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?

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Vintage Theater's IndieGoGo fundraiser!

Scranton's Vintage Theater, which has hosted numerous events relevant to the NEPA blogging community in the past year, is starting an IndieGoGo fundraiser that runs now through August 18! Go here for more details on the fundraiser, and here for more information about the Vintage Theater!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Why do you blog?

UPDATE, 7/20/12: Leslie Stewart of Darling Stewie and part of the "Fearsome Foursome" who are running September's NEPA BlogCon pointed out that they asked this same question on the NEPA BlogCon blog a few weeks ago. I'll post a link to this post there so everybody can have access to all the answers that are given on both sites!

This is a question for any bloggers reading this: Why do you blog?

I could speculate on reasons why other people blog, talk about the narrow-minded and provincial attitudes of some who assume that everyone blogs for the same reasons that they do, and therefore must follow the same rules that they do (or that they have declared others must follow.) But I really want to know, honestly, why other people blog. I'll give my reasons, and I'd like everyone else to put their reasons in the comments to this blog post. (That will save me the bother of gathering them from assorted other locations and reposting them here.) Also please be sure to leave a link to your blog!

Here are my answers, for all of my blogs. All of them so far, anyway.

Another Monkey: Started May 2004. When I talk about "my blog," this is the one I'm talking about. I've talked about why I started this blog so many times in the past I don't even feel like going over it again. But I will. It's a soapbox, a creative outlet, a place to vent, a way of communicating with friends and strangers that predates the mass popularity of Facebook. It's a place to post photos and stories. It's an autobiography in a million parts. Most importantly - to me, anyway - it's a place to store my memories outside of my own head. Because I've watched too many people go to those places where they no longer have access to their own memories. And then it's too late to try to retrieve them So this way, somehow, this stuff will be out there. This is the blog I care about the most, and most associate myself with.

Til August: Started April 2005. My second blog - I didn't realize that until just now. A few years after the band 3 Brix Shy broke up, some of its members talked about getting together to form a new band. The catch: in August of that year, one of the members would be moving away. So the plan was to create a band that would play through that Spring and Summer and break up in August. The blog would follow their adventures and publicize their shows. Unfortunately, the band never got past the planning stages.

Angry Political Blog: Started April 2005. I didn't want to crap up Another Monkey with lots of political seething, but I really needed a place to vent in the aftermath of the disastrous 2004 election. So I created a blog that would just be about politics and anger. And I realized that what Johnny Lydon said is true: anger is an energy. I wrote one post and found myself getting sucked into a self-perpetuating cycle of rage. I never wrote another post there.

NEPA Blogs: Started January 2006. Next to Another Monkey, this is the Big One. I started it as a sort of get-hits-quick scheme: I had a vision of a network of local bloggers, all linking to each other through a central site, with everyone's Google rank going up through the one-to-many / many-to-one relationship. It never happened, mainly because I never really let people in on the plan when I added them. Many of the bloggers added in those early days still might not know that they've been added, unless they're checking their traffic sources. But things really took off when I brought on Gort and Michelle Hryvnak Davies as co-administrators. I knew Gort had connections to the top political blogs in the region, while Michelle was tied into the region itself, and a technology and social media expert.

I almost gave up on NEPA Blogs a while ago. I've told that story before, too. Finding blogs was hard, they had a tendency to spontaneously shut down, and there was really no return on the effort it took to keep the blog going. Michelle changed all that. She revived it, breathed new life into it, got us on Facebook and Twitter and television and radio and in newspapers and magazines. Because of her efforts, NEPA Blogs is still going stronger than ever.

I have a new outlook on this blog. I now see myself as trying to encourage, popularize, and promote blogging in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Many bloggers think they're blogging in a vacuum, that nobody gives a damn what they have to say. I'm trying to show bloggers that they're not alone, that they're part of a bigger community - and not just the virtual, global community of the Blogosphere, but a local community, too, of people they might want to meet and get to know, might actually already know.

That's why I do stuff with NEPA Blogs. I won't presume that I know why Gort or Michelle stick with it - and frankly, I've never asked them. Until now. I'd love to know the reasons why they blog, and why they stay with running NEPA Blogs.

A Blog of Nanticoke: Started July 2007.
Unknown Failure: Started July 2007.
A Monkey in the Garden: Started July 2007
The Magic of Everyday Life: Started...I don't know, around this same time.

These were four "spin-off" blogs. (I thought there was a fifth, "A Monkey Looks at the Stars," but that might never have gotten past the planning stages.) Each would repost items that had originally appeared on Another Monkey, stories respectively about my hometown of Nanticoke, computers, gardening, ...ummm, stuff, and astronomy. The idea was this: with my broad range of content on Another Monkey, the Google Ads that I added in 2007 were becoming hopelessly muddled and unfocused. By creating spinoff blogs that focused on specific topics, I would get a more focused selection of ads targeted specifically at people interested in those topics.

The Magic of Everyday Life was to have been an exception. I always thought that someday I might open a little shop on Main Street in Nanticoke, a junk store of sorts that also sold books, music, gardening supplies, scientific toys, magic tricks, gag items... It hasn't happened, not yet. But this blog was supposed to be a catch-all for reposting posts that might relate to all this stuff. I grabbed it to secure the name. I've never added any posts.

Of all of these, A Blog of Nanticoke is the only one I've really maintained to any extent. Now I'm more likely to write original posts here and link to them on Another Monkey.

I've recently learned that Blogger takes a dim view of blogs that just repost content from other sites, even sites by the same author. To an extent this is understandable, a sort of anti-scraping policy designed to protect creators of original content from having their content scraped and reposted. For my purposes, though, the policy sort-of sucks.

The Virtual Refrigerator: Started September 2008. My nephews, like so many kids, loved to draw, and their visits to their grandmother often resulted in little masterpieces left around the house, to become folded and dog-eared and faded and maybe even destroyed. I decided to try to capture and preserve some of these images by scanning them into a blog. It was a fun project, and I still think it's a good idea, but it was very labor-intensive and time-consuming.

Hot Notes: Started August 2010. A blog created by request. This was going to be an online newsletter for the recently-displaced employees from my company, including me. Unfortunately the group that was supposed to feed me information for this fell apart shortly after I started it, and I ran out of things to post.

NEPA Solar: Started May 2011. An attempt at establishing a perception of subject matter expertise. I had worked in the solar industry in Delaware from March 1990 through August 1991. After I lost my job in the DVD industry - for the second time - I decided to take a stab at breaking into the solar power industry in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Being the region's foremost blogger on solar energy would be a shiny item on a résumé targeted at getting a a job in the industry. This is still a work in progress.

Personal branding blog: Started September 2011. Résumés are just brief summaries of who you are and what you've done. With this blog I wanted to flesh out each line item on my résumé to use as a "for more information..." reference. I don't know if this did any good in my job search.

Blogging 101A: Intro to Blogging (restricted access): Started June 2012. Other people with far fewer years of blogging experience than me have declared themselves "blogging experts." Years ago I thought through a syllabus for a community college introductory course in blogging. An opportunity is coming where I may be asked to present just such a course in a two- to three-hour format. This blog would be the course outline, the materials, and the reference links. To preserve the "exclusivity" of this course - it would be offered as a premium in exchange for donations to a specific cause - I've made the blog restricted. I'll open it up to a small group of people I know once I've fleshed it out a bit, to get feedback from real blogging "experts" whose opinions I respect.

Northeastern Pennsylvania Writers' Collective: Started June 2012. Connected to the same events as the previous blog. This would be a blog for the writers' group I participate in. We have a Facebook page, with all the usual problems with a Facebook page, including the inability of anyone to access it who isn't 1.on Facebook and 2.a part of the group. I created this to be an open blog, directed at our group but readable by anyone who finds it. It may also work in conjunction with something else that's coming down the pike.

So, that's that.  Fourteen blogs, many different answers to the question "Why do you blog?" So how about you? If you are a blogger, why do you blog?

Sunday, July 08, 2012

A response to Jeff Bullas on The 10 Secret Benefits of Blogging

This is a comment I wrote in response to Jeff Bullas's post, What are the 10 Secret Benefits of Blogging? (

Jeff, you're helping to promulgate two of the most popular prejudices of blogsnobbery.

One is that to be a "serious" blogger you have to own your own domain. That's nonsense. There is no "pay to play" requirement for blogging. It's like saying you're not a serious writer unless you're jotting down your thoughts in a Moleskine notebook. The true test of whether a blogger is "serious" or not is in the blogging. That's it. Anything else is bigotry and prejudice. Blogsnobbery.

The other tenet is, of course, that the Blogger/Blogspot platform is unworthy of being mentioned. That's been going on since at least Chris Pirillo's famous 2005 tantrum "Kill Blogspot Already!" It's also nonsense, as much now as it was then. Blogger/Blogspot is the easiest jumping-on point for new bloggers, and an excellent way to develop and customize blogs without a great deal of technical expertise. Perhaps this is the reason why there is so much contempt for this platform: it lets the unwashed masses (like me) into the party.

You do not mention one of the biggest benefits of blogging: community building. It's not just a matter of finding a "tribe." Once you establish a voice for yourself, you may locate other like-minded (or differently-minded) bloggers with whom you may find yourself exchanging comments, trading links, or exploring each other's blogrolls. Starting a blog can open up whole worlds that you never knew existed.

I've spent the past six-and-a-half years promoting and popularizing blogs and blogging throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania. I find the notion that you must own your own domain name to be considered a "serious" blogger, and the snobbish contempt for one of the most popular and accessible blogging platforms available, to be antithetical to my efforts to encourage people to explore established blogs, create blogs of their own, and build and strengthen the local community of bloggers.

Friday, July 06, 2012

The trouble with night shift

We live in a world built around day shift. Much of the work world lives a 9-to-5 existence and thinks that's normal, ignoring the fact that many essential services that people use face-to-face, like banks and post offices*, are also only open 9-to-5, making it difficult or impossible for those working day shift to do business with them.

That's one of the advantages of working night shift. But night shift comes with disadvantages, too.

I hesitate to call what I've been working for the last few weeks "night shift." When I was working 6PM to 6AM, on my feet and running for twelve hours with a 40-60 minute commute on either side, that was night shift. Working 3:45PM - 12:15AM at a desk job five miles from my house is more like a "late afternoon" shift.

But in some ways it's more difficult to integrate this shift into my everyday life. When I was working twelve hour shifts with two additional hours spent on the road, it was pretty much understood that I would be useless for anything else those days. By the time I got home at 7:00 in the morning supermarkets were starting to open, so if I needed to grab some groceries I could.  After I got home I might spend an hour or so online, and I would have time to make an after-work snack and a before-work meal. But other than that I was mostly sleeping, getting ready for work, or taking care of stuff that couldn't wait until my off days.

Most supermarkets around here close at midnight, so now if I want to go shopping I have to do so before work, or on weekends when I'm trying to do everything else. My body starts to shut down pretty quickly after I come home. It's easier to power through 2:00 in the morning by working than it is to stay up at that hour when you're winding down after work. I'm usually in bed by 3:00. It would be like someone working a 9-to-5 shift being in bed by 7:45.

...and then I'm expected to be up by 9:00 in the morning. The world is awake, I'm "off," as far as everyone else is concerned, so why shouldn't I be up and doing things? To use the 9-to-5 analogy again, this would be like being up at 1:45 in the morning - and being expected to take care of everything that needs to be taken care of.

For me, in effect, the period of 9:00 to 3:15 is my morning and my afternoon combined into one. I'm expected to be up and at 'em, doing the things a 9-to-5 worker might do on a day off. And I do. But now other stuff is suffering. The stuff a person working a daytime shift might get to do after work is looked upon with disdain. I'm barely blogging anymore, and I haven't written anything for my writing group for weeks. 

This is a shift I chose. I knew what I was getting into, but other things have happened since I chose this shift, things that are putting other time pressures on my daylight hours.  And this is not the worst shift I know of, not by a long shot. I know someone working a shift that starts somewhere in the early morning hours and ends close to mid-day. And the expectations on that person are even greater.

So, give a thought to the night shift worker. Respect their sleep time, and recognize that the fact that they're not working during the day doesn't mean that they're "off."

*I can hear the moaning now: "Who uses banks and post offices anymore? Just old stupid people with AOL email addresses who use phone books to look up phone numbers! Why should we care about them?"