Thoughts On Birds, Winter, & A Tree

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The birds must “know” that winter is nearly here. The days get short, the nights long, the sun is far to the south. Is there any comprehension at any level, or just instinct, the result of hundreds of millions of years of Darwinian selection?

The tree isn’t simply barren because of the season – this birch tree got some sort of disease and died about two years ago. Our gardener keeps asking when he should cut it down, but I keep putting it off. I sort of like the way it stands in the front yard, skeletal, white, the fractal branch patterns providing constant perches for the sparrows, mockingbirds, mourning doves, hummingbirds, and occasional crow or hawk.

Plus, for years we have put white Christmas lights and stars into the birch tree, its branches and the lights combining for a most pleasing sight. Where would I put the white lights and stars if I let them cut it down?

Then there’s winter, particularly winter in Southern California. I tease The Long-Suffering Wife about how she talks about retiring to Vermont when she’s only been there in spring, summer, and fall – she’s never seen a Vermont winter for even a weekend. But I realize that it’s been forty years since I have as well, and my middle aged body might have acclimated to the low-50’s being “freezing” and the 70’s in December being normal.

So while my brain stem periodically sends up longing feelings for the cycle of the seasons that seems so lost in life here, the more evolved parts of my brain keep saying, “Hold on, just a minute there…” Still, I would like to see four actual seasons again.

I wonder if the birds know how easy they’ve got it compared to their New England cousins. I wonder if either the SoCal sparrows or the New England sparrow give a damn either way.

I wonder if the birds appreciate the dead birch tree being left up for them.

Sometimes I just wonder why I wonder.

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Filed under Christmas Lights, Critters

Flash Fiction: Night Crusade

Once again for this week’s Flash Fiction Challenge we’re doing the Random Title thing. Chuck loves it – don’t even get him started! I rolled a 4 and a 16, which gives me the title “Night Crusade”. I have no idea where this came from or how it got to where it did, and I’m not sure it’s actually finished yet – but I think I like it.

As always, comments and constructive criticisms are appreciated.


The words never came during the day. She had tried, tried until she was depressed and drinking, tried until she had turned to threatening and pleading with God, tried until she found herself staring for hours at the rack of knives in the kitchen. But the words never came during the day.

Then the sun would go down. The planet rotated, the primary star passed across the distant, flat horizon. The sky would turn orange, pink, velvet, and grey. There would be whispers in the wind as it passed over the chimney, murmurings in the rumbling of traffic on the far off highway.

She had first heard them as a child, unaware that others didn’t share the experience. They spoke to her gently, calming her when she was angry, gently urging her on when she was tired. They were as much a part of her world as the sun, sky, and stars.

At night, lying in her bed, she would babble random conversations only she heard, sometimes echoing the words softly, sometimes singing them and mixing them with other words she had learned.

It was only when she got into school that she came to be aware the other children heard only noise where she heard a choir. In second grade, at her first sleepover party, while trading secrets, she asked her best friend if her words were the same as the ones she heard. The sudden laughing and teasing from all of the other girls hurt her and made her cry, but the words soothed her and told her it would be all right.

But she never told anyone else about the words.

As she grew, the words grew with her. She often wondered if the words had been more simple when she was younger or if she was just able to recognize more of them as she grew older and her vocabulary grew.

As a teenager, her curiosity piqued, she had spent long summer evenings lying out in the yard, listening, trying to find sentences or structure. She never heard an actual message, but in her heart she knew what the words were telling her.

She tried for a month to stay awake until dawn, just to see if the words faded away as the sun rose the same way they became audible as it set. She was never able to succeed, the words becoming hypnotizing and soothing, lulling her to sleep despite her determination. She learned the words weren’t angry with her for the effort, but she also knew they had things they did not want her to know, at least not yet.

Her reputation as a fey spirit, amplified by her dreamy, far off stare and her habit of occasionally whispering random words to herself, guaranteed her banishment from any of the popular cliques in high school. She did well in her studies and where others might have been upset by being shunned as much as she was, she seemed oblivious.

Being an attractive young woman, albeit one living outside of the mainstream, there came the day she was invited to a party by one of the popular boys. Curious and naïve, unaware that she was the losing prize in a cruel wager, she accepted, only to find for the first time that the words had become harsh and ominous. Without understanding why, she asked him to take her home, then demanded it when he refused and the words became shrill and dangerous. Only when she was safely at home in her yard did the words become reassuring and calm, drowning out the catcalls and insults of the boy and his friends as they drove away.

So it was that she made her way through high school and college, gradually learning to hide the nature of here unique universe, compartmentalizing her existence into a public world of the day and her private plane of existence at night.

When the young astronomy student first met her she had been studying for a psychology final in a university coffee house. She had greeted him with her usual polite but distant demeanor, as if she were viewing his existence in another dimension on the far side of a fracture in reality.

He was intrigued with her, not as a conquest or prey, but as an individual and a mystery. He recognized her fragile, skittish nature and made it his business to slowly make her acquaintance, becoming a part of the background of her world. Only when it had already happened did she realize they had become friends.

She had started meeting him for coffee or lunch between classes, gradually learning about each other and discussing their shared interests. They both were fascinated with the stars. While he would talk in details for hours about their structures, the mysteries they held, and the mysteries of the night he so dearly loved, she spoke only in generalities and emotions.

He became involved in an extended research project that kept him away for days and weeks at a time, spending his nights atop some high mountain or another, babysitting monstrous observatories as they stared at the sky. She would often chat with him online until very late, he sharing everything and she sharing nothing.

She was pleasantly surprised to see that the words did not react badly to her time with him on these occasions. She could interact with him from a distance, both in space and in intimacy, while her universe remained stable.

It was only when he returned and asked her to join him on “a real date” that the words became displeased with her again. Unlike the incident in high school, the words were not trying to warn her. She did not feel any danger in his company, but she ended the evening quite early nonetheless.

The next time it was the same, and the next. Each time she would talk to him at length the next day to reassure him that she enjoyed being with him and was looking forward to another chance to go out. But she could not tell him about the words, and she could not shut them out.

One evening, confused and desperate, she had started writing down the words as she heard them. Random, meaningless, sometimes bizarre words. Then, after an hour or so, the words faded and were silent. For the first time she could remember, her dark hours were mute.

The next night she again waited for darkness, and again she calmly scribbled down her private message from the cosmos. Again, as the later hours arrived, their message delivered, the words fell silent.

Emboldened by this new find, she found for the first time in her life she wanted something beyond her private existence, her special senses. She wanted companionship, a normal life. She wanted love.

Believing that she could quiet the voices sooner, she became desperate to hear them during the day. Perhaps if she could train herself to listen harder, to be more aware, somehow she could transcribe their message during the day and give her the freedom she craved for the entire night.

But the words never came during the day.

She drank, she pleaded, and she threatened. But she was theirs and they were hers.

She gave herself back to the night, to the loneliness, to the isolation that was both a barrier to the world she wanted and a door into a world that no one else could enter. She would sometimes think of what might have been and wonder.

But the words never came during the day.

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Yin & Yang

Feel good because you feel like you got a lot accomplished, a busy, fruitful day.

Feel lousy because you realize you missed an opportunity.

Feel relieved because a Christmas deadline (Christmas cards) that you though you had waited too long on is now coming together and should (more or less) be out on time.

Feel terrified because your brain just figured out that Christmas is only seven days away and you’ve done *NO* shopping yet. (Well, one thing. Maybe two.)

Feel optimistic because a retrospective on the year shows a ton of really cool accomplishments.

Feel depressed because a retrospective on the year shows the big goal still unrealized.

The term you’re looking for is “whipsaw,” as in, “What is my brain doing tonight?”

The answer, at least for the moment, might be to try and get some sleep.

You can’t change yesterday, but you can learn from it.

Tomorrow’s another day, try to do better.

That’s all both the good news, and the bad news.

It’s all the same.

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Filed under Job Hunt, Paul

Joey Chan Update, December 2014

Because sometimes you just need pictures of cats rather than seeing the news, reading the comments, or having anything to do with about 99.9% of what’s on television – and there’s just not a good book at hand and you’re too tired to get up and get one:

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Joey does not acknowledge the existence of NASA or the Orion flight test (on the television in the background), nor does she approve of you taking her chair (by which I mean, my chair) at 04:00 AM.

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All cats look funny when they yawn, makes you want to stick something in there just to freak them out. (Do not use anything you do not want mangled, like your finger!)

Honest question, how many of you had a yawn triggered by this picture?


When you can’t find her anywhere in her normal sleeping or hiding spots, remember to look up for “DEATH FROM ABOVE!!”


Filed under Castle Of The Willetts, Cats, Critters

On The Other Hand, Forty (And Seventy) Years Ago Today

Yesterday was serious and melancholy which turned to pissed off when I accidentally exposed myself to weapons-grade stupidity – and now for a couple of somethings completely different.

Forty years ago, on December 15, 1974, “Young Frankenstein” opened in theaters.

Sooooo many quotes good for sooooo many occasions.

I’m a huge fan of Mel Brook’s work. “Young Frankenstein” is a cinematic treasure in my book. The cast was perfect, the stupid, double entendre jokes were perfect, the homage to classic B&W horror films was perfect.

If you haven’t seen it, well, what the hell are you waiting for?

Ditto for “Blazing Saddles,” which came out February 7, 1974. How did 1974 get to be so freaking amazing for classic comedy films?! Both films are incredibly funny, rude, stupid in a very intelligent way, and classic.

Seventy years ago, on December 15, 1944, Glenn Miller was killed when his plane was lost over the English Channel. The band leader was a Major in the Army Air Corps at the time, entertaining the troops in England and Europe in person and entertaining the world via radio.

My introduction to swing music came in by sophomore year of high school, when our band leader, Mr. Rowell, experimented with starting a small, after school, extracurricular swing band. I was playing French horn in the regular band, because they needed French horns. I had originally learned to play trumpet, but everyone plays trumpet, so rather than be seventeenth seat (of eighteen or nineteen) in the trumpet section, I was second or third seat (of three or four) in the French horn section.

But I still liked playing trumpet, so I joined the swing band. The first thing we learned was “American Patrol” and it was a whole new musical world opening up for me. Still just love that song! (That YouTube video has a lot of great warbird pictures, including the CAF’s own “Fifi” at about 2:30. She’s the only remaining flight-worthy B-29 in the world.)

The Springfield High School Swing Band never went very far that I remember, but the music remains great. So in memory of Glenn Miller, play a little bit of “In The Mood,” “String Of Pearls,” “Moonlight Serenade,” “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” or even “Little Brown Jug.”

That last song was portrayed as one he hated in the classic movie with Jimmy Stewart, June Allyson, and Harry Morgan. His dislike for the song is a plot device and “literary license,” but I won’t give away the ending for those who haven’t seen the film. Yet another classic film!

(Because you will, of course, go see it immediately, won’t you? Oh, and see it in black & white, the way it was made and meant to be seen, not in the vile and disgusting abomination that is “colorized” black & white, created as a gimmick because Hollywood and Wall Street think we’re too ignorant or unrefined to watch anything that’s not in color. Don’t get me started! Wait, too late…)

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Filed under CAF, Entertainment, Movies, Music

Forty-Two Years Ago Today

On December 14, 1972, at 05:40:56 GMT, the final lunar EVA ended. It was the last of three moonwalks (EVAs) done by Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt over the course of their seventy-five hours on the lunar surface at Taurus-Littrow.

Shortly before the official ending time of that final EVA, as Captain Cernan prepared to leave the final footprints on the moon and climb the ladder into the Lunar Module, he had these words to say:

As I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come (but we believe not too long into the future), I’d like to just say what I believe history will record: That America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return: with peace and hope for all mankind.

The final liftoff from the moon occurred at 22:54:37 GMT and was shown on live television, the only liftoff from the moon ever seen. A color television camera on the Apollo 17 lunar rover was remote controlled by NASA in Houston and the rover had been left parked so that the camera faced the Lunar Module. At the 30:47 mark of this video, you can see the liftoff for yourself.

WARNING: For the sake of your blood pressure and sanity, **DO NOT** read the comments on YouTube for this and other Apollo moon landing videos. The trolls, brain-dead cretins, and conspiracy theorists have taken over. It will just piss you off to realize that there are people out there who are really, honestly, and sincerely that freakin’ stupid.

I don’t know which fact I consider more depressing, that forty-two years down the road we haven’t gone back to the moon and have no plans to go back, or that so many people among us are so ignorant, blind, deranged, and incapable of understanding or even looking at the mountain of evidence that proves that they’re wrong.

The universe is a wonderful place, and we have on occasion done some amazing things. It is often depressing to encounter those who can not or will not see the wonder and beauty of those things, but instead choose voluntarily to live in a shell of fear and ignorance of their own making.

I don’t often quote The Bible, but Matthew 5:5 says, “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” Yes, they will. The meek, fearful, and ignorant will someday have the Earth all to themselves. The rest of us will go to the stars.



Filed under Astronomy, Freakin' Idiots!, Panorama, Space

Simple Astrophotography – What The Geminids (Did Not) Look Like From LA

Tonight was the peak of the annual Geminid meteor shower. I gave it the old college try, but I had a few strikes against me from the start.

A) I’m not in a dark sky location – being in one of the world’s top twenty metropolitan areas means there’s a lot of light pollution.

B) It was partially cloudy, with drifting, scattered, high clouds.

C) A+B = clouds reflect back all of that light pollution

While I did get to see three bright Geminid meteors, I didn’t catch any on camera. I saw one long, slow burner that looked like fireworks sprinklers, plus two bright, thin, fast shooters that came out of Gemini, through Taurus, and into Cassiopeia. I also saw a couple of what I thought were flashes illuminating clouds, almost like lightning, but they were in my peripheral vision and gone, so I’m not sure if they were bright meteors or a byproduct of standing too long out in the cold.

What I did see were clouds,

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(Orion on its side in the lower right, the “V” of Taurus at upper center, Cassiopeia at upper left)

and a plane

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in a slightly different view, going right through Cassiopeia (the “M”-shaped constellation).

However, in trying to catch something, I shot a whole lot of pictures. (Surprise!) Most were either five-second exposures or ten-second exposures, depending on how close to a streetlight I was pointing and how close to the horizon where the light pollution was the worst.

I knew that by doing this for five and ten minutes at a time, shooting off one frame as soon as I heard the click of the camera (the remote control for the Canon DSLR is the best $15 I’ve spent in years), I was essentially shooting frames in a animated movie. There are guys who really, really do this well, and by “well” I mean “holy guacamole, Batman, this is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen!’

I wasn’t doing it that well, but it was a good excuse to start playing around with GIMP and Photoshop when I got back home.


Jeez, I thought that it took a long time to process a couple hundred pictures into a panorama – rendering a video from 290 full-sized JPEG frames takes freakin’ forever! This is the small, fast, low-resolution MP4 version. The full-sized QuickTime version might be finished rendering by morning – Monday or Tuesday morning! We’ll see if I can get it up on the site here or not later.

In short, when life hands you lemons, make lemonade – when life hands you clouds, make time-lapse cloud videos!

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Filed under Astronomy, Photography, Space