General Archive

Friday, May 6, 2011

A Visitor at Dusk

The other day, just after I had gotten home and gotten out of the car, I heard a rustling in the bushes in front of our house. My first thought was that it was the cats, but I realized that our cats aren't clumsy enough to make that much noise. So, I took a step back, and waited to see what would come out.

Armadillo in my Driveway

It's a bit hard to tell from the grainy photo from my cell phone, but that's an armadillo. I've seen a few dozen armadillos, but what makes that one unique, after my having lived in Texas for nearly ten years, is that it's alive. Honestly, every single armadillo I've seen before this one (not counting zoos), has been roadkill. It probably has something to do with me living and working inside the city limits, but I've seen living bobcats, coyotes, skunks, possums, rabbits, beavers, foxes, raccoons, deer, bats, and plenty of other animals, but never a live armadillo.

I followed this one around the neighborhood for about 10 or 15 minutes before it finally went through a neighbor's backyard into a strip of trees. My daughter just missed seeing it, but at least heard it rustling in the woods.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Alex Uba, R.I.P.

Growing up, I had two friends that I met in kindergarten, and we remained very close throughout elementary and middle school. When I moved to Maryland at the start of high school, we stayed in touch for a while, making several back and forth visits, but we began drifting apart, until eventually we lost contact. A little over a year ago, I joined Facebook, and discovered that one of them, Alex Uba, was also a member. So, we contacted each other then, but after so many years, there wasn't much to say, and our friendship went back to silence.

A little while ago, I found out that Alex died just a few months after our latest contact. I was shocked. After so little contact over the years, you'd think it would have lessened the impact, but it still hit me hard. I guess I'd always maintained some hope that the next time I made it up to my hometown, I'd give him a call and get together for a few beers. Hell, I still have his old phone number memorized, which I thought might still be his parents' number, so I envisioned giving them a surprise call out of the blue. I'd even occasionally have dreams where our old group met up. Now, I guess I can go look for his grave to pay my respects.

I was flooded with childhood memories of all the things we'd done together. We went through Cub Scouts together, then Boy Scouts. We went camping together nearly every month, shared tents, had the same cabin at summer camp. One year, at the end of the week pool competition, he, the other kindergarten friend, and I won the three person human raft swim race. I helped him on his Eagle Scout project. I went to his birthday party every year, and he always came to mine. I slept over at his house more nights than I could count. In elementary school, we made fun of his name calling him Uba the Tuba, and they made fun of me calling me deaf Jeff. His family took me along to Sunnybrook pool for years when they had a membership, and then we swam at his house once they got their own pool (Sunnybrook Pool has since been filled in). I rode my bike over to his house. We rode around in the go kart that his dad built for him. We towed each other on sleds behind the old used snow mobile his dad fixed up. We flew kites in the field behind his house. We played backyard football and kill the carrier. We even invented our own game that we called Spanish football. I remember the time we bought little balsa wood airplanes and flew them in the field across the street from his house, mixing and matching parts to customize our planes. He loved golf, and took me to a real golf course for one of only two times in my life I've ever played 18 holes. We went to Waltz for miniature golf, the driving range, and the par 3 course. I even caddied for him for a tournament one time. We bowled at Jay Lanes. He played baseball. I didn't, but I'd still be the catcher for him so he could practice his pitching when we played catch. He didn't like his one neighbor, so one night, along with another friend, we toilet papered their trees, threw crabapples into their pool, and tied toilet paper bows around their cars. We fessed up the next morning and had to clean it all up. He found his dad's girlie magazine stash in the attic, and we used to thumb through those every chance we got. We played Hardball and 4th and Inches on our Commodore 64s until our thumbs hurt. They took me to Dorney Park a few times every summer. We went trick or treating together, saving the Huff's house for last, where we always went in for cookies and hot apple cider. He built models, and had his best on display up on his dresser. We were both in the band - I played trombone and he played clarinet. We played tennis together the year one of the middle school teachers tried to start a tennis clinic. We went to the same church, and were in the same CCD class. We went through First Reconciliation, First Communion and Confirmation together. We were both altar boys, and served together a few times, though he usually served on Saturday night, and I usually served Sunday morning. There was one time when a new altar boy combined the two collections into one sack, and me and Alex tried to split it back up again, only to get caught by the deacon just as we were finishing and scolded not to mix up the money between the two (we never told him it was all screwed up to begin with). We'd even snack on the non-consecrated wafers. I remember the time we used a Ouija board, and we were amazed at how well it worked, until we asked it which one of us was the coolest. Most of all, I remember a good friend, and I can't believe he's gone.

Knowing how I feel after not having seen Alex for 15 years, my heart goes out to his parents, his sister, and his wife that I never met. Alex, you will be missed terribly.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Fastnacht Day

Fastnacht Day is once again upon us. I'll be busy making fastnachts tomorrow morning in celebration. Since I don't have anything new to say from last year, or the year before, I'll just quote that entry one more time.

Doughnut Picture from Wikimedia CommonsDepending on where you are in the world, you may call tomorrow something else, like Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day. But from where I'm from in Pennsylvania, it's called Fastnacht Day. Traditionally, you make potato based donuts, called fastnachts, supposedly as a way to empty your larder of all the fatty, sugary foods in preparation for the Lenten fast. My elementary school even used to give out donuts with the lunches on this day. So, in celebration of Fastnachts, here's a recipe on my main site on how to make fastnachts, and a link to the (not so thorough) Wikipedia article.

You're supposed to wake up early to make the fastnachts on Tuesday morning (they're freshest that way), but I usually make them the night before. They keep pretty well in a brown paper lunch bag. I also like to put a little bit of powdered sugar into a ziploc bag, and a mix of granulated sugar and cinnamon into another one, to coat the fastnachts just before eating them.

Doughnut Picture from Wikimedia Commons


Added 2011-03-08 - I brought my fastnachts in to share at work today. The people who were here last year remember them from then, but almost all of the new people hadn't heard of them. Anyway, to see just how popular they are back up in Pennsylvania, go read this article. Look at those pictures, and just how many fastnachts they're making. And according to this article, bakers in Hagerstown started baking on Sunday night to meet today's demand.

A guy from Chicago mentioned a similar tradition up there - paczkis, from the Polish immigrants. But instead of a hole in the middle like my family's fastnachts (not all fastnachts have the hole), they have a filling, usually jelly or creme. I guess lots of groups have invented traditions to allow indulgence before a 40 day fast.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Happy National Margarita Day

MargaritaToday is National Margarita Day (it's also National Cook a Sweet Potato Day, but that's not as much fun to celebrate). The origin of the margarita isn't exactly known. There are many stories, but most place it some time in the '30s or '40s in Mexico or the southwestern U.S., particularly Texas (more info 1, more info 2). It's currently the most popular mixed drink in the U.S.

If you want a way to celebrate at home, my wife has two very good variants.
Irmarita
Beer Margarita

Monday, February 21, 2011

In Defense of Wikipedia

Wikipedia LogoThe other day talking to my daughter, she asked me about something I didn't know the answer to. So, I told her I was going to look it up on Wikipedia. She instantly told me I shouldn't do that, because you can't trust Wikipedia. Her teachers had told her so. So, after a little back and forth, I told her I'd give her some information she could take to her teachers to show them that Wikipedia wasn't so bad. What I wrote was largely recycling of a comment I left in the entry, Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?, but cleaned up a bit. I figured that I'd repost that cleaned up version here in its own entry.

Wikipedia, for anyone unfamiliar with it, is an online encyclopedia. Its unique characteristic is that it’s open to be edited by anybody. This open policy certainly raises suspicions about its quality. However, in practice, it ends up being fairly reliable.

There was a study conducted by Nature in 2005, comparing Wikipedia to Encyclopædia Britannica Online. While Wikipedia was a little less accurate, it wasn't even by an order of magnitude. You have to have a subscription to Nature or pay $32 to read the original article, but cnet has a summary. Nature chose several topics at random, and asked experts to review the Britannica and Nature articles on those topics. Here's how cnet summarized the findings.

In the end, the journal found just eight serious errors, such as general misunderstandings of vital concepts, in the articles. Of those, four came from each site. They did, however, discover a series of factual errors, omissions or misleading statements. All told, Wikipedia had 162 such problems, while Britannica had 123.

That averages out to 2.92 mistakes per article for Britannica and 3.86 for Wikipedia.

Not surprisingly, considering that Britannica makes money by selling encyclopedias, they contested the study. Nature, for its part, has responded to Britannica's criticisms. You can read Britannica's criticisms and Nature's response by going to Nature's page for the article (unlike the original article, those portions are free).

One common complaint I’ve heard regarding Wikipedia is the problem of referencing it as a source when it's constantly changing. In fact, you can reference static versions of pages that will never change. You simply go to the ‘Toolbox’ section in the left hand column of an article, and choose ‘Permanent Link’. This allows one to see exactly what version of a page someone was using as a source. Here’s an example:
http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Archaeopteryx&oldid=414360746

Wikipedia is also much better about referencing and citations than it was in its early days. You can scroll to the bottom of an article and go to the original sources yourself, if so inclined. If you're planning on doing in depth analysis of a topic, Wikipedia can be a good starting point for this reason.

Wikipedia does share one problem with information sources in general – they all contain mistakes. There's no simple way to get 100% accurate information. It's up to every individual to evaluate information from any given source, and compare it to other sources. In fact, this is one of the reasons why I like Wikipedia. Conventional print encyclopedias have a hidden editorial process. Wikipedia puts it out there in the open, making it easier to evaluate information on the more controversial topics.

In my own personal experience, I've found Wikipedia to be pretty reliable, especially on non-controversial or apolitical topics. The revision history and links to sources make it easier to evaluate the reliability of the content. Wikipedia is usually the first place I go to when researching a topic I’m not already familiar with.

Archives

Selling Out