Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A promising start

Yesterday was the first day of the detail with a different division within Large Nameless Agency. It was a promising start. The first thing my guide showed me while doing the obligatory tour of the office area was the (dramatic pause) supplies closet, accompanied by the phrase "If you need something and it's not in here, let us know. We'll get it for you." No lock on the door to prevent people from binging on index cards or huffing Sharpies, no guarding of the post-it notes, no looking dubious about the need for scotch tape.

Then the project director took me to lunch. I think I'm going to like it there.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Second careers for the elderly

CNN had an interesting report today about an elderly Japanese man who retired from his rather staid career as a travel agent, and now at the age of 73 has become quite a celebrity. I'm not sure exactly what it says about senior citizens and popular culture in general, but Japan has become quite the trend setter in recent years.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Bulwer-Lytton Lives

Every so often I screw up big time when I hit the library. This was one of them. The cover art should have been a clue, the hyphenated author's name another, but the fact it was published by Tor rather than Harlequin led me astray. I have a weakness for an occasional dip into sword and sorcery type books that goes back to when I first discovered Fritz Leiber back in high school. With a few rare exceptions, of course, most of what gets printed as sword and sorcery these days is a waste of paper, but I'm always hoping that I'll stumble across an author new to me who can actually write.

Dart-Thornton, unfortunately, doesn't qualify. This particular piece of dreck includes deathless prose like "If you stay here, I shall long for you as a fledging longs to fly, yet I will be as happy as a pig in mud, knowing you are safe. But if you come with me, I shall be as happy as a lark in flight and tragic as a fish in a dry riverbed, fearing for your security."

The truly depressing part is this volume is part I of a trilogy. This woman got paid for writing not just one awful book, but three.

Xenophobia strikes again

I got another one of those odd xenophobic "illegal aliens are destroying the country" e-mails yesterday. It had been passed on by a person who I had thought was capable of engaging in critical thinking, but apparently not.

Everytime I'm the lucky (?) recipient of one of these epistles, I marvel again at the explicit illogic they display: illegal aliens are simultaneously stealing jobs from hard-working Americans and bleeding us dry by sucking on the welfare teat, collecting food stamps, and generally enjoying the good life. I want to know how you do that: How do you steal jobs and sit on your ass at the same time? Seriously. Tell me how. It sounds like a great gig.

The bitter truth is that yes, jobs are being taken from U.S. citizens and filled by undocumented immigrants, but it's not the immigrants doing the stealing -- it's the employers who have figured out they can get away with violating multiple labor and tax laws to increase company profits. They ignore faked IDs, pay sub-legal wages, violate OSHA standards, and generally treat their cheap labor pool as disposable. If workers think conditions are unsafe, the overtime hours are illegal, or they've been shorted on their pay, all it takes is one phone call to ICE and the loud-mouthed employee is gone. Doesn't matter if it's a meat packing plant employing thousands of people, or one suburban housewife with a cleaning lady; employers willing to exploit undocumented aliens know full well the power of three simple syllables: la migra.

If undocumented workers are injured on the job, they're not going to get appropriate medical care and disability. They're going to get a one way trip back to El Salvador or Nigeria or Bangladesh. You know those guys hanging out Home Depot hoping for a day's work? Well, if they put in 12 hours and at the end of it get told they're out of luck, they are. All they can do is curse silently and hope they're the next job they take actually pays something.

A favorite line of the anti-immigrant crowd is that undocumented workers are "stealing" our Social Security benefits. How? If they're working with fake IDs and the employer is going through the motions of doing everything legally -- FICA deductions, for example, and state and federal income taxes -- then they are paying into the system with every check. But you know something? They're never going to get any of it back. They can't file for refunds, and they can't apply for retirement benefits, because they haven't paid in under their own legal identity. As far as the IRS and the Social Security Administration are concerned, people who made contributions under a name other than their own have never contributed at all. No refunds, no benefits.

The IRS has acknowledged that there are many millions of dollars in income taxes withheld annually that are never claimed through refunds even though they are being withheld from persons whose incomes are so low they would qualify. The IRS, however, does not go looking for people who don't file returns unless those people owe the government money. Why should they? And, if you don't believe me, next spring if you know you've got a refund coming, don't bother to file a tax return. Just don't hold your breath waiting for the IRS to find you.

As for the sitting back and sucking the rest of us dry by collecting food stamps, welfare, whatever, does anyone with two brain cells left to rub together actually believe that, given the current anti-immigrant climate in this country, undocumented aliens are going to walk into government agencies to voluntarily complete a foot-high pile of paperwork ? These people are smart enough to survive horrendous desert crossings, they manage to scrape by on poverty wages and still send money back to their home countries -- why would they then be stupid enough to draw attention to themselves by trying to get on welfare?

I really wish someone would shove a cork in Lou Dobbs' mouth . . .

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Upcoming weather from xkcd

Weekend reading

I started another Laurie R. King book last night, The Moor. It's part of King's Mary Russell series and feature Sherlock Holmes in the years after he retired and became a rural beekeeper. Mary Russell is a young woman in her mid-teens when she first meets Holmes. Holmes, of course, is a heck of a lot older, although, as King makes clear, not elderly. She suggests that Holmes was actually much younger than Conan Doyle's accounts of his exploits made him appear, probably because she recognized that if she made him too old in her own books it would be hard to keep him believable. A middle-aged man might be plausible as a hero; someone's who slid over the geezer line into "you kids get off my lawn" territory is not.

I think the first one I read in the series was The Beekeeper's Apprentice. I was dubious -- I've read a number of books where authors attempted to use the Sherlock Holmes character and didn't do a particularly good job with the effort. In the end, King did well enough that I went looking for other books by her, including another series set in modern day San Francisco, but I still have some reservations about the whole Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes thing. The plot lines are interesting, the characters are fleshed out enough to feel like real people, the historical backdrop is obviously thoroughly researched . . . but there's that whole May-December romance thing.

It isn't that I don't believe a woman, particularly a young woman, could exist who could actually think circles around Holmes and be as intellectually detached as him -- a meeting of like minds, so to speak. I can understand two seemingly very dissimilar people discovering that they're actually perfectly matched. I'm just thoroughly creeped out at the moment by the age thing.

Of course, I may be noticing it more than I usually do when reading a Mary Russell mystery because I just finished The Wives of Henry VIII. Reading descriptions of Henry Tudor in hot pursuit of a nubile bride, someone who could give him sons, is enough to evoke shudders in any reader. Antonia Fraser quotes from documents (letters, diaries, and even official legal records) that make it clear that by the time Henry was married to wife #4 --Ann of Cleves -- the only way he could perform was to be with a woman so young she barely qualified as an adult. An amazing amount of documentation exists giving explicit details of the king's sex life, or lack thereof. By the time he's in his 40s he's pretty adamant about expecting a girlish virgin in the bed, and Ann didn't fit the model. She wasn't petite, her breasts weren't perky, and she was pushing 30, something that hadn't bothered him in the abstract while the negotiations for the marriage were in progress, but obviously hit home once she arrived in England.

Followed reading about Henry's messed up love life with watching the news and seeing John McCain having applesauce accidents in supermarkets, and older men are looking very creepy indeed.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A brief rant about unprofessional behavior

I put in a ten-hour day today assisting with objective review panels. Large Nameless Agency awards significant amounts of money annually to various nonprofits and state and local government agencies for use on projects that advance the overall science-based mission of LNA. These are important projects with some fairly hefty budgets so it's vital the applications get a thoughtful and thorough review.

Well, today those of us who take this responsibility seriously got to suffer because a fair number of reviewers decided to just blow the whole process off. They didn't bother to show up at their assigned time to spend 20 minutes to an hour discussing why any particular application should or should not be approved, didn't bother to contact the panel organizers to let them know they couldn't be there, and of course never submitted the electronic copies of their reviews so the chair could have served as proxy and read their comments. LNA requires each application to have a minimum number of reviewers actively involved in the discussion, either in person or via conference call, so when someone didn't show, that meant we all had to sit and wait while the panel organizers went and literally knocked on office doors and stuck their heads into cubicles looking for a volunteer to serve as a last minute substitute. That sub wouldn't have had a chance to read the application in depth, but (at least in theory) could still ask intelligent questions of the reviewers who had.

Thanks to the shirkers, the panel review schedule got hopelessly off track, the day went on and on, and I'm willing to bet everyone who was there for the entire day now has the names of the slackers indelibly engraved in their memory. I know I do.

I also know that the supervisors of the shirkers are going to be hearing from the panel organizers. Participating in these reviews is an agency-wide requirement, so everyone who blew it off may have also just kissed their "above average" performance rating good-bye. I can hope. . .

(I was also rather disgusted with the reviewers who did show, but didn't follow the instructions -- e.g., failed to bring a hard copy of their review to give to the recorder or made continual references to things they had been told to ignore in scoring -- but that's a different rant.)

My life is a cliche

Yesterday was one of those good news, bad news days:

The good news -- I got picked to serve as production editor on a fairly high profile project. The work will be interesting, and I'll get to take two books* from initial idea to final product. Thanks to various budget constraints, I'll even get to do most of the lay-out because adding a graphics artist to the team might not be possible.

The bad news -- the division putting out these publications wants the editor "embedded" within their work group so it'll be easier to bounce ideas off each other and get feedback without having to schedule formal meetings. That means I have to temporarily change work locations.

The good news -- the office space they're sticking me into looks like it's bigger than my living room, the furniture is real wood, you could land a 747 on the desk, there's a door that closes, and there are actual windows overlooking a wooded creek. Natural light and peace and quiet. After a full year in my dimly lit interior cubicle, my system may take awhile to adjust.

The bad news -- it's in a different office park. My 7-minute walk to work ends tomorrow; Monday I'll be getting on a bus.

The good news -- MARTA stops right in front of the building.

More good news -- it is not the main LNA campus.

The bad news -- the bus only runs through there once an hour during rush hour, and switches to every other hour in the middle of the day.

The good news -- it may run only once an hour, but at least I still won't have to drive myself.

Overall, the good appears to outweigh the bad: I'm getting to do something more creative than usual, the project is one where there is no pre-determined government boilerplate template the documents have to fit into so I may be able to keep the content in plain language instead of having it degenerate into bureaucratese, and even the longer commute won't be particularly onerous compared to what the average working sap in Atlanta endures. And it's all scheduled to by December 31 so a mere five months from now I'll have the short commute back.

*They may be book length but would be more accurately described as advertising brochures justifying the existence of a newly created program area.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The slide toward third world status continues

Thunderstorms rolled through DeKalb County last night. Trees fell on houses, lightning zapped various locations. . . and today big chunks of DeKalb County, aka the east side of Atlanta, have no safe drinking water. One lightning strike, and water purification is shot to hell for hundreds of thousands of people for . . . who knows? Apparently the indefinite future. The county still has the advisory up on its website. Cynic that I am, I can't help but think that if a simple thunderstorm manages to wipe out the water supply, just imagine what a determined evil-doer could achieve -- Tommy Thompson, never one of my favorite politicians, actually worried about stuff like the vulnerability of food and water supplies back during his brief tenure as Secretary for Health and Human Services. Guess he spent too much time worrying about stuff we could actually fix, though, and not enough time stroking egos in Washington, because he was in and out of the Bush administration pretty quickly.

In any case, Large Nameless Agency promised earlier today to bring in bottled water so we hard-working government employees won't have to worry about dehydration. Given that most of the bottled water around here also comes from the Chattahoochee, I'm not sure passing out bottles of Dasani is the ideal solution. (Not that any had appeared by the time I left work this afternoon; they'll probably delegate the task to FEMA and the water will end up shipped to Iowa.)

I'm anticipating an abnormally number of people calling in "sick" on Friday. After all, an intestinal bug sneaking through from the Chat is going to take a day or two to make itself known -- but when it does, I'm sure the enteric disease experts I work with will have all the symptoms nailed.

If I wasn't so thirsty I'd do a longer rant about poor engineering and failing infrastructure, but instead I think I'll just wander across the street and see just what kind of beer the Citgo sells.

Monday, July 21, 2008

A movie recommendation

Amazing Grace. I rejoined Netflix recently; this was the second DVD they sent me. I watched it last night, and I'm still tearing up. I highly recommend this film to anyone who thinks individual activists cannot change the world.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

A failed experiment

The upside-down tomato experiment on the patio has failed. It was looking good for awhile (the above photo was taken several days after planting it), but it looks like the patio simply does not get enough sunlight for tomatoes and other shade intolerant plants to do well. The two huge shade trees give it privacy and make it comfortable even when the Atlanta heat is at its worst, but it's definitely not a tomato environment. The plant struggled for awhile, got leggier and stranger looking, and finally quietly died. The tomato and pepper plants in pots are still green, still trying to grow, but it's pretty clear if we had to subsist off what they might produce we'd starve in short order.

On the other hand, the upside-down tomatoes up at the retirement bunker are reportedly doing well. We tried a low-budget suggestion Tracy had posted a couple months ago on Possum Living, and the last I heard the tomatoes in the milk cartons were doing better than the tomatoes in the garden. Most of the upside-down tomatoes I'd seen before used 5-gallon buckets, but the one-gallon milk jugs seem to work, and for sure are a lot lighter to hang.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

I miss Jane Marple

I just returned from a trek to the library. Dropped off the Nevada Barr and Steve Hamilton books, picked up some fresh reading material. As I browsing the shelves, it hit me: except in police procedurals (and half the time not even there), sleuthing is a lost art. The current model is Our Hero (or Heroine, as the case may be) kind of blunders around, puts multiple people in peril, friends and enemies both drop like flies just from the sheer bad luck of having come within fifty miles of OH -- I keep thinking that any park superintendent that let Nevada Barr's Anna Pidgeon character inside the boundaries of his/her park would be bucking for early retirement using a medical (mental health) disability (it would be the equivalent of inviting Jessica Fletcher over for dinner) -- and then, voila, after there's half a dozen dead bodies piled up The Answer drops into his or her lap, usually when The Villain is standing over OH about to bash OH's brains in with a tire iron. That's when a Great Light dawns and OH has an epiphany. I really miss Jane Marple.

Or, more accurately, I miss Dame Agatha and the other writers of her generation. Granted, contemporary authors lay out clues so I, the reader who is privy to stuff OH is not, can figure out pretty quickly who the Evil-doer is, but I'd appreciate a Hero/Heroine who at least went through the motions of observing those same clues.

Case in point, Steve Hamilton's walking disaster of a hero, Alex McKnight. After reading three of Hamilton's books, I'm starting to think McKnight gives Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum a good run for the money in total denseness. Stephanie has an excuse, though. She's a Jersey girl who's being played for laughs. McKnight is supposedly an ex-cop, someone who took a medical retirement after getting three slugs from an Uzi in his chest. He should know enough to stop and think, especially when he's old enough (pushing 50) that testosterone poisoning doesn't make for much of an excuse for stupidity any more. Does he ever pause to mull things over and try to connect the dots? Nope. Loses his temper or gets impatient, goes chasing off on strange tangents without thinking stuff through, and manages to survive through sheer luck.

I do enjoy Hamilton's books. They're decent mind candy. Hamilton's got the setting (the eastern end of Michigan's Upper Peninsula) nailed, the social commentary is dead on, and he's obviously taken some time to get to understand the various ethnographic aspects of the area, like the hockey culture. It's kind of fun observing middle-aged male angst from the inside, like when McKnight decides to eliminate his gray hair as part of trying to impress a much younger woman. I just wish he'd figure out a way to have McKnight demonstrate some thinking before he gets hit in the head with the figurative (and frequently literal) 2x4.

As for Nevada Barr and poor, battered NPS law enforcement ranger Anna Pidgeon. . . Winter Study was probably better than her last book, but I really think Ms. Barr needs to re-think this chronological thing she's got going. Anna's getting way too old to be floundering around in cedar swamps in the winter -- she's got to be pushing the mandatory retirement age for an LE, so it's time for Barr to step into the wayback machine and fill in some of the spaces in Anna's story, go back to Anna's early years and how she got to be NPS law enforcement and stop trying to keep things contemporaneous with her own life. Much as I appreciate seeing a middle-aged heroine, I really don't want to end up reading about Ranger Pidgeon's hot flashes a book or two from now -- and that's going to happen if Barr continues on this same timeline.

Barr apparently spent 8 days on Isle Royale with the wolf study team as part of doing the background research for the book. Not long enough, though, because I don't think she got a real appreciation for just how exhausting and time consuming it is to maneuver in deep snow, bitter cold, and cedar swamps, especially in an area that also has a fair number of abandoned copper mine shafts to worry about, but that's a minor quibble. The book is sufficiently well-written that I got sucked into reading past my bedtime, and, had I spent money on it rather than checking it out from the public library, I wouldn't have felt ripped off. And she did get the name of the sausage company in Hancock right, even if she didn't mention that they make the best hot dogs and sauna makkara on the planet.

Good news from the Rockies

It's looking like the wolf recovery program out in the Rockies is going to be allowed to proceed awhile longer without the wolves being used for target practice:

A federal judge has restored endangered species protections for gray wolves in the Northern Rockies, derailing plans by three states to hold public wolf hunts this fall.

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy granted a preliminary injunction late Friday restoring the protections for the wolves in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Molloy will eventually decide whether the injunction should be permanent.

The region has an estimated 2,000 gray wolves. They were removed from the endangered species list in March, following a decade-long
restoration effort.

I think the article caught my eye because I'd just finished reading Nevada Barr's Winter Study, a mystery set in Isle Royale National Park that incorporates the wolf study there into the plot. The study celebrates its 50th year in 2008 and is the longest predator-prey study to date.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Aging gracefully

One of the unexpected bonuses of growing older:

I can no longer see where the dirt is. It struck me recently that unless it's a really bright sunny day and I'm standing in exactly the right spot, thanks to the bifocals I don't really see dust on the bookshelves, cobwebs in the corners, or crumbs on the kitchen floor. If I'm not seeing it, I'm not feeling compelled to clean it. Life is good.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A letter from McCain

Ed over at Gin and Tacos has a letter from McCain that I can not resist linking to. After all, any epistle that contains gems like "Next I’ll roast a live panda over a bonfire while my campaign staff steal medicine from pediatric cancer patients" deserves wider dissemination.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Rewilding Atlanta

As I've been walking to and from work since moving to Atlanta I've been noticing more and more micro wildernesses, strips and patches of vegetation that for various reasons are turning into lush refuges for possums, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, coyotes, and the ubiquitous feral cats. I've mentioned Peachtree Creek before -- it's been channelized for flood control so runs well below street level as it wends its way to the Chattahoochee, but its banks are so densely packed with overhanging shrubs, trees, and vines that at this time of year it's hard to see the water. Kudzu gets talked about a lot as being the vine that ate the South, but it's definitely got plenty of competition for climbing and sprawling space. The fact the creek is channelized (the revetments were discernible during the winter when vegetation was thinner) tells me that not too many years ago its banks were bare, but it's sure hard now to tell that it's not a completely natural drainage. I figure give it another year or two so the storm drain outlets into the creek are completely masked by the kudzu, and some naive natural resource type will be pushing for wild river designation for this pristine strip of the untrammeled natural world.

Peachtree isn't the only mini-wilderness in the neighborhood, though. There's a 12-foot strip between the apartment complex where I live and the condo development next door where for some mysterious reason there's a gap between the chain link fence marking the boundary for the apartments and the chain link fence protecting the condos. Why the gap exists is a mystery -- a utilities easement? a memory of an alley or road that hasn't existed in years? Doesn't really matter. Between the half a dozen varieties of green briers, wild grape, honey suckle, wisteria, kudzu, and the healthiest poison ivy I've seen outside of Arkansas, nothing human is going walking in there. It is, however, ideal habitat for songbirds and small mammals.

That same condo development had to do a catch basin for flood control, so there's now an artificial wetland occupying about the same amount of space as a typical city lot -- it's surrounded by a fairly high concrete wall, so at this point access to it is limited to critters that can either fly in or come up the storm drain. I'm intrigued by the way in the space of less than a year it's gone from bare dirt to having cottonwoods that look to be about 12 feet tall. Last fall they were foot-high saplings. I'm curious as to whether the condo management will allow this patch of would-be wilderness continue to re-wild, or if they'll cut those trees down when/if they notice them. Maybe they'll let them grow. They haven't had much luck with the dawn redwoods they planted as part of the formal landscaping, so it might occur to them a few healthy accidental trees look better than dead purchased ones.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


The Younger Daughter headed out this morning on her first wildland fire detail. It's a job that as a forestry technician she's trained for, she wants to do, and she's relatively psyched about. I know she's smart, she's competent, and she's not an adrenaline junkie. And she has already had experience putting her training to use: she spent most of the spring participating in controlled burns on the Sabine and the Angelina National Forests, one or two of which apparently turned pretty interesting, but controlled burns are never the same as dealing with an unplanned fire on unfamiliar terrain.

Still, she's not going to California where stuff is burning for sure. Unless something dramatic happens during the next two weeks she may in actual fact spend most of the detail just sitting and waiting on-call somewhere out in western Texas in the general area of Fort Stockton, wherever that is, and never go a near a fire at all. There's been an engine from her Forest sitting out that way for most of the summer that's apparently seen only sporadic action. So why am I worried?

Because she's my baby, of course, but I'm not about to tell her that. The fact she's half a foot taller than I am and can tote that drip torch around as easily as I'd lift a can of Coke is irrelevant. In my mind she's still the munchkin who couldn't get to sleep without her blanket and her favorite Ewoks. I figure I'm safe saying I'm worried here because by the time she's back with steady internet access, I'll have managed to find other stuff to babble about. This post will have moved far enough down the page (or been archived) that she won't see it. She rarely reads my blogs anyway; she has an actual life.

Stay safe, kid, your mother doesn't need more gray hair.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Old but not necessarily gold

It's been kind of an odd day here. I'd been feeling the urge to wander up the hill to the Goodwill store and browse the books section, and then maybe hit the health foods department in Family Dollar (Little Debbies, Moon Pies) but every time I started pulling myself together to amble that way clouds rolled in, ominous rumbling sounds were heard, and sheets of rain began to fall.

So I've spent most of the day reading and listening to music, thanks to Ranger Bob and Utah Savage both mentioning classic songs and groups in recent posts. They inspired me to dust off the record player and then stroll down memory lane.

Most of what I've played today consists of LPs I'd forgotten I owned, regional oddities from the late '60s like The Baroques (think they were from Milwaukee) and the Tayles (a Madison band, think their sole LP release was "Who Are These Guys"). I probably saw some of the groups live, but, as the saying goes, "if you can remember the 60s, you weren't there."

For some reason the Baroques always remind me of carnivals -- they sound a lot like the organ music that plays in the background on the midway, especially "Mary Jane" and "Rose Colored Glasses." Maybe it's the harpsichord. "Iowa, A Girl's Name," on the other hand, has lyrics and chords that seem to have been written for "F Troop." Really strange.
Although nothing has been particularly memorable, I'm not regretting dragging all this vinyl around through multiple moves over the past 30+ years. I guess all the true turkeys in the record collection got made into flower pots long ago.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

One of those days

The printer gods must be displeased. It's been one of those days (actually, one of those weeks) where the networked printers have decided not to bother communicating with anyone's pc. There are multiple projects sitting on my desk, figuratively speaking, and all of them would benefit at this point from being made corporeal. I need hard copies. It doesn't feel like actual editing if I can't scribble on it with a red pen.

A whole lot of other people in the building also need hard copies of various documents, but for some mysterious reason the printers and the servers have stopped talking to each other. At last count there were four different IT people wandering around looking baffled. Apparently when they manage to get the printers on one floor to work printers on a different floor stop.

Technology is wonderful.

I would love to use this inability to get the hard copies I need as an excuse to persuade my supervisor that a printer that lived in my cubicle and was mine alone to cherish and abuse would be a good idea, but I know that's not going to happen. I have a hard time now convincing the people who control the supplies budget here at Large Nameless Agency that a roll of scotch tape or one pad of Post-It notes doesn't last forever. Somehow I don't think I'd be able to talk them into giving me a printer any time soon.

I just found myself thinking about the guy who controlled the supplies room at my old job. My co-workers and I went through a lot of refills for mechanical pencils -- the job required doing a fair amount of sketching of sites maps and floor plans when we were out in the field. The lead refills for mechanical pencils come in boxes of 12. The boxes sell for about $1 at most office supply places, so the individual leads must run about 8 cents apiece. Well, when we'd go ask Joe for more leads, he'd dole them out three at a time, which is what one pencil generally holds (one in actual use, and a couple spares in the barrel). No one ever got an actual full box of leads for his or her self. There may be waste in government agencies, but rest assured it doesn't happen with the important stuff: pencil leads and Post It notes.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Porn that even I won't read

This headline alone is enough to trigger an instant cerebral hemorrhage:

Steamy novel based on Laura Bush stirs controversy

There are certain things that should never appear together in the same sentence -- the word "steamy" and a hint that aWol has a sex life.

Excuse me. I need to go wash my brain out with Lysol.

Remembering North Cascades National Park

An exchange of comments with another blogger got me to thinking about my first National Park Service job: HAER historian on a mitigative documentation project in North Cascades National Park. HAER, aka the Historic American Engineering Record, is one the National Park Service's Heritage Documentation Programs and focuses on the industrial built environment, e.g., foundries, hydroelectric projects, and roads.

I first heard of HAER while I was an undergraduate at Michigan Tech. Our department head at the time, Larry Lankton, was a former HAER historian, as was my advisor, Terry Reynolds. Both had worked on amazing projects with HAER -- Larry was part of a team that documented the Anniston Army Depot, the Pine Bluff Arsenal, and the Old Croton Aqueduct; Terry did several hydroelectric projects, including Sault Ste. Marie -- and both encouraged students to apply for summer jobs with the program. So I did.

When Eric DeLony called to ask if I was interested in working on a hydroelectric power plant mitigative documentation project in the state of Washington, he referred to the fact I was a "Terry Reynolds student." It occurred to me later Eric assumed this status suggested I actually knew something about hydroelectricity, electrical engineering, history of engineering, and other technical matters. Not exactly. I knew hydroelectric generation required water, and I knew that engineers were usually involved in designing power generation systems. And I knew enough about electricity to refrain from sticking bobby pins into outlets to check to see if the power was on.

By the end of the summer, I knew more. My head was stuffed with terms that I can still rattle off -- wicket gates, penstocks, taintor gates, effective head, relief valve -- and I'd be able to describe what the spiral case for a Francis turbine looks like from the inside (rather frightening, actually, and definitely not a place for the claustrophobic).

However, in the spring when Eric asked if I wanted to spend the summer living and working in Seattle the phrase "working in Seattle" was about all that mattered. Seattle! As in "the bluest skies I've ever seen were in Seattle. . ." Seattle -- home of Elliott Bay Bookstore, Pike Place Market, and Cow Chip Cookies. I decided to not volunteer just how completely and totally ignorant I actually was about dams, dam design, dam engineering, power generation, federal energy policy, the state of Washington, J. D. Ross, you name it. If I had any qualms about my ability to understand hydroelectric development and Seattle City Light well enough to write a history of a power station, I wasn't going to share those doubts with my soon-to-be boss.

End result: I got to spend 12 weeks living in a really strange apartment (one roommate was a psychotic fresh out of a halfway house who was convinced the U.N. was trying to poison her, the other was a shopaholic hoarder)(and Ranger Bob wonders why living in an NPS dorm never fazed me) in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. I split my workdays between an office in the Pioneer Square area, field work at the Skagit Hydroelectric development (owned and operated by Seattle City Light), and archival research at the University of Washington and Seattle City Light. Final product: "Skagit Power Development: Skagit River and Newhalem Creek Hydroelectric Developments."

Pictured above -- taintor gates on Diablo as seen from the upstream side. Fans of movie trivia may recognize those light posts -- the roadway on top of the dam played a bridge in the movie "The Deer Hunter."

Pictured below, the town of Diablo and the Diablo Powerhouse, a really nifty example of moderne architecture. (The interior of the powerhouse is the first photo above.) Diablo was a company town, complete with elementary school, but to the best of my knowledge no one lives there year-round anymore. The mitigative documentation project also included assisting another historian in preparing a National Register historic district nomination. The Skagit Hydroelectric development has been listed on the Register since 1996.
My first impression of North Cascades was that part of Washington contains some of the most spectacular scenery in North America. My opinion hasn't changed. I had an opportunity to hike a number of the trails in the park, almost all of which can be challenging due to steep grades, but every one of them was more than worth the effort.
The park itself is interesting because it's split into two units with the Skagit River and Ross Lake National Recreation Area between the two. The recreation area has campgrounds that it's possible to use with a modern RV; the two units of the park are 95% designated wilderness. I've been back several times since serving my time as a dam historian, and, if all goes well, I'll be back again to hike a trail or two, maybe do some back country camping, and for sure to do the City Light tour. One of my favorite fantasies is to be a V.I.P. at North Cascades. One of these years it might actually happen.

Driving toward Diablo on state highway 20. The "lake" is the Skagit River upstream of Gorge Dam. This view never got old.

Monday, July 7, 2008

I love irony

Interesting article in today's Washington Post

Packing Protection or Packing Suicide Risk?

It appears that the folks who are so insistent on owning guns for self-defense are more likely to shoot themselves than they are to use their weaponry against intruders or muggers.

Irony? Poetic justice? Instant karma? Or all three?

Friday, July 4, 2008

4th of July question: what is patriotism?

And who is Angelo Herndon?

One of this country's many unknown working class heroes. If you Google his name, you'll find a number of articles, including a Wikipedia entry, about his arrest for inciting insurrection for having the nerve to encourage Georgia mill workers to unionize back in the 1930s. What none of the articles mention (at least not the ones I skimmed this morning) is that inciting insurrection was a capital crime in Georgia, and the District Attorney pushed hard for the death penalty.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the case is that Herndon was released on bond while his case was being appealed. It was not unusual for labor organizers in the deep South to take advantage of being out on bond to leave the region rather than returning to face the certainty of extremely long prison terms and the very real risk of mob violence and lynching. Herndon, who had been only 19 at the time of his arrest, chose to go back to Atlanta and allow the legal process to proceed. In 1937 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Georgia civil insurrection law, reversing Herdon's conviction and freeing him from prison.

Herndon remained active in the Communist Party and the labor movement through the 1940s, and then quietly disappeared into obscurity in middle age.

You know, I occasionally am subjected to anti-union and anti-communism rants by politically conservative acquaintances. Well, the last time I looked it wasn't a capital offense to complain about working conditions. You might get fired if you suggest forming a union at work, but no one's going to march you off to jail with a legal recommendation for the death penalty. You can thank Angelo Herndon and his compatriots -- they were willing to die so the rest of us could enjoy freedom of speech and freedom of association.
[This post was inspired by C-Span asking the question "what is patriotism?"]

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

My morning walk

I need to start carrying my camera on the walks to and from work. Never know what I'm going to see, especially if I take the time to pause on the bridge and look down at Peachtree Creek. For the past few mornings I've been noticing one of these, and I'd have liked to been able to use my own photo instead of borrowing from the web:
Still, I don't know why seeing a heron surprised me. A few months ago the AJC ran a feature article on author David Kaufmann. Kaufmann spent ten years exploring Peachtree and its tributaries. His book, Peachtree Creek: A Natural and Unnatural History of Atlanta's Watershed, contains amazing photos. Despite being so thoroughly polluted in places as to qualify unabashedly as an open ditch sewer, Peachtree still supports an astounding variety of wildlife.

Explain to me again why gun ownership is a good idea

Local gun nuts are doing the happy dance because Georgia's new concealed carry law went into effect yesterday. I am not as sanguine.

Case in point:

Builder faces murder case:
Victim mistaken for copper thief, says Coweta sheriff.
Defense attorney says suspect didn't mean to shoot.

Just how stupid does a person have to be in order to not recognize his own subcontractors? And whatever happened to the idea of calling the cops if you think you're seeing a burglary in progress?

I'm not really in the mood to argue the Second Amendment. I do, however, think the key word might be "well regulated." I'd like to see that interpreted as "You want to own a gun, first prove you're not an idiot." I.e., be willing to sit through a waiting period and submit to a background check, take gun safety classes, and generally demonstrate you're a rational adult. If the Supreme Court is willing to concede that government has the right to keep guns away from criminals and the insane, I surely don't see anything wrong with trying to keep them out of the hands of the terminally stupid, too.

Update: a link suggested by Mathman: "A Tale of Two Amendments" by Matty Boy over at Lotsa 'Splainin' 2 Do. It got me to thinking that maybe the key to gun ownership should be being required to prove you're qualified to be a member of that "well-regulated militia." Army recruiters reject would-be enlistees every day; if someone isn't qualified to serve in the regular military, why should he or she be allowed to possess a private arsenal?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

I can't believe this is an issue

Or, alternative title, why the main stream media bites the big one. I got home from work yesterday afternoon and it was nonstop on CNN, Headline News, even frelling PBS: is Obama a patriot?! OMG. Shut up already. If I could have reached through the screen to strangle the airheads masquerading as journalists on the "Situation Room" I would have. When they weren't sucking oxygen from the rest of us by babbling on and on about how if you get distracted and forget to put your hand over your heart while someone is butchering "The Star Spangled Banner" you must not be a true American, they went off on an equally bizarre tangent attacking Wes Clark for pointing out that getting shot out of an airplane doesn't automatically mean you've got leadership potential.

It's a perfectly valid point, but the MSM leaped all over it as though (a) this was breaking news [big flash for you guys at CNN: Wes Clark has been saying this over and over in multiple settings since he came out for Obama earlier this spring. Way to go on the superstar investigative journalism front]; and (b) Clark was unpatriotic for suggesting military service, especially fairly low level military service, in and of itself should not be a litmus test for anything. (I was, by the way, extremely disappointed that Obama was frigging stupid enough to repudiate Clark's comments instead of stating the obvious: it's a legitimate critique, especially when it's coming from someone with Clark's extensive command experience. Note to Obama: If you shove enough people under the bus, sooner or later you're going to run out of people willing to ride it.)

You know, maybe if people spent less time worrying about whether or not someone conforms to their personal ideal of patriotism and more time doing stuff that could actually help this country, I wouldn't have to resort to watching 2-hour History Channels specials devoted to "Dung" just to preserve my sanity. But after observing political news coverage for awhile, discussions of 100-foot tall piles of bat guano covered with cockroaches just seem so clean in comparison.

(I am, by the way, trying to figure out how much longer Jack Cafferty is going to survive on CNN. He's the only on-air personality left there who seems relatively immune to group think.)