Monday, December 31, 2012

A warning to Pinterest users: Redbook may steal your ideas

(UPDATE, 1/1/13: According to Jen, Redbook is promising to make things right, and according to Michelle, I got some things wrong. UPDATE UPDATE: And Jen got something wrong, too! See updates at bottom.)

The first time I ever saw anything from Pinterest I had no idea what the site was about. It was a photo of cakes baked in mugs. Ohh, I see, it's a place where people creatively use mugs - pint mugs? - to...ummm...make cakes? Which I suppose made as much sense as it being a place for people to discuss the works of Harold Pinter, which I also considered a possibility.

Michelle Hryvnak Davies, co-administrator at NEPA Blogs and Queen of All Media, Social or Otherwise, tried to drag me into the world of Pinterest last year when she added a Pinterest component to the NEPA Blogs media empire. Which I still didn't understand; by this point I had determined that Pinterest was some sort of image posting site (though there were already, like, a billion of those at the time) merged with a social network, all of which for some reason appealed overwhelmingly to those of the female persuasion. It also now was coming across as some sort of creative-works outlet, which seemed like an odd fit for a blog about blogging in Northeastern Pennsylvania, but whatever. Even when Michelle and local blogger Karla Porter went on Blue Ridge Communication's ComputerWise TV to do a full hour-long program on Pinterest I still didn't understand - though it didn't help that I fell asleep early on and woke up right at the end. I was exhausted from work. (See updates below.)

So gradually I've worked out that Pinterest is an image posting and sharing site merged with a social network, designed to allow people to share and showcase their creativity and see the creativity of others. Unlike, say, Flickr or DeviantArt these aren't just photos or artistic creations; these are, for the most part, creative projects that can inspire others to their own projects, or even be recreated by other people. Like, say, cakes baked in mugs. It's not just that, so NEPA Blogs can post our blog headers and whatnot and still not be tossed off the site, but it's mostly creative works, being posted and "pinned" and "repinned." Sometimes with attribution, more often - like photos on Tumblr - without.

There are a lot of creative people out there. A lot of people who invest a lot of effort into their creativity. A lot of people who deserve credit for their creativity.

And there are some people out there who want to skim off the best ideas, repost them, and claim them as their own.

Redbook magazine has just done that to one of the biggest names in blogging.

Jen Yates is the blogger behind the wildly popular Cake Wrecks site and the author of two books based on that blog. She also has a spinoff blog, EPBOT, that provides an outlet for her non-cake-related stuff. On this site she also features some creative projects and tutorials, the sort of stuff that finds its way to her Pinterest site. As with her blog, her Pinterest posts tend to have broad general appeal and are enormously popular.

In a recent article, Redbook magazine copied some of the most popular Pinterest posts, created  artwork from the posted photos in an apparent attempt to avoid copyright issues, and presented them without attribution.

EPBOT: Shame On You, Redbook Magazine

Now, this is a dickish maneuver to begin with. But what makes it entirely douchey - perhaps unintentionally douchey, but douchey nonetheless - is the fact that the project of Jen's that Redbook stole and reprinted without attribution was one that was scheduled to be presented with attribution in an upcoming edition of Better Homes & Gardens Good Housekeeping.

You may get the sense that bloggers - especially successful bloggers - see themselves as New Media hotshots who look down upon the Old Media, especially the "dead trees" media of newspapers, books, and magazines.  But nothing could be further from the truth. Most bloggers I know consider it to be the height of success to get your work presented in published form, on paper. Newspaper and magazine articles are considered incredibly valuable for getting the word out about your blog to new audiences, audiences that might otherwise never hear about your blog. So having the opportunity to get her work featured and credited in Better Homes & Gardens Good Housekeeping was extremely important to Jen. Now that may not happen at all, since Redbook has effectively scooped the article by publishing the details of the project first. Will Better Homes & Gardens Good Housekeeping cancel the article? Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, Redbook claims that it is planning a response to the numerous messages it has received complaining about this situation. Do they plan to make this right? Or will they hunker down and claim that once an idea is published to the Internet it becomes public  domain?

Whatever happens, be warned: if you're posting the fruits of your creative efforts on a site like Pinterest, you might just be making it easier for someone else to come along, steal them, and claim them as their own.


1. Jen has posted a response from Redbook that promises to make things right:

EPBOT: Redbook Makes It Right

Jen is satisfied with this response, so I guess we can put away the pitchforks and torches. For now.

2. Michelle pointed out that I have mashed together two episodes of ComputerWise TV from the past year: One which Michelle and Karla went on to promote the NEPA BlogCon, and one that featured Michelle by herself talking about Pinterest.

3. Jen misidentified Good Housekeeping, the magazine slated to feature her project, as Better Homes and Gardens in her original post. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

As 2012 draws to a close

It's weird: the Winter Solstice marks the point when days start to get longer, just like the Summer Solstice is the point where days start to get shorter. We're on an upswing now, but it doesn't feel like it.

I haven't been blogging much, at all. Not here, not on NEPA Blogs, not on any of my other blogs. I'd like to say it's because I've been writing, but I haven't been writing much. (One of the short stories that I wrote is being developed into a play by an award-wining playwright, so that's something.) I have been doing some art stuff for NEPA Blogs, creating headers. That used to take a few minutes per header with my old Adobe PhotoDeluxe software that came bundled with my printer. (Or was it my scanner?) But I lost that when I got hit with a virus a few weeks ago. A lot of people suggested I downloaded GIMP, but that has turned out to be a clunky, unintuitive program that tries to do a lot of things but doesn't make any of them simple. (You want to change the transparency of text in GIMP? Just follow these twelve steps, each of which involves learning a new facet of the program. You want to change the transparency in PhotoDeluxe? Just enter the percentage transparency desired in this little box.) So I worked on the next NEPA Blogs header for about four hours last night. It would have taken, at worst, a half hour with PhotoDeluxe, mainly because I wouldn't have had to throw everything away and start over each time I made a mistake.

When I worked at the DVD factory I wasn't blogging much because I would come home physically spent after working twelve hours a night on my feet and running, with nearly an hour in the car on either end. Now I spend eight hours sitting with an easy commute of ten minutes or less, and I come home completely exhausted. On each call we take, whether it's thirty seconds or two hours, we're supposed to "connect" with the customer. Technically we're just supposed to make some small talk regarding their travel and provide some feedback to the customer. In practice this can turn into an emotionally draining exercise. Doing that on call after call for eight hours or more gets to you after a while.

This may be my last post for 2012. I don't know. I'll have limited access to the internet for the next week or so. I'm working two hours tomorrow (it's a long story, and I could have had the whole day off, but I chose not to), I'm off on Christmas, working Wednesday and Thursday, off on Friday and the weekend, and then I'm working 10:30 AM-5:00 PM New Year's Eve and, I think, New Year's Day. (Unless that's a full eight-hour day.) I still have three hours of vacation coming to me.

Resolutions for the New Year? The usual. Being able to say "Oh, I'm a writer, and an award-winning playwright is developing one of my short stories into a play" may help me with one of those resolutions. Plus I will try to blog more, and write more. Blogging isn't dead, so I shouldn't act like it is.

Merry Christmas. Spare a moment to think about all those families that have just buried children they thought would be opening presents on Christmas morning. And in the New Year, why don't we resolve to make sure this thing doesn't happen again?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Funny postponed

I've been slacking off on posting lately. In part I feel like I've said everything I have to say here for the moment - not that I'm done saying, but I'm gathering up my thoughts for later. I continue to find this blog an incredibly valuable reference for reflecting upon the things I've said previously.

I've got some posts in development. One is "Some thoughts on rereading Harlan Ellison." There's a story there in just how I came to be rereading Harlan. I'm not likely to forget that post, and since I'm still rereading the book I'm rereading, it would be premature to write this now.

The other is something genuinely funny, and weird, and uncanny, even. A song that I thought - have thought, since the first time I heard it - was by a band that I didn't really like turns out to be by a musician I really do like. My perception of the song changed when I thought I was hearing a remake of the song by this other artist, and I decided that this version was superior to the original. Then I discovered that this was the original - the only version of the song. So the lame old version by band A and the hip new version by musician B are, in fact, the same song.

But I'm not going to write about it. Not today.

Today, December 14, 2012, eleven days before Christmas, a man with a gun - several guns - killed his father, his mother, several other adults, and numerous children in an elementary school in Newton, Connecticut. Eighteen, last time I checked. (Sorry: It's twenty children out of twenty-six people killed in the school.)

I had another post planned, "In praise of poor quality," noting that the relatively low body count in the December 11 mall shooting in Oregon (two killed, one injured, plus the suicide of the shooter) was for much the same reason as the relatively low body count at the July 20 Aurora theater shooting (twelve dead, fifty-eight injured, out of hundreds of potential victims - sitting ducks in a movie theater): jammed weapons, a common occurrence for the types of weapons used by the shooters in those two cases. But the shooter in the December 14 Newton, Connecticut killings did not have that problem. I'm not going to write that post now.

For now, this is as much as I can write.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Holiday reruns: The Littlest Turkey!

Here's a holiday tradition that started with the earliest days of this blog: the annual retelling of The Littlest Turkey! Gather the children around the oven as your bird roasts, and tell them the heartwarming story of the turkey who was almost left behind on Thanksgiving!

Another Monkey: The Littlest Turkey

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Ethel White at the Hotel Jermyn, August 21, 1947

On Thursday, November 15 I read a poem at the Northeastern Pennsylvania Writers' Collective (NEPWC) Open Mic Night at The Vintage in Scranton, PA. As I took the stage I realized it wasn't just my first time reading at one of our Open Mic Nights, it was also the first time I had read anywhere, period, at least since my high school Speech Team days.  Of course, I have appeared on television each week for 90 seconds at a time presenting the Blog of the Week  for much of the last year, and I took part in the Bloggers Roundtable last year. I've also done some teaching (over twenty years ago!) and my current job is all about talking to strangers. So I wasn't really ill-prepared to speak in front of a group largely composed of people I already knew. 

This poem came from a lot of sources. I first read about the story of Ethel White at the Hotel Jermyn in this article on Brian Fulton's blog Pages from the Past, back when I was doing research for that blog's upcoming feature as Blog of the Week. The blog post reproduces the bizarre, almost-comical photo showing the path of Ethel White's descent, with start and stop points indicated with X's.  The Vintage (then known as The Vintage Theater) had just announced the intention of moving into its new home in the Manhattan Room at the old Hotel Jermyn, so I was fascinated to learn this admittedly horrible bit of history about our new home. I had nearly forgotten about the story until back in October when I heard Greg Russick present a poem about a man watching his life slowly drip by at the bar in the Manhattan Room. I realized the Ethel White story could make a good poem. (Whether or not I produced a "good" poem is, of course, open to discussion.)  I discussed this with Greg and two other members of the NEPWC during a break at their poetry reading at Crave in Jim Thorpe a few days later. The next day I bought a notebook at a junk store and began scribbling out this poem while waiting for my mom to complete her shopping.

I don't want to trivialize the tragedy of what happened here. Suicide is no laughing matter. I also don't want to suggest that Ethel White's death was actually a murder arranged by someone else in the story. If that question even existed, I'm sure it was asked decades ago. But recently we observed the anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Very few losses of freighters are well-known, and the memory of this one stays with us in large part thanks to the song by Gordon Lightfoot. If this poem in some way helps to keep the memory of Ethel White alive, I will feel like it has succeeded as a poem.

Ethel White at the Hotel Jermyn, August 21, 1947

She stepped out of the window
and falling, she fell
(Why was she even there? 
Why did her husband bring her
from Albany to Scranton
on their way to Washington, D.C.?
Salesmen stick their feet in doors
and sleep with farmers' daughters
Why did he bring his wife with him?
Was he afraid that, left alone, she might do herself a mischief?
Was she afraid that, left alone, he might stray with some trollop?)
But he brought her with him
from Albany to Scranton
to the seventh floor of the Hotel Jermyn

She stepped out of the window
(or was she pushed?
While her husband was out
visiting some friends in another part of town
did someone, some man, or maybe a woman
come to the seventh floor
to make it look like she had jumped
make it look like suicide, not murder
make it look like on her own 
she stepped out of the window)
and falling, she fell
seven stories to the street below
(Not seven stories straight down
No, not straight down from the window to the street
Six stories straight down
or maybe five and a half
to hit something, some obstruction to her descent
a flagpole, perhaps
or an awning
where she bounced
and was tossed
in a trajectory helpfully illustrated in the paper the next day
in a broken white line outlined in black
showing her descent from the window
to the street below)
where a crowd gathered round
and her husband
returning from visiting some friends
came across the crowd and asked what was the matter
the matter that had gathered them round
the matter which had been a woman
the matter which had been his wife

She stepped out of the window
and falling, she fell
seven stories to the street below
not seven stories straight down
but seven stories nonetheless

Copyright 2012 by Harold Jenkins. All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Going offline for a bit

I've been hit with another virus. It's a Google redirect, but this time it appears to have compromised my Windows firewall and updater. Webroot Personal Security didn't protect me from this virus, nor did it detect it once it was present, so I'm a little peeved. I'll be offline until the Geek Squad at the Wilkes-Barre Best Buy figures out how to fix it. I spent all day with an online agent working on it, and in the end he thought it was fixed, but the redirect is still there. We'll also have to see just what is covered under the warranty.

Be back ASAP.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Now look what you made us do!

We've seen it before. It's become a trope in movies and TV: The evil hostage-taker issues demands and threatens dire consequences if his demands are not met - say, he will start killing his hostages, one an hour, once the deadline has passed, and won't stop until a new, inflated set of demands are met. Depending on the rating of the story, we may even get to see one or two of the hostages get snuffed, usually with a bullet to the back of the head. As he kills the hostages, the hostage-taker turns to the hero, or the hapless middleman who tried but failed to meet his demands, and says "I am not doing this. You are. I am not responsible for this. You are. You made me do it."

Much of our economic strife over the last four years has been artificial, a product of CEOs choosing to sit on huge piles of uninvested money, citing "uncertainty" about the future, when in reality they are concerned that any improvement in the economy would be a feather in the cap of the hated President of the United States, Barack Obama, and might lead to his re-election. So rather than see things get better on his watch, the CEOs  chose to sit tight, bank the money, and wait for a change of administration to someone who would be willing to play ball with them according to the rules to which they had become accustomed during the George W. Bush years.

And in the case that the hated Barack Obama might get elected to a second term, despite the best efforts of the Koch brothers, Citizens United, the right-wing media establishment...well, heaven forbid. In that case, they might be forced to take some of the hostages and shoot them. And, lets be clear:  in the event that that happened, they would be in no way responsible. Nossir. It would all be Obama's fault. Barack Obama would be to blame for every consequence that came from his election, every vile and horrible thing that CEOs were forced to do because Obama became President again.

It happened. And so, with a heavy heart, CEOs have started taking their workers out and shooting them. Because Barack Obama forced them to.

Coal company to lay off 156 workers in Utah, Ill.

ST. LOUIS (AP) - A coal producer owned by a longtime critic of President Barack Obama's energy policies will lay off nearly 160 workers at Illinois and Utah mines, blaming the freshly re-elected president for a "war on coal."
Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp. said in a statement supplied Friday to The Associated Press that it would give pink slips to 102 workers at its West Ridge Mine in Utah and 54 at its underground mine in the southern Illinois town of Galatia. Both mines are run by Murray Energy subsidiaries.
...The announcement's timing — just days after Obama's victory over Republican Mitt Romney — was anything but coincidental. Robert Murray, the company's chairman, CEO and founder, had backed Romney, who proposed rolling back some restrictions on power-plant emissions and positioned himself as a supporter of the coal industry.
"The American people have made their choice," Murray, a day after the election, told about 50 employees during a prayer, a text of which was provided to the AP by the company. Lamenting the country's direction and insisting "the takers outvoted the producers," Murray asked for God's forgiveness "for the decisions that we are now forced to make to preserve the very existence of any of the enterprises that you have helped us build."

Papa John's CEO John Schnatter Says Company Will Reduce Workers' Hours In Response To Obamacare

Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter said he plans on passing the costs of health care reform to his business onto his workers. Schnatter said he will likely reduce workers’ hours, as a result of President Obama's reelection, the Naples News reports. Schnatter made headlines over the summer when he told shareholders that the cost of a Papa John’s pizza will increase by between 11 and 14 cents due to Obamacare.
...(Schnatter is) not the only one in the chain restaurant industry to admit that workers hours may be reduced, since Obamacare mandates that only employees that work more than 30 hours per week are covered under their employers health insurance plan. For example, Darden restaurants, the parent company of Olive Garden and Red Lobster, has already experimented with reducing workers hours in anticipation of the legislation.
Others have responded to the added costs of Obamacare more harshly, including Applebee's franchisee owner Zane Tankel who said his company won’t hire new workers because of the law. Just this week, a Georgia business owner also claimed he cut employees due to Obamacare and in fact had specifically laid off those who he thought had voted for President Obama.

Companies plan massive layoffs as Obamacare becomes reality (this is just a cut-and-paste of the article Mourning in America - Here's Those Layoffs We Voted For Last Night, which gives a list of companies that plan to reduce staffing or hours, all claimed to be a result of Obama's re-election)

So there you have it. The hostage-takers have begun shooting their hostages in the head, one at a time. And with each death they I reminding us that this is not their fault, this is not something they choose to do. Their hands have been forced by the re-election of Barack Obama.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Election Day

Soon I will go to bed, a little earlier than usual, so that I can wake up a little earlier than usual and go down the street to vote.

There was so much I meant to write and didn't in the lead-up to this election. After tomorrow, unless we see a repeat of 2000, we'll know which way things are going to go.

Mitt Romney would be a terrible, terrible choice as President. If you supported Obama in 2008 and are having second thoughts about supporting him now, you need to ask yourself if Mitt Romney would more closely fit with the reasons you voted for Obama in the first place. And after you've thought about it, haul your ass to your polling place and cast your vote for Barack Obama.

And while you're at it, vote against all the obstructionist bastards in Congress who placed party and politics ahead of the good of the country and have spent the last four years thwarting the President's initiatives at every turn. The bastards who wrecked the national economy rather than see a recovery during the administration of a non-white Democrat. Vote against the blatant lies of Romney and Ryan. Vote against the bloated media moguls who manipulate the truth for the sake of ratings. Vote against hatred and fear. Vote against the people who made Citizens United the standard for corporate control of election funding. Vote against a future where decades of progress will be undone with a few carefully selected Supreme Court appointees. Vote against the promise of deregulation of the fossil fuels industry, an industry already regulated with the lightest of touches. Vote against the destruction of the environment, the looting of our national parks, the continued degradation of the national well-being so that the few may enjoy obscene and unearned profits.

Vote for Barack Obama. I will.

Friday, November 02, 2012

The Hostage Takers

In an Op-Ed piece published on November 1 in the New York Times, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman calls Republicans out for their "Vote Romney Or Else" position that threatens economic chaos if the wrong candidate should win the election.

Paul Krugman: The Blackmail Caucus

I think the problem goes beyond what Krugman get at here. Let's not forget that a major reason for the economy being in the shape its in is that many captains of industry are sitting on huge piles of uninvested money - money that could be turning job-seekers (and those who have stopped actively seeking jobs) into employees, and then into consumers. But this money is being kept tied up due to "uncertainty" - mainly, the uncertainty as to whether or not Romney will become President.

I myself have made the argument that if Romney were to win the election, the economy would likely see an immediate improvement as so much capital investment that has been held back is suddenly injected into it. It is as if the economy of the nation is being held hostage, and the condition of release involves the removal of the current President.

The situation is not unlike what we faced back in 1980: Iran had been holding 52 American hostages since November 1979. In April 1980 President Jimmy Carter had made a bold decision to free the hostages through the use of a military incursion, Operation Eagle Claw. The operation failed disastrously, and blame for the failure was placed squarely on President Carter - a humiliation that likely contributed to his defeat in the Presidential election later that year.* More than that, the attempt to free the hostages by force enraged the Iranians, who resolved - despite ongoing negotiations - that the hostages would not be freed while Jimmy Carter was President.

And sure enough, word that the hostages had been released came through minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President. It was Reagan, not Carter, who received credit for their release.

So is it the same with the economy? Have the hostage takers who have been intentionally holding back the economy for the past four years resolved not to take any actions to make things better until after Barack Obama is out of office? Are they waiting to provide fuel for the engine of the economy until Willard "Mitt" Romney is President? Are we in a position where we must give in to the demands of hostage takers if we ever want this crisis to end?

*Compare to the military operation that took down Osama bin Laden, the man behind 9/11 and numerous other attacks on the United States. When this operation resulted in victory, various groups argued that President Barack Obama should receive no credit for its success.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Humming

Yesterday Hurricane Sandy blew through the area. Really, it blew through much of the Mid-Atlantic - it was that big, it covered most of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Massachusetts, and Connecticut simultaneously - but locally it amounted to a lot of very powerful, sustained wind.

Work let out at 5:00 yesterday - waiting later might have risked having someone get killed by a falling tree on their way home - and I went straight to my house to try to secure the porch furniture. Last year, during Irene, the Adirondack rocker skated across the porch and jammed up against the railing, so I wanted to make sure the rocker and my rocker bench stayed put. (In the end I had to content myself with flipping them over and wedging them against the railing preemptively. It worked.) Upon arriving at my house, I opened my car door, held onto it by the upper door frame as I prepared to exit, and nearly had it torn out of my hand and twisted off its hinges by a powerful wind. I realized that the wind was going to be a problem.

We survived, at least locally. Hundreds of thousands of people nearby are without power due to downed trees taking out electrical lines. An eight year old boy was killed not far from here by a falling tree branch while trying to make sure the family pets were safe. Another person died of carbon monoxide poisoning while using a gas-powered generator inside his garage.

But my hometown is OK. I didn't see much damage on my drives today. Maybe we got away relatively unscathed.

Which is not to say that Northeastern Pennsylvania got through unscathed. This is a map of electrical outages for customers of PPL as of 11:11 last night. Each green dot represents 1-50 customers, each yellow dot represents 51-500, and each red dot is 500+. Nanticoke is on the edge of PPL coverage, so there may be local outages not shown on this map.

Late Monday night, just before flickering lights made me realize I should shut down the computer, I heard a noise I've never heard before. It was a humming sound, like the sound a propeller-driven airplane makes when it flies slowly past. I wondered if perhaps some utility vehicle was idling just outside my house. After some thought I decided that I must be hearing the wind in the trees - specifically, the wind along the river blowing through the few remaining leaves clinging to the trees that line the riverbanks. The sound, I realized, was a lot like the sound you get when you blow through a piece of tissue paper draped over a comb, probably for the same reason. Friends on the other side of the river confirmed that they were hearing it too.

I've never heard a sound like that. I've read about certain hums and sounds that used to be audible when the world was a quieter place - including the almost-subsonic hum created when wind blows over mountains. I've always wondered what it would be like to hear such a sound. Now I have heard something related, and perhaps even rarer - the humming sound of wind blowing through mostly-denuded trees during a late-October hurricane in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Monday, October 15, 2012

It's not just about the Presidency

Maybe you've heard: there's an election coming up in the United States in just a few weeks. Sometime after that (and I'm not going to say how soon - I remember the election of 2000!) we'll know whether Barack Obama or Willard "Mitt" Romney will be sworn in for a four-year term in November. (Unless, of course, one of the third-party candidates wins. Hey, it could happen. Maybe.)

The Etch-A-Sketch keeps getting shaken, and a nation of ADD sufferers keeps getting distracted by whatever the last thing was that happened or got said. (Joe Biden smirked and laughed at Paul Ryan through the debate! How disrespectful! Who ever heard of such disrespect at this level of politics?) Ultimately the decision as to who will be President will be made by the people who turn out to vote. That includes Romney supporters, Obama supporters, and the critical block of "undecideds" who, somehow, have not yet decided which candidate they support.

But the Presidential race isn't the only position that's being decided. Ultimately, all three branches of government are.

Congress has been incredibly ineffective in the last four years. Less than ineffective - Republicans in Congress, since Obama first took office, have been putting enormous effort into keeping any significant progress from being made. They fought every step of the way on Health Care Reform, forcing revisions and compromises and a continuous whittling away of the core principles that meant so much to Obama's supporters - and then turned around and rejected the end product, and crowed about how much time Obama had just wasted.

At this time we see a Senate with a slim Democratic majority, and the House with a sizable Republican majority. The election of 2010 saw many "Blue Dog" Democrats, Republican-leaning Democrats from Republican-leaning districts, swept away in favor of Tea Party extremists. It is tempting to blame all of the problems with inaction in Congress back to these Freshmen Republican ideologues from 2010, but as we can see with Health Care Reform, the problem predates the Tea Party successes in 2010.

If Romney wins the Presidency, he may not find himself well-served by Tea Party extremists. Perhaps the plan was for these individuals to harass and bedevil the Democrat in the White House, but I sincerely doubt that they got the memo indicating that they should stop in the event of a Republican moving into the Oval Office. Instead, I suspect, they will continue to demand that they get their way, and will engage in tried-and-true obstructionist actions if they don't.

A Democratic-majority Congress will work better for either candidate. If Obama wins, a Congress dominated by genuine Democrats - not the Blue Dog sorts - would be more cooperative with his goals. But if Romney wins, he might also find it easier to work with Democrats than with extremist Republicans of the Tea Party variety. And Democrats have a well-earned reputation for compromising, for sacrificing party goals in favor of the needs of the nation - something that Republicans will never be accused of, especially after these past four years. Romney might find himself having to fight less to get his agenda through if he is dealing with Democrats instead of Tea Party extremists.

Finally, the Supreme Court is in play. The Supreme Court is in play every Presidential election, but once again we find ourselves in a situation where the moderates on the court are nearing the age of retirement and/or death. Meanwhile, George W. Bush nominated relatively young ideologues like Roberts and Alito to the court and had them rubber-stamped in by his complying Congress - even sweeping Roberts, unexpectedly, into the position of Chief Justice, a position he's likely to hold for decades to come.

A Romney win would allow the makeup of the Supreme court to be shifted so far to the right that it will seem like Citizens United was a Democratic idea. On the other hand, an Obama win, particularly if the makeup of Congress does not change significantly from its current state, would likely mean more moderate appointments like the two he has made - both of whom faced furious opposition from Republicans. (It is, of course, possible that Romney could surprise everyone and make moderate appointments, but this would certainly cost him any support from Tea Party extremists, who would likely try to block any such appointments.)

On Tuesday, November 6, Americans will go to the polls and cast their votes. We need to realize that we are voting for much more than just the President.

Monday, October 01, 2012

NEPA BlogCon postgame

The first-ever NEPA BlogCon took place Saturday, September 29, and it was a smashing success!

To be clear about this: I had nothing to do with the planning or execution of this event. When Karla Porter and I got to talking at the Fall 2011 BlogFest about having some sort of non-political get-together of bloggers - BlogFest was originally conceived as a political mixer, and the founders have made efforts to make it less blog-focused and more politics-focused - Karla began talking about a blog conference of some sort held at one of the many local institutes of higher education, with panels and educational sessions and all the stuff associated with a convention. I immediately backed away from the idea as being too complicated and too burdensome - especially for someone whose top priority at the time was to find full-time employment of some sort.

Six months later, Michelle Hryvnak Davies and Karla Porter connected at the Spring 2012 BlogFest and revived the idea. Michelle was enthusiastic where I was reluctant. They brought on board two other bloggers in attendance at the BlogFest, Mandy Boyle and Leslie Stewart, each of whom, like Michelle and Karla, brought with her extensive blogging experience, technological expertise, and a personal social and online network that partially overlapped with the others. By the next day the four had dubbed themselves the "Fearsome Foursome," and threw themselves at planning the first-ever NEPA BlogCon.

There was a lot to plan, and a lot to arrange, and a lot of decisions to be made. Through an enormous amount of very hard work, the four of them brought in speakers from throughout the blogosphere and the world of online commerce, arranged a location for the event at Luzerne County Community College in Nanticoke, secured sponsors and purchased supplies and brought in dancing girls and...

Well, I didn't really contribute nothing. I did construct a series of image macros to be used for promoting the event:

...but that was pretty much it. I wanted this to be a blogging event where I could take part as a participant, not a planner. And I didn't want to butt into anyone else's plans with my own harebrained idea.

The event itself was astonishing. I was confronted with a sea of unfamiliar faces, which anyone who knows me realizes is nothing new. But in this case it was legitimate: Aside from the Fearsome Foursome, I knew a handful of the presenters. But many of the bloggers were strangers to me.

At the Spring 2012 BlogFest, as a result of a huge promotional campaign and media blitz by Michelle, we had the best-ever turnout of bloggers - perhaps two dozen or so, including the three political bloggers who organize the BlogFests, Michelle, and me. Without the media blitz and promotional drive (out of respect for the founders, who felt that the BlogFest was in danger of losing its political character and becoming too blogger-focused, which is a little confusing in light of the name, but whatever), last week's Fall 2012 BlogFest saw about half that many bloggers - maybe a dozen, all told, including the three organizers, Michelle, me, Karla, Justin Vacula, political bloggers Dan Spak and James O'Meara, and a few others. Maybe not even a dozen.

NEPA BlogCon had something like one hundred bloggers in attendance. (I'm still waiting official totals.)  And they weren't just from NEPA. Some came from as far away as Delaware and New York. Some might have come farther.

The sessions were informative and well received. Some were more basic than others, which was a good thing, because some of the bloggers in attendance were experienced, and some were just starting out.

The Fearsome Foursome passed out surveys at the end of the sessions, asking for feedback on the event and suggestions for sessions at future events. My suggestions were these:
  • Blogging and copyright. How do you establish that your work is your own legally-protected intellectual property? The question came up and no one really had a solid answer.
  •  In a similar vein, blogging and the law: how to avoid running afoul of laws involving copyright, libel,  slander, trade secrets - even how to avoid getting "dooced," losing your job over something you've blogged about.
  • On a more personal note, a piece on blog networking. I think it was a mistake to keep out of the planning of the BlogCon, and to keep NEPA Blogs out of it as well. As the only blog networking organization in Northeastern Pennsylvania, something like BlogCon provided an excellent opportunity to connect with many new bloggers who might not be aware of the size of the local blogging scene. And I blew it. In part I was so caught up with being an attendee I totally shirked my responsibilities as the founder of NEPA Blogs. I did pass out a few blog cards in between sessions and at the after-party, but I could have reached out much more effectively than I did. Next time.
BlogCon was a tremendous success, and the credit goes to everyone who helped make it happen, but especially to the event's four organizers: Michelle Hryvnak Davies, Karla Porter, Mandy Boyle, and Leslie Stewart. I'm already looking forward to the next BlogCon!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Labels for Education from Mirror Earth

Well, I gave 'em fair notice. I gave 'em a chance. It's been two weeks, and it hasn't been fixed. So it's time to point it out to the rest of the world.

Two weeks ago I spotted this Labels for Education flyer in the Sunday papers. If you're unfamiliar with the concept, it involves convincing people to buy specific brands of products and then saving selected portions of the packaging. Collect enough of these tokens (the program used to be called "Box Tops for Education," unless that's a competing program) and maybe the corporations in charge will see fit to present your underfunded school with some supplies. Does any other educational system in any other developed nation in the world have anything like this going on?

Anyway, I saw this and my eye was immediately drawn to a part of it. See, I love globes. Always have. I've always been fascinated by the shape of the world, and specifically by the three-dimensional representation of it. Maps are fine, but to really understand how the planet is laid out, you need a globe.  I wondered what part of the world the folks in their Marketing department chose to use in their art. So I took a close look at it...

...and noticed...


OK. I need to step back for a second here. I learned when I first floated this on Facebook that not everyone is as well-versed on basic geography as I would like. Which is a problem.

She tried to warn us.

If you don't get it immediately, I'll explain. That's the West coast of North and South America on the left, with the Pacific Ocean on the right. But it's flipped left-right. This is a mirror-image of the globe. This is not how the Earth is shaped!

Now, why would someone do that? After working for years in the DVD industry, I can hazard a guess: Someone in the Marketing department looked at a photo of the globe that was to be used on the Labels for Education promotional art and said "That would look better if that black thing were on the right instead of the left." So someone in the Graphic Arts department, someone whose job it is to do whatever Marketing tells them to do, obligingly flipped the image. And someone in Marketing saw it, wrote "APPROVED" and their initials on the proofs, and sent them to their manager, who rubber-stamped the project and sent it off to be distributed.

And so the mistake was made, and the art was sent out with the image of the globe reversed. Not just in one configuration or location, but over...

...and over...

From the Labels for Education Facebook page
...and over...

Later on the Facebook page
...and over...

From the Labels in Education official website

So, what's the harm? On one level, probably nothing. In case you haven't noticed, spelling doesn't count anymore. Details are dismissed by folks at all level as being, well, "details." (Back in my DVD Compression/Encoding/Authoring days I had a manager several levels above me dismiss concerns voiced by my department in the DVD as being about "details." I pointed out to him that details were what our department was all about - nine billion bits of data, one bit at a time.) Who other than me would notice a backwards globe as a design element in some promotional artwork?

But on another level it is very telling about the dedication to education, to getting it right, embodied by the Labels for Education program. And it doesn't speak well for them.

Maybe next time, they should hire Miss Teen South Carolina 2007 as a consultant.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Upcoming blogging events

If you've been paying attention to the sidebar of this blog, you already know about these events. But here's a reminder anyway!

Blog Fest is coming this Friday, September 21! Gort, Joe Valenti, and Dave Yonki originally envisioned this as a political event, more about politics than blogging. After a dip in turnout for the Spring 2011 Blog Fest while Gort was taking a break from blogging, NEPA Blogs co-administrator Michelle Hryvnak Davies took the initiative to run a publicity drive for the Fall 2011 and Spring 2012 Blog Fests, bringing in large numbers of non-political bloggers. For the Fall 2012 Blog Fest Gort has expressed a desire to turn the focus back on politics, which seems reasonable given that this is a major election year. Nevertheless, all bloggers - political and non-political alike - are welcome to Blog Fest, which will be held at Rooney's at 67 South Main Street in Pittston on Friday, September 21 starting at 6:00. And any politician with half a lick of sense will know that politics is about getting your message out to everybody - which means they should be just as eager to talk to people who blog about fashion and photography as to those who blog about politics!

On Saturday, September 29, Luzerne County Community College will be playing host to the first-ever NEPA BlogCon! Michelle Hryvnak Davies is part of the "Fearsome Foursome" organizing this event. You can read more about it here. TODAY ONLY, Wednesday, September 19, you can get a ticket to this event for only $35 - a savings of over 46% form the regular price of $65!

Sometimes blogging can feel like an isolated activity. These events are your opportunity to meet and mingle with other bloggers from throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Energy in NEPA: Past, present, and future

On July 3, 1778, a militia made up mostly of men in their 40's and teenage boys, with a few experienced soldiers sprinkled in, took up arms to defend the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania (at the time known as the Wyoming Valley in Connecticut, for reasons which are as bizarre and confusing today as they were way back then) from encroaching Tory Rangers and their Iroquois allies. The militia's actions were guided more by bravery than by good sense, and what at first was a comedy of errors and a textbook example of  how not to conduct a military campaign soon turned into a rout, and then a massacre. Many of those who survived the initial battle did not survive the immediate aftermath, as men and boys were murdered at close range even as they were promised safety, and captured prisoners had their heads smashed in in an act of brutality that sickened the people of England when word reached them of what had come to be known as the Wyoming Massacre.

Today a friend and I walked the route of the Battle of Wyoming, from the initial point where the men and boys lined up to confront the skirmishers who would draw them into a trap, to the point where the broken line of inexperienced soldiers took a stand against the more highly skilled Rangers and their native allies, to the point where the Iroquois attacked the line's left flank from their position of concealment as it wheeled about inexpertly to face them, to the places where the fleeing members of the militia sought safety and escape - and, more often, found death.

This post isn't about that.

As we processed from the initial lining-up point in Wyoming (which is not where the Battle of Wyoming was fought - it was fought in Exeter; "Wyoming" is a more recent construct, named in honor of those who died in the battle,) our guide directed our attention to a utility cut that showed some of the terrain as it was 234 years ago, before fill was added to the river flats beyond the precipitous drop to the south to allow construction of houses even closer to the Susquehanna. And that was where a striking vista displayed itself.


It's a little hard to tell from this first photo, but this image encompasses much of this region's past, present, and future. First, the river flat, showing what  the terrain might have looked like in centuries past. While I always think of Pennsylvania - my part of it, anyway - as being "Penn's Woods" and much like the densely forested area seen beyond the transmission tower, reports from the time of the Battle of Wyoming describe the area as sparsely wooded with white and yellow pine and some oak "shrubs." Much of the land would have been cleared for agriculture, and there was very little in the way of underbrush.

The trees beyond the tower in the distance - some 850 or so feet from where I took this picture -  mark the shore of the Susquehanna, which was the goal of the fleeing survivors of the Battle of Wyoming, who hoped to make it downriver to the relative safety of Fort Wilkes-Barre and Forty Fort. (No one thought to have boats tied up on the riverbanks for use if needed.) Beyond those trees, the black hills are actually culm banks well beyond the opposite riverbank, nearly a mile from where I was standing. "Culm" is the rock waste product from anthracite mining, a mixture of slate and low-grade coal that cannot be refined further in an economical manner. So instead it is piled up in great hills that once covered much of the landscape of Northeastern Pennsylvania. The culm is separated from the coal in buildings called "coal breakers," like the gray boxy building in the middle left.

Beyond the culm bank, more than six miles from where I stood to take this photo, is a line of wind turbines along a ridge. They can be seen here behind and to the sides of the transmission tower.

Throughout the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, coal from the Wyoming Valley supplied power to this nation and its industrial expansion. Anthracite coal burns hot and relatively cleanly, at least when compared to the more common bituminous coal found in West Virginia and elsewhere. Coal mining provided a source of income to many of the people of this area. But it also killed and sickened may of those same workers, through mining accidents and "black lung," the buildup of coal dust in the lungs that resulted in emphysema and, ultimately, death. As revenue from coal mines dwindled, with the Knox Mine Disaster being be final straw, the coal mining companies abandoned their operations and left the area - placing upon the residents of Northeastern Pennsylvania the burden of dealing with the consequences of coal mining: the mine fires, the poisoned creeks and streams contaminated by flowing through old mines, the unpredictable collapses of old mines - where else other than Northeastern Pennsylvania are homeowners required to buy mine subsidence insurance, just in case a gaping hole should open on their property and consume some or all of their house?

The wind turbines are a more recent addition to the landscape. I noticed them suddenly back in 2006, though they may have been constructed months before I spotted them as I was coming home one afternoon. This group is just one of several constructed throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania. They  are not without controversy; some have criticized them for causing bird deaths. Turbine operators are hardly blase about bird-turbine collisions, as such a thing can easily damage a turbine blade. Turbines have "off" switches and are frequently turned off for servicing; it would be no large matter to temporarily shut down the turbines during times when they  might interfere with migrating birds.

Two aspects of Northeastern Pennsylvania's energy picture are not seen here. Some feel that Pennsylvania is not an ideal location for solar energy generation. However, Pennsylvania receives about as much incident solar energy as Germany, the nation  that is a world leader in the generation of electricity from sunlight. By following the German model, Pennsylvania can easily become a successful solar electricity generator. And anyone who still doubts is directed to view the (literally) green solar energy collection and conversion systems throughout this image. Yes, that's right - trees.

One other piece of the energy picture remains. (Two, if you count nuclear, which I don't; we have a local nuclear power plant in Salem Township near Berwick, it's past its rated lifetime, it's under consideration for expansion, and it supplies its energy to New York and New Jersey.) That is the extraction of natural gas entombed in layers of shale using a process known as hydro-fracturing, or "fracking." It is neither a safe nor a carefully-executed process, according to an article in no less a publication than the Wall Street Journal. It has resulted in numerous documented cases of drinking-well contamination. The uncontrolled release of methane - a clean-burning fossil fuel that happens to be an extremely powerful greenhouse gas when released directly into the atmosphere - has been detected. Migrating (and sometimes spilled or even dumped) fracking chemicals have resulted in ground and water contamination, even road damage. Fracking consumes many millions of gallons of water, locking it underground in deep shale prisons and effectively removing it from the hydrosphere forever.And accidents caused by reckless "roughnecks" imported into the area from other states have resulted in at least one death.  Meanwhile, residents dealing every day with the consequences of coal mining in the area are not entirely convinced that gas-drilling companies can be trusted when they state that they will clean up after themselves.

Two hundred and thirty-four years ago some brave and foolish men and boys took upon themselves the task of defending their homes, their farms, what they thought of as their homeland, from invading marauders bent on its destruction. Today, many of us feel the same when it comes to energy development. We have options available to us that will increase our energy independence and decrease our need for fossil fuels. We also have an option available that will slip the yoke of fossil-fuel dependence upon our necks while at the same time resulting in immediate and long-term environmental consequences.  Which one will we choose?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Another blog: Northeastern Pennsylvania Writers' Collective

I've started still yet another new blog. This one is for my writing group, the Northeastern Pennsylvania Writers' Collective, also known as the NEPWC :

The Northeastern Pennsylvania Writers' Collective

A writer friend told me that the problem with some of the writing groups she's participated in is that they're too polite. Politeness doesn't help you grow as a writer. Our group is raucous and rude, sometimes to the point of scaring off prospective members. There are also more than a few ego conflicts at play, and a few other...issues. But there's a broad range of talents, perspectives, personal histories, and experience levels that come together in the group, and it's a valuable workshop for developing both stories and writing skills, and for being exposed to the works of others.

I'm using the blog in a lot of ways. We have a Facebook group, but as I've discussed before, the "closed cocktail party" nature of Facebook means that only Facebook users - specifically, Facebook users who are admitted into the group - can see the Facebook site. (As far as I know.) Any announcements or bits of information that get posted to the Facebook group, I'm reposting to the blog - and vice-versa. I'm also posting our weekly writing prompts. Plus I've got a bunch of other writing blogs linked on the sidebar, and I'm flagging any posts from there of special value. The blog will both serve as a sort of within-group announcements page for those members who do not have Facebook (there are several.) It will also serve as the public face of our group, until and unless we come up with another format for that. As an open writing group, this is the best way for potential members to find out about us.

I'm hoping to network this blog with the blogs or websites of other groups that operate out of or are tied to The Vintage (formerly the Vintage Theater), now at 326 Spruce Street in Scranton. And of course, the blog is listed on NEPA Blogs.

If you're looking for a writing group in Northeastern Pennsylvania, or are just interested in writing groups in general, be sure to check out the Northeastern Pennsylvania Writers' Collective blog!

Monday, September 03, 2012

Other churches, other windows: Holy Trinity from another angle

After my weekly meeting with my writing group, one of the other members stopped me and told me she had just been discussing my Stained Glass Project with someone else the previous night. I haven't really updated this project in several years. I did a presentation about it earlier this year, and I've done a few posts referencing the project, but I'm still three or four windows away from completing the project.

A few hours later I found myself in church with a camera in my pocket. It wasn't my "home" church, formerly St. Mary's, now the Alternate Worship Site for the Parish of St. Faustina. No, this was at the former Holy Trinity, now the Primary Worship Site for the Parish of St. Faustina. I've taken pictures there before, but from another angle, and since I had some time to kill, I decided to snap a few photos before mass began.

My first shot was just a standard image taken without a flash, balancing the camera on the back of the pew in front of me for stability.

Immediately I saw that any photos like this would be over-exposed. So I had to take another approach, and snap away in Sports mode. The faster shutter speed would reduce detail, but would reduce the amount of light pouring onto the CCD - and also make it possible to take the photos freehand.

Here's another view of the same window, which was determined by an anonymous commenter on a previous post to be a depiction of St. Vincent de Paul.

I continued to take pictures right up until things were ready to begin.

A window depicting St. Stanislaus Kostka. Compare to this wimdow from St. Mary's.

A window depicting...I have no idea. Whatever it is has dead, dead eyes.


Here's an image of St. Peter seen in context. I've previously displayed a close-up photo of this window. Holy Trinity was originally intended to become a cathedral, can you tell? It's always been an overwhelmingly ornate and magnificent place, a stark contrast to the relative simplicity of the now-closed St. Stanislaus, which was the first Catholic church in Nanticoke. Trinity was the second, formed by parish members who left St. Stanislaus in a dispute. The entire church seems to be a statement about grandeur and opulence. Recent renovations have toned down this effect somewhat, in part by adopting a dimmer paint scheme.

Two views of the window immediately to my right, looking up.

I don't really have an emotional connection with this church. It wasn't a major part of my childhood, not like St. Mary's and St. Stan's, and I don't have many special memories from it. But other people do. Almost everybody has a camera these days. There is nothing to prevent someone for whom these windows have some special meaning from taking a camera - possibly a better camera than my 4 megapixel Nikon Coolpix L4 - and snapping photos of their own. This goes for every church, everywhere, and every other public and private space worth preserving.

What has meaning to you? What has special memories? Do you own a camera? If so, why aren't you capturing it now, before it passes into history?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Coyotes and turkey vultures

I grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania in the 1970's and 1980's, but it wasn't until the late 80's or early 90's that I recall ever seeing a turkey vulture or hearing about coyotes in this area. Nowadays turkey vultures are in the sky every day, and coyotes are common too. It's not like I wasn't paying attention - I have a vivid memory of a Sunday in 1979 1978 when hundreds of seagulls descended on Nanticoke (PARADE magazine featured a cover story on Star Trek: The Motion Picture that day.) So is it my imagination, or are these animals more common in NEPA than they once were?

In a highly peripatetic society, it's increasingly difficult to find many people who have been in any one place long enough to have observed the gradual (and sometimes sudden) changes that the decades have brought. What about you? Have you noticed specific environmental changes where you live?  Leave a comment describing what you've noticed!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Nearly died again

For most of twenty years I had a heck of a commute. From 1992 through early 2012 (with interruptions in 2007, 2010, and large parts of 2011) I drove 33-35 miles each way to and from work, mostly on Interstate 81. It wasn't the worst commute in the world, or the longest; but it was long enough and dangerous enough that it seemed to me that I had a good chance of eventually dying during that trip.

I now have a five mile commute to work, mostly along sparsely-traveled back roads. Dying in traffic is less of a concern.

This weekend I nearly died on my way to my writing group.

OK, my writing group meets in Scranton, and the commute takes me on I-81, so the same issues I had with getting to work apply. But this wasn't even there. This was on the Sans Souci Parkway, a surprisingly deadly four-lane road that connects Nanticoke to Wilkes-Barre. I was making a pit stop there for gas before getting on the highway, at a gas station less than two miles from my house.  To get to the gas station from Nanticoke, you have two options: drive past the gas station to one of the cross-roads or to the Hanover Mall or some other convenient spot, turn around, and make a right-hand turn into the station; or get into the left lane just past the road dividers, wait for oncoming traffic to clear, and make an almost-but-not-quite U-turn into the gas station. Midday on a Saturday, I decided to go for this second option.

And nearly died.

Oncoming traffic was surprisingly heavy for a midday on a Saturday. By "surprisingly heavy" I mean cars and trucks were headed into Nanticoke in ones or twos, but never with enough of a gap between them and the vehicles behind them to make the turn safely. I sat and waited in the left lane, one foot on the brake, turn signal blinking away.

Then I heard the horn.

It sounded far away, but I knew it wasn't. I looked in my rear-view just in time to see a car swerving around me at the last moment. The driver, who I saw out of my right window as he peeled around me well in excess of the posted 45 mph speed limit, was silver-haired and wearing wrap-around sunglasses. I'm not a gambling man, but I'd bet you a dollar he was holding a cell phone up to his right ear, which I couldn't see.

If he had hit me I probably wouldn't have been killed outright, not like the elderly couple who were killed a year and a week ago when a truck made a left turn across their path of travel about two miles down the road.  No, I would have been rear-ended at high speed, maybe clipped on my right rear side, which would have left me rattled but alive - and probably would have pushed me into the path of oncoming traffic. Which might have then hit me head-on on the passenger's side, again possibly not killing me outright - unless I was hit hard enough, especially hard enough to be knocked into the pumps at the gas station I was trying to get to.

Then I would have died.

It didn't happen. The car driven at an excessive rate of speed by a silver-haired guy with wrap-around sunglasses swerved around me at the last possible moment. I'm sure he learned his lesson and will never speed again. And I'm sure all who witnessed this near-tragedy with remember it, and drive more safely all the days of their lives.

Yeah, right.

Sans Souci is French for "without care,"* and that is the attitude of many of the drivers who speed along it, oblivious to speed limits and the presence of other drivers on the road. It's just a matter of time before the next tragic and wholly avoidable deadly accident. After all those years commuting on the highway, it would be ironic if I met my end on a parkway two miles from my house.

*According to Lou Grant in an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, it's French for "without Souci." Lou Grant and his wife went on their honeymoon there - maybe to the old Sans Souci amusement park?

Monday, July 30, 2012

Aliens in the attic

I presented a story to my writing group last week. It was well-received, better than I expected, and I was given lots of constructive feedback, including suggestions to tighten it, expand it, and rewrite it in at least two completely different styles. I might just act upon every suggestion.

The plot of the story was completely preposterous, which is understandable, since it was dictated entirely by a dream I had a while back. To summarize: in a slightly-worse version of our own world, in a time when the economy has completely collapsed, strange things start appearing in the attics of vacant homes. While seldom seen, the unofficial consensus is that they are some sort of alien life form. Their presence is treated with little more regard than if  you were to find out that the vacant house next door was occupied by pigeons or feral cats or a colony of bats. No one is particularly worried, mainly because most people are focused on everything else - the economy, rampant unemployment, getting food, and all the other day-to-day concerns that face us in the real world. So while everyone is busy ignoring what should be a terrifying or at least curiosity-inspiring situation, further developments come into play that may lead to the total breakdown of human society - and maybe the end of humanity itself.

The dream left me with such a feeling of dread, doom, and despair that I really didn't know what to do with it, how to get over it. After a while I thought about the levels of detail involved in the dream, and I realized that this was basically a self-contained story that just needed to be written out.

It wasn't until a few weeks later that I started to realize the allegorical nature of this dream, and the metaphors hidden in it. Aspects of the dream captured many of my deepest fears: the fear that someone might break into and squat in my house; the fear of all the vacant houses in town, and who and what might be living in them; fear that the economy might worsen, that unemployment might increase, that things might go from worse to worst. My mother died in the dream, too, and I wasn't able to do anything to prevent that from happening - so there are those fears as well.

The environment played a role in this dream. There was a sense of oppressive heat - much like what we've been experiencing for real this summer. It's hard to shake that aspect of the dream.

There was a pervasive sense of apathy. No one was especially worried about the sudden appearance of aliens. No one cared enough about what was going on to actually do anything about it. Everyone was focused on other issues, things they believed were more important.  In the end it turned out everyone was wrong, but by then it was absolutely too late to do anything about it. Anything at all.

So what would you do if you found out there were aliens living in the attic of the vacant house across the street? Do you think you would be totally blasé about the issue, ignoring it because it didn't directly affect you?

Because we're doing that very sort of thing.

It's not aliens. They're not living in an attic. But there are slow, preventable, reversible disasters going on that we are collectively choosing to ignore.

You know what they are. You've heard about them, over and over. The gradual increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is already well above levels that will eventually lead to a disaster is just one example. But there's another one that's very important, and hits close to home - but will eventually affect everyone.

 Methane is an excellent fuel source. It burns hot, burns clean, and results in lower carbon dioxide emissions when burned than other fossil fuels - contributing less to greenhouse emissions than coal or oil.

But methane itself is a powerful greenhouse gas. Released unburned into the atmosphere, it is, according to the EPA, twenty times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat. If you want to accelerate the greenhouse effect, it's not a bad strategy to pump methane into the atmosphere.

The Marcellus Shale formation (or "play," in industry parlance) is located in a region that underlies much of Pennsylvania (except the southeast and central regions, containing the major population center of Philadelphia and the capitol, Harrisburg), Upstate New York, Ohio, Maryland, and portions of several other states. Vast stores of methane may be trapped within this formation, and vast amounts of the gas are being liberated and captured using hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking") techniques - particularly new methods that have opened up previously inaccessible deposits.

Sounds great, doesn't it?

The problem is: these new fracking techniques were developed in a totally different region, geologically speaking, than the place where the're being used. Oklahoma, Texas, the Gulf Coast - the rock strata of these regions is completely different from what it is in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

This produces some interesting results.  Fracking drills deep belowground, pumping a witch's brew of chemicals - drilling "mud," mineral oil (to dissolve rocks), water under extremely high pressure - to shatter the rock and liberate the methane in a manner that allows it be recoverable. In theory, anyway.  In practice, Pennsylvania's complex geology - coupled with defective and inadequately-designed wells - has resulted in the uncontrolled liberation of vast quantities of methane.  The Susquehanna has been bubbling with methane for well over a year. More recent incidents have resulted in methane bubbles forming in other creeks and streams. And those are just the places where we can easily see the gas escaping. It takes more sophisticated detecting equipment to spot the plumes  of methane rising up out of the ground.

And it's not just methane that's the problem. Fracking is supposed to avoid contaminating water tables  and ground and surface water. But as the saying goes, where there are trains, there will be train wrecks. And there have been train wrecks, as the fracking technique, coupled with the chemicals used, has produced surprising results - including a large area near a drill site that appears to have undergone liquefaction, a condition that turns solid earth into a supersaturated state that can act like a liquid at the slightest provocation, and then return to a solid state, trapping anything that has sunk into it. (Think quicksand for the 21st century.) And of course there has been the wellwater contamination, and the accidents (and intentional acts) involving trucks and truckers employed by the Marcellus Shale industry, including an incident of intentionally dumping of chemical waste on state game lands, and another that involved a water tanker tipping over onto a nearby vehicle, killing the driver and badly injuring his daughter, who saw her father die in front of her.

"We all know that more drilling is good," quipped a CNN anchor the other day, talking about how a glut of natural gas on the market has resulted in lower prices and less incentive to drill. Indeed they do: every commercial break on CNN features two or more commercials paid for by the fossil fuels industry. Count on CNN - and other media outlets that take money from the fossil fuels industry - to continue to provide the biased coverage they've been paid to provide. Don't expect to hear much at all about the problems - past, future, and ongoing.

But we know there's a problem. Folks like Don Williams at the Susquehanna River Sentinel have been going on about this issue for years. If you aren't educated on this issue, it's not for lack of available information. It's really just much easier to ignore it, especially if you don't live in Marcellus Shale territory, and just go on along with your lives.

In my dream the problem became obvious when a mysterious pink slime begins to emerge from alien-occupied houses, a slime that forms a thin film everywhere. Soon the nature of this slime becomes apparent as steel rusts, aluminum pits, paint peels, tires flatten, engines leak, and roads crumble. In a short time period the aliens go from being an ignorable curiosity to being the harbingers of the unmaking of human society and all its works. By the time people realize there's a crisis it's far too late to do anything about it.

We've got a crisis. We've got a disaster going on right now. But people would rather think about other things, and disregard this crisis. It doesn't affect them, not immediately, and they've got lots of other things on their minds. Yet the impact of the disaster may affect - well, everyone, everywhere. Will enough people take note to actually get anything accomplished? Or will we collectively ignore this ongoing disaster until it's far too late to do anything about it at all?

There are aliens in the attic of the vacant house across the street. What are you going to do about it?