Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Another test post

Well, Blogger has moved one step closer to making the new interface the standard. And it turns out that I wasn't as ready for the new interface as I thought.  As of the new interface release, Blogger will only support the newest versions of browsers, and going forward, they will support only the then-current versions plus the previous version.  I thought I had the latest version of Internet Explorer, and I do, technically - for Windows XP. To run the current version of IE, I would need Windows Vista or Windows 7, an upgrade that would also require some hardware upgrades. So I decided to do the next best thing - follow Blogger's advice and download Google Chrome. It's apparently compatible with Windows XP, for the moment. I'm writing this post using it. We'll see how things go.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Irene, Goodnight

And so, in the end, Hurricane Irene turned into a big fizzle. A storm the size of Europe couldn't even deliver a serious punch to New York City with a direct hit. Nothing bad happened. It was yet another case of media hype and big government telling people what to do when the people knew better.

None of that is true. Except for the part about Irene being the size of Europe.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Repainting Three-O-Nina

A few weeks ago a friend let me know that the Boy Scouts were planning to repaint Three-O-Nina, the giant cow that stands along Route 309 in Wilkes-Barre Township. (Or is it Wilkes-Barre itself? Why is it so hard to find a map online that shows these boundaries?) I tried to spread the word in advance on Facebook, and then posted an announcement the day before here on my blog. When the big day came, unfortunately, I found myself heading out to the big cow on my own, armed with my camera.

Turnout was good, as far as I could tell. I eventually did manage to connect with one of my friends, who was out taking her kids school shopping. The three of them stopped by and joined in the fun.

There was even some coverage on the local news, which was good. Sometimes it seems like local news is all car crashes, house fires, robberies, murders, and political scandals. It's nice to see something like this get some air time.

Yr. hmbl. blogger delicately rolls on some paint. This was my second go with the paint roller. Earlier I had laid down some white paint in various locations.

Three-O-Nina is somewhat famous. She was featured in a Parade magazine list of roadside attractions across the U.S. She's also listed on, in a list of giant cows on the Roadside Architecture site, and is spotlighted on (looking very ominous at night!)

Here's a great little locally-produced piece about Three-O-Nina:

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Let's see. The big cow on Route 309 known as Three-O-Nina got a fresh coat of paint this weekend. I applied a little myself. I've got plenty of photos that I need to sort through, resize, and post. I've also got a lot of great Three-O-Nina links and information, including a news segment from last year that covered a lot of its history.

Yesterday there was an earthquake in this area. It was centered in a little place called Mineral, Virginia, but its effects were felt north to Canada and south to the Carolinas. While most in this area are treating the event as a joke, folks living closer to the epicenter experienced some actual damage. And Californians may sneer at the East Coast overreacting to a little 5.8-magnitude quake, but, as anyone who has read about the New Madrid Fault knows, seismic waves propagate differently through the "old and cold" geology on this side of the Mississippi. If everybody west of the Rockies were to feel rumbles from every earthquake that happens out there, I doubt anyone would actually stick around very long.

Looks like NEPA Blogs may be breaking into the world of "old media": thanks to the efforts of Michelle Davies we may have a weekly 90-second segment on PA Live!, an upcoming local show that's been scheduled for Oprah's old slot, and we'll almost definitely be doing a weekly half-hour show on WFTE-FM, a local community radio station with an admittedly limited broadcast coverage range - unless you count the internet simulcast! I just blocked out a sample program and sent it to Michelle for her input. Our first show might be this Sunday! Next: a weekly newspaper column. Hey, why not?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Three-O-Nina getting repainted TOMORROW!

Tomorrow, Saturday, August 20, 2011, the Boy Scouts will be repainting Three-O-Nina, the giant cow on Route 309 in Wilkes-Barre. Here is their posting about this:

Beautify the Bovine

Help Support the
Northeastern Pennsylvania Council
Boy Scouts of America

Painting the Cow on Route 309
our "Beautify the Bovine Project"

Three-O-Nina needs a touch up, and you get to do it! Only $1.00 to paint the cow

Saturday August 20, 2011 - 10:00am to 5:00pm

An inexpensive lunch, snacks and drinks available for purchase.

Paint the cow Flier.

You can help to promote the event by placing a copy at work, handing them out to your Scout unit, your friends and family.

Sponsored in part by Krugel's Georgetown Deli.

Personally, I like the way the cow is currently painted, so I'm hoping this is just a touch-up. Three-O-Nina has had several different paint jobs over the decades, and some of them have been pretty obnoxious. Assuming that what the Boy Scouts have in mind isn't some abomination, I plan to take part in this. Then, for years to come, I'll be able to look at this cow and think, "I helped paint that!"

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Machine of Death: ABANDONED IN SPACE

In a previous post I explained what the Machine of Death anthology was all about and what the rules for submissions were.  I had been kicking around the idea for my first story, DUCK, for quite a while, but when it was done I was still permitted to submit up to two more stories. But now I found myself faced with the dreaded blank page: what should I write about?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Machine of Death: DUCK (the annotated version)

In my last post I presented the rules of the Machine of Death stories, and shared one of my two submissions for consideration for inclusion in the second volume. I think the story stands on its own, with no real explanation necessary - unless you felt the need to look up one cause of death mentioned about halfway through. But I thought it would be fun to share some annotations, explaining what the thinking was behind this story. If anyone were to ask "Where do you get your ideas?," for this story I could respond "A controversial book by Nabokov, a Penn & Teller video game that was never released, a MAD Magazine article from about fifty years ago, a John Waters bonus segment on one of his DVDs, a Samuel Jackson/Eugene Levy buddy movie that nobody saw, and an ancillary character in the Mary Worth comic strip." Or, if you prefer, "I don't know, they just come to me."

I thought of doing these annotations as footnotes, but realized that would get really annoying really fast. So I decided to interleave the notes with the story itself. To read the story without interruption, see this post.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Machine of Death: DUCK

Earlier this year the folks who brought us the anthology Machine of Death - which outsold both Keith Richards's autobiography and Glenn Beck's latest piece of crap on the day they were all released (at least, for long stretches of time) - put out a call for submissions for the second volume of Machine of Death.

Machine of Death is an anthology of stories about people who know how they will die. All the stories are required to follow a few simple rules, which I have simplified here:

- All stories have a shared premise, but not (necessarily) a shared universe.  The Machine of Death exists, which is able, from a simple blood test, to give a prediction of the manner of your death.  Predictions never change, and are always correct, though they may be correct in a vague, whimsical, or ironic way.  SUICIDE, for example, may mean your suicide, or the suicide of someone else, or you may be run over by a van from the Death Metal band Suicide.  Or it may mean that your 527th suicide attempt will succeed, but the previous 526 will fail.

- All story titles must be death predictions, though not necessarily of the characters in the story.  (Mine was originally ONLY going to be a joke, but I decided that would be stretching the rules a bit.)

This is the first of two stories that I submitted. (You were allowed to submit up to three stories. I came up with a third story idea several days after the deadline, but realized that I would have a hard time working it into a story anyway - each step of the story opened up more complications.) These are two of 1,958 stories that were submitted. The editors of the anthology have assured us that publication of our stories on blogs will in no way negatively affect the chances of our stories getting selected. I was going to hold off posting until the selections are announced in October, but, you know, carpe diem and all that. Who's to say that I'll still be around then?

This is the final version of the story, as submitted. Some friends received earlier versions during the rewrite process that were slightly different.  I also plan on doing an annotated version of the story, explaining where each and every piece of the story came from. For now, I give you this:

Friday, August 12, 2011

In the time without bats

Bats are virtually extinct in Nanticoke, and possibly throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania. While some people who live in the country have reported seeing some bats, they have been completely absent from the low skies of Nanticoke as twilight darkens into night. Up until now they have been a part of the ecosystem here, flapping in seemingly erratic paths across the not-quite-dark sky in search of insects. But now they are gone, apparently all of them.

Victims, aren't we all?

Former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella received his sentence today: 336 months in prison. That's 28 years. He's 61 mow; when he gets out of jail he'll be 89 - and face several additional years of supervised probation.

Even if you're not from Northeastern Pennsylvania you might have heard of this case. Ciavarella was one of two judges accused in a scheme known as "Kids for Cash." Allegedly, he and another judge had entered into a scheme to accept kickbacks from a local developer who built a new juvenile detention center. In exchange, Ciavarella and the other judge would see to it that his facility received a steady supply of customers.

Ciavarella developed a reputation as a strict juvenile judge. Very strict. Even minor infractions, for which other judges might impose a fine and a suspended sentence, resulted in lengthy custodial sentences from Ciavarella. Prosecutions were done in a swift, efficient manner, due to the frequent absence of any public defender to represent the juveniles. Parents would enter the court with their children, only to see them hauled off directly out of the court to begin serving months- or even years-long sentences at Ciavarella's friend's detention center.

This went on for years. There were rumblings about it, but nothing could be done - in Pennsylvania, judges are effectively the highest authorities in the land, answerable only to the Judicial Board of Review, an organization Ciavarella  had already used to have a fellow judge who had complained about his practices removed from the Luzerne County bench. One juvenile, who had already served one sentence under Ciavarella, exploded with fear and rage when she found that she would have another hearing before him; she claimed that he had ruined her life, and threatened to kill him.

The case finally broke a few years ago, thanks to efforts from several fronts - former County Controller Steve Flood, a civil rights group from Philadelphia, and even a convicted mobster named Billy D'Elia. D'Elia reportedly sang like a canary to federal investigators on the matter of local businessman Louis DeNaples' alleged criminal activities - and when that investigation and any related convictions was suddenly and mysteriously thrown out by a Dauphin County judge, the feds allegedly went back to him and said words to the effect of, "Well, that was a waste of time. What else have you got?"

In the end Ciavarella and his co-conspirators were caught and brought to justice. Ciavarella's prosecutions ultimately had nothing to do with unjust convictions of juveniles; instead, he was convicted of conspiracy and accepting bribes tax evasion. But that was enough. Enough to get him twenty-eight years.

Meanwhile, justice of a sort was done to the juveniles convicted in his court. All of their convictions were thrown out, and any fines or other requirements of restitution were dismissed. The problem is, of course, that not every juvenile who appeared before Ciavarella was innocent. Many of them were guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted. So along with those juveniles who were unjustly prosecuted, and those who were unjustly sentenced to lengthy custodial terms, a third class of victims emerged: those people who had been victimized by juvenile criminals, and who had sought justice and restitution through prosecution.

But there's another, larger set of victims here.

Northeastern Pennsylvania has long enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as being a cesspool of corruption. From politicians who could easily send any of Chicago's most corrupt back to the Windy City for remedial courses, to judges who act like tin gods, to a broad and well-known network of organized crime figures, Northeastern Pennsylvania has it all. Many people wonder why businesses don't set up shop here: we have a large population with a tradition of hard work, family bonds, and loyalty, yet industries routinely shy away from setting up in the area. The reason, as told to me by several individuals with inside knowledge of the subject, is that few businesses are prepared to pay out the vast array of bribes and kickbacks expected from anyone who wants to do business in this area.

It's hard to fight against a reputation like that. So many people flee the area at the first possible opportunity. Northeastern Pennsylvania has many excellent colleges and universities, yet our population ranks among the lowest-educated in the country. This is not because people in this area are inherently dumb, or because they shy away from higher education; it is simply that the vast majority of those who attend institutes of higher learning take their degrees and flee to greener pastures with more job opportunities. With each departure, Northeastern Pennsylvania is diminished. And with each departure, the revised demographics creep incrementally closer to making the point for businesses who choose not to locate here not only because of the culture of corruption, but because of a lack of skilled workers.

There's a thing endemic to this area known as the "Coal Miner's Mentality." I've never been able to pin down what exactly that means, and I've started to think that it means whatever the speaker wants it to mean at the time the words are spoken. To me, the mentality could be summed up as this: The people - the "coal miners" - recognize that the system, the region, whatever, is completely corrupt, unjust, and unfair, and is slowly destroying them. And so they get together and get blind drunk to rail against the injustice of it all. And the next day, they wake up and put on their hard hats and go back to working under the same corrupt, unjust, unfair, and destructive system, because they have no choice, because they believe that nothing that they ever do will make a damned bit of difference.

Everybody knew that something was very wrong in the juvenile court system in Luzerne County. But everyone accepted it as one of those things that we just have to live with, about which nothing can be done. It took a federal investigation to actually bring some sort of justice to the area. But it came at a price. It came at the price of making Luzerne County, and all of Northeastern Pennsylvania, look like the cesspool of corruption and criminality that many of us, and many outside the area, believe it to be. What Ciavarella did made that corruption into something tangible, taking it from the realm of the abstract to the realm of the very, very real.

Ciavarella made Northeastern Pennsylvania look as bad as everyone thinks it is. He reinforced the biases and prejudices that people have about this area. He may have helped to dissuade any businesses from even considering setting up shop in and bringing jobs to NEPA for the foreseeable future.

The juveniles that Ciavarella convicted falsely were victims. Those juveniles that Ciavarella sentenced unjustly were victims. The people who saw justice undone and restitutions unmade by criminals whose cases were thrown out because of Ciavarella were victims.

And everyone else living in Northeastern Pennsylvania was a victim of Ciavarella, too. When will we get our justice?

Title reference: The resurrected Eric Draven's last words to the criminal Tin-Tin in "The Crow."


The Lu Lac Political Letter: The LuLac Edition #1710, August 11th, 2011

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Nagasaki Day

On August 9,1945, the Japanese city of Nagasaki was destroyed by the second atomic bomb in the world's first nuclear war. By modern standards, the 20 megaton "Fat Man" plutonium fission bomb was tiny. This was not really the last time weapons of this sort were used against inhabited locations - we just had the good manners to remove the populations from places like Bikini Atoll before we destroyed them in nuclear tests.

The artist Isao Hashimoto created an audiovisual time-lapse representation of the 2053 nuclear detonations from 1945 through 1998.1

1. Unfortunately, after this was created in 2003 - five years after the (at the time) last nuclear detonation - North Korea decided to enter the exclusive club of nuclear-weapons nations with detonations in October 2006 and May 2009. There will doubtless be more nuclear detonations in the future - perhaps not all of them tests.

Note also that the projection used in this map exaggerates the size of land masses in the Northern Hemisphere. In reality, the tests conducted in the Northern Hemisphere, particularly the ones in China and the Soviet Union, were much less spread out than they appear here.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

FIX IT! Contaminated well water in Dimock

Several years ago natural gas driller Cabot Oil & Gas was found liable for the contamination of residential wells in Dimock, in one of the first well-publicized cases of damage caused by a drilled in Marcellus Shale territory in Northeastern Pennsylvania - and a taste of things to come.

Faced with an initial agreement to provide water to the affected residences through water lines to municipal sources, Cabot balked and used legal maneuvering to get a new judgement. They agreed to install "treatment systems" inside each affected residence. Contaminated water would be pumped into the residence, and the "treatment system" would remove the methane and contaminants and whatnot that Cabot maintained weren't even there in the first place. And Cabot's legal obligations would be fulfilled with the installation of the system; maintenance and repairs would be the responsibility of the individual homeowner. And good luck using that as a selling point when you decide to sell your home. Better keep the manual to pass on to future purchasers.

Naturally, some residents found this to be an unacceptable solution.

And so it goes. Cabot refuses to abide with the original (and now vacated) consent order, which is understandable - after all, they went through all the trouble and expense of getting it overturned. Residents find the prospect of drinking and showering out of plastic "water buffaloes" to be as unacceptable as the notion of becoming the managers of in-house "treatment systems." Residents have one vote apiece, while Cabot and other gas companies pour millions of dollars in bribes contributions to state and local governments to make sure everybody remembers how to vote when it comes to regulation of their industry and settling disputes with the peons.

Some residents of Dimock decided they had had enough. They purchased a billboard ad featuring an image of a pitcher of water drawn from their well, a list of the chemicals that have been found within, and the words "FIX IT!"

Within twenty-four hours, the billboard ad was taken down.

Here is the text of the press release that included the billboard image that I have posted above:
Less than twenty-four hours after Dimock residents held a press
conference beneath a newly installed billboard that called attention to their
contaminated water wells, the billboard came down. It had displayed a
photograph of brownish water drawn from the well of Craig and Julie
Sautner, and listed some of the chemical contaminants it contained.

The billboard apparently rattled Cabot Oil and Gas, the company widely
assumed to be responsible for the water woes in Dimock. A lawyer
employed by Cabot videotaped residents as they spoke about living in
homes with contaminated wells, and a Cabot spokesperson, George Stark,
was on hand to call the billboard “a lie.” Mr. Stark disputed that the
discolored water came from the Sautner well, and claimed to be unaware
that tests conducted by Duke University and the Pennsylvania Department
of Environmental Protection found dozens of contaminants in the water.
These included acetone, aluminum, arsenic, barium, beryllium,
bromodichloromethane, butylbenzylphthalate, dibromochloromehtane,
ethane, lead, lithium, methane, nitrate, silicon, strontium, sulfate, thorium
228, thorium 230, uranium 234 and uranium 235/236.

At one point Mr. Stark stood in front of the cameras and claimed that the
Sautners water was no longer contaminated and boasted he’d drink a glass
of it himself. He has yet to keep that promise.
Last Saturday a local resident was killed when a car he and his daughter were in was crushed by a truck carrying fracking materials - driven by an out-of-state (and allegedly unlicensed) trucker. Earlier this week a pristine stream was contaminated with "drilling mud" - a slurry of water, bentonite, and assorted other chemicals specific to each mix. Everything is unfolding as it has been predicted by those who warned about this years ago. How much more has to happen before we decide we've had enough?

Fix it!

Not just the problem of contaminated well water in Dimock, but the whole damned problem of environmentally destructive gas extraction in Marcellus Shale territory!

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

A death in Marcellus Shale country

We keep being told that natural gas extraction by hydrofracking can be done safely, responsibly, and without harming the environment. We keep being told that this can be done. So the question is, why isn't it being done?

We all knew this day was coming, what with the overweight trucks carrying loads of water and chemicals roaring all over the back roads and highways of Marcellus Shale country. We all knew that at some point, somehow, somebody from Northeastern Pennsylvania, some innocent bystander, was going to get killed as a consequence of the mostly-unregulated explosion of natural gas drilling operations in this area. And on July 31, 2011, it happened.