Saturday, January 31, 2009

Killer peanuts, part 2

Not surprisingly, this being Georgia, the news is turning into all peanuts, all the time. I have no clue how much coverage Georgia's troubled peanut industry has been getting in the rest of the country but here we can't get away from it. And you know what the (Republican) legislature has proposed as a solution? Passing a law that would require food processing plants to inspect themselves.

Yep. You read that right. I was treated last night to seeing several Georgia legislators bloviating about how the way to solve the problem of contaminated food is to ask the people who were quite willing to sell "unfit for human consumption" (or so the Canadians decided when PCA [Peanut Corporation of America] tried to ship some peanut products into their country last year) peanut paste to monitor themselves.

News flash, guys. They already were. And they lab shopped. When they got a result saying salmonella was present in their product, they kept sending samples off to different labs until they got a negative one back. They had a choice when they found salmonella bacteria present -- they could have looked for the source, cleaned up their plant, and then retested (a process that would undoubtedly cost them money) or they could take the cheap route (lab shop) and hope that no one died. And, even if someone did, well, the odds were that it wouldn't be traced back to their plant anyway.

Obviously, someone guessed wrong. At last count there were at least 8 people dead. It appears heads actually will roll. There's talk of criminal prosecutions, possibly under homeland security anti-terrorist laws -- maybe we shouldn't be talking about closing Gitmo; maybe we should be reserving the space for PCA managers?

The PCA bet that even if people got sick it would never be traced back to the Blakely, Georgia, processing plant was actually a pretty good one. Odds were in favor of the contaminated products being sold for years without anyone realizing it. The patchwork quilt of agencies responsible for monitoring public health threats in this country is pretty fragmented; communication between them isn't as coordinated as it should be; turf wars and responsibility ducking (aka buck passing) are common. Then when you add in the fact that for most people salmonellosis is a mild infection, a minor inconvenience, that their immune systems shake off pretty quickly, it's easy to see why a food processor could assume no one would ever know. We all have occasional bouts of diarrhea that we brush off as mild food poisoning or a touch of the flu, but unless it goes on for more multiple days and turns into a classic bloody flux we're not going to see a doctor about it. We'll reach for the Immodium, pour PediaLyte into the kids, and let it go at that. It's probable that if the Blakely plant managers had been smart enough to do a thorough cleaning of the facility after finding contamination, they would have gotten away with shipping the original bad batch.

However, when you ship batch after batch, which is apparently what they did -- two years worth of salmonella-laced peanut paste? -- the odds increase that sooner or later someone with a weakened immune system is going to get hit, he or she will end up in the hospital, and a doctor will order the stool tests to confirm the diagnosis. And that will set the investigative wheels in motion: the hospital lab finds a strain of salmonella, the hospital lab notifies the local or state health department (they have no choice in the matter; every state in the U.S. considers salmonella a reportable disease), the health department does a confirmatory test and starts the epidemiologic study to determine the source (first step: interview the patient or the patient's family) while at the same time sending a sample off to the Centers for Disease Control for gene typing. Multiply that by however many times people get sick enough to go to the hospital, and patterns start to emerge. One or two cases in one city, and the investigation stops there. Multiple cases of the same type scattered nation-wide? That's an outbreak, and sooner or later the epidemiologists will figure out where it came from.

So, what's the solution for preventing future outbreaks? For a start, how about restaffing the Food and Drug Administration to the point where it can actually do its job? One of the things that's come out in the past month is that FDA did not inspect the PCA plant for five years, from 2001 through 2006. Why? Among other things, there simply were not enough food inspectors left working for the agency to inspect every place that's supposed to be inspected on a regular basis. Finally, in 2006 FDA contracted with the Georgia Department of Agriculture. The GDA did inspect, did find problems, but apparently never did a follow-up. GDA has the same problem FDA does -- too many responsibilities, not enough staff.

For the past 30 years we've been hearing that government is the problem. According to the Republicans, all we have to do is cut taxes, privatize everything, and life will be wonderful. We've witnessed the steady gutting of regulations and oversight in multiple areas, from infrastructure to food safety. Particularly food safety. FDA was established following muckraking exposes of the meat packing industry in the early 1900s, but in the past 20 or 30 years has been turned into a rubber stamp for the pharmaceutical industry. Keeping the food supply safe for Americans has been sadly neglected, not through lack of will on the part of FDA staff but through sheer lack of resources. The agency needs to be rebuilt, restaffed, and encouraged to go out and do the job Teddy Roosevelt intended for it to do.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Attack of the killer peanuts

If anyone's interested, the latest issue of MMWR is a report of the investigation into the multi-state salmonella investigation.

It is, of course, written in nerd-speak, but this for most of us would be the key sentence:

Sequential case-control studies have indicated significant associations between illness and consumption of any peanut butter (matched odds ratio [mOR] = 2.53), and specific brands of prepackaged peanut butter crackers (mOR = 12.25), but no association with national brand jarred peanut butter sold in grocery stores [emphasis added].
Translation: you don't have to throw away your jars of Jif.

I have some thoughts on how the whole mess happened (among other things, under the current Republican-controlled legislature, the state of Georgia cut funding for its agricultural inspectors), but I think I'll save them for this weekend.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

No point in procrastinating

Lisa tagged me with a fairly simple request. The rules are:

1. Go to the 4th folder in your computer where you store your pictures.
2. Pick the 4th picture in that folder.
3. Explain the picture.
4. Tag 4 people to do the same.

I do have some photos stashed on the computer here at work, some of which I even remembered to label, a definite plus when it comes to explaining pictures.

The photo above is of the Excelsior Brownstone Quarry on Hermit Island. Hermit Island is part of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (and why is it no surprise that most of the photos I have stashed on the computer at my current job relate to my old one?). The photo was taken on a cold, dreary, rainy October 5, 2006. I was at Apostle Islands to lead a workshop training park-based staff in how to use two databases, the List of Classified Structures and the Cultural Landscapes Inventory. I'd spent the previous six months or so prepping for the workshop, coordinating with the park, working out details on where we'd do some field work, and promoting the workshop like crazy to the various parks in the Midwest Region.

The Plan was we'd spend a half day at headquarters with me doing a demo of the databases, and then we'd head out into the field for 2-1/2 days of actual data collection, a real live inventory of an existing resource, a historic landscape that included over a dozen buildings, a site that had no decent recent photos, condition assessments, or other information, and we'd have a good time doing it. Apostle Islands in early October -- it would be gorgeous. The folks coming from other parks would love it. They'd get to see lighthouses, fish camps, The Lake. We'd all learn a lot, I'd get to fill in gaps in the database, and we'd all be happy.

Assuming, of course, the weather cooperated.

It didn't.
Not only did it rain like crazy, there were gale force winds. (The boat on the horizon in the above photo is an ore carrier about 1000 feet long. The fact it was that close in to Sand Island is a sure sign things were pretty nasty farther out.) Park boats were effectively grounded. The site we had planned to practice on was on an island that we couldn't get to. We found ourselves trapped on the mainland, at headquarters, with me explaining the LCS and CLI over and over and over and over. Groundhog Day, but not as much fun. We did get a small break -- we went out to Little Sand Bay for a tour of the Hokensen Fishery (part of which is shown above), and spent some time sloshing around in the rain talking about condition assessment, the LCS, and evaluating landscapes for the CLI -- but mostly we were trapped at headquarters. Parks had spent good money sending people to this workshop -- I couldn't bring myself to just tell them to go, wander the streets of Bayfield, find a bar, enjoy yourselves.

And then the tour boat company saved our sanity. I can't remember who worked it out, or how (although I'm thinking it was probably the guy who was the park's chief of resource management at the time), but the Apostle Islands Cruise Company gave us passes for an abbreviated version of the Grand Tour. The weather was still too nasty for the boat to do the full cruise into the open lake past the Devil's Island sea caves, but it got us out of headquarters and on to the water. Folks from Buffalo River, Herbert Hoover, and other parks were able to see the Raspberry Island Lighthouse, the Manitou Fish Camp, and Excelsior Brownstone Quarry, albeit only from the water. (The tour boat was considerably larger than the park boats, hence, it could handle waves the park wasn't willing to risk.)

I didn't know it at the time, but the LCS/CLI workshop was my last trip to APIS. So now when I look at the photos from that trip my feelings about the experience are definitely more complicated than they were at the time.

I'm tagging Ranger Bob, DaveO, the Attentive Aphorist, and LegalMist. They all seem to be pretty good at coping with weirdness, and should have photographic evidence to prove it.

Missing the cold

Believe it or not, I've been missing upper Michigan winters lately. I read DaveO's descriptions of his skiing adventures over at The Lake is the Boss, and I find myself waxing nostalgic for the days when I'd step outside, hear the snow crunch underfoot in the subzero temps, and feel my eyelashes start to feeze themselves together when I'd blink.

Of course, I'd probably change my mind really fast if we were actually up there in true snow country dealing with fun stuff like keeping the woodstove fed, trying to start the car at -20, and cursing the county because once again they didn't bother to plow our road.

The coldest winter I ever experienced was in the U.P. in 1993-94. Day after day of highs that never got above zero, lows that went down to Arctic levels, municipal water pipes that hadn't frozen in a hundred years froze solid for the first time ever. The S.O. and I were living in the Shoebox, a mobile home that had basically zero insulation in the walls, and trying to keep it warm with just a woodstove in the back porch (the structure that is now known as The Camp). The stove was homemade, a crudely welded box stove that was about as energy efficient as an open campfire, and went through firewood almost as fast as a wino going through bottles of Ripple. Even with the S.O. getting up in the middle of the night to throw another log on the fire, by the time I got up to get ready for work even the ashes would be stone cold.

There was many a morning when I'd crawl out of bed, check the thermometer, and see numbers in our bedroom registering just barely above freezing. I'd fire up the woodstove, turn on the coffee, hop in the shower, and right about the time I was dressed, done with breakfast, and ready to hit the road that damn stove would start putting out some heat. I'd go out, start the Scamp (or attempt to -- there were a fair number of -30 mornings when the only way that beast would crank would be to connect the battery charger and jump start it), and get going, pushing snow with the bumper because the roads hadn't been plowed yet (I'd usually meet the county grader coming up the main road 6 or 7 miles from our house), scraping frost off the inside of the windshield, watching it snow inside the car, and thinking dark thoughts about the folly of living in the middle of nowhere in the winter. Somewhere around Chassell (30 miles or so from home) the defrosters would finally start working, and, a few miles later as I pulled into the parking lot at the Michigan Tech Student Development Center, the windshield would be clear.

Periodically throughout the day I'd try to remember to go back out to the car, start it, let it run for awhile, all in the hope that when I got off work at 5 it would start again so I could head home. It usually did.

The screwiest part of that particular winter is that as far as I can remember our water pipes never froze. Or, if they did, the S.O. solved the problem fast enough that I don't remember it now. People living in town with municipal water had problems but we didn't. Michigan Tech opened the SDC locker rooms to the locals so they could shower (various neighborhoods in Houghton and Hancock were without water due to freezing, but Tech never lost its water). We had a shallow well with the supply line from the pumphouse to the Shoebox buried, at best, barely two feet down, and once it emerged from the dirt to go into the trailer there was several feet of pipe that was, to put it mildly, poorly insulated. A typical winter in the Shoebox usually featured the S.O. putting on coveralls and crawling under the house with a heat gun, cursing colorfully the entire time at least once, so it's odd I don't recall any from 93-94.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Teasing us?

The New York Times has an interesting little sentence tacked on to the end of Bill Kristol's column today. Six little words that hold so much promise:
This is William Kristol’s last column.

Dare we hope that this means he's hanging up his pen for good, not just from the Times but from punditry in general? That we'll never again be subjected to his bloviating in print anywhere, any time?

One can dream . . .

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Thinking about the economy

Now that Obama's actually in office, it seems like the Republican spokespeople spend most of their time bloviating about all the things that are wrong with the Democrats' economic stimulus plans. The two main themes seem to be that:

1. The evil socialist Democrats want to give money to people who don't pay taxes; and

2. Funding public works programs, like rebuilding infrastructure, or giving grants to people to do things like winterize their homes won't put people to work.

I can only conclude that John Boehner and the other right-wing wackaloons think the American populace as a whole is still dumber than the proverbial box of rocks, despite evidence to the contrary (e.g., Obama's in the White House, not McCain).

First, despite the ranting about low-income people not paying taxes, they do. Asses like Boehner always try to make it sound like lower income folks have some sort of wonderful free ride when the opposite is true. The poor pay taxes all the time, and, when all the taxes they pay are calculated accurately, they pay a much higher proportion of their income in taxes then the upper income brackets do. They may not pay a whole lot in federal income taxes, but they pay -- and they may not get it back in the form of refunds or earned income credit. If you don't have kids, that earned income credit cuts off really low on the income scale -- and there are a lot of childless, single people out there.

The working poor pay payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare. They pay state and local income taxes -- and it's astounding how some states can manage to set tax scales that insure that everyone ends up paying something, no matter how miniscule their annual income may be. The poor pay sales taxes, which are particularly regressive (the lower your income, the higher the proportion of it that will go for sales taxes). In truly sucky states (like the one in which I reside) they even pay taxes on food. Every time they put gas in a vehicle they pay gas taxes, both state and federal. They pay the various fees the states have started tacking on to every conceivable transaction, like license plate fees that keep climbing, fishing license fees that keep climbing, and so on. All taxes thinly disguised with a name change.

And then there are the hidden costs of being poor, the stuff the low income people end up experiencing that those with more money are able to avoid but that could effectively be described as a "societal tax," the latent functions of poverty that benefit the middle and upper classes. Herbert Gans has written quite succinctly about the "uses of the poor," including:
because the poor are required to work at low wages, they subsidize a variety of economic activities that benefit the affluent. For example, domestics subsidize the upper middle and upper classes, making life easier for their employers and freeing affluent women for a variety of professional, cultural, civic and partying activities. Similarly, because the poor pay a higher proportion of their income in property and sales taxes, among others, they subsidize many state and local governmental services that benefit more affluent groups. In addition, the poor support innovation in medical practice as patients in teaching and research hospitals and as guinea pigs in medical
The Tuskegee experiment wasn't an aberration -- the poor have always been and still are being exploited so the more affluent can enjoy better medical care. If you're comfortable financially you're not going to sign up for experimental drug trials or line up at the plasma "donation" center to earn a few dollars. It's true that some drug trials, especially for cancer, involve desperate patients hoping an experimental drug will save their lives, but more typically if the medication is being developed to treat chronic conditions (hypertension, Type II diabetes) recruitment into a study is going to involve cash inducements.

As for point 2, that public works programs won't either create jobs or stimulate manufacturing, that's when I start thinking that Boehner et al need to start wearing their tin foil hats in public. Even if it's just paying guys to shovel hot mix into pot holes, actual human beings do the work. One of Boehner's pet spiels has to do with winterization programs, which he denounces as being giveaways that won't produce any jobs or stimulate industry. Does he think winterization consists of just writing a check and a house magically acquiring attic insulation and new windows?

Right now the construction industry is hurting big time. Home building has effectively come to a screeching halt, business construction isn't far behind. Retrofitting homes and businesses with energy efficient windows, adding insulation, and related work could provide enough business to the construction industry to keep companies afloat that are otherwise going to go under. Granted, a contractor isn't going to make as much money from retrofitting a house or an office building with new windows as he or she would from building an entire structure from the ground up, but small jobs are definitely better than no jobs at all.

The S.O. is convinced (and I'm mostly there, too) that the major problem the Republicans have with the economic stimulus proposals isn't so much that it would go for programs they don't like (i.e., anything that focuses on the common good instead of private greed) as that the people who might benefit are the folks who make a living getting their hands dirty: construction workers, factory workers, etc. The Republicans love to give money to dudes in suits, but if you're blue collar you're on your own.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Gitmo question

It's Saturday morning, and, as usual, I'm feeding the C-SPAN addiction. The current topic is Guantanamo, i.e., what to do with the detainees?

Isn't the answer obvious? Get a system in place for fair trials, and, if the evidence isn't tainted, put the guilty ones in federal prisons. U.S. prisons are packed full of extremely dangerous convicts now -- serial killers, domestic terrorists like Eric Rudolph, etc. -- and we don't work ourselves into a lather over whether or not their friends and/or fans are going to engage in various nefarious plots either to avenge their imprisonment or break them out.

And if there isn't sufficient evidence for a guilty verdict? Turn them loose. Period. Ship them back to wherever they're from, and move on.

On the news over the past day or so, ever since President Obama issued the executive order that will close Gitmo, the talking heads have been going on and on about some dude who was in Gitmo, was released to the Saudis, and then turned up later as a major player in the Al Qaeda movement.

The question I have, of course, is was this man a terrorist when we stuck him in Gitmo in the first place, or did we turn him into one? If I got snatched off the street in Afghanistan or Pakistan or some other country by some warlord, sold to the Americans as a "suspected terrorist," and then went through several years of "enhanced interrogation" before being released, if I wasn't a terrorist when I went into Gitmo I sure as hell would be one when I got out.

Which is, I guess, a way of saying it's irrelevant how we dispose of the detainees because whatever we do, we're screwed. The U.S. has sown dragon's teeth, and we're going to be dealing with the consequences of our own stupidity for quite a few years to come.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Pulitzer Project, part 2: Gilead

My original intention was to work my way up the Pulitzer list, starting with the first winner from 1918 and slowly reading toward the 21st century, but the winner for 1919, The Magnificent Ambersons, seems to be lost on the shelves at the DeKalb Library. So I decided to read the same book LegalMist is doing now, Gilead.

Gilead is definitely not a book I'd ever select for reading for the heck of it on my own. It is everything I normally don't read. This is not a bad thing -- everyone has different reading tastes. The fact I have no particular interest in either epistlatory fiction or in explicitly Christian fiction is a matter of preference, not a judgement on the quality of any particular author's work.

Epistlatory fiction is fiction written in the form of letters. Or, in the case of Gilead, one long letter. I can see the merits of the technique, especially if it's done well. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead's author, does use the technique relatively effectively. There's a fair amount of repetition as her protagonist reminisces on paper -- he'll describe an incident from his childhood, mention something more recent, and then revisit the childhood incident to add details or look at it from a slightly different persepective. It feels natural, the way people really do write in their journals or blogs -- describing something, mulling it over for a few days, and then going back to the event, issue, or memory to elaborate on it or to consider it from a different angle. And Robinson can write -- the individual paragraphs are often beautifully crafted.

I do have a number of quibbles about the book, though. One is that even though the author, Marilynne Robinson, is from Iowa, the setting didn't feel right. Having lived in that part of the country for a number of years, to me it felt more like she was describing someplace in Nebraska or Kansas than on the Iowa side of the Missouri. It was also downright weird that she kept talking about Kansas like it was right across the river when what's actually right across the river from Iowa is, depending on how far north you are in the state, either Nebraska or South Dakota. I'm assuming most readers wouldn't notice or care, but it bothered me.

I also wasn't too thrilled with the fact that the book overall felt like a first draft that just kind of stops abruptly. I kept thinking, okay, she kept jotting down these beautifully crafted vignettes and once she had a big enough pile of paper, she handed it off to her publisher, saying here it is, enough pages to qualify as a book. The same technique that works in one way as feeling quite natural as epistlatory fiction also comes across as wow, this is a lazy writer's wet dream, just write down random thoughts that are loosely connected with a common theme or two (the relationships between fathers and sons, questioning one's faith, growing old and facing death) and then call it a book. I can't help but think that if Gilead had been the work of a new writer, someone who had never been published and didn't already have a reputation (Robinson's first book, Housekeeping, garnered her a PEN award), it would never have been accepted by any main stream publisher. The religious theme running through it might have gotten it into print with Zondervan, but I doubt if Farrar, Straus and Giroux would have jumped at the chance to publish it.

Out of curiousity I read some of the readers' reviews at Amazon. It's fairly clear my opinion of the book (it's one step away from qualifying as a waste of paper) is a minority one so maybe I missed something. Huge numbers of people have given the book five stars; I gave it one. Would it have helped if I wasn't an atheist? I don't know. I've read a fair number of books with spiritual themes without having a well, that was pretty much a total waste of time reaction, so the logical conclusion is it was this particular book that failed and not Christianity in general.

In short, I have no idea why this particular book merited a Pulitzer. Maybe LegalMist will see something in it that I didn't.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Blog for Choice Day

Dropped by Shakesville and was reminded it's Blog for Choice Day. This year's topic: What is your top pro-choice hope for President Obama and/or the new Congress?
My top pro-choice hope for President Obama is that he'll issue an executive order immediately nullifying the conscience clause issued by Health and Human Services that allows health care providers to deny contraception to patients based on the health care providers' personal religious beliefs and prejudices. I would also like to see him support federal legislation that would prevent states from allowing conscience clauses within their boundaries. If a person does not want to be in a position of dispensing contraception or discussing medical options such as abortion, then he or she should not enter an occupational field that may require those activities.

Plain language, the F-pattern, and inverted pyramids

Did you know people reading web pages follow an F pattern? Readers scan the lede, do a quick pass over the nut graf, drop down to the next subhead, and then move down the page. If a web developer is lucky, the eyeballs track all the way down to the bottom of the content on that page. More likely, after a few seconds the reader has clicked on out of your site and is heading for something more interesting.

I've heard this before, but heard it reiterated at a lunch-hour plain language seminar yesterday. The F-pattern is a variation on the classic newspaper inverted pyramid: put the most important stuff in the first couple of lines because odds are that's all most readers are ever going to look at. It's also the exact opposite of the way the scientists, the subject matter experts (the SMEs), here at Large Nameless Agency are trained to write. Scientists are big believers in burying readers alive in paragraph after paragraph of details that build to a (sort of) conclusion, the academic/scholarly writing pattern that dictates you state a thesis, pile on facts, and then eventually, many, many pages later, tell people additional research is needed.

Example: want to warn people that electricity can kill you? Typical scientist's approach would be to give it a complex title ("The potentially fatal consequences of accidental exposure to electrical current"), explain the entire history of electricity, starting maybe with galvanic reactions in frogs being studied in the 18th century, a reference or two to Franklin flying kites and Edison electrocuting elephants to prove that alternating current could kill you, and then, after many, many dense pages, ending with a "and in conclusion it's probably a bad idea to drop a blow dryer into a bathtub." Left to their own devices the SMEs would produce fact "sheets" running 10 or 20 pages long. Which is why LNA employs writer-editors.

We take the 20 page fact sheet and turn it into a one pager with a title that screams "Electricity can kill you" followed by bullet points, e.g., "Don't touch downed power lines." And then we get to listen to the SMEs scream that we've dumbed it down and eliminated the science. Then the science officer takes our carefully crafted inverted pyramid and flips it upside down, insists on shoving in 200 or 300 words-worth of extraneous polysyllables, and wonders why the web site isn't getting the traffic he or she thinks it should. Maybe one of these days they'll figure out that it doesn't matter how good the science is if the people they're trying to serve (the general public) doesn't understand it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Paying more, getting less

Just came back from lunch and a quick trip to CVS. I bought a package of Hershey's Kisses to stock the communal candy bowl, and it hit me: same price as a few weeks ago, but much smaller package.

CVS has the Peeps out, too -- the Easter candy happily commingling with the Valentine's Day treats. And they're also costing more. Last year the little boxes of 5 Peeps each ran about 50 cents; this year they're 75.

Taken a look at ice cream recently? The two quart container or brick is swiftly vanishing --Publix might have some store brand ice cream that's still available in two quart containers, but Edys, Breyers, and the rest have all dropped down to 1.5 quarts, which sells for what the two quart sizes used to be priced at.

This has been a subtle way for companies to hike prices without alarming consumers for years. Coffee used to come in 1-pound containers, but went to being sold in 12-ounce cans or bricks a long, long time ago. Yogurt did it a year or so ago. Dannon used to come in 8-ounce cups; now it's sold in 6-ounce, as are its competitors.

Jim Hightower had a piece in the Progressive Populist a few issues back on this topic. He mentioned the deceptive packaging cereal companies are using. The boxes stay the same height and width, but aren't as deep when they're standing upright on the shelf. They look almost the same, the price stays the same, but eventually you realize you're getting two ounces less product per package. After reading the Hightower article, I found myself wondering about some of the convenience items we use, like Green Giant's Stir Fry/Create A Meal. When we first started buying them, the packages said they made four servings. Now they make three, but Create A Meals cost the same (or more) as they did before. You can't win.

Although I shouldn't complain about grocery packaging being deceptive. One of the stealth price hikes that has always amused me is the way fast food places go about it: they run ads touting the fact that their cheeseburgers or subs or special chicken sandwiches are now "Only $2.99!!!" and so make it seem like a special low price when the reality is it's a price hike -- they haven't lowered the price from anything; they've actually upped it and are hoping we're all too baffled by the bullshit to notice.

End of an error

I'm sitting at work, and like every other person in the building I'm watching/listening to the inaugural events on C-SPAN over IPTV on the agency's intranet. Could that be why Aretha is sounding like an old-fashioned vinyl LP that's been played way too many times? To say the sound quality sucks is an understatement.

The video is out of sync, too, because the image is still fucktard Rick Warren. On the other hand, Biden is now being sworn in, so who cares how crappy the feed is?

I am curious as to how this whole inaugural ritual evolved -- it's this strange combination of an awards show and a trip to the DMV. Musical number. Oath of office. Musical number. Truly bizarre.

But the speech has begun, so it's time to stop typing and start listening.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Heartbreak at Mercado del Peublo

The foul, corrupting influence of Cargill, ConAgra, and Archer Daniels Midland has eliminated one of life's simple pleasures. Mexican Coca Cola is now made with high fructose corn syrup.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Another trip in the Wayback Machine

Back to the days before Mick started looking like he'd given head to an elephant, before Keith Richards resembled a cadaver, and before Brian Jones stopped breathing.

YouTube Music Videos 60s 70s - Rolling Stones On Red Skelton Show via

Rolling Stones. Red Skelton. Definitely two names I never thought I'd combine in the same post.

Cold calling

You haven't lived until you've called total strangers on a Saturday evening to ask them if they've had diarrhea in the past six weeks.

I volunteered to do four hours of phone calling this weekend as part of an epidemiologic study. It was an interesting experience. I am feeling much, much more sympathetic towards telemarketers at the moment. Some people slam the phone down really hard, and I think my ears are still ringing from the times the number I dialed connected with a fax machine. That is a truly horrible noise.

I will say that everyone who took enough time to listen long enough to understand why I was calling was happy to cooperate. If I managed to get past "Hello. My name is Nan and I'm calling from Large Nameless Agency . . . " people did stay on the line and answer the questions.

It did occur to me that not many people must bother checking caller ID before picking up the phone. I was cold calling people in a deeply red state, and the name that would have been showing on caller ID was US Government. I'm a federal employee, and even I would hesitate to take a call from Uncle Sam on a Saturday night.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Good riddance

Every time I've seen aWol's face lately, this is the background music:

Over-used words

Today's candidates: "hero" and "miracle." The main stream media is annoying most of the time, but yesterday they surpassed themselves in the production of absolutely mindless gushing. I swear every sentence contained the words "hero" and "miracle," with both words being thoroughly trivialized in the process. (And, yes, I am aware I'm guilty, too, but I'll plead that my use of the word in the previous post was intended as irony.)

First, when did doing the job you're trained for qualify anyone as a hero? Are all jobs inherently heroic?

Second, why should having a piece of superbly engineered equipment perform the way it was designed make its surviving a water ditching a miracle?

I stand in awe of pilots, especially the ones who are trained to fly the really complex aircraft, such as military fighters and the large passenger jets. I respect their skills, I admire their dedication, and I am more than a little envious. I know they've elected to pursue a difficult, high-stress career, and, especially if they start off as military pilots, they've also elected a career that includes some personal risk. A small number of military pilots die in training accidents every year.

In any case, my reaction to seeing that US Airways Airbus floating in the river was, wow, that was one helluva pilot! He managed to put that plane down in the river so close to perfect it was unreal. Does that make him a hero? No. He did exactly what he was trained to do. The checking the cabin twice to make sure everyone really was out probably slides him over the line into the hero area, but the water landing? Not so much. Were the police department divers jumping out of the helicopter into the river to do rescue work heroes? No. They, too, did exactly what they're trained to do. Ditto the various other emergency personnel -- they were all just doing their jobs. Important, necessary work, yes. Heroic, no. (And I will confess to being a bit jaded about EMTs, police officers, and firefighters -- I've known way too many who chose the careers they did not out of any great desire to help people but because they were either adrenaline junkies or, in the case of cops, power tripping sadists.)

For me heroic implies doing something extraordinary, something where a person decides to put his or her own life at risk to help others when he or she doesn't have to: the passerby who goes into a burning building to get people out, the soldier who when confronted by overwhelming odds decides to keep on fighting rather than surrendering, the teenager who jumps into a well to save a younger child. Heroism is irrational. It's people doing things you don't expect them to do. And sometimes, especially in retrospect, it's downright stupid. (Update: It occurred to me after I wrote this that many times when a police officer or a fireman is hailed as a hero it's for doing something that their training very specifically told them never to do.)

As for miracles. . . well, as a commenter over at
Dispatches from the Culture Wars noted yesterday, a true miracle would have been if the flight crew was dead or unconscious and the plane successfully ditched in the Hudson anyway. Something like that would definitely suggest divine intervention of some sort. As it stands, though, the event, dramatic though it was, simply stands as testimony to the combination of technology and human resources performing the way they were designed and trained to. Awesome piloting, yes. Proof of good aeronautic design and materials science, yes. Miraculous, no.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Miracle on the Hudson

Passengers were praising the pilot instead of Jebus. Didn't hear a single "God was looking out for us." Unreal.

Usually, no matter what the disaster, the survivors babble about God saving them. The question I always have, of course, is why didn't God simply not let the disaster happen in the first place?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

All about meme

I got tagged.

The Rules:

1. Link to the person who tagged you. Done

2. Post the rules on your blog. Done

3. Write six random things about yourself. See below.

4. Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them. Not going to happen -- it would be a violation of professional ethics. These memes are too infectious, and I work for a Large Nameless Agency dedicated to preventing contagion. (Besides, just about everyone I think would be likely to do it has already been hit at least once this week. I'm like the last kid in class to catch the flu, the poor sap who is home sick the day after the big exam.)

5. Let each person know they’ve been tagged and leave a comment on their blog. See above.

6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up. Done

Six random things about me:

1. I am a former Baraga County Fair Homemaker of the Year and have a plaque to prove it.

2. I'm terrified of water and never learned to swim, thanks to my asshole cousin Jim tossing me out of a boat at Camp Nesbit when I was in about 5th grade. He was a believer in the "sink or swim" method. I sank.

3. My first (and still favorite) car was a 1973 Scamp. I paid $300 for it in grad school, then put over 100,000 miles on it before a part gave out that would have cost more to replace than the car was worth. I still miss it.

4. I used to love caving. Gave it up about the same time I stopped being able to crawl through a chimney block. I still like visiting caves as a tourist, but walking through a developed cave on a lighted path doesn't come close to being as much fun as crawling through spaces that only get a handful of visitors in a year.

5. I like to garden, but am not particularly good at it. The only vegetables I can be sure of growing with any success are green beans and potatoes.

6. Since achieving adulthood (chronologically if not necessarily mentally), I've had at least two dozen different jobs, everything from power sewing machine operator to newspaper reporter. The only employer I've regretted leaving was the National Park Service.

Feeding the C-SPAN addiction

I discovered this morning Large Nameless Agency's intranet includes links to half a dozen television news channels, including C-SPAN. I can listen to the conspiracy theorists and other lunatics who call in to 'Washington Journal' while I'm working -- I'll just have to remember to self-censor and not start yelling at the monitor the way I scream at the tv at home. Don't want to frighten my fellow cubicle rats.

I am a happy camper.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sad day at work

Our illegal microwave is gone.

It vanished yesterday, thanks to the idiocy of people unwilling to clean out the illegal mini-fridge.

An explanation: Our 5-story building has two break rooms, one on the third floor and one on the fifth. Each break room has one microwave, which kind of leads to traffic jams at lunch time when there are several hundred people working in this building. So naturally microwaves occasionally appear in places they're not supposed to be, and everyone politely pretends they don't see them while at the same time quietly taking advantage. Mini-fridges also pop up here and there, and the same thing happens.

Well, we'd had an unauthorized microwave in an alcove in a hallway on the floor where I work for almost as long as I've worked here. A few months ago a mini-fridge appeared in that same alcove. It started getting used, of course (saves a trip up the stairs). Then last week, while it was packed full of food, it was accidentally unplugged. It is absolutely amazing how quickly the contents of a mini-fridge can rot when there's no power.

On Monday someone opened the fridge. The stench was unbelievable. So a request went out for people to remove their rotting food -- but no one stepped up to admit that any of the decayed items were theirs. Similarly, no one would admit he or she was the actual owner of the refrigerator. The apparent choices were (a) live with the stench indefinitely, or (b) ask Maintenance to deal with it.

And how did Maintenance deal with it? By hauling it to a dumpster. And, as long as they were removing it, the building manager had them take out the unauthorized microwave, too. So now it's back to stair-climbing and queueing up at lunch time.

I won't miss the fridge -- I didn't keep anything in it -- but, as a basically lazy person, I am going to miss that microwave.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


I didn't think much about the anti-vaccine movement before coming to work at Large Nameless Agency. I just took it for granted that my kids would get their shots on schedule. My childhood memories of various illnesses were not good, and I had no intention of reliving some of my mother's nightmares if I could avoid it.

My sister, the one who's having one of those over-the-hill birthdays today, almost didn't make it to her first one: she had measles when she was 11 months old and, based on what my mother's said, came really close to dying. So did my brother -- he wound up in the hospital in an oxygen tent when he contracted pneumonia as a secondary infection. I probably had the lightest case --there are no family stories about anyone being particularly worried that I was about to take a dirt nap, but I do recall being in bed for at least a week, confined to a darkened room, feverish, and the doctor making repeated house calls.

I also remember several childhood friends being really, truly, horribly ill with whooping cough for what seemed like forever. My mother tells stories about diphtheria epidemics during the Depression, and I've seen the headstones in the hometown cemetery providing poignant testimony to the families that went from having 7 or 8 kids to having 1 or 2 in a matter of a few days.

In short, I didn't hesitate when I had kids. They got their shots. No questions, no quibbling, no arguing with anyone. And once they had them all, I didn't think about immunizations again until I landed here in Atlanta and was amazed to see protestors regularly picketing the Centers for Disease Control and accusing the federal government, state health departments, pharmaceutical companies, and countless others of a vast cover-up regarding vaccines. I was astounded. Somehow I had managed to miss the Jenny McCarthy dog and pony show regarding what causes autism. (To be honest, I didn't even know she had kids.) According to Orac, Jenny's become the public face of the anti-vaccine movement.

In the past year-and-a-half I've learned there are lunatics out there who dismiss illnesses such as measles as merely "childhood diseases," and who are sufficiently brain dead to do things like deliberately expose their kids to mumps or chickenpox. I could understand the chickenpox parties back before there was a vaccine, but now? Chickenpox kills people. So does mumps. So does measles. So does rubella, or German measles, although it's more likely to just stick a person with a lifetime problem with arthritis. Nonetheless, the anti-vaccine movement is rolling merrily along, promoting pseudoscience while trying to blame vaccination for conditions such as autism that more and more research is indicating are primarily genetic in causation.

In an attempt to fight back against the anti-science crowd, Dr. Paul Offit has written a book defending vaccines. Normally when an author comes out with a book that discusses a hot topic his or her publisher will send the author on a multi-city book tour, arrange for appearances on Oprah or Ellen, readings and signings at major bookstores, and generally get the author out in front of the public. Not in this case. According to the New York Times:

But there will be no book tour for the doctor, Paul A. Offit, author of “Autism’s False Prophets.” He has had too many death threats.
Note: The photo is of a child suffering from chickenpox. Why would any parent put a kid through that if they could avoid it? (The lesions can also occur on the inside of the mouth and the eyelids.)

Happy birthday, Nerf

It's my younger sister's birthday today. She's the short blonde in a dress at the end of the front row. I'll be nice and not actually state her age, but I think it's fairly obvious the photo was taken long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away.

She started calling herself Nerf sometime in junior high. No clue why, but at the same time her two best friends decided they wanted to be known as Piddle and Wump. Not quite in the same class as Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, but it worked for them. So, happy birthday, Nerf, and tell the llamas I wish them well, too.

Monday, January 12, 2009

What planet are these people from?

My brief post yesterday about lame advice got the S.O. going yesterday on one of his favorite rants: dumb advice given by people who don't have a clue. And magazines don't have an exclusive on it -- you see it all the time on television, the various morning shows having so-called experts on to give viewers advice on how to save money.

What sets the S.O. off is the fact is the advice always seems to be tailored for one extremely narrow demographic: upper middle class yuppies working at white collar jobs, probably in Manhattan. Example: "If you want to save, try brown bagging it one day a week instead of buying lunch every day."

You know, even when I was in an office environment that had a reputation for loving to lunch out, there wasn't a person in that office who went out to eat five days a week. And what about the zillions of people working at jobs where they have no choice, everyone from nurse aides to factory workers, where leaving the job site for lunch never has been and never will be an option? What can they do to save? Use fewer pickles in their sandwiches? Buy a cheaper brand of peanut butter?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The stupid, it burns*

Along with truly dumb diet tips, a staple of every women's magazine is money-saving suggestions. Woman's Day, Family Circle, Good Housekeeping, you name it, they all talk up ways to find money you didn't know you had. Usually they're pretty innocuous and/or common sense tips -- step into a Dollar Store occasionally, use coupons, go to a lower tier cable service, comparison shop before making big ticket purchases -- but this one from the current issue of Woman's Day kind of floored me:
" Have your family swap one glass of juice per day for water. If everyone in a family of four makes the switch, you save more than $300 a year."
WTF? And if we all eat one less meal, we'll save even more. The last time I checked, juice wasn't considered fat in a family budget. It's one of those things you push at kids, not take away from them.

(*Orac probably has this phrase trademarked, but there are times when it's the only thing that fits.)

Starting the morning with a laugh

C-SPAN has a general discussion going on, more or less, "what should Bush's role be once he leaves office?" or "How can Bush help Obama?"

For a start, in any situation, all Obama has to do is ask aWol "What would you do?" and then do the exact opposite. Things would be far more likely to come out okay than they ever did under the current regime. That strikes me as being such a no-brainer that I'm surprised C-SPAN is wasting air time on the question.

As for the more general question of what should Bush's role be once he leaves office? Nothing. He needs to get settled into his new digs in Texas and disappear quietly from the public stage. I don't even want to suggest he emulate Jimmy Carter and get into building houses for Habitat for Humanity -- any structure that aWol touched wouldn't stand for very long.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

I woke up this morning at an ungodly early hour, shortly after 3 a.m., wide awake and not sure why. I know I was dreaming, but not sure about what other than it involved babies. I've never been one of those people who can remember dreams very clearly, never had much luck in trying to keep a dream journal, and don't put much stock in what different things in dreams might symbolize. What might seeing a baby fall out of a Johnny Jump-Up symbolize? My Apostle Islands quarry article isn't going to get published? I'm not going to get the new assignment I'd like? Or I'm remembering the Younger Daughter's stories about her cousin Lora, aka The Evil Babysitter, who allegedly dropped her a lot and/or kept her locked in the bedroom while her older sister was allowed to watch tv? Going by the stories my kids tell now, it's a minor miracle either of them made it to adulthood.

In any case, I'm awake, and might as well note a few things that caught my eye, both out in the real world and on teh intertubes, this week:

Annoying comments, commenters, trolls, and related issues: Greta Christina did a great post on her comments policy, and it's one that's true of any blog. What it boils down to is "Commenters in this blog are guests in my home. And I have the right to decide who I let into my home and who I don't." If someone keeps coming around that the blog owner doesn't like, he or she has a perfect right to figuratively slam the door in that person's face -- and it can be for any reason. Might be the commenter is a troll who's just looking to stir things up for no apparent reason, might be the commenter wants to use the blog's comment space to carry on a pissing contest with other commenters, whatever. It doesn't matter. My space, my rules -- if I decide one day to turn comment moderation on and another to turn it off, that's strictly my business. On any blog anyone who doesn't like the comment policy has a perfect right to go start their own blog where he or she can set up his or her own rules and be arbitrary and capricious to their heart's content.

That said, if someone does come around here and annoys me, unless for some truly screwy reason I feel threatened in a real world sort of way, like in the unlikely event I pick up psycho stalker vibes, the most I'm ever going to do in response to a jerk is not publish his or her comments. It's not worth my time or energy to engage beyond that. If some creep living thousands of miles away wants to say something obscene, sexist, racist, or otherwise disgusting in a comment on my blog what is the impact on my actual life? Zilch. Nada. Nothing. A second or two of annoyance, a brief flash of distaste, and that's it. It does not pay to feed the trolls by complaining about them in comments to other bloggers, threatening to report them to Google or Word Press or whoever is hosting their blog, or noticing them in any way, shape, or form any more than you would waste time responding to junk mail or phone calls from telemarketers. Noticing they exist just encourages them to continue in their socially unacceptable behavior.

Teh Fat and Dieting Insanity: Jill at Brilliant at Breakfast has a great post up on eating sensibly and not driving yourself crazy trying to achieve the impossible. Here's a snippet:
You'd think that after all the research, we would have reached a conclusion that there is no magic bullet for being thin. Yes, there are people who have spent their lives struggling with weight who, by devoting their entire waking, nonworking lives to the pursuit of thinness, have managed to fight their bodies' tendency to store fat. But does that mean that everyone should have this as a singular focus? Should fat people be doomed to denying themselves the pleasure of a social evening with friends because it might involve food? Should fat people have to isolate themselves in a cocoon of iPod-fed music, spending every waking hour at the gym when others can get by with a good brisk walk for an hour? Should fat people have to regard a restaurant menu as an enemy while their thin compatriots can feel free to order the fetuccine alfredo if that's what they're really wanting that day?
For various reasons, I'm troubled by the current hysteria about the "obesity epidemic." Too much of it ignores heredity, body type, environment. . . it's an endless list. And too much of it is subjective and/or arbitrary -- the body mass index, for example, got adjusted down in the 1990s. People went from being okay to being overweight overnight without gaining an ounce. Society as a whole is being socialized to view stick-thin models who maintain their weight through copious consumption of black coffee and cigarettes as "sexy" and/or "healthy" while seeing body types considered incredibly attractive not long ago (Marilyn Monroe being the classic example) as too fat. It's insane, it's unhealthy for society as a whole, and it's distracting us all from far more important health issues.

The modern equivalent of a birch bark basket, aka survival skills: I learned (and actually should have known, but had never really thought about it) it's possible to heat water in a plastic bottle over an open flame. Good to know if one is ever unwillingly emulating Survivorman.

Sarah Palin refuses to go away. Fortunately for the rest of us, Mudflats and other Alaska bloggers haven't stopped watching her:
The subject of the interview was the media’s “mistreatment” of Palin during the campaign while she was running for VP, more than two months ago. And the interview was done for the benefit of those in the Lower 48, to whom the governor referred in the video more than once. Palin wants them to know the real her. She wants to tell them to look at her actions. She wants them to judge her by her record…..while she’s playing hooky 11 days before the start of the legislative session.
It was interesting watching the commentary on CNN yesterday about Palin. Even the Repugnican hacks seemed to think she came across as whining, and that she needs to shut up and go away for awhile if she wants to have any hope of a political career beyond Alaska. (If disappearing from public view might help to redeem her, then my feeling is she needs to stay out on that public stage and keep right on running her mouth so no one forgets just how incredibly self-centered, ignorant, and generally clueless the woman truly is.)


I normally refrain from mentioning directly just exactly where I work, but cannot resist noting there will be dancing on the desktops on Monday -- we're about to experience a change in management. Everyone knew it was coming. Our division had an all-hands meeting this past Thursday where the chief did everything short of passing around a farewell card for folks to sign without explicitly stating what was about to happen, but it is still nice to see it confirmed.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Niobrara National Scenic River

Back when I worked for the Park Service I seemed to end up working the water parks -- rivers and lakeshores like Buffalo National River and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore -- a lot. My colleagues would be keeping their feet dry at Herbert Hoover or Fort Larned, and I'd be leaping in and out of boats, counting lighthouses, and splashing across low water bridges. It wasn't a conscious choice, at least not most of the time. One of those water parks that I started off feeling pretty dubious about but wound up liking a lot is Niobrara National Scenic River in north central Nebraska. (The photo is of the Niobrara just west of Nebraska Highway 11 and was taken in January 2007.)

The first time I saw the Niobrara I had pretty much a "this is it?" reaction. Compared to what I thought of as real rivers, e.g., the lower Saint Croix, the middle Niobrara isn't much to look at. The photo above is deceptive -- in warm weather that stretch of the Niobrara is braided and shallow (i.e., lots of visible gravel and sand bars and not much water) -- so I had a hard time understanding why anyone would bother driving from Omaha to Valentine to tube, canoe, or kayak the Niobrara when the same amount of driving would put a person into Minnesota, land of a thousand lakes and multiple real rivers, ones with water more than waist deep. It took me awhile to figure out that one of the major attractions of the Niobrara isn't the actual river, but the drainage: ecologically it evidences extreme diversity in a very small area.

The middle Niobrara valley, a stretch of river approximately 30 miles long from Valentine down to Plum Creek, is a biological crossroads -- eastern and western zones for plant and animal life overlap, and there's also remnant northern boreal forest. It's possibly the only place in Nebraska where boreal species such as northern white pine can be found growing naturally. Ty Harrison, a University of Nebraska grassland ecologist, described the valley as a "natural experiment where native organisms interact, hybridize, and evolve on the edge of their respective ranges." Eastern deciduous forest, Rocky Mountain pine forest, northern boreal plant associations, mixed prairie grassland, and a typical sandhills prairie can all be found within a few miles of each other along the Niobrara.

Whether or not the typical recreational user of the Niobrara thinks consciously about the ecological diversity when he or she plans a float trip is debatable, of course. I'm sure most don't. The typical tuber or kayaker just recognizes that there's so much variety along the river they're not going to be bored. There's going to be eye candy: wildlife, wildflowers, waterfalls. Lots and lots of waterfalls. Nothing real big or dramatic, with the possible exception of Smith Falls, but definitely water falling over rocks. It really is worth the drive from Omaha.

Gupta for Surgeon General?

I have mixed feelings, and apparently I'm not alone. Lots of chatter over on the science and medical blogs about it. Orac had a long piece at Respectful Insolence in which he expressed doubts about Gupta based in part on Gupta being a little too credulous about "alternative medicine," Physioprof did his usual WTF, PZ Myers isn't thrilled (but then he rarely is), the list is long one -- and the Pump Handle was nice enough to do a round-up with links to some of the more articulate reactions.

In an odd way it looks like many of the things that make Sanjay Gupta a good choice -- his likeablility, the fact he looks good in front of a camera and knows how to communicate complex scientific and medical information in a way the general public can understand -- are the same things that are being used as reasons he'd be a poor choice. There's a sense he lacks gravitas. He's not sufficiently . . . what? Dour? Old? Fatherly? Too much Dr. McDreamy and not enough Bob Kelso?

My own feeling is that from a political perspective Gupta's an ideal choice. He's not an ideologue, the public trusts him, and he'll make a great salesman for whatever healthcare plan the Obama administration proposes. He practices at Grady Hospital, Fulton County's public hospital that's had budgetary woes for years due to its high charity caseload, so he's had an upclose look at everything that's wrong with the current U.S. healthcare system. At the same time, the qualms I have are similar to Orac's: would Gupta buy into New Age woo a little too easily, for example, and give the anti-vaccine crowd and others more of a hearing than they deserve?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Life's little mysteries: A review of Lazy B by Sandra Day O'Connor

A few weeks ago Tracy over at Possum Living had a review of Sandra Day O'Connor's memoir, Lazy B. The book is loose collection of anecdotes about growing up on a large cattle ranch in eastern Arizona. Tracy owns a patch of desert in western Texas, so he was naturally intrigued by Justice O'Connor's descriptions of the ranching life on what has to be equally arid ground.

Tracy also tends to be more than a tad skeptical about the ability of the federal government to manage anything, so he pretty much agreed with Justice O'Connor's conclusions regarding the role of the Bureau of Land Management in pushing ranchers out of the business. My skepticism usually falls in a slightly different direction -- I don't trust memoirs (people self-edit) and I don't trust family histories (they miss the bigger context). We did a little back and forth discussion about the book, I recommended a book or two that provides more of a big picture view of ranching (Starr's Let the Cowboy Ride, for example) and I promised him I'd read Lazy B for myself when I had the chance. And I did.

First, the good stuff: Justice O'Connor's descriptions of her childhood, the ranch, and the ranch hands are fascinating. She contradicts herself a lot -- for example, at one point she says all the hired help were bachelors, and then a few pages later she describes a rather colorful character, a long-time employee, who married, divorced, and remarried -- but that's a minor quibble in a memoir. This isn't a book written to provide a definitive history of anything; it's a memoir in which Justice O'Connor gets to remember fondly her pet bobcat. Her brother, Alan, is credited on the cover, too, so I have a hunch the book was "written" by the two of them sitting down and swapping stories in front of a tape recorder.

If a person is interested in Justice O'Connor as a person this book might provide some insight into things that may have shaped her character, but it's not going to tell you much about her life as an adult. She was the oldest child, and there was a long gap between her birth and those of her two younger siblings. When she reached school age, her parents sent her to El Paso to live with her grandmother during the school year. The Lazy B became a place where she lived for only a few months out of the year, and that she then left behind fairly quickly after going off to college. She entered Stanford at 16, combined her last year of undergraduate studies with her first year of law school, and was married about the same time she passed the bar exam.

In any case, although the book would have benefited from tighter editing, it is an interesting and easy read, and you do learn a lot along the way about ranching in Arizona in the first half of the 20th century. That's the good part.

Now for the slice and dice -- and why I referred to life's little mysteries. One of those little mysteries to me has always been why the people who benefit the most from government largesse/subsidies/handouts/freebies/whatever are the same people who always bitch the loudest about government interference. This is particularly true in the western and southern states. According to Justice O'Connor, the Day family ranch, the Lazy B established by her grandfather in the 1880s, the land they considered theirs in terms of where they ran their cattle, consisted of over 160,000 acres. How much of it did they actually own? About 1/2 of a percent, or approximately 8,000 acres. The rest was owned by the state of Arizona, the state of New Mexico, and, of course, the largest land owner of all: the federal government in the form of either the BLM or the U.S. Forest Service. For the first fifty years the Days used that federal government land they paid nothing to do so -- no grazing fees, no leases, not a dime in property taxes or other land ownership costs. They had labor costs (the cowboys), they had livestock costs, but the majority of the land they used as pasturage was essentially gratis -- all they had to do was push the cows on to it and persuade the neighbors not to run their stock there, too.

Which in turn explains a great deal as to how the Days were able to make any money at all ranching in desert country. Based on the numbers Justice O'Connor provides, it took 80 acres of land to support one animal unit. 80 acres! No wonder every dry year found cows dropping dead from starvation. Carrying capacity, in contrast, in the Nebraska sandhills (also a dry, fragile environment, but obviously not nearly as dry and fragile as Arizona desert) ranges from 15 acres to 30 acres per animal unit, with the eastern Sandhills having a higher carrying capacity than the western regions. Having done a fair amount of research into ranching while working on a history of the Niobrara drainage, I know that 30 acres is considered the upper limit for being able to run cattle and still make money. After that the critters are walking too much to find food to put on the weight they need to be marketable as anything other than canners and cutters. In short, if the land hadn't been available free no one in their right mind would have tried ranching on it.

Apologists for ranching always claim that the ranchers didn't own the land because land laws prevented them from buying it. Hence, they were forced against their will into exploiting the public domain. Unfortunately for them, that explanation is totally bogus. The truth is that as long as public domain land was available at effectively no cost, there was little incentive for ranchers to spend money acquiring anything other than the key to western livestock success: the acreage that controlled access to water. So a rancher (and selected hired hands) would homestead a few hundred acres and end up controlling many thousands. The fact that the Days themselves wound up owning 8000+ acres fee simple stands as proof it was possible to buy the land; the Day family chose not to.

In any event, the entirely foreseeable consequence of being allowed to graze with minimal regulation on the public domain was that the public domain was thoroughly abused. Historian Donald Worster noted in 1992 that "after more than a hundred years of ranching, more than half the lands devoted to it are still in poor to very poor condition." As early as 1929 historians such as Ernest Osgood began documenting western history and describing how ranchers routinely overstocked the range as the cattle industry overall followed a boom and bust mentality well into the 20th century. The cattlemen eventually learned to make hay and practice a more intensive style of ranching on land in private ownership, but continued to abuse the public domain until forced by law, e.g., the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act, to change their ways.

The Days were quite obviously no different than their peers when it came to using and abusing the land. Like every apologist for ranching I've ever read, Justice O'Connor trots out the line about ranchers being good stewards. Pshaw. It's utter humbug*, and O'Connor herself provides the proof: the only examples she provides of good stewardship, if they can be called that, are of her family drilling wells on the land they owned. When asked to invest money in a spreader dam project designed by the BLM to reverse generations of erosion and ecological damage, a 15% match to the government's paying 85% of the cost, O'Connor's father's response was to say no. At that point in the 1950s, the Days had been ranching on the Lazy B, sucking off the government teat for close to 80 years, but Mr. Day was unwilling to give anything back. Justice O'Connor's mother said she'd put up the money herself, and the project went forward.

It proved highly successful and became a demonstration project used to persuade other ranchers to undertake similar efforts. Once that happened, of course, Mr. Day promoted it as though it had been his own idea.

In the final chapters of the book, Justice O'Connor lays many of the woes of the ranching industry in the dry states at the feet of the overbearing and meddlesome federal government, e.g., unreasonable regulations promulgated by the Bureau of Land Management. She tells a sad story about a neighbor who willfully and repeatedly breaks the rules by running more cattle on federal land than his BLM lease allows, as well as refusing to practice rest and rotation as instructed, and then she is horrified and sympathetic when he's made to pay the consequences for doing so. I find it distinctly odd that a former Supreme Court justice thinks it's fine for laws to broken when they're a personal inconvenience, but perhaps Justice O'Connor is more of moral relativist and judicial activist than I thought.

[*Worster notes that "every study of the Western range made since the 1930s has tended to the same conclusion: the combination of scientifically trained, disinterested supervisors and public land tenure provides better protection for the range environment, on the whole, than simple private ownership."]

Benjamin Hibbard, A History of the Public Land Policies, NY: Peter Smith, 1939 [1924]; Ernest Staples Osgood, The Day of the Cattleman, University of Minnesota Press, 1929; E. Louise Peffer, The Closing of the Public Domain: Disposal and Reservation Policies 1900-50, Stanford University Press, 1951; Richard White, It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own, University of Oklahoma Press, 1991; Donald Worster, Under Western Skies: Nature and History in the American West, Oxford University Press, 1992.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Signs of the apocalypse

Bob Barr, one of the chief architects of the infamous Defense of Marriage Act, has admitted he was wrong to promote it. He's also saying publicly that Obama was right:

In 2006, when then-Sen. Obama voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment, he said, “Decisions about marriage should be left to the states.” He was right then; and as I have come to realize, he is right now in concluding that DOMA has to go.

So why don't politicians ever have these brilliant flashes of insight while they're still in office?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

What's the definition of insanity?

Answer: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Case in point: Israel. The Israelis have been pounding the crap out of the Palestinians for 60 years now, and for some odd reason the Palestinians still hate them. And, by extension because we're the ones providing the Caterpillar tractors, F-16s, and other nifty pieces of technology along with absolutely obscene amounts of money, us. The U.S., the superpower that seems to employ the same approach to foreign policy that an abuser does towards a battered spouse. Then we're shocked, absolutely shocked, when that battered spouse decides to beat us unconscious and then set the bed on fire.

Back when I was teaching sociology to engineering students (and you think herding cats is hard? At least cats respond to can openers), we'd always get into long discussions about "root causes." No one ever wants to talk about root causes, to ask the very basic "why" questions. Okay, we can all agree that it's bad that someone is doing drugs/robbing banks/getting pregnant/swearing jihad and strapping on a C-4 bra prior to strolling into a shopping mall, now can someone explain the Why? What is the root cause? How do we eliminate that root cause? Even more important, how do we eliminate the root cause instead of exacerbating it?

Well, in the case of the C-4 underwear and the desire for martyrdom, you don't eliminate the root cause by turning the occupied territories into a giant concentration camp, building illegal settlements, evicting people from houses their families had occupied for generations, bulldozing olive groves that were hundreds of years old, and doing bombing runs with F-16s and then describing dead toddlers as acceptable collateral damage. How do you eliminate the root causes? In the case of Gaza, maybe talking to the government the citizens of Gaza elected would be a start. Three years the Bush administration held a meeting in Maryland to discuss peace in the middle east and a solution to the Palestinian question -- lots of people at the table, with one notable exception: the Palestinians. And we're surprised that particular peace plan didn't work?

I'm not sure just what sort of meddling the U.S. will end up doing this time around. Bush has a mere 16 days left in which to screw things up more; Obama already has blood on his hands with his off-hand comment about rockets and protecting his daughters. Although who knows? Maybe he didn't envision active genocide when he greenlighted the Israeli army. It's a mess. It's going to get worse. The nuclear weapons Israeli possesses aren't going to do them a whole lot of good when they're fighting on their own ground.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The New Year

I'm sitting here in the cubicle, admiring the clean desk and trying to figure out how to fill the day. No real work to do, and none likely to appear until Monday or later. I do have an interesting assignment wending its way to me, but the Word files are still bogged down in clearance somewhere. Today is the second day of the New Year -- do I want to do a retrospective? Are there are any high (or low) lights of 2008 that stand out enough to bother revisiting, albeit briefly?

I don't think so. I have vague memories of ranting (a lot) about politics a few months back, and no doubt I'll work up to ranting again soon, but I have no desire to revisit any of the rants at the moment. I can feel a new one coming on the economy, labor unions, blaming the victim, and false consciousness, but not today. Bush is on his way out, the Republicans are the minority party, and for now that's good enough.

I did add a few more NPS sites to my life list -- Kennesaw Mountain, for example, which is such a totally typical cannonball park that it doesn't even merit a link (although it does appear to be real popular with dog walkers, so it's not totally without merit) -- but if I didn't mention them at the time, they're not worth mentioning now. Cannonball parks that enshrine our glorious CSA dead, those gallant boys in gray, have about as much appeal for me as Rotary Club luncheons. (In fairness, I'm not real keen on any of the military parks regardless of the war or the armies involved. I've been to a bunch, both as an ordinary tourist and as NPS staff, and the only one I truly enjoyed visiting while working for NPS was Pea Ridge, primarily due to an amazing park historian who was so enthusiastic about the resource that his attitude was contagious.)

I went on vacation. I survived visiting relatives -- and even found myself agreeing a few times with my (lower case l) libertarian brother-in-law, although I could sense my sister growing nervous when we started talking current events and politics. I spent time at my older daughter's house and managed to resist organizing her closets or cleaning her garage. Actually managed to spend time with both daughters without any conversations turning into arguments or involving a lot of shouting -- maybe we're all finally growing up?

I did start organizing my own crap. Sort of -- does transferring craft and quilting supplies from solid-color rubbermaid tubs into see-through ones count as organizing? Did not get organized to the point of actually listing anything on my Etsy store, though. One of these days -- vintage dresses, old patterns, and some truly hideous 1960s and 70s yard goods. I'm told there's a market, which strikes me as a believe it or not -- but anything is possible.

I finished a quilt that started life in 2002 in the white dorm at Apostle Islands. My sister had better appreciate it -- she's getting it for her birthday, and it represents a solid six years of procrastination.

Read some good books by great authors -- Anatomy of a Murder, Tin Roof Blowdown, Capitol Men, and many many more -- and some real turkeys (A Mortal Glamour, His Family). Saw some good movies, both in a theater and on DVD. Forced the S.O. to sit through (sleep through?) a lot more Jane Austen than he wanted to -- had it been up to him, the only one he'd have watched was Mansfield Park, the version with Billie Piper as Fanny Price, and then only her scenes.Managed to finish and submit one journal article where I'm the sole author. It's still moving slowly through the review process; one of these days it should come ambling back with either a definite rejection or a request for revisions. Odds are the latter -- the journal I submitted to has been looking rather thin lately, a sure clue not much is coming in. Plus, they've published me before, although it's been quite a few years since the last time I submitted anything. Found out a second article, one where I'm the last listed of a whole herd of co-authors, was accepted for publication and should be in print soon. I'm still moderately stunned over that one -- the content is highly statistical, and I've never thought of myself as a quantoid, even peripherally.

Got to find out just how good my health insurance is (better than I thought), learned a few new medical terms, and acquired a few new prescriptions, none of which have any fun side effects. Finally got to Zoo Atlanta to gawk at pandas, eyeballed the price tag on a Maserati (which is no doubt the closest I'm ever going to come to one), and began preparing for retirement by buying a thoroughly used travel trailer. Not a particularly exciting year on a personal level, but I am still breathing and I've managed to resist making any resolutions for 2009. Life is good.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

A restaurant review, sort of

Or, if the book is fiction how can the Whistle Stop Cafe be real? Especially when Fannie Flagg is from Alabama and set her novel not far from Birmingham? Those were the questions I found myself thinking, if not actually asking out loud, when the Younger Daughter asked if we were close enough to the Whistle Stop Cafe to go have lunch there. Turned out she knew it was a real place because co-workers back in Texas told her they ate there almost every day while detailed to the Oconee National Forest a year or two ago.
So I Googled it -- and sure enough, there it was: Whistle Stop Cafe, Juliette, Georgia, complete with fried green tomatoes on the menu. Younger Daughter had never had fried green tomatoes, Fried Green Tomatoes is one of her favorite movies, and Juliette is a reasonable driving distance from Atlanta.

Answer to why the Whistle Stop is in Georgia and not in Alabama: it's where the producers chose to film part of the movie. They found a milltown (Juliette) in the middle of rural Georgia to serve as the set, leased a building that was being used as an antiques store to function as the Whistle Stop Cafe, and inspired the owners of the building used as the Whistle Stop to actually run it as a restaurant once the movie wrapped and left town. The surprising thing is that the movie came out 17 years ago, and the Whistle Stop is still going strong.

So how was the food, you ask? Edible, more or less. We did the fried green tomato appetizer, of course, the tomatoes being one of the reasons for going there to begin with. Six Feet Under in Atlanta does them better. The S.O. had the blue plate special, which wasn't. The chalkboard described the cooked-to-the-point-of-qualifying-as-jerky pork chop as "stuffed," but the last time I checked a cookbook dumping a small ice cream scoop's worth of StoveTop and gravy on top of a paperthin porkchop didn't count as stuffing it. (The stuffing may have actually been made on site rather than pre-fab, but there was nothing noteworthy about it. The S.O. described it as "basic.")

Younger Daughter and I both tried the pulled pork barbecue, she got a side of onion rings with hers, I opted to go for the cheaper version with chips. Again, nothing special, although there was a generous amount of dead animal flesh heaped on the bun -- and the sauce served with it was quite good.

According to Tammi's co-workers, the Whistle Stop serves great pies and other desserts. We did see some amazing looking desserts carried past our table. Unfortunately, after the barbecue we weren't up to attempting any ourselves (too full -- the barbecue wasn't the best I've ever had, but it was definitely edible).

Bottom line: nifty atmosphere, great service, so-so food, reasonable prices. If we're down that way again, we'll stop to try the pie but will pass on the blue plate.

Juliette's other attractions include the usual antiques shop, a couple gift shops, another cafe or two, and motorcycle museum housed in the old Juliette grist mill. The motorcycle museum is open only on weekends. Juliette's on the way to the Jarrell Plantation State Historic Site, which we didn't know existed until we decided to go to the Whistle Stop but enjoyed touring once we knew it was there.