Saturday, August 27, 2016

Trees died for this? Ultimate Sacrifice

Image result for conspiracy theory meme
See end note.
I finally made it to the end of Ultimate Sacrifice: John and Robert Kennedy, the Plan for A Coup in Cuba, and the Murder of J.F.K. I'm not sure why I bothered pushing on through the incoherence, tautologies, and general weirdness for almost 800 pages, but I did. I think I kept hoping that the authors would actually tell me something interesting.

For example, the authors say the Central Intelligence Agency (a misnamed agency if there ever was one) indulged in multiple "let's kill Fidel Castro" schemes. The plans ranged from sending in hit squads armed with machine guns to sneaking in various poisons lurking in mundane items: cigars, lotions, pens. Reading that the CIA wanted to assassinate Fidel Castro through the use of a poison pen intrigued me. How exactly was that going to work? What type of strange James Bondian technological wonder had the agency dreamed up? The poison pen plan gets mentioned multiple times, but the authors never do provide more than vague references. I had to Google it. Turns out the pen was rigged with a hypodermic that would supposedly inject poison. managed to describe it in one brief sentence; why Lamar Waldron and Thom Hartmann couldn't do something similar is a mystery.

The pen, incidentally, is one of at least ten methods the CIA has admitted to either trying or planning to try in their attempts to assassinate Castro. If they've admitted to ten, there were probably a whole lot more, all of which quite obviously failed given that Fidel is now 90 years old and still tottering out of the Aging Dictators Nursing Home to make occasional public appearances. We can see just how effectively the Agency managed to spend our taxpayer dollars. I ask again: why does the CIA still exist? (And, yes, I am willing to make the completely amoral argument that if they're going to be evil they should at be good at it.)

Back to the book. Ultimate Sacrifice is one of the many books that have been written that attempt to explain why President Kennedy was shot. It's a long, rambling, badly focused, repetitive, and rather murky explication of the Mob Hit Theory. The version of the Mob Hit Theory I was most familiar with prior to reading this book is that mobster Sam Giancana had JFK assassinated because JFK was banging Sam's girlfriend, Judith Campbell. This is a theory that always struck me as ridiculous. If Judith Campbell had been anything other than a casual girlfriend to a mobster, she'd have been the one who got whacked for screwing around and not Kennedy for taking advantage of her availability. If anything, if the mob knew about Campbell's intimate encounters with Kennedy, the logical thing to do would be to use it as a blackmail tool. Still, quite a few people apparently believe it.

This book is a variation on the Mob Hit Theory. The authors claim that Kennedy was shot by the mob, but it wasn't because of his love life. Nope. The motive was Bobby Kennedy's emphasis on fighting organized crime. As a Senator, John Kennedy had been aggressive in holding hearings to expose gangster activity, and after he was elected and appointed his brother Attorney General the crime fighting continued. Various mafioso began to feel threatened. Eventually the "godfathers" who controlled Chicago, Miami, and New Orleans got together and decided that much as they'd like to get rid of Bobby Kennedy, the more logical approach was to off JFK. With JFK dead, Bobby wouldn't last long as Attorney General because he and Lyndon Johnson hated each other.

As conspiracy theories, go it's not a bad one. What makes it slide over the line into the tinfoil hat territory pretty quickly is the combination of the authors' tendency to kitchen sink (every little factoid about any of the people involved, no matter how tangential, gets treated with equal seriousness), to rely heavily on hearsay that definitely falls into "a friend of a friend" urban legend category, and to speculate over and over that there are still a gazillion classified documents lurking in the filing cabinets at the CIA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and elsewhere. You know, there are way too many paragraphs that contain outright speculations, in essence saying "We haven't seen the actual documents, but we're sure they're there." Right. I've known people who believed in the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot who I thought were sliding pretty deeply into wishful thinking and fantasy, but in retrospect they were hardcore realists compared with Waldron and Hartmann.

How does their explanation actually play out? Well, it involves the CIA hiring mafioso to work with Cuban exiles on a plan to overthrow the Castro government. Supposedly, one particular action, a combination coup and invasion, was planned for December 1, 1963. Because the Kennedys wanted to get rid of Castro, Bobby Kennedy was deeply enmeshed in the coup/invasion planning. Why are the mafioso involved? Because they weaseled their way in on purpose so they could set up the Cubans to take the blame. They're going to use the planned coup to help cover up their plans to whack JFK. The reasoning is supposedly that if Bobby Kennedy thinks the Cubans did it, he won't push for a thorough investigation because that would reveal that JFK and Bobby had been plotting to overthrow Castro. It all struck me as unnecessarily complicated as well as illogical. If Kennedy hadn't been whacked, the coup planning would have gone forward as planned, Castro would have been gone, and the gangsters could have gotten their Cuban casinos back. If they had their Cuban casinos, brothels, and drug running safe havens back, they wouldn't have to worry as much about the Justice Department going after them for racketeering in the U.S.

It is true that a number of gangsters were openly gleeful when JFK got shot. So was Jimmy Hoffa, who was so far in bed with organized crime he came close to qualifying as a mobster himself. Does that mean they would have bothered to have come up with a plot with as many moving parts as the plots Waldron and Hartmann propose? I'm doubtful. 

In any case, the authors argue that the mob planned to pin the assassination on Cuba, hoping for an American invasion that would have the same end result as the aborted coup attempt. They manage to fill hundreds of pages of remarkably repetitive text with descriptions of various losers being set up to be patsies with Cuban connections. Lee Harvey Oswald was just one of several who would be manipulated into a position to take the fall. Unfortunately for the mob (and fortunately for the rest of us), LBJ worried a lot more about what the Russians might do than he did about impulsively avenging Kennedy's death.

In the end, the only surprising thing about this book was just how empty of actual content it was. The authors seem to think that the readers are already so thoroughly familiar with the various players involved that they can omit details like just exactly when did Oswald go to the Soviet Union? How long was he there? When he did move back to the U.S.? When did he start working at the Texas Book Depository? How much did he pay for the gun? How did he get the job? Turns out that if I want to know the answers to those questions, once again Google will be my friend.

As for my own thoughts, I can understand why so many people are reluctant to believe that Oswald acted alone. By today's standards, the postmortem examination and forensic investigation following the assassination were a disaster. Potential evidence wasn't secured, the Secret Service actually washed the blood out of the limo before investigators had a chance to do thorough documentation, and numerous other mistakes were made. It definitely did not help that J. Edgar Hoover pushed hard for the single shooter explanation -- he was in full CYA mode because he didn't want it coming out that the FBI had received multiple reports of potential attempts on JFK's life and had basically ignored them all. There was enough bureaucratic ineptitude and silo-ing of information that to anyone who assumes that law enforcement (especially federal law enforcement) knows what it's doing it does look suspiciously like deliberate attempts at obfuscation took place.

I'm skeptical. To me, Oswald strikes me as fitting the profile of semi-delusional misfit so well that I find it totally believable he was the only one involved. We've seen a fair number of these poor saps in the past few decades: John Hinckley thinking he was going to impress Jody Foster by shooting Reagan, Mark David Chapman shooting John Lennon, various celebrity stalkers, some of the guys who go on mass shooting rampages. Maybe Oswald really did think he was striking a blow for some ideology, maybe he had deluded himself into believing he was secret agent on a mission, who knows? And, to be blunt, at this late date (almost 53 years after the fact) who cares?

I do know that having read one "who shot JFK?" conspiracy theory book, I am unlikely to ever read another. If this one was typical of the genre I won't be missing much.

Note: Back in 1996 I was living in Blacksburg, VA, and dependent on public transportation to get to and from the Virginia Tech campus. Got on the bus one morning and a seemingly normal-looking (no visible tinfoil) dude was talking to the driver about the X-Files episode he'd watched the night before. It was a long enough ride into town that it slowly dawned on me that the dude thought the X-Files were real. He really did think the television show was a documentary series. No doubt this year he's waiting impatiently to cast his ballot for Trump.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

So which is she?

Super villain whose reach extends across time or frail old lady worried that her stash of Depends is about to run out?

I speak, of course, of Hillary Clinton and alt-right cognitive dissonance. The same people who will go on at great length about all the (nonexistent) signs that Hillary is failing physically seem to think she's capable of engaging in time travel to have people whacked. Julian Assange's lawyer dies in an accident the coroner rules a suicide and suddenly it's something Hillary did. Their reasoning? This summer Assange has been hinting that Wikileaks has dirt on Hillary, that he's going to do a data dump that will destroy her campaign. After all, there were all those leaked Democratic National Committee emails released just before the July convention that showed that the party insiders weren't too thrilled with the Bernie Sanders campaign. Supposedly Assange has even more troublesome material stashed and is just waiting for the right time to use it. And that's why the lawyer got whacked, as a warning to Assange.

Only one problem with that latest conspiracy theory. The lawyer stepped in front of a train back in April.

I repeat, April. Almost three full months before the Democratic national convention. Four full months before the lunatic theory about Hillary having him whacked as a warning to Assange showed up in my Facebook feed. The lunatic conspiracy theory meme makes it pretty clear that whoever began circulating it thinks the lawyer died because of the threatened still-to-come data dump. The stupid, it burns.

On the other hand, massive props to Hillary. The alt-right hates Obama and are notable for blaming him for everything, but even at their most fervent they've never seriously suggested he was capable of time travel. Way to go, Hill,you've achieved another first for women everywhere.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

A waste of time and money

I heard on the news yesterday that President Obama is planning to visit Louisiana next Tuesday. I have just one question: Why?

What exactly is the point of having heads of state do a personal visit to a disaster? Does it somehow make it less disastrous for the thousands of people who have lost their homes? Does it make it more real for the rest of us? I know there was a lot of complaining going on in various circles about the fact that the President hadn't immediately cancelled his vacation and headed straight for Baton Rouge, but why should he? If the various state and federal agencies are doing their jobs, why does the President need to show up too?

We all know that a lot of what the President does is basically ceremonial: meetings with other heads of state to pretend to talk about stuff that's already been hashed out behind the scenes by various diplomats and policy wonks, giving speeches written by other people, pardoning an occasional turkey, and so on. Do we really need to also require meaningless appearances in areas that have been ravaged by floods or fires or earthquakes? Wouldn't it make life simpler for everyone -- local law enforcement, the Secret Service, taxpayers in general -- if whoever happens to occupy the Oval Office just goes on television and gives the typical "our hearts go out to the people of . . . " speech in which he or she urges us all to donate to relief efforts and let it go at that? No fly-overs, no photo ops with a token aid worker or flood victim or two, just an acknowledgement that something bad happened and various bureaucratic wheels have been set in motion to provide some help.

I noticed that the Governor of Louisiana is smart enough that he very bluntly said that Obama should stay away. Having a President visit for any reason, good or bad, always entails a clusterfuck of almost Biblical proportions. Highways get shut down, traffic's rerouted for hours before the actual visit, hundreds of local law enforcement end up getting pulled away from their regular jobs, businesses unlucky enough to located next to a motorcade route lose money. It's a mess, and it's a distraction from whatever the problem was to begin with.

I am curious as to when this expectation that the President would put in a personal appearance at every natural disaster worth noting first arose. How far back would we have to go to find a time when people didn't expect it? Can we blame Eleanor Roosevelt? Everyone knew that FDR wasn't going to pop in personally to check on conditions, but Eleanor was notorious for wanting to see things for herself.

Apparently not. According to PBS, the expectation that a President would make a personal appearance is much more recent. Until just a few years ago, the typical response was a statement from the White House, and not even a personal statement, more like a press release. For some reason, though, the President is now expected (on top of all the other responsibilities that come with the job) to be the Consoler in Chief, the sin eater who shows up at the wake to reassure the rest of us that everything is going to be okay. It makes no sense, but then most things about politics and public life don't.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Random thoughts at an ungodly early hour

Okay. So I woke up before 4 a.m. and could not get back to sleep. I think I have the world's screwiest biorhythyms. For years it's felt like I'm on a 48 hour cycle -- every other day or so I'm awake much, much earlier than I should be. And then once I'm awake I tend to just lie there thinking about stuff that seems guaranteed to keep me awake instead of falling back asleep like a normal human being. Some mornings I just stay in bed tossing and turning and some mornings I get up and wander the Intertubes. I've read that problems with sleep can get worse as you get older. So what does that mean? I'm going to go from being able to get a normal night's sleep a couple nights a week to not being able to sleep for more than a couple hours at a shot for the rest of my life? In any case, random thoughts at 4 a.m.:
  • I'm still obsessing about how damn old the two major party presidential nominees are. I thought this was a youth-obsessed country. How on earth did we manage to end up with geezers at the top of the Republican and Democratic party tickets? I'm younger than either The Donald or Hillary, and I get asked if I need help carrying my groceries out of the store if I buy much more than a loaf of bread and a Coke. And we expect one of these elderly nominees to have the stamina to survive the Presidency? Unreal. Now that both tickets are topped by senior citizens, we're being treated to the spectacle of folks on one side of the political spectrum speculating that a candidate is showing signs of slipping into senile dementia and folks on the other claiming that the candidate they oppose is at death's door and suffering from a seizure disorder but won't admit it. Why weren't those rumors given a major push a year ago so maybe someone younger would have been a little more appealing? It's been a pretty bizarre election year to date and growing more so by the day. On top of the usual electioneering, we're being treated to a dead pool with only two entries. Why bother debating policy when you can just argue that the other party's candidate is going to die soon? 
  • I finally figured out the right search term to use to go looking for some display racks for the museum. I knew what I wanted, I could see the product clearly, but I couldn't figure out what to call it. So every time I did an online search, I'd get a bunch of choices that were all not quite right. The display racks were a commercial product (i.e., intended for use in a retail setting), not something that shows up in museum specialty catalogs, so flipping through the Gaylord and similar catalogs didn't help at all. But yesterday it hit me -- I tried the phrase "poster display rack" and voila, multiple choices. Even better, by coincidence the product is actually something we can buy using the heritage grant funds. It qualifies as an exhibit expense. Now it's just a matter of kicking the idea around at the next historical society meeting so there's  input on what size rack to get and where to position it. We've got a lot of photos and maps and various interesting documents that it would be really neat to have accessible to visitors but the amount of wall space for hanging stuff is pretty limited. Bottom line that falls into the good news category: now when I have insomnia, I can lay awake mentally laying out pages for the display rack. It'll beat thinking about some of the other stuff I tend to obsess about.
  •  I miss having a cat or a dog around. We've remained pet-less since Cleo died last fall, and much as I'm enjoying not having to sweep up drifts of cat hair and not having a cat box to clean, I miss having a wee beast trying to kill me every time I go up or down the stairs. It still feels odd not to have something underfoot. . . or sprawled across my desk when I'm trying to write a letter. Cleo never tried sprawling on a keyboard, but she would try insinuating herself on to the page when I was writing letters the old-fashioned way with a pen and paper. Most of the letters I mailed probably had cat hair in them. 
  •  My car is now more than 7 years old and still going strong. Think the odometer has hit something like 110,000 miles. Back when I bought the Focus in May 2009, I told the sales manager I planned to keep it for at least 7 years. In actual fact, my plan was and always been to drive it into the ground. My goal is to be not just its first owner, but also its last. Every so often, I look at the car and am moderately amazed. I am old enough that I can recall when people did not expect cars to last much beyond 40 or 50 thousand miles. Odometers, which were mechanical, topped out at 99,999.9. It was a big deal if you had a car that was still running when the odometer rolled over to solid zeroes. Now people drive their cars to the moon and back and no one blinks an eye. Even what used to be a major issue up here on the tundra -- the dreaded iron moths -- are becoming an endangered species. Cars just don't rust out as quickly as they used to. No doubt one reason is the increasing use of nonferrous materials (composites, aluminum) but another is better coatings. Rust doesn't penetrate as quickly or as easily it did a couple decades ago. 
  • We need to start renting goats. We definitely don't mow the lawn as often as we should, so it's either rent some goats or invest in a baler. I don't want to actually own goats because that would require building a goat barn, worrying about what to do about them in the winter, and, worst of all, dealing with barn chores. My days of shoveling shit are behind me; I have no desire to revisit them.
  •  Once I start doing a list with bullet points it's really hard for me to stop.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Bring on the crochet hook

It's cataract couching time. I've lost two lines on the eye chart and there is apparently something unpleasant parked dead center in the lens of my right eye. The ophthalmologist played around with different lens strength combinations and nothing got me lower down the chart. Things have indeed slid past the point where new glasses would make a difference.


The left eye, however, appears stable. No real changes since a year ago so it's possible the slice and pulverize will be limited to just one side. In any case, I see the surgeon next month, and the actual procedure will be in October. I do have this sinking feeling it will be done at the Marquette hospital, a facility that's been scoring in the low D's on quality lately.

Oh well. I'll survive. Or at least I'm going to assume I'll survive -- the alternative would be messy for the S.O. to deal with. 

I did toy with the idea of waiting until next Spring to deal with it, but when Dr. Bauer said the one sitting in the right eye hadn't been there a year ago and is apparently growing fast procrastination did not seem like a good plan. If we play tourist while we're snowbirds it would be nice to actually be able to see the Grand Canyon and not just have a vague impression of a big hole in the ground.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Screw driving, I want to be able to thread needles again

Tomorrow I'm off to see the ophthalmologist. As usual, given my age and previous comments made at the more-or-less annual eye exam, I'm wondering if this will be The Year of Cataract Surgery. Probably not. The last couple of eye exams I've gotten told, yes, you have cataracts but, no, we're not going to do any slicing of eyeballs yet. As long as my vision is still correctable with glasses, the eye doctor is not going to get out the razor blade and crochet hook, or its modern equivalent, to do any couching. Cataract surgery goes back at least to the Middle Ages, as in the days of Richard the Lionhearted and Robin Hood (aka the 12th century) and that is basically what they used to do: slice into the eye and use the a little tiny crochet-type hook to fish the cataracts out. There were "surgeons" who wandered the countryside, moving from village to village, specializing only in eye surgery. I have no clue how effective it was, but it must have beat going totally blind because the surgeons managed to make a living doing it. I'm told the technique has changed a bit in recent decades -- among other things, the cataracts get broken up and sucked out instead of being snared like the world's tiniest frisbees -- but I kind of like that crochet hook image.

I do know that when I see the ophthalmologist this time I'm going to tell her I have one request if she seems to think tweaking the prescription for the glasses will do the trick for another year or two. I messed up last time. She laid it on thick about making sure I had a prescription that helped with driving, made sure I could see really well behind the wheel. Screw that.

I really don't care if I'm seeing multiple yellow lines down the middle of the highway or if the traffic signs are a blur. Traffic is so thin around here that I'm not at much risk of running into anyone else even if I drive with no glasses at all. I'm just barely over the line for legally needing glasses for driving to begin with; the ability to see better when behind the wheel is not on my list of concerns.

No, this time around I'm bringing a needle and thread with me. I figured out a little too late that the eye doctor spent so much time worrying about my distance vision she didn't tweak the up close stuff. I'm not worried at all about being able to see oncoming logging trucks a mile away; what I want to see clearly is the eye on a needle that's right in front of me. If I get told a certain combination is good for a new prescription, I plan to test it by getting out the sewing gear. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Time to dig out the canning kettle

Or, more accurately, the pressure canner.

The green beans are just about ready to pick, and I always pressure can them. It's odd -- canned green beans are one of the things that food snobs are fond of mocking. I'm not sure why. Must have something do with the idea that if the produce isn't so fresh it still has caterpillars crawling on it it's not any good. I don't know. . . having seen how many cabbage worms can come floating to the surface when I cook fresh broccoli from the garden, I'm fine with vegetables being throughly cooked. If there's going to be any added protein, I'd rather not eat it rare. But, as usual, I digress.

Using the pressure canner is one of those things that makes me a tad nervous. Not as nervous as it used to, not since the top blew off a jar of beets in the canner a couple years ago, but it still makes me nervous. The beets experience, which did involve an interesting noise, demonstrated that even if a jar does blow up, the canner is going to contain the mess. We're not at risk of being hit by shards of glass if we happen to be close to the stove when a jar lets go. So I will can beans, both the bush type and pole, and then divide up however many jars there happen to be between various family members.

Beans are the only thing I'll probably use the pressure canner for this year. The only reason I canned beets a couple years ago is we were given a 5-gallon pail full of them. If I have to buy beets, it'll be for purposes of pickling, and pickled beets can be done in an ordinary canner.

I had decided I wasn't going to do much canning this summer. If we're going to be snowbirds, I don't need the hassle of trying to figure out what to do with multiple cases of home-canned food. On the other hand, I'm going to be dealing with the beans no matter what. . . and if I have to deal with beans, maybe it wouldn't be such a bad thing to buy some of those Michigan peaches the fruit stand has. They are remarkably good peaches, and it was kind of nice having multiple jars of them on hand when I bought a 1/2 bushel to preserve a couple summers ago. Or, if not actual canned peaches, maybe get at least enough to do some peach jam. And if I'm going to go through the hassle of peeling peaches, how much more work would it be to also think about some roasted garlic and tomatoes pasta sauce? The recipe only makes about 7 pints -- how much space could 7 pint jars possibly take up? And maybe some bread and butter pickles. . . and pickled cauliflower. . . and it's going to be a good year for apples. Surely some apple marmalade and some canned apple pie filling would be nice to have with us, too.

I think I need to buy more lids.

(When that bottle blew in the pressure canner, the most surprising thing was how neatly it did it. The glass broke in a nice, clean line right about where the shoulder of the jar is, the part where it curves in to start forming the neck. It wasn't a straight line all the way around but it was close. And the World War II era graphic intrigues me. I did not realize they were still using zinc lids and wire bale jars in the 1940s.)

Thursday, August 11, 2016


I have spent an inordinate amount of time volunteering at the museum this summer, far more than I had ever intended to, but a combination of factors -- grant money, an opportunity to take care of deferred maintenance, and the unexpected availability of a fulltime volunteer for a few weeks -- led to my being there several days a week for most of the past 8 weeks. I spent enough time either at the museum or dealing with museum-related stuff, in fact, that I realized yesterday that I'm about a micron away from Burnout.

That realization hit me in the middle of a phone call. We have been dealing, more or less, with an issue that dates back quite a few years, back to way before I got involved with the museum and was not around for any of the project details. However, I'm the unlucky fool who now deals with the museum's various electronic issues: email, Ebay sales, book sales, our desperately-needs-to-be-updated web site, and our Facebook page. Which means that for the past couple of weeks I've been going back and forth via email with a person who doesn't seem to get that (a) I'm a volunteer; (b) I had nothing to do with the original project that she's now asking questions about; (c) I'm not the person who decided verbal agreements were all fine and that documentation was something the historical society didn't need to bother with; (d) did I mention I'm a frelling volunteer? You know, V-O-L-U-N-T-E-E-R. As in a person who does stuff for nothing with no compensation other than an occasional attagirl. Dealing with headaches created by other people a decade ago falls way above my pay grade.

Anyway, after about the 17th email asking about nonexistent documentation, I tracked down a person who was around when the original project was done. And as our phone conversation progressed he made the mistake of asking me the same series of unanswerable questions the archivist was asking. That's when I lost it. And vented. A lot.  It's been a frustrating summer -- the volunteer who was on one level a tremendous help was on another a major headache (someone had to find stuff for her to do; that someone was me), we've been in limbo over our heritage grant (the first disbursement was supposed to be July 1; we finally got it this week), we had a donation dropped off where the donors seemed totally self-assured that we were going to put their item of furniture in a prominent place immediately (I am still moderately amazed I managed to keep smiling instead of telling them where to shove that large, awkward item when they gave every sign of expecting me to start pushing stuff around immediately to squeeze the damn thing in),  and we had that weirdness happen with the donor showing up six years after the donation wanting to pick up things we don't remember ever having. None of it's been fun -- and volunteering is supposed to fun. By noon yesterday it hit the point where the Fun Stopped.

That's when I logged out of gmail for the museum and promised myself I won't look at it again until I am physically back at the museum, which will be tomorrow. It's now been over 24 hours and I'm still managing to ignore it.When I do go back to it, I'm going to set up an automatic "out of office" message (assuming such a thing is possible) warning people that they cannot expect instant answers. The museum is 100% volunteers; we do not (and cannot) function with the same mindset as the desk monkeys still trapped in full-time jobs.

I will admit that I'm really, really happy we're going to close for the season soon. Three more weeks and the "open by appointment only" sign goes up on the door, the voice mail gets updated to say "email us. No one ever checks the phone," and I put myself on a schedule of checking emails just often enough to comply with the rules for selling stuff on Amazon and Ebay. We really, really need to increase our membership rolls, and soon because I can tell I'm getting close to walking.

Oh well, maybe a winter wandering around the Southwest in the Guppy will give me the energy to do one more year. Which, now that I think of it, is what I told the S.O. when I joined in 2012: I'll give it five years. This is actually my 5th summer at the museum, but I think I'll go by calendar anniversaries and not the number of seasons. Wish me luck that no other weirdness hits the fan between now and September 2..

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Why does the CIA still exist?

I've been reading Ultimate Sacrifice, a book that links the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Central Intelligence Agency, and organized crime (aka the Mafia). I'm not very far into it so can't comment much on the book itself, although it does seem like the authors spend a lot of time hashing over minutiae and don't seem to have much of a clue in terms of following a coherent narrative line. One thing is super clear, though, and that's how useless the CIA was back then.

It's unreal. The CIA apparently had a gazillion people working for them -- their "station" in Miami apparently employed 3,000 people. You read that right. Three thousand! They're in the heart of the Cuban exile community. And guess what? They can't obtain any reliable intelligence from Cuba. They keep trying to plant spies, deep cover agents, inside Cuba and failing. Their would-be spies end up arrested or dead. But does that deter them from plowing ahead with plans to assassinate Castro? Nope. Apparently the CIA higher-ups had the same attitude as the cockroach general in the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics: doesn't matter how many foot soldiers get squashed, there'll always be replacements.

And why is the Castro government so good at catching CIA spies? Because the CIA had already  managed to build a nasty reputation for meddling and murder in Latin America, thanks to activities like engineering the overthrow of the democratically elected Guatemalan government a few years earlier. The CIA trained assassins to target Guatemalan officials and activists. Castro knew what the U.S. government in the form of the CIA was capable of and prepared accordingly.

Guatemala was, of course, a pattern the CIA followed for years, usually with disastrous results for way too many people. Name a decade and you can find a CIA operation that turned out to be a Colossal Blunder. In the 1970s they helped engineer the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Chile, which led to years of oppression of the Chilean people by a murderous dictatorship. In the 1980s they supported Bin Ladn and helped create the Taliban in Afghanistan.

What's even more bizarre is that a good deal of the time they were actually working at cross-purposes with the rest of the government. The State Department would be pursuing one option through diplomacy while the CIA was busily doing the exact opposite with its covert operations. They would deliberately undermine the diplomats.

And then when you add in the fact that most of the time the "intelligence" they were supposedly gathering turned out to be wrong. . . Why does that agency still exist?  

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Miner's Castle
 It's been an odd summer, one that's kept me from blogging about certain topics in a timely fashion. I should have said something about Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (aka PIRO) right after we were there in June, but I never quite got around to it. Oh well, better late than never.

PIRO is located on the south shore of Lake Superior between Munising and Grand Marais, Michigan. It's a typical water park -- long but narrow. The enabling legislation for the lakeshore and river parks usually limited just how far away from the water a park could go. End result can be a park that's many, many miles long but only a quarter of a mile wide.The National Park Service as an agency is 100 years old this year; PIRO is exactly half that age -- it was created in 1966. The park includes some spectacular shoreline (sandstone cliffs, sea caves carved by wave action, giant sand dunes) as well as lovely beaches and numerous waterfalls. The area is a favorite with sea kayakers, and tour boat operators do a pretty good business in the summer. One tour operator has glass bottom boats and cruises over a number of shipwrecks, which I'm told are quite interesting.
Pileated woodpecker.

We did not do any boat tours; we stuck to the land and visited places relatively easy to get to, like Munising Falls, the Log Slide, and Miner's Castle (shown above). Although it's not obvious in the photo, there is a paved path leading to Miner's Castle where there's an overlook hiding behind those trees to the right of the rock formation. Miner's Castle used to have a third "turret," but it came tumbling down during a bad storm a number of years ago. Miner's Castle is one of those typical NPS sites: lots of signs up warning people to stay behind the fence and lots of footprints in the dirt providing ample evidence people cannot read. I'm not sure if anyone's managed to kill themselves by clambering around on those rocks for the fun of it, but I do know a guy was convicted of murder a few years ago for shoving his wife off a cliff at PIRO.
The Pickle Barrel house.
In any case, our almost-a-windshield tour consisted of driving from Munising to Grand Marais, having lunch in Grand Marais, and ambling back. Grand Marais, of course, is noted for the Pickle Barrel house, which is now a museum. It wasn't open -- I don't believe I've ever seen it open, come to think of it. I have no idea what its hours are, but they're apparently pretty limited. There are sites within Grand Marais that are part of PIRO, like the old Coast Guard lifesaving station, but the Pickle Barrel isn't one them. We looked at the lifesaving station from the road, said, yep, definitely looks like a Coast Guard facility, and headed for something more interesting: lunch off a food truck.
Sable Falls

I repeat. A food truck. In Grand Marais. Apparently hipster Meals on Wheels are now everywhere. It was not a bad burger. A tad overpriced, but when you've got a food truck in the middle of nowhere your profit margin has to be extremely thin. I was willing to pay a little extra just to support the novelty factor -- although using that logic I should have gone running out to buy a frozen treat when the ice cream cart bicycled through the campground on Saturday. For a brief moment, it was like being back in Atlanta, except there the Mexican entrepreneurs had push carts. I used to wonder just how many miles those guys walked every day. . . but I digress.

Anyway, ambling back to Munising we stopped at Sable Falls. Lots of steps down to the river to admire water running over rocks, and then lots of steps back up to the parking lot. I'm going to say it was worth it. It did actually look like a waterfall, unlike some of the others that were suffering from the dry spring. Munising Falls, for example, looked more like someone had maybe left a garden hose trickling over the edge of the bluff. It was, to be blunt, a tad underwhelming.
Munising Falls
As part of my personal trip down Nostalgia Lane, as we headed west, I pointed out a couple NPS structures I had Determined Ineligible back in 2006. They still look Ineligible, although maybe if they continue standing long enough (they are being used and maintained and are in Good condition) they'll slide into National Register eligibility based on their association with the park's history. One never knows. . .

Nifty resource education
Next stop was the Log Slide. It was interesting on multiple levels. First, there's an open field adjacent to the parking lot. Hiding in a clump of spectacularly overgrown lilac bushes is the remnant of a log cabin. If you look hard, you can spot one corner of the ruin sticking out of the bushes. There is a really nice little wayside explaining the cabin ruin. I was impressed: a structure left to moulder in place and integrated into resource education. The usual approach to an unwanted cabin would have been to remove every trace of it and pretend people never lived there, do the usual creating untrammeled wilderness fantasy. Not this time.

Logging high wheels and a logging sled
On the way to the Log Slide, we passed a set of logging high wheels on static display. They look to be in reasonably good shape, no doubt because they're sheltered under a roof. They're about the size of the set the museum owns. In looking at them and at the set at Hartwick Pines SP I've realized that the museum's set might be missing a part or two, but odds are no one will ever notice when they're reconstructed and on static display, too.

The Log Slide itself is an area at the edge of the Grand Sable dunes where supposedly logs were once rolled on to a flume and slid down to Lake Superior to be transported to the mills. Idiots Visitors can now experience the thrill (?) of sliding several hundred feet down a giant dune and then hiking back up. Why anyone would want to do it is a mystery to me, but people do. There were half a dozen pairs of shoes and sandals sitting by the sign warning people that it was a quick trip down and a long hot hike back up -- once again, evidence that people either can't read or are stupid.
Note the graphic that accompanies all the cautions. People ignore it, of course. Accidents are what happen to other people.
Personally, after seeing a warning that although you might reach the bottom in under 5 minutes it was going to take you at least an hour to climb back up, I'd be content to just walk to an overlook and admire the view of the Lake. Which is what we did. From the overlook we could see the Au Sable Light Station. I toyed with the idea of doing the hike to it, but the S.O. didn't seem too enthused.
Au Sable Light Station as seen from the Log Slide overlook
And, to be honest, it is a typical Light Station for its time: a clone of the Outer Island Light Station at Apostle Islands and a whole bunch of others with a dime-a-dozen Poe tower and the keeper's quarters with the clipped gable roof line. See one, you've seen them all. And I should know, having seen a bunch of them: 1870's government cookie cutter construction in action. The Log Slide is a nice day use area; there are restrooms and multiple picnic tables which are dispersed in a pattern that prevents it from feeling crowded. It's a good stop for anyone visiting the park.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore headquarters building.

We hit a few overlooks along the way, concluded that Lake Superior is indeed a large lake and on that particular day a really amazing color, and eventually wound up at Miner's Castle and then in Munising. Our last stop was at Sand Point, which is another former Coast Guard lifesaving station now being used by the National Park Service. It's the Park headquarters. If I was still doing the List of Classified Structures, I'd ding it for maintenance issues. The paint is starting to flake and, you know, I could be wrong but I don't think trees are supposed to grow out of chimneys.

Yes, the tree is growing out of the chimney.
The beach along there is really nice, though, and popular with the locals. It doesn't get quite as much tourist traffic as some of the others in the area. The parking lot was pretty full, but we managed to find a slot. Next time we'll bring lawn chairs like the regulars.
I think I may have figured out what to do with the ruin of a boat the museum owns. Fence it off and let it rot.