Monday, September 28, 2015

Total lunar eclipse, September 27, 2015

September 27, 2015 was the night of the last of a series of four consecutive total lunar eclipses - and the last total lunar eclipse for several years.  While I was able to get some images of the last total lunar eclipse visible from Nanticoke, at that time I was still figuring out some of the most useful features of my camera. I was also operating under a time constraint (had to wake up very early, would have to pack things up early to get to work) and in a limited space (the Nanticoke-West Nanticoke bridge) in chilly conditions as the sun was rising.

None of that applied here. Sunday was the last day of my work week, so I technically was free the next day. (Except for Jury Duty, for which I would have to be out of the house earlier than usual.) The eclipse would take place in the evening over Nanticoke, late enough to be dark but not too late. And it would be visible from my back yard - in theory, anyway. The WNEP meteorologists were giving us a 40% chance of clear skies. I decided I would be happy with broken cloud cover.

I got to see everything.

All pictures taken with a Nikon Coolpix p520 mounted on a tripod. Camera set to automatic mode with focus at infinity. Magnification is maximum 42x for all but the last image. All photos were done using a 2 or 10 second self-timer delay to minimize shutter bounce. All pictures are raw and unprocessed except for size.

9:03 PM. While the umbral phase of the eclipse was supposed to start at 9:07 PM , there seems to be a good deal of umbral shadow already on the left side of the Moon. 
So, funny story: I base all my timings on what the clock on my camera says. I mean, if a $7.88 watch from Walmart set to atomic clock time can be trusted to keep one-second accuracy for weeks or months, then surely the built-in clock on a relatively expensive Turns out my camera clock was running four minutes fast. Which would explain why some of the images I got weren't exactly what I expected: I was four minutes too early.

9:06 PM. Umbral darkening obvious. Remember, this shadow is being cast obliquely along the edge of the Moon. 
The picture above should have been just before the umbra (the dark center portion of the shadow of the Earth) began to cover the left side of the Moon. Instead, it seems like the umbra reached out a bit further than expected. Extra-cloudy conditions in the upper atmosphere, perhaps?

9:20 PM. The curvature of the Earth's umbra is obvious now.
9:39 PM. Umbral shadow nearly halfway across the Moon.
9:54 PM. Umbral shadow most of the way across the Moon.
10:17. A few minutes before totality. Note the stars around the Moon. 
So I was wondering why, at totality (10:20 PM), a very bright edge of the Moon still seemed obvious. Turns out it was because totality was still three minutes in the future!

10:36 PM. Nine minutes into totality.
OK, now that's a totally eclipsed Moon!

10:50 PM. Three minutes past "maximum eclipse," the midpoint of totality, but exactly the published time of the Full Moon!
The midpoint of totality was scheduled for 10:47 PM, while the moment of "Full Moon" was calculated as 10:50 PM.

10:51 PM. Zoomed out to show the stars around the Moon. At totality the Moon hangs in the sky like a fading ember against a starry background.


As 11:00 PM rolled around I decided to call it a night. My alarm would be going off in a few hours and I would be off to my first day of Jury Duty. I posted some raw images to Facebook directly from my memory chip, looked at what other folks were posting, cleaned up the mess I had made with food and drinks while I kept yo-yo-ing between taking photos and posting photos. I shut everything down, put away my tripod and camera, and closed up my Chromebook.

I stepped outside to get one last look. Eyes-only, no camera.

A bright line was showing along the lower left of the Moon. The umbra was sliding away. No, that's not right. The Moon was continuing its journey in orbit around the Earth, and was sliding past the umbra.

Whatever frame of reference you use, the last total lunar eclipse of this series was over. Time for bed.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Lessons learned from the NEPA BlogCon 2015

It's been a week and a half since the 2015 NEPA BlogCon, and I'm still soaking it all in. The fourth edition of this conference was the biggest and, in my opinion, the best yet.

Ashley Ambirge delivers the keynote address at the 2015 NEPA BlogCon

The last two presentations, from Catherine Shefsky ( and Ashley Ambirge (, were the most memorable for me, and the ones from which I took a lot of takeaways. I'd love to compare notes with other attendees and see what they found most memorable and useful.

(Mark your calendars - the 2016 NEPA BlogCon is penciled in for October 15, 2016!)

My takeaways:

  • People won't take your blog seriously if you do not take it seriously.
This was one of Ashley's points. I had a dark night of the soul a few years ago with NEPA Blogs, thinking it was pointless and useless and no one was reading it or benefiting from it. Then I discovered that someone had actually been "scraping" the blog, copying the text of each post and reposting it to their own blog. Attribution was still given to me - but links were set up to make it look like I was writing for their blog. I got that situation taken care of - but then realized that if what I was doing was worth stealing, then it was worth doing.

I've had a few more crises since then, when my blog has felt like the lowest priority in my life. But it has value. It's therapeutic. And if I want people to take it seriously, I should, too, and make a point to post more frequently.
  • Your blog is a place where you give yourself permission to be you.
This, for me, is a given. This is my place. No editor, no proofreader, no staff, no management. Whatever needs to be done, I have to do it, and I'm going to do it my way, without fear of how anyone might take it.
  • Your blog isn't a little thing you do on the side, it's your very own publishing company - and you should treat it like one.
Same thing. I've always found it interesting that people might actually be waiting to see what I would post next. For a while I was posting to Another Monkey daily, but that wore me out, and some days I was posting just to post. Newspapers get posted daily and end up lining birdcages or training puppies. Magazines publish weekly or monthly and get piled up in bathrooms and waiting rooms. Some things publish quarterly and get put on a bookshelf. I think I need to get myself on a schedule: post to Another Monkey at least once a week, to NEPA Blogs twice a week beyond the Blog of the Week post, and to Shoot the Moon as available - but at least once a month.
  • Give your readers something to relate to, to see themselves in your posts.
This has always been something I've tried to do. In blogging, writing, poetry, photography, painting, I've always tried to give the reader or viewer something to hang their hat on.
  • It's easy to lose your blog readership by giving up and walking away. It's harder to get them back.
I've done that. And I'm trying to bring them back.
  • Don't sell yourself short. Your blog is valuable - and so is the network of contacts you've built through it.
Damn straight. Catherine told a story of literally selling her site short - half the money up front, half at a later time. The buyer got her site, got her mailing list, and never made the second payment.
  • Don't give away your work for free. Otherwise, you may find someone else making a profit from it.
This was a lesson I learned from an episode of the sitcom "Perfect Strangers." Cousin Larry was trying to impress a photographer he admired, and Balki managed to make a mess of things. (I don't recall all the details, this was from twenty-eight years ago.) In the end the photographer idol gives Larry positive feedback about one of his photographs. Larry is so overwhelmed that he offers it  to his hero. The photographer sternly rebukes Larry, admonishing him "Never give away your art." For some reason, that stuck with me. Catherine told a story of how she had assembled some of her piano instructionals into an eBook that she gave away for free - only to find later that it was being used as a textbook at Juliard schools.
  • If your readership stays with you, they will grow and change along with you - and your new interests may become their new interests.
When Catherine lost her mailing list for her site - this was before "blog" was a word - about elementary education, she was miffed. Years later, when she was working on a blog aimed at empty-nesters, parents whose children had grown up and moved away, she realized that the people on that lost mailing list were the target audience for her new site.
  • You have a book in you. You've probably already written it. It's easy to put it together as an eBook and sell it online.
I've had thoughts about turning some of my favorite posts into a book for a ling time. Catherine made me realize I could do that with less effort than I thought.
  • ...maybe even a coloring book. Coloring books are the new cupcakes. Do you have original images that you can turn into black-and-white coloring book pages?
This actually came from a conversation I had at lunch with the couple that runs One of their plans includes releasing art in coloring book form. Renenbering the popularity of adult coloring books with my friends, I quipped "Coloring books are the new cupcakes!" Then I remembered how I once planned to turn some of my stained glass window photos into coloring book pages. I never did - but I could. I know a sketch artist who could easily bundle together some of his sketches and release them as a NEPA-themed coloring book.

Those are just some of my takeaways. I'm sure over time I will think of some more. Were you at the NEPA BlogCon? What did you take away from it?

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

The Devil in the Pines (fiction)

Here's a story I wrote a few years ago, featuring my hard-boiled police detective who specializes in supernatural cases - think Harry Callahan meets Alexander Kolchak. I have plans for the character, including a Krampus story (an old man who shows up on the streets of New York speaking only German and having no knowledge of events of the past 75 years) and a story that opens with a gigantic white-haired figure impaled on (and by) the Matterhorn. There's a Krampus movie coming out this year, so I should finish that story before then.

This is just barely a first draft. Actually, it's pretty much missing a whole midsection. I may expand it and polish it up later.

(Original draft dated March 17, 2012)

The Devil in the Pines
(From the Memoirs of Harry McGavin)

April, 1978

"My girl, my girl, don't you lie to me.."

"Cripes, McGavin, will you quit it with that song? You sing it every time we come down this way."

Carl was my partner, and a damn good one. He didn't like my singing, especially when he was driving. That was just one of his faults. Still, he was a good man to have next to you in a tight spot.

"Beats listening to you wheeze. Allergies acting up? The boogeyman's gonna hear you a mile away."

I'll admit it, the place gives me the creeps. There's stuff down there that has no right to be. I should know, I've nailed some of it. But Lindbergh told us to go to the Pine Barrens, so to the Pine Barrens we went.

Our turn was coming up. It was easy to find, just past the rusting wreck of a Tripod. Nearly forty years on, nobody had bothered to clear it out. Hell, there were dozens of 'em all over New Jersey for the picking. There wouldn't be any more, thanks to those Viking landers. Billions and billions of cold germs, courtesy of the U.S. of A. Rust in peace, Martians.

We were here to investigate something. Not sure what. But it was weird enough that state and local police couldn't handle it. So they turned it over to us. The Monster Squad.

Department M is on the books. We're not some shadowy operation. We just deal with the things people don't want to think about, the stuff they want to pretend isn't real. Until it's in their face and there's no denying it. Then they call us.

We drove past the Midget Village. Most people don't believe in it, and folks who know about it think it's pretty much cut off from society. They have their own midget police force, led by a midget sheriff. But they coordinate with us when things need taking care of. Couple of years before, somebody thought it would be a good idea to dump Jimmy Hoffa in the Midget Village, figuring nobody would ever hear about it. He barely got a mile out of town before a midget posse took him down. Turned him over to us the next day. I don't think he ever wants to see a midget again.

It took another twenty minutes to get to our first stop. Godforsaken shack in the middle of nowhere. Still, this woman got attacked by something. The Jersey Devil, she said. Hell, that's what people think our job is, keeping the world safe from the Jersey Devil.  That's crap. I put a cold iron slug between the devil's eyes seven years ago. I keep his skull on my desk as a paperweight. This was something else.

She was the typical sort you get out here. She and her husband were loners. This was her parents' place. They moved in thirty-six years ago.  No kids. She lived alone since her husband died last year.

Two nights ago something showed up at her door. Rang the doorbell. Do they think the Jersey Devil would ring a doorbell? Could have been a man, but had a "scary face." Maybe a mask. Whatever it was screamed at her and shot her with something. Ball lightning, she said. She had some burns, nothing too bad. Knocked her down but not out. Then it ransacked her house and took some cash.

The Jersey Devil wouldn't be looking for cash.

It would be a standard police matter if it weren't for the fact that there had been a pattern of these attacks all over this part of the Barrens. And whatever was doing it got away by jumping off like some sort of oversized flea.

We had four more witnesses to track down and talk to. All gave the same basic description. Man-sized, on the tall side, maybe too tall. Crazy face. Bulging eyes, red, glowing. Metal claws, maybe. A jumper that put Fosbury to shame. And some sort of gun that shot electric bubbles. Well, we'd be ready there. I'd plugged our Tesla wands into the car charger before we left, and they were both in the green. We'd be good to take down a herd of yeti.

The sun had already set when we finished with our fifth interview and checked into the motel. I tossed my bag onto the bed, took a whiz, and headed back out to the car. We drove to a diner down the road to go over our notes and get a bite to eat.

After we'd plowed through our burgers and pie Carl sat back and lit one up. "Common criminal," he said. "We shouldn't even be on this. Just a guy in a costume robbing people."

"And the jumping?" I said, taking a swig from my coffee. Black, hot, bitter and strong. Like my women. "And the gun? Not something a common criminal has access to."

"Special shoes, maybe. Or maybe he's some sort of Olympic star down on his luck."

"Great, we're gonna take down the guy on the Wheaties box. And how does this guy get tech like that?"

"Dunno," Carl said, taking a drag on his cigarette. "Nobody should have that."

We went over the map. We were in the right place. There was no pattern to the attacks, but we were smack dab in the middle of them. Whoever it was was looking for money, jewelry, typical stuff. We'd made a list of unique pieces and we'd be hitting all the pawn shops within fifty miles tomorrow. Way I saw it, we'd have to be stupid lucky to get a lead.

We were stupid lucky.

We should've known something was wrong when we pulled up to the motel. The parking lot was dark. So was the sign in front. So were all the rooms. Nine-thirty and nobody was watching pay-per-view porn? That didn't make sense.

Carl parked by our rooms. Fifteen hours of togetherness was a bit much, and I was ready for some alone time.

I reached down to pull my wand from the charger and realized Carl hadn't taken his.

I looked up at the open door on Carl's side of the car. I could just see Carl in the moonlight. He was standing up, stretching a bit, when a glowing blue bubble hit him in the small of the back.

I rolled out of the car. Dammit, this was my favorite suit, and I was gonna have Pine Barrens dirt all over it. Through the open doors of the car I saw a thing with glowing red eyes just moving into position next to where Carl was sprawled on the other side. The moonlight glinted off the gun it had aimed right at Carl's chest.

I thumbed my wand to maximum and fired it through the open doors of the car at the glowing red eyes.

It screamed. It wasn't a human scream. It must've scared the crap out of those women. I guess it was trying to. This time it had reason to scream. Half a million volts washed over it from my wand. One of its glowing red eyes popped.

It fell over backwards. I was afraid it might react to my shot by leaping away, but it never had a chance. By now my eyes had adjusted to the dark, and by the moonlight and the glow of the dome light I saw wisps of smoke coming from the oversized hooves it had for feet. I figured its jumper wasn't working anymore.

I kept it covered with my wand while I scrambled across the bench seat and out the other door. I did a quick check of Carl. He was breathing. Probably just stunned. None of the women this thing had attacked had even been knocked out, but I had a feeling it hadn't been planning to be so gentle with us.

I turned my attention to the thing on the ground. It also looked like it was breathing. Too bad. The Tesla wand isn't a lethal weapon, but it can be a bitch on electrical circuits. If you happen to be wearing electrical gear, you're gonna feel it in the morning.

The eye that had popped was hanging from the face, attached by some wires. There was a human-looking eye behind the hole that had been left behind. The face was some kind of mask.

Besides the mask and the oversized hooves and the metal-tipped gloves, the guy seemed to be wearing normal clothes. Black turtleneck. Charcoal sport coat. Black slacks. A little shabby. A lot worse for wear. I started patting him down for weapons - other than the bubble gun, which I'd kicked away - and maybe some I.D.

"So who the hell is he?" said Carl, groggily.

"Glad you're still with us," I said, not even turning to him. "As usual, I get to do all the work. You expect a guy like this to carry I.D.?"

I pulled his wallet out of the inside pocket of his sport coat, looked for his driver's license. Guy still had a BankAmericard. They stopped using those two years ago.

"Edison," I said. "Jack Edison. Heard of him?"

"Yeah, as a matter of fact, I have." Carl had gotten up on his elbows now to look at his attacker. "Failed businessman. Great-grandson of the inventor, the guy who fought with Westinghouse. I guess inventing ran in his family."

"Those jumping shoes would be worth something," I said. "The ball lightning gun, too. The mask is probably night vision goggles and some sort of voice scrambler. What the hell's he doing robbing little old ladies in the Pine Barrens?"

"Maybe trying to scrounge up enough money to hire a patent attorney.  What happened to the lights?" Carl said, looking around. "Dammit, I should have noticed they were out."

"He probably saw us check in here. Took out the electricity when we left the diner."

"Huh." Carl rubbed his jaw. "And the manager's probably in the basement with a flashlight trying to figure out what's wrong."

The local cops and an ambulance crew showed up after I called them from the diner. Carl checked out fine, but I had a feeling he wouldn't be if Edison had gotten in another shot. We turned Edison over to them, but confiscated his tech. He wouldn't be filing any patent applications where he was going. The ConWest crew showed up an hour later and got the power back on.

Looked like our trip to the Pine Barrens was going to be cut short. That's fine. Newark's not anything special, but it's home, sort of.

I helped Carl to his room. I was ready for a shower and bed.  I left him there as he began to undo his tie.

"Hey, McGavin," he said as I swung the door closed. "That's one that I owe you."

"Yeah," I said. I lost track of our tally years ago, but I was pretty sure I was ahead. Maybe. "You can pay me back next time."

Monday, September 07, 2015

The Mixtape

I lost my clip-on sunglasses in my car yesterday. While fishing around on the sides of the passenger seat, I found an old mixtape tucked between the seat and the door.

Side A is labeled 10/24/93, while Side B was apparently recorded a week later on 10/31/93 - Halloween. Nearly twenty-two years ago.

I plucked off some clumps of dust, blew out stuff from inside, and tightened up the tape on the wheels. Will it still play?, I wondered. Will it just ruin my tape deck? My 1996 Toyota Tercel has a tape deck. Not the original tape deck, which gave up the ghost after a few years. This is a replacement unit, which I bought in early 2002 prior to my trip to Salem, Massachusetts. I haven't played tapes in in in many years, though I have more recently used a cassette adapter to patch in music from a portable CD player.

I popped it in. The familiar hiss began to pour out of the speakers. Then, the old familiar opening guitar riffs of U2's The Fly.

I was heading into Wilkes-Barre to take advantage of a coupon from Pet Supplies Plus. The coupon expired the next day, Labor Day, and I had plans for that day that would probably keep me from getting there before closing time. As I crawled along Hazle Street The Fly ended and the tape went silent. Broken? No, I remembered what song was next, and remembered it had a long, slow, quiet buildup.  I cranked the volume and was soon blasting P.J. Harvey's Rid of Me as I drove along Northampton Street. This was followed by a live version of High by The Cure and Metallica's version of Stone Cold Crazy from a Freddy Mercury tribute album. I wound up in a turn-only lane as the next song started up, something I didn't recognize, a soft, country-ish version on The Cure's In Between Days. (I had to look this up: it was John Eddie from an unreleased Cure tribute album, instead put out on Rubaiyat, an album celebrating Elektra Records' 40th anniversary.)

This took me to the pet store, where I picked up cat litter and cat treats (two different types of each, all on sale.)

Pulling out of the parking lot I heard a Led Zeppelin song whose name I can't recall and whose lyrics I could not decipher. (Fun fact: about as much time had passed between the time this song was recorded and the time I put it on the mixtape as has passed between the making of the mixtape and now.) This was followed by Whiskey Train by Procul Harum, Come Around by Sugar, and made it back home listening to Finest Worksong by REM.

Coming up next is a song by My Bloody Valentine and another by U2. Then on to Side B, and more songs I liked enough to put on a mixtape.

It's weird listening again to the music I was listening to when I was twenty-five years old. Some of the songs have held up, some have not. I am someone who recognizes and keeps things of lasting value, but I do not believe in wallowing in nostalgia. If I were to make a mixtape today, what songs would I put on it? What would it sound like in 2037, when (if I live so long) I would be sixty-nine years old?