Monday, November 24, 2014

CDO in action

I recently discovered Google Docs, or, more accurately, I finally succumbed to the various entreaties from Google that I check it out. Coincidentally, my desktop computer has begun behaving erratically again. The original hard drive went senile about 18 months ago. It didn't cost much to replace it, but I did lose a fair number of files and photos I had stored on it. Nothing important, but still it was moderately annoying. Since then, I've been trying to remember to save photos to a flash drive or to stash them in various online albums, but hadn't really thought about documents much. After all, most of the writing I do is strictly personal -- letters to pen pals, notes to my sisters, the annual Xmas letter to enclose with cards. Nothing horrible was going to happen if it all vanished. Back in the days of pen and ink, it would all be ephemeral anyway.

And then we decided to become campground hosts. I was going to be away from the desktop for awhile, the S.O. had invested in a tablet that we planned to tote along in addition to his laptop, maybe, just maybe, Google's cloud wasn't such a bad idea after all. I could use the tablet to do my letter writing, then connect the laptop to a printer to get the hard copy to mail. Or I could go to a public library to use the computer there to access the cloud and then print out a hard copy.

As it turned out, I did all my letter writing at Montauk the old-fashioned way: pen and paper. The writer's bump on one finger actually started reforming -- does anyone else still have remnants of the callus left from doing a lot of writing by hand? I found myself remembering why I always liked to write things out in long hand first -- you have to go a little slower than when you type, so you're forced to think more about just what it is you plan to say. Still, Google Docs was still floating around in the back of my mind. After all, John Scalzi had sort of recommended it -- in a blog post a few years ago he mentioned that it was good for doing short pieces, although he wasn't too happy about its rather rudimentary formatting capabilities. Well, how much formatting does the typical personal letter need? Not a whole heck of a lot. So I started doing letters in Google Docs. I figured that way if I'm feeling particularly verbose (not an uncommon occurrence), I wouldn't have to worry about my computer deciding to eat a letter before I'd finished it.

Then I realized that Google Docs also lets you do spreadsheets. And that's where the CDO comes in. You know that Reading List I have over on the right hand side just above the Pulitzer  list? I'm now in the process of building a spread sheet that will do a better job of tracking what I've read than just doing a once a year printout on December 31. No more going to the library and not being able to remember if I've already read a book; no more grabbing something by one of my favorite authors off the shelf, getting it home, thinking, jeez, this sounds familiar, checking the printouts, and realizing I read it two years ago. Nope. I'm going to create a spreadsheet in Google Docs that goes back at least five years. Next time I have a question about whether or not I've read something, I'll be able to log on from a library computer and double check. And it's going to be so much better than the Reading List. The List just displays stuff in chronological order. Whatever's at the top of the list is what I'm reading now. The spreadsheet will be alphabetical by author, which make it super easy to search. At this point, two things are going through my head: 1. Why didn't I do this sooner? And, 2. I almost wish I had a smart phone so I'd be able to access the list when I'm in bookstores, too.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Adventures in bureaucracy: state level

I have occasionally noted that I am a member of the county historical society and volunteer at the museum the society operates. Back in 2013 I was elected treasurer of the organization. This means I get to deal with all the paperwork we receive from entities such as the United States Department of the Treasury (i.e., the IRS) and the State of Michigan.

Well, when I checked the mail yesterday the State's Treasury Department had dropped an annoying missive into the society's lap. The State of Michigan, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that all businesses (and that includes nonprofits) must register online with the division responsible for collecting Sales, Use, and Withholding taxes. This is fine with me. I think it's a great idea. Anything that in theory makes life simpler for everyone strikes me as good. If reporting can be reduced down to filling out an online form once a year and hitting the send key, it's a win.

So I cheerfully typed in the URL required to reach the registration site. That's when I discovered the State (or the moronic contractor they hired) had done something bizarre. To register your business you have to enter identifying information as an individual. You begin by creating a user ID that will consist of your last name, first initial, and 4 numerical digits of your choosing. Okay. We're the Baraga County Historical Society. Does that mean our name is SocietyB1234? And for the part that asks for first name, middle initial, and last name, are we Baraga C Society? Apparently not. The system won't take it. I spent a rather frustrating twenty minutes or so trying to come up with a work-around for filling in a form designed for humans only. A good chunk of that time was spent trying to find a way to contact the State to ask for help.

Well, good luck with that one, too, because there is no Contact or Help provided other than a link to an 800 number that on screen claims to have operators standing by 24/7 but instead lands you at the usual voice mail tree that does the oh-so-predictable infinite looping. Our tax dollars at work. I did find a Contact form for the Governor's office so filled that form out asking how a corporation would register as opposed to an individual business owner. After all, corporations may be people now but they still don't have people-type names.

I realized as I was doing this that I could have come up with a simple solution: I could have either filled the form out using my own name or I could have made something up. I resisted for several reasons. First, I have no desire to have my name permanently linked to the society or the museum. There's already too much mail arriving addressed to me or one of the other officers c/o the museum when it should be addressed to the organization itself instead of to a representative. The museum in theory is going to be around for many decades; the other members and I are just passing through. Second, if I created an alias for the museum, sooner or later some bell in the labyrinth of the state bureaucracy would ring, some desk monkey would rouse himself from his nap, mutter "This isn't right," and Explanations would be Demanded.

The thing that baffles me about the whole experience. . . well, it doesn't really baffle me because I know that the typical contractor tends to be both lazy and not particularly creative. . . is why didn't they design a fill-in form that did the obvious? You know, ask for the business name, then the name of a contact person or officer, and go from there? It's so bizarre. It's like whoever designed the form assumed every business in the state is a sole proprietorship. Very, very strange.

As for why we have to worry about this type of stuff when we're so small and make less money annually than some teenage babysitters rake in, as long as we're a recognized nonprofit corporation we do have to comply with rules for annual reporting. We may not have any paid employees at the moment and the receipts from the gift shop fall well below the threshold for nonprofits for paying sales taxes, but we still have to do the same paperwork as any other business. It's not that big a deal to do when we're putting zeroes in most of the spaces on the forms. And who knows? One of these days a tour bus could pull into the parking lot and disgorge a horde of shopaholic tourists who empty the gift shop to the point where the State gets lucky. I can dream.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Yet another reason to despise politicians

Listening to the news this morning I'm hearing quite a bit about the Keystone XL Pipeline project. This is a project that involves building a pipeline to transport Canadian crude oil extracted from the tar sands in northern Canada down through the United States to a refinery in Texas where the crude will be processed and then shipped to overseas markets. The oil industry and its paid hacks in Congress -- mostly Republicans but with a few Democrats, too -- have done a lot of posturing about what a boon this pipeline would be for the American economy. It would add jobs (a grand total of 35 to 40 permanent positions), it would help reduce the cost of gasoline, it's environmentally benign, . . . all the usual bullshit.

Because the pipeline crosses an international border, the project has been subject to review by the United States Department of State as well as to the other usual reviews pipeline projects have to undergo. It's been tied up for years, basically since the Bush administration departed. In fact, it's been tied up for so many years that the Canadian oil companies may be abandoning the idea -- there have been several news reports recently that pipelines are under construction and close to done that will transport the Canadian crude to a Canadian port city and the Keystone pipeline will be rendered unnecessary. My instincts tell me that's what President Obama's game plan has been: stall long enough that the Canadians come up with an alternative, which would get the Democrats off the hook. They would have avoided directly pissing off Big Oil and at the same time done enough of a balancing act to be able to keep telling the environmental activists, "see, we're tree huggers, too."

So why I am disgusted with politicians this morning? Or, more specifically, why I am disgusted with the Democratic party? Because the Democrats are so unbelievably short-sighted that some of them are pushing for approving a bill that authorizes construction of the Keystone pipeline in the bizarre hope that it passing such a bill in the Senate (it's already passed in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives) will help Senator Mary Landrieu's chances in Louisiana. Louisiana has a strange electoral system that has resulted in Landrieu being forced into a run-off election in December. The planned pipeline doesn't go into Louisiana -- as planned, it terminates in Port Arthur, Texas -- so why Landrieu or anyone else thinks it would be a game changer for her baffles me. Is it supposed to be proof she's willing to disagree with Obama? It's not going to work. Based on the current political climate in Louisiana, Landrieu doesn't have a prayer of winning, especially when she was bluntly (and refreshingly) honest about the influence of racism in voters' dislike of the President. Her only hope is to somehow practice Louisiana politics as usual and engage in a whole lot of backroom chicanery and fraud to hang on to her Senate seat. Nonetheless, in the bizarre and forlorn hope of being able to keep one Senate seat labeled D instead of R, the Democrats are contemplating fucking over both the country and the President.

And just what will they gain from this? Absolutely nothing. They'll still be the minority party in the Senate, they'll have made it even clearer what a bunch of spineless, unprincipled weasels they are, and they'll have weakened further the head of their own party. It's not going to gain them any points with the Republicans. Mitch McConnell et al. already know the Democrats are invertebrates; all supporting the Keystone pipeline will do is emphasize just how powerless the Democrats are. It's not going to help with bipartisanship. If anything, it just tells McConnell he's got a good shot at passing anything and everything the Republicans feel like proposing. There will be no compromises on anything, which is what McConnell made clear years ago was his operating philosophy. 

I really need to stop listening to the news. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Food fads and the gullible

I have written before about food fads, things that are promoted as being better than whatever it is we're used to eating and of course cost a whole lot more. I've found another one. Agave nectar.

Back when I still worked at the Centers for Disease Control, one of my colleagues began pushing agave nectar as a substitute for sugar. I'm not sure why. Supposedly because the agave nectar is sweeter than sugar, you'll use less of it. If the reason for using agave nectar is to cut back on calories, you'd better hope that to your taste buds it seems a whole lot sweeter because when you start comparing calories on a teaspoon to teaspoon basis sugar wins. Sugar has 16 calories in a teaspoon; agave nectar has 20. Anyway, at the time the agave nectar was being pushed by my colleague, I humored her, used it in my coffee, and thought to myself, "Okay. Not bad." So the next time I was at Publix I looked for agave nectar.

Remember the quinoa experience? Well, agave wasn't quite as much of a sticker shock eye opener, but at the time it struck me as fairly pricey for the amount the bottle contained. However, back then (this was about five years ago), agave was a recent arrival on supermarket shelves and Dr. Oz (who's apparently never met a food fad he didn't love) was pushing it on his show. He has since back peddled. For various reasons (market forces? economy of scale?) the price has dropped; it is now cheaper ounce for ounce than honey. It is, of course, still a lot more expensive than cane sugar.

Like the quinoa, the agave nectar was a gift. I have a friend who works at a summer camp that caters to rich kids from Chicago; every year when the camp shuts down at the end of the season the staff have to completely empty the kitchen. Anything that is perishable, might attract varmints (e.g., raccoons), or would be ruined by freezing is removed. Some of it goes to area food pantries and some goes home with the maintenance guys who in turn pass some on to friends and family. Last year I was the recipient of several boxes of quinoa, probably because I actually knew what the stuff was (or was the only one who was willing to try it). This year it was a bottle of agave nectar.*

Unlike the quinoa, the agave nectar is actually edible. It's nicely innocuous. When I dump it in my coffee or tea, I can't tell the difference between using it and using ordinary sugar. Am I using less in terms of total amounts than I would if it was the usual teaspoon of sugar? Who knows. It's hard to do a side by side comparison when agave is a liquid and sugar is a solid. Is there an advantage to using agave instead of sugar? I'm not sure. I've heard some people tout it as being more "natural," but from what I've read the process most commonly used for extracting it from the agave plant is as highly industrialized as the process involved in making high fructose corn syrup. There's a lot more involved than just crushing the plant and boiling the resulting sap. There is a type of traditional agave nectar that comes much closer to the type of processing used for traditional cane syrup, but that's not the agave nectar you're going to find on the shelves at a typical Kroger.

In any case, whether traditionally produced or cranked out in an industrial refinery, the sugars in agave are primarily fructose, which, as other writers have pointed out, puts agave a whole lot closer to being just another form of high fructose corn syrup than it does to anything that's actually good for you. High fructose corn syrup has gotten a bad reputation for a reason: research has shown that the human body does process fructose differently than it does sucrose. High amounts of fructose in a person's diet can contribute to the development of metabolic syndrome, i.e., that lethal combination of weight gain and type II diabetes. So why on earth would anyone think agave nectar would be a healthy alternative to ordinary sugar?

I have heard that hard core vegans like agave nectar because it doesn't involve animals in any way, shape, or form. They substitute it for honey because they apparently view honey as off limits because it's bee vomit and therefore an animal product. Well, cane sugar, beet sugar, maple syrup, and Karo syrup have always been 100% non-animal products, so why agave would suddenly look more appealing than any of the non-fructose loaded alternatives baffles me. It has to be yet another triumph of marketing cancelling out common sense.

Of maybe it's just that magic "organic" seal on the bottles. Who knows. It's a mystery.

*I get other stuff, too, but it's not as much fun to write about a giant unopened bag of Kellogg's Froot Loops or the institutional-size jug of stir fry sauce. Unlike the quinoa, the Froot loops did not end up in a bird feeder.  

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Adventures in blogging

A few months ago I was invited to become a contributor to a blog that invites a variety of perspectives, political and otherwise. I had qualms, but decided to give it a shot. I still have qualms.

When I blog here in my little self-created corner of the universe, I'm doodling in a space with an established structure. It's comfortable. I can take off my metaphorical stays, relax, and cheerfully free associate. Over in the new space, however, it's still feeling like the lacing is being pulled tighter. There's too much of a sense of being constrained. I'm not sure why. Comments are civil, although it's pretty clear a number of regular commenters on that site have their responses set on auto pilot. They have their pet theories and, no surprise, manage to work those pet theories into every comment they leave regardless of the supposed topic of the original post. That's not really a problem, though, because just about the only comments I ever bother to read seriously are the ones when I see while doing comment moderation on this blog.

Maybe it's the quota system -- I'm supposed to do two posts a month in order to remain an active author. Okay, so two posts isn't very many, but I never was real keen on production quotas in general. Having worked at a number of shit jobs that had production quotas, I know from sad experience that if everyone always meets the quota, sooner or later the quota goes up. This month it's two posts. . . if everyone does their two posts, pretty soon the blog administrator will start demanding three. . . and so it goes. Pretty soon I'll be typing my fingers to the bone and for what? No reward other than the remote possibility half a dozen people will read my deathless prose. That isn't much of an incentive.

Or perhaps the truth is even simpler. I keep forgetting the bloody password for the other blog. It's got multiple layers of security (the administrator is a bit of a zealot when it comes to protecting the space) and times a person out after a certain number of minutes. I get a few sentences done, get timed out, have to log back in and, despite having instructed the computer to "remember me," end up having to rummage around on my rat's nest of a desk looking for the odd scrap of paper with the most recent iteration of the password on it. By the time I find it, my fragile train of thought has fallen off a trestle, and I find myself thinking about cranes lifting boxcars out of rivers instead of whatever it was I thought I was saying to begin with.

In short, it's really hard to develop much enthusiasm for contributing to a blog when the contributions feel way too much like work. If I'm not getting paid to do something, then that something should be fun. When it stops being fun, it's time to walk away.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

Think we're getting close to the two feet total for this particular storm. It doesn't matter. Our driveway will remain open.
video
Unfortunately, this winter is the last one where the Road Commission will plow private driveways. The fees they charge don't really cover the cost, and there are staffing issues -- when people retire, that position just stays empty. Fewer guys working means the amount of public road each plow operator has to cover keeps growing; doing driveways eats up too much time. End result? The Road Commission board members voted a few months ago to discontinue the driveway program after this winter.

So what are we going to do next year? We managed in the past without the Road Commission; we can do it again. The S.O. has a 4-wheel drive pickup with a plow rig, and if there's ever a storm that dumps so much snow the pickup can't deal with it, well, we do have snowshoes.

Alternatively, there is always The Guppy and a snowbird lifestyle. There are worse fates than spending the winters wandering around the southwest while avoiding snow.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Home, sweet snow-covered home

We've been home for a few days now. Travel was uneventful, although coming up through Illinois we had a pretty good tailwind and actually got the Guppy up to around 9 miles per gallon. That was exciting, just cruising along and not seeing the needle gas gauge plummet as soon as we pulled away from the pump. Even better was seeing the prices plummet, although the lowest price we saw -- $2.54 -- didn't help us at all at the time. We know we'd get better mileage if we weren't dragging a car behind us on a tow dolly, but we're not willing to give up that anchor yet.

The weirdest part with watching the gas prices was realizing that gas was selling for more in Wisconsin than in Illinois. Usually the reverse is true. And of course Missouri is always much, much cheaper than any of the other states -- I have no idea why, although it probably has to do with state sales taxes and fees. Missouri makes up for having cheap gas, though, by taxing food. That definitely startled me the first time we grocery-shopped. Granted, the sales tax on food is lower than the sales tax on nonedible items, but even so. . . taxing food always feels wrong to me. But, as usual, I digress.

We're home. It feels good to be home, back in a truly warm house with a large, dry bed. After a month in that 3/4 size bed in the Guppy, it feels good to be able to sprawl again. Sprawl, heck. It feels good just to be able to turn over in the bed without worrying about either falling out or nailing the S.O. with an elbow or a knee. It also feels good to be able to walk around the house like a normal person with no sidling sideways like a crab to negotiate tiny spaces. I don't know how people who are full-time RV-ers do it. Not everyone who's given up living in a real house to be on the road permanently has a Class A leviathan or a 5th wheel 40 feet long with multiple slide-outs. Does all that sidling eventually start to feel normal? I don't know. . .  I do know that right about the time we finally seemed to have figured things out and had more or less adapted to life in a small space, our month at the park ended.

Now that we're home, I need to get back into my usual routine of spending a couple days a week at the museum sorting through the mystery boxes in the attic and the storage building and then cataloging the good stuff. I have found some nifty things over the past year or two. Of course, I've also found some truly weird and useless items, which isn't surprising. Too often people will donate stuff that's actually pretty useless, like stacks of ancient magazines. I tend to joke that we get the stuff that people are stuck with after the estate sale is over. It's old, it's not worth anything, and the St. Vincent de Paul store won't take it. But, hey, it's OLD, so you know the museum is going to want it. Besides, the museum won't charge a garbage disposal fee like Waste Management or Arvon Trash and Transit do.

You know, a few old Life or McCall's magazines are nice to have. If nothing else, they can be used as part of exhibits that highlight a specific time period, e.g., a 1953 Saturday Evening Post might be interesting as part of a display about the Eisenhower era. But there are limits, especially when there are duplicates. On the other hand, when someone does show up with boxes of old magazines, we can't just say no because you never know what gems might be hiding in the trash. This open-handed acceptance policy would not have been a bad thing if someone had been sorting through all the boxes as they came in, but apparently no one was. Too much came in too fast when the museum first opened. Box after box got shoved up in the attic or out into the storage building, all without much in the way of labeling. I can understand why it happened, much as I might wish it hadn't. End result? A gazillion mystery boxes.

Or worse. One of the little gems I found the last time I went up the ships ladder to the attic was a box labeled "Curwood books for resale." The box did indeed contain a couple dozen books by James Oliver Curwood. I could be wrong, but my instinct is that it's real hard to re-sell anything when it's hiding under a pile of other stuff in an attic instead of being shelved in the used book section of the gift shop. I'd call it a head*desk moment, but I'm not sure that term applies when you're not actually sitting at the desk. Would those books have sold if they'd been sitting in the gift shop for the past 20 years instead of up in the attic? Who knows, but for sure they were never going to sell where they were.

Besides getting back into some sort of routine at the museum, I need to get this winter's quilt project(s) started. For the first time in many years, I have no quilts in progress. Nada. That feels weird. Usually I've got at least one project going, even if it's just at the cutting pieces stage. Right now I haven't even picked out a pattern for whatever is next. I do have other sewing to do -- I'm making new curtains for the Guppy -- but that's not quite the same. I need to pick a quilt pattern and start cutting pieces soon.  

There are other things I need to do, too, like locate The Hat. I have a cap I knitted many, many years ago (acrylic yarn lasts forever) that still drives my kids crazy. It can't be winter unless I'm wearing The Hat. Along with locating The Hat, I should also track down mittens, scarves, and other items necessary now that temperatures have dropped below freezing and there's sloppy white stuff (about two inches as of this morning) on the ground. And the S.O. needs to remember where we stashed some snow shovels. There's two inches of slush on the front porch at the moment and nothing handy to remove it with.

The S.O. claimed he wanted to spend most of the winter here on the tundra so he could watch snow slide off the barn's new metal roof. If today's weather is any indication, he's going to have a lot of opportunities to do that.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

No real surprises

The election results are in, and Democrats nationwide are looking and sounding understandably depressed. Over the next few days we're going to get to hear a lot of second-guessing as to why so many supposedly promising candidates lost.

Here's a hint: no one wants to vote for a candidate who acts ashamed of his or her own party. I saw a whole lot of candidates busy trying to distance themselves from President Obama. If I were an undecided voter, I'd have a hard time finding a good reason to vote for anyone who tried to claim that even though he or she was running  as a Democrat, that person didn't really support the President's policies or want anything to do with him. The ultimate, of course, was Alison Grimes in Kentucky embarrassing herself by tap dancing around a question about whether or not she, an avowed Democrat, had voted for the person at the top of the Democratic ticket in 2012. WTF? Did anyone seriously believe that she had NOT voted for Obama? The surprise isn't that McConnell won; it's that anyone at all in Kentucky voted for Grimes. In any case, in too many states and districts, the Democratic candidates gave voters a choice between Republican-Lite and Real Republican. Not surprisingly, given a choice, voters opted for the Real Republican instead of the pseudo version.

It probably doesn't help that the Democratic Party is still being managed from the top by corporate shills. But that's a subject for a different post.