Confessions of a Rocket Scientist
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
  Putting the "X" in Xmas, or, The Phantom Menace
Every year about this time we are newly inundated with holiday noise. A lot of folks with the intention of somehow getting your money into their pockets are vying for your attention. Merchants come to mind right away with their admonitions to Buy Buy Buy their stuff. Pickpockets take a more direct approach, relieving marks of their hard-earned cash. And among the loudest noisemakers we find the annual crowd of “religious” types, ostensibly concerned at the alarming secularization of a supposed religious holiday, but actually motivated by a need to augment their coffers.
The latest assault is actually a recycled attempt to “keep Christ in Christmas.” The holy rollers and televangelists raise their electronic voices in righteous indignation at the merchants, government officials, liberals, and the ACLU at their attempt to further secularize this holiest of holidays! How dare we ignore the very reason for this celebration, the birth of Jesus? And they always manage to bring up the use of the letter “X” in place of the name of Christ. Oh, by the way, send us a generous contribution so we can continue to do the Lord’s work and prevent the godless secular humanists and the ACLU from stealing the holiday from Christians.
God spare me from fundies!
Folks, this might be news to you, but the holiday we celebrate in December has always been a secular one. It derives from ancient Germanic observance of the Winter Solstice, Yule. Such traditions as the Yule Log, the Christmas tree, Wassail bowls, and the hanging of boughs of holly and mistletoe are directly lifted from the Northern European Yule observance. The birth of Christ was traditionally celebrated on January 6, and is still observed on this date by Eastern Orthodox churches. Although the early Germanic peoples accepted Christianity, they persisted in observing their Yuletide festivities. The Church was alarmed at their inability to eradicate pagan holidays, so they simply re-designated the celebration of Christmas to coincide with Yule and put a Christian face onto a pagan holiday.
The issue of putting the “X” in “Xmas” is also easily explained. The name of God is sacred to many devout believers in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Among orthodox Jews the name of God is never written, lest it be inadvertently desecrated. In the past, many devout Christians shared this sentiment and substituted the letter “X” for the word “Christ.” This sentiment continues into the early 20th century where many American Christians considered a public display of Christ’s name in a secular context to be disrespectful. In order to show proper respect and reverence for the name of Christ, they would substitute the letter “X.” Thus, the practice of putting the “X” in “Xmas” does not come from a bunch of godless secular humanists, but from devout believers motivated by a sense of devotion and respect.
This argument, of course, does not impress your average fanatic fundie. It is brushed aside with loud thumps upon the bible from which he will quote chapter and verse to obfuscate any logic presented.
Myself, I kind of like the religious observances of Christmas. There is a hobby shop in Lansdale that always has a Nativity scene on display this time of year. I always compliment the proprietor on his display and make it a point to thank him. The proprietor is not displaying the Nativity scene to separate anybody from their cash. His wares are sufficient for that task. He just likes to acknowledge the reason we celebrate in his own way. Whether he displays it or not, many customers will find their way to his shop and gladly part with huge wads of cash still smoldering from spontaneous combustion in their pockets in order to take home a new locomotive, an RC airplane, or (in my case) some new rocket goodie.
Let’s face it, folks, this latest campaign is more about raising money than raising awareness. Falwell and his gang have manufactured this crisis in order to pay for their latest batch of Rolex watches and designer suits. They would have you believe that there is an active conspiracy on the part of those stinking liberals to remove Christmas from public life. They blame the same gang of perpetrators (liberals, gays, the ACLU) that they blamed for the 911 attack. And they are just as full of shit as ever. Make no mistake about it, they are exploiting the human need for a boogeyman to line their pockets, and are proving, in the process, that Boobus Americanus is not an endangered species.
If you really need to give some money to a religious organization this holiday season, might I recommend the ubiquitous bell-ringers of The Salvation Army? This organization might be a conservative Christian church that advocates family values, but they also live the Christian ethic by providing freely to the neediest of God’s children. Your money will do a lot more good feeding the hungry than it will paying for Falwell’s wardrobe.
Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Priorities have this incredible way of suddenly shifting.

Yesterday was a work day for Betty, my dear wife.  She works at Grand View Hospital on the 3-11 PM shift.  (No, she isn’t a nurse.)  I work the day shift.  On her work days, if we can manage, I like to take her dinner.  Last night dinner was pizza from our favorite pizza joint, Roc and Ray’s in Sellersville.  They make great pizza.  I also got a pie for two of her co-workers, half plain and half anchovies.  I don’t understand why anybody would want to ruin perfectly good pizza by putting little fish on it, but hey, I didn’t have to eat it.  Anyway, we had our pizza and I took the leftovers home.

I had a few things to do at home, but I decided to put them off for the time being.  I put away the pizza and decided to let the dishes and things go while I indulged myself in a little guilty pleasure.  I had just bought the first two Harry Potter movies.  They were on sale for $9.99 each.

I was about halfway into the first movie when the phone rang.  It was the Emergency Room at Betty’s hospital.  They told me she was all right but I had to come take her home.

Okay, that was when I sat on the panic button.  One of the things I learned from Betty was that when the ER calls a relative they never say how serious the problem is.  This is so that the relative doesn’t panic and kill themselves driving like a maniac to the hospital.  Knowing this little factoid caused me to panic.  I didn’t drive like a maniac, but I had about a thousand grim scenarios run through my mind as I drove to the ER.  I still don’t exactly remember driving there.  I think the car knew the way.

I was relieved and thankful when I walked into the ER waiting room and found Betty waiting for me.  She was smiling kind of sheepishly, and told me that nothing was injured too badly except her pride.  She had fallen getting off the elevator, just after she had left me from dinner.  She hit her head and the nurses did not want to take any chances, so they put her in a wheelchair and took her to the ER.  The docs looked her over and verified that all she suffered was a nasty bruise, but they wanted to be sure.  They thought she was acting peculiarly after she fell.  Apparently she was cracking jokes after she fell.  I told the folks in the ER that this was normal behavior for Betty.

Anyway, I took her home and put her to bed.  She woke up this morning a bit stiff and sore but mostly all right.  I told her to take it easy and stay off her feet.  Hopefully she listens.

I never did see the end of Harry Potter, but somehow I don’t think it’s all that important right now.


Monday, November 28, 2005
  Barbecuing a Turkey for Thanksgiving

I’m in kind of a holding pattern at work right now. There is a software release due out at the end of the week and the testers are as busy as a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. Consequently, they don’t have a lot of time to devote to holding the new guy by the hand and showing him the ropes. I am left to discover stuff for myself.

I have taken advantage of this time to brush up on my knowledge of xml. I got a review book and I am plowing through the lessons. Not all of it will be applicable, but it will be helpful when I finally get useful.

Right now I’m taking a break from my lessons and posting some stuff on my blog.

We got together at my sister’s place for Thanksgiving this year. Next year we will probably go out for dinner. But this year just to be different we gathered for dinner. My wife made her yams, Brussels sprouts, and carrots. I made my cranberry sauce and I barbecued a turkey. That’s right, I barbecued a turkey.

I have a Weber kettle grill that lets me do stuff like this. I put a drip pan in the center of the charcoal grate and stack my charcoal on either side of it. I put about a half inch of apple cider in the drip pan. I light the coals and wait for them to ash over evenly, and then I put the bird on the grill just over the drip pan. The bird has been brushed with olive oil and rubbed with poultry seasoning and just a hint of black pepper. I also put a foil pouch full of Jack Daniels grilling chips on the coals. I set the bottom drafts about halfway open and put the cover on the grill. The cover drafts are fully open.

Then I wait for the turkey timer to pop.

Every 15 minutes or so I brush the bird with some olive oil. This keeps the meat moist and makes the skin crispy and brown. I cooked a 12-pound turkey. It took about three hours, which was just about right.

After two hours I needed to add charcoal to the fire. This was not a problem. The grill has hinged sections that swing up just so you can add charcoal. The key is not to add too much, since we are going for a slow cooking process.

The result is a superb bird with a delectable smoky flavor only charcoal grilling can produce. The white meat was moist and flavorful and the dark meat was delicious.

The only bad part about this is that I couldn’t make gravy. Maybe I could have used the drippings in the pan, but it was unfortunately contaminated with charcoal ash. So we had to use the canned stuff for the potatoes and stuffing.

The meal was good. We are still enjoying the leftovers. It’s a shame that the Pilgrims didn’t have Weber grills to cook their turkey on that first Thanksgiving.

Hope your Thanksgiving was good.

  Working Again - Update

I am once again among the gainfully employed.  I started working a contract gig at a place in Bethlehem.  It’s a telecom company.  The company basically outsources the order fulfillment part of a telephone company.  They are the people who complete the orders for new cell phone service.  I get to test their software.

There is a lot to this company’s product that most people will never see.  When you order new phone service on the web or change your service, this outfit completes the order.  It also operates the customer call center, at least the part that’s in the USA.  Yep, a lot of customer service is done overseas as you have probably suspected.  I won’t tell you exactly which companies use my new company’s services, but they are big.  Anyway, I’m not really an employee.  I’m a contractor.

The up side of contracting is the big paycheck.  The down side is the benefits, as in the complete and utter lack of them.  I can get health coverage, but I pay the entire cost.  Also, there are no paid vacations or holidays.  And the job is not permanent.  I know from the start it will only last as long as the work is needed.  I am projected to work for at least six months with the possibility of more and a possibility of going permanent.  Neither of these possibilities are guaranteed.  But for six months I have a job.  That’s more that I had last month.

I got some bad news this weekend.  I tried getting in touch with a former co-worker and discovered that he had passed away.  He was diagnosed with colon cancer about the same time as I was.  His disease had progressed to stage 4, which means it was spreading beyond the colon.  He had some spots on his lungs.  It looked as though he had beaten it, but this was not the case.  After 2 years he was experiencing severe back pains which turned out to be tumors on his spine.  Things deteriorated rapidly.  Those spots on his lungs had spread to the point that he had trouble breathing.  His kidneys also shut down.  My friend passed away in September.  I will miss him.

His name was Mark, and he was the kind of person who always had a smile and just made you feel better whenever you talked to him.  He was a fundamentalist Christian, which caused more than a few “discussions” between us.  But Mark was the kind of guy who could agree to disagree with you and go on being a friend.  I admired that quality.  The world is diminished by his passing.  And if Heaven has e-mail, he is doubtless clogging it with his humorous stories.  I look forward to resuming our “discussions” when we eventually meet again.

The continuing story of a man, his hobby, and the search for a really good cup of coffee.

"The first cup of coffee in the morning recapitulates Phylogeny." -J. Pournelle

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Location: Quakertown, Pennsylvania, United States

Two time cancer survivor, happily married, LaSalle Alumnus

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