Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Why civilized dialogue doesn't work

I've been getting sucked in some odd debates on Facebook lately. I know I shouldn't because it's generally a total waste of time, but I'm still enough of an idealist (aka naive idiot) that I believe that if the reasons why something is an obvious fake are made clear someone may have one of those dope slap moments, that brief instance of clarity, where they go "Fuck, how could I have been fooled by that?!" And having realized one fairly meaningless meme was actually a photoshopped piece of crap they'll be a little more critical the next time they see something that's a little too good to be true. Yes, I know I'm dreaming, but still I try.

Yesterday was a classic. The item in question was a badly photoshopped supposed official State of Texas marker that commemorated the Second Amendment. It included what purported to be a quote from George Washington. It was so wrong on so many levels that from the viewpoint of someone whose career (and personal inclinations) included spending a lot of time looking at real books-on-sticks ranging from the vintage wayside signage in cannonball parks to brand new historic markers put up by various states it was flat out laughable.

To begin, the only thing the fake marker got right was the general shape of a typical State of Texas historic marker. The underlying template was probably a photo of a really old marker -- maybe. The really early metal markers in Texas had a circular seal at the top with the outline of the state in the middle and 3 stars at the bottom but they changed pretty quickly to including two phrases in the border of the circle: Texas Historical Commission at the top and Official Historical Medallion at the bottom. Note illustration to the right. There may be some old examples standing that don't include the medallion as shown, but that gets us to the next clue.

That clue was the reference to the Second Amendment. Although it can seem at times like American society has been arguing about the Second Amendment forever, it hasn't. It's actually a recent debate. The National Rifle Association didn't start stirring up shit on this issue until the 1970s. Gun manufacturers were experiencing dwindling sales so the NRA (which exists to support manufacturers and not gun owners) begun pushing the importance of self defense. I'm not going to try outlining recent history, but trust me on this one. No one cared about the 2nd Amendment 50 years ago. It was not a hot political issue. After Lee Harvey Oswald used a mail order rifle to shoot John F. Kennedy, the federal government passed regulations making it harder to get guns that easily, but you didn't have high profile celebrities posturing about guns being taken from their cold dead fingers (that speech happened a mere 18 years ago).

In any case, supposedly commemorating the Second Amendment on a state marker is pretty bizarre in itself. That's clue number 3. It would make sense if it mentioned something that happened in Texas that had to do with the Second Amendment, but it doesn't. It's just weird when it comes to the general category of books on sticks. It makes no sense.

Clue Number Four: The purported George Washington quote and its anachronistic phrasing. It referred to "arms and ammunition." This is one of those points that a nonhistorian probably wouldn't pick up on, but back in the George's day that phrase would have been considered redundant. Arms were ammunition. So was everything else used in a military campaign. The word was still evolving; it hadn't yet come to narrowly meaning only what went into the guns.

Clue Number Five: Two different fonts were used -- one for a brief phrase about the Second Amendment; one for the George Washington quote.

Clue Number Six: The extreme brevity of the text. It is amazing just how many words the people who put up the markers can fit on to one of the books on a stick. The people who write the content manage to cram a lot of information on to one metal slab. If you see a photo of a supposed marker that has less than 100 words on it, it's a fake.

Anyway, this was a case of attempting to have a dialogue with people where I didn't even get into the Second Amendment debate at all. I just pointed the photo was a badly done photoshop. Holy wah. First I got told that the reason the text was so terse (and badly written) was space considerations. Pshaw. I countered that one with a photo of a genuine State of Texas book on a stick. The response to that was that it was different because it was newer. So then I found one from 1962.

End result of this useless exchange? The person who was so insistent the marker was real trotted out his ultimate argument: he's almost 70 and used to live in Texas. He's seen a bunch of the markers by the side of the road so he knows for sure what they look like.

That's when I figured out it was pointless. The dude is so locked in to believing something that he saw on Facebook that even if it's something that doesn't really say anything at all he still refuses to believe it's not genuine. I guess it's true. You can't cure stupid.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

El Morro National Monument

And yet another extremely belated post in the ongoing series "How I Spent My Winter Vacation."

El Morro is an interesting little park in northern New Mexico. It's located on what used to be the main route between Albuquerque and points west because it has year-round water. The water is a natural pond formed by run-off from a bluff. No doubt in times of extreme drought the water could dry up, but in general the sheltered location -- not much direct sunlight and protected from the wind -- would slow evaporation. There was an ancient Puebloan village on the top of the bluff, and the site quickly became known to the Spanish explorers.

The rock bluff itself with its vertical walls and soft sandstone had become a favorite spot for graffiti long before European explorers arrived in the Southwest. Native peoples carved petroglyphs into the rock, some of which may have had symbolic meanings and some of which were no doubt the equivalent of "Kilroy was here." I tend to believe that a lot of what archaeologists attempt to read deep meanings into when they're studying ancient rock art today is actually the equivalent of doodling, people sitting around killing time before the evening meal or heading out to go hunting, and had no more significance at the time of its creation than the doodles I used to create while trying to stay awake in staff meetings.

I also tend to believe that's why so much of the ancient rock art that is found includes lot of "fertility symbols.*" Just think about high school for a minute or two and recall what the perpetually love-starved adolescent males used to doodle in notebooks when they should have been doing algebra problems. A biological imperative is a biological imperative. Lust is lust. And sometimes a fertility symbol is one person's fixation on getting laid and not an entire culture's expression of goddess worship. But I digress.

We stopped at El Morro in late February on our way back to Safford from Grand Junction. We decided to take a different route south than we had north so had aimed for Gallup, New Mexico. We spent the night there and then I suggested we check out El Morro as part of heading down to connect with US-180. It was a cold morning and had snowed during the night. When we checked in at the Visitor Center, the ranger warned us that the trail was pretty slick. We took our time in the Visitor Center to give the sun a little more time to work on melting the ice and snow and then walked the trail loop backwards to avoid having to go down a fairly steep hill. The trail loop is paved so once the sun hit it the snow and ice melted fast. Still, given a choice between sliding down an ice-covered sidewalk and crawling up one, I always figure the crawling up is safer. The only drawback was, of course, that we saw the interpretive signage in reverse order. Was that an issue? Not really. 

There are actually two trails from the Visitor Center. One goes down to the water and then along the base of the bluff past the gazillion rock carvings; the other goes up to the ruins of the pueblo on the top of the bluff. The snow and ice on the trails convinced us the smart move would be to save the pueblo trail for another time.

The carvings themselves are interesting. Some have become weathered almost to the point of being unreadable; others still look really sharp. A few experienced damage from well-intentioned but misguided attempts at preservation. The carvings go back hundreds of years with many predating the arrival of the Spanish in New Mexico. Once the Spanish did arrive, being typical arrogant asshats the first carving they did was superimposed on ancient carvings. Visitors to the site kept right on carving on the rock until the site was declared a National Historic Monument and what had been a normal cultural practice for centuries turned into vandalism. I'm not sure exactly how recent the last "historic" carving is. The first Spanish one makes an impression; the last American tourist is a bit more obscure.

ELMO is located west of El Malpais National Monument, a park created to preserve and highlight its interesting geological features. We did not drive the few miles east to see ELMA, too, but may check it out the next time we're in New Mexico. It's not that far from the Interstate so would be an easy side trip.

In addition to the Visitor Center and interpretive trails, ELMO includes a small rustic campground. We did a drive through, and to me the sites looked small. It struck me as being a good place for tent camping or with a small RV or travel trailer. It's definitely not designed with Class As or humongous 5th wheel trailers in mind.

The pool is tucked in behind the fence where the people are standing. 

*Usually representations of female genitalia because they're easy to draw. 

Pulizer Project; The Stories of John Cheever

Back in the 1960s I read The Feminine Mystique, the book by Betty Friedan that became part of the feminist canon. Friedan talked about the problem that had no name, suburban housewives going quietly crazy and zoning out on Valium and Seconal. If you ever wondered what all the zombified suburbanites looked like from the male perspective, wonder no more. John Cheever gives us the answer: lots of alcohol and unhappy men musing silently about why their wives don't appreciate just how good middle class life was in the days when families could still afford servants, at least part-time. Turns out the men were just as wretched as the women except they were self-medicating with gin and adultery.

The Stories of John Cheever includes stories spanning about thirty years, from just after World War II up into the 1970s. I could be wrong, but I got the distinct impression the Pulitzer Cheever received for this anthology should have been labeled "Lifetime Achievement Award." By the time the collection came out, Cheever had published several novels and short story collections, all of which had been well-received, and had become one of the Grand Old Men of American literature. He'd even hit the point where he was spending a fair amount of time in Italy. He'd gone from getting drunk in New York to getting sloshed in Rome. There is a reason alcohol plays a prominent role in Cheever's fiction. It played a prominent role in his life.

Although Cheever's stories share many common elements -- suburban life with middle class people worrying way too much about keeping undesirable and nonconforming residents out of their neighborhoods, men silently sipping gin while contemplating banging the babysitter, white collar couples putting on a front while gradually drowning in debt -- there are changes in tone and connections with reality. Cheever dipped into surrealism occasionally, as in "The Swimmer" where the protagonist decides to take an idiosyncratic route home and what to him feels like a long summer day turns into several years passing for everyone else. He could also be wryly amusing, although not  often enough. More typically he describes unhappy people who end up even more unhappy by the time he wraps the story up a few pages later.

Overall, I had a rather mixed reaction to this book. I found myself thinking that Cheever could write -- the book never turned into a hard slog, and I actually whipped through it fairly quickly -- but, wow, the so called professionals Cheever describes were a sleazy, misogynistic bunch. Some of them make the sexist weasels depicted in "Mad Men" look really good in comparison. I really did not have a whole lot of sympathy for men who decided to screw around on their wives and then had to live with unpleasant consequences, and I also didn't particularly enjoy reading about them.

So where does this book fall on the Pulitzer quality spectrum? Well, it didn't totally suck. The writing is decent even if the subject matter wasn't especially engaging. I'll give it a 5. Middle of the pack. Maybe. I'm not sure "it could have been worse" really positions anything quite that high on the scale.

Would I recommend it to other readers? Not really. The stories are competently written but definitely dated and lack the period charm you occasionally find in older works. One or two of the stories might not be a bad way to kill time, but 600 or so pages of Cheever was a little too much.

Next up on the list is a book I'll probably dislike even more: The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer. I never cared much for Mailer, and knowing that the book is a fictionalized account of the life and death of Gary Gilmore makes it even less appealing.

Holy wah! It was part of a series

There's cultural appropriation and then there's this:
I no longer believe that mass produced kitschy dream catchers are the worst example of trivializing a culture's heritage. I have seen Chief Runs With Paws. 

On the flip side of the advertisement the text notes that Chief Runs With Paws has complete ceremonial dress that includes a turquoise necklace. For a mere $29.99 plus shipping he can be yours. 

Once again I am both amazed and appalled.  

I'm also already starting to wonder just exactly what type of weirdness will be in the next set of advertisements to land in the mailbox. 

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Mutant vegetables

Is it cauliflower? Is it broccoli? Web sites I consulted couldn't agree other than to note it is a plant in and of itself and not some strange product of genetic modification. I spotted a head of romanesco at Econo Foods yesterday.

It turns out Ecclesiastes is wrong. There is something new under the sun, at least for me. I had never seen one of these strange, alien creatures before. As I stood there admiring its weirdness, one of the produce minions gave me a pep talk about how delicious it would be roasted with some olive oil, garlic, maybe some salt and pepper. . . the next thing I knew it had crawled into the shopping cart.

Tonight we feast green stuff. Verdict tomorrow on just how edible something that looks like it should grow on Venus tastes.

Note to Kid: See, we do know that vegetables other than potatoes exist.

Something closer to home than the State of the Union

I did not watch the State of the Union address, and I'm really hoping talking about it falls out of the news cycle fairly quickly. Regardless of who the President is the State of the Union speech is pretty much a waste of time. The President stands there making a bunch of promises he will not keep (although he'd really really like to if only Congress would rubber stamp his wish list) and the  Congress critters sit there hoping the television cameras focus on them long enough for their constituents to believe they're actually worth re-electing. If the President is a Republican, the Republicans applaud wildly no matter what gets said while Democrats sit on their hands, and vice versa. It's all meaningless. It fulfills the Constitution's requirement that the President do an annual report to the Congress, but no one really cares in the long run what is said.

Well, almost no one. The pundits who make their living reading political tea leaves will spend the next 48 hours or so dissecting every phrase and speculating endlessly about what it all meant. No one else wants to talk about it for much longer than it takes for Kimmel, Colbert, et al. to mock it.

In short, Trump is not what I'm thinking about lately. What I'm thinking about are the plans being discussed locally for a wind farm in the Huron Mountains. You know what the primary opposition to it is? Aesthetics. Frelling aesthetics and how messing up the viewscape might make tourists on snow machines* less likely to spend a weekend in Baraga County. You got it. Having wind turbines in the hills might discourage FIPs and trolls and other forms of asshattery from visiting Arvon Township and dropping the mythical Big Bucks in Baraga County. OMG. The Finn's will sell a few less burgers, the Huron Bay Trading Post will have a few less customers desperate enough to pay their high prices for gasoline. Somewhere, at least on my planet, the world's tiniest violin is playing a sad song for all the people who think wind turbines are uglier than the alternatives.

We already have cell towers cluttering up high points in the county, but those are apparently okay. After all, we all use cell phones. Gotta have that cell service, right? But wind turbines? Not In My Backyard.

The same people bitching loudest about the wind towers are, of course, the same folks who bitch about clear cuts when one of the timber companies has the nerve to harvest the trees on the land it owns and who oppose any development that might make things less pretty or increase truck traffic on the highways. I have mentioned this before, but back in my graduate student days I did an analysis of local opposition to a proposed pulp mill. It would have been sited on the shore of Lake Superior (convenient source of water for mill operations) with US-41 running right next to it. An organization called Friends of the Land of Keweenaw** was formed to fight it. My research used content analysis of letters to the editor in local newspapers to see how opposition and support lined up in terms of existing stereotypes of tree huggers and their ilk.

I was really hoping to learn then that there was no clear line between the two groups (supporters and opponents). No such luck. It turned out that the difference really did fall along class lines -- the usual what time of day do you take a shower divider (before work or after? which is another way of saying "white collar or blue?") You know, "Are you an environmentalist or do you work for a living?" Mill opponents tended to be retirees, including a good percentage of trolls who had retired here because it's pretty and wanted it to stay that way, or white collar. Supporters were still working, usually at an hourly wage rather than for a salary, and were a lot more interested in permanent, year-round jobs than in keeping tourists happy.

So here we are almost 30 years later and a different sort of development is being proposed. I'll be honest. I do have a real problem with people who freak out about wind turbines. I love wind mills, both medieval and modern. There is something remarkably soothing about seeing a large modern wind farm in action -- one of my favorite stops along I-39 in northern Illinois is the Mendota Rest Area. There are wind turbines as far as the eye can see. They're beautiful. Ditto the wind farms in Minnesota along the Buffalo Ridge that runs through the town of Marshall. The turbines are so contradictory: humongous but graceful and, despite what some critics have claimed, remarkably quiet. I've been right under them just outside Marshall and could not hear a thing except the natural wind. I have been known to be a bit of a Luddite, but when it comes to wind power? Nope. I have yet to see a wind power development that hit me the wrong way.

I will concede that it would be nice to see some downsizing and decentralizing, more dispersed rooftop installations and improved designs that might not require a several acres of land for each tower. In my ideal world we'd all have a lot of individual power generation and far less dependence on an aging and vulnerable grid. However, there are people working in those areas and eventually we'll get there. But for now? I see no rational reason to oppose a wind farm in a rural area where the deer and moose (and squirrel) outnumber the people by quite a bit. If Weyerhauser or some of the other land owners in Arvon Township want to cooperate with wind power development, I think they should do so. If all of us living up here have to stare at cell towers on the horizon, I'd say the viewscape is no longer pristine. And if a couple of tourists happen to look up and decide they're unhappy, screw 'em. Given that when they're running around on their snow machines or ORVs they've got a pretty restricted field of vision anyway, I doubt that many will even notice the cell towers are no longer alone on the hill tops. Most of them never see anything other than the ass end of the machine in front of them on the trail.

People who use aesthetics as an argument or do the "please don't mess with my playground" (usually voiced by nonresidents) have always annoyed me. If you're going to argue against a development, use something concrete: possible negative effects on an aquifer, destruction of wetlands, pollution with heavy metals, whatever. But use something that is REAL, not just a totally subjective personal feeling.

*I occasionally hope for a special place in Hell for the inventors of machines that are noisy, spew pollution, travel in packs, and shit beer cans. The one good thing that's happened with snow machines in recent decades is they're now so over powered with such skinny tracks that they're stuck on trails. Back in the '70s asshats on snow machines used to cut through our place on a regular basis. They can't do that anymore because if they venture off a groomed trail they bury themselves in the loose snow.

**Also referred to as "Fucking Over Little Kids 'cause Daddy can't find a job" by mill supporters

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Another of life's little mysteries

Why do people buy this stuff? Just what is the attraction of mass-produced weirdness? There was a sales flyer in the mailbox the other day that had multiple blow-in cards all pushing collectibles of various types. There's a godawful, tacky beyond the human capacity to grasp Thomas Kinkade-inspired Christmas tree that comes complete with a glowing star on top and a snow globe in the base. It's one of those things that you look at and the mind boggles. The only places I can think of where people might have taste that weird are also places where one is unlikely to find Christmas tree knickknacks, like cheap bordellos. It is so weird and so ugly. . . I thought Kinkade related items were bad when the man was alive. Apparently his estate has decided they can sink even lower.

The carousel isn't quite as bad. It's got a verse printed on the base about how wonderful granddaughters are so it's easy to picture some sweet little old lady (definitely not me) buying it to give to a little girl as a decoration for her bedroom. That's a pretty obvious market. The kids won't appreciate it much, although you never know. Even if they're not thrilled at getting a knickknack instead of a toy, they're likely to still think it's cute. At least it's not overtly painful to look at and it is a music box, which gives it some entertainment value.

And then there's the dachshund in the sheriff's outfit. Holy wah. The little dude is both cute and appalling. What type of drugs are the people who came up with that design doing? How stoned do you have to be to decide that a dachshund with a badge is a good idea? And just how much persuasion did it take to get the Hamilton Collection t to decide to add it to their product line? Then again, considering just how much crap Hamilton cranks out annually, the dachshund probably wasn't that hard a sell. For all I know, it's just the latest in a long line of canines in improbable costumes and cast in resin to gather dust for all eternity. Dalmations as firemen. Golden retrievers as nurses. Pomeranians as meth heads.
At least they're not trying to convince anyone that the beast is going to increase in value over time, which is actually part of the sales pitches for one of the others where production is going to be limited to a mere 95 days. Ninety-five days! Apparently they're assuming no one is ever going to do the math and think about just how many hundreds of thousands of "collectibles" can be cranked out on an assembly line when the production line is running for over three months. Three months! They could probably saturate their target market with three hours' worth of production, let alone three months. 

OMG. Just realized the little dude has spurs on his boots. I'm suddenly feeling relieved I threw the ads in the burnable trash right after I took the photos. 

Saturday, January 20, 2018

No state monopolies on racism

Caption above done by person who scanned the photo and didn't quite realize what she was looking at. 
In commenting on my last post, Ol' Buzzard mentioned the Klan in Mississippi. I'm not going to disagree that Mississippi had lots and lots of overt bigots, but they weren't exactly unique. The North was full of sundown towns (as in  if you were black the sun had better not set while your ass was still in town), like Ironwood, Michigan. I took the train a lot when I was younger (I had a pass for free rides on the Chicago & Northwestern) and asked my dad once why the black porters never got off the train when it was standing in the Ironwood station. It routinely stood in the station long enough for the engineer, fireman, conductor, and train man to all step down, stretch their legs, and do some schmoozing with the depot agent and other locals. That's when I learned about sundown towns. This was in the early 1960's but the town still retained enough of a nasty reputation that no black train crew member was going to take a chance by setting foot on the depot platform.

Interestingly enough, when the Klan started growing in the early 20th century, it actually had more members in the North than it did in the South. The state of Indiana, if I recall correctly, had the largest number of Klan members of any state in the country. The South had individual acts of terrorism -- black men being lynched for supposed sexual assaults, houses being burned if a family seemed too uppity -- but the 20th century race riots where mobs of white racists wiped out whole neighborhoods did not take place in the Deep South. They happened in the border states, the North, or the West, e.g.. the Tulsa riot in 1921. In the South the acts of terrorism were intended to remind blacks of their proper place in society, i.e., as the servant class. In the North the goal was much more "we don't want you here" and "go back where you came from."

And, yes, we had the Klan locally. The person who scanned the historic photo above and labeled it as Odd Fellows may have genuinely believed it was Odd Fellows, but it's definitely the Ku Klux Klan. It's a high quality resolution and when you blow it up the Klan emblem (the blood drop cross) is clearly visible on the front of the robes. There were chapters of the Klan in a number of Upper Peninsula towns, although they seem to have been a phenomenon of the nativist movements of the 1920s and then faded away. Maybe it was because Michigan had a law saying you couldn't cover your face. If you look at the photo, you'll notice there are no masks. It can get a little embarrassing to be spouting hate when everyone knows exactly who you are. Or maybe it never did have much traction. It would be hard to keep an anti-immigrant (the Klan wasn't just about hating blacks; they also opposed immigration from what they considered shithole countries like Finland and Italy) group going once Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924 and the number of new immigrants from undesirable countries dropped. It would be especially hard to be anti-immigrant in an area where a huge chunk of the population consisted of fairly recent arrivals who'd managed to get off the boat before the laws changed.

Minor digression. Both of the commercial buildings shown in the photo are still standing, but both had the clapboard covered with cheap asphalt siding decades ago. The cornices are still there, though.