Sunday, December 27, 2020

Season of Lights

Jupiter and Saturn shine over Christmas lights

Christmas 2020 is in the books. Millions of people ignored the advice of the leading medical experts and decided to visit family and friends in spite of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic raging across the country. Someone decided to set off a truck bomb - an RV - in downtown Nashville, and took out telephone, internet, and 911 service for much of Tennessee and points beyond. Donald Trump has spent the days since he left Washington, D.C. golfing at his golf club in Florida, and finally decided to sign off on a spending bill - one day after missing the deadline to ensure that supplemental unemployment payments would continue uninterrupted.

Christmas lights are starting to come down around town. It's been my observation that the people who demand that everyone begin saying "Merry Christmas!" early in November, those who proclaim themselves to be the most fanatically devoted to Christmas, are the same ones who undecorate in a frenzy as soon as Christmas is past.

Fiber optic tree with blue LED lights and a miniature LED tree.

Crystal icicles and shiny ornaments capture the sunlight.

Spumoni in the window

Jupiter and Saturn continue their dance, much lower and farther apart then when they were at their closest in 800 years on Monday, December 21, 2020. This was the first clear night we had since Saturday, December 19. 

Jupiter and Saturn, 5:20 PM on December 27, 2020, six days after their closest encounter in 800 years. We have had solid clouds since December 18.

Sinking beneath the wires. This may be the last night I observe these two before they slip behind the Sun.

COVID-19 continues to rage uninterrupted. Vaccinations have begun, but there is a long way to go. As of this week, 1 in every 1000 Americans has died of COVID-19. Many more will die before this is over.

COVID-19 may be continuing uninterrupted, but testing and reports of deaths may have been interrupted by the holiday. This week's numbers may be low because of that.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Fourth week of Advent


Saturn and Jupiter, December 19, 2020. Jupiter says PEW PEW PEW PEW
No Advent Wreath image this week, again - I guess that first one was a fluke. Meanwhile, Saturn and Jupiter move toward their tightest appearance for the next 800 years on Monday, December 21, 2020, but we will likely be clouded out then, just as we were tonight. These images from Saturday, December 19 may be the best shots I'll get.

In this image, taken as soon as the sky got dark enough to see the planets, the shape of Saturn can be clearly seen.

It snowed Wednesday, a lot. We had nearly two feet of relatively dry, light stuff, though in other areas the snow is wetter and heavier. Binghamton, NY had nearly four feet, which will eventually melt and flow into the Susquehanna River.

The first shipments of COVID-19 vaccine have started going out, and the first shots are going into arms. Many of those arms belong to politicians who have downplayed and dismissed the seriousness of this virus or even the existence of a pandemic - they now say they want to set a good example. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is considering declaring martial law to try to stay in power. The consequences of the Great American Fuck-Up of 2016 will continue to reverberate for decades.

Romeo died this week. I will pick up his ashes in a few days. Homer has some weird swelling on one side of his face which may be affecting his eye. I took him to the vet on Friday, and we have a follow-up Christmas Eve. Ray also needs to go into the vet soon for a swelling in his ear.

After some effort, we have our Christmas tree up and decorated.

Christmas is almost here!

Monday, December 14, 2020

Romeo, April 4, 2004 - December 14, 2020

Romeo has died.

Romeo, March 7, 2018

Romeo was one of three animals we inherited from a neighbor when she died in 2011. Hershey died in 2015, and Baby Boy in 2016.

Romeo, Baby Boy, Hershey

Romeo was a honey-blonde longhair. The neighbor got him in 2004 or 2005, as part of a pair - "Juliet" was a dark brown longhair. The neighbor had many, many issues. Juliet vanished sometime before the final crisis on 2011 that put the neighbor in the hospital in late August or early September and caused her to die three months later. When I began taking care of Hershey and Baby Boy in her house while she was in the hospital, I found Romeo lurking in the garden outside. I brought him into her house, and we took the three of them into our house when it was clear the neighbor would not be coming back. I soon found that Romeo's long hair was full of fully engorged ticks, which I carefully removed and destroyed.

(Later, when the cleaning crew was removing the accumulated piles of junk from the neighbor's house, they found Juliet's  mummified corpse on the back porch.)

At first Romeo was a nasty cat, rude and aggressive to the others in the house. He ran away a time or two, but always came back eventually. One day he began displaying disturbing behavior - inappropriate pooping, sometimes right in front of me.  I examined his poop and spotted long white filaments in it. Then I noticed they were moving. I knew I had to get him to the vet.

I warned the vet that Romeo might be difficult, that he had a tendency to be aggressive toward other cats. As he and the techs examined him, Romeo began to purr, the first time I had ever heard him purr. He was in ecstasy. He was the center of attention and he loved it. Now I understood. From that point on I made a point to make Romeo the "special" cat, the "featured" cat, once in a while. He was never nasty again.

Romeo's long hair was an issue. We had never had a longhair before, and even with regular brushing and annual haircuts, his hair would get knotted and matted, and he would cough up huge hairballs. I bought a hairball treatment for him that he came to see as his special treat.

The last few weeks he had been uninterested in his hairball treats. He lost a lot of weight. His matting got worse and worse, despite everything I did to brush and comb and tear and cut them out. Last week he stopped jumping up on the windowsill -  I assembled a makeshift set of steps for him. He became uninterested in food over the weekend, though he wolfed down half a can of kitten food Friday or Saturday morning. I began giving him syringes of water and a mineral supplement. Maybe it was already too late.

He was still moving around the house this morning. But when I went to check on him on my first break this afternoon, I found him dead in the bathroom. He was still warm, still soft and flexible. He had probably died just a few minutes before I checked on him.

In the morning we will take him to be cremated.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Third Sunday of Advent

On Gaudete Sunday, we wear pink. Well, rose. 

No Advent Wreath image this week, so we'll have to make due with an image of Father Shawn Simchock, the new assistant pastor of Saint Fausrina Kowalska in Nanticoke, PA wearing the rose vestments that are worn twice a year - Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent and Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent.

The Third Sunday of Advent tells us that Christmas is almost here, and we'd better have our preparations well under way. It can be as early as December 11 (if Christmas is on a Sunday)  or as late as December 17 (if Christmas is on a Monday.) This year Christmas is on a Friday, so it falls on December 13.

Now things are reaching a frantic pitch. And the world isn't stopping or slowing down, not even during a pandemic. Personally, I received a bit of terrifyingly bad (not health-related) news earlier this week, something I haven't really been able to fully grasp yet, but something that will be waiting for me in the new year. Also: One of our cats appears to be dying. He is the last of the three animals we inherited from a neighbor, and is probably between sixteen and eighteen years old. Two other cats appear to have conditions that need to be looked at by a vet sooner rather than later. Bills past due are reaching their final due date. Things that have been put off too long need attending to. Donald Trump's last-ditch effort to have the Supreme Court overturn the election was rejected, 9-0, and tomorrow the Electoral College vote will make the Biden/Harris victory official.

Though that's not keeping Trump from ranting and raving. Looking forward to seeing his Twitter account shut down for TOS violations on the afternoon of January 20, 2021. (UPDATE: Trump was actually permanently banned from Twitter for repeated TOS violations on January 8, 2021.)

The pandemic is ramping up. Shutdown restrictions have increased, but so has resistance to them. The UK has started getting vaccines in arms. The first vaccines in the US have started shipping and administration is expected in two weeks.

I made Rocks yesterday, for the first time in about ten years, using whiskey from a bottle from my friend Marc's stash, four years and a day after he died.

I am shipping Christmas gifts tomorrow. Delivery is expected to be late. They may not be arriving before Christmas.

Saturn and Jupiter are moving closer together in the post-sunset sky, but visibility is getting more difficult. The weather isn't helping. I had two clear seeing days last week, December 10th and 11th. Maximum approach will be December 21. After that, they will quickly be lost in the glare of the Sun.

December 10, 2020, 6:16 PM. Moons of Jupiter: Left: Io (lost in glare of Jupiter); Right: Ganymede, Europa, Callisto

December 11, 2020, 6:00 PM. Moons of Jupiter:  Left: Ganymede, Europa; Right: Io, Callisto (distant, faint)

Christmas is coming, and coming fast.

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

First REAL snow, December 9, 2020


About two inches of snow have fallen on Nanticoke as of 1:00 this afternoon. Crunchy snow. Good snowball and snowman snow.

I was not ready. The car snow brush was buried deep in the car under numerous items that have been purchased and never brought into the house, toilet paper and paper towels and cat pads.

Nanticoke was ready. Streets were well-plowed as I took my mom to this morning's appointment.

Whoever was responsible for the Sans Souci - not sure if that's Hanover Township or the state of Pennsylvania - was not ready. The road was for the most part unplowed. I white-knuckled it at twenty miles per hour from the doctor's office to Michael Mootz Candies, one of the only stores I have allowed myself to enter in the last nine months. (I was the only non-employee in the store.) The drive back was a little better, but still terrifying.

Soon I have to go to work. I'll need to shovel the sidewalks tonight or tomorrow morning.

Sunday, December 06, 2020

Second week of Advent: Christmas soon to come

No Advent wreath shots from this week's Mass, so we'll have to settle for two other lights: Saturn and Jupiter (and the moons of Jupiter!), taken just after sunset on Sunday, December 6, 2020. The two largest planets in our system will appear closest to each other just after sunset on Monday, December 21.  

Christmas decorating continues. No baking has been done yet. I've run through some end-of-year expenses and am making some hard decisions about purchasing gifts this year.

I've been stretching my writing muscles again after a long period of abstinence. I wrote a bit of Star Wars fanfiction that I first conceived of back in 2005. I've been planning to write some whole-cloth mythology for Northeastern Pennsylvania - something that doesn't rely on existing native American mythology (more on that below) or any mythology of more recent immigrants. Something rooted in this area, something that answers some questions about the oddities of this area. 

One of those oddities: much of Northeastern Pennsylvania, including the Wyoming Valley where I live, never had full-time or even long-term native inhabitants. The Iroquois Confederacy built its empire in upstate New York, conquering and absorbing smaller tribes. Other independent tribes established territories east and south and west of here, but for the most part, this was just a seasonal hunting and fishing ground, often shared by several tribes but occupied by none. (The Iroquois eventually claimed it, but they claimed a lot of territory.) Why didn't anyone want to live here? The area is beautiful, the land is fertile, the mountains are long, gentle, rolling things, like the backs of giant lizards. And the great crescent-shaped valley that fills much of the northeastern corner of the state is rich in anthracite coal, known even before the coming of white men to the area. 

I've got an answer. I'm inventing the mythology, a mythology that precedes any human presence. I have stories to write that are based on this mythology, but first I wanted to get the mythology written out. Or at least, a telling of the mythology, with gaps and omissions. Let's just say spiders are our friends, and there's a reason they dwell in and around our houses.

In the same way I'm thinking of creating a new set of traditions for the four weeks of Advent.

I started last week, I suppose. The first week of Advent evoked a flood of memories of Advents and Christmases past. It is important to remember the past, but it is important not to dwell there full-time. So in the second week of Advent, we should turn out attention to the present - at least, the near future, the Christmas coming in less than three weeks. Now is the time to decorate, to buy presents (to avoid the rush of coming weeks), to make up lists of where to send cards, to locate recipes and make sure you have all the needed ingredients. It is also the time to close the books on the current year, to avoid having to worry about that in the final weeks of December.

Meanwhile: the Thanksgiving surge in COVID-19 cases looms before us like a coming storm. We knew what could happen. Many people chose to ignore the warnings about traveling and gathering for Thanksgiving. Now is the time we will begin to see what effect this will have. How many people will be sick for Christmas? 

A coming conjunction. A coming spike. A coming Christmas.

Things will soon start to move very quickly. What will be the focus of the third week of Advent? I guess we'll find out in a week.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Advent in the time of COVID-19

The Advent Wreath at St. Faustina Kowalska Parish in Nanticoke, PA. Picture is a frame grab from the conclusion of the streamed broadcast of the November 28, 2020 Mass. We are attending Mass online, and have been doing so for several months.

Advent, at least according to the homily delivered at yesterday's Mass, is intended to be a time of reflection and penitence. But that's not the way I remember learning about it as a kid in Catholic School in the 1970s. I (mostly) went to school at Blessed John Neumann, the school attached to the parish of Our Lady of Czestochowa, commonly known as St. Mary's. (I attended grades 2, 4, and possibly 6 at St. Stanislaus halfway across town, as part of a facilities-sharing plan that foreshadowed the parish consolidation that was to come decades later.) Every Friday in Advent we would gather in the second-floor corridor and hold a wreath-lighting ceremony, complete with Advent songs - I especially remember "O Come O Come Emmanuel," but we sang other songs like "What Child is This," "The King of Glory," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and "Behold a Virgin Bearing Him," a personal favorite. For us, Advent was a countdown to Christmas, a time of presents and goodies and time off from school. The Advent ceremonies were little breaks from classes, generally at or near the end of the day.

I have fond memories of Advent. For me, this was a time of preparation and anticipation. This was when decorating would get done - our tree always went up the weekend after Thanksgiving - the time to finalize wish lists and do some Christmas shopping at crowded, lavishly-decorated malls full of music and the sound of Salvation Army bell-ringers, the time to paw through the Wish Book from Sears as well as lesser catalogues published by Stroud's and Jewelcor and Bartikowski's (all local independent retailers, now closed) and Montgomery Ward. It was usually the time of the first major snowfalls, the big, fluffy, fun snows of December, not the more miserable cold, heavy, icy snows of January and February. This was when the Christmas specials would air, the classics from Rankin-Bass and the more modern oddities, when variety shows and sitcoms alike would air special holiday episodes. This was when my mother and grandmother would begin making cookies, chocolate chips and bird's nests (called by others "thumbprint cookies") and sugar ("cut-out") cookies and "rocks," whiskey-soaked fruitcake cookies that were often as hard as their namesakes.  It was a good time, and the weekly lighting of the Advent wreath would slowly mark the passage of time.

The catalogs are gone, for the most part, and much gift shopping is done online. Shopping at a mall, what malls remain, seems like suicidal insanity. Christmas TV specials are mostly offered as Boomer and Gen-X nostalgia. What decorating is done is done, for the most part, by me. What cookies are made are made by me. Temperatures have been unseasonably warm, and there is no snow in the forecast.

I have meant for years to set up a home Advent wreath - an LED one, of course, with three purple candles and one pink ("rose") candle. Year after year I have never gotten around to it, and this is not the year to go rummaging around Michael's or the basement of Boscov's for the required components. So frame grabs from my parish's weekly church services will have to do. 

With each week that ticks by, we are one week closer to Christmas - and to the end of the time of COVID-19.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

First snow, November 17, 2020

November 17, 2020. Nearly 250,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. Donald Trump continues to refuse to accept the results of the U.S. Presidential Election (he lost, for the record), refuses to allow transition activities to begin, and is in fact manipulating U.S. troops to create a crisis for Joe Biden the moment he enters office. Hospitals are overwhelmed. Thousands are lining up for food handouts.

And it snowed in Northeastern Pennsylvania for the first time this season.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Two more dreams: The Presentation and The Prison

I had a strangely detailed dream Tuesday morning. I had another Wednesday morning. I want to preserve them.

In Tuesday's dream, I had been asked by a friend to give a brief and humorous presentation on the topic of...masturbation. It would be done as a slide show, and was to last about ten minutes. I decided my presentation would cover a broad history of the topic, mentioning The Sin of Onan (who "spilled his seed on the ground" rather than have intercourse with his own daughters, as God had commanded), masturbation celebrated in music ("She Bop" by Cyndi Lauper, "I Touch Myself" by the DiVinyls), and famous masturbators who had gotten caught in the act (Paul "Pee Wee Herman" Reubens, who was arrested in 1991 for masturbating in a porn movie theater, and, in a nod to current events, political commentator Jeffrey Toobin, who had been caught earlier that day masturbating on a Zoom call during a simulation of the upcoming Presidential election.)

That was the plan, anyway. In practice I never got around to preparing any of this, and now it was the day of the presentation.

The presentation would be in the second floor of The Gallery, a building that no longer exists on the campus of the University of Scranton. In the mid-to-late 80s, The Gallery was an old Chemistry building repurposed as offices, some classroom space, and a large study lounge that occupied the second floor of the building. The lounge was also the site of the art gallery that gave the building its name. I was there only a few times. I remember the large windows that were treated with an energy-saving film that reflected sunlight during the day, but reflected internal light at night. In the dream I needed to have some of these windows removed. I brought in a crew and a crane and we carefully chiseled out a bank of windows and removed them, only to discover that we had accidentally removed a built-in large screen TV that I planed to use for my presentation. We decided to clean the TV - it hadn't been cleaned in over a decade - and reinstall it.

I awoke realizing that the amount of mental work I had done in the dream would have allowed me to actually create this presentation with just a little more effort.

This morning's dream was a lot more serious. I had been arrested as a political dissident in a society slightly more authoritarian than our own. I was imprisoned in a large, labyrinthine prison in the wilderness outside of town. I was not yet being subject to punishment or re-education, and may have been awaiting trial.I managed to slip out of my cell and, with the aid of others, was able to find a way out, a sort of broad water outlet like the overflow of an infinity pool, that formed a small waterfall down the side of the building and outside. As is often the case in my dreams, it was a very tight fit. We had to remove our bulky jackets to get out. (Otherwise our prison garb was all-gray, much like the stuff worn by Kirk and Spock when they were prisoners on the Roman planet in Star Trek.)

I was quickly recaptured and put back in prison with no known consequences. I immediately set out to escape again. This time I was accompanied by Lo, who I had known in real life several years ago. When we got to the escape point I decided I would not try to squeeze through the tight opening again, and decided instead to walk through the lobby and out the front door, after announcing my intentions to the desk guard. I was seized and once again recaptured.

This time I was to be taken for what I assumed would be psychological torture. Among the people assigned to me was a young, evil, clean-cut, 1960's version of Chaz, the now-deceased leader of the writing group Lo and I had belonged to. He was stern but friendly to me in the manner of O'Brien in 1984. He told me about writing he had done that I had never known about, including some writing for science-fiction comic books in the 1960's. He opened a locker and let me see a few. He told me that, when all this was over he wanted me to organize and curate all of his writings for eventual publication. I was flattered by this offer, and some of the other prison officials expressed jealousy.

Lo's mother was summoned, apparently played by Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles, but with long, curly, unkempt, black-and-gray hair, looking much like Bellatrix Lestrange from the Harry Potter movies. She was there to be interrogated and, apparently, punished in her daughter's place.

I don't remember much other than that. Just a feeling of everlasting hopelessness, a feeling that others would suffer punishments, sometimes for things I had done, but I would be OK as long as I played along. Overall, a very bleak and disturbing dream.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Dream: Back to Work

Someone posted a question on Twitter the other day: Has anyone been having especially weird dreams lately?

It's a weird time in America. Deaths from COVID-19 continue to rise. Donald Trump, who somehow won the electoral college in 2016 and was installed as president, has managed, after considerable effort, to contract the virus, and while he received levels of treatment unavailable to us peasants, it is likely he is still infected - and he insists on having in-person campaign events, including one yesterday at the White House. (2000 were invited. About 400 showed up. Word is many of those who showed up were paid to do so.) Trump is trying to push through hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, the ultra-conservative activist judge (with three years experience on the bench) he nominated to fill the Supreme Court seat of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg just days after Ginsburg's death and less than two months before the election. Right-wing terrorists in Michigan have been arrested for plotting to abduct Governor Gretchen Whitmer and overthrow the state government through armed violent insurrection. Huge swaths of the west coast are still on fire. We've run out of letters in the alphabet for hurricanes in the Atlantic, and Louisiana is currently dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Delta. Less than four weeks to the election, Luzerne County's mail-in ballots were (allegedly) just sent out on Friday from a facility in Akron, Ohio.

I'm still working from home, as I have been since March. My organization is taking this disease seriously, but there are concerns that the top management of our parent company may issue a business-as-usual order and call us back to the building at any time. And that's what my dream was about.

It didn't start off like that. Or maybe it did. It started off with me going to visit my cousin a block away, something I haven't done since the disease took hold in this area. While in real life she is holding a book for me that she acquired from the books-for-sale shelves at the library where she works, in the dream I think I was going up to pick up some plants. I got them from her father, who has been dead for fifteen years, and we spoke briefly, possibly about me going back to work.

Next thing I knew I was there, standing in line waiting to go back into the building for the first time in ages. (In reality I've been there two or three times since we bugged out.) I don't remember the process of getting inside, but I do recall that once inside I realized I wasn't wearing my ID - it was in my pocket. The building I went into wasn't the Kafkaesque office building that I actually work in, but seemed to be the nightmarishly complex factory building I last worked at in 2012 - and which was demolished earlier this year. I took a wrong turn almost immediately and realized I was lost. Looking down, I also realized I was barefoot, a startling and very odd detail.

I wandered the building for a very long time, well past my starting time, past areas where things that I couldn't comprehend were going on. (I am suddenly remembering that I have had several other dreams in a similar factory setting.) I finally found some people I could talk to and asked about directions to my work area. They tried to help me, but I wound up getting lost again, and at one point I stopped to scratch the belly of a large white wolf-dog that was casually stretched against a wall. Eventually I found my way to a security desk, and they had a helpful YOU ARE HERE map posted above their desk. I worked out that I was on the opposite end of the building from the area where I was supposed to be, an area marked SUTTON COMPLEX. I woke up wanting to look up where that name might have come from. 

Not pictured: The map from my dream

The facility in Olyphant, PA known as Specialty Records, WEA Manufacturing, CINRAM, and finally Technicolor. I worked here from 1992 - 2007 and again from 2007 - 2012. Technicolor closed down in 2018, and the place was finally demolished in June 2020. Fun fact: for much of the time I was there, my emergency evacuation spot was "the big oil tank in back," top center in picture - one of many places I would not want to be in the event of an emergency.
As far as dreams go, this isn't even in the top ten for weirdness. It seems like a variation of the standard "can't find my class" / "can't find the room for the final for the class I forgot to go to all semester" dream. The "barefoot" detail was something I've never had before.

(...I just remembered I had another dream a while ago, about being summoned back to Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Sciences as an adult. While I had a hard time finding the classroom and got there late, I wasn't the last one to show up, and I quickly relaxed when I realized that this was a program solely focused on learning about cutting-edge science, in a non-competitive, ungraded environment. I meant to write about that, but never did.)

Note 1: Getting lost in the bowels of a building is something I'm familiar with in real life.

Note 2: There was apparently a sequence in this dream where I attempted to make eggs for breakfast and discovered all of our eggs were broken. Some had fractured shells, others were completely shattered, bits of shell floating in raw eggs in the egg keeper. I was pretty upset about this, and was relieved to see that in reality our egg supply is intact.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Mars and the Moon, September 6, 2020

On the night of September 5/morning of September 6, 2020, the Moon passed relatively close to Mars in the sky, and even occulted Mars entirely for some observers.

For Moon watchers, this is kind of a big deal. There are a lot of stars in the sky, and the Moon moves on more or less the same track as the planets, so it seems like it should happen more often that the Moon can be observed passing in front of a star or planet. But in reality, space is big. Bright stars are fairly spread out. Dim stars can be washed out by the light of the moon, even in its partial phases. And we only get to observe the Moon part of the night most nights - from not at all at New Moon and the days before and after, when the Moon is too close to the Sun to be observed and there are no objects bright enough to be seen in the glare of the Sun (with the exception of the Sun itself when the Moon passes in front of it in an eclipse), to all night long in the case of a blindingly bright Full Moon (although some excellent observations of the Full Moon against background stars can be made during a lunar eclipse.)

In addition, the Moon is relatively close to us, as opposed to the stars and even the planets which, to a good first approximation, are infinitely far from us.  (They are not, of course.) So not every observer on Earth is seeing the Moon against the same background. For observers in northern Africa, northern South America, and a swath of the Atlantic between the two, the Moon passed directly in front of Mars. From my observing point, it was a good distance below.

Even the time of the event is variable based on location. This is due again to the relative nearness of the Moon and the effect of observing from various points on Earth. published a table of "appulse" times, the time when the Moon and Mars were closest together in the sky

I used a somewhat unscientific method to determine closest approach. I zoomed in at maximum, enough for the Full Moon to fill most of the vertical space on my viewsceen in landscape mode. But this Moon was barely three-quarters full, so I realized it would fit comfortably if I flipped the camera ninety degrees to portrait mode. When I did this just before midnight, I could just barely squeeze Mars and the Moon into the same frame. As the night wore on, this became easier to do. (I had to keep adjusting my frame because of the motion of the Earth, which makes it seem that objects in the sky are moving from East to West, and also because my tripod is not exactly rock solid - the weight of the camera tends to make the tripod settings slip.)

I took numerous photos that night, and chose some of the better ones from the beginning (12:11 AM), middle (12:17 AM), and end (12:20 AM) of the viewing session. (While I could have stayed out longer, heavy clouds started to appear, and it seemed that the Moon an Mars were past their closest approach, based on increasing difficulty re-framing them.) I have cropped these photos to include only Mars and the Moon. While it appears that Mars is moving past the Moon, most of the motion is due to the movement of the Moon in its orbit around the Earth, the movement of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun, and the rotation of the Earth.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

The Home Front by Brian Stableford

When the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded around us and a series of ad hoc responses began to fall into place (rather than the activation of the pandemic response plan developed by the two previous administrations, which had long ago been dismantled and discarded by the Trump administration), I realized that something felt familiar. Like I had read all of this in a story somewhere.

Turns out I had.

I'm not sure when Brian Stableford wrote "The Home Front." It was first published in 2002 in an anthology of new works celebrating the 30th anniversary of DAW Books.  I purchased it in the bargain section of Barnes & Noble. 

It is a story set during the First Plague War some time in the future. (I believe the approximate date of the action is 2130.) I have always found the short story unpleasant in tone, and perhaps this is intentional. The narrator is callous and selfish, the father to a family of four. He works from home, thanks to injuries suffered in a terrorist bombing some years before, as a trader specializing in biotech stocks - the annoyingly named "plantigens" and "plantibiotics", genetically modified plants that produce resistance factors to the latest manufactured plagues being used in a terror war. He lives with his wife and two daughters, the younger of whom is immunocompromised and subject to a variety of health concerns, while the older is a teenager rebelling against her family's confinement.  Both the father's ability to work from home and the younger daughter's online classes are presented as aberrations, neither common nor generally accepted. The narrator carefully watches the market to determine the best time to buy and sell the various genetically modified potato and carrot seeds and rootstocks on behalf of his clients, and he views both his sickly younger daughter and rebellious older daughter as distractions. (Spoiler alert: While the climax of the story revolves around a missed opportunity to take advantage of a transient market peak due to a sudden medical crisis for the younger daughter, we are informed in an almost offhand manner that the older daughter eventually contracted and died from something she picked up on one of her outings with her friends.)

Stableford describes a world in 2130 not very different front what the world would become in 2020. In reality, both working from home and online classes for children  are more common and accepted in our timeline than the one he presents. He accurately describes the difficulties for a family isolating together, and the rebellious older sister will be familiar to anyone who has watched in horror tinged with jealousy as crowds cavort without the slightest concern for the consequences.

"The Home Front" is not a pleasant story, nor is it particularly enlightening. But it is descriptive of a reality that so closely resembles our own that future generations may scoff at Stableford's apparent lack of imagination.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

The Contents of John Lewis' Backpack

one apple
one orange
one tube of toothpaste, for brushing his teeth in the holding cell
one toothbrush, same
one copy of "The American Political Tradition" by Richard Hosfstadter, pub. 1948
one copy of "The Seven Storey Mountain" by Thomas Merton, same

they broke his skull
lost his backpack
and he kept on marching

John Robert Lewis
February 21, 1940 - July 17, 2020
On the occasion of his memorial service, July 30, 2020

Wikipedia: James Lawson (activist) (speaker at John Lewis' funeral)
Wikipedia: Czesław Miłosz (poet quoted by James Lawson)

Tuesday, July 14, 2020


A new comet, just discovered in late March, is making its way through the pre-sunrise and post-sunset skies. Named Comet NEOWISE for the space telescope that discovered it, it is fading from view in the morning sky, and I wanted to try to capture it before it does.

Currently I am working from home due to COVID-19. I work night shift, 4:30 PM to 1:00 AM, which is convenient for a lot of reasons. I knew that this morning would be one of the last opportunities to see the comet in the morning. (Night viewing will require me to observe during my lunch.) I stayed awake after work, which is usually the case because of the large amount of coffee I drink from my lunch break on. I dozed a bit, but roused myself after 3:00 AM to check the sky for clouds. It was crystal clear, with Venus shining bright in the East.  I got myself together and headed out at 4:00.

The sky was beautiful and full of stars, but no comet that I could see. I swept the sky and the horizon with my camera, hoping to capture a hidden comet. Nothing. After about 45 minutes the sky was brightening, and I knew it would soon be impossible to see the comet, wherever it was. I took one more set of sweeping-the-horizon photos, snapped off a few others, and went in to go to bed.

I woke up just a few hours later and reviewed my photos, frustrated I couldn't see any comet. Then I spotted a faint blur lurking over a neighbor's house, just over the treetops.

And there it was.

So I captured the comet, even though I didn't know it. I would have liked to have been able to zoom in on it, but you take what you can get.

I snapped a few pictures of the Pleiades. In this one I also captured my neighbor's T.A.R.D.I.S. bird house, currently occupied by some purple-and-white tree sparrows.

And of course, I had to grab the Moon. The terminator is about to slide into a region relatively devoid of craters, so pictures after this will be somewhat less interesting. Not that I plan yo be up to take them.

One last shot, capturing the colors of the pre-dawn sky:

Now, to try to capture Comet NEOWISE in the evening.