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Memories and Memorials

Curious about the age of the pictured tree, I used a tree dating formula to determine it has been there as long as she has. Multiply the growth factor of 4.5 for Norway Maple by the diameter of this particular tree (roughly 25 inches) and the tree seems to be about 112 years old. This correlates exactly with the founding of the Saint Stanislaus parish in 1899. This tree has stood as a silent witness to the mourning of many losses, as it has only gained in height and width.

I’ve been researching my family history since I was a teenager, and – due to poor record keeping – it’s not been easy-going. While my Scots ancestors arrived before the US became a sovereign nation, have a common name and are therefore challenging to discover – some of the more recent immigrants have been easier to find and learn about.

Pictured here is the grave of my Great-Great Grandmother, Stanislawa ‘Stella’ Kaczmarek-Wilk, at Saint Stanislaus Church Cemetery. The headstone is missing a cross, and her name was spelled incorrectly (this mistake literally set her surname in stone as ‘Welk.’ A new headstone to correct the name would have been too costly for a poor immigrant coal miner like my great-great grandfather – Stella’s husband Andrew).

Stella he died a year after the birth of her daughter, Louise Marie (my great-grandmother, or ‘Gram’).

In my youth, I did have the foresight to talk with my Gram Louise about her own parents and grandparents before she passed away in 1997 (exactly one year and ten days after her husband, Michael ‘Mike’ Stanley, my great-grandfater). As she was just a year old when Stella died, standing at her grave brings me nearly as close to my great-great grandmother as her own daughter ever was.

Genealogy is 1 part math, 1 part history, and whole a lot of mystery…

I consider myself fortunate to have known my great-grandparents so well, they were truly from another time. I have nothing but the fondest memories of these older family members and their quirks. Mike (Pap) loved to paint, but he didn’t restrict himself to canvas. Instead, he painted the boulders in the yard in white and red house paint – owls, flowers and – of course – polka dots. Every block of the foundation of their house was adorned with five red polka dots; inside too.

My great grandparents collected calendars – or rather, never removed the old calendars when they put they put up the new. I remembered marveling at them as a kid – ‘ a calendar from 1936!!?! WOW! That’s so old!’ Pap and Gram lived very simply, adopted few modern conviniences and the orchard they planted on their property still bears fruit.

Pap played the harmonica and accordian and Gram….well, she played the lottery.

Pap was a second-generation coal-miner, born in Poland who married a first-generation American, who also happened to be a coal miner’s daughter. Life was very homogeneous in those patch towns, where the coal companies owned the houses, the stores and paid in scrip instead of cash. Despite these conditions, life in America was a great hope for those who wanted to preserve their Polish heritage. My Polish ancestors came to the States to avoid subjugation by the Russian Empire that sought to eradicate all traces of Polish culture and irreverently abolished the churches of my Catholic ancestors.

Though they had very little by today’s standards, my ancestors – like many that had come before them – had the freedom to be themselves in America. Their immigrant status did not go unnoticed by earlier settlers, who much like today – saw the influx of cheap labor as a threat to their livelihood. Like every wave of immigration before and after – ethnic Polish families banded together and founded churches and populated small towns sponsored by the companies they labored their entire lives for. Raised in such an environment (not to mention – surrounded by all of that Polish food) – my great grandparents were the happiest two people I’ve ever known – and were married for nearly 70 years. Even when he had lost all of his teeth, suffered problems of black lung and could only shuffle rather than walk, Pap still mustered smiles that went from ear-to-ear and laughed heartily. Gram was bubbly and cute and always maintained a kind of playful innocence that seems to have vanished from existence.

Each time I visited, Pap gave me a single dollar bill and Louise gave me a Tootsie roll pop. They served orange juice with the pulp and listened to the Polkas on WCNS every Sunday. They also drank Gennessee and Yuengling beers. Pap chewed Levi Garrett tobacco and Gram smoked Kool cigarettes, which she always kept in a leatherette snap case with a lighter holster.

Pap was 94 when he died, and Gram passed away at age 84.

Pictured below is the slate dump just across the road and in the valley near the church and cemetery, a reminder that my ancestors truly lived and died for their work.

Slate dumps such as this are part of the Pennsylvania coal country landscape, and are sometimes indistinguishable from the actual rolling hills as they are reclaimed by plant life.

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Posted by on November 3, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

IML Syndrome

Anyone who knows me personally already understands I have this cluster of symptoms known as IML Syndrome. It’s a widespread affliction that causes people to do things like drop $200 to witness a group of lassitudinous septuagenarians gyrate for two hours. As recently as a decade ago, people who suffer from IML Syndrome might have spent more than $20 a week on shiny pieces of plastic – or, in serious cases – be compelled to spend inordinate amounts of time studying esoteric things like ‘bessel crossovers, cabin gain, or phase coherence.’ Some people work diligently to diminish the symptoms, and will only listen to music as loudly as they like in their car, alone – while others will openly wear garments known as ‘band shirts,’ which send the message of ‘I have IML, and I’m proud of it.’

‘IML’ is known as ‘Intense Music Love,’ and if you or someone you love has this condition, you will understand how it can alienate those with the disorder from people who are immune. One symptom of IML has actually caused me to break-up with otherwise-decent boyfriends or not even give some people a chance, as I (perhaps irrationally) presume someone who doesn’t have the disorder will never understand what it’s like to live with it.

When I first realized I had the disorder, I tried to limit my particular variant in such a way that I only associated with others with that specific type. Now that I’ve matured, I realize that all those affected by IML syndrome are faced with, essentially, the same issues – and as long as they embrace the disorder and it’s effects, we can all learn to accept one another, regardless of any perceived differences.

People with IML syndrome look beyond the simple effects of music such as those beats that make your head bob, to actually philosophizing about it. Obviously, it sounds good – but IML sufferers see music in a very special way. To me, it is a craft. It’s something just a couple of people can make together; or even one person can do alone – with just a voice. How many things are like that nowadays? So simple to make (with a little practice) yet capable of providing a quality and quantity of happiness the most manufactured, expensive, mass-produced, designer-label, interest-bearing, assembly-line packaged, in-demand commodities can’t possibly impart. All the while it’s never perfect; even one song isn’t always the same thing twice. You can share it but you still have it.

If you feel this strongly about music, you too may have a case of IML. But don’t worry, you don’t go to that concert alone. Unlike most disorders, IML sufferers who are exposed new variants will often benefit.

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Dorklove: A Healthy Obsession

Pennsylvania Railroad Station at Livermore, PA circa 1908

Everyone knows someone who has one or two unconventional interests or excessive enthusiasm for a hobby that seems a lot more like work than fun. Perhaps the idea that hams, railfans, foodies, and the like are savant-esque dorks is a modern one? Before the standardization of four-year-degrees-for-all, these over-interested individuals might have been working in their fields of fascination rather than in the cubicles they decorate with memorabilia related to their passions. Amateur astronomers are one kind of zealot hobbyist that actually makes significant contributions to their subject of fascination.

Still, people who aren’t railfans cannot possibly identify with rail fans. A non-railfan might wonder why a person, who most likely does not work in or have any other affiliation with the railroad industry, would spend their precious Friday nights waiting alone by the railroad tracks at night hoping to catch sight of their favorite locomotive engine (or for that matter, why does anyone have a ‘favorite locomotive engine’ in the first place?). Why would they bother to learn the first and last names of the engineers working a particular rail line? What, exactly, is the big fucking deal, here?

Only a railfan would understand.

This notion was highlighted for me a few weeks ago, during a discussion about geomagnetic storm activity. I am curious about astronomy and earth sciences in general, but the magnetosphere is of particular interest to me, as it is where ‘outerspace’ collides visibly, and often violently, with the Earth. Witnessing the Aurora Borealis in my own back yard offers a rare glimpse of something special that provides a sensation – a visual – which makes learning all the technical details worthwhile. It had never occurred to me that someone might find my efforts to understand the science of the magnetosphere unusual in any way. I was talking, rather excitedly, to my friend about influence of the imminent G2-class geomagnetic storm when he stopped me to ask ‘why do you know so much about this?’

This gave me great pause, for I had never considered the ‘why’ of learning all I could about geomagnetic phenomena. It is just something I do, without understanding the motivation. Indeed, my knowledge would not help me to accomplish anything tangible (except for maybe writing a blog, or be more au courant conversationalist?), and I have no intention of going back to school to study the subject in a formal setting – and yet, I’m still immensely curious.

I think a railfan might understand?

I’m unconcerned with the opinions of anyone who might find my fascination and pursuant time consumption objectionable or perhaps, unproductive. At the end of the day, I know that learning and understanding gives me great pleasure – and that’s all the explanation needed.

While on the topic of railfanning, I will confess I have a touch of this fascination, myself. I have not memorized common locomotive names and their corresponding wheel arrangements, but I have ‘a thing for’ abandoned rail lines and infrastructure. It is more accurate to say my interest in disused transit technology centers around a particular geographic location: the former town of Livermore, PA.

It is likely that readers who know me, personally – will have some curiosity about the place as well – if you are local to the area itself. If you are, perhaps you’ll want to return to this blog frequently, as I intend to write about Livermore extensively and will publish my own exploration of the place in great detail.

For anyone who does not know about Livermore, PA– I will summarize: Livermorewas a town situated on the banks of the Conemaugh River abandoned for flood control in the early 1950s. This simple fact alone seems uninteresting, but the history of the town is imbued with ‘rural legends,’ much like urban legends have been exchanged for years.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, generations of local children have whispered stories to one another of the townspeople of Livermore meeting a watery demise and leaving behind angry ghosts. Rumors tell that George Romero’s 1968 ‘Night of the Living Dead’ was filmed in Livermore Cemetery, but I have not found an official source to confirm this. As a child, folk tales circulated about the town church’s steeple: when the Conemaugh’s water level was low, you could still see it rising above the water. As a kid, it was impossible not to have some kind of emotional response to the stories of Livermore, and as an adult – I’m still curious about the place, though my concentration has shifted from legends and ghosts to engineering history.

This is something else I think a railfan might understand.

 
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Posted by on May 2, 2011 in Local History

 

A Procrastinator’s guide to passing a vehicle inspection: Volume 1

Tomorrow, I have an appointment for my annual vehicle safety inspection, as is mandatory in Pennsylvania, just five days before driving my car becomes illegal. I’m not an ASE mechanic for sure, but there are a few things that I can fix.

For some time now, my gear position indicator has not worked. The automatic transmission works fine, but the orange indicator doesn’t budge when you shift. So I decided to take off the center console and see what could be done – and perhaps finally clean up that milkshake that seeped under the cup holder. If you ever have a similar problem with a like-model vehicle, you can benefit from the following instructions.

Tools you will need:
#2 Phillips Screwdriver
10mm double ended offset socket wrench
Shipping tape

Step 1:
Make sure the local forecast does not call for severe thunderstorms. If you skip this step, a one hour job may be extended to three

Step 2:
Remove the two screws in the front cup holders, one from each.

Step 3:
Squeeze the divider between the rear cup holders to dislodge the plastic retaining clips and remove the panel

Step 4:
Use the socket wrench to remove 3 flange nuts that hide below the cup holder panel

Step 5:
Put the emergency brake lever in the highest position. Begin to remove the brake lever shroud with a plastic scribe tool or putty knife. You have to dislodge the plastic retaining clips shown in step 6. Dislodge two on one side, then the two on the opposite side should lift away with ease.


Step 6:
Slide the elastic gathering out the recess where the top of the emergency brake shroud meets the lever and pull it up, up and awayyyyy from the brake lever

Step 7: Lift the center console directly up then maneuver it away from the shifter and emergency brake lever for removal. You may need to start the vehicle and put it into gear to have enough clearance to remove the console. Remember to keep your foot on the brake if you do this! (Disclaimer – it’s not my fault if you go plowing into the neighbor’s parked car if you fail to do this. It’s also not my fault if you completely fuck this whole project up because you use excessive force and/or are an idiot). You will now see what lies beneath the console. Don’t disturb any of the wiring here, because your airbag control module is located there, among other important stuff.


Step 8:
Identify and fix the problem. In my case, the thin plastic film that attaches the gear position indicator to the shifter surround was detached. It was a clean break, so all I had to do was neatly apply some parcel packing tape to the ribbon to re-attach it. Professional mechanics would probably just replace the whole assembly. And charge you $200.
I recommend using a long strip of tape to hold the two separated pieces of film, then reinforce that by wrapping a strip of tape perpendicular to the formerly broken area. Trim any excess tape.

Voila! Now the little orange dot moves through the P-R-N-D-L letters as they correspond to the gear. And I will pass state inspection.

Simply reverse the steps to reinstall the console. While you’re down there, clean up any spilled substances/buried treasure. Again, just be careful not to disturb anything while you’re at it.

 
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Posted by on April 26, 2011 in Cars

 

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Why I Don’t Want to Internet Anymore: a layperson’s sociology of a series of tubes

As a teenager in the late 80s and early 90s, I began using online services such as AOL and often posted on BBS’s. The formative Internet’s population was mostly comprised of other nerds like myself – happy to have a new porn delivery system play with their new online ‘toys’ and generally welcoming of newcomers.

It was enriching for a small-town girl like me to freely discuss the nature of coronal mass ejections and Boba Fett with people from cultures I might not otherwise have encountered. Before that, the best I could do was talk to the dumb neighbor girl about her Barbie collection and ponies – things I found uninteresting. Here was a convenient way to rebel against the ‘no talking to strangers’ parental directive – and my small world was ripped wide-open.

Advances in graphical user interfaces and widely available broadband access now permit ease of Internet use. Almost anyone, anywhere in the United States (with the exception of certain rural areas, which is fine because they’re all Amish anyhow) can get online to collaborate, debate, organize and otherwise socialize. The promise and benefit of the Internet and needs no further proclamation – but I have since come to view the World Wide Web as little more than an overwrought asshole connection service.

Forsooth, ‘GIGO’ is a universal law in computer science.

In the decades that have passed since we measured our connection speeds in baud rates, I have largely fallen behind others in participating in what we now refer to as ‘social media.’ I don’t upload videos to Youtube, I wasn’t on Facebook until 2009, and I haven’t used an Instant messenger service regularly since ICQ was new. My lack of web input is, in-part, a result of a keen awareness of privacy issues and consequences related to such public discourse – but largely because the growth of the Internet has not affected my fundamental introversion.

I don’t have the same socialization requirement as individuals with more extroverted personalities. Introversion vs. Extroversion is a topic that is well documented elsewhere, but for the sake of this post I will explain how it relates to me. I’m happy playing my guitar for an audience of none. Sure, if someone else would be pleased in hearing my music (and that someone would probably have no taste in music, because I am admittedly ill-practiced), I wouldn’t deny them access to it – but my goal is not to put on a show for anyone – it is simply to enjoy the process. The same is true of this very blog that I write now.

Even although I’m interested in reading blogs, commenting at forums et al, I’ve made relatively few contributions to social media because of that aforementioned introversion. I just don’t feel the need to have my voice heard all over town. When I do require socialization, I am fortunate to have a manifold circle of friends in the meatspace I can pester. These friends and acquaintences are diverse in politics and beliefs and will happily engage me in debate or discussion without resorting to the conversational terrorism that plagues the Internet and will still call me in the morning. This is why the one social media site I do embrace is Facebook, but I will concentrate on that later.

In a fantastic article (on what is supposed to be a satirical site) called ‘‘7 Reasons the 21st Century is Making you Miserable’, author David Wong brilliantly addresses everything I find problematic with today’s computer mediated-communication. This technology which was supposed to help unite us and foster greater understanding among people of different cultures and ideologies has had the unintended consequence of working exactly against that. Now we can divide ourselves into infinitely smaller cliques, where outsiders are always shunned and new ideas are ignored without contemplation.

This is not something isolated to obscure Internet blogsites but is appears to be a systemic problem in modern society. However, the divisions of people are most observable on the Internet – and are manifest on just about every web ‘thing’ that has a comment feature enabled. Pick a website, any website – that has a comment section and you will immediately see the ‘trolls.’ Trolls can be anyone who makes inflammatory, non-constructive remarks, often by way of simple insult. Even on a website dedicated to people who love unicorns you will find individuals who cannot resist the impulse to tell the group that they think unicorns are stupid and ugly and add that anyone who likes unicorns must worship Satan and enjoy eating babies.

Trolls have become such a pox on the house DARPA built that new reputation-based comment moderation systems have been developed to keep the discussion productive and diminish the reach of visitors who have the express purpose of antagonizing other users. However, like any security system – there will ultimately be those who learn to game the system for their own advantage. So now we have people that spend inordinate amounts of time and resources trying to lower the reputation of people/ideas they find disagreeable.

All of this seems so excruciatingly counterproductive to the existence of mankind. Put another way, these people need to get a fucking life!

In the last month I’ve been so amused by one particular blog, I decided to break from my lurking tradition and made two comments. Unfortunately, my failed attempt has done nothing but reinforce my disgust for the whole shebang, and perhaps – by logical extension – society at large (as if I needed any more of that!).

I won’t bother to mention the site I’ve posted to (I’d guess this wordpress thingy has some way of connecting you to my comments, so have at it if you wish), but I have been reading the blog and enjoying the rapier wit of commenters who seem to share my worldview, or at the very least least – my appreciation of the blackest humor. All previous statements about the division of people considered, it’s still nice to engage in a discussion with like-minded individuals from time to time, right? RIGHT?

As it turns out, no.

Apparently, my first post coincided with that of someone who was found to be a ‘troll,’ who I gather has some kind of plan of assuming new usernames to continue his trolling. My second post, I later decided – was far too inflammatory in general (even though this particular blog following community might have liked it) and was the kind of thing better shared with my closest friends – so deleted it. By that motion to delete and by some kind of arcane user-view history deduction, one of the site’s users proclaimed that I must be a troll and, ironically – ‘trolled’ me. I know that’s hard to follow, but that’s why I’m still reeling from it because it just seems so positively insane. The experience is very much like a kind of blog hazing incident. I’m new, unknown – so I have to be initiated before anyone will validate my comments.

It is unfortunate that I could not be accepted by them. I was really hoping I could be accepted by a group of total strangers who will never be there to give me a jump when my car battery dies. Truthfully, this incident has indeed affected me in some way – as is evidenced by the authoring of this post – but I’m not hurt, just vindicated.

The observation most central to this entire blog post is that we are all, essentially, trolls. Every single one of us is someone else’s troll. What makes our troll-status something we can overcome is getting to know your troll. Some people are make themselves unknowable – but the truth of the matter is, if you get to know your trolls, they become less trollish and more like that 2nd cousin you’ve only seen at family reunions. Once you know someone’s story and realize they are a living, breathing human being – it’s not so easy to write them off.

Perhaps this begins to sound read a protracted ‘why can’t we all just get along’ themed missive, but I continue to be fascinated by the Internet and the power of organization it can engender. I don’t find it utterly useless, but perhaps not as useful as I’d hoped.

As it turns out, the people I connect with best online are my geographically local Facebook friends – many of whom don’t think anything like me. Friends of different religious views and social classes and with political ideas that – perhaps only superficially – differ greatly from my own. Miraculously, I’m still able to sit around a table, crack beers and crack wise at the ridiculousness of the world with people who don’t share my taste in music at all. For some, the only thing we have in common is that we grew up in the same community and got sent to the same principal’s office when we misbehaved as kids. To them, I am not some anonymous ‘other,’ I’m that silly, opinionated yet affable nerd who is always there to answer questions about where to camp and hike.

It is ironic that I seem to have come full circle on these here Interwebs. That dumb neighbor girl who liked Barbies and ponies would be there to rescue me if my car breaks down, and even though we come from different walks of life – we’re still walking it together. If not for her, I might never have gone outside of my comfort zone to try horseback riding – which I actually enjoyed.

I’ll still visit that site, because I do find it entertaining – but I think I will benefit more from ‘commenting’ with the Amish, in the good old fashioned meatspace. Like I tell a lot of people who dismiss their hometowns because they feel they are so much different from residents of their former community:there are assholes everywhere, but at least I know the ones I grew-up with by name.

 

 
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Posted by on April 25, 2011 in the Internet

 

Ma Bell 2.0

Now that I have a public forum where I can voice my opinion however I choose, I’m going to make short work of alienating everyone. Let’s get started!

Today, I learned that AT&T has crafted a deal to purchase T-Mobile USA. As a long-time T-Mobile customer, I’m concerned that my options will be limited by AT&T. I chose T-Mobile over other wireless carriers because the company offered the most affordable plans, and I’ve remained with them because their customer service has been exemplary (can you say that about your wireless provider? Really, about anything these days?). Now I fear that fantastic customer service and unlimited data access will become a distant memory – and the competition can’t fill this T-Mo shaped void¹ .

It is natural that I would consider how this might affect me, personally – but I am also leery of the broad impact on the telecommunications industry.

First, some history of telecommunications²: everyone knows the telephone was invented by Elisha Gray, Alexander Graham Bell, right? Bell’s namesake companies provided telephone service to America and were franchises at first – but were acquired by the American Telegraph and Telephone company in 1899. You may recognize the American Telegraph and Telephone company by it’s abbreviated name: AT&T. AT&T (and it’s affiliated Bell companies, nicknamed ‘Ma Bell’) held a monopoly on the telephone industry for nearly a century, until 1984.

Ma Bell’s stranglehold on the new telephone market was such that users could only connect devices manufactured for or subsidized by the wireless carrier Bell to the network without rooting and unlocking paying a penalty. Wait, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it, iPhone users?

Long before the threat of the ‘Big Four’ being reduced to the ‘Big Three,’ consumers have suffered from lack of choice in the wireless market. From early-termination fees to limited handset offerings (not to mention crippled Bluetooth or app-blocking), wireless carriers have found legal ways to hold you a captive customer. If you want a Droid, you have to be a Verizon customer, and – until recently – if you wanted an iPhone, you were forced to negotiate with AT&T. This is no different than your cable company dictating what kind of television you should own.

The industry has long argued that technology has dictated the kinds of phones they could make available, and I concede this has been a fair argument. Verizon and Sprint use a kind of transmission technology called CDMA, while AT&T and T-Mobile have used GSM. Without getting overly technical, the differences between these technologies (and their associated radio frequencies) have been the dominant reason why a person cannot use a Verizon-branded phone on an AT&T network (and by extension, why GSM users have SIM chips, while CDMA users do not).

With the roll-out of LTE (long-term evolution) networks, the differences between networks will all but disappear. So, to – one would think – should the age of carrier-limited handset choice.

¹Yes, this entire post may seem dramatic. Who cares this much about a phone company, anyhow? Well, at least 1 in 7,000,000,000 people does. I am heavily reliant on my smartphone for work and for play, and it represents one of my biggest monthly expenses.

²http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell_System

 
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Posted by on March 22, 2011 in Telecommunications

 

Blogging?

I gave up Facebook for Lent. I’m not religious, but it seemed like the thing to do.

Rather than cramming everything I have to say into multiple 420 character status updates (or blasting my boyfriend’s email inbox with a volley of carping), I’ve decided to start a blog. I will probably go back to Facebook eventually, but until then – this is where I am.

 
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Posted by on March 22, 2011 in Uncategorized