Friday, December 30, 2011


The ephemeral nature of sunsets is what makes them so achingly beautiful and so frustratingly elusive. I don't think any photograph will ever really capture the natural wonder which one sometimes sees in the skies as the sun is setting.

I took a few photographs of today's sunset after I'd come from a late lunch at Panera Bread in Hadley, MA. Here are several of those arranged into a small panorama.

On my drive home, I called Jeannine and suggested she go out on the small west-facing deck on the back of our house so that she could see what I was seeing. Unfortunately, in the two minutes that it took her to do this, the sky had almost completely changed, and the sunset show of light and color that I had seen was gone.

Like I said, ephemeral. -- PL

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

"Note gifts"

Many years ago, my parents started a Christmas tradition for me and my siblings (older brothers, younger sister) which they called "note gifts". Here's the way it worked:

All the presents which once were stacked under the tree had been opened, and the typical "post-present letdown phase" was starting to settle in, when my father would say "Wait… what's this?" and point to small envelopes or folded pieces of paper stuck in the branches of the Christmas tree. Each of these items would be found to bear one of our names, and when opened, would reveal directions such as "Look in the closet at the top of the stairs" or "Look behind the toy box in the playroom".

We'd all rush off to the appropriate locations, and there find one last gift… and it was almost always the biggest, most expensive (within my parents' modest means) and/or most wanted present. 

Sometimes the notes themselves were delivered in an unusual fashion -- the one I remember most clearly was when my father handed us each a walnut after all the presents had been opened. We all looked at each other, wondering if note gifts were no more. But then we were directed to crack the walnuts' shells… and inside, tightly folded, we found the notes for the note gifts! My father had painstakingly cracked open the walnuts, scooped out the insides, stuffed the folded notes into the shells, and glued them back together.

It was a great tradition, and when Jeannine and I started hosting our family's Christmas gatherings, sometime about twenty-seven or twenty-eight years ago, I took it over, along with the "making of the Christmas stockings" tradition. For most of those years, I presented the notes in a standard way, but occasionally I have tried to emulate the creativity my father showed when he gave us those walnuts.

One year I created an elaborate crossword puzzle (and this was before crossword puzzle-making software was available) within which certain letters were to be used to spell out where all the note gifts were hidden. And last year, I made small jigsaw puzzles, using those pre-cut jigsaw puzzle blanks one can find at craft stores, each with one person's clue to the whereabouts of their note gift… and to read it, the puzzle would have to be reassembled. That was fun.

This year, I wanted to do that again, but I had eight note gift puzzles to make, but only three small blanks. However, I had plenty of larger blank puzzles, measuring about 8.5 by 11 inches, so I decided to use them. And unlike last year, I only used black marker to write the clues, due to time constraints (last year I included some color elements, as I felt that would help in the reassembly of the puzzles).

Big mistake.

I didn't realize -- until everyone started trying to piece their puzzles back together -- exactly how difficult it would be to put together a hundred-piece black and white puzzle consisting only of black letters written with a broad-tipped marker on a white background. Here's a photo of Emily beginning to work on hers.

After about twenty minutes, it dawned on me that this was going to take HOURS… so, even though some people wanted to keep working on the puzzles, I threw in the towel and printed out simple text directions to the note gifts. That worked much better (and quicker).

So next year, if I try this again, I will either do (a) smaller puzzles, (b) puzzles with colors, or (c) both. -- PL

Sunday, December 25, 2011

So this is Christmas...

... and Emily takes a break from making her delicious Christmas cookies to dress up her little dog Henry in Yuletide finery, while a few stray snowflakes drift past our kitchen windows.

Have a great day, everyone! -- PL

Friday, December 23, 2011

Review of "Micro" by Michael Crichton and Richard Preston

  I think I have read almost all of Michael Crichton's "science thriller adventure" novels, and seen most of the movies based on them -- "The Andromeda Strain" (the original) and "Jurassic Park" being the best, or at least most enjoyable, in my opinion.

   It's my great hope that "Micro", Crichton's last book (finished after his death by Richard Preston) never gets adapted into a movie… although in a time when stupid ideas get made into huge, stupid movies, it probably will.

  "Micro" begins somewhat promisingly, with the mysterious deaths of several men, killed with a succession of tiny cuts inflicted by unseen forces.

   And then it goes downhill.

   No, that's too mild -- it CAREENS downhill.

   We're introduced to seven graduate students from Massachusetts -- none of them at all memorable as characters -- who are induced to come to Hawaii to work with a new company called Nanigen. Within a short time of their arrival, they are lured into a room where a big machine shrinks them down to roughly one-half an inch tall… and a chapter or so later, they are struggling to survive in the Hawaiian jungle, fighting for their lives against insects and other creatures, as well as natural phenomena which are now potentially fatal at their vastly reduced size.

  Now, that's a premise which could have been a lot of fun. I'm a big fan of stories of people being shrunk down and having to deal with life at a tiny size -- "The Incredible Shrinking Man" is one of my favorite movies. It's a scenario filled with opportunities for wonder, excitement and peril.

   Of course, it helps -- no, it's NECESSARY -- to support such a ludicrous premise with consistent logic, and people it with characters you can care about. "Micro" succeeds on neither of these counts.

   The story really begins to fall apart with the hasty exposition explaining the "science" behind the "tensor generator" which shrinks the students down to that one-half inch height. The "science" amounts to this -- very strong magnetic fields causes things to shrink.


  This is a great example of the "less is more" approach. If you have to do something which is, essentially, theoretically impossible, DON'T try to explain it in a way which is CLEARLY nonsensical to anyone with half a brain. Just briefly make up something about the technology behind your magic device, and move on.

   So we have these seven people -- eight, actually, because one of the Nanigen technicians is accidentally shrunken down with the group -- now roughly the size of sugar cubes. (The rationale for the evil head of Nanigen doing this has something to do with a lame sublpot about the brother of one of the students learning the shocking truth about Nanigen, and said student finding out something about the complicity of the evil head of Nanigen in the death -- or APPARENT death -- of said brother.) Obviously -- and it is made obvious in the bad dialogue attendant to this scene -- the evil head of Nanigen has shrunken the students to get rid of them.

   And here's his plan: He's going to feed them to one of the many snakes in Nanigen's laboratory. But the first snake the students are offered to doesn't eat them, due to some convenient repellent insect chemicals one of the students is carrying. (But the evil head of Nanigen doesn't realize that, and instead thinks the snake must just not be that hungry.) So then, instead of offering the students to the NEXT snake, and maybe the next one after that, he allows his somewhat reluctant (and obviously somewhat soft-hearted) associate to let the students go… into the jungle. At night. With no supplies or weapons with which to defend themselves from all the predators now extremely dangerous to them at their reduced size. Better than being fed to a snake, I guess, but not by much.

  Now, in the hands of a good writer, the following chapters could have been a thrilling series of adventures as these sugar cube-sized students struggle to survive in this now-alien landscape, using their wits and their scientific knowledge to keep themselves alive and somehow get back to their former stature. But Richard Preston is not that kind of writer. Many of his concepts and dialogue choices are simply embarrassingly dopey. Here's one -- it's from the thoughts running through the head of the aforementioned reluctant associate of the evil head of Nanigen, referring to her relationship with same:

   "… (he) had been incredibly good to her, advanced her career, paid her unlimited amounts of money…"

   Really? The evil head of Nanigen has paid her an infinite amount of money? Huh? Was this book even proofread?

   And this howler comes from later on in the book (page 202, to be precise) in one of the many clunky scenes in which everything stops so that some bit of biological science can be tediously explained. This is a character named Rick talking about the ingredient he needs to cook up some curare, a poison he hopes to use to defend them against the creatures who might want to eat them:

  "That whiff of bitter almonds… can you smell it? Cyanide -- a universal poison, it'll kill anything, and fast. Cyanide -- a favorite of Cold War spies."

   And here's another bizarre one from page 244, when one of the characters is being attacked by a wasp which is laying eggs in him:

   "The wasp was… burying her stinger in his shoulder. And he felt nothing. His arm had gone dead.

"No!" he screamed, and grabbed the stinger in both hands, and tried to pull it out."

   Now, maybe I'm missing a key element here, but… if one of your arms has "gone dead", how do you then grab something with BOTH hands?

  One more -- on page 302, a police detective interviewing the evil head of Nanigen notices the smell of the cigar the evil head of Nanigen is smoking:

  "The air had a pleasant aroma of cigar. Given the pleasance of the aroma, Watanabe concluded that the cigar had cost more than ten dollars."

  When I first read that second line, I thought "Did the author just invent a word? 'Pleasance'? I've never heard that word before."

  I asked my wife -- who had her laptop open -- to do a quick search for the word, and -- to my surprise -- it IS in fact a real word. Here's what had to say about it:

"pleas·ance   [plez-uhns]
1. a place laid out as a pleasure  garden or promenade.
2. Archaic . pleasure."

  So the author has chosen to use the archaic meaning of an uncommon word, for no particularly good reason… the mark of someone who writes with a thesaurus open at his side.

   I came very close to abandoning "Micro" without finishing it… but I am loathe to do that with any book I've started reading, so I toughed it out and made it to the end. It wasn't easy. This is one of those rare books which was almost painful to read, and not because it includes troubling or disturbing concepts. It's just a terrible waste of trees. I wish I'd followed my earlier impulse and dumped it in the recycling bin.

   Michael Crichton had a real knack for taking a premise which was slightly ludicrous and turning it into a compelling story, with just enough real science mixed in to keep up the suspension of disbelief. Richard Preston does not have that ability, if this book is any indication. -- PL

Monday, December 19, 2011

Making wreaths

Yesterday we had our twenty-first (or was it the twenty-second?) consecutive annual wreath making party. I say "our", but even though I help her with it to some degree, it's really been Jeannine's baby. She started it, and has kept it going through all these years.

For a few hours on one December afternoon, our usually quiet house bustles with activity and resounds with the happy noises of people busily crafting wreaths in a wide variety of styles.

We're fortunate that we have on our property plenty of fir trees from which to harvest boughs. This year, Jeannine discovered that one of the trees in our yard -- right behind our garage, in fact -- was laden with the really cute little pine cones which look so nice on a wreath. They were on mostly high branches, so I got a chance to break out my new tree long-handled pruning device, which worked great. 

Jeannine made lots of delicious cookies and other treats, and some of the guests added to the spread with their own yummy offerings.

Almost all of the people we invited were able to come, including a few wreath making "newbies". Of course, you couldn't tell that by their finished wreaths, which were gorgeous. And we had a special guest -- our daughter Emily, who worked out a Christmas schedule which allowed her to come to the wreath party (something she hasn't done for four or five years) as well as for Christmas itself. She got a chance to visit with her new cousin (who just turned two), resulting in this desperately cute photo:

We were pretty wiped out after the party, but it was that happy kind of tired. And I would be remiss if I did not mention the fact that my good pal Mike Dooney stayed after the party to help clean up. Thanks, MD!

I made my usual wild and ungroomed style wreath, and here it is...

... hanging on our front door. -- PL

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"Smallville" and Jack Kirby

I started watching "Smallville", the TV series about Clark Kent before he became Superman, around the time it debuted… and didn't follow it for long. It's not that I thought it was bad, but I just found it kind of flat. I thought the key role of Lana Lang was horribly miscast, though Tom Welling did a great job as the young and conflicted Clark Kent.

My good friend Rob is a huge fan, though, and has often talked about the show and how much he liked it over the last five or six years. And I have from time to time thought maybe I should ask if I could borrow his DVD season sets, to see if I was missing something. But I never did.

Last week I was in Barnes and Noble checking out the new movie and TV DVD releases, and I noticed that the tenth and final season of "Smallville" had come out. I was immediately drawn to the cover image on the box -- a shot of Clark Kent in his normal civilian clothes, casting a shadow behind him which looked like a man with a cape in a very Supeman-esque pose. I was intrigued, and bought the set, and just tonight finished watching it.

I enjoyed it -- the stories were a little corny in spots, and the relatively low budget of the show kept it from looking as "super" as it could have, and many of the scripts seemed to rehash ideas from one episode to the next… but overall it was fun to watch.

  And there was something unexpected, something that really piqued my interest -- the inclusion of characters and concepts from Jack Kirby's "Fourth World" series that he did during his tenure at DC during the 1970's. Darkseid, Granny Goodness (even the "Female Furies" of Granny's orphanage… sort of… at least there were two recognizable ones, Mad Harriet and Lashina… though I confess I kept hoping for Big Barda to show up), Desaad, Glorious Godfrey… even Orion of the "New Gods" comic was name-checked, and correctly identified as the son of Darkseid.

It was pretty cool! And I was tickled that whoever was writing and producing the show MUST have been a big fan of Kirby's work at DC to try to work these characters into the show in that way. They even brought Darkseid's world, Apokolips, into the season finale… and I have to say the special effects artists did an excellent job of realizing it, blazing fire pits and all.

But it made me start thinking how a dedicated "Forth World" movie or miniseries made with an adequate budget could be amazing. I doubt it will ever happen, but one can dream… -- PL

    P.S. There was one thing that really bugged me, and it's something I have seen in other shows on DVD. I often watch with subtitles turned on, and I can't tell you how many times they wrote "gonna" when a character was supposed to be saying "going to". Now, it's possible that that's the way it was written in the scripts, and it's also possible that it's the way the actors actually said the lines… but it just looks… well… DUMB. 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

More cleanup

I took another chilly bicycle ride yesterday, not too long before sunset, and decided to try to avoid the very likely impassable areas of flooding on one of the dirt roads (we had a LOT of rain the previous day) and take a cool path I discovered this past year. It runs for a short distance atop what I have been told is the bed for the old trolley car line which once connected Northampton to Easthampton. Because it sits atop this old raised path, it allows one to circumvent the lower -- and more easily submerged -- parts of the dirt road I usually ride on.

But I'd forgotten that the last time I took this route a few weeks ago, there was a fairly large fallen tree lying across the path. It wasn't so large that it was impossible -- or even difficult -- to stop and lift my bike over, but it bugged me. Once I get on my bike, I like to just roll. Stopping to hoist it over obstacles, however minor, it not my idea of fun.

So I decided to try cutting it with the saw I had with me last time (and which slides neatly into a small, unused space between my bike's seat back and the bag which hangs on the reverse side of that backrest, so I think I will keep carrying it around with me), even though it was of considerable size and the hour was getting kind of late. 

But once again, the saw performed admirably, and within about twenty minutes (with a couple of breaks to catch my breath), I'd cut through it.

The two pieces resulting from this surgery were far too heavy for me to lift, but fortunately gravity worked to help one of them tumble part of the way down the side of the embankment, and I was able to wiggle it a little bit further out of the path. Here's a view of the result, looking down the path towards the center of Northampton…

… and another showing the straightness of the path as it heads towards Easthampton. (Actually, this one was taken when I was about halfway through the process of cutting the log... but I like the way it shows the perspective of the path going off into the distance.)

I enjoy imagining what it might have been like when the trolley was running through this area, filled with people in their antique dress. I wonder what might have been on either side -- was it swampy and flooded as it is now? Or were those cultivated fields… or simply beautiful woods What were those people thinking as they rattled and swayed past this scenery?

And then -- after pausing once more to take the photos I used to stitch together this little panorama…

… I rode on through. -- PL

Sunday, December 4, 2011


As the days wind down towards the end of the year, and hints of snows to come are in the air, I am trying to get in a bicycle ride every day, for as long as is possible. It's getting cold, but still not so much that riding is a pain instead of a pleasure.

I took one of my favorite short rides yesterday on some dirt roads in Northampton, and brought with me a small saw.

 Why a saw, you ask? Well, there are still spots around here where the damage from our crazy Hallowe'en snowstorm is still very visible, and one of the dirt roads I ride on is probably the last to get any attention from the cleanup crews. As such, there are a few places where fallen tree and branches are partially blocking the road. It's not impassable -- people in trucks and cars have made alternative routes around the blockages, or in some cases just driven over the thinner limbs and pushed them down into the dirt.

But it is still a mess, and not much fun to ride through, so I thought I might do a little bit of hand-sawing to clear away some of the more egregiously offending branches. As you can see -- if you look closely -- in these photographs, I made some headway (look for the freshly-cut branch ends).

The little saw worked so well that I decided to try something a little more difficult -- this large branch which had broken (but not detached) from a fairly tall tree and was leaning into the road. 

I think it was about six inches or so in diameter, but it only took about five minutes to cut through. I did it cautiously, cutting from below as well as from above, as I wasn't sure how it would fall when I finished the cut. But it worked out pretty well, and I was able to drag the cut end out of the road, as you can see here in the "after" photo. -- PL