many other municipalities and use it as fill for mine reclamation site that will be turned into an amphitheater.

Circumlocution for Dummies: The Frackahanna

But the fun news: The Pulitzer Prizes were announced yesterday. And the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service: "Awarded to the Bristol (VA) Herald Courier for the work of Daniel Gilbert in illuminating the murky mismanagement of natural-gas royalties owed to thousands of land owners in southwest Virginia, spurring remedial action by state lawmakers. "

Yep. Natural gas royalties - mismanaged? Owed to thousands of land owners? Maybe anyone with visions of dollar signs dancing in their head as they prepare to sign a "lease" with a natural gas extraction company would do well to have a look-see at David Gilbert's articles.

The articles:
Underfoot, Out of Reach: A series on the conflicts over Southwest Virginia's natural gas wealth

An interview with David Gilbert:
Four Questions for Pulitzer Prize Winner Daniel Gilbert - FishbowlNY

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Space weather report

I'm headed back to work for the next four nights, though I'll be out at 10 PM on Friday night. That means that if this event is going to be triggering any auroral displays, I'll probably miss them:

Stellar explosion - The Planetary Society Blog The Planetary Society

It's been a few years since I've seen an auroral display, a morning one while walking with my dog Haley. One BIG one I actually commemorated on a DVD we were putting together a few years back, a special edition of Terminator 2. The client left it up to my discretion to pick a logo from several possibilities to go before the movie. After reviewing them, I chose one with an auroral display, which I though fit in nicely with the dramatic nighttime battle scene that opens the film, and conveyed the sense of eerie dread that I felt while watching the lights in the sky dance and churn over my head just a few days before.

If you would like to get up-to-the-minute reports on auroral activity, check these links (available on my lower sidebar under "Other Site Links"): (Northern hemisphere) (Southern hemisphere)

Monday, April 12, 2010

A sense of community, history, place, and family

One of the hazards of reposting my blog posts from Another Monkey to Facebook is that discussions that I would love to see happen within the comments section of the blog post - and therefore become as much a part of the permanent record as the blog posts themselves - instead take place in the comments section of the post in the private cocktail party of Facebook, and are therefore as ephemeral and soon to be inaccessible as the blog posts themselves. For example, to see the comments for this post from just over a week ago, I had to go to my own Facebook profile and select "Older Posts" repeatedly until I found the right one. (I don't even know how far back these "Older Posts" go.) Here are the comments, with the names obfuscated to preserve the anonymity that Facebook demands its users abandon:

Commentor 1: So do some people consider that Northeastern Pennsylvanians have only a 96% resemblance to humans? But look too human to resemble a cute cartoon? *

Me: Well, the way I'm spinning it, it's starting to look like the 4% difference is what everybody else has given up - a sense of community, a sense of history, a sense of place, a sense of family. Once you have divested yourself of those things, people possessing them seem disquietingly strange. But more on that later.

Commentor 2: I agree about the uncanny point and made it myself **-- that's why I described my experience as culture shock. Culture shock is NOT revulsion and antipathy. It is a predictable psychological disorientation caused by having fundamental assumptions challenged constantly. Which I did not expect to find in the Scranton area.

Revulsion and antipathy are merely part of a culture shock experience ... it's not as much of a criticism as it seems ... if you follow. Culture shock contains other elements. I just didn't realize that I was going to find culture shock someplace so close.

Your last sentence was something I was wondering about for the last year I was there -- I did admire the sense of community, history, family, place there. But there's a next set of questions, which is: What kind of community, family, history and the like? How are they different? Are these differences something I agree with or not?

When it comes to entering (or exiting) a strong culture, you first have to realize that the culture works. It has been successful. Culture is essentially a group adaptation mechanism to the area's history. The question becomes: Worked at what cost and what benefit? The Valley's culture chose stability over excellence. Aversion to risk, not risk-taking.

The result is the Valley is rock solid in many ways, but it's a very defensive, hunkered-down culture designed to survive harsh winters and economic tough times, but without the commensurate flexibility to enjoy the benefits of risk-taking. As a result, as group thought, it's extremely insular and not terribly open to outside ideas. That's the negative. The positive is that you feel safe, secure and comfortable within that culture -- and the people are very nice to boot. The negative is that some people may chafe against those restrictions, or allow themselves to be limited by cultural peer pressure. Others gladly seat themselves within that comfort zone.

Anyway, that's what I saw. I'd be interested to hear what you think. Cheers.

Commenter 1: Wow, this is way deeper than the discussion of discomfort with 95% human appearance vs 96% human appearance that we heard on Studio 360 (or was it On The Media)? More, please.

...none of which actually made it onto the original post.

I want to elaborate on the statement I made about about "a sense of community, a sense of history, a sense of place, a sense of family."

First off, a retraction: I do not truly believe that these are senses unique to the residents of Northeastern Pennsylvania and absent in all other people everywhere else. Indeed, these senses are absent in many of the residents of this region, and are demonstrably present in other people elsewhere. Actually, I have somewhat recently fallen in with a group of very unique individuals who are united by their shared senses of these qualities, despite the fact that they are from incredibly diverse locations and backgrounds. (But more on my Sideshow friends some other time.)

A sense of community. Recently there has been a movement to rebrand Northeastern Pennsylvania as "Upstate Pennsylvania." This has fallen flat, primarily because the very notion of "Upstate" raises all sorts of questions: Upstate from what? Philadelphia, tucked in the lower right-hand corner of the state? Pittsburgh, in the lower left? Harrisburg, in the lower center? Are we lumping Erie and Scranton into the same demographic group?

But more than just spatial proximity, community comes from shared interests, as well as from the other three items on this list: history, place, and family.

There are many communities and sub-communities within Northeastern Pennsylvania. Foremost in my mind is the Wilkes-Barre - Scranton region, a contiguous collection of municipalities stretching roughly from Carbondale in the northeast to a point to the southwest of Nanticoke. It is a typical outsider's mistake to assume that all of these places are exactly the same, a homogeneous smear of people and culture undeserving of distinctions. I have a friend - a very intelligent friend - who, for years, has been unable or unwilling to comprehend the fact that my hometown of Nanticoke is not, in fact, Scranton, despite my numerous (and occasionally strident) explanations to the contrary. Finally, through the intercession of a NEPA expat of this friend's acquaintance, she was finally willing to concede that Nanticoke is not Scranton - and immediately followed up with "But Wilkes-Barre is the same as Scranton, right?" (Is the Bronx the same as Brooklyn? What about The Hamptons? I mean, they're all New York, right?)

One measure of this: our local TV news. Once we had three local networks, each with its own local news broadcasts at 6:00 and 11:00: WBRE, based in Wilkes-Barre; WDAU (later WYOU) focusing more on events in Scranton; and WNEP, generalizing itself to the entire Northeastern Pennsylvania area, even reaching out to the Poconos. Times have changed, and a simgle entity purchased WYOU and WBRE, and eventually shut down the WYOU news programming. But WNEP and WBRE continue strong. When I once asked some friends in mid-Northern New Jersey what their local news broadcasts were like, they looked at me funny and said, "well, we get these stations out of New York City..."

A sense of history. You need only mention single words - Avondale, Knox, Agnes - and people will know what you're talking about: the worst mine disaster (in terms of deaths) in this area in recent history, the incident that ended mining in this area for good, the tropical storm that unleashed a flood that nearly wiped out the Wyoming Valley - and would have, if not for the efforts of another Flood. More than that: our history lives all around us, both as the old buildings that once served as banks and businesses and schools, and as the physical scars left on the land by decades of coal mining, the culm baks and mine fires and rusting coal breakers and creeks and streams that run orange with acidic mine leachate and stink of sulfur. We know what coal mining bought us, and we know what coal mining cost us. We know what this area once was, and we know where it is today, and we know where we would like it to be tomorrow.

This is something that we are losing, and losing quickly, as the old-timers die out and their children move away and the newcomers arrive with no interest in the history of the place they have come to. Not always; not all of them. One of the people I know who has taken the strongest interest in the well-being of the City of Wilkes-Barre isn't even originally from around here. And there is always hope that one day, some transplant from New York or New Jersey or Philadelphia will take a look around, at the culm banks and coal breakers and orange-brown creeks, and say "What the hell is all this?" Thus does wisdom begin.

A sense of place. Plato (or was it Socrates? or was it Plato putting words into Socrates' mouth?) suggested that the way to instill patriotism in the natives of a land would be to tell them that they have been formed of the very land itself.*** Nobody in Northeastern Pennsylvania believes this, as far as I know, but this place does get under your skin. The mountains, the forests, the rivers and streams - even the ugliness, the scars and the degradations. I think those of us who think about such things carry the idea of Northeastern Pennsylvania as a place around with them, and reflexively compare every other place to it.

A sense of family. This one is the hardest to justify. I'd like to say that people in Northeastern Pennsylvania have a unique sense of family, a closeness to ancestors and siblings and descendants and aunts, uncles, and cousins that goes beyond what is seen in other areas. But I don't know if that is true, or if maybe it was once true and is true no longer. I think maybe the nursing homes are just as filled up with the elderly who have been put out of sight and out of mind by their uncaring offspring, that there are as many old folks dying slow, lonely deaths by inches in the little houses that crowd together throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania. I'd like to think that abandoning your parents to their own devices while you strike off to make something of yourself in the Big Wide World is something that only happens elsewhere. But I think maybe that is just a pretty lie that I tell myself.

And none of this is unique to Northeastern Pennsylvania. None of it is even necessarily characteristic, except for certain carefully selected subsets of the population.

Yet I know that there are individuals who measure their success by the degree to which they are lacking in all of these things: no ties to any one community, no concern for the trivial details of the place where they happen to be, no awareness of the space they occupy beyond the roads that carry them from the place where they live to the place where they work and back again, and who recognize family with visits to nursing homes on the appropriate holidays and, if possible, the necessary funerals.

And what about you? What about the place where you reside? Are you - and is it - suffused with a sense of community, a sense of history, a sense of place, and a sense of family?

*The title of this post was "The Uncanny, a prelude" and the commentor is referring to the "Uncanny Valley" in robotics, referenced in an article mentioned in the original post.
**Commentor 2 was at the same party where this issue came up.

***Yeah, like I'm gonna look this up. Listen, it was something one of my college professors said nearly a quarter of a century ago. I don't recall the exact book. Maybe the Republic. Or the Timaeus?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Comic Book Store moving

Independent bookstores are fast disappearing from the U.S. So are comic book stores, which are by their nature independent. But there are no equivalents of Borders or Barnes & Noble in the comic book industry, and Amazon has not yet bothered to touch the low-volume, fast-turnover business of comic books. So it's important for comic book fans to hold onto and support those stores that still do exist.

I first went to Max Saturday's (aka Fanmax) last year for Free Comic Book Day. On my own I would never have gone to the place - it's fifteen miles from my house, so any trip there is a commitment of thirty miles, an expenditure of about three-quarters of a gallon of gas. But a friend of mine knew the place, and wanted to take her son there, so I went along. This happened to coincide with the release of the first issue of Adam Felber's Skrull Kill Krew, and I was able to set up a standing order for that limited-run series. I picked up a few books there, regular ones as well as the free comics, and I was impressed enough with what I read by Brian Michael Bendis to become a regular reader of his New Avengers and Dark Avengers series.

I've become a regular there, stopping by every two weeks or so and redistributing a very small bit of wealth in exchange for some really excellent entertainment.* Yesterday I stopped in for the first time in over three weeks. I had my nephews along for the ride, and I wanted to gauge their interest in the upcoming Free Comic Day on May 1. As I came in, Sam Charge, the proprietor, informed me that the store would be moving in two weeks - just before Free Comic Book Day. The new location will be 506 Luzerne Avenue in West Pittston, PA (hmmm, according to this site, the former location of Scheetz's Grocery Store) and the phone number will be 760-6720. I don't know if the new store will be called Fanmax, or Max Saturday's, or something else - we'll just have to wait and see.

A few weeks ago a profile of Sam Charge and Fanmax appeared in, of all places, the periodical newspaper Good Times for Seniors (March/April 2010.) I've had the paper floating around for a while, and I finally scanned the article to preserve it. Here it is, in three pieces. (Even after you click on them you may still need to zoom a bit to read the text.)

*And before you sneer at comic books for being silly and childish - did you hear the one about the magic island that travels around and can cure cancer? And it has polar bears and a smoke monster and evil twins and stuff? Yeah, you have. Of course, you can't just pick up Lost any time you want and flip through its pages to the parts that struck you as exceptionally well-written.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The wrong way to embrace the future of the energy industry

Fourteen months ago I wrote something. I believe I sent it to Senator Arlen Specter, and Representative Paul Kanjorski, and the Wilkes-Barre Citizens' Voice and Times-Leader. This is what I wrote:

Northeastern Pennsylvania and the world of tomorrow

Someday every rooftop will be covered in solar cells. Every mountain ridge will sport a chain of wind turbines. Every car will be powered by Lithium-ion batteries.

Northeastern Pennsylvania has a long and proud history of industry. Coal mining. Manufacturing. People who know what it is to work hard.

All that is becoming a thing of the past. Coal mining ended with the Knox Mine Disaster, when corporate greed placed short-term profit above the safety of the miners - and the long-term sustainability of the industry. The number of manufacturers in this area has dwindled to just a handful. One of the largest employers in the area, the Tobyhanna Army Depot, was on the short list for closures on September 10th, 2001.

The economic crisis that has gripped the rest of the nation, and the world, is nothing new here. We have coped with hard times off and on for decades. Now, those hard times are mostly on.

Northeastern Pennsylvania is home to many institutions of higher education. King's College. Wilkes University. Misericordia University. Marywood University. The University of Scranton. We educate students from throughout the region and from places farther afield, and then we send them off into the world - but do not encourage them to stay here, where the primary industries have become call centers, warehouses, and distribution centers.

The world of tomorrow needs to be built somewhere. There need to be facilities for manufacturing solar cells and wind turbines and Lithium-ion batteries. These are the things that will power the future. These are the technologies that will make the future possible.

We have the industrial know-how. We have the skilled workforce and the tradition of doing hard work. We have the brainpower and management training, if we can manage to hold onto it.

The world of tomorrow needs to be built somewhere. Why not here? Why not Northeastern Pennsylvania?
I never heard back from Specter. I never heard back from Kanjorski. I didn't even think the newspapers took note of this, although a text string search revealed that it was at least published on the Times-Leader's website.

Still, I wasn't worried about this. Maybe I had put a bug in someone's ear, planted a seed which would germinate in time. I counseled myself to be patient.

Patient, my ass.

From today's Wilkes-Barre Citizens' Voice:

Kanjorski: W-B could host energy institute

Published April 10, 2010

By Michael R. Sisak
Staff Writer

U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski's vision for the future of natural gas drilling along the Marcellus Shale centers on a proposed energy institute in Wilkes-Barre - a national laboratory where scientific, economic and environmental research would shape public policy and a cohesive master plan.

Kanjorski shared details of his proposal during an interview Friday with The Citizens' Voice editorial board. He said he would present the plan to President Barack Obama - whose approval could direct millions of federal dollars to fund the institute - at a White House meeting on April 19...
Yep, that's it. Sure, we have the work force, we have the infrastructure, we have the educational resources to take on the future energy needs of the world. We have wind generators springing up throughout the area, using parts manufactured elsewhere and trucked in. We have several competing solar panel installation firms, most of them importing their solar panels from China. (One of them imports them from Delaware.) Hybrids with lithium-ion batteries are not uncommon sights on our roads and highways. And what does Kanjorski (D-Nanticoke, for crying out loud!) put his political muscle behind? Setting up an "institute" boondoggle - "a public-private partnership between the federal government and regional colleges and universities which would support a 'smart growth' approach to the gas drilling and infuse the region with more than 1,000 jobs."

In other words: create a dependency relationship that will result in an infusion of millions of dollars and over a thousand jobs - but if and only if the people of Notheastern Pennsylvania bend over and allow their region to be raped, again, but this time by gas extraction giants like Chesapeake Energy and Encana instead of the coal barons of old.

Of course, such an institute - "a national laboratory where scientific, economic and environmental research would shape public policy and a cohesive master plan" - will take time to create, and it will take even more time for it to produce a "cohesive master plan." But Marcellus Shale extraction is happening now, right now. Wells are getting contaminated. Bad things are happening. And the people who stand to profit from all this aren't about to wait for any "cohesive master plan", unless they are forced to. (Cue the cries of "TYRANNY!") Shutting down or even slowing Marcellus Shale extraction activity would certainly obviate the need for any such "institute" - and the "millions of dollars" and "over a thousand jobs" that come with it. (I would bet a shiny nickel that the "private" side of the "public-private partnership" would involve major contributions and controlling interests from such groups as Chesapeake Energy and Encana.)

Coal mining has left Northeastern Pennsylvania horribly scarred, both by a blighted landscape and by the perception of the "coal miner mentality" - a term which no two people use to mean exactly the same thing, but which is always used detrimentally. At this point the coal mining industry should be seen as mature and developed to the point that no institutes would be needed to draw up cohesive master plans. Yet the events of this past week in West Virginia have shown that the industry, or at least individual companies within the industry, are still not to the point where their "best practices" do not result in a massive explosion and the deaths of twenty-nine miners - and the likely shutdown of the primary income source for an entire community. How much longer will it take for the fledgling Marcellus Shale extraction industry to even reach that point?

Dear Representative Kanjorski: WTF? So many opportunities to bring industry and jobs and - well - opportunities to Northeastern Pennsylvania, and this is what you've chosen to embrace? Time for this voter to start researching alternatives.

See also:
Circumlocution for Dummies: Kanjo is out of it

Friday, April 09, 2010

The season begins

Ah, Spring! The Forsythia are in bloom, cherry trees are blossoming, the birds are singing, Bradford Pears are filling the air with their delightful stench of dead fish, tree pollen is coating everything, temperatures are soaring up into the 80's*, and the tranquility of any day is being shattered by the sound of gas-powered lawn mowers .**

Today was my first day off since Sunday. Fortunately our heat wave broke last night, an event which - as expected - was accompanied by an electrical storm and heavy downpour. Temperatures have dropped down to the more-seasonable 60's, but fortunately the grass was dry enough to mow.

I shuffled around items in the garage, pulling out the once-used snowblower so I could access the Scotts Classic 20" reel mower tucked behind it. I tested out the mower, attached the grass catcher, and pushed the snowblower back into storage until (maybe) next Winter. I was ready to mow.

Mowing was a breeze, of course, with no heavy engine to push around, and the mower made its whirrrrrrr-clickclickclick sound as I strolled behind it, occasionally pausing to curse at the small twigs and branches that litter the ground under the Oak tree and can stop the mower dead in its tracks. I piled the grass clippings on top of the leaves with which I mulched the blueberry bushes last Fall. In one more mowing I'll be ready to take away the nets that are currently holding the leaves in place.

I noticed something odd that I really should have expected. Our lawn is divided into warm-season and cold-season zones. The grass will grow rapidly in some parts of the lawn only when temperatures are cool, while the growth of other parts of the lawn is slowed; in warmer weather, this growth is reversed. Most grass seed mixes contain seeds for warm and cool seasons, wet and dry conditions, and so on, and over the years the types of grass better adapted to any part of the yard outcompete the less well suited varieties, creating a patchwork of grass varieties customized to your conditions.

The odd thing was this: every year at the first mowing it is the cool-season grasses that have shown the most growth, which is to be expected, since Spring temperatures are generally cool during the early part of the season before the lawn gets its first mowing. But this year it was the warm-season grass that had done the most growing. Which only makes sense, considering the higher-than-normal temperatures Northeastern Pennsylvania has experienced this Spring.

Now: weather is not climate. One warm Spring in Northeastern Pennsylvania no more proves that Global Warming is true any more than snow in Philadelphia in February proves that Global Warming is a hoax and Al Gore is a fraud.*** Maybe this Spring is a fluke, an anomaly, an El Niño or La Niña thing. Maybe this Summer will be temperate, instead of insanely hot or (like last year) insanely wet. We'll just have to wait and see.

*That's the high 20's for all you Celsiusophiles, a good deal warmer than normal.
**Seriously. Our chronic jerk neighbor decided nothing could improve a beautiful Easter Sunday afternoon like the sound of his pollution-spewing monster mower.
***Considering how many people were making these declarations just a few weeks ago, I have to wonder how many folks are currently standing in the town square in sackcloth and ashes, ringing bells, and declaring themselves idiots for having made such asinine statements.

And, Deniers, before you start talking out your asses again, please ask yourselves: if Climate Change is a hoax, why are Russia and China currently working on establishing shipping routes through previous-frozen Arctic regions? And please pause to take a breath before switching from the "Climate Change is a hoax" argument to the contradictory "Climate Change is a good thing" argument.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Homes, Gardens, Yards, and Vandals

There was a vandalism spree in Nanticoke Tuesday morning, of which I was unaware until I woke up yesterday afternoon. I checked out my house across town on the way home from work this morning, and everything appeared to be in order, aside from the scraps of trash that have accumulated against the fence and the somewhat overgrown Forsythia bushes that I just transplanted there last year - or was it the year before?

We are going through a stretch of beautiful weather that is scheduled to end - well, sometime while I am sleeping this afternoon. It may end violently, as warm temperatures give way to cool and produce the thunderstorms which often accompany such a change. Must remember to disconnect the computer before I go to bed.

I don't mind cooler temperatures, but wet weather may make it impossible to do the yard work that is rapidly becoming overdue, at least over the next four days. But I'll give it a shot.

I'm working tonight, but if you're available and in the Wilkes-Barre area, be sure to check out the comedy night at Bentley's on route 309 in Ashley. It's for a good cause!

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Another post not written

It's getting harder and harder to do posts on work days, when I want to be in bed by 9:30 AM so I can squeeze in four and a half semi-solid hours of sleep before the alarm goes off at 2:00. I planned to write "The theory of the Homonculus"* today, to help lay the foundation for some future posts, but I'm almost out of time. So you'll just have to wonder what the hell I'm talking about for a while more.

There was something else I was going to mention here, but I have forgotten what I wanted to say. Time to sleep.

(One other thing: I am going to start experimenting with manually reposting blog entries to my Facebook page, rather than having them automatically imported as notes. We'll see how that works out.)

*Not to be confused with the "Homunculus argument." By the way, I prefer the spelling that uses an "o", though it's valid either way.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Uncanny, a prelude

I had some heated conversations this weekend about the sense of revulsion and antipathy some people - both non-natives and expatriates - experience when dealing with Northeastern Pennsylvania. Working from several statements made by people with varying levels of these reactions, I came to the conclusion that this is actually an example of the concept known as the Uncanny. Unfortunately, as my familiarity with this concept is limited to a single hearing of a radio program and a cursory review of the Wikipedia article, I think I need to do a bit more reading on this subject.

On my way home from work this morning I heard about the terrible tragedy at a coal mine in West Virginia. Like Northeastern Pennsylvania, West Virginia has broken its collective back to supply the rest of the country with a cheap source of energy, and in return has earned the scorn, ridicule, hatred and contempt of people across the nation.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Schedule continues to slip

Back to work today, for a shift that approximates the "normal" work week: working the nights of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday from 6 PM to 6AM, then working Thursday night from 6PM to 10 PM. Off Friday through Monday, then working the same shift again, only pushed forward by one day.

There are several things I meant to do during these days off, or my last days off, or my days off before that, that got bumped because of more pressing and immediate concerns. Some of these I can live with; some, like getting my car registration renewal, are more serious. I mailed it in two weeks ago, and - well, glory be, the check just got cashed today! Maybe next time I'll choose the immediate online renewal option. Now when I get the renewed registration I can get my car inspected.

Found out at a party this weekend that there are some people who believe that you are supposed to name your guardian angel. Others there thought they already came with names, like Cabbage Patch Kids. I suggested that if your guardian angel's name is Baphomet, or Pazuzu, or Captain Howdy, you may be in a bit of trouble. Others noted that having a guardian angel with a name like "Fred" may be a problem, because there may be so many Freds out there that none of them would bother to respond, thinking that one of the other angels named Fred was the one you were asking for.

Next days off I need to mow the lawn. Some patches are getting kinda long. Didn't I just nearly die in a heavy snowstorm last week?

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Easter tips: Europa and the Chocolate Eggs

How to make the Europa Egg
1. Boil eight eggs, including one that insists on floating pointy-side down, indicating that it's bad (it has a gas bubble that is making it float), even though it's brand new from the store.
2. After one egg explodes while boiling, discard it and allow the others to cool.
3. Notice that one has a crack in the side, and set it aside for "experimental" colors.
4. Being cheap, make your own egg dyes out of water, vinegar, and a few drops of food coloring.
5. Start with primary colors - yellow, red, and blue.
6. After successfully dyeing these colors, combine dips to make orange, green, and purple.
7. Become disappointed by the paleness of the purple and orange and add a drop of red to each while the eggs are in the dye.
8. Stir the purple, but become distracted and don't stir the orange for a minute or so. This produces the "blush" effect.
9. Hours later, have someone else gently drop the egg while admiring it. This (apparently) is what produced the network of cracks - though why the dye pulled away from these cracks, someone else will have to say.
10. Take a photo before someone else eats the egg the day before Easter.

Tips for Chocolate-Covered Easter Eggs:
1. Refrigerate the rolled eggs before dipping. Do not remove from refrigerator until immediately before dipping.
2. When rolling "soft" egg batter, like the cherry ones, dust your hands with powdered sugar and work quickly so the heat of your body does not soften the batter so it can't be shaped.
3. Melt the chocolate at LOW temperature in a double boiler. You can even shut the heat off while you are dipping - the water will retain the heat for a while and keep the chocolate melted. If the chocolate is too hot, the eggs will begin to dissolve while dipping them.
4. Use a cream cheese icing as the flower color code, not buttercream. The overly sweet nature of buttercream clashes with the slightly sour cream cheese-based egg filling.

Happy Easter!

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Easter schedule

Well, I failed to accomplish three major things scheduled for Friday: I didn't start any seeds, I didn't prune my rosebush, and I didn't finish pruning my grapevines. The chocolate Easter Egg making process became very stretched out: I made the batter (a double batch) and shaped the eggs late Thursday night, I dipped the eggs midday Friday, I applied their color-coded decorations Friday afternoon, and I boxed them up for safe keeping and easy delivery Friday evening.

The temperatures today made it seem more like a Summer day than an early Spring one. I wonder if all the people who were declaring Global Warming a hoax a few weeks ago because, astonighingly enough, it actually snowed in Frbruary were now sitting down and writing letters of apology to Al Gore as the temperatures soared into the high 70s and low 80s on the second day of April.*

Tomorrow (actually, later today!) I will take our Easter basket to be blessed, an old tradition among the Polish, Slovaks, and others. After that I am off to a birthday party. And after that, I'm not sure when I'll be able to post again - I may actually miss a day or two. We'll see!

*Of course there is a difference between weather and climate. My point is not that a warm spell in early Spring proves anything; my point is that an unusually heavy snow in mid-Winter in one part of the country doesn't prove anything.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Biting the heads off rabbits, chocolate and otherwise

It's a time-honored tradition: every year, the title character of the Sally Forth comic strip bites the ears off her daughter's chocolate Easter rabbit - something that Sally Forth writer Francesco Marciuliano parodied the other day in his Medium Large online comic. The grisly nature of this comic made me realize that the Easter tradition of biting the heads off chocolate bunnies is strangely parallelled in real life, where flesh-and-blood rabbits have a disturbing habit of turning up sans head. You could look up this issue on Google, but I'll save you the trouble and direct you to the top hit for searches related to this phenomenon.

I believe the issue of biting the heads or ears off chocolate rabbits, at least, could be explained by the contention that these parts contain no calories. I wonder if any enterprising candy maker has ever offered a box containing nothing but chocolate ears?

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Mercury, Venus, and Chocolate-Covered Easter Eggs

No fooling: Mercury and Venus are doing a dance low in the Western sky in the hours just after sunset for the next few weeks. But fleet-footed Mercury moves quickly and will quickly dim and move closer into the bright twilight glow, so the best viewing of this meet-up will be this weekend.

For a full explanation we can turn to Jack Horkheimer, Star Hustler*! Here is his full-length program for the week of March 29 through April 4:

(For those with short attention spans, click here for the one-minute version.)

You can also get more information from the websites of the magazines Sky & Telescope and Astronomy.

Too late to catch Mercury and Venus? After ten o'clock or so turn to the Northeast and notice the bright star just clearing the horizon there. That is Vega, a strange and beautiful star. It's worth reading up on it.

Meanwhile, in non-astronomical news, this is what I'll be working on tonight:

Chocolate-covered Easter Eggs
1 1/2 sticks butter
8 oz. package cream cheese
Add at least 2 boxes of powdered sugar a little at a time
(you'll need a third box to add powdered sugar to thicken the batter after you've added the flavorings)

Mix all ingredients together well.

Divide and add as desired:
- coconut & vanilla
- peanut butter
- walnuts & maple flavoring
- well-drained (almost dry) chopped cherries & almond flavoring
NOTE: If eggs are too sweet, add a pinch of salt.

Chocolate coating:
Melt large package chocolate chips & 1/2 cake of wax in double boiler.

Shape cream cheese mixture into eggs and dip in melted chocolate. Place on waxed paper to set.
NOTE: Do not allow eggs to touch while chocolate is setting or some of the coating will peel away. Save leftover chocolate for patching holes.

Decorate with icing leaves and color-coded icing flowers.

*He used to be the Star Hustler, but now goes by the appellation "Star Gazer." Seems that some Internet filters were blocking the Star Hustler site for some reason. Good thing he didn't go for his first alternate choice, Jack Horkheimer, Stargazing Playboy Gent in a Swank Barely Legal Penthouse!